The other day, I was asked a question that I dread. We were talking about Mockingbird, but the query would have inspired just as much trepidation if it had been concerned with my parenting or marriage. I was asked what success might look like. I’ll spare you my answer (which wasn’t really an answer). The exchange brought to mind an enlightening and brief essay that appeared in The NY Times a couple of weeks ago, Phillip Lopate’s “Midlist Crisis”, in which he laments his station as good-but-not-great writer, someone who has experienced a fair amount success but never that one key breakthrough to the big leagues of household name authors, what he calls the “Club of Hundred”. The piece is not so much an occasion for self-pity as a stirring (and well written!) reflection on the arbitrary nature of the world’s standards when it comes to artistic achievement, or really achievement of any kind–what we might term little ‘l’ law. In his context, the Index of Success takes the form of the Law of Acclaim or Influence or Sales. Similar standards haunts creatives of all persuasions; just fill in whatever is functioning as shorthand for the result a person is hoping to achieve through their work. As is often the case with such little ‘l’ laws, Lopate cannot see anything consistent about the system of judgment that he and his colleagues are all hopelessly consumed with, other than the fact that it clearly exists. Sadly, the firsthand knowledge of how cruel and creatively stultifying this reward-punishment scheme can be does not seem prevent anyone from going crazy trying to figure it out:
The problem is not that the world so often ignores literary effort (though that is certainly the case), but that to the degree it breaks its silence it tends to distribute the rewards in a mystifyingly erratic manner…
Of course there are those rare American authors who, once placed in the limelight, manage to stay there: let’s say a hundred in any given era. I can’t speak for those anointed ones, those household names, those demigods; my experience is rather in the other camp, with the thousands of midlist writers whom the reading public may be dimly, subliminally aware of — or not. Much teeth-gnashing, cursing and praying can be heard from this camp. Its occupants have not yet given up the dream of ascending to the Club of Hundred through some “breakthrough” book, splashy advertising campaign or other fata morgana, and what keeps them in a state of constant suspense is that from time to time a bone is tossed to them — a flattering review, say, a runner-up designation for a literary award or, best of all, a university post. If the world were to deny them any recognition, they could at last resign themselves stoically if not cheerfully to their nonentity status. But it is the inconsistent application of applause and indifference that makes their situation tormenting, and drives them into lesser or greater fits of paranoia.
How are we to keep a firm grip on our own sense of worth when the authorities dish out such random responses? How are we to stop obsessing about “them,” the reward-givers? You have never won a Guggenheim fellowship and you fume: those cowards, those bozos! Then one day you do win a Guggenheim and think, they are mighty fine fellows, those judges, and are happy for a month before other thoughts settle in: Why, if you are a good enough writer to win a Guggenheim, have you never won a Lannan or a Whiting, much less a MacArthur? Those cowards, those bozos. You are admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences but never hear a peep from the Academy of Arts and Letters. What to make of it? An enigma. You receive fine notices in The New York Times Book Review and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, but nothing in The Wall Street Journal or Bookforum. Why? It is not the negative reviews that rankle but the nonreviews. There is a picture in my mind of some book review editor who holds my latest book in his hands and decides, “Nah, skip it.” Some of these people I run into at holiday parties and literary events. How can these traitors look me in the eye? How can they sleep at night, those cowards, those bozos?…
Brilliant! Lopate has provided us with a picture-perfect example of what Ethan talks about in This American Gospel when he explores the various ways ways we try to deal with judgment and Law (both big and little), i.e. through fight, flight or appeasement:
“You are brought to a moment of internal crisis, where something you are is in conflict with something you ought to be… Perhaps you attempt to assassinate the judge; it’s not flight, it’s fight. You know the judge isn’t leaving anytime soon, but you’re not either, so it is time to put up your dukes. You bicker with your boss about his unrealistic expectations, condescend about the vanity of going to the gym, blame your parents for what they have done to you, or wear leather and turn the speakers up.”
In this scenario, the question then becomes what we do when circumstances change to the extent that the judge no longer seems so condemnatory. More often than not, the second we are deemed worthy, we embrace the very standard we had taken such issue with before — such is the irresistible power of the Law. Just think about the person in high school who used to rant about ‘rich kids’ or ‘beautiful people’ and their superficial lifestyles, and then ten years later they’ve experienced some financial success or grown into their looks… Odds are pretty good that you’ll find them ensconced at the country club pool as soon as they get the invitation, possibly even talking about why so-and-so shouldn’t be admitted next.
Along similarly literary lines, there’s David Foster Wallace’s classic pronouncement about the hollowness of appeasement when it comes to this fulfilling aesthetic righteousness:
I can remember being twenty-four years old and having my, you know, smiling mug in The New York Times Book Review, and it feeling really good for exactly like ten seconds. And then you’re hungry for more. So that, clearly, I mean if you’re not stupid, you figure out that the real problem is the discontented self. That all this stuff that you think will work for a second, but then all it does is set up a hunger for more and better.
