Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

For Whom I Write

Eric’s view, here

The other day I came across this line from Pierre Hadot:

Only works of propaganda are addressed to a wider audience.

I saw, I thought, what he meant. Some art reaches a large audience, other art doesn’t. We know which is preferable. After all, who would be happy as a base propagandist, an advertiser or an indoctrinator, when they could be being true to a fitter audience, though few? Then I thought again, and wondered if that idea isn’t a kind of mendacity, actually.

For whom do I write, anyway? Not a global audience, for I am not famous, do not sell many copies of my books and win no awards. Say I write for a small group of people; or say that I write for one, ideal reader (a real one, like a partner or friend, or an imaginary one). Say that I write for myself, or to gratify my Muse. All of these models have been proposed by different writers at different times. But there’s a danger with this, isn’t there — several related dangers, in fact. By orienting writing more and more towards the self of the writer this slope styles writing in increasingly self-indulgent ways. Propaganda is a derogatory term, tempting the unpopular writer (the writer incapable of connecting and communicating with other people) into dismissing other people’s worth. It’s demeaning to demean others, and it’s the act of a poseur, not only self-deluding but contemptible, really, to style oneself as a misunderstood genius whose gorgeous pearls are being trampled by the swinish multitude.

I’m being unfair, perhaps. There’s a less extreme version of this, with which many writers might identify: ‘I can only write what I can write; if it doesn’t resonate with a mass audience, that’s OK. Best-selling writers enjoy fame and money, they don’t need to enjoy the kudos of exclusivity as well.’ I’m not sure how far this escapes the gravity well of a narcissistic self-regard, though. Writing is a solitary business. Solitude can easily stockholm-syndrome us.

I tracked down the context in which Hadot said what he said, and discovered that he wasn’t talking about writing in the round, but about a specific kind of it: philosophy. Which is to say, religious meditation, which two things he treats as versions of one another. He is talking about ‘Graeco-Roman philosophy’ and its inheritance into the middle ages

Unlike their modern counterparts, none of these philosophical productions, even the systematic works, are addressed to everyone, to a general audience, but are intended first of all for the group formed by the members of the school; often they echo problems raised by the oral teaching. Only works of propaganda are addressed to a wider audience.

In the words of Matthew Sharpe: ‘for Hadot, famously, the means for the philosophical student to achieve the “complete reversal of our usual ways of looking at things” epitomized by the Sage were a series of spiritual exercises … Hadot’s use of the adjective “spiritual” (or sometimes “existential”) indeed aims to capture how these practices, like devotional practices in the religious traditions, are aimed at generating and reactivating a constant way of living and perceiving.’ It’s not that such practices aim to separate the individual from the world — on the contrary, Hadot would say that they are ways of distilling and focusing precisely our connection with reality. But propaganda is the attempt to influence others, to change their minds, to bend their thinking along the lines of force of your own, and Hadot is manfestly rejecting that idea. We could say that the key to understanding this is a Christian elevation of passivity — as in the core event of the faith, the passion of Christ — which meditation actualises. The writer in this sense is not trying to reach and influence others, and not even writing for herself, so much as writing ‘for’ God, writing to step past the distractions, distortions and mendacities of the outer world. It’s related, in ways, to the old classical idea that the writer writes for the muse (to please her), as the muse writes through the writer.

For whom, then, do I write? I’m not sure I could answer that as clearly as some others. I’m not so snobbish as to repudiate writing for the multitude (if I had a global audience, I’d be happy writing for them I’m sure. I don’t though). What about the other extreme? It seems to me a little strange to talk about writing ‘for myself’. If I did, then presumably I’d read myself, which I rarely do, and then only for specific reasons (going through proofs and the like). I certainly don’t beguile an afternoon by taking down one of my old novels from the shelf and turning the pages, with a self-satisfied expression on my face. When Phil Silvers died I read in a newspaper obituary that his last years had been spent in a care home, in poor mental and physical health, endlessly watching video tapes of old Sgt Bilko shows. There’s something very sad about that, I think.

If I don’t write for the many, and I don’t write for the select few, and I don’t write for God, and I don’t write for myself, then could it be that I don’t write for anyone? That I write for writing’s sake? L’écrire pour l’écrire.

Jeez. How pretentious is that?

In Bruce Thomas’s The Big Wheel, his 1990 fictionalised memoir of touring as one of The Attractions (an extremely underrated book by the way), there’s a scene where the narrator, in some mid-west motel room or other, turns on the telly. An animated cartoon is showing, imaginary characters larking about to a soundtrack of canned laughter. The narrator turns the telly off, content to leave in peace these unreal figures performing to their unreal audience. There’s something very striking in this, that rebus, a perfectly empty loop that seals unactor — or, as it might be, writer — hermetically away with their non-audience. It has really stayed with me, at any rate. And all I can say about it is: I prefer it to the rebus of care-home Phil Silver endlessly watching Phil Silver videos. I think it’s a different kid of closed loop, at any rate. Perhaps I’m wrong.

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