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Writers

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Aristophanes famously made Socrates a character in one of his most successful plays, The Clouds, and not a very nice character, either–petty, spiteful, conniving, foolish, dishonest, destructive, arrogant and what can only be called slatternly, although that’s a word usually applied only to women.

I reread The Clouds this summer, along with a long list of other Greek works I hadn’t picked up since my early days in college, and I remembering wondering what the audience had thought of the skewering of the man who was supposed to be Athens’ greatest thinker.  The Athenians liked their thinkers, by and large.  Athenian society probably gave a higher social status to  philosophers (think “intellectuals”) than any society has before or since.

But Aristophanes was writing about a man who was alive and well in the world in which his play was produced, and nothing has come down to us of protest against the portrait.  Maybe there was such protest, and we have simply lost all the examples of it.   Maybe the audience just liked a good joke at the expense of public figures, even public figures they  liked–much the way we like to laugh at Obama impersonations on Saturday Night Live.

What strikes me, however, is how incredibly modern that play seemed to me as I read it.  The fundamental fault line between the philosophers and the ordinary men of ordinary occupations could have been taken out of The  Weekly Standard a month ago.  Socrates is the man who not only deliberately attacks and dismantles tradition, but who scorns and pities the men who make the everyday world work with their labor. 

So, okay, we can say that the old tension between the intellectuals and the rest of us is of long standing, but it’s the other half of the depiction that struck me, and that came back to me as I continued reading my Hawthorne biography.  It reminded me of a few other biographies I’ve read, recently, including one of Somerset Maugham and one of Mary McCarthy.  I’ve got a biography of Edna Saint Vincent Millay in the office here–I spent one year living in her old dorm room at Vassar–and I have a funny feeling that that one will bring me back to the same place.

That place is this:  it astounds me beyond measure how often it is the case that writers whose fictional and poetic worlds are large, generous, serious, joyous. and insightful live personal lives that are small, pinched, petty, spiteful, vain and resentful. 

I don’t know why we expect writers to be like their work, but we do–and I think I can safely use that “we.”  And I’m not saying that all writers live lives that are cramped in those ways.  There have been some notable exceptions, including both Hemingway and Stephen  King.

But a lot of the very greatest writers, the ones with the largest and the longest literary reputations, have had these personal faults.  We know very little about Shakespeare’s personal life, but what we do know is not in general pleasant.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as “writing” became a profession instead of something relatively rich people did on the side, the news got less and less pleasant.

In general, I think we can say that the great writers who have done something else with their lives besides “just write’ seem to have done better, in terms of personality and personal history, than the ones who have not, but that isn’t always the case, either.  Orwell was “just a writer,’ and from all reports a first rate human being.  The same is the case with Conan Doyle, and I tend to think that that last mental breakdown, in response to the death of his son, is to his credit as a personality rather than an embarrassment. 

Maybe this is the fault of a narrative, or of all narratives–we want our people to be all of a piece, as characters are, and so often they are not.  It’s not only great writers who exhibit small personalities, it’s people with great talent at everything–basketball players, composers, even legendary business innovators (think Henry Ford) all seem to fall into small lives, pinched ideas, spiteful nastiness over trivialities as soon as you get them at home. 

Maybe it bothers me more about the writers of fiction because they spend so much of their lives examining and recreating the interior lives of others,  A Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man who created Judge Pyncheon and Hester Prynne, ought to know better, I think–in fact, he does know better.  He just sees to be completely unable to act on what he knows. so we get not only his casual racism (once having been asked to dinner at the house of friends to find that one of the guests was a free black woman, he refused ever to dine there again), but his vindicative attacks on the dead Margaret Fuller and his relentlessly cruel lampooning of Elizabeth Peabody.  The situation is not made any better that he owed both  Fuller and  Peabody many of the professional breaks that made it possible for him to become an American writer of the first rank, or that he had once been almost engaged to Peabody before he threw her over for her sister.

