Monsieur Flaubert Is Not a Writer
With the publication of Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence, my first book of essays, I am tempted to say I feel like a proud parent who sends a child off to college. The book is done, with all the sleepless nights it brought, with all the twists and turns of its unfolding, with all its absurd demands. “Spread your wings, my dear one, fly, fly!” And so it does, with barely a backward glance. Its life is now its own. This is only true alchemically, however. No sooner have I taken the book from the fumes of my athanor, than I must start to worry about its fate in the larger world. After years of careful tending, why does this book not choose to acknowledge I am here? To listen to it, you would think it had been written by another. “What is your book about?” an Uber driver might ask. Some occult anxiety then takes hold of my tongue. “Yes, my book,” I think, “you are right to be concerned. Some phrase unworthy of your dignity might pop out of my mouth.”
I do sometimes wonder what fraction of my creative process, with all its minute adjustments, will be visible to any potential reader or critic. I want to do more than to narrate or convey information or analyze or prove a thesis or describe. I fear my strategies for transferring some amount of primal energy may strike the average reader as absurd. I often ask myself, “In this age of Twitter and TikTok and Facebook, how many people actually read, with book in hand, rather than scanning for information? Who still pauses to read certain passages out loud, probing deeper and then deeper into the cross-weave of the moment, and how open are they to work that challenges their habits, and how many would see my invitation to a voyage as a threat?” Then I say to myself, “Who needs such easily disturbed readers? Why should I care if they even know the book exists?”
Then I say to myself, “Stop asking so many questions!” At a time when I am trying to push beyond my natural reserve to put my work into the world, it seems counterproductive to obsess about its future popularity, or more likely lack thereof. I have no desire to be a “brand.” I then finally say to myself, “To be preoccupied with such things only serves to justify your reluctance to take risks, your desire to stay in your comfort zone.” No, I should apologize for questioning the adventurousness of my readers—readers whom I have not even met. I am not one to judge.
To create a truly original work—rather than one the writer would like to describe as such—the writer must withdraw some portion of their energies from the world. They must then pour and seal these swirling energies into a container, into an external vessel related to but quite separate from the writer—a still half-remembered dream, a cry for help, a homunculus, a book. This vessel contains the nothing from which something may be pulled, just as the writer is a something that must plunge to unknown depths. Once the writer, the blind magician, calls them, these energies will then, if all goes well, cohere into a seed, which will then, if all goes well, begin to grow. A seed needs some protection, as well as some amount of darkness, a few weeks or nine months or even a number of decades. The whole of the future body is contained within its seed. Whether this seed ever fully expands, however, might depend on external factors. The time may or may not be right. Whatever the writer’s force of will, the fix may be in; the stars may frown upon their efforts.
For those living in comfortable alignment with their culture, this seed may open almost immediately. The disadvantage is that fashionable work—or work that is edgy or radical in a fashionable way—can just as quickly become unfashionable with the passing of that cultural moment. I had an anthology called something like “Best American Poets of the 19th Century” that my grandmother bought when she was a young teacher in the 1920s. It was a beautifully produced book with a red leather cover published around 1890. I can’t seem to locate the book just now, but it contained such luminaries as Thomas Coffin Amory, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Clarissa Minnie Thompson Allen, Thomas Gold Appleton, Mary Louisa Chitwood, James De Ruyter Blackwell, Augustine Joseph Hickey Duvanne, and Oringe Smith Crary. No poems by Emily Dickenson were included. Dickenson’s poems were resting happily in their seed. Conditions for the seed’s opening would only converge many decades later. The first complete edition of her poems was published in 1954.
So much of what we take to be our understanding of a writer and their work has to do with the surrounding context. Very often, our capacity to even see or hear or experience a work is in direct proportion to its familiarity. Similarly, the value that we place upon it has to do with its acceptance and praise by established authorities. We want to be assured that we are not wasting our time and effort, that the untested writer’s wanderings will somehow cohere in the end, and—most importantly, perhaps—that they are not playing some elaborate practical joke, that they are not treating us like fools. I remember my excitement at studying Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in Mrs. Goldman’s junior English class in high school. At least half the class were skeptical at first, but, assured of the poem’s status as a Modernist Masterpiece, we plunged in and were able, more or less, to follow where Eliot led. If this had been an experimental piece by a contemporary Worcester writer, I doubt that anyone would have bothered. Even with pieces that are seen as central to the culture of their period, this centrality is often an act of retrospective conjuration.
