Some time on the 4th of July, 2008, poet and science fiction writer, Thomas M. Disch, put a gun to his head and shot himself. At 68 years of age, Disch had a long career behind him. Critically acclaimed for novels that extended the range of the science fiction genre, but perhaps best known to the public as the creator of The Brave Little Toaster, he had just finished a novel entitled The Word of God, written in the first person from the point of view of the titular hero.
This might sound like the profile of someone with abundant reasons to live, but it seems that the reasons for suicide, even without a note, are probably all too readily understandable. A fire in his apartment, the death of a partner of over 30 years, the flooding of his New York home, and then the threat of eviction on his return to that apartment – these appear to form the bones of the misfortune that overwhelmed him. Perhaps, however, the spirit of that misfortune, the way it might have felt to Disch himself, can be glimpsed in an event that took place two days before the suicide. This was an interview, apparently to promote his new book, on something called Radio Happy Hour. The interviewers, including one Dr. Blogstein, had not read the book, did not know who Disch was, and throughout, seemingly taking the title of the novel at face value, taunted Disch for believing himself to be God. Disch seemed to play along at first, but the mockery was as relentless as it was ill-informed, and at the end, Disch asked, “Is that it?” That, apparently, was it – fifteen minutes of schoolboy sniggering and abuse. Disch lost his composure (not with a raised voice, but only in diction) for the first time. His final words in the interview were, “Well, piss on your shoes.”
Though it would probably be wrong to hold the clueless ‘shock jockeys’ at Radio Happy Hour responsible for Disch’s death, they do provide us with a very specific example of the attitudes and conditions that can make society, for a writer, a depressingly hostile environment.
I learnt of these events from an article on a blog called His Vorpal Sword, to which the writer and para para dancer Justin Isis had sent me a link. The article in question was given the title, ‘Hypatia and the Burning Library’. Soon afterwards, I wrote my own blog entry on the same subject, under the title, ‘The Publisher Drinks Wine from the Author’s Skull’ (an aphorism associated with Ambrose Bierce used in ‘Hypatia and the Burning Library’, which brings to mind another quote, from Elias Canetti, about the ill-fated writer Robert Walser: “I ask myself whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself”).
Something about Disch’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it (given in admirable detail at His Vorpal Sword) seemed to have moved me. I don’t mean simply to sadness, but to fury, disgust, amazement. I wondered if others, who read my blog entry, would be similarly stirred up. I imagined hundreds or thousands of Internet users all Googling “Thomas Disch” to learn about the terrible thing that had happened. This prompted me to check the statistics for my blog and find how many hits the entry had received. I looked up and down the list. It was not there. All the entries I had recently written had received hits, even some I had written after the entry on Thomas Disch. The Disch entry alone had received none. I suddenly felt very cold. Could it be that no one actually cares?
I pictured to myself again Thomas Disch’s end, the personal loss, the overwhelming material setbacks, the ruthlessness of the landlords, who used the death of Disch’s partner, to whom the apartment was officially let, as leverage in suing for eviction, the humiliation from the representatives of a world of philistines, the suicide, and then… and then just nothing, it seemed. Bewilderment became anger, and I wrote my own comment beneath the blog entry I had written, where no one else had commented. I ended the comment with, “Piss on your shoes”, directed to everyone who was not there, which seemed to be the entire world.
I am someone who, like “the best” in Yeats’s poem, generally lacks all conviction. For once, however, my anger seemed deep and natural. Without wishing to sound pompous, for once I felt it almost a duty to express it.
Afterwards, of course, I did question that anger, and if I did not perhaps I would not be writing this. It could be that the lack of hits on that blog entry did not really indicate anything at all. Perhaps it was just ‘chance’, whatever that is. After all, it had not been very long since I had written the entry. It could be possible that I was overestimating the iciness of people’s apathy. At this remove from the event, I am still not sure. My impression is that if I was overestimating, then it was not greatly.
