Missing in Action

Blogging has been a pretty low priority over the past few months. To an unusual degree, so has writing itself.

Quick Study, while reflecting personal interests, has never really been a personal blog, like some. It feels odd and out-of-place to write in an introspective voice here. But doing so may be necessary in order to reconnect with the process of writing as such; so here goes.

Apart from filing my column each week, I have for the past few months been publishing much less than usual, and for that matter writing less period -- and also, perhaps more to the point, giving very much less of a damn than usual about the fact that what I do publish seems to be going nowhere, by any common metric for estimating career progress.

A kind reader sent me a note the other day saying that my essays and reviews were the short of work that ought to be in magazines like Harper's and the like, and wondering why this was not the case. I can't answer that. And not for want of pondering it, to be sure. The effort to understand the situation has been a source of very keen bewilderment and frustration at times -- and a touchy matter, even on a good day.

Somehow that has changed recently. The bile just evaporated off. It is a pleasant change. But (just to be clear about this) it has involved no increase in optimism whatsoever. Writing has to be its own reward -- because it is pretty clear that not much else will be, and thinking otherwise is a certain source of unhappiness.

It probably bears mentioning that, in the midst of all these revaluations, my 45th birthday came to pass, which all things considered is probably not a coincidence. A few weeks before that, I went back to Austin, Texas for the first time since leaving it almost twenty years ago. It would not be easy to describe the experience of doing so -- let alone of what it was like to return to D.C., which after all this time feels no more like a gemeinschaft than it ever has.

But to put things in the simplest possible terms, the total effect has been to make James Baldwin's lines (quoted here not for the first time) even of a guide to the "urgent tasks" on my own agenda:

Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wishes to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distance shall not become any greater.

I should make clear that this is not -- as it might be wrongly taken -- a call for introspection. Baldwin's language here is subtle but precise.

It includes, I think, the possibility of recognizing that certain forms of "ambition" amount to a violation of one's real wishes and possibilities. Finding what Baldwin calls "one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation" may involve throwing out a lot of clutter.

It may also involve reconnecting with things that you once recognized as valuable and true, but which proved too difficult or too inconvenient to keep at the center of your attention.

In my case, it was Marxism and the heritage of the anti-Stalinist left. About ten years ago, the fact that certain very creepy and deranged people identified themselves as Marxists made me want to get as much distance from them as possible. This in spite of continuing to admire the legacy of Trotsky, Serge, and so on.

Whenever possible I've given support, including financial support, to socialist publications. But the rest of the time I've just bitten my tongue (gnawed on it even) whenever exposed to the usual contemptuous but utterly ignorant comments on the subject by Washington liberals.

All the research I once did on C.L.R. James and the Johnson-Forest Tendency (including hundreds of pages of drafts and outlines for things I wanted to write) ended up sitting in boxes in my study.

What are my values? What is important? Is the fact that my work seems to disappear into the cyber-ether without a trace really something worth worrying about? How great an injustice is that in the larger scheme of things? People in Haiti are eating dirt while grain gets dumped in the ocean in order to keep the price up on the international market. Whatever ambitions of mine must go unrealized, finding enough calories to get through a single day is not one of them.

To spend more than five minutes in a year worrying about why Harper's doesn't call is not a crime, of course, but it speaks of a grotesque disproportion in one's sense of the world.

These are thoughts of a kind it proves difficult (and profoundly disobliging) to take as seriously as I have been taking them, lately. So I haven't much felt like writing, and the usual career-minded incentives for doing so have not exactly been compelling.

The relationship between value and motivation can be complicated even in the best of cases. When both are in flux, all bets are off. But after three months of being in a sort of holding pattern, it seems very clear that I have to start writing again in a much more focused and intensive way. It is my way of being in the world.

Time for another quotation, this time from Theodore Solotaroff's essay "Writing into the Cold":

The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist.

That is all.

June 1, 2008 3:40 PM |

Categories:

Recent Work

Fidel Castro: My Life 
A review from Newsday
40 Years of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" 
Marking the anniversary of Harold Cruse's great book
Style and Grace 
A review of a book by the late, great Grace Paley from ... sheesh, almost ten years ago.
Oh, Canada 
National identity -- going south?
The LaRouche Tabernacle Choir 
An interview with me about the LaRouche movement, on Pacifica radio in Los Angeles
Open Library 
An interview with Aaron Swartz, one of the developers....
Sailing From Ithaka 
The new report calling for a digital platform for scholarly publishing deserves a wide audience
more

Readings

Battle of the Titans 
Dinesh D'Souza and Alan Wolfe debating? Imagine a slime mold in conflict with a patch of mildew. It's just that inspiring.
To the Tehran Station 
Not about Edmund Wilson
more picks

Blogroll

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on June 1, 2008 3:40 PM.

Rebel Frequencies was the previous entry in this blog.

The Only Blog That Matters is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads


AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

culture
About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Dewey21C
Richard Kessler on arts education
diacritical
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Flyover
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

dance
Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

jazz
Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
ListenGood
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Rifftides
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

media
Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Overflow
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
PianoMorphosis
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
PostClassic
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Sandow
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

publishing
book/daddy
Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

theatre
Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

visual
Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
Artopia
John Perreault's art diary
CultureGrrl
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.