Steve Jobs said at one time “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. you can only connect them looking backwards.” That is true of any life, or collection of lives. You can’t predict the future. Not even fuzzily so.
CERN is in the news lately. They discovered the Higgs boson. What is less known is that they also discovered the World Wide Web. Yes, the thing we’re on was actually created to be a glorified phone directory for CERN. A need was identified, that it was annoying to keep track of people, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee created a hypertext phonebook, and the World Wide Web was born.
I bring that up to point out that upon discovery, not even the wildest oracle of science and future realised what that invention would mean. You can’t predict the future. You can’t connect the dots forward, only backwards.
I wonder what my future will hold after reading a Swedish translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a young poet”. Sometimes you read a book that leave you humming with feelings and an antsy impatience that you need to get rid of somehow. And it leaves you with questions, questions that need to be thought in the quietest moments when you can dig deep.
From Letter one, sent to the 19 year old Austrian-Hungarian Franz Kappus who wrote to Rilke to seek guidence about becoming a poet. I’ve been reading bits of it, and it’s like the book is speaking to me. I’m not a poet, but I do want to be a writer. My bolding in the quote below.
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
Yes, yes, yes. I do not hate the idea of words being art. There is a tendency for many writers to scoff at writing, and to extol only its entertainment value, and not its art. Art is something dusty professors torture students with. But I want words to be art. Not just mere commerce in order to push a lot of square dead trees. Why would anyone subject themselves to writing, unless they had a bigger goal than a pay-check?
It makes me think of George Orwell’s essay “Why I write”. Writing is such a strange obsession that there must be a specific reason for anyone to do it. I’ve always thought that what Orwell said was basically true. It is an act mostly driven by wanting to feel superior by creating something special and meaningful, and wanting to push the world a little in a certain direction.
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision. I remember a little poem that I wrote at that date, expressing my dilemma:
I think I fit Orwell’s description of himself, in that I am a person in whom the first three motives are the most true. Egoism? Oh certainly. I love the idea of people reading my words and finding something of worth in them. I certainly think there is aesthetics in words, and i strive for aesthetics. A turn of phrase, a bit or irony or sarcasm, an exaggeration – word plays and beats. Frame and rhythm. Art.
But I don’t know if any of that fits for the future, and if those ideas and ideals are part of the future. Is there a place for the thinker-writer out there in the brave new world where fewer and fewer books are published for literary value, and fewer and fewer books – even so called literary ones – are written for their intellectual value beyond a narcissistic navel-gazing like in Cormack McCarthy’s books?
I love the Hitch’s take on the Rielke-book that started this post. He wrote a similar one, except it was titled “Letter to a Young Contrarian”, and in it there is one quote that I have posted on my wall next my ever present “Litany of fear”.
Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
Isn’t that the ultimate declaration of independence, literary or otherwise? In twenty years time, I maybe should hope I look back to this time and see the dots that connect to this moment and this time, and that things I do and think now brought me closer to being a Hitch. Well, without the cancer, alcoholism and the vindictive streak.