A Meandering, Retractable Manifesto...
...rife with more questions than answers.
As someone (Hippocrates, it turns out) once said, “Art is long, life is short.” Today, I find myself pausing a bit, having just finished a book of stories, in that waiting period before it comes out, trying to see what I really believe about art, so I can, as much as possible, avoid, uh, wasting my life.
The admittedly esoteric questions that follow in this post are on my mind today because I’m about to get back to writing fiction and want to make sure I start out on the right foot.
With our long experiment with “My First Goose” still on my mind, I find myself thinking about darkness in art. It was heavy, reading that alongside the news from Ukraine. I loved doing it but I’m glad we’re done.
I can see that what Babel was doing was offering us a sort of sketch of violence. There is no rape or murder in the story, as there is, in abundance, in a real war. The Cossacks are relatively jovial, especially compared with the lot he writes about in a chilling, pro-Red Army propaganda piece called “Murderers Who Have Yet to be Clubbed to Death.” In it, he describes a certain group of Cossacks who fought against the Red Army, on the side of the Poles, and who were…not jovial. And here I should quote from the piece but it’s too terrible and disturbing, so I’m going to exercise my teacherly prerogative and skip it. (For those interested, the essay in in the Constantine translation, The Complete Works of Issac Babel.)
But – no doubt, the Cossacks with whom Babel rode committed rapes and murders of their own. But we don’t exactly see those Cossacks in “My First Goose.” We get a hint of them – and maybe that’s sufficient. We can, perhaps, imagine them in other, more intense, circumstances. The story is, we might say, waving its hand in the direction of violence but, perhaps considerately, stopping short of the real horrors.
But this raises an interesting question. What, ultimately, is the purpose of art? To get out on the perimeter, where the most terrible deeds occur, and reside there, reporting factually back, no matter how hard the result is to read? I used to think so, back when I was a Hemingway acolyte. I thought that fiction was a slightly poetic form of reportage – the most important thing was the relaying of actual, lived experience.
But it seems to me now that Hemingway’s best war stories, and Babel’s, are really myths. They are about the human tendencies that underlie war, but that are not limited to war. These tendencies function in everyday, mundane, life too; more quietly, often so quiet as to be unobserved, but they are still there, having their effect.
“My First Goose” is a myth, a compressed myth, about – well, about all of the things we discussed in connection with it: violence and the need to fit it, the relation between sexuality and violence, the cost of self-assertion, and much more. What it is not, is a factual account of something that actually happened. Or, if it was based on something that happened, its verisimilitude is not what we admire about it. We admire its artistic coherence, its distillation of great truths, its coherence in the service of the question, “What are human beings up to, anyway?”
To my way of thinking, a good story is more of a cartoon or line drawing than a fully executed oil painting or photograph. We understand that it is alluding to the real deal, but is doing so while being somewhat sketch-like. To the extent that it is “realistic,” it is realistic so that we will believe in it, so that it can, in turn, do its mythological work, and speak to us in the present moment, even if we are not personally involved in a war (or a flood, or a murder, or a tempestuous love affair, or so on).
In this context, I always think of Charles Schulz and Peanuts and the way those kids could never have remained upright with heads that large, and yet, when I was a kid, that Christmas speech Linus gives from that auditorium stage was about as close to philosophy as I ever got, and it seemed true, and moved me. I saw my world in that world, for all of the differences. The point of the representation was not versimilitude. Those were not real kids. That was not a real neighborhood. (Where, for example, were the sidewalks?) The point was the underlying truth: compressed, comic, and somehow, to me anyway, more potent for the lack of “realism.”
When we think about it, “My First Goose” is really a picture of Babel’s mind, not a picture of the world – or, maybe, it is what resulted when Babel’s mind used the things of the world as its construction materials - the intersection of his mind and the world. The thing that resulted, that work of art, has the world in it, but is not the world itself; it is something that speaks to conditions in the world, a lovingly distorted scale model of the world.
