For some time prior to my last article, the one entitled Brain Fog, I had been preoccupied with the question of stupidity. The phrase ‘brain fog’ locates this preoccupation around the pandemic, but in fact it predates that strange period by a considerable margin. Maybe it can be tracked all the way back to the referendum. More recently, however, my solid conviction that the species taken as a whole, and leaving aside the honourable exceptions, was markedly more stupid than me has taken a battering. Stupidity has kept surprising me, which makes me feel like the stupid one here. It has introduced a real quandary, because if I am in actual fact stupid, how can I claim any longer to be able to assess stupidity in others?
Now before anyone accuses me of hopeless self-absorption, I freely admit that my own stupidity has only started to fascinate me this year. It began when my confident assumption that I could predict the major currents of history, based on the success of numerous previous predictions, was rudely overturned. As the Russian army gathered around the borders, I was as nervous as everyone else that the unthinkable might happen by accident. At the same time, in common with most intelligent people, I knew Putin was not stupid enough to believe his own propaganda and actually invade. When you have little influence over events, your only recourse is to predictions. In my case, I have no influence in the world beyond the installation of nest boxes for the swifts. This impotence has elevated me to the status of a seer.
I don’t wish to dwell too long on this world-historical instance of stupidity demonstrating hidden depths, but getting caught out in this way, by a decision too profoundly stupid for mere intelligence to fathom, has had a devastating effect on my confidence. I’d say the devastation is analogous to the blowback from Western sanctions against Russia. Just as the ‘intelligent’ assessment of events was revealed to be the stupidest one, so the West has ended up suffering most from the sanctions it imposed. It’s as if there is something invulnerable about Stupidity. It wears an invisible bullet-proof carapace, like a force field. By being more stupid than we think it is, Stupidity is able to outsmart us every time, even the best-aimed bullets simply bounce back and kill its enemy.
A failure of intelligence, as they say in Whitehall. I had to do something, quick, to restore faith in my mental faculties. When it comes to failure, my instincts are infallible. Faced by a sense of my own inferior intelligence, I strayed back into the groves of Academe where I’d first learnt to dispraise it. I returned to the vomit of Lit. Crit., only to find that I was the vomit.
Actually, I can track the loss of confidence back some time before Academe, to school. It began with Shakespeare. I don’t want to be too hard on him, God knows the Bard has come in for a lot of stick over the years, from his contemporary Greene to the magisterial Tolstoy, then Wittgenstein (who couldn’t stand him) and of course, in more recent times, the very erudite Mark Rylance. My own perceptions of the great playwright were more conventional. I was lost in admiration. I thought he was too perfect ever to have existed. Then I thought he must be someone else. Then I thought he must have been a committee, King James’ Bible style. The fact is that from the age of around fourteen I began to read him with rapt wonder at the poetry, the dramaturgy, the all-round brilliance of the thing. I wanted to be a writer, but as Joseph Heller said somewhere, every writer wishes he’d been Shakespeare. When presented with such perfection and – for the purposes of this argument – with such utterly transcendent influence, who would not want to have been that person?
Is this simply the cross every aspiring writer in English has to bear? Possibly. On the other hand, my confidence being as low as I have described, I wonder if my stupidity made it impossible to get out from under the big fat arse of Shakespeare’s genius.
I recall a story told by an older brother who sat on his younger sibling’s head, threatening to fart and saying “As far as you’re concerned, I am God!” There are so many worrisome theological aspects to that statement. The fact is, though, that Shakespeare sat on my imagination like some bastard brother for years. I could not simply read him and enjoy his plays, on stage or page, nor could I admire him with a kind of critical detachment. What I did was read him with a view to working out how he was so good. I wanted the secret. I was, unwittingly, a more anxious version of the famous chimpanzee which, given enough time, will be able to come up with the complete works by randomly banging away at a keyboard. Like Heller, I wanted to be Shakespeare, and so every reading or attendance at one of his plays was an effort. I was more self-conscious than bloody Hamlet and, of course, equally constipated. I was expecting no less of myself than to outdo the Bard, presumably by solving the mystery of how he did it first, then doing that thing he did myself, and then, at the end of this laborious process, out-barding the Bard altogether. That would have been strong of me, since the anxiety I suffered was the same as Harold Bloom describes:
‘The poet in every reader does not experience the same disjunction from what he reads that the critic in every reader necessarily feels. What gives pleasure to the critic in a reader may give anxiety to the poet in him, an anxiety we have learned, as readers, to neglect, to our own loss and peril. This anxiety, this mode of melancholy, is the anxiety of influence, the dark and daemonic ground upon which we now enter…’
Dark and daemonic ground indeed. A reader like I was makes a pretty useless critic, due to an inability to read without the anxiety of frustrated emulation.
