Finding your daemon that dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire
Since the beginnings of literature, writers and poets have talked about their “Muse” as if there is some external force that enters them or hovers near them, inspires them, and allows them to write. The concept has been wussified until Albert Brooks did a movie where he was a blocked writer finally re-visited by his smiling Muse, Sharon Stone, whom he was willing to loan out to fellow fallow writers. So let’s avoid talking about one’s “Muse” and use the correct terminology for the spirit that must enter into you if you’re going to be a successful writer- -- i.e. your daemon (sometimes spelled daimon, both pronounced the same as “demon”) that dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire.
The Greeks knew about daemons. They considered them a subordinate deity, as the genius of a place or a person's attendant spirit. Think not of the Christian “demon” – a servant of Satan – trying to invade you for evil purposes to lead you to Hell; much less the Christian image of demons in Hell poking you with tridents. For the Greeks, daemons of many sorts entered and joined with the human spirit of each person and many of these daemons could be put to use. Many had to be resisted and the Greeks learned how to do so to a great extent. In one of my novels I thanked and credited historical novelist Steven Pressfield for leading me to the Spartan study of phobologia, the only formalized study of fear I’ve ever encountered. The Greeks believed that fear during and before battle was carried by daemons and the Spartans would teach their fighters how to resist total possession from that daemon at its entry points to the body – the gut, the chest, the anus, the knees, and the hams. Not all battle daemons were of fear; the Spartans were an incredibly disciplined fighting force, perhaps the most disciplined warfare has ever known, and they wanted no Berserker amongst them. Their study of and training in phobologia also included disciplining the fighting daemon a warrior allowed in so that the disciplined hoplite infantryman in his rank and file would not become a bloodthirsty solo-attacker: a Berserker.
The Greeks thought that if a person was totally possessed by a daemon (or daimon) one’s body would cease being’s one own and the man would enter the state of katalepsis: note that the Stoics and then the Christians thought that this was a blessed state, the state in which basic truths were given or intuited by God or angels, but to the Spartans it meant –“ a derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind." This could not be allowed. The Spartan infantryman could never give in to katalepsis and still carry out his disciplined duties to his fellow fighters.
Neither can the professional writer surrender to total control of his resident daemon. It has to be controlled. And to control a writing daemon, a writer must have a Hand of Fire.
In E.R. Dodds’s classic study The Greek and the Irrational the author carefully distinguishes between the psyche and the daemon. The definitions come from Empedocles and Socrates. As Harold Bloom has summarized – “The psyche is the empirical self or rational soul, while the divine daimon is an occult self or irrational soul.” Humankind moves ahead through the force and progress of the rational psyche but for great artistic, poetic, and creative leaps, we must depend upon our other occult-self, the daemon that Dodds describes as – “ . . . the carrier of man’s potential divinity and actual guilt.”
How does a writer find, allow in, and tame – as much as the being can be tamed – the daemon of writing well?
First of all, don’t trust the unpublished windbag who brags of having written 10,000 words before breakfast. This is pure katalepsis, possession (or mere claim of possession) as a disease, and the words and sentences and paragraphs are being more vomited out than carefully set in proper place and cadence. A will-and-wish-to-write is a necessary precursor to a true writer, but there are 10,000 poseurs – working non-writers cranking out page after page, book after unpublishable book, of low-level, unreadable language, prose not forged in what Yeats obsessively called the Condition of Fire – for every true poet and writer who uses his or her daemon to dwell within that Condition of Fire. Beware the self-proclaimed Berserker writer. (Especially if you are one.)
A stanza of Shelley’s long poem “The Witch of Atlas” begins with the powerful line – “Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is.”
