“Reality Hunger” — Part II

So the question (following Part I below) is whether professor and novelist David Shields is a dilettante and a liar (he praises himself for both), or a genuine intellectual who’s onto something original and possibly profound as “author” (itself a lie) of “Reality Hunger” (Knopf; 219 pages; 24.95 obscene dollars).

Certainly many of the reviews and interviews thus far have brought acclaim to “Reality Hunger,” a collection of 619 statements that are sometimes attributed to the correct source (Picasso, Orwell, Kierkegaard, etc.), sometimes “remixed” with (a better term might be “violated by”) Shields’ own statements, and sometimes rewritten according to Shields’ whimsy.

So let’s see what happens when we take Shields seriously.

First a little background:

To paraphrase Shields’ first point, “reality” in our time has become a bombardment of comments on reality from, say, YouTube, 9/11, Google, two wars, Wikipedia, bailout funds, Tea Party antics, the Obama “Hope” poster, climate change, Russia from my window, professors like David Shields, Oprah, “bail out,” Twitter, “Glee,” Mobb Deep and the Texas Board of Education’s version of “history” (more about this in a later column but really, in an age where history books may replace Thomas Jefferson with 16th-century puritan John Calvin, literary con artists like Shields look like scholars).

Excuse me, back to taking Shields seriously.

So instead of having a mental blueprint of current history and culture in our minds, average people like you and me carry the chaos around with us — wildly random bits of information that in the past have made sense only through artistic forms, like fiction.

As a novelist himself (tragically, he was a good one), Shields used to think that reshaping of facts through story could bring readers closer to the truth about life than nonfiction ever could. Reading fiction, we could decide how to build our own mental blueprint, turning to it often as a guide to how the world works and what life asks of us.

Kind of Thrilling

But then, Shields turned around. He got bored with novels as irrelevant stories that do nothing with the random “stuff” raining down and invading our minds. He decided it was better to accept the notion that, as he says in statement #30, “The origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” The rest of that chapter (#31-45) dips in and out of history to see what happens when plot, story, science, fact, and history fall into the kitchen sink of mass culture and out through the garbage disposal of process (or “collage”). The result was a giant retreat: (#45) “After Freud, after Einstein, the novel retreated from narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract.”

This single chapter, I have to say, is really kind of thrilling: Like others it shakes up our assumptions about form and forces us to consider the importance of statements like #412: “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.”

In other words, no novel, no essay, no memoir, no story can ever get at the truth. It’s the process of our constant sifting and thinking and doubting “reality” that is the closest thing we’ll ever come to understanding reality. Of course, Shields wants us to know that one way to observe that pondering and doubting in action is to read “Reality Hunger,” but by that time he’s so irritating that we can only read the book in small doses.

If it all sounds like a lot of intellectual baloney, of course a lot of it is, and I hate Shields for hiding behind a curtain of literary references that he has screwed around like an adolescent saying “Look Mommy! Love me! Feed me! Read me!” Nevertheless, if you don’t fight him, the curtain does rise; many chapters have that arrogant yet somehow refreshing demand that we rethink everything, and very often, we do.

Apologizing to Emily Dickinson (someone’s got to!)

Of course, poets have challenged notions of reality for centuries, so Shields in many ways has a lot of catching up to do. You’d think he’d be more respectful of that, but no. He dares to mess around with quotes from beloved poets in a way that makes him dishonest and lazy (two labels I’m sure he loves).

#185, for example — “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — ” — is correctly attributed to Emily Dickinson, but in this context, Shields steals from her rather than learns from her — and he even steals the wrong thing.

In his book, Dickinson’s line sounds like evidence to prove that truth is never pure; it’s always going to come at us at an angle that we have to interpret. That’s one of Shields’ points in “Reality Hunger.”

But it’s not Dickinson’s point, which is stated in (pardon me for condensing her meaning) the last two lines of her poem: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind — .” So Dickinson is saying the opposite of what Shields indicates. Dickinson suggests that the truth of things is pure, so much so that we have to stand back, we have to give it time, because when we uncover truth, its light can be searing, brutal. The entire poem seems to say: You can’t deny truth; you can’t mess around or cut it into in pieces or throw it in a bag and “remix” words arbitrarily! When Truth exists, it’s so incredibly true that no adolescent whiner who teaches writing and stopped being a novelist can pretend otherwise. (See whole poem below)

No Heart

The problem I have with most of the book is that it’s so cold, so calculating (and so self-aggrandizing) that one feels David Shields lost his heart along the way.

This is probably why he loves phony memoirists like James Frey and coins a term like “Oprahcam” to show us that every lie coming from his or others’ pens (or keyboards) is all our fault.

More about this next time in the concluding (thank heaven) Part III.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant, by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --