Frederic Tuten by Bruce Wolmer

Of Frederic Tuten’s novel, Tallien: A Brief Romance, Susan Sontag wrote “Tallien is a wonderfully high-flying tale of two woes, made out of juicy just-right sentences […] unforgettable.” Tuten speaks with writer and editor Bruce Wolmer.

BOMB 25 Fall 1988
025 Fall 1988
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Frederic Tuten. © Christine Rodin, 1988.

Frederic Tuten is a writer whose many admirers treasure hard-to-find copies of his published stories and sections from his work-long-in-progress, a novel based on the French comic-book character Tintin. They pass among themselves xeroxes of his trenchant critical essays (on David Salle, Peter Brook, R.B. Kitaj, Alain Resnais) and, in 1986–87, they looked forward to each month’s Artforum, when that magazine published his serial novel about the art world, A Canvas of Episodes. They quote Tuten’s phrases to each other at dinner parties and tell new acquaintances, “There’s this terrific writer you really should know about.” Tuten’s work has won the praise of Joseph McElroy, Edna O’Brien, Raymond Queneau, and Iris Murdoch. His first book, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), a serio-ironic, collageiste meditation on art, revolution, and love—the novel as Godard film—was praised by John Updike as providing “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.” If Mao prefigured the hypersensuous, pastiche-and-parody sensibility of the past decade, his new book, Tallien: A Brief Romance (just published by Farrar Straus and Giroux), is warmer, more subjective, disabused yet rooted in history, ours and his. Susan Sontag says of it, “Tallien is a wonderfully high-flying tale of two woes, made out of juicy just-right sentences… His ‘brief romance’ is the real thing: unforgettable.”

Currently, Tuten is working on a novel about Van Gogh and completing the Tintin novel that he began in 1971. A writer’s writer, Tuten, Director of the Graduate Program in Literature and Creative Writing at the City College of New York, continues to engage, with playfulness and passion, the issues of language, style, politics, and aesthetic and ethical value that have been the touchstones of the highest modern writing.

Bruce Wolmer How did you come upon the story of Tallien, the historical character?

Frederic Tuten By accident, in the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I love going through, reading it like a dictionary. There was this extraordinary little account of this fellow whom I had never heard of. He was a young radical at the outbreak of the French Revolution who took it upon himself to write and print posters demanding the execution of the King. He was taken up by older more powerful revolutionaries—like Danton and Robespierre—and given the responsibility of supervising the Terror. While he was inspecting one of the prisons where the aristocrats were being held for execution he saw the noblewoman, Therese, fell hopelessly in love, took her out of prison and began living with her. Soon, under her pleading, he was helping her aristocratic friends escape France. I was fascinated by his ascent, by his romance with Therese the aristocrat, his intensity. The story of a young man born to servants who climbs his way up the ladder of Revolution—I mean it’s a success story. And his fall. Other falls usually led to the guillotine but this was different. His was more protracted. He lives through the Revolution, the Terror, the Republic, and becomes an adjunct to Napoleon. And after all that, abandoned by Therese, he proceeds to stumble into poverty and oblivion. I also loved the story of Therese, the story of someone who survives everything, who has a force of life, who is beyond politics and revolutions, who literally just wants to live.

BW Perhaps because of the deliberate use of contemporary idiom in telling Tallien’s tale, as well as some of the action itself, one got a sense that the story might be functioning as some fractured allegory of our own period, of the Sixties and after.

FT The fact that I don’t write about contemporary life doesn’t mean I’m any less taken up with it. I find it too limiting to write about contemporary life just in contemporary diction, however. I don’t think there’s enough flexibility. I can imagine writing about characters who feel passion for one another in a contemporary setting but I don’t, as yet, hear the language for that. But I’m always thinking about contemporary life vis a vis the way it looks in the past. I mean how it looks in the past is a reflection of what it is today. That’s what interests me. I think I’m always talking about present-day life, not only political life but about the quality of passion, the quality of all relationships and love. But in more specific ways, yes, there is a feeling in Tallien that if you don’t commit yourself you’re lackluster. If you do commit yourself, there’s danger, and it comes from the possibility of overlooking what truth you see for the sake of ideas. And I think we all know people like that, people who for the sake of something larger than the ugliness they see happening, kept quiet, a kind of betrayal for the idea of a higher principle. And I think that Tallien, in the beginning, is someone like that. Remember the case of the nobleman Tallien is asked to consider? Tallien doesn’t see any criminality or subversion on the nobleman’s part, but Tallien allows himself to be silenced for the purported sake of the Revolution. He convinces himself that it’s better to allow an execution than not. I think if you read Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s novel, you’ll see that that’s exactly what many Bolsheviks must have felt. Case after case, people kept quiet, hoping that the bastion of socialism would be left to go ahead and become a real citadel of humanism. Meanwhile, the cellars were filled with tortured bodies.

BW Tallien strikes me as very much an end-of-the-century book. It is the story of a disillusioning. It’s a novel of history and ideas when both seem to be occasions for irony rather than belief. As such, the book raises the whole problem of writing a novel of ideas in a contemporary context. I think that this ties in with your paralleling the story of the narrator’s father with that of Tallien—the father being someone who lived in a more innocent period, an age of belief, is captured so well by the almost comically direct proletarian language in that part of the book.

FT Well, that was deliberate. I know that proletarian literature very well, and its diction. I did a kind of parody of John Dos Passos in the Mao book. What might have once seemed a language spoken by the working class became a literary convention, and it’s the convention of that language that I’m interested in. We hear that in the father’s saying, “Why don’t you fellas come over to the union hall.” To me, it has nothing to do with how the father actually speaks, it’s about how his language echoes the genre of proletarian fiction.

BW But isn’t it also a language of innocence?

FT That’s right, it’s completely innocent.

BW What I’m trying to get at is how you write a novel about history and about ideas when ideas no longer seem connected to…

FT To life. Tallien isn’t a novel of ideas, it’s a novel about people who are passionate about ideas in a way that I don’t see too much reflected in our contemporary life. And in that sense it’s an end-of-the-century book, I think you’re right. I think it’s a farewell to your generation which was still touched by ideas as mine was. That people once could really commit themselves to a way of life, to being a certain kind of person because of ideas! Today, and this is putting it crudely I know, all that seems to matter is the “idea” of success, of material success. I think that’s basically what people believe, not everyone of course, but fundamentally that’s what it is. Not the notion of living for an idea, a moral idea, an idea of morality, of an ethical way of life, not of that. I don’t encounter it…. Do you? I guess the issue today would be how much can you grab without becoming vulgar? But I don’t think that’s really even what people think about. Good manners don’t matter. Good taste doesn’t matter. Culture doesn’t matter. Those things are just gone. I think there was a time, probably, when people might have thought vulgarity was fresh. That vulgarity had a sort of…

BW …energy and vitality…

FT And maybe an honesty and a purity to it, that it could be excused if the intention behind it wasn’t crude. I think none of that applies anymore. And I think this is the case today with language too. I will go back to the idea of language again and again in Tallien because the book plays on levels of language. What I want there, what I always want in writing, is that the language has some kind of echo below the surface. And that the language has integrity, even if it’s playful or ironic or working off conventions. Somewhere there must be a place where vulgarity doesn’t apply and doesn’t intrude itself. We have to make our stand individually. I can’t control the world, the marketplace, or people’s behavior at dinner parties. But I can try to control the language of my book, and have it so that every line is the best and most honest I can make it. So I go back to that as a notion in Tallien because I don’t just see it as a political novel. End-of-the-century maybe, because it’s old-fashioned my dream of wanting to make something beautiful, wanting to make language beautiful. Trite to say, but beauty is politics and a hedge against vulgarity.

BW Your work has always been involved in a debate on politics and beauty, aesthetics and ethics, action and contemplation.

FT I don’t know if that’s a question or an observation, but as an observation I’m grateful that you’ve made it and I’m flattered because I think that’s basically the precinct of my work. I’m still interested in ideas about what a work of art is, to whom it’s addressed. Does art have obligations, does it have a morality? Is it free-form? Those questions fascinate me. When you speak of Tallien as an end-of-the-century book, I don’t know if it’s exactly in the fin de sieclemood, but I guess the last two decade or two of the last 19th century would have been a time when people like Ruskin thought about art, and Oscar Wilde and Whistler talked and wrote about it in the ways I mean. Ideas about art had meaning to that culture. They had meaning to the creation of the art work. And they still do to me. So when Tallien comes back to Paris after the Egyptian episode and he looks at the Boucher in Therese’s room, (you may remember that in the earlier part of the book he had denounced painters like Chardin and Fragonard and Boucher at a speech in the Convention asking, “What shall we do? Shall we give the Revolution back to the aristocrats and bring back Boucher and Fragonard?”) suddenly that painting is stripped of all class value and it’s just, in itself, a beautiful object. Those considerations, I find, may be a bit recondite, a bit archaic, but fascinating. So too, the notion of beauty, and what is beautiful, who is beautiful. Therese is beautiful to me in my novel.

BW Therese is beautiful but she is also the calculating survivor. She may be the force of nature, of passion, but Therese is also the embodiment of what defeats utopian dreams throughout history—she responds to the sheer weight of circumstance.

FT Therese fascinates me. First of all, she’s beautiful, physically. And she knows how to adopt a style of costume. In the prison-cell scene in the book, for example, she completely creates a kind of costume to complement the setting of the prison. So I find her dress reflecting an intelligence, an irony, a wit, which I find beautiful. Tallien absolutely gives up the Revolution because of her. He surrenders. You might say that that’s a kind of idiotic male idea: that men fall in love with women and then leave themselves behind. There’s a whole literature about that, CarmenThe Blue Angel… And I must say it’s something I understand. Of course, it goes both ways. Gender isn’t the issue, the power of beauty is. What I find striking, and why I think I would have fallen in love with Therese, is that when you look at the very rare moments when she speaks, it’s eloquent without being strained or too self-conscious. And it’s ironic.

BW But Therese’s irony makes Therese the realist. Unlike Tallien, she doesn’t have any belief in the Revolution.

FT Or, worse, any interest. The trick would be to discover how to believe, without having its terrible consequences. To struggle, and to work for what you think is good—that sounds so trite—and to hope that by some ironic circumstance it doesn’t backfire and bring mayhem, that’s the issue. How do you keep your distance so that those actions which you take in the name of passion, political and social passion, don’t corrupt you because you live for principle rather than for persons? The thing about Therese is, that she cares only about saving her friends from the guillotine.

Therese is saying, “My friends before Revolution, my friends before ideology.” That’s the problem in the book, it seems to me. That’s Tallien’s problem. Personally, I’d rather burn than rot. I’d rather have gone in the direction of commitment, hoping it doesn’t lead to disaster and trying to avert it, than feeling predisposed to the cynicism that allows for inaction. And allows you to stay on the sidelines and jeer the others.

BW What makes these issues all the more provocative, of course, is the central place of the French Revolution in modern history and culture.

FT Absolutely. Always. The French Revolution is the paradigm of how everyone thinks about revolutions from that point. After all, it was, in a way the model for all following revolutions. Almost everything that ever happened in every revolution afterward happened there.

BW At one point in Tallien, Robespierre addresses the Convention on the question of what is an acceptable republican literary style. This, too, is a touchstone for modernity, the conjoining of political and artistic renovation. As Mao reflects in your Adventures of Mao on the Long March. “Poetry is revolution without bloodshed.”

FT The notion that a new kind of culture should have a new kind of language doesn’t seem so far fetched when the French Revolutionaries thought a new kind of culture should have a new kind of painting. They were really trying to revolutionize every aspect of their life; it wasn’t a matter of just getting rid of the king. They were even concerned with the issue of diction, of finding a revolutionary language for the new literature and poetry. What does literature mean to a culture that is trying to create for the first time a language suitable to its politics? In his “Preface” to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman says poetry in America will be a different poetry. It won’t be bound to feudalistic forms. It will be a poetry born from the language of the masses of a democratic American society. Look at the 1855 Leaves of Grass. You will see it has sinew and it has simplicity. Let’s face it, these are strange issues.

