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Monday, April 13, 2015


The NY TIMES today has an interestingly sympathetic review of a little potboiler that Gore Vidal cranked out in 1953 under a pseudonym for three thousand dollars, at a time when things were going badly for him and he just needed to make a buck.  The review made me like Vidal even more, because it evoked for me a division in the world of artistic creativity in which I am firmly on one side.

Some great artists adopt a workmanlike attitude toward what they do, not putting on airs or getting the vapors if it is suggested that they accommodate their genius to some quotidien demand.  My hero in this regard is Bach.  I imagine him saying, on a Monday, "Well, the second soprano is out of town, the horn player has a cold, and my violist's wife has just had a baby, so I need to compose a cantata for this Sunday with a tenor, a bass, and an alto and no horn or viola.  But there is a visiting oboist who might be willing to sit in.  Right, then, here we go."  And out comes another exquisitely beautiful work.  In contrast to this healthy, working-stiff approach is the Romantic Artist, who sits alone in his garret, waiting for inspiration to strike so that he can tear, bleeding from his breast, some conception the playing of which would require more musicians than could be rustled up in the entire principality.

I have always been enchanted by the perhaps apocryphal story about Dickens, many, if not all, of whose novels were written in pieces for publication in weekly magazines.  It is said that he went into a shop one day and overheard two women gossiping about the novel he was then writing.  They were wondering what would happen to one of the characters, and Dickens realized that he did not know, as he had not yet written the next episode.

I think perhaps that is why I enjoy maintaining a blog.  The idea is not to go off to a writers' colony where I am cossetted and made much of and given a cabin in the woods where I can commune with my muse until I am struck by an idea.  The blog sits there demanding to be attended to, and if I miss so much as one day I think myself a failure.  To post something that is not badly written, and perhaps even has an interesting idea in it, makes me feel that I have earned my supper.


Jerry Fresia said...

According to "," Vidal's quick $3,000 would be worth $26,383.37 today. Perhaps this might help explain the persistence of the potboiler.

formerly a wage slave said...

You have really annoyed me with this one. For most of the past twenty years I've been in a situation where I had to teach a large quantity of hours and have often not had the luxury of oodles of time to prepare. Sometimes there has been a dearth of materials for students, and when there have been textbooks they were full of ideology. When I've had time free from teaching, I've always managed to write something--within the limitations of my time and my resources. (I have rarely had access to a research university's libraries and databases.) And I have often thought about or dreamed about having freedom from teaching duties, even considered trying to get into a writer's workshop. Not because I want to be coddled and treated like a genius or whatever. But simply because time free from unhelpful demands has been so absent in my life. The more teaching you do, with the greater number of demands placed upon you, the greater the limitations, the less satisfying teaching becomes. I think there is something here you don't understand. But it is very much a classic case of work which is not intrinsically unsatisfying turned into something unsatisfying by social structures, and not because of individual choices.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But I do not understand why you are annoyed. My little post was a paean of praise to people just like you who soldier on, doing good work in impossible circumstances. That is what I admire!

David said...

Professor Wolff, I've given this post some thought, and these lines from Yeats' "Adam's Curse" come to mind:

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

The craft of writing--whether poetry, philosophy or fiction--is certainly a great deal of work if one is committed to it. However, I am troubled by Yeats' thought that it is somehow harder work than scrubbing floors or breaking stones.

Years ago, I found that I couldn't make a living wage as an English instructor in the Community College system, and took a job as a technical writer first at Boeing, then later at Microsoft.

One day, as I was in the midst of another 80-hour week, Brad Silverberg, who was then Vice-President of Microsoft's systems division, told us that we didn't know what real work was like. I reflected on that claim and realized that he was probably right. The work that my grandfather did as a teenager in the silver mines of Nevada--he ran away from his home in Brooklyn before his fifteenth birthday--was undoubtedly far more difficult than anything I'd ever done.

My wife and I recently heard Peter Singer speak in Seattle, and I found myself irritated by his assertion that someone who decided to forgo a position at Oxfam might do more good if she were to become a hedge fund manager instead and give away half her salary. My wife is a social worker and I am a high school teacher, and we like to think there is some unquantifiable merit in the work we do--work that, if done well, deserves to be afforded some dignity.

I recently read Hard Times, and while Dickens' portrait of utilitarianism might not be a fair reflection of, say, J.S. Mill, I can't help resist the thought that it's a fair portrait of Peter Singer at his worst. Undoubtedly I exaggerate, but Dickens knew a thing or two about what a system of exploitation can do to people. Calculate that, I say. In a better world, all useful work would be accorded dignity. That much work is denigrating and alienating is too tragic to be dismissed, as Singer seems to do.

Magpie said...

It may sound absurd, but I am a die-hard Wagnerian, even though I don't like Wagner. (Yes, I'm a Romantic socialist).

Honestly, every time I hear Lohengrin or Götterdämmerung, I end up in tears (quite literally and embarrassingly, too). Sometimes, it's only my eyes that get all cloudy and my breath that seems to fail; sometimes, however, I sob openly, like a teenage girl (you can quote it, :-).

The guy knew how to press my buttons: I don't think much of him as a human being, but his LABOUR -- oh! god -- is sublime.

Still, I love Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, the Strausses, the Bachs (not so much Verdi, though).

Some Spaniards, French and Portuguese/Brazilian are kind of good, too.

But there's no English-language composer.

Magpie said...

"But there's no English-language composer."

Nor one. None. They're so cowardly, so bourgeois. So English. So Keynes.