The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘A Hard Case’, by Joan Acocella

On the essays shelf:

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella. The next essay I want to excerpt is called ‘A Hard Case’, a review of a new biography on Primo Levi, by Carol Angier.

Acocella, like many intelligent critics, is electric as a writer when she is annoyed. She is also fantastic when she is celebratory, but when she is annoyed at something … she goes in for the kill, and not in a way that is mean-spirited, but in a way that can leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that the book she is reviewing, or the writer, is seriously lacking. Acocella is one of those people who seems to keep the big picture in mind, and glories in the complexity of life. People interest her, the mess of their biographies, the conflicting mysterious motivations behind their actions … she understands that people are not neat. She understands that some things cannot be known, when we look in at it from the outside. People do not line up in little categories, despite the fact that certain (bad) biographers want us to. Her essay on the biography of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, is a perfect example. The writer there, Carol Loeb Shloss, seemed to want to make a case, based on zero evidence, that Lucia was the driving force of Joyce’s genius. It was Lucia who inspired his experimentation with language, it was Lucia who was behind Finnegans Wake. This is one of my least favorite theories on the planet. A genius is a genius because he is a genius. And a genius is a genius also because he sits down every day, faces the blank page, and hammers it out, despite the insecurity and the fear that he will fail. A genius is not just gifted. Many people are gifted. The genius is the one who faces the void and keeps going. To suggest that James Joyce, one of the greatest writers of all time, was actually inspired only by his mentally ill daughter having a psychotic break in the other room is not only insulting to mentally ill people, but to geniuses, as well as to anyone who has a brain in their head. It’s so reductive. I understand that genius is upsetting, even if you appreciate it. It can make you feel inadequate. Genius turns us all into Salieris. But we must absolve OURSELVES from our mediocrity (as Salieri realizes at the end of that script), we cannot look to the geniuses to tell us it’s all right that we are mediocre, we cannot look to the geniuses to say, “It’s okay. I’m really not that great. The only reason I wrote Finnegans Wake in the way that I did is because I was upset about and inspired by my daughter. So, you see, YOU TOO COULD BE A GENIUS.” No. Just stop it. Just admit you’re mediocre and that some things, like genius, can never be sufficiently explained. Nor should it be. Genius should be celebrated. And studied, sure. But it cannot be explained, certainly not by one element of a complex biography. If that were the case, then everyone who had a mentally ill daughter would be a genius, and that clearly is not true. Acocella is so good when she comes up against too-neat theories.

Here, she reviews a biography of Italian Jew and Nobel Prize winner Primo Levi called The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi, by Carole Angier. It sounds like a stinker. I have not read the biography, nor will I. Everything I need to know about Primo Levi can be found in his own extraordinary books, for example, Survival In Auschwitz (excerpt here) and The Periodic Table (excerpt here). Carole Angier has a theory about Primo Levi: he had unresolved issues in his childhood (who doesn’t, Carole?), and so this created almost a double personality, which put Primo Levi in a “double bind”. He was unable to truly flourish as an adult because of this double bind, and it may have added to his depression (and possible suicide). On a side note: Yes, Primo Levi was depressed. He was open about it. But to say that he somehow did not flourish – in the face of all of the writing he did, the novels, the essays, the non-fiction, the Holocaust literature – not to mention the fact that he won the freakin’ Nobel Prize … guy clearly wasn’t a slacker. Acocella is annoyed by Angier’s insistence on making Primo Levi fit into her stupid little theory and so she goes about dismantling it.

But I love how she does it. She’s funny about it. You’ll see that in the excerpt below.