As challenging as “The Wasteland” might have been, my class saw it as approachable, and they had some sense of how the risks that Eliot took were tied up with the ultimate value of the poem. F.R. Leavis, writing in the 1920s, was not at all convinced. He writes, “In all periods creative artists have been apt to think they could think, though in all periods they have been frequently harebrained and sometimes mad; just as great rulers and warriors have cared only to be flattered for the way they fiddled or their flatulent tragedies.” He also writes, “to attempt here an interpretation, even an intelligible summary of the poem, is to risk making oneself ridiculous.” And “The borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr. Eliot’s toad more prepossessing.” And “A poem that has to be explained with notes is not unlike a picture with ‘this is a dog’ inscribed beneath.”
It is no accident that writers and painters tend to become famous in groups, and that the members of these groups, even those who do not necessarily like each other, tend to promote each other’s work. Surrealist painters and poets, Abstract Expressionist painters, Beat poets and novelists, New York School poets, and the various people associated with Warhol all became more famous collectively than they probably would have individually as a result of the group mystique. In the first three decades of the 20th Century, when Ezra Pound was well positioned socially, he was an energetic advocate for T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H.D., Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, James Joyce, and Ford Maddox Ford. While all of these writers would no doubt have made it on their own, it might not have happened so quickly without Pound’s talent for promotion. It seems like more than a coincidence that the following writers all knew each other at Harvard: Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Harold Brodky, George, Plympton, John Hawkes, Robert Creeley, and Richard Wilber. In spite of their stylistic differences, they formed a decades-long mutual promotion network.
It is significant, I think, that in their early stages, such networks depended on the writers being physically present in one place. As valuable as online exchanges can be, they do not tend to generate this lifelong sense of connection. A laptop screen is not a good substitute for a table at Le Deux Magots. An exchange of snark is less memorable than a brawl in a dark alley. Zoom is less of an intoxicant than scotch. The scent of a Word review pane does not lead up a damp and winding staircase to a bed. Writers with shared interests can certainly meet and communicate online, but I don’t know that anything similar to a 20th-century literary/artistic movement has been generated in this way. Then again, most of the writers I knew during the 1970s and 1980s have drifted out of contact, and aside from Boston bands that achieved national recognition, there are no more than fossil traces of the scene that existed when I moved here.
When I arrived in Boston to go to art school in 1974, I felt that I had wandered into a late-countercultural/surreal/avant-garde explosion. Finding writers and artists and musicians on a similar wavelength had the effect of liberating enormous stores of trapped energy. Where I was awkward, others flowed. Where others had grown too attached to certain models, I could offer to subvert them. One night, at a poetry workshop at the Widener Library at Harvard, I bumped into two poets, Jack Kimball and Don Quatrale, who invited me to a gathering of writers the following night. At 6:00 PM, the time I had been told, I arrived at 23 Joy Street. (This was back when you didn’t have to be a millionaire to live in a rundown third-floor apartment on Beacon Hill.) I knocked on the door, it opened, and a cloud of incense smoke poured out. Will Bennet, wearing a bath towel and eating a hotdog, explained that he was actually a macrobiotic vegetarian. Then, at 8:30 or so, other poets started to slowly trickle in.
The group read, contributed lines to spontaneous poems, made “exquisite corpse” drawings, and discussed Lamantia and Lautreamont and their other favorite writers. I mostly watched. The few words I said were met with some degree of suspicion. Paranoia crouched in the corners. No knock on the door was innocent. I had recently cut my hair quite short, at a time when others in such circles still wore it long, and I was viewed as being a possible DEA agent, or at best, an MIT nerd. Finally, around 2:30 AM, I was able to take advantage of a quiet moment to read a few of my poems. My reading style was eccentric, a bit like Tibetan chanting. It had evolved during two years of post-high school near solitude in Worcester, and it did not resemble any of the current styles of performing poetry. It had been known to scare people. I read one piece without incident, but a minute or so into the second piece, something unexpected happened. Many group members started to laugh, hysterically, as they rolled around on the floor. They slapped the arms of their chairs, shrieking. They hooted and barked. They threw pillows around the room. Did this mean they didn’t like the work? As it turned out, quite the opposite was true. They expressed their delight at my having taken them so thoroughly by surprise. Many in this group would remain my catalysts and critics for at least the next ten years.
A bit later, the late-countercultural scene moved into early punk. Already dark, the energy of the local arts scene darkened once again, but in a way that proved invigorating, in a way that transformed political despair into an alternate form of light, in a way that opened up possibilities for new collaborations. The best part was: Things happened by themselves. Or, to phrase this in a slightly different way, writers, artists, musicians, and various other performers put great stock in the D.I.Y.—Do It Yourself—attitude. Start small, ignore detractors, play around, and trust that things will somehow come together.
