The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. AUTOBIO from "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" to be published by Knopf in January 2010 by David Shields  


As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape that, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal. This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.



I wrote a story once, about a man who began a very large picture, and therein was a kind of map—for example, hills, horses, streams, fishes, and woods and towers and men and all sorts of things. When the day of his death came, he found he had been making a picture of himself. That is the case with most writers.


In, for example, V.S. Naipaul’s A Way in the World, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Hilton Als’s The Women, each chapter, when considered singly, is relatively straightforwardly biographical, but when read as a whole, refracts brilliant, harsh light back upon the author.


In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it. The real question is: this massive autobiographical writing-enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction—does it yield only fictions? Or rather, among the fictions of the self, the versions of the self, that it yields, are there any that are truer than others? How do I know when I have the truth about myself?


We don’t see the world. We make it up.


The world is my idea.


The final orbit is oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?


What personal essayists, as opposed to novelists or faux-naïf memoirists, do: keep looking at their own lives from different angles, keep trying to find new metaphors for the self and the self’s soul mates. The only serious journey, to me, is deeper into the self. We’re all guaranteed, of course, never to fully know ourselves, which fails, somehow, to mitigate the urgency of the journey. To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.


You keep excavating yourself. You want/don’t want this self-knowledge. Tough fucking task.


Every documentary film, even—especially—the least self-referential, demonstrates in its every frame that an artist’s chief material is himself.


What does it mean to write about yourself? To what degree is this a solipsistic enterprise? To what degree are we all solipsists? To what degree can solipsism gain access to the world?


Speaking about oneself is not necessarily offensive. A modest, truthful man speaks better about himself than about anything else, and on that subject his speech is likely to be most profitable to his hearers. If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home. It is this egotism, this perpetual reference to self, in which the charm of the essayist resides. If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well.


Mad genius? Narcissistic artist? An entertainer who can’t resist throwing in the kitchen sink? Viewers will make up their own definition for Nedžad Begovicz, the director and central character of the aptly titled Totally Personal, which has much to say about what it’s like to like in Sarajevo, as seen through the quizzical eyes of his narrator-protagonist. Starting with his birth in 1958, Begovicz fills us in on what it was like to have the first TV on the block, to take loyalty oaths to Yugoslavian leader Tito and the Motherland, to get married to Amina, and to decide to make a no-budget film with a digital camera. All this and much, much more is narrated with self-deprecating humor in wonderfully accented English. The filmmaker’s precarious means, far from being a handicap to his storytelling, seems to inspire him to ever greater heights of imagination. He introduces whimsical theories about body parts and why the Serbian Chetniks started a war in Bosnia and what the U.N. forces were really doing during said war (answer: counting the number of shells fired). The film’s financial and technical limitations finally converge with the serious shortages that Bosnians experienced during the war—including no water, bread, electricity, or gasoline. Bosnians’ innate creativity, Begovicz seems to say, has seen them through under all circumstances, just as his own imagination has created what he modestly calls his own little masterpiece. Totally Personal. Nedžad Begovicz. Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2004. 79 minutes. Color and B&W. In Bosnian with English subtitles. World premiere.


There is properly no history, only biography.


All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.


I place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. In the chamber is a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will break the vial and kill the cat. I can’t know whether an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, can’t know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since I can’t know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. Only when I break open the box and learn the condition of the cat is this superposition lost and the cat dead or alive. The observation or measurement itself affects the outcome; it can never be known what the outcome would have been were it not observed. . . . The writers I love tend to have Schrödinger’s Paradox tattooed on their forehead: the perceiver by his very presence changes what’s perceived. A work without some element of self-reflexivity feels to me falsely monumental.


The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.


In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner explains that “the morality of art is far less a matter of doctrine than of process.” He’s careful to distinguish between didactic art, which teaches by “authority and force,” and moral art, which “explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. The artist who begins with a doctrine to promulgate, instead of a rabble multitude of ideas and emotions, is beaten before he starts.” He cautions that “the subversion of art to the purposes of propaganda leads inevitably to one or the other of the two common mistakes in bad art: overemphasis of texture on the one hand, and manipulative structure on the other.” In Vlemk the Box-Painter, Gardner’s first novel following his critical call-to-arms, he doesn’t overemphasize texture—the fable-like quality of the book makes for a very simple prose—but he does manipulate structure. Vlemk the Box Painter is an illustration of a thesis, a step-by-step argument for the aesthetic program presented in On Moral Fiction. Gardner clearly conceived Vlemk as the dramatization of a doctrine. He didn’t discover his material in the process of creation; he began with a theory. Vlemk is a didactic rather than moral work of art, and Gardner’s aesthetic would appear to be suspect if it can’t accommodate his own fiction. . . . This was the first thing I ever published. Its line of argument still seems to me essentially correct—John Gardner’s philosophy of fiction is impossibly programmatic—but that seems pretty obvious, and all I care about now is its secret subtext: on the surface a quite standard book review, it’s really my attempt to put as much ground as I could between myself and my parents’ engagé moralism. Growing up in a Bay Area suburb in the 1960s and ’70s, I was instructed by my mother and father to write denunciatory editorials about the (only very mildly) dictatorial high school principal; I was dragged into the city for antiwar marches what seems in memory every third weekend. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag says that the two primary, opposing artistic stances of the twentieth century are—were—Jewish moralism and homosexual aestheticism. I see my first published piece as a desperate effort to free myself from Jewish moralism; the effort shows. In college, my (Jewish) creative writing teacher—David Milch, who went on to co-write the television shows Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood—told me my work suffered from the malaise of my (his) “race”: a preoccupation with “narrowly moral” rather than “universally human” concerns. I was, as he hoped I’d be, near-suicidal for the remainder of the term.


For Coetzee, all criticism, including his own, is autobiographical.


Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we’re in need of at the time we’re reading.


Every man’s work—whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else—is always a portrait of himself.


Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography.