Writing Right with Dmitri: Bridging the Divide
Created | Updated Dec 29, 2019
Writing Right with Dmitri: Bridging the Divide
Back in the 1890s, a popular writer (well, he was popular then) named Max Beerbohm wrote a wonderful short story called 'Enoch Soames'. If you haven't read it, you should, once in your life. It will make you laugh, and it will make you think about people and their artistic ambitions.
Here's a conversation in the book between the narrator, Soames, and a real artist of the day named Rothenstein.
If Rothenstein had not been there, I should have revered Soames. Even
as it was, I respected him. And I was very near indeed to reverence when he said he had another book coming out soon. I asked if I might ask what kind of book it was to be.
"My poems," he answered. Rothenstein asked if this was to be the title of the book. The poet meditated on this suggestion, but said he rather thought of giving the book no title at all. 'If a book is good in itself – ' he murmured, and waved his cigarette. Rothenstein objected that absence of title might be bad for the sale of a book.
'If,' he urged, 'I went into a bookseller's and said simply, 'Have you
got?' or, 'Have you a copy of?' how would they know what I wanted?'
Max Beerbohm, 'Enoch Soames'
Eventually, Soames hits upon the felicitous title of Fungoids. The story also includes some of Soames' poetry.
TO A YOUNG WOMAN
Thou art, who hast not been!
Pale tunes irresolute
And traceries of old sounds
Blown from a rotted flute
Mingle with noise of cymbals rouged with rust,
Nor not strange forms and epicene
Lie bleeding in the dust,
Being wounded with wounds.
For this it is
That in thy counterpart
Of age-long mockeries
Thou hast not been nor art!
There seemed to me a certain inconsistency as between the first and last lines of this. I tried, with bent brows, to resolve the discord. But I did not take my failure as wholly incompatible with a meaning in Soames's mind. Might it not rather indicate the depth of his meaning? As for the craftsmanship, 'rouged with rust' seemed to me a fine stroke, and 'nor not' instead of 'and' had a curious felicity. I wondered who the 'young woman' was and what she had made of it all.
So far, so terrible. Why do I suggest you read this? Because it's a very unusual story for the 1890s: it's a piece of speculative/science fiction. Soames makes a deal with the devil, and the deal involves time travel, the Reading Room of the British Museum, personal artistic immortality, and a temporal paradox. You'll laugh, promise. It's clever as heck. Just remember: this writer never saw The Twilight Zone or a single episode of Star Trek.
It's also a lesson, not only in personal vanity, but in developing a sense of proportion about our own creative work. Enoch Soames wanted his words to connect with other people. He longed to know that somewhere along the human timeline, somebody would read what he wrote and exclaim, 'Yes! That's exactly how I feel, too!' He wanted this so badly that he was willing to sell his soul to a very lower-class sort of demon in order to gratify his curiosity. Poor guy.
Soames' main problem wasn't that he was vain, or morbid, or a lazy writer, though he was all of those things. His main problem was that he was too self-absorbed to take other people's perceptions into account when he wrote. Other people? Obviously, they didn't have the kind of sensitive perception of which he was capable. Who wanted to know what they thought about? If they wanted to improve their miserable little minds, they should read his, Soames', great thoughts: then they would be truly enlightened.
It is possible for a person – writer or not – to have a blind spot in their thinking. It happens to most of us, sooner or later. We take ourselves, our friends, and the world for granted. We don't realise that what seems normal and obvious to us may not be what is normal and obvious to someone else.
That's what h2g2 is all about: trying to help each other deal with those blind spots. Not by lecturing each other on how to be 'woke', but by pointing our cameras – real and virtual – around our rooms and out our windows. By saying, 'Here, this is what I see. This is how it works. Do you have questions? What do you see? How is it different?' If we do this with open minds and hearts, we'll not only help each other, we'll help ourselves.
It's not about foisting our views on the world. It's not about creating a virtual hoard of trivia to pore over, like some miser of old with a coin collection. The world all around us is a living, breathing organism, filled with wonders and horrors. Its people have hopes and fears. We ourselves are flawed observers: we're too short to see over the next hill. We're too ignorant to read all the signage. But we can help each other: each of us knows something the others don't. If we're patient and generous, we will learn how to supply the missing pieces for one another. That's a really worthwhile project for the next decade, don't you think?
1997 has come and gone, and whether Enoch Soames actually showed up in the Reading Room is open to debate. Largely the debate centres around whether Teller, of Penn & Teller, was the Enoch Soames impersonator. In the meantime, we exist – virtually, on the internet. We can leave our footprints on the pixels of time. Just by helping each other, and learning to listen.
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