Schjeldahl: Let’s See

August 19, 2008

The New Yorker format of a three to four page column allows Peter Schjeldahl to leap into subjects, look around, and amass a glittering pile of insights for each installment. In these essays on art he seamlessly blends high and low language to bring descriptions and ruminations to life where phrases like “drag queen cheek” cozy up with arcane words like “inchoate” and “fungible.” In addition the scope and range of Schjeldahl’s knowledge and history is daunting, but in spite of all this, his writing comes across as generous, accessible, and possibly even hospitable. His style invites the reader into subjects even if they have no previous knowledge of the sometimes-obscure topics, but his approach leaves the ramifications of these posited notions up to the reader to discover. That’s part of the beauty of this diving-in short format I mentioned before.

Schjeldahl gets right to the point. In his first essay from the collection Let’s See entitled America, he takes a rather worn theme of a lack or hole being at the center of American identity, but transforms it into something fresh.

Americaness is nobodiness. Deep down, I feel like nobody; and this void in me is the earnestness of my belonging. A hole in my heart pledges allegiance to America. (14)

He muses:

Americaness is the world’s most abstract political and spiritual condition. For one thing, anyone from anywhere might become an American. Raise your right hand and you’re in like Benjamin or Aretha Franklin. (14)

Then before launching into an examination of (in his words “desperately ambitious”) “The American Century: Art and Culture, Part I, 1900-1950” at the Whitney Museum, he contrasts the nature of Amercaness to that of the rest of the world.

As a nation, the United States is a fiction that stands on three legs: first, a set of eighteenth-century political documents, which we argue about continually; second, the cautionary example of the Civil War, which fates us to stick together no matter what; and, third, daily consumption of mass culture. That’s it. Everything else, however tremendous, is secondary. Tripods are precarious, as I’m reminded whenever I encounter intimidatingly foursquare foreigners, with their knitted residues of land, race, religion, and language. (14)

It makes Americaness feel like an arranged marriage after a blind date. That’s a lot of big thoughts for three pages, never mind it all happens before the third paragraph.

In a sense all this musing and pondering is closely tied to my manuscript Stalking America; this idea of pledging allegiance to a hole, or what it means to be American. I’ve been trying to figure out what the show my main character is obsessed with is truly about, people stalking nobodies, where the stalker becomes famous, while the stalked is nothing. The show could essentially be Stalking Nothing or Stalking Oblivion. It’s good tinder for thought as I explore what all this means. The real challenge is turning this nothing into something while exploring the somethingness of the void for which my character yearns.

One comment

  1. Peter Schjeldahl

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