Am reading a book about the Spanish flu, a century ago, a gift from my daughter-in-law Heidi (The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry). Fascinating account of the lightning progress of science and the scientific method in the 19th century and beyond, especially with the founding in the 1870s of Johns Hopkins. The story of the fight against the Spanish flu, which originated not in Spain but America, apparently, and spread through Army camps both here and in Europe, is obviously akin to our current fight against Covid-19.
But it’s a quote from Einstein in this book that commandeered my attention this morning:
One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life…. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, and the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.
Several of the more prominent scientists discussed in Barry’s book were extremely withdrawn individuals. They retired into the inner worlds of their making and there in their laboratories made guesses and theories and empirical attacks on the nature of the influenza viruses like pneumococcus.
I also happened to read an interview with a former colleague at Wayne State University in Detroit, Charles Baxter, the first teaching job for both of us, I believe. A fellow Minnesotan, Baxter has become an accomplished and acclaimed writer of short and long fiction as well as a creative writing teacher. He talks in this interview about the “novita,” which is, according to this interview, “a form of fiction that’s somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, in which the different parts are linked together but also build to a cohesive conclusion,” perhaps through repeated images.
This makes sense to me, though Baxter ties the idea, more than I would or could, to the development in fiction of a sense of community, using the early 20th century modernist examples of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Joyce’s Dubliners.
Anderson’s characters are what he calls “grotesques,” or what most of us might call, a bit more understatedly, oddballs. Joyce’s stories are less satirical but deeper and sadder too. As one critical source tells it, “Joyce’s intention in writing Dubliners, in his own words, was to write a chapter of the moral history of his country, and he chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to him to be the centre of paralysis.” It’s only in the last, great story of the collection, “The Dead,” that Joyce might achieve an inclusive vision of Dublin society, or company, however poignant this vision might be.
But in Einstein’s words, a “simplified and lucid image of [one’s own particular] world” might or might not be a communitarian or collectivist vision. Artistic and literary fashions change, of course. And the modernists, however doubtful they were about moral vision, have given
way, a century later, to a much more politicized and ideological vision of art.
Think of the notes that another great modernist, T. S. Eliot, uses after The Waste Land, citing F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality:
… every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.
Then think of the endless iterations of political messages and manifestos in the pages of today’s little literary magazines. “Diversity” is the keyword here: the more “diverse” your work, the better. If you don’t produce work reflecting diversity, that is, departures from racial and gender norms (white man’s privilege), you are lacking in sympathetic pigment.
But diversity, if that’s your keyword or catchword, comes from vision too, or voice, or style. What makes you, as a writer or other artist, diverse? What gives you a right to think you have anything new to say or a new way of saying it?
I am attempting now, at this late date, to finish a collection of stories I wrote in the 1980s and ’90s called Not Calling Margaret. I wrote these metafictions without any conscious direction, as far as theme, character, or image goes. Yes, they all proceeded from the angst I was feeling after failing out of college teaching and out of academe. The tone of the collection as a whole may be more cynical or satirical than a lot of collectivist fiction coming out these days. I certainly had not found academe a comforting or affirmative place for rebellious or nonconformist spirits like my own.
At any rate, my stories, as unfinished as they may be and inconclusive, even incoherent in some ways, express a truth about me and my particular time and place. They show or enact “the center of gravity of [my] emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that [I could not] … find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”
A “still point of the turning world,” to cite another line from Eliot.
When you read a story or a poem, consider the world it summons up. Is it familiar or not? Comforting or not? Challenging? Coherent? Individual?
Perhaps this last word is key. If a story portrays a collective or communitarian vision, is it saying something new? Is it ideology more than individual vision? The artist may or may not be a unique voice, crying in the wilderness, condemning injustice, but if he or she is merely imitative it’s hard to argue for enduring value.