October 1, 2021 | LIFE | By Star Goudrian | Photo by Kira Schulist

In a 2020 interview, Ocean Vuong, author of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” interviewed his former professor Ben Lerner on what, generally speaking, the fictional novel genre has to offer. 

Vuong expressed admiration for the precarity of Lerner’s work. Lerner responded that while fiction is commonly praised for creating a world that is “totally beautiful and secure,” it might be true that part of the power of narrative is actually “its precarity, that it’s delicate… barely held together by an effort of the author and the imagination.” 

Lerner then explained that it’s in this quality of “barely keeping it together” that true emotion and beauty can be found, in the “way the voices crack or the weather trembles under the force of the imaginative effort.” 

Vuong added that it’s this uncertainty that often “binds” him to the author; he can understand the desire of the author “to keep it together when everything is falling apart.” He began contemplating the instability of signs themselves, noting that “while we pin it down, language just kind of melts around us.”

Listening to this interview, I’m reminded of a recent exchange I had with a Colorado College professor. “Sometimes I’m speaking in class, going on in one way or another about the perplexity of authenticity, and a student asks me to stop and rephrase what I’ve just said,” the professor said. “And then I’m like — what did I just say? I realize I’ve been talking this whole time, and about what?” 

While Lerner referred to the failed attempt of the subject to construct an external fiction, my professor reflected on the failures of internal fiction construction. They both stem from and evoke the frustration of the real.

If one starts to think of the human as a nexus of spectral and genealogical histories, the child of spaces and signs, then the strangeness of dissolving into particular malleable logics — such as place, memory, capitalist, pop-cultural, resistance, or artistic logics — plucks at the threads of the present. 

This slowly unravels that essence which props up or is reality (which constructs our very humanity), dissolving the logics we fall into, come out of, undoing the stability of the speaker. That’s the way the voices crack, until they can no longer be recognized as voices or non-voices, until recognition can no longer be recognized, until the failure to recognize what can no longer be.

But what is the real? The repetition of endless loops are like spiral staircases that comprise the real — these are a kind of logic on their own, of course, but they deconstruct themselves ad infinitum. 

The real has to be accessed in medias res, extrapolated from nonlinear learning and connoted definitions. This allows us to uncover, rediscover, and affectively experience the virtuality of theory — because any epistemology necessarily derives from the ontology it explains: it’s the problem of self-referentiality. There are no origins.

When one confronts a novel or listens to someone think about the world, there is often an

imagined reinterpretation of the creator’s meaning, but there is no original meaning. There is only ever a chain of re-encounters. A novel is only ever read again, a string of readings which create the very concept of the novel; the same applies to speech, to other forms of dialectic. 

We engage in creations of each other through perpetual interpretation. Mixed metaphors, collapsed scales, poetics, difference and repetition. Whenever my professor attempts to paraphrase their speech, that repetition will inevitably be a reinterpretation, a creation of newness through difference. 

It’s that the demarcation of creation and reinterpretation doesn’t hold in perfect binary, that subjectivity itself is caught up in this recursion, that makes not only holding reality together difficult in narrative and lecture, but in our very selves and our very relationships with each other.

Overall, the point Lerner and Vuong are trying to make is a point I would make in reference to my own life. The way to build a world is indeed through an acknowledgment of precarity; that the world is held together by intimacy, empathy, and imagination.

In the space opened by the interpersonal investigation of life worlds, there is the liberatory potential for the creation of new ways of seeing, thinking, and being. Literature is a good a place as any to start understanding the way the world can unravel and reinvent itself.

You can access this interview on YouTube by searching “P&P Live! Ben Lerner | THE TOPEKA SCHOOL with Ocean Vuong.”

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