At some point not too long ago—maybe around 2012, when Book One in Karl Ove Knausgård’s epic, autobiographical series, “My Struggle,” came out in English—the confessional mode became the rule for Anglophone letters, not the exception. If you weren’t baring the goriest details of your id, past, or private life, you were holding back. The pages of little magazines filled with pieces by fretful first-person narrators who smeared their sheepish honesty over whatever their subject happened to be that week. Each new “raw,” “risky” autofiction seemed to risk less than the one before. Eventually, hip, bankable performances of honesty overtook actual honesty, offering writers the same advantages (easy to praise as bravery, hard to criticize without lapsing into ad hominem) but insulating them from the danger of humiliation.
In his new book, The Drunken Silenus, Morgan Meis doesn’t dabble in faux honesty. He goes for the real deal, and the book is all the better for it. Although he barely writes about his personal life, The Drunken Silenus is as much of a warts-and-all self-portrait as any the autofiction boom has produced. It’s a portrait of the way his mind works, and occasionally doesn’t work, and as such, it is sometimes very humiliating indeed. The book begins as a close analysis of the titular Rubens painting and ends, 172 pages later, as an analysis of, give or take, everything. Along the way, one finds a speculative character study of Silenus (in Greek mythology, Dionysus’s fat, drunken sidekick); a biographical sketch of Rubens’s father; a reading of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, another book that takes Silenus as the jumping-off point; a biographical sketch of Nietzsche; and a long spiel about the madness of war.
That this all fits together as well as it does isn’t a triumph of structure or careful reasoning so much as a triumph of tone—a certain erudite, insolent, shallowly deep, deeply shallow tone. Meis doesn’t make points so much as bellow them with varying levels of coherence, and he seems to get a kick out of stretching already questionable analogies within an inch of their lives. Consider the following: “Rubens had learned a lesson that Nietzsche was never quite able to get through his head. It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter where you do it, where you live out your life. If the shit inside is solid then it will never matter. Alas, as we’ve already noted, the shit inside Nietzsche was anything but solid. It was runny.” Isn’t this slightly awful, and rather brilliant?
Meis is immune to the demands of The Discourse, happy to write three thousand words on Red Grooms or El Greco for no reason other than that he finds them interesting. He’s happy, by the same token, to admit he’s bored by what everybody else finds interesting—“I give not a crap about your brilliant reading of Camus in light of COVID-19, Essayist,” he wrote a few weeks ago. (Full disclosure: I recently became a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily, the website Meis coedits.) The idea for The Drunken Silenus seems to have come from a decade-old essay on Rubens’s painting, which shows a worse-for-the-wear Silenus staggering forward, surrounded by a motley assortment of revelers who prop the ol’ boozer up. In Silenus, Meis found the embodiment of “the knowledge that life has no meaning, nothing it points to beyond its bare existence.” Actually, Meis found this knowledge embodied in Silenus’s knees. I would go so far as to say that his is the finest aesthetic analysis of knees that I’ve ever read, which probably doesn’t sound like much but means that it’s better than the knee analysis in John Berger’s “The Hals Mystery,” which is another way of saying that it’s high in the running for the best snippet of art criticism I’ve read.
It’s not enough for Meis to just go ahead and write about knees—he has to end his snippet with, “It’s all there in the knees,” reminding us, as if we have short-term memory loss, what he’s doing. His style, as he puts it in his book’s preface, is “shamelessly intellectual at times and shamelessly crude at others.” The Drunken Silenus isn’t an expanded version of the Rubens essay so much as a slowly widening orbit around its subject, with crudity and erudition aplenty—“I wanted to create a style that would unfold in spirals rather than in lines,” he writes. His analysis of Rubens’s painting, particularly the strange evocation of space that simultaneously pulls viewers in and pushes them away, is thorough and grounded in careful observation, so that when he first veers away from the facts we’re inclined to follow him into the badlands of wild speculation. We continue to follow not only because he’s a fascinating writer but also because he makes us feel the weight of his mission to confront, crabwise rather than head-on, the awful secret that Silenus is said to have guarded: the best thing that could happen to mortals is to be unborn, and the second-best is to die soon.
If there’s a progenitor for this kind of writing, it’s Nietzsche. This is a strange thing to point out, since Meis spends much of The Drunken Silenus insulting Nietzsche. He says The Birth of Tragedy was the only totally worthwhile book Nietzsche ever wrote. He says Nietzsche was full of shit. Mostly, he says Nietzsche was crazy. He calls Nietzsche crazy, or insane, or stark-raving mad at least a dozen times in the book, until it becomes a kind of gangster nickname, like Fat Tony or One-Ball Riley, at once a put-down and a term of endearment.
Name-calling, of course, was a Nietzsche trademark, and Meis is never more Nietzschean than when he’s slinging mud at a dead man. He has Nietzsche’s skepticism of progress, on both a historical and an expository level, as well as Nietzsche’s gift for making arguments in brief, brilliant flashes. His ideal form is the compressed, Nietzschean aphorism. Some of these will change your perception of Rubens so utterly that they are likely to seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, like Meis’s observation that in order to understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a mortal out of him. Other aphorisms work the opposite way, flirting with obviousness from the outset—for instance, “A terrible father can produce a great son or daughter. A great father will produce terrible offspring just as often as not.” To borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, someone else who tells stories in spirals, “Well . . . yeah, that’s how all of life works.”
Loose, strange, essayistic books live or die on a single question: are their various parts connected because they actually have something to say to each other, or because the author has forced them together? The clutter of ideas and subjects doesn’t necessarily have to cohere into a thesis, but at some point it should gain enough momentum to turn of its own accord, suggesting something more than what the author uses it to show. Meis achieves this tricky feat, and does so in large part because his book is really about, per Mulaney, how all of life works.
How humiliating, to write that last sentence—how pretentious, how arrogant! I can’t even imagine writing a whole book like The Drunken Silenus, but I’m glad Meis did. He’s willing to risk redundancy and pretentiousness, because he knows he has something worth risking them for. For all his casual displays of brilliance, his goal isn’t to introduce readers to stunning new ideas but to remind them of a depressing old idea: existence is long, painful, and pointless, and while art can do a lot to lessen the load, it can’t carry all of it. An unsexy point, which he makes very sexily.