Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Madness of Art

In her essay, "Ghost Writers," Cynthia Ozick states that "art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction.  The fraudulent writer is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker, the one who will go out to dinner with you with a motive in mind, or will stand and talk at you, or will discuss mutual writing habits with you, or will gossip with you about other novelists and their enviable good luck or their gratifying bad luck."

The true writer, she says, should "maintain a coveted clandestine authentic invisibility."  True writers must be ghosts at their writing tables.  They must "sit alone, and write, and write, and write, as if the necessary transparency of their souls depended upon it."

When I read these passionate words, I felt the old allure of the belief in the religion of art. Maybe I should get off Facebook, maybe I should stop blogging, I thought.  (I was never much of a glad-hander.)  Then I thought of Aschenbach in "Death in Venice."  When Mann's character takes his one and only vacation from writing, he falls in love with a beautiful boy in Venice, and dies because he can't leave the city for fear of not seeing the boy.  If Aschenbach had taken more vacations, he would have immunized himself: leisure would not have been fatal.  So far, blogging and going to the Sofra cafe have not made me feverish. Surely we writers can have some pleasure.  Ghosts never do.  Yet I too find the "crowd-seeker" and "crowd-speaker" distasteful. 

Look at these two photos of Ozick.  In one, she's thoughtful, serious, closed mouth; she looks away from the camera and seems slightly bored.  In the other, she is smiling, showing her white teeth.  Her public teeth.  She's trying to please us.  Which do you like better?


  1. Ozick's essay can be found in Pen America #9 (2008). It leaves me perplexed. She takes James' concept of "the madness of art" as a launching point and turns it on its head for her own overblown and romantic notion about the monastic hero artist. I have know many writers, some quite intimately, and find that when they are on task they are in Tiger Woods-like zone. In their other life they may be social or not depending on personality. One thing I will say is that young writers who don't work hard to get into the game, stay on the outside.

  2. Bluedog: hers is a romantic vision of the artist. She leaves out many possibilities: no children, no cat slinking in, no dog to put its head on one's foot as one works. Yet, sometimes, when I'm working late at night, my light the only one on on my block, I do feel ghostly and need to get out in the sunshine to put on a body, so to speak.

  3. Definitely the first. What about you?

  4. Lesley, I prefer the black and white shot of Ozick.