The Sound of Scham

The stories in Lydia Davis' Can't and Won't are strange, sparse, and emotionless – and manic, portentous, and utterly devastating.

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You might have heard the story about the three Swiss. They were sitting around at an Inn together. They were: Arnold Böcklin (the painter), his son Carlo, and the writer Gottfried Keller. Nobody said anything for a long time. Then, Carlo said, “It’s hot.” More time passed. Finally, the elder Böcklin replied, “and there’s no wind.” Silence. Then, Gottfried Keller got up and left. As he was leaving, he said, “I won’t drink with these chatterboxes.”

Walter Benjamin told this story in an essay about Robert Walser written for Das Tagebuch in 1929. Benjamin argued that there is something distinctively Swiss about Walser’s writing style. Benjamin called this Swiss quality Scham, which Rodney Livingstone translates as “reticence.” You can also hear the English word “shame” in the German word “Scham.” The three Swiss at the Inn silently agree that it is embarrassing to express a thought or observation. Silence is best because it is safest. But silence is also hard to do. So, we talk. Then, inevitably, we feel disappointment at what we’ve just said.

According to Benjamin, Robert Walser deeply understood and experienced this kind of embarrassment. The funny thing about the embarrassment of talking is that it can lead to streams of words. When Walser does talk (and his writing is basically a stream of talking captured on the page), the words pour out in a torrent, stumbling over one another as they come. The incredible clumsiness of Walser’s writing, which is also the source of its delight, is the result, thinks Benjamin, of this root sense of shame. The desire to stop language results, paradoxically, in its profusion.

Here’s an example from Walser’s book, The Tanners. A young man has rushed into a bookshop and declared his intent to become a bookseller.

I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest — and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. (trans. Susan Bernofsky)

The soliloquy continues to about twice the length. The poor fellow cannot bring himself to shut up, once he’s gotten started. The astonished owner of the shop ends up hiring the young and enthusiastic bookseller-to-be. The young man abruptly quits a few days later. That’s a typical turn of events in a story by Robert Walser. Every protagonist in a Walser story is constantly canceling his previous actions in shame and embarrassment. According to Walter Benjamin, Walser’s sentences do the same thing. Each sentence Walser wrote was an attempt to cancel the last one, to erase the clumsy embarrassment of what has gone before.

Who are these strange, embarrassed and babbling characters in Robert Walser’s stories? Where do they come from? They come, Benjamin says, “from insanity and from nowhere else.” “They are figures,” Benjamin goes on, “who have left madness behind them, and this is why they are marked by such a consistently and heartrending, inhuman superficiality.” So, we have three elements: madness, silence, and superficial loquaciousness.

I’ve been trying, in all this, to get around to talking about Lydia Davis. Lydia Davis is the award-winning translator of Proust and Flaubert. But she is not just a translator. Davis has come to be regarded as, in her own right, one of the finest prose writers of the day. Most of the pundits now agree with this judgment about Davis’ work. When she published Can’t and Won’t: Stories earlier this year, it was the occasion for saying so. An avalanche of critical praise was released.

For all the praise, it is still immensely difficult to explain Lydia Davis’ literary project. It has been suggested that Davis’ writing shows a similarity with Robert Walser. Davis herself suggested it. Benjamin’s comments about Walser suggest it. Benjamin, of course, died before Lydia Davis was born, but the phrase “marked by such a consistently and heartrending, inhuman superficiality” applies to Davis’ prose every bit as well as it applies to Walser’s.

Here, for example, is Lydia Davis in a paragraph from “Eating Fish Alone,” one of the stories in Can’t and Won’t: Stories.

The marlin was good, if a little chewy. When the waitress came by to see how I liked it, I did not tell her it was chewy. I told her it was very good, and that I liked the delicacy of the herbs in the sauce. At one point in the meal, as I continued eating slowly, this time without reading, the chef emerged from the kitchen in the distance. He was a tall man with a slight stoop to his shoulders. He walked over to the bar to have a drink and say a few words to his wife and the old men, and then walked back. Before he pushed through the swinging door, he turned a moment to look across the dining room in my direction, curious, I’m sure, to know who was eating his beautiful marlin steak. I looked back at him. I would have waved, but before I thought of it he disappeared through the door.

The narrator of “Eating Fish Alone” (who both is and isn’t Lydia Davis in the same way that the protagonists in Robert Walser’s stories both are and aren’t Robert Walser) would get along quite well with the prospective bookseller in The Tanners. Both of them cannot stop talking (he out loud, she in her own head), regardless of whether they really have anything to say.

