Some time ago, in the early 21st century, I began teaching a class on literary theory. In the very first session of this class, before saying anything to my students, I set the following items on a table: honey, a glass vase, and a book. I placed the book in the vase and began slowly pouring honey, raw, into that decorative container, onto and over the book, until the book was fully submerged underhoney, wholly immersed inhoney.
When I was done, when the honey ran out, when I was effectively outofhoney, as far as I recall, I told the class the following: this is what we'll be doing for the next ten weeks. Not merely subjecting literature to analysis through various theoretical lenses;, not merely using theory to examine the internal friction of meaning inherent in a book, which is, physically and textually speaking, neither solid nor liquid but exists somewhere in between those two realms;, and not merely investigating all books' determined resistance to deformation as measured by the force of meaning in each sentence per unit area, but, more importantly, we will spend these ten weeks immersing literature and ourselves in theory. Each week, I said, licking some honey off my fingers, we will dive into another discursive substance, sweet and strange, alien and viscous.
I hear you asking, you who are sitting at the very back of this book, who was sleeping earlier, what book did you choose? I could be mistaken, but I think the book may have been a paperback of an Alistair MacLean novel, either Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone; I intentionally chose an example of popular fiction, a book not considered to be literary; in retrospect, it was an interesting choice given the proximity of our names, Alistair McCartney and Alistair MacLean, like twins who are almost identical, but not quite. I'm sure Lacan and the psychoanalytic school of literary criticism would have some intriguing things to say about this choice; everybody read MacLean when I was a boy, but perhaps not anymore.
I'm afraid I don't recall much of the remaining ten weeks of the class. I know I taught Bakhtin and talked about how, during the siege of Leningrad, due to the scarcity of paper, he was forced to smoke the only copy of the book he was working on at the time, a manuscript on the 18th century bildungsroman that had taken him ten years to write, a book that, once smoked, he could not bring himself to re-write, though he famously, if apocryphally, said that smoking one's book is preferable to publishing it.
And as for your question regarding what I eventually did with the honey and the book and the vase? I know I kept the assemblage in the office where I was installed for a while, but gradually the chemical interaction between the honey and the book resulted in an odor that was far from sweet, and although I did not mind, one of my superiors came to me and said my honeyed book was a health hazard and there had been complaints, and I was ordered to dispose of it.
Even though I taught this class a number of times, I never repeated the action with the honey and the book, and eventually became disinterested in literary theory, becoming more attentive to what I can understand through my senses rather than through my reason; perhaps, given the nature of my inaugural bookhoneyed gesture, I have always been drawn more towards the tactile and the experiential and the anti-reasonable. Either way I ultimately abandoned literary theory; however, I think I may be coming back to it, for during that gap of ten or more years in which I did not teach the subject, I have been patiently and quietly formulating my own deliriously systematic theory of bookhoney.
You know, I was quite upset by how you treated those books, Richard says to me.
Richard is a professor of political philosophy and we are sitting in a bar, not much larger than this room, but without this harsh fluorescent light, pleasantly darker, drinking gin- and- tonics, watching the go-go boys. Richard is referring to an incident in which I tossed and flung some books around. Specifically, a reading I did for my first book, an encyclopedia of obsessions, you probably haven't heard of it, in which I randomly read from and then proceeded to hurl with a certain force through the air with a combined movement of my arms and hands some volumes of the actual World Book Encyclopedia.
As I admire one go-go boy in particular—he appears to be of Eastern European extraction—I am somewhat mesmerized, he makes my thoughts disappear, as if he is a kind of underdressed magician—I come to my own defense. I explain or try to explain the book throwing in the context of Dada, as a Dadaist gesture.
That would have made sense within the context of the 20th century, Richard says, in a century when notions of high culture and bourgeois literature still existed. But within the context of the 21st century, when books and literature are devalued, on an ethical level, the gesture had an entirely different resonance. Every time one of those books hit the ground, he says, I shuddered.
Richard is remarkably lucid and articulate on gin. I am less so and am also intently focused on the swaying of the go-go boy’s hips, which mark time like a metronome, tick, tick. I am positively hip-notized. I explain, or try to, that I don’t mind that he was upset, an artist has no obligation whatsoever to ethical systems, the function of an artist is to disturb the surface of the world. I tell Richard that I am interested in developing an aesthetic of nihilism, specifically nihilism of a homosexual persuasion, and that I am proud to identify as a book-thrower, this is my one and true identity, as long as there are books, there will be book-throwers, and if I wanted to concern myself with ethics, I would have become a philosopher.
I have even more arguments stored somewhere in my theoretical arsenal, something to do with wanting to convey via my book-throwing a feeling of Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, of how, just as we are flung violently and randomly into the world, we are flung violently and arbitrarily into a book, how being and writing and reading are acts of throwing, or perhaps swaying and swinging, but that go-go boy of Slavic extraction has come down from his plinth (is that the right word?) and is working the room in the bar which was remarkably spatially similar to this room and has since disappeared along with Richard, who has since disappeared, and as the boy sidles up to me I get one of those involuntary shivers, I believe they're called hypnic jerks. Bookshudders. Boyshudders. Shuddering—I say to Richard, who is pulling out some crumpled dollar bills—isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Alistair McCartney is the author of two novels, The End of the World Book (2008) and The Disintegrations (2017), which won The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. He is currently working on a book of poetry and hybrid texts. Originally from Australia, he lives in Los Angeles where he directs Antioch University LA 's undergraduate creative writing concentration and teaches fiction in their MFA Program.