The Prodigious Spread of Failure
There are some passages in Geoffrey Wagner's introduction to a collection of Nerval's writings that might remind us of a remark that Hannah Arendt made about Proust in her essay on Walter Benjamin in the New Yorker. Arendt quotes Jacques Riviere's remark about Proust: "he died of the same inexperience that permitted him to write his works. He died of ignorance...because he did not know how to make a fire or open a window." Arendt says that, like Proust, Benjamin "was wholly incapable of changing his life's conditions even if they were about to crush him." In Wagner's introduction to Nerval's Selected Writings, he says: "although he knew himself well enough to know that he was not fitted for a settled, married existence, Nerval went so far as to become betrothed...in 1851 Nerval was once again seriously ill and had to return to the mental home for treatment." Nerval, Proust and Benjamin, and also of course Kafka, Maurice Blanchot, Fernando Pessoa and Robert Walser, did not know how to 'live', but only knew how to write. Were they all in their own way incapable of 'living' or was it "that business of living", to borrow the title of Cesare Pavese's diaries, a means by which to write their books? It is like a variation of the formula does one live to eat or eat to live? It is through writing one justifies living at all; to live well would be an achievement far beyond them: they must write to live, to find a means by which to give credence to staying alive.
This is perhaps a problem of extension versus thought, of living inside one's own head rather than trying to find a place in the world, and also a problem of finding a system of belief that can keep one going. If Kafka's 'Letter to His Father' is so fascinating it rests partly on this point: there we have the conventionally religious, conventionally successful patriarch and the apparently weak and unambitious son. But the father does not have to justify his life, he merely has to live it, finding in existence the twin poles of faith (the Jewish religion) and success (he was a comfortably off businessman). But Kafka could not rely on these poles to give him meaning, so instead tried to find in the work not the certitude his father illustrated, but the ontological unease of meaning always being provisional, always tentative. Kafka's father would be a little like the caricature of action Dostoevsky offers in Notes from Underground, where he discusses the man of action not as a success, but as a certain type of failure, as someone who must do something to avoid thinking, or of the figure presented in a passage from Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. "The essential condition for being a practical man is the absence of sensibility...To act, then, requires a certain incapacity for imagining the personality of others, their joys and sufferings. Sympathy leads to paralysis. Every man of action is basically cheerful and optimistic, because those who don't feel are happy." Incapable of dealing with thought, they move immediately to action, assuming that this is an act of will that shows their capacity to shape the world, when it shows much more their inability to think. When Riviere says Proust died of ignorance we could reverse it and say that many people seem to live through ignorance. Is this how Kafka's father lived, unable to countenance his son's perspective on the world, and is this not what often happens when bourgeois parents can't entertain their offspring's life choices if they don't conform to their own? They might claim to be talking from experience (from a variation of if you are not a socialist when you are twenty you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty you have no head), but perhaps they have done no more than accept values that do not any longer demand of them thinking.
However, the writers we've invoked have devoted their being not to action and the support of values that require little input from themselves, but to creating a value system that they could live within. Sometimes this was done recklessly (as Wagner explores in his introduction to the Nerval collection), sometimes tortuously (as in Kafka's) and sometimes dichotomously: Proust lived for many years as a dilitante enjoying the salons of Paris before giving the rest of his life over to In Search of Lost Time. When Proust talks early on in the first volume, in the Overture, about the manner in which past time opened up for him after eating the madeleine, he is also of course exploring the germination of the work: the importance of finding lost time as a cerebral activity. "These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed..." But in time this is exactly what he does, as we can see Proust finding an answer to Dostoevskian absurdity. One doesn't thoughtlessly act; one instead with volition tries to remember. The madeleine might be a wonderful example of involuntary memory, where a taste brings back sensations that we can't always easily place, but then we can work on these sensations and bring aspects of the past back to our mind. It is a resolves a paradox: one doesn't pointlessly act, but neither does one needlessly think, going round and round in the circles of Dostoevsky's Underground Man. No, instead one acts thinking.
What we want chiefly to explore are the reckless, the tortuous and the dichotomous. Nerval was clearly reckless. Coming into a legacy in 1834 he didn't only manage to squander it, he also within a few years managed to get into debt, partly through his feelings for the actress and singer Jenny Colon. "From his first meeting", Wagner says, "with this ambitious actress Nerval's life was changed. He lavished money and gifts on her, he founded Le Monde Dramatique to swell her reputation, and he wrote unsuccessful plays for her at the Odeon, the Comedie Francaise and elsewhere." Wagner also tells us that "Nerval is said to have run through about 30,000 francs with this periodical over a short period, a very large sum of money by present standards." This woman that helped ruin his life was someone with whom he would be pouring "his soul out to in letters that she had not the sensibility to understand." Whatever misogyny we might find in Wagner's phrasing, here it seems Nerval is loving and living recklessly. Supposedly Nerval bought a huge Renaissance bed to symbolise the act of finally getting his beloved into it, even though rumour has it she never yielded. Later, "in the East, Nerval fell in love once more. It did not matter that it was a new girl, Salema, daughter of one of the chieftans of the Druse, for it was the old love, ideal womanhood, which he pursued all his life."
Nerval died in his mid-to-late thirties, penniless and homeless. Knocking on the door of a dosshouse during a cold January night, he received no answer, and went off and hanged himself "from a grating at the bottom of the stone stairs leading to the rue de la Tuerie by means of an apron string..." Some after his death claimed he might have been murdered, but most accept that it was suicide.
Wagner's remarks about Nerval seeking the ideal in womanhood could of course apply to Proust as well: few writers have explored more completely a man's capacity to obsess over a woman who can waste their time. Yet Proust was gay, and his fascination for exploring love's contours from the position of immense subjectivity led to the fathering of a monumental work: time might have seemed lost in pursuing the love object, but the work itself was time regained. The search for time lost that goes into so many hours thinking over the motives and moves of the loved one becomes the massive work that is In Search of Lost Time. Albertine might have been a man in Proust's life, but when Milan Kundera in The Curtain regrets finding out this information as Albertine managed in his mind to move from a woman with breasts to a man with a flat chest and back again, we can comprehend his irritation at this biographical knowledge, but this very feeling of confusion is the creation of the art work: the capacity to sublimate life into art.
We could not say of Proust's life as we might of Nerval's that it was reckless; more that it was dichotomous: that Proust absorbed into his existence, through the salon life he lived, through the people whom he projected upon, a life that wasn't idle, but that was preparatory. He lived to produce the work that was to become this great twentieth century novel. As Kundera says, "however tightly bound to the life of its author, Proust's novel stands, without question, at the opposite pole of autobiography: there is in it no autobiographical intentions: he wrote it not in order to talk about his life but to show his readers their own lives." (The Curtain)
The dichotomous rests on creating out of the gap between life and art, the fictional space that can become a work. Proust's incapacity to live is partly what allows In Search of Lost Time to exist. If many writers, whether autobiographical or not, live the dichotomous life pragmatically, believing that no matter how chaotic their existence they will attempt to live it through action, Proust did not seem to be such a figure. Jack London for example agreed to marry Bess Maddern although he was passionately in love with Anne Strunsky. "He reasoned that marriage to Bess", Katinka Matson says, "would give his life stability and respectability; it would be an anchor for him." (Written Lives) Of course he pursued Strunsky again, and would have other affairs too. With one lover Charmian Kittredge he took off to sea on a boat he had built for $30,000 dollars. Kittredge gave birth to their child but died a few days later. London lived a full life very different from Proust's restricted one, and we wouldn't be inclined to call it dichotomous. He reported on the Mexican revolution and went on such a heavy drinking spree he contracted dysentry. Here is a life that is lived: London might no less than Proust have been writing autobiography, but he was the sort of figure one would invoke to indicate that a writer needs to get out and see the world if he is going to create one of his own.
Yet there is no suggestion that eventful lives lead to great writing. London is unlikely to be regarded as a more important figure than Proust or Kafka. Now of course Kafka lived more fully than his reputation may suggest. There were his love affairs with Felice, Milena and Dora; yet it is as though these were affairs that didn't indicate the life fully lived, but the life carefully contained, with each love explored for what it could never become as readily as for what it was. It wasn't just the reluctance to marry; there was a sense of living the relationship in his head too. In one letter he says to Felice, "Dearest, I am in a state of considerable confusion; don't take amiss the lack of clarity in anything I may write. I am writing to you because I am wholly filled with you and must in some way let it be known to the outside world." "I roamed around all Sunday in a wretched state, spent most of the time with people, did not sleep at all..." (Letters to Felice). Just as the 'Letter to his Father' reflects a mind tortuously involved with life through the complexities of his thoughts, so also do the letters. "I want to get married and am so weak that as a result of a little word on a postcard my knees begin to shake. Shall I get a letter tomorrow from which I can conclude that you have carefully considered everything point by point, have fully digested it, and yet say Yes...?" This was on 19 June 1913. A year later and Felice arrives in Prague but her expectations are quite different from Kafka's. As Ronald Hayman says: "she wanted a pleasant, well-furnished home of the type that would be bought by a middle-class couple who could count on their business to be expanding steadily. Not only was Kafka unable to afford a flat like this, the idea filled him with revulsion." (Kafka: A Biography)
Let us propose that writers like Kafka, Proust and others have at least three lives. The life that is the work; the life that existentially gives space to the work, and the romantic life. If Kafka devoted much time to talking about his feelings in his letters and his diaries, this doesn't mean he was more romantic or loving than many other people; more that this third dimension to his being was always a threat to the other two, while also a fuel for the work. When he says "my dear, dear Felice! There is no letter today, which is not surprising, but where your letters are concerned I can no longer differentiate between the normal and the surprising; I simply want them, must have them, live through them" (Letters to Felice) this is the romantic life as neurotic need. It is as though he doesn't even have to see Felice, but he requires the sign of her existence that can augment his own. Yet to be with her demands her acceptance of the impossible. "There were only three possible answers. "It is impossible, so I don't want to", or "it is impossible, so I don't want to for the time being", or "it is impossible, but I want to nevertheless." (Letters to Felice) This might lead us to wonder what the possible might be. Would it have to eradicate romantic need for sublimated feelings that can be exercised in the art work? Even if Nerval pursued with great determination Jenny Colon and others, was he as Wagner proposes looking for the ideal in her and in other women, and would he have been better creating such figures in the work rather than trying to pursue them in his life? Is Colon after all merely a foot note in literary history where the characters that came out of the fascination (Sylvie and Aurelie) major literary creations? Would he have lived much longer and produced more work if it hadn't been for this obsession?
Let us return to that initial remark about certain writers being unable to live, and now rephrase it as a question of being able to create. Perhaps creativity of a certain kind, at a certain level, becomes a bit like a binary system: to live is not to write; to write is not to live. Maurice Blanchot perhaps suggests this in the essay, 'Literature and the Right to Death'." The writer who writes a work eliminates himself as he writes that work, and at the same time affirms himself in it. If he has written it to get rid of himself, it turns out that the work engages him and recalls him to himself, and if he writes it to reveal himself and to live in it, he sees that what he has done is nothing, that the greatest work is not as valuable as the most insignificant act, and that his work condemns him to an existence that is not his own existence and to a life that has nothing to do with a life." (The Gaze of Orpheus)
In a diary entry, Kafka says "I have just read in Flaubert's letters: 'My novel is the cliff on which I am hanging, and I know nothing of what is going on in the world'." This can mean no more than that the writer is lost in their material and will resurface after they have completed the novel, or it could mean that the work is never finished; that their life becomes the book as we find so completely in Proust's project that was still in the process of completion as he died, and Kafka's, where much of the work was still incomplete on his death. As translator Terence Kilmartin says in his introduction to In Praise of Lost Time, "the last three sections of the novel La Prisonniere, La fugitive and Le temps retrouve) had not yet been published at the time of Proust's death in November 1922...here the original editors had to take it upon themselves to prepare a coherent text from a manuscript littered with sometimes hasty corrections, revisions and afterthoughts..."
Certain works can never be finished, because the life and the work become so interconnected that the work ends when the life happens to do so, leaving an aspect of the work incomplete. The literature isn't contained by generic demand but by one's actual existence. Literature is thus, as Blanchot says, "...more real than many real events, because it is impregnated with all the reality of language and substitutes itself for my life simply by existing." ('Literature and the Right to Death')
This is so very different an approach to literary creation than the idea of life experience that creates literature. Yet at the same time we wouldn't at all insist that the absence of life produces literature either. When at the end of Proust and Signs Gilles Deleuze differentiates from the Platonic notion of Beauty and the Proustian, the philosopher says: "Plato distinguishes two kinds of things in the world: those which leave the mind inactive or give it only the pretext of an appearance of activity, and those which lead it to think, which force us to think. The first are the objects of recognition; all the faculties are exercised upon these objects, but in a contingent exercise, which makes us say "that is a finger, that is an apple, that is a house, and so on." Deleuze adds, then "there are other things which force us to think: no longer recognizable objects, but things which do violence, encountered signs." Without living how can we have such encounters; yet without the idea of their limitation, how can we create literature? As we've noted, for Blanchot what must happen is that the writer eliminates himself while working and also affirms himself in that work. "As one realizes the void, one creates a work, and the work, born of fidelity to death, is in the end no longer capable of dying; and all it brings to the person who was trying to prepare an unstoried death for himself is the mockery of immortality." Blanchot then wonders:... "where is literature's power? It plays at working in the world, and the world regards its work as a worthless or dangerous game." ('Literature and the right to Death')
This notion of the world seeing the work of literature as worthless or dangerous makes us think both of the three lives of the writer and Arendt's idea that certain writers die of ignorance, of their impractical existence in the world. Let us imagine the three lives not of a Proust or a Kafka, but of a man of the world, a family man. The first life doesn't have a work to build but more a reputation. One is a man of character, someone who builds himself from the outside in and who sees his identity reflected in the admiration of others. This reputation is often attached to a profession: a good lawyer, doctor or professor. And then one has a family, a wife and offspring. There is nothing worthless or dangerous in this life, and each achievement is incremental and usually categorical. People don't wonder if you are a good doctor or lawyer: your profession determines that you obviously are competent by virtue of the profession you happen to be practising. Only negligence would define you as an incompetent one. The three lives arrive at a degree of certitude missing from the writer who must pursue not a profession but a vocation, who cannot assume that the work created will confirm his worth as a writer, and whose romantic entanglements are as likely to lead to the grave or the asylum as the wedding aisle. Whether it is Kafka saying that he cannot marry because it is his father's "most intimate domain" or Nerval reputedly hanging himself with silk from Jenny Colon, fear and fragility often mark the loves of the creative mind. The three lives don't come together to create a man of character, but instead shatter to generate the figure strung out over the void.