So, a story is an export of one human mind. It is a sort of psychological projection that uses the things of the world to dress itself up in. The world is the light that goes into the crystal that is the mind of the author, and then the refraction that flashes on to the wall is…the story.
But what is it meant to do, or cause?
One of the things reading fiction helps us understand better, then, is the mind of the person who wrote the story. And writing fiction helps us better understand our own habits of mind.
As a naturally pessimistic person in my habits of thought (habits I am working to reverse), I was often, in the early days, inclined to steer my stories in the direction of the worst than might happen and then, over-correcting, I would blunder back into sentimentalism. This is just something I finally noticed; a sort of pre-set of my mind, if you will. (I was more naturally inclined, back then, to find fault/critique/tease than I was to, say, praise. I felt this sort of negative critique to be more edgy and sophisticated and intelligent.)
But, over the years, by trying to make my stories better, I have, I feel, gotten incrementally better at letting the light in. That’s a tremendous gift my art has given me: the opportunity to change my pre-set.
But here’s a question I’ve often have asked myself and to which I still don’t have an answer: why should the result of all of this have any value for someone other than me? That is: if a story really is “an export of one human mind,” if it is really (just) a “psychological projection” – why should my story have any value or relevance to you? How is it possible that it can have power, and move you, and change your life?
I make up a story set in a theme park that I invented, and I have certain things happen, and have certain made-up “people” behave in a certain way, and it builds to a climax, fully engineered by me – why should any of this signify to you as a reader, given how idiosyncratic and controlled-by-me it all has been?
We’ve talked a good deal here in Story Club about the disconnect between intention and final product – about how, for some of us, our best work comes when our intention gets overridden by improvisation, through many rounds of iteration. That is: we don’t really know what we’re trying to do when we start out to write a story. We really don’t and shouldn’t, per this model. We just blunder into it, by revising to our tastes, and thrilling ourselves by indulging in a thousand micro-choices, and so on. So, we might ask: What is it that winds up happening, all on its own, separate from our intention, when we make up a story, and why should it be desirable that such a thing should as that story should exist in the world?
What is it we hope to have made, when all is said and done, and why does that thing have value?
I stumbled on this quote by Charlie Chaplin (a portion of which I shared last time) and it’s inspiring me as I think about what I want to try to write next:
“As far as truth goes in itself, sometimes it can be damn boring. Ideas are stale things, so stale. The intellect is not too great a thing. And pessimism—that’s what a lot of people mistake for realism: “Well, that’s more like life.” But life isn’t just one mortuary after another.”
Yes, exactly: life isn’t just one mortuary after another. There are mortuaries in it, and sometimes it seems like we’re strolling down a whole block of them, or trapped inside of one – but life is always more than that, and a work of art can be more than just a list of grievances – it can serve as a reminder that “life isn’t just one mortuary after another.”
Then Chaplin says:
“Recently I saw a film called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?. It’s well done, but you can’t tell me their relationship is real. It’s too much on one key. Humans are not that consistently irksome to each other. Maybe he says, “I’ll get you, you bitch, so and so and so.” But a minute later, he might be saying, “I’ve got a splinter in my thumb. Get me some eau de cologne and iodine.” Life isn’t in one key and neither are people. Anyway, as the saying goes, even if it was good I wouldn’t like it—trying to make life as sad, as ugly as possible.”
“Trying to make life as sad, as ugly as possible.” I recognize that goal from inside myself. It can sometimes feel like a safe choice – to mock, to chide, to look down the nose at everything. But that stance is a denial of all of the times we’ve felt the beauty of life – it’s cynical and partial and false. It fails to do justice to those moments we have all lived, in which it seems like a rare gift to get to be here at all.
So, one goal I have: to praise that which should be praised. Well, or: to praise honestly that which really deserves to be praised.
Because to praise emptily and hyperbolically is really just the other side of false edginess - a failure to look at life, a desire to feel just one way about it, and lock into that way of feeling, and not have to worry or think anymore.