I would like to think that my indignation was not entirely selfish, but I’m sure that the reader will already have discerned that it was at least partly selfish (although I’m not sure how easy it is to separate selfishness from selflessness, in the sense that the latter perhaps involves feeling selfish on behalf of another) in that I am a writer, my particular area of fiction bordering on and even overlapping with that of Thomas Disch. Whether I was angry on behalf of Disch or myself, however, the question I was confronted with was did I have the right to be angry, generally or specifically, at how writers are treated by society?
This is not even a new question for me; in fact, it seems central to my life story.
After failing my A-levels (actually I received a U for ‘ungraded’ rather than an F for ‘fail’), it became clear to me that I would not be able to progress to university, and that I would therefore have to decide what it was I was going to do in the world. What I actually thought to myself, perhaps word for word, was, “I want to work with the mentally handicapped.” (I was soon to learn I should use the term “people with learning difficulties”.) I had one interview, and did not pass, because I had neglected to mention that I knew my duties would include helping people go to the toilet. However, about a week later, I received a ‘phone call from the careers office asking if I still wanted to do the same kind of work. This was the beginning of over five years of community theatre work with something called Wolf and Water Arts Company. For five years or more I signed on the dole, wrote poems, began and did not finish novels, recorded songs on a four-track in a band called The Dead Bell, and worked (on a voluntary basis) as actor, stage manager and general dogsbody in various Wolf and Water drama projects, including a film of Macbeth. How I managed to dodge work for five years, I cannot now say, except that I used the same lackadaisical slipperiness that I employed in dodging P.E. at school for a comparable period. To me, work meant the death of the independence I needed in order to create art. But could I be said to be truly independent if I was not earning my living? Was I not just a parasite? My own answer to this question, if anyone asked who was ready for such an answer – and none did – was that I considered the government handout pay for the contribution I was making to society with Wolf and Water. I suppose I still felt a little shaky over this explanation, my insecurity that expressed in the opening lines of Still Ill, by The Smiths: “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine/And it owes me a living/But ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye.” In any case, what was sure was that I could not tolerate having a boss, and signing my life over to a stranger for the sake of a merely financial arrangement.
I am now thirty-six, and my dilemma still has no ultimate solution. Over the years it has become clear that writing is a necessity to me in a way that is perhaps incomprehensible to those who do not write. Whilst being perfectly aware that writing is at very best an uncertain way to make a living, and more often, no way to make a living at all, I have been unable to tolerate, for any length of time, any other means of paying my way. This condition has kept me relatively poor (for someone in the United Kingdom), and, I fully believe, single. The social ladder of career, family and home, in other words, what is generally called a ‘future’, has remained as inaccessible to me as the outer planets of the Solar System, whether by my own choice or by some law of nature, I cannot tell. More than this, I have never yet achieved full financial independence, except for brief periods (teaching English in Taiwan, for instance), and have spent long periods relying on government handouts, scholarships, the generosity of those who know me, and so on. Why? Because my writing does not earn me anything resembling a wage (living or otherwise), and because, unlike some writers, I seem incapable of writing and doing the nine-to-five.
This state of affairs has been for me a source of alternating fury at the world and hatred of self. Where does the blame lie? Am I a parasite, or am I undervalued in a world of philistines? Surely, some might say, no one is obliged to think that any particular writer’s work is wonderful. One cannot legislate in favour of the right to have one’s dreams come true. In a sense, it’s sheer hard luck. Isn’t it?
In the early summer of 2007, I visited a friend in Paris and felt inspired to record the time in a literary diary, much-influenced by the Japanese zuihitsu form of discursive writing. It was, indeed, a very French and a very Japanese piece of writing, what the English-speaking world would probably give the rather dull term, ‘a slice of life’. I sent this to a publisher who had accepted some of my other work, and received a reply to the effect that it was good, but not commercial. Appropriately (as if the piece had decided its own fate), The Paris Notebooks, as I called it, contained a passage dealing very directly with the problem of the unsuccessful writer:
I envied, I said, those around me with careers, homes, life partners, but I knew that I was entirely incapable of sustaining such a lifestyle. When pressed, I managed to admit, “The only thing that comes close to giving my life purpose is writing. But that is something that’s not recognised.”
S--- indicated that she understood, though I felt I had not really expressed myself adequately.
