The Writer as Superman or Superwoman
Naturally I also admire artists and writers who are unexceptional at anything but their art. Nevertheless, the lives of people who do nothing but write or paint or make music, often seem barren or bleak. Who would want to live Kafka’s life, or Woolf’s, or Joyce’s? I have long been fascinated by multi-faceted geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo or Goethe, and those who performed great physical feats. Heroes live full lives. And by ‘heroes’ I don’t mean that we must approve of everything they did. But it’s useful to reflect on those artists who live on a grander scale, who consciously or unconsciously try to live as supermen or superwomen.
Consider Byron, for example, not only the most popular poet in Europe in his time, but also a renowned lover, a prize fighter, and the hero of the Greek War of Independence. Or D’Annunzio, the subject of my latest novel, Italy’s greatest poet, playwright and novelist at the turn of the last century, and in addition her most celebrated playboy and most decorated hero of the First World War, in spite of being fifty-two when he joined up. He was also “the only true revolutionary in Europe” according to Lenin. In 1919 the poet led a group of army deserters to Fiume, snatched it from the occupying Allied Forces, and turned it into a utopian city-state, an early Haight-Ashbury of nonstop festivals, free love and drugs, with a sinister subplot of torchlight parades, braggadocio and ultra-nationalism thrown in. (As I said, you needn’t admire every aspect of the superman.) Just two outstanding examples of people who achieved fame for feats beyond their writing.
Many writers have been warriors, without achieving such prominence. Tolstoy was a cavalry officer and fought in the Caucasus. Aeschylus, Chaucer, Sir Philip Sidney and Stendhal were soldiers too, as were Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon in the First World War, and Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh in the Second. Tim O’Brien fought in Vietnam. George Orwell served with the Imperial Police in Burma. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, was a naval officer and rake as well as a poet. Conrad commanded ships and probably ran guns in the Congo before taking up the pen; Rimbaud did it the other way round, writing and fighting with Verlaine as a teenager, then becoming a gun-runner and slave-trader in Yemen afterwards. (He was not a hero in any sense, but certainly lived an extraordinary life.) In the air, there’s Saint-Exupery, who was not only a pioneering aviator with the mail planes in the Andes in the thirties, but died flying a fighter for the Free French in the Bay of Nice, probably in action. And James Salter, a fighter pilot during the Korean War, which he wrote about vividly in The Hunters. I am not extolling the making of war, although I agree with Hemingway that every male writer who has not faced death in battle envies those who have, for their mettle has been tested. The rest of us cannot know whether we possess courage or not—and every man wishes he knew that. Besides, war is one of the great subjects of literature, because it shows Man at his worst and at his best, as Homer and Tolstoy realized.
One ponders writers who were athletes: Hemingway and Norman Mailer boxers, David Foster Wallace a tennis player. Mozart, not a writer but certainly a genius, was not only a virtuoso on the piano and the violin, but also a champion at billiards. I find that astounding. I think too of writers who were also professional musicians, like Lawrence Durrell or Julio Cortazar. Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were equally brilliant as artists and poets. No doubt you can think of many more.
I’m aware that I haven’t come up with superwomen so far. Of course they exist. One of my female colleagues told me, when I asked, that all mothers are heroes or superwomen—and we all know childbirth is an excruciating experience for most. However, it’s a normal one, and not necessarily a deliberate or voluntary one, and since I’m seeking the extraordinary and the willed—for surely that’s what defines heroism—I don’t think I can include motherhood as a sufficient qualification. (Besides, most mothers are not also distinguished writers.) There are women writers who have been adventurers, like Gertrude Bell, or Karen Blixen. My colleague mentioned Gretchen Legler, who has written about Arctic exploration. Other distinguished nature nonfiction writers include Helen McDonald (H is for Hawk), and Terry Tempest Williams. My list may be deficient because of my ignorance, but if it is shorter than for men, I am not suggesting that women are less heroic. Until recently in history, the majority of women lived their lives invisibly, and thus were unlikely to distinguish themselves in art or any other sphere, beyond the domestic one, or any rate be recognized. Unquestionably, this is changing.
Why am I so obsessed with supermen, anyway? Perhaps it is an idiosyncrasy of mine. Having taken part in dangerous or demanding trials won’t even make you a better writer necessarily, but it may. If Tolstoy hadn’t experienced the horrors of war first-hand, could he have written War and Peace or Hadji Murat? And I am not sure that the doing of heroic deeds makes you a better person either. Siegfried Sassoon, who threw away the DSO awarded him after he took a German trench single-handed, thought not. On the other hand, D’Annunzio was inordinately proud of his Croix de Guerre—but no one would consider him an admirable man. Still, to live dangerously, in the Nietzschean sense, not necessarily facing physical peril, but living fearlessly rather than conventionally, trying to overcome yourself, to elevate yourself above the ordinary, to reach as high as you can, even if you might fail—this surely is an aim worthy of every human and every artist. Much writing, perhaps most, is mere chatter. The man of action commands respect when he writes about what he has seen with his own eyes. The woman of action too, naturally.
And sometimes they inspire us to strive to be supermen and superwomen. Surely real supermen and women are more potent than the puerile superheroes of Hollywood?
Byron or Batman? Saint-Exupery or Superman? Karen Blixen or Catwoman? Leonardo or The Lantern? Writers and artists thrash the comic book figures every time! Look: Hemingway and Lord Byron are flexing their biceps; Count Tolstoy and Lermontov, at a canter, are swinging their sabres. D’Annunzio, in black oilskins, is revving the engine of his torpedo boat. James Salter fires a missile, then goes into a roll and a dive. Sassoon lobs grenades; his pockets are stuffed with them. Then he sits in the trench and for a long afternoon calmly reads Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Keats. Gertrude Bell lopes across the dunes on her dromedary, Helen Hunter launches her goshawk into the air, and Karen Blixen floats over the African savannah in a Gypsy Moth with Dennis Finch-Hatton. Overwomen and overmen!
Write—and live dangerously!