Primo Levi is a writer who is very dear to me, and I am obviously not alone in that. His suicide (and there is still some question as to whether or not he actually did commit suicide) went off like a bomb in the literary world, and the Holocaust-industry world. There was a lot of anger towards him. How dare he commit suicide when he, who survived Auschwitz and wrote about it, was a symbol of hope to so many? How dare he be depressed when he is supposed to be inspirational? There was a lot of hand-wringing about it, and much of it was simplistic and certainly annoying to anyone who has suffered from clinical depression or suicidal ideation. I include myself. Novelist William Styron was so enraged by the judgmental commentary about Levi’s suicide that he wrote an op-ed column about his own clinical depression, basically saying: “Do you people know how bad it can get if you are depressed? How DARE you judge someone when you have no idea what it is they have experienced?” His column got such a supportive response that he brought it out in book-form, and called it Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. It’s one of the most harrowing descriptions of depression I have ever read. I have not been hospitalized for depression, although I probably should have been in 2009. Styron’s point about his own depression was that what saved him was not talk-therapy, but medication and hospitalization. Depression is an illness, and should be treated as such. We should stop stigmatizing it. NOW. Styron put it all out there, and it was really a defense of Primo Levi and an expression of how bad depression can get, for the unitiated. (Here is something I wrote about Darkness Visible.)

Primo Levi was a lightning rod for controversy, because he did not “fit in” to the proper role of a Holocaust survivor (in the way that Elie Weisel did). Levi was not a Zionist. He was critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians. His book on Auschwitz is, of course, a memoir – but he does not focus solely on the personal, as Weisel did. He talks about how the camp operated, he breaks down the rules of the camp, he is brutally honest in his assessment of how the prisoners turned on one another. He does not believe in the inherent nobility of the Jews. It’s tough stuff. But so important. If you haven’t read his stuff, all I can say is: Please do not wait. Read them all. He is magnificent.

Acocella’s essay is a wonderful tribute to Levi’s work, its complexity and heart, and she really gets that Angier is barking up the wrong tree by trying to psychologize Levi to death. By doing so, Angier misses the entire point in his work.

Here is an excerpt. (I love the line “Has Angier never heard of geeks?” It’s simple clear prose like that that makes me love Acocella.)

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, ‘Becoming the Emperor’, by Joan Acocella

The source of the problem, in Angier’s view, was Levi’s double bind. She trawls his novels, his memoirs, his stories for what they can reveal about his psychic conflicts. When he invents the “scientific fable,” often having to do with curiosities, oddities, that’s because he was frightened at how odd his psyche was. When, in The Periodic Table, he tells a nice story about a mine where he was working as a young man, that, too, gets a raising of the eyebrows. The mine, Levi writes, was reputed, in former days, to have been a hotbed of sexual misbehavior:

Every evening, when the five thirty siren sounded, none of the clerks went home. At that signal, liquor and mattresses suddenly popped up from among the desks, and an orgy erupted that embraced everything and everyone, young pubescent stenographers and balding accountants, starting with the then director all the way down to the disabled doormen: the sad round of mining paperwork gave way suddenly, every evening, to a boundless interclass fornication, public and variously entwined.

What is it about me that I find this funny? To Angier, it demonstrates Levi’s internalization of his mother’s horror of sex.

That’s her angle on his work. As for his life, the position she takes is roughly that of a psychotherapist of the seventies. She’s okay. We’re okay. Why wasn’t he okay? Why did he have to work all the time? Why didn’t he take more vacations? And how about getting laid once in a while? She records that as a teenager he mooned over various girls, but whenever he got near one he blushed and fell silent. “What was this?” Angier asks. “Can anyone ever say?” I can say. Has Angier never heard of geeks? They are born every day, and they grow up to do much of the world’s intellectual and artistic work. One wonders, at times, why Angier chose Levi as a subject – she seems to find him so peculiar. And does she imagine that if he had been more “normal” – less reserved, less scrupulous – he would have written those books she so admires?

Levi did suffer serious depressions in his later life. This is not speculation on Angier’s part. He went to psychiatrists; he took antidepressants. Nevertheless, the account Angier gives us is tailored to her prior interpretations. She never tells us when he suffered his first depression, presumably because that would limit the problem, and she never seriously considers the possibility that the cause of his disorder may have been a biochemical abnormality rather than, or as well as, life circumstances. One can understand her silence on this matter. If Levi’s depressions were biochemically based, what would that do to her double bind theory?

