Sunday, June 14, 2009



From a 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace:

I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being "liked," so that her true end isn't in the work but in a certain audience's good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It's the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: "I don't really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it." This dynamic isn't exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.

—Reading this reminded me of something from Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift (1975), page 120, where the narrator Citrine summarizes a frequent lament of Humboldt's regarding the "profession" of poetry:

[Humboldt always said] that poetry was one of the frantic professions in which success depends on the opinion you hold of yourself. Think well of yourself, and you win. Lose self-esteem, and you're finished. For this reason a persecution complex develops, because people who don't think well of you are killing you. Knowing this, or sensing it, critics and intellectuals had you. Like it or not you were dragged into a power struggle.

(Remember that Bellow based Humboldt on Delmore Schwartz.)

If people who don't think well of the poet are killing him, what if he seconds their opinion? Indeed what if, under the circumstances, he has little other choice:

—Because, as Bellow/Citrine observes:

Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spirtual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy [Bellow must have forgotten WC Williams] or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies."

—This [the narrator adds] . . . was how successful bitter hard-faced and canniballistic people [exulted at Humboldt's death].
(quoted from pages 117-18)

The "awful tangle" causes the "awfulness" of the poet's misfortunate fate. Bellow could have added Plath and Sexton and all the other women artists who were, in Artaud's diagnostic term re Van Gogh, "suicided by society."

That there are exceptions (Bishop, Stevens, WC Williams et al) to Bellow's parade of poeticides doesn't change the power of his indictment.

Parenthetically, when I was typing out the above, I remembered Auden's response to Jarrell's suicide (or was it an accident): I don't have the exact quote, but when he was told about Jarrell's jumping (or was it fainting) in front of an approaching car (or was it a truck),

Auden reportedly said: Think of the poor driver!