Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” —The Editors
When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?
Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.
But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More
How the perspective of war stories has shifted—from gods to guns.
My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”
Memories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said. Read More
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote,
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, If I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
—But it’s nicer here …
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
—But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
Any Joe with a Twitter account will tell you that today is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. It’s a claim that rests mostly on a bunch of pseudoscience and a dubious 2005 ad campaign for a travel agency. Even so, a whole cottage industry has risen up around our apparent mid-January slump—especially in the UK, where people are always kind of miserable anyway. Tesco superstores are giving away free fruit; the BBC’s Scotland bureau has urged citizens to stay cheery by reminding themselves that the ski forecast is good and that the Spice Girls may soon reunite.
Though claims as to our collective depression have long been debunked, I wondered about the origin of the phrase “Blue Monday,” which clearly predates this latest usage. There was that great New Order song from 1983, for starters, and the subtitle to Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye, Blue Monday) and the Gershwin opera well before that. Evidence from eighteenth-century books suggests that Blue Monday was once just an excuse for working people to get drunk, and it happened every Monday, because our ancestors have long known what any casual reader of Garfield does: Mondays are for the birds. Read More
- Evil, in fairy tales, often comes in the form of an old woman: the fearsome, embittered crone is a staple of the genre. What will it take for our legends to start treating old biddies with respect—and why did they get a bad rap to begin with? The answer could be psychological (“Children do have a way of splitting the mother figure into … the evil mother—who’s always making rules and regulations, policing your behavior, getting angry at you—and then the benevolent nurturer”) or political (“She’s usually a solitary woman. She’s already marginal. She’s angry at something—at life, or whatever—and she will ‘eat’—that’s the expression—people’s souls, in the sense that she’s going to possess people and then they die a terrible death”). Or maybe we’ve just been reading the stories wrong and failing to see that “old women in fairy tales and folklore practically keep civilization together. They judge, reward, harm and heal; and they’re often the most intriguing characters in the story.”
- Oh, goody. We might just have, more than fifty years after her death, a new Sylvia Plath sex scandal on our hands: What was she doing the night before she gassed herself? Her biographer Jonathan Bate might know. “Andrew Sinclair, a friend of Plath and [Ted] Hughes, pointed [Bate] to a poem of Hughes’s that made reference to a final lover of Plath’s, and that a book editor in New York, Frances Lindley, met someone at a book party who told her he’d seen Plath’s last letter, which made reference to a call to said lover. Additionally, Plath’s downstairs neighbor attested that she asked for a postage stamp that last night. Next to the phone box on St. George’s Terrace, there’s also a mailbox. Bate says he’s read reports of a collector in possession of Plath’s last letter, but he doesn’t name the collector. He doesn’t name the possible final lover either.” It might be “the critic Al Alvarez, who is still living but has always denied having an affair with Plath (‘Sylvia wasn’t my style—she wasn’t my physical type,’ he told Janet Malcolm) and has expressed guilt about the whole thing.”
- David Lynch disdains words, and that’s okay as long as you’re not having a conversation with him. Better, maybe, just to listen: “In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature. Lynch has said, more than once, that he had to ‘learn to talk,’ and his very particular, somewhat limited vocabulary seems in many ways an outgrowth of his aesthetic … Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.”
- Today in the case for misandry: men are taking photos of beautiful landscapes and allowing their exposed scrotums to creep into the frame. It’s called nutscaping. And no matter how its creator attempts to defend it—it takes “courage, vulnerability and skill to properly execute,” he says, and it’s intended to gratify “a primal urge to connect on a deeper level with Mother Nature”—it’s further proof that men should probably be wiped off the face of the Earth.
- There’s nothing like a magic trick to restore one’s faith in good old battle-tested irrationality: “Believing in magic is generally considered a callow faith, clung to by foolish young’uns who have a long distance relationship with reality … Carl Jung opted not to explain magic away. Instead, he wrote in 1938, there’s psychological worth in how magic and religion can allow us to function effectively in society: ‘What is usually and generally called “religion” is … a substitute. … The substitution has the obvious purpose of replacing immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.” Magic, in short, allows us to put reality through a strainer … It is the experience itself we’re imbibing, and magic can help with the swallow … Indeed, as Harry Houdini said, ‘Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.’ ” (Cue Pilot’s 1975 hit, “Magic”…)