Let’s say there are two kinds of happiness. I want this short talk to arrive at the second kind. But first let me say a few things about the first kind and how it is—as I see it—to be a writer in the world in which we find ourselves.
It’s apparently a myth that in the most famous phrase in the American Declaration of Independence, in the promise to every citizen the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the last word, happiness, Thomas Jefferson substituted for the word property, having taken the phrase from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It now seems it’s just as likely that Jefferson got the phrase from Epicurus. Epicurean happiness is happiness in the Greek and Roman sense of happiness as a social end, requiring civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. It’s close to the idea of good and proper action. In America, of course, the meaning has come to be more personal. As if happiness can be pursued in much the way, in fact, you’d pursue a piece of property. It even seems sometimes to be embodied in property, in what you own. And when you realize that in eighteenth- and nineteen -century America, some human beings themselves came under the category of property (with no right to happiness for themselves while contributing to the happiness of others) and guns were required in white hands in case of insurrection, you begin to see why America is the way it is today.
Anyway, this modern idea is obviously a very outward, desire-bound idea of happiness and guaranteed to make its achievement impossible.
One definition of this first kind of happiness that I can relate to (and that I can recognize as an artist) is something more like how I feel at those moments when I am conscious that I am on my way to completing something that has been worth doing. Patrick DeWitt says that what he likes about writing is the happiness of working on a book that he has begun to feel in his gut he will be able to finish. He says it’s like having a job. Unemployed he feels useless and unhappy. What’s the point of anything? I think this is one way to come at happiness as right and proper action in the modern world. In fact, I can’t imagine how anyone who does not live this way—trying to do something that’s worth doing and feeling like she’s getting there—can be remotely happy. Of course, when things aren’t going well with a piece of writing, a writer is more likely to feel like Freud’s definition of a mad person: someone who keeps doing the same thing while continuing to expect a different outcome.
Just doing the work doesn’t guarantee this first kind of happiness. It needs to be going well. But here’s Penelope Fitzgerald on that, and some of hers went very well indeed: “At no point when I’m writing a book am I anything less than miserable, and I would take any possible excuse to break off and do something different.” And then there is the unhappiness of watching the wondrous conception in your mind cut down to size by the thousands of exclusions entailed by your first sentence, in fact by the first few words of your first sentence, followed by the larger unhappiness of finally finishing with the editor and knowing that what you have written will never be any better, all your hopes have come to this. Of course, there is always the still larger unhappiness of not having an editor because you don’t find a publisher. Or your do find one, but then your work will be out there in a world. For this last development the only consolation—aside from knowing you have done your best—is that this part has never not been a nightmare for writers.
Here’s Dr. Johnson, writing in Rambler #2 (1750):
He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read anything, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame, which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.
This, of course, is the modern world, which is shaped by the interests of business, which controls governments and owns or otherwise shapes the media. Here is Marcel Proust at the beginning of the last century on
[t]hat abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last 24 hours, the battles which cost the lives of 50,000 men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.
And then there is the particular unhappiness of professional chagrin experienced by the writer in the face of almost inevitable failure, both short and long-term. Vladimir Nabokov puts it this way: “I open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: ‘Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today.’ Awful question: ‘Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?’”
Or professional jealousy. Flannery O’Connor, bitterly, when asked about Faulkner: “Best not to get your little wagon caught on the tracks when the Dixie Express comes roaring through.”
Or William Burroughs on your book failing to sell, though you seem to have done everything right:
I’ve seen it happen, we all have: a book’s got everything, topical my God, the scene is present-day [fill in the blank] seen through a rich variety of characters. . . . How can it miss? But it does. People just don’t buy it. Some say you can put a curse on a book so the reader hates to touch it, or your book simply vanishes in a little swirl of disinterest. . . .
Or V.S. Naipaul, with his usual lack of sympathy: “No pride is more offensive than the pride of the remaindered.”
I have a friend who tells he has days when he is simply unable to leave the house. The world is too horrible to face. He is a writer who writes out of anger and unhappiness at the dreadfulness of it all. He reminds me of the writer protagonist in an early twentieth-century German play as characterized by the critic Edmund Wilson:
The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.
But how to engage as a writer? Never mind superhuman, how do you speak to the needs of the so-called normal person? This is a highly politicized age. How many novels were abandoned as suddenly feeling irrelevant, or trivial, or just all wrong, in the weeks that followed 9/11? Virginia Woolf said human character changed on or about December 1910. Well, human character in the Western world sure as hell changed on September 11th, 2001. For one thing, since then there has been a terrific, even violent, reaction against personal truth as an answer to anything. Last fall at Harbourfront, Zadie Smith expressed the current hostility, even among artists, toward the personal, and against art itself, as a means of doing anything at all to counter barbarism. Only laws and government, she said, can do that.
