Monday, September 5, 2011

Li r e s Mut t

The history of literature is full of if onlys. Two of my favorites are Emily Dickinson and Robert Walser. If only they'd been recognized in their own time, two lives of loneliness and mental illness might have been averted, and the histories of American and German and World literature invigorated a hundred years earlier. Plus, we would probably have the cure for cancer and a black president and new iphones....for everybody!

Thinking of this, we moan and weep about the waste that is human life...But what if, between Kleenexes as it were, we put the problem to ourselves in a completely opposite way, and say that Dickinson's and Walser's lives occurred exactly as they had to in order to produce the works that they did; and that therefore, the hypothetical "fulfillments" that we wish for them would actually have been disasters, which would have prevented these writers from creating the works they did?

Viewing a writer's life this way - that is, as less a success and more a complicated, elaborate mistake - is itself problematic, since it takes the capacity to write out of the creator's hand and diffuses it into that strange and unreliable god Circumstance. But then isn't every writer simultaneously an autonomous creator AND a sort of conduit to his/her times? And following this, aren't the snakes that the world puts between a writer and his/her goal at least as important as the ladders, since they force him/her beyond a willful expression of intention and into the strange, dangerous, quasi-improvisational space that is creative reaction? 

In order to get a picture of this, close your eyes and imagine you're an aspiring writer (if you're already an aspiring writer, don't bother to close your eyes). As an AW, you've grown up reading or hearing or seeing works of art that you admire, and this admiration leads you to want to create works of art of your own. Naturally, your first attempts at this are imitations of those works that you admire - imitations that succeed or fail to a varying degree (both in your own eyes, and in the eyes of others). With every success, you gain confidence and ambition; with every failure, discouragement, and an appreciation for the successful works that others have pulled off. Eventually, you get to a point where you are either succeeding more than you're failing, or failing more than you're succeeding. Both of these possibilities have their own satisfactions and problems - but it is only in the latter's case that you are gradually pushed towards a difficult question. The question is, very simply, Are you ever going to stop failing and succeed at this? A Yes to this question means back to the drawing board for more work; but what does a No mean? Does it mean Stop writing? Or does it mean, perhaps more strangely, Stop writing these things that you've been trying to write, that you love, and that have for so long been associated in your mind and heart with any future you might have as a writer?

Putting it this way, I want to suggest that the urge to write, to create, is less an aspiration (with its airy connotations of rising) and more a drag, a sinking towards oneself, so that certain writers' "careers" can resemble the movement of spilled water towards the edge of a table. Along these lines, inherited conceptions of what successful writing would look like can act like cards or hands placed in the path of the water, causing a build-up of mass that may at first seem like a failure to move but is in fact nothing more than the accumulation of potential movement that will express itself, and in gushes, the minute said conception disappears. 

In other words, by failing to write like Faulkner, Welty learns to write like Welty. By failing to write like Browning, Pound learns to write like Pound. The writer shoots for something that he loves and falls short, and again and again, until eventually he falls so short that he relinquishes his goal - at which point his idol cracks and he sees what he's been missing this whole time, which is not just his own possibilities, but the real object of study, life. 

Seen this way, failure is a key mechanism of an artist's development - maybe the key mechanism. So we might profitably bogue a page from David Foster Wallace's essay Authority and American Usage, in which he suggests that SNOOTlets (DFW's neologism for budding grammar nazis) develop their hypertrophic linguistic abilities due to an inability to mimic other kids: 

"Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They're learning about Discourse Communities. Little kids learn this stuff not in Language Arts or Social Studies but on the playground and the bus and at lunch. When his peers are ostracizing the SNOOTlet or giving him monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on. Everybody here is learning except the little SNOOT - in fact, what the SNOOTlet is being punished for is precisely his failure to learn... He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for 'peer rapport'..." (Consider the Lobster, p. 103)
Culture here reminds me of biology: adaptations evolve due to a weakness in the organism with respect to the pressures of its surrounding environment. Ergo, if you adapt perfectly, there's no need for the claw or tail or eyespots to be called from the depths of their cells.

So far so good... But what about that second group we mentioned above, the Successes, who set out to imitate, and do? To those of us getting spat on, their lot seems pretty sweet. But I wonder if there isn't more to it, at least in some cases. To adapt is one thing, but to be born into a world that seems to have adapted itself to you, before you even got there? 

The self-mutilation that this fit might demand returns us to that old saw, the Prodigal Son. His story was a favorite of Walser, who also achieved a fair amount of success as a young man. His first essay-stories and novels floated into the world to critical acclaim and then disappeared, as he eventually did, to a Swiss sanitarium. The rest of his career can be seen as a series of increasingly-drastic obstructions, both literal (the sanitarium, an aggressive abhorrence of self-promotion) and literary. Of these latter, the most famous is Walser's habit - adopted around the time he entered the sanitarium where he would spend the last two decades of his life - of writing his stories out in stenographers' shorthand on whatever scraps of paper came his way. These included beer coasters, bills, envelopes, postcards. Sometimes the story filled the frame, sometimes it didn't. 

Fans of the Microscripts (as these collected stories are called in English) usually praise the product, while lamenting the (diagnosed) schizophrenia that caused Walser's life to be so strangely, severely mangled. Rightly so... But behind these lamentations is the question of whether the Microscripts could exist without the weird panoply of obstructions that their author adopted, or felt the need to adopt, in order to call them into existence. The question, difficult and unsolvable, turns around our conception of happiness. What is it? And what about those strange individuals who seem to run, not to it, but away from it - as if in terror of the nightmare of perfect adaptation? 

The story of the prodigal son contains a great mystery, which is why someone with a happy life would decide one day and seemingly out of the blue, to exchange that life for wandering and unhappiness. Why would anyone do that, we wonder? And yet, we exchange our happiness for unhappiness everyday and in a hundred different ways. Walser and Dickinson write in ways that they "shouldn't", live in ways whose invisible logic we describe as tragic and impossible - as if it weren't logic at all but a sort of super-human, sub-human force, like gravity. 

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