No thanks I don’t need you to be the nun for me
I had a conversation with my father once about what his life as a painter was like, and he said he could never truly be an artist because he has a family. The idea being that art requires a true sacrifice, “often of sanity,” as he put it. I wanted to call bullshit on him, not just because I’m implicated. The idea of the ivory tower artist, of Jackson Pollock or Van Gogh vibing out on colour in his studio while his life falls to pieces outside, is pretty stale these days (also pretty sexist if you consider its history of valuing works by “intense” “genius” dudes, who were supported mainly by women). But I feel like I can’t dismiss this idea of worldly rejection the way I once did. I don’t deny that artists live in the world, and need it – “he fits himself to the paint”- but at what point does the world – the worldly world – become the only domain in which you exist?
I write this at a period in my life where I am considering what it would mean to relinquish “the world” in order to be a writer. I find myself preoccupied with things that feel at the moment like schoolyard concerns – love, relationships, self-worth, jealousy, getting laid. Of course, these are the very concerns of literature. I think, in fact, that the original jacket copy of Anna Karenina read “A Tale of Love, Relationships, Self-Worth, Jealousy, and Getting Laid.” I wonder if perhaps I have enough of this raw material – what I called at another point attar – to sustain another fifty years of writing without having to engage in any more of it.
In my middle teens I was pious about Salman Rushdie in a way that perhaps only religious fanatics and teenage girls can be. I hoped one day to be called upon to do something extreme for Rushdie’s sake, and the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t made me itchy and oppressed. My twelfth-grade English teacher once asked what my plans were for after graduation, and I said something along the lines of “To throw myself in front of things being shot at Salman Rushdie.” Anyway, I’ve had a couple of conversations lately that would have shocked my teenage self, conversations bordering on sacrilege, about how Rushdie only dates models and is kind of a weiner in his personal life. I have these conversations in which I can’t really defend his personal life or politics, but I also know it doesn’t really matter. In a hundred years no one will remember that Rushdie only dated models. They will read The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children and understand how things were. But which Rushdie was I willing to sacrifice myself for? The timeless, deathless writer or the mortal man? Of course it was the writer, it would always be the writer, the writer who doesn’t ask or require my sacrifice at all. And that’s the really sticky part of writing and reading, that we end up in this kind of fugue state where we have to sustain two realities, one of timelessness and deathlessness and one of “the human stain” or whatever you want to call it – the one where we are ugly sexist weiners with no chance at redemption.
This is maybe what at least one third of Holy the Firm is about – in it, Annie Dillard writes “I’ll be the nun for you – I am already,” meaning she will sacrifice herself to art so you (the person she addresses in the essay, but presumably also you) don’t have to. This is the kind of dramatic emo sentiment you can get away with when you’re like 22, but Annie Dillard has a husband and at least one child and surely shops for groceries now and then. In the part of the book I’m talking about, a child, Julia Norwich, is disfigured in a fire, which for Dillard is a form of transformation that exempts her from the schoolyard and its humanism. She is holy, burned, saintlike. In the end, though, Dillard decides that Julia won’t be exempted, that having your faced burned off isn’t a requisite (or a sentence) to sainthood. Dillard herself will be the nun. She is already. (Note: She isn’t.)
So: You live in the schoolyard, and the only way out is to burn your face off, or become a nun, or both. But most of my writing practice has been dedicated to the idea that the schoolyard is also holy, the way people like Grace Paley think it is. So I am probably not going to be getting to a nunnery anytime soon. I like the human stain too much.
Wonderfulo essay. A new documentary video about Grace Paley might interest you see http://www.gracepaleyvideo.com