Well. I think the problem with that kind of thinking, aside from its doctrinaire prevalence, is that it directs attention too far downstream. To put it simply, the barbarism exists in each of us at every moment of every day. Each of us is the source of how the world is: it exists in the conditioned human mind. This is not a particularly popular or impressive view to hold nowadays, because it has the appearance of being a way to shrug off political action. Because obviously the only way to deal with the conditioned mind is at the fountainhead, at the source of the problem, and that is to meditate, to be mindful, to see what exactly it is that keeps coming up and to keep letting it go, and in that way not continue to play out, like an automaton, the ugly scripts that our culture, society and the vagaries of our own histories and current lives have written for us. The problem is that, while it can reasonably be argued that only the individual can change society, human history is the history of transformative individual insights being turned into ideas in support of organizations—governments, religions, businesses—that are fundamentally hostile to everything that does not advance the interests of the organization, which is invariably threatened by individuals who choose to live by their own insights, i.e., by creative people who don’t work for the firm. And so there has been this doubling down of suspicion of individual insight (except in blog or ‘opinion piece’ piece format) and a consequent emphasis on trust in laws and systems that will at least keep the barbarism in check.
There is the story of the guy walking down the street with his friend the Devil. Noticing someone picking up a bit of truth from the sidewalk, he says to the Devil, “Look at that. Aren’t you going to do something?”
“No,” the Devil says. “I’m going to let him organize it.”
And so the slaughter of life on land and in the oceans continues.
So there’s that. It’s enough to turn a person into an anarchist.
But for me, against all that, there’s the reason, aside from luck, I’ve continued to direct the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the past 17 years, and this is the writers who come to work there as participants and faculty. These are people, mostly Canadian but they can be from anywhere in the world, most of them in their late twenties and thirties but also older, into their seventies. What I see in them is people who think for themselves about what it means to be in this world, both social and natural. If they’re poets they’re thinking for themselves about what it means to be alive in the world, physical, social, conceptual. If they’re story-tellers they’re thinking for themselves, most of them about what it means to be a person emotionally connected to other people. These are writers, who, like all writers, live by the light of their own insights. For a lot of them it’s all they have, but it’s everything.
Whenever I get a chance, I’ve been telling them about the anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s point about the two relates: the first, to relate a story or a theory, the second, to relate to the person we’re relating it to. The first is “human” relating, the second is “animal.” We think of ourselves as concerned primarily the first, but in reality our primary concern, like that of the animals we are, is the second. And what, after Gregory Bateson, I’m saying to the Banff writers is that the standard human way is the unwitting animal way, while the artist’s way is the conscious animal way. When people are with friends or colleagues or strangers, they think they’re relating how the world works, but what they’re really doing, and what they really care about, is how well they’re relating to the people they’re with. Art is interested in what people really care about.
This is why Conrad says art is “indirectness” and why we never take what characters in fiction think or say at face value but always ironically, which is to say what it says about them.
So you have Henry James and his brother William, the artist and the scientist. Both are highly intelligent, in different ways. William the scientist observes, collects, and theorizes. Henry the artist observes, experiences, and writes fiction.
And you have the wonderful Charles Darwin, from his Recollections:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.
You have Anton Chekhov declaring the following in a letter:
The time has come for writers, especially those who are artists, to admit that in this world we cannot make anything out, just as Socrates once admitted it, just as Voltaire admitted it. The mob think they know and understand everything, the more stupid they are, the wider, I think, do they conceive their horizon to be. And if an artist in whom the crowd has their faith decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.
Chekhov wrote that toward the end of the nineteenth century. It’s no different now. We cannot make anything out. Around the same time, Nietzsche comes at it this way: ‘Only that which has no history can be defined.’ And Chekhov again, on himself as an artist:
I am afraid of those who look for tendencies between the lines, who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist [believer that all religions are equally valid]. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more . . . My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever form they may take.
Or Nietzsche again: “Books for all the world are always foul-smelling books; the smell of small people clings to them.”
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt defines story-telling as “situated critical thinking.” She opposes it to what she calls Archimedean thinking, which is critical thinking from an outside vantage point. It was Archimedes who said that if you gave him a point to stand on and a long enough lever, he could move the world. Accordingly, an “Archimedean point” is a hypothetical vantage point from which an observer can objectively observe the subject of inquiry, in its totality. Whereas the truth of a situation, Arendt point out, cannot be understood this way (if indeed anything can). Even a camera can only tell you so much. The truth of a situation, Arendt says, is the story, the telling of which should seek to honour the multitude of its possible viewpoints. The evidence of the story is experience. Shakespeare has no proofs, no opinion. He knows nothing. In lieu of answers, he gives you the world. This is a sympathetic, not an analytic or diagnostic, process. It is the nature of art.
