LectureHop: Is Everything Illuminated?
Written by Bwog Staff
Excited to see the author of the book that changed our lives in the 10th grade, Bwog sent freelancer Liz Naiden to struggle through throngs of messenger bag carrying English majors standing in the back of a the crowded lecture hall on the 15th floor of IAB and listen to a conversation between novelist Jonathan Safran–Foer and critic Jenny Davidson.
I finally found a seat against the wall and heard mercifully short and unpretentious introduction. The lecture, it seemed, would not be a lecture at all but a �free-form conversation,� kumbaya style, between English Professor Jenny Davidson and Jonathan Safran-Foer followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
Though he is of course endearingly self-deprecating and sports the classic awkward mannerisms we associate with literary greatness, I was surprised at how normal Safran-Foer seemed. He had a familiar skinny but reasonably good looking Jewish boy with glasses look, and spoke in a poised and confident, yet conversational and disarming tone. He began to answer the first question from Davidson about the theme of communication in his work with a tight, true and tested shpiel about the place where fiction is in between sense and nonsense, where communication is imperfect and we try to wrestle meaning out of it. Then he paused for a moment and said �I don�t often feel like a writer.� You might think that a grave and intense silence followed, but in fact Safran-Foer continued on the subject of communication as a theme in his own life in a jovial, light-hearted tone, as if the fact that he didn�t feel like a writer was nothing more than a humorous oddity.
Again revealing himself to be less of a tortured artist than I perhaps had hoped, Safran-Foer said that he had not grown up wanting to be a writer. In fact, until college when a creative writing professor told him she loved his writing, he had never even considered that there was such a thing as �my writing.� The professor was Joyce Carroll Oatesñ the college, Princeton. The idealistic young writer who emerged as a result of Oates� words was convinced that a book would be the perfect form of communication, the ideal work being a �complete expressionist autobiography.� He was disappointed to find that his first book was maybe 2% of him � �I looked at it and I thought, wow, this is really Jewish, I�m not that Jewish. And wow, this is really concerned with family, I�m not that concerned with family.� His second book, he said, was even less representative, something like 1% of him. And with that he threw the tortured-artist seekers in the audience a bone � �There is no perfect expression, and yet we long for it, and I think that longing has been the real center of my writing�
Then followed a tome on literary theory according to the now less naïve, but still very young Safran-Foer. But his thoughts on creativity, on the significance and futility of literature, and the limitless interpretation of a novel were fully formed and simply stated, and not without the occasional joke thrown in for good measure. While explaining that he liked the idea in the Jewish tradition of words being generative � God said let there be light and there just was light � he gave a classic example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Before the 1970�s in modern Hebrew there was no word for �frustrated,� so, he said, no one in Israel before the 1970�s was ever frustrated. They searched for a word and their feeling became that word, like aggravated, etc. Safran-Foer explained that he liked to think of his books as a metaphorical creation of a new word that hadn�t existed, to name a feeling that had not yet been named.
But at some point Safran-Foer made it clear that the language that the conversation was taking place in � the language of thinking about books, the �language of criticism� � was very different from the �language of producing writing.� In producing writing, Safran-Foer says �I�ve never designed anything, I don�t have an outline and I don�t have a plan. Often when working things get in your way and turn out being more useful than things you put in front of you.� Near the end of the interview, after much thoerizing about the nature of literature, he said �Honestly when I�m writing I�m not thinking about anything. An ant is not an entomologist. Just because you do something doesn�t mean you know why you do it.� I found this interesting because Davidson is not only a published literary critic but a published novelist, and couldn�t herself decide whether she would rather be an ant or an entomologist throughout the entire evening.