The Ecstasy or Anxiety of Influence: On Jonathan Lethem’s Recent Non-Fiction Collection


One would expect that literary voices, especially those who also write for magazines or newspapers like The Village Voice, The New Yorker, or The New York Times, are likely to have a unique and vital voice. Reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, I hear a voice that doesn’t pretend to be unique and, as for vitality, it is almost or rather occasionally excited.   And while Lethem’s Preface to his book suggests something vital in the book, it also suggests something less than exciting.   He sees this as a kind of honesty, but is it really a kind of self-conscious indifference or confusion about what he’s trying to do when he is autobiographical? Regardless, he is aware of a different kind of reader who doesn’t want to hear bravado and high linguistic performance so much as something more popular and…normal.   Since the average person doesn’t like to write, why should Lethem?   To be sure, this idea does affect his text. But it competes with the idea of a cultural critic being someone who is excited or “ecstatic” about this or that cultural phenomenon.

But in this book it’s really more about him that about culture. And he’s not so sure about what image he wants to project. He is very self-conscious about power and being accepted by people around him. He is anxious. In the preface, he tells us that he’s not so crazy about the connotations of power that go with his name. He is aware of it, but he doesn’t want to be deluded by the ecstasy that goes along with it:

The book in your hands wouldn’t be published if I offered it under my Believenik name, Harris Conklin. “Jonathan Lethem,” at least for this tiny blip in literary eternity, gets a cookie. I may seem, in places, herein, exasperated with how the power of the novelist in the twenty-first century is circumscribed, but I do grant that it does consist in power. Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep in circulation shows me was wrong. (The pretense-of-no-power is a symptom I want to examine, not exhibit.)

The brackets tell us that he doesn’t want such pretense. He just wants to deconstruct the power that comes along with literary fame and just be…one of us:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, or the manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window onto life”… We writers aren’t sculpting in DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice.

Writing well or expressing oneself – being a master of words – is not his goal. He sees his task as “making the giant octopus in my mind’s eye visible to yours…That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves – the permanent trouble of being alive. (xix)

Hence, his “self-consciousness” is based on the fact that he may fail to negotiate it amongst other people. In other words, he may be getting his audience wrong.   For this reason, near the end of his preface, he warns the reader to skip over much of what he has written since not all of it provides one with an acute sense of “the contemporary intellectual situation for fiction’s writers and readers” or with “kinds of public thinking and talking.”

He is worried that some of his written pieces may get in the way of his “negotiation” of selfhood. He even admits that he wrote some of them when he was annoyed or in a hurry to do other things. To be sure, he makes excuses to the very end. The anxiety and self-consciousness over possible failure are at the core of this work. One way for Lethem to allay his anxiety is to write about himself and his family in an indifferent way, in a way that is averse to power. This, he thinks, might be appealing. For this reason, he presents himself, in the first chapter, as an ordinary guy from an ordinary family; not as a child prodigy who is born to famous (or perfect) parents.

He is closer to failure and powerlessness than he is to power:

I came from dropping out; the only think I knew at the start was to quit before they could fire me.   My mother left college in favor of counterculture. In the legend of Judith Lethem it was a brilliant move with no regrets…My father…threw over a tenure-track gig for work as a cabinetmaker, and commercial Manhattan galleries for cooperative Brooklyn ones. You ran away to make a world. Vanished into a garret and emerged with pages Prometheanly aflame. Thumbed to San Francisco….Your parents are the first memo to come across at your desk, on a page so large you can’t see past it’s edges.

Lethem, like his parents, doesn’t work within the system. But the “system was invisible to me until it was too late. After all, didn’t every novelist work as a clerk in a bookstore until they published their first book?” Lethem’s next piece in the book is entitled “The Used Bookshop Stories.” In all of them, the voice is weary and indifferent. Its ecstasies at meeting interesting or famous people – by way of credit cards or accident – in this or that bookstore in New York or Berkeley are brief.   We can see his love for books in his used bookshop stories but the narration of this love is…almost ecstatic.

The end of the story is about him turning the lights out at a Berkeley bookstore and turning a Dylan song on in order to spur a homeless man to leave the bookstore instead of being locked in. The words of the song bespeak his attitude; namely, that he, like the homeless man, is a man on the run who, like everyone else, better grab whatever little ecstasy he can get before he dies. But, as we have seen, he has to leave things behind and not get caught up in the system. This is the voice that speaks to him in Dylan’s song:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.  But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

What Lethem knows is that Dylan’s song speaks to many people and can help him to gain popular support. He turns to it not simply out of practical necessity but out of anxiety rather than an “ecstasy of influence.”   He doesn’t want to be taken into the system as Vonnegut did but he also knows, like Vonnegut did, that this is inevitable. Nonetheless, his only way of creating a margin is, strangely enough,by being less than ecstatic and by…as we saw in the preface…by making excused. His humility, so to speak, which he sees as inherited by his family, is based on his fear of becoming liked to much and too popular. But…he already is. Otherwise, why would Vintage publish him?

