Striving to be nothing at all

Frog eye. Photo by nutmeg 66. Creative Commons.

“How dreary
to be
Somebody
How Public
like a Frog.”

Ironically, those line are among some of Emily Dickinson’s best known. Her antipathy to fame has never been a popular tendency among artists of any kind, but in the May 2010 Harper’s, there’s an article by Rivka Galchen about another writer whose humility and immense modesty outdistanced hers. His name was Robert Walser and he was one of those 20th century middle European writers I missed when I studied literature.

Born in Switzerland in 1878, by the 1920s he had published many short stories and several novels and was much admired by Kafka. As the market for short pieces began to fall off, his career also declined until he’d stopped publishing altogether. He moved into smaller and smaller apartments in less and less attractive cities, his handwriting shrunk to a miniature code in which he wrote more than two thousand pages of barely decipherable texts on envelopes, calendar pages and other scraps of paper. Not every writer goes on to write in old age. Walser spent the last 27 years of his life in mental institutions.

Writes Galchen:

It was from that final and steady non-employment that Walser claimed finally to abandon the avocation game altogether, with a line now remarkably famous considering that it comes from the least famous canonical writer: ‘I’m not here to write. I’m here to be mad.’

Not surprisingly, I was inclined to feel badly for the man. “It’s tough to think of another writer who strove so precisely for next to nothing at all, for becoming near nameless, though, given the long view, he failed at that too.” Rivka believes that “the paradox is that by becoming so small, so quiet, so penciled, Walser became vast, indelible.” The essay gets complicated and subtle, and you must read it for yourself if you care. I have my own points to make.

What surprised me at was that I found myself suddenly not unhappy, but glad for him. In a world where people compete to tell any and all things about themselves, things that in past years their parents would have struggled to keep private at all costs; in a world where people’s sexual compulsions, their most disgusting habits and their most pathetic failures are grist for celebrity TV, reality TV and some mixed breed of the two; where Dr. Phil, bless him, has turned us all into voyeurs-it was exciting to read about someone who strove to be nameless and invisible, someone with secrets, and more unimportantly perhaps, unimportant secrets!

Walser wrote: To contemplate a little foot for four years on end. What a great achievement.

Baby foot. Photo by PAS. Creative Commons.

And then I began to think, at least a little, which is probably about right, about all the small unimportant things and how important they are. Emily Dickinson made great poetry out of them. Robert Walser made some kind of literature out of them – I don’t pretend to understand quite what kind. In what have come to be called his “microscripts, there is a piece about beer coasters written on the back of an art print and not published in his lifetime. We meet ‘silly beerglass mats’ that were filled with radiant joyousness at seeing themselves employed to playful ends.’ The coasters are nothing but also animate; they’re insignificant and yet also ecstatic as servants of the Lord….”

Reminds me of the poems my friend Sally used to write on cocktail napkins. The napkins were frequently left to find their way in the world. They might; they might not.

Art can be awfully serendipity.

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