Eileen Myles’s Pathetic Literature
(Grove Atlantic, 2022)
Maybe there’s something inherently pathetic about the anthology as a form. The lamentations of discerning editors transmogrify the foreword into a confessional for the airing of shortcomings: texts omitted due to the constraints of publishing under capitalism, authors bypassed because of personal blind spots, perhaps a gloss on the systemic faults endemic to the movement under discussion. When it comes to the inbuilt failure of the anthologizing endeavor and its encyclopedic aspirations, the reader isn’t off the hook, either. Excerpts from texts that we have been meaning to read—should have read, perhaps will not read—in their entirety may be wayfinders as we traverse a topic’s uneven terrain, but they are also unsightly testaments to tsundoku, the stack of untouched books on the nightstand that serves as a pitiful monument to minor mortifications.
How delightfully on the nose, then, that poet Eileen Myles elected to compile an anthology devoted to the not-so-vaunted category of pathetic literature. “I think everyone should be able to pick a word that moves them, and occupy it,” writes Myles in the book’s afterword. Ground was laid for the project in 2006. Spurred by a fascination with and irritation at the appropriative relationship between commercially and critically successful “pathetic masculinity” in visual art and the marginalized feminist and lesbian craft that preceded it, the queer maverick poet organized a seminar on pathetic literature at University of California, San Diego. At an accompanying conference, which Myles describes as dimly lit and poorly attended, they gave an impassioned presentation on foam, a purposeless, sloppy excess that would become a significant motif in the anthology published more than a decade later—from Can Xue’s story of a vociferously critical mother dissolved into dirty soap bubbles, to Michael McClure’s slivered poem for Philip Whalen, in which the self is characterized as foam without origin or destination.
Sheathed in a cover depicting a disconnected trio smoking, napping, and holding out a cat by that limner of contemporary pathos, Nicole Eisenman, Pathetic Literature surpasses six-hundred pages without ever seeming bloated. The book’s ample size gestures to the enormity of the pathetic as an organizing principle or theme, an ecumenical affect that has no fealty to period, place, or genre (though it does seem to flourish—or, perhaps more accurately, languish—in a diaristic or epistolary mode). Thrilling in its unerring quality and lurching pace, Myles’s engaging collection encompasses essays, poems, short stories, letters, and book excerpts from over one hundred authors connected to movements ranging from Magical Realism to the Black Radical Tradition to Romanticism. Figures associated with or influenced by New Narrative, including Robert Glück, Kathy Acker, Camille Roy, and Kevin Killian, are prominently featured. A queer-led literary movement that originated in San Francisco in the late 1970s on the brink of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, New Narrative proffered transgressive metatextual experiments that were just as likely to include gossip as theory. The frequently irresistible writing associated with the movement, a lightning rod for the pathetic, foregrounds the messy realities of the body, divulging highly personal, intrinsically political, embodied experiences of sex, desire, sickness, and identity.
What’s pathetic? According to Merriam-Webster, “1. having a capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity; 2. marked by sorrow or melancholy: sad; 3. pitifully inferior or inadequate; 4. absurd, laughable.” What’s pathetic in Pathetic Literature? Certainly, emotional unavailability—encapsulated by two New Narrative authors’ engrossing journeys into the bowels of romantic obsession and rejection, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and Dodie Bellamy’s “Fat Chance.” Being jealous or critical of famous writers, too, as seen in Jack Halberstam’s hilarious parody of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and The Cyborg Jillian Weise’s electric rant against Maggie Smith’s popular poem “Good Bones.” The list of experiences coded as pathetic here is long and unsparing, even brutal. Writing (“The act of writing as we know is pathetic,” Myles confirms), waiting, familial relationships, travel, desk jobs, manual labor, eldercare, excreta, sexual masochism, religion, addiction, war, racism, refugee camps, homophobia, xenophobia, terminal illness, death. Readers are destabilized as the emotional register skitters and swoops within and across the texts.
The pieces in which these themes appear are arranged quasi-alphabetically according to the author’s first name, giving rise to unexpected juxtapositions and provoking a careening effect. Eileen Myles’s typewritten campaign letter from their failed presidential bid in 1991—“far more Americans are like me than George Bush,” they write, after noting that they live under the poverty line without health care—abuts an excerpt from Djuna Barnes’s sapphic classic, the 1936 Nightwood, in which an absent lover chillingly becomes “an amputation that Nora could not renounce.” Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, a pathetic literature progenitor hailing from about 1000 CE, is a diary of life in Japan’s elegant Heian court that intersperses gossip and observation with self-reflection and list-poems (to the tune of “Things now useless that recall a glorious past” and “People who look as though things are difficult for them”). A selection of the courtier’s musings, which she worried might strike others as “excessive and objectionable,” appears alongside a choice slice of Samuel R. Delany’s queer, working-class nonfiction-memoir on the sanitization of a formerly seamy Times Square, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Delany’s excerpted writing on the importance of “contact”—essentially random, cross-class interaction in public space, a rubric under which conversations with grocery cashiers and casual sex in public restrooms both fall—chimes with the logic of Pathetic Literature. “Pathetic,” in the context of this anthology, might be understood as a commons that facilitates such random contact, a place for texts to meet and be changed.
In thematically or affectively unifying the diverse texts in Myles’s collection, the pathetic reveals itself to be a container that holds a sizable portion of human experience—despite societal claims to the contrary, perhaps trumpeted most loudly by people in positions of power. Rejecting the urge to erase, minimize, or turn away from an unsightly feeling, the writers included in this anthology audaciously inhabit a sentiment that society exhorts its high-functioning citizenry to disown. The beautiful, weird aggregate that results is profoundly, pathetically human.