We had been staying at our grandparents’ house in London while our parents were abroad in Russia, and one afternoon my brother and I were overcome with the desire for the chocolate sold in a nearby shop. I don’t know why we didn’t ask my grandmother for the money: we must have thought she’d refuse, or maybe we were thrilled by the idea of laying hold of the chocolate surreptitiously. In the garden in front of their semidetached house, my grandfather grew roses that remain, for me, the archetype of a rose; I can’t think or say the word without summoning those delicate, fragrant English flowers. We found my grandmother’s heavy metal shears in the kitchen, and squeezed the stems between the blades, high up under the flowers’ sepals, until the large heads rolled. Coolly, we wrapped the stumps in aluminum foil, and decided that a lie would be necessary to convince people to buy them. We stood out on the street, and began to sing: “Roses for sale, roses for sale, roses for children’s charity!” A woman stopped. I remember her as lovely, with tidy, dark hair beneath her woolen hat. She set down the bags she was carrying. “Are you sure it’s for charity?” she asked us. Later it was her question that undid us. She had given us the chance to reconsider and come clean, but instead of taking it, we dug ourselves more deeply in. We nodded: quite sure, yes. She took out her wallet and unburdened us of our handfuls of roses—six or eight of them. My brother took the coins, and we began to walk quickly in silence. But as we made our way toward the shop, a crushing black guilt descended on us. We had done something we couldn’t undo: beheaded our grandfather’s roses, sold them off, lied to a stranger, all to serve our appetite. The sense of the permanence of our wrongdoing, our inability to ever correct it, was immensely heavy. I don’t remember whether I turned to my brother and finally spoke, or whether it was he who turned to me, but I remember the words clearly: Are you feeling what I’m feeling? There was nothing more to be said. We bent down in the earth alongside the sidewalk, dug a hole, and buried the coins. That we would never breathe a word of what we had done to anyone was implicit. One day, I told my children the story. They were crazy for it, and wanted to hear it again and again. For days, they continued to bring it up. But why did you bury the money? my younger son kept asking. To be rid of it, I told him. But it’s still there, he said, shaking his head. To this day, if you go to that spot and dig, the coins will still be there. Nicole Krauss, Dark House
[Every year the children play for hours in a hotel swimming pool on holidays with their parents in Israel. One year ] . . . my brother and I discovered that the pool was full of money—shekels everywhere, shimmering mutely on the floor of the pool, as if the drain were hooked up to Bank Hapoalim. Whatever lingering fears I had about swimming were shunted aside by the steady flow of cash we could turn up. As in any well-run operation, we soon divided and specialized: my brother, two years older, became the diver, and I, with a smaller lung capacity and keener eyes, became the spotter. At my direction, he would plunge down and grope around at the blurry bottom. If I had been right, as I was about sixty-five percent of the time, he would burst excitedly to the surface, clutching the coin.
One afternoon after a string of false calls I began to feel desperate. The day was wearing on, and our time in the pool was almost up. My brother was wading morosely along the wall of the shallow end. I couldn’t help myself, and from the middle of the pool shouted: “There!” I was lying—I’d seen nothing—but I couldn’t resist the chance to make my brother happy again. He came splashing toward me. “Right there!” I yelled.
He went below. I knew there was nothing at the bottom, and now, treading water at the top, I waited miserably for my brother to find out, too. The crushing guilt I felt in those few moments comes vividly back even more than thirty years later. It was one thing to lie to my parents, but to so blatantly betray my brother was something else again.
As for what happened next, I have no explanation for it. Or none beyond the possibility that the laws we cling to in order to assure ourselves that all is as it seems have occluded a more complex view of the universe, one that forgoes the comfort of squeezing the world to fit the limited reach of our comprehension. Otherwise, how else to explain that when my brother surfaced and uncurled his fingers, lying in his palm was an earring with three diamonds and, beneath them, hanging from a gold loop at the bottom, a ruby heart?
Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark
The great frustration many art-makers experience is often simply part of the process of mastery. In order to push a work of art so that it has a shot at being fully realized, you have to endure a lot of frustration as you try over and over to get it right. And the mind doesn’t just produce on demand. You have to sit with yourself and coax it along. And you have to tolerate the uncertainty of investing yourself deeply – and investing time – into something that might never come right.