This is the writer at one with the worthless and dangerous game, but we should never assume that this is someone who could have chosen it any other way. This is partly what makes the situation even more dangerous for the writer: that unlike the profession, the vocation is not so easily chosen, even if this contains a paradox. After all the writer does not pass exams to qualify as a writer (no matter the many writers' workshops and courses) as the lawyer and doctor must, as someone (the examiners) decides whether he or she is qualified or not. No, the writer writes as if from a higher calling that cannot be easily named, and while posterity is a pompous term for deciding who will be in a position to judge whether the writer is any good or not, Blanchot's far more interesting variation of it (a certain calling to death), leaves intact the anxiety of the purpose without claiming for it some future worth.
Can we recouch that early statement by Riviere/Arendt and say if certain writers cannot light a fire or open a window it rests partly on Dostoevsky's remarks about action, but also on a need to make one's deeds find their balance between life and death. Is this what Susan Sontag suggests in a short introduction to Robert Walser's The Walk? "The moral core of Walser's art is the refusal of power: of domination. I'm ordinary - that is, nobody - declares the characteristic Walser persona." Sontag adds, "one knows about the repugnance Walser felt for success - the prodigious spread of failure that was his life." It is a repugnance that finds echoes in Blanchot and also that great figure of failure Pessoa. Blanchot notes: "An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing: it is the public that is writing...that is why works created to be read are meaningless..." 'Literature and the Right to Death') Pessoa says: "the only noble destiny for a writer who publishes is to be denied a celebrity he deserves. But the truly noble destiny belongs to the writer who doesn't publish." (The Book of Disquiet) Yet Sontag acknowledges that Walser, "this non-doer was, of course, a proud, stupendously productive writer who secreted work...without pause." Walser represents a certain place in literature that might seem minor from the perspective of posterity (many people have never heard of him), but immensely important for those interested in the gap between living and writing: few writers more than Walser were closer to Riviere's claims. William H. Gass describes Walser thus: "Walser passes nine quiet years in Zurich, eight in Berlin, where he lives for a time in his brother's apartment and cares for the cat, eight more back in Biel, near his sister this time, twelve in Berne (eight go by there before he has himself institutionalized after several possibly suicidal episodes and his sister's insistence)." In Kafka, Proust, Benjamin, Walser, Blanchot, Nerval and Pessoa, it isn't experience that creates literature; more that the haunting space between life and death, being and nothingness, existence and the void, produce a work. To live a little successfully, to be too comfortable inthis world is to endanger the other one that creation comes out of, and so it makes sense that Gass says "success was something Walser studied, weighed, admired, mocked, refused."
In her New Yorker essay on Benjamin, Arendt says: "the point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is - as distinct from the question of who he is - which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless." Yet it is towards this meaninglessness that certain writers, and writings, appear to be drawn, and with it goes the life. This has then nothing to do with a writer living a full existence (in the Jack London manner) or a successful one evident in fine writers who become celebrities: Gabriel Garcia Marquez for example owning elegant homes in three different cities all similarly furnished. Thus if we don't judge a writer by the experiences he or she accumulates, the fame they achieve or even the posthumous significance they garner, then how do we judge them? Perhaps we are applying the wrong verb: that to judge is somehow inappropriate. It is not judgement art requires but understanding, and the closer to the void the writer gets, and the further away from much that passes for societal recognition and accomplishments, so the nearer we can get to the work, and comprehend something of the ridiculous place that supports it.
© Tony McKibbin