Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

St. George and the Bulldozer

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On February 28, 1962, the poet W.H. Auden delivered a lecture at Mt. Holyoke College that has since been reprinted under the title “The Poet and the City.” Auden opens with the observation—which remains as true today as it was half a century ago—that a surprising number of people claim that they want to be writers. He continues with devastating precision:

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Auden’s explanation is that capitalism has reduced the worker to a mere laborer on behalf of impersonal forces, which leads the ordinary individual to be drawn to the dream of being in control of one’s life. He concludes: “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way—the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes—should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.”

Of course, writers operate under severe constrains and limitations of their own, and Auden goes on to list four reasons why the writing life is especially difficult in the modern era. One is the loss of the belief that the universe is eternal, which undermines the notion that art is meant to be enduring; another is our doubt in the existence of objective phenomena, which destroys the conception of art as an accurate representation of reality; and the third is our fear that our culture will fail to last long enough for our work to be appreciated or understood after we’re gone. (Auden speaks here with an echo of science fiction: “Technology, with its ever accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.”) But it’s his fourth reason that interests me the most. Auden calls it “the disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds,” which he characterizes as a reversal of the assumptions of the ancient world:

To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

And Auden adds darkly: “In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds.”

At first, this might seem like an overstatement, but Auden makes a convincing case. He begins by returning to the specter of technology, which looms menacingly over the entire lecture:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention—to slay it—is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that does the killing.

The same holds true of the public works and monuments of the past. If Pharaoh orders that the fens be drained, it’s a measure of his power over human beings that he can get ten thousand subjects to do his bidding. Today, the same project could be accomplished in six months by “a hundred men with bulldozers,” reducing it to nothing more than a feat of civil engineering, with most of the work performed by machines that aren’t motivated by loyalty or fear. (Auden notes with some alarm: “It is now possible to imagine a world in which the only human work on such projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate computers.”) And his next observation is the one that resonates the most: “It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal.”

Yet I don’t think this is entirely true, at least not right now, when character, intent, and the power of words seem more relevant than ever, even if they require some quantity of “impersonal force.” To illustrate his point, Auden observes that it would be difficult to write a good poem about Winston Churchill: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are now doomed to failure.” But this intimate relationship, or its emotional equivalent, is exactly what our national politics have achieved. As Yascha Mounk writes in a recent New Yorker review of the book The Increasingly United States by Daniel J. Hopkins, the Democratic and Republican parties have turned into “mega-identities,” embodied by “a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains.” The logical culmination is a head of state who assumes the role of a producer or television star. Even if he or she were an artist of impeccable taste, Auden points out that the results would be chilling:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

Total control is a writer’s dream, but a nightmare in reality. And we’d be better off if such impulses led to bad novels, rather than to what Auden calls the “romantic answer” to what we want to do with our lives: “I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.”

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July 5, 2018 at 8:18 am

Quote of the Day

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I never am a part of the thing till this moment [of writing]. It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even a momentary belonging. I suppose I have to dwindle it down to the palm of my hand. I would indeed rather spread myself out to its height and length.

Joan Murray, in a letter to W.H. Auden

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January 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The homecoming king

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In my last year at college, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to come back from the dead. I had decided to write my senior thesis about Amphiaraus, an obscure figure from Greek literature best known for a brief appearance in the eighth Pythian ode of Pindar. (When you’re majoring in a field that has been generating articles, term papers, and dissertations with monotonous regularity for centuries, you take your subjects wherever you can find them.) Amphiaraus was the legendary king of Argos, proverbial for his wisdom, who joined the doomed assault of the Seven Against Thebes, although he knew that it would end in tragedy. Because he was beloved by the gods, at the moment that he was about to die in battle, the earth opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole. Much of my thesis was devoted to describing his afterlife as an object of cult veneration, where he appears to have persisted as a chthonic oracle, delivering dreams to pilgrims at his sanctuary as they slept on the ground. He also occasionally returned in person, at least in literature—in Pindar’s ode, he’s evidently some kind of ghost or revenant, since he appears in a speaking role at a point in the narrative at which he should have been long dead. This is striking in itself, because in the ancient Greek conception of the underworld, most men and women survive only as shades, shadowy figures without any trace of memory or personality. In technical terms, when we die, we lose our noos, which can roughly be regarded as the part of the soul responsible for conscious thought. And the remarkable thing about Amphiaraus is that he seems to retain his noos even after his death, as an oracular hero who remains fully aware and capable of returning to our world when necessary.

