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Rocket and Lightship

Meditations on life and letters.

Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone
G.M. Hopkins, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

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.

How little of ourselves we give even to the writers we love best, compared to what they asked and expected of us. Genuine admiration and gratitude for a writer’s work is very intermittent; usually, we think only about ourselves and how we can use what we’re reading. But this must be considered a legitimate technique of self-defense, since if we opened ourselves to all the just demands for attention made by the dead, we would be totally overwhelmed, placed permanently in the wrong. For dead writers are like gods who are always hungry, no matter how many sacrifices they inhale.

The ninteenth-century Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick declared that he would rather see the music of Bach and Palestrina lost forever than Brahms’s German Requiem. This is naturally scoffed at today—but isn’t that because we have lost the experience of having the artists of our own time speak to us and for us so perfectly? To be equally appreciative of the art of every era, we must be equidistant from every era, including the present: this means being estranged from our own works, and so in a way from ourselves. It would be only fair, then, if the artworks of our time fail to reach posterity. If even the artist’s contemporaries don’t feel fiercely protective of him, why should the future?

Writing generates more writing—not in any metaphysical sense, but empirically. The writing a writer produces will inspire more writing in scholars, biographers, critics; over time, more and more of the writer’s acquaintances and surroundings will eventually be illuminated by being written about. We know more about Franz Kafka’s coworkers or Virginia Woolf’s servants than about thousands of people who, during their lifetimes, would have sneered at clerks and servants; illustriousness does not light people up for posterity nearly as much as proximity to a writer. And this is not because of the inherent interest of the people surrounding a writer, or even of the writer herself, but simply because it is so much easier to write about someone who has already been written about. When you introduce a grain of salt into a beaker of supersaturated fluid, it crystallizes instantly in all directions, revealing structures that were hidden before. So with lives in history: they are invisible because there are too many of them, and it’s impossible to pick any one place to start recording them, until the presence of a writer sets the process arbitrarily in motion.

Just as a musical tone contains all its own overtones, resonating even on frequencies far removed from it in the scale, so every kind of mind contains every other, though in muted, attenuated form. Literature would be impossible otherwise.

At the Metropolitan Museum, there is a recreation of the Gubbio Studiolo, the workspace where Federico da Montefeltro, the fifteenth-century general and quasi-gangster, pursued his intellectual studies. Seeing the great beauty, seriousness, and lavishness of this room is painful, because it is a reminder that Montefeltro really did exist, that such honor really was paid to the intellect, that the “Renaissance type” is not just a fiction but once flourished. It drives home the immense contrast with the present, when it is certain that no such space would be created by a rich or powerful man for the same purpose.

This kind of pain is what we sublimate and forget when we read about Montefeltro in Pound’s Cantos—or, similarly, about any great historical figure. To write about the great, to turn them into literature, is to make them subordinate to the reader: the reader can complacently regard himself as the heir to all the ages, because he preserves in imagination what no longer exists in fact. From there, it is a short step to convincing oneself that human perfection never really exists in fact, that all greatness is ultimately for the sake of the reader, who possesses it in imagination. What this implies is that the historical passion is rooted in resentment: reading is a way of gaining mastery over people and things that would be too painful to confront in reality, because they are so unmistakably superior to us.

One can actually get angry at the writers of the past for being so secretive about basic, intimate parts of human life. Jane Austen menstruated—why not Elizabeth Bennet? Think of all the writers who fussed with chamber pots, and not a single character does. Omitting this side of life is a betrayal of us, their posterity, by falsifying the record of themselves that writers undertake to leave; they create the illusion that they were bodiless, angelic. We know the past from literature only the way astronomers know distant galaxies: not directly, but by correcting for what we know to be distortions.

Stefan Zweig writes in his memoirs that when he published a feuilleton on the front page of the Neue Freie Presse, as a teenager, he felt that he had conquered the world. Nothing is more enviable than a literary culture small and integrated enough to offer that kind of success—the Augustan poets in their clubs writing to and about one another, or the New York intellectuals battling in Partisan Review. Yet there is also something contemptible about a literary ambition that admits of being satisfied so readily, or at all. Real greatness is defined, for us, by its unappeasability—as with Kafka, who loved literature so much that he wanted to destroy all his writing.

Every writer needs a fireplace. On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down.

Literature claims to be a record of human existence through time; it is the only way we have to understand what people used to be like. But this is a basic mistake, if not a fraud, since in fact it only reflects the experience of writers—and writers are innately unrepresentative, precisely because they see life through and for writing. Literature tells us nothing really about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been like. If it has a memorial purpose, it is more like that of an altar at which priests continue to light a fire, generation after generation, even though it gives no heat and very little light.

