I really can't believe I am going to turn this paper in. I wrote this in a couple hours, as is very obvious. It's about Eggers and it's for John Moore. It is so hard to write about a writer you really like. What else can you say other than "I really think Dave Eggers is really cool, dude!" Luckily, this paper is for Moore, and I can get away with saying things like that.
Dave Eggers and a Uniquely American Artistic Manifesto
In the vein of Walt Whitman’s exuberance, sharing Whitman’s lust for life, his love of its physicalness, and using his same technique of addressing the reader directly, Dave Eggers also implores them, the readers, (you and I!) to see this! “This”! Using broad terms to encapsulate this expansive spirit, to guard against limiting this Whitmanic/Emmersonian ideal with the coarse nature of language. Pablo Neruda called Walt Whitman “the first totalitarian poet” for this tendency of his to demand things of the reader, to collapse his identity with that of the reader, gleefully blurring those well-established lines that separated the author from the reader of a text, making them one and the same.
Loafe with me on the grass . . . . loose the stoop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even the best
Only the lull I like, the hum or your valved voice. (lines 75-77)
Here in “Song of Myself,” Whitman invites the reader on to the grass with him, establishes a personal relationship with the reader, believes that the act of reading, the artistic back and forth should be an intimate one. Whitman makes this desire for intimacy explicit here by basically having the reader felate him, saying that all he likes is “the hum of your valved voice.” Your valved voice! That is you, that is me, and that is Whitman being wonderful, involving us so much in the reading of this text. In the next lines, in case we failed to get his point that the act of reading should be similar to that of a sexual act, that it should be as meaningful and as physically involving, he makes it even more explicit:
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet. (lines 78-81)
There is a line of writers in American literature who share these Whitmanic sentiments. Emerson is the obvious precursor to Whitman, and following Whitman, the line is nearly infinite and broad with everyone from Henry Miller to Kerouac to Ginsberg to Sharon Olds to Dave Eggers fitting into it. In all of these writers there is a concern with Americanness, the belief that there is such a thing as an American spirit. This can be problematic if one considers these works, because of their concern with Americanness to idealize the State or that these works merely stems from the colonialist spirit of go, go, go, do, do, do. And while there is that side to it, that capitalist ethic of progress, that side is minimal, if even there at all in some of these writers. Some like Ginsberg, while in love with Americanness, are not in love with state institutions. And Ginsberg’s lament still has chilling power and significance now: “America, when will you angelic?” And of course, there is that thing about America fucking itself with its atom bomb, but that criticism is said in love, out of concern, because Ginsberg also has this vision of where he would like to see America headed. All of these writers are concerned with utilizing these creative powers of man that they see untapped. They call us to arms, to pick up our pens, our guitars, our brushes, whatever - just to do stuff with ourselves, with this, our short lives. And Dave Eggers is in this same strain, sharing these same concerns, and also demanding similar things of his readers. The difference is that Eggers harkens back to Whitman’s populist spirit probably more so than any of these other Whitmanic writers, maybe even more so than Whitman himself, because in his call to arms, he simply tells us to pick up a frisbee. After giving meaning and profound significance to a game of frisbee between himself and his younger brother, Toph, he lashes out at us, his own readers, and demands of us to do the same, to live and to see the beauty in it all, all of it, our everyday lives:
There is nowhere I stop and you begin. I am exhausted. I stand before you millions, 47 million, 54, 32, whatever, you know what I mean, you people ... and where is my lattice? I am not sure you are my lattice. Sometimes I know you are there and other times you are not there and sometimes when I’m in the shower with my hands scratching around in my head I think of you all, all your millions of heads and legs, standing under buildings shuffling them around, carrying them, taking them apart, making new buildings- .... Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that I hate you people, so many of you motherfuckers- When you sleep I want you to never wake up, so many of you I want you to just fucking sleep it away because I only want you to run under with me on this sand like Indians, if you’re going to sleep all day fuck you motherfuckers oh when you’re all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this. (Heartbreaking 436-437)
And there it is, that all encompassing “this” that Eggers wants to show the reader in his “totalitarian” imploring of them to realize these things. It is so easy and sometimes deceptive to say such things as “the reader.” That sanitizes the whole thing, and it tempers the profundity of what it means that these writers are addressing the reader - it makes it something other than me, other than you. We distance ourselves from their message, thinking that we already get it, we are in on the joke, he is instead addressing “the reader.” And since this is a collegiate paper, I, a reader, have also been using this term “the reader,” fearing to fall into first-person narrative because that is not how academic papers are supposed to be written. But, no more. The message is an important one, and it is addressed to us, to you, and to me! That makes me feel special and privileged, to know that these writers think so highly all of us, are so concerned that they want to talk to us. It is really a pretty amazing thing, and I feel like I must treat it as such. So, let’s rewrite the first sentence of this paragraph and start all over with this point. Make it relevant to myself and take what lessons I can from Eggers, use his call to arms, as just that, and not only create art, but live it.
