By Charles Matthews

Monday, April 26, 2010

2. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. 16-57

"1. Orientation: Who do you think you are," concluded, from "There I was, then, still at high school...." "2. Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double. Why there are always two."
High school, university, and what "the others," the arty types, read. Her first publications in campus and Canadian literary magazines:
I used my initials instead of a first name -- I didn't want anyone important to know I was a girl. Anyway, in high school we'd studied an essay by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch which said that the ''masculine" style was bold, strong, vivid, and so forth, and the "feminine" one was pastel, vapid, and simpy. Writers are fond of saying that writers are androgynous as to their capabilities, and that is no doubt true, though it is telling that most of those who make this claim are women.
"There's one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts -- its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression." Lord knows, the Internet would be a very different place if the only way you could express yourself on it was by drawing or composing music. (Certainly "tweeting" would have a different meaning.) 

So the question comes down to: "Is the writer -- the writer who aspires to be not just a provider of newspaper copy or an adept at formula fiction, but an artist -- is such a person special, and if so, how?" Well, okay, leaving aside the dig at those of us who have been providers of newspaper copy, it's a fair question.

Her next step at answering the question is to posit that writers have a double nature, that "the mere act of writing splits the self in two."
By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward -- the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car to be washed, and so forth -- and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.
She demonstrates, with a myriad of citations, the "widespread suspicion among writers ... that there are two of him sharing the same body, ... one half does the living, the other half does the writing." Dickens, for example, was both "the fun-loving paterfamilias, keen deviser of Christmas games for his kiddies" and "the necrophiliac" who killed off Little Nell," crying "the whole time his pen-wielding hand was pitilessly doing her in." The "authorial part" is "the only part that may survive death." Writing has "a hardness, a permanence," which speech doesn't, which is why the shift from an oral tradition to a written tradition is significant. "Writer and audience are invisible to each other, the only visible thing is the book, and a reader may get hold of a book long after the writer is dead."
The printed book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or "interpreted" by them, as we say. The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.
The Romantics were mistaken in developing a cult of the genius poet: "if a man wrote works of genius, then he had to be a genius himself, all the time. A genius while shaving, a genius while eating his lunch, a genius in poverty and in health." But in fact, "No man is a hero to his own body, nor no woman neither." She cites Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: "A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures." In fact, Wilde is stealing from one of Keats's letters:
A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all of God's Creatures. 
But as she points out, Wilde is taking this sense of duality, the gap between person and writer, another step: "the logical conclusion being that if poetry is self-expression and a great poet puts the good stuff in himself into his work, there's not much of him left over for his life." 

So when does person become writer?
The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.
Okay, but isn't the same true for any artist -- what of the person is present in the symphony, or the painting? How can we know the dancer from the dance? And for that matter, isn't any act that requires focus and a modicum of skill and training -- from writing computer code to threading a needle to tightening bolts on an assembly line -- dependent on a self that transcends the one that walks the dog, eats breakfast, washes the car? Or does the difference lie in the fact that the writer must imagine him/herself as someone else, the character in a story or a play, the speaker in a poem?

No comments:

Post a Comment