Andrew S.: Hi, you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. My name is Andrew Saintsing. This is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak with UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Marianne Kaletzky from the Department of Comparative Literature. Hi, Marianne. How are you doing today?
Marianne K.: I'm well. How are you?
Andrew S.: I'm doing well.
Marianne K.: Thanks for having me on your show.
Andrew S.: Yeah, it's great for you to be here. It's great to have you here. So, the reason I brought you on, I was looking through possible guests, and I found your information online. I saw that you had read a book that I have read and that I've never actually spoken to someone else who's read that book.
Marianne K.: It's a long book, so that's not that unusual.
Andrew S.: Right. So, the book is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. I assume, probably lots of people listening won't have heard of that book either, so maybe you could describe it a little.
Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess I can describe Bolaño a little bit. He's a Chilean writer who was an adult during the military coup in Chile, which put out a power their socialist government, brought Augusto Pinochet into power, a dictator who went about kind of systematically torturing a lot of people who had been involved in socialist and left wing movements. Bolaño was actually somebody who was rounded up by Pinochet. Eventually, he was freed, and then he became an exile living in different places outside Chile especially in his later life in Spain and kind of in some ways, self-consciously cultivated a mystique around himself that involved things like heroin addiction, this real image of the sort of tortured artist.
He has a number of novels that have been coming out in English in translation over the past 10 years. 2666 is the last one. It was actually published posthumously after his early death, and so it's an unfinished novel that was partly assembled by his editor. It's surprising that it was unfinished because it is, as you know, [crosstalk].
Andrew S.: Massive.
Marianne K.: Possibly, I think-
Andrew S.: Like 900 pages?
Marianne K.: Yeah, exactly. Almost a thousand pages in the English translation, so it's a sprawling book that's hard to describe. It's, in some senses, a mystery.
Andrew S.: Right. Actually, I've never understood the title of it. Do you know what the title means?
Marianne K.: The title is a mystery in itself, and there've been a lot of speculations as to what it might mean. It's kind of an apocalyptic novel, right? So, we can see it as looking forward to some year kind of associated with the number of the Beast, 666, right? Maybe this is the year of the future apocalypse, but it's never directly referenced in the book. So, that's one of the many kind of strange and kind of hallucinatory aspects of this book, is the title that's never explained.
Andrew S.: Right. Wow, so you gave like all that information about Roberto Bolaño, and I knew none of that when I read the book. When you a read a novel, do you find that you have to do all this research to contextualize it, to really get the most out of it or ...
Marianne K.: I mean, I think there are so many ways into a novel, and in general, I always say the best way in is your own way in. Maybe you'll tell me your own way in. For Bolaño, I had a specific approach, which is I actually hadn't read his work until I was actually in Chile in, what would that have been, 2006, and I was working at a newspaper. That was when his work was just starting to take off in English translation, and so people at this newspaper in the arts and letters section, which was where I worked, were obviously really excited that this Chilean writer was taking off in a kind of worldwide way. So, I knew the sort of culture and the idea and the image around him before I actually read the work. So, it was kind of reversed in that way from how I usually do it, which is usually, I pick up a book, and something about it speaks to me. I think that's how most of us are. I don't know what it was about 2666 for you.
Andrew S.: I think probably that title. I was just looking through books at a shelf. I was probably looking for ... Yeah, I had this phase where I was interested in reading more Latin American authors, and so I'd heard about Roberto Bolaño, and then I saw this book jacket. Looked really interesting. Like you said, it's complete mystery. So, I started reading it. It had, I don't know, this kind of atmosphere to it on the first couple of pages, right? It starts with that mystery, right, where the critics are like reading a book by a mysterious author. Maybe, I guess he kind of saw himself in that. Was it a German author?
Marianne K.: It's a German author. Yeah, with an Italian name, which is again, this kind of constant sense that you can't quite get a grasp on everything that's going on. So, yeah. He has a pseudonym, all kinds of strange kind of mysterious things around this author.
Andrew S.: Yeah, really interesting. There's a part in that book, I think it's towards the end. I always love this, like when you're reading a book, and the author kind of seems to be like justifying something about it, about what they've written. He basically just says you should read long books because it's where the author really can struggle with something. What do you think about that? Do you think long books are where we get kind of the most out of, or we get to see really what our author is trying to say or ... I also remember I read in the preface to Jorge Luis Borges, one of his Sword story collections, basically said you should be able to say whatever you want to say in five pages, right? So, I guess, I don't know. That's like two interesting philosophies.
Marianne K.: Well, yeah, absolutely. I think especially in the 20th century, we kind of see the novel especially going in two different directions. One of which is really condensed, the sort of Kafka mode where the language is pared down, and the book is often really short or someone like Coetzee, the South African writer who tends to write these, kind of just 100-page long books or the really sprawling novel.
For me, I've always the sprawling novel because of all the little rabbit holes you can go down. I'm writing a dissertation on distraction. I'm very much a partisan of distraction, and so yeah, things like Joyce's Ulysses, like 2666 where it's not all sort of sustained attention to one idea, but there are so many different kinds of modes of engagement and motifs that go away and come back.
What I think is so interesting in 2666 is there is really this one governing landscape, which is this desert border town called Santa Teresa, and it's really evoked, I don't know if you agree, but so vividly as this kind of apocalyptic desert landscape, and yet, the book goes to so many different literal geographic locations, right? Ukraine during the Second World War, and someone has a hallucination where they're traveling in China, I think, right? It really is able to go to so many places. I think it still coheres, but there are just so many avenues of exploration. I like that.
Andrew S.: Right, yeah. I guess we'll talk a little bit about your dissertation in a second, but so basically, you read 19th century, more English literature, but I try to read those like massive books by the postmodernists, by Americans like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Do you ever read those books looking for like kind of just distracted-
Marianne K.: Or Infinite Jest.
Andrew S.: Right.
Marianne K.: Yeah, I mean I think it's a really interesting question of kind of what happens to the distracted sensibility and postmodernism? Often, I think we see it being cultivated really self-consciously in a way that that's not there necessarily in the 19th century novel where something a little bit more complicated is going on, but yeah, I think certainly with something Infinite Jest where David Foster Wallace puts in his own footnotes, right, it's kind of staging this process where you can get distracted and look at the footnote and come back to the text, right? There's this sort of constant splitting of attention. I do find that interesting. I think for me, there's something about Infinite Jest that it's a bit too neatly brought together. Something like 2666, it's a lot messier. I actually, I like that more. There are more loose sentences.
Andrew S.: Ah, okay, cool. Can you just give us more of aN overview of your dissertation so that we know a little bit more about that?
Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. So, it's a dissertation about distraction, as I said, and it's really making two claims, right? One is a sort of cultural history claim, and one is a claim that has more to do with aesthetics, the discipline of kind of how we think about perception and especially how we think about our approach to works of art.
So, the sort of cultural history claim is really about the way that attention gets made a virtue during the 19th century. Before that, it wasn't really, and it especially wasn't in the sense that 19th century thinkers and the Victorians make it a virtue, which is that attention is this form of self-control, right? It's a way that you block out unproductive thoughts and unproductive impressions in the world to focus on what really matters, which in general is your work. So, I give a history of that and of the way that attention is made into this form of self-discipline, and that actually excludes all kinds of interesting things, right, that you might notice when you're not disciplining yourself so much to focus on these sorts of bureaucratic tasks or problem solving, all the things that Victorians really like. So, one of the cases I'm making is about how distraction is marginalized, and it's made a problem in the Victorian era, and that's still how we think about it now, right? It's something that we need to resist and avoid, and that wasn't necessarily true before.
