Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
A friend recently lent us a book called The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant.1 Its author, one Jean-Baptiste Botul, examines the philosopher’s lifestyle, which besides the usual mingling and chitchat boiled down to study, study, and more study. And thus Kant not only preserved himself from marriage but from ever making room in his life for a woman, not the smallest corner.
For a man to be chaste his whole life is unusual; it is all the more surprising in the case of Kant, for chastity would seem to contradict his supreme principle of morality, “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.” However, Botul concedes, as humanity must be perpetuated, chastity cannot become a universal law. Now, philosophers comprise an atypical category of human, their method of reproduction highly unusual. To ensure the survival of their species, so that humanity may be more than “a vile herd with no memory other than genetic,” they copulate in reverse, that is, “they do not penetrate but withdraw.” This withdrawal goes by the name of melancholy. But what is melancholy? “A disease of loneliness,” says Botul. “Those of atrabilious temperament voluntarily retreat and that is when the miracle of contemplative life occurs.” Thus, Kant’s chastity, far from violating his first principle of morality, was actually essential to his philosophical approach and has ultimately served all humanity.
In closing Mr. Botul’s pamphlet, we could not help wondering if writers, like philosophers, in order to perpetuate their species, are not also predisposed to coitus in reverse. Don’t writers, also melancholic, keep their distance from others to practice their art, pulling away from rather than plunging into life?
To explore the delicate question of withdrawal and penetration, first we must ask how present the writer really is in relation to others. The question is essential and brings to light the writer’s deep inner conflict. In Enchantment and Sorrow, Gabrielle Roy describes this rift, confiding: “My books took a great deal of time stolen from friendship, love, and human duty. But likewise friendship, love, and duty took a lot of time I might have given to my books. With the result that neither my life nor my books are very pleased with me today.” Here, we must read between the lines. Is the true cause of the inner rift merely the time that both love and writing require? Certainly, time is an easy excuse and the one that most readily springs to everyone’s mind, including the writer’s (e.g.: “Are you coming to the country with me this weekend? ” “Oh, no, I have a chapter to finish.”). But aside from the tired old question of schedule, we have to ask if writers are truly capable of giving themselves to another. Is it even close to being a priority for them? Elsewhere in her autobiography, Roy provides an answer. She admits to having felt from a young age that she had to save first place “for something other than love that was perhaps even more demanding.” Is it possible that the gift of self that is indispensable to writing demands exclusivity? “The more a man cultivates the arts the less he fornicates,” wrote Baudelaire, which already gives us a very big clue.
“You put your art into your work. I put it into my life,” Larry says to his friend Harry, the neurotic writer played by Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry. This would suggest that the writers’ problem is giving their all to writing instead of focusing on life. “All my juice goes into the damned book,” Hemingway wrote to a correspondent in 1945. But how could it be otherwise? Isn’t it possible that the energy (the “juice,” art, diligence, application, effort) that people invest in life and love is qualitatively and quantitatively the same energy that writers puts into writing? “I realized that what I gave to my wife I took away in equal measure from my work,” declares Silvio, the writer narrator of Conjugal Love by Alberto Moravia. Virginia Woolf, writing in her journal during the compositon of To the Lighthouse in 1926, evokes a similar situation. “I am often unable to think what to say when we [she and Leonard Woolf] walk around the Square, which is bad, I know…. Perhaps it may be a good sign for the book though.” So then it’s the total inability of writers to distribute energy in two places at once that causes their deep inner divide and explains why, as a general rule, they are unable to be “all there.” It even affects their health: “I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel, and life, is a strain,” Virginia Woolf writes in August, 1933. These two spheres are like planets on separate trajectories, orbiting two different sites, and by dint of yearning to have a foot in each, a person becomes dizzy or, worse, is torn to pieces.
But why, we ask, must writers give so much of themselves to their writing? Why does it so thoroughly absorb them? “I am embarrassed by my own fertility,” says Bernard, the novelist in The Waves. And indeed, there is cause for concern because, like a pregnant woman to her unborn child, writers must remain constantly alert to contractions within their imaginations. “A story,” wrote Gabrielle Roy, “does not wait for us to be done: with whatever seems more urgent, such as answering that letter, [etc.]. . . A story has its hour and if we’re not free for it then, it very rarely returns. In any case, by waiting it will have forever lost most of its mysterious and elusive life. ” This total availability of writers to writing will result – we’ve guessed it by now — in complete emotional unavailability. “The great poets,” Denis Diderot observes in The Paradox of Acting […] “are the least sensitive of all creatures […] They are too busy looking, recognizing, and imitating to be acutely affected within themselves.” And while we’re on the subject, let us recall Silvio’s admission in Conjugal Love: “Apart from my work nothing had any importance in life, not even my love for my wife. […] It was all the same to me.” The writer’s special relationship with his or her work is obviously frustrating for the person looking on who wants the writer all to himself. That, moreover, is why the other person, in the face of the writer-book dyad, feels something akin to the Laius Complex that afflicts fathers before the spectacle of the exclusive mother-child bond. Feeling rejected, the other cannot help wanting to squeeze into the special relationship between writer and book, but unfortunately the other will just as soon realize it’s quite impossible, over time ceasing to express anything but bitterness toward this relationship. (Unless the other is the writer’s publisher, s/he will start out gently asking, “Don’t you think you’re working too hard?” and later do nothing but gripe, “You work all the time!”)