Here’s Simone Weil:
To listen to someone is to put oneself in his place while he is speaking. To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself. It is more difficult than suicide would be for a happy child. Therefore the afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard.
I think of that passage every time I try to avoid the pain of a beggar in the street.
Literary writers listen, because what they do is give voice to the unvoiced and the voiceless. Governments and the media always sooner or later, but usually sooner, news cycles being what they are—which is commercial entertainment vehicles, selling both themselves and the interests of their sponsors—stop listening. If what they were ever doing could be called listening and not shaping information to an agenda of emotional manipulation. They stop listening because sooner or later a story conducive to stronger emotional manipulation comes along. There is only so long that even the CBC can milk an injustice or a tragedy. People need a change.
The media are attracted to the big and the loud and the new. Because we all are. George Eliot, in Middlemarch, puts it this way:
Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
We’re all too used to living in a world of Wizards of Oz.
Graham Greene, in The Power and the Glory:
When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you would always begin to feel pity . . . When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair, grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.
In her diaries, Virginia Woolf mentions how daunting people are in our anticipation of meeting them and what a relief it is to find when we do that they’re only human after all.
Bob Dylan says it like this: “What looks large from a distance, up close is never that big.”
Meanwhile the pressure from the media and society more generally on artists has always been for strong positions and clear answers. But a conscious animal isn’t into answers of any kind. A meow is a wide open message signifying relationship. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not an answer to anything.
An artist’s interest in the world is, by definition, if you like, aesthetic, from the Greek aesthetikos, of or pertaining to things perceptible to the senses, as opposed to things that are abstract or immaterial. Last year I read—well, skimmed—a massive recent tome on the great apes by a scientist who spent his career studying them, and his conclusion is that the only difference between Homo sapiens and the other apes is that Homo sapiens are both able and willing to believe in things that are not real. Things such as government, democracy, credit, banks, gods, and heaven. An ape won’t set sail for a destination he can’t see. A human will do that insane thing. So while it’s been a major evolutionary advantage to believe in things that aren’t real, it’s been a major disadvantage when what is only a belief, useful to a degree in a certain context, gets in the way of our obligations to each other and to the planet.
But what about the imagination in fiction? How is imagining a world for a work of fiction different from imagining a world beyond the horizon? The difference is that the writer knows that what she has made is not real, her endeavour is aesthetic, it’s sense-based and focused on making its parts work together in order to engage another mind. The adventurer anticipates that what he is imagining will be realized. When a woman in my nineteenth-century novel class when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto began to worry about what happened to Jane Austen’s characters after the novel ended, it was the first sign. The next was when she went into a church and wrecked the altar.
Another answer comes from something D H Lawrence says: If you try to nail anything down in the novel, either it kills the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail. Literature will always walk away with the nail. It knows that the nail is only an abstraction, a belief, held without irony and therefore fatal to the artistic endeavour.
The artistic endeavour is not about pursuing things that are not real. To come back to the two relates, here’s Steinbeck: “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” It’s a question of relationship, of what is emotionally important. It’s not about some theory or principle or method. Here’s Coetzee on a great ape in a cage:
At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied . . . In his deepest being, Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. . . . The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo is: Where is home and how do I get there?
Where is home and how do I get there? This is same question asked by the human animal trapped inside a conditioned mind. Where is home and how do I get there?
People talk about animal rights. Personally I think any rights talk is as foolish as pursuit of happiness talk. It’s unwitting animal talk. Would-be “human” talk. It’s Relate Type 1 talk, about an abstraction, something desirable to have, possess, or achieve. Witting animal talk, conscious animal talk, which is cognizant of the primacy of relationship in the life of all animals including the human, would be about obligations not rights. Not an abstraction to be pursued and possessed the way you’d pursue and possess a piece of property but a network of existing relationships to be honoured and maintained. Animals are in essence social creatures. We like to think of them as wild, red in tooth and claw, and so on, but that’s us wanting to believe that, despite our long history of behaving far worse than any other animal, despite the fact that if human history were a big box store, it would be called, to borrow from The Simpsons, “Bloodbath and Beyond,” we are somehow as humans magically superior creatures, so superior that each of us deserves a list of things we are owed. In fact we are animals, and animal life is about what we owe each other.
Rights talk is nothing but government/law/business/media talk. It’s much easier to confer rights on animals or oppressed people than to do anything for them, such as to stop exploiting and oppressing and discriminating against them. Let the government and the police and the courts deal with the problem, not us. The last thing the problem can possibly be is that we as human beings are simply failing to fulfill our obligations to other human beings. It shouldn’t be surprising that in this paradigm our obligations to other animals and to the planet hardly register.
