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DESIRE FOR OBLIVION

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Steven G. Kellman

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The Montréal Review, September 2021

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Image: Gideon Rubin (Portraits Without A Face)

 

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
                                    --Emily Dickinson
                                    Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.
                                                            --Philip Larkin

 

Bob Kaufman, the Beat street poet, failed. “My ambition,” he told an interviewer, “is to be completely forgotten” (Kaufman ix). However, many readers – especially in France, where he is called “le Rimbaud américain” – remember Kaufman. The original French prototype, Arthur Rimbaud, ceased writing at nineteen, choosing exile and silence. Kaufman, too, became mute. On November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he took a vow of silence and retracted it only on April 30, 1975, at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Though much of Kaufman’s work was improvisational and oral, he could not escape the immortalizing power of written art; as Shakespeare assures the beloved in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Yet poets, more than half in love with easeful death, sometimes wish to vanish; in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats longs “To cease upon the midnight with no pain.” Poetry, nevertheless, is a stay against extinction.

            Cover photos, bios, national tours, interviews, glossy ads – the publishing industry’s arsenal of publicity discourages the death of the author. And many writers are more than compliant with demands on their presence, eagerly signing books to position themselves as cynosures. Painters autograph the edges of their canvases, though it is a practice that dates only to the early Renaissance. The earliest signed oil painting is thought to date to 1507: Raphael’s rendition of The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (Lorenzi). By contrast to the twenty-four-year old Italian’s insertion of himself into a sacred scene, the creators of the Magdeburg Ivories, the Unicorn Tapestries, and Chartres Cathedral remain unknown, as do the authors of major medieval literary works, including Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland, El Cid, Everyman, Das Niebelungenlied, Njál’s Saga, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the medieval guild system, artists worked collectively and anonymously to serve the community or for the glory of God, not to enhance their personal brands. As that system collapsed, it was supplanted by the celebration of individual genius. When signed by Dürer, Rembrandt, or Titian, works gained market value as their signators gathered renown.

            The title that Norman Mailer gave to his 1959 essay collection, Advertisements for Myself, might also describe the self-aggrandizement that shaped the careers of Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Yukio Mishima, and Dylan Thomas, among many other architects of their own reputations. Brazenly titling his poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman celebrated himself and sang himself. A Norwegian singer of self, Ole Ove Kanusgaard natters on for six volumes of sometimes embarrassingly intimate autofiction that he called Min Kamp (My Struggle) and that became an international bestseller. A competitive culture rewards those who swagger. Introverts need not apply, since the very act of applying entails self-promotion.

But, reveling in the grandiose image he had created for himself, Salvador Dalí observed: “Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí” (Meisler). Self-expression is self-assertion, but few other artists are quite as bombastic and vainglorious as Dalí, though neither are many as self-loathing as Franz Kafka, who imagined awakening in the morning as a hideous vermin. Few embrace obscurity as passionately as Emily Dickinson, who declaring: “I’m Nobody!” wrote:

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

For the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel, being treated as nobody is both an asset and a liability. While white society denies the Invisible Man his full humanity, his marginality liberates him from social constraints, and he savors it. However, racial invisibility caused Harriet E. Wilson to publish Our Nig anonymously in 1859, and kept the novel from being widely known until 1984. James Baldwin was already famous by 1961, when he published an essay collection he called Nobody Knows My Name, but he meant the title as a critique of white supremacy, of a society in which people of color are deprived of individualizing labels, markers of their singularity. Similarly, the #SayHerName movement arose in 2015 to make visible, by reciting their names, the black female victims of police brutality and racial violence. The pathos of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia – like that of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, La Tombe du soldat inconnu beneath Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, and similar graves throughout the world – derives not only from the fact that a human being was killed in combat but that the corpse could not be identified. W.H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” is a sardonic account of a life so conventional and nondescript that it was hardly a life. In these cases, anonymity is not something to be celebrated, but rather a symptom of injustice.

Though Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling make a fortune through their writing, most writers are not fortunate enough to make a living from their art. Most presumably yearn to make a name at least. Magazines would not publish bylines if writers did not seek to make a name for themselves. However, writers who shun fame often thereby attract the attention they eschew. Thomas Pynchon is known for not wanting to be known.

