A Cold Eye: Art’s Debt to the Living, and the Dead

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D.B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn’t know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. All I know about it is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
-J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye

Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
-W. B. Yeats

When I was seventeen — which was not, in fact, a very good year, compared to many others — a friend and I published a series of letters we’d written to each other. By “published,” I mean that we printed them, photocopied them, had them spiral bound, and gave them a title: Letters From An Evil Petting Zoo. There were two copies. I still have one. The other one somehow ended up on a coffeetable, at a party. People mentioned in the letters were there. People who were in just about every single one of the letters, because I was unrequitedly in love, were there.

It was a very quiet catastrophe. Nothing that bad happened, but I remember (imprecisely, probably) what my crush said to me, after reading letters about herself. She was offended.

“Why?” I asked. “I didn’t say anything bad about you.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “I’m offended that you said anything at all. The way you wrote about everybody — you seemed perfectly convinced that you were right about other people — including, it seemed like, anybody you could think of.”

It was a brilliant insight. What’s frightening about being discussed is not, ultimately, whether one comes out looking good or bad. The discussion itself stings. Suddenly, we see ourselves surrounded, on all sides, by other people, all of whom have a picture of the world. We’re fitted into that picture, somewhere. Anyone you’ve known, even for ten seconds, has made sense of you — probably without giving it much thought. Honestly, by what right?

That’s what Emma Becciu’s asking in her new post, “People, Characters, and the Dilemma of the Author.” She tagged me, and asked me to say something about the liberties a writer takes by putting real people, or parts of them anyway, into fiction.

A letter isn’t, usually, a work of art. Letters To An Evil Petting Zoo is full of immediate reactions, tart and obsessive. Famous authors tend to write good letters, but there’s still no design to them, and their main use is factual: we get unvarnished versions of the dirt that ended up at the center of a pearl. When a person appears in a letter, we want something from them, nevermind to whom the letter is addressed. (This is even true when we write about people who are gone.) When that same person appears in a fiction, it is because they are part of the author. The “autobiographical” content of art tells us what, to one person, is irreducible about the world.

When we deal in white lies about people, which we do constantly, and necessarily, it is not for their sake but for the sake of polite conversation. We say nice things about the dead to please the living. We praise people who are not there to please the ones who are. It may seem cold to have another version of the world, but it is only cold at first — and then only because one tries to be objective, in order to remember how things really were. Consider Fagin, one of the most unredeemable villains ever created:

When the coffee was done, [Fagin] drew the saucepan to the hob. Standing, then, in an irresolute attitude for a few minutes, as if he did not well know how to employ himself, he turned round and looked at Oliver, and called him by his name. He did not answer, and was to all appearance asleep.

After satisfying himself upon this head, [Fagin] stepped gently to the door: which he fastened. He then drew forth: as it seemed to Oliver, from some trap in the floor: a small box, which he placed carefully on the table. His eyes glistened as he raised the lid, and looked in. Dragging an old chair to the table, he sat down; and took from it a magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels.

We do not know who dragged an old chair like that, or who handled riches so gingerly, with so much greed. An old man prepares his coffee; when it is finished, he carries a saucepan to the stove, distracted, full of early morning confusion. He cannot help doing all of this, even though none of it is essential to ruining young boys. Nor can Dickens avoid including so much. Fagin matters to him.

I visited Yeats’s grave, and when I stood there, reading the inscription, I was unexpectedly moved. That seems pretty silly, considering the epitaph, but I was struck by his generosity. Even his gravestone is dedicated to our memory. Yeats gives us the permission he longed for, the permission we think that we need, to write.

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