Monday, October 24, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PERFECTION OF THE LIFE BEFORE THE WORK
In his poem The Choice W.B. Yeats wrote, “The intellect of man is forced to choose, Perfection of the life, or of the work.”
What a complete tosser!
Quite apart from the hubris of thinking that one can “choose” any sort of perfection, Yeats seems to me to be creating an excuse to live badly, in the moral sense. Because you think of yourself as a superior person, an artist, you are entitled to live badly, in the sense of ignoring or neglecting others. “Don’t bother me, wife and children – I am creating a great work of art here and it is more important than my care for you!”
All my instincts tell me that no matter how great you think your work of art may be, it is less important than the lives of people to whom you say you are committed.
I hit this grim note because I recently read and greatly enjoyed Adam Dudding’s book My Father’s Island [see my review thereof], concerning his dad Robin Dudding.
I won’t re-write my review here, but at least part of the import of the book was the fact that, in living a bohemian life and so fully devoting himself to the lowly-paid vocation of being an excellent literary editor, Robin Dudding (who had six children) placed quite a few strains on his family. Dudding fils does not condemn Dudding pere, says a lot of good things about him and remembers many happy aspects of his childhood. But it is clear that much of the father’s literary preoccupation led to straitened circumstances for his family and some grief.
Of course another literary quotation flashes through my mind. Cyril Connolly (a reviewer who spent much of his life making excuses for not writing much of his own) notoriously said in Enemies of Promise that having a family was bad for producing art. He wrote: "She [the artist's wife] will know that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway." Some years ago in the Guardian, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell (who was pregnant at the time) referred to this as “Cyril Connolly's famous and loathsome assertion”. And yet she did go on to consider the difficulties of being both a parent and a serious writer.
Which is mainly what I want to consider.
There is no doubt at all that people with few or no children have fewer constraints on their time than people with more children. Should people with few or no children choose to become artists or writers, they will have fewer interruptions built into their lives. And, while this will not automatically mean that they will produce great art, it will at least mean that they will be able to work steadily – and in solitude.
For some this will sound unproblematic, especially in the anti-natalist age in which we live. But speaking as somebody with many children, I can see a number of problems.
First, there is that fact that the philoprogentive voice is hardly ever heard in modern literature. It is taken for granted that literary people are people with no – or, at most, a sensible one or two – children. Certainly this skews the social assumptions that most writers make, and appearances of married couples with more than the regulation one or two kids become rarer and rarer in what passes for serious literature.
Second, there is little recognition of the double bind which writers with many children are in. Devote most of your time to your family rather than your writing and you will always be cast as a minor talent. Work hard at your writing and you will sometimes be accused of neglecting your family. Indeed you probably will be neglecting your family. The stereotype (often repeated with feminist ire) is of the male writer locked away happily in his study while his wife has to do all the drudgery of washing, cooking and child-rearing. There are now on the market many literary biographies of budding women writers thus thwarted by unfeeling writing husbands.
If you have children, then obviously your children are, and most properly should be, your main concern. Writing and artistic endeavour come second. I am not “raging in the dark” about this. I am simply stating a reasonable ethical truth. But it does mean that those with the leisure time to cultivate networks of supporters will usually be the ones with no children. And, talentless bastards or not, they will tend to be the ones who get others to make reputations for them.