Christopher Higgs’s “Fifty Literary Pillars”

To build this list, I asked myself: “If somehow my brain was erased, what fifty books would be needed in order to restore it to my previous operating parameters?”  Organized according to publication date, from oldest to newest.

Dante Alighieri – Inferno (1314)

The first work of capital-L Literature I ever read of my own volition, outside my required school reading, at the age of sixteen, because in the biography No One Here Gets Out Alive Jim Morrison is said to have been greatly influenced by it.

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605-1615)

In his book The Order of Things, Foucault identifies Don Quixote as the pivot point in the historical transformation of mimesis from imitation to representation.  An important idea to me.  While Edith Grossman’s translation is more “readable,” I favor Tobias Smollett’s translation because of the strangeness of his language.

Immanuel Kant – Critique of Judgment (1790)

My perspective on aesthetics arises from my continued engagement with Kant’s Third Critique.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein (1818)

The birth of the monster.  A true heartbreaker of a novel.  I read it for the first time when I was thirty-one years old.

Comte de Lautréamont –  Les Chants de Maldoror (1869)

For me, the most potent combination of beauty and evil where the line between human, animal, plant and spirit collapses.  Beware of Paul Knight’s translation: it’s awful.  Look for Alexis Lykiard’s translation, which captures the poetry of the prose.

J.K. Huysmans – À rebours (1884)

Misanthropy, decadence, isolation, and elitism mingle in a way that makes me some days think I happened to be born at the turn of the wrong century.

Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)

Nietzsche is my skeleton key.  I could’ve listed a dozen of his books.  This one is important to me because of the way it elaborates on the power of the affirmative (active) and the weakness of the negative (reactive).

Alfred Jarry – Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911)

’Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, the science of the particular rather than the general, the gateway to my deep appreciation for and interest in all types of anomalies.

Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons (1914)

I decide to include only one book per author.  Otherwise, I would’ve loaded this list with Stein.  She is probably my all-time favorite writer and Tender Buttons is probably my all-time favorite book (along with Deleuze & Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus).

James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)

As much as I love Finnegans Wake, and I really do, Ulysses holds a special place in my heart, because my wife and I got engaged while we were in Ireland on a research grant studying Bloomsday.  Having actually walked the paths of Bloom and Daedalus, from the Martello Tower down in Sandycove where Stephen is summoned to the roof by Buck Mulligan, all the way up to the cemetery in Howth where Leopold proposed to Molly, this book has become a part of me.

William Carlos Williams – Spring & All (1923)

Williams makes a cake of T.S. Eliot and his weak-ass (or should I say Pound’s weak-ass) Waste Land in this tour de force of awesomeness that opens with apocalypse and cleanses the whole wide world only to recreate it in the image of the American imagination rather than the European tradition.

Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

I almost swapped this title for the “Time Passes” part in To the Lighthouse where the book becomes uninhabited by humans.  I love so many of Woolf’s books, but this one is so singularly peculiar, so extravagantly unmoored, the first time I read it I was convinced the children were spirits or robots.  I still can’t shake the notion that this book is best described as sci-fi.

Max Ernst – Une semaine de bonté (1934)

Could’ve included Breton’s Mad Love or Nadja. Could’ve included any of Dalí’s fictional memoirs.  Could’ve included a gang of Surrealist materials I love, but this wordless novel consisting of monsters made of animal and man where Victorian and Modern cultures collide in grotesque fashion is in a league of its own.

Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer (1934)

Miller says it isn’t a book, it’s “a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…what you will.”  I couldn’t love it any more than I do, I don’t think.  A guidebook for becoming inhuman.

Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (1936)

A theme has arisen already in this list, I’m sure.  The boundary between human and animal collapses, and my interest and attraction commences.  Blood and dreams and repetition.  The poetry of Paris at night.

Antonin Artaud – The Theatre & Its Double (1938)

How to rearrange your thinking, how to become the body without organs.  The Theater of Cruelty, the Balinese Theater, There Are No Masterpieces.  So much head spinning, rearrangement doesn’t even begin to explain it.

Jean Genet – Our Lady of the Flowers (1943)

Imagination, incarceration, sexual fixation.  The feeling of murder.  The way so many voices live inside us.  This haunting carnivalesque shows us the way we escape the body is to create the drag queens lingering in the dark corners of our locked cells.

