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The Writer Lectures

The very first people whom we consider authors—the minds and voices behind the tribal epics, the Bible and Homer, the Vedas and the sagas—were, it would seem, public performers, for whom publication took the form of recitation, of incantation, of (we might say) lecturing. The circumstances wherein these primal literary works were promulgated are not perfectly clear, nor are all examples of oral literature identical in purpose and texture; but we could risk generalizing that the bard’s function was, in the Horatian formulation, to entertain and to instruct, and that the instruction concerned the great matter of tribal identity. The poet and his songs served as a memory bank, supplying the outlines of the determinative tribal struggles and instances of warrior valor. Who we are, who our heroic fathers were, how we got where we are, why we believe what we believe and act the way we do—the bard illuminates these essential questions, as the firelight flickers and the mead flows and the listeners in their hearts renew their pact with the past. The author, himself, is delivering not his own words but his own version of a story told to him, a story handed down in an evolving form and, at a certain point, fixed into print by the written version of a scribe. The author is not only himself but his predecessors, and simultaneously he is part of the living tribal fabric, the part that voices what all know, or should know, and need to hear again.

The mnemonic function of poetry weakly persists in certain helpful rhymes (“Thirty days hath September,” etc.), and the traditional, even sacred centrality of the bard at the tribal conference lingers in the widely held notion that authors can “speak”—that their vocation includes an ability and a willingness to entertain and instruct, orally, any gathering where the mead flows and ring-gold is exchanged in sufficient quantities. The assumption is flattering but in truth the modernist literary tradition, of which we are all, for lack of another, late and laggard heirs, ill prepares a writer for such a performance. James Joyce evidently had a fine tenor voice and loved to sing, and he also, inspired by enough mead, could kick as high as the lintel of a doorway; but Proust was of a thoroughly retiring and unathletic nature, and murmured mostly to himself. “Authentic art has no use for proclamations, it accomplishes its work in silence,” he wrote, in that long meditation upon the writer’s task which concludes Remembrance of Things Past. “To be altogether true to his spiritual life an artist must remain alone and not be prodigal of himself even to disciples” is another of his strictures. The artist, he repeatedly insists, is not another citizen, a social creature with social duties; he is a solitary explorer, a pure egotist. In a great parenthesis he explains that “when human altruism is not egotistic it is sterile, as for instance in the writer who interrupts his work to visit an unfortunate friend, to accept a public function, or to write propaganda articles.”

In almost the exact middle of Time Regained, Marcel contemplates his task—the huge novel we have at this point almost read through—and quails at a prospect so grand and exalted. He has stumbled upon the uneven paving stones that have recalled Venice to him, has heard the clink of the spoon upon glass that has reminded him of the train journey on which he had observed the steeples of Martinville, has felt the texture of the stiff napkin that has reminded him of Balbec and its beach and ocean; he has tasted the madeleine out of which bloomed all Combray, and sees that these fragments involuntarily recovered from the abyss of Time compose the truth he must deliver:

Beneath these signs there lay something of a quite different kind which I must try to discover, some thought which they translated after the fashion of those hieroglyphic characters which at first one might suppose to represent only material objects. No doubt the process of decipherment was difficult, but only by accomplishing it could one arrive at whatever truth there was to read. For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters us through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which is possible for us to extract.

This extraction of meaning, from tactile hieroglyphs, becomes on the next page an underwater groping:

As for the inner book of unknown symbols (symbols carved in relief they might have been, which my attention, as it explored my unconscious, groped for and stumbled against and followed the contours of, like a diver exploring the oceanbed), if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus affair, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book: he wants to ensure the triumph of justice, he wants to restore the moral unity of the nation, he has no time to think of literature. But these are mere excuses, the truth being that he has not or no longer has genius, that is to say instinct. For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

The religious tone of classic modernism, its austerity and fanaticism, strike us as excessive. Its close imitation of European Catholicism seems puzzling, now that the vessel of Christianity is a century more depleted. Austerity and fanaticism are now entirely given over to the Muslims, who alarm us each night on the news. Virtue and vice alike have been trivialized into news. What do the emanations from the ivory tower count against those from the television transmitting tower? This phrase “ivory tower” was proposed by Flaubert, the first modernist novelist, when he wrote,

Between the crowd and ourself, no bond exists. Alas for the crowd; alas for us, especially. But since the fancy of one individual seems to me just as valid as the appetite of a million men, and can occupy an equal place in the world, we must (regardless of material things and of mankind, which disavows us) live for our vocation, climb up our ivory tower and there, like a bayadere with her perfumes, dwell alone with our dreams.

