Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Life of the Mind

The Coen Brothers: Barton Fink (1991)

All Balled Up at Head Office

Certainly the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, do not present a particularly attractive picture of the writing life in their satirical masterpiece Barton Fink. "You never listen!" John Goodman (aka Karl "Mad Dog" Mundt) thunders at the hapless Barton as he charges down the burning corridor.

I published a post called "Two Views of the Writer" some years ago, but now I'd like to update the examples I gave there with my own favourite description of what Barton Fink refers to as "the life of the mind". It comes from H. G. Wells' 1896 short story "The Lost Inheritance":

The Daily Mirror: H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

“My uncle — my maternal uncle ... had — what shall I call it — ? A weakness for writing edifying literature. Weakness is hardly the word — downright mania is nearer the mark. He’d been librarian in a Polytechnic, and as soon as the money came to him he began to indulge his ambition. It’s a simply extraordinary and incomprehensible thing to me. Here was a man of thirty-seven suddenly dropped into a perfect pile of gold, and he didn’t go — not a day’s bust on it. One would think a chap would go and get himself dressed a bit decent — say a couple of dozen pair of trousers at a West End tailor’s; but he never did. You’d hardly believe it, but when he died he hadn’t even a gold watch. It seems wrong for people like that to have money. All he did was just to take a house, and order in pretty nearly five tons of books and ink and paper, and set to writing edifying literature as hard as ever he could write. ...

“He was a curious little chap, was my uncle, as I remember him. ... Hair just like these Japanese dolls they sell, black and straight and stiff all round the brim and none in the middle, and below, a whitish kind of face and rather large dark grey eyes moving about behind his spectacles. ... He looked a rummy little beggar, I can tell you. Indoors it was, as a rule, a dirty red flannel dressing-gown and a black skull-cap he had. That black skull-cap made him look like the portraits of all kinds of celebrated people. He was always moving about from house to house, was my uncle, with his chair which had belonged to Savage Landor, and his two writing-tables, one of Carlyle’s and the other of Shelley’s, so the dealer told him, and the completest portable reference library in England, he said he had — and he lugged the whole caravan, now to a house at Down, near Darwin’s old place, then to Reigate, near Meredith, then off to Haslemere, then back to Chelsea for a bit, and then up to Hampstead. He knew there was something wrong with his stuff, but he never knew there was anything wrong with his brains. It was always the air, or the water, or the altitude, or some tommy-rot like that. ‘So much depends on environment,’ he used to say, and stare at you hard, as if he half suspected you were hiding a grin at him somewhere under your face. ‘So much depends on environment to a sensitive mind like mine.’”

“What was his name? You wouldn’t know it if I told you. He wrote nothing that anyone has ever read — nothing. No one could read it. He wanted to be a great teacher, he said, and he didn’t know what he wanted to teach any more than a child. So he just blethered at large about Truth and Righteousness, and the Spirit of History, and all that. Book after book he wrote and published at his own expense. He wasn’t quite right in his head, you know really; and to hear him go on at the critics — not because they slated him, mind you — he liked that — but because they didn’t take any notice of him at all. ‘What do the nations want?’ he would ask, holding out his brown old claw. ‘Why, teaching — guidance! They are scattered upon the hills like sheep without a shepherd. There is War and Rumours of War, the unlaid Spirit of Discord abroad in the land, Nihilism, Vivisection, Vaccination, Drunkenness, Penury, Want, Socialistic Error, Selfish Capital! Do you see the clouds, Ted —?’ My name, you know — ‘Do you see the clouds lowering over the land? and behind it all — the Mongol waits!’ He was always very great on Mongols, and the Spectre of Socialism, and suchlike things.”

“Then out would come his finger at me, and with his eyes all afire and his skull-cap askew, he would whisper: ‘And here am I. What did I want? Nations to teach. Nations! I say it with all modesty, Ted, I could. I would guide them; nay! But I will guide them to a safe haven, to the land of Righteousness, flowing with milk and honey.’”

“That’s how he used to go on. Ramble, rave about the nations, and righteousness, and that kind of thing. Kind of mincemeat of Bible and blethers. From fourteen up to three-and-twenty, when I might have been improving my mind, my mother used to wash me and brush my hair (at least in the earlier years of it), with a nice parting down the middle, and take me, once or twice a week, to hear this old lunatic jabber about things he had read of in the morning papers, trying to do it as much like Carlyle as he could, and I used to sit according to instructions, and look intelligent and nice, and pretend to be taking it all in. ...

“’A moment!’ he would say. ‘A moment!’ over his shoulder. ‘The mot juste, you know, Ted, le mot juste. Righteous thought righteously expressed — Aah —! Concatenation. And now, Ted,’ he’d say, spinning round in his study chair, ‘how’s Young England?’ That was his silly name for me.”