In Shakespeare in Love, the plans of the young Shakespeare and his friends are always just about to collapse. In one scene, all of London’s theaters have been shut down by the plague, and the Rose’s owner, Philip Henslowe, is about to be tortured by moneylenders. He says, “Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” Fennyman then asks, “So what do we do?” Henslowe answers, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” Fennyman asks, “How?” Henslowe answers, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” The town crier then announces, “The theatres are reopened, by order of the Master of Revels!”
This sense of almost effortless expansion, of a magical equilibrium between self and environment—delusional though it might be—continued through the five years of my involvement with MAAPS—Metropolitan Artists and Poets—a monthly series of performance events and art exhibits and spontaneous book assemblies that was launched in 1979 and ran until 1984. These events attracted around 200 or more attendees and participants, and since we charged $5 for admission, they more than paid for themselves. Then, around 1982, the whole climate of the city began to change, at first subtly and then dramatically. Reagan cast his spell. It was “Morning in America.” Evangelicals fell in love with politics. The Contras tortured thousands, thus insuring that Nicaragua would never invade Texas. Yuppies became stock brokers. Graffiti artists became prime targets for investment, and avant-gardists began to define themselves in terms of competing “brands.” At artists’ cold water lofts the rents went up, and then up again, and then continued to go up. One by one, the jazz and punk clubs closed. MAAPS lasted a bit longer, but the moment of alignment had passed. Whatever the external changes, however, this moment vibrates in my memory. I still believe in D.I.Y.
There are days I physically ache for that state of disjunctive harmony, when my peers and I were much younger than we knew. World weary, and glad of it, we could dance free of the snares of repressive desublimation. We could resurrect Artaud. We could reinvent the night. What fun to be an exile at play with other exiles, entranced by the oracular power of synchronicity, almost content to be poor. Now I am able to speak to friends on the other side of the globe, friends I would not have met in some other period. I can do interviews about my book on YouTube, and I can check the number of views it gets, but I cannot conjure the culture into which my book will fit. “These Cloud-based communities are as vaporous as clouds!” I think, “unlike my youthful memories.”
I should perhaps be less quick to talk like someone in his 60s, like someone who has no more interest in technology now than he did 40 years ago. Dear reader, if you have made it this far in my essay, I may have spoken much too soon. As I have said, I am not one to judge. My flights of vision have informed me that we misconceive the body, which parts are here and which are over there, which parts are now, which parts are then, and which will one day be. Just as no fixed line divides one psyche from another, no line divides our bodies from the outer edge of space. What we see as distance may be no more than pure habit. As I know from my reading of Rimbaud at the age of 17, the dead can have power over us, sometimes more so than the living. We do not live in one time, one culture, or one place. As much as I miss certain clubs and bookstores and artists’ lofts and cafes, I have no desire to play the victim of nostalgia, except of a cosmic sort. As you read these words, who knows, my book, Masks of Origin, may be making a new friend. Let me give thanks to the hands of every stranger who will hold it.
The understanding we feel in reading or seeing or listening to beloved works is often due, as I have said, to an act of alternate history, a retrospective sleight-of-hand. Those first encountering the works in question were much less likely to see them as “Masterworks” or “Classics,” and they would have been shocked to learn that they would later be seen as being central to the culture. Over the past few weeks, I’ve made a small research project of collecting contemporaneous comments on works and creators who were only later fit into the context though which we now understand them. Here are a few:
A critic for the Allemeine Musikalische Zeitung writes of his disorientation on hearing Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge that it is “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” “a confusion of Babel,” and that the concert as a whole was one that “only the Moroccans might enjoy.”
On Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:
“The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s ‘Ode,’ so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it. I find in it another proof of what I had already noted in Vienna, that Beethoven was wanting in aesthetic feeling and in a sense of the beautiful.”—composer Louis Spohr
“We find Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band and the patience of the audience to a severe trial…”—The Harmonicon, London, 1825
“It opened with eight bars of a commonplace theme, very much like Yankee Doodle…The general impression it left on me is that of a concert made up of Indian war whoops and angry wildcats.”—a Providence, R.I. newspaper, 1868
“But is not worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism? Is not the famous Scherzo insufferably long-winded? The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, ‘Freude, Freude!”—Musical Record, Boston, 1899
A contemporary critic on Chopin: “In search of ear-rending dissonances, torturous transitions, sharp modulations, repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm, Chopin is altogether indefatigable.”
