Saturday, October 20, 2012

All's Well That Ends

In February I published an article titled "On Being Childless". Of the many reasons why having no children doesn't bother me, I failed to mention what is perhaps the most significant reason.

In last month's post, "Why I Write" I described how unnatural the physical process of writing is and how it probably appeases some deeply pathological impulse. It is one of the most solitary pursuits, requiring seclusion and stillness, which also requires the people with whom the writer lives a measure of consideration. And the lengths to which most writers sometimes have to go to acquire and defend the solitude necessary for the practice of his craft can make him a difficult companion.

Companionship is as vital for the writer as it is for everyone else, but it isn't always such a good idea. If a writer bothers to marry, as many do, there may arise some confusion in distinguishing exactly which mistress he honors above the other. And children deepen the confusion. Only someone familiar with the biography of Charles Dickens knows the names of his wife and children, for whose welfare he was compelled to write himself into an early grave (at 58). But anyone can name at least a few of his novels.

In a brilliant essay in a July issue of The New Republic (1), Adam Kirsch demolishes some recent attempts to prove the evolutionary roots of art. Artistic expression, the new argument asserts, is as much a result of evolutionary adaptation, a component of our fitness for survival, as our opposable thumbs. Kirsch argues, cogently, what most artists have learned the hard way, that they are "unfit for life". How can the Darwinians explain away the blasted, tormented lives of so many artists if, as they maintain, their talent fits them out for survival? How do they align their legendary addictions, their afflictions, their calamitous sex lives, and heartbreaking friendships with the survival of the fittest? Why are artists, writers, musicians, comics commonly said to have "demons" that are so often self-destructive?

Kirsch uses Thomas Mann's story "Tonio Kröger" to illustrate what is actually a time-honored understanding. Everything about the young Tonio sets him apart from everyone around him - his name (half-Spanish), his dark hair and complexion, his disposition, as well as the "chosen" vocation that is more likely to have chosen him, writing. But, of course, all he really wants is to live as simply and contentedly as all his fellows, which includes reciprocal love from Ingeborg, who can only love Tonio's uncomplicated friend Hans. But Tonio reaches the conclusion: "For some go of necessity astray, because for them there is no such thing as a right path."

One of Willa Cather's best stories was "Paul's Case", in which a young high school boy who hates the commonness of his world (Pittsburgh) is suspended from school and eventually steals a thousand dollars from an employer and takes a train to New York City. He buys expensive clothes, checks into the Waldorf Astoria (the year was 1905!), and spends a night on the town. After eight days, with his money running out, Paul reads in a newspaper that the money was reported stolen, that his father repaid it and is proceeding to New York to fetch his son. Unwilling to face a return to his old drab existence, Paul jumps in front of a train.

What makes the story memorable is that Cather tells Paul's story dispassionately, avoiding the artstruck glorification of his final moments of life or the clinical, psychological analysis of them. Of course, we know whose side Cather is on. Her story makes one think of how many potential artists, with the artist's sensibility, manage to survive their suicidal thoughts, which spring from an innate sense of incompatibility with the world, outgrow their artistic phase, and become normal, harmless, contributing citizens?

Kirsch also quotes Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human: "When art seizes an individual powerfully, it draws him back to the views of those times when art flowered most vigorously.... The artist comes more and more to revere sudden excitements, believes in gods and demons, imbues nature with a soul, hates science, becomes unchangeable in his moods like the men of antiquity, and desires the overthrow of all conditions that are not favorable to art.... Thus between him and the other men of his period who are the same age a vehement antagonism is finally generated, and a sad end - just as, according to the tales of the ancients, both Homer and Aeschylus finally lived and died in melancholy."

We don't know whether Homer or Aeschylus had wives or children. But such information is, after all, beside the point. For a time, Shakespeare found in fathering children a solution to the inescapable problem of mortality. If we are to trust his sonnets, he eventually found such a solution inadequate. It was well that he did, as Kirsch points out, "Shakespeare had three children, one surviving grandchild, and no great-grandchildren: he singularly failed to perpetuate his genes."

Shakespeare comes around to the conclusion that the only immortality for an artist is through his work and its - rather than his - longevity: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." (Although it was ostensibly the object of his love that attains such immortality through Shakespeare's words, since it was such love that inspired them. But it can be taken either way: "My love shall in my verse ever live young.")

Kirsch points out the development of a fairly recent prevailing attitude - the artist's (and intellectual's) contempt for what used to be regarded as "bourgeois" values: "prosperity, family, worldly success, and happiness."

The most withering - and honest - criticism of such values underlies so mch of the poetry of Philip Larkin. One senses that Larkin's neglect of the acquisition of a wife and any resulting offspring was neither a failure on his part nor a conscious choice. His life simply turned out that way. He hilariously recommends "opting out" of what Eliot called the "birth, copulation, and death" process (even if the second part was prominent in his thoughts) in his late (1971) poem "This Be the Verse":

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself."

But his most telling poem on the subject is "Dockery and Son", from The Whitsun Weddings:

‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with—’ Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?
I try the door of where I used to live:

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows
How much ... How little ... Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Only a numbness registered the shock
Of finding out how much had gone of life,
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.



(1) Adam Kirsch, "Art Over Biology", The New Republic, July 12, 2012.

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