The Cart Before the Horse

An outline of my philosophy of writing.  In defense of graphomania.
  April 17, 2004

I'm reading Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, the one that he famously* starts with a brilliant transcript of events over the span of a week:


I would have loved for the rest of the diary to continue in this vein.  Instead, Gombrowicz skips Friday through Sunday, perhaps on account of becoming someone else.  He picks up on Monday with thoughts on all literature in general and its Polish variety in particular.

My copy is in Russian so I can't really quote, only paraphrase.  “We would prevent a great deal of disappointment if we stopped labeling everyone who writes a 'writer.'”  And then, about the pre-World War II Polish literary scene: “These people knew what a great writer is supposed to be like—‘real,' 'profound,' 'constructive'—and so did their utmost to conform to these ideals, but their efforts were hampered by the realization that it wasn't their 'profundity,' nor 'sophistication' that drove them to write; on the contrary, they cultivated being deep in order to turn into writers.”

This reminded me of a semi-drunken discussion I had with my friends A. and J.  We had one too many Mojitos in a Lower East Side bar (like the good hip literati we are) and slid down the conversation's greased slope to a debate about novels.  A. works in publishing.  He tells us horror stories about the crap that they kill trees to print.  A run of the new Ann Coulter book versus some extra cubic meters of oxygen in the atmosphere—there's a dilemma!  (Consumers point to the solution with dollars, the economist in me says.  Those who prefer Coulter's books deserve to suffocate, adds the moralist.)

The problem with novels, I told A., is that there are too many of them.  Nobody pays for short stories anymore, at least not in the English-language literary markets, so people chasing money churn out novels willy-nilly.  Like Gombrowicz's “profound” writers, they put the cart before the horse.  They set out to write a novel and then pick a story to stretch or crumple to fit their chosen form.  They ought to do it the other, proper way around: story (the philosophical Essence) first, form second.

I'm not alone in thinking this way.  Borges said, “Why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?”  Muriel Spark observed, “Every novel is a failed short story.  And every short story is a failed poem.”  Finally, Polonius proclaimed, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” before being abbreviated by Hamlet for unrelated misdeeds.  (Ambrose Bierce might review Shakespeare thus: “Brief.  Witty.”)

I have no ambition of ever writing a novel.  I am not averse to the form: if an idea comes along that's too fat to fit into the pants of a short story or a novella, I might give the monster a try.  But for now, finishing even a short story is a challenge.  That's why I like translation.  It's the refuge of writers who ran out of ideas.  (Less charitable version: it's the refuge of writers who never had any ideas.)  Probably untrue but snappy, ne c'est pas?

Having ideas is important; Gombrowicz's would-be great authors had figured as much.  What they hadn't figured out was how to acquire them.  It's one thing to admire a distant peak; it's quite another to reach it.  Just so with writing.  Either you have something to say, or you don't.  Either you're eloquent, or you aren't.  There are some who are born near the summit, or have had the unusual strength to reach it early; they are secure in the knowledge of their position even if no one else can observe them.  But what of those too feeble to have made the ascent?

A writer can fake profundity (sometimes quite unconsciously), but only to find himself a fake genius.  His fame is worthless even if it's real, for what's the worth of fame among fools?  Fame does not equal greatness, nor correlate with it perfectly.

Conversely, a writer can abandon the pursuit of fame, stop straining to impress his audience and discover that all along, there was nothing but him and his thoughts—inescapable, iron, binding.  He will then begin to realize the true purpose of writing, which is the search for truth in its many guises including pure, non-didactic beauty.  It does not matter that this search is futile, its goal unattainable; to travel towards the goal is a goal unto itself and attainable by anyone.  By its nature such travel is a lonely venture; with no one else's thoughts to borrow, reasoning and its articulation occur in solitude, even in the middle of a debate.

One may not achieve greatness writing this way but one can't achieve greatness in any way unless its seeds are already in him.  True greatness occurs but is never caused.  It exists independently of readers' opinions or even readers; it can survive in a vacuum.  A writer will end up educating and entertaining but these effects are secondary to the primary act of discovery and articulation of the world.  Writing is an act of creation; it creates the writer's many visions of the world, molds them, revises and destroys them, tests them and winnows them in the hope of bringing them closer to the truth.  In this sense, a writer is a demiurge.  Nothing forbids the pleasure he derives from having perfected his creation from being personal and self-contained; it requires neither participation nor approval of others.

This is the best defense I know of graphomania, that peculiar diagnosis used as a catch-all pejorative in Eastern European literary criticism .  A graphomaniac writes out of an irresistible compulsion.  What distinguishes him from “real writers” is lack of talent (as judged by others, of course).  Yet talented or not, anyone who creates, not to please a vague chattering crowd, but because he must create, is a traveler journeying to the distant peak.  He is worthy of respect by that virtue alone.  His readers may not be pleased, but their displeasure is secondary.  The writer and his creation are primary, and so is the respect accorded, not necessarily to their message, but to their existence.

These thoughts bring me back to Gombrowicz and his ironic “Me.”  There is a statement whose message is existence.  The entirety of Gombrowicz's mind hides under the surface, but on the outside it's just a brief, witty word that says everything and nothing.  What better example for the ideas I've described?  In a way the word contains not just the entirety of Gombrowicz, but the entirety of this essay.  What's more: this essay is only one from a universe of possible related essays, and the word contains all of that universe.  Call that great writing.


* Or perhaps not so famously; I shouldn't be presumptuous.  What's the euphemistic adverb to designate respectable non-fame?  Well-knownly?  Overlookedly?

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