Feb 28, 2013

Influence, Anxiety, Fame: Where is your Oil-of-Bob? Why should you care?

Do you believe that you've been chasing success for too long? Would you say that it has eluded you so far?

Let's discuss Edgar Allan Poe for a second, because he knew well the art of writing without someone to hold your hand from the first tentative line to that final, heavenly draft you ship off to print.

In "Literary Life of Thingumbob, Esq." Poe introduces the reader to young Thingum, son to a merchant-barber who had invented a delectable salve, the Oil-of-Bob. You never find out precisely what it is or what it does, but that's neither here nor there.

Thingum wishes to follow the Orphic path and write paeans to the Oil-of-Bob, so his father, with unimpeachable generosity, sets him up in a garret with voluminous reams of paper, bottles upon bottles of ink, and a copy of the Gad-fly, one of the periodicals where Thingum will pursue publication.

Orpheus was killed and eaten by women in a Bacchic frenzy.
This is a snap from Gregorio Lazzarini's instagram.

"In my first attempts at composition," says Thingumbob, "I found the stanzas to "The Oil-of-Bob" rather a drawback than otherwise. Their splendor more dazzled than enlightened me. The contemplation of their excellence tended, naturally, to discourage me by comparison with my own abortions; so that for a long time I labored in vain. At length there came into my head one of those exquisitely original ideas which now and then will permeate the brain of a man of genius. (...)
"From the rubbish of an old book-stall, in a very remote corner of the town, I got together several antique and altogether unknown or forgotten volumes. The bookseller sold them to me for a song. From one of these, which purported to be a translation of one Dante's "Inferno," I copied with remarkable neatness a long passage about a man named Ugolino, who had a parcel of brats."
[emphases mine]

So Thingumbob hacks together these horrible mashups of ancient poems and, with supreme confidence, sends them out to any literary journal he can think of.

The editors of said journals waste no time. In modern parlance, they tear him a new one. Their knee-jerk reaction is to pillory our poor Thingumbob, but the way they criticize Thingum's lines show that they are just as ignorant as he is. Not one accuses him of plagiarism.

"'Oppodeldoc?' [Thingumbob's pen name] is respectfully informed that there is not a printer's devil in our office who is not in the daily habit of composing better lines," wrote the editor of the Lollipop.

Better lines than

"Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring"

from the Iliad.

Thingumbob doesn't accomplish anything until he gives up copying others and pens a two-line poem of his own about the Oil-of-Bob. The poem itself is meaningless and, having realized that 'Oppodeldoc' dug his own grave, Thingum now signs his composition 'Snob.'

To cut a long story short, 'Snob' goes places. People want to shake his hand. Editors fawn over his mediocrity.

What does Poe's condensed bildungsroman mean to you, writing today?

For one, that people of discerning taste are few and far between. You don't have to spend your entire career in obscurity, but there's no guarantee of a breakout. Thingumbob only gets the kind of attention he was looking for when he decides to be himself. No matter the outcome.

At least partially aware of his failings, the young Thingum no longer hides his lack of talent. The poets of the past overshadow him and he suspects it, except he won't confess it.*

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the ones who came before us. Virgil, Homer, Seneca, Aeschylus, Euripides, Pope, de Troyes, and so many others — they survived because — and I'm pretty sure of this — they wrote from the heart. I'm not saying that they despised convention but saw it as the framework into which they could pour their personal imaginarium.**

I'm not telling you to write crap. There are enough people making enough noise right now — just adding to the noise, nothing special about the particular frequencies they produce. But this cloud of static has one good thing about it, in that it gives you an horizon and the freedom to look up at the stars.

“Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man's physical means to express itself, and with the analytic mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.”
—Charles Baudelaire

*Thingumbob is one of the most unreliable narrators in the history of western fiction.
*In line with continental philosophical tradition, I use this word idiosyncratically. If the French gentleman with the funny glasses can use aporia to mention the logical limits of language, then I get to use imaginarium as I see fit. So there.  

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