Bring-A-Friend Day at the Confessional Booth
Most of Joyce’s later opinions are not taken very seriously. Joyce was an alcoholic in those years, full of self-loathing; he was then working on one of the triumphs of the human mind and spirit, Finnegans Wake.
quoted inaccurately from memory, John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
I returned to that paragraph often when I was younger. I never quite understood the disjunction; it made sense for Gardner to describe Joyce’s sorry state as a human being, but why would he then switch to describing the triumph of the spirit in his book? Later it became clearer that Gardner must have been talking in part about himself, and that a basic trope of modernism still oppressed him as it oppresses us: the work of genius as redemption for squandered life. When I was very young it became clear to meor so I thoughtthat my life was squandered, and a short time later I ran across the first of many modernist artworks which seemed to offer a way out.
Taking the fortunate chance to spend some time with old friends who are also writers, I had too much to drink and expressed something of this idea; and my friends, very sensibly, ridiculed me for it. And yet alternatives are elusive. If you find yourself too weak and selfish to make a supreme principle out of altruism, it can be hard to talk yourself into believing that your life is a good in itself. I think this is why, while the fiction has changed a lot over the years, it has always centered around aspects of myself that I dislike. I could stomach making a book out of something like the Guatemalan civil war only through creating a protagonist whose own involvement with the country was also damningly solipsistic. My sorry approximation to a moral life is the dramatization of my own moral failures.
If we are truly playing for the risible stakes of posthumous recognition, then we hope to achieve it not through being exemplary human beings, but through meticulously recording the ways in which we fall short of being exemplary human beings. This post being a case in point. It’s hypocritical and repugnant; but it’s what we’ve inherited.
If I can make but one fellow human being feel smugly superior to me, I have not labored in vain.