Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Among a thousand unforgettable images in the Divine Comedy is one in the nineteenth canto of the Inferno in which the pilgrim Dante likens himself in simile to a mendicant confessor at the execution of a murderer. “I stood, like the friar who is confessing a treacherous assassin that, after being fixed, recalls him and thus delays the death.” There is a ghastly glimpse of social history behind these lines. The punishment for hired assassins in medieval Florence was to be asphyxiated, and in horrible fashion. The condemned man was stoutly affixed to a post and placed head-first in a hole to about his waist. The executioners then filled the hole with loose earth. The criminal has made his confession and received his absolution. But to hold death at bay even for but an instant, he “remembers” an unmentioned sin, and calls the friar back.
The prospect of annihilation is a powerful stimulus to the narrative imagination. A great work of world literature, one that most readers will know and love, exemplifies the point. I mean the Arabian Nights, also known as the Thousand Nights and One Night, an ancient compilation and a treasure house of great old stories like “Sinbad the Sailor”. The rather gruesome premise of this collection is that a pathologically jealous eastern potentate each night takes a virgin for a bride. In the morning, in order to give her no opportunity to betray him, he has her executed. Eventually they run out of virgins—all too easily done, even in conservative circles--but a particularly clever young woman, Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier, volunteers. In bed, she tells her new husband an intriguing story—but breaks off before its denouement. The potentate decides to allow her a second night to complete the tale. This she does, but immediately begins, but only begins, another. Once more the fascinated husband grants her an “extra” night—and so it goes for 1001 nights, by which time he is permanently hooked or booked.
Ferdinand Keller : Scheherazade and the Sultan (1880)
Neither from the sexual nor the existential point of view are my circumstances so dramatic as those of Scheherazade, but they are not without a certain parallelism. I am finally, within a very few weeks, having to submit the copy for a long “finished” book. I think it’s a good book, and certainly one I have worked hard on, but I realize I have been doing almost everything in my power—such as writing two other books in the meantime—to avoid letting it go.
I had a good college friend—now many years dead, alas—with whom I used to discuss possible life plans. He had an excellent one, though it went unfulfilled. Step one was to marry a very rich woman. Step two was to get a bathrobe and a pipe. He could shuffle around the house endlessly in the bathrobe. If asked what he did, exactly, the answer would be “I am writing a novel”. An occasional puff on the pipe would seal the plausibility of the vocation claimed. “You see,” he said, “to be a writer you don’t actually have to publish anything. All you have to do is be writing something.”
I do have a permanently unfinished novel, but it hardly counts among the half dozen or so unfinished scholarly books. The thing is that writing leads to more writing, while finishing something leads to a void, awkward questions, snarky reviews. I also note, thanks to the little device provided by Google, that this is the 364th weekly essay on “Gladly Learn, Gladly Teche”. Since there are seven days in a week, and fifty-two weeks in a year—well, even I can do the math in my head. I am just about to complete seven years of weekly blogging. And I also recall that my very first essay, in addition to being way too long, was in part devoted to Luis de Camões and to the book that I even then had been working on (off and on) for the first three years of my retirement. So that makes a full decade of purposeful delay, meaning that I have surpassed the famous advice of Horace in his “Art of Poetry” that you should wait nine years (…nonumque prematur in annum…) before releasing your manuscript from the desk drawer in which it has been moldering. But I have achieved this through honest sloth without recourse to the active nocturnal sabotage practiced by Penelope.
"Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night" by Dora Wheeler (1856–1940)