Iyer Dyer & Doty is not a Law Firm

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This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go.

Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty and globalist Pico Iyer and are testifying about the writers who inhabit writers — in their cases, respectively, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Graham Greene. We’re dropping names and having fun here with a genial crowd… but what’s more memorably instructive in the end than artists talking about the inner voices of their ancestors? As in conversations past with Harold Bloom on R. W. Emerson and the great Schmuel, Dr. Johnson. Or Dave McKenna speaking about his ideal, Nat Cole, the only pianist who could “bend” a note and play the tones in-between. Or Sonny Rollins, in humble astonishment that he had actually made music with the geniuses Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Or Roy Haynes talking with Ben Ratliff about Jo Jones.

As usual I am pining naively in the writers’ chat for my own William James or some magisterial successor who might explain Americans to themselves in a universal frame today. But the writers are reminding me of the contradictions in all these affinities. What we don’t have these days, and maybe don’t want, is a “synthesizing voice.” It’s one of England’s great achievements, Geoff Dyer slipped in, not to have a Bernard Henri Levy on the premises. If we had Whitman and his democratic vistas in our midst today, Doty says we might ignore him as his own generation did, or celebrate his worst poems, not his best. If by a miracle Graham Greene had been announced in the lobby of our theater, Pico Iyer insisted he’d have sprinted away because to meet his inspiration “would simplify, not deepen, my understanding of the man.” Odd, then, that everybody wanted to sit down with the subject that made Geoff Dyer famous — the inexhaustibly contentious, inconsistent and sometimes monstrous D. H. Lawrence, remembered as “a man who burned like an acetylene torch from one end to the other of his life” and elsewhere as “the man who could write brilliantly and awfully, in the same sentence.” Geoff Dyer gets the last line on the perplexity of writers’ affinities: “… but one would have thought it a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of a lashing from Lawrence.”


  • dirk

    William James who wrote about the pluralistic universe, blooming, buzzing confusion, and varieties of experience?

  • chris

    That would be the one and only Willy James, Henry’s big brother.

    • dirk

      I’m confused then as he seemed to be giving us an early and dynamic picture of the diversity of human-beings and working against some overarching Hegelian story of us all as One…

  • nother

    “Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps.” -R.W.Emerson

    Recently I put on a Hemmingway book-on-CD in my car and a strange euphoric feeling hit me, and I realized it was an abstract sense of connection. Not to the characters or the place, but to dignity that Hemingway’s prose inherently brings to every character – even the antagonist. I think that the feeling I was having was that if I only knew Mr. Hemingway, and he happened to turn his trained eye in my direction, he might see that same dignity in me. I think a great writer helps us see the beauty in our banality. Ultimately, a nation looks out after it’s own best interests, a voter votes after their own best interests, a reader reads after their own best interests.

    I remember a therapist once told me the key to helping yourself and recognizing your issues is to step outside of yourself…to observe yourself in the third person. A great writer gives us the license and language to do just that, but more importantly, the great writer convinces us that our own story is worthy of great prose. If only we can train our eye to see it.

  • Potter

    Maybe it’s better to read good writing even if that writing focuses well on an aspect, a part, and is not the overarching genius insight of our times. But then, if it was that, the writing would be perennially meaningful, a classic. Better to not wish for a savior or even a clear modern mirror, totally clear that will give such insight as is needed at this critical time. But tell me if you find one. I love this chat because it wanders around looking.

    We are so fragmented and fractured. This is what Obama has brought out in us even more with his rise to power (with our raising him). He brought no cure, no unity.

    Having just read Moby Dick, I am in awe of Melville I have to say. So I’ll add his name here again where I have been inspired to read. This book must be different and potent to read at every stage of life and in every age. He does not “stay still” with you. ( Mark Doty phrase). Bloom says, or seems to be saying, that Ahab represents the American spirit. I think there is more in Moby Dick about today’s America than perhaps when it was written.

