When I was young — I’d say ‘and impressionable’, but I’m still impressionable — I read this passage from the prologue of Tristan and Isolde, by Gottfried von Strassburg. (This isn’t because I was reading Tristan. I think it was the epigraph to a swords-and-sorcery novel.)
I liked this passage so much that I typed it up and printed it out and sticky-taped it to the front of my writing box, where it still is, wherever that is. The whole prologue is indivisibly uplifting and cantankerous — it’s an uncrackable nut of happy misanthropy and belligerent philanthropy:
“If I spend my time in vain, ripe for living as I am, my part in society will continue to fall short of what my experience requires of me.”
(This is Gottfried mounting a defence of his writing of the poem, by the way.)
“Thus I have undertaken a labour to please the polite world and solace noble hearts — those hearts which I hold in affection, that world which lies open to my heart. I do not mean the world of the many who (as I hear) are unable to endure sorrow and wish only to revel in bliss. (Please God to let them live in their bliss!) What I have to say does not concern that world and such a way of life; their way and mine diverge sharply. I have another world in mind which together in one heart bears its bitter-sweet, its dear sorrow, its heart’s joy, its love’s pain, its dear life, its sorrowful death, its dear death, its sorrowful life. To this life let my life be given, of this world let me be part, to be damned or saved with it.”
(Gottfried wrote this in Middle High German, and the translation I have is a bit pedestrian — but that last sentence… ah hell.)
“I have kept with it so far and with it have spent the days that were to bring me counsel and guidance through a life which has moved me profoundly. I have offered the fruits of my labour to this world as a pastime, so that with my story its denizens can bring their keen sorrow halfway to alleviation and thus abate their anguish.”
Typing it up for the second time, I can see how crabby it is, and how beaten up Gottfried is. His entire prologue bristles with injury. It’s like a short white scar without the story of it.
But to my adolescent ear (which still isn’t completely deafened), it’s bewitching. It soars with the hope of a better place, peopled with better people, to which you can always retreat, and make something appreciably good. It’s a rejection of everything present in favour of something better. I’m pretty sure I used to be able to recite it from heart.
It became a cornerstone of my principles — or the principles of my writing, back when my life was molded by my writing aspirations. I didn’t ever write much, but I always lived my writing, and even today when I write hardly at all, to make sense of a thing I have to write the story of it in my head as if I were telling it to you. When I write stories in my head, of how we met for instance, or why we haven’t, the conversation we didn’t have, the conversation we should have had instead, I’m writing them to this rhythm. Gottfried’s passion beats a drum for the way I tend to understand things.
Now I think this is terrible. The fault line between me and my youth is right here, and it’s still more or less a hairline crack. I’m writing this in an attempt to grow it.
It’s not that the passage is arrogant, though obviously it is. Arrogance has an undeserved reputation. It’s usually a good thing. You can see that it was Gottfried’s righteousness that impelled him to labour over the story of Tristan and Isolde. He perceived an importance to his work — we call this arrogance now. But without his arrogance we would not have this thing, or not as much of it, and the remnant wouldn’t mean as much to us. Arrogance can collaborate with goodwill very well, and when it does it’s potent. When it doesn’t it’s deeply unpleasant. Of course, but so what?
I think the problem is that the promise is a worm on a hook. You can’t write only for a better world, for a better audience, only for people who walk on a rope between sorrow and joy (or whomever are your phantoms). You can’t dismiss every pursuit of short-term bliss, you can’t be disappointed in everyone who sometimes pursues it. You can’t be human without sometimes pursuing it yourself. You can’t remain steadfastly disinterested in the ephemeral and apparently shallow passions of your neighbours. You can’t say your best companions live in another world.
You can’t say, as I once said to a friend of mine, probably shortly after I typed up that passage the first time around, that “I will die before any of my friends are born.” He didn’t take that well, and I don’t really have much respect for the boy who said that either. He was kind of a twat.
(The boy of about the same age who wrote ‘I write to make someone cry’, and for whom writing that into his notebook was a defining moment — I’m fond of him and I haven’t properly taken him to task yet. That’s not a good reason to write anything, especially if you’re more fascinated by the means than the end, or if you have the wrong end.)
You can’t live this way, not because it’s impossible: it’s really easy. You can’t, not because it’s arrogant either. It’s normal and good to take pride in hewing to your beliefs. It’s okay if you can’t find bliss in everything other people find bliss in.
You can’t, just because it doesn’t produce anything particularly good. It can make words a little finer, but much less penetrable. It closes the borders between my mind and yours. It’s hard to write anything that way — or think anything that way, or do anything that way — that you’ll enjoy reading or remembering later on. Or that others will enjoy reading now. The world in which these words and actions take place is, eventually, uninhabited. It is, not just figuratively, a waste-land.
I guess that leaves as a mystery how old Gottfried wrote something good and lasting if he really believed his own prologue. It isn’t one I’m going to solve. (I can report that he left it half-unfinished. But this is not about him — he lived 800 years ago, writing for an audience who relished their superior humours, and I am only misusing his words.)
Again, I’m not saying you must think only of, and write only of, and live only in the real world. I think the only stuff I like reading is of imaginary and fantastical worlds, so that I’m starting to think it’s all I could possibly write. But you shouldn’t retreat to their solace, as their author; you have to bring them here.
The point is, get out of the house. Sell the hermitage. Go for a walk. Bring a friend. Be part of THIS world.