What’s Left in the Dark
“I do not like the man who squanders life for fame; give me the man who living makes a name.” ED
Emily Dickinson used to ask people to come to her house and play the piano. She, herself, would sit upstairs to listen, avoiding, if at all possible, a chance encounter with the pianist. It was the music she enjoyed, not the piano player.
As later, long after her death, it is Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not herself that is read. Sometimes people read her into the lines, but she has left them entirely—in 40 hand-bound volumes laid carefully by. She is not there in words that describe her—her seat is empty. And everything that surrounds an empty seat is a fairytale.
“For me style is matter.” VN
Still, as Vladimir Nabokov says in his Lectures on Don Quixote: “Without these fairytales the world would not be real.” He grew up speaking English, Russian, and French in a childhood that he later called: “perfect.” And it is often people with perfect childhoods who echo his sentiments in this matter, a matter you could say is simply of words.
“Beauty is not caused. It is.” ED
But Samuel Johnson, the author of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language—a work of six years duration and all words—would say words do not exist in nature: a thing is real because it is real, not because someone said so. There is, of course, the famous anecdote, in which Johnson kicks a stone: to prove that the stone exists (because his foot begins to bleed).
One cannot imagine Johnson sitting in a damp laboratory studying the genitalia of butterflies or in a wood-paneled study composing chess moves, as Nabokov did (in between teaching engagements). Johnson spent most of his life in poverty, opened a school with only three pupils, and married a woman 21 years his elder. He was able to escape the harsh realities of life through trafficking in words, but he did not forget that those realities existed without them.
“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.” SJ
In the dark, a person cannot lean upon a word—that is the problem with words—and often with the people who write them. Virginia Woolf never forgot a misplaced word in her drafts, because she never erased a phrase after discarding it. Instead, she simply drew a line through the words, leaving them clearly legible—yet set apart.
It is as though, by doing this, she were skipping stones across still water… the passages leading up to the final draft making smaller and smaller circles around the original disturbance. The original disturbance being of course, herself. Perhaps, the lines in her drafts explain everything that came later: she made a mistake. And instead of seeing herself, began to see a heavily lined phrase in an otherwise perfect paragraph—and then to see the paragraph without it.
“It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” VW
The Johnson we read in most his words is not a man hard of hearing and with poor eyesight, who late in the evening wrote: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” It is unlike his famously winning tongue, to admit such an ineffably lonely thought.
If in the evening he was driven to write this thought, maybe it was because, as Virginia Woolf says, “[writing] is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” Or because, in the dark, it seems to be… and he was afraid that there would be no one left to hear.