Ancient?

The novelist and writing teacher John Gardner, who once taught writing at my alma mater, said:

“One must be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.”

Now I certainly think he was right. And not just in the sense of a novel. Any literary fiction or poetry demands a willingness to let the exploring muse rummage around in the back bedroom closet of the soul. But there is a word in that quote that makes me confused.

How is it that there are ancient parts of my being, or anyone’s? Middle-aged is the term, I think. Ancient is like the epigraph to Eliot’s Wasteland.

He says he saw the Sybil hanging in a jar in the market in Cumea and he asked her what she wanted. She responded, “I want to die.” (The Sibyl of Cumae was the most famous of her kind. In Greek mythology, they were prophetic old women; witches or oracles. As a reward for guiding Aeneas through Hades in the Aeneid,  she was granted immortality by Apollo. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth too. So she withered away and got hung up in a bottle like bad taxidermy. I guess you can file that one under being careful what you wish for.)

Is that the sort of thing I’m supposed to picture as ancient in my being? No, I think Gardner is referring to something more like the collective unconscious. There is a history of humanity that runs through our kind irrespective of the individual. Something timeless, tribal, transcendent. This commonality of suffering and joy is what binds us together and makes writing worth reading.

William Faulkner was one of the great declaimers of creativity born in universal human experience; the grinding wagon wheels of generation. He bade us write about, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

That’s all I have that’s ancient, as far as you know. But I confess there are cabinets down in the garage that haven’t been purged of their primeval dasein for a while. Who can say who might be hanging around down there, beseeching Olympus for a merciful end.

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