RECENTLY I WATCHED a show about English Department politics — the cup of Peak Television overfloweth — and when a character mentioned that Moby-Dick did poorly when it was published in 1851, I felt something. It wasn’t schadenfreude. I wasn’t happy that Herman Melville, bitter and disappointed at his book’s reception, drinking heavily, skulking about Lower Manhattan, then became a customs inspector who at one point saw his pay reduced from $4 per day to $3.60. I wasn’t pleased that he left Billy Budd unpublished when he died 40 years later, or that The New York Times misspelled Mobie Dick in his obituary, or that his masterpiece went out of print for decades before being rediscovered in the 1920s. I felt … something else.
As far as I know, the feeling doesn’t have an English name, or even a German one. It isn’t quite what someone feels when they say “Pearls before swine” or when the speaker of Ecclesiastes notes that the race is not to the swift, nor yet bread to the wise, etc. But it’s not quite not that feeling, either. The best way to describe it might be as sad amazed amused alarm that something excellent can come into the world and be roundly ignored. The feeling stands behind William Goldman’s description of Hollywood as a place where “nobody knows anything.” And behind Jesus’s idea that prophets are without honor in their own country. And behind outsider artists cranking out unread novels and weaving unhung tapestries and singing unheard songs that won’t receive their due until some point in the future when — if — critics decide to shed light on their work.
Even though it lacks a name, I’m not alone in feeling it. Many people feel it who have launched work into the world and seen it sink without a trace, or with just a few air bubbles to mark the occasion, as do people who have enjoyed a minute of recognition and then lost it, as do people who have never bothered showing others their work for fear of their reaction. These people — my people — think long and hard about Kafka’s obscurity during his lifetime, and about Emily Dickinson’s. We note with tragic satisfaction that Vermeer’s work was ignored for over 200 years, and we shake our heads in aggrieved unsurprise that Zora Neale Hurston was forgotten for decades — and buried in an unmarked grave — until Alice Walker wrote about her in a 1979 essay. The case of Moby-Dick made it into a television show about English Department politics because it’s one of those things professors repeat all the time, because they themselves have written unpublished or unrecognized novels, and they take consolation in the fact that the Great American Novel itself was met with indifference upon its release.
Is this an embarrassing feeling? You bet. Someone might hope that their work went unnoticed because it was ahead of its time, or because critics weren’t discerning enough to get it — “Too many notes, dear Mozart, too many notes,” remarked Emperor Joseph II — but they can’t know that to be true. The feeling is at best self-serving and at worst deluded. It seems to share DNA with 2020 Trump tweeting “I WON THE ELECTION,” and it’s forced to admit that most art that arrives DOA deserves to arrive that way. Nor can feelers of the feeling account for the fact that a lot of great art is celebrated immediately, in its time. That Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day. That Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize. That Haruki Murakami shatters sales records in Japan. That the Beatles happened.
Fitting or unfounded, the feeling finds its greatest expression in a series of books by David Markson beginning with Reader’s Block and continuing through This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. Markson, who died in 2010, was arguably the feeling’s patron saint, its flagbearer and finest articulator/evoker. How did he do it? Artfully and allusively in a genre he made up — or suspected he’d made up — and likened to a kind of literary collaging. Each of the books in his tetralogy opens similarly, with a disembodied narrative consciousness called Author or Writer or Protagonist (sample first line: “Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”), and then jumps to an anecdote about a poet or painter or historian or philosopher who suffered some humiliation (sample second line: “A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and left that way for a month and a half.”). From here the anecdotes pile up about celebrated artists’ deaths and illnesses, about the professional slights they suffered, about the insults they flung at their rivals and the wild variety of ways they could be stung by their rivals’ criticism of them.
