Jean-Paul Sartre was a little toad of a man, but he said one memorable thing: L’enfer c’est les autres. Other people are a hellish distraction, a vampiric and parasitical drain on our energy and creativity. My mentor Alfred Dorn wrote a magnificent poem on the subject titled “The Island,” which ends this way:
Hell, Sartre wrote, is Others, all who ask
to lodge in us, making our life their food.
Rather than yield the island that needs no mask,
we brave the demons that hound solitude.
Everywhere one turns in the modern world, there are solicitations and appeals. Commercial advertising alone has metastasized into a world-encircling monster that no one can avoid. Proselytizers and hucksters of every type infest the planet. Unless you consciously block out this avalanche of noise, you will accomplish nothing.
Even that is not enough. You also have to conquer a pervasive and crippling fear that has spread just as widely and destructively as advertising. And that is the fear of not fitting in, of not being part of the mass.
Apart from simple incompetence, the biggest obstacle to human accomplishment is fear and fear’s most typical consequence, a paralyzing hesitation. Today, such fear is commonly rooted in a pathological compulsion to satisfy the expectations and prejudices of other people. When you are constantly worried about what others think, you cannot focus on a task.
Men studying to be Jesuits are constantly admonished with this Latin saw: Age quod agis. It means “Do what you are doing.” In other words, when you are engaged in an activity do it with absolute concentration, and refuse to be distracted by anything else. The Jesuits didn’t become the most powerful order in the Catholic Church by letting their minds wander.
There’s a wonderful story about the Italian artist Benvenuto Cellini and his creation of the famous statue of Perseus in bronze. Casting large bronze statuary was dicey in the Renaissance—the ancient Graeco-Roman techniques had been lost, and artists had to guess concerning questions of proper heat, metal viscosity, pouring procedure, and all the rest. When Cellini was casting his Perseus, a number of things went wrong. Since pouring a large crucible of molten metal is difficult and dangerous, his artisans and helpers started to lose their nerve. They filled the air with their panicky recriminations and suggestions. But Cellini bellowed “JUST SHUT UP AND KEEP POURING!” Despite all the distractions, Cellini remained focused on task, and he cast the statue successfully. He refused to be afraid, and he refused to pay attention to those who were.
That’s how you have to be in life about everything. You must be focused on task. You must have absolute tunnel vision that blocks out everything and everyone not immediately connected with what you are doing. If you listen to the bleats of the sheep around you, with their whining suggestions and gutless warnings and intrusive kibitzing, you will accomplish nothing. You have to not care about them.
I recently invited a friend to lunch. I was looking forward to a leisurely meal, with drinks, wine, a series of courses, and a long discussion of matters of mutual interest. My friend called me the night before, and told me that he would have to limit our lunch time to one hour, since there was a chance that some other persons might require his assistance that afternoon. I immediately cancelled the lunch date, telling him that I would not let our discussion be cut short by the hypothetical needs of some damned third party. My friend was offended, and said “How can I help it if my cell phone rings?” I retorted “Very easily—just shut the bloody thing off when you have lunch with me!”
This assumption that one is at the beck and call of other people, that one “has a responsibility” to see to the needs of others at the drop of a hat, is being inculcated into the population by a relentlessly other-directed educational system run by sentimental liberals. We are being subtly socialized into thinking that our personal goals and aims come second, while the needs of a widening circle of strangers come first. This is unnatural nonsense: our primary responsibility is to ourselves, our immediate families, our very close relatives and friends, and NOBODY ELSE. I’m not an Objectivist, but Ayn Rand had a point about the elephantiasis of altruism in modern thought. And this assumption that we have to be altruistic makes it impossible for us to focus on task.
How does this affect poetry? Well, consider: you will never be able to do the things that you must do in poetry if you are constantly worrying about other persons. Poets have a problem, and that problem is other living persons who practice the art of poetry. They are what St. Paul would have called a “stumbling block” or a “thorn in the flesh.” For the most part, they interfere in what you are doing, and they distract you from your task.
It’s different with dead poets. All they can do—thank God—is leave the results of their labor for you on paper. You don’t have to deal with their personal obtuseness, their petty idiosyncrasies, their airhead politics, or any of the other crosses that afflict you when you are interacting with poets who are still alive. A dead poet’s identity is his poetry, and nothing else.
The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a story about Solon the Athenian and his visit to King Croesus of Lydia. Despite the vast wealth of Croesus, Solon refused to pronounce him a happy man. When asked why, Solon explained that since Croesus still had many more years to live, there was no way he could make a judgment as to the king’s felicity. Anything might happen between now and the man’s death. And in fact terrible things did befall King Croesus after Solon’s visit, rendering him miserable.
The Greeks felt you could not judge whether a man was happy until he was dead. At that point his life was a complete Gestalt, and you could look at it as a whole and determine its basic quality. The same thing is analogously true for poets. When all that is left is their text on paper, things become much clearer, and you can accept or reject someone’s work or influence without the slightest embarrassment, qualm, or messy entanglement.
Whenever young poets ask me for advice, I tell them “Talk with the dead. The living are not important, since they haven’t finished their tasks yet. Moreover, the living will be judged by a much later generation than this one, so there isn’t any call for you to meddle with them. Just mind your own business and do your own work. Don’t be spooked by anyone or anything.”
Or, along with the Jesuits, I could have simply said Age quod agis.