And there it is, that all encompassing “this” that Eggers wants to show us(!) in his “totalitarian” imploring of you and I to realize these things. Eggers’ words always awaken me, sometimes make me feel like shit, like I am one of the sleepers here, and need to come out and play, to run on the sand with Eggers, under the frisbee. And for a while, I do this. His message usually manages to stay with me for days, sometimes a week or two - but sometimes I need a little recharge. I open up my tattered copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to this page and recite lines to myself, incant them, and reevaluate how I am living my life, and how I should, how I would like to.
Sure, it sounds trite, perhaps even cheesy, but I can do anything I want, I can move buildings. I am there “standing under buildings shuffling them around, carrying them, taking them apart, making new buildings.” And that is what is so wonderful about Eggers, that this fear of cheesiness that forces us to live in irony, to be too hip for the message is thrown out the window. Eggers, more so than any other contemporary writer, resonates with me so much exactly for this reason. It is because I am tired of irony and so is Eggers. These lines that he says are said seriously and without the slightest hint of irony. Eggers’ lack of irony in his writing is emblematic of his bigger message that he pushes.
He demands of us one thing: sincerity. It is so fresh. Why is this a new idea? How did we ever get to the point where the suggestion that we should be sincerely engaged with life is again a novel idea? However we got to the point is itself a moot point now, because Eggers is writing language that is, in fact, “heartbreaking”ly sincere - and this is how we are supposed to live. This is how I resolve to live my life everytime I (re)read Eggers - that I must engage sincerely with “this” - whatever “this” is - that broad “this” is what I am concerned with when I read Eggers. I cannot peg it down to what “this” is and I don’t have any particular desire to. The knowledge that I understand, that I get the message is enough.
In his short story, “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned,” Eggers again hits home the same message that we need to physically engage ourselves with active living. And he does this through the story of a dog, “a fast fast dog” (126). The fast fast dog, Steven, is representative of the model for living that Eggers wants us to follow. Just like his imploring of us to run and play frisbee, and to feel the feeling of life that is caused by active movement, by mobility, he gives us this character of a dog who is in love with running and the feelings produced by it, by actively living.
I love it, I love it. I run to feel the cool air through my fur. I run to feel the cold water come from my eyes. I run to feel my jaw slacken and my tongue come loose and flap from the side of my mouth and I go and go and go my name is Steven.
I can eat pizza. I can eat chicken. I can eat yogurt and rye bread with caraway seeds. It really doesn’t matter. They say, “No, no, don’t eat that stuff, you, that stuff isn’t for you, it’s for us, for people!” And I eat it anyway, I eat it with gusto, I eat the food and I feel good and I live on and run and run and look at the people and hear their stupid conversations coming from their slits for mouths and terrible eyes...Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything...Damn, I’m so in love with all of this. (“After” 126-127)
When I read this, the message that I got from his novel is only reemphasized, reinforced with this short story on the artist’s life. The dog is the artist and his life is the process of art, of how an artist should live. I am sort of hesitant to use such terms as “artist” to describe what type of person Eggers is urging us to be, because Eggers is far too populist to ever use a term with all the elitist baggage it carries such as “artist.” But this is what this is - this is the best way I can think of situating what Eggers is up to in the literary tradition. What Eggers is up to falls in the same line of writing as Emmerson’s “The Poet,” as Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” and other tracts that aim to inspire, to get people to harness their creative potentials. To call the dog an artist, and to say that this is a tract on how to produce good art just seems a lot less messier than trying to coin a new terminology to deal with the non-artist nature of Egger’s artist.