Samuel Beckett – Watt (1953)

I love everything Beckett produced, but this is the one with which I’ve spent the most time.  My theory is that Watt can’t remember because he’s not human.  Of course, I tend to think Beckett’s overall project is predicated on a deep misanthropy and that his “characters” have little if anything to do with humanity and everything to do with robots and animals: the inhuman.

William Barrett – Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958)

At 18 years old, like so many people at that age, I fell under the spell of existentialism.  This book, along with Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, and Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, got me hooked on philosophy.

William Burroughs – Nova Trilogy (1961-64)

This is a cheat, since it is three books (Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine), but they go together like french-fries and coleslaw.  Time travel, aggressive sex, colors and bugs and reptiles and mutants and oppressive forces and homosexual porn and drugs and Mayan prophesies, just to name a few of the remarkable things inside this triptych.  For what it’s worth, Francis Bacon painted one of my favorite paintings (his triptych Three Studies for a Crucifixion) in 1962 – smack dab in the middle of Burroughs’s triptych.

Alain Robbe-Grillet – For a New Novel (1963)

First read this when I was 16 years old.  The effect was profound.  Had I not read it when I read it, perhaps my life would be very different.

Yoko Ono – Grapefruit (1964)

Conceptual art meets literature.  Yoko Ono is a hero of mine, for so many reasons.  This book and the albums she made with John Lennon (and John Lennon’s books as well) are bedrock for me.

Sylvia Plath – Ariel (1965)

One of the most compelling writers I’ve ever encountered, and one of the most intense books I’ve ever read.  I named the online art gallery I curate after a line from her poem “Years,” which wasn’t in Plath’s original manuscript version of Ariel but was added later by Ted Hughes.

O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.

Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)

Willem De Kooning said in an interview, “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny – very tiny, content.”  Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”  Sontag ends the titular essay by suggesting, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” I say yes, yes, yes.  Sontag is another hero of mine.

Jacques Derrida – Writing and Difference (1967)

Along with Stein’s work, Derrida’s work means the world to me.  This is the book with “Play Structure Sign” and his essay on Artaud and so many other hits.  But I could’ve put a dozen of his books on this list, from Glas to The Animal Within to Dissemination to so many others.  He is a main pillar for me, by a long shot.

Richard Brautigan – In Watermelon Sugar (1968)

“There is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write ‘Brautigans,’ just as we now write novels. This man has invented a genre, a whole new shot, a thing needed, delightful, and right,” wrote an unidentified reviewer or the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle.  I love this book like tweens love Bieber.

Jean-Luc Godard – Godard on Godard (1968)

Along with Stein and Derrida, Godard is a central influence on my thinking and my creations.  To me, the films he made between 1961 and 1967 are the most powerful and significant artistic creations ever created.  His writing about himself is a guidebook for becoming awesome.

Robert Coover – The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)

To live in one’s mind.  To confuse fantasy with reality so totally as to see no point in reality beyond its relationship to fantasy.  I see this book as the postmodern twin of Genet’s Our Lady of Flowers.  It’s also a heartbreaker, like Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Claude Simon – Conducting Bodies (1971)

The most kaleidoscopic novel I’ve ever encountered, by which I mean it offers the sensation of looking through a kaleidoscope, a moment refracted and jagged reappears slightly altered only to scrabble and scramble and realign and disjoin endlessly.

Gabriel García Márquez – The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)

How many sentences in this novel, six or seven?  Could’ve listed One Hundred Years of Solitude, could’ve included Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch or Cronopios and Famas, Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, I love all of those books.  But something about Autumn of the Patriarch persists in my memory, sticks with me, rears its head every so often.  I remember reading it at LAX in 1999.

Andy Warhol – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)

Compiling my pillars, we have at the apex Stein, Derrida, Godard, and now add Warhol.  “Ideas are nothing.”  “Everything is nothing.”  “Two people kissing always look like fish.”  Warhol embodies Wilde’s valorization of the surface, to which I am greatly attracted.

