About ten years ago, a friend offered to buy me a custom-made bobblehead doll for my birthday. The question, then: Who did I want? Whitman seemed too obvious (I have lots of Whitman bric-a-brac); Larkin and Berryman seemed too depressing. (“Pour another drink!” I imagined the bobbleheads nodding. “Or better: Kill yourself!”) I finally landed on Tony Kushner. My friend made the arrangements (I remember her searching for JPEGs)—and Kushner (or his nine-inch double) has now perched on my writing desk for nearly a decade.
This week I’m teaching Angels in America again. I love coming back to the play: for its terrifying comedy, for its brutal exit lines. (Homeless Woman: “In the next century I think we will all be insane.”) And I love Kushner—or at least I love everything I know about him. (I’ve put his personal motto—circa 1994, and borrowed from Glenway Wescott—on many a class syllabus: “A day’s work every day now. Now, now, now!”) Last month, at the Whiting Writers’ Awards ceremony, Kushner spoke movingly about why we write:
We write to negotiate our own relationships with momentariness and permanence, to speak with the dead, to bring them back to life, or try to, and of course we always fail to bring them back, and we call that failure art. Perhaps you’re like me in clinging for dear life to an uncertainty, sometimes powerful, sometimes faint, regarding the purpose and importance of what a writer or any artist does. Perhaps you share with me a reluctance to investigate that purpose and power too extensively, deeply, closely. Perhaps like me you cherish the lingering question: Is this thing that I do superfluous? Perhaps it is. And perhaps like me you agree with Bertolt Brecht when he wrote, “It’s the superfluous for which we live.”
A week ago, in a different class, I was teaching David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. For the past five years, teaching Wallace has felt like speaking with the dead: he was too recently among us to imagine him wholly and irretrievably gone. Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max, visited the University of Michigan recently; he said that readers think of Wallace as being younger than he is, or was (he died at 46: my age, now). He also spent a lot of time discussing Wallace’s feelings of self-loathing: “When he called Hideous Men a kind of self-portrait, none of us wanted to believe it.” Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story can be rough reading for Wallace admirers. Which leads me to the question that triggered this evening’s post: How much do we care about liking the writers whose work we love? Does it help that Kushner, the master, is also a mensch? I suppose it can’t hurt.
And yet I worry, especially in fast-moving classes, that my students will remember Pound as only an anti-Semite, Frost as only a jerk. They won’t recall one of Berryman’s 385 Dream Songs, but they will recall that the poet once shat on his landlord’s front porch. (The index to Paul Mariani’s Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman is almost comical in its dreariness. Under “Berryman, John,” we get “anger and rage of,” “antisocial behavior of,” “bragging of,” “death thoughts and wishes of,” “drunken phone calls of,” “false modesty of,” “irritability of,” “manipulation of others by,” “paranoia of,” “sarcasm and irony of,” and “weeping of.” But oh, the poems!) Allow me this: Grievances always give way. Grief and wonder may, if turned to art, survive. But you know all of this; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading a literary blog.