Another Literary Manifesto

There’s yet another Literary Manifesto — this one’s by Tom Robbins, of all people, and it’s in the September issue of Harper’s (unfortunately the article, “In Defiance of Gravity,” is unavailable online). When I saw the magazine in the grocery store yesterday, I immediately scooped it up as clearly it is my duty to read and report on any and all Literary Manifestoes as they appear. And they seem to appear often, don’t they? If this pace keeps up, we’re soon going to need a Literary Manifesto Manifesto.

(A good beginning for a manifesto: “I appeal to the young. Only they should listen, and only they can understand what I have to say. Some people are born old, slobbering spectres of the past, cryptograms swollen with poison. To them no words or ideas, but a single injunction: the end.” From the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, written in 1912.

A bad beginning for a manifesto: “So uh, yeah. Anyway.”)

So uh, yeah. Anyway, Robbins claims he was driven to the brink of suicide after reading Robert Stone’s depressing short story Fun With Problems in a back issue of The New Yorker. Apparently a cat saved him (that part’s a bit rambly and difficult to summarize) and instead of killing himself he was inspired to write this call for a “fusion of prankish Asian wisdom, extra-dimensional Latin magic, and two-fisted North American poetic pizzazz.”

It’s a good article, more a charmingly hippy-dippy argument for a kind of serious lightheartedness Robbins calls “crazy wisdom” than anything else. Here are some excerpts:

The fact that playfulness — a kind of divine playfulness intended to lighten man’s existential burden and promote what Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive” — lies near the core of Zen, Taoist, Sufi, and Tantric teachings is lost on most Westerners: working stiffs and intellectuals alike…

As a result of their having abandoned that part of human nature that is potentially most transcendent, it’s no surprise that modern intellectuals dismiss playfulness — especially when it dares to present itself in literature, philosophy, or art — as frivolous or whimsical…

When will our literati — in many cases, an erudite, superbly talented lot — evolve to the degree that they accord buoyancy and mirth a dime’s worth of the respect they bestow so lavishly on gravity and misfortune?

Norman N. Holland asked a similar question in Laughing: A Psychology of Humor, concluding that comedy is deemed inferior to tragedy primarily because of the social prevalence of narcissistic pathology. In other words, people who are too self-important to laugh at their own frequently ridiculous behavior have a vested interest in gravity because it supports their illusions of grandiosity. …

Ironically, it’s this same malignant narcissism, revealing itself through arrogance, avarice, pique, anxiety, severity, defensive cynicism, and aggressive ambition, that is keeping the vainglorious out of their paradise. Among our egocentric sad sacks, despair is as addictive as heroin and more popular than sex, for the single reason that when one is unhappy one gets to pay a lot of attention to oneself. Misery becomes a kind of emotional masturbation. Taken out on others, depression becomes a weapon…

Nobody requires a research fellowship to ascertain that most of the critically lauded fiction of our time concentrates its focus on cancer, divorce, rape, racism, schizophrenia, murder, abandonment, addiction, and abuse. Those things, unfortunately, are rampant in our society and ought to be examined in fiction. Yet to trot them out in book after book, on page after page, without the transformative magic of humor and imagination — let alone a glimmer of higher consciousness — succeeds only in impeding the advancement of literature and human understanding alike. …

And this bit was my absolute favorite:

In any case, the notion that inspired play (even when audacious, offensive, or obscene) enhances rather than diminishes intellectual rigor and spiritual fulfillment, the notion that in the eyes of the gods the tight-lipped hero and the wet-cheeked victim are frequently inferior to the red-nosed clown, such notions are destined to be a hard sell to those who have E. M. Forster on their bedside table and a clump of dried narcissus up their ass.

Well, I ask you. Who can think about anything else when you’ve got a clump of dried narcissus up your ass?

There’s more, and it’s certainly worth the read, even if Robbins has inexplicably missed out on many of the (younger or at least young-ish) writers currently being published who, one could argue, seem to share his “new” aesthetic. My advice to him? Put down the back copies of The New Yorker and step away. To a bookstore.


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