BW Why “strange?”

FT I say “strange” as if I don’t believe in them. What I mean is that I care about these things and I think that no one else raves like this. I find that strange. It’s as if these issues don’t even matter anymore, and maybe that’s because they don’t matter anymore. Somewhere, I think I’m straining to say what I feel about language—its meaning in politics, its meaning in our political life, in our cultural life—and what I find lacking today in American society, maybe in the French and the English too. What is a beautiful language these days in America? What would it mean?

BW One consistent feature of your work is your use of larger-than-life historical characters—Mao, Malraux, even Tallien in an anti-heroic way. They become for you heroic, aesthetic myths. What is your interest in these figures?

FT First of all, they’re interesting. When you come to them as a writer, the construction is preordained, the narrative format is there. The characters are like ready-mades. They’re already there, and then the question is, What do you do with them? What do you invest in them? How do you subvert them or enhance them or alter them? It’s all invention anyway. Part of using these historical characters is the very seductive quality of the resonance of who they are. In a certain sense, you don’t have to create a character and convince your reader about this character. You have a shell, it shines already, it’s luminous. People will notice it. Then, when they come close, they will find features different than what they had expected. That’s interesting to me.

BW For example when one reads the “Letter from Mao to Malraux,” the opening chapter of your Tintin novel-in-progress, you have Mao meditating sublimely on matters of aesthetics and manners. The historical Mao would never have reached such heights of language and feeling. As you read it, there is a real shiver, it takes on a very extravagant quality.

FT Because you’re playing with what you think you already know. When you read that it’s as if the gangster John Dillinger was being described in heroic couplets. There’s an incongruity that makes for the ludicrous. But I think less so in the Mao case, because, in fact, he was interested in art, he was interested in poetry and what it meant, and he wrote his own poetry. So that I was able to find Mao as a kind of advanced decadent, a kind of Mao/Oscar Wilde figure, and that’s how I really see him. I like having the format of a ready-made character. I like having the possibility of doing what I want with the language. To have a language that isn’t exactly how Americans speak in ordinary life. I’m trying to imagine now where I would have the access in contemporary life to do what I like to do with language. I don’t know where. Historicity allows me the outlandishness, if you will, or the possibility of a rhetoric that contemporary life doesn’t allow. But, of course, there is another reason I’m so interested in such characters. Mairaux, Mao, Tallien, even the narrator’s union-organizing father, lived in a moment where they believed that they could effect a change in history. That they could literally transform what would happen to humankind. I don’t think anyone thinks that today. First we don’t think about it, and second we don’t think that’s possible. Not in the way they did. I think those are engaging characters for that reason, in a certain sense they had faith. Their presence in that historical stream made things happen. They changed radically the notion of what culture is, of what society is, of what everything is, of what human conduct is. When you speak about the concerns of contemporary fiction, I think that’s one of the reasons I’m not too intrigued by it. Not because I want mighty themes at all moments, but because I’m not too interested in characters without high consciousness. That could just be our times. After all, where could you find a character in contemporary American life of the kind that Malraux creates in Man’s Fate?

BW I find Tallien a more deeply felt book than Mao.

FT Susan Sontag said to me, “What made us think in the ’70s that we had to be cool?” And that’s really the point, it isn’t really that the emotional tenor of Mao is less intense, the point of Mao for me was not to make it seem intense. In other words, to have the emotion there but not make it so apparent on the surface of the page. Because I think that the aesthetic of the Seventies was predicated on irony. We were looking for irony as a mode, the subversion of feeling to create a work impervious to banal response. The strategy there was to turn away from heat and emotion, to cool it down, to keep it iced and self-referential. It certainly doesn’t allow for what you might find in Tallien, a molten quality. I let it out full-stop on the page in Tallien. I didn’t care if it burned on the page. I would have cared a lot in the Seventies, I would have turned away from that.

BW So now you’re able to deal with familial matters?

