I am sure we all remember the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion finally gain admittance to the inner sanctum of the Great Wizard, each hoping to ask there for his or her heart's desire. They are met by a terrifying spectacle -- a large curtain, from behind which emanate clouds of smoke and the loud voice of the wizard. As they stand there, frightened and uncertain what to do, Dorothy's Cairn Terrier, Toto, jumps out of her arms, grabs a corner of the curtain in his teeth, and pulls it back to reveal the mountebank, Frank Morgan, cranking levers and wheels and shouting into a big horn. I evoked that scene last Wednesday when I was explaining to my students the concept of demystification, so central to the opening chapters of Capital.
I did not think to tell them about a personal experience I had almost forty years ago of which I was reminded this morning on my early walk while musing on how to weave The Wizard of Oz into some thoughts I have been having about the experience of being a writer. In 1977, my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, published A Feast of Words, a brilliant literary biography of Edith Wharton, and was invited to speak at a little book event [a sort of micro-mini book tour.] On the program with her was Garson Kanin, who had just published Hollywood, a memoir of his time as an actor, writer, and director. Kanin was married to Ruth Gordon, a very highly regarded actor and film writer. I had the impression that Kanin felt about Gordon the way Mel Brooks feels about Anne Bancroft -- that she was the light of his life and that it was a blessed miracle that she had agreed to be his wife.
I was too nervous about the affair simply to take a seat in the audience, so I stood at the side of the room. After Cindy spoke -- quite well, of course, I needn't have worried -- Garson Kanin was introduced. He was a dapper little man with a lively, charming manner. He clasped his hands behind his back casually and proceeded to tell a series of delightful stories about Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and all the famous movie folks he knew. He appeared to the audience relaxed and entirely at ease. But from where I was standing, I could see his hands, and throughout his talk, he wrung his hands violently, his fingers writhing like snakes in a basket. It was obvious to me, but not to the audience, what it was costing him to project his easy, casual manner.
I take both of these stories as metaphors for my experience as a writer and teacher. I strive to achieve a light, easy, casual style as I expound the most complex matters, seeming, I imagine, merely to be putting out words as they pop into my head -- a garrulous old man full of stories. The truth is that out of sight, my hands are clasping and unclasping, my fingers writhing, as a search for just the right phrase. Even when my writing goes well, as for the most part it does, I am exhausted when it is done, and I turn compulsively to solitaire games, crossword puzzles, or low-brow television to recoup my energies.
There are some writers -- and a good many philosophers -- who do their best to show the anguish, fearing, I imagine, that they will not be thought serious if it seems that what they are doing has cost them too little effort. But I am not one of them. My hero is David Hume, who skewers a doctrine or dismantles a tradition with such ease that if you are not paying very close attention, you may fail to notice the full power of his disarmingly charming sentences.
Now I must clasp my hands behind my back and thrash out my preparations for next Wednesday's class.