The entire poem, including the poetic introduction “To Mary” who objected to “The Witch of Atlas” “Upon the Score of its Containing No Human Interest” – is worth reading. And worth reading more than once. It’s a test of your Close Reading Skills and an excerpt will be provided below. But for now, here’s a link to the entire poem. (If it stymies your Close Reading skills, you should probably reassess your immediate ambition of becoming a writer.) –
So by using your close reading skills upon this poem, o ye eager-to-become writers, you soon see that the Witch is not Shelley, we’re assured, but is the visionary consciousness that has come into Shelley. It is the visionary consciousness Percy Bysshe Shelley wishes to be filled with at all times. The Witch, in other words, is the creative (and destructive) daemon who dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire. And this writing daemon therefore requires the poet or writer to join it in perpetually dwelling within the same Condition of Fire – what Shelley called “the fire for which all thirst” and to which Yeats referred to as “the place of the daemon.”
Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is.
Yeats, cold and unsentimental as his Sphinx’s stare in “The Second Coming”, has written of the Condition of Fire, the place of the daemon, as a space which again embraces the universal: “I am in the place where the daemon is, but I do not think he is with me until I begin to make a new personality, selecting among those images, seeking always to satisfy a hunger grown out of conceit with daily diet; and yet as I write the words ‘I select’, I am full of uncertainty not knowing when I am the finger, when the clay.”
Every real poet and novelist has experienced this feeling – am I the finger writing these words on the clay of time or am I the clay now being written upon?
The answer, of course, is that the true poet and writer are both, at different times, often at the same time, the finger and the clay.
Goethe and even Socrates tried to domesticate these daemons – or at least claim they were capable of being domesticated to man’s service, rather like a horse or ox -- but Yeats knew, as Empedocles knew long before Goethe and even before Socrates, that the true daemon dwelling in the Condition of Fire is an agent of transmutation, changing the poet or writer forever, creating Yeats’s “new personality”, a personality that is an opposing self, transforming the daemon into an energy in league with the writer’s most destructive muse, bringing forth a self-devouring force.
Below is my favorite poem. I believe that when Yeats wrote it – as in certain parts of Byzantium – he wrote it, transformed as he was, from the heart of the heart of the Condition of Fire:
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats’s Rough Beast is not Christian in myth or nature, no matter the mention of Bethlehem. It is a cold and monstrous thing, allied with all the forces of destruction. And it co-exists with the daemon you must join with in order to be a great – or even good – writer of prose or poetry.
By now, if you’re serious about being a writer or poet, you may also be seriously considering changing your mind rather than opening yourself to a daemon with such destructive tendencies and abilities. Below, I’ll give specifics of how the daemons of fire that drove our finest poets and authors also tended to burn through them like white phosphorous through flesh, ending their lives early and in misery.
If it sounds like a Faustian bargain, one can be assured that such bargains-with-the-daemons were old when Empedocles wrote about them 2,000 years before Goethe. But that assurance is worth little, since allowing your daemon to enter into you and carry you to any part of the Condition of Fire will take its terrible toll.
Still, many of you are asking right now – How can I find my daemon?
As Yeats learned, there is no way – physical or occult – in which you can summon your writer’s daemon. You can do various things to put yourself in its way, but you can never be sure what “its way” might be.
In the end, the daemon will choose you. Or not.
Many are called by the siren’s song of writing, of being a writer, of creating true poems or novels, but few are chosen for such punishment in what Shelley called the “burning fountain” in Adonais, a poem about John Keats who spent his short life dwelling perpetually in the Condition of Fire.
What happens when the writing daemon truly enters into you?
No writers’ workshop will talk to you about this. Odds are great that no one teaching at such a workshop has been received by the daemon of Fire. Odds are great that no one “teaching writing” there has experienced being carried forward and away by a daemon which dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire.
Man forgets how beautiful fire is. But here are some of the early symptoms and side effects and changes you will experience if you are chosen by such a daemon. Come ride a moment with Shelley in “The Witch of Atlas” –
By Moeris and the Mareotid lakes, _505
Strewn with faint blooms like bridal chamber floors,
Where naked boys bridling tame water-snakes,
Or charioteering ghastly alligators,
Had left on the sweet waters mighty wakes
Of those huge forms--within the brazen doors _510
Of the great Labyrinth slept both boy and beast,
Tired with the pomp of their Osirian feast.