Samuel Delany – Dhalgren (1975)

Delany in Silent Interviews: “Dhalgren has outsold Gravity’s Rainbow — by about 100,000 copies: we share a mass market publisher and statistics leak. But Gravity’s Rainbow is a fantasy about a war most of its readers don’t really remember, whereas Dhalgren is in fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned-out areas of America’s great cities. To decide if Gravity’s Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time in a library, mostly with a lot of Time/Life books, which are pretty romanticized to begin with. To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile of your own town’s inner city. So Dhalgren’s a bit more threatening–and accordingly receives less formal attention.”  I love so many of Delany’s books, especially the early sci-fi ones.  But this book is a monster and reading it is a vertiginous experience unlike all other experiences – especially unlike the experience of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which pales in comparison to Dhalgren in my estimation.

Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star (1977)

A slim volume with a haunting narrator.  Lispector resonates with me, and this was the first of her books that I read.  Like Unbearable Lightness of Being, this is a novel of ideas.  She died shortly after writing this book, if memory serves, of cancer.  Unlike Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wallace, and so many other writers who died while in the middle of writing a book, Lispector got to finish her last one.  The sad thing is that she didn’t know it was going to be her last book.  Markson got to finish his last book, and he pretty much knew it would be his last.  I wonder about these things a lot.  I wonder if I’ll die in the middle of writing a book?

Alan Harrington – The Immortalist (1977)

Speaking of dying, I accidently grabbed this book at a book sale in Cheyenne, Wyoming when I was 18 years old and that happy accident has had a profound impact on my way of thinking.  The premise is basically an argument for why humanity should focus its collective powers on solving the problem of death.  As Harrington says, at this point in our historical development, considering our technological achievements, there is no valid reason why we should die.  Unlike some people, I want to live forever so this book really appeals to me.

Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School (1978)

Toward the end Acker writes, “A Human is a being halfway between an alligator and a bird who wants to be a bird. The ancient books say there are ways humans can become something else. The most important book on human transformation is hidden with the corpse Catullus in the Saba Pacha Cemetery in Alexandria because all books were written by dead people.”  I often wonder what it would be like if all writers possessed Acker’s moxy and creative imagination.

Italo Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979)

A book that brings the reader into the book unlike any other.  A narrative matryoshka doll.  I learned why narrative matters from this book.

Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman – No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980)

This is where books began for me.  If it were not for this book, there would be no other books on this list because I only began reading literature after I discovered that Jim Morrison did it.  I was fifteen years old.  Before this book, before discovering Morrison’s infatuation with poetry and prose, I had no interest in books.

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus (1980)

Stein, Derrida, Godard, Warhol, and Gilles Deleuze make up my five fundamental pillars.  This book was my first encounter with Deleuze, and thus it holds an incomparable position.  Along with Tender Buttons, this is probably my all-time favorite book.  Of course there’s also Guattari to acknowledge, whose work is also gobsmacking, but my frequency resonates most strongly with Deleuze.  This is where they outline their concept of the rhizome, deterritorialization, etc.  While the other four of my main five pillars have certainly affected me tremendously, I think Deleuze is the writer I feel has contributed the most to my personal perspective, my creative approach, and my pedagogy.

Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

A novel of ideas, which I read directly after returning to the U.S. following my brief stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa.

Georges Bataille – Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (1985)

Something by Bataille must be on this list, and this collection contains his essay on “The Pineal Eye,” which is amazing, all his stuff is amazing, anarchic, and important.

Jeanette Winterson – Written on the Body (1992)

The poetics of an unknowable gender.  What is love and how does it manifest through the body?  I don’t think I ever really thought seriously about the role of gender in literature before reading this book.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds.  Art in Theory 1900-2000 (1992)

Without this book I would be lost.

Laurie Anderson – Stories from the Nerve Bible (1993)

My first encounter with the potentiality of the intersection between art and literature.  Came across it at some bookstore in Denver when I was sixteen years old and bought it because it looked strange.

Carole Maso – Ava (1993)

Her book Break Every Rule is also extremely valuable to me, but this book marries formal creativity and the reality of death in such an unfamiliar and unmatched way, I can’t say my brain would be the same brain if it had not spent time with this book.

Leslie Scalapino – Defoe (1995)

More and More I am growing to consider Scalapino one of the most interesting American writers of the late twentieth century, because of the way she manipulated words and sentences unlike anyone else.

