The Writer is Not Here: On Nihilism and the Writing Life

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When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.

In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”

In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism.

Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types.

But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well.

Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist?

It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson.

I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast.

In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself.

But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and — when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did — a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.

Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?

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Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric drunkard at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, after describing the degrees of religious devotion in his English Catholic family, finally confesses to Charles Ryder:
“…I wish I liked Catholics more.”

“They seem just like other people.”

“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not — particularly in this country, where they’re so few… everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.”
There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic writers, many of them converts to the Church, were icons of the Anglo-American literary scene. In the U.K. writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and J. R. R. Tolkien were preeminent, while Americans Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers (his novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963), and Thomas Merton were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.

Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award, in a way articulated a Catholic artistic vision when he described his pursuit of “…A theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer – man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.”

Yet despite such a rich Catholic literary heritage with many contemporary admirers — one can’t help thinking of how passionately the MFA/Creative Writing/Workshop establishment venerates the stories of Flannery O’Connor — there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up Percy’s vision, one where their inherent “otherness” is not edged to the margins, but is at the very heart of their craft.

The obvious reason for this literary vacuum is that the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, many Catholics left the Church over its opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, and the ordination of women, to name just a few hot-button topics. And then, beginning in the late 1990s, a wave of priest sex-abuse crimes came to light that have scandalized untold numbers of Catholics.

Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s — an internal Catholic one — that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith — Sunday morning Mass.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released the document Summorum Pontificum. Benedict’s Apostolic Letter got little attention outside of Catholic circles, but within the Church it was headline news: with the stroke of a pen, the Pope gave permission for parishes worldwide to again celebrate the so-called “Latin Mass,” or Tridentine Mass as it’s officially known. So after a four-decade absence the ancient Mass that Dante, Mozart, Montaigne, and Michelangelo knew so well, the Mass whose liturgical prayers and hymns were the well-spring of western classical music, was once more in front of Catholics.

In the 1960s, when Evelyn Waugh learned of plans to alter the Latin Mass, he wrote a series of worried letters to then English Archbishop John Cardinal Heenan. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Waugh’s worst fears were realized as English replaced Latin, priests suddenly faced the people (as if to entertain them), and the reverential tradition of kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion on one’s tongue was replaced with the breezy practice of taking the host standing and in the hand. In short, what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.

The German Catholic novelist Martin Mosebach in his 2003 book of essays, The Heresy of Formlessness, argues that the reform of the Latin Mass in the ‘60s left many believers, like Waugh, with a profound spiritual deficit. “All have lost something priceless,” he writes, “namely, the innocence that accepts (the Mass) as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven.”

Mosebach believes that even James Joyce, who was no fan of the Catholic Church, owed his “rank linguistic extravagance” to the rituals and language of the Latin Mass. In the opening passages of Ulysses there is even a reference to the psalm “Judica,” which is prayed at the start of the old Mass. “Ulysses could never have been written without the old liturgy; here we sense the liturgy’s immense cultural and creative power,” Mosebach writes. “Even its opponents could not avoid being in its shadow; they actually depended for nourishment on its aesthetic substance.”

During the 40-year absence of the Latin Mass it has become clear that novels — both by Catholics and non-Catholics — grappling with what used to be called “the drama of salvation” are no longer just rare, but almost unthinkable nowadays. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who is not Catholic, brilliantly captured the attitude of contemporary writers toward “eternal questions” during a recent spat with literary critic James Wood (Lethem took issue with elements of Wood’s review of The Fortress Of Solitude):
Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus.
In the years since the suicide of David Foster Wallace, much has been made of his personal struggles: his battle with addiction, his appetite for self-help books, as well as his desire to write in a more emotionally communicative manner, and not rely exclusively on his immense intellectual and verbal acumen, or what he called “witty arty writing” in a letter to his former girlfriend, the memoirist Mary Karr.

Evan Hughes, in a New York magazine article on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenides, wrote that Wallace, at the end of his life, “quietly sought out spiritual answers and flirted with joining the Catholic Church.” And if this comes as a surprise, it should be noted that Karr later became Catholic, chronicling her conversion in the book Lit: A Memoir.

