Gary Indiana presumably doesn’t hate me, but I wouldn’t mind if he did. I know it’d be for a good cause, moral or aesthetic or whatever. He’d have his reasons and I’d have a spotlight to burn in. And what a spotlight. Indiana, whose new book Fire Season collects thirty-nine of the author’s essays published between 1984 and 2021, ranks among American literature’s premiere loathers. The novelist, essayist, critic, anti-memoir memoirist, etc., favors descriptive contempt and deploys it as a precision weapon; it detonates across his pages, enfolding woebegone Andy Warhol biographers, “memoir as a literary genre,” celebrity food writing, Nixon and Kissinger, a Missouri tourist trap’s visitors and denizens, Bill Clinton, and existence itself in its sparkling smoke cloud.
If metaphorically associating Indiana’s technique with the US war machine and its propaganda of clean killing scans as wrongheaded, then let me refigure his contempt as a scalpel, or a chisel, an instrument he uses to excise the accursed and reveal the beautiful. Hey: Why not all three? Or more. No one metaphor is equal to the task. But Indiana, a self-described fan of “well-honed malice,” doesn’t merely love to hate. He hates to love. His work presupposes that we all should. Not disdain love and loving, but actually use vitriol and resentment in order that we might better, and more intimately, or at minimum more freely, love our favored objects.
His contempt twists, writhes, morphs, adapts to its target. It scrapes and scratches. It lives. It laughs. Yes, it loves, or leads to love. To wit: In a 2010 review of Pierre Guyotat’s Coma, Indiana observes that much of contemporary memoir sucks,
Not simply because the conventional memoir is a tidy bundle of lies, crafted to market a particularized self in a world of commodities (complete with real or invented quirks, cosmeticized memories, failings that mask more important failings, self-exonerating treacheries, sins, crimes); behind its costume of authenticity lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption, something assembled by a monadic robot, a “self” that constructs and sells itself by selecting promotional items from a grotesque menu of prefabricated self-parts.
The next line Indiana has pivoted to Guyotat, who “explodes in each sentence” the “notion of identity this industrial process takes for granted.” That everyone’s second life as tawdry brand now registers as completely unremarkable, actually axiomatic, doesn’t diminish Indiana’s point. Ruthless art can still denaturalize The Way We Live Now — can make it shocking, revolting — if only for the time it takes us to turn the page.
If real salvation is never on offer, and even the passing kind that Guyotat represents can be elusive, the desire for it persists. In 1992’s “Northern Exposure,” which covers the same year’s presidential primary in Indiana’s home state of New Hampshire, a speechifying Bill Clinton squeezes out “platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimulate horses than actual thoughts.” Later, at an event at a former porn theater, Indiana recommends a change of course for one Republican candidate: “Admit nothing, blame everybody, be bitter — this could easily be Pat Buchanan’s campaign slogan, as well the state motto.” The piece is what we often lazily call prescient, by which we really mean that the same unctuous hucksters and villains that smilingly pillaged the world then still do, and still threaten civilizational and ecological collapse, and someone noticed way back when — a fair number of people, if we cared to find out — and no political force coalesced to correct the situation. So it got worse and here we are. America is probably — and if we’re being honest with ourselves, almost definitely — irredeemable, but Indiana nevertheless wishes a candidate had tried to appeal to voters’ “better natures” and thus to the idea that a better world might exist. Alas. Indiana can preserve that idea, anyway. As he writes in another essay, “Utopia is nowhere, but without the wish for it, life is pointless.”
The miasma of contemporary life and politics will inevitably reconstitute itself, but Indiana’s work insists that certain species of loathing can erect a provisional affective barrier against the malign. That bulwark in turn opens up a space in which a person can gather their beloveds close and exegete on the nature of their affection and those qualities in the beloveds that distinguish them from the reviled. We may even prove able to stay relatively sane while doing so. If nothing else we can laugh.
Contempt is popularly taken for a sad comment on the self, unleashed from a defensive posture in which one locks arms with resentment and denigrates in the other what one abhors in oneself, or what one wishes one had but doesn’t, or what one has already rejected as a version of oneself and sees embodied in an unenlightened other. I spew scorn from a perch, which sinks until I have descended to the point where my scorn is spewed horizontally, or upwards. There is a basic truth to this. Per Walt Whitman’s dread lines, we are large, we contain multitudes. Or, back to Indiana on Guyotat, we are all “the same thing as the Other, the same breathing pustule of snot, piss, shit.” No wonder, then, that we wield contempt to slice away objects we find loathsome, for they cling to us, they insist correctly that they comprise a part of us.
The repulsive object— the Warhol biographer, say — needn’t be immanently loathsome, but rather loathsome for the purposes of the logic (again: moral, aesthetic, political, whatever) of a piece of writing. Some readers will understand the destructive process as a performance that gets at a possible truth, while others won’t or will refuse to. They may worry that it will destroy too much and forever, or they may be semantic revanchists, pining for the Real Truth and deadly allergic to the idea that writing often means what it claims to mean contingently, winkingly, which isn’t to say un-seriously. For those willing to follow Indiana and his inheritors, one may discover that the road paved with contempt frequently leads to an object aglow in the glare of a ferocious love.
