Wednesday, September 01, 2010

`I Have Written a Number of Good Sentences'

On the first page of “Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum,” written by P.G. Wodehouse in 1921, we overhear this exchange between Bertie Wooster, still abed, and his redoubtable valet:

“How’s the weather, Jeeves?”

“Exceptionally clement, sir.”

“Anything in the papers?”

“Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.”

Jeeves’ digest of the news constitutes what journalists know as a “standing head” – an ever-green, endlessly reusable headline never in need of revision. “Some slight friction” is always threatening somewhere – dependably in the Balkans, of course. It also constitutes the reason the news seldom holds my interest though I remained a journalist for a quarter-century. The profession’s first attraction was a regular paycheck in return for words. Second, a degree of independence unmatched in, say, ladies’ apparel or the Coast Guard. Finally, I'm seldom bored so long as I’m able to listen to and observe my species.

I thought of Jeeves when an anonymous writer accused me of being a “dilettante” and (speaking of standing heads) “fascist” because I possess no “sympathy for the oppressed,” no “political zeal.” “How can you ever have been a journalist?” my reader asks, echoing a question I often ask myself. Honestly, I can’t come up with a convincing answer. The best journalists I’ve known –misfits with a taste for ink – have always represented an endangered species and most fell into the business by accident, not foresight.

In every realm of human endeavor I’m increasingly attracted to the informal, amateur, self-driven, wayward, unregulated and independent, particularly in writing. In 1977, six years before his death at age eighty, Eric Hoffer writes in his notebook:

“Disraeli felt that `nothing could compensate his obscure youth, not even a glorious old age.’ Practically all writers and artists are aware of their destiny and see themselves as actors in a fateful drama. With me, nothing is momentous: obscure youth, glorious old age, fateful coincidences--nothing really matters. I have written a number of good sentences. I have kept free of delusions. I know I am going to die soon.”

I most admire Hoffer’s freedom and the way he revels in it and uses it so productively.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a line from JFK:

- we had an informant

- what kind of informant?

- the usual kind, the anonymous kind.

William A. Sigler said...

Standing heads. What a great term to learn. A random perusal of ledes before eyes on the commuter train yields the following “perennials”:

“Bank Risks Exceed Expectations”

“ObamaCare May Doom Dems in Fall”

“Gaga joins Establishment”

“Superhuman has his Doubters”

“Endless Summer is Just a Beach Away”

And, of course, the eternal chestnut:

“Violence Shatters Middle East Peace”

Most journalists I’ve met came upon it much the way you describe: as one of only three guidance-counselor-approved ways of writing professionally (the other two being advertising and technical manuals). Those who’ve gotten good at it have acquired that patina commonly labeled cynicism but more accurately called voyeuristic indifference. Journalists wear this, in fact, like a badge for, like doctors and venture capitalists they hide behind the rigors of their craft to feign innocence toward the nature of the social value they provide. Which is probably why, in all my conversations with working journalists over many years, not one of them has demonstrated the slightest awareness of the larger role of the press: to create an alternate universe completely at odds with the one every one of us lives every day. The third estate (it even sounds like a video game) is a fantasy world of immanent apocalypse, lurking dangers to your children on the streets at night, the costs in shame and ridicule for brain farts and senior moments, and cults that worship addicts and sexual predators. None of it matches real life, which is one key reason why people find it fascinating, that and the fact it appeals to the inner dilettante in us all—the one that doesn’t need to know the basics of forensics science (or 600 years of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence for that matter) to know whether somebody committed a murder, just as one doesn’t need to remember the laws of physics to proffer explanations for how the towers fell. It’s all a play, a distraction, as opposed to advertising, which must represent the world as it actually is, because it creates an aspiration that must result in an action. That’s probably why would-be novelists lean toward journalism while would-be poets lean toward advertising. As for would-be “philosophers” like Eric Hoffer (himself a “standing head” back in the day), he managed to avoid the fate of, say, R. P. Blackmur – who prostituted himself as a jester in academia – because, well, he was enough of a hermit to “cast a cold eye” (Yeats) on the blandishments of the outside world, its contrary clock.