Then, the second thing I'm doing is actually making a claim for why I think we shouldn't resist and avoid distraction because I think that so often, really creative thinking or critical thinking, thinking that sort of unsettles our previous paradigm, it comes about through moments of distraction, right, because the thing that actually will make us think differently is something that's so outside our current framework that we only sort of see it out of the corner of our eye, right? So, really there's something to be said, I think, for distraction as a mode of creativity or a spur to critical thinking, right? There's something to be said for not just getting rid of it or treating it like a negative phenomenon that we need to avoid.
Andrew S.: We tend to think of the internet distracting us and having all these stimuli coming at us as problematic, but maybe it's not?
Marianne K.: I think it's not necessarily, and I guess it depends. One of the things I do is to distinguish between different kinds of distraction, right? I think there's a kind of distraction that actually takes us outside ourselves, right? You're on BART, you're trying to write an email or whatever, and you know somebody is there, some dance crew that comes on the train or somebody is having a conversation about how their rent is going up. Those are all kinds of distractions that actually might attune us to a community and the public world and also, the distractions that come up in our own mind where we're going about writing a report, but we noticed that some things a little bit off and going down that route, like actually paying attention to that distraction could maybe lead us to a new way of thinking.
So, those kinds of distractions where we're sort of noticing something outside ourselves or something that we didn't expect, those are the ones I'm really kind of invested in. Something like our phones, I think it is distraction, but it's not unexpected in the same way that the break-dancing crew on BART is because if you think about the media on our phones, they're also carefully curated for our preexisting interests. So, in a certain way, I'm interested in the kind of distraction that interrupts our usual habits of thinking and of perception. I think a lot of what we see on our phones and on the internet actually reinforces those habits. So, there's maybe a different claim to be made for noticing things on BART or in the street that you don't expect and that aren't necessarily what you were trying to do than to be made for looking at your phone.
Andrew S.: I see. So, it's sort of a distinction between distraction we choose for ourselves and distraction that comes at us unexpectedly.
Marianne K.: Yeah, or distraction that's produced ... I mean, not to be too much of a Marxist, although we can talk about that too, but there's, I think, a distinction between distraction that's produced for corporate ends and distraction that comes about in other ways, either from our own thought or from people in the world around us.
Andrew S.: When you read a novel, you kind of have to think about how it relates to what your research is, right? So, I guess you're kind of perpetually distracted, right, when you're reading a novel?
Marianne K.: I mean, that, for me, is really a huge part of the question because what I noticed when I was reading all these treatises, especially these slightly more popular treatises in the New York Times that said there's a crisis of the attention span, right, this is the idea. There's a national crisis with the attention span. No one can pay attention. They would always recommend reading 19th century novels as a kind of workout of training your attention so that you wouldn't get distracted all the time, right?
Yeah, exactly as you say, so much of those novels, in many cases, it's not just about kind of moving forward with one particular plot. There are these little things that you get caught in and not only are there sort of distracting details within the novel itself, but for me, the best moment, I think always, when I'm reading a 19th century novel if it's Tolstoy or something is the moment when they say something about how ... and that's the way it is when you're talking to someone who's had one too many drinks, and you have that moment where you almost put the book down or at least you look up from it, and you're like, "Oh, right. I remember that other day, I was talking to someone, and in fact, they had had one too many drinks, and it was that way." Right?
Andrew S.: Right.
Marianne K.: It's actually the kind of cognitive processes that it starts or maybe more interesting and more pleasurable than just this rigid focus on getting on the plot.
Andrew S.: Yeah, I've never understood this idea where people want to just be able to read a certain number of pages in a certain amount of time, right? It's like you have to just go with the flow of what you're reading, right? Like you said, this page might take a long time because there's so much that either maybe it's difficult to read what the author is saying, or it's just everything the author is saying is making you think about something else. Then, there's some parts of the text where it's just like, "All right, this is getting me from one part of the novel to another part." [crosstalk]
Marianne K.: Yeah. That flexibility is really nice about novels, yeah, that you can have parts where you engage more intensely and parts where you step back. That's what I find ... Because I work on this now, I kind of am interested in the ways people read now and attention and distraction in that context. So, I actually tried a speed reading program, and I found it really anxiogenic and horrible because I don't know if you tried one, so these words just flash before your eyes, and you can't go back, right? It's faster and faster, so, it's not like listening to an audiobook. It's much faster than that. The idea is that you'll just have to train yourself to take in the important essence of the text, but yeah, it's all the kind of fun of reflection and unexpected thought and involuntary memory as Proust would say. That's all lost when you're having these words flash before your eyes.
