One More From Ben: ‘Confessions’

posted in: Art, Chicago, Word Nerd | 9
Sleep, city. Looking north from the Adams and Wabash el station. Image: Wikipedia.

 

 

Remember last week, when I told you about 1001 Afternoons in Chicago?

I’m still reading it, meting out the remaining entries in Ben Hecht’s book so that the miracle will last as long as possible.

Last week, I shared an excerpt, and for tonight’s Sunday Evening Post, I’m going to share a full entry from the book. The piece is called Confessions. It’s one of the best things I have ever read, I think. The humanity, the specificity, the simplicity — it’s remarkable, at least to me. So I typed up the piece, just for you. I like to type up or write out longhand passages of writing written by far better writers than myself. Like a painting student copies a masterwork in order to learn how to paint, copying down other people’s writing is one small thing I do as a writer. It’s an interesting exercise because guess what? Great writers also have to actually write the word “the” in lots of places. They also have to decide, finally, how a piece should end. And begin. We’re all faced with the blank page. We’re all using the same words. We’re all human — right, Ben?

Maybe you think sharing another Hecht excerpt this week is a bit lazy. “This again?!” some of you might say, though I don’t think any of you will say that because you’re not the type. The thing is, it’s been a good but super intense weekend, I’m deep in preparation for QuiltCon (!), and I’m not feeling well. And so, I can either rest on the shoulders of giants and make us all happy, or paste together something mediocre for you and make us all sad. Not a tough call, really. I’m pretty sure I’ll post again this week; my sea legs are feeling stronger.

 

Confessions, by Ben Hecht, from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1921.

The rain mutters in the night and the pavements like dark mirrors are alive with impressionistic cartoons of the city. The little, silent street with its darkened store windows and rain-veiled arc lamps is as lonely as a far-away train whistle.

Over the darkened stores are stone and wooden flat buildings. Here, too, the lights have gone out. People sleep. The rain falls. The gleaming pavements amuse themselves with reflections.

I have an hour to wait. From the musty smelling hallway where I stand the scene is like an old print — an old London print — that I have always meant to buy and put in a frame but have never found.

Writing about people when one is alone under an electric lamp, and thinking about people when one stands watching the rain in the dark streets, are two different diversions. When one writes under an electric lamp one pompously marshals ideas; one remembers the things people say and do and believe in, and slowly these things replace people in one’s mind. One thinks (in the calm of one’s study): “So-and-so is a Puritan … he is viciously afraid of anything which will disturb the idealized version of himself in which he believes — and wants other people to believe … “ Yes,m one thinks So-and-so is this and So-and-so is that. And it all seems very simple. People focus into clearly outlined ideas — definitions. And one can sit back and belabor them, hamstring them, pull their noses, expose their absurdities and derive a deal of satisfaction from the process. Iconoclasm is easy and warming under an electric light in one’s study.

But in the rain at night, in the dark street staring at darkened windows, watching the curious reflections in the pavements — it is different in the rain. The night mutters and whispers.

“People,” one thinks, “tired, silent people sleeping in the dark.”

Ideas do not come so easily or so clearly. The ennobling angers which are the emotion of superiority in the iconoclast do not rise so spontaneously. And one does not say “People are this and people are that … “ No, one pauses and stares at the dark chatter of the rain and a curious silence saddens one’s mind.

Life is apart from ideas. And the things that people say and believe in and for which they die and in behalf of which they invent laws and codes — these have nothing to do with the insides of people. Puritan, hypocrite, criminal, dolt — these are paper-thin masks. It is diverting to rip them in the calm of one’s study.

Life that warms the trees into green in the summer, that sends birds circling through the air, that spreads a tender, passionate glow over even the most barren wastes — people are but one of its almost too many children. The dark, the rain, the lights, people asleep in bed, the wind, the snow that will fall tomorrow, the ice, flowers, sunlight, country roads, pavements and stars — all these are the same. Through all of them life sends its intimate and sacred breath.

One becomes aware of such curious facts in the rain at night and one’s iconoclasm, like a broken umbrella, hangs useless from one’s hand. Tomorrow these people who are now asleep will be stirring, giving vent to outrageous ideas, championing incredulous banalitiies, prostrating themselves before imbecile superstitions. Tomorrow they will rise and begin forthwith to lie, quibble, cheat, steal, four flush and kill, each and all inspired by the solacing monomania that every one of their words and gestures is a credible variant of perfection. Yes, tomorrow they will be as they were yesterday.