But I digress. Lopate is getting at an underlying presumption about the nature of life that begs to be explored. Yes, there is the self-justification aspect, which is there in spades–undeniably central as it is to so many of our pursuits. What interests me at the moment though is a different drive, the one toward immortality. These days, it goes by the considerably more comfortable label “legacy”. It is no coincidence that Lopate invokes the finality of death as the only possible consolation when it comes to the Law of Posterity or the Club of Hundred, the reality that, as he puts it, “we are all soon to be dust and ashes under the aspect of eternity — a comfortingly modest thought.” He is right. At its core, the notion of “legacy”, literary or personal, represents a denial of death, AKA the height of immodesty. And like all denials of death, it is fruitless. I mean, how many of us still read authors from the 16th century? Bad example… But how many of us know the first names of our great-great-great grandparents? This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as a legacy, or that those ancestors didn’t “leave their mark” in some important way, just that there is inevitably some gap between how a person would like to be remembered and how they actually are remembered, both in terms of content and frequency. They certainly didn’t “live on” in the way they wanted to, i.e. physically. Regardless, as much as we might wish it were not the case, we do not get to choose the mark we leave, and the belief that we can do so is simply a fiction–and a harmful one at that, the cause of enormous amounts of worry and jealousy and conflict.
This works in both negative and positive ways, of course. For me both aspects hit home musically this week: First, I finally got around to watching the documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive”, which checks in on the diminutive songwriter who was absolutely ubiquitous on both the charts and the television during the 1970s, winning multiple Grammys and even an Oscar. Thirty years later, he’s playing in hotel lobbies and touring the Philippines, and documentarians are wondering if he’s still alive. (It should be noted that Paul appears to be much happier than he was during his prime). Secondly, there’s Gene Clark, whose mid-70s solo records have drawn me back once again these past few days. Gene was one of the principle songwriters for The Byrds but left that band early on to pursue a career in obscurity. The style and quality of his stuff is not terribly dissimilar to Paul’s; that is, it’s melodic and melancholy and generally top-rate. Unlike Paul though, Gene’s stature only seems to grow with each passing year, despite the fact that he could not catch a break when he was alive (for a variety of reasons). Echoes of Chris Bell and Big Star abound. Today, not a single one of Paul Williams’ records is in-print domestically (iTunes only has a few tracks, including his recent collaboration with Daft Punk!), yet I can barely keep up with the archival releases from Clark’s estate. Doubtless there will be another ebb and flow before long.
Naturally, talent and success sometimes do translate into lasting legacies, but there is no guarantee. It’s all very fickle, and that goes just much for athletes and ibankers and politicians and, yes, pastors and theologians as it does for musicians. But the point here is not to play Debbie Downer. The point is simply that “legacy”, in the way we tend to think about it, is a law that has no satisfaction. It is a vehicle of control over that which is fundamentally uncontrollable and therefore something in desperate need of deconstruction (–let that be the legacy of this post!). No matter what guise it takes, when we’re in the realm of control, faith has left the building–and death will inevitably have more sting. But you don’t have to be a religious person to see through the project of securing one’s legacy; as with anything that resists our attempts to control it, bitterness is a close companion. I am reminded of the words a father-figure of mine wrote recently, talking about legacy in terms of children. And yes, I’m well aware of the irony:
This concept, that my children are my legacy, that I live on in my children, is problematic. It suggests that my children are a function of me. It is not they who are the thing, but rather, me in them who is the thing. If my children are my legacy, then they are an extension of me. What child, especially as they grew into adulthood, wishes to be an extension of their parents?
They may be an extension of their parents. An extension is what they may become, in the long view of the generations. But that is a description not a prescription.
The idea that one’s children are one’s “legacy” also implies control. Like my memoirs, perhaps my children can be “tweaked” and fashioned, influenced and shaped. As a parent, I may desire that very thing. But again, no child wishes to be shaped, by anybody!
In the same way that you can’t determine the legacy of your career achievement, you cannot determine the legacy of your children. Attempts to define one’s legacy are attempts to control. Not only are they the opposite of what makes for human freedom, but they are destined to fail.
Like identity and faith, any legacy we might have is a gift, and in Christian terms, it is a gift that has already been given. To go a little further you might say that the Gospel both exposes and extinguishes legacy as a legitimate concern in life. That cord has been cut, thank God. Forgiven people are free to write or not write, create or not create, independent of what future-tense import our words or accomplishments may have. Free, as Lopate so beautifully puts it, to express our “abject gratitude to the powers that be for recognizing me to the degree they have seen fit” rather than resent them/He/It for the ways in which they have not. I don’t know about you, but to my mind that sounds a lot happiness, or at the very least… a good old fashioned love song.