David Foster Wallace liked to make the point that books can act as a cure for loneliness. I found a longer version of the quotation in a place, the source of which I cannot verify:
“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
Foster Wallace talks about curing loneliness via self-forgetfulness or transcendence, by first expanding the curative power of books beyond just the words on thin slices of tree soup, to art in general. Regarding the drugs or sex, I probably can’t quibble.
But I would quibble with the idea that fiction allows us to not be lonely. I can’t buy it. It reminds me too much of other Brainpickings sort of things I read about books, the ability that novels supposedly allows us to connect with another human, no matter how far removed we are from them by time, space, other variables. But ultimately, the reading of a book is a one-way dialogue and it’s not so much a cure for loneliness as a cosmetic treatment of a symptom.
We might consider this when reading WD Clarke’s two novellas, White Mythology, and the role that books, especially novels as distinct from books or narrative, play in the text. The first novella, ‘Skinner Boxed,’ is protagonised by Dr. Ed, a psychiatrist and a biological determinist. The novella documents Dr. Ed’s travails as the formerly neatly compartmentalised sections of his life become unsettled; his wife disappears, a son he didn’t know he had shows up on his doorstep and clinical trials of a new drug seem to not be going to plan. In this first half of White Mythology, the narrative voice blends with Dr. Ed’s own process of rationalising his experience of the world, and, as many satires of reason’s process are prone to be, the wording soon becomes recursive:
“The short term appeared to be so-not good that his long-term prospects were unchartable. The short-term chart was so very contra-positive that even the notion, even the suggestion of a ‘long’ term, as far as Max was concerned, was a dream originating in an opium pipe stocked with extraordinary psychotropic powers indeed.”
Dr. Ed’s peculiar distance from his own existence can be attributed to a formative experience at the hands of a Jesuit teacher, who offers him the moral lesson to be found in Great Expectations:
“If you visited Wemmick at the strange, miniature castle that was his home…he would have appeared to you to be the most generous and hospitable man you had ever met, and one full of colour, full of life. However, if you had the misfortune of visiting him at work, at the office of the ultracompetitive and successful lawyer Jaggers, for whom he toiled ceaselessly, you would have encountered an entirely different being…here was a man who worked in a black and white, in a world of instrumental reason…”
Dr. Matthews is opening the young Dr. Ed to the capitalist critique within Dickens, the play-acting and mechanisation that capitalism occasions in its participants, particularly in their working lives. However, Dr. Ed seems to have taken the intended whack of the lesson rather differently, and finds, while reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that he can ‘turn off’ his ‘emotions’ by ‘flicking’ a ‘switch’ inside his head. The inverted commas deployed whenever he does so ironise the event sufficiently, and bode ill for his capacity to detect when his son might be reaching out for his attention, when he mentions that the novel he’s reading, Great Expectations again, is about ‘an orphan.’
His scepticism regarding the writings of Sigmund Freud should be viewed in a similar light. Bearing in mind that he finds himself plagued by dreams, apparently about eggs, and the emotions that he’s worked so hard to repress are coming to revenge themselves upon him, he could conceivably locate within Freud a more sustaining interpretative schema than what lies on the ‘More drugs, less talk’ end of the discipline.
It could be argued that it is in the second novella, the less chronological and more populous ‘Love’s Alchemy’ posits an alternative in its being slightly lighter on the literary references, (some good Donne lines appear) and being more dialogue driven. It makes an interesting contrast with the tortured ratiocination of Dr. Ed, aswell as providing a vehicle for the telling of stories within stories, particularly ones about childhood and generally formative ones from adulthood.
It may be that novels are more vehicles for confirming our own solipsism and outlook. We can talk about the death of the author all we want, our interpretations will never inflect a work’s DNA, but it is through narrative and storytelling, books without covers, that we can get outside, that we can feel less alone.