Saturday, August 27, 2011


My models for blogging are: the Polish genius/disruptor Witold Gombrowicz and the French philosopher/guru Emile-August Chernier, who wrote under the ungooglable pen name Alain.

News of Gombrowicz first reached me while I was living in Prague, a city riddled with both expatriates (which Gombro was) and shitty writers (which he was not). In such a city, it is easier than you'd think for an American to get a library card, and to check out, using said card, the British edition of Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, and then to read in this small, tattered, but ridiculously-well-argued book that the Joyce-Mann-Proust triumvirate that he has worshipped for so long is in fact a distant second string to the real giants of the period, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Witold Gombrowicz. The American, of course, has never heard of any of these writers before. But Americans being Americans and shitty writers being shitty writers, he of course believes every word of it.

Ten years and numerous investigations later, Gombrowicz's thought has utterly infected me. Viruses, like most great organisms, do their work in the dark; but the success of Gombro's prose has less to do with outright force than with its unique combination of speed and sharpness. This is especially true in the Diaries, which, were I a real writer, I would mention in an interview as "my War and Peace" (causing the same puzzled excitement in Shitty Young America that, say, Philip Roth did in me, when he called Celine "my Proust"). Written during his impromptu exile in Argentine, they are among the great blogging ur-texts: a rancid epic of inflation, mutilation, and change (which, despite his desires to, Gombro really does not: this is simultaneously the work's great victory and its tragedy). And it all plays out in that wonderful, hiding-under-the-sofa level of mundanity that blogs are so fascinated with. Comparing the book with Tolstoy may seem flippant: it is. It is ludicrously irresponsible. But put a page of the Diaries next to the last chapter of Anna Karenina, and then stare at them with all the intensity you'd give to the Magic Eye poster in a TGIFridays's bathroom. After five minutes, you will start to get very bored - but then, after fifteen or twenty minutes the candy-colored waters will part, and the Unicorn of Meaning leap from the wall to gouge your eye out.

Gombro's genius was to be so vituperously witty about himself and the world that he eventually broke them both. In pictures he looks like what he was: a grouchy and effete old perv. But this is also not what he was - for the real Gombrowicz is not in these pictures at all, at least not visibly. The real Gombrowicz is sitting in a tiny cockpit at the top of the picture-Gombrowicz's head, moving his arms and legs via an elaborate system of levers when he has to, but mostly just sitting there in disgusted awe. Yes, there is awe in Gombrowicz, that most romantic of romantic Polish intellectuals. But he will not settle. So, like a particular strain of idealist that can be found everywhere (even in America), he spends most of his time telling the world and himself how incredibly much they fail to measure up.

Going from Gombrowicz to Alain is like deciding to switch parents with your best friend. There is the fear, the flush of encounter, the relief at feeling valued, hopeful, optimistic... and then, of course, the mysterious realization that these new parents are actually a lot like your old ones. A populist, a Marxist (though seen through his eyes Marx resembles the Brothers Grimm much more than Goethe or Schiller), Alain wrote almost exclusively in a single form, which he called the propos. As Richard Pevear explains it in his introduction to The Gods:

The word basically means a conversation, a talk. These miniature essays make up a large part of [Alain's] work; between 1903 and 1936 he wrote over five thousand of them, an average of one every two and a half days...The nature of the propos grew out of the unusual working conditions Alain set himself: to fill two pages, at one sitting, with no revisions. In fact, he would not erase a sentence once it was put down; he would make his thought follow the words. In a note written in 1908, he compared the propos to the stretto in a fugue, the abbreviated repetition of subjects, which come together 'as if they were passing through a ring. The material crowds in, and it has to line up, and pass through, and be quick. That is my acrobatic stunt, as well as i can describe it; I have succeeded perhaps one time in six, which is a lot...'

The state of concentration that he describes here as being necessary for the writing of the propos links Alain's writing to more physical and improvisational modes of creation: dance, for example, or the guitar solo, or drawing. The mad British sculptor/painter/novelist Michael Ayrton describes the last of these beautifully: "The process of drawing is before all else the process of putting the visual intelligence into action, the very mechanics of taking visual thought." In a similar way, Alain's propos seem less written to me than sky-written, performed. Despite their density I read them quickly, before they dissolve, and then mull over them for hours.

This conception of writing as a physical, improvisational, and above all risky act is what makes Alain so important for me. Most of the fiction I've tried to write over the last decade has been the result of enormous effort - not concentration, necessarily, but effort. But as anyone who's ever been a long-distance athlete can tell you, time spent at a task does not immediately translate into time well spent (and then just there, I had to rewrite that sentence). Too often while writing fiction - while writing any prose, really, except those pieces that I can somehow convince myself are "not important" - I put my head down and push, with the same blinkered tenacity that I used to show when I volunteered for the most difficult events during a high school swim meet. Why did I do this? Why especially when my thighs at fourteen were things of beauty, and my breaststroke (the most delicate, dance-like and furious of the competitive strokes) an unbeatable knife-stab into perfectly-parting waters? But breaststroke was also the slowest stroke and therefore a notorious haven for malingerers. Even the name was pansified. So I gave it up, exchanging what I still hold would have been a meteoric career for four years of a frustrated attempt to succeed at something that I just - wasn't - good at.

Fear. But one of the great ironies (or necessities) of Alain's writing is that, effortless though it may seem, it is obsessed with work. The Gods - still my favorite blog, even more so than the Diaries - is a hymn to disillusion: a reverse and antidote to Gombrowicz's Polish escapism. For Alain, the point is not to escape, since anywhere we escape to will just be the same thing. We carry our problem - our "soul error" as Alain's great predecessor Montaigne put it - inside us. It is a misunderstanding (shades again of Tolstoy and that secret Tolstoyan, Ludwig Wittgenstein), which means that we can correct it. There are no paradises, no edens since Eden. As soon as we accept that nothing comes into being without work, we can begin to remedy our situation ourselves, in the world. Putting it this way unfortunately makes Alain sound like an Australian trying to sell blenders - but this is not philosophy. Or rather, it is philosophy in the same way that Alain's propos are writing: philosophy as action.

Alain's legacy, for me, is intensity: of style, of voice, of ambition. His famous students included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil. His first sentences are impossible composites of equation and fairy tale: "A child is first carried or wheeled around." "Violence is everywhere under the peacefulness of the fields." "The Gods are moments of man." "Ulysses, on Calypso's beach, thinks of the smoke above his roof in Ithaca, and wants to die." "We always have to eat." Impossible not to read the sentences that follow them - which is, I realize, one of the things he has in common with Witold Gombrowicz.

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