austerity 2: comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie, or vice versa
In his “fictionalized memoir” Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes living in a place that just happens to be only a few steps away from Marx’s grave. At this point in the book, he’s just gotten a job working as a programmer for IBM in London.
Now that he has an income, he is able to rent a room of his own in a house off Archway Road in north London. The room is on the second floor, with a view over a water reservoir. It has a gas heater and a little alcove with a gas cooker and shelves for food and crockery. In a corner is the meter: you put in a shilling and get a shilling’s supply of gas.
His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry. He suspects there is lots of potato flour mixed in with the ground meat. But potato flour is not bad for one.
I have never had to write for money. Whether I am capable of doing it or not is another question. I could have used some money in college, but I was too young then. During grad school, there was the stipend – $13,000, split most years between myself and my wife – just enough to keep oneself in a university subsidised one-bedroom in a banally modernist high-rise in the woods. Later, there was paying work, academic jobs – three of them, actually, one after another.
When I first moved to Brooklyn, just as the inflation level of the real estate bubble passed from ridiculous to obscene, I decided that I wanted to buy an apartment and I wanted to do it by writing a novel. It was the era of that sort thing; one of the students that I had taught had just signed a seven-figure contract for two books, was about to buy a gigantic house in Park Slope. And so I sat in the tiny kitchen at the tiny table that we had found that would actually fit it and typed a novel into my laptop, night after night. I would smoke several cigarettes with the window open and the fan on, write, and then go to sleep.
There were mice and cockroaches, yes. Both the little roaches that come in packs and the big indestructible lone motherfuckers, the ones that you could mash with the end of an aluminium baseball bat and they’d pause for a second only to resume their steady sprint around the living room floor.
I actually finished the novel – the only one I’ve ever finished. It’s resting in a document file somewhere on my hard drive, unopened since the day I completed it. It was about a couple who make their living by running an amateur pornography site. Then someone falls in love with her, one of the customers. And then they meet, and nothing’s there.
No good. Obviously I never did anything with this thing. And then I got a job and another and another. It’s nice to make money from writing, but even if I did, it wouldn’t substantially change my lifestyle.
Bourdieu’s writings on art suggests that the negotiation with having to write for money or not – and all the grey areas between the two, like having to write for money but pretending you don’t or not having to write for money but pretending you do – is a or even then defininitive factor in the determination of literary stance and even literary form. It happens simultaneously, in his reading, on the level of the individual artist and as an aggregate effect. For instance, a wider range of people in mid-19th century France get secondary education, smart but poor young men rush into the city looking for work they do with their heads rather than their hands, and the feuilletons, reviews, and papers fill with new names but new names often writing commercialised shit, whatever pays the bills. Or, from the other direction, there is the young man who inherits a sizeable fortune, but then out of stupidity, addiction, or pose, squanders it, and then is himself forced to dip into something that he can’t stop comparing to prostitution, even if he knows it’s not quite the same thing.
Bourdieu is persuasive on this point – that it is out of the warp and woof of having money and needing money that literature itself, as a category, is born, and close on its heels (to extend his point slightly) modernism. Every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of one form of aristocracy or another separating itself from the barbarism of commerce… or one form of meritocracy separating itself from the barbarism of unanchored hierarchy. Or both at the same time.
But that world has passed, the machine that generates distinction has rolled itself to a stop. Neither are there aristocratic redoubts to remove to, nor is there money to be made in this business. Instead, we’re all in a bedsit just off Archway Road, counting off our meagre amenities, proud of ourselves for having found a brand of sausage that doesn’t go bad when the fridge is broken or never existed to begin with. We read the Observer on Sunday; we are careful with our spending on lunch, whether we really need to be or not. We are, like the young Coetzee, austere with our stipends and we go into great detail about it, if only with ourselves. It only takes a glance at the work, all of it, to discover the effect that this austerity has had on the form, the quality, and the pertinence of the things that we make.