For all the rambling thoughts about what it is like to eat fish alone, Davis, like Walser, has the simultaneous instinct to strip things down, to get rid of false sentiment, to flatten emotions. Ben Marcus once suggested that Davis writes from the perspective of a person who might be slightly autistic. The exact quote from Marcus is that Davis displays “a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter.” This quote led to an amusing exchange between Ben Marcus and Dan Chiasson in the letters section of the New York Review of Books. Chiasson wrote that Ben Marcus more or less agrees with those who see Lydia Davis as being “a cold writer, a kind of fictionbot.” Ben Marcus wrote back to say that’s not what he meant at all. In fact, Marcus wrote, “As I make clear throughout that review, and in other reviews I’ve done of Davis’s books, the uncited feeling looms with great force in her stories. I see it as nothing less than a masterful technique of devastation.”

Dan Chiasson replied to Marcus’ clarification with the somewhat catty:

Ben Marcus is right about Lydia Davis but wrong, I think, to have chosen exactly that phrase to describe what, to my ears, he describes more forcefully in this letter. “Autistics” aren’t usually associated with the sublime displacement of feeling for the sake of all-the-greater “devastation.” If that’s what he meant, he should just have put it another way.

It is intriguingly appropriate that Davis’ heatless stories generated so much heat between Marcus and Chiasson. Their conversation is reminiscent of Walser’s characters, driving themselves into a frenzy over something utterly banal.

One of Davis’ stories from Can’t and Won’t is called “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable.” It goes:

I’m tired

The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.

My thumb hurts.

A man is coughing during the concert.

The shower is a little too cold.

It goes on like that for another three or four pages. Here is the “autistic devastation” that Marcus and Chiasson were fighting about. As Marcus notes, the emotional heart of the matter has been removed from this story. There are only facts. Impressions are recorded as they pass. Davis states that this is like this and that is like that. Laconic. And yet, a manic quality to the writing comes through. The obsessive piling up of data, its autistic quality, does become devastating.

There is something almost alchemical in the way that Davis is able to produce feelings, emotions, even a sense of great meaning, portentousness, in the process of removing all trace of such things in the content of her writing. In an essay about Robert Walser, W. G. Sebald wrote:

… in life, as in fairy tales, there are those who, out of fear and poverty, cannot afford emotions and who therefore, like Walser in one of his most poignant prose pieces, have to try out their seemingly atrophied ability to love on inanimate substances and objects unheeded by anyone else — such as ash, a needle, a pencil, or a matchstick. Yet the way in which Walser then breathes life into them, in an act of complete assimilation and empathy, reveals how in the end emotions are most deeply felt when applied to the most insignificant things. (trans. Jo Catling)

This is the alchemical transformation I’m talking about in Davis. The atrophied ability to feel, the atrophied ability to love is transmuted into an asset. There is a process of purification in Davis’ prose. Get rid of the claims to feeling, to emotion, to “meaning.” Get rid of all that stuff and it will, perhaps magically, return. “I’m not tired of all good books, I’m just tired of novels and stories, even good ones, or ones that are supposed to be good,” Davis writes in the story “Not Interested.” “These days, I prefer books that contain something real, or something the author at least believed to be real. I don’t want to be bored by someone else’s imagination.”

That’s the sense of embarrassment again, the Swiss feeling of Scham that Benjamin raises in the story of the three Swiss at the Inn. But now we can understand a little bit more about how this “Swiss” approach to literature works in both Walser and Davis.

The embarrassment about talking leads to Scham. The sense of Scham leads to stripping down, getting rid of inessential things. This minimalism, once achieved, opens up the door to a new profusion, a renewed loquaciousness that is proud of its seeming superficiality. This superficiality has been earned. Language has been purified. The outwardly evocative aspects of thinking and talking, which cannot be trusted, have been removed. And then, through this loquacious superficiality, a deeper meaning, a deeper sense of emotion emerges. The prose has a stripped-down surface in which is embedded a renewed capacity for deep feeling and an ability to love the world in its superficiality and banality.

Here’s a final passage from “Not Interested”:

If I think about it, it may be that there is some satisfaction in seeing the haphazard pile of sticks and branches near the house get smaller every day, as I carry and drag them back. There is some interest, though not much, so little, in fact, that it is right on the edge of boredom, in looking at the meadow passing under my feet: the grasses, the wildflowers, and the occasional wild animal scat. Then, when I reach the brush pile in the back, there is the best moment: I weigh the bundle of sticks in my arms, or balance the branch in my two hands, and then heave them, or it, as far up to the top of the brush pile as I can. The walk back through the meadow is easy, with my arms and hands free and loose, compared to the walk out to the pile; I look around at the treetops and the sky, as well as at the house, though it never changes and is not interesting.
22 December 2014

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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