Speeds & Shapes of Consciousness

Evan Lavender-Smith interviewed by David Winters.


On the strength of two short books – each slim enough to be read in a single sitting — Evan Lavender-Smith has established himself as one of America’s leading literary artists: a writer whose work reconfigures the relations between fact and fiction, form and content, writing and reading. Not only this, but Lavender-Smith speaks as much to philosophers as to lovers of literature. His books have been copiously praised by some of the most pioneering voices in contemporary fiction (Gary Lutz, Brian Evenson, Michael Martone) and by prominent scholars of continental thought and critical theory (Clare Colebrook, John Mullarkey, and Ian Buchanan, among others). Lavender-Smith’s first book, From Old Notebooks (BlazeVox, 2010; Dzanc, 2012) presents a constellation of self-reflexive fragments — scattered thoughts on writing, thinking, and the comic chaos of family life — that combine to create a vivid, living literary meditation, reminiscent of Montaigne and David Markson. His second book, Avatar (Six Gallery Press, 2011) treads strikingly different territory: recalling Bernhard and the late works of Beckett, this grief-crazed monologue gives us a glimpse of life at its limit, stranded in space, left only with tears, stray strands of hair, and degraded memories for company. Taken together, these two texts testify to a level of intellectual and aesthetic adventurousness rarely seen in recent literature. Evan and I corresponded by email throughout September 2013, in a conversation that ranged from the legacy of modernism to the vital importance of style and form for both literary and philosophical writing.


David Winters: Forgive me for beginning with some fairly broad brushstrokes. Reading both of your books together, my first instinct is to try to make comparisons between the two. This may be a mistake on my part (I’m not sure why two texts’ shared authorship should automatically make them candidates for comparison) but perhaps there are commonalities. For instance, both books present what we could call the “rhythm of thought”. But each book is driven by a different rhythm—most rudimentarily, that of the fragment on the one hand, and the unbroken monologue on the other. So, to start with, I’m interested in how you conceive of the relationship between these two modes, and the capacity of each to reflect (or rather, produce?) “thought”…

Evan Lavender-Smith: It seems that my own thought often proceeds in one of those two ways, either in the mode of the concise fragment (e.g. “Need eggs”) or in the mode of the excessive interior monologue (e.g. “Eggs eggs Walmart today tomorrow eggs must buy them don’t forget the eggs …”). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to really think about the way I think, but I’m still not sure that I have a very good handle on it. I listen to myself think; invariably I forget what I’ve heard, so I return to the most basic questions. Do I think in words? If so, what type of syntax is involved? These are the simple, first-order questions; it gets trickier when the relationship between thought and writing is introduced. How is (or isn’t) language/writing commensurable to thought? What might a formalist representation of thought look like, in contrast to a realist representation of thought? That last question has particularly interested me, the possibility of non-realist literary forms reflecting the hidden or forgotten rhythms and syntaxes of thought. As to your point about the literary mode producing rather than merely reflecting thought, yes, of course, at a certain point it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other: I perceive my words and sentences feeding off other words and sentences in the same way I perceive my thoughts feeding off other thoughts; I intuit a certain immanence about content, as determined by form, just as I perceive a certain immanence about thought, as determined by the body. I don’t know that the language’s self-generative ability is any more marked in the fragmentary mode as it is in the monologic mode; it seems to be a fundamental feature of both modes, or of any mode in which I write, including the rambling mode of the answer to the interview question.

DW: Insofar as “non-realist” representations of thought reveal what is “forgotten” by realism, they sometimes seem to refine as much as they refute the classical realist aesthetic. In conversation with Arthur Power, Joyce declared that Ulysses had opened up “a new orientation in literature — the new realism”. One finds similar statements in Woolf’s essays. Generalising, perhaps some of the more extreme experiments in modernist formalism still pursue a mimetic goal, aiming for a greater realism than that of realism. In From Old Notebooks you call Joyce out for Ulysses’ “conceit” — as you say, “people don’t actually think that way!” Yet you praise Ulysses as that rare innovation, a “novel that really thinks about thinking”. If Joyce’s project was to portray the reality of thought, is this, then, a challenge (perhaps doomed by definition) that you think today’s writers should rise to?

