17 March 2008


"Freud's oft-quoted wisecrack, that men write for money, glory, and the love of women, might bestir a banker to his business but will not suffice to account for the composing of poetry and the writing of fiction—fundamentally unfunded, unwanted, and unappreciated enterprises. ...

"What is critical to the artist is not the fact that he has many motives (let us hope so), or that their presence should never be felt in his canvases, or found in the narrative nature of his novels, or heard amid the tumult of his dissonances. In the first place, our other aims won't lend their assistance without reward, and they will want, as we say, a piece of the action. No; the question is which of our intentions will be allowed to rule and regulate and direct the others: that is what is critical. It is a matter of the politics of desire, or, as Plato put it when he asked this question of the moral agent: what faculty of the soul is in control of the will?

"I believe the artist's fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making. Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day. If, of course, one wants to be a publicist for something; if you believe you are a philosopher first and Nietzsche second; if you think the gift of prophecy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion.

"The poet, every artist, is a maker, a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself. I am happy this is an old-fashioned view. I am happy it is Greek. One decent ideal can turn a rabble of small-minded and narrowly self-interested needs into an army. I cannot help adding that, in my opinion, one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other. Disbelief is healthier, is a better exercise for the mind, and I admire it even when I see someone's disbelief busy disbelieving me.

"To see the world through words means more than merely grasping it through gossipacious talk or amiable description. Language, unlike any other medium, I think, is the very instrument and organ of the mind. It is not the representation of thought, as Plato believed, and hence only an inadequate copy; but it is thought itself. ...Literature is mostly made of mind; and unless that is understood about it, little is understood about it." William Gass, "Finding a Form" pp. 34-36 in Finding A Form.

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