Burdens and unburdenings

Literature is no longer powerful and thus no longer dangerous. But the conformist agency that Rousseau ascribed to literature in his First Discourse (arts and letters, Rousseau wrote, “lace garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened”) is still abroad in the world. Television is the first art today. Is the collaborative nature of the medium accelerating the conformity? Is the fact that TV is written in “rooms,” that is, by groups, making our culture more “groupy” and less heroic? The few heroic moments that appear in the culture now, I would argue, are almost always sentimental and deliberately false, meant to stand as symbols, not to be believed in as actions possible in the world. We are meant to believe only in moments when the hero bows to the group. In Sincerity and Authenticity, when Trilling wrote, of Rousseau’s vision of literature of literature, that

the individual who lives in this new circumstance is subject to the constant influence, to the literal in-flowing, of the mental processes of others, which, in the degree that they stimulate or enlarge his consciousness, make it less his own,

he was inadvertently describing our social-media–mediated world, more than half a century later. There are many things that it has become de rigueur to believe, in my social world, that I don’t happen to believe, and sometimes I’m afraid to say I don’t believe. It’s impossible to say this without sounding a note of self-pity and grandiosity. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the compulsion here is the pressure to say anything at all about controversial topics, but it seems more difficult now to feel peaceful merely knowing that I disagree. It seems incumbent on me either to conform or to express disagreement—out of the hope of triggering a new conformism but this time in my favor, or my team’s favor. The independent mind who doesn’t tweet is the new unheard tree falling in the forest.

The reproach that serious art makes to the audience’s wish for something merely pleasant has become in our day a class marker—a sign that the artwork in question is a fit vehicle for the display of wealth, which has to please no one.

“Atman and I continued living in this huge railroad flat on Fell Street that had practically no heat, and the plaster was literally falling off the walls. It was cold and empty, and falling apart, like the world. I liked it.” —the story of Aaron, qtd. in Walt Odets, Out of the Shadows

“There are some original authors whose least daring gives rise to disgust because they haven’t flattered the public’s taste first by serving it the commonplaces that it’s used to; Swann outraged Mr. Verdurin this way. For Swann, as for these authors, it was the novelty of his language that caused belief in the blackness of his intentions.” —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

“As for the pleasure that Italy was capable of bringing Oswald, the sorrow that consumed him put less of obstacle in his way than the count of Erfeuil’s actual cheerfulness: the regrets of a sensitive soul can make an alliance with the contemplation of nature and the enjoyment of the fine arts; but frivolity, in whatever form it presents itself, takes away from attention its force, from thought its originality, and from feeling its depth.” —Germaine de Staël, Corinne

All the difficulty of writing autobiographical fiction is in the trouble that Odette has when she tries to enhance her lie with a bit of truth:

She detached a little piece, unimportant in itself, telling herself that after all it was better this way, because it was a verifiable detail that didn’t present the same dangers that a false detail would. “That, at least—that’s true,” she said to herself; “that’s always something gained; he can research it, he’ll have to admit it’s true; that’s never going to be what betrays me.” She was mistaken; that was what betrayed her; she didn’t realize that the true detail had angles that only fit with the contiguous details of the true fact from which she had arbitrarily detached it, and which, whatever the invented details were in between which she positioned it, would always reveal, by the excess matter and by the gaps not filled in, that it was not from in between them that it originally came.

—Proust, Swann’s Way

“Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.” —Beethoven, qtd. in Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces

“There has never been anything I cared to express more, than I cared for the act of expressing it. (This sentence, clumsy and ambiguous, may be considered an exception.)” —James Merrill, 1959 January 15, in A Whole World

“Are you calling the dispatch with which I make my observations lightness?” the count of Erfeuil said. “Am I less correct because I’m correct faster?” —Staël, Corinne