New Yorker Mornings

Today, this moving essay by Peter Schjeldahl. It is attentive and demands that you read it with the same, if not similar attention it was written with. Here are some bits that made me giggle.

1) When I started writing criticism, in 1965, in almost pristine ignorance, I discovered that I was the world’s leading expert in one thing: my experience. Most of what I know in a scholarly way about art I learned on deadlines, to sound as if I knew what I was talking about—as, little by little, I did. Educating yourself in public is painful, but the lessons stick.

2) One drunken night, a superb painter let me take a brush to a canvas that she said she was abandoning. I tried to continue a simple black stroke that she had started. The contrast between the controlled pressure of her touch and my flaccid smear shocked me, physically. It was like shaking hands with a small person who flips you across a room.

3) My problem was not a lack of connection with the collective unconscious. I was a fucking poet. My problem was getting out of bed in the morning.

4) Writing consumes writers. No end of ones better than I am have said as much. The passion hurts relationships. I think off and on about people I love, but I think about writing all the time.

5) Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.

6) I met Susan Sontag once, at a party. She came up and praised something that I had written. Thrilled, I began chattering about I don’t remember what. Sontag froze. She retreated, taking backward steps before turning away. It dawned on me that receiving her blessing was supposed to have been enough: a solemn initiation. I had presumed on it.

7) I had a rage of ambition and an acrid dissatisfaction that, along with a love of the world, were bound to come out somehow. The self-centered motives have waned. It’s harder to pitch into writing with less to prove or avenge. To start a critical essay, I must prod myself until the old mesmerized flow resumes.

8) When I finish something and it seems good, I’m dazed. It must have been fun to write. I wish I’d been there. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.

9) Family and friends are being wonderful to me in my sickness. I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself. Now the task has been outsourced. I can’t go around telling everybody they’re idiots.

10) “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” per Samuel Johnson.

11) Life doesn’t go on. It goes nowhere except away. Death goes on. Going on is what death does for a living. The secret to surviving in the universe is to be dead.

12) One night in the early seventies, I perched on a tenement-roof edge despite my fear of heights, legs dangling, and ordered myself to let go. It was amid a love disaster. I truly thought I’d jump. But something inside me laughed derisively. Who was I kidding? Humiliated, I went downstairs. Some, in a crisis, must lack the laugh or muffle it for long enough.

13) Memory is a liar. It’s a heap of dog-eared, smudged, incessantly revised fictions. The stories make cumulative lies—or, give us a break, conjectures—of our lives. This is O.K. because it had darn well better be.

14) Reality was droning on as usual, with impartial sunlight streaming through a nearby window and picking out swirls of dust motes. A thing about dying is that you can’t consult anyone who has done it. No rehearsals. No mulligans.

15) Brooke has Texas grit: respecting everyone and taking no shit from anybody, least of all her spouse. When she’s mad, it’s scary, tapping a rage that once fuelled her escape from an awful family. There’s no recourse but to duck and wait for it to pass, which it does. The sun began to shine on my life when I gave up arguing with Brooke. She is also very funny and brings out the fun in others, her spouse not excluded.

Advertisement