Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer, took the world by surprise when he burst onto the scene in the early 1960s. His peculiar brand of “free jazz” was so unique, it became a genre in its own right. Some, with Leonard Bernstein among them, welcomed him like the new musical Messiah; most detested his music, viscerally and intellectually alike. Outwardly oblivious to either extreme reaction, Coleman withdrew, away from the stage. His purpose? He wanted to teach himself two new instruments, the violin and the trumpet. Why? His exceptional familiarity with the alto saxophone was increasingly becoming an impediment between the pure music he heard in his mind, and what his fingers made of it on the instrument. Two entirely different instruments could unleash his creativity, the obstruction there being, initially, only unfamiliarity, in his view easier to defeat than overfamiliarity.
The British scientist writes to Nature in plain English, yet, without realizing it, he is being British enough for me to guess, correctly, his nationality. The passport is doing the thinking; the FBI would not have to engage in “linguistic forensics” to realize it. The saxophonist wants to get away from his favorite instrument from excess of familiarity with it. He has realized that sometimes it is the familiar fingering patterns, not his mind, that are doing the playing.
True, a scientist’s priority is not his/her prose, but the things conveyed through it. However, even novelists are not immune from the same linguistic recognizability. In their case it is often, and even more blatantly, the passport to do the thinking and, unlike the above mentioned jazzmen, they are not aware of it. It is a problem common to all monolingual speakers—their language conforms too much to itself, in whatever local apperception. That cannot but result in a conventional turn of the phrase, choice of words, idiomatic expressions, etc. Not at all a mind-expanding proposition; rather, mind-contracting. How often are novels published by a writer who knows only one language and confines his/her thematic excursions to what he/she knows firsthand? Perhaps no one has told them that monolingualism is to the 21st century what illiteracy was to the preceding centuries.
While on the subject, does any writer of “literary fiction” bother with the classics? Does anyone of them study Latin and Ancient Greek? We are told that they work so very assiduously on their “craft” (that is, their seventh-grade prose awash in clichés and common places) most probably without realizing that, say, the Nine Melic Poets or the Latin Neoterics or poetae novi have existed and could teach them a thing or two. For example, Catullus’s famous Carmen 85, Odi et amo, a down-to-the-bare-minimum elegiac couplet (a hexameter followed by a pentameter):
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Why would I do that, you may ask?
I don’t know, but I feel it happen and am torn apart.
The second verse is made up by a chiasmus, a rhetorical figure in which, in order to make a larger point, two clauses are related to one other through a reversal of structures, thus in a reverse parallelism. In this instance a passive verb form followed an active verb form: nescio (active) - fieri (passive), and again: sentio (active) - excrucior (passive). Adding to the grammatical subtlety is the fact that some Latin verbs, although active, are conjugated in the passive form. That is to illustrate that, even in such a short composition, Catullus displays magisterial technique, and command.
“Literary fiction” makes me think of Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse and other such authors. But today by “literary fiction” the publishing industry means those navel-gazing novels hinged on suburban angst, an extraordinarily claustrophobic Weltanschauung, if any, all sprinkled by a substantial serving of alienation—from the world, from one’s family and from oneself. As I write as much, my beard grows longer at an alarming pace.
Writers no longer lead contemplative lives, and their books suffer because of that. The ephemeral is harmful to a writer. It is too contingent. Contemplating is the first step. To contemplate derives from the Latin com-, with; templum, space for observing auguries. Precisely what I need to be in—a temple of a special sort, one in which to receive revelations. Much like a shaman who retires into a cave and won’t come out of it until he’s received his revelations. An inborn aptitude—a daimon within—and years of training are necessary to become a shaman—and a writer? Paleoanthropologists and archeologists have argued, in my view convincingly, that during the Paleolithic Age the shaman and the storyteller were the same person.
Materialists may say that I am a mythomaniac. While I do not concede it, I see no harm in that. We all need myths to live by. The sin, in the view of the materialists (who of course are also atheists and nihilists), is for people to take themselves seriously. They are “pretentious”. Well, think for a moment of the inherent self-aggrandizing pretentiousness of the English language, in which the pronoun “I” is as a matter of course capitalized. They will also say that too much knowledge renders the writing ponderous and pedantic—not in the hands of a truly accomplished writer, though, who knows how to strike a balance. Lastly, while in-spiring, one must give himself up, body and soul, to the Muses. Why should the Muses speak to people who don’t care to listen? Or who don’t know how to listen? Undereducated, autobiographical, monolingual, small-minded “literary fiction” writers? The Muses shall have nothing to do with them. Of course, the latter will say they don’t need them. “Muses? Inspiration? A study, a tower, a sanctum (what the hell does that mean?) in which to . . . contemplate? Nonsense! Has he heard himself, that pretentious fart? What could be wrong with our modest pursuits? They are so genuinely modest. We just write about what we know. That’s the best writing, the most genuine. And so satisfying for the reader, too. Yes, keeping modest is definitely the best policy.”
