Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

 Among 66 aborted uploads: Franzen & Smiley on art & suffering.

I’ll probably be blogging a year from now, but whether this particular blog will achieve the ripe age of four, or the senescence that is five, is unclear.—my reflections upon the blog’s second birthday

Greek archer Philoctetes

[Philoctetes fans his suppurating foot.]

After six years of blogging, I count 66 items in my “To Be Posted” folder. Duds. Unused quotes, started essays, finished posts. Stuff I forgot or abandoned. Yet I’ve run with many a notion and hated it. Or uploaded flops.

No need to pick scabs here. Well, maybe one—my February 2014 post “Art and Suffering,” in part concerning Philip Seymour Hoffman, which helped me decide I disagree with its implication. I doubt his tough roles contributed to his emotional burden and thus his death from a heroin overdose. Writing can be clarifying if only in that way. State something and see if you agree with it.

Yet I can’t abandon completely the sense that there’s often some relationship between troubles and talent. (What about the sensitivity that made Hoffman an actor in the first place? What about all his money and his acres of down time?) All the same, I heard a writer say this recently about a poet who took her own life:

Writers don’t kill themselves. People kill themselves. Writing is what kept her from killing herself for years.

My conflict about this old issue, explored at book-length in Edmund “Bunny” Wilson’s classic The Wound and the Bow—the title refers to the gifted Greek archer Philoctetes, who suffered from an unhealed wound—caused me to abort a similar effort after the Hoffman post because it depressed me too much. And I figured readers would hate it. (For what it’s worth, Wilson considered suffering an “attendant circumstance of talent, not the cause,” in the words of Janet Groth, who introduced my edition.)

Here’s that held post, more or less.

Jonathan Franzen’s “Two Ponies” essay

Franzen earned his whiskers

[Grizzled: Jonathan Franzen.]

I’m sort of obsessed with Jonathan Franzen’s essay depicting a turbulent period in his family’s life when he, as a boy, was immersed in the cartoons of Charles Schulz. For starters, I love the braided structure it employs; second, it’s an unusual hybrid of personal and memoir essay form. Then there’s its compelling and vexing content.

“The Comfort Zone” ran in the New Yorker on November 29, 2004 (it’s still available on line); it appears with some significant additions (or maybe with cuts made by the New Yorker restored) as “Two Ponies” in his 2007 memoir of linked essays The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.

The book’s version is much darker—and better, I think. In it, Franzen alleges that Schulz was an overly sensitive kid who managed to scar himself despite having two loving parents. Schulz obsessed over the fact that someone always had to lose, and was ostracized in high school, or felt he was, as a hick. (Another blow: his charismatic older brother drowned as a young man.)

Then in “Two Ponies,” Franzen addresses why the phenomenally successful Schulz spent a “withdrawn and emotionally turbulent” adulthood:

Was Schulz’s comic genius the product of his psychic wounds? Certainly the middle-aged artist was a mass of resentments and phobias that seemed attributable, in turn, to early traumas. He was increasingly prone to attacks of depression and bitter loneliness (“Just the mention of a hotel makes me turn cold,” he told his biographer), and when he finally broke away from his native Minnesota he set about replicating its comforts in California, building himself an ice rink where the snack bar was called “Warm Puppy.” By the 1970s, he was reluctant to even get on an airplane unless someone from his family was with him. This would seem to be a classic instance of the pathology that produces great art: wounded in his adolescence, our hero took permanent refuge in the childhood world of “Peanuts.”

And then—there it comes!—is Franzen’s breathtaking assessment of the perils of full-time art-making:

Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them. Almost every young person experiences sorrows. What’s distinctive about Schulz’s childhood is not his suffering but the fact that he loved comics from an early age, was gifted at drawing, and had the undivided attention of two loving parents.

He suffered because he was an artist.

charles schultz3

[Charles Schulz draws Charlie Brown.]

This from one of America’s esteemed novelists, not someone whose notion of art’s dangers comes from People magazine. Suffering may reflect Franzen’s own experience of spending years in front of a word processor—or is his estimation of what Schulz’s even harder daily art-making deadline meant. Who knows?

(Full disclosure. As a kid, for a while I had a dog named Charlie Brown. And as an adult, I had a weird Schulz connection. When my beloved Labrador, Tess, died, back in the early 1990s, I wrote a heartfelt email to my sister, who gave it to my mother, who sent it to my former babysitter in California, who knew Schulz and gave it to him. Lo and behold, a copy of one of Schulz’s cartoon collections arrived at my Indiana home, inscribed by him to me.)

Franzen can be provocative, on purpose and otherwise. He made maddening, fatuous assertions in a muddled April 18, 2011, New Yorker essay, “Farther Away: Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,” about his friend David Foster Wallace in regard to Wallace’s suicide.