Bret Easton Ellis – Glamorama (1998)

The first five books Ellis published all mean a great deal to me, because they were the books I soaked myself inside while I was going through the first two years of film school.  I hear people talk about the greatness of Don Delillo especially White Noise as it pertains to encapsulating the 80s in America.  For me, Glamorama is stronger, more intense, as is American Psycho for that matter, at capturing a certain aspect of the American 80s experience.

David Markson – The Author Quartet (1996-2007)

Like Burroughs’s Nova Trilogy, this one is a cheat.  Reader’s Block (1996), This Is Not a Novel (2001), Vanishing Point (2004), and The Last Novel (2007).  To quote myself, Walter Benjamin imagined a whole book made entirely of quotes.  And in a way, this is that book.  In another way, this is not that book.  Conceptual experimental, the novel as assemblage.  Repetition.  With the kind of center that Derrida describes as both present and absent, as Stein described Oakland “There is no there there.”  These books granted me permission to explore the outskirts of formal acceptability.

Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire & String (1998)

I first read it around 2004, at a time when I really needed it, at a time when I was constantly being harassed in creative writing workshops, hearing over and over that my writing was both illegitimate and a waste of time because it was “experimental.” Marcus helped give me confidence that it was okay to pursue the strangeness.

Mary Ann Caws, ed. – Manifesto: A Century of Isms (2000)

Indispensable.

Blake Butler – EVER (2009)

How is it I have nothing on this list by Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray?  Or Emerson or Whitman or Poe?  How are Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé absent?  No Baudrillard, no Philip K. Dick?  No comic books?  Fifty pillars just aren’t enough.  Blake Butler’s EVER, however, is the perfect book to end the list with, because it represents for me a great tipping point.

Christopher Higgs fluctuates between the roles of writer, arts & culture critic, independent curator and educator.  He authored the novelistic text The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney (Sator Press), and assembled the collaborative text ONE with Blake Butler and Vanessa Place (forthcoming from Roof Books).

List minus annotations:

Dante Alighieri – Inferno (1314)
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605-1615)
Immanuel Kant – Critique of Judgment (1790)
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein (1818)
Comte de Lautréamont –  Les Chants de Maldoror (1869)
J.K. Huysmans – À rebours (1884)
Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)
Alfred Jarry – Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911)
Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons (1914)
James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)
William Carlos Williams – Spring & All (1923)
Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)
Max Ernst – Une semaine de bonté (1934)
Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer (1934)
Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (1936)
Antonin Artaud – The Theatre & Its Double (1938)
Jean Genet – Our Lady of the Flowers (1943)
Samuel Beckett – Watt (1953)
William Barrett – Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958)
William Burroughs – Nova Trilogy (1961-64)
Alain Robbe-Grillet – For a New Novel (1963)
Yoko Ono – Grapefruit (1964)
Sylvia Plath – Ariel (1965)
Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)
Jacques Derrida – Writing and Difference (1967)
Richard Brautigan – In Watermelon Sugar (1968)
Jean-Luc Godard – Godard on Godard (1968)
Robert Coover – The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)
Claude Simon – Conducting Bodies (1971)
Gabriel García Márquez – The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
Andy Warhol – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)
Samuel Delany – Dhalgren (1975)
Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star (1977)
Alan Harrington – The Immortalist (1977)
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School (1978)
Italo Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979)
Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman – No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980)
Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus (1980)
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
Georges Bataille – Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (1985)
Jeanette Winterson – Written on the Body (1992)
Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds.  Art in Theory 1900-2000 (1992)
Laurie Anderson – Stories from the Nerve Bible (1993)
Carole Maso – Ava (1993)
Leslie Scalapino – Defoe (1995)
Bret Easton Ellis – Glamorama (1998)
David Markson – The Author Quintet (1996-2007)
Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire & String (1998)
Mary Ann Caws – Manifesto: A Century of Isms (2000)
Blake Butler – EVER (2009)

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

9 thoughts on “Christopher Higgs’s “Fifty Literary Pillars”

  1. Pingback: Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012 « BIG OTHER

  2. Poor Alan Harrington and Deleuze & Guattari lost their boldness.

    One error worth correcting: Clarice Lispector was actually working on a book when she died called The Breath of Life, so I was wrong when I said she got to finish her last book.

  3. The Breath of Life has just been translated into English (by Johnny Lorenz) and published along with new editions of several of Lispector’s other books–

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s