FT I never wanted to talk about my family, although people in the past had encouraged it. I remember after the Mao book was published, I was at dinner parties, I talked about life in the Bronx, talked about my father, talked about my family, and people would say to me, “Why don’t you write about that? That’s interesting. You know you could really make, if not a commercial book, an accessible book. People would want to read it, it’s heartwarming.” Part of me rebels against that so profoundly that maybe I went the other way in my earlier work. I thought it was vulgar to write about your family. I’m not interested in a kind of active exorcism, or writing as therapy. I guess there was a time for it, maybe it seemed different, there was a moment when that kind of writing seemed fresh. I can’t see how it would be fresh today. Those parts in Tallien that have to do with my father, the character called Rex, talking to policemen or talking to people who wanted to break the strike, are deliberately proletarianized. It’s not how people spoke in life but in the Thirties proletarian novel. What I did in that section was to distance myself with a certain detaching irony by creating a language that was already extant in those proletarian fictions. In any case, I never wanted to write about my parents, and I think, in some ways, that was wrong. Now that they’re both dead, I feel better about doing it. No, that’s not enough, let’s say I surrender to doing it. I think I finally could see my father not just as a father but as a person in history. Not that he was an historical figure, but what his history was is history.

BW You say in the book that you would like to have told your father the story of Tallien. If you had, what would you have liked him to learn from it?

FT It’s funny, because if you look at the character Rex, Rex is the one who never sells out, Rex is the one who doesn’t become corrupted. He’s a fallible human, he leaves his family. He says in the book that he was a Communist but never a Marxist.

BW It’s usually the other way around…

FT Yes, but that’s probably why, if we treat him as a character in the book, not as a person, that’s probably why he stayed intact, because he didn’t subscribe to ideology. Conviction wasn’t ideological for him…

BW It was a form of action…

FT And for others who commit to ideology, the danger is that everything can get perverted because of that. But you were asking…

BW The lesson…

FT I guess it’s kind of monstrous that the son says he wishes he could have told Rex the story of Tallien. And what does it really mean to tell Rex the story of Tallien? Telling him the story of someone who betrays the revolution, who betrays his principles, to a person who never betrayed his principles. So, in fact, I don’t really understand what it would have meant to tell him that, except in some mean way to show him what happens, or what happened.

BW Is it a question less of telling him here’s someone, Tallien, who betrayed his principles, but rather that time and history betray us all?

FT That’s what I mean, in some monstrous way to tell him, “Look what this led to.” Maybe also to tell him something else, it’s also telling him how wonderful he is. That he didn’t sell out for love, or passion, or fear. That he kept himself intact. I think it was Richard Eder, in The Los Angeles Times, who points out that the father, although he’s a drunk and he leaves his family, is really the only admirable character in the book. That’s rather interesting. Rex keeps himself. Everyone else in the book goes off-balance for one reason or another. Actually, Rex is like Therese. They both respond to life, not to ideas. I’m puzzled about the ideas that I would subscribe to: I don’t know if I’d be my father or if I’d be Tallien. But if I were really thinking of this book in a psychological light, I’d say it’s a novel about the triumph of the father over the son.

BW Your father, the union organizer, and your mother, the pious Italian Catholic woman, actually describe the polarities of the ethical and aesthetic, the active and the contemplative.

FT My father is a romantic figure for me, much more than anyone I’ve known, and he, in fact, still stays that figure for me. Let’s say that my father remotely describes what Whitman would have loved in the American male. He was a gentleman and he was one of the roughs. That balance realty moves me still. His example, his presence, the way he was with people, moved me. Easy familiarity. He would be driving the car and stop to ask directions—he had this beautiful Southern accent—and he’d call out to someone strolling by, “Hi, Jim, which way’s…” And I would say, “Dad, how do you always know these guys are named Jim?” But I never heard about things like dialectical materialism from him. I got that from the people in my neighborhood. Especially when I went to City College. That was the “Red Belt” of the Bronx. There was no Red Belt, really, but the very young, young kids were already doctrinaires by age twelve or thirteen. It was hilarious. Their parents were militant Communists and nobody believed in God. Everything had a scientific explanation. And that’s the polarity in me, the polarity between a scientific rationalism and the kind of religious exultation, that spiritual, mystical thing that my mother represented and whose incarnation was the Italian church. Because in the Bronx there was the Italian church one went to if you were Italian, and then there were the Irish churches. Irish churches were very different, they were Anglo places. We didn’t go to Anglo places; they weren’t as mystical, as idolatrous, although they probably had the same amount of sculpture. So for me there was, on the one hand, the lusciousness of the Catholic Church in the Bronx—statues and drapes and robes, velvet veils—very powerful stuff that I could imagine Oscar Wilde responding to. And then there were my peers. Let’s call them Rationalists, the believers in Reason and Function. They were, to my mind, as important as what, probably for most kids, baseball or basketball peers are.