Perhaps, if one is a known writer, it’s better to be publicly anxious about one’s identity. That way, perhaps, he can counter one of America’s greatest addictions: the ecstasy of influence….fame.   But unlike Harold Bloom, who sees America’s greatest writers as having an “anxiety of influence” that is based on a desire for power and individuation, Lethem seems to be rubbing up against the American grain.

Reflections on “My Schlemiel Universe”

bar mitzvah 2

Last year, Chad Derrick and I screened the film Shlemiel at the Le Mood festival of Jewish Art, Culture, and Learning in Montreal.  I was blown away by the festival.  I had never seen such a gathering of wonderful cutting edge Jewish artists and art lovers as at this event.  It took place on one day with several concurrent sessions each hour which stretched from 11am until 8pm.  At night there was Jewish-themed entertainment and comedy.  Underpinning all of this was the warmth of the Montreal Jewish community, which I feel is without parallel in North America.

When we screened our film, I was amazed by the reception and the feedback.  People were genuinely excited to see it. They thought I was courageous to allow the ups and downs of my Jewish life to be displayed on the screen.   Many of them understood my struggle with Jewish identity and how that was related to my complicated past with a father who was psychotic.

This year I wanted to build on what I did last time; but instead of telling the story from the filmmaker’s perspective, I wanted to tell it from mine.  To this end, I gave a talk entitled “My Schlemiel Universe: From Woody Allen to Sarah Silverman to Me.”  The talk started off with the most basic question: What is a schlemiel?  Responding this question, I provided a number of different perspectives from Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman, and Ruth Wisse.  Then I gave my own reading of the schlemiel which moves from “fictional” schlemiels to “living” schlemiels.

Ruth Wisse argues that the shlimazel is a character whose comedy is “situational” while the schlemiel’s comedy is “existential.”  Bad things happen to the shlimazel by way of this or that odd circumstance or situation.  Nothing in his/her “nature” would warrant such bad luck.  In contrast the schlemiel creates bad luck by virtue of his very existence.

In my talk, I looked to show how I played both a shlimazel and a schlemiel by virtue of the odd situations I was thrown into, on the one hand, and an odd Jewish-American existence in upstate New York,on the other.  The point of my talk was to provide an autobiographical account of my own schlemielkeit.

Philip Roth has Portnoy do this with his analyst in Portnoy’s Complaint.  But Roth doesn’t do this with his own life.  This would be too dangerous.  Rather, as Sanford Pinsker points out, his novels show a progression away from this character and “existence.”  Roth, in other words, wanted to pave his way out of schlemieldom.  And this is something many post-Holocaust writes wanted.  However, writers like Saul Bellow, Howard Jacobson, Steve Stern, and Gary Shteyngart don’t.   They are interested in looking at the schlemiel’s existential and historical plight.  And in doing so, they are able to articulate the plight of being in-between being Jewish and American, being Jewish and English, or Jewish and Russian.  This existence prompts stories that are fraught with a kind of humor that is “haunted” by strife and anxiety.

But, unlike some schlemiel writers and many a Jewish cultural critic from the 20th century, I, like these writers, feel the subject is worthy of discussion.  And it is worthy of being rethought in terms of the traumas that still afflict us today.  In terms of my own life, I can look to the schlemiel as a way of understanding how, as a child and as an adult, I have grappled with living in-between being an American and a Jew as well as being in-between being like all the other kids in my town and being the son of a brilliant, psychotic father.    And this is only scratching the surface.

That said, I think the schlemiel lives on; but not just in fiction.  Moreover, the “existential” part of the schlemiel is not something that is restricted to fiction.  No, on the contrary, it is something that is alive and well – even today, after the founding of Israel and even post-assimilation.  Unfortunately, not many of us know what this means.  My point: if we did, many of us could engage in a reflection on the comic-existential dimensions of our own lives.

Why, after all, do we have to turn to Woody Allen, Seth Rogen, or Larry David, when we can simply look in the mirror?  What we will find is that we play, so to speak, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote at the same time.  Sancho Panza, as the story goes, followed around a fool named Don Quixote.  But he wasn’t a fool.  We was a rationalist and a skeptic. But that’s the trick.  We live through that relationship in terms of how we reflect on ourselves.

Although some would scoff at the suggestion, because they are so “rational” and “normal” and “adjusted,” this suggestion is something that the best writers and artists in the field of Jewish-American literature, poetry, and film have – in my view – done.  But they have done this with fiction.

How would this look in reality?  And would it lead to what Freud would call the “interminable analysis?

I thank Le Mood Montreal for allowing me to share my interminable-schlemiel-self-analysis and explore these questions (of this – wink, wink – Jewish-American schlemiel).  Thank you for allowing me to educate the next generation of schlemiels.