Taking Flight

Turning the pathetic into an opportunity of self reflection


in Archive


A novel is a bird. I learned this from Jonathan Franzen. It is the underlying message of his newest collection of essays, Farther Away.

  • Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen. 336 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.

Franzen became a bird watcher many years ago. He is almost apologetic about that fact, realizing that — in the opinion of most normal human beings — the birdwatcher is a slightly pathetic if otherwise harmless individual. In his commencement address at Kenyon College, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” Franzen writes:

It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it is very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

From his usage of words like “passion,” “obsession,” and “love,” it’s obvious Jonathan Franzen thinks birdwatching is neither pathetic, nor, more importantly, is it harmless. For Franzen, birdwatching is a big deal. Paying attention to birds can change you. It can transform your sense of self and the world. Franzen knows this because it happened to him.

Many of the essays in Franzen’s book therefore touch on the subject of watching birds. A couple of essays are explicitly about birdwatching, which Franzen has done in Cyprus, on an island in the South Pacific known as Masafuera, and in China, among other places. Franzen has become a defender of the birds. He is appalled by the killing of birds and by the destruction of their natural habitat. He laments with great pathos the lusty shooting of migrant birds that is a favorite pastime of the people of Malta. But what does it mean, this birdwatching, and why does Franzen keep coming back to the theme of birds over and over in his essays?

I wonder if Franzen’s special feeling for the birds is related to the evolutionary quirks of bird morphology. As everyone knows by now, birds are the modern descendants of the dinosaurs. Over long eons, the dinosaurs sprouted wings and feathers and took to the air. In so doing, they shed much of their fearsome nature. Even the hunting birds of today — the eagles and hawks — while fearsome to the small rodent upon whom they might swoop, are so elegant and lovely in flight that it is difficult to associate them with the fierce brutality of the dinosaur. The change from dinosaur to bird is a change from something terrible to something refined. Consider as well the bones of the bird. A bird will fly. In order to fly, that bird must be, literally, light as the air. The bones of the bird have thus become porous and slight things over millions of years of evolution. In becoming birds, the dinosaurs took on a lightness, a fragility that has characterized them ever since. This fragility is very important to Franzen. It is the central factor in his transformation into a bird lover.

The fragility of the birds is a fragility that touches upon transcendence. Franzen explains the relationship between birds and transcendence like this:

When I go looking for a new bird species, I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight.

Franzen calls the delight of birdwatching transcendent because he has been taken outside of himself. Human beings literally transcend our normal, everyday experience when we enter the world of the birds. Their relationship to the world has little to do with ours. Our own lives, our own worries and concerns, are shown, for the moment, to be irrelevant. Watching the birds is to be reminded that, from the perspective of nature qua nature, we do not matter so much. This, for Franzen, does not destroy human meaning. It makes it more precious.

Given Franzen’s obsession with birds, it is not surprising to find out that he has also developed a minor obsession with Saint Francis of Assisi. You could say that Saint Francis is the patron saint of Farther Away. Francis was, as many know, a bird man. It was the passage in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells his disciples to live like the birds that inspired Francis to give away all his possessions and put his trust in providence. Jesus says to the apostles, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” Having been convinced to live his life like a bird, Francis could sometimes be found in the hills of Italy preaching only to the birds. Franzen writes that, “For Saint Francis, the crested larks, whose drab brown plumage and peaked head feathers resemble hooded brown robes of his Friars Minor, his Little Brothers, were a model for his order: wandering, as light as air, and saving up nothing, just gleaning their daily minimum of food, and always singing, singing.”

The ultimate lesson that Saint Francis tried to teach is clear to Franzen. It is “that oneness with nature is not only desirable but possible.” But to become one with nature it is necessary to become fundamentally humble. It is necessary to learn to appreciate the birds on their terms. And in appreciating the birds, one can come to love the birds. That is what happened to Saint Francis and it is what happened to Jonathan Franzen. In coming to love the birds, Franzen realized that this love “became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of [himself].” Falling in love with birds and being taken outside of himself in so doing, transformed Franzen more generally. It made him do things he wouldn’t normally have done. It made him go out on crazy missions around the world to see birds and to protect them. As he warns the students at Kenyon College, “When you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”

