Ah, the bits that are thrown away by writers in passing! I’m reading an essay collection by Mary McCarthy – yes, I’m one of that phantom audience who reads old essay collections - and in a review of Simone de Beauvoir’s account of her American tour, I come upon this bit of diamond fit for a sceptre that was, as it were, thrown away in a bit of meat for the periodical grinder:
“On an American leafing through the pages of an old library copy, the book has a strange effect. It is as though an inhabitant of Lilliput or Brobdingnag, coming upon a copy of Gulliver's
Travels, sat down to read, in a foreign tongue, of his own local customs codified by an observer of a different species: everything is at once familiar and distorted. The landmarks are there,
and some of the institutions and personages—Eighth Avenue, Broadway, Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, Harvard, Yale, Vassar, literary celebrities concealed under initials; here are the
drugstores and the cafeterias and the busses and the traffic lights —and yet it is all wrong, schematized, rationalized, like a scale model under glass.”
This is, first of all, a great idea for a short story, say by Borges. Or by Philip Dick. Second of all, I think it exactly hits the sentiments of those whose lives are taken up, stolen as material, by the writer. At the moment there is a silly lawsuit going on between Scarlett Johanssen and some French novelist who used her name and certain biographic facts for the protagonist of one of his novels. Surely Johanssen – if she has read the book, instead of simply listening to a précis presented by one of her handlers – has had that feeling of déjà jamais vu – which is when something happens that you are sure has happened before, but not like it is happening now. McCarthy was right to choose Swift’s book, since its play on perspectives is so thorough that one never thinks of the Lilliputians reading it, or the Brobdignaians getting out their microscopes to trace its print. Reversal does not, in this world, trump reversal – the negation of the negation does not bring us back to equilibrium. This is what consciousness is like.