Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gravy. Or Icing.

Flaubert suffered for his art. Why does this seem disingenuous? Is it really believable that Flaubert approached his writing so detached from the end results, as indicated by the entries that Barthes quotes in his essay, “Flaubert and the Sentence” (New Critical Essays)? For example, Flaubert writes: “...I don’t want to publish anything...I work with an absolute disinterestedness and without ulterior motive, without external preoccupation...” It’s the hindsight of those quotes, the literary pillar that Flaubert eventually achieved, that make them seem bold, the fly in your face convictions of a rebel. The last one I quoted was written when he was 25, before he had achieved any measurable success. Flaubert, libertine and bon vivant extraordinaire, had what seems a cushy life in which he did as he chose--and probably paid for it, too. And he wrote with some conviction, and passion.

Publication, though maybe not the end result of passion, in some way helps ensure it. Far from having major success, however, how many writers spend years without any idea if anything will come of the work? Maybe there is a keener knowledge that in fact if one toils long enough the learning curve could suggest that they might come to know at least “how” to get published, or why a piece can get selected or not. Like any set of rules, if one can follow them enough (conform, to be more precise), and manage to offer something with originality or spark that can touch a nerve, or tap into the collective consciousness, perhaps, they are already ahead in the game.

But to go back to Flaubert. The error in retrospection is to say the author knew what they were heading toward--fame, or public recognition. There are legion writers who struggled and suffered for their art--and maybe this idea has been overplayed. Maybe masochism is a point of pride in literary production. Think of Doestoyevski, and his life; on the other hand there’s Tolstoy--though I’ve been made aware his life wasn’t all comfy at the end. But then Beckett, who worked so hard to achieve what he did but, from the evidence, didn’t enjoy the fruits all that much.

Years ago, I believed I was suffering for my art (writing), but was really suffering for reasons that had nothing to do with writing. Does this lessen the possibility that I’m creating anything of lasting value now, since I don’t feel like it is such a struggle anymore--or that the struggle isn’t so much about the art as it is a sense of legitimacy?

There can’t be any certainty, period, about literary posterity. Why bother. One should just do a good job for the same reasons they would do anything with love, skill and proficiency--because that way of working carries an intrinsic reward. Along the way, perhaps if you are lucky you figure out how to live while you’re at it, and how to live well, even, because in the end you’re not going to see what comes seventy years from now anyway. The rest, is gravy. Or icing.

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