Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Itching for a Fight

By any accounts one of our early speculative writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne produced a short story, The Intelligence Office, in which individuals came to ask practical and existential questions with the hope of being supplied direct, non-bureaucratic answers. Indeed, as the narrative develops, one such person arrives, heatedly exclaiming: "I want my place! My own place! My true place in the world! My proper sphere! My thing to do which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry..."

There is more to the quote, which is a memorable and lovely one as are so many of Hawthorne's gem-like observations but, lover of the digression that I am, I forebear to quote. As Dryden once said of Chaucer, "Here [in Hawthorne's aphoristic display]is God's plenty." Those of us who have found their proper sphere in the world of writing have indeed been fashioned awry by that lovely combination of cells, bones, wired-in predilections, and compulsions that make us what we are and which we must now struggle with, for being fashioned awry by nature means exactly what it says: seriously awry.

Some of us are in it for the apparent glory of success in terms of numbers of copies actually sold, others of us seek prizes and grants, perhaps even writer-in-residence appointments. Others still pursue the Holy Grail of the perfect story, the perfect novel, the one critics will hold up as the gleaming example, the pole star for all who follow. For others yet, there is the ambivalent sense of a recurring itch somewhere between our metaphoric shoulders, a place that cannot be conveniently reached by ourselves and so we lurch about, aware of the itch, somehow satisfied to have found it, but always on the lookout for a place we can use for an itching post.

Writers write to redress old wrongs, real and imagined, wrongs inflicted on themselves and others. Writers write for revenge against real and imaginary lovers, authority figures, editors, and literary agents. Writers write to build up, tear down, and rearrange, a series of motives that applies to history, demographics, economics, and the big three among forbidden areas of trespass, sex, religion, and politics. (Philip Roth Comes to mind as someone who has engaged all three with a particular panache.)

And so we lurch on, mindful of our itch and the near impossible prospect of scratching it into submission, on the metaphoric cusp, which is where we deserve to be. Writers who don't itch are either dead or deluded. For the rest of us, it is as though we are Gatsby, on the lookout for the green light at the end of the harbor, hopeful, continuously hopeful of effecting some outcome which we constantly revise in the secret blogs of our head.

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