Why I’ve Been Silent
Eight days ago, in Northern California, I came within about ten feet of driving off a cliff. This was at about five in the morning, deep in the woods; while of course it’s possible that I would have survived, it’s also quite possible that I would not have. It was not smart for me to be driving, and I fell asleep at the wheel, only to awaken in time to yank the wheel, jam the brakes, and avoid the edge. Since then, not a day has gone by — in fact, not an hour has passed — that didn’t find me wishing that it had gone the other way, and I’d plummeted.
I’ve ruined my life two ways: firstly by trying to make dysfunctional romances work, and secondly by earning an extremely futile Ph.D. in English. I take full responsibility for both choices, although I believe that in a better society, the Ph.D. at least would have meant a little more. I can’t get over the miseries of my serious relationships, particularly my marriage, and have given up on pursuing new ones. Nor can I avoid the fallout of that resignation. As much as we might like to avoid both romance and ice cream binges, digital addictions, and sweatpants, that’s not how human beings were built. We were built with cravings and reward pathways, and something has to satisfy them. I’ll do what I can to fight turning into The Comics Guy from The Simpsons, but who knows how successful I will be. It doesn’t particularly matter.
I haven’t had much success with my online writing, which doesn’t surprise me, because if my stuff was going to thrive, I would expect more of the mainstream culture to be interesting to me, which it’s not. (I do like television, but I don’t write for television.)
For a while, I couldn’t even bring myself to write a single word — here, or on Cowbird, or on Twitter — because I felt like I was being hypocritical: the general drift of my writing is to uncover what I consider “the truth,” but it’s not “the truth” that gets me out of bed in the morning. Pure fiction gets me out of bed. I get out of bed to watch Newsroom, not to watch the kind of show Newsroom supposedly depicts (as if such a thing even existed). I get out of bed to watch The Amazing Spider-Man, not to write a letter to The New Yorker explaining that Louis Menand’s latest essay, on James Joyce, was grossly inaccurate. I did write that letter (reproduced below), but they ignored it, of course.
Tonight, as I was lying with my face in my pillow, thinking about all of this, I remembered that I wrote my dissertation not because I believed it would make a difference, but simply because that’s the only thing I know how to do. I am quite certain that we are about to experience a comparatively terrifying and difficult period of human history, characterized by both scarce resources and the strange bedfellows of totalitarianism and political chaos. I think it’s very unlikely that saying such things — or doing the more serious work of writing in detail about particular issues — will do much to avert or lessen these crises. I know for a fact that my life of solo trips to the supermarket, and making iTunes purchases, will make no difference one way or the other.
So I’m not writing because I want to, since I’d rather not even be alive. I’m just writing because it’s the only thing I know how to do, and that starts right now, with the problems with Louis Menand’s careless account of Joyce. Enjoy.
In his July 2nd article about James Joyce, Louis Menand writes that “Joyce was contemptuous of psychoanalysis.” This is demonstrably untrue. Joyce often poked fun at psychoanalysis, but that is not very conclusive in his particular case — he also poked fun at Catholicism, Shakespeare, and himself.
Thanks to archival research by critic Daniel Ferrer and others, we now know that Joyce read many of Freud’s works closely, and with great interest, and that he incorporated parts of them into Finnegans Wake. The overall structure of the novel, which takes place in the mind of a sleeping and/or concussed dreamer, owes an acknowledged debt to Freud’s Traumdeutung (“On The Interpretation of Dreams”), which Joyce likens (with a pun, naturally) to the trams that carry Dubliners around their city.
Finnegans Wake also quotes extensively from Freud’s case study “An Infantile Neurosis.” There Freud denounces the brutal treatment of a child who evinces homosexual desires; in the Wake, Joyce parallels that case study with the story of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned on charges of “gross indecency,” and who died a few short years later, his health ruined by the time spent in jail.
Joyce’s relationship to psychoanalysis was certainly complex, but given the important role that psychoanalytic theories and works play in Finnegans Wake, to call him “contemptuous” of Freud and Jung is more than an over-simplification. It is both unscrupulous and misleading.