Andrew S.: Right. What do you think is the point of a novel in some ways, right, like what is the author trying to do, and what are you trying to do? So, clearly, you don't think it's just to quickly read through and just get the basic plot line, right?
Marianne K.: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess it's a big question.
Andrew S.: Right. Sorry to put that on you.
Marianne K.: Yeah, I guess I can only answer because we're in this academic world, right, it's like we can only answer by referring to other people who've maybe actually had the fortitude to answer the question, but I guess, so there's this Russian thinker from the early 20th century named Viktor Shklovsky, and his whole theory of art is art de-familiarizes the world by which, he means that actually, you go around the world, and you see things and interact with them so many times that your interaction with them becomes kind of automatic, right? So, you see a door, and you don't actually notice anything about how this particular door looks, what color it's painted, the weird notches in the side because you just think of the purpose of it, which is you can open and close it.
So, actually, so much of what's rich about what we perceive is lost because of this process of automatization because we need to go about the world and the ways that we need to go about the world make it so that our perception is more and more automatic, and we don't really notice what's around us. So, for him, and I think I have to agree here, the purpose of art is it makes it more difficult to see the world, so you might have a door described in a weird way as like a panel of woods swinging on hinges, and so you kind of have to work to figure out what the thing is. Actually, in that way, art allows you to see the world again, right? It's been made invisible to you because everything is so habitual, but now, it's kind of returned to you in a new form.
So, for me, I mean, I think there's a particular kind of literature that really does that. I think that that is interesting to me, right, that ability to see things in a new way because you've missed them so many times, you know, and so it's not necessarily that you're confronted with a whole new reality, but that you see your own reality anew because it's been represented in a particular way.
Andrew S.: Yeah, that kind of fits in well with the distraction idea, right?
Marianne K.: Yeah. Yeah, so it's good. So, I have a consistent maybe framework way of looking at the world, but yeah, I think so for me, that's maybe part of it, but I think people are making all kinds of different claims for novels now and for fiction in general. Some people want to claim that novels make you more ethical because they teach you to sympathize with other people. I guess other people like these New York Times people I was talking about want to claim that they give you this great attention span, and then you can do data entry for 15 hours. So, I think people are thinking about this question in different ways, but for me, I do think there's something about that, just being able to see your own world in a new way. That's exciting.
Andrew S.: Right. Then, kind of a related question but a little different, so, we started by talking about 2666, which is this massive novel, which probably not very many people will read. I don't exactly know how to frame this question, but what are your thoughts on these novels that these authors put so much of themselves into, but then very few people will literally read versus maybe like Hemingway or something where it's very accessible and not necessarily everyone gets everything out of it, but basically anyone could pick up Hemingway and read it?
Marianne K.: Yeah. I mean, this is really a question for me, not just with Bolaño but especially ... One of my dissertation chapters is on James Joyce and Ulysses, which is one of these books that's really famously, people say, not readable outside academia, right, or you need to take it in a class. I can't speak to how many people realistically will read Ulysses, just given the economic constraints that press on our lives and the fact that I understand that if you're working two jobs and you have kids, it may not be your first priority, but I do think it's wrong to say that Ulysses isn't accessible in the sense that an ordinary person can't pick it up and read it because I actually think one can. I think that a lot of ... I mean, this is a comment that's a bit critical of academia, but I think sometimes, we present this idea that just because having certain knowledge could help you understand and work better, it slips into the idea that you have to have all this knowledge to even approach it.
