Jeffrey T. Lawrence. Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Withman to Bolaño. Oxford University Press, 2018.
[Editor’s note: This text was presented at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, on March 2018]
There is a moment in Jeff Lawrence’s book Anxieties of Experience in which Hemingway, maximum exponent of the figure of the “experienced writer”, exposes in a letter to Ezra Pound his first steps in the art of bullfighting. Interestingly, Hemingway offers a series of numbers to account for this experience: “I appeared in the bull ring on 5 different mornings –was cogida 3 times- accomplished 4 veronicas in good form and 1 natural with the muleta” (133). As Lawrence says, Hemingway is doing this in order to gain his right to write about bullfighting, because, of course, he believes that you have to experience first what you write about.
But why the numbers? One could ask: how much is enough? How many times does Hemingway have to be hurt by the bulls in order to be a legitimate bullfighting writer? Should he even kill some bulls himself? How many?
In the paradigm of experience, enumerations abound. Famously, in Whitman. Lawrence quotes Dos Passos saying about the novelist that he seeks to “register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer all the wantads, take up the jobs, live in the boardinghouse, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough” (129).
Many pages and years later, when discussing the novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2010), Lawrence encounters a particularly problematic version of this thirst for always more experience. Some friends of the main character made a trip to Mexico to “acquire experience” and witnessed the accidental death of a young Mexican girl. “Jane, an aspiring writer, ‘seemed excited’ by the tragedy because it certified that she ‘had had a real experience’” (77).
How many experiences are necessary for a life to be worth of narration? How many people or animals have to get hurt or die for a life to be worth?
And then, is it that different in the paradigm of the writer-reader? Why this voracity of the voracious reader? How many books are enough to demonstrate that life is never that interesting? Borges is not satisfied with pointing out that Whitman didn’t really experience everything he wrote; as Lawrence explains, he needs to falsely pretend that Whitman never had any experience worth writing about. Adam, the main character of Leaving the Atocha Station “hates new experience”, and doesn’t bother learning Spanish language or about Spanish culture when he travels to Spain. In parallel, Ben Lerner, the author of this novel, fails to “deliver on its implicit promise to give us some insight into the Atocha bombings themselves” (Lawrence, 231). In this, he reminds us of the Kenneth Goldsmith who choses to put Salvador Allende’s last words in his mouth in a performance, while at the same time unapologetically displaying his ignorance of Spanish language and Latin American culture. They seem to be reading the lives (and deaths) of others almost as a way of showing that is not even possible to try to approach their experiences. In Valeria Luiselli’s Los ingrávidos the narrator reads everything, but avoids making of this reading an experience, because she could then be assimilated with the fashionable market phenomenon of Bolaño.
So, on the one hand we have a necessity for always more experience -and more “real”-, and on the other hand we have skepticism towards the possibility of any experience being valuable, being worth living or even being worth trying to understand. Are these not too sides of the same coin?
I will now go ahead and add the type of categorical statement that doesn’t have any place in Jeff Lawrence’s nuanced and rigorous book: I believe that what causes the anxieties of experience that the book describes is the profound contempt of life at the core of Western civilization. For a life to be of value, in the modern version of this paradigm, it has to enrich itself with experiences (before modernity the achievement of value was through religious virtue). Life is thus the work of transforming life into something worth, through the consumption of experiences. Life in modern Western capitalist and colonial patriarchy is work and consumption. But the paradox is that, since the point of departure is a profound nihilism, a profound contempt for life in its materiality and vulnerability, no experience -or reading of experience- will ever be enough to give value to life, for this type of subjectivity.
This way of life, our freedom to choose what we want in the supermarket of experiences and narrations in order to always insufficiently attempt to give value to our lives, is our prison, our Prisión perpetua. Hence the anxieties. In the extreme neoliberal version of this, everything is instrumentalized, and life becomes constant calculation and competition.
But there are ways of escaping this prison. Literature, sometimes, can be a way of changing our way of inhabiting language and the world. It breaks the slavery of work and consumption, it breaks with nihilism, and it happily recreates life in playful, creative ways. Yes, I think it’s that simple. And literature can do this both from the paradigm of the writer-experiencer and from that of the writer-reader, as well as from the synthesis of both. That is why these paradigms are ambiguous, as Lawrence shows beautifully.
Hemingway can often appear to be the grossest epitome of the colonizing existential tourist macho. But at other times, his monotonous insistence on experiencing things first hand, can be a deterrent to other, worse, illusions –as when against Dos Passos’ dismissal of the Spanish Republic for being “communist”, he simply insists that “the thing is that you don’t find out the truth in ten days or three weeks and this hasn’t been a communist run war for a long time” (152). Borges, on the other hand, exaggerates his dismissal of lived experience, stays in his comfortable skepticism, and tends to close the doors of the library, but at the same time, by putting so much faith in our ability to read, he unleashes an immense capacity of resistance against the powers of normalization and codification that want to monopolize reality.
The defense of experience can sometimes bring the patience and openness that makes the world appear in its immanent abundance. The defense of reading can be sometimes a desire of resisting authoritarian control over that abundance.
Jeff Lawrence ends his book with a reflection on the politicization of some writers in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 and the rebellions of 2011. If these politicizations, or the ones we encounter in the literature of Bolaño, or in that of our beloved Piglia, become so many other experiences ready for consumption, we are doomed, I think.
There is no politicization just by choosing political themes or motives. Politicization today can only mean transforming our way of life, getting rid of our deep nihilism and our existential consumerism. How do we do this? No idea. But I know that Jeff Lawrence’s Anxieties of Experience beautifully fuels the desire for another way of experiencing and reading, for another way of inhabiting the world.
Thanks, Jeff, for this.
Luis Moreno-Caballud (Spain) is the author of the novel Temblor de un día and the study Cultures of anyone: Studies on Cultural Democratization in the Spanish Neoliberal Crisis (UK: Liverpool, 2015) recently published in Spanish as Culturas de cualquiera: Estudios sobre democratización cultural en la crisis del neoliberalismo español (España: Acuarela, 2017). He lives in NYC and is an associate professor of Romance Languages at UPenn. Para El Roommate ha reseñado a César Rendueles, Amador Fernández Savater, a Ricardo Piglia y a Silvia Nanclares