Eating the book review
On Becca Jensen's 'Among the Dead'
A fairly precise list of the things I ate during the two days I wrote this review of Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes!
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
7:01 a.m. While I wait for the water to boil, I press my finger to a dirty plate and pick up a few crumbs of chocolate cake. They’re hard from sitting in the sink all night but still very rich. I feel a little sick almost immediately. The water boils. I take the dog out.
7:55 a.m. I find that poets tend to eat the same thing a lot — which is probably a species of the lyric impulse: a desire to propagate, preserve, and protect pleasure. Or trauma. Or, it’s a desire to make the two indistinguishable. Anyway, every morning I have the same thing for breakfast: Kashi, Greek yogurt, and blueberries. I only make eggs when I’m hungover or on special occasions.
10:05 a.m. I eat a small bowl of Snyders of Hanover Jalapeno Pretzel Pieces, even though I’m not really hungry. I used to eat these with my mom after school, and I still eat them religiously, especially when I have writer’s block — which, after two hours of focused writing, is beginning to creep in. (Note how writing follows the rhythms of sexuality: iterative rises toward climax followed by periods of detumescence. Tomorrow I will delete everything that I’ve written this morning — ashamed by the hysteric intensity of the writing, by my desire to re-write the whole history of the avant-garde in two pages.)
12:50 p.m. Lunch is the improvisatory meal: the space of play within the otherwise rigid strictures of the lyric impulse. I have scrambled eggs and an English muffin. And afterward, a few handfuls of caramel popcorn left over from my wedding. Barthes is right about writing but only because his famous aphorism is itself a tautology: tissues are a tissue of quotations.
3:50 p.m. I eat more jalapeno pieces and caramel popcorn as I re-read Becca Jensen’s Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! (2012).It occurs to me that Jensen’s book also scrupulously documents a certain kind of consumption — of texts rather than foodstuffs. I consider making this a metaphor in my essay, but I realize that the metaphor is totally foreign to Jensen’s book. She talks about desire and subject formation in very interesting ways but she’s not really interested in eating.
Eating is, after all, a way of returning the body to itself. It brings the body and the world into alignment by assimilating the world to the body. When Jensen thinks about the body, she treats it as a form of dispossession and loss. The book is obsessed with drowning and exile. Jensen thinks these are the basic facts of embodiment. I read at first without comprehension, but with deep pleasure in the texture of her language. Then I realize that the book is designed to elicit this sense of mystification. Citations and commentary are introduced long before or after the passages they refer to, forcing the reader to travel backward and forward in the book, with the aimless consumption of a flaneur, an exile in aesthetics.
6:45 p.m. I experiment with making toasted pasta for dinner. The results are disappointing.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
7:55 a.m. Kashi and yogurt again. While I’m walking the dog, I think about this urge to repeat. I decide it’s a way of regularizing temporality: imposing a small but potent uniformity on a vast play of differences. Then I think about the avant-garde. Its tragedy, in my opinion, is its determination to be different (or difference): to separate itself decisively from what came before. An Oedipal ambition, which ends in the violent suppression of the past. I’m thinking for instance, of conceptualism and its relationship to romanticism. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011) and Craig Dworkin’s introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2003) both begin by dismissing romanticism out of hand as the negative, reactionary force that conceptualism rescues us from; e.g. Goldsmith:
Because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated […] today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Who are we even talking about here? Hölderlin in his tower? Wordsworth on the Alps? (Even The Prelude, perhaps the most expressive poem ever written, is itself an appropriative rewriting of Paradise Lost.) Never mind that this dismissal has no purchase on romanticism as it was actually practiced. Never mind that conceptualism is itself a romantic movement, depending on the romantics’ discovery of a textualized material world that can be fragmented and appropriated by art. These are ritual disavowals; they are marked by a ritual mystification of the past. Why engage in this polemical (and sometimes brutal) self-repression? What happens when the repressed returns? With some regrets, I make eating the central metaphor of my essay anyway.
I like Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! so much because it imagines and practices a kind of avant-garde writing which does not engage in such historical partitioning. It draws the whole of literary history into itself in a series of quotations which stretch from Odysseus to Ulysses. Though it flirts with genres like the verse play and the lyric essay, it’s really a commonplace book: a compilation of Jensen’s historically omnivorous reading, a place where multiple pasts combine according to an idiosyncratic chemistry.
9:45 a.m. More Jalapeno pieces. I wonder, as I eat them, whether I actually like them — honestly, they’re pretty gross — or whether I eat them in order to maintain a pocket of the past in the present. Probably the latter: desire is a form of nostalgia. The present, in which we desire, is almost entirely occupied by the past. (We might say that the present is a medium for the past.) Again, my thoughts turn to the avant-garde. We are always being told to “make it new” and “make it now.” But the now is populated by the past and propagates it. The question will be: how to write from the newness of the past and the pastness of the new. Without being an asshole — that is, without being motivated by a patriarchal longing for a lost unity of the poetic tradition.
We could try to think of the past as an unfinished reservoir of collaborative possibility, a source of innovation rather than its enemy. In a recent interview, Jensen notes: “After a while, most of my interactions were with dead people, or people who were such strangers that they might as well be dead. Basically, I only began to write as a way to manufacture conversations with some dead strangers.” She’s talking about her reading, but she may as well be talking about her book. While it features five distinct characters, each of these characters is less an autonomous subjectivity and more a channel for quotations. The book works, then, to erase temporal difference, to delete the distinction between citation and original writing. As Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum writes in her introduction to the book, “This atmosphere of allusion produces the feeling of reading great books: of being inside an enormous bell … unable to tell where one’s own voice ends and the reverberations begin.” Or as Foucault says, “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.”
12:00 p.m. Eggs and an English muffin again, this time in a sandwich (see what I mean about improvisation). Death of the author, death of the text, death of the reader, salt to taste.
1:30 p.m. With all this death stalking through the avant-garde, one might say that we are ‘among the dead,’ in Eliot’s felicitous phrase. Eliot, of course, intends to maintain a fairly strict distinction between the living and the dead:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
The living judge and the dead are judged. Jensen reverses this relation; the second half of her title, “Ah! and Afterward Yes!” is borrowed from a scene in Bleak House:
The gentleman put up his eye-glasses to look at me, and said, ‘Come here, my dear!’ He shook hands with me, and asked me to take off my bonnet — looking at me all the while. When I had complied, he said, ‘Ah!,’ and afterwards, ‘Yes!’
Here the dead judge the living — and find them pleasing. Eliot correlates the dead with the past; for Jensen, the present is dead and the living are the past. I am eating more popcorn and feeling very slothful.
6:00 p.m. I make falafel and hummus from scratch. The hummus is surprisingly good, but the falafel balls disintegrate as soon as they hit the oil. I use a strainer to collect the crumbs and we shovel them into our sandwiches like ground beef. It’s surprisingly good. Maybe it would be better to think that Jensen introduces a hesitation: we can no longer know who is living and who is dead, who comes before and who comes after, what is closed and finished, and what can be reshaped collaboratively. Jensen again:
But that was once but once, so what is now still now? Perhaps the sky? Sky being the infinite bound by limitations, i.e. My dear, my darling, spend your limited eternity with me. But this turn into sky happens ‘always still and always always,’ a quadruple positive, which equals a negative. Therefore, mathematically speaking, we are in the past (21).
No doubt I am not the only one who writes in order to speak with the dead.
1. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1. See also Craig Dworkin, introduction to The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, 2003.
2. Camille Thigpen, “Featured Fig: Becca Jensen,” Les Figues Press, last modified September 3, 2013.