I shall come to Bloom later, since he has precipitated me into this whole nightmare of introspection. But first, a complaint: why is it that some of my brightest ideas turn out to have occurred to other people already? I could list the instances ad nauseam, as it really is a question of nausea. For the present need, two will suffice. The first concerns Goya’s Maja, dressed and undressed. In a flash of inspiration, I had the bright idea this might be an early version of the pens we had at school, the ones where you saw a lady dressed if the pen was held one way up,
but if you turned the pen the other way up, she slowly stripped till she was fully naked.
The slowness was something to do with the movement of the ink. This idea was so pleasing to me that I photoshopped my own versions (see above) and posted them on Instagram. Imagine my chagrin, therefore, when, but a few months later, I was watching an episode of The Great Artists with Goya as its subject. There was Tim Marlow, casual as you like, telling us all about Goya at his usual breakneck speed. It was late at night; I was mostly wondering how he could speak so quickly without making a hash of it. Then, when he came to the Maja paintings, and as if in parenthesis, I heard him declare that they were basically the prototype for a novelty pen where the lady takes her clothes off.
This was a major irritation. It actually spoilt things for me. First, there was the fact that my bright idea was nothing new; that someone had got there first and, as it seemed to my chagrin, nicked it. But it was also galling that he had failed to do much with the idea, obviously thinking it was a throwaway remark, whereas I (in my plodding stupidity) had gone to the trouble of realising it, thinking I was oh so clever to have done so.
The second such revelation of my own lack of originality is more serious perhaps and it relates to Harold Bloom, of whom I have reason to speak in more detail later. For the moment, let me say how painful it was for me when I read his Anxiety of Influence for the first time and discovered that he’d used the concept of the ‘clinamen’ or swerve from Lucretius to explain how strong poets managed to misread, and thus outdo, their predecessors.
That, by the way, would be the very swerve I was not nimble or agile enough to pull off as a victim of Shakespeare’s suffocating behind. The weak writer gets sat upon, leading to second rate imitations of the predecessor, and the sorry oblivion he or she deserves. I may be a different version of this particular phenomenon, as it is even harder to swerve to avoid an influence one is entirely oblivious to. In the case of Tim Marlow, the casually brilliant (though I say so myself) observer of Francisco Goya, I had no way of knowing the idea had already been had. Likewise with Bloom, I had separately and independently drawn upon an ancient writer for a theory of failure and inspiration which, to my eternal shame and massive relief, never got written. I shook hands with Jacques Derrida once (I shall have much more to say about hands shaking in due course) as my supervisor introduced me as a researcher into failure, at which he very wittily wished me “Good luck!” Little did he or anyone present, least of all my hapless supervisor, suspect that the essence of my doctoral thesis had already been anticipated by the most prominent literary critic of the age. This, then, was a case of no-anxiety-about-a-complete-lack-of-influence, which would have been the result if I had walked out of my very first Shakespeare class and refused, on pain of death or detention, ever to read a single syllable of recorded time – ahem, sorry, letting my esteem for the great man get the better of me again – a single syllable of the indispensable genius of the English language.
Turning to the Spanish again for a moment, though sadly without reverting to the topic of novelty pens, there is a wonderful story by Jorge Luis Borges concerning the capacious hind parts of their most enthroned writer, the inevitable Miguel de Cervantes, which deals obliquely with the anxiety of influence and effectively defuses the bomb, even before Bloom had time to plant it. Some small revenge for me there, then.
The story goes that a Frenchman by the name of Pierre Menard, recently deceased, was so great an admirer of his illustrious predecessor, Cervantes, that he attempted the impossible thing I myself had attempted with regard to the Spaniard’s near contemporary over in Southwark; in short, to be Cervantes.