BW You’ve written about film for Vogue and about art for Artforum. What’s been the impact of the visual arts, especially film and painting, on your writing?

FT I’m dazzled, besotted by painting. Forgive me for the platitude. It’s just that I’m shocked by painting. Synthesis in painting, the compression of so many elements of experience, still grips me. Painting mystifies me. All it is, after all, is just paint, this sort of glucky stuff, it’s just material. And look what beauty comes out of it. I know that Hemingway was influenced by this thing of painting. He talks about Cezanne, hoping one day to reach the kind of level that Cezanne could reach in painting—Hemingway wanted his own language to reach that certain exceptional plane, or transcendental dimension. I don’t know about planes and dimensions of language, but I certainly would like to have painting’s compression. It’s poetry. In contemporary art, I’m fascinated by David Salle’s radical juxtapositions. The Mao book has much of that, of the juxtaposing of elements, of parodistic passages with quotations, for example.

BW Are there other artists or film directors that…

FT …I’m crazy for? Godard because of the structure, Godard because of the episodic, Godard because of the quotations. And also Roy Lichtenstein. In Roy Lichtenstein there is this extraordinary attention to the formal, the composition of the work whose subject matter is apparently banal. There is this majestic idea of how you can transform what seems so commonplace as subject matter, and really create a painting as unified as a Poussin. Lichtenstein has it both ways; he has the formal beauty of that, and the irony of an attentive disregard for the subject matter.

Someone who I also feel a different affinity with—like me he’s an Italian-American, although no one thinks I’m Italian, everyone thinks I’m a New York Jew—is Martin Scorcese. Here’s what kills me about him. He understands exactly what linoleum means to immigrant Italians. Probably to Jews, too. Scorcese understands perfectly the sadness of those musty corridors and dreary hallways in the old Italian-American tenements. Scorcese is the Racine of linoleum. But Scorcese also knows about the violence and craziness under the linoleum mat. Raging Bull is that kind of truth, especially in the early scenes. And in King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, Scorcese comes to the realization that in America—and everyday proves this more and more true—you do not have to earn fame by virtue or talent, you merely have to be outrageous to become famous. That’s different than Warhol’s observation that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, it’s something else. It means that you can rob a bank and write a book about it and go on television and make a fortune. It means exactly what it means in that movie — King of Comedy — you can do terrible things — kidnap someone — and it doesn’t matter, because once you’re thrust into the transcendental sphere, the amoral sphere of celebrity, there’s no criminality. In America, there’s only success or failure. And Scorcese understands that.

BW Since 1971, you’ve been working on a novel based on the French comic book Tintin. What got you interested in the project?

