Monday, June 29, 2020


Coronavirus time is providing me with the opportunity to tackle a long-neglected task: cleaning out and organizing the packed shelves in our garage. For more than a decade they have been the repository for everything for which we could not otherwise find a place. Our shelf space in the house, for instance, is inadequate for the hundreds of books we have acquired along the way. We have boxes overstuffed with family photographs and memorabilia that remain unsorted, disorganized, neglected for these many years: Clothiers and Williamses, Blankforts and Spingarns... Everything thrown into a box to avoid having to choose a place where we, or future generations, could ever find them. Some of the boxes, too, are falling apart with age and neglect and need to be replaced with something stronger. Some of them have been chewed on at the corners by inquisitive rodents. Or were those creatures so hungry they could even eat old paper?

It's a huge job. We are taking it slowly. I tackled one corner the other afternoon and turned up three whole storage boxes filled with manuscripts. There were a few duplicates, along with a few first drafts of books that were subsequently published. There's no earthly need to keep these early drafts, but I have not been able to throw them out--some writer's instinct to keep things archived, perhaps. A hesitation inspired by nothing more than vanity, as though some future research into the newly-rediscovered work of that overlooked genius Peter Clothier would require a close textual examination of thousands of typewritten pages with all their underlinings, deletions, handwritten improvements... Why would he have crossed out "and" and substituted "nor"? Weighty decisions. 

And then there are the manuscripts that were never published. My doctoral dissertation, for example, completed and finally approved in 1969 after months--well, years, really--of nit-picking pedagogical analysis and criticism from a distinguished academic literary theorist whose name I have conveniently forgotten. (I do him an injustice: he was a brilliant scholar, Italian, and at home was surely a kind family man with many grandchildren. I honor his memory, and his patience with a recalcitrant student). The title of the dissertation was "Magicians of Insecurity" and it was a study of contemporary French poetic theory seen through the eyes of a number of post-surrealist poets writing about their art. It was approved as a semi-creative dissertation, since much of it consisted in translation. I was at the Poetry Workshop at the time, translating poetry; and, in my last year there was appointed "Instructor" of the Translation Workshop, with poets from throughout the world working under my supervision. Target language: always English. Protocol required an appropriately scholarly introduction to the dissertation, though, which was where the problems started. I was not, and have long since abandoned any pretension to be, a scholar.

As you might have guessed, I have not taken the time to re-read "Magicians" since turning it up. More interesting to me was a handful of other unpublished manuscripts. Several of them were novels, at least three of them attempts to follow up on my initial 1980s success as a mystery-thriller writer: "The Closing Room", "Trompe l'Oeil", "Percent for Art"; and one of them a love story, titled simply "M". I spent many months working on them, many years in fact, in the hope that I might one day be able to make an actual living as a novelist. That hope proved vain. It never happened. I was distracted from my burgeoning career by a commission to write a monograph on the British artist David Hockney. 

There were also manuscript versions of books that looked back obsessively on my formative years in the English countryside as the son of an Anglican minister and at boarding school: "Sticks & Stones," "Down the Brain Drain"...  They remind me that I have been a lifelong disciple of the great French Romantic writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote these words at the beginning of his Confessions: "I have begun a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself." Later he wrote that his "real aim" was "to make known precisely my inner state, in all the situations of my life. It is the history of my soul that I have promised to give."

"Precedent"? St. Augustine, perhaps. Michel de Montaigne, my great hero, whose work led me to what would eventually become my preferred medium: the introspective essay. "Imitators"? Well, there have been many. When I first came to know, as a teenager, that I wanted to devote my life to writing, I was reading Christopher Isherwood, who saw things famously through the lens ("I am a camera") of his own eye. I still think of Isherwood's early work as my first inspiration. Those autobiographical stories I was writing even then, back in the 1970s, have blossomed into the trilogy I have been planning and working on these past two years or so. I have completed drafts of the first two books, but am still stuck on revisions to Part I, about those years of childhood and boarding school. It's called "What a Good Boy Am I".

I'm stuck, I think, because I have begun to question the very premise that I started out with--and one I have embraced throughout my writing life. I expressed it once in an essay titled "Tell Me Who You Are". I was writing not only about my own work, the philosophy I had evolved as a writer, but also about my work as an art critic. It's what I looked for from an artist, when I saw an exhibition for review: "Tell me who you are".  It's what the always elegant Montaigne was asking, of himself. He was infinitely curious about the vehicle of his body and workings of his mind. It is the most impulse and the most basic act of communication between human beings. We are driven to ask it of others, driven to tell it of ourselves.

Yet I find myself torn between this passion for the idea and practice of self-reflection, the deep study of the inner self, and the nagging awareness of an external world--a universe, if you like--in which the individual self is an infinitesimal fragment whose significance is proportionate to its fleeting presence. I read what I have written and watch the judgments rise: the wounds of those early years are real... but how much less significant than those experienced by so many of my fellow humans who live in the throes of hunger, poverty, of disease and unending, brutal violence! Even today, in the context of a raging plague, rampant discrimination, ignorance and poverty even in my richly endowed adopted country, I am among the most fortunate of people on this earth. I have a safe home, sufficient financial resources, the support of friends and family...

And what I realize is this: That what is essential to my well-being in the world is the spirit of generosity. Enough with the self-reflection. It has served me well in coming at least to this awareness, but it no longer serves me. Coronavirus time, the time of a vengeful, narcissistic and despotic leader in the country where I live, a time of crisis for the very planet we humans are given to inhabit, the time of my eighth decade here on earth, offer other possibilities. It's time to look outward with a compassionate heart. Time to find ways to practice generosity in meaningful acts of personal and public service. Time to leave little Peter behind and embrace the bigger world, the universe... And that's the ticket, as any Buddhist should know: the ticket to happiness.

These are the daily questions to ask myself, then: how can I be of service to one other living being today? Is there some way to better serve the world I live in? Is there some way to make connection with one other human being? Or heal a connection that was lost or broken?

I have taken some pride already in discarding worthless parts of my ego, where I have found them. Here's another big piece to discard: my attachment to the passion for self-reflection and self-knowledge. I have reflected for too long; I know as much as I need to know already. I was brought up short by these words from Thanissaro Bhikkhu in a post-meditation Q & A discussion yesterday: he said, in his quiet and utterly convincing way, "You don't need to listen to that voice." He was addressing a question someone else brought up, something perhaps not relative to what I'm writing about here. But it's a piece of wisdom that has wide, if not universal application. Our inner voices can be scolding, seductive, cautionary, repressive. We obey them all the time, even without acknowledging them. Listen! You'll hear them if you listen. For myself, the voice I don't need to listen to right now is the one that calls me ever further inward. I'm grateful to have heard it.

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