Art is just a term for conscious living anyway, and that is what Eggers demands of us, to wake up and to live, to do things with ourselves, with each other. Eggers, through the story of Steven, says that art is a sincere engagement with life, with our bodies. It is not something cerebral or detached from the lived experience. Rather, it is in our physical activities, our exertions of our own bodies that good art is made, that the good life is lived.
This may seem like a stretch to say that this short story about a dog is a commentary on the production of art, but Eggers makes this obvious that this is his point with the entrance of the squirrels into the story. When Steven and the other dogs sneak out of their houses at night and meet up in the woods to race each other, to produce art, to live, there are squirrels who sit in trees and critique the performances of the dogs, basically serving the role of art critics. And Eggers lashes out at the field of passive criticism, saying that the squirrels and critics need to try their own hands at art, to engage themselves with life - that that is where it is at:
On the banks of the creek, near the drainpipe, on the dirt and in the weeds and on the branches of the rough grey trees are the squirrels. The squirrels have things to say; they talk before and after we jump. Sometimes while we’re jumping they talk.
“He is running funny.”
“She will not make it across.”
When we land they say things.
“He didn’t land as well as I wanted him to.”
“She made a bad landing. Because her landing was bad I am angry.”
I don’t know why the squirrels watch us, or why they talk to us. They do not try to jump the gap. The running and jumping feels so good--even when we don’t win or fall into the gap it feels so good when we run and jump--and when we are done the squirrels are talking to us, to each other in their small, jittery voices.
We look at the squirrels and we wonder why they are there. We want them to run and jump with us but they do not. They sit and talk about the things we do. Sometimes one of the dogs, annoyed past tolerance, catches a squirrel in his mouth and crushes him. But then the next night they are back, all the squirrels, more of them. Always more. (131-132)
The squirrels are portrayed as silly, as chatty, as not fully living. And this is what Eggers sees criticism as, a failure to engage first-hand with life, but engaging with it in a form mediated by other people's experiences with life. Criticism is not really assigned any value in Egger’s conception of art. Eggers instead sees art as only mattering to the artist. That is who it is for. It is not for the squirrels sitting in trees, who are too scared to run. It is for the running dogs, for you and for me. It doesn’t even matter if you fall or lose, all that matters is that you have a sincere engagement with life. Above all else in Egger's conception of art stands sincerity. This is my maxim for art: Above all, sincerity. It was developed by trying to explain why I dig Eggers so much and why I can’t stand smarmy irony.
Even after death, in heaven, Steven still holds to this conception of living and of art - even though his engagement with active living is probably the reason he drowned. That didn’t matter and doesn’t matter because he lived art, he was sincerely engaged with life.
I wanted the squirrels to be happy as we dogs were. But they were different than we were. I thought we were all the same but as I was inside my dead body and looking into the murky river bottom I knew that some are wanting to run and some are afraid to run and maybe they are broken and angry for it. (139)
It is physical activity that is of supreme importance for Egger’s conception of a good life. Eggers is thoroughly aligned with Whitman here in his prizing of human motion, movement, and exertion. For both, the body is of prime importance. In their art, as it should be, the body has as prominent a position as our bodies and their failings and successes have in our actual, lived lives. There is this dynamic energy of the human spirit that both try to capture, and they do this by literally finding a body for this dynamic spirit, and showing the human body as a dynamic form constantly in motion. This dynamic energy not only finds a mirror in the representation of the body, but also in the actual texts of both these writers and the type of language they use. They both use a dynamic go, go, go language that seems to written with speed and as a result (and of prime importance) is read with speed. These texts have a really fast momentum that actually does what their message intends- it gets people to wake up, to pick up the pace, to live a more active life.
Then the train sounds from the black thick part of the forest where it can’t be seen, then comes into view, passing through the lighter woods, and it shoots through, the green squares glowing and inside the bodies with their white shirts. I try to soak myself in this. This I can’t believe I deserve. I want to close my eyes to feel this more but then realize I shouldn’t close my eyes. I keep my eyes open ... (135)
Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
Eggers, Dave. “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned.” 126-140. Speaking With the Angel. Hornby, Nick (ed). New York: Riverhead Books, 2000.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.