FT Tintin is the boy reporter of one of the most important and most beautiful comic books in Europe. They’re done by the Belgian artist, George Remi, known as Herge. It’s about Tintin and his dog Snowy, or Milou in the original French, and his sidekick, an older man named Captain Haddock, who’s an alcoholic old sea-dog. Together they have many adventures all over the world—there’s one in Tibet, two in South America, one in China, one in what was then the Belgian Congo. Well for a long time I’ve been working on a novel about Tintin. The novel is set in 1968, for reasons the novel will explain, and it’s about Tintin at a point where he’s utterly and profoundly bored with his life, where he’s given up being an adventurous young boy of twelve traveling the world, and is living in a mansion, collecting art, learning to cook, learning to ride horses, learning everything. But not doing anything. That’s where the book starts, after the letter from Mao to Mairaux explaining how Mao- Tse- Tung is extremely unhappy because he’s reached a point of stasis in his life, quietude. The revolution is over, the bureaucrats are taking over, and he’s bored to death. So there’s a parallel between Tintin and Mao in that one way. And Tintin gets a telegram proposing that he have another adventure, this one in Machu Picchu. So the book takes place, almost all of it, in Machu Picchu. There’s a parallel here for me with Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Tintin goes to Machu Picchu a naive. Tintin goes out and catches crooks, breaks up criminal conspiracies, but he doesn’t have any wider view of what he does, he just does it. His education begins in Machu Picchu with his meeting some of the characters from The Magic Mountain. And it’s an education in art, it’s an education in politics, it’s an education in political theory. And of course, in love. And there begins his transformation.

BW It sounds as if we’ve come back to politics and aesthetics. Mao and Mairaux and Tallien and soon, I hope, Tintin.

FT As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer or a painter. And once I became aware of these kinds of aesthetic and political issues, they’ve always been burrowed in my life, and I’m torn by them. It’s so crazy because, in a way, it’s a moral sense. Why do you sit down and write? Why do you do any of these things? Is it self-aggrandizement, is it a lovely therapy, with your aggression in the service of the ego? It’s a playfulness. But even in play, what’s the mode of address and to whom? I keep raising this issue. Maybe that’s why I like to toy with those levels of language in Tallien for instance. I love the idea of writing in a direct and colloquial mode, but where it’s spiced with fresh imagery, and then somehow to ascend the plane of it, slowly, and then suddenly you’re in another sphere and you level off. I like that. But I guess I like that in shifts of people’s conversation too. I don’t want to hear the same tone all the time. I guess, to go back to the issue of politics and aesthetics, how do you write in a way that addresses the notion of how we live as social and political animals? And not be boring, not be dogmatic, not be overtly polemical. The polemics have to come through the tissue of the work, underneath the living body of the work and not from the surface of it. Maybe we should ask what that means in America today. It’s not just the issues of the Old Left or the New Left, it’s really the issue of what it is to be a writer in America and think to yourself that there has to be something more to declare than the unhappiness of having been raised in this or that family or to have had some variety of bad love affair. Where is the living umbrella for all we experience, that we can understand, that others will understand, that we shelter ourselves under. I’m doing a little novel now about Van Gogh. Someone asked me about it in regard to Tallien, “But what does the Van Gogh story mean?” As if they needed to find some moral to it. They could think there’s a moral to Tallien: revolution’s become corrupted. We all know that. Or you turn your good intentions against yourself, or they turn against you, or passion is stronger than ideas. Although one can say all these things, such formulas are not the sum of the novel, nor I hope of the Van Gogh novel. I hope that no one’s fiction is reducible to a formula. But to go to the idea of the political and the social, the idea that an art work has meaning in depth to the culture and is not just a commodity to be produced for a collector, I think of Van Gogh and I think of his Sunflowers, corny as they are to us now, or a pair of peasant shoes, or a field—those were political paintings. The address to the political culture doesn’t have to be a direct one. How do you do that so it has at once the aesthetic beauty we’re talking about, and the aesthetic integrity, and also has a moral integrity? I’ve been deficient in not doing as much work as I might have but now I feel I don’t want to stop. I just want to write all the time.  

Bruce Wolmer is a writer and editor living and working in New York City.

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February 1 marked the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, and we’re celebrating with a selection of the British master’s aphorisms, notes, and observations.

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Featuring selections by Justin Taylor, Shelly Oria, Mary Walling Blackburn, Kevin Killian, Barry Schwabsky, John Freeman, and more.

Originally published in

BOMB 25, Fall 1988

Stockard Channing, Frederic Tuten, Dorothea Rockburne, Shawn Slovo, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stefanie Hermsdorf, Gary Stephan, Chris Menges, and Linda Mvusi.

Read the issue
025 Fall 1988