April 11, 2005

Lydia Davis is a 2003 MacCarthur Fellow, is the author of the novel The End of the Story and three volumes of short fiction, the latest of which is Samuel Johnson is Indignant. She is also the translator of numerous works by Maurice Blanchot, Michael Leiris, Piere Jean Jouve, and many others and was recently named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.


In an interview with Christopher Knight for the journal, Contemporary Literature, Lydia Davis offers up for discussion a question she evidently has been asking herself for some time: "Why," she reflects, "is it more valuable to experience a real thing, rather than to imagine experiencing it?" She answers it this way: "Now I know we assume there is a value to experiencing the thing in its actuality, but I’m trying to find out why there is a difference. An example would be visiting the Grand Canyon. You’ve seen enough films, or read enough about it, to say that you could take yourself through all the steps of visiting the Grand Canyon. You could walk up to the edge of it, you could see the earth under your feet, if you know the terrain, you could imagine the smell of it, you could look down, you could imagine the colors and so on. So why do you actually have to go to the Grand Canyon? …That question I haven’t yet answered…."

Now lest it seem that I’m merely musing on Lydia Davis’ speculations about the Grand Canyon because in Buffalo we’re finally beginning to see the first inklings of spring (and can now imagine our summer vacations), let me quickly note that it is precisely this kind of deliberation in Lydia Davis’ fictions—not just about the object of one’s gaze and the words we use to describe it, but just as significantly, the effects this relationship imposes on us all as users of language—that fundamentally characterizes the shape of her work. It’s not too much to say that each of Davis’ often nameless characters struggle with language and what it means to put oneself into language. Each word she chooses seems to arrive entirely self aware of the ripples it makes, not unlike a stone tossed into a pond whose wake swells then begins to ebb, though under the placid water, the stone’s density continues to shape the way the waves lick the shore. For Davis, in other words, language is not an insulating force. On the contrary, each word creates sometimes unforeseen, sometimes fortuitous, connections. And so her characters choose their spots slowly, precisely. They approach, stalk, and corral each idea, each word, since the perceptions that arise from articulation may be all, in the end, that we have.

As you can imagine the result is often as humorous as it is serious since her characters are often aware of this problem and the paradoxes, the contradictions, that arise from a mind at work thinking about what it means to be a mind at work. One of Davis’ narrators puts it this way:

"If I’m confused about all this, it may be because of my underactive thyroid. Slow thinking is one symptom of an underactive thyroid, but I can’t tell if I’m thinking more slowly than I used to. Since my brain is the only thing I have for observing how I am thinking, I can’t be truly objective. If it is too slow, it will not necessarily know that it’s slow, since it will be moving at a rate that seems appropriate to it…When my doctor was explaining my condition to me, I took notes. I had to stop her once or twice to ask her to repeat something so that I could write it down. I told her it helped me to remember. She said I would not have to take notes if my thyroid were more active. That made me a little angry…" (78)

Every language, Davis might say, is a kind of foreign language—a tongue which appears to be familiar but which in the end can only approximate the ideas it communicates incompletely. As Edith Jarolim writes, Davis’ characters "are not only out of sync with the contemporary world, but are estranged from their own language. [They] sound at times like intelligent foreigners who have learned to speak correctly but have not entirely mastered colloquialism."

I might add to this that Davis’ characters fail to find comfort in language. They wear it and sport it like sack cloth: aware of its edges, its torn hems, inasmuch as the seams they have elegantly sewn together themselves.

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