Something in the Air
On the car radio, this morning, I heard an interview with Salman Rushdie.
He has a new book—perhaps his twenty-first—and he finally feels like talking with the media. Since the fatwa that was placed on him after The Satanic Verses, and the resulting attack that nearly killed him, he’d been hounded by reporters—but had little interest in talking about anything other than the one thing that interests him.
At one point, he said. “When you’re young, you have to fake wisdom.” He paused, giving the interviewer time to swallow a chuckle. He continued, “When you’re old, you have to fake energy.”
The three of us, together—Rushdie, the interviewer, and I—laughed loudly and long in the car. Part of the reason for my laughter is that I’ve been re-visiting some of my oldest writing lately, so I’d seen the fakery. I even found some things that I still liked.
I posted this little bit of doggerel on Facebook just twenty-four hours ago:
It is black and bitter tonight.
Orion stalks the winter sky.
In my imagination,
the constellation Lepidoptera lands on his nose.
It merited a small chuckle, methinks. I was a poet of frivolity—back when I was any kind of poet—except when, like the young writer Rushdie had in mind, I was busy faking wisdom. I’ll spare you the fakery, but share another (slightly longer, but still frivolous) poem from my youth:
stand warned, reader!
i am not the author
of the poem you are reading.
i am the poet of superficial efficiency,
i modulate and integrate essential wastes,
i am calibrated dreams
and systematic anarchy.
by the time you finish reading this,
the world will appear
to be running smoothly,
and i will have wasted one minute of your life.
Like Rushdie (and every other writer) I have spent endless hours thinking about writing and its processes. Some of it serious, some of it not at all. I’ll let you decide which category to apply here:
having reluctantly risen
to another summer afternoon,
today’s cerebral cortex
continues to float in last night’s wine.
the typewriter has not yet dared to look around
but sits and holds its temples in place
(off camera, it is 4 o’clock.
belmondo’s coffee has cooled
on the step beside him.
he appears to be reading
the typewriter yawns and points himself
slowly towards the bathroom
he nods to me,
but shaking my head
causes slight sloshing sounds,
and i leave the sink to him
is called to camera.
he swallows half of his coffee,
but doesn’t seem to notice
the typewriter has held his head under the tap
long enough. he sits and presses his eyeballs.
we both remember too much to want to talk.
before a bogart poster.
exhales a little
tilts his head back
pulls the brim of his hat
down over his right eye.
and walks slowly,
I have, of course, written about writing a little more seriously. There’s my book, How to Write a Great Book, for instance. A substantial portion of that book is devoted to the things writers have done to support themselves and their writing habits. Like other addicts, they found that some other activity—less enjoyable, but more financially rewarding—than writing, was often required to keep body and soul together.
In the old days, writers often depended upon the support of wealthy and/or noble patrons. Sometimes they just dedicated their works, after the fact, in long and delicately phrased encomia, in a shameless attempt to secure future patronage. The Prince opens with five long paragraphs of unparalleled obsequiousness, through which Machiavelli tried to get back in the good graces of the Medici family by dedicating it to Lorenzo the Magnificent (without much success, as it turned out). He probably would have been more successful if he had actually dedicated it to his supposed patron, Lorenzo’s grandson—Giuliano—or to Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi, another wealthy Florentine with the sort of connections Machiavelli needed.
Other writers thought themselves clever by getting their patrons’ support up-front. Samuel Johnson got Lord Chesterfield to cough up support for the writing of his famous dictionary. He received £10 for what would turn out to be several years of work—even then not a large sum. He later sent this message to His Noble Stinginess, “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling with life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?”
Looking back at my old writing (and comparing it to my newer stuff) made Rushdie’s comments feel even more appropriate. I am certainly old enough to fake energy, but—since all of our younger selves continue to live inside us—still young enough to try to fake wisdom.
Rushdie said one more thing that stuck with me: he believes that the task of any writer is to create joy in the reader. I like to think that one needn’t be entirely frivolous to achieve that, or that silliness is the only path to follow.
But I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
long and (less) delicately phrased…
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