Rilke wrote, “If I don’t manage to fly, someone else will. / The spirit wants only that there be flying. / As for who happens to do it, / in that he has only a passing interest.” And, “Maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.” The “modest” writers ought to read the following carefully, and meditate (again by Rilke): “All wants to float. But we trudge around like weights. / Ecstatic with gravity, we lay ourselves on everything. / Oh what tiresome teachers we are for things, / while they prosper in their ever childlike state.”
It’s a vicious circle: aspiring writers attend, say, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the University of Iowa. In a roundabout way, to justify the tuition costs, they are told, A, Less is more and, B, Write about what you know. From the standpoint of a traditionalist, hardly anything could be more anti-initiatic: do no strive to transcend yourself; rather, wallow in your insignificance. Since in most cases the would-be writer is very, very young and knows very, very little, (s)he is only too willing to indulge their teachers’ dogmas. Some of these (un)knowers manage to dish out a novel by adhering to such dogmas, and by utilizing all the attendant tools for non-thinking provided to them so very alacritously. Sometimes, they break into print: another brilliant work of “literary fiction” on the market, another brilliant career inaugurated. It is a close-knit clique: graduates from schools of literary enlightenment go on to become not only writers, but editors, literary agents and/or scouts, professors and critics/reviewers. They gingerly position themselves within the publishing industry, where not only do they know one another, but they readily recognize newcomers by their mindset and adherence to those two dogmas. Consequently, the writer need not bother with research. A celebrated “literary fiction” author has the following to say about research: “People have this funny notion that you can do research, then put all the results in a blender, mix it, and out comes the novel.” So, he never researches.
No wonder fantasy novels sell by tens of millions of copies: most readers want larger than life. For modesty and uneventfulness they already have their own life. And what of the vicarious pleasure of adventure traveling? The reader is right there where the action is, taking part in the most astonishing adventures, yet with none of the risks.
In contemporary “literary” novels we are fed an endless sampling of the fetishizing of human relationships. The much trumpeted sexual revolution has contributed to this, and now it seems that the “energy” is only to be found in the relationships among humans. But, when considering the more-than-human out there, that one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, we humans are not all that important.
Multiplicity in scope and range, and the inherent unbounded versatility of the mind, must not be confused with the Baroque, or with an exercise in overindulgence. Balance—structural, stylistic, semantic and otherwise—must come into play, and non-linearity can thrive on leanness of touch. Maximalism and minimalism, when felicitously employed, are equivalently powerful.
I am not advocating the cause of unreadable novels, far from it. Away from lettres classiques and belles lettres, into communicability. But communicability must arise spontaneously as the result of a “totalizing” approach, because nothing in the realm of the knowable is alien to us humans, as Terence would have it.
To all writers who write without the necessary humility to study and absorb what has already been written; to all writers who, born incurious and therefore unsuited to being initiated, impose their non-curiosity on us all by writing “about what they know” (id est, nihil); to all who indulge in hackwork by applying ad nauseam the two dogmas they have learned in their “creative writing” programs, I say: please, do not write.
Rather, do the following: start by buying yourselves the eight volumes of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published by MacMillan and the Free Press. Read and metabolize those 2165 pages, bearing in mind that they are just an introduction. Still, at least you will realize that there is such a novelty item as . . . the history of thought! That, in fact, down the centuries all sorts of thoughts have been entertained and philosophical systems developed by minds infinitely superior to yours; and that you don’t have a single original thought to save your soul (which you don’t possess anyway, since you are a fully paid-up materialist). What you write, those paragraphs you work so hard to compose, are an inventory of banalities, clichés, and common places laced together in a roundabout way with the prose of a seventh-grader.
If jackasses never come in contact with a horse, in the long run such champions of self-unawareness will believe they are thoroughbreds. In the contemporary western world that distinct brand of blindness is called “self-confidence.”