Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Murder Everywhere": Whitman, Lish, and the Fate of Self-Celebration

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Murder Everywhere": Whitman, Lish, and the Fate of Self-Celebration

Article excerpt

ONE DIRECTION! toots Walt in the car, whizzing along it. [...]

ONE DIRECTION! whoops America, and sets off also in an automobile.

ALLNESS! shrieks Walt at a cross-road, going whizz over an unwary Red Indian.

ONE IDENTITY! chants democratic En Masse, pelting behind in motor-cars, oblivious of the corpses under the wheels.

--D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American

Literature

Lawrence was the first to propose, in his memorable lampoon of Whitman, a link between the poet's single-minded absorption of multitudes and serial killing. We may credit Gordon Lish with elaborating that link, for his Dear Mr. Capote gives us a serial killer who admires "Song of Myself" and who extends the poet's (related) notions of identification with the mass and literary celebrity to a grotesque conclusion. "No offense to present company," says Davie, the deranged Brooklynite of Lish's novel, "but this Whitman really said it. I mean, this is your real writing" (27-28). In considering the significance of Lish's invocation of Whitman, I hope to trace out and highlight some of the most striking implications of a profound evolution in the representation of literary self-celebration. What Dear Mr. Capote furnishes, I suggest, is a compelling illustration of some of the most important ways in which efforts to celebrate oneself have, in the contemporary era, reversed the optimistic potential assigned to them by Whitman. Where the author of the first edition of Leaves of Grass endorses a democratic identification with the masses, seeking their approval on ostensibly mutually beneficial terms, Lish gives us in Davie a pathological aspirant to celebrity, violently predatory and ultimately self-destroying, whose selfhood suggests an absorption into the mass.

In anatomizing the transition sketched above, I rely on an important but overlooked distinction between fame and celebrity. Contemporary critics typically refer to notions of longevity and profundity when defining these Latinate terms; celebrity, by this reckoning, is a fevered and fleeting version of fame. Joseph A. Boone and Nancy J. Vickers, in their introduction to the PMLA's recent special issue devoted to celebrity, fame, and notoriety, set forth what seems like the critical consensus: "The pursuit of fame, as Leo Braudy demonstrated in his ground-breaking The Frenzy of Renown (1986), forms a constant throughout history, expressing the need to thwart mortality by achieving, through reputation, a good name that outlasts death, a version of immortality. By contrast, celebrity (which may encompass the desire for a more lasting fame) is a phenomenon that flares in the moment, is experienced in its noisy immediacy, and thrives on the ephemerality that is the condition of its being." In the discussion of Lish and Whitman that follows, however, I propose--as a way of understanding Lish's Davie and, more generally, the characteristics of renown in the age we share with him--to recover a somewhat different conceptual divergence than that emphasized by contemporary scholars.

By fame, then, I mean a type of renown coming to and emerging through us from elsewhere, spreading uncontrollably and mysteriously, and which is associated with the inscrutable will of the extra-human or divine (in other words, something akin to what fama, personified by the goddess Fama, signified for the Romans). (1) By celebrity I mean the artificial counterpart of fame, a mechanically-produced renown, made by us and visible in its making (again, something akin to the Romans' celebritas--that is, the thing produced by the celebrative function of celebro, according to Lewis and Short's A Latin Dictionary ["to honor, praise, celebrate the praises of a person or thing, to celebrate in song"]). (2) Celebrity, unlike fame, is open to formal and widespread manipulation, and so can be thought of instrumentally, as a process that can be--and now has been thoroughly--exploited by those seeking to manufacture renown, including their own. …

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