ELS: Not necessarily, no. Although I do see a challenge facing today’s writer that may be bound up with the project of literary modernism in a more general way. As it was that realism emerged in the final decades of the 20th century as a dominant mode of Anglophone literary expression, much as it had early in the 20th century preceding the advent of what we commonly think of as the heyday of literary modernism, certain of today’s writers may feel dissatisfied with or dispossessed by this second reign of realism, and they may feel compelled to overcome it by parodying dominant literary modes or attempting to invent new ones. I certainly feel that challenge from time to time, especially when I muster the courage to glance at the contents page of the NYT Book Review.

As it pertains to Joyce, I would take issue with a portrayal of Ulysses as a book in which the “reality of thought” is present. First, and obviously, what we think of as the “realist” mode of Ulysses, what Joyce called its “narrative” mode — the mode of the first chapter, for example, at the tower, or the mode of the fourth chapter, at 7 Eccles St. — is simply not present in many of the novel’s chapters. And second, even when Joyce employs this mode — alternating chronologically or etiologically or associatively between dialogue and character-pressurised narratorial reportage and character-based interior monologue — the mode remains, to my reading, fundamentally formalist, as it is that the author constructs rigorous formal rules for narrative from which he attempts not to deviate, narratological rules for the representation of life and thought that possess perhaps merely an analogous or isomorphic relationship to the conditions of real-life life and thought. Bloom’s thought, for example, as lingualised and syntacticised by Joyce, is a thoroughly and rigorously contrived narratological object, unlike anything we experience in life. But what makes the writing most profoundly non-realist, to my mind, is that it’s also unlike anything we ever experience in the so-called realist novel. Joyce is rigorous and meticulous in his creation of an intensity of formal immanence wholly unique to his novel’s semiotic regime — even, amazingly, to each individual chapter’s semiotic regime — to an extent that makes the novel seem able to escape any aesthetic or generic pigeonholing we might try to inflict on it. The book’s formal mode is Joyce, its genre is Joyce…. When I use realism to describe a form of literary writing, I may be referring less to a novel’s attempts at mimesis than I am to a set of narratological conventions, which, over time, have become familiar to writers and readers of novels and therefore have gained a certain efficacy despite possessing little rigour or little if any contemporary applicability. It was so realistic, as a reader’s response to a novel, generally translates to, It conformed to the historical conventions of prose narrative so shrewdly.

You cite Woolf and say that the most extreme modernist formal experiments generally pursue mimesis — I would point to Woolf’s own The Waves as a powerful counterexample, a novel in which a narrative treatment of character and language and thought largely turns its back on mimetic representation for the sake of perspectival and linguistic and noological discovery and insight, a novel that, to my reading, more or less renders the whole realism – realer realism oneupmanship conversation moot. I would say the same of much of Beckett’s later writing. This is where I often finally land when thinking about mimesis in relation to narrative, a return to my desire for difference, for stranger configurations of language and form that would seem wholly out of place in that mimetic mode we commonly associate with the contemporary/19th-century realist novel.


DW: Right; I agree that the resurgence of familiar realist conventions in recent mainstream fiction is depressing. Sometimes, though, I simply want to soften this ‘realism/modernism’ distinction — at least insofar as the destruction of such conventions could itself constitute (and has at times been conceived as) an approach to the real, or a remodeling of it.

But you cut to the crux of what matters to me as a reader when you talk about form producing an intensity that seems ‘unique’ or singular to the work. Sontag once said that “in art, content is… the pretext, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation.” For me, this phrase could apply not only to ‘art,’ or fiction, but also to philosophy — where my comprehension of the propositional content seems almost secondary to the experiential, emotive, cathectic connection I might feel with the form.

That’s pretty much how I felt when reading From Old Notebooks. It’s also how I feel when reading, for instance, Lars Iyer’s books. The book presents an abundance of intellectual material that for me functions as a ‘lure'; it’s alluring (I’m thinking of your line about Markson: “porn for English majors”) yet the heart of my reading experience really isn’t quite there, it’s elsewhere: it’s more in the way the form frames and transforms that material, and maybe, then, it’s in the way that transformation transforms me. This is also the way I read, say, Deleuze or Adorno — less for the intellectual content of the text than for the transformative effect of its texture. Do you feel any affinity with what I’m fumbling towards here?

