Assignment

Retrospective

Edition

2007/2008

At the theater camp I used to go to, we cobbled together various scenes from numerous plays, many of which I have forgotten. But I do remember my tiny role in Act III, scene ii of Julius Caesar. Caesar has just been killed and a crowd gathers, clamoring for an explanation. Most people know Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” and it is justly celebrated; but Brutus’ speech just before it, in which he describes his reasons for participating in the murder, has just as great an influence on the “throng of citizens,” though they are soon seduced by Antony’s rhetoric. I was one of those citizens, in a makeshift toga and inauthentic sandals, and at every rehearsal I was sincerely swayed by each speech in turn, first by Brutus’ denunciation of the dangers of ambition and then by Marc Antony’s impassioned list of Caesar’s virtues. I cried “Live, Brutus!” in all earnestness. And yet, when the First Citizen said “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings,” referring to Marc Antony’s speech, I was able to nod my head in agreement without a shade of affectation.

My susceptibility to other people’s rhetoric has not waned in the years since that theatrical venture. Although in theory I know the importance of critical distance, I can never resist falling in love with the bold claims of an unfamiliar ideology or the stylistic arabesques of an undiscovered essayist. This is all very well, and I occasionally flatter myself that I am quick to understand the works I grow fond of, but such an unqualified embrace of another’s ideas is dangerous. I absorb style and content so comprehensively that they become an ineradicable facet of my mental landscape. Once this assimilation has occurred, I can no longer engage in analytical thought without feeling the influence of this or that view, no longer set pen to paper without unconsciously remembering all the writers whose language I have loved. The unnerving part of this endless receptiveness to new ideas lies in my incapacity to distance myself from the authors I have read. They become so intrinsic a part of me that to regard them as foreign feels unhealthy, almost schizophrenic.

My most visible stylistic influences are transient and easily identifiable. Even when I know that this shaping process is taking place, I am powerless to put it to a halt. When we read Hemingway short stories in my English class last year, I grew increasingly annoyed with what I considered chauvinism in the message of his work. And yet, I could not extend my disapproval to the bright clarity of his prose style. My sentences grew shorter in spite of myself, my descriptions turned terse, and my adverbs came close to extinction. I have overcome this now (perhaps unfortunately), but for a time, I could not resist mimicking Hemingway’s stark prose. The summer I started À la recherche du temps perdu, I succumbed to the opposite impulse. In both French and English, my sentences swelled to paragraph size and became laden with relative clauses, parentheses, commas, and pronouns with ambiguous antecedents. Of course, prose so directly influenced by Proust can never aspire to anything like Proust’s eloquence; it comes off as a pathetic imitation or an ill-starred attempt at parody.

The narrator of Proust’s epic novel (tentatively named Marcel) also suffers from excessive adoration of other authors. In Du côté de chez Swann, the volume relating the narrator’s childhood, he describes his worship of the writer Bergotte. Here is an approximation of his sentiment, which is much more eloquent in French: “Feeling how many parts of the universe there were that my infirm perception would not distinguish unless [Bergotte] were to bring them closer to me, I would have liked to possess an opinion of his, a metaphor of his, on all things” (my translation; Proust 94). I, too, have felt this particular sort of submissive enthusiasm, or intellectual dependence, so that I am constantly using the theories of a given writer (Proust himself, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry James) as a reference against which to judge the quality of my own thoughts. Marcel goes on: “whenever by chance I happened to encounter, in this or that book of [Bergotte’s], an idea that I had had myself, my heart swelled up as if God in his greatness had given it back to me, declared it legitimate and beautiful” (94). This, then, is the real threat to originality: when only ideas that are echoed by other authors are seen as worthwhile.

Stylistic changes are not the most pernicious effects of unconditional love for certain authors. Real trouble begins when methods of thinking as well as ways of writing come under the influence. When I wrote my lens essay at the beginning of this term, for example, I had just read parts of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and was filled with anti-colonial fervor.1 I was particularly drawn to the section of the book on the divisive effects of cultural imperialism and the difficulty experienced by the Western-educated elite of colonized countries to separate the positive values learned in colonial schools from the shameless Eurocentrism supported there. When looking for an exhibit to examine through the lens of Andre Aciman’s “oasis of the soul,” I could not help but draw links between his oasis and the one I imagined the colonized intellectual to have. Only now do I see the irony in being intellectually dominated by a theory about the dangers of intellectual domination. My admiration for Fanon was so manifest that I was wary about relying too heavily on him in my paper, and this guardedness ultimately prevented my lens essay from being totally derivative. In a defiant footnote on the first page, I demonstrated my awareness of that possibility: “[The “colonized intellectual”] is Frantz Fanon’s phrase from Les damnés de la terre. I am using it here for convenience, not to make a similar political point.” Rereading the paper, I find that this is mostly true. But the specter of Fanon haunts its pages nonetheless.

Our conversation progression dealt with the importance of grammar and usage.2 On this theme we read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and I fell head over heels for his scathing condemnation of bad writing. The problem, of course, is that essays about style must have a joint influence on someone easily influenced in such matters; for me, this took the form of paralysis. I could hear Orwell whispering to me about the two qualities common to all bad writing: “The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else” (Orwell 2). I would write a paragraph only to immediately witness the symptoms of the myriad diseases of slovenly writing and abandon it in despair.3 How humiliating, I thought, to write an essay about Orwell that displays all the “worn-out metaphors” (2), “pretentious diction” (3), and “meaningless words” (4) he expressly indicts! Even if the content of my paper displayed worshipful affection for his ideas, it was a bungled attempt at appreciation. Only the necessities of deadlines and impending evaluation saved me from swearing off writing altogether. George Bernard Shaw wrote that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly; in the end, I shrugged my shoulders and sat down to write.

I can see these problems now and sigh over them, but I do comfort myself with the thought that being conscious of my tendency to espouse others’ ideas is a step toward developing my own. The writers I love do not people my mind in isolation; they are constantly conversing, finding unexpected common views, or engaging in spirited disagreement. Perhaps this sort of intellectual mishmash is no less productive than the pure, uncontaminated mental climate of genius and originality. And, of course, I am not alone in hearing other voices whenever I lift my pen: if so, indeed, I would be original in my very unoriginality. Perhaps the weight of past influence is necessary to any creative enterprise. Renowned critic Harold Bloom, in his introduction to The Anxiety of Influence, asserts that poetic history “is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves” (Bloom 5). I am by no means a “strong poet,” and perhaps my very ease in absorbing others’ ideas makes it difficult for me to engage in productive “misreading,” but I share the belief that writing is never a solitary act, that to write even a line entails opening a dialogue with a vast existing body of texts. This is true of everyone, and to attempt to escape from it is both arrogant and futile. The important thing is to see that this endless mingling of ideas from across the centuries is not cause for discouragement or distress. Rather, the chance to converse with the multitude of preceding minds should arouse excited anticipation in every beginning writer.

 Notes

1   In less insidious ways, I am still as enamored of Fanon as ever; reading his book formed my current academic ambition to explore post-colonial studies.
2   My exhibit for the conversation essay was the ethics of translation. At one point I was going to include a remark in this essay about wondering whether my talents were better suited to translation than to creation, but in translating the few words from Proust above I was reminded that translation is only slightly more derivative than any other form of writing.
3   “In light of the vast import of translational choices,” I wrote near the end of my essay, “literary translators must be certain to maintain ambiguity rather than erasing it when the original text demands it.” Let alone its grammatical oddness (“maintain” is opposed to “erasing,” and it is unclear how far the “when” clause extends), such a sentence—“in light of the vast import of”!—would merit censure from more lenient critics than Orwell.

 

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Proust, Marcel. Du côté de chez Swann. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968.