The artist’s responsibility

Interview with George Saunders

What is the intersection between your duty as a citizen and as a novelist?

As an artist, you have to have no responsibilities. Art has to radically have the right to be useless, and that way it discovers its true use. I don’t do a lot of thinking about these different roles. It’s just trusting that whatever you’ve got in your thought cloud is going to find its way in organically.

(from here)

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To cherish doubt

Every Catholic is raised to be devout and love the Gospels, but I was spoiled by the Old Testament. I was very young when I started reading, and the Old Testament sucked me in. I was at the age of magical thinking and believed sticks could change to serpents, a voice might speak from a burning bush, angels wrestled with people. After I went to school and started catechism I realized that religion was about rules. I remember staring at a neighbor’s bridal-wreath bush. It bloomed every year but was voiceless. No angels, no parting of the Red River. It all seemed so dull once I realized that nothing spectacular was going to happen.

I’ve come to love the traditional Ojibwe ceremonies, and some rituals, but I hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women. On Sundays when other people go to wood-and-stone churches, I like to take my daughters into the woods. Or at least work in the garden and be outside. Any god we have is out there. I’d hate to be certain that there was nothing. When it comes to God, I cherish doubt.

Louise Erdrich, interview in The Paris Review

(from here) 

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The journalist’s lawnmower

That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where that was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations. Going down them was fine but there was something about standing still and being carried upwards that did it. From apparently nowhere tears poured out of me and by the time I got to the top and felt the wind rushing in, it took all my effort to stop myself from sobbing. It was as if the momentum of the escalator carrying me forwards and upwards was a physical expression of a conversation I was having with myself. Escalators, which in the early days of their invention were known as ” travelling staircases” or “magic stairways”, had mysteriously become danger zones.

I made sure I had lots to read on train journeys. This was the first time in my life I had ever been pleased to read newspaper columns about the things that happened to the journalist’s lawnmower.

Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing

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Girl reading at airport

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Being in the public eye

Publication on social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.

Margaret Atwood: When Privacy is Theft, Margaret Atwood reviews The Circle by David Eggers, The New York Review of Books, Nov 21st 2013 (from here) 

 

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Truth in literature

Literary truths may have little or nothing to do with historical truth. The Furies and Satan are mythical figures brought to life by the power of their authors imaginations, and the fact that many people once took them for actual human beings has no effect, one way or the other, on how strongly I now credit them when I read the House of Atreus trilogy or Paradise Lost. Shakespeare borrowed his Cleopatra and his Richard 11 from history, but for me they are no more real than his Juliet and his Othello, whom he made up wholesale. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Cervantes’s Sancho Panza never existed or else existed in a thousand quotidian forms, but either way, each of them ahs a strongly marked individuality which transcends that of most individuals I have met. This is not to denigrate life, which must in some way be the source —‑if only a vaporous, indirect source — of all literary authority. It is simply to comment on the extent to which the made-up sometimes trumps the actual in terms of believability.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, p. 91

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The nature of influence

Well, essayists can go where scholars dare not tread—a key lesson to take from Montaigne—and this essayist finds it impossible to imagine that Shakespeare had not absorbed Montaigne fully, and decisively, right around 1600. It is evident not in the ideas alone but in a delighted placement of opposites in close relation, even more apparent in Shakespeare’s prose than in his verse. Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!

It’s not merely in the steady (and modern) use of exclamation points but in the sudden turns and reversals, without the mucilage of extended argument—the turn-on-a-dime movements, the interjections, the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back. The alteration in the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters around 1600, as evident in “As You Like It” as in “Hamlet,” bears his mark—as in Jaques’s speech on the seven ages of man, which very much resembles Montaigne’s insistence that life-living is role-playing. (“We must play our parts duly, but as the part of a borrowed personage.”)

Indeed, the Frenchman Jaques, even more than Hamlet, and from the same year, is Montaignean man. In this case, a specific relation seems to exist between Montaigne’s great essay “On Cruelty” and the scene in “As You Like It” where Jaques is reported brooding on the death of a deer. Montaigne’s point is that when it comes to cruelty we should subordinate all other “reasoning”—stoic, of degree and dependency—to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can reason our way past another creature’s pain, but, as we do so, such “reason” becomes the indicted evil. Jaques feels the same way. “We are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse / To fright the animals and kill them up,” he says, while “weeping and commenting upon the sobbing deer.” We are meant to find Jaques’s double occupation of weeping and commenting, feeling and keeping track of his feelings, mildly comic—Shakespeare being always convinced, in his English way, that the French are hypersensitive and overintellectual. But Jaques is not a ridiculous figure. He is conscience speaking through contradiction.

Adam Gopnik, reviewing a new biography of Montaigne.

from here

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A child disguises her weeping

She wept easily. This did not mean that she felt things more deeply than others did. It certainly did not mean that she was fragile or sentimental or ready to bring that sodden leverage to bear on the slights that came with being the baby of the family. When she was four she had wept for three days over the death of a dog in a radio play. Every time she teared up a little, her brothers and sisters remembered how she had sobbed over Heidi and Bambi and the Babes in the Woods. Which they read to her dozens of times. As if there were any point to those stories after all but to elicit childish grief. It really was irritating, and there was nothing to be done about it. She had learnt to compose her face, so that from a distance she would not necessarily seem to be weeping, and then they made a little game of catching her at it — tears, they would say. Ah, tears. She thought how considerate it would have been of nature to allow the venting of feeling through the palm of a hand or even the sole of a foot.

Marilynne Robinson, Home, pp14-15

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Doubts, contradictions, uncertainties

Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.

By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained, all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.

Adam Gopnik,  reviewing a biography of Montaigne in The New Yorker,     (from here) 

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Fiction and reality

A biographer reflects  on George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack.

‘When George Johnston was calling on his memories of Jack’s deeds for the novel, he inflated everything about him, because he was attempting to build a larger-than- life character, an Australian mythic hero, out of the best qualities he identified in his brother. It was central to his character’s heroism that he should possess massive courage in the face of adversity. Jack found the novel embarrassing and ‘wrong’, when he read it, because he had not done many of the things he believed were being attributed to him. He missed the point: George was not trying to ‘tell it as it was’, but was re-creating the past in accordance with his personal vision.

Garry Kinnane, George Johnston 

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