From this perspective, from the perspective of the birds, and falling in love, and taking chances with one’s life, it is easy to see why Franzen considers his bird watching and his novel writing to be intimately related. Franzen sees the novel as precisely that— a tool for getting in touch with the bird-self. “My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.” That’s a dangerous way to conceive of novel writing. To write novels like that is to expose your self in a radical way. You must have quite a bit of trust in the world to be able to do that. You have to believe, like St. Francis, that the world will, in the end, somehow accept and return the love that is so freely being given. You have to become as fragile as a bird and then go out and expose your fragile self to an audience of men and beasts who will often meet the fragility with outright hostility. It is this fragile, birdlike Franzen who writes passages like the following:

I was ashamed of having married so early, ashamed of my guilt, ashamed of the years of moral contortions I’d undergone on my way to divorce, ashamed of my sexual inexperience, ashamed of my longtime social isolation, ashamed of what an outrageous and judgmental mother I had, ashamed of being a bleeding and undefended person instead of a tower of remoteness and command and intellect like DeLillo or Pynchon, ashamed to be writing a book that seemed to want to turn on the question of whether an outrageous Midwestern mother will get one last Christmas at home with her family. I wanted to write a novel about the big issues of my day, and instead, like Joseph K., who is dismayed and maddened by having to deal with his trial while colleagues all pursue their professional advantage, I was mired in shame about my innocence.

The great critic James Wood noticed many years ago that Franzen has long been struggling against a harsh and very unbirdlike vision of the novel and the novelist. In his review of Franzen’s novel The Corrections back in 2001, Wood noted that you could read that novel as Franzen’s response to Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld. Underworld, Wood wrote, “combined an old-fashioned solidity and social realism with the prospect of the American writer as a cool cultural theorist, writing riffs and knowing essaylets about the power of the image in American society, about TV, crowds, garbage, the military-industrial complex and so on.” The problem with this DeLilloan coolness is that it becomes so detached, so all-knowing that it loses touch with  flesh-and-blood human beings altogether. With DeLillo, wrote Wood, “there are no connections at the human level at all, because there are no human beings in the novel, no one who really matters and whose consciousness matters to himself.” Wood realized that Franzen’s The Corrections was itself an attempt to correct the root anti-humanism (anti-birdism) that infects novel writing in its DeLilloan form.

Whenever Franzen talks about Pynchon or Gaddis or DeLillo, he is usually wrangling with this aloof approach to novel writing. These are the novelists who stand above the human fray. Franzen admires these writers. But he also fears them. In the end, he rejects their vision of what a novel should be. Pynchon and DeLillo want the novel to be like a dinosaur: bold, massive and terrible in the face of an ugly world. Franzen wants to transform the dinosaur-novel into the bird-novel. His only weapon is his openness and his fragility. The shame that Franzen speaks about in the passage above became, in time, an asset. The shame allowed him to turn to the birds. It allowed him to embrace an Assisi-like attitude to the world and his fellow human beings.

Most of the essays in Farther Away are either programmatic sketches of what it is like to turn your life over to the birds (like the commencement address at Kenyon College), or journalistic pieces about Franzen’s encounters with the birds of the world (like his essay about traveling to China to watch birds), or reviews of other novels that Franzen considers inherently bird-like. Franzen writes, for instance, about Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. “Every time I’ve been away from it for some years and am thinking of reading it again, I worry that I must have been wrong about it, since the literary and academic and book-club worlds make so little of it.” But once he starts reading again, he realizes that he wasn’t wrong at all. That is to say, the literary and academic and book-club worlds are, more often than not, places where the novel as dinosaur reigns triumphant. So, just as Jonathan Franzen now travels the world doing his best to protect the fragile environments of the birds, he does his literary work protecting the bird-novels from the dinosaur-novel enthusiasts who would consign them to oblivion.

Franzen defends The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim for being an embrace of “the dark fact that an individual’s life consists, finally, of an accelerating march toward decay and death.” He defends Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman for its tension between “the dystopic vision of its authors and the essential optimism of its genre.” He defends Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for its ability to capture the spirit of the fifties, “the uneasy conformity, the flight from conflict, the political quietism, the cult of the nuclear family, the embrace of class privileges.” And he defends Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters precisely because it makes him feel a “cresting rage and frustration with its mysteries and with the paradoxes of civilization.” These are all bird books, looked after by Jonathan Franzen. In discussing The Man Who Loved Children, Franzen notes that there are plenty of reasons not to read the novel, or any novel. “[H]aven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement,” Franzen asks “in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?” But to give up on the novel would be, for Franzen, to give up one of our deepest forms of being human, of feeling love. It would be to give up on the birds, to give up on nature. It would be, finally, to give up altogether. • 24 August 2012