Losing: The Soul of a Writer

March 4, 2015

In June 2013, the New Yorker paid tribute to Vasily Grossman, unheralded Russian war correspondent and novelist. Unheralded to me, at least. Apparently not to the rest of the literate public.

The full title of the New Yorker essay is “Vasily Grossman: Loser, Saint.” The saint part didn’t interest me. The loser part did. I stayed up all night thinking about how great writing depends not just upon loss, but upon truly being a loser.

Loser implies weakness, emptiness, deprivation, and immiseration. However, Tolstoy (Grossman’s muse), Proust, Fitzgerald, Pynchon were to the manor born. Tolstoy and Proust literally. Fitzgerald could claim Francis Scott Key ancestry. Pynchon descended from Puritan William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1636. No losers there.

Likewise for Melville, Hawthorne, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway. Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace. All emerged from middle-class backgrounds. Even Vasily Grossman occupied the upper-middle levels of the Russian social ladder and received his formal education as an engineer. And Dostoevsky — who experienced desperate poverty as a result of his political/literary imprisonment in Siberia (and mock execution), chronically desperate health, and rampant gambling addiction — also trained as an engineer.

The middle class and upper class origins of our greatest novelists should surprise no one. Literacy itself has typically required some threshold level of wealth. The experiences of Edgar Allan Poe and James Baldwin, two freakishly gifted writers who somehow rose from abject poverty like scriven demigods, are exceptions that prove the rule. Poe famously failed out of the University of Virginia and West Point. Baldwin prepped at DeWitt Clinton High School and studied at The New School.

The loser epithet therefore bears deeper scrutiny.

The creation of art requires assimilation of the starkest realities and contradictions of our uncertain nature and existence. Betrayal, violence, and death dangerously draw the artist to the flame. The artist travels where others will not tread. She rends the veil. Great art is religion without God. The artist is Tolstoy’s Hermit in Three Questions, Cormac McCarthy’s Mennonite in Blood Meridian, a Prophet Fool.

Art is genesis. Hatching a fully fleshed world, dense with character and narrative, from a single deed. A passing glance.

However, creation requires transgression, the obliteration of boundaries, and vision beyond vision. The artist does not choose her creation. The creation chooses the artist, impregnates the artist, violates the artist, and inflames the artist. This requirement, to inhabit the worlds one births, both elevates and isolates the artist. The art is a subtraction of the self, an absence, a loss one can experience but never share. Hence the loneliness. And it should not surprise us, therefore, that few of the authors mentioned in this essay escaped the afflictions of postpartum poverty, depression, illness, and addiction. Creation hurts. The artist falls anew each day.

Loss too easily slips into failure. Creation can require destruction. Of spouses. Of progeny. Of friends. Creation also requires an audience, but cannot guarantee it. Without an audience, without external validation, emptiness and nihilism can impinge upon the artist. The scorn of one’s peers will buffet a writer, but silence will utterly unhinge her.

And yet no writer can create without claiming and embracing a marginal status, without the immense artistic horizons self-reduction offers. The artist as loser, as outcast, as exile, as a point diminishing to near oblivion, acquires the freedom to create capaciously out of nothingness, which is the same as infinity. The artist vanishes. We inherit everything left behind.