Stanley Fish, the world's most famous Miltonist, has been writing a blog for the New York Times with all his characteristic brio and pugnaciousness. His latest entry traces his reactions to a radio interview with Colm Toibin, author of the highly praised short story collection, Mothers and Sons. Fish finds himself annoyed when, during the call-in question period of the interview, Toibin refuses to acknowledge any direct connection between the tragedies he describes in his stories and events in his personal life. Fish was especially irritated with Toibin when the author coldly ignored his readers' testimonials about how his stories had helped them deal with grief. Finally, there was a moment in which, as Fish describes it, "his refusal of intimacy (if indeed intimacy can be achieved between a radio voice and an audience) into a stance I recognized and could admire." A caller asked Toibin if the act of writing the stories helped him work through his grief. Toibin's answer was interesting, although it shouldn't have been surprising: no, writing about grief didn't help at all. Furthermore, he wasn't looking for solace from his grief at all. Grief is just another source of material for the creation of art. Toibin went on to say that the purpose of writing is to create beautiful sentences. Grief serves the sentences, not the other way around. The solace of art lies in the beauty of its forms.
Fish comes to admire Toibin's Jamesian (Toibin is the author of The Master, a novel about the life of Henry James) refusal to conflate life and art. And Fish, unpredictable as always (he once tried to win an debate on a literary question by pointing out that he owned a Jaguar and his antagonist did not) passes on the obvious observation: the naive reader's tendency to look to the author's life for authenticity in fiction, which leads to the pernicious concept of art as therapy. Rather, Fish points to another, less obvious but far more important lesson:
If you’ve found something you really like to do – say write beautiful sentences – not because of the possible benefits to the world of doing it, but because doing it brings you the satisfaction and sense of completeness nothing else can, then do it at the highest level of performance you are capable of, and leave the world and its problems to others. This is a lesson I have preached before in these columns when the subject was teaching, and it is a lesson that can be applied, I believe, to any project that offers as a prime reason for prosecuting it the pleasure, a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment. And if your project doesn’t offer that pleasure (perhaps among others) you might want to think again about your commitment to it.
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