Have I been understood?
The Poet recently lent me a book on reading: Geoffrey O'Brien's Browser's Ecstasy. While I have not had a chance to sit down and read it, I browsed through it as the title exhorted and then set it aside.
I admit that given all the book shopping I did in a trip to San Francisco and LA last month, looks like I might never be able to actually start on it. I just hope my friend doesn't quiz me on it, though I'm sure he won't.
We rarely talk about the books we read when we're together; what we sometimes talk about, however, is our gentle madness for them--and how we rationalize such mania. And yes, we do come up with a lot of justifications and rationalizations (what in the world are we teachers for if we cannot do so?) to explain (to ourselves) that our bibliophilia is not a psychological disorder on our part but, well, a necessary precondition to continue our existence (well, not really but . . .).
My line of reasoning (or, in other words, what I tell my parents who pay for my books) usually goes this way:
Whereas, I'm not going to be rich on my own (just a part-timer of many things); whereas, I have some money now (thank you again dear parents); whereas, I'd end up being alone in life which saves me from having to save for the future (I'm going to be a secular monk sans gardening duties); whereas, books are solid investments compared to clothes (I just give them away), gadgets (obsolescence), or assets (high maintenance fees); whereas, I have no other outlet for my obsessions (at least this mug never runs empty or this light burns for more than two pathetic minutes); and finally, whereas the accused has this dream of being a writer someday (the relationship between books and writing being obvious), I thereby absolve myself from the crime of excessive book shopping in a world of despair and hunger.Meanwhile my friend, the Poet, reasons as such:
That as long as I create, work, and write, then, perhaps, it ain't so bad.And there lies the rub. Though I fully understand him, I like my reasons better. Mine are simpler.
Just the same, I have a lot of books on writing and biographies of philosophers and writers. And while I enjoy peering into a thinker's mind, what I really look for are little details or strings about the writer and how he works. I want to know their sleep patterns (usually early risers [Kant woke up at 5 am everyday] and heavy sleepers [Descartes and Schopenhauer would take very long naps in the afternoon]); when they write best (morning or evening or all day [Nietzsche, who had insomnia, wrote until his eyes burned]); what they eat (they usually follow a regular diet [Spinoza just had porridge and diluted beer for his meals]), and what they do to relax (taking long walks [like Heidegger and his Black Forest from which he drew his metaphors such as Holzwege (woodpaths), Rundweg (paths that lead to nowhere or aporias), and Lichtung (clearing or glade)]).
And one lesson I learned from these otherwise worthless details is the truth that the writer's life is just as serious and painstaking as being a priest who must wake up early for morning prayers, or that a writer is as industrious as a call center agent burning the midnight oil, or a thinker is as ambitious as the corporate magnate living on the penthouse floor.
But the difference between the writer and the man of the workaday world may be this: the writer sleeps whenever he wants to, the caffeinated-businessman can't; the mind of the thinker works 24 / 7 while the cashier of 7-11 can't wait for his shift to end; and the artist's work can never be finished--thus he forever eludes judgment--while bottom lines evaluate tangibly and absolutely your success or failure.
I was supposed to be a banker. I aced my accounting and finance. I was supposed to be rich.
I imagine that a writer's life is just a step higher than the life of the idle devil but also just a step shy from the life of a saint.
Devils procrastinate because they cannot do anything on their own power and can only wait for us to join them in their workshop of mischief. Saints, however, do not need to think anymore because their thinking is pure action or their action is pure thinking.
But the writer usually finds himself caught in between necessary idleness and unnecessary activity. To not "work"--when to do so means death. To "work"?--when such work is really no work as you literally just sit down on your ass all day (a fact that Montaigne, who retired young to study and write, defended by saying that "On the most exalted throne in the world, we still sit on nothing else but our arse").
That is why the idle devil is dead and the hyperactive saint is still alive. But the writer, he must hang himself with each comma, die with each period, and annihilate himself with each page--and repeat the whole torture by rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.
Plato, it was said, rewrote the Republic seven or eight times. Poor old man. He had to compensate for his master who never cared to write one darn word.
But it's the writer's fault: he dreams of the eternity Plato bitterly worked for and the writer is afraid he may never attain. And to be remembered by works that outlast our brutally short lives is a perfectly fine wish. Not that it really matters then because you're dead already. Maybe it's just the fear of realizing that you lived and just as quickly died--without making a mark or leaving a trace.
Unlike Ambrose Bierce, writer of The Devil's Dictionary, who disappeared in Mexico when he was 71 and was never seen again. At least there's a mysterious ring to his name and the introduction or the note on the writer in his books will have something to end with instead of "He died on . . .."
When you're dead, and if you were sadly no hero who deserved a museum, you simply disappear and will soon be forgotten: they will throw away your things (or even burn them), they have already transferred your money before you breathed your last to another account, and the little cross in the cemetery above your head will remind them not of your beautiful life but of your ugly death.
•But the writer or the thinker or the artist (they're all the same anyway) is not really afraid that he will be judged as a failure by the world's standards; he gave up such a dream a long time ago. What frightens him is not only being forgotten, but also being remembered in the wrong way. It is then no longer a question of posterity but already a question of decency and lucidity.
Only the writer knows what he wrote, only the thinker knows what he thought, and only the artist knows what he created. And when he is gone, no one can ask him anymore the stupid question "What did you 'really' mean?" Well, he wouldn't answer that question if he were still alive anyway.
But when he is dead, any interpretation or criticism becomes possible. And it's not only because we will never know the answers to our questions--making their works fair game for both the educated and the uninitiated--that scares the writer most; what terrifies him above all is being both misunderstood and being completely understood. Because being misunderstood is insulting, while to be understood is to be forgotten. Thus the artist shows just enough and then he hides just as quickly. The writer has to die by living and live by dying.
•After his mental collapse, Nietzsche started writing letters or epistles under the name "Dionysus" and "the Crucified." Nietzsche sent one such letter to his friend Brandes (1889) which scared the latter out of his wits. The note read:
After you discovered me it was no trick to find me: now the difficulty is to lose me . . . The Crucified.