Happiness, death, and a few of his favorite (and most loathed) things: Dery does the Proust Questionnaire

[Inspired by.]

BY MARK DERY, cultural critic and author, most recently, of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

All the time in the world, all the books in the world, the creditors banished forever from my mailbox, the time clock stopped for all time, a pool of light falling poetically across the comforter, a martini within easy reach on the nightstand, its juniper fumes promising limitless inspiration.

Your favorite painter?

Marcel Duchamp, though it would have horrified him to hear himself called a painter, given his fond contempt for bourgeois notions of art: bête comme un peintre—“stupid as a painter”—he liked to say. So I use the term loosely, Marcel!

Your favorite musician?

The Bach of The Goldberg Variations. But only as played by Glenn Gould. And only in 1955.

Your proudest achievement?

Apart from the collaborative act of producing my daughter, who is Practically Perfect in Every Way, putting a period at the end of everything I write.

Your favorite occupation?

Writer, happily.

Who would you have liked to be?

The Incomparable Oscar (Wilde, of course). And in an alternate universe, where he dismisses Lord Douglas as the pernicious little fribble he is, and, spared the horrors of Reading Gaol, dies a centenarian in 1954, a literary lion, the toast of the talkshows, his wit undulled by age, and not a minute too soon to have bedded a young Don Draper—and a young Joan Holloway. (Wilde, remember, was bi-, historical revisionism notwithstanding.)

Your most marked characteristic?

The gift of gab.

What is your principal defect?

Loquacity. Especially when in my cups.

What do you most value in your friends?

Their long-suffering patience when I’m unwittingly (and unwittily) replaying a shopworn anecdote. (Then again, what is a man but his old anecdotes?)

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

Alzheimer’s, followed closely by encephalitis lethargica, the nightmarish disease that entombed Oliver Sacks’s patients in their bodies, mute and paralyzed, frozen in time.

What would you like to be?

Outside the flow of time.

What is your favorite color?

Black, he said, with dreary predictability, although I’m fond of that kind of grayish lavender A Dictionary of Color calls “lavender gray.” I wish I liked puce, mauve, and taupe, but I don’t.

What is your favorite flower?

The Amorphophallus titanum.

The corpse flower (Amorphophallus Titanum), whose flowering at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in August 2006—the first in New York since 1939—I made a pilgrimage to see. It was a sight to behold. It’s humongous, it’s obscene, and it reeks of death. Towering menacingly over the average man, Amorphophallus was once thought to be a man-eater because of its imposing height. Its unmistakably phallic flower (a cluster
of flowers, really) is the largest “unbranched inflorescence,” to use the botanical term, in the plant kingdom. Gifted with an upthrusting unit as big—or bigger—than a traffic cone, Amorphophallus (the name means “shapeless penis”) is the Gene Simmons of shock-rock flora. Rumor has it that Victorian women were not allowed to view it in full, concupiscent bloom, for fear it would inspire sexual hysterics. And its stench is legend: when it flowers, Amorphophallus gives off a dizzying stink of putrefaction, the better to attract the carrion beetles who feast on it. In a 1939 edition of The New York Times, an assistant curator at a New York botanical garden described the smell as “a cross between ammonia fumes and hydrogen sulphide, suggestive of spoiled meat or rotting fish.” If only it was ambulatory, like a Triffid, I’d love to have one as a pet, to walk on a leash. I’d sic it on the first pit bull I crossed.

What is your favorite bird?

The Raven, for its uncanny cleverness (hence its role as Trickster figure in Native American myth), its undisguised rapacity (a model for us all), and, ever after Poe, its unassailable perch in the gothic imaginary, portentous, inscrutable, sepulchral.

What word or expression do you most overuse?

Adverbs such as incalculably, unimprovably, unutterably, a literary tic I’ve picked up from the British—“incalculably” from John Mortimer, “unimprovably” from Hitchens (especially when transposed into the key of irony, as in Hitch-22, when he recalls a public-school tormentor “with the unimprovable name of Peter Raper”), “unutterably” from—from who? Ibsen, insists Google, but never having read the man, I’m unconvinced.

Who are your favorite poets?

Poe, Patti Smith, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, the James Tate of Viper Jazz, the Michael Benedikt of Night Cries, the French symbolists, numberless one-hit-wonder Surrealist poets in innumerable Surrealist anthologies, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Sam Shephard’s prose poems in Hawk Moon, and, at my most unapologetically lowbrow, Bukowski, specifically the scabrous flophouse Surrealism of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

What is it you most dislike?

Bone stupidity—the sinister silliness of religion, the fatuities of the New Age, what Martin Amis calls the “moronic inferno” of American culture at its most gong-ingly dumb—and, far, far worse, the blasé inhumanity and injustices of a ruling class that knows better, the myopically short-sighted lunacies of profit-maximizing corporate power: age-old foes of human progress.

Also, pit bulls. And people who like pit bulls.

Which contemporary figures do you most despise?

The unimprovably loathsome Clarence Thomas, with Antonin Scalia taking up the rear, though only by a hair’s-breadth. It’s hard to imagine more pestilential presences on the American scene.

Which natural gift would you most like to possess?

A photographic memory.

How would you like to die?

Like Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green, borne gently into oblivion on the barely ruffled waves of an opiate while, on a movie screen stories high, poppies (appropriately!) nod their flaming heads in time to Beethoven’s “Pastorale.”

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it perversely refuses to even passingly resemble the young David Bowie.

What is your motto?

Credo absurdum est: “I believe because it is absurd”—Tertullian’s classic maxim of Christian apologetics. The absurdism of the thing warms my atheist heart. Because what is life, if not absurd?


Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He is author, most recently, of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, and known for his writings on the politics of popular culture in books such as The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Flame Wars, and Culture Jamming. He has been a professor of journalism at New York University, a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Irvine, and a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. www.markdery.com.

“Mark Dery’s cultural criticism is the stuff that nightmares are made of. He’s a witty and brilliant tour guide on an intellectual journey through our darkest desires and strangest inclinations. You can’t look away even if you want to.”
—Mark Frauenfelder and David Pescovitz, Boing Boing

“Do not turn squeamish from the many considerations of death that lurk within—vampires, tombs, disease, corruption of many varieties. Mark Dery’s restless and stylish essay is concerned with one thing only—what it means to be alive in America.”
—Richard Rodriguez, author of
Brown: The Last Discovery of America

“Always provocative, often humorous, Dery has a keen eye for absurdity, tragedy, and everything in between. ”
—Publishers Weekly

“Dery’s dark you-can’t-think-this-stuff-up carnival tour of present-day America is far more thought-provoking than anything virtual reality can offer.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books

One thought on “Happiness, death, and a few of his favorite (and most loathed) things: Dery does the Proust Questionnaire

  1. A delightful Q&A. I just heard that Hitchens line the other day in the audiobook. Were you referring to the 2004 Dictionary of Colour by Ian Paterson?

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