At this juncture, we must issue a warning to interested parties: sharing the life of a writer is a major source of dissatisfaction. As Francesco Alberoni explains in his fine essay Falling in Love, “an intimate view of [the profession of writer in] daily life reveals all the discipline, rehearsing or practicing, and determination to achieve a high level of perfection which the audience or fans never see, and which doesn’t register with the person who falls in love at first either. He or she is bowled over by the other’s talent and performance and doesn’t consider all the humble, behind-the-scenes work that he or she will soon be asked to submit to without being truly involved in. In the end, it is very human to feel let down – and left out.” Here we might also quote Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, who says in her memoirs: “Being the wife of a pilot is a whole career, but being the wife of a writer is a religious vocation!” This religious vocation, it seems, lacks even the advantage of being restful, if we are to consider Hemingway’s avowal, “[when I am working on a novel], I am just about as pleasant to have around as a bear with sore toenails.” It is clearly a case of “look before you leap!”
That said, it would be a pity to confuse writers’ availability to writing, and the resulting insensitivity to external things, with selfishness. This kind of judgment is erroneous, for the true creative process is anything but narcissistic. Writers are not only insensitive to others but wholly indifferent to their own selves as well. “One must get out of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1926, “one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one's character, living in the brain.”
Writers forget their own personalities: they forget themselves; they work toward disappearing into a universal Self. This being the case, how can somebody love a writer (and these things do happen) without the writer feeling deeply annoyed? “Promise you won’t fall in love with me,” says Harry, the alter ego of Woody Allen, to the young Fay when they first meet. We admire Harry’s consistency; the writer who works almost ceaselessly to destroy his personal ego would be foolish to seek another’s love because naturally this love would latch onto the very ego the writer is trying to shake. This is why, like the Prodigal Son (“It will be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of one who did not want to be loved,” wrote Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), writers flee, or know they will end up fleeing, the people who love them. Katherine Mansfield writes in her diary in 1919: “I'd always rather be with people who loved me too little rather than with people who loved me too much.” Writers are not only incapable of normal loving but more importantly, they do not want to be loved too much. Of course they want us to love their books but not necessarily themselves. And that is why the writer is often unbearable and why one key feature of his personality is to feel stifled or even threatened by the love of others. Gabrielle Roy admits, recalling her European idyll with a certain Stephen, the only love she would ever know in her life – at a time, it must be said, when she was not yet a writer but in the process of becoming one – that even had she been luckier and the relationship had lasted longer, “sooner or later, [she] would have turned against such a complete invasion of [her] life.”
The writer’s refusal to be invaded by the other is the crux of his problem in love. And so, we ask, unable to apply him or herself equally to two things at once, incapable of being completely present, or to love and be loved like anyone else, shouldn’t the writer just remain alone? The question must be answered with care, for no one has said that despite withdrawing from life, the writer never feels the need to penetrate it.
Far from being a loner, the “hero” of Deconstructing Harry, collects wives and mistresses. His friends, his family, and his exes (that is, everyone but his analyst) criticize his dissolute life. Harry will come to recognize that he’s not cut out for marriage, but cannot quite accept it because, he says, ” […] then I get lonely.” Though incapable of being fully present to others, the writer cannot endure total isolation. Virginia Woolf refers to the writer’s need for a room of her own, not an entire house. If, beyond the walls of the writing room, there were only large empty chambers, the writer would be in a very bad way. Imagine the boredom of a life that consisted of nothing but writing! Hemingway would agree. “Been writing every day and going good,” he says in a letter of 1945. “Makes a hell of a dull life too.” This dull life is what the writer would be condemned to if he chose the house instead of the room. Thus, Hemingway’s romantic notion that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life” comes down to “writing, at its best, is a dull life.”
