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Are You Honorably Obscure?

If so, then consider this handbook!

“Art is long,” wrote Henry James. “If we work for ourselves of course we must hurry. If we work for her we must often pause.” If you agree with this sentiment, you may be Honorably Obscure.

Not sure, though?

Consider, then, the following statement from Sir Kenneth Clark, articulated in his masterful thirteen-part documentary Civilisation:

It is sometimes through the willful, superfluous actions of individuals that societies discover their powers.

Ask yourself, upon reading these words, if something mysterious resonates down in your bones. Yes? Then welcome! You are one of the Honorably Obscure.

Who, Exactly, Are the Honorably Obscure?

They are writers and artists working day and night, in any given locale, in reversal of the common M.O. That is, they live in order to work (not the other way around).

Often they work in shabby rooms, at wobbly desks, in poor light and insufficient heating, with something scratching in the walls.

Seldom do they win honors, receive grants, or hobnob with famous elders.

Unpaid, uncelebrated, they work in service to something larger and more lasting than themselves.

Faced with privation and self-doubt, they draw inspiration from bygone spirits who struggled much the same.

The Honorably Obscure live in their own time, yes, but also across time, and they readily recognize one another over the span of generations.

Their rewards? Oh, how to name them? But they more than mitigate the annoyances of thin wallets, scant praise, and nonexistent reputations. Such things are temporal concerns. The Honorably Obscure are busy with bigger matters.

Sometimes, of course, the Honorably Obscure achieve “success,” but often this experience unnerves them. The following is a little letter I wrote to one of them, a fellow writer who “hit it big.” I’ve included this letter in The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, my new definitive volume about life as a creative person, which offers solidarity and sound advice to fellow creative people everywhere, whatever their field. Comprised in part of material that originated right here on Soul Shelter, The Honorable Obscurity Handbook is, as its effervescent subtitle attests, “A Compendium of Essays, Correspondence, Autobiography & Marginalia, with Ample Quotations Affording Guidance & Consolation from the Ages.”

Letter to a Fellow Writer Who “Hit it Big” & Got Worried About Authenticity

Dear N,

I live by the belief that we artists have got to stick together, and I admire anybody like yourself who would devote so many years, paid or not, to the production of something as invaluable — if unquantifiable and increasingly anachronistic — as a serious literary work.

I have no doubt that your new book is well worth reading, and well worth the astronomical sum paid for it. I take no issue with writers being well paid. I’m all for that! What’s troublesome, to you and me both, is the conventional logic of big publishing we’re already seeing at work here: a logic which holds that to discuss books in terms of the author’s payment is a valid or worthwhile way to talk about literature. Culture, according to such logic, is little more than a byproduct of commerce — the better paid the book, the more worthy of attention.

We object to this. It is success-cult nonsense, long obtaining in society rags and in those Manhattan cocktail parties we read about in the New Yorker, and it spills more and more into respected literary discourse and threatens to become a lingua franca.

‘How big was the advance?’

‘Seven figures.’

‘Well! I should read it, shouldn’t I?’

‘Oh, you will. Like every other reader in the Western Hemisphere.’

In reality, as experience has taught you and me well, literature flowers and fructifies under a different sun. Its servants toil alone, usually at the edge of things. Most of the world’s deserving works are fated to exist in undeserved obscurity while the authors do wage labor in factories, retail stores, or academe — or simply scrounge for food. You and I both recognize that 99.9 percent of all worthy literary creators live by this truth, a truth existent through the ages.

And you believe as passionately as I do, I know, that young writers — or old, still struggling ones — ought to be championed in their wildly impractical, unlucrative pursuits, even if the dominant discourse is all about cash, film deals, and bestseller lists.

Our art lives nowhere but in the work itself, the words on the page. The art surely does not live in what-ever gross sum may be paid for it by the hit-hungry New York publishers.

You know this, and that’s why you’re worrying. Be comforted that you know it. Knowing it, you’ll stay the course.



Being one of the Honorably Obscure yourself, you’ll appreciate The Honorable Obscurity Handbook, now available (in print!) from Atelier26 Books.

Here’s to creative vitality — and to sheltering the soul!

1 Comment to Are You Honorably Obscure?

On Jun 14, 2013, Utsunomiya Rob/aka Harmonic Rob commented:

Obscurity, obscurity, toil, toil and toil. Well Melville certainly experienced that. By the time of his death in 1891 Moby Dick sales totaled 3,715. But I digress. The Henry James quote called to mind Joseph Conrad. It’s always been an inspiration to me over several decades. Here goes, and enjoy!

“And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim—the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult—obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.

To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile—such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And when it is accomplished—behold!—all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile—and the return to an eternal rest.”

Joseph Conrad

Cheers from down under!

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