The flowering dream
WHEN I WAS A CHILD of about four, I was walking with my nurse past a convent. For once, the convent doors were open. And I saw the children eating ice-cream cones, playing on iron swings, and I watched, fascinated. I wanted to go in, but my nurse said no, I was not Catholic. The next day, the gate was shut. But, year by year, I thought of what was going on, of this wonderful parry, where I was shut out. I wanted to climb the wall, but I was too little. I beat on the wall once, and I knew all the time that there was a marvelous party going on, but I couldn’t get in.
Spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes. My first book was concerned with this, almost entirely, and all of my books since, in one way or another. Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about — people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love — their spiritual isolation.
To understand a work, it is important for the artist to be emotionally right on dead center; to see, to know, to experience the things he is writing about. Long before Harold Clurman, who, bless his heart, directed The Member of the Wedding, I think I had directed every fly and gnat in that room years ago. The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. A seed grows in writing as in nature. The seed of the idea is developed by both labor and the unconscious, and the struggle that goes on between them.
I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled. For a whole year I worked on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter without understanding it at all. Each character was talking to a central character, but why, I didn’t know. I’d almost decided that the book was no novel, that I should chop it up into short stories. But I could feel the mutilation in my body when I had that idea, and I was in despair. I had been working for five hours and I went outside. Suddenly) as I walked across a road, it occurred to me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
What to know and what not to know? John Brown, from the American Embassy, was here to visit, and he pointed his long forefinger and said, “I admire you, Carson, for your ignorance.” I said, “Why?” He asked, “When was the Battle of Hastings, and what was it about? When was the Battle of Waterloo, and what was that about?” I said, “John, I don’t think I care much.” He said, “That’s what I mean. You don’t clutter your mind with the facts of life.”
When I was nearly finished with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, my husband mentioned that there was a convention of deaf mutes in a town near-by and he assumed that I would want to go and observe them. I told him that it was the last thing I wanted to do because I already had made my conception of deaf mutes and didn’t want it to be disturbed. I presume James Joyce had the same attitude when he lived abroad and never visited his home again, feeling his Dublin was fixed forever — which it is.
A writer’s main asset is intuition; too many facts impede intuition. A writer needs to know so many things, but there are so many things he doesn’t need to know — he needs to know human things even if they aren’t “wholesome,” as they call it.
Every day, I read the New York Daily News, and very soberly. It is interesting to know the name of the lover’s lane where the stabbing took place, and the circumstances which the New York Times never reports. In that unsolved murder in Staten Island, it is interesting to know that the doctor and his wife, when they were stabbed, were wearing Mormon nightgowns, three-quarter length. Lizzie Borden’s breakfast, on the sweltering summer day she killed her father, was mutton soup. Always details provoke more ideas than any generality could furnish. When Christ was pierced in His left side, it is more moving and evocative than if He were just pierced.
One cannot explain accusations of morbidity. A writer can only say he writes from the seed which flowers later in the subconscious. Nature is not abnormal, only lifelessness is abnormal. Anything that pulses and moves and walks around the room, no matter what thing it is doing, is natural and human to a writer. The fact that John Singer, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is a deaf-and-dumb man is a symbol, and the fact that Captain Penderton, in Reflections in a Golden Eye, is homosexual, is also a symbol, of handicap and impotence. The deaf mute, Singer, is a symbol of infirmity, and he loves a person who is incapable of receiving his love. Symbols suggest the story and theme and incident, and they are so interwoven that one cannot understand consciously where the suggestion begins. I become the characters I write about. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man; when I write about a deaf mute, I become dumb during the time of the story. I become the characters I write about and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, “Nothing human is alien to me.”
When I wrote the stage version of The Member of the Wedding, I was at the time paralyzed, and my outward situation was miserable indeed; but when I finished that script, I wrote to a friend of mine, “Oh, how wonderful it is to be a writer, I have never been so happy.
When work does not go well, no life is more miserable than that of a writer. But when it does go well, when the illumination has focused a work so that it goes limpidly and flows, there is no gladness like it. Why does one write? Truly it is financially the most ill-rewarded occupation in the world. My lawyer has figured out how much I made from the book The Member of the Wedding, and it is, over the five years I worked on it, twenty-eight cents a day. Then the irony is, the play The Member of the Wedding had made so much money that I’ve had to give eighty per cent to the government — which I’m happy, or at least have to be happy, to do.
It must be that one writes from some subconscious need for communication, for self-expression. Writing is a wandering, dreaming occupation. The intellect is submerged beneath the unconscious the thinking mind is best controlled by the imagination. Yet writing is not utterly amorphous and unintellectual. Some of the best novels and prose are as exact as a telephone number, but few prose writers can achieve this because of the refinement of passion and poetry that is necessary. I don’t like the word prose; it’s too prosaic. Good prose should be fused with the light of poetry; prose should be like poetry, poetry should make sense like prose. I like to think of Anne Frank and her immense communication, which was the communication not only of a twelve-year-old child, but a communication of conscience and courage.
