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Points of Attack

By Mark de Silva.


The following three essays are drawn from Points of Attack, which is out today, 1 December, from Clash Books.


Animal Liberation

Domestic breeds holding dominion over their lives—the thought cannot be denied a certain ethical appeal, however quixotic. Zoological gardens make the point well. They advantage the animals they house in vital respects, insulating them from threats they would face in the wild—disease, predation, starvation—just as we shelter our pets and farm animals from these dangers at home. Why is it, then, in making our way through even the most idyllic of zoos, we cannot shed the feeling that nothing genuinely belongs here, that the noblest garden can only be an empty one?

Are things actually any different with human being? Anyone knows that to founder neglected and unknown trumps flourishing merely by courtesy of another. Yet to be the one extending this courtesy, settling other beings into that amicable state of dependency we ourselves, if we have even a hint of dignity, smartly decline, gives the most peculiar satisfaction. Even when this authority is not so much as acknowledged, it exalts our relations with everything we have managed to tame; in a secular world, it might be one of the few enchantments left, making it easier to connive at its unseemly origins.

Could we wean ourselves from these paternal pleasures? Are we decent enough to want to? An obstacle remains in any case: domesticated creatures aren’t much suited for life without our stewardship. Self-sufficiency is precisely what they have lost in the bargain. All the same, might it be best, however ugly we may find it, to let those creatures we have bred into helplessness fade from the Earth instead of indefinitely extending their dependency, keeping them confined in a kind of permanent childhood?When the two come apart, surely aesthetics must come second to ethics.

Would these species really vanish without our kindness? Or is our aegis less critical than we’d like to think, and nature more resourceful? Sterilization or conscientious observation could make the present generation of kept animals the last, while strays might be left to their own devices, as they are in many parts of the world—at least until their numbers become a trouble, at which point animal control might be selectively deployed. Many individual animals will perish in the streets, of course, but then most of them would otherwise simply have been executed at the local pound, hardly a grander fate.

Are there many domestic breeds, though, that with a bit of luck and opportunity would not reclaim their wildness in time, even if their numbers shrunk? Feral cats, packs of stray dogs, fugitive snakes—one finds these and many others in cities worldwide, proof that fauna may survive under the least organic of conditions. Of course, feral animals garner neither affection nor admiration from us, as pets and wild creatures do; yet through centuries of breeding, we are their true authors. Perhaps that is why their rediscovered autonomy affronts us. They didn’t need us as much as we thought; the enchantment was empty.


Perennial Art

Art that seeks, in Goethe’s phrase, the “characteristic” of the era, tends to be valued, in later epochs, more for the historical insight it provides than for the aesthetic experience it affords. Goethe’s own novels, important as they are in understanding the history of the medium, as well as late eighteenth-century Europe, do not retain the verve of Tristram Shandy, Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Don Quixote, works which only incidentally deal in the representative or characteristic. Goethe may only have been following Aristotle, who suggested that poetry is nobler than history precisely for privileging the typical over the contingent. Yet an artwork’s vitality, particularly for future generations, may have far more to do with properties like ambiguity, richness, and even outright contradiction than with cogent summations of a historical moment. It is why nineteenth-century novelists who emphasized the latter—Balzac and
Zola—are more often cited than read today, whereas the works of the more enigmatic Melville and Conrad retain their original luster. Consider, too, the case of Goncharov, whose first novel signaled his intentions plainly through its title, A Common Story, and who is now much less read than his contemporary Dostoevsky, whose books, while remaining emblematic of Russian consciousness, tackle weightier matters: freedom, God, evil, and the rest. More recently, the fate of many an American social novelist has followed the same pattern. Why are we no longer entranced by Dreiser or Anderson, Dos Passos or Wilder, each of whom aimed to give an account of the essence of country, the spirit of the age? What, too, of later writers operating in a similar vein, whether Mailer or Vidal or Wolfe?

