Dasein for Amateurs
The time has come to cast a mournful eye over this month’s hokum about artists. Our first entry comes from frequent contributor James Wood, who looks over some recent memoirs by the children of authors and asks, “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” (I imagine the question as uttered by the wistful Mr. Burns of Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?) Wood’s findings, before he gets diverted into beating up on Saul Bellow’s kid, amount to the insight that John Cheever and William Styron were jerks, while Bernard Malamud was not a jerk. Only the last case held my attention, and not just because it’s Malamud who wrote books that I love and respect. The situation is more telling, and a better subject for contemplation, than one more gape at men behaving badly.
Malamud Smith writes, “Dad was not openly domineering in his requests, but he assumed a prerogative.” Her mother “rigorously downplayed her own abilities,” and acquiesced in the shared marital understanding that “my mother’s labors were necessary but inconsequent, while my father’s work mattered. He wrote; she typed drafts.”
Imperatives come into conflict, and a solution glides into place over invisible rails. It’s familiar because it’s a quiet injustice in which everyone is complicit, the kind of thing Henry James was so good at showing. Obviously it has nothing to do with the devotion being sacred, except insofar as “sacred” can be swapped in for “remunerative”; this is a story about patriarchy and economics. Wood’s subject matter tempts him to generalize about the Male Novelist (“For a man, creating a child… is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of thought and effort”—oh, come on), but outside male novelists there are plenty of artistic temperaments with collateral damage more on point.
This interview with Kristin Hersh around her 2011 memoir is remarkable for many reasons; for one, it completely refuses the memoirist’s conceit of coming to rest and gazing back from the still point.
A pause. “That’s why Billy wants me to stop. Because every time I write a song, or every time I hear a song that’s real, it triggers a suicidal urge. And it’s not subtle. It says, ‘Do the math, this is right, you’ve got to go.’ Every single time. And he thinks it isn’t right that a mother of children has to fight a suicidal urge that is that attractive. That combination of beauty and death — it’s inappropriate.”
Is the urge as strong as it was in her teens? “I think it’s a little stronger,” she says.
You wouldn’t expect the person who wrote Kristin Hersh’s songs to paper this over. The entire interview gives voice to two traits bound up with being that person: first, a susceptibility to pain, and second, an unremitting candor. The combination must be hard to live with. We need the people around us to lie, to endure, to settle for life in one city and not publish marital spats on iTunes. But the inability to do such things is of course one with the music, inextricable from the music’s virtues, and it may even be that one of those virtues is to teach sympathy. (I’ve never felt more distant from Robert Christgau than when he said of the first Throwing Muses record, “When friends turn psychotic, I withdraw.”) At any rate it’s an organic link, unlike that between Malamud’s novels and whatever mean maneuevers he and his family had to acquiesce in to even out the balance sheet.
The meanness of these maneuvers is the ghost behind our second piece of hokum, this from César Aira on “The New Writing,” by which he means writing as a conceptual art. If the piece were just an expression of sympathy with John Cage, no one could quarrel with it; but Aira’s attempt at backstory slips into an easy Hegelian tone in which the avant-garde is always sleeping within literary history, awaiting its moment to wake and deliver us.
While Balzac wrote fifty novels, and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, shedding blood in the process. Joyce wrote two, and Proust a single novel, and it was a work that took over his life, absorbing it, a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism. The fact is that being able to make a living from literature was a momentary and precarious state which could only happen at a determined moment in history.
When a civilisation gets old, there are two alternatives: keep making works of art, or to reinvent art itself. But… this second choice becomes more and more difficult and costly and less gratifying. That is, unless we do what the avant-gardes did and take a shortcut by resorting to procedure.
There are all sorts of problems here, starting with a literary history that includes only four names and one often-told story. What Aira means by Balzac’s “time to live” I have no idea; in any case Balzac can’t have enjoyed it as much as Proust, who didn’t have to write fifty novels to pay his grocer. It may be that prose fiction used to be more central to the entertainment industry than it is now; all I know is that an age of streamlined resource exploitation has encouraged us to reach for those stories. The artist’s garret has never lacked for tenants. And when Aira reaches the problem of staying out of the garret, he starts selling snake oil.
It is not the case that the avant-garde can undo the curse of professionalism, sublime away our tortures, make us artists for free and give us our lives back. This isn’t because of any insuffiency in conceptual writing as such; it’s perfectly possible to give a sympathetic, persuasive account of the practice, and Aira’s own fiction has given me pleasure (though not for reasons that have much to do with Cage). The problem is that this utopia comes with no economics. If art as procedural practice makes everyone an artist, then it gets no one out of the garret. No one, at any rate, who doesn’t manage to distinguish himself in some other way: say, by becoming a standard-bearer for the new values. I wouldn’t want to put Aira in the same dunk tank as my onetime colleague who, after making a bit of money with his podcasted detective stories, created himself a tidy gig giving seminars on how to make money with podcasted detective stories. It’s simply the case that differentiation among a field of conceptual artists is a tough job, and that you get into the gallery through personal branding. The expressive self may be empty, but the networking personality remains. If a writer can’t achieve the entrepreneurial heights of the visual arts, where some conceptual mastermind is always hiring proles to do his painting and sandblasting, he has at least the consolation that words are cheap. Aira’s essay is often very practical, and in places I feel him verging on saying something like this. For him finally to pull back, then, and insist on the old categories of “radicality” and “authentic art” offends nearly as much as Wood’s apologetics.
We do not need to rejoin the work of writing to the work of living. They never came apart. If we thought they had, it’s because we were confused by the terms, and so long as we were confused in that way it wasn’t possible to write well. The work of living can’t be shirked—it can only be done badly—and the pictures we make can’t be cut off from the love that moves the sun and the other stars. It doesn’t always move us, but we’re wayward. The self that loves one’s family is or should be the same as the self that writes. It’s only the self that makes money who may be entirely different. The daily frictions, the mean compromises are real. What matters is not to make them more than that. To call them necessities, to set them up as punishing gods, is simply to make excuses for inhumanity.