Chaplin also says, in that same interview: “I’m not interested at all in reality, except to make my stories believable—make the unreal real, to hypnotize the audience into swallowing my premise. Once I had decided to base City Lights on a pretty girl interested in a character like my Tramp, I had to think up convincing situations to bring that about believably.”
What I like about this quote is the notion that, when we write a story, we are not really trying to “describe” reality, as such (since reality is infinite and contains everything). We all know what reality is like, having lived in it. We are trying to make something wondrous to add to that reality. We are, in that process, describing one response to reality – one possible mindset available to us, to take up in response to the challenge of living in this reality.
Because we are all, aren’t we, to a greater or lesser extent, somewhat outgunned by reality? The writer is saying, “Oh, yes, well, me too. What if we thought about reality like this? Might that help?”
So, art is an offering of sorts – a hypothesis for both writer and reader to take up and consider together. And the goal of that offering might (might) be to ease the reader’s way; to make the difficulty of this life less for her. We try to give the reader a way of thinking about reality that is truthful, yes, and harsh, if need be, but not gratuitously harsh, a way of thinking that, somehow, helps her. And also, not gratuitously comforting (for she’ll feel the falseness in that, and take no comfort from it).
And if we do it right, at a tender moment, the reader will feel she has a friend, in the story and its writer, even if that writer is long dead or from some faraway place.
So that’s something else that’s on my mind just now.
As an example of this sort of art, I’ll offer this sequence, from Chaplin’s “Circus”:
I experience this as just pure joy, the exquisite exploitation of a premise, that has the effect of showing us, really showing us, how we are, how we behave, how we think. And the result is something like love, or maybe the kind of love God must feel for us.
I watched this with Paula, my wife, and one of our daughters, during the thick of the pandemic, when some other rough things were going on for us and, for a few seconds, we all just felt the comfort and healing of being lifted right out of that reality. But we also felt what I’d call Chaplin’s fundamental faith in humanity, in the things we all have in common. It seems very good-hearted (although not especially cheerful or avoidant – it’s about trouble and the way we respond to it, and those monkeys are pretty diabolical).
But mostly I am thinking of that feeling I got while watching it, which was the feeling of being lovingly comforted.
That’s a feeling I’d like to give my future readers.
I also admire the way that Chaplin does not seem to be advocating for or against anything. He is just observing the way people are. That takes a lot of affection and confidence. We come to like an author like that not because she agrees with us, and is understood to be firmly ensconced in our tribe, but because she is clear-sighted and honest and has an enthusiasm for life and for living - she busts us right out of our alleged tribe with her fearless and energetic truth-telling.
I love the idea of trying to be neither optimistic or pessimistic in my work, but just…truthful, present, celebratory, accepting of whatever actually is, even if that requires me to set aside or expand my belief system.
I was reminded of how beautifully this can work, by this recent David Sedaris piece in The New Yorker:
I love the joyful pileup of true things, his refusal to be “pro-“ or “anti-“ America, in the usual, facile ways. Instead – and I sometimes feel this in Chaplin, too – David just celebrates the whole deal, by being willing to frankly observe it, eyes open, whether what he sees contradicts or upholds his existing view. That sort of wide-eyed observation feels to me like a form of love.
That’s another thing I’d like to do in my stories.
It’s getting to be quite a list and I know from past experience that if I consciously “try” to do any of this, I’ll screw everything up. So, having thought all of this through with you in this way, I’ll trust that it’s in my artistic subconscious and…forget all about it.
And get back to work.
P.S. On Sunday, paid subscribers will be getting a new story from me, by a great American writer, for us to work on together. I’ll have the comments switched off, so we can all have a good, calm read or two before we discuss it, on the following Sunday. That is, you’ll have a full week to read it and think about it. I’m going to try to (slightly) slow down the pace here, so nobody feels that they are falling behind.
Because no one is.