For people with this nameless, embarrassing feeling — not-schadenfreude? schadenfreude without shade? — Markson’s books are a bible. In them, we learn that Virginia Woolf dismissed Ulysses as “[a]n illiterate, underbred book […] the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are.” We discover that Tolstoy once said to Chekhov, “You know I can’t stand Shakespeare’s plays, but yours are worse.” And, “Stephen Crane’s judgment that War and Peace should have been one third its length: It goes on and on like Texas.” And, “A presumptuous mediocrity, Tchaikovsky called Brahms.” And, “There are so few people who know how to make art. — Julian Schnabel. One less than he thinks. — Robert Hughes.” And, “He has no insight into character. And no dramatic talent. His dialogue hardens to wood and stone. Said Emerson about its author after reading Oliver Twist.” And, “Simple Wordsworth and his childish verse, Byron called him and it.” And, “The greatest lesbian poet since Sappho, Auden called Rilke.” And, “Dvořák, to Sibelius: I have composed too much. Brahms, to Dvořák: You do write a bit hastily.” And, “George Santayana, reading Moby Dick: In spite of much skipping, I have got stuck in the middle.” And, “From an earliest major review of Jane Eyre: Sheer rudeness and vulgarity.” And, “I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can. Said Edmund Wilson of Kafka.” And, “Paradise Lost sold fewer than three hundred copies a year in its first ten years in print.” And, “William Faulkner once allowed himself to be interviewed on radio during a University of Virginia football game. And was introduced as a winner of the Mobil Prize.” And, “A vulgar, brutal boor, wholly ignorant of political science, of military affairs, of everything else which a statesman should know. Said a London journal of Lincoln at the start of the Civil War.” And, “You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation. Said Billie Holiday.” And, “I don’t understand them. To me that’s not literature. Said Cormac McCarthy of Henry James and Marcel Proust.” And, “George Seurat, who was dead at thirty-one. And had sold only two paintings in his life.” And, “Bizet died only three months after the premiere of Carmen — convinced it was an irremediable failure.” And, “Realizing that as recently as in the case of Haydn, musicians under the patronage of royalty were still treated as servants — and still wore livery.” And, “The thought of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, at fifty. Of his possessions — his paintings — being sold for whatever pittance they might bring. Of Rembrandt himself being evicted from his home. Rembrandt.” And, “Beatrix Potter had to pay to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
If the feeling has a fulcrum, it’s probably this Marksonian pairing: “I say that if you can tell a story in a picture and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art. Said Norman Rockwell. If more than ten percent of the population likes a painting it should be burned. Said Shaw.”
Despite having this bible, we feelers of the feeling know we’d be healthier — and happier — without it. Or at least with other, better-natured feelings surrounding and smothering it. Markson seemed to know this, too, and so interlaced all the asperity and rubber-necking misfortune in his books with another kind of anecdote that produced another kind of feeling. It, too, doesn’t have a name, but it’s related to acceptance. And to gaining a wide-angle perspective on life and the world and our place in it. It’s related to emotion recollected in tranquility. And to wondering if there really are no ideas but in things. It can be glimpsed, maybe even grasped, from these passages from Markson:
“Caesar, asked to name the best death: A sudden one.”
“Keep apart, keep apart and preserve one’s soul alive — that is the teaching for the day. It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within a world. Wrote George Gissing.”
“A mere trifle consoles us, a mere trifle distresses us. Said Pascal.”
“More than 60 percent of the people in the United States have not read a book from beginning to end since adolescence. If then.”
“Langston Hughes’ request that a particular Duke Ellington composition be played at his funeral: Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.”
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story. Said Isak Dinesen.”
“Thinking with someone else’s brain. Schopenhauer called reading.”
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been. Said Wayne Gretzky.”
“For years, Vachel Lindsay sold his poetry on street corners. The first time he did so, in New York in 1905, he took in thirteen cents. And was overjoyed.”
Whether or not I ever outgrow these feelings, I expect to return to Markson in years to come, if only to consider the question he ended his work with:
“Is it true then, what they say — that we become stars in the sky when we die? Asks someone in Aristophanes.”
Even though that’s not the real ending. Even though the real, final ending is this: “The old man who will not laugh is a fool. Als ick kan.”