by Benjamin Anastas
At the residency this June—wait: is it already June?—I’m delivering a lecture called “Less Emotion and More Intelligence: Muriel Spark and the Art of Satire.” This is the first time I’ve taken the plunge and given one of the community-wide lectures in Tishman; I’m more used to filing in with the other acolytes from the sunlit world, stopping in at the refreshments table to see about the cookie selection (“Where are the cookies?” I wonder, in astonishment, if the trays have already been picked clean. “Where are the cookies?”), and taking a seat in one of Tishman’s open pews with the jittery excitement that I always feel when I’m inside the building. It comes from the certainty that I am about to learn something and be challenged. This time it will be my turn to challenge the MFA program’s community of believers, to ask them to re-assess their thinking about literature and how we go about making it. This is exactly what Muriel Spark did, in May of 1970, when she delivered the Blashfield Address at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City—her lecture, titled “The Desegregation of Art,” is the departure point for my talk later this month and one of the most peculiar public statements about the art of writing in the 20th Century. It is also incredibly prescient about the new and different pressures facing the artist in a technologically advancing world, and makes a forceful case for satire and ridicule as the only “honorable weapon[s]” left against the oppressive domination of stupidity.
I don’t want to steal too much of my own thunder by giving the talk away in a blog post, but I will say that re-visiting Spark’s arguments in “The Desegregation of Art”—and examining how her ideas are animated in her novels of the period—gave me a whole new appreciation for the singularity of her work. And I was already a long-standing Muriel Spark fan, going back to the late 1990s, when the publisher New Directions started re-issuing the novels from her prime like The Bachelors (1960), The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Public Image (1968). For any serious reader of fiction raised, like I was, on the moonlit Jazz and transforming wonder of the American dreamer (Fitzgerald), the redemption of even the worst villain in the heartland (O’Connor, Capote, Mailer), the myth of the rebel who just can’t conform (Hemingway, Salinger), and the tragic suburban casualty (Cheever, Yates), reading Spark and her steelier treatment of the whole human carnival is an education in the sentiments. Also in the writer’s sentience—what we are willing and able to perceive. In “The Desegregation of Art,” Spark refers to herself as “a sort of writing animal,” and by that she means an Artist (with a capital “A”) who has shed the need for illusions, the appetite for easy comforts, and the eagerness to please that’s cultivated in all of us as children. (Spark, though she gave birth to a son and supported him financially, had no talent for or interest in motherhood.) She writes:
“We should know ourselves better by now than to be under the illusion that we are all essentially aspiring, affectionate and loving creatures … So when I speak of the desegregation of art I mean by this the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment in which they are confined and never really satisfied.”
What kind of fiction does the ‘writing animal’ produce? And how can a reader take comfort in it—if not through sentiment?
We’ll answer these questions by looking at Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, followed by one of her more experimental outings from just a few years later, The Public Image. (Read them before the lecture if you can.)
See you in Tishman.