I find I like the absolute psychopats better than I like people like Hawthorne, as people–I like him as a writer just fine, and he’s a necessary link in the chain of American intellectual history.  But the absolute psychopaths actually have a kind of grandeur to them, the Percey Bysshe  Shelleys, the Lord Byrons.  They didn’t bother to lie, because they didn’t see any point to it.  They slept with your wife and threw it in your face, and in the faces of their own wives, too, and then they demanded that you lend them your villa in Naples because you wouldn’t be staying in it anyway.

It seems to me that the writers of the worlds I want to live in are the least likely people to actually live in such worlds.   Maybe that is why  I am not, and will never be, a Great Writer.  What I want out of writing, and out of reading, is not only to live in that world for a little while, but to bring my own world a little closer to it. 

I can be a very happy person on Sunday mornings, with Bach harpsichord concertos on the CD player and something I really love to read, fictional or otherwise.  At times like that it almost seems as if it’s possible to live in the world I keep looking for in fiction, and even sometimes in poetry, and often in music and painting.  When I think of that world to myself, I tend to call it “the life of the mind,” but the phrase bothers me in a number of ways, and it means things to me that wou ld make somebody like Hannah Arendt or  George Steiner cringe. 

In the life of the mind as I want to live it, there is a place for Shakespeare and Mozart and Faulkner and Trollope and Piero della Francesca, but there is also more than enough room for Sherlock Holmes and all my Miss Marple Agatha Chrities.

I don’t know.  It’s Christmas, and I’ve gotten to the point in the Hawhtorne biography where I’m exasperated with the man so much that it’s begun to impinge on my admiration for his books.

On the other hand, I do have lots and lots and lots of the old Perry Mason television series on DVD, and that’s something that fits into my definition of the life of the m ind, too.

Written by janeh

December 14th, 2008 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Writers'

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  1. How strange. I went straight off to the Bookcase in Exile and counted up 20 authors of whom I had read biographies or long biographical essays not censored by the writer or his estate. All are now dead.

    They’re not a bad bunch. Did some of them do things of which I do not approve? Certainly. I could tally up a certain amount of philandering, an iffy divorce or so, and two suicides. I also have done things of which I do not approve. But I can recall no instance of malice, cruelty, theft or spite. Many were notably helpful to persons with no claim on their generosity, and all, I think, could pass muster as good citizens or good subjects as the case might be. I would be happy to have dinner with any one of them, and would loan them money or leave them with my nieces (or nephews) without thought that my trust would be abused.

    Perhaps the difference is that with one or two exceptions, the names on my list were storytellers. Mostly, they told stories of how people are and how the world is or might be, and left it to us to conclude that changes were in order. When you start by wanting to remake the world, and believe you know how the world ought to be remade–well, the Greeks had a word for it.

    The authors, if anyone is interested: Poul Anderson, Jane Austen Leigh Brackett, E. R. Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gordon Dickson, Lord Dunsany, Robert Heinlein, Georgette Heyer, Robert Howard, Rudyard Kipling, H. P. Lovecraft, Baroness Orczy, H. Beam Piper, Ayn Rand, Edouard Rostand, Raphael Sabatini, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edward E. Smith and JRR Tolkien.

    robert_piepenbrink

    14 Dec 08 at 12:01 pm

  2. I read so few biographies that I can hardly comment – but I will anyway. You’re bound to get a certain number of spiteful and nasty people in any group – if there are more among writers, isn’t it possible that it’s that old Romantic thing again about how True Art has to be produced by tortured individuals who are so much above the commonplace that of course they can’t be bothered to be kind, honest etc.

    I seem to be hitting a series of depressing things myself lately – a friend lent me some movie DVDs – the current one in the machine is about the travails of a child sent from Finland to Sweden in WW II. I think I’ll switch to ‘The Avengers’. And I came across a book in the piles I share around that’s quite out of my usual range – ‘My Mother’s Lovers’ by Christopher Hope – and at first it seemed interesting with its vivid and sometimes funny portrayal of Africa. But I now dislike the narrator – he’s self-hating, rootless, detached and not quite adult with respect to his mother. That’s not a good sign this soon into a very long book.

    cperkins

    14 Dec 08 at 5:59 pm

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