Monday, December 12, 2016

Deresiewicz v. D’Agata

“It kills me to think that there are going to be people walking around who believe that Socrates was an essayist because a self-important ignoramus named D’Agata told them so”: William Deresiewicz writes in the Atlantic about John D’Agata’s conception of the essay and his blithe disregard for fact.

I gave up on D’Agata on the second page of The Lifespan of a Fact (2012, co-authored with Jim Fingal). Curious about the anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), I just looked at Amazon to see what D’Agata says about Thomas Browne. A sourceless sentence that D’Agata presents as George Orwell’s made me curious:

It is Browne’s introspection which shifted us from the outside world of rhetoric, to the inner and private world of mystery and wonder.
It turns out that the sentence is impossible to find online. As far as I can tell, it cannot be found in Orwell’s work. And it turns out that a reviewer wondered about this very sentence in 2010. I did find a version of the sentence in David Shields‘s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010):
It is Sir Thomas Browne’s introspection that shifted us from the outside world of rhetoric to the inner and private world of mystery and wonder.
In Shields’s book the sentence is attributed only to “Orwell,” without further detail. Shields quotes from or cites D’Agata frequently. I think it’s reasonable to wonder whether the sentence about Browne is really from Orwell. Surely D’Agata must know.

But that’s the end of my look at John D’Agata’s work. Arthur Schopenhauer: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”

[Does the sentence even sound like Orwell?]


December 15: I e-mailed D’Agata asking about a source for the sentence and received an automated “away” message making it clear that he will not be replying.

A related post
Make it known (Four sources for three D’Agata epigraphs: Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, and the poet who first put those three together, Douglas Crase)

comments: 3

Pete said...

Doesn't sound like Orwell to me. More like someone from the Oxford ivory tower.

Stefan said...

I was already thinking up this comment when I got to your question about whether the passage sounds like Orwell. It sure doesn't. It is made of the kind of language that Orwell would mock as "sheer humbug" in "Politics and the English Language."

Michael Leddy said...

I e-mailed D’Agata this morning to ask about a source for the sentence and received an automated reply:

    I'm away!
    Far, far away . . .

    So far away, in fact, that unless you're my
    mom or a handsome man with oodles of money,
    I will probably not reply.

So that’s that. I realize now that I zoomed in on the quoted sentence in the same way that I used to suss out plagiarism in student writing — just sensing that something isn’t right. “Mystery and wonder”: that’s Orwell?