The Hartwell Memorial Window at the Art Institute of Chicago
Good Monday morning! (Well, that’s what it is as I write, anyway.) As I look forward to a busy week, and of course experience that inevitable sense of things moving too fast, slipping away …
… I think I will try Oliver Burkeman’s suggestion: keep a done list. Instead of starting the day with a long list of to-dos that (in the best-case circumstance) you gradually cross off, start with a blank sheet and then record everything you accomplish during the day.
I was able to get and read an advance copy of Ross Douthat’s forthcoming memoir and it’s just fantastic.
Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer who created what he called “heteronyms”: imaginary authors of his stories, essays, and poems. Some of them were quite like him – one, he decided, was seven hours older than him – others quite different. Over the years he invented dozens and dozens of them, and it’s hard to understand much of what Pessoa wrote without understanding the heteronym responsible for it.
In a review of Richard Zenith’s new biography of Pessoa, Colm Tóibín writes,
Zenith had believed Pessoa to have been a lonely, dreamy adolescent in Durban [South Africa, where he spent much of his childhood and youth], and was surprised to come across, in an archive still owned by the family, his correspondence from that time with a large circle of unconventional friends. He slowly realised that their unconventionality ‘reached the supreme extent of their not even existing’. The friends, the letters, were all invented.”
In a real letter from 1935, Pessoa tried to describe the impulse to invent: ‘It has been my tendency to create around me a fictitious world, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I cannot be sure, of course, if they really never existed, or if it is me who does not exist. In this matter, as in any other, we should not be dogmatic.)’
Many years ago, I had written a 4000-word essay for a weekly magazine, and had signed off on final edits. Then, one evening, I got a call from my editor: the magazine, he told me, had at the last minute sold more advertising space – and that meant, among other things, that there was now only room for a 2000-word essay. The issue was about to go to press, so he had three hours to cut my essay by half. Did I want him to do it himself, or did I want to help? I decided to help, and spent the next two hours mutilating my well-crafted argument and trying to be as cheerful as possible about it. “I suppose you get used to this over time,” I said to him. “Not really,” he replied.
And that’s for a weekly magazine. Imagine what life is like on a daily newspaper! But you don’t have to imagine: you can read this excellent story about the changing role, over the decades, of the newspaper subeditor.
In my last edition I closed with Poussin’s painting of St. John on Patmos. Whenever I think about the elderly apostle, I think about a book that Frederick Buechner never got around to writing, or, as he once put it to me, would never coalesce in his mind into a story. He thought about the old legend that Mary the mother of Jesus, having been placed in John’s care by her son as he was dying on the cross, lived with John thereafter, and that after his release from the prison colony on Patmos, they moved to Ephesus, where they lived out their days. And then he imagined Mary and John in a room in Ephesus together, and her sitting by the window always looking out, unable any longer to speak but always remembering. And, Fred added, there was a bird, a pet bird, perched on her head. That was the image that would not become a story. But it is an image I have never forgotten.