And while it’s tempting to think of what a writer of David Foster Wallace’s caliber, like James Joyce before him, would have gleaned from the immense cultural patrimony of the Catholic Church and the Mass, it’s anyone’s guess whether the reemergence of the Latin Mass will spark a Catholic literary renaissance. In the end, searing inquiries into the nature of man and his place vis-à-vis the Divine always comes down to belief of one kind or another, and that’s precisely what puzzled Waugh’s character Charles Ryder about his friend Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited:
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Image credit: kainr/Flickr

Paris, Wikipedia, and My Middle Age Crisis

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Each man’s middle age crisis begins at an indeterminate age and offers a peculiar window into the architecture of masculine decline. In this respect it mimics death, which is both punctual and ruthlessly efficient in its demolitions. For many men, the crisis begins with the fear that your Emersonian Self-Reliance is spent, or even worse, you’ve sucked so deeply on the marrow of life that you are now as penniless as Henry David Thoreau.

In my case, the crisis has arrived at the age of 39 with the realization that I’m numerically closer to 48 than I am to 29. Now this isn’t to suggest my twenties were a time of wine and roses, but simply to make the point that 48 is old—crotchety old in my book, as in Mr. Roper the curmudgeonly landlord in Three’s Company or the portly short-order cook Mel Sharples from Alice (I’m painfully aware that younger readers may find these 1970s references both dated and horridly nostalgic). And the reason that 48 is old, of course, is that it is two steps from 50, which is not the new 20 or the new 30, but the old half-century mark, period.

I proudly note that my crisis has not involved acting out cultural stereotypes — there have been no impulsive trips to the Corvette dealership or expensive gym memberships — but centers instead on Wikipedia entries and male celebrities over the age of 40. It plays out like this: night after night I Google celebrities as they flash across my television screen, not only looking up their age, but trying to get a handle on what they’ve accomplished by 40 — and even more importantly — what great achievements are possible in the 5th, 6th, and even 7th decades of one’s life.

I quickly realized Wikipedia was indispensable for such queries, for its entries list a person’s date of birth up front, along with paragraphs on the celebrity’s early life, professional career, and personal life. Armed with accurate chronologically-based facts, I learned how little I’d accomplished by 39 in relation to say, Charlie Sheen, who though he is clearly in a class by himself when it comes to the middle age crisis, did have impressive films like Platoon and Wall Street on his resume years before tiger blood and Twitter.

Over time my Wikipedia research has uncovered the dark underbelly of my own crisis, which isn’t that I fear death to be imminent, but that I regret the years I squandered in my twenties and thirties loitering through time and space. As a result, my non-existent Wikipedia listing has nothing about the spellbinding novel I’ve written, the legendary appearances on the Charlie Rose Show, the critically-acclaimed performance in Sofia Coppola’s recent dreamy bio-epic on Morrissey or my special friendship with writer Christopher Hitchens.

Speaking of Charlie Rose, I know from Wikipedia that he was born in 1942, which if you do the math makes him 69. From my crisis point of 39, I can comfort myself by thinking, “Okay, after the age of 40, Charlie lived 29 more years where he did some of his best work.” I scan down to the “Career” section of his biography where I find the real gem in his entry: he didn’t begin the Charlie Rose Show until 1991 at the mature age of 49. This means I still have 10 more years to finish the novel and/or bump into Sofia Coppola on the streets of Paris.

Watching the news over the last two months I’ve become curious about former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK). It turns out that DSK is 62 years old, seven years younger than Charlie Rose, but arguably less attractive, although we’d need a woman between the age of 35 and 50 to confirm this. And although he’s shaped like a beet and not particularly handsome, it was a revelation to learn that he was an infamous ladies’ man in France. I began to wonder: will I still be attractive to women when I’m in my 60s? Being happily married I will never find out of course, but men — like their female counterparts — like to think they remain at least plausible to the opposite sex.

