All criticism is a form of autobiography.
I’VE NEVER MET THE POET Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, as we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the following generation, my younger self, my aesthetic son. Both of us went to Brown; have traveled in Spain/speak Spanish poorly; are Jewish — i.e., have/had Jewish parents. 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. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and passive fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions.
I admire Ben’s poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clefreferences to the author’s childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of Ashbery’s poetry (a collection which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet-friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist-parents (his mother is the well known feminist writer Harriet Lerner); I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as he if were Ben. Ben won’t mind! — and what difference does it make?
The book — as what significant book is not? — is born of significant despair; Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal. The question I want to ask, in this prologue and the book that follows: twenty-three years older than he is, am I in exactly the same stew?
Leaving the Atocha Station “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling,” a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station — to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another’s perspective — imagining “I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down.” He wants us to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I: when I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I actually preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me — why I’m adept only at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor — but my father was right: playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.
What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? I’ve lifted these last two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The very nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem; he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a close approximation of the incomprehensible human flux. An unfortunate fact about stuttering — the subject of my novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now — is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property — not really mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.
About the 2004 Madrid bombings (three of the bombs exploded in the Atocha Station) he says, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” He wonders if he’ll be the only American in history who visits Granada without seeing the Alhambra. While Spain is voting, he’s checking email. Easy enough to judge Ben; harder to acknowledge the near-universality of such soul-sickness, c. 2011. The emblematic event of my childhood was a weekend I spent with my mother and father in Eugene, Oregon, where they helped the Peace & Freedom candidate map out his gubernatorial campaign; before we returned to the Bay Area, the candidate treated us to Sunday brunch or, rather, tried to treat us to Sunday brunch, since we drove up and down the strip, trying to work our consciences free to eat at a restaurant called Sambo’s or a cafe that once fired a Chicano busboy. The game: Top This Arcane Indignation. It would be difficult to overestimate either the length of the main drag or the number of times we traversed it. We stopped once for gas.
If Ben cares about “the arts,” it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf: “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He’s “unworthy”; profundity is “unavailable from within the damaged life.” And yet he’s willing to say, somewhat begrudgingly, that Ashbery is a great poet: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. It is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.'”
This is a lot, but is that it? Is that everything? Is that the best art can do now — be a holding tank/reflecting pool for our lostness? Maybe, maybe. Meanwhile, the words are written under water; we have nothing to say and say it into a tiny phone. Why was I born between mirrors? Picasso and the Picasso Museum guard: Ben approaches a canvas a child has touched (a miniature precursor of, or study for, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), double-checks to make sure no one is around, and since the world is ending, touches the painting himself —