“Well, that was my uncle, and that was how he talked — to me, at any rate. With others about he seemed a bit shy. And he not only talked to me, but he gave me his books, books of six hundred pages or so, with cock-eyed headings, ‘The Shrieking Sisterhood,’ ‘The Behemoth of Bigotry,’ ‘Crucibles and Cullenders,’ and so on. All very strong, and none of them original. The very last time, but one, that I saw him, he gave me a book. He was feeling ill even then, and his hand shook and he was despondent. I noticed it because I was naturally on the look-out for those little symptoms. ‘My last book, Ted,’ he said. ‘My last book, my boy; my last word to the deaf and hardened nations;’ and I’m hanged if a tear didn’t go rolling down his yellow old cheek. He was regular crying because it was so nearly over, and he hadn’t only written about fifty-three books of rubbish. ‘I’ve sometimes thought, Ted —’ he said, and stopped.”

“’Perhaps I’ve been a bit hasty and angry with this stiff-necked generation. A little more sweetness, perhaps, and a little less blinding light. I’ve sometimes thought — I might have swayed them. But I’ve done my best, Ted.’”

“And then, with a burst, for the first and last time in his life he owned himself a failure. It showed he was really ill. He seemed to think for a minute, and then he spoke quietly and low, as sane and sober as I am now. ‘I’ve been a fool, Ted,’ he said. ‘I’ve been flapping nonsense all my life. Only He who readeth the heart knows whether this is anything more than vanity. Ted, I don’t. But He knows, He knows, and if I have done foolishly and vainly, in my heart — in my heart —’”

“Just like that he spoke, repeating himself, and he stopped quite short and handed the book to me, trembling. Then the old shine came back into his eye. I remember it all fairly well, because I repeated it and acted it to my old mother when I got home, to cheer her up a bit. ‘Take this book and read it,’ he said. ‘It’s my last word, my very last word. I’ve left all my property to you, Ted, and may you use it better than I have done.’ And then he fell a-coughing.”

“I remember that quite well even now, and how I went home cock-a-hoop, and how he was in bed the next time I called. ... He was sinking fast. But even then his vanity clung to him.

“’Have you read it?’ he whispered.”

“’Sat up all night reading it,’ I said in his ear to cheer him. ‘It’s the last,’ said I, and then, with a memory of some poetry or other in my head, ‘but it’s the bravest and best.’”

“He smiled a little and tried to squeeze my hand as a woman might do, and left off squeezing in the middle, and lay still. ‘The bravest and the best,’ said I again, seeing it pleased him. But he didn’t answer. ... I looked at his face, and his eyes were closed, and it was just as if somebody had punched in his nose on either side. But he was still smiling. It’s queer to think of — he lay dead, lay dead there, an utter failure, with the smile of success on his face.

Helen Allingham: Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

The will, alas, is nowhere to be found, so the whole estate goes to another, far less attentive nephew instead. The narrator falls "on hard times, because as you see, the only trade I knew was legacy-cadging."
"I was hunting round my room to find something to raise a bit on for immediate necessities, and the sight of all those presentation volumes — no one will buy them, not to wrap butter in, even — well, they annoyed me. I promised him not to part with them, and I never kept a promise easier. I let out at them with my boot, and sent them shooting across the room. One lifted at the kick, and spun through the air. And out of it flapped — You guess?

“It was the will. He’d given it to me himself in that very last volume of all.”

... “It just shows you the vanity of authors,” he said, looking up at me. “It wasn’t no trick of his. He’d meant perfectly fair. He’d really thought I was really going home to read that blessed book of his through. But it shows you, don’t it —?” his eye went down to the tankard again —, “It shows you too, how we poor human beings fail to understand one another.”

H. G. Wells: The Plattner Story and Others (1897)

It's a cruel story, in many ways. The absurdity of the uncle's ambitions, all his attempts to sound like Carlyle or some other great sage, are skewered with immaculate precision by the ruthless young Wells, whose books, in 1896, were already starting to sell - in increasingly large numbers.

But the last laugh is, of course, on the nephew, whose cadging flattery inspires the old man to slip him what he wants most, the will, in this furtive way. And yet, one can hear a certain reluctant affection breaking through all the cynical chatter - despite himself, it's hard to believe that he didn't feel something for his uncle. After all, he didn't have to go quite to those lengths to placate him: "It’s the last, but it’s the bravest and best."

I've wondered sometime if this early story came into Wells's mind at all as he was composing his own last book - not so much of Bible, but of Science and blethers - Mind at the End of Its Tether, in 1945. He'd long since lost his audience, and was largely talking to himself by this stage. But there's a horrible woolly vagueness about his work at the end which is sadly reminiscent of the author of The Shrieking Sisterhood, The Behemoth of Bigotry, or Crucibles and Cullenders ... Beware of what you mock, because that may turn out to be you in the end.

I was reminded irresistibly of this story when I came across an article on "The dream job most New Zealanders long for, and how to get it", by Annemarie Quill, on the Stuff website in January this year:
One career tops the list in Aotearoa as the most desirable job in the country, according to new Google search data, yet it is not always the easiest or best paying.

The dream job that most New Zealanders long to do for a living has been revealed by global analysis of 12-months of Google search data around job types, including the question “How to be a...”

