– E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born
I've always loved this aphorism from the great pessimistic existential philosopher E. M. Cioran. There was even a brief time when I flirted with inking it into my skin before my friends' literary tattoo book came out. Writers are normally told to write for themselves, that the only thing that matters is that the work works for you. This is not true. Even when you are writing for yourself, you are conscious of the weight of the other's eyes. How will it sound to someone else who is not trapped in your head?
"Write for the gladiators" sounds excessively macho and even cheesy divorced from the rest of the quote. "Gladiator" just implies some kind of goofy warrior today, but Cioran is referring to the true historical gladiators. Warriors perhaps, but mostly slaves condemned to die for the amusement of the citizenry. Sitting alone in the dark and dusty passages underneath the coliseum, waiting to be shoved out into the bright, hot light. What kind of art would matter to them?
"Deal with that time."
Diane Williams used to stress to me that your writing is out there competing with Shakespeare and Kafka and Tolstoy and every other great writer of history. A daunting way to look at things, though also obviously true. There is always that question of why does your work matter? What makes it stand out?
Another quote from another pessimistic author:
"There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks of death."
This is what Thomas Bernhard said when he accepted an Austrian literary award.
As cantankerous as Bernhard and Cioran are, their work is still filled with joy. One can--must?--revel in the absurdity.
Yet another quote, this time from the master Franz Kafka:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? [...] A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
To get back to the Cioran, I think I first heard the gladiator command mentioned by Sam Lipsyte when I interviewed him. Lipsyte sums it up better than me:
LIPSYTE: And that is where received language and clichés come in handy. They help you evade that kind of vulnerability. They are a kind of harness and they are not real useful if you are trying to write. E.M. Cioran said, "Write for gladiators," and I love that quote. I don't think he means guys in sandals with swords. I think he means people who understand the fragility of their situation, people who don't have a lot of time for bullshit, people who feel it coming down on them and know that it could end anytime. How do you write for somebody like that? Like us.
GIGANTIC: Write for condemned men.
LIPSYTE: Yeah, what do you think they would need to read? And we are all condemned. Yes. Write for gladiators.
GIGANTIC: That's a good one. The kind you write on the wall behind your computer to look at while you're making your fifth cup of coffee.
LIPSYTE: "Those who are about to write, we salute you." I think all of that stuff is true. The reason you have to put yourself in danger—scare yourself—is because you are in danger, you are sentenced.