As I tried to define what made Amphiaraus special, I went down a linguistic rabbit hole in which I was perhaps overly influenced by a curious book titled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Its argument, presented by the linguist Douglas Frame, is that the word noos, or “mind,” is connected to nostos, or “return,” the central theme of the Odyssey. (It’s where we get the word “nostalgia,” which combines nostos with algos, or “pain.”) The quality that allows Odysseus to make his way home to Ithaca is his intelligence—which, by extension, is also the attribute that enables Amiphiaraus to return from the dead. A rumor of this theory somehow reached John Updike, of all people, who wrote a story called “Cruise” that offered a portrait of a lecturer on a cruise ship that I’m still convinced was inspired by one of my professors, since he was literally the only other man in the world, besides Douglas Frame, who sounded like this:

His sallow triangular face was especially melancholy, lit from beneath by the dim lectern bulb. The end of the journey meant for him the return to his university—its rosy-cheeked students invincible in their ignorance, its demonic faculty politics, its clamorous demands for ever-higher degrees of political correctness and cultural diversity. “ΚΡΝΩ,” he wrote on the blackboard, pronouncing, “krino—to discern, to be able to distinguish the real from the unreal. To do this, we need noos, mind, consciousness.” He wrote, then, “ΝΟΟΣ.” His face illumined from underneath was as eerie as that of a jack-in-the-box or a prompter hissing lines to stymied thespians. “We need no-os,” he pronounced, scrabbling with his invisible chalk in a fury of insertion, “to achieve our nos-tos, our homecoming.” He stood aside to reveal the completed word: ΝΟΣΤΟΣ. In afterthought he rapidly rubbed out two of the letters, created ΠΟΝΤΟΣ, and added with a small sly smile, “After our crossing together of the sea, the pontos.”

In the end, I moved away from this line of reasoning, and I spent most of my thesis developing arguments based on readings of words like poikōlos and polēplokos, which described the quality of mind—a kind of flexibility and resourcefulness—that was necessary to achieve this return, whether to Ithaca or to the world of the living. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about this for years. Over the weekend, however, I read a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Mason of the classicist Emily Wilson, who has published a new translation of the Odyssey. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the word polytropos, which appears in the very first line of the poem as a description of Odysseus himself. Wilson explains:

The prefix poly means “many” or “multiple.” Tropos means “turn.” “Many” or “multiple” could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner…So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.

And it’s precisely this notion of slipperiness and changeability that I often saw in descriptions of Amphiaraus, who, like Odysseus, has affinities with the god Hermes—the crosser of borders, the conductor of souls, the trickster.

The same qualities, of course, also tend to be present in writers, poets, scholars, and all those who, in W.H. Auden’s words, “live by their wits.” This may be why translators of the Odyssey have been so preoccupied with polytropos, which stands as a signal at the beginning of the poem of the intelligence that you need to make it all the way to the end. As Mason writes:

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s sixty some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started.

