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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Is a Writer a Doctor, Prophet, or Magician?

What is a writer?  If you happen to be a writer yourself, this is a question you'd better consider. Chekhov, no small potatoes in the Lit Biz, is on the side of writer as doctor.  Not surprising, I guess, since Chekhov was a doctor.  If he'd been a accountant, he'd probably have a different story.  But he wasn't an accounant, he was a doctor.  Here's what he said, "Only a doctor can know what value my knowledge of science has been to me...  It seems to me that as a doctor I have described the sicknesses of the soul correctly."
Is that how you see yourself as a writer - a diagnostician?  Chekhov doesn't say you have to cure mankind's ills; in fact, he is dismissive of the attempt.  But you have to be - says Chekhov - a man or woman of science, at least insofar as your allegiance to objective truth. "A writer," he says elsewhere, "is not a confectioner, not a dealer in cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound under compulsion, by the realization of his duty and by his conscience... A writer must be as objective as a chemist."
That business about being bound by compulsion, duty, and conscience, brings to mind another potential role for a writer, that of prophet.  This is how Flannery O'Connor sees herself, "I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil. I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil. You discover your audience at the same time and in the same way that you discover your subject, but it is an added blow."
"Added blow," what a typical O'Connorism.  She does a lot of bellyaching, doesn't she?  But you can't blame her.  Prophets don't sign up for the job, and, like O'Connor, usually don't especially like it once they get it.  Nor do people much care for prophets.  O'Connor points out her audience doesn't "put stock" in her subject matter, but that's how it is if you're a prophet.  Cassandra heads the list of prophets who didn't get listened to, but she's not unusual.  Greek mythology is pretty much a collection of stories with Tieresias or somebody saying, "Take my word for it Oedipus, the less you know about Mom, the better," or "Pandora, everything will be just fine, but don't open that box," and then Oedipus, or Achilles, or Pandora or whoever going ahead and doing just what they were going to do anyway.  It's the same in the Bible.  Do a word search for "prophet" and nearby you'll find a phrase like "didn't listen," as in the people didn't listen, the pharoah didn't listen, the king didn't listen.  That's why those Bible prophets seem so angry all the time.  That's why Jeremiah delivered Jeremiads.  That's why John the Baptist was such a nutcase.  Not being listened to gets old.
Neither prophets nor diagnosticians accomplish very much, O'Connor and Chekhov would be the first ones to admit.  I join them in being leery of writers who imagine their words will right the world's wrongs.  How can I do that?  Hell, I can't even spell very good.
Nor, evidently, do I know how to use an adverb.
Before we talk about the writer as magician, there is at least one other way a writer can see himself.  James Joyce's motto as writer was "non serviam," "I will not serve," the defiant statement that earned Lucifer damnation.  Joyce refuses to write either to delight a reader or out of duty to a higher principle.  Maybe this is why Joyce's reputation for smuttiness so far outweighs any objectionable content in his work.  A lot of Ulysses gives the impression, not because it's so salacious, but that it seems to gratify no one but the author, that Joyce is playing with himself.  I didn't include Joyce's vision of the author in the title for this blog because three alternatives is rhetorically more pleasing than four, and because I was loathe to posit the writer as masturbator
Now on to the last alternative, which, since I saved it for last, you might have guessed is the one I subscribe to.  Not that you shouldn't see yourself as a doctor or prophet is that's your thing.  See yourself as a lawyer or an Indian chief, if you like.  It was a free country last time I checked.
My friend Mike Burr's father loves magicians.  This is irritating to Mike Burr.  Mike's dad will call up, having just seen Criss Angel, MindFreak - Burr the Elder's favorite - on TV and give Mike a blow-by-blow description of every transformed rabbit, vanished elephant, and correctly identified three of clubs.  The only thing on earth Mike finds more tedious than watching magic, is hearing it described over the phone.  After the narration of these miracles, Mike's dad unfailingly asks, "How do you think he does it?"
That's what I want to be.  A magician.
I'm not in bad company here.  Nabokov says fiction was invented by the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, "the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story.  When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire.  But he was the little magician.  He was the inventor.
"There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered; he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.  A major writer combines these three-storyteller, teacher, enchanter-but it is the enchanter in him that predominates... Finally and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, it is here we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or his poems."
Right on, Nabokov.  Hell, I don't tell the truth.  I tell lies.  That's what I want: to so enchant you with my make-believe, not even my make-believe world, but the audacity of make-believe itself, that after I've made the elephant stand on the soap bubble, then turned it into a dove that flew away before your eyes, and, yes,  shared some news along the way of the human condition because that's the material I have to work with, though the human condition is old news indeed, and being able to diagnose is in no way being able to cure, and at last when I have pulled out the three of clubs you'd selected at the outset from my deck of card, with a triumphant flourish and a "is this the card you chose?" you will not just be entertained, nor instructed, nor diagnosed, you will drop your jaw in stupefaction and say, "How did he do it?" 
That's what I want.
Hocus-pocus.  Ala-kazam.

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