Jean Baudrillard has died in Paris at age 79. I went off to the University of Utah with a running start on Place Last Seen, a novel in which I wanted to explore, among other things, what happens when we come up against the undeniable reality of the physical world. What I encountered there was a department enamored of the (genuinely interesting) ideas of Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida et al, ideas which in Baudrillard’s case included the argument that reality has disappeared altogether, leaving us with only simulation and hyperreality. While I never did buy into the essentialist cast of these arguments, I did find these ideas useful (especially Baudrillard’s writing on maps, which are a core image in PLS). I was writing about a group of characters who come up against the hard reality that a child is lost in an actual wilderness that will not yield to anyone’s concepts about it — not to the search and rescue leader’s faith in rationalism, not to Ed’s more mystical intuitive approach, nor to Anne’s unshakeable belief that she is so psychically attuned to her baby that she can find her. It seems astonishing in retrospect how much time I wasted arguing about whether “reality” “exists”, but aside from that tedium, it’s good to be reminded that there is much about Baudrillard’s work, particularly on consumerism and the unrelenting welter of imagery and communication in which we all now live (including of course, our beloved internets) that bears a second look.
This trip down the memory lane of “theory” (or, as it was always pronounced: “Theory“) comes close on the heels of this interesting review of Kundera’s new book The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. I bought a lot of books in Seattle, and the Kundera was one I picked up and put down in about three different bookstores. Gary Kamiya began his review in Salon the other day with a quote: A “novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral.” Despite the nearly eight years that have passed since I finished graduate school, there was a tiny voice in my head saying “existence? does existence even exist?” It’s hard to kill all that indoctrination. But it strikes me, this plea to reanimate a certain modernist literary project, that a writer’s duty is the illumination of existence, the exposure of aspects of the world that have heretofore gone unexamined, unnoted. It was what I was after in PLS, and what I’m still trying to do in this new book. I have no interest in writing like Virginia Woolf, for example, or even Joyce, but their models give me hope that I can find a way to use words and sentences and paragraphs to open up some new aspect of experience.
For me this is why writing, even writing about very dark subjects, is essentially an act of hope. And it’s why I found the cynicism inherent in ideas that posited the impossibility of contact with “reality” so destructive to my own artistic project (while at the same time I found the process of wrestling to define what it was that so upset me in these works was, while painful, a useful experience in the end).