Now this is perfectly understandable. What Heller neglected to point out, after all, was that any aspiring novelist would give their left arm to have been Cervantes, the true founder of that genre, the writer who, at a stroke, made a work of such perfection that there could be no great novel after Don Quixote, any more than there could be any great poem after Homer’s Iliad, not even the Odyssey, or any great play after the first (or was it the second?) folio. Like all the illustrious predecessors, he is the Arse to whom we latecomers are but Grooms of the Stool. Sure, Montaigne remarked – I paraphrase somewhat – that even the highest throne in the world has some arse or other on it, but that doesn’t much bother the arse. Yet another case of Stupidity’s invulnerability.
According to Borges’s overawed narrator, Menard had some form when it came to attempting the impossible. Among the list of his works is this one, designated as e):
‘a technical article on the possibility of enriching the game of chess by eliminating one of the rook's pawns (Menard proposes, recommends, debates, and finally rejects this innovation)’
It goes without saying that, had Menard succeeded, and had the game of chess actually been enriched by so simple a swerve away from the accepted rules, his name would now be ranked alongside the most celebrated grandmasters.
But maybe swerving of that kind was too drastic, too obvious, and simply not difficult or futile enough to be worth the candle. (There are times when the account of Menard verges on the Pythonesque). What the Frenchman pulls off, according to the overawed narrator, is ‘a task of infinite complexity, a task futile from the outset.’ His work, ‘perhaps the most significant writing of our time,’ consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part I of Don Quixote and a fragment of Chapter XXII. However, he ‘did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote.’
I should stress at this point that the accomplishments of Pierre Menard did not spring fully-formed, as it were, from the head of Zeus. Early on in his life’s work he had taken some wrong turnings. For example, at one stage he foolishly undertook a literal identification with the dead master:
‘Initially, Menard's method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 – be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian) but he discarded it as too easy. Too impossible, rather, the reader will say. Quite so, but the undertaking was impossible from the outset, and of all the impossible ways of bringing it about, this was the least interesting. To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminution.’
Instead, he resolves to come to Don Quixote ‘through the experiences of Pierre Menard.’ Thus, in a letter to the narrator, Menard declares:
"The task I have undertaken is not in essence difficult... If I could just be immortal, I could do it."
How poignantly that sentence reads, now that its author is dead. Nonetheless, despite the time limitations, the results are so impressive that the awestruck narrator actually prefers his friend’s efforts to those of Cervantes. He praises the later writer’s avoidance of local colour, for instance, eschewing all reference to ‘gypsy goings-on or conquistadors or mystics or Philip II’s or autos-da-fé.’ He can be politely critical too. He dislikes what he perceives as an archaic and slightly affected style in Menard, though this is understandable in a non-native speaker, whereas Cervantes ‘employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness’.
All this can best be illustrated by the precious extracts Borges gives us, first from the original and then from Menard’s own version. The contrast between the two, though powerful, is, I think we can agree, by no means self-explanatory, hence I shall quote at length the remarks of the overawed narrator:
‘It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor.
This catalogue of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor.
History, the mother of truth! – the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality, but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not "what happened"; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases – exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor – are brazenly pragmatic…’
And so on.
No one would begrudge the Frenchman the nature of his accomplishment, however small a fraction of the original tome. The miracle is how this little could ever have been achieved. Yet the way he did this is, sadly, lost to posterity. Menard’s ‘final’ Quixote, the narrator declares, can be seen as ‘a kind of palimpsest, in which the traces – faint but not undecipherable – of our friend's “previous” text must shine through.’ This is a reference to the endless drafts that went into the production of the final Quixote. ‘Unfortunately,’ continues the narrator, ‘only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the labours of the first, would be able to exhume and revive those Troys...’
Alas, not for the first time, the topless towers of Ilium (as Marlowe called them) have been burnt. It’s a fanciful comparison. But drafts of what nature exactly? Presumably, attempts at rewriting the book, but if Menard was so keen, like his own more reliable Max Brod, to destroy these defective attempts, how would the narrator ever be able to prove they existed and thus go some way to refuting the charge that he was even madder than Menard himself? This enigma is resolved in a cunning footnote: ‘I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nîmes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.’
With this cheerful destruction of his notes, Menard ensures that only the perfected work, which to all intents and purposes already existed, survives the flames. Cheerfulness replaces Bloomian anxiety. The outcome, in relation to the great precursor, is to be neither a strong, nor a weak, writer. It is as if the book-mad knight, having succumbed to the confusion of fiction with reality, redeems his writers from theirs, and what Bloom calls the agon, futile as any struggle, ends in a truce between them whereby both can find peace, the ‘precursor’ and the ‘ephebe’ alike: ‘Only yesterday we were gathered before his marmoreal place of rest, among the dreary cypresses.’
