Sometime between September 1929 and December 1930 Ludwig Wittgenstein stood before a lectern on the campus of Cambridge University. He was to give a lecture on ethics to an intellectual society that referred to themselves as “The Heretics.” Before the ‘official’ start of his lecture, Wittgenstein offered a few preliminary remarks that he hoped would mitigate difficulties that might arise in his attempt to communicate his thoughts. The last of these remarks concerns a difficulty that, he claimed, “Adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures.” He expands, “[The difficulty] is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the road he is led to and the goal which it leads to.” As listeners, we think one of two things; either 1) “I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at” or 2) “I see what he’s driving at, but how on earth is going to get there.”
Infinity to Dine, a collection of blogger lazenby’s responses to questions posed to him anonymously on his tumblr (lazenby.tumblr.com) over a six-year period, forces the reader to alternate between the above thoughts. Despite the indirectness of his answers, the author, who takes his pen name from the former Bond actor George Lazenby, asks us not to wallow in confusion, but to trust him to provide moments of surprise and insight along the roads — sometimes heavy, sometimes nebulous — questions ask us to travel.
Upon a first reading, Infinity to Dine seems to lack cohesion. The questions are given no context beyond the reader’s own inferences. They are anonymous, have no discernible chronology, and are presented in their own respective chapters without grouping into parts or sections. Their subjects range from serious (“How do I escape anxiety and depression?”) to ‘seriously?’ (“Is Kanye a genius?”); from very broad (“Who are you?”) to very specific (“Recommend a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh?”).
The more I read lazenby’s responses, the more I wondered why it was that they seemed unrelated to the questions they were purportedly answering (E.g. Question: “What does entering a profession mean to you?” lazenby: “Two good examples of this are fossil fuels and Adolf Eichmann”). But about halfway through, I came to trust the way the author moves about a question. His strategy is not to avoid an answer (what would be the point of that?), but instead to deploy an alternative way of looking at questions. Lazenby does not treat questions as flat, breadthless ‘words-on-a-page’ that require correspondingly flat images as answers. When people crave simplicity and scientific fact as an answer, lazenby suggests they are unwittingly restricting themselves in thought and in being. Of course this is a bit fatalistic. But imagine somebody asking you to tell them about yourself and only ever showing them the same picture each and every time they, or anyone else, asks. What sort of answer would that be? By contrast, when asked to provide background information about himself, lazenby responded with the following: “their dreams” > “their thoughts” > “their intentions” > “their actions” > “their face” > “their body” > “their dead body” > “their Social Security number” > “dirt.” While most writers would have responded by listing where they got their MFA, this spectrum suggests lazenby aims in his writing to be the type of person who sees things in a complex and imaginative light, for example by treating people as collection of their respective dreams and thoughts rather than as their SSN, or as dirt. Lazenby’s imaginative, albeit furtive, response to my inquiry is the sort of response I came to expect while reading his debut book.
Where we can usually only view questions from one angle (we can never view words in the round; stand behind, or to the side of, the page), lazenby attempts to do otherwise, treating questions as statues. They are something he can move about, something he can view in the round so that we, his readers, are given a better (read: more complete) account of whatever it is we are curious about. Of course, a different kind of skill is required to be able to move about words, concerns, issues, ideas that resist holding a single shape, that do not stay put. To walk about them, to view a question in the round, requires an abnormally acute observational faculty paired with an encyclopedic knowledge of humanity — at times lazenby’s writing achieves a synthesis of these two things.
The best example of what I mean comes in the chapter titled “Do you want to be famous?” Lazenby shares with us the story of Mies van der Rohe, an architect commissioned to design the pavilion representing Weimar Germany at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. “The building,” shares Lazenby, “became justly famous as the most eloquent definition of what was later gathered into architectural Modernism.” He then paraphrases this definition of modernism for us: “Not only doing much more with far less, but becoming so good at it you can thread a way out of the bewilderment and perversity that gnaw at modern lives, lives apparently filled with unparalleled bounty and convenience.” The building was meant to be a design of truth, “doorless and mostly made of glass.” It did away with all signs of class oppression (back staircases, basement kitchens) and, where walls were once adorned with symbols of wealth, they were left blank instead. “The building hopes that without anything to hide behind the very ideas of secrecy and guile will become too cumbersome to survive,” he writes and then cites Keats to concede, “But in the very temple of delight melancholy has her sovereign shame.” Van der Rohe placed a statue “at a remove from anyone who would look at it as elegant a definition as anything else in the building, but what is being defined is hideous. A statue has been taken out of the round and placed in a position that allows only one point of view […] By definition a statue fills volume, but limiting our perspective makes it flat: an image.”
Lazenby feels that we have sought easy answers, simple and flat answers, that are constructed to limit our perspective. We claim to live in a place where secrecy and guile have become too cumbersome to survive, but instead have only craved, and accepted, perspectives that are flat. I’m thinking of the instance when he describes the cycle of ovulation to explain to someone where he’s from. Undoubtedly, it is the most scientific (read: truthful) of answers we can give, but “is even more foreign than the most extreme alienations geography can produce,” (E.g. saying to someone I’m from Boston, I’m from Lagos).
For all its focus on the interrogative, Infinity to Dine closes not with a question, but an admission of defeat. “I want to give up,” sighs a nameless person. Here, we have given up on asking questions. We no longer have the energy to provide words with the volume a question mark can give them. In response lazenby tells us a tale of a friend who came to an impasse in her art of piano playing. She could only become more technically proficient no matter how hard she worked. A friend referred her to a psychologist so that she might discover the root of her problem. After their first meeting, the psychologist told her to go home, get out a clothing iron and turn it all the way up. She was then to suck the tips of fingers and proceed to play the iron like it were a piano, listening to the hiss of the saliva evaporating from the intense heat. The psychologist shared that she should learn from this pain and play the iron as lightly and deftly as possibly, touching it in the least. The friend was cured: “She said she no longer thought of herself as a pianist and that she had become an artist of difficulty instead.”
Lazenby, too, is this artist of difficulty. He is engaged in the same labor as Penelope, the figure who graces the cover of the book, weaving together his answers by day only to unravel them at night because, he writes, “It is precisely where systems of thought begin to fray that the possibility of transcending them seems most obvious.”
Garri Saganenko is the Director of Membership for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, Inc., a non-profit organization. He lives in Vineyard Haven, MA and is a recent graduate of St. John’s College-Annapolis, where he studied in the ‘Great Books’ undergraduate program.