Nor does she make much allowance for the evidence against depression, or for frequent relief from depression. It was during the early 1970s when, according to Angier, that Levi’s mental state was “so terrifying that it is hard to imagine anything worse,” that he wrote the superb and funny The Periodic Table. Likewise, in the late 1970s, when he is again supposed to have been despondent, he produced – with great ease – The Monkey’s Wrench, which Angier herself calls “his most optimistic, most entertaining book.” This is not to say that depressed artists can’t produce happy work. But the record of cheerful activity in Levi’s last decade – during which time he not only wrote seven books and translated four others but sometimes published more than twenty newspaper articles a year, meanwhile taking hikes, spending evenings at friends’ houses, and fashioning little animal sculptures out of the insulated wire produced by his old company – seems to call for some qualification of Angier’s view that his last ten years were a dark, dark time. It doesn’t make a dent. To her credit, she records the opposing evidence. But then, in most cases, she simply moves on, unfazed, with the pathological sequence she has set up: disturbed mother-child relationship, double bind, repression, return of the depressed, depression, suicide. The book is relentlessly teleological. It shoots like an arrow to Levi’s suicide.

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4 Responses to The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘A Hard Case’, by Joan Acocella

  1. The says:

    Love this one, Sheila. I complete agree about the search for prosaic explanations of geniuses. When I wrote about the movie “Devotion,” about the Brontes, I included this graf:

    “Emily conceives a hopeless passion for Nicholls and spends the rest of the movie mooning over him, in a perfect example of Hollywood’s prosaic approach to the interior lives of artists. Never mind Emily Dickinson or Robert Herrick–fiercely sensual writing must have its origin not in the imagination, but rather in some sort of literal love affair. For years some people would try to prove that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights, due mostly to the immensely irritating notion that a woman living a circumscribed life couldn’t conceive of such tormented, passionate lovers. Devotion’s screenwriters at least attribute the novel to the right author, but attach an “explanation” for Heathcliff and Cathy that is almost as insulting to Emily.”

    And a certain commenter immediately pitched a fit because ***everybody*** knew that the reason Emily’s writing was sexy was that she was getting it on with Branwell. And if I pointed outed that there is zip, zero, nada, the big fat goose egg of evidence in support of this, it must be because I’m bourgeois and uptight, and not because I prefer my theories to be grounded in some form of reality.

    As you said, annoying as shit. (Well, you didn’t put it quite like that…)

  2. sheila says:

    Siren – ha, I missed that on your site. I truly feel that people are disturbed by genius (hell, I am, too) – and this makes them grasp in the dark for some EXPLANATION for it. As though Emily Bronte couldn’t have had an intense imagination and erotic knowledge from that imagination – AND the ability to turn it into a story.

    Yup. Annoying as shit.

    Lucia Joyce was mentally ill. This devastated her father, understandably. He was in denial for many years about how sick she was, and tried to see her illness as a manifestation of her own genius. Again, totally understandable for a father, helpless in the face of his daughter’s sickness. To somehow turn that family tragedy into an explanation for why Joyce was … fascinated with language? able to write Finnegans Wake? … is so insulting – to Joyce, to his daughter, to … Bah. Everyone.

    Why is this biographer shocked that Levi was shy with girls? I cannot stand biographies that have a theory and reject anything that does not dovetail with that theory.

  3. bybee says:

    The worst biography I ever read was one of Ernest Hemingway. The biographer tried to tie EVERY SINGLE EVENT in his 60 years to the fact that his mother dressed him like a girl when he was young. It was ludicrous and painful.

  4. sheila says:

    Bybee- The lengths people will go to try to “explain” genius. It really is ludicrous. I’ve read a couple such biographies myself and yes, they are painful! Or – with writers – the biographer reads the person’s books as strictly autobiographical, as opposed to inventions, or works of art. I can’t stand THAT tendency, either.

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