ELS: I do, yes. This is a bit different from what you’re describing, but I remember reading Derrida and becoming aware of the fact that I wasn’t really making any substantive leap from the words on the page to extra-textual referents, to anything out there in the world, and yet I was still very much desiring the continuation of the text, the extension of the text’s form in my mind. It seemed like I’d gained access to a secret or interior meaning, an alternate mode of reading and meaning – making in which the words accrued to refer to or establish some intra-textual formal intensity or truth. In Markson — in Reader’s Block, say — there’s always a point when the content begins to blur, when I’ve relaxed my vision of the novel’s surface in order to project my attention below or behind the language, to engage more viscerally with the novel’s form. Of conceptualism in general one might say that gestures of appropriation and repetition invite the reader to look past or beyond content and instead toward form and production.

Maybe it’s important to note that these experiences are different from, but perhaps related to, the experience of “spacing out” while reading. Right now I’m reading Tolstoy, and I find myself regularly spacing out, by which I mean I’ll be reading along and tracking the content when all of a sudden I’ll notice that I haven’t been tracking the content for the last paragraph or two, sometimes even the last page or two, that I’ve sort of fallen into a hole in my own mind, maybe thinking about what’s for dinner, when was the last time I had tilapia for dinner, imaginary etymologies for the word tilapia, for the word dinner, etc. I’m sure I space out while reading for a variety of reasons; what interests me about spacing out while reading in relation to the Derrida and Markson reading experiences, as described above, is the possibility of engaging in a kind of double activity while reading. During my most memorable, powerful reading experiences, I was doing one thing that led to another thing; I was engaging with the content of the book when for one or another reason I felt compelled to engage with it in a different, additional way, perhaps in a more visceral way or a more corporeal way, perhaps in a more “personal” way.

Maybe this is just a fancy way of reframing or intellectualising the reader’s familiar claim that she had ‘fallen’ or ‘escaped’ into something called “the world of the book.” I suppose the difference here, with respect to the Derrida and Markson reading experiences, is that the “world of the book” is more closely aligned with the book’s form — perhaps its ‘texture,’ as you call it — than with its immediate content, with Markson’s specific anecdotes or Derrida’s specific abstractions. When I fall into the world of a Markson novel, I’m not picturing myself in some dilapidated Brooklyn flat surrounded by thousands of note cards each containing a single death-related literary anecdote; instead, I’ve become less interested in the anecdotes themselves, more interested in the rhythms of their presentation and my reception of those rhythms, their syntactic rhythms, of course, but also those rhythms I associate simply with the application of my consciousness to the book, or with the speeds and shapes of my consciousness as revealed by the book — with the form of the book and with the book’s formal effects on me.

As a younger reader, I think I perceived a gap or disproportion between what I imagined to be my ‘comprehension’ — my focus on the writing’s immediate content — and my ‘desire’ — my yearning for experiences of formal intensity — as indicative of a shortcoming on my part, maybe of my impatience or my overambition as a reader. Now I would say that I actively seek out reading experiences in which I perceive rifts and doublings in my attention, and, as it sounds like you are, I’m especially interested in such a thing happening during my reading of philosophy. I tried to talk about it a bit in From Old Notebooks as a ‘sensation’ associated with reading that follows from certain rhythms established by the text — syntactic rhythms, structural rhythms, etc. I suppose there is something musical about reading a work of philosophy and allowing its ‘intellectual content’ to recede a bit so this more visceral experience of form can take hold — it does seem similar to the way I listen to certain types of music. When I think about my reading of Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus, for example, I certainly don’t first think about any specific brilliant insight associated with a certain proposition in the book; instead I think of something like the book’s aura, maybe the way its aura marked me as a reader.

