April 22, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

Do We Write for Others or Ourselves?

Last year, I wrote a piece for this blog about Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Secret Miracle,” arguing that it was the ultimate consolation for a writer, because it depicted a man who is able to find meaning in his artistic creation, even though the completed work exists only in his head. Instead, he writes only for himself: “He did not work for posterity,” Borges writes, “nor did he work for God, whose literary preferences were largely unknown to him. Painstakingly, motionlessly, secretly, he forged in time his grand invisible labyrinth.” I thus read the story as a triumph for the writer in the face of death, the writer whose labyrinth still has meaning despite being invisible to all but himself—and as someone putting the finishing touches on a book of my own, it was comforting to imagine that a work can have meaning even if no one reads it.

But now I stand on the other side of my release date, and I see the story as more melancholy than I once did. Yes, Borges’s character finds meaning in constructing his invisible world and finishing this text that he’d labored on for so many years—but how sad and lonely that the writer must find a meaning that exists only in his own head, a meaning that in the end he shares with no one. Now that my book is out, I no longer feel what I felt even six months ago, that forging a “grand invisible labyrinth” that only I can see is enough. I want to actually share that labyrinth with others.

Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is one of those incredible novels that’s about so many different things—the idea of genius, how to raise a child, the search for a father figure, the influence of art and culture on a life—but among these is the idea that people can connect over a certain kind of art. Towards the beginning of the novel, when Sybilla, the central character, is studying at Oxford and translating an obscure German text, she’s reflecting on why people choose to write books:

There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation. In a similar way there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people should call up books from the dust and dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark which can be called up so that other people can send further thousands of words to join them in the dust and dark. Sometimes a book can be called from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops, and perhaps it is interesting, but the people who buy it and read it because it is interesting are not serious people, if they were serious they would not care about the interest they would be writing thousands of words to consign to the dust and the dark.

What’s interesting about this passage is that on the one hand, it can be read as an indictment of writing useless books, and of academics and writers who are only interested in reading books so they can write their own, which will only end up consigned to “the dust and the dark.” And yet by the end of the passage, it becomes clear that DeWitt’s disdain is actually for the people who want their books to be sold in stores, and that the people she actually respects are those interested in all those books that don’t end up in stores, the books that you have to call up from the dust and the dark. Her character, after all, is reflecting on all this while translating a text by a German scholar about a Greek librarian who was in charge of the Library of Alexandria in the second century B.C., and then follows this up with a passage praising those she calls “Alexandrians”:

… so much could be said, all fascinating, about the Library and Alexandria and the mad people who lived there, for the writers alone must be the most perverse and willful the world has ever known. There are people who, needing a place to put umbrellas, go to Ikea and purchase an umbrella stand for easy home assembly—and there are people who drive 100 miles to an auction in the heart of Shropshire and spot the potential in an apparently pointless 17th-century farming implement. The Alexandrians would have been bidding against each other at the auction. They loved to rifle the works of the past (conveniently available in a Library built up by a ruthless acquisitions policy), turn up rare words which were no longer understood let alone used, and deploy them as more interesting alternatives to words people might actually understand. They loved myths in which people went berserk or drank magic potions or turned into rocks in moments of stress; they loved scenes in which people who had gone berserk raved in strange, fractured speeches studded with unjustly neglected vocabulary; they loved to focus on some trivial element of a myth and spin it out and skip the myth—they could make a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of any Hamlet. As scholars, as scientists, as mathematicians, as poets who led the flower of Roman youth astray, they crowd their way into books not mainly about them; given a book to themselves they burst out at once into a whole separate volume of footnotes—I speak of course of Fraser’s Ptolemaic Alexandria, a book I would come back from the grave to possess…

The Last Samurai thus sets itself up in its early pages as a book about people who pursue the obscure text or book for its own sake, people like Sybilla (and, presumably, Helen DeWitt herself) who are like these “Alexandrians” and will call up books from the dust and the dark that few others might find meaning in. The later half of the novel then follows Sybilla’s son Ludo as he searches for his father, a quest which for him is not just a search for the man who’s actually his father, but also a search for the man he believes deserves to be his father, a man who’s relationship to art and knowledge is like his mother’s. And at the very end of the novel (SPOILERS), he does find someone with whom he connects on that level, someone we were introduced to earlier in the book, a prodigy pianist named Kenzo Yamamoto who became obsessed with artistic variation and gave a concert where he played the same piece (a Brahms ballade) over and over again, alienating his audience and thus ruining his promising career. But Ludo tells him (in an implicit and oblique way, which is how their conversation goes) that his repetitive performance of this particular piece did in fact move something in his mother Sybilla, and that, as in Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, his piece changed her life. Ludo acknowledges that there may be only five people who would be moved by Yamamoto playing the same Brahms ballade over and over and over again, but that this still makes it worth it.

In this way, The Last Samurai has a much more optimistic view of art than Borges’s The Secret Miracle. For Borges, a writer must come to terms with the fact that perhaps there is no one who will read their work, and therefore they have to find their own personal meaning in it. But DeWitt is arguing that if the work is worth it, if it has artistic merit, then there will be people in the world who connect to it. Helen DeWitt’s own novel is, after all, proof of that—an unconventional, experimental, difficult book about learning ancient languages for their own sake, about watching an old Japanese film over and over again, about characters who feel they are the only ones in the world who connect with certain art, now, almost twenty years past publication, hailed as a work of genius. It’s the kind of the thing that as a writer gives you hope.