And where within the surface of the river
The shadows of the massy temples lie,
And never are erased--but tremble ever _515
Like things which every cloud can doom to die,
Through lotus-paven canals, and wheresoever
The works of man pierced that serenest sky
With tombs, and towers, and fanes, 'twas her delight
To wander in the shadow of the night. _520
With motion like the spirit of that wind
Whose soft step deepens slumber, her light feet
Passed through the peopled haunts of humankind.
Scattering sweet visions from her presence sweet,
Through fane, and palace-court, and labyrinth mined _525
With many a dark and subterranean street
Under the Nile, through chambers high and deep
She passed, observing mortals in their sleep
Should you be visited by this Queen Mab, your own Witch of Atlas, your own daemon-assisted consciousness, first you will undergo trial by kenosis and askesis.
Kenosis means an emptying out, a flensing, a stripping away. It became a popular term for the Gnostics and then for their eradicators and usurpers, the Christians, but the term goes back to the Greek word “kenoo” which simply means “to empty”. It’s Christian elaborations – and there are many – are just so much extra baggage to the original important concept.
Kenosis for the writer means an almost-impossible emptying out of self so that one can be other people. This is the Negative Capability that John Keats wrote to his friend about, and Keats was writing then about Shakespeare and while he himself writing from the perpetual Condition of Fire.
Shakespeare was the greatest single artist of Negative Capability – driven by the daemon of Fire’s kenosis – humankind has ever seen. So far, he is our poet of poets, our greatest Teller, our most effective Creator of True Fictional Persons.
But was he daemon-driven, or just trying to make a living by scratching out plays for the customers?
Review these facts: between 1596 and 1597. he gave us Henry IV, Part One, The Merry Wives of Windsor (which seems to be make-work upon command, in which he invested none of his heart), and Henry IV, Part Two. The two parts of Henry IV alone, the Henriad, with its creation of the ultimate world-wise rogue Falstaff, young Hal, Hotspur and the rest, would have made Shakespeare perhaps the greatest creator of characters ever to write. Then in 1599, Shakespeare gave us Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It. Two powerful comedies and one of the greatest historical plays ever written. But Shakespeare’s daemon did not allow him to rest. In 1600-1602 Shakesepare gave us Hamlet, the epic poem (because the Plague had emptied the cities and closed the theaters) “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, then Twelfth Night and the rancid Troilus and Cressida. After adding more than a modicum of self-loathing in Measure for Measure in 1604, he gave us Othello in the same year, followed by King Lear in 1605, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra both in 1606.
Is there any doubt – given the scores of undying characters and eternal lines of prose he produced between 1597 and 1606 (not even counting his work on his Sonnets during that time) – that Shakespeare was possessed by the daemon that perfected the writer’s sense of kenosis – of emptying out and entering into the sphere of Negative Capability where his, Shakespeare’s, opinions and burdens and worries appear nowhere? The characters from that brief period of creativity – including Falstaff, Hal, Hotspur, Hamlet, Ophelia, Rosalind, King Lear, Iago, Macbeth and Lady MacBeth, Cleopatra, even the Porter who merely has to open the door to MacBeth’s castle -- stand real and separate from their Creator to this day. They carry their own cargo of mysteries and each generation gets only a glimpse of their boundless treasuries of self.
Ralph Waldo Emerson brooded on Shakespeare for decades. He wrote this as a journal entry in April, 1864:
When I read Shakespeare, as lately, I think the criticism and study of him to be in their infancy. The wonder grows of his long obscurity: how you could hide the only man that ever wrote from all men who delight in reading? Then, the courage with which, in each play, he accosts the main issue, the highest problem, never dodging the difficult or impossible, but addressing himself instantly to that – so conscious of his secret competence; and, at once, alike an aeronaut fills his balloon with a whole atmosphere of hydrogen that will carry him over Andes, if Andes be in his path.
