Just as the reading life launches us toward the eventual battlefields of marriage and romantic love, even as it forces us to acknowledge that cancer wards and mental hospitals abut our future, as it thwarts our youthful expectations of happiness, lending us its violent nightmares, sordid premonitions, fears and disappointments, so too the reading life tunnels us toward the deeply-buried understanding that all this has happened before, many more times than once. We drill diagonally to frack the shale of literature and poetry, bringing up the distillation of One Big Mess. In a forward direction is the American psycho draining the blood of his Wall Street disco victims; behind is Raskolnikov, bashing in the head of a pawnbroker. Amazingly so, the reading life is a tapestry of repeating themes. We meet the same people. They wear togas, kilts, body-armor and business suits. We love them and divorce them and sometimes murder them in jealous rages; we partake in their wars and surrenders, their beheadings and auto-da-fes, and we tolerate their manifestos. Perhaps, as Hemingway famously remarked, there are only two stories in the world and both end in death.
One generation removed from Gogol’s Clerk is Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. “Now I would like to tell you, gentlemen, whether or not you want to hear it, why it is that I couldn’t even become an insect. I’ll tell you solemnly that I wished to become an insect many times. But not even that wish was granted.” Readers in the life, attuned to the correspondences, resonances and reverberations involved in a book-centered existence, can’t help but think forward to Gregor Samsa, who woke from fevered dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic vermin. Unlike Kafka, whose insect remains inscrutable, Dostoyevsky provides a psychological explanation for the sufferings of the Underground Man. “I swear to you, gentlemen, that being overly conscious is a disease, a genuine, full-fledged disease. Ordinary human consciousness would be more than sufficient for everyday human needs—that is, even half or a quarter of the amount of consciousness that’s available to a cultured man in our unfortunate nineteenth century, especially to one who has the particular misfortune of living in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world.” We know what he means. Brett Easton Ellis said the same thing about New York in the 90’s. They think of culture as a medium of pain and frustration, transmitting its messages over and over again to the raw nerves of the literate human being. Can reading change our lives “utterly”? Perhaps it can, but sometimes for the worse.
This prolegomena to irrationality is brought to us courtesy of an array of shady or mis-cast characters, the Stranger, the Outsider, the Rebel and the Clerk. The great critic George Steiner explains: “In the drama of the city, the underground man is at once the experiencer of humiliation and the necessary chorus whose ironic commentary lays naked the hypocrisies of convention. Immure him among casks of amontillado; his stifled whisperings shall bring down the house. The man from the lower depths possesses intelligence without power, desire without means. The industrial revolution has taught him how to read and given him a minimum of leisure; but the concomitant triumph of capital and bureaucracy has left him without an overcoat. He perches at his clerk’s desk—Bartleby in Wall Street or Joseph K. in his office—drudges in acrimonious servility, dreams of richer worlds, and shuffles home in the evening.” Steiner argues that this character can be observed in the Homeric Theristes, in the parasites of Roman comedy, in the legendary Diogenes, and in Lucan’s dialogues, as well as in the persona of Rameau’s nephew, at once “arrogant and obsequious, energetic and slothful, cynical and candid.” (George Steiner, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky” 1959)
The reading life succors this idea of the irrational, rejects both romantic and rationalistic aesthetics, and converts our notion of selfhood into a multiple image which, projected onto the city’s backdrop, can be rational, demonic, social, or criminal, take your pick. According to Steiner again, it was Heine who became the archetypical outsider in virtue of his habitual ailments, a veritable “burial vault” of illness. And far, far away is the voice of Villon, a criminal howling from the taverns and brothels. Looking forward, Dostoyevsky’s notion of the speaker “as some kind of ordinary fly” calls up Kafka’s great insect image. Imagine if you can, we new readers taking account for the first time of the narrator “crouching” in his lair, waiting in his “cranny”, in un-heroic retreat. Nothing about the twenty-first century negates these arresting metaphors from the nineteenth, full of factories, workmen marching toward the machines, clerks glancing up at the clock and the swarms of unemployed. We in the reading life follow a trail of inhumanity from the trenches of Verdun to the death camps to Hiroshima and Vietnam—mere grace notes perhaps to further degradations that will affect not only the human species, but also implicate all the species together. These messengers—Dostoyevsky, Gide, Zola, Camus, Genet, mostly on the European front, say No to progress, No to rational psychology, No to transcendent ideology, recognizing the innate savagery in human existence.
The reading life itself is in some ways a simulacrum of themes drawn from the underground where the reader, already an outsider, already isolated, withdrawn and crabbed, finds himself an alien wanderer amid the ostensibly well adjusted. Overly-mindful (echoes of Dostoyevsky’s painful consciousness or Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart), attuned to the misfortunes of expectation, without question a Raw Youth, you wear your right shoe on your left foot which is, itself, a metaphor for the right-brain/left-brain process of reading and writing imaginative literature.