Excerpt: 'See What I See' by Greg Gerke


Raoul Dufy, Window Opening on Nice, 1928 (detail)

The One and Only Autobiographical Writer

. . . a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, our social life, in our vices. . . . It is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life—in conversation . . . or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.
— Marcel Proust, Against Sainte-Beuve

All writing is autobiographical: that’s been tossed around so many times in countless iterations, one can’t help hearing it as cliché, but a cliché diminished—something from the dustbin of history. The above words from Proust should unsettle in times like these when the “self” has transmogrified, the ego now granted an online persona to go with the public and private one. While pursuing these issues of autobiography, David Attwell’s fine, slim “biography,” J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, is much reliant on the notebooks Coetzee kept during the composition of his novels. According to Attwell, the type of “autobiographical” writing Coetzee practices is tied to the latter’s citing T. S. Eliot and Roland Barthes as forebears in the journals: “for all three, impersonality is not what it seems. It is not a simple repudiation of self in the name of art; on the contrary, it involves an instantiation of self, followed by an erasure that leaves traces of the self behind”—a furtherance of Proust’s keen vision. As is William Gaddis’ ghostly “compositional self,” an entity produced through the making of a book.

These quotations I throw about are to be taken together like a cornucopia. They each answer the pettiness of people critically calling out an author for “just writing about herself” and yet they also forward the notion of “writer as magician.” So much of that mystique has been quelled by our “everyone is a writer” zeitgeist, and especially the legions of bloggers and self-published commentators who think that just because their sentences have been posted on the infinity of the internet with many “shares” and “likes,” or printed on post-industrial paper, they themselves have become successful scribblers.

Who is this different or innermost self? Can he or she co-exist with the superficial self who is often now required to sell the book, primarily through the internet and social media, giving endless interviews and explanations of the motive to write?—a most incriminating, even pedestrian, act these days. By rights, the innermost self is the precious cargo serious writers carry with them. This self is the being or the mode that needs to be switched into or turned on to create the singing that is creation. In different hours, composition is a stropping of the razor to pierce the light, but this slog is a relief for the superficial mind. Here is the time never showing in the cracks of the face but in the gnosis, spread, and harmony of sentences. In the final pages of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, the narrator describes his path to this innermost self: “The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer’s journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather than by his personal adventures . . .” His thoughts here blend into Eliot’s thinking in ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion. It is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality. . . . What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is impossible to demonstrate why one writes, but short of hoisting a book award, writing is probably driven by this act of extinction.

Naipaul used his travels, and the material he garnered for those acclaimed travel books in mainly third world countries, to inform the narratives of his three bloody masterpieces of the 1970s, all of them set in Africa: In a Free State, Guerillas, and A Bend in the River. He began to use his journals in his fiction with In a Free State and then freely became a character, but not in a meta way, in The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World. Of Coetzee’s novels, from 1974’s Dusklands to 1999’s Disgrace (eight books), The One and Only Autobiographical Writer some are set in very distant times: one each in the 1600s and 1700s, two in the late 1800s, and one in the early 1900s, with three having female first-person narrators. Although two of the main characters are professors, the others are very distinct: a housewife, an elderly magistrate, a simpleton with a deformity, a female castaway, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and (for the two novellas of Dusklands) a government agent and an explorer. Gaddis, in contrast, uses alter-egos in the guise of failing artists in each of his books, with each also set in places he once lived.

This talk points to the holy grail of all the questions aimed at writers: where do you get your ideas? Probably no answer should be kept more private, especially during composition of the work itself. Many greats, when asked, simply lie. Writing is unique in that the words are the art—they already say something. A William Gaddis character, speaking for his author, extrapolated further, as he wondered what people wanted from the man that they didn’t get from his work. Many writers today are unapprehensive to name the source or sources and explain, through reason, why they have made up what they have. It makes good copy but it pushes the act of creativity into the numbing squalor of chic algorithm. Perhaps the most famous American example of this is William Faulkner contending that The Sound and the Fury “began with a picture of a little girl with muddy drawers, climbing a tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers who didn’t have the courage to climb the tree.” Probably not a lie, though Faulkner was famous for them, yet it’s a remark that doesn’t help countenance the act of writing any better. “Remarks are not literature,” as Gertrude Stein averred.

There’s no doubt how many long games of the imagination sprout from such saucy triggering visitations, but between the event and the finished product is a tortuous time that can’t be recapitulated in any fashion. The real answer to the idea question is: months and years of sitting and scratching things out, about as sexy as working on an assembly line at the factory, with the hands as essentially effectual as the mind. And in the thick of the scratching out, one’s ghostly innermost self is created. Where do you get your ideas? One might say, “The only ones that matter in the end come as I write. If I didn’t debunk and revise those first ideas, they’d be meaningless.” To this end, later in the same essay, T. S. Eliot wrote:

the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.

The innermost self is rarely, if ever, full of didacticism or superficiality— unless it is to rebuke that nasty drawing-room essay self (or social media self) which Proust galvanized to make a world out of and which we, in our times, filleted into a franchise.

About the Author:

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. Especially the Bad Things, stories, was published by Splice in 2019. See What I See is now available from Zerogram Press. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.”

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