“So conscious of his secret competence” is the key, perhaps, to William Shakespeare. Like a mountain climber who had honed himself into such fitness, experience, and skill that he felt that he could do the diretissima, the straightest and hardest route up any mountain, he kept putting ever higher peaks and climbs in his way. While the daemon burned in him, it burned the brightest we humans have ever seen. The mild-mannered, portly, bourgeois-looking Shakespeare not only had a Hand of Fire, he was a complete Man of Fire.
After kenosis – the emptying out, the tearing apart, and then the painful reconstruction of self in alliance with the daemon and its needs – the writer must also undergo askesis.
Technically – and as used and usurped by Christianity for centuries --- the term comes from the Greek askēsis, “to exercise”, but askesis also means a constant exertion of extreme self-discipline, absolute self-control, often for religious or meditative purposes. For a writer it means something else entirely.
I don’t often quote Michel Foucault, but in this sermon – or truth-revelation . . . or essay . . . or whatever it is . . . he is wrestling with an important point (underlined sections mine)”
Discourse and Truth
 (Michel Foucault)
Techniques of Parrhesia
I would now like to turn to the various techniques of the parrhesiastic games which can be found in the philosophical and moral literature of the first two centuries of our era. Of course, I do not plan to enumerate or discuss all of the important practices that can be found in the writings of this period. To begin with, I would like to make three preliminary remarks.
First, I think that these techniques manifest a very interesting and important shift from that truth game which – in the classical Greek conception of parrhesia – was constituted by the fact that someone was courageous enough to tell the truth to other people. For there is a shift from that kind of parrhesiastic game to another truth game which now consists in being courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself.
Secondly, this new kind of parrhesiastic game – where the problem is to confront the truth about yourself – requires what the Greeks called "askesis". Although our word "asceticism" derives from the Greek word "askesis" (since the meaning of the word changes as it becomes associated with various Christian practices), for the Greeks the word does not mean "ascetic", but has a very broad sense denoting any kind of practical training or exercise. For example, it was a commonplace to say that any kind of art or technique had to be learned by mathesis and askesis – by theoretical knowledge and practical training. And, for instance, when Musonius Rufus says that the art of living, techne tou biou, is like the other arts, i.e., an art which one could not learn only through theoretical teachings, he is repeating a traditional doctrine. This techne tou biou, this art of living, demands practice and training: askesis. But the Greek conception of askesis differs from Christian ascetic practices in at least two ways: (1) Christian asceticism has its ultimate aim or target the renunciation of the self, whereas the moral askesis of the Greco-Roman philosophies has as its goal the establishment of a specific relationship to oneself – a relationship of self possession and self-sovereignty; (2) Christian asceticism takes as its principle theme detachment from the world, whereas the ascetic practices of the Greco-Roman philosophies are generally concerned with endowing the individual with the preparation and the moral equipment that will permit him to fully confront the world in an ethical and rational manner.
But for the writing daemon, after the flensing of kenosis has taken place, when the writer is able to get out of herself to see through other’s eyes and minds, the discipline of askesis -- a tough discipline – allows her to turn the telescope back upon herself. Thus it is required to construct a lasting matrix not only for one’s own behavior – which is not a moral decision, but an ethical one to become a true writer or poet -- but also to allow one to coldly observe one’s own actions and motivations at all times.
Here, if the writer has accepted his or her daemon and goes forward toward a constant Condition of Fire, that writer will lose the ability, forever, to be “in the moment” (as we say today). Every action, external and internal, every interaction, every emotion, every reaction, will be coldly observed, as if by Yeats’s stony Sphinx with its gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.
Your parent dies. You hurt. You weep. You mourn. You do and say the necessary things even as your daemon’s disciplined askesis has you (against your will) coldly taking notes on what the emotion feels like, how others around you react to the death, what the corpse of your parent looks like, how you feel while looking down at it, what voids there are in that feeling, what pretenses, what posturings.