But in this rain at night they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours their paper masks. And one can contemplate them with a curious absence of indignation or criticism. There is something warm and intimate about the vision of many people sleeping in the beds above the darkened store fronts of this little street. Their bodies have been in the world so long — almost as long as the stones out of which their houses are made. So many things have happened to them, so many debacles and monsters and horrors have swept them off their feet … and always they have kept on — persisting through floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues and wars.

Heroic and incredible people. Endlessly belaboring themselves with ideas, gods, taboos, and philosophies. Yet here they are, still in this silent little street. The world has grown old. Trees have decayed and races died out. But here above the darkened store fronts lies the perpetual miracle … People in whom life streams as naive and intimate as ever.

Yes, it is to life and not people one makes one’s obeisance. Toward life no iconoclasm is possible, for even that which is in opposition to its beauty and horror must of necessity be a part of them.

It rains. The arc lamps gleam through the monotonous downporu. One can only stand and dream … how charming people are since they are alive … how caring the rain is and the night … And how foolish arguments are … how ban al are these cerebral monsters who pose as iconoclasts and devote themselves grandiloquently and inanely to disturbing the paper masks …

I walk away from the must smelling hallway. A dog steps tranquilly out of the shadows nearby. He surveys the street and the rain with a proprietary calm.

It would be amusing to walk in the rain with a strange dong. I whistle softly and reassuringly to him. He pauses and turns his head toward  me, surveying me with an air of vague discomfort. What do I want with him? … he thinks … who am I? … have I any authority? … what will happen to him if he doesn’t obey the whistle?

Thus he stands hesitating. Perhaps, too, I will give him shelter, a kindness never to be despised. A moment ago, before I whistled, this dog was tranquil and happy in the rain. Now he has changed. He turns fully around and approaches me, a slight cringe in his walk. The tranquility has left him. At the sound of my whistle he has grown suddenly tired and lonely and the night and rain no longer lure him. He has found another companionship.

And so together we walk for a distance, this dog and I, wondering about each other …

Dear Mr. Fancy Pants Faulkner, Sir.

posted in: Art | 1
William Faulker portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951 (courtesy Library of Congress.) Arrow and title me, courtesy me, 2016.
William Faulkner portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951, courtesy Library of Congress. Arrow and title me, courtesy me, 2016.

The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Intricate, internal monologues woven through boundary-pushing modernist novel structures; characters so complex and layered they are thisclose to materializing on the couch while you’re reading; trailblazing treatments of racism in American literature; one of the longest sentences in all of literary history (just shy of 1,300 words) found in Absalom! Absalom! and he won the Pulitzer for Literature in 1949 so okay, fine. William Faulkner knows about writing.

But I picked up Volume II of the Paris Review Interviews the other day and I have decided that though Faulkner deserves his spot at the table of Best Ever Writers, he was not nice and I don’t like him. Does Faulkner need to be nice? No. Does he need me to like him? Certainly not, for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that he is dead. But while I agree with some of his rallying cry stuff about how an artist has to be painfully dedicated and driven and in competition with herself, I read some of his answers and became deeply depressed. Because the kinds of things he said directly contribute to countless writers — young and otherwise — who think it’s okay to develop into myopic jerks, okay to maybe nurture an alcohol problem, and definitely okay to not make rent, all because Faulkner was feeling passionate and grumpy the day he said this kind of thing on record:

“The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something.”

I see. So a person should never apply for a scholarship? Never apply to a foundation so she can write her book? That’s cool. I’ll just keep working nine jobs and try to squeeze in my Sound and the Fury while I’m on the interstate. Did they even have health insurance in 1929? Then there was this, when asked if writing movie scripts could hurt a person’s writing:

“Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”

Mr. Faulkner, how do you feel about success?

“Good [writers] don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.” 

Wow! Yuck!

These words strike me as not just harsh but barbarous and he must’ve meant it, because who cares about words more than William Faulkner? He cares about words so much that he says barbarous things to keep them safe, I guess, from people who abuse them, don’t understand them correctly, rub them together in ugly ways while he’s around to have to smell it. Look, I understand there are a whole lot of people in the world who would be better off being an actuaries, for example, than writers, but you know what? They/we will probably figure that out. And if they don’t but are blissfully happy writing their romance novels or whatnot, who cares, Bill? You’re a real piece of work!

I’m probably missing the entire point. Some Faulkner society will get a google alert that this blog post exists and they will laugh and highbrow-high-five each other at reading group. They can go ahead because I’m on Team Orwell and Orwell wasn’t nice but he wasn’t fancy, either.

*I wrote about the Paris Review books another time.