Sunday, February 12, 2006

Whom do you tell?

‘MY BLOGS are the tendrils of my soul’ as Robert W. Service might have said. (He said ‘books’ actually.) As a relative newcomer to the genre, the thought of baring one’s soul in public is still in diametrical conflict with my character. The only explanation I can think of is that it is NOT in public – the audience does not know me and is unlikely to meet me. The stranger on the train syndrome – and as soon as someone says ‘Hey, are you the Ted Watchamacallit from Hicksville?’ I will have to reconsider my position. For that reason I have told no-one except my wife and son about my blog. Well, they let me read theirs.
But does that mean it will for ever remain a secret garden? It’s a serious question. Because, while I’ve no wish to publicise my views – I’ve been known among friends and family not to express a view on anything from one year’s end to the next. (When I started to say something recently, my stepson said ‘Quiet, everyone, I think Ted is about to express an opinion’. I was so embarrassed I immediately forgot what it was.)
So who do you tell – OK Messrs Strunk & White, I know it’s ‘whom’ but I’m pleading common usage here. Because the more people you tell, the more people you have to consider when writing. Or don’t you consider anyone? I really would like to know people’s views on that – but who’s going to tell me?
There, I think, is the nub of the problem. I worry about what others may think. Not caring is essential for the true artist. If she had cared what we thought, would you ever have heard of Tracy Emin? (Though, to come out of character for a second, I don’t consider her an artist – more a seeker of celebrity.)
When William Faulkner’s daughter complained that he didn’t spend enough time with her, he said, ‘Does anyone know the name of Shakespeare’s daughter?’ When Gauguin was about to leave for Tahiti, his wife said, ‘But your daughter's dying of consumption’. He said – ‘but if I miss this boat there won’t be another for two weeks’. Now that's art.

On this, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, when lies are not permitted, I feel an opinion coming on so must voice it. I went to a pub for lunch today. It’s a pub I use often because smoking is forbidden and it’s always quiet – and we had to wait for a table! Why? I’d forgotten about Valentine's Day, despite the fact that my greatest joy these last few weeks has been in zapping e-mails with the words ‘Valentine’s day’ in the heading. What sort of a life is that – waiting all year for a pub lunch to find out if someone cares for you?
I didn't I want to be an artist anyway.


Anonymous said...

Aha, did you borrow your headline from Virginia Woolf, by any chance? Her version, I think, was something like "Whom do you tell when you tell a page?" But I couldn't say for certain, only that someone told it to me years ago and it stuck. Whom, indeed --- or "who": I like the starchy English sound of her "whom" but, as the young like to say, Whatever.

Anyway, I tried to find her line just now through Google and had no luck until I took out the quote marks. Your request for people's views on this then popped out(". . . the more people you tell, the more people you have to consider when writing. Or don't you consider anyone?")

I spent a number of years nibbling at that question by way of a little magazine I used to publish about letter-writing. How in the world does a person know what to say without knowing who he's talking to? Or even whom. I loved the personal letter because of the way it seemed to get around this problem, this largest of all writers' blocks, as far as I was concerned.

Tongue-tied in public, in any writing I might do, that is, that seemed to be intended for the general public, and also quite bored by writing only for myself, by way of a journal or diary, I gamboled in the private letter. And, seeing how I just now googled for Woolf's line, I guess this still intrigues me.

Public writers must have more than a bit of the strange in their make-up, don't you think? To tell just anything to a total stranger, how bizarre!

Good luck with your blog.
Cheers, Steve Sikora

riviera writer said...

Thanks Anon - Ihope you don't mind my using the familiar form. But what took you so long? - one shouldn't have to wait a year and a half for the first comment - welcome tho it is. Yes, much of what I say is subconsciously Virginia. I'm a big VW quoter. How about "Books read us"?
But the difference between us is, I think, that every word she wrote cast a furtive eye towards posterity.
Incidentally, I still haven't solved the problem she posed - there are very few subjects that can be viewed objectively by everyone, and the more interesting are usually the most subjective. We had some very nice American guests last night, but whenever words like George W. or Guantanamo Bay - or even Jefferson came up, there was a visible bridling. Which is why, as you'll have noticed, I'm the leader of the bland. Thannks for the interesting comment - worth waiting for.

SteveSikora said...

Back again with a few thoughts. You mention Va Woolf's eye toward posterity, that every word she wrote cast a furtive eye towards posterity. Isn't that essential to the blogger, too? Why cast your words upon these wine-dark waters, I mean, if not in hope of some nibble from the future?

When my partner, working as an anthropologist among Pomo Indians in Northern California, would ask this or that person for information on some folkway, speech pattern or, well, whatever (such a capacious word, our modern "whatever," don't you think?), she would most often get in reply some version of "Who wants to know?".

Most important to that would-be respondant was the identity of the intended listener. Before I can say anything, before I can even make up my mind whether or not to say anything to you -- or through you to those to whom you will relay my words -- let's get clear about the people I'm talking to, beginning with you.

It's a very un-bloggerish notion, even illiberal (is there such a word?), this idea that one's words depend in some crucial way on the identity of the listener/reader. The notion of libraries affronts it, or vice versa: the idea's not at home in any collection of received thought.

Plato, in one or another of his dialogues, wrote something similar when celebrating what he considered to be true dialogue -- an actual spoken interchange, that is, where both parties had a good sense of who the other was. Writing couldn't do this, since the words flew out to just anyone.

Whom do you tell? You asked,re-asked, a splendid question.