“I mean,” I said, “there’s this attitude that as a writer you deserve nothing, that you should be content with poverty and obscurity. But imagine if people took the same attitude towards, say, doctors: ‘Well, being a doctor is what you want to do. It’s a privilege, so you shouldn’t expect any money or recognition from it. You should stack shelves during the day and practice medicine for nothing in the evenings.’”
It’s no one’s fault, exactly, except that if society at large had different values it would be easier for me to survive. In other words, an unfortunate difference of values between the majority of human beings and myself has rendered me ‘a parasite’ and not a very successful one, at that. They despise me (or would if they had heard of me); I despise them. There doesn’t seem to be much of right or wrong about it. I did not ask to be born. That is my final defence. Can I help it if I’m not exactly what society ordered?
I know a great many writers, and we have learned to be humble; that is, not to expect. It seems as if it is almost considered a duty to be a martyr, and at the same time to despise oneself. I am a parasite. Publishers are doing me a favour even to read anything I have written, and to expect payment is ludicrous. I must at all costs avoid the – legendary? mythical? – arrogance of the writer, and accept all the editor’s judgements and criticisms. The notion of artistic control resting with the artist is naïve. To want financial reward but refuse to write to order is perverse. And so on. Such are the attitudes that are perpetuated.
But imagine that we were demanding such attitudes of a friend. For instance, I have called this article ‘Useful Parasites’, but am I ready to say that Thomas Disch was a parasite (and incidentally, on hearing the news of his death, one pseudonymous Internet commenter, whilst commiserating unconvincingly, also said that his or her sympathy was less than it might have been, because Disch’s apartment was rent-controlled)? Am I ready to be self-deprecating on another’s behalf, self-loathing on another’s behalf, as I was angry on my own and another’s behalf? Under the circumstances, no.
Are there, then, other options, apart from considering writers (and other artists) as parasites? Perhaps, to answer this question, it might help to try and imagine a different world to the one in which Thomas Disch felt he had to put a gun to his head. What kind of world was it to which Disch fell victim? Were the values and mechanisms of that world universal? Inevitable? Overall, just and helpful? I am reminded now of a quote from The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen, a novel dealing with the torments of a doomed writer:
…Lucian was not only engaged in composition; he was plainly rapturous, enthusiastic; Mr. Taylor saw him throw up his hands, and bow his head with strange gesture. The parson began to fear that his son was like some of those mad Frenchmen of whom he had read, young fellows who had a sort of fury of literature, and gave their whole lives to it, spending days over a page, and years over a book, pursuing art as Englishmen pursue money, building up a romance as if it were a business.
Is it, possibly, the English-speaking world that considers writers parasites, and not the entire world? I’m afraid I have not marshalled any vast array of statistical evidence for this; I largely have anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and prejudice. (I do hear, for instance, that in France, any writer may claim money from the government as a kind of wage for one or two days a week to be spent “pursuing art”.) Ultimately, I doubt the division between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world in this matter is that clear, but sense there might be something in it, and, even if it is only relatively true, it would at least give us a sliding scale of attitudes to examine and, hopefully, choose from. At best, it might lead us to hitherto unrealised conclusions.
Let us try a little what if. What if the society that killed Thomas Disch (let us not mince words) underwent some kind of change and decided that there was some value in literature, in art, in dreams and imagination generally? Would that be a bad society? I suspect that most would think that, after all, that doesn’t sound so bad. Some might raise specific, ‘practical’ points, or even philosophical ones. Am I suggesting that artists should be state-funded? My immediate response is to say ‘no’. There’s a paradox here. If we recoil at the idea of state-funded writers, it is because we recognise that the writer must be an independent voice, an outsider, and must even be so perverse in his or her independence as to appear… a parasite. Can you rebel against your sponsor? Perhaps, though, there is something in the idea of state-funding for writers; after all, if it’s true that the government in France supports writers financially, then this does not seem to have done their literature any harm. Quite frankly, French literature pisses on the anaemic social realism of English literature, and the attitude of appreciation and support out of which such a government policy probably springs might have something to do with this. However, it is the attitude more than the policy that I would especially like to see change.
