- Lydia Davis's Own Philosophical Investigation:The End of the Story
"I seem to be moving in the direction of less and less fiction and more and more philosophical investigation."—Lydia Davis, Interview with Francine Prose
"Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about."—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (82)
Now in her late fifties, Lydia Davis, the author of eight books of fiction, as well as an accomplished translator of Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust, has seen her reputation grow with the years. Her awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim, a Wallace/Reader's Digest Award, and the French government's Chevalier. The daughter of two successful intellectuals, Columbia University's Robert Conn Davis and the Marxist memoirist Hope Hale Davis, Lydia Davis has herself been received as much in the spirit of an intellectual as a fiction writer. And to the extent that critics imagine her as the latter, they generally tend to do so by making reference to the late twentieth-century genre of postmodern, or meta-, fiction. This connection has its value, yet in this essay I wish to direct my attention [End Page 198] somewhat aslant to it, for I wish to examine, while focusing upon The End of the Story, a bit more Davis's readiness to imagine her fiction as a foray, of sorts, into philosophy. I do not plan to do this to the point of excluding other concerns—for they too interest me and I will pursue them to the degree that they do—but I am struck by Davis's own self-description—"my higher value is on some kind of philosophical investigation" (Knight 534)—and as I value this dimension of Davis's fiction, it will be the authorial concern that I most highlight in the following pages, even as I view this essay first and foremost as an attempt to respond as fully as possible to a late twentieth-century American novel worthy of much greater attention than it has hitherto received. If urged then to offer but a single image to describe the tenor of Davis's work it would, borrowing from Wallace Stevens, be that of "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" ("Of Modern Poetry").
This image, which again implies an investigation, also entails a notion of philosophy somewhat akin to that manifest in an earlier investigation—Wittgenstein's—wherein philosophy is defined as the "battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (Philosophical Investigations 47). The parallel here has led critics of her work to chart "a set of concerns that all fundamentally have to do with the slipperiness of language" (McCaffery 59). But if this is so, as I think it, in good part, is, such has not been pursued systematically, and it has not excluded other concerns, such as those noticed by Beverly Haviland, who is attuned to how often the stories evince a "sexual malaise," the consequence of an "almost willing acquiesce to" a "vaguely hostile order defined by someone else" (152). In fact, as serious as Davis's investigation might be said to be, it tends to 1) allow itself to be led by impulse and 2) be resistant to group imperatives. Thus, in the first instance, we find Davis comparing her investigation to that of the Zen monk on the mountaintop: "he is doing it for himself; it's his own necessary practice; and even if he had no following, no monastery, he would continue doing this. And I feel that way too" (Knight 544). And in the second instance, she observes, "I don't see myself as part of any group or associated with any group" (McCaffery 65). So, while Davis speaks of herself as "still just trying to do what interests me to do," what it is that she does do often appears to resist easy categorization (Knight 546).
Davis's 1995 novel The End of the Story, upon which I will...