“Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.”
“Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.”
“I’m committed to the bitter passionate view that we live in a Byzantine period, an Alexandrian period, in which the commentator and the comment tower above the original. Saint-Beuve dies bitterly remarking, ‘No one will ever create a statue for a critic.’ Oh God, how wrong he was. Today we’re told there is critical theory, that criticism dominates—deconstruction, semiotics, post-structuralism, postmodernism. It is a very peculiar climate, summed up by that man of undoubted genius, Monsieur Derrida, when he says that every text is a ‘pretext.’ This is one of the most formidably erroneous, destructive, brilliantly trivial wordplays ever launched. Meaning what? That whatever the stature of the poem, it waits for the deconstructive commentator; it is the mere occasion of the exercise. That is to me ridiculous beyond words. Walter Benjamin said a book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader happens to come along. Books are in no hurry. An act of creation is in no hurry; it reads us, it privileges us infinitely. The notion that it is the occasion for our cleverness fills me with baffled bitterness and anger. The notion that students today read second- and thirdhand criticism of criticism, and read less and less real literature, is absolutely the death of the normal naive and logical order of precedence.”
“A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase ‘sincere and simple’—’Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere’—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: ‘Art is simple, art is sincere.’ Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”
The idols are down. I don’t despair. “Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement…” Run, tumble, swim, ride a bicycle. Few qualify as athletes. Fewer as Olympians.
“The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as ‘the dance of the intellect among words.’ But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself. ”
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
–David Foster Wallace
I don’t write to be liked, I don’t write for acceptance. Countering a steady diet of rejection, I remind myself of this:
“It is not surprising therefore that the most representative literature of our times is light, easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be—as its primary and almost exclusive objective—entertaining. But let’s be clear: I am not in any way condemning the authors of this entertainment literature because, notwithstanding the levity of their texts, they include some really talented writers. If today it is rare to see literary adventures as daring as those of Joyce, Woolf, Rilke or Borges, it is not just down to the writers. For the culture in which we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them and this demand creates a pressure that becomes a powerful incentive to writers.”
This, from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture, a highly sobering, indispensable discourse on the current state of arts and letters.
Though why not aim high? And especially having read Joyce, Woolf, Rilke, Borges—why not aspire to join their ranks? To match what you admire?
So much talent today, effectively homogeneous: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
Believe. Go alone. They’re hardly critics, if all they express is opinion. A critical response must, at the least, situate the work in question. Reviewers—but who cares, except the vastly impressionable consumer?
Last word, Truman Capote: “…I’ll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers.”
“I love the privileges of form.”