Ceci n’est pas une livre… This is not a book. It is an algorithm. D. Harlan Wilson’s trilogy of Hitler: The Terminal Biography; Freud: The Penultimate Biography; and Douglass: The Lost Autobiography are Magrittesque artifacts. Certainly not biographies in the conventional sense of the genre, these titles may not be, strictly, books, whatever those are these days. They are experiments in deconstructing the supposedly cynical matrices of literature in the Internet age, where units are defined and shifted algorithmically, by guilty—sometimes arbitrary—associations with other books, and what Wilson calls Superior Authors. This last part, Wilson admits, is flawed: “Blurbs don’t sell books.” What does sell books is metadata. To wit: falsified metadata. Wilson establishes:
…a parasitic connection with other biographies about Hitler, Freud, and whoever I’m going to write the final biography on (either Tom Cruise or Frederick Douglass) at Amazon.com, the only viable marketplace in the twenty-first century publishing world… If somebody buys, say, The Freud Reader, which currently sells quite well at Amazon, and the same person buys Freud: The Penultimate Biography, thinking it’s similar to The Freud Reader, Amazon pools the titles together on its Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought page and a snowball effect ensues. Because of this one sale, thousands of readers will mistake Freud: The Penultimate Biography as a book that might be similar to The Freud Reader, even though, for the sake of argument, they are only really linked by Freud’s name in the titles.
His gambit in the case of Freud is reminiscent of Nabokov’s Symbols and Signs, daring the reader to psychoanalyze the text for the Freud biography that is implied between the covers of the book. In the sense that the relation of the text to Sigmund Freud oscillates between historical and reasonably explicit ‘facts,’ to allusion, and to irrelevant and arbitrary symbols for what might have been a biography of Freud, Wilson’s assemblage stands in for the Freudian plexus of symbols. Freud was a dramatist of the unconscious. The Oedipus complex is an intertextual reference run amok.
If you’ve no stomach for this kind of irony, then you should rise up from the couch, flee the office, and demand a refund from the receptionist. This may be merely denial or disavowal on your part. Lie down, and relax, please. The penultimate truth is that, in a system of arbitrary symbols, signs and signifiers, any book can be a biography of Sigmund Freud. Besides, it declares itself to be so; therefore, what more evidence is required? Freud: The Penultimate Biography is also the “unofficial, unauthorized sequel” to Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life of Our Time, because it says so. Wilson’s series, dubbed the ‘Angry Black Author’ trilogy, is, of course, a challenge to authenticity and a technological satire. Sure, it’s postmodern, but it may also appeal to old-fashioned (hardcore?) humanists who desire another object to object to, an inverted defense of old-school humanities where categories were rational, strict and sacrosanct—you know, the straight white dreamtime lamented by Leslie Fiedler in The New Mutants, before “the jackknife, the catcher’s mitt and brass knuckles” were replaced by “the comb, the pocket mirror, and the bobby pin.” Wilson’s trilogy is another element in the fulfillment of what was, for Fiedler in 1965, a queer, deracinated dystopia: “…a post-humanist, post-male, post-white, post-heroic world,” in which “To become new men, these children of the future seem to feel, that they must not only become more Black than White but more female than male.”
Wilson occupies that world, comfortably, as a science fiction writer, a critic, and a savvy ironist and iconoclast. Implicit in Wilson’s impersonation and association is the question: What difference does it make if taste, if aesthetic decisions are mechanized, or computerized? Has it not always been so? Is the decision, made by a reader in the antebellum of the Internet, to read Ginsberg or Thomas Wolfe after reading Kerouac, and then Whitman, and Blake after Ginsberg any less algorithmic than the pattern recognition of Amazon? The humanist accusation is that Amazon is dictating our choices. But in the 1990s, say, if you found a Bukowski aficionado at your post office or your local bar, I would bet you a drink that he also owned a few Dan Fante books, and yeah, naturally he was into Henry Miller. Was the soft, human algorithm of influence, reference, and recommendation that made ‘secondary’ reading so predictable in the past any more organic than our contemporary software version? Was it unmediated? Is the algorithm of a machine so different from that of a dinner party guest insisting: “If you liked The Goldfinch you must read Still Life With Breadcrumbs!” Marcel Duchamp, no stranger to mechanization and irony, said that taste is a habit, the mere repetition of something already accepted. He was, as Andrei Codrescu points out, a posthumanist. It is a romantic humanist fallacy that some autonomous gesture of taste is being denied us by automation. Wilson’s gesture is a manipulation of materialist (Freudian) desire:
A unit of insufficiency and insolvency (viz., a writer) said, “There needs to be more literary rockstars. They don’t exist anymore. Where have all the Ernest Hemingways and Hunter S. Thompsons gone?”
Long pause. Then:
“Hemingway was a whiny bleep. Have you ever read one of his novels? … Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t all that different. He was just more sarcastic. And Thompson’s druglust? And gunlust? Guns are for boy scouts and drugs are for big whining bleeps. How many hours a day do you think these bozos worked out? The legacy of their fitness is deceptive.”
Reputation is manipulation, for better and for worse—see the character assassination of Edgar Allan Poe by the coward Rufus Griswold, the obituary signed as ‘Ludwig’. Griswold hijacked the estate and set himself to kicking Poe while he was down. Wilson’s persona in Freud… is Associate Professor of How to Tell the Truth at the Ludavico Campus. The Ludovico Technique you’ll recall as the dehumanizing aversion therapy in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Wilson’s biographies are as averse to their subjects as we should be to the hagiography of any other subject. He deconstructs the experience of reading a biography of a subject one already admires, whose myths have already purchased: the filler sold with commercially imperative shocks of new unpublished data “revealing a side of the man that has proven too disturbing and risqué for past biographers.” The schizo-analytic approach casts Benicio del Toro as The Wolfman in Freud’s From The History Of Infantile Neurosis, and sees Daniel Schreber of Psychological Notes Upon An Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia recast as ‘Danny’ who “learned how to dance by watching the American musical variety show Soul Train.” Biographies, Wilson suggests, are misinformation, half-understood lives, and the brainwash of publicity flowing back and forth between author and subject:
Adulthood can sting like a wasp. If only boys didn’t have to become men. This is not a joke. Sigmund Freud diagnosed Schreber as a latent homosexual with repressed feelings for his father. He never met Schreber. But he read his memoirs, and that seemed like enough information to go on.
Yes, we have to be able to imagine a world in which Freud did not read Sophocles, and in which biographical writing is not enthralled by Freud. The desires that are on trial in Freud: The Penultimate Biography are the tabloid desires surrounding biography as an exploitation genre. That “Stop” is a vital element of Wilson’s critique. The voice of the Penultimate Biography is both a ghost in the machine and a spanner in the works.