Twenty-eight years ago, at the University of Wisconsin, I took an introductory course in philosophy. Asked to write about epistemology (as espoused by Descartes, I think, or maybe Bishop Berkeley), I turned to the only philosophers I really trusted: the Velvet Underground. My textual support went something like this: “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son / And I guess that I just don’t know / And I guess that I just don’t know.” My professor told me that the paper was well written but perhaps poorly argued.
Now it’s nearly three decades later, and I’m teaching Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son for the umpteenth time. I’m stopped, as I always am, by the last sentence in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the collection’s opening story: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” (I’m tempted to type up the sentence and tack it to my office door, making it the first thing students see when they drop by during office hours.) It’s a bracing, and maybe even nihilistic, line. My romance with not knowing (and its dangerous companion, not caring) continues.
A few weeks ago I taught Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in my 20th Century American Comic Fiction course. Vonnegut’s protagonist (“Call me Jonah,” he tells us—though we may also call him the author’s stand-in) describes being saved from nihilism by the insane poet Sherman Krebbs. The self-styled National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War proceeds to destroy our narrator’s apartment and kill his cat. (“There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, ‘Meow.’”) Vonnegut concludes his short chapter as follows:
Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebbs’s mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy. Well done, Mr. Krebbs, well done.
I guess I’m no nihilist, either, as I spent part of this week in an estate planning class, learning a new language (springable power of attorney, living will, successor trustee) and thinking about legacies, about the fact that things do matter and do continue, and that we have an obligation to this world and to the people we brought into it, even after we’re gone. Which brings me to another book on my Comic Fiction syllabus, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s novel is also about legacies, about what we stand to inherit; and though the author’s vision is deeply satiric, it’s not nihilistic. In Pynchon’s world, you might say, everything matters too much: everything’s connected, everything’s freighted with the past. So we try to out-imagine, and outwait, the dangers (of homogeneity, definitely; of murderous mail couriers, possibly) that surround us:
The waiting above all; if not for another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or a cry, then at least, at the very least, waiting for a symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew. [Oedipa] had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles left and right, ahead, thick, maybe endless.
A few days ago, in the Times, Edward Rothstein reviewed the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, housed in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. At the close of his review, Rothstein imagines the end of stamps, followed quickly by the end of paper money. “And then,” he writes, “the once weighty signs of the publicly ordered world of commerce and communication will be replaced by invisible streams of silent electrons.” It’s a vision, for better and worse, straight out of Pynchon.*
Let’s return, briefly, to Denis Johnson. Jesus’ Son, for all its feinting toward the tragic, is an ultimately comic (meaning: life-affirming) work. Johnson’s characters are only ridiculous at a distance; up close, they matter. Sure, the whole pageant may dissolve to a stream, may be reduced to ones and zeroes. The stars may blink out. The world may end. But before that happens, this happens: “All these weirdos,” the narrator concludes, “and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
* An odd and lovely coincidence: Pablo also wrote this week about commerce and communication. He even summoned Pynchon’s Tristero! Connections, all around us.