The New York Times today published a fairly lengthy (six pages online; is that lengthy?) abstract from the journals of the late Susan Sontag (whose Against Interpretation either influenced me more than I imagined 15 years ago or I’ve just lately been coming independently to the same conclusions). In her journal, Sontag writes, in 1966, of an acquaintance asking her how she feels when she discovers
say, three-fourths through something I’m writing that it is mediocre, inferior. I reply that I feel good and plow on to the end. I’m discharging the mediocre in myself. (My excremental image of my writing.) It’s there.
I want to get rid of it. I can’t negate it by an act of will. (Or can I?) I can only allow it its voice, get it out. Then I can do something else.
At least, I know I won’t need to do that again.
This is interesting not just for writers. The fear of making a “mistake” paralyzes anyone and everyone who is considering a relationship or a career. Even as I suffer from the same, human fear, I’m fascinated by its irrationality. A mistake? Based on what criteria? Compared to what standard? I’ve never met anyone who could articulate why taking a job that lasts three years and then ends, or a relationship that lasts fifteen months and ends, ought to or even could be framed as a “mistake”. It seems to me a reckless yearning toward efficiency and perfection. And utterly paralyzing.
Sontag’s view here will be most easily comprehended by writers who often don’t even begin to write (as others don’t even begin to live) for fear that the results will turn out displeasing to them and therefore be — wait for it — “wasted”. But anyone should be able to draw the analogies with his or her own life.
How unfortunate, to have such a limited and impoverished view of how we spend our days. A world of “waste” versus efficiency, notions of time well spent versus perceptions of a slip in the march of allegedly forward progress. If we can’t consider the idea that all that we do is a learning and opening up, if our story is, rather, that by acting we can only expose our mediocrity, well, it’s best not to act at all. At the same time, if we can’t feel in our bones that there is not, in fact, any hurry to get to a place (that there is actually no place called happiness to get to), we feel compulsively compelled to act.
Thus begins the inner war.