Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’
Writing about Borges last week led me, inevitably, to think of his blindness, and what the loss of one’s sight might mean to an author. Borges began going blind around age thirty, and his sight had failed completely by his mid-fifties—although he didn’t live in the world of darkness that we tend to imagine, but in a sort of “luminous greenish mist,” and in fact no longer saw the color black at all. We often think of Borges as a blind seer, and doubtless his later work was influenced by his blindness, as when he speaks of “God, who with such splendid irony granted me books and blindness at one touch.” In reality, though, his best work was produced before his sight failed, and his later stories, while often remarkable, wouldn’t be read at all if it weren’t for these early masterpieces. (It’s remarkable, and humbling, to note that the most famous stories we associate with Borges, the ones published in Ficciones, were written over a period of less than five years in his early thirties.)
And as much as Borges is now defined by his blindness, it’s hard to see it as anything but a tremendous loss. For one thing, he had worked as a film critic for over a decade, and while we have memorable accounts of him doing to the movies after he lost his sight—he went to see West Side Story multiple times—one wishes that he had been able to write, for instance, about the later Hitchcock. And as an author whose work was defined largely by his engagement with books, the loss of the ability to read could only result, as it in fact did, in the more circumscribed quality of his later stories. Borges’s earlier fictions, with their engagement with Pascal’s sphere, with Zeno’s paradox, with The Conference of the Birds, have a wonderful serendipity of influence that his blindness eventually denied him. A blind author can do many things, but except in a limited way, he no longer has the ability to browse.
The relationship between a writer and his own senses is a fascinating problem. Some writers, of course, suffer from inordinately keen or unusual perceptions; Nabokov, for one, wrote at length about his synesthesia. Yet it’s unclear whether good eyesight or other forms of perception would confer any advantage in what writers do for a living: the inner refinement of outward experience. Exceptionally vivid senses might even hinder the imagination. In On Directing Film, David Mamet makes fun, and rightly so, of a critic who expressed surprise that an author might try to become a screenwriter while blind: “One does not have to be able to see to write films,” Mamet notes; “one has to be able to imagine.” And that’s true of all kinds of writing. Even if you don’t believe in the tradition of the blind Homer, the examples of Milton, Huxley, and others speak for themselves. As Huxley’s brother Julian wrote:
I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking up medicine as a career…His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.
As for me, I’m hardly a model of sensory perception: my eyes are as bad as you might expect, given a lifetime of reading, and I’m pretty sure that my other senses are below average. (I have no taste for wine, for instance.) At times, I wonder if this means I’ve chosen the wrong career. But the thing about writing is that it forces you to see better than you normally can. You’re constantly thinking about all five senses, and when you’re in the zone, hungry for material, everything around you seems vivid and relevant, which strikes me as the best kind of hyperesthesia. In my own case, I usually feel this way only for a few weeks at a time, when my work is really cooking, and if I have any goal as a writer, it’s to get to the point I’m living this way all the time, as I imagine Nabokov did. I’m hoping, in other words, to will myself into the world of senses. And maybe then I’ll know what it means to use my eyes at last.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.
At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.
The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.
My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.