“Work and Life”
The writer Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have said, about the aim of life, that it’s
“to last and get your work done.”
Well, he didn’t exactly do either. He did not last, for he killed himself, and I don’t know that he got his work rightly done, since the last book he published, The Old Man and the Sea, for which he got the Nobel Prize, was the hollowest thing he ever wrote.
It was about a brave Cuban fisherman who strives, against manifold odds, to bring in a great fish. I don’t remember what kinds of marauders the fisherman beats off valiantly but in vain. Anyway, by the time the fish is safely in harbor, there’s nothing left of it but the bones.
The work was hailed as a chronicle of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. Okay, okay, but it was abstract. A real fisherman, seeing that his haul was turning out bare bones, would go home and call it a bad day on the briny deep. He wouldn’t tell his wife that he lost the catch but his “human spirit” won.
A writer has to respect real life. Otherwise his work is sterile. Well, does all writing have to be realistic? Yes, in one way or another, it needs to be.
Right now I’m reading a purportedly surrealistic novel by Salman Rushdie called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. So far, only one character in this novel stays in focus while the centuries and cultural eras change: a jinn. A jinn is a magical being that we would call a genie, like the genie in One Thousand and One Nights who lived inside Aladdin’s lamp and granted wishes.
Although belief in jinns is part of orthodoxy in Islam, Rushdie, who still lives under a fatwa or death sentence on account of his irreverent earlier novel, The Satanic Verses, is a modern man, a man of the Enlightenment. He probably doesn’t believe that there are genies — magic beings, some good, some bad — who have a telling impact on human lives. So, from the author’s point of view, this is not a realistic novel.
I happen to have just completed reading, in authorized translation, the nine volumes of Bukhari’s Hadiths. These nine volumes are considered the most authoritative compilation of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his companions. Together with some other source works I won’t list, reading the nine volumes has given me some degree of feel for the mindset of original Islam.
One reason I am reading Rushdie is to test the accuracy of my feel. The upshot? I seem to have a pretty precise sense for the Islamic sensibility, as far as I go. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for me as a scholar of the subject. It’s more like a sense of touch. Thus I can detect, in this “fantasy” of Salman Rushdie, a cascade of mini-heresies plus the author’s general unease with a worldview that would – taken on its own terms — upend the modern world in which Rushdie, a British Indian from a liberal Muslim family, has his footing as a writer and an original talent.
The novel starts with a world-shaking storm that brings in its wake a time of “strangeness,” when the seal is cracked that separated our world from the realm of the jinns. Though the novel is too artful ever to make such a point explicitly, the world of jinns is part of the original Islamic mindset. Part of the “strangeness” is that we meet a character who can’t get his feet to touch ground when he walks. He’s literally ungrounded.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is an unquenchably imaginative geyser of a book, but it’s based on Rushdie’s sober – even somber – take on the cultural problematic of our time. In a recent TV interview, Charlie Rose said to Rushdie that the reaction provoked by Satanic Verses seemed at the time to be his problem uniquely. Now, Rushdie agreed, it’s everybody’s problem. Finally, that makes Two Years a novel about real life, if you read it – as the author wrote it – between the lines.
Good writing is about reality, even when it doesn’t seem to be.
Hemingway’s saying that a person lives in order “to last and get his/her work done” implies that the purpose or meaning of life is the accomplishment of a piece of work. It would be the book, if you’re a writer, or the fish, if you’re a fisher-person.
Is that so? Is “getting our work done” the meaning of life, for us?
This morning, discussing my three major work projects with Jerry, for the first time I had the sense that I might actually get them all done!
- My first thought? Good, I can die then, without bad conscience.
- My second thought? Oh dear. Suppose I don’t die, once I get them all done?
What would be the meaning of life then? At that point, I don’t want just to be grinding out more books and articles — trading on the brand — as it were.
When I was a kid, everybody talked about writing the great American novel. Do people still talk that way? Anyway, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge and I don’t think it’s a big ambition now. But around the time when I first heard that kind of talk, I resolved that the purpose of life did not reside in the writing of one’s book.
Life is bigger than one’s book.