Sunday, November 18, 2007

Indecision, Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel IndecisionI wrote in part about this novel when earlier responding to Melvin Jules Bukiet's essay on the Eggers-type novel. I felt bad about responding to Kunkel's work without having read it, and so pulled it off the shelf, jumping the queue of books that I set for myself months ago—a list which has remained depressingly static.

At any rate, I think I was correct in diagnosing the problem of the novel—the central metaphor (indecision as an affliction) is used with damaging inconsistency—sometimes Kunkel deploys it with some earnestness, other times with irony, and most often with some sense of hesitation. He continually erases the real effects of the metaphor, leaving the reader sure only of the fact that it is a metaphor. Of course, to write a book with a decisive metaphor concerning indecision might be a self-defeating project, and I think it is a crucial issue for Kunkel's (and my) generation, so I applaud Kunkel's attempt.

Reviewers (other than Michael Agger) tend to read Kunkel's metaphor as relating indecision to a private affliction, rather than a social/political affliction. I suppose their mistake is not entirely their fault; the book was billed as a fictionalized memoir, and those tend to turn the private realm of the author's life public, but not political. And even if it isn't a memoir, it's easy to read Indecision in the context of other bildungsromane that are markedly apolitical (Salinger, primarily). The novel and its narrator also don't sound political in a climate which equates politics with vituperation and broadsides. Dwight is an extremely congenial voice, and it's difficult to hear passion in the midst of that sea of tranquility.

In these contexts, the novel's politics begin to seem peripheral, or even superfluous—as personality quirks the characters possess (or don't), rather than something the novel itself tries to animate. But make no mistake: Kunkel's book is centrally concerned with questioning the nature and dynamics of the grounds for political action, especially for young people.

If I am correct in assuming this is the central question, it becomes easy to see why the novel's metaphor ultimately does not measure up to its ambition. An analysis of the grounds for political action cannot end with answering the question of how and why, in this case, young people choose to become politically active or aware. In other words, the novel cannot merely ask, how can indecision be overcome? It must also ask (and I think it does, implicitly) what the political worth of decisiveness is, and what its dangers are.

I say it does ask these questions implicitly because of the inclusions of Heidegger and 9/11. Heidegger is smuggled in under another name, but acknowledged in a note following the text, and the events of 9/11 occupy the narrative and emotional center position of the novel. Kunkel also has written (brilliantly) of the connections and tensions between terrorists and novelists as in some sense rivals (the DeLillo thesis).

Putting Heidegger and 9/11 into the novel illustrates the dangers of decisive political action: terrorism and Heidegger's Rektoratsrede are frightening examples of sudden (although deliberate) political awakening. The fact that these fears are presented only implicitly is unfortunate for the novel, as much for the imbalance it creates narratively as for its ideological coherence.

What Kunkel tries to do to correct this lack of balance and coherence is, however, tremendously interesting, both more subtle and more obvious. Rather than further examine Heidegger and terrorism as bad examples of political decisiveness opposed to the good political decisiveness of Brigid and his sister (and eventually Dwight), Kunkel opposes indecision to its most obvious antithesis: impulsiveness.

But here comes the subtlety: in the context of political action, someone who at least appears to be upholding the cause of revolutionary or radical political engagement should, one would think, favor and promote political impulsiveness and disdain political indecision. I would not go so far to argue that Kunkel ends up praising political indecision, but the ending of the novel suggests a suspicion of impulsiveness and a qualified embrace of what may seem (to either a revolutionary or a reactionary) to be indecision.

Indecision seems to be as sterile for the growth of radical revolutionary politics (one of Kunkel's themes) as it would be for romance (another theme, perhaps the other theme). In some intuitive way, indecision is counterrevolutionary, because impotent. It is countered by, once again intuitively speaking, revolutionary impulsiveness, brash and unmeasured action. The basic, broad-brimmed narrative bears this out: Dwight loses his indecisiveness and gains both love and revolutionary fervor while he becomes more spontaneous and less dependent on foreign influences (such as the coin he flips) making his decisions for him. This quasi-bildungsroman, then, is a tale of growth-by-decision.

However, by "indecision," we seem naturally to understand something different by the term than the condition of abulia as Dwight describes it. Rather than as a complete absence of decisions, we see it as something more along the lines of a gridlock of intentions, or, closer to the thing, the state of numbness we feel when confronted with the persistence of this gridlock. We tend to think of indecision somewhat like a computer freezing—too much strain or input has blocked any possible output, and it is helpless to prioritize tasks on its own to accomplish all commands. And in a world thrashed with thousands of ephemeral freedoms, we find this gridlock characteristic of social experience even more than private experience. And increasingly, we recognize (with Žižek) that the increase of inconsequential decisions that capitalism has forced on us translates into political indecision—there are simply too many needs to address; factionalism and identity politics increases, allowing governments to do nothing as we make more and more requests of them.

However, the ending of the novel suggests that focused, consistent, low-level, government-independent action, which may look from the outside like a continuance of the listless activities of indecision, is the strongest option to create political change. This kind of burrowing action does, in fact, restrict the number and frequency of decisions one makes; a political free-swinger like Chris Hitchens, because of his ostentatious spontaneity, seems much more "free-thinking" than a diligent activist who sticks to her message and doesn't waver. The lip-service given to "free-thinking" and the disdain heaped upon political "orthodoxy" (e.g. political correctness or socialism or anything that smacks of a consistent program for greater equality) have been historical methods of discrediting left-liberals who espouse these views or these ambitions. And leftists rarely help, canonizing the impulsive and ignoring the merely diligent.

For Kunkel, I believe radical/revolutionary political action is plodding, like the writing of a novel—it is no mistake that Dwight's newly formed political engagement coincides with the composition of this narrative. This novel-like political engagement looks a lot like indecision—the frozen computer version. Gridlock is the reality of revolutionary politics, not flash and rallies. Terrorism, on the other hand, is utterly reliant on the spectacle, and that reliance precludes any actions but those whose appearance is most brazen, most impulsive, most spontaneous, most isolated from the world it challenges.

By the end of Indecision, the impulsiveness Dwight experiences while on bobohuariza and in the arms of Brigid has gone, but a lasting change has occurred, and Dwight remains just as committed, just as decisive, but ostensibly just as inconsequential. I think the challenge of the novel is to see Dwight as truly changed and truly effective in his new life, even, perhaps, truly fulfilled. It is a challenge first of all to read the novel as a political statement, and second to read it as saying, essentially, that impulsiveness is a characteristic which vitiates true action (political or, for what it's worth, romantic) more surely than indecisiveness possibly can.

Kunkel does offer an answer to the question I said he asked above: what are the grounds for political action, especially for young people? His reply: "only when other people have the same freedom which we have devoted ourselves to squandering—only then will we really finally know what we should have done with ours in the first place." In other words, the only way out is through: we must work for others' freedom to know the nature and value of ours. This is only a middle-age passage and a rash of mysticism away from the words of Heidegger, in his interview with Der Spiegel: "Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god."

"To prepare readiness"—a difficult motto to start a revolution with, and I think Kunkel knows this, leaving Agger's aforementioned review (the only one I know to engage with Kunkel politically) somewhat beside the point. Kunkel can't intend his novel to be a democratic socialist version of The Fountainhead—that kind of indoctrination/mindless emulation is precisely the impulsive form of political engagement we need to avoid.

Other than Agger, the reviewers' penchant for reading the politics out of Indecision is unfortunate; while most of them (and I) agree that its characters and its narrative voice are both enjoyable and accomplished, the centrality of politics to the novel makes it much more interesting, at least for this reader.

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