A Passionate Mediocrity

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-10-27 19:00:00-04:00 No comments

Everyone who reads has, I'm sure, a cadre of authors they get hooked on when young, and who in time turn out to be valuable not because of what they wrote but because of how you learned to outgrow them. Not in the sense of a Dr. Seuss book being baby stuff (and let's face it, Geisel was writing for all ages, not just the playpen set), but in the sense of an author with a worldview that is more arrested development than substance. They are what I call "passionate mediocrities" — people who may have great technical skill or some great, thumping ambition at work, but it's all in the service of a sense of life that is minimally nuanced.

Exhibit A: William S. Burroughs. By some insane stroke of looking-the-other-way, a copy of Naked Lunch ended up in my high school library (it was yanked from the shelf when someone in authority actually bothered to read the thing; I found another copy in the town's public library, ho ho). I'd first heard of it by way of David Cronenberg musing about filming the book in an interview, and figured if someone of Cronenberg's caliber took it seriously, it was Some Serious Business, now, wasn't it?

Throughout college and for some time after, I was a Burroughs fan and completist. At one point I owned just about every book that he'd had in print short of the impossible-to-find stuff like Ali's Smile/Naked Scientology. Today, I don't own any of them. No dramatic exit from his fold took place on my part; it was more like a slow drift out to sea. By the time Burroughs died, I was already of the opinion that he'd produced only a handful of genuinely interesting and worthwhile books in his career; the dross-to-diamonds ratio was dismayingly low for someone who'd acquired Grand Old Man status.

In all truth I'm not sure that's Bill's fault; that just seems to be the career arc many authors who reach cult status are condemned to trace. The nadir of such things is the sort of reputational enforcement Tibor Fischer once described in relation to Martin Amis's career: you start by being unpublished no matter how good you are, and you end up being published no matter how bad you are.

But in Bill's specific case, the problem was, again, not any one thing. It was the way everything about his work that had seemed incendiary and oracular and revelatory had become less and less so with each successive book. It was also the way my own worldview had evolved. I'd grown less interested in the idea of cultivating mystic aspects of personality as a repudiation of the worst aspects of modern society. Something like that might work on the individual level (e.g., Bill's own case), but it didn't scale — not even to one other person. Bill was a gifted verbal sorcerer, but his powers were in the service of a worldview I found more colorful than constructive. It was a nice place to visit, but I didn't really want to live there, let alone build a house and start a family.

Likewise, it took me a while to realize Henry Miller was a better diarist than he was a writer. The man was a whiz at evoking the moment he lived in — that dingy, cramped, smelly moment of expat life in Paris — but he was hamstrung by two problems. One, he didn't know how to do anything with what he evoked except evoke it, and that's why his books are all essentially the same book broken into volumes. Once you read Tropic Of Cancer, the rest of his œuvre is merely changes in geography, and the worldview remains shallow and passive and reactionary from beginning to end.

The other problem was something it took the likes of George Orwell to awaken me to by way of his essay "Inside The Whale": that Miller was the epitome of the apolitical artist, not merely in the sense of an artist who has no particular political stance but refuses to even admit he is a product of his moment in history. That wouldn't have bothered me much at the age of nineteen, but these days it bothers me a whole heck of a lot, and these days it's all the clearer to me how the first of Miller's problems stems directly from the second. Contempt for the real world is romantic and seductive, but it breeds a mind-set I find all the more distasteful — not because I disagreed with it once and forever, but because I agreed with it for too long, because I cultivated it unthinkingly within myself, and realize now that did more harm than good.

What about Charles Bukowski? He had Miller's lack of inhibitions, but the whole way he went about talking about them had a different flavor. Bukowski wrote mostly about getting drunk and getting laid and getting screwed (over), but I never felt like he did it to prove how he was so much more earthier than thou. He wasn't nuanced, but he also wasn't putting you on. He wasn't anyone's idea of a role model of manhood, but he never pretended to be, and never asked anyone else to be either. He's ahistorical and apolitical, but in a way that makes his work a lot easier to revisit. Assuming you ever go there in the first place, that is.

Tags: Charles Bukowski Henry Miller William S. Burroughs talent writers