Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sky and the River

In the final stages of proofreading two books I’d acquired for this year’s fall list, I came across an uncanny similarity between the two, despite the fact that a whole world lay between them, written as they were by authors living at a great remove in both place and time from one another.

And yet, and yet . . . this echo persists, not even a variation on a theme, but a strange reverberation of the same note.

“After a great strain,” writes the first one, at age forty-seven in 1923, “like my production of work last year, there always comes a feeling of being at a loss: not that you are actually empty but certain things you had stockpiled in your being have been transformed, given away, and as it were withdrawn from personal use forever. You don’t want to look around for other inner possessions right away – you don’t know what you want to do, it is a condition of hesitation, of slowly turning to face another direction – and one sign of being in this state is that you don’t like to say ‘I.’ Because what is there to say about this ‘I’ without strain and constraint?”

The other author, writing sixty-odd years later, muses, “. . . a curious thing had started to happen to me. Having by now written quite a bit and published much of it, I began to feel a little depleted, a little spent, as though I had used up the better part of my writer’s capital, to use Henry James’s phrase. And I was uncertain about how to go about renewing my resources or finding new ones. I looked with secret envy on the commuters who crowded the L.A. freeways at rush hour every morning, all of them securely stitched into the American mainstream, or so it seemed to me. I wondered what things were like in their offices. I was in my mid-forties now, married and the father of three children, and yet I had no world, as it were, aside from whatever project I could come up with in the hope that it would interest a publisher.”

The first writer is Rainer Maria Rilke at age forty-seven in 1923, from The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, selected and translated by Damion Searls. The second is Aram Saroyan, writing at a similar age, only sixty-odd years later, from Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s to the Digital Age. One is writing in Muzot, Switzerland; the other, in Los Angeles, California. And yet they seem to be writing about one and the same thing: this feeling of being held in suspension, of an ellipsis in creative thought, a lack so severe that it results in the loss of a self — an “I”, a “world.”

Finding the next step — Rilke calls it “completing the circle”, Saroyan refers to it as knocking on the door — is described as an experience almost like sailing in the dark.

“To make a long story short,” Saroyan writes, “in my mid-forties I began a new phase in which I took the sort of jobs that usually precede literary careers, to be recounted in those book jacket biographical notes. Airport van driver . . . editor of medical reports on job-related stress for workers’ compensation claims . . . public relations receptionist . . . and finally, Public Information Officer for a federally funded job training program in Ventura County. I wouldn’t have taken any of these jobs unless I had to, and at the same time I had a gut instinct that each one was an opportunity to renew my resources as a writer — that they comprised individually and en masse my own next step.”

“At such moments earlier in my life,” writes Rilke, “I often found that an external change was useful, beneficial for recuperation and equally for a new beginning ( — part of what has made my life so unstable, in fact, may be that every time a period of intensity like this had run its course I took any change that offered itself from outside as the help I was looking for . . .); it might have turned out that way this time too. I decided to leave Muzot, either to move back to Paris (a move which was long overdue for certain projects I have in mind) or to visit Carinthia, my ancestral homeland (where I myself have never been), and see whether it might be possible to set myself up there. . .”

Despite being in the dark, there seems to be a kind of celestial navigation at work here. Saroyan ponders if his experience is “outside any parameters of literary vocation that we recognize,” but the idea that begins to emerge, in my mind at least, reading the experiences of these two writers simultaneously, is that the feeling of sailing blind is fundamental to the writer’s life, that a literary vocation consists not of hearing the call once, but of trying to locate that call again and again, not by waiting passively, but by seeking it out, tracing barely discernible points of light into constellations, and then steering by them, fiercely.

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