Thursday, January 14, 2016

"I must point out that it is a very dangerous move for an artist to expose himself so completely.  Indeed, in other times it would have been fatal for an artist not yet full grown to show us his sores and wounds, real and illusory strengths.  Until very recently the artist was a magician who did his magic in public view but kept himself and his effects a matter of mystery.... However, it may possible to get away with this sort of thing today, for we live in the age of confession.... The audience no longer consumes novels, but it does devour personalities.  Yet what happens after one is eaten?  Is one regurgitated?  Or does the audience move on to its next dinner of scandal and tears, its previous meal absorbed and forgotten?

The human mind is in continual flux, and personality is simply a sum of those attitudes which most often repeat themselves in recognizable actions.  It is naive and dangerous to try to impose on the human mind any system of thought which lays claim to finality.  Very few first-rate writers have ever subordinated their own apprehension of a most protean reality to a man-made system of thought.... And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to the terrified man but disastrous for an artist.

Of course it is sometimes the work of a lifetime for an artist to discover who he is and it is true that a great deal of good art results from the trying on of masks, the affectation of a persona not one's own.... Telling stories does seem a silly occupation for one fully grown; yet to be a philosopher or a religious is not easy when one is making a novel.  Also, in a society such as ours, where there is no moral, political or religious center, the temptation to fill the void is irresistible.  There is the empty throne, so... seize the crown!  Who would not be a king or high priest in such an age?  And the writers, each in his own way, are preoccupied with power.  Some hope to achieve place through good deportment.  Universities are filled with poets and novelists conducting demure and careful lives in imitation of Eliot and Forster and those others who (through what seems to have been discretion) made it.

Yet all the time [the writer] knows perfectly well that writers are not in competition with one another.  The real enemy is the audience, which grows more and more indifferent to literature, an audience which can be reached only by phenomena, by superior pornographies or willfully meretricious accounts of the way we live now....  He wants to influence those who are alive at this time, but they will not notice him even when he is good.  So each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells.  Anything to get their attention, and finally (and this could be his tragedy) so much energy is spent in getting the indifferent ear to listen that when the time comes for him to speak there may not be enough strength of creative imagination left him to say what he knows."

--excerpted from "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements" by Gore Vidal (1960)


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