Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Saints, Sex, Hope, and a 20-sided Die


Abstain from masturbation and sex? Are you serious? I mean, how would someone with my impressive and hyperactive libido do that? We're artists, after all. We fuck anything that moves! It's in our contract! Don't be insane!

Seriously, though. For all his romantic lion-hunting, Hemingway was a pale-faced Puritan and therefore terrifically afraid of any activity that he did not have absolute control over. I understand where he was coming from, I think, though in my case, all the perfectly-wrought stories I've tried to fashion have felt less crystallized and more constipated, to pick up 7D's scatology theme (well, not pick it up: that would be gross).

In order to understand Hem's anxiety here I think it's important to imagine that he's your friend, and that he's telling you this sexual abstinence=genius plan as a friend, rather than a world-famous writer. You nod of course, because he's always been a little easy to rattle, and anyway there's no discounting the effectiveness of superstition. But when you relay the information to, say, your wife, you hear it coming out differently - especially as you watch her face, for, you see, she has encountered this kind of thing before. Won't have sex "because of his writing"? Yeah right. What she knows (and what you find yourself "knowing," too, or at least suspecting, in a way that makes the backs of your calves itch uncomfortably) is that the abstinent man abstains because he is AFRAID of sex, not because he has "overcome" it, mastered it, whatever. To pretend otherwise is to delude yourself - productively, maybe (at least, productively for a time), but in a way that must eventually be abandoned once your own private tide-pool becomes too rank.
I think your wife's right about this one - not because I agree that sex is this transcendent power capable of undermining any amount of pretty wordage, but because I think that, whatever else it is, sex is also fundamentally like any other activity, - flossing, say or icon-painting or chess - that is to say a vital human form, through which our attention moves like a man measuring the British coastline.

Bad writers - meaning writers who have no bravery, curiosity or gratitude - measure using a yardstick. They are happy with their approximate results. Better writers use a tape measure, which lets them hug closer; but the best writers are fractal and deploy words that hug the coast like wacky wall walkers descending a glass door, slowly, and with seemingly-infinite amazement. This, as St. Fwallace tells us, is a matter of commitment. A lack of assurance about which tool will work best displays an inability to see one's subject. Maybe you have to walk the entire coastline yourself, running a thin line of graphite over white cliffs and sea walls and the backs of old ladies' heads. Maybe that will take a long time and be very inconvenient to things like relationships, making a living, or your sense of who you should be. The only way to know for sure is by trying each method and then testing the results against what you can see.

My own limited experience is that this kind of commitment is scary for all the usual reasons. It makes all the usual reasons for being scared feel fresh again, freshly terrifying and freshly real. Chief among these is failure. You are going to die, and in a very literal sense, this means that your life is going to fail. I believe that, until we make the decision to explore this fact - not just in a big abstract way, but while we are lying side by side with someone whose smile has the power to *destroy* us - we will never write anything worthwhile. And no, there is no "mastering" death, or failure, or loss. There is no "coming to terms" (a hilariously business-like phrase given the unreliability of the customer here). As Eudora Welty points out, all problems, in writing and life, are singular, which means that their solutions must be the same and unrepeatable. Even the greatest trick on earth will only work once.

You brought (or rather conjured: check out those salty eye rings!) up Beckett, the patron saint of modern day literary failure. But really, isn't ours a golden age when it comes to these types of saints? Rereading and rethinking 2666 these days, I've been struck, not by its uniqueness, but by how much it shares with other novels I love. It's unfinished; but reading it, I feel like Bolano could have worked for 20 more years and still never completed his project. Its openness is part of the attraction, as is the case in The Castle, or The Man without Qualities, or Moby Dick, or Molloy, or Anna Karenina. These books contain plots the way a body contains organs, or cities contain neighborhoods. But their hidden gift to the reader is not a plot, but the capacity for plotmaking - that is, the ability to find significance in our lives and knit ourselves up into novels of meaning and passion and interest. How do we become interested, focused? By convincing ourselves that what we are doing/looking at/tasting is significant, even vital. That it connects to everything else.

It does - and here I mean this less in a fancy, faux-cynical "it's real if you believe it" sort of way way and more as someone who believes that whenever we say "there is no there there," we are lying, or at least succumbing to despair. And one thing I know is that artists cannot afford despair. Doubt, yes, failure, yes, destruction, yes. But putting pen sincerely to paper, like all true activity, is inherently hopeful, no matter what shit-assed hacks might think (and if I'm sounding like a terrible cross between Bono, Ralph Waldo Emerson and your high school football coach, you'll have to forgive me: I am what fellow recovering Dungeons and Dragons players (I know you're listening!) will recognize as Chaotic Good).

When you talk about the daily "destroying" of yourself, Seth, this is sort of how I understand it. I am not a risky person; at least, I have come over the years to see that almost every single one of my habits, be they mental or physical, is based on preservation and control. In this way, I think I am unfortunately Hem's spiritual great godson and pretty representative of writers in general. But I also know that it takes an inherently cowardly and frail individual to be brave. So I have hope. Lots of hope.

Did Hemingway have hope? I'm sure he did, at least in the great foppish bearhugging stories. But like most Americans, he couldn't take what happened when the bright world he'd seem coming towards him suddenly swerved off, leaving him alone and disappointed. At that point, I think, despair entered his writing. And so, because I know this, it is hard for me to read him now and not feel despair.

Kafka had hope too apparently. In one of his essays, the German cultural critic/hashish-connoisseur Walter Benjamin recounts a conversation between K and his friend Max "Saver of Manuscripts" Brod. Kafka rails against existence, saying that men must be dark, suicidal thoughts that have come into God's head, and our world therefore something that happened on one of the creator's off days. Brod, ever the optimist, points out that, if this is true then there must be hope, at least in other worlds. At which point Kafka smiles. "Hope?" he says. "Oh there's plenty of hope - an infinite amount even. But not for us."

These are the words of a deeply healthy man.

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