Posts Tagged ‘The Spooky Art’

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard — I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read. And he was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray