I graduated last Friday from St John’s (Hooray!), left Santa Fe Sunday (wah!), and I’m back in Tucson, trying to figure out what to do with myself, because, as I’ve been rather abashedly telling people, my plans are to “get a job, I know not what.” The Graduation speech last week was on being useless well, because that’s something liberal artists should try to excel at. I wish I could hear it again, because I was somewhat distracted by the fact that I was graduating. Actually, my plans are to look for work and try to be useless well, preferably by reading, writing, thinking, praying, and perhaps making stuff.
Someone suggested that I read Writing Against Your Life, a speech by “The Underground Grammarian,” Richard Mitchell, which I did read, and his style is effecting the way I’m composing sentences now, I suspect. The fact that I had to put in two links like that is an argument against making framed websites, by the way — then there’s one link to the actual page, and another to the website with the navigational sidebar; I repent of having subjected book club buddies to that in my teenagerhood. I did at least have the excuse of not yet knowing the uses of CSS. In any event, I read that speech, about what writers do, or can and should do, and why. An excerpt:
When you solve a train problem, you are walking where somebody else has walked before. Now this is true whether or not anybody else has ever solved the train problem. That is to say, between the question of the train problem, and the answer of the train problem, there lies–whether we have found it or not–there lies an absolutely real path of logic. It is there. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a problem, you couldn’t put it on a test. So when you solve the train problem, or any problem, you walk the path that is there and the only path that is there, except in the case of binomial equations, in which you walk one of two paths, both of them being the only two paths that are there.
That’s not the gift that Prometheus gave us. He gave us the mind’s power to grasp itself. Not to solve problems, but to reach understanding. And when you go in search of understanding–and if you are a writer who does anything except go in search of understanding, then we really don’t need you, you’re part–you are a problem–when we go in search of understanding, we go not on a path, beaten out for us, unless we are parrots, but we go out of the known, and into the unknown.
Mr. Mitchell has a number of good things to say, but my overall reaction was against the speech, and only partly because it’s in the style of a transcript rather than an essay. My real objection comes back to an assertion he makes that writers who try to be truthful mostly find, and are disturbed by, how very often they are not truthful; that they have been lying, “whoring,” and parroting all along, and their writing stands against them as a rebuke. Apparently that has been Mr. Mitchell’s experience as a writer. I suppose he’s coming from someplace that’s real and important, but I don’t really understand it, any more than I understood the speakers I heard bemoaning how insincere and “masked” we all are. I may well prefer Nietzsche’s hermit with the crevices hiding behind holes shrouded by masks in the deep, dark caverns of the soul. I may prefer Heidegger’s “truth as unconcealment,” with artists and writers seeking to aim at at least a glimpse of the unconcealment of the numina. That sentence was sloppy, and may stand as some kind of rebuke if I consider it carefully enough, but I don’t feel the force of that rebuke — perhaps that is why I’m not good at revision? I did write a post a few weeks ago where I had to come back and add at the top that I thought it might be untrue, but I don’t even suppose that was a rebuke — more of a path, like the way it’s often a good idea to write whatever comes to mind on a topic before launching into an official essay, but even so sometimes one might not know the true question of a particular essay until the end, or until one is five pages in — and may not even follow that question, because of other more pressing matters.