The other’s presence is so essential to the writer because it is the writer’s only escape from this deeply boring life and the existential emptiness (Hemingway alludes to a vacuum) that overwhelms him or her when not writing. Leaving the room of his or her own, the writer needs to be swept up by reality, salvaged, revived and entertained by the other. Gabrielle Roy muses, “I believe […] I was comforted by the feeling that though my road in life was solitary, it wasn’t impossible there would be someone to walk a little way with, once in a while.” However it might be noted that “a little way, once in a while” does not require a big commitment from anyone. For if the writer is to be salvaged, revived, and entertained by the presence of the other, it must be effortless. “I only want walking and perfectly spontaneous childish life with L. and the accustomed when I’m writing at full tilt,” observed Woolf in 1933. “Perfectly spontaneous childish life,” that is, light and entertaining (on leaving her room, the writer cries: “I finished my chapter! Take me to the beach! Take me to a restaurant! Take me to the movies! ” or any number of variations on the theme).
Ifhe other’s presence on the opposite side of the wall is an absolute necessity, it’s because that is all that can save writers from the monotonous, unreal life that would be theirs if all they ever did was write. They need to know the other is there for them, while knowing they will never be entirely present in return, for fear of neglecting their books. This is amply illustrated by the strange dedication recalled by the narrator of Conjugal Love, probably because it sums up his own approach to writing: “To my wife without the absence of whom this book would never have been written.” Due to this inimitable logic, the writer’s sex life will never exactly correspond to that of the philosopher as evoked by Botul (“they do not penetrate, they withdraw”). Writers have to penetrate life, but because they never penetrate all the way, their method of ensuing their perpetuity remains as paradoxical as the chastity advocated by the philosopher. Indeed, if only the writer was able to climax before withdrawing from the other, his continued existence would not be such a problem. That is why, when all is said and done, coitus interruptus is a more accurate characterization of the sex life of writers, for whom this practice is less a method of contraception than it is their own special technique of reproduction.
With this in mind, we must now imagine an ideal partner for the writer. Coitus interruptus, it would seem, is not very pleasant for anyone who has to endure it without understanding why. Thus, the writer’s ideal partner is a person whose habits are compatible with this practice. And so that withdrawal proceeds smoothly, the writer’s partner must also demonstrate a predisposition to withdrawal. The world traveler or workaholic would appear to be prime candidates. But that still does not suffice, for as far as penetration is concerned, the writer’s partner will also have to be patient by nature, the kind of person who doesn’t become excited too quickly. And because he or she will have to keep busy while waiting by a closed door for the writer’s next appearance, the partner would be well-advised to like crossword puzzles, or solitary card games, or something along those lines.
So there we have the ideal type. But given that this ideal does not exist, any more than any other ideal, what is the writer going to do? What will he or she do, supposing that neither frequent flyers fond of crosswords nor workaholic solitaire fans are people one meets every day? Is the writer doomed to “walk a little way, once in a while” with someone different each time the need for penetration recurs? “No, wait!” cries the reader, who would really like this story to be a little more cheerful. “Why can’t the writer’s ideal partner be another writer?”
Let’s think about it a moment. Don’t we have all the elements for a perfect match? Two professional withdrawers who nonentheless crave some form of controlled penetration? Such a union has definite advantages for both, such as never having to hear, “You're so weird, I don’t understand you!” The writer can hardly blame her partner for being just like her, one day out and about in life, three days in her room, two days for love and then three of wanting to be alone, and so on, with no fixed schedule. Clearly, this couple will understand each other without having to exchange a word, which is everyone’s ideal but especially that of the writer, for whom it is always more difficult to speak than to write. But what happens if one partner is overwhelmed by a burning desire for penetration during the other’s phase of withdrawal? The former party cannot blame the latter, but nor does the urgent need to dive into reality subside. “Take me to the beach!” she says, “I finished my chapter!” “Good for you!” says the other. “But I have to finish mine.” And what about competition, very likely to sour the relationship? Imagine that the weaker writer of the two, after many years of persevering, becomes demoralized by the failure of his books. Won’t this writer become jealous of the other and wish to cause harm in the most insidious way possible: to prolong penetration, no longer withdraw ever? Isn’t that something to be truly afraid of? Can two bears with sore toenails (as Hemingway would have it) really live together without killing each other?
About the writer as ideal partner for the writer: we do not really have faith in this solution. Based on the strength of our research, we maintain that it is naive to continue to believe in any arrangement capable of making the writer’s sex life, with all its underlying conditions and complications, less paradoxical and problematic. Needless to say, it is a depressing observation, and readers who wanted a happy ending are probably very sad; but not as sad as we are, for reasons we do not wish to expand upon here.
1. This essay is, of course, a hoax, but the issues it raises are no less relevant for that.
“La vie sexuelle de l’écrivain” © Nadine Bismuth. First published in L’Inconvénient, No. 5 ( May 2001), p. 61–72. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Alison Strayer. All rights reserved.