The answer for Kiwis was, apparently ... a writer.
But what kind of a writer?

NZ Herald: Keri Hulme & Eleanor Catton (28/1/15)
Kiwis aspiring to win the Booker prize like Eleanor Catton or Keri Hulme, or think they can soar to the top of bestseller lists by knocking out the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades, could find that the reality of being a writer might not live up to the dream.

“There are big rewards if you reach the very top and yet, it also promises to be a gruelling career for many filled with rejection, self-doubt and financial concerns,” said a spokesperson for Remitly, the financial services group which collated the data.
Bay of Plenty book editor Chad Dick agrees that "It’s a career that people should follow for love, not money ... If the thought of having your book in your hand is enough, then you are half way there.”
New Zealand sports journalist turned novelist Peter White said he wasn’t too surprised that so many New Zealanders dreamed of writing.

“I would have thought it would be All Black, but it makes sense. Everyone has a story inside them, and writing is the perfect way to express it.”
It's not that there isn't a lot of very sensible advice in this article: there is. Those of us in the trade of teaching Creative Writing certainly have to get used to introducing - as diplomatically as possible - a touch of realism into the unrealistically lofty hopes and dreams of aspiring novelists and poets.

But the question still needs a good deal of unpacking. Is it the idea of being a writer that attracts people, or the actual brute work of writing? The rewards, when they come, are seldom commensurate to the superhuman effort of creating something genuinely worth reading - and the prodigies who seemingly effortlessly spin stories out of thin air are rarer than one might think.

In the end "the thought of having his book in his hand" was apparently not enough for Wells's uncle - even that tottering stack of 53-odd self-published tomes - as he despaired on his deathbed. What he craved was some whisper of recognition. Did he believe those last lying words of his nephew? Perhaps - perhaps not.
But he was still smiling. It’s queer to think of — he lay dead, lay dead there, an utter failure, with the smile of success on his face.

Jack Ross: Biblioblitz (2006)

Perhaps that's the final irony of Wells's story. It's presumably meant to be a satire on the vanity of authors, but no writer can read it without feeling a reluctant affinity with that poor absurd old man with his vanload of paper and Walter Savage Landor's chair.

"Fake it till you make it." I remember hearing Martha Stewart angrily denouncing this doctrine on her own abortive version of The Apprentice Reality TV show: "I never faked anything. I went to jail, for God's sake!"

I'm not quite sure how being convicted of insider trading [Sorry: I've been prompted to make a correction here - "the charges of securities fraud were thrown out, Ms. Stewart was found guilty of four counts of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators"] equates with not being a fake, but then "that's just facts", as another popular adage has it. All writers are fakes. Even the ones who win huge prizes and the adulation of millions have, somewhere inside them, some last remaining vestiges of impostor syndrome.

Which is not to say that there's no difference between H. G. Wells, or Thomas Carlyle, and the poor deluded uncle in the story - but it's more one of degree and scale than of species. If I had to pick a patron saint of writers, it would definitely be the uncle.

H. G. Wells: The Short Stories (1927)


Richard said...

Great read Jack. I liked the story by Wells! I felt the young man did feel for his uncle etc but, well, there are such writers. The point might be though, that as you imply, he did the work, he wrote, and some people read what he wrote. Realized perhaps it was all cobblers but really liked doing it. So, if Wells meant satire, it backfires in a way. Or did he?

The truth of writing is the hard slog which is why I have done very few books myself. And I simply find it nearly impossible to organize myself. I actually don't think that writing is more important that life and happiness.

But we all dream: and, while I don't do it, if teaching writing I would urge all the usual things but also to do something everyday. And also to enjoy writing. I think the two probably go together whether one writes a huge splatter of books or not. After all poor Keri Hulme (or was she thus?) was more or less a one booker...unconscious pun there as I typed it, my 'intuitive skill' if that is the word!...In any case that is rare, or relatively rare. Who is the opposite, perhaps Joyce Carol Oates? She has had a lot of success but not quite the big one.

Perhaps there is a happy medium. And also, I was looking at Kathy Acker (I had an interview she did on my Eyelight Blog and was fishing for things) and thought about her. Did pretty well -- yes died tragically rather young -- but she could well have simply sank. So I think her impact is even now not totally appreciated. Do we do that in NZ? Who is so adventurous and or innovative? In any case, that, however one writes, has to be combined with some good luck and self-promotion...but a good post again Jack. All the best, RT...

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Thanks for leaving a comment. I agree with pretty much all of the above, I must say -- particularly that "doing something everyday ... and to enjoy writing." I firmly believe that it's that enjoyment that comes across to the reader -- whereas seeing it as an onerous task comes across as that, too.

You say: "I actually don't think that writing is more important than life and happiness," and, again, I would endorse that thoroughly. It's part of your life, but can't be seen as the be-all and end-all in itself.

I, too, wonder if we have any unsung Kathy Ackers. I've certainly run into some students who were very adventurous in their writing - but none of them seem to have really stuck at it the way Acker did.

ngā mihi nui, e hoa