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Self-Portrait of an Artist

The Hazards of a Life of the Mind

ISSUE:  Spring 2021


<I>Having and Being Had</I>. By Eula Biss.  Riverhead, 2020.  336pp. HB, $26.<I>The Life of the Mind</I>. By Christine Smallwood.  Hogarth, 2021.  240. HB, $27. <I>Want</I>. By Lynn Steger Strong.  Henry Holt, 2020.  224pp. HB, $25. <I>Drifts</i>. By Kate Zambreno. Riverhead, 2020. 336pp. HB, $26. If the case of John Berger’s debut novel, A Painter of Our Time, still enrages sixty-three years after its release in 1958, a writer’s wrath especially might be attended by the smallest, wistful pang. An idea-driven meditation on the role of art and the artist in the modern world, the novel alternates between excerpts of a diary kept by a sixty-something Hungarian painter named Janos and the annotations to those writings made by his young British friend, John, who discovers the diary in the wake of Janos’s sudden disappearance. Then in his early thirties, Berger drew heavily on his experience as a would-be painter, art critic, and friend to numerous of the exiled Eastern European artists who landed in England pre– and post–World War II. A Painter of Our Time returns inexorably to the knotted intersection of politics and creative expression. A former warrior for socialism, in his journal Janos works to parse the vision that guides him now, examining it against the imperatives of communist revolution, of a belief system hostile to the basic tenets of artistic pursuit: subjectivity, solitude, the painter’s duty not to politics or party but to his own capabilities, “his inconclusive one-man struggle.”

The reviews, Berger wrote in his 1988 afterword, were “catastrophic.” Many of them cast the author as a totalitarian sympathizer, seizing on the narrator’s support for a Hungarian communist leader. Cowed by the intensity of the critical response, after one month in print Berger’s publisher withdrew the book. Cold War politicking prevailed over a minor but well-turned work of art. It was a lesson not in humility, Berger writes, but in “the pride that a modern writer needs to have here in the face of the media—whether they lick or bite.”

Read today, the novel is startling mainly for the quality of its insights, the willingness of an author so young to hold his ideals up to such inventive and unflinching scrutiny. The ferocity of the response to this effort suggests, among other things, a set of intellectual and ideological stakes more covetable, perhaps, from a distance. Debate persists around political acts of censorship and cancellation, yet the average writer now contends with an even more outrageous prospect: that of his or her own irrelevance. It is this sense that seeds with nostalgia the notion of a work of art so incendiary that the establishment sought to bury it; and that now finds growing throngs of aspiring artists wandering the Escher-like maze of false doors and floating stairs where the establishment used to be.


In some ways Berger’s rude baptism aligned him with his protagonist, the painter whose long-awaited, well-received London-gallery showing sends him into a reverse exile—to resume the real-world fight, it is suggested, on the Iron Curtain’s far side. If “the modern artist fights to contribute to human happiness, truth or justice,” as Janos writes in his diary, we are meant to understand the painter’s bind as both particular to him and representative of a larger threat. “Capitalist society is incapable of rewarding the artist,” he writes, “incapable of granting true success.” Berger leaves the terms of that success somewhat opaque, emphasizing the artist’s wish to be useful, recognized; to connect and to prophesy; to make a man realize “that up to now he has forgotten something.” These are ill-fated ambitions in an age of spectacle; yet everywhere artist types abound, redouble, proliferate. Janos, who makes a pittance teaching, grouses over the “dilettanti, who now take up art solely because they have what in the eighteenth century they would have been content to call Taste.”

A Painter of Our Time is a fine specimen in the canon of twentieth-century–artist-hero narratives responsible in part for our muddled notion of the artist’s path as both exalted and available to all who might seek it. Aphoristic and alive with human obstinacy, Berger’s debut evidences how fully he grasped an idea the novel espouses, that the artist must understand “his political significance as an artist—not as a politician.” In this and in other ways it anticipates Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), a novel whose narrator, a writer named Anna Wulf, struggles to cohere the personal, ideological, and aesthetic imperatives at war in her life.

To capture “the ideological ‘feel’” of mid-century Britain, Lessing wrote in her 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook, she resolved to set the story “among socialists and Marxists, because it has been inside the various chapters of socialism that the great debates of our time have gone on.” If the literati deemed Lessing sufficiently critical of this milieu, the book was “instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.” Lessing, an avowed proponent of women’s liberation, found herself in the curious position of resisting this explicitly political reduction of her work. Things changed quickly in the decade after its first publication. As Lessing points out, by 1971 The Golden Notebook stood a better chance of being “read, and not merely reacted to.”

