Writing can be a dangerous thing. It has a habit of feeding our revisionist-history-fantasies: we write what we remember, and conversely, we remember what we write. In retrospect, life is so much tidier; we view our loved ones and our enemies with the blurry lens of nostalgia for the past. Looking back, I have felt affectionately towards enough people to make a few generalizations. People I thought were extraordinary, people who moved me, people I could stare at for hours in a state of unadulterated adulation — all I have now are little scraps I’ve written about them, the soft skin of eyelids and the curvature of cheekbones, wrinkled furrows between brows, how they said the word “sure,” while barely moving their lips apart..
Writing presupposes a well-examined life. Yet sometimes, the impulse for well-being, the impulse for honesty supersedes the sense of duty towards the Other. “I despise the trafficking of intimacy,” Leon Kass once told me emphatically.
These three elements — identity, performance and posterity — are interconnected, and their intimate relationship astounds me every day. When you write about someone, especially in the wake of a decisive event, your feelings are so colored by emotion. You think mostly of their beauty and grace; their good qualities rise to the surface like floating debris.
Byron, when reflecting upon the Second Punic war, recalled the incident of two men named Nero – one became one of the most infamous and despised profligates of history, and the other was indispensable in ending a war that would have wiped out the western world. Thousands of years later, it is the former that is remembered. “Such are human things,” resigns Byron.
I once had a conversation with a boy who wanted to be a movie producer. Although the creation of film was the driving impulse of his life, he discounted his dream profession saying it wasn’t “noble.” Not as noble as becoming an ER surgeon, or a human rights lawyer, conspicuously saving lives. Yet, arguably one of the greatest figures in American literary history, the Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow’s recipe for a life well lived was a “strong sense of nobility,” coupled with the “fierce accumulation of knowledge.” Bellow also believed that the writer is always a moralist, no matter whether they ascribed to a particular creed or not. Albert Camus similarly spoke of the communion with the other, and the enormous responsibility an author has towards posterity and his contemporaries, to tell the truth. George Orwell believed that no matter what, a writer always had political motive, and if he did not then he was not serious about his craft. These people were not
Writing must come a place of honesty. It must come from deep inside the self, from a feeling of unity with what is ambient; one must be moved. Everything else is sophistry, complete artifice. My thoughts are so raw sometimes I feel like I ought to cloak them in sterile intellectualism for fear that they might appear offensive naked. It is inevitable that we want what we create to be beautiful, but I believe originality comes unsought when the creative impulse is pure. The pain of love becomes very familiar; its very much like the pain of loss — almost a fear. A fear of obscurity coupled with a desire to preserve the significance of our experience. I was told by a friend that the way in which I interact with the world is very experiential. The word for “crisis” in Chinese is the same word for “opportunity,” in particular, “dangerous opportunity.” And I suppose that is true in a sense. Every crisis has the capacity to be redeemed as an opportunity for discovery. *
As for performance and its implications, I believe it relies heavily on pride. In the Catholic faith, pride is seen as the greatest vice. “Pride cometh before a fall,” has been my mother’s, my grandmother’s and my great-grandmother’s perennial precaution. The strength of the ego and its reflection in matters of duty and love is enough to poison them. Yet, some performance sometimes is inevitable. Complete sincerity is impossible.
As I have grown older, I have done things I never imagined I would. Sometimes unfortunate, foolish things. Yet the growth that follows them, the ensuing period of self-reflection and recalibration allows me to view others with a closer, more intimate eye. Not that one should go around seeking vice for the sake of personal growth or ‘enlightenment,’ but I believe compassion can be born from one’s faults and flaws.
Almost always, curiosity — another vice in the Church — spills over into other areas. I have always wondered whether people who are born to write have to sin — how else are they to create their villains? If the best writing is based on deeply-felt personal experience, how do you imitate complexity in your work without having lived it? How can you write about envy, sloth, lust, violence, deception, infidelity, etc., without having had some personal dialogue with them? To understand a human being is to understand and acknowledge all of these things. In the Bible it is written that “understanding will never bring you peace.”
Perhaps it is all an attempt to stave off, to repudiate obscurity. To gather up fodder, material to resist the pain later on. There are few clear moments; life is sadness. When I think of my Papa’s few, thin wispy strands of hair and his neatly filed fingernails, his grey chest hair peeking out of his shirt, his organs slowing down in contrast to that great brain.. it is the performance that kills me. Having to prove yourself, justify yourself more and more. There is inherent hypocrisy in old age, because in old age it is harder to keep up your postures and even harder to defend them. The one thing that prevents life from coming full circle is memory. Life is sadness, yes, but people are too weak to be our vessels from which we can seek truth — where is this all going? It is all too complicated to sum up neatly. The righteous struggle of every man cannot be reduced to platitudes.
The world is so tumultuous; Man needs order. Aging, death is not the destruction of order, because that would presuppose that human life by virtue of existing represented order. I do not believe this is true, for so much of life involves grappling with unseen forces. The Law is given to us, and we aspire towards it in this life. Death is not the destruction of order but a means towards its ultimate consummation.