Artists don’t buy into abstractions. They don’t believe in new leaders and their sunny ways any more than they believe in the Bank of Montreal or Canadian Tire. The nail is an abstraction. It’s belief disguised as reality.
My favourite Robert Crumb drawing is one he did in 2000 on a table napkin in France. It’s titled “Story of My Life,” and it shows him in a peaked cap, T-shirt, shorts, and big boots, carrying a boulder, which he’s about to add to a large pile of boulders. His speech bubble says, “I gotta pile up these rocks!” His thought bubble says, “Most people don’t know that rocks have their own smell!”
And there is it: the artist’s life. Thank you, Robert Crumb.
Once my wife Rosa overheard someone on the bus say to the person beside them, “I don’t know what that means at all, but I think you’re saying something I understand.” That person could have been talking to an artist, or to any human being who was even a little bit off-script.
As for the second kind of happiness—which you may have noticed I haven’t got to yet—it’s the kind at the epicentre of the artist’s life. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence kind of happiness, which is really just a macguffin. We may think we’re pursuing it, but it has little importance really in the actual plot of our lives. The feeling that you’re getting somewhere with something worth doing is, I think, the real thing, but it’s still the first kind of happiness.
The second kind takes us closer to the root of the word, which is the Old English “hap,” meaning chance or accident, as in the archaic mayhap, or the modern perhaps. We talk about happiness as it relates to the idea of good luck or good fortune and the good feeling that flows from it, or that we imagine flows from it (not having won the lottery and found out the truth the hard way). But we also talk about happiness in the sense of suitability, fittingness, or appropriateness, like something that seems to just happen. We talk about a happy use or fit for something when we mean a good or an efficient or an appropriate use or fit. The word felicitous carries this double meaning too. Happiness and appropriateness. A felicitous phrase is the right phrase.
Kingsley Amis advised his son Martin not to be a writer because he’d end up wandering around the house in his dressing gown trying to think of the right word. The felicitous word, the happy choice. A.M. Klein, in his poem “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” plays with this meaning when says of the poet, “stark infelicity/. . . stirs him from his sleep.”
This is what we do. We wander the house in a state of undress in search of felicity. We don’t sleep well. We play around and play around, we wait and we procrastinate, we try this and we try that, until we get it right. The words, the line breaks, the details, the plot, the sound, every last detail, right. Fitting, appropriate, felicitous, happy. And every time something clicks into place there is this double happiness.
Because we’re not trying to make a picture of the world, we’re not trying to impress an imaginary arena full of our contemporaries. What we’re doing is private digging. As Paul Celan says, “There was earth inside them, and they dug.” That’s us. We’re writing drafts, we’re performing a succession of replacements, we’re digging deeper and deeper as we excavate our own models, our own superficiality, our own initial commonplaces, banalities and clichés, the language of the conditioned mind, of the unwitting animal that we spend our days inside and that is inside us like a stupefying poisonous fog. We dig in order to come at what we haven’t ever quite been able to say before, in order make something that feels fresh and new and right and intelligent to ourselves. We can sense it glimmering, deep down. And we feel happy every time we think we’re getting closer. And every time we hit on a word or a detail that feels right it’s because it is happy, it is felicitous, and consequently we are, even if we know that tomorrow it will probably have to be cut, because, like life, texts are always changing. This is the second kind of happiness, the kind that any artist knows all about. Finding the happy thing and knowing that you will probably have to let it go. The first kind of happiness, the feeling that we’re getting somewhere and can do this and it will have been worth doing, is a bonus, it’s extra happiness, even though we know full well that once it’s out there in the world it will almost certainly end in tears, but that’s OK too because we did our best.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are a writer first and foremost because you know that you can do this, because you enjoy the power that comes of knowing that you can, then you are probably not a creator, but a consumer. If you are writing in order to have written or in order to be a writer, then you are a consumer, of your own work, yes, but still a consumer. You belong to the unwitting animal world of government, business, and media, and there may be nothing wrong with that world, but I think there is. I think everything is wrong with it. Not with the writers who fight to speak truth within it but with the system they owe their living to.
I don’t have trouble going out into that world, because I know I carry it all inside me anyway, and also because I’m not writing to reflect it or to provide solutions, I’m writing in order to discover happy—by which I mean appropriate—ways to point to it, to elevate aspects of it to attention, to say meow and woof like a would-be conscious animal addressing a by and large, like myself, most of the time, unwitting one, who will have no idea what I mean but who I hope, for the sake of us both, will understand.
Keynote Address to the Writers Guild of Alberta