You make love. You surrender to physical sensation and emotional connection. But your daemon’s cold burden of askesis has you taking notes even as the sensations surround and overwhelm you, even as the emotions wash over you like high waves washing across a black-pebbled beach. What are the physical absurdities and efforts of the moment? What false moves, what failed efforts, what perspective of grossness seen by someone or something else, say hovering above or to one side? What signs of aging or mortality there with the illusion of regained youth and seeming surrender to another? What held back? What given and what more never given?
Your daemon’s breaking of you into the habits of kenosis and askesis – in all things in your life, in every moment lived – is in preparation for something important: your poetry and your writing can not, if it is of any quality, be written to reassure or to entertain. If you have been chosen by a daemon living perpetually in the Condition of Fire, your life’s effort now is to create some small part of the Sublime.
But the Sublime can be superbly negative as well as positive.
Here is the brilliant essayist Giacomo Liapardi (1798-1837) from his diary he called Zibaldone (translate it as “Hodgepodge” or, perhaps more aptly, “This and That”):
Works of genius have this in common, that even when they vividly capture the nothingness of things, when they clearly show and make us feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, and when they express the most terrible despair, nonetheless to a great soul – though he find himself in a state of extreme duress, disillusion, nothingness, noia, and despair of life, or in the bitterest and deadliest misfortunes (caused by deep feelings of whatever) – these works always console and rekindle enthusiasm; and though they treat or represent only death, they give back to him, at least temporarily, that life which he had lost.
And so that which in real life grieves and kills the soul, opens and revives the heart when it appears in imitations or other works of artistic genius (as in lyric poems, which are not properly imitations). Just as the author, in describing and strongly feeling the emptiness of illusions sill retained a great store of illusions – which he proved by so intensely describing their emptiness – so the reader, no matter how disenchanted per se and through his reading, is pulled by the author into that very illusion hidden in the deepest recesses of that mind the reader was experiencing. And the very recognition of the irremediable vanity and falseness of all things great and beautiful is itself a great and beautiful thing which fills the soul, when the recognition comes through works of genius. And the very spectacle of nothingness presented seems to expand the soul of the reader, to exalt it, and to reconcile it to itself and to its own despair. (A tremendous thing and certainly a source of pleasure and enthusiasm – this magisterial effect of poetry when it works to allow the reader a higher concept of self, of his woes, and his own depressed, annihilated spirit.)
Moreover, the feeling of nothingness is that of a dead and death-producing thing. But if this feeling is alive, as in the case I mean, its liveliness dominates the reader’s mind the nothingness of the thing it makes him feel and the soul receives life (if only briefly) from the very power by which it feels the perpetual death of things and of itself. Not the smallest or least painful effect of the knowledge of great nothingness is the indifference and numbness which it almost always inspires about that very nothingness. This indifference and insensibility is removed by reading or contemplating such a work: it renders us sensible to nothingness.
Thus we can watch the most nihilistic and hopeless play in the history of human mimetic art – The Tragedy of King Lear – encounter Lear’s final summation of the universe as he holds his hanged daughter in his arms “Never, never, never, never, never” – and yet still leave the theater feeling exhalted, even relieved. The worst of our fears have been faced and shown baldly and brilliantly: our fate is fickle except for the absolute certainty of loss and inevitable nothingness. And yet, through the art of a man dwelling with his daemon perpetually in the Condition of Fire, we are consoled – even strengthened – by even the hardest truth when written by a Hand of Fire.
Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is.
I promised to discuss the toll and price that your writing daemon which dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire has taken on our genius writers – and even on those of far less than genius. The admission of the daemon itself into yourself, much less the years of applying kenosis and askesis to all things, events, and emotions, will take a terrible toll.
In the midst of Shakespeare’s greatest run of genius, he would suddenly recoil from his own Negative Capability – and recoil from the world and the people in it, including himself – and write cynical, nihilistic, and rancid works such as Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. These works are examples of a sickness: an existential nausea at his own abilities coming from someone who has been given the power to create human personalities from thin air and to bring the dead back to life. After Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare avoids all of the unique and powerful inwardness with which he endowed Hamlet, Falstaff, Macbeth, Cleopatra and so many others, and his later works – save, I believe, for The Tempest -- were formalized and cool, removed, offering a Negative even of Negative Capability: a new mathematics of form in some of the “late Comedies” (none of which are comedic) to which the 21st Century has not yet found the key.