I think especially with something Ulysses, everyone who reads it including people who have a really deep academic background, enjoys an Irish history and the cannon of English literature, there are things that they miss or that they don't get. There are other things that they pick up on just because they happen to be attuned to that particular thing. So, I think with Joyce, with Bolaño, I do think people can pick up these books and make their own way through them, right, which doesn't necessarily mean having all the "right knowledge" but that they are stories. Actually, with both those novels, they're very vivid characters, and there are really kind of governing sort of drives and questions and tensions and desires that I think anyone can sort of grab onto.
Andrew S.: Right. I didn't mean that ... I hope I didn't imply that some people can't read these books. I have a science background, and so, I mean I personally feel like anyone could do science, but there's lots of people who see math or see science, and then I think their mind just goes blank, or they just don't want to do it, and they tell themselves they can't do it. I feel like that's kind of what happens with these bigger novels, right? They look at this big tome, and they're like, "Ah, I can't read this." Then, they just go for something shorter, more accessible in the sense that it won't take a lot of themselves to get something out of it.
Marianne K.: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a really interesting question, and I don't know if you have thoughts about it in the sciences of where that sense is produced. I mean, I think it goes further back certainly than just academia, right? There's something about the way maybe that K through 12 education works in this country that people who don't feel set apart for a certain discipline then feel like they can't even approach that discipline.
Andrew S.: Right. I don't know if I've formulated enough thoughts on that to really say something about it, but yeah, I agree. I think it happens definitely in K through 12. You can tell like just my memories of going through school by middle school, there are people who are just saying, "Oh, I'm not good at math." So, I don't know when exactly that happens. I guess it's hard to tell. Is it something that educators could improve on, or is it something that people are going tell themselves anyway? Yeah, I don't know.
Marianne K.: Right. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think there is ... I'm always kind of want to blame current historical and economic conditions. I do think especially now, and you see it with our students, there is such a sense that jobs are scarce and resources are scarce, and you really need to find the one place that you can sort of maximize your potential, and so people don't want to waste their time doing things that they're not good at.
Andrew S.: Right.
Marianne K.: I do think that it's a lamentable situation, not only because I think you can get a lot out of disciplines you're not good at, but also sometimes, you have to get a fair way into something to know actually whether you have an aptitude for it or not. So, yeah, I don't know if it's that or exactly what, but I certainly ... I share your sense that in some ways, it's even a worse situation with people who feel like they, at some point, were set apart as not having a skill in math or science, and now, can't even approach knowledge produced in those disciplines.
Andrew S.: Right. Yeah, that's definitely something that needs to be worked on more. It's interesting. Actually, you brought up the job prospects idea and how that affects what subject matters people look into because not to make any comments about comparative literature, but that tends to be one of the categories that people say, "Oh, that's not going to set me up economically."
Marianne K.: I'd never heard that. No. Now, you're telling me. Too far in.
Andrew S.: Well, how did you power through that?
Marianne K.: Yeah, I was a really interesting case because I actually started in the sciences, which I hadn't told you before this moment, so this is a big reveal. Then, it wasn't that I stopped liking the sciences, but when I was in college, I had a couple of classes in literature that really did something to me, and so, I decided to be an English major. From there, it also wasn't a given that I would go to graduate school. I spent time outside that doing other things. I guess there's a way for me to talk about it at the level of graduate students and academics and you know what to say about job prospects there, and then also for undergrads when they kind of come and say, "I want to major in comparative literature, so, what should I do?"
So, I guess to talk about it with grad students and academics, it's in comparative literature and in many of the humanities fields and also in non-humanities fields, there is this sense of a dwindling, a shrinking job pool. A lot of that, especially in the humanities, is coming not because there just aren't jobs for people who study these fields. In fact, there are tons, especially in things like teaching writing or teaching intro literature classes, teaching foreign language classes, and so often, people will say, "You shouldn't have gone to grad school in that. You should have known that there were no positions." Actually, there are a lot of positions, but they're increasingly being switched over to temporary low paying positions, so, jobs that used to come with eventual tenure, with stable pay and benefits and time for research, now come with none of those things. That is part of this larger crisis in higher education where tuition is going up, and student debt is going up, but money spent on instruction is steadily going down.