If I do think more specifically about the book, I would likely think about specific movements of form: the book’s early insistence on logic and immanence giving way to later revelations of lyricism and transcendence; in short, I would think of the book’s beauty. It doesn’t seem to me that this is a way philosophers like to talk about philosophy; even self-described “meta-” philosophy or “anti-” philosophy focuses mostly on problems associated with philosophy’s “claims” or “subjects.” Philosophers sometimes seem to forget that they’re writing books, that they’re talking about books; they seem to want to pretend that they’re just talking about ideas. Of course, it may also be that I’m a bit more bibliocentric than the philosopher’s implied reader, that reader who would imagine the book as a mere container for ideas, as opposed to a means or machine for the production of ideas. I have a hard time imagining the possibility of a philosophy that hasn’t been shaped by pressures of aesthetic formalisation. Can philosophy exist beyond, or prior to, form? I can’t imagine what such a thing would look like. In From Old Notebooks, there are several cheeky references to the tunnel vision of philosophers with respect to this stuff, but the call for an aesthetics of philosophy was, I believe, made in earnest, for the very reason you describe: philosophy’s most powerful effects often reside in the more obscure formal recognitions made by the reader, not necessarily in the writing’s declarative, denotative philosophical propositions.

DW: Yes; in some respects, perhaps reconstructing those propositions in purely epistemic terms isn’t really ‘reading’ them at all, since real reading is rife with the imperfections of living. Readers err, ‘space out,’ skip and stall; as Barthes puts it, a reader’s attention imprints ‘abrasions’ upon the text. And relatedly, as you say, reading can involve intuition as much as tuition — an idea, once read, isn’t just an idea, but an associative node, as affective and aesthetic as it is intellectual.

So, in this kind of reading experience, it seems like writing’s form or style is the site of its intersection with life. It’s almost as if, through form, something living is folded into writing. Then, in our encounter with that form — our skewed, errant ‘reading’ of it — this implicit life is animated; vivified. Or rather, writer and reader each enter into a shared lifeworld, one that arises from within the formal ‘world of the book.’

Crucially though, the kind of ‘life’ constructed by a book isn’t reducible to the biographical lives that collide with it. For instance, the narrator of From Old Notebooks shares various autobiographical details with you, the author. but the book’s own subjectivity seems to exceed autobiography — am I right about that? I wonder whether you have any thoughts on the different ‘forms of life’ that might be produced in the process of writing and reading — in your work and elsewhere.

ELS: I think I tend to associate autobiography, even ‘content’ in general, primarily with the past, whereas I often think about style and form in relation to the future. Content has already happened, it already exists in a condition of being; form is always becoming, always in a condition of vergency. I like to imagine the possibility of a book’s content — be it autobiography, detective narrative, whatever — as little more than an occasion for style, for the evolution of style. Another way of saying that the book’s subjectivity ‘exceeds autobiography’ may be to say that the book is looking to style or form, rather than content, rather than ‘life’s events,’ for answers to those same questions regularly posed by autobiographical investigation, questions like Who am I? or Why am I here? I’ve tried to answer those questions in a less humanist, and hopefully in a more honest, way: I’m the author of the book. I’m here to discover the formal possibilities of the book, to write toward the book’s future.

I often feel as though I’m attempting to distill life into these little puzzles or puddles or piddles of language that bear a kind of isomorphic or formal resemblance to life’s conditions and forms. One of the things I most like as a reader is the feeling of being reminded of life while reading — not necessarily seeing or hearing familiar manifestations of life, maybe instead feeling structures and forms in language that resemble structure and form as I’ve come to know them through life. I think I probably first experienced a recognition along these lines while reading metafiction, maybe reading Coover when I was young and getting this eerie feeling that the book somehow contained another, hidden book inside it, a book that wasn’t quite available to my reading but was still somehow there, below the surface of the book at hand. There was the book and its structures, first, then there was something else within the book that reminded one of the book’s structures, that resembled those structures.