Mason lists dozens of variants, including Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; and T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded.” Perhaps for sentimental reasons, I’m partial to Lawrence’s version, which recalls my old favorites poikōlos and polēplokos in evoking a sort of visual variety or shiftiness, like the speckled scales of a snake. And Wilson? She clearly thought long and hard on the matter. And when I read her solution, I felt a shiver of recognition, as well as a strange pang of nostalgia for the student I used to be, and to whom I still sometimes dream of returning again: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

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November 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

The line on the blackboard

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I…told [Stephen Spender] that, when I was a student, I had heard T. S. Eliot lecture. After the lecture one of the students in the audience asked Eliot what he thought the most beautiful line in the English language was—an insane question, really, like asking for the largest number. Much to my amazement Eliot answered without the slightest hesitation, “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” I asked Spender what he though the most beautiful line in the English language was. He got up from his chair and in a firm hand wrote a line of Auden’s on the blackboard. He looked at it with an expression that I have never forgotten—sadness, wonder, regret, perhaps envy. He recited it slowly and then sat back down. There was total silence in the room. I thanked him, and my companion and I left the class.

I had not thought of all of this for many years, but recently, for some reason, it all came back to me, nearly. I remembered everything except the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard. All that I could remember for certain was that it had to do with the moon—somehow the moon…Perhaps I had saved the program of the conference with the line written down on it. I looked in the envelopes for 1981 and could find no trace of this trip. Then I had an idea—lunatic, lunar, perhaps. I would look through Auden’s collected poems and seek out every line having to do with the moon to see if it jogged my memory. One thing that struck me, once I started this task, was that there are surprisingly few references to the moon in these poems…All wonderful lines, but not what I remembered…

Then I got an idea. I would reread Spender’s Journals to see if he mentions a line in Auden’s poetry that refers to the moon. In the entry for the sixth of February 1975, I found this: “It would not be very difficult to imitate the late Auden. [He had died in 1973.] For in his late poetry there is a rather crotchety persona into whose carpet slippers some ambitious young man with a technique as accomplished could slip. But it would be very difficult to imitate the early Auden. ‘This lunar beauty / Has no history, / Is complete and early…'” This, I am sure of it now, is the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard that afternoon in 1981.

Jeremy Bernstein, “The Merely Very Good”

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October 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

The acid test

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I think drugs are interesting principally as chemical means of altering metabolism and thereby altering what we call reality, which I would define as a more or less constant scanning pattern.

—William S. Burroughs, to The Paris Review

On September 7, 1967, the editor John W. Campbell, who had just returned from the World Science Fiction Convention in New York, wrote to the author Poul Anderson about how fantasy—as typified by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—seemed to be taking over the fandom. Campbell weighed the various reasons why one genre might be on the rise and the other on the decline, but he was particularly dismissive of one possible factor:

One I do not intend to yield to—the escape-from-harsh-reality motivation that underlies the LSD craze among the younger group in colleges…No need for learning a discipline, no need to recognize that “my opinion” and “truth” are in conflict…Which makes for happy little self-satisfaction. But unfortunately overlooks that the Universe’s opinion has a somewhat special place in that scheme of things.

A few weeks later, in response to a letter from a reader, Campbell agreed with the notion that there was no substitute for “experience” when it came to the effects of LSD, but added: “The statement applies equally, however, to taking heroin, becoming a quadriplegic, or committing suicide.” Campbell proposed that as an alternative to drugs, his correspondent try inducing anoxia, by breathing air from which most of the oxygen had been removed:

In just a minute or two, you’ll discover a vast increase in your mental abilities—a sureness of thought, a breadth of understanding, and a rapidity and sureness of reasoning you never achieved before…Of course your brilliant realizations and mighty discoveries somehow seem to misfire when you come down off that jag, and your judgment faculty gets back on the job. But it’s a great trip while it lasts!

It’s worth noting that while Campbell was pointedly uninterested in exploring drugs in the science fiction that he published, he wasn’t exactly puritanical. In addition to his own habitual use of cigarettes, benzedrine, and occasionally alcohol, he sampled marijuana and even “an African witch doctor drug” that one of his chemist friends was developing. He didn’t much care for pot, which made him “uncomfortable,” but he also had a take on the subject that might strike readers as surprising:

Marijuana serves to demonstrate [to teenagers] that the older generation is stupid, ignorant, hypocritical, and unwilling to learn anything. They do reject learning the simple facts about marijuana, and give violently emotional lectures on the Awful Evils of That Hideous Drug—without knowing the first things about it…Any intelligent teenager who’s experienced the effects of marijuana, and discussed it with friends, knows the average family doctor does not know what he’s talking about…Marijuana is a damn sight less dangerous than alcohol. It’s less addictive, less toxic, and less dangerous for a “high” driver to be high on marijuana than on alcohol. It is not an aphrodisiac, nor does it have alcohol’s tendency to anesthetize the censor mechanisms of the mind.

