Thanks to all the suggestions for good DFW readings in the post below. Some of them already figure strongly in the book, but some of them I’ve never worked up the gumption to read. I’ll try to find a way to work the most strongly recommended into my schedule somewhere.
In the meantime, another question. Is there anyone else we should be considering for this slot? A contemporary writer, in other words, who has a sense for the peculiar challenges of the age and who writes about them with elegance and panache. Last summer, for example, I was fortunate enough to have a research assistant who helped me through a lot of James Merrill’s work – especially the epic poem Changing Light at Sandover. That seemed to me worth exploring more – less for the description of the challenges of the age than for the sense of something that might respond to them. Anyhow, I know that Merrill is not a natural pairing with Wallace, but perhaps that’s the point. Is there anyone else we should consider, and if so why?
Thanks for your help!
About Sean D. Kelly
Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy.
Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998.
Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.
Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception.
Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others.
Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining.
Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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DFW and JM are a natural pairing insofar as they were both Amherst College alumni (and likewise both sons of Amherst alumni).
Roberto Bolano immediately comes to mind. It is in no way possible to sum up his body of work in a blog posting, but I will say that I think he’s an existential novelist in the best possible sense, and the theme of selfhood—construction of/modern assaults upon/problems pertaining to—is a constant in his work. His stories and novels are always historically situated, but never narrowly journalistic, and I feel pretty certain that, like Wallace, his work will be widely read for decades to come.
The only problem is that his best known works—“2666” and “The Savages Detectives”— are quite long, and are therefore perhaps not the best introductions to his work. I would recommend the novella “By Night in Chile” and the short story “The Return” (recently in Harper’s magazine and now out in a collection also called “The Return”) as good entry points.
W.G. Sebald is another candidate, and there’s definitely some thematic overlap between him and Bolano as far as emigration and displacement (“World collapse” in Heidegger-speak?), but I wonder if he’s too mentalistic for the Heideggerian approach underlying “All Things Shining.” In any case, “The Rings of Saturn” is a beautiful, mysterious book that I found myself thinking about from time to time, two years after reading it, without ever feeling like I’ve exhausted its possibilities.
I should have mentioned above that there is a sadness pervading the works of Bolano and Sebald (Sebald calls it “melancholy,” but it’s a particular kind of melancholy) that strikes me as very much in line with the “stomach-level sadness” of Wallace.
Daniel Mark Epstein. A brilliant and under-read American poet and biographer. (He’s written about Aimee Semple MCphearson, Nat King Cole and others.) One reviewer said put it this way: “his best writing is his mythically and historically haunted poetry….expresses the sorrows of the middle of life’s journey with near-Dantesque poignancy.” I think especially look at his first collection “Young Men’s Gold”.
It seems to me that answering the question, from within the age itself, of who is currently creating works of art that focus the issue of our age, is very different to answering it with hindsight. Perhaps you have addressed this elsewhere in the blog or book.
There are lots of writers who capture something of my experience of my generation’s signature style of queasiness, irony, reflexivity, playfulness, superficiality, and instrumentalism e.g., DFW, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem.
But for my money, there is only one who had his finger on the issue that I wager will prove to be the issue of our age – transformation of a world while avoiding terror, violence and disaster. The late Portuguese writer and Nobel Prizewinner Jose Saramago wrote on the subject in Blindness, The Cave, The Tale of the Unknown Island and All The Names and he did so beautifully and with wry humour.
I have a few writers to recommend whom I particularly enjoy and find insightful in their accounts of either contemporary culture or the human condition in general. However, I also have a question about what we are looking for in such writers. Are we only or primarily looking for writers who confirm the Heideggerian hypothesis that there is one major problem of “our age” and that it is something like nihilism (in its various guises and interpretations)? What about other writers who see other kinds of problems, or who are more optimistic or, at least, less pessimistic in general? What about ones who portray common human predicaments that are faced in every age?
Of the first kind, I have in mind writers who warned against political threats to liberty, such as George Orwell. There are also writers highlighting and opposing various kinds of injustices in society, such as John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, Toni Morrison in her novels, Edward Abbey’s championing of wilderness, and so on.
Of the second, we have a history of distinctively American hope and optimism that I think ought not be ignored. Emerson and Thoreau, for instance, while very harsh critics of both injustice and everyday banality, also exemplify hope and optimism for finding meaning in the world. Whitman may be our poet who could envision meaningful life within the new American world, sans the nostalgic pining for ancient Greece of Holderlin.
Of the third kind, I find Cormac McCarthy particularly good. He certainly doesn’t have the same postmodern feel as DFW or some of the other writers noted above. But he has certainly captured the attention and imagination of both critics and the public alike and his themes come across more like portrayals of universal existential problems humans face qua moral beings, though perhaps sharpened and transformed a bit by peculiarities of the modern world (where “modern” spans from the Westward expansion in the New World to the potential for post-apocalyptic existence).
As for a contemporary writer who comes closer to the themes of ATS, Don Delillo can’t be ignored. Many of his novels (including “White Noise”) have been said to portray a pervasive mood in contemporary society of profound forgetfulness, which should resonate with Heidegger’s theme of lamenting the “forgottenness of Being” (or something like that). “Cosmopolis” is the ultimate portrayal of the completely “free” Nietzschean overman, made possible by contemporary technology and postmodernity, who fails to be able to provide himself with fulfilling meaning. But Delillo also has answers to the malaise. Of the countless ways in which his masterpiece, “Underworld”, can be mined for insights into the project of ATS, the prologue showcases Delillo’s attempts to uncover the mundane and the everyday as miraculous and beautiful (perhaps even “shining”).
First: Your book is fantastic. I am enjoying it very much and it has made me want to go back an re-read many of the classics.
I think Neal Stephenson is another writer that may be interesting for you to bring into this project. I am writing my dissertation on Stephenson, comparing him to Pynchon and DFW. Stephenson in his Baroque Cycle looks back at the seeds of the enlightenment through a hacker lens. He has a real sence of history and understanding of the way the world works.