Pound’s goal was to “write nothing that we might not say actually in life.” But this is backwards, for nothing memorable is ever said, it is always written; only sometimes it is not written down, but written in the mind so quickly that it can be produced as speech. In speech, the mind is on the moment, the subject, the interlocutor; in writing, the mind is on these and also always on the self, and the appearance the self and its language are making. Speech is an action, writing an act (as in “putting on an act”) whose audience is always primarily oneself. To become memorable or brilliant, language needs to be fertilized by egotism.

All forms of writing are only valid, maybe only comprehensible, as forms of self-expression. Even philosophy, even history, never says anything true about the world, only about the writer’s experience of being in the world. Some sensibilities require the illusion of objectivity in order to get their version of the truth spoken: if the metaphysician realized he was only talking about himself, not about reality, he would be unable to say what he needs to say.

Literature presents itself to us today as a museum of perished affects. Belief in God, courtly love, honor, and so forth: we can recognize that people once felt these things, but we can’t feel them ourselves. Perhaps this anesthesia will be what future ages see as characteristic of our literature.

In Memoriam R.W. Most suicides are a refusal of communication, or else a communication made in a language we protect ourselves against by declining to understand it. But for the suicide we know as a writer, her death becomes a continuation of the self-expression in her work, and may even be her most successful act of communication: we know exactly what she means by it.

Writerly vanity is like a vicious dog chained up outside the house. You try to starve and neglect the dog into silence, but sometimes he becomes so clamorous that he must be fed if you’re going to be able to ignore him again.

Literature operates on the premise that humanity can be transcendent; but it now looks increasingly likely that humanity can only be transcended, that is, left behind. Like all culture, literature is a matter of directing the will inward, to create an inner life; this was a necessity for most of human history, when the conditions of outer life could not be changed. But the future will be defined by the ever more successful direction of the will outward, in the form of technology and power, which is now genuinely able to transform the conditions of life. In this sense, culture is an obsolete technology, a sunk cost that we keep adding to only because we lack the courage to write it off.

Our understanding of history is distorted by the universal tendency to identify only with the protagonists of the past—kings, heroes, nobles, the rich, or the exceptionally gifted or fated. When we read history or novels, we always imagine ourselves in the position of the protagonist, the position of agency; not remembering that we ourselves, had we lived then, would not have had the remotest chance of being protagonists, but would have lived in the outer darkness into which the light of narrative never penetrates.

The unadmitted reason why traditional readers are hostile to e-books is that we still hold the superstitious idea that a book is like a soul, and that every soul should have its own body. The condensation of millions of books on a single device, or their evaporation in a data cloud, seems to presage what is destined to happen to our souls, to the coming end of selfhood, even of embodiment. If this sounds fanciful, imagine what a lover of hand-written codices might have thought in 1450 about the rise of print. Manuscripts, he would protest, were once rare, precious, hard to create, dedicated to holy or venerable subjects; print would make them cheap, derivative, profane, and easily disposable. And didn’t exactly this happen to human beings in the age of print, which is the modern age?

One begins writing, in adolescence, as a detour away from life that is supposed to return one to the main road of life further on, at a better stage. Writing is seen as a shortcut, through isolation, to the communication and connection that are unavailable in reality. Only gradually does it become clear that the detour is really a fork in the road: as one continues to write, one moves farther away from life, from the communion with other people that writing was meant to provide. Eventually the main road can no longer be seen, but one keeps on writing: because of spite, because one is unfit for anything else and can’t go back, and because of the unbanishable hope that maybe the next turn in the road will bring one back to life.

Bentham: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” In fact, pushpin is better, because it confesses its insignificance from the start. The pushpin player will never know the shame of realizing that he has built his life on the delusion that he is better than the poet.

Today, finding a good used bookstore is like finding Friday’s footprint—evidence of a fellowship that is ordinarily invisible.

The crisis of literature, in contrast with the confidence of the sciences, is essentially a crisis of memory and transmission. The creation of works of art is only a valid way to spend a life if those works are preserved—if they are made exceptions to the general oblivion that nature designed for us. But the sciences do not require this kind of exceptional preservation. They make use of intellect in a way that imitates nature, because the progress of science both incorporates and obliterates each contributor, in the same way that the progenitor is both incorporated and forgotten in his descendants. For the artist, the creation of a work of genius is an alternative to parenthood; for the scientist, it is an imitation of parenthood. This helps to explain the shame of the artist in the face of the scientist, which is that of the celibate in the face of the progenitor, the unnatural in the face of nature.

Writers used to write for posterity—that is, for people essentially like us in the future. Now the only future we can imagine, the only plausible alternative to extinction, will be made up of beings that will understand us wholly differently, and much better, than we can understand ourselves. The readers of the future will be anthropologists in the sense that we are ornithologists, studying creatures of a different and lesser species. Today, the writer’s aspiration is not to communicate with such readers, the way past writers communicate with us, but to leave a body of evidence for the future to interpret.

The hallmark of a writer’s late style—for instance, in Philip Roth’s now annual production of short, indifferently written novels—is the abandonment of the attempt to triumph over death objectively by creating a work whose nature is essentially superior to death. No longer believing in this possibility, the aging artist is left to triumph over death subjectively, by writing perpetually in order to keep the thought of oblivion out of his mind. In retrospect, then, even his greatest works take on this air of subjectivity: art begins to look like a method of whistling past the graveyard.

Writing, not philosophy, is the true practice of death—it translates the self into print as a rehearsal for the time when the self disappears and print is all that remains. A writer has succeeded if, when we read his obituary, we are surprised to learn that he was still alive.

The line of nihilism and despair in modern literature, from Leopardi to Beckett, asks to be taken as a true diagnosis of humanity during this period. But it is no coincidence that this was also the time when the writer lost his connection with humanity, thanks to the increasing restriction and specialization of literature. Perhaps the sense we find in such writers that all human activity is cosmically pointless is simply the symptom of this isolation—as when an animal kept in a cage, far from its kind, pines away and languishes. To be immersed in the human world so deeply that one can’t see outside it, so as to question the validity or purpose of the whole—that is the natural state of man. The miserable doubts that occur to the writer withdrawn from the world are not to be answered, but dealt with as symptoms, requiring the therapy of reimmersion.

No true universal statements can safely be made about human beings or human nature; it is only permissible to make such assertions hypothetically, or metaphorically. This realization is what gives birth to literature, a realm where anything can be expressed because it is essentially without consequence. But we can never stop imagining the secret mastery we would gain if this artistic power could be surreptitiously reintroduced to the actual world: the combination of imaginative freedom and actual power would be a kind of magic. This helps to explain the special mystique that attaches to artists of the real like Marx and Freud. By stating their metaphors about humankind as if they were scientific laws, they seem to gain magical powers, and promise them to their adherents. Such intellectual mages lose their authority only once we remember that power can only be gained over the physical, and over man insofar as he is physical; the truth about the spirit can only be demonstrated in works of the spirit.

An axiom of the novel is that people whose lives are devoted to the competition for status—the bourgeois, the philistines—are inferior to those who devote themselves to the realization of an aesthetic or ethical ideal. The very fact of being a novel reader is the badge of this distinction: to be a reader, in this sense, is really to be a writer of one’s life, to try to shape one’s life in the image of the values promoted by what one reads. Yet the proud reader should remember that the pursuit of outward status and the pursuit of inward perfection can both be understood as ways of imposing direction, and therefore narrative, on a life. Both status and goodness are useful for this purpose because both are fundamentally unachievable: it will always be possible, and therefore necessary, to become “higher” or “better” than one is. These ways of imposing meaning on life are more similar to each other than either one is to the horrible vacancy of the vast majority of lives, which are composed simply of endless repetition. Compared to the peasant, the bourgeois is a kind of artist—and the artist is a kind of bourgeois.

People used to wish that life could be as it is in books—that it could have the beauty, drama, and shapeliness that writers gave it. Today, by contrast, we hope desperately that life is not really like our writers portray it; in other words, we hope that writers are not representative men and women, but unfit beings whose perceptions are filtered through their unhealth. It is necessary to hope this, because if life were as it appears in our literature it would be unlivable. Thus Flaubert’s pious sigh, “Ils sont dans le vrai”—because if the writer’s life were the true one, life would be unworthy of being continued. Biographies of writers who went mad or committed suicide are popular because they offer reassurance on this point.

The statesman always has contempt for the historian, and understandably so: how can you compare a professor to a president? But with the passage of only a few decades, it becomes clear that the great man acted and suffered only for the sake of the historians; the writer is superior to the man of action as the owner of a toy is superior to the one who made it.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” On the contrary: it is what we cannot speak of in the sense Wittgenstein means, what we cannot point to and scientifically describe, that we speak about most and best, and always have. What can be wholly comprehended and demonstrated is “trivial” in the sense that mathematicians use the word: even if it is very hard to understand, once understood it does not provoke further discourse, does not point anywhere. But authentic speech and writing are always productive of more speech and writing—indeed, that is the point of discourse, not to describe reality but to avoid silence.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Poetry magazine


  • Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

Prose from <em>Poetry</em> Magazine

Rocket and Lightship

Meditations on life and letters.


  • Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

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