The artist’s only possible camaraderie, Flaubert elsewhere asserts, can be with other artists. “Mankind hates us: we serve none of its purposes; and we hate it, because it injures us. So let us love one another ‘in Art,’ as mystics love one another ‘in God.”’ God much haunts his mind, as in the famous dictum, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” God does not lecture, except to the Old Testament Israelites, who did not always listen. The modernist writer does not lecture; he creates, he dreams, he deciphers his hieroglyphs, he exists in a state of conscious antagonism to the busy bourgeois world. The lecture is an instrument of the bourgeoisie, a tool in the mass education essential to modern democracies. Where Flaubert says that no bond exists between the crowd and literary artists, the crowd offers to make one and invites the writer to lecture. “Descend from your ivory tower,” the crowd cries, “and come share, O bayadere, your fabulous perfumes with us.” Godlike and savage in his purest conception of himself, the author is thus brought back into society, into the global village, and trivialized into being an educator and a celebrity.

Lectures by authors go back, in the United States, to the so-called Lyceum Circuit, which, beginning in the 1830s, brought to the vastly scattered American provinces inspirational and educational speakers. Ralph Waldo Emerson was such a star, hitting the road with secular sermons culled from his journals, and then collecting these oral gems into the volumes of essays that are among the classic texts of American style and thought. Mark Twain, a generation and a half later, began as a comic lecturer, a stand-up comedian without a microphone, and his best-selling novels and travel accounts retained much of the crowd-pleasing platform manner.

Even writers one thinks of as relatively abstruse and shy at one point or other followed the lecture trail; Henry James toured the States coast to coast in 1904 and 1905 lecturing on “The Lesson of Balzac,” and Melville for a time in the late 1850s, when he was still somewhat famous as “the man who had lived among cannibals,” sought to generate the income that his books were increasingly failing to supply by speaking, at fifty dollars a lecture, on “Statues in Rome” and “The South Seas.” Even in its heyday the Lyceum style of bardic enterprise had its detractors among literary men: Hawthorne wrote in The Blithedale Romance of “that sober and pallid, or, rather, drab-colored, mode of winter-evening entertainment, the Lecture”; and Oliver Wendell Holmes returned from a tour reporting that “a lecturer was a literary strumpet.”

Yet as one tries to picture those gas-lit auditoriums of the last century, with the black-clad lecturer and his oaken lectern framed by velvet curtains heavy with gold tassels—curtains that the next night might part to reveal a scuffed and much-traveled opera set or the chairs of a minstrel show—one imagines an audience and a performer in sufficient agreement on what constituted entertainment and edification; the bonds between the culture-hungry and the culture-dispensing were stretched thin but not yet broken in the innocence of the New World wilderness. One thinks of the tremendous warmth Emerson established with his auditors, to whom he entrusted, without condescension or clowning, his most profound and intimate thoughts, and who in listening found themselves discovering, with him, what it was to be American. Even a figure as eccentric and suspect as Whitman traveled about, evidently, with a lecture on Lincoln.

Like book clubs and other movements of mass uplift, the lecture circuit gradually gravitated toward the lowbrow. The famous Chautauqua Movement, which persisted into the 1920s, blended with camp meetings and tent revival meetings—each a high-minded excuse to gather, with the usual mixed motives of human gatherings. The writers most admired in my youth did not, by and large, lecture, though some of the less admired and more personable did, such as the then ubiquitous John Mason Brown and Franklin P. Adams. But Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis were rarely seen on stages; their advice to humanity was contained in their works, and their non-writing time seemed amply filled with marlin fishing, mule and bull fancying, and recreational drinking.

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