I know a man who, at the age of sixty, retired to devote himself to literature. Naturally, he took up the habit of writing and one day, after having spent a week studying the venerable literary magazines —through the 70’s the 80’s the 90’s until today—it occurred to him he should abandon writing altogether. The reason? There were so many names that he did not recognize, so many minor, unheard of talents that he finally understood that he would never escape oblivion.
And I must think now of another writer who after the rejection of his first novel gave up writing altogether and entered law school. His despair laid in the fact that despite all his connections, the agents, the editors, the parties, the small talk—nothing external could bring his book to life.
Finally, I recall a young man who would send his stories to seventy or eighty magazines at a time but with no success. Confused as to why he was not published, I recommended that he look to his work. (He had the good fortune of having many problems to fix, enough for a lifetime.) Of course, he grew indignant and instead of taking up the pleasure of that work, he vowed to send his stories to more magazines, attend more conferences, take more classes, etc.
Each of these writers was poisoned by the struggle. But it was not the fact that they struggled which brought them ruin. Rather, it was their motive.
So what is it that one should struggle after? And how does one guard against struggling after the wrong thing? For the longest time I believed that the essential struggle of the writer was to transcend his own personality flaws. This was a more psychological reading of Rilke’s comment, sent in a letter to Franz Xavier Kappus “when your daily life seems barren, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.” I still believe this and take great consolation in my inabilities. It fits rather nicely with that dictum of Epictetus, “wherever someone is against his will, there he is in prison. Thus, Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly.” There is a great satisfaction in taking on the entire burden of your shortcomings. In fact, the phrase “struggling artist” seems to me a redundancy. Tennessee Williams described it, as “a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before.” For the playwright, the struggle was the most satisfying aspect his profession.
Now we live in different times. For the American artist, the struggle is especially difficult. One of the unfortunate consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union was the loss of a state that so perfectly counterbalanced the capitalist ideology of the United States. I am not speaking, of course, of the actual Soviet Union: militaristic, tyrannical. Rather, the Soviet Union of metaphor: unabashed idealism, intellect without irony, material as the premise, not the purpose, of human endeavor. Such a counter-example, especially in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, drove the American artist to explore social conflicts as personal conflicts, to testify. Admittedly, to declare the world materialistic is, in this day and age, to declare water wet. But, western materialism is currently without a moral other. And what is it now that the artist struggles after? Posterity? Fame? Career? Health insurance? Money? The Box Office Blockbuster? The Best Seller? These have become not only the fruits of temptation. They have become the main course.
During decadent times, it is good to consider the work of one who has been austere in his personal vision as an artist. For this we must look to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time a work which was produced on both sides of the iron curtain, from the torture of being unable to make films in Soviet Union because they “wasted the people’s money” to the torture of defecting to the west only to be strangled by material pressure of not selling enough seats. Still, to read his book is to be confronted with a unique idealism.
The most intricate, burdensome, punishing aspect of the artist’s work lies strictly in the domain of ethics: what is demanded of him is total honesty and sincerity towards himself.”
And here, Tarkovsky, drawing upon the work of Henri Bergson writes,
The artist, too, is driven by a kind of instinct, and his work furthers man’s search for what is eternal, transcendent, divine…In this situation, it seems to me that art is called to express the absolute freedom of man’s spiritual potential.
I think that art was always man’s weapon against the material things which threatened to devour his spirit.
I could pick hundreds of statements, each more relentless than the next, each a salve for the wounded soul.
Of course, it is easy to discount this call for spiritual struggle as romantic hogwash. As for ‘spirit’, the word has not meant anything interesting since Germany in the nineteenth century. It has come to mean something downright peculiar in the United States ever since. To be spiritual is not to be esoteric. It is to be deeply passionate, naïve, faithful. I think this explains the great attraction Alexander Hemon and Robert Bolaño’s work is finding today. It is unashamed. It is faithful to an ideal which is marginally greater than the mean. The writer, says the elder Borges, should not be too self-conscious. Perhaps. But when he was young and hungry he asked two questions that I believe can serve as a guide for the struggling writer: “How can we manage to illuminate the pathos of our lives? How can we interject in the hearts of others our humiliating truth?”
And so now, I am forced make an unpopular analogy. The struggle of the artist should be one like the struggle of one to know god, to acknowledge that there is something perfect for which we must strive and yet never achieve, perhaps not even in death. With such terrible odds for success, only the most devoted artist would embark upon such an adventure. And yet, paradoxically, how much greater and satisfying the rewards? What better nourishment to give your reader? What nobility of task? Can you imagine the character of the artist who thinks his audience a stupid animal, fit only to be fed on whatever junk seems most likely to sell seats. No wonder we have lost our customers. We treat them badly! No wonder the realm of the spirit has been unoriginally taken over by fundamentalists of all stripes, Christian, Muslim, Capitalist, or Scientist. It has been roundly abandoned by the Artist!
We have to consider the fact that the literary arts may be receding into a fog. Either it will be a quantitative fog: one of proliferation in which material distractions posing as forms of so-called “communication” are doubled and redoubled until nothing not even the sound of our solitary voices can heard, not even by us.; or, it will be a qualitative fog in which the culture itself is too enfeebled to take pleasure in the literary reflection. I would not pretend to understand where literature is going. But there is no harm in not-knowing.
And, by the way, our place in oblivion is secure.
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