Who are Indiana’s inheritors? Tobi Haslett, who wrote the introduction for the reissue of Indiana’s 1989 debut novel Horse Crazy and recently interviewed Indiana for the Paris Review, and Christian Lorentzen, who introduces Fire Season, sometimes recall his dexterity and approach, which swings between chaotically, acidly funny and a kind of seedy mournfulness, as well as his commitment to meticulous research, if not necessarily the craggy, textured elements of his style. (Lorentzen elsewhere describes Indiana as a “humane” critic, like a veterinarian who’s only euthanizing your cat because it’d be crueler not to, which tracks.) Others who grant contempt pride of place in their toolbox, at least on choice projects, and so in that regard glancingly resemble Indiana: Lauren Oyler when she reads a fragment novel, Elif Batuman when she remembers MFAs, Hilton Als when he hears Beyonce, Andrea Long Chu often, and successfully. In short, everyone who is fun to read, because contempt is fun.
For those willing to follow Indiana and his inheritors, one may discover that the road paved with contempt frequently leads to an object aglow in the glare of a ferocious love.
Of course, contempt isn’t without its dangers. One risks becoming like V.S. Naipaul — less a Nobel laureate than a man who really, really hates Argentina, and whose cruelty in his nonfiction, however magisterially rendered, however beautiful in its total-eclipse completeness, can blot out all light. Or one risks making people really, really mad, as Dale Peck did when he wrote witheringly of Pete Buttigieg. (Worth it.) But the same holds true for every mode of intense feeling. Toni Morrison’s disquisition on love, from the last page of The Bluest Eye, explains that “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly…” Doesn’t the same rule apply to every outwardly directed feeling? Don’t wicked people hate wickedly, violent people hate violently, weak people hate weakly, boring people hate boringly? (What is worse than a boring pan?) And desire? And fear? And so on? Doesn’t Indiana hate absurdly, morally, ironically, searchingly? Morrison was herself a virtuoso hater. Her review of the biography Who Is Angela Davis? begins, “On the other hand, who is Regina Nadelson and why is she behaving like Harriet Beecher Stowe, another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way?” and continues until she’s fixed Nadelson as a cyclops with “a taste for human flesh.” Monster slain what remains but a profound affection for Davis.
“Life really is cheatingly brief,” Indiana writes in one of Fire Season’s essays. It is “mainly inconvenient, rebarbative, and, after all, really, really short,” he writes in another. Love for Indiana obtains in the act of spending his limited time describing the beautiful other, appreciating them beautifully, making an art object, or as close as one can come, out of what they mean to him and his conception of the wider world. He uses contempt to chip away at the grotesque excess that mires perception and then gives the half-cleansed object to his audience. He gifts them love imprinted on a page. Indiana’s derision for the Warhol biographer, whose “ideal reader is someone who has never read a word about Warhol or contemporary art, seen a movie, or formed two consecutive thoughts without assistance,” expresses his love for Warhol, for Robert Bresson, for Louise Bourgeois, for Patricia Highsmith, which love is done no service by the word “love,” which love can only be done justice by detail, by focused attention, by evaluation and meaning-seeking deliberation: by work — the work given over to the object and its maker in service of interpretation and communication. Contempt, alive, now transformed into a flail of flames, flung at passersby, and whipped upon oneself, reveals a living love that pulsates beneath the dead word spoken out of habit and obligation.
What is greater than love? Per the Bible, nothing. Per William Hazlitt, the 19th century’s god of literary hate and writer of “On the Pleasure of Hating,” perhaps pleasure — and hating, since “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” Sometimes you just want to expel “the quantity of superfluous bile” you’ve been swallowing and come out and say it: “Old friendships are like meats served up repeatedly, cold, comfortless, and distasteful.” You want to be like Thomas Bernhard’s protagonists of The Loser and Woodcutters, whom Hazlitt’s essay prefigures: dropsical men, psychically if not physically, who fart quietly in their wingchairs in the corner of a party and breathe black thoughts into the air like so much cigar smoke, hoping through minimum exertion to inflict maximum discomfort on other guests. You want, in other words, to have a grand old time, and for your reader to have the same, even if that means droning on monomaniacally about what a bad time you’re having, what a shit world we’re stranded on, what a bad book you’ve read, what an awful country Austria is.
Indiana’s greatness rests partly on his ability to fling aside the sheer curtains partitioning love from hate and extract a superior pleasure from their mixture. However much I want to remember a work’s moral lessons, and to incorporate them into my life — and allowing that they may well, in the long term, after repeated exposure, quietly assimilate into my consciousness, and so influence my thought and actions thereafter — I tend to lose them. Indiana concludes his review of a book of letters exchanged between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt by quoting the former: “Most of our lives are in vain. At best, we give pleasure to some.” The greatest pleasure I may experience as affective alteration, a kind of mimicry of the voice of the object, so that I begin to speak of the world in a borrowed register, to know the world anew through it, as I do or hope to do through Indiana. Probably I fail always. Maybe I succeed seldom. I savor the attempts regardless.
Paul McAdory is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.