November 2013

Lightsey Darst


Looking for Disappointment

A bookstore is a place to imagine books. In the bookstore I notice whatís not there as much as what is; I pick up one book and think about what I wish it were instead. By browsing I learn what hasnít been written yet. Between the scholarly study on eroticism in Western art and Camille Paglia is ample space for stories of the sexual misadventures of artists, the erogenous zones of egg tempera, people whoíve fallen in love with statues and sculptures, with the curved haunch of an Angkor lion, for example. If no one has yet fallen in love with a lion this way, then the gap in the bookstore also points to a gap in life, to book-worthy exploits yet to be dared that are nothing like those one-year experiments that fill the remainder bin, but that concern long-term obsession, the cold quest for truth, or a more vivid life of the body.


Lately most of my reading is of the sort above -- daydreaming, skimming, running my fingers over the shelves. I pick up books I own that I know disappoint me: poems in decent style that dissolve in triviality, serious books that mistake solving for x as the way of the universe. I read books that read fast. I read Ghosts by Cťsar Aira. I read a silly thriller in two days. Both have disappointing endings, endings born of a failure to imagine more complex lives for women, but the hunt, flicking page after page in search of what happens, that sticks with me after the disappointment.

Disappoint is a strange word, I think as I see how often Iíve written it above. To disappoint means just what it seems to, etymologically: not to appoint or to deprive of an appointment (from Old French). I imagine a person who has not, contrary to expectation, become postmaster of Reims. He sits at dinner with his family, glumly; they eat more turnips than meat. And there are so many families sitting down to this sad dinner, contemplating their position at the ragged edge of the middle class, that this word disappoint spreads out. When your mistress isnít at the hotel for the four oíclock assignation, she disappoints you. The great artistís long-expected canvas does not do what everyone hoped it would; itís disappointing. You are not who you thought you might be if only others had delivered on their promises.

Being disappointed might be an addiction. Others do this to you; youíre blameless. On the other hand, I donít find my search for disappointment completely craven. On the contrary: perhaps, if I am put out of place enough, I will find myself in a new place. If I keep falling between positions, maybe I will figure out what Aira could have done with his alert young woman besides throw herself off the unfinished building that throngs with naked, mischievous ghosts.


My restlessness has a reason: Iím teaching American literature. I canít abandon Emerson, so I abandon everything else. The irony is that Iíve been avoiding American literature for years, ever since my mother read me a little too much of it when I was a kid -- Hawthorne, Cooper, Alcott, Irving, Melville, more Hawthorne -- and I decided that all American literature was grimy and effortful, all about making a mountain of a molehill, and not a mountain youíd really want to climb, but one you could mine for coal until you made the whole world grimy too. You canít abandon yourself with early American writers, you canít let go and float; instead you have to sit bolt upright, clutching your principles in your hand, like a Puritan at meeting. This is all true -- yet now that Iím doing it, I find reading American lit is like arguing with your father: you can put it off as long as you like, but youíll have to do it eventually.

So I argue with Emerson. I scowl at Irving. I fuss with Bradstreet, and I mock Cotton Mather (he isnít paying attention). When anyone asks me how I am, I bring up Olaudah Equiano, wondering who he might have been (if he wasnít who he says he is, which many scholars now believe he was not). Iíd like not to; Iíd like to shrug at the underlying sexism of Walden. Aira would; the ending of Ghosts amounts to a shrug. But Iím an American. I canít help myself: I need to know where I stand.


News from home. A phone call that you miss, for example, and then a message you listen to standing in the dingy entryway of the bookstore, looking out the spider-webbed sidelights at a plain white sky.