It feels inevitable that the first significant twenty-first century addition to this list will be Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections, a fine précis of its moment, already feels as though it has lost some gravitas, while Freedom and Purity both felt dated upon their release.

John Updike also aspired to chronicle suburban America in broad strokes. News value put him, like Franzen, on the cover of Time. But interest in Updike’s work today is already more aesthetic than informational. Style, concept, and vision are what survive in art, not the well-articulated facts of the moment. Updike had at least a version of the first: an effortless capacity for painterly description. It is this, and not his chronicle of post-war America, that keeps our attention, though I suspect his style is too conceptually banal to keep it for much longer. He is already on his way out.

Franzen has even bigger worries, being overmatched by Updike as a stylist. In his Paris Review interview, Franzen dismisses style, praising transparent language. Quiet prose isn’t the problem, though: the radically expansive realism of War and Peace—which contains whole essays on the philosophy of history—is put across entirely in it. It is only because the substance of Franzen’s project is so much humbler than Tolstoy’s that stolid language rates as a liability.

The reaction to much of Franzen’s recent journalism for the New Yorker is instructive. His long features on both bird conservation and the two-degree global warming target have both been roundly derided as shrill, misinformed, and dogmatic. His fiction is less marred by righteous indignation, but not by much, at least since The Corrections. That book inaugurated Franzen’s Dreiser period. And if literature is the news that stays news, as the old saw goes, this work isn’t quite it.

There remains Franzen’s early period, which yielded two heady novels at some remove from the social chronicles that followed. Though The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion are now hardly discussed, there are reasons to think they will become his most enduring contributions to literature.

One wonders, too, which of the novels of the decade just past will soon be regarded as period pieces. The fashion during this stretch for diary fiction—true journalism, if ever there were—suggests that the most widely discussed works of the 2010s will have more than a little trouble sticking in the mind.


Sports’ Import

Professional sports demonstrate how a grown man running with a ball—or throwing, catching, or striking one—can be taken for a lodestar. Often in postgame press conferences or on-field interviews, the athlete, or even his coach, shows himself a bromidic savant, weaving tautologies and non sequiturs together. He knows not what he speaks, but speaks it confidently all the same. After all, his job isn’t to digest this word salad—“let the big dog eat,” “that’s why we play the games,” and, immortally, “they are who we thought they were”—only to offer it to reporters and fans with a taste for it.

Journalists bear equal responsibility for this ritualized postgame gibberish, a secular speaking in tongues. What else can players be expected to offer, half a minute or half an hour after the game, with their knees wrapped in ice, to queries like “What did it take to win this game?” A question this ill-formed is almost defiant in its triviality, daring the athlete to say something even more pointless. A classic reply? “Execution.” Meaning the execution of the team’s game plan. Meaning we won by doing what we planned on doing. Meaning we won because we won.

Still, isn’t the familiar hollowness of this answer just the coda to the sporting drama we require? Once in a while, an athlete comes along with something substantive to say—real strategic insights, frank locker-room truths, or perspective-shifting gems about extra-athletic reality. Yet on the heels of a game, such intelligence is almost unwelcome, demanding more attention than our pleasant state of exhaustion allows. What we relish after three hours cheering on men regressing ever further into childhood is more pretense, more play: words that are not words, like the inflected mumblings heard through a common wall.

Even momentary contemplation shows that sports speak, properly done, can only ever be a nullity. The appeal this negation holds for the millions of people who’ve found white-collar success is curious and undeniable: if only I, too, could have run with a ball right into adulthood (if not all the way to the grave), I would gladly have given my wits away. I have heard even distinguished academics confess that they would have tossed all their books from the window for one chance to call Old Trafford or Fenway Park home. There is no one who dreams of deserting the mind for the innocent perfections of the body so acutely as the intellectual.


Mark de Silva is author of the novel Square Wave and fiction editor of 3:AM Magazine. His new novel, The Logos, will be released in 2021 in the US and UK.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 1st, 2020.