    WH Auden’s opening to “The Age of Anxiety” written in 1948, speaking of the power of avoidance, but also community, commiseration:

    When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.

    I don’t know about the bar business today, a place of gathering then, a place to be down and out as well as up and about. Now it’s cyberspace probably.

    Joni Mitchell! and Rilke yes!

    DH Lawrence yes!

    Thanks again.

  • The Parrot

    A wonderful discussion. Great wordsmiths and thinkers with liberal amounts of humor sprinkled throughout. Very enjoyable, and yet, I heard no mention of the word soup the media (as spear/water carriers) serves us for the covert and military operations sanctioned by the political class. Orwell supplied the (somewhat exaggerated) general deductive model for: collateral damage, terrorist, war-on-terror, preemptive war, freedom, regime change, rendition, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, harsh interrogation, unlawful combatant, private contractor(s), shock-and-awe, operation mumble-mumble-mumble, threats against U.S. persons/citizens, disposition matrix, signature strike, targeted strike, surgical strike, drone strike, high value target(s), compromise national security, patriot act, data mining, leaks, FOIA, etc (certainly not comprehensive). Not to mention the overt racism and religious/cultural xenophobia and calls for auto-de-fe chatter that erupt regularly from various media personalities.

    A quasi fictional book about Frank Luntz or John Rendon is in order. Turned into a block buster movie, of course. Joan Didion and/or Paddy Chayefsky in their primes could have done it poetic justice with crystal clarity. Today, I would nominate an adaptation by Charlie Kaufman and/or Spike Jonze. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamotti both playing the lead. Add Errol Morris as Donald Rumsfeld, putting the U.S. consumer class into the interrotron for DOD press briefings. Or, let us dive down even further and suggest: Nate Silver: A Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman Fictional Reality Show. Produced by Netflix or You.Tube or some other big-pipe-content-to-your-curbside behemoth. For bonus points: a joint production of Al Jazeera and the News Corp. Empires.

    Don Quixote is a fine example of the relationship between words and constructed reality. So, I suppose I will conjecture that the words still seem to mean something, or they don’t, but we continue to go through the motions of suggesting they do. This fuels the narrative engine, and it is running the ‘show’; the ‘show’ being a flat version of actual reality. It’s part of the problem (and perhaps, the solution), though not its antecedent. To understand ‘merica, and western narcissisms, and it’s predation obsession with the big Other, one needs to address the linguistic stew that passes for information, and hence, de facto truth among the herd. Fiction and satire may be the best tools to deal with this, certainly not the domains of politics, economics, or news media. It may in fact come down to words. The tools that get us into the mess, may help get us out it. As Jung informs us, the contemporary mind of our epoch does not reside in the brain, but on the tongue. ‘Speaks’ volumes.

    Regardless of my digression, I found this to be really great conversation. Thanks to one-and-all… And speaking of words, thanks and congratulations to Representative Barbara Lee. Her words about the impending ‘long twilight’ have been fairly prescient.

    • The Parrot

      Upon further reflection, a movie about Frank Luntz or John Rendon or some other propagandist would probably be better served by Joel and Ethan Coen. But, I think Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman would do a great job with the various textures of the Nate Silver phenomenon.

  • http://www.toddsuomela.com/ Todd Suomela

    Thank you for the interesting conversation.

    One thing that seems to be missing from the search for the ‘great American novel’ or the ‘writer for our times’ is looking anywhere outside of the serious literary mainstream. It may be that to understand America today we should be looking at takes on the world that are more metaphorical than literal. Perhaps we can learn as much from grasping the world askew as we can from the direct map.

    When I think of great genre encounters with America I think of pieces like “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula LeGuin; “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman; “American Tabloid” by James Ellroy; or “Julian Comstock” by Robert Charles Wilson. I wish I had a more recent example but I’ve been buried in non-fiction for my most recent reading.

    I just wanted to add my suggestion to look for stranger, slightly distorted, mirrors for understanding the present.