On being uncertain whether to marry or buy a bicycle

That was the title of the last post but one, till I realised it risked becoming intractable. The question remains whether it would have been better to synthesize the disparate material, or separate it; there is value in marrying ideas that seem ready to fly apart. The natural break is that it’s possible to consider the idea of the kairos (again, with a certain regret, or even distaste, transliterated) without placing it in the context of a particular Greek play: it is established that it can mean the right thing, not necessarily the right time.

The marriage, or leap, I want to make is between this idea and the process of writing, with reference especially to this writing. I used to keep — still keep — a journal, in which on the whole I don’t write about my actual life, something I lost interest in doing in my twenties. But I think I don’t write so much, or in so articulate a way, about ideas; that has been displaced to this blog, which in turn stands in the place of other forms of writing, that could be called literature. There is no public for Apipucos, but the very idea of having readers makes me try harder to bring these musings into focus; nonetheless, they don’t arrive anywhere. One could take that as a virtue: if I felt the need to establish incremental conclusions, I would just be writing some undergraduate essay, and worse, those who actually know about classics or epistemology or whatever it might be would probably tell me to go back to the library and get my facts straight. Most blogs, I think, really exist as an act of self-promotion, to ponder and advertise some other activity; to put it another way, their essential raison d’être is as a form of ephemeral engagement.

Contrast the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi, with its thousands of pages of careful argument. The existential hesitation I propose is whether I would do better to tauten my journal, and archive this public face? Or undertake some public project with more traction on the world?

Ten years ago, when the florid viciousness of the internet today was a mere peachy bloom on the silicon, I caught the tail of a controversy about creative writing and the MFA, and made a snarky comment about something someone said about it, not knowing that she would get an alert as a result, as I realised when my post received a silent visit from across the water. (I believe this is called a “pingback”.) Thinking about what the blogosphere is actually for brought my misdeed to mind, and I returned for a look and saw not only that I had been unfair (for which I sincerely apologise) but what good sense and rich reflections on the writing life lay below in the same post by Sonya Chung . Here is the corpus delicti:


I will begin with some thoughts about kairos to prepare the way for the parallel with Chung on good (or perhaps rather, better) writing. Granted the possibility of making mistakes, through dithering or hubris or (thinking of Phaedra) misplaced compunction — whatever it may be — how do you tell? Even in hindsight, that may not be as easy as it might seem; “the road not taken” is one we probably won’t return to as “way leads on to way”. Given a choice, one should try to do the right or best thing (rarely though in practice is there a choice, constrained as we are by our commitments, habits, prejudices); but afterwards, isn’t what makes the difference, rather than the rightness of the choice, following it through with conviction? If for example a talented graduate decides to seek fortune in the new world, or remain in the old country, consequential as the choice is, either way, the chances of success probably lie not in one way being right and the other wrong, but subsequent application and good fortune? Hindsight will then approve the choice, whichever it was; within reason, in the fullest sense, that is, an intemperate, imprudent or unjust choice risks landing so badly it is beyond salvation.

In that post, Chung says that “the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty” — because success is so uncertain, both literary glory and the achievement on which it is supposed to rest (but public taste is fickle). She gives some examples, and then comes this marvellous metaphor:

As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting; others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction.

If we just knew what “good writing” was, it could be turned out by the yard. All we can do is “keep writing; which by the way is the only way to write better.”

I feel like a suppliant at the temple of the Muses, not admitted as it rains for forty days and forty nights. What keeps me in vigil at the door is the abiding belief in the importance of true language, callida junctura, the mot juste, the aperçu. This can be seen too in the philologist’s pursuit of the truth of the text: both the true reading, and the true tone and sense; though none of these may be entirely recoverable, with judicious enquiry, perhaps they may come closer. For example, are the nurse’s words εἴ τοι δοκεῖ σοι at line 507 of the Hippolytus, to a reluctant, but crumbling Phaedra: “Well if that’s what you think, (then you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (giving easier sense) or “Very well then, (you shouldn’t have done it, but here we are) …” (reflecting — perhaps — idiomatic speech)? The colour of this moment — whether Phaedra is cajoled or enticed over the hump — is accordingly quite different, and the whole tone of the play also, by the accumulation of similar tough choices.


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