In “Lycidas,” his elegy for the poet Edward King, John Milton ponders why anyone would be willing to sacrifice personal comforts and pleasures in order to write poetry, a demanding discipline that offers few obvious rewards. He asks “what boots it with incessant care” to “strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” And he answers that:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;

The thirst for fame is an infirmity because reputations are not always earned by merit and because they rarely endure. Milton urges his readers to set their sights instead on heavenly fame, which is neither capricious nor ephemeral. Is it delusional? Few today read Sully Prudhomme, who in 1901 became the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect." Though they were still alive in 1901, neither Benito Pérez Galdós, nor Thomas Hardy nor Henrik Ibsen nor Henry James nor Machado de Assis nor August Strindberg nor Leo Tolstoy nor Mark Twain nor Emile Zola received the special recognition bestowed on Prudhomme.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 forced writers – and all other non-essential workers – into the kind of isolation Henry David Thoreau might have coveted, when he declared, in a book, Walden, that was already out of print at the time of his death in 1862: “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will” (Thoreau 135). However, social isolation would cripple others who crave company as a spur to creativity. Forced closure of La Closerie des Lilas in Paris might have stifled F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford, as would the shuttering of Cafe La Habana in Mexico City have handicapped Roberto Bolaño and Gabriel García Márquez.

Clubbable writers thrive in the spotlight, but for many others living in public is a distraction from the work. They resent having to be traveling salespersons of their own volumes. They recoil at fatuous questions posed by interviewers who have not bothered to read them. A zealous sentinel of her own privacy, Harper Lee refused to talk to strangers about To Kill a Mockingbird or the second novel she never wrote. Writing under the nom de plume Elena Ferrante, the author of four Neapolitan novels beginning with L'amica geniale  (My Brilliant Friend) has refused to reveal her identity, lest it divert attention from the writing to the writer. In this, she affirms T.S. Eliot’s doctrine of the depersonalization of art, his dictum that: “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry” (Eliot). Despite worldwide critical and commercial success, Ferrante fiercely guards her personal identity and insists: “I remain of the opinion that a book has to absolutely make it on its own; it shouldn’t even use advertising” (Heti 29).

The most publicized resistance to publicity in the twentieth century was enacted by J.D. Salinger, who resented the frenzied, cultish attention that he had acquired with the The Catcher in the Rye. He retired to the rural fastness of Cornish, New Hampshire, where he reportedly brandished a shotgun at those who tried to invade his sanctuary. After placing the story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the June 19, 1965 edition of The New Yorker, Salinger, who died in 2010, never again shared his writing with the public. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he explained in a rare interview. “It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion” (Alexander 250).

Don DeLillo avoids public appearances, and Owen Brademas, the protagonist of DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names, seems to be speaking for his reticent author when he states: “If I were a writer, how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely” (DeLillo 77). It was not exactly lovely for Franz Kafka to work in the margins, but his marginality was essential to his personality. “What have I in common with Jews?” he asked himself in a diary entry for January, 1914. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe” (Kafka 11). Kafka’s self-abnegation kept him from publishing, and even completing, much of his fiction, and it prompted his deathbed request that Max Brod burn his manuscripts. The case of Kafka, the anti-Dalí, transcends introversion into ascesis and self-denial. Whereas Eliot was being metaphorical when he contended that: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (Eliot), Kafka was dead serious about the mortification of the self.

The compulsion to withdraw can be a symptom of pathology. A mental disorder caused Friedrich Hölderlin to be hospitalized in a clinic in Tübingen and then discharged as incurable. A benevolent carpenter granted Hölderlin residence in the tower of his house for the last thirty-six years of the poet’s life, until his death in 1843. In its terseness and simplicity, the poetry he wrote during his final decades in retreat contrasts sharply with the earlier work that had established his reputation as one of the leading figures in German Romanticism.