During a typical night of TV I come across CNN’s Piers Morgan, he’s probably about 50, but I’m not that interested in Mr. Morgan so I don’t Google him. I flip from channel 702 all the way up to 790 and then to the chagrin of my lovely wife — who is not in the least alarmed I will soon be 40 — I descend back to 702, pausing briefly on ESPN to marvel at men who are forever in their prime. This pause gives rise to guilt that I’m not reading volume two of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by the fabulous Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who was born in Madrid in 1955 and is now 56. I learned too late that Marias is precisely the kind of person you do not want to look up on Wikipedia, because he published his first novel when he was 20, speaks English flawlessly, and because he’s European, does not have the kind of American habits that give rise to middle-aged bellies the size of the Iberian Peninsula.

The crisis goes on like this night and day. It matters little whether I’m on YouTube, watching television, flipping through my wife’s magazines or churning through RSS feeds and Twitter updates, there are always endless amounts of famous, middle-age men to look up. There is the former Connection radio host Christopher Lydon (70), my favorite literary critic Harold Bloom (80 — which means I could double my life, if I shared his longevity), former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer (51), British rocker Morrissey (52), and on and on it goes.

In addition to my Wikipedia obsession, it has also been impossible to ignore that something new, and very French, is happening to me: I’ve been reading and talking far too much about Paris lately, which is significant because I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Francophile. A sudden interest in Adam Gopnik’s (55) book Paris To the Moon, a yearning to watch Juliette Binoche (47) movies on Netflix, and the serendipitous connections involving Frenchman DSK, Sofia Coppola (39) who lives in France, Charlie Rose who is a well-known Francophile, and Christopher Hitchens (62), who used to be a Marxist (Okay, I admit that one is a stretch).

Having read the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, I was immediately concerned that like the character April Wheeler, I was fantasizing about a magical life in Paris as a form of escapism. It worried me that it was possible to quit my job, sell the condo, move to Paris (I’ve seen it done on HGTV’s House Hunters International after all) and start working on a novel while my wife spent her days buying fresh-cut flowers and baguettes. But before I could become too anxious about what it all meant, a factoid from the book hit me. The characters Frank and April Wheeler weren’t going through a middle age crisis — they were no more than 30 in the book — but a metaphysical crisis, which I wrapped up way back when I was 35! No need to worry.

Relieved that the Wheelers’ crisis wasn’t my own, I started thinking that living in Paris for a few years might not be the mark of crisis at all, but an opportunity. That’s what Gopnik did, not to mention the novelist Paul Auster (64) who lived in Paris in the early 1970s. They did not move to France permanently, for that would be rather clichéd, and let’s face it, slightly pathetic. I’m talking about a few years, five tops.

I can picture it now: my wife and I are lounging at a café in the 6th district. I’m scribbling away in a notebook as my wife raves about how fresh the arugula is. All of a sudden, we look up and see the lithe figure of Sofia Coppola and her husband, Phoenix front man Thomas Mars (34), standing directly in front of our table. “Are you an American by any chance?” she says. “Why yes. I sure am,” I respond.

We invite them to sit down and Sofia explains how her next film is about an American in Paris. She describes the project as a “kind of Henry James meets Quentin Tarantino (48) type of thriller” — and I’m instantly intrigued. Within minutes Sofia presses a script into my hands and declares I’m perfect for the role. We decide to move the feast to Sofia’s penthouse where everyone kicks back, while I rework her script on the fly. I hand the manuscript back to Sofia with red slashes and scribbled words. She pauses to scan my edits and is dumbstruck at my narrative instincts and ear for dialogue.

“You’re a writer too?” Sofia says.

“Yeah, I’ve written a few things,” I say modestly.

“How is it that we’ve never heard of you before,” Sofia says. “With all this talent?”

I shrug my shoulders and wink at my wife.

“You must be one of those, how do you say in English, late bloomers?” Thomas asks.

“That’s it,” I say, downing a glass of wine. “I’m a late bloomer.”


Image credit: Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray (60) on set via orangeintense/Flickr