In Franzen’s view, Wallace’s problem wasn’t so much severe depression as it was boredom and deciding to end his ennui in a warped career move. By that mythologizing act, a writer’s suicide, he chose “the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.” Granted, he was your friend, Jon, and you are privy to his widow’s horror over having to find him, hanged on their patio. But jeez Louise.

In “Two Ponies,” Franzen never explains, evidently feeling it’s self-evident, why artists “pay the very steep psychic price” for making art. And he has it both ways, alleging that Schulz poured his psychic wounds into depressive Charlie Brown and other Peanuts characters—“the selfish and sadistic Lucy, the philosophizing oddball Linus, and the obsessive Schroeder”—while actually seeing himself as his creation who is consistently a winner:

But his true alter ego is clearly Snoopy: the protean trickster whose freedom is founded on his confidence that he’s lovable at heart, the quick-change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle and then again, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner.

Franzen somehow weaves all this Schulz exposition into an interesting memoir about a 1970 fight between his father and a brother—over his brother’s artistic aspirations—amidst trashed, post-1960s America. Franzen’s thinking about Schulz in “Two Ponies” seems, upon my closer analysis for this post, as muddled as his DFW essay. Even the sublime metaphor Franzen uses in its title, a line borrowed from one of Charlie Brown’s wishes, wavers under scrutiny.

Jane Smiley on the perils of artistic practice

Jane Smiley2

[Not so sunny: Jane Smiley.]

Jane Smiley takes up the subject of art and suffering in her fine analysis of fiction, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. She contends that novel-writing (and I’d add memoir) is a process that becomes a transformative act: “The first person to experience the effects . . . is the novelist himself.”

When Charles Dickens began to fictionalize his childhood, she says, he “became his own psychoanalyst,” and acted successfully upon his diagnosis. Though he did not escape mistakes and pain, he did make decisions that changed his narrative. And happily for him, he always thought each new book was his best—“and therefore the person he was being at the time, was the best ever.”

But Smiley warns:

Novel-writing may not work as therapy, may sink the novelist into a mire of feelings that he or she cannot resolve (it takes as much wisdom to solve a significant problem in a novel as in life), or it may persuade the novelist that some risky course of action is the proper thing to do (divorce, for example) . . .

. . . I think that a good rule of thumb is that novel-writing will make happy a person who can tolerate and enjoy an ever-intensifying experience of himself or herself. Novel-writing forces the novelist to turn inward day after day, year after year. No consolations in the form of praise, fame, money, or importance can compensate for that effort if it is painful. All feelings of unworthiness will be felt over and over again; all self-doubts, all failures of love and self respect, every sense of inadequacy will be re-experienced.

Oh, joy.

Then there’s Philip Roth’s recent bleak view:

Philip Roth

[But writing saved me!]

Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.

This appears in a New York Times Sunday Book Review interview with Roth by Daniel Sandstrom on March 2, 2014. Five years before, Roth had announced his retirement, and he began rereading the 31 books he’d published between 1950 and 2010. Answering Sandstrom’s opinion of his life’s work, Roth, echoing heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, said, “I did the best I could with what I had.” (Roth’s great memoir of his father, Patrimony, if listed on my Favorite CNF page.)

Say what you will about his grim visage, Roth has a sense of humor.

And you’ll notice that in his statement about writing’s necessity, Roth is expressing the exact opposite of Franzen’s apparent point—Roth’s tortured self would have been worse without his art. He sounds as if, contra Smiley as well, his experience of himself was going to be dire even without writing.

The only matters this post have clarified for me are my feelings about “Two Ponies” and Jonathan Franzen. That is, I’m not quite as in love with the essay and I understand those who find its author irritating. Probably this post should have stayed in my “To Be Uploaded” folder, forever only a potential dud.

I was a long way from Tupelo,

A long way from Tupelo

Yeah, I was stranded in a place that nobody knows

I was a long was from Tupelo

—Paul Thorn, “A Long Way From Tupelo”


  • Hi, Richard. On the whole, finding this post quite interesting, I think you should continue to groom your stack of unused posts for ones that tickle your fancy in some way. Soon, I will be writing a post on a book of Jane Smiley’s I’ve recently read, her novel “Private Life,” and so I found her notions especially provocative. By the by, though I’m sure there may have been theorists about the connection between art and pain/damage all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, one of the most notable and determined (on the side of the argument to suggest that damage makes art, that is) was a Victorian critic named Eneas Sweetland Dallas. I had to read him for a Victorian literary theory class I took, and though I can’t remember his argument now in all its dubious glory, I remember feeling insulted as a fledgling writer that he thought there was something wrong with me and that that was why I had to write. But being a Victorian, he’s of course quite earnest about it all!

    • Richard says:

      Yep, what a fraught subject. I like those who believe and promulgate the notion that art represents health and leads to health. But I seem equally drawn to those who believe the opposite!

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