Yet time has only clarified how radical it was, then, to put a woman at the center of an intricate story of worldly, artistic, and existential doubt. Published only four years later, in this The Golden Notebook stands in direct contrast to A Painter of Our Time, in which only men are painters with big ideas and impudent hair; only men toil with themselves and with the impossible questions of the age. Berger’s women are merely wives, and wives come in two categories: angelic and docile, or faded and hopelessly bourgeois. Lessing sought to tweak the relatively new theme of “artist-as-exemplar” (a hundred years before, she points out, heroes were “soldiers and empire builders and explorers and clergymen and politicians…[o]nly oddballs and eccentrics wanted to be artists”). Her artist-hero’s dilemma would be linked to the “overwhelming problems of war, famine, poverty,” and dispense with the idea of the artist as a “monstrously isolated, monstrously narcissistic, pedestalled paragon.” In 1971 Lessing aligned this latter idea with the cohort of young people then fomenting a sort of creative revolution. Artists all “have abolished that isolated, creative, sensitive figure—by copying him in the hundreds of thousands. A trend has reached its extreme, its conclusion, and so there will be a reaction of some sort, as always happens.”


More arts-adjacent than artist, Dorothy, the protagonist of critic Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, The Life of the Mind, nevertheless takes her place in the growing line of literary antiheroines who might be considered both a reaction to and an extension of the trend Lessing describes. An English PhD in New York City slogging through the fruitless search for a faculty job, at some earlier point Dorothy had fantasized about “a notable career,” one in which she “wrote books for the general reader that would be reviewed in the daily paper.” The kind of career, that is, enjoyed by people like Dorothy’s thesis adviser, Judith, an older woman whose power and influence Dorothy understands to be a thing of the past, unavailable to her or anyone of her generation. Passed over for permanent positions and teaching opportunities for courses like “Writing the Apocalypse” as an adjunct to make ends meet, Dorothy now feels “like a janitor in the temple who continued to sweep because she had nowhere else to be but who had lost her belief in the essential sanctity of the enterprise.”

Smallwood accents this state of estrangement with a bodily purge: The novel opens with Dorothy in the midst of a miscarriage. The pregnancy and its end mark one more in the domino chain of nonstarters that characterizes Dorothy’s existence. Stalled professionally, she is subject to a larger stagnation: Stuck in the cycle of “comfortable precarity” that has replaced the middle class, she is too numb to face the coming flood, the fact that she may indeed be “living at the end of something, or too many somethings to say.” Dorothy imagines navigating a postapocalyptic seascape on a raft of old coats, explaining to her future children why she didn’t do more, say more, take action: “‘I found it draining to live zagging and zigging from exhaustion to emergency and back again,’ she [tells them]. ‘I craved the simple privacy of not being a political actor.’”

Another way of saying this, perhaps, is that Dorothy prefers to be alone with her thoughts. Despite the displacement of the arts in society and the possible overstatement of her promise, she maintains a belief that something useful might come of them, that engagement with art is a meaningful way to interact with the world. Whether to cling to that belief or let it die is the question that The Life of the Mind circles over the several weeks we follow Dorothy as she teaches, sees her two therapists, attends a conference in Las Vegas and a karaoke party in Brooklyn, and hangs with her doting partner, Rog, all while enduring history’s most languorous uterine shed. Smallwood treats the details of the latter with clinical but relentless fascination: At no point is the reader unaware of what is happening in Dorothy’s underpants. Neither can Dorothy escape, slow, or speed the process—whose marking of time and inherent questions of fate and consequence prick to attention a consciousness dulled by the insidiously diffuse threat of meaninglessness, if not annihilation. A miscarriage involves thwarted potential, but also the workings of an ingenious system to ensure its host will live to try again.

Plotless and interior, The Life of the Mind is kindred to a series of recent books that explores through the experience of relatively privileged, culturally alienated female protagonists—who a few generations ago would have been social outliers, subject to marriage plots or torn between the imperatives of art and romantic attachment—the plight of the artist in an irrevocably fractured, post-truth world. Whether to engage with that world or focus on securing one’s own little pod is the question taken up in different ways and to varying degrees by Lynn Steger Strong’s Want (2020), Kate Zambreno’s Drifts (2020), Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had (2020), and recent novels from Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, and Otessa Moshfegh. The existence of the books, of course, suggests the issue is never either-or: When writing about oneself, argued Lessing, “one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions—and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas—can’t be yours alone.” Still, what these authors document is subjectivity itself in a kind of free fall, individuals whose most political act might be to sustain any kind of desire, for anything at all.