I feel this way in Borges all the time, and it remains the great pleasure of Borges for me, being reminded of structure, being reminded of structure-as-such. Of course I’m using ‘reminded’ in a way that I hope doesn’t suggest what I want as a reader is a depiction or a ‘picture’ of life that I already possess, life’s verisimilitude as minutely rendered by the novel somehow corresponding to my own memories, etc. Rather, what I desire most of all is the implication of life and the structures of life; I enjoy feeling an opaque, elliptical intensity about the relationship between the structures and forms in what I’m reading or writing and the structures and forms I’ve encountered in my so-called real life, in my biological life, my political life, my amorous life, etc. I suppose I want to be reminded, simply, mysteriously, that structure and form exist in the world. Why it is I desire this, I’m not exactly sure; it may be that seeing life estranged and reconfigured in language offers some hope that life as we know it through experience — mundane life, mere life — isn’t necessarily phenomenologically or definitionally limited to that experience; perhaps there are other paradigms of life and structure available for us to think and live. I often feel menaced by my perception of life’s final total vacuity and irrelevance; art can sometimes introduce the possibility of an alternate reading of life, or it can sometimes confirm my menacing reading of life in a hopeful way — maybe through humour, as it often does in Bernhard’s novels.

DW: For me, parts of Avatar read almost like a thought experiment about the destruction — or at least, the erosion — of everyday lived experience. Certainly, there’s a sense of an eroded consciousness — a consciousness which, over an almost inconceivable span of time, has undergone a complex process of experiential decay; a kind of cognitive heat death, perhaps. One aspect of the narrator’s condition is that the words with which he makes sense of his world have come uncoupled from their referents — apparently as a result of extreme repetition. ‘I had reached,’ he reflects, ‘my sixty-eight thousand nine hundred and sixty-eighth repetition of thinking of speaking the word pinecone.’ Well, we’re all familiar with this kind of thing on a far smaller scale (I just looked it up, and learned that it’s called ‘semantic satiation’). The way I read Avatar, it seemed as if something similar, albeit more exorbitant, had somehow set in across the full spectrum of the narrator’s experience.

I wondered whether I could ask you to talk more about the narrative consciousness of Avatar; about the motives and/or methods behind its construction. And I suppose the last thing I want to ask, too, would be about the remarkable treatment of the concept of ‘friendship’ over the course of that narrative — a concept which appears to start out in the ‘uncoupled’ state I tried to describe above, but finally finds itself, it seems, complicated and transformed.

ELS: I imagine the narrator possessing a kind of nostalgia for meaning, maybe for a world in which the relationship between language and experience is a bit less fraught. This is something I can identify with; I often desire a return to a condition I associate with adolescence, maybe with pre-adolescence, one in which the world’s meaning doesn’t seem quite so exhausted by language. At a certain point, around the age of twelve or so, language stopped illuminating the world’s mystery and instead began chipping away at it, secularising it; I wonder if the narrative condition of Avatar isn’t somehow related to the crisis of that transition. I’m sure a lot of the stuff in there about words becoming untethered from the things they’re supposed to reference has as much or more to do with the erosion of mystery as it does with that of consciousness. Also, as you say, there’s the absence of lived experience: I think it’s fairly clear that the narrative condition is one in which experience has become more or less exclusively mental, one in which the body and physical sensation have become somewhat detached from mental experience, as if the experience of physical sensation has become more or less prosthetic, or as if we’re limited to these very slight movements of fingers and eyeballs and hair follicles, etc.</>

But there is this one seemingly redemptive thing, as you mention, the possibility of friendship, the suggestion that mystery or salvation is still possible by way of the friend, that perhaps the engagement with a friend offers a kind of escape hatch from the dull horror of the narrator’s existence. Of course he’s forced to invent substitutes for friends — tears and strands of hair, etc. — as it is he’s alone with his own mind, no real friends available to him, etc. but nonetheless, the concept of the friend is redemptive. I myself have few friends — I’m afraid I don’t make a particularly good friend — but I still seem to take solace in the concept or the possibility of friendship, the silly thought that perhaps one day I’ll learn to be a good friend, or, better, that someone who doesn’t care how shitty a friend I am will come along and befriend me, save me, save my soul or something. I think that’s probably what Avatar’s narrator is holding out for, as well, redemption of some kind, perhaps by way of the friend — but of course that redemption isn’t really coming. The best the narrator can do, perhaps the best any of us can ever do, is invent some good imaginary terms for salvation.

[Full interview, from Issue One, January 2014]

David Winters writes literary criticism, and co-edits 3:AM Magazine. He has contributed to the TLS, the Guardian, the Independent, Radical Philosophy and elsewhere.

[Image: NMSU]