[It’s] an absorbing errand. Isn’t that a great phrase? It’s from an early Henry James novel. Here’s the quotation: “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self, but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand”. . . . life is more meaningful for many of us when we pursue an absorbing errand – like writing, painting, playing an instrument, or mastering some complex craft . . . While we think of art making as introspective, and it certainly is, it also pulls us outside ourselves toward the world. It gives us a way to possess the world – thus it becomes an absorbing errand.
Janna Malamud Smith, in an interview talking about her book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way to Mastery
One of my Ten Commandments for biographers in This Long Pursuit is ‘Thou shalt be Humble about it, for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the Last Word about the Human Heart’.
Richard Holmes , interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017
Biography is not systematic. It doesn’t always qualify as art and never qualifies as science. At its centre is something unknowable and inaccessible, the human heart.
Stacy Schiff, interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017
Henry James’ words “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” . . . is the antidote to any tendency we might have to think we can really know other people, that we can sum them up, define them, be certain about who or what they are. They are always more than we know. Just as we are always more than we know. For we are more than our means to know gives us to know. Howard Cooper (from here)
Following the publication of his first autobiography, “Uncle Tungsten,” [Oliver] Sacks came to understand that his memories were not as reliable as he’d thought: After describing in high detail the memory of a thermite bomb that fell behind the family’s house in the winter of 1940-41, he was informed by his brother that he had not in fact been present for it, having been sent away to the relative safety of boarding school. The “memory” had been lifted whole from a letter their older brother wrote to them both, describing the dramatic event in a way that had deeply impressed Sacks at the time. And yet even after accepting the correction, Sacks found that the recollection lost none of its vivid power, having long been embedded as if it were a genuine primary memory. Neither psychoanalysis nor brain imaging can tell the difference between a true and false memory. And more than that, Sacks writes, “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”
Nicole Krauss, A Last Glimpse Into the Mind of Oliver Sacks The New York Times, December 4, 2017 (from here)
Hemingway’s girlfriend, the writer Martha Gellhorn, didn’t think the artist needed to be a monster; she thought the monster needed to make himself into an artist. “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” (Well, I guess she would know.) She’s saying if you’re a really awful person, you are driven to greatness in order to compensate the world for all the awful shit you are going to do to it. In a way, this is a feminist revision of all of art history; a history she turns with a single acid, brilliant line into a morality tale of compensation.
Either way, the questions remain:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
The course of her life so far has been rather like a raindrop wending its way down a pane of glass: unstructured, stop-start and pellucid.
Gemma Sieff, A Poet’s Loving Take on Her Unorthodox Catholic Family, A Review of Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, The New York Times, June 9 2017
A family never recognizes its own idylls while it’s living them, while it’s all spread out on the red-and-white checked cloth, while the picnic basket is still open and before the ants have found the sugar. … It recognizes them later, when people are gone, or moved away, or colder toward each other. This is about that idyll, and I began it in that grass-green clearing of time, and I am giving it no chance to grow cold. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy (from here)
Talking so much you horrify yourself and those around you; talking so little that you almost refuse your own existence: . . . speech is by no means a straightforward route to connection. If loneliness is to be defined as a desire for intimacy, then included within that is the need to express oneself and to be heard, to share thoughts, experiences and feelings. Intimacy can’t exist if the participants aren’t willing to make themselves known, to be revealed. But gauging the levels is tricky. Either you don’t communicate enough and remain concealed from other people, or you risk rejection by exposing too much altogether: the minor or major hurts, the tedious obsessions, the abscesses and cataracts of need and shame and longing. My own decision has been to clam up, though sometimes I longed to grab someone’s arm and blurt the whole thing out, . . . to open everything for inspection.
Olivia Laing: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, p75
The mark of my poetry is the constant regret that human experience eludes description. Czeslaw Milosz
In the spring of 1943, on a beautiful quiet night, a country night in the outskirts of Warsaw, standing on the balcony, we could hear screaming from the ghetto…. This screaming gave us goose pimples. They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously. We did not look each other in the eye. Czesław Miłosz