Here truly there was isolation, but physical rather than spiritual isolation. Several years ago, Anne Frank’s father made an appointment to see me at the Hotel Continental in Paris. We talked together and he asked me if I would dramatize the diary of his daughter. He also gave me the book, which I had not yet read But as I was reading the book, I was so upset that I broke out in a rash on my hands and feet, and I had to tell him that under the circumstances I could not do the play. Paradox is a clue to communication, for what is not often leads to the awareness of what is. Nietzsche once wrote to Cosima Wagner, “If only three people could understand me.” Cosima understood him and years later a man called Adolf Hitler built a whole philosophical system around a misunderstanding of Nietzsche. It is paradoxical that a great philosopher like Nietzsche and a great musician like Richard Wagner could have contributed so much to the world’s suffering in this century. Partial understanding for an ignorant person is a warped and subjective understanding, and it was with this type of understanding that the philosophy of Nietzsche and the creations of Richard Wagner were the mainstay of Hitler’s emotional appeal to the German people. He was able to juggle great ideas into the despair of his time, which we must remember was a real despair.
When someone asks me who has influenced my work, I point to O’Neill, the Russians, Faulkner, Flaubert. Madame Bovary seems to be written with divine economy. It is one of the most painfully written novels, and one of the most painfully considered, of any age. Madame Bovary is a composite of the realistic voice of Flaubert’s century, of the realism versus the romantic mind of his times. In its lucidity and faultless grace, it seems to have flown straight from Flaubert’s pen without an interruption in thought. For the first time, he was dealing with his truth as a writer.
It is only with imagination and reality that you get to know the things a novel requires. Reality alone has never been that important to me. A teacher once said that one should write about one’s own back yard; and by this, I suppose, she meant one should write about the things that one knows most intimately. But what is more intimate than one’s own imagination? The imagination combines memory with insight, combines reality with the dream.
People ask me why I don’t go back to the South more often. But the South is a very emotional experience for me, fraught with all the memories of my childhood. When I go back South I always get into arguments, so that a visit to Columbus in Georgia is a stirring up of love and antagonism. The locale of my books might always be Southern, and the South always my homeland. I love the voices of Negroes — like brown rivers. I feel that in the short trips when I do go to the South, in my own memory and in the newspaper articles, I still have my own reality.
Many authors find it hard to write about new environments that they did not know in childhood. The voices reheard from childhood have a truer pitch. And the foliage — the trees of childhood — are remembered more exactly. When I work from within a different locale from the South, I have to wonder what time the flowers are in bloom — and what flowers? I hardly let characters speak unless they are Southern. Wolfe wrote brilliantly of Brooklyn, but more brilliantly of the Southern cadence and ways of speech. This is particularly true of Southern writers because it is not only their speech and the foliage, but their entire culture — which makes it a homeland within a homeland. No matter what the politics, the degree or non-degree of liberalism in a Southern writer, he is still bound to this peculiar regionalism of language and voices and foliage and memory. Few Southern writers are truly cosmopolitan. When Faulkner writes about the R.A.F. and France, he is somehow not convincing — while I’m convinced in almost every line about Yoknapatawpha County. In-deed, to me The Sound and the Fury is probably the greatest American novel. It has an authenticity, a grandeur and, most of all, a tenderness that stems from the combination of reality and the dream that is the divine collusion. Hemingway, on the contrary, is the most cosmopolitan of all the American writers. He is at home in Paris, in Spain, in America, the Indian stories of his childhood. Perhaps it is his style, which is a delivery, a beautifully worked out form of expression. As expert as Hemingway is at producing and convincing the reader of his various outlooks, emotionally he is a wanderer. In Hemingway’s style some things are masked in the emotional content of his work. If I prefer Faulkner to Hemingway, it’s because I am more touched by the familiar — the writing that reminds me of my own childhood and sets a standard for a remembering of the language. Hemingway seems to me to use language as a style of writing.
The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?
For many years I have been working on a novel called Clock Without Hands, and will probably finish it in about two more years. My books take a long time. This novel is in process day by day of being focused. As a writer, I’ve always worked very hard. But as a writer, I’ve also known that hard work is not enough. In the process of hard work, there must come an illumination, a divine spark that puts the work into focus and balance.
When I asked Tennessee Williams how he first thought of The Glass Menagerie, he said it was suggested by a glass curtain he saw at the house of one of his grandfather’s parishioners. From then on it became what he called a memory play. How the recollection of that glass curtain fitted into the memories of his boyhood, neither he nor I could understand, but then the unconscious is not easily understood.
How does creation begin in any art? As Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie as a memory play, I wrote “Wunderkind” when I was seventeen years old, and it was a memory, although not the reality of the memory — it was a foreshortening of that memory. It was about a young music student. I didn’t write about my real music teacher — I wrote about the music we studied together because I thought it was truer. The imagination is truer than the reality.
The passionate, individual love — the old Tristan-Isolde love, the Eros love — is inferior to the love of God, to fellowship, to the love of Agape — the Greek god of the feast, the God of brotherly love — and of man. This is what I tried to show in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’ in the strange love of Miss Amelia for the little hunchback, Cousin Lymon.
The writer’s work is predicated not only on his personality but by the region in which he was born. I wonder sometimes if what they call the “Gothic” school of Southern writing, in which the grotesque is paralleled with the sublime, is not due largely to the cheapness of human life in the South. The Russians are like the Southern writers in that respect. In my childhood, the South was almost a feudal society. But the South is complicated by the racial problem more severely than the Russian society. To many a poor Southerner, the only pride that he has is the fact that he is white, and when one’s self-pride is so pitiably debased, how can one learn to love? Above all, love is the main generator of all good writing. Love, passion, compassion are all welded together.
In any communication, a thing says to one person quite a different thing from what it says to another, but writing, in essence, is communication; and communication is the only access to love — to love, to conscience, to nature, to God, and to the dream. For myself, the further I go into my own work and the more I read of those I love, the more aware I am of the dream and the logic of God, which indeed is a Divine collusion.
Esquire, December 1959