“Nothing connects with something else and everything seems like it could disappear overnight”; Writer Janet Malcolm, who died last week, was describing the mysterious and forgotten corners of New York, but she could also have been talking about the process and experience of writing.
She produced little, in fact, that did not touch on the ambiguity, strangeness, and deep psychodrama of generating words and the fragile and contingent way in which those very words generate meaning.
The above description comes from the opening of a 1994 profile of the painter David Salle for the New Yorker, the magazine for which he wrote from 1963 until his death. It is titled Forty-one False Beginnings and consists of that many paragraphs, a kind of mimetic homage to Salle’s fragmentary method and, perhaps, a self-acknowledgment. Malcolm was also a pleasure collagist and in a wonderful passage he recounts showing her three of his projects, assuring her that she does not want praise but simply an honest opinion.
Later, he confides to the reader: “Looking back at the incident, I see that Salle had also seen what any first-year psychology student would have seen: that, despite all my protests to the contrary, I had brought my art to let him be praised. Every fan entertains the fantasy that his work is only waiting to be discovered and acclaimed; a second fantasy, that established contemporary artists must (also) be frauds, is a necessary corollary. “
Malcolm’s big theme, and the reason his work remains tremendously instructive, is what we show each other, often despite our best efforts or conscience. It is the game of cat and mouse that informs his best writing, especially his tale of their meeting with Joe McGinniss, who was sued by a triple convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, after writing a book about him.
In the background was MacDonald’s claim that McGinniss had misled him, pretending to believe he was innocent of the murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, and pleading outraged by the verdict that sentenced the man to life imprisonment, all the while planning to post Fatal vision, who argued the opposite. The court case, which summoned writers William F Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh to argue over a journalist’s right to lie in search of a greater truth that bordered on the ontological and the metaphysical, ended in a mistrial.
Malcolm’s next book, The journalist and the murderer, is celebrated not simply for her ambivalent apprehension of the characters involved: the budding writer, the alleged killer who could be a psychopathic narcissist, or a rather mundane and inarticulate innocent, but because Malcolm explored the extent to which she was involved herself. .
Were the ingratiating letters McGinniss had sent to her target much worse than the ones she had written? After all, she experienced the “gratified vanity” her research elicited, the hint of a love story about the excitement she felt when the project went well.
A key problem, he noted, was that journalists were often disappointed by real people, who did not act as dynamic and vivid as literary characters; Paradoxically, it is the unpredictability and ambiguity of real people, the “abyss of unmediated individuality and idiosyncrasy,” that makes them less attractive than invented ones.
The journalist and the murderer was published in 1989, but only last year did Malcolm return to a piece that she wrote For him New York Book Review on a court case in which she was in the dock, being sued for defamation by psychotherapist Jeffrey Masson for her article-turned-book In Freud’s archives. In 1989, Malcolm had written about the case in an epilogue to The journalist and the murderer; In 2020, he noted: “My goal was not to persuade anyone of my innocence. It was to show what a good writer he was. “
Malcolm maintains that we constantly talk about ourselves; we allow our fantasies to be seen, to disprove our insistence that analysis can be objective, lucid, free from the interplay of individual complexes and desires. But while these ideas seem accepted, indisputable, and largely undisputed, it often seems that we only speak them lip-service.
In the world of entrenched opinion, of irascible positions, hastily constructed in the guise of debate, of disagreement that quickly turns to denunciation, we carefully sidestep the possibility of our own impure motivation.
One of the principles of the current discourse is that of good and bad faith. People reject the arguments and challenges of others because they are in bad faith, as if they have X-ray specifications that allow them to directly see the intentions of others, as if they themselves are incapable of acting in a similar way.
But it is not so easy to discern examples of good and bad faith, perhaps especially in oneself. It is not so easy to cauterize your own opinions and their expression to isolate them from more disorderly influences; out of aggression or disappointment, anger or envy, selfishness or resentment. It is not so easy to admit the lure of rejection, quick victory, the impeccable play of a good hand of cards.
But we make a potentially catastrophic mistake when we separate the discussions of, for example, structural inequality and privilege, prejudice and intolerance, politics and the power of whim from subjectivity. If this sounds unconvincing, a form of smuggling in a “both sides” perspective, of refusing to embrace conviction and principles and acting on it, I prefer to think of it as a rejection of naivety, a confrontation with one’s own weaknesses. .
The recognition that moral double bonds are not just what happens to other people is what made Malcolm such an intensely brilliant writer; let’s learn from it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism