Cogito Ergo Numb – How Literature Ruined David Shields’ Life

David Shields' How LIterature Saved My Life

 “The number of humiliating admissions I’ve made. You’d think it would draw me closer to someone. But it doesn’t.”

-Joyce in Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair

When we last left our protagonist David Shields, he was defining/redefining/manifesto-carving/insisting in his hit book Reality Hunger that genres were made to be broken while fiction as we know it is just plain old broken. DS likes to think of himself as “defending the ineluctable modality of the real,” which is totally valid. But let’s oversimplify it a bit:

realist fiction = sux
autobiography = rad

Whether you liked it or not though, Reality Hunger was that rarest of things—lit criticism that was both packed with interesting ideas and compulsively readable. It was also thrillingly of the moment. And it was also (this is very important) composed mostly of stuff other people said.

How Literature Saved My Life is David Shields’ new book. It’s 200+ pages of him agonizing (his word) over what his doppelganger (also his word) Ben Lerner calls the incommensurability of language and experience, though it turns out to be more like picking scabs than actual agonizing. It’s also about DS’s detachment from his own emotions, which would all be fine and good if DS didn’t keep insisting that we were detached as well. ((If you aren’t aware of this detachment, maybe that’s b/c you’re too detached from your emotions to notice…I guess. DS never offers any extra-personal evidence to support his claim.))

DS believes the endemic disease of our time is—no, not Alzheimer’s…not Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis…not even Postmodern Fiction—it’s The Difficulty of Feeling. That’s feeling in the emotional sense, not literal neuropathy or anything. Or as DS puts it, “I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property, not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.” Heavy stuff, but if you’re thinking that this book will be about DS’s struggle to overcome his affliction, how he becomes a real live boy feeling all kinds of emotions, you’ve come to the wrong place. Yes, DS spends the book searching, at times desperately, through his life/self/book collection, but he seems more interested in explaining/defending/justifying himself than finding any answers.

In the process, DS ends up falling for the same seductive promise most of us did as adolescents—namely that sadness provides, in itself, some kind of transcendence. Mistaking pessimism for deep insight, hopelessness as profound, as somehow more honest, more inherently true than its opposite, DS projects his insights onto the world with a gray, filmic, exhausted light.

If this sounds like a less-than-compelling story idea, now would be a good time to remind you that DS has nothing but contempt for plot, or narrative, or any story device that implies forward momentum. At one point, he wonders if he’s missing “the narrative gene,” brags about reading books in the wrong order and walking out of movies w/o remembering the plot. Of course on the very next page he says of This American Life, “At its best, each segment hands the baton to the next segment, and by minute 48, you’re in a significantly different and more interesting locale than you were at minute 17.”

It only took him four paragraphs to discover that narrative gene after all, not that DS notices. But then in the middle of his 4¶ journey we’re tripped up by this sentence:

According to Tolstoy, the purpose of art is to transfer feeling from one person’s heart to another person’s heart. In collage, it’s the transfer of consciousness, which strikes me as immeasurably more interesting and loneliness-assuaging.

I’ll agree with the interesting part, but it’s hard not to roll my eyes at the loneliness part, ((And mutter ‘fuck you’ while I consider throwing the book against the wall.)) if only because DS seems to spend the entire book in a state of agonizing unassuaged loneliness. And seeing as how he believes that The Difficulty of Feeling is THE ENDEMIC DISEASE OF OUR TIME, you might expect him to wonder more about the whole “transfer of feeling” thing. But this all seems to go right by DS. And these are just the contradictions/confusions/perplexities that arise within two pages. As this continues to happen, DS on a quest to find meaning in his life and getting distracted as he keeps finding meaning in art that justified his life, like a cross-country driver so busy flipping through radio stations he hasn’t noticed the car’s run out of gas and he’s stranded on the side of the highway, you start to wonder if DS has any idea what he’s doing.

Or to put it another way, he may be an expert on what’s interesting, but he doesn’t know shit about assuaging loneliness.

But there’s the book—if DS can prove desire to be useless/shallow/worthless then he can, if not triumph over his lack of desire, at least console himself that he’s not missing anything—which is about as pyrrhic a victory as one could imagine. There is a collected sadness at the heart of this book, and while DS is hyper-aware of this sadness, he’s much better at diagnosing the symptoms than the cause.

And so it remains. Essentially HLSML amounts to little more than one man’s description of his cell—DS insists we live in a world w/o vitality, a world w/o joy, a world w/o moments of genuine transcendence, a world w/o bliss. He describes a world in which love cannot deepen, or become richer over time; it can only fade. DS venerates this fading, which he sees as inescapable, but only b/c he can’t believe in anything else. Unable to love w/o illusions, DS doesn’t strive to love better, to grow as a person, to try and figure stuff out, but instead just tries to create other, more meaningful illusions.

And he goes about this task of unpacking his consciousness with an absolutism ((He recommends a Geoff Dyer book b/c it’s “a thinking person’s self help book: how to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional.” DS is smart enough to know that most editors/teachers would circle that “every” in big red ink and put a question mark next to it. The fact that he used it anyway—as opposed to something less inflammatory like “most passions”—speaks volumes about what he’s up to here.)) , a scorched-earth rhetoric that becomes more and more unsettling the longer it continues, until finally HLSML is undone by DS’s inability to feel empathy for anyone not like himself.

Which is fine enough, I guess. As DS points out again and again ((And AGAIN. And AGAIN.)) over the course of his book, a lot of great art has come out of solipsism. In fact, he’s counting on it. I imagine DS as an emotional alchemist—attempting to turn his depressive lead into the gold of wisdom, but HLSML doesn’t make a great case for this, the obsessive mining of one’s self. Instead it suggests, in the sense that he ends the book in the same lonely place where he began ((The book’s last sentence: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.” Now there’s a closed loop to end all closed loops. Also, literature doesn’t lie about this part (deliberate choice of words here) of our existence any more or less than films, or television, or pop music, or the internet do. It just depends on where you look. Another question, if DS’s book made me feel less alone, does that mean it failed as literature? What about Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch? And last thing, If nothing can assuage human loneliness, why do we feel sad when people close to us die?)) that it’s the worst thing you could ever do.

DS seems unable to relate to, or even care about, people not like himself. He’s totally upfront about this—I have trouble reading books by people whose sensibility is wildly divergent from my own—but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. As I was explaining to Lena Dunham yesterday over peanut butter smoothies, just because you’re aware that your characters aren’t very bright doesn’t change the fact that I’m stuck watching stupid people say and do stupid things for an hour. ((I also told her that I thought she was pretty—it seemed like the least I could do.))

DS believes that all great art, the only great art, is the type that manifests the neuroses of its creator, and so he makes his own neuroses as explicit & foregrounded as possible in order to do…something? Accomplish is way too active a verb for someone so resigned. Achieve is an even worse descriptor. DS seems too exhausted to strive. Or is he just too successful? DS looks upon desire with scorn, sees anyone with enthusiasms and dreams as misguided & naïve. Or is it that he’s only capable of championing the listless?

Just how solipsistic is David Shields?

He calls Ben Lerner his doppelganger simply because they both went to Brown, both lived in Spain, are Jewish, are writers/critics, have “accomplished mothers and dreamier fathers,” and they’re in torment about that aforementioned incommensurability of language thing. DS acknowledges that “I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas.” Hey, DS and I both played basketball in high school, attended college in the northeast, are writer/critics, have knotty relationships with our parents, and we both grew up in a place that was not Oz. Fuck it, maybe I’m his doppelganger too.

But that’s our narrator, desperate not to be alone in his self-absorption. So much so that he spends four pages pointing out similarities between himself and George W. Bush. “He had a lower SAT score than most of his Ivy League classmates; so did I…. He was too easily seduced by Tony Blair’s patter, as was I.” My favorite is the one where DS responds to GWB’s youth spent in drugs and alcohol by saying, “I didn’t do this, but sometimes I pretend I did.” They are also both scared of dying (more on this later). There’s no word on whether they like the same pizza toppings, or which CBS Monday night sitcom is their least favorite.

Later he tells the story of Bryan Singer, X-Men director and “the friend of an acquaintance,” sharing a commercial flight with Bush. Singer describes GWB as “a great guy, very gregarious” simply because Bush went around the flight shaking people’s hands and asking how they were doing. It seems that, like the elderly and customers in line at a busy Chick-Fil-A, all it takes is a smile for Bryan Singer to think you’re a nice person (note: the awkwardness of the following sentence is deliberate on DS’s part, I think)

My acquaintance said Singer said Bush simply understands how the world now works; with his friendly manner he gets what he wants and he’s at peace with everything.

This goes unchallenged by DS, accepted as plainly obvious. One can only wonder, in light of our recent exposure to GWB’s art—the looks of which suggested, in its blank torment, that the former president was only a couple of months away from cutting his ear off—if DS, by way of Singer, has reconsidered his opinion of GWB’s happiness. Most likely he’s simply woven GWB’s despair into his own, one more sign of how much they have in common.

How solipsistic is DS? He loses his first college girlfriend after telling her he’s been sneaking into her room to read her journals. He doesn’t lose her b/c she breaks up with him—she forgives him, actually—but because “the language of the events was at least as erotic to me as the events themselves, and when I was no longer reading her words, I was no longer very adamantly in love with Rebecca.” According to DS, “This is what is known as ______.” (multiple choice time—fill in the blank)

a)      being an asshole
b)      the moment when I realized I needed to become a better person
c)       something I deeply regret
d)      a tragic flaw

If you picked “d,” then you’re starting to get the picture. Earlier, he tells us “every night she’d wrap her legs around me and scream something that I thought was German until I realized she was saying, ‘Oh, my son.’ My son. She had her own issues too, I suppose.” Apparently, he never bothered to ask her about these issues. ((It’s the shrugging callousness of his “I suppose” that makes me squirm so much.))

There’s more sex. An unnamed woman spends her relationship with DS doing sex stuff so overblown and absurdly enthusiastic (to DS) that he can scarcely believe it’s real. ((He spares us the agony of asking her directly, thank God.)) I had a similar relationship once—it turned out she had gone through some serious sexual trauma in her early teens (I’m being nonspecific here b/c trust me you don’t want to hear the details), and basically was working through some shit. DS concludes about his young lady, “Her goal seemed to be to burn images of herself into my retina forever.”  ((Of course it could also be something way more innocuous than she was sexually abused, like maybe she just really liked him and wanted him to like her back and thought that fucking DS’s brains out like she was a porn star was the best way to accomplish this. Either way, DS seems a bit ungrateful in my opinion, though this is pretty much par for his worldview—loved or unloved, sexed or unsexed, successful or underacknowledged, you can count on DS to receive it in the worst possible way. In an idiomatic sense, it’s not that his glass is half empty, more like it’s overflowing with lumpy, plague-infested diarrhea.)) That’s some serious self-involvement right there. Again, no sign that he ever, you know, tried talking to her about it.

None of this would bug me so much if the book was simply about DS and his unhappiness—a sort of Notes From Overground for the 21st century or something, but instead he has to go and bring the rest of us into it. Unable to bear the weight of his loneliness, DS keeps compulsively swerving towards the psychic safety of the plural voice. His personal anxiety needs to be a communal one. This makes total sense. A question like what is wrong with me? demands an answer. It presents a problem to be solved. What is wrong with us? however, one could spend a lifetime trying to figure that one out, and DS happily plunges into the deep, bottomless philosophical sea. It seems once he answers this answerless question, then he’ll finally understand everything and life will become simple.

Or maybe it’s just that if everyone is guilty, if everyone’s afflicted, then he can’t be held responsible.

If this idea seems a bit naïve to you, you’re starting to see the deep flaws with HLSML. Let’s just say that re-reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat for the 18th time, great as it is, might not be the best way to escape one’s depression/alienation. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be working for DS.

But it turns out the investigations, the diversions into other people, are the book’s real strength. When DS is talking about others—Spider Man, Hearts and Minds, Lorrie Moore, radio host Delilah, Frederick Barthelme, Built to Spill, Renata Adler, collage, Shit My Dad Says, Jonathan Franzen—he’s at his best. And we’re talking spine-tingingly, jaw-droppingly good. Too good for his own good if you know what I mean.

I can’t help thinking that, in retrospect, Reality Hunger was effective because DS used the voice of others to try and speak for himself. When he uses his own voice to try and speak for others, HLSML fails. The I’s reverberate emotionally where the We’s drop to the ground with an awkward thud. I could listen to Shields talk about anything, except himself apparently. Because when he says things like, “…delusions of innocence in our unprecedented era of prosperity, the sterilized privilege that we inhabit and that has never before been remotely encountered on the planet,” all I can think is speak for yourself, asshole.

At times, he revels in his detachment, a conspiracy theorist of despair. The writing’s great, but it just doesn’t ring true. And regardless of how après-garde/post-everything we all think literature has/will become, if the reader feels like the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or isn’t aware that they’re creating some serious cognitive dissonance between the narrator and the reader, most readers are going to get annoyed.

As goes DS, so goes us all.

Say what you want to about David Shields, he’s got good taste in books and film (music less so). The chapter Fifty-Five Books I Swear By sent me scurrying to the library to catch up with what I’ve missed. ((One of these books is Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces. Re: those earlier accusations of solipsism, DS’s favorite moment in the book involves a brief story about a little girl in Connecticut. 98% of Galeano’s writing concerns or takes place in Central/South America.))  George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context is even better than DS describes it, though DS must have missed the part where Trow warns, “A disease can make sense. If it pulls things together into the disease, then it makes a kind of sense.” DS, blinded by his ailment, his inability to feel, has crafted a book by attempting to turn his disease ((Our disease, if you accept DS’s hypothesis.))—the endemic disease of our time, remember—into a philosophy.

Trow knows more about Shields than Shields knows about Shields. And he’s able to communicate his knowledge w/o making himself central to the text, i.e. he knows when his personal experience is relevant and when it’s not, and acts accordingly.

How lonely the white men are….They thought they would have both things: the flow of history, because they knew history; and the edge, because they had talent. But history belongs to children, and the edge belongs to adolescents, so they have neither. What they have is a kind of superior whining, and the one freedom they have been able to make use of is the freedom carved out by certain adolescents to make an aesthetic out of complaint. So this is what they inhabit now: a tiny space where they struggle toward a sense of history and a sense of edge by refining their whimpers.

In Reality Hunger, David Shields seemed to own, for a moment, the flow of history as well as the edge. In How Literature Saved My Life, he has been reduced to making “an aesthetic out of complaint.” And because he’s a good writer, the whole thing almost works. But it is important to bear in mind at all times that, for DS, the world he speaks of extends no further than the end of his own fingertips.

Literature ruined David Shields’ life because it has allowed him to indulge his own personal bullshit, to examine himself indefinitely, to crash himself into the rocks of profundity again and again, all while getting absolutely nowhere. His writing style may be gorgeous, his ideas intoxicating, but like all intoxication, prolonged exposure makes one nauseous, and eventually leads to vomit.

  • Or to paraphrase one of his book titles, the thing about life is right now you’re still alive.1313THOUGHTS/NOTES ON HLSML THAT DON’T FIT INTO THE ABOVE ESSAY’S STRUCTURE BUT ARE STILL RELEVANT ENOUGH TO MENTION:
  • Just b/c you’re incapable of experiencing an epiphany doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
  • How tenable is a philosophy that posits hyper-self-consciousness as a path to (static, miserable) enlightenment?
  • Anyone who sees David Foster Wallace’s use of ‘w/r/t’ as DFW writing in a ‘demiotic American idiom’ needs to get out more and mingle with the populace. The use of the word demiotic isn’t doing him any favors either.
  • You’d have to admire his honesty, his relentless revelations, if only they didn’t feel designed to gain our admiration.
  • Every vacillation is pregnant with meaning; every desire portends his own doom.
  • Don’t get me wrong. I understand why the son of a manic-depressive would want to drain the world of its melodrama.
  • It never seems to occur to Shields that his dystopic feelings might be delusional as well, that maybe any firm reality might be delusional and that a subjective existence (rather than a curse) can present its own kind of freedom, a key to unlock the prison door. DS can see that life is cyclical, but even as he acknowledges nothing is permanent, he continues to beat his head against bricks insisting that death/failure/decay are eternal.
  • DS, in his desperate attempt to reconcile the gap between art and life, decides to do away with art. It seems to have worked for him, to an extent, but the alternative wasn’t going to get him very far, now was it?
  • The occasional rebukes of privilege ring not just hollow but ultimately condescending because we get the feeling that DS would rather take a bullet in the head than trade places with the average USA working person.
  • His tone-deafness/failure to acknowledge differences of class/race/gender/sexuality aren’t excused by his self-defenestration.
  • He isn’t wrong…but he isn’t exactly right either.
  • HLSML exists as a sort of fin de demographic.
  • With a list price of $25.95 for a book that’s only 226 pages, you can understand why DS might have trouble believing in a value-filled existence.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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One Response to Cogito Ergo Numb – How Literature Ruined David Shields’ Life

  1. a says:

    Thanks for the great Post very COOL!!!

    Like

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