Scribbling alone in your notebook one night, you create the first draft of your Magnum Opus. The tangy smell of ink never left your body after you crafted a scroll to bring to your editor. Yet as she reads it, you learn that it is almost identical to a story written in Prague forty years ago. Cryptomnesia - a blog about literature and writing by author Joseph Patrick Pascale.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
How much does the character of the author affect the work?
and a Dictionary
recently read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.The subtitle
captivated my attention when I saw it on the clearance shelf and captures the
essence of the book. It takes something that sounds quite boring and tedious (making
a dictionary), combines it with crime thriller terms (you immediately think,
“Why the heck does anyone get murdered in the making of a dictionary?!”), and
then you reflect back on the fact that maybe making a dictionary from scratch
in the first place is kind of interesting because it poses such an overwhelming
challenge (figuring out what every word is!).
the end, the Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to make, and the
protagonists of this nonfiction were both dead eight years before the book’s
release. However, one of these protagonists, William C. Minor, the “madman” of
the title, is really the focus of the book, and it puts the author in an odd
spot. On the one hand, Minor was an interesting scholarly figure who sent in
thousands and thousands of words with quotations for inclusion in the Oxford
English Dictionary, and he was able to do this while battling schizophrenia
every night. On the other hand, Minor murdered an innocent man in the street,
leaving behind a widow and seven children. The text often reflects the author’s
struggle to want to paint Minor as a hero. It vacillates because clearly
Winchester feels like he can’t overlook the murder of an innocent man. It’s an
odd case due to the fact that Minor is a completely sane person during the day.
He apologized to the widow and sent her money often, and she forgave him, and
even came to visit him at the asylum, bringing him books. However, at night the
surgeon completely loses his grip on reality and hallucinates that he’s under
we have someone who, because he was locked in an asylum surrounded by books and
unable to leave, contributed huge efforts to the Oxford English Dictionary, a
great achievement for all English-speaking people of the world and anyone who
appreciates language. But he never would have been in the position to help
achieve this if he hadn’t murdered someone. The ambivalence Simon Winchester
clearly feels about this has had me thinking about how much a person’s
character and deeds affect their works and contributions to society.
concept of a murderer-scholar was in my head when I came across an article
about Martin Heidegger. Evidently his Schwarzen Hefte (Black Notebooks) are
going to be published for the first time, but the
article where I read this news was titled “Martin Heidegger's Black Notebooks Reignite Charges of Anti-Semitism.” Heidegger is famous as a philosopher turned Nazi, and some scholars
debate the significance of this on his thought. Does his philosophy necessarily
lead to Nazism? Can we read Being and Time without concern for his later
conversion to the Nazi party? Many people think so, and I would say the
enduring significance of his magnum opus reflects that point of view; however,
it’s fascinating to read the impassioned debates of people on the opposing
sides of this controversy.
the New York Times’ coverage of Emmanuel Faye’s “Heidegger: The Introduction of
Nazism Into Philosophy,” Adam Kirsch writes:
readers would agree that Heidegger was a Nazi, and that this matters to his
philosophy; it has remained for Faye to argue that Heidegger was a Nazi
philosopher, which is to say that he was no philosopher at all, and that his
books are positively dangerous to read. In fact, he comes very close, on the
book’s last page, to saying that Heidegger’s collected works should be banned
truth is, the single word 'being' just wasn't meant to bear as heavy a load as
this project puts on it. So think of 'Being', the essential thing we're trying
to get at, like a Party, and think of 'to be', the verb, as 'to rage'… who do
we know who rages the hardest? That's right, fucking Bros, that's who. They're
the Dasein at this party.”
have to assume that’s an accurate analogy…
the main question still remains. Even if we agree that it’s a great work of
philosophy, doesn’t it seem odd to want to internalize the philosophies of a
Nazi? There’s a certain part of us that can’t help but connect the person with
the work that person wrote. How important is the character of the author when
we read a work?
of the first things they’ll teach you as an English major is not to equate the
author’s biography with your analysis of the work. It’s also a rule that will
be immediately broken by your classmates, and then broken by your professor
shortly afterward. On some visceral level, it’s difficult for readers to
entirely divorce the person who wrote the work from the work itself. While I
generally try to avoid this form of analysis, I can’t help but want to read
more about an author I love - biographies, interviews - anything that lets me
learn more about the person who’s crafted such magnificent compositions.
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, a great book written by a journalist
who interviews people who have lived their lives according to certain philosophies,
introduced me to Plutarch’s Lives of Grecian and Roman Noblemen (ParallelLives). Plutarch’s idea is that young people need to read about virtuous people
who they can model their lives on, which will inspire them to be morally good
people. Jules Evans’ Philosophy for Life... is framed around the concept of
using ancient wisdom as a therapeutic toolkit for good mental health (he
believes philosophy helped him through a mental breakdown), and the angle here
is that emulating virtuous people can make you virtuous.
are your heroes?
had me wondering if I ever read books written by or about “virtuous” people.
I’ve never been one to look up to “heroes,” but just thinking about the people
who wrote the books I tend to read, or the authors I’ve read biographies of,
the quick answer seemed to be that there weren’t excessive amounts of virtue to
be found. I’d never before considered the idea that the authors I’m reading
should also be role models for me, only that the writing captivate me. Should I
be thinking of what effect they might have on me as my unwitting role models?
In that case, creative types don’t have the best reputation in terms of having
healthy relationships and finding satisfaction and contentment with life.
two authors I’m probably most familiar with biographically are Jack Kerouac and
could be extremely selfish, and this led to some appalling behavior in relation
to his ex-wives and daughter. His life as a whole is a sad, downward spiral
from a hopeful kid excited to go see the world and discover the mystical “it,”
to a hopeless alcoholic, depressed, pessimistic, and cursed by the success of
his writing, which brought him fame that only exacerbated the problems he was
struggling with. Not exactly an ideal role model.
reading Kerouac, I feel like I’m not supposed to think about his character
flaws and instead pay attention to the writing, and accept the tragedy as
presented in The Legend of Duluoz, rather than compare it against my background
knowledge about his life. But when you’re dealing with a writer like Kerouac
who drew so heavily from his own life, how do you just disregard the
biographical? All the choices he made that you know put him in the situations
take Franz Kafka. While his stories don’t appear to be particularly
autobiographical, scores of Kafka scholars immediately disregarded that first
English major rule and analyzed the works according to his life. They write
that the totalitarian bureaucracies like the courts or the Castle are
representative of his father, who ruled the Kafka household unquestioned and
according to his arbitrary whims. Milan Kundera claims this whole industry of
“Kafkologists” removes Kafka from his proper context within the Modern
literature of the world and pigeonholes him into these little autobiographical
readings. Looking at Kafka’s works, the world can be a cruel place, even if you
just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and looking at Kafka’s life, he
struggled in all of his relationships and had excruciating engagements with
women that were eventually broken off. Some have described his five-year epistolary engagement with Felice Bauer as a form of psychological abuse, and by all accounts, Kafka felt a certain sense of relief when he was
diagnosed with tuberculosis because it freed him to
take sick leave from his job at the insurance company and live out in a cottage
where he could write - pretty grim stuff.
we only read the virtuous?
these considerations don’t make me think I should stop reading authors like
Kafka and Kerouac by any means, but I’ve concluded that maybe I should make
sure to pepper in some positive role models for myself every now and again.
Literature and philosophy may be fascinating, but there are other things to
consider in life as well, such as your relationships with others and your
contributions to society.