Campbell believed that the real problem with marijuana is that a teenager who learns to doubt what adults say on the subject is likely to become equally skeptical when it comes to cocaine, heroin, and LSD: “So long as parents and doctors deny the facts about marijuana, and insist on classing it with hard drugs, the kid who knows they’re wrong about marijuana feels they’re wrong about heroin…Marijuana can be legalized—and thus separated, as it must be, from the problem of the hard drugs.”

When it came to LSD, Campbell’s attitudes were more or less in line with those of the three other authors who have been on my mind these days. L. Ron Hubbard warned gravely against its use—LSD and PCP were the only drugs that disqualified potential applicants for the Sea Org—and he described his effects in a bulletin of which one follower recalled: “All the information came from one person who had taken LSD once. That was how he did his research.” Isaac Asimov doesn’t appear to have written on the topic at length, although he refers in passing in More Words of Science to “young people foolishly [beginning] to play games with their minds by taking LSD,” and he writes in his memoirs:

Most people, when I tell them [how I get ideas], are dreadfully disappointed. They would be far readier to believe that I had to use LSD or something like that so that ideas would come to me in an altered state of consciousness. If all one has to do is think, where’s the glamour?

Asimov concludes: “Try thinking. You’ll find it’s a lot harder than taking LSD.” This echoes Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in a letter in 1967:

LSD and pot? Marijuana has been readily available to anyone who wanted it throughout my lifetime and apparently for centuries before I was born. LSD is new but the hippies didn’t develop it; they simply use it. But it seems to me that the outstanding objective fact about LSD (despite the claims of Leary and others) is that it is as much of a failure as other drugs in producing any results of any value other than to the user—i.e., I know of no work of art, essay, story, discovery, or anything else of value created as a result of LSD. When the acid-droppers start outdistancing the squares in any field, I’ll sit up and take notice. Until that day I’ll regard it just as I do all other euphoric drugs: a sterile, subjective, sensory pleasure holding considerable hazard to the user.

Aside from Hubbard, these writers objected to LSD primarily in its role as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment, leading to subjectively meaningful results that aren’t useful to anyone else. On the other side, you can set the testimony of such writers as Aldous Huxley and Robert Anton Wilson, not to mention Stewart Brand, Douglas Engelbart, and Steve Jobs, who believed that they had emerged from their experiences with valuable insights. I think it’s fairly obvious that both sides have a point, and that you get out of LSD exactly what you put into it. If you lack any creative skills, you aren’t likely to produce anything interesting to others, but if you’ve taken the trouble of cultivating those talents in the usual boring way, it can push you along unexpected lines of development. Whether these directions are different from the ones that you would have taken anyway is a separate question, and probably an unanswerable one. My own hunch is that the connection, for instance, between Silicon Valley and the psychedelic culture was mostly a question of timing: it wasn’t that these drugs produced unusually smart or unconventional people, but that many of the smart, unconventional people of that time and place happened to be taking drugs. Many of them regarded it as a turning point in their lives, but I’m inclined to agree with W.H. Auden said of transformative experiences in childhood:

The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial—in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.

At a moment of renewed interest in microdosing, at least among young professionals with the resources and security in their own social position to try it, it’s worth remembering that the evidence suggests that drugs pay off in visible ways only for people who have already put in the hard work of figuring out how to make and do interesting things. Norman Mailer compared it to borrowing on the future. And as Heinlein himself might have put it, there’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

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All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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March 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

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