Until now any serious artist has been more-or-less forced to be subversive to some degree, simply because telling the truth (even an inner truth) in a society based on what David Korten, author of The Great Turning, might call ‘the hierarchies of Empire’, is intrinsically subversive. But a serious artist surely also knows that rebellion for its own sake is vacuous and boring. What if there were a world in which there was no need to rebel, in which children were not taught that they are all the same, but were seen to have their own individual qualities and abilities to offer the world, and were valued for them? Utopian? Perhaps.
What is the alternative? On the other side of the argument from this creative Utopia there is all that has been proclaimed sensible and respectable for centuries if not millennia. There is survival. Survival is making money by any means available. One must do this to become financially independent. It is necessary to be independent because no one can support anyone else. We are in competition. To be dependent is to be weak, a parasite, to fall from the grace of respectability and place a burden upon the survival of others. And yet, as we are discovering more and more, survival is not survival, but mass suicide. In order to achieve that respectable, competitive, financial independence, the respectable, sensible survivors are intent upon stripping the world of its resources, exploiting the poor, increasing social inequality, and making the planet generally uninhabitable, first spiritually (since this competitive society is an ugly hell), but ultimately in a very literal, physical sense.
It seems it really is true that we cannot live, cannot even survive, on bread alone.
I would personally like to suggest, therefore, that writing, as one medium through which human beings dream of things other than ‘bread’ and the suicidal survivalism of the nine-to-five, is actually useful in its uselessness, even a necessity.
Perhaps, to some, the idea of nurturing all talent wherever it might be found still smacks of Utopianism. Of course, to counter such a criticism, one might ask the question, is there anything wrong with Utopianism? It seems that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we stand in need of Utopianism as never before. Competition, and its inevitable conclusion of war, involving an unprecedentedly vast population, and utilising technologies of such power that they might be likened to bazookas in the hands of infants, has surely now become an end game, and whether that end is merely of the game itself, or of a (relatively) stable civilisation and possibly the human race, is for us to decide. Perhaps, however, the less attractive, which is to say the latter, outcomes, are not to be avoided by Utopianism. Perhaps idealism will always fail. Life is messy, and perhaps remedies will be piecemeal and messy, also. With or without Utopia, I would suggest that the writer is a necessity. As a writer I am wary of such statements simply because they make writing sound ‘legitimate’, as if it should be part of an establishment, when the great power of writing, if it has any, seems to me to come from a kind of illegitimacy. Writers should not have the kind of power and authority that corrupts. They should question all things, and especially themselves. Perhaps, then (I say this tentatively), rather than asking for writers to be seen as noble and heroic, I should, after all, ask that we be seen as parasites, but as useful parasites, a necessarily messy part of this messy life.
Professor Weinstock at Tufts-New England Medical Center offers a view of parasites at variance with the orthodoxy. The obsession with hygiene that has taken hold of the world with the Twentieth Century has had unforeseen consequences. The industrialised world has seen an outstanding growth in diseases related to the immune system, including asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, in the past fifty years. During research in the 1990s, Professor Weinstock noted a correlation between the decline of parasite worms and the rise of irritable bowel syndrome. A theory is in place as to why worms might prevent diseases such as asthma (a condition, it seems, virtually unknown in worm-rich, sanitation-poor countries); the parasite stimulates certain “regulatory pathways” in the host in order to cover its own presence, and these pathways also stabilise the immune system. There is also some supporting evidence. In Brazil, for instance, cases have been observed of children taken from their worm-rich environment developing asthma, the condition being cured by their return to that environment. Moreover, Weinstock’s own experiments treating Crohn’s disease with whipworm have had considerable success.
I am not aware of a conclusion to this research as yet, but I mention it here because it provides me with an apt analogy. According to Weinstock, “The first law of parasitology says that the parasite must impart a survival advantage to the host.”
Perhaps Weinstock’s work will lead to people re-thinking their attitude to worms. My own wish is that people (writers included) would re-think their attitude to writers. When the hygienic Puritanism of the work-ethic has purged all writers from the system of human society, through disdain, starvation, apathy, envy, there may well be unforeseen consequences.