For Smallwood’s Dorothy, “want itself was a thing of the past. She lived in the epilogue of wants.” Elizabeth, the narrator of Strong’s Want, is a thirtysomething, Ivy League adjunct who once thought “books were the answer, because they’d saved me and that seemed like something.” Facing bankruptcy despite her upper-middle-class upbringing, Elizabeth drains her boiling energy on predawn runs through New York City—while her husband and two young children sleep—and jokes about being a professor “of failing to find a way to make a living wage.” The unnamed, Brooklyn-dwelling narrator of Zambreno’s Drifts also inhabits a subsistence limbo, teaching writing and failing to work on the novel that’s supposed to be her breakout, awash in the fog of distraction that plagues artists and nonartists alike: “The heat, the dog, the day…the internet, political depression, obsession with skin care, late capitalism, binge-watching television on my computer….” She became an artist “to try to live a life of the mind, of active contemplation,” but in Drifts confronts the possibility that the cause of her block might extend well beyond her; that the threat it presents to a sovereign, fervent imagination is itself the story.

It’s worth noting that, along with finding life in New York arid and financially untenable, in the above novels each protagonist enjoys the love and support of a male partner whose characterization is mostly limited to “loving and supportive.” Bland, absorbent figures, their presence seems deliberately opaque and pointedly benign: If they cause no suffering and generate no narrative tension, what consolation they offer is limited, unequal to the predicament at hand. Though not languishing in doubt and self-negation, neither are they insensible to the forces paralyzing their partner. Teaching is another binding feature of this subgenre, the looming of the MFA industrial complex a perverse grounding element for artists and thinkers otherwise almost completely devoid of one. The women teach to survive, just barely—a practice that only enhances their sense of isolation and defeat. In Having and Being Had, it is not writing but a permanent faculty position that enables Eula Biss to buy a $485,000 house. She then seeks to reduce her teaching load to contemplate from within its walls the incompatibilities of art and capital, creative urgency and privileged comfort.

The impoverishment depicted in these stories is more abstract than tangible, which leaves the opening for an easy slam—call me when you actually miss a meal. These are depredations more urgent for being so widespread, for drawing so many so close to the edge. The flailing of these characters—for the barest economic foothold, a functioning community, a means of sustained, passionate engagement—is in many ways our own. Their exhaustion too. To fight for her ideals, Berger wrote, the artist must be a militant for her vision, fired by the knowledge that “life could be better, richer, juster, truer than it was.” But to fight for anything requires a few key baselines: a sense of one’s own realness and that of the world one inhabits; an understanding of this reality as broadly shared; a faith in the systems of civic, moral, and spiritual authority that make the previous three things possible. In some ways the reader can glean the liberal leanings of the women in these stories by their almost complete lack of political affect, the novels’ polite aversion to explicitly ideological themes. This is of course its own form of ideology, captured in extremity by something like “lol nothing matters,” the internet meme which finds its inverse in the nihilistic drive for power that has travestied the Republican Party.

Two days after the inauguration of Joe Biden, two weeks after thousands of domestic terrorists stormed the US Capitol, and one year into a global pandemic that has killed over two million people, as I scrolled through the Instagram feed of a lifestyle influencer who uses her platform to sell beauty products and home comforts, there appeared an image of a crude, chalk-inscribed sign propped on the street: use this time to express urself thru art. I wondered what Dorothy would say. Dorothy, who could well imagine the smirks of her future children, tiny disbelievers in “the possibility of an apolitical life.” That possibility grew more faint over the past year’s universal upgrade from interesting to appalling times, the gradual reincorporation of ideology into the average citizen’s diet, and the renewed imperative to identify, live, and fight for one’s ideals.

The age of inconsequence lurches toward its end. One tries and fails to make out its replacement—still a blur on the horizon, shrouded in a buzzing, toxic haze. If, as Berger and Lessing suggest, radical politics mostly begets itself, will the return of mass, high-stakes ideological conflict eventually inspire not just politicized but vital, politically significant art? In the exquisite meantime, for the artist, “true success” looks much as it does for everyone else: a matter of survival, of keeping the faith. Assuming consequence—of each action, every word—where no good evidence for it exists.



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