So, my answer in that regard is I think we really need to be fighting for better quality of instruction, which also means better jobs for ourselves and really for the restoration of public education as something that is affordable and accessible to students and that also provides living wages and good jobs and research potential and room to grow for the people who work in it. Sorry about that.
Andrew S.: No problem.
Marianne K.: So, that's kind of what to say about job prospects for academics. For students, I think there's a kind of different thing too, you said, which is I do think that being a critical thinker, being someone who can sort of creatively see an issue from different sides, being someone who can communicate clearly, I think those are all skills that can go into lots of things that don't involve teaching high school English or getting a graduate degree in comparative literature. So, that's the kind of plug that I'll make for undergraduate majors.
Andrew S.: You just think writing in general just helps you in life, and you could take that and apply that to any job really?
Marianne K.: Yeah. I mean, I think writing is actually something that a lot of people are really scared of. It's kind of like math, right?
Andrew S.: Right.
Marianne K.: It's one of these skills that is so basic, and we all have to do it all the time whether we're sending a text, or we need to cut a recipe in half, but when it's named as a task that we have to do specifically, a lot of people freeze up. It's like, "I have to write this report. I absolutely can't do it. I'm no good at writing." So, I think actually kind of becoming fluent and comfortable in communicating your thoughts in written form, I think, is a massively important skill. I think it feeds into a lot of jobs.
Andrew S.: Right. Do you struggle with that still when you write?
Marianne K.: With writer's block?
Andrew S.: Yeah.
Marianne K.: I mean, yeah. I think everybody does sometimes. So, there are a lot of of books that have been written on this. There's one called how to write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day, which does not do what it says on the tin. You can't actually write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day, but it gives a few things that you can do when you have writer's block like you keep a sort of more casual first person diary about what's going well and what's going badly in the writing. At least, that way, writing is also still a place where you can express your thoughts and not just this horrible task that looms in front of you,
Andrew S.: I guess, so, there's the initial block of getting started, but then whenever I write something, I'll look back and I'll be like, "Ugh, sounds terrible." Do you ever have that feeling?
Marianne K.: I think everybody has that feeling. Yeah, I mean you have to say it's version zero, right? Everyone has that. I know people who name their documents, it's kind of Dickens article, version horrible, things like Dickens article, version really bad. Then, eventually, it's Dickens article, slightly acceptable if I've had a glass of wine. Then, finally, it becomes Dickens article kind of okay. So, I don't know. I think sometimes, it helps just to acknowledge that you have that feeling.
Andrew S.: Right. You read all of these novels by great novelists. Do you think they ever felt satisfied with what they had written?
Marianne K.: I mean, it's really interesting, and it so much depends on who you work on. There's the story of John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost. He was blind, and so he had to dictate to his daughters that apparently every morning, he would just call them into his room, and he would say, "I have to be milked," where the idea was that he would just produce this poetry in such a kind of natural, unwillful, just free way that it was like he was a cow being milked, which is a weird image, but that for him, it just happened so naturally in a kind of metabolic process. For a lot of writers I work on, people, for instance, like Joyce, they really had a lot of problems while they were writing these texts. Yeah, I think it certainly helps to keep that in mind.
I think that there is not such a correlation between being good at something and having a really easy time getting into it as we sometimes assume. That maybe goes back to our questions about math and about writing. I think we have this idea that we like as a culture that has to do with genius, and it's that sort of Mozart image where you just sit down at the piano, and you had no lessons, but you're just composing already, right? I think with literature, there are certainly some people who are like that, but there's not a kind of stable correlation between who writes great literature and sort of how easily they do it.
Andrew S.: That was really great to have this conversation. [crosstalk]
Marianne K.: Thank you so much.
Andrew S.: Yeah. Thank you for being here.