Robert Walser, too, disappeared into madness. Early in his career, he was sociable enough to frequent the cafés, theaters, and salons of Zurich and Berlin and write work that was known and admired by Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil. However, in 1929, Walser suffered a nervous breakdown in his native Bern. Diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, he lived in a mental home until his death in 1956. He eventually stopped writing altogether, but the prose that he produced during his first years in confinement applied what he called his “pencil method” – minuscule handwriting whose letters are less than one-tenth of an inch in height. He crammed an entire novel onto twenty-four sides of octavo-sized paper and an entire story onto a business card. It was only after Walser’s death that his “microscripts” could – with great difficulty – be deciphered and published.  In contrast to an alpha male such as John Hancock, whose role in the American Revolution was writ large, most famously in his outsized signature on the Declaration of Independence, Walser shrank into diminutive, virtually illegible letters. But the showboat and the wallflower – the flamboyant playwright, poet, and military leader Gabriele D’Annunzio and Simone Weil, the self-denying altruist who died for lack of sustenance – are not opposites as much as kindred spirits; both are insecure about the self.

If, as the reclusive Dickinson – in one of her posthumously published fascicles – noted, “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” insanity is sometimes indistinguishable from sanctity, agoraphobia from monastic devotion. John Clare, whose most famous poem expresses the self-abnegation of a saint – “I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;/ My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/ I am the self-consumer of my woes” (Clare) – spent the last two decades of his life in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. The sand mandala, an intricate colored sand painting that Tibetan monks spend weeks creating only to dismantle in a rapid ritual reminder of impermanence, enacts Philip Larkin’s urge for oblivion. Most religions regard humility, a deflation of the ego, as a virtue, and many revere the solitude of the eremite. Salinger’s mania for privacy, his flight from saṃsāra, overlaps with the Buddhist spirituality explored through his fiction. According to the doctrine of anātman, belief in an essential, enduring self is an illusion. And many other mystical traditions regard the ego as something to shun, expunge, and transcend. Religious ecstasy is, literally, a state of being outside the self. Kaufman, who edited a San Francisco magazine called Beatitude, also underwent electroshock treatments at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. He is both beatified and batty when he writes:

Someone who I am is no one.
Something I have done is nothing.
Someplace I have been is nowhere.
 I am not me (Kaufman “Jail Poems” 53).

As Homer recalls, wily Odysseus escapes from the cave of the Cyclops by poking out the monster’s solitary eye. The wounded Cyclops roars to the fleeing Greek: “Who are you? Who can I say did this this to me?” Odysseus, skilled in all ways of contending, replies: “Nobody. My name is Nobody.” When the Cyclops appeals to his fellow creatures for help in exacting revenge, they mock him. If Nobody poked out his eye, what is the problem? Thus did Odysseus make a name for himself by spurning names. His talent for evasion ensured his survival in human memory.

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Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. He is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside, The Translingual Imagination, Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text, and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, which received the New York Society Library Award for Biography, as well as hundreds of essays and more than a thousand reviews. Among his other honors are the Gemini Ink Literary Excellence Award and the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award. He lives in San Antonio.

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Works Cited
Alexander, Paul. Salinger: A Biography. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999.
Clare, John. “I Am!” Poetry Foundation.

Dickinson, Emily. “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 260.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Poetry Foundation.

Heti, Sheila. “‘Be Silent, Recover My Strength, Start Again’: In Correspondence with Elena Ferrante.” Brick 98 (Winter 2017). 19-29.

Kafka, Franz. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Trans. Martin Greenberg, with Hannah Arendt. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1949.

Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. Ed. Raymond Foye. New York: New Directions, 1981.

____________. “Jail Poems.” Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman. Ed. Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Faye, and Tate Swindell. San Francisco: City Lights, 2019.

Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” John Keats – Selected Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth Cook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 174-76.

Larkin, Philip. “Wants.” Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004. 52.
Lorenzi, Rossella.  “Earliest Signature of Renaissance Artist Found.”  Science on NBC News.com. March 19, 2010.

Meisler, Stanley. “The Surreal World of Salvador Dalí.” Smithsonian Magazine, April, 2005.

Milton, John. “Lycidas.” Poetry Foundation.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18.” William Shakespeare Complete Works. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmusen. New York: Modern Library, 2007. 2438.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: 150th Anniversary Edition. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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