Edward Hanslik on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto: “We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka…Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”
Boston Evening Transcript on Brahms: “It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, Brahms is still an incomprehensible terror.”
A contemporary critic on Richard Strauss’s Salome: “Strauss has hitherto reveled in the more or less harmonious exploitation of the charnel house, the grave, and the gnawing worm… There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern… The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves.”
John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s on “Cockney” poet John Keats: “To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing, but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr. John Keats… an unsettled pretender… an uneducated and flimsy stripling… without logic enough to analyze a single idea, or imagination enough to form one original image…. We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture 50 quid upon anything he can write. It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.”
John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review on Keats: “Unintelligible, diffuse, tiresome, and absurd.”
On Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights:
“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”—Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, 1848
“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”—James Lorimer, writing in the North British Review, 1847.
On Melville’s Moby Dick: “Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience. Having written one or two passable extravagancies, he has considered himself privileged to produce as many more as he pleases, increasingly exaggerated and increasingly dull…. In bombast, in caricature, in rhetorical artifice—generally as clumsy as it is ineffectual—and in low attempts at humor, each one of his volumes has been an advance among its predecessors…. Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment is forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced. And in his attempts to display to the utmost extent his powers of ‘fine writing,’ he has succeeded, we think, beyond his most sanguine expectations….We have no intention of quoting any passages just now from Moby-Dick. The London journals, we understand, ‘have bestowed upon the work many flattering notices,’ and we should be loth to combat such high authority. But if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.”—New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1852
The Chicago Times on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances.”
On Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Sentimental rubbish… Show me one page that contains an idea.”—The Odessa Courier, 1877.
On Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
“Incapable of true poetical originality, Whitman had the cleverness to invent a literary trick, and the shrewdness to stick to it.”—Peter Bayne, Contemporary Review, 1875
“No, no, this kind of thing won’t do… The good folks down below (I mean posterity) will have none of it.”—James Russell Lowell, quoted in The Complete Works Vol 14, 1904
“Whitman is unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.”—The London Critic
“Of course, to call it poetry, in any sense, would be mere abuse of language.”—William Allingham, letter to W.M. Rossetti, 1857
“Mr. Whitman’s attitude seems monstrous. It is monstrous because it pretends to persuade the soul while it slights the intellect; because it pretends to gratify the feelings while it outrages the taste… Our hearts are often touched through a compromise with the artistic sense but never in direct violation of it.”—Henry James, The Nation
“Whitman, like a large shaggy dog, just unchained, souring the beaches of the world and baying at the moon.”—Robert Louis Stevenson, Familiar Studies, 1882
“His lack of a sense of poetic fitness, his failure to understand the business of a poet, is clearly astounding.”—Francis Fisher Browne, The Dial, 1882
“He was a vagabond, a reprobate, and his poems contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless that their parallel in literature would hardly be found with the author’s name attached. For his fame he has to thank just those bestially sensual pieces which first drew him to the attention of all the pruriency of America. He is morally insane, and incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime.”—Max Nordau, 1895
“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass,only that he did not burn it afterwards.”—Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, “Literature as an Art,” 1867
On Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles: “An unpleasant novel told in a very unpleasant way.”—The Saturday Review, 1891
On Joyce’s Ulysses:
“Ulysses appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses…James Joyce is a writer of talent, but in Ulysses he has ruled out all the elementary decencies of life and dwells appreciatively on things that sniggering louts of schoolboys guffaw about. In addition to this stupid glorification of mere filth, the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith. There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humour.”—The Sporting Times, 1922
“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it… save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.”—The New York Times
Virginia Woolf on Ulysses: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.”
The New York Times on Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out: “Aside from a certain cleverness—which, being all in one key, palls on one after going through a hundred pages of it—there is little in this offering to make it stand out from the ruck of mediocre novels which make far less literary pretension. As for the story itself, it is painfully lacking, both in coherency and narrative interest.”
On the Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.”—L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925
“We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today.”— Ruth Snyder in New York Evening World
On Huxley’s Brave New World: “A lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”—Margaret Cheney Dawson, writing in theNew York Herald Tribune Book Review, 1932.
On Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees: “Not one syllable of what Hemingway has written can or will be missed by any literate person in the world.”—The New York Times.
“At a conservative estimate, one million dollars will be spent by American readers for this book. They will get for their money 34 pages of permanent value.”—Commonweal, 1940, on Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls
On Madame Bovary: “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” — Le Figaro, 1857.