Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Death Notices...

nothing. When you're dead you're dead. That's why I don't quite buy the writing for posterity argument. Yes you may still be minting royalties for your heirs, but other than that what benefit redounds to you decomposing away there in your clod and loam? (decomposing, is there a more apt word to describe the status of an ex-writer?) Mind you, the same could be said of why bother to have offspring at all, now that our species is no longer tied to seasonal reproduction? Might brighten up your life while you're compos mentis, but when your compost lettuce, just what are the benefits?

Okay, so writing can't preserve more than your name and the words you bequeath. Even then you've got to be a damn good writer; John Le Carre and Ian Fleming (to name two from outside my genre) are more likely to be read and remembered down the line, than say Hammond Innes and Alistair McLean. In the same way that eventually every living relative who knew you in the flesh, themselves go the way of all things mortal, so that there is no one left to place fresh flowers on your grave; there will be no readers left to place bouquets on Innes and McLean's memory and their books remain permanently out of print.

But what are Le Carre and Fleming yielding to the generations that come after them? Well great stories and central protagonists certainly. But I think Literary Fiction writers might crave for more of a legacy than that. I think they yearn to contribute to the great debate. To furnish some ideas for the great pool of human knowledge. To create a meme in the current parlance. If it can't render them any benefit from beyond the grave, at least it might serve humanity into the future. We still live by the notions of virtue portrayed in Greek Tragedies. Shakespeare left us plenty to ponder on the condition and make up of man. Nick Hornby gave us the insight about running an independent music store. Mind you, it's all a bit wooly this conceptual inheritance thing. Maybe if you help instigate a paradigm shift in the thought of all mankind, as you can argue that the Impressionist painters achieved, rather than just a trend shift as say the Beats or the Bloomsbury Circle, then it moves us all forwards. To put it in perspective, such creative impulse throwing tiny conceptual pebbles, is hard to hold up to comparison with the creativity of a bridge builder whose artistry solves a practical problem.

So here's the thing. As altruistic as it was of Sophocles and the Bard to leave us these testimonies for us to reflect on hundreds/thousand years down the line, (funny sort of altruism that has a sadistic element to it through contemplation of the ineffably ambiguous, but still), I'm not convinced it was just to help us all along a millennium hence. They didn't have the media to project their fame much beyond their local geography, so don't think they were about celebrity status either. Okay they got decent working wages out of the writing gig so that's not to be sniffed at. But I reckon they were driven to consider the human condition out of an awareness/fear of their own mortality. In fact I believe all artists, consciously or unconcsciously have the same drive.

This becomes more so as the myth of Heaven/God/The afterlife recedes from ever greater numbers of the populace. There is no useful posterity to be had. So rather than look ahead to the hereafter, now artists look to their immediate lives. We may all celebrate birthdays, but the artist calibrates back from his imagined death day, in order to make sense of his purpose here on earth. He knows he's going to pass over, so what is the best way to make use of the time in the here and now? Well justifying it, explaining it, deconstructing it, might all be fair uses of his time. And that means not only telling his own story, but locating it within the cosmic tragedy/comedy of its inevitable full stop. We already know how this story is ultimately going to end. Therefore that is not really where the interest in it lies. Steve Tesich, who died tragically young, wrote the funniest novel I have ever read called "Karoo" Tesich's protagonist Saul Karoo, a fixer up of failing movie scripts, explains away his need to write: "from the constant need to narrate my existence". For as much as we cease to exist after death, now the nagging inquiry is that we may not purposefully exist all that much in life.

Writers may just be aware of this hollowness and in addition to probing it in their own being, also tug urgently at everybody else's sleeves to alert them to this fact. Even celebrants of Eros who write escapist fantasy books, are still driven by a need to have their voice heard (despite choosing to neglect examining the motives behind that impulse). Thanatos lies behind all contemporary literature. It is merely up to the individual author whether he doffs his hat at the spectral cortege as it passes over his future grave.


jenn to the t said...

Writers writing for their voices to be heard; or to implicitly "instigate a paradigm shift in thought"? Those self-gratification writing nazis out there would no doubt opt for the latter. Do we write for fame or recognition? Or do we write to inspire thought? Can it be both without compromising the integrity of your work? And what of the reader in all this -- just the proverbial mouse that the writer-cats bat around to manipulate and then to shred to bits and puke it up later?

Sulci Collective said...

Too few writers IMhO writing for moving paradigm of thought along. Where is the 21st Century novel that is different in some way, shape or form from those of the previous Century? Or maybe authors now have to acknowledge their humble range of vision.