Meditations on life and letters

Adam Kirsch in Poetry:

The only copy of Catullus’s poems to survive from antiquity was discovered in the Middle Ages, plugging a hole in a wine barrel. One of two morals can be drawn from this fact. Either pure chance determines what survives, from which it follows that eventually every work will lose its gamble and be forgotten; or else every worthy work is registered in the eye of God, the way books are registered for copyright, so that its material fate is irrelevant. The first conclusion, which is rationally inevitable, would in time lead anyone to stop writing; anyone who continues to write somehow believes a version of the second. But surely a God who was able to preserve all human works could also preserve all human intentions—indeed, He could deduce the work from its intention far more perfectly than the writer can produce it. Thus a writer with perfect trust would not have to do any work, but simply confide his intentions and aspirations to God. His effort, the pains he takes, are the precise measure of his lack of trust.

Writers are necessarily ambivalent about any kind of recognition—honors, prizes, simple praise—because they are ambivalent about their relationship to the present. The first audience that a writer wants to please is the past—the dead writers who led him to want to write in the first place. Forced to admit that this is impossible, he displaces his hope onto the future, the posterity whose judgment he will never know. That leaves the present as the only audible judge of his work; but the present is made up of precisely the people whom the writer cannot live among, which is why he subtracts himself from the actual world in order to deposit a version of himself in his writing. The approbation of the living is thus meaningful to a writer only insofar as he can convince himself that it is a proxy for the approbation of the past or the future—insofar as it becomes metaphorical.

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