It was not my intention to get lost in the anxieties of influence. I’ve always found it prudent to avoid Harold Bloom whenever possible. Then I came across a book that had won the Pulitzer Prize and was receiving startling acclaim from all quarters. I had never seen so many overawed critics. One piece in the Guardian went so far as to use the word ‘genius’. It was enough to make me want to avert my eyes, just as one might from overenthusiastic lovers, and mutter “Get a room!” I honestly didn't know people still indulged in this kind of naked lionising. Then I read the others. They were all falling over themselves to heap more praise. One writer even used 'pretentious' as a compliment.
The real shock, however, was finding out that this work of surpassing brilliance had been written by a person I’d once known. Vaguely. Many years ago. Little did I suspect back then that this slightly ridiculous character, who never had anything to say that wasn’t literary in one way or another, who had got himself a job in a bookshop in order to read and still look busy, and who qualified as possibly the most unprepossessing individual in any room, was the embryo of a titan.
I confess that this represents another one of those moments that – in the long, unforgiving perspective of twenty years – makes me feel more stupid than Putin. The thing that made it more excruciating still, was the conviction I remembered having at the time that no good would ever come of all that reading, that this future giant had read too much and could never meet Bloom’s requirements for a strong writer – he simply had too much to overcome.
How wrong can one be? Much more than we will ever know. It turns out that, just as money attracts money, books grow from books. Bloom could have told me that, of course, but I’d stubbornly refused to listen. So, naturally, I bought the book, and there in the front was a dedication to Harold Bloom. This is how literary criticism returns to bite you.
Now consider this, and it relates to Bloom’s interest in the Romantics, so not entirely tangential: I have the opportunity to write a bad review if I so choose, even if I don’t think the book deserves one, out of sheer spite. My personal knowledge of the writer could so grossly affect my judgement, that I would write a piece as excoriating – it’s the word, after all – as the awestruck narrator’s was laudatory. What hope was there of a balanced, considered appraisal, after what I just said about his effect on a room? And what if my review were to have a bad effect, just like the one that killed Keats, supposedly? Then I’d have the death of a genius on my conscience. Byron was very unkind on the subject when he wrote in Don Juan,
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuff'd out by an article.
I’d never be able to live with myself. But no, I reasoned, if I remember anything about him, I don’t think he’s the type to be slain by a critic, least not one of such diminutive stature with no influence over his world, the literary one, or over the big wide world for that matter. No, he was proof against my barbs. If anyone was in danger of being snuffed out by an article, it was little ol’ me.
Still, the fact we had met niggled me. Far from the usual six degrees of separation, this was not even one degree. My anxiety centred on whether we’d ever shaken hands. Obviously, I had been in close enough proximity to do so, but had I actually shaken it? This bugged me for some reason.
Around that time, I’d shaken Arthur Miller’s hand, but that was chiefly a thrill for me because, as I saw it, his hand had once been on intimate terms with Marilyn Monroe. If he was half decent, he’d never have washed that hand since. In fact, my whole motivation for shaking his hand, though he probably never suspected it, was to commune with Marilyn across eternity. It was, therefore, a very ulterior handshake. On a separate, unrelated occasion I shook hands with a startled Kate Moss at Christie’s, having pursued her through a haze of free champagne for an entire evening.
I even took this blurry photograph, unabashed by the fact that I was surrounded by portraits of her taken by some of the best photographers alive today. This brush with fame was nothing to do with where her hand had been, on whose erogenous zones, since her hand in itself far surpassed the glamour of anyone else’s. Yet the touch was important. Maybe I really am more stupid than I will ever truly know. I am an occultist of sorts, I crave contact with the legendary, who are the nearest we have to the immortals, as if in some manner I am cheating death the same way they do.
Still, I had failed to recognise one particular immortal when he was sitting right next to me, behind a bookshop counter, engrossed in some book and oblivious to a customer standing right in front of him, eager to make a purchase. In my own unerring way, I’d been more oblivious than he was, I had failed to see his fame coming. So, what does one do when an acquaintance wins the Pulitzer Prize? Clearly, one tries not to think about it much. Not, that is, till the next article.