It’s common now to dismiss the old idea that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s goodbye to the stage and his audiences and his Muse – and it’s true that there are perhaps more fitting farewells in later plays, especially the “O you heavenly chambers” speech in The Two Noble Kinsmen – but I still believe that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final direct communication from the Place of the Daemon, his long and painful dwelling place in the Perpetual Condition of Fire.
From Dr. Johnson on, commentators have been shocked by one line in Prospero’s farewell as he surrendered his magical powers by breaking his staff and “drowning his book”. It is a confession that comes from the magus William Shakespeare, I believe, as much as from Magical Master of the Isle Prospero. (I will set the shocking lines in red.)
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bidimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
Prospero here is admitting – unforced – to committing the worst crime of magic imagined by the Christian Church: necromancy. Usurping upon Christ’s and God’s sole role and ability of waking the dead and allowing them to walk again.
Who is speaking here, Prospero or Shakespeare? Think of the historical dead whom Shakespeare brought back to life to walk the wooden stage of the Curtain or the Globe – Julius Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cleopatra, Hotspur, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard II, Richard III, MacBeth, Banquo (the list goes on and on) – and those semi- or non-historical myths whom he made of clay and breathed life into, making them more real than real – Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, Othello – again trespassing on only the True Creator’s right of granting life.
Perhaps Prospero, speaking for Shakespeare, truly is breaking his staff and drowning his book (of all spells) – abjuring his own talent and power and his perceived abuses of his daemon-assisted power. Announcing his ending of trespassing on sacred ground.
Note that in performances of The Tempest in London and New York with Patrick Stewart as Prospero, Stewart was miked so that his voice was amplified above all others when he spoke throughout the play. If his was not the Voice of God, it was certainly the next best thing to it. But when, in the final scene, he admitted his necromancy, vowed to break his staff and to bury his book, the microphone was cut off so that his voice was at or even below the level of other players and – after such a subconscious display of verbal power throughout the play – seemingly weak and lost in his newfound common humanity.
The Tempest contains one of the few epilogues in all of Shakespeare where the character himself steps to the edge of the stage and speaks directly to the crowd. This is Prospero speaking, in low human voice, and what does he say – he asks the people, his spectators, to forgive him or perhaps to help him gain divine forgiveness. Thus ends Prospero’s direct plea to his theatergoers:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Let’s view quickly the payment great American writers have made in exchange for their entry into their place of the daemon, their glimpse of the perpetual Condition of Fire.
Ernest Hemingway drank and concussed himself into first a parody of his former writing self and then into wordlessness. As with many of the 20th Century writers, Hemingway was an alcoholic – starting drinking early in the day and not stopping – and some of his earliest (and best) work was done under the buzz of wine or gin or both.
Hemingway had set a standard of manhood in his early work, his own mythopoeia of courage as “grace under pressure” and he spent the second half of his life trying to live up to it – or at least to experience it second hand: through bullfights, through hunting big game in Africa, in his wartime exploits, by seeking out the big game fish at sea, and always through his sheer masculine dominance of all around him. The result is that his Hand of Fire – his true writing genius – burned out early, leaving only brilliant embers and a few remaining flickers of the original Flame of genius in most of his later novels and stories.
Hemingway also failed to take care of his head. As a young man in Paris, a skylight fell on him giving him a massive concussion that today would certainly have required neurological intervention. More concussions followed through the years – boxing without head protection, a severe auto crash in Montana with another untreated concussion, a severe auto crash in the London fog while driving drunk during a wartime blackout causing yet another severe concussion, then a concussion in the crash landing of a light aircraft in Africa (when everyone thought him dead) and then, rescued, an even more serious crash and more massive concussion in the “rescue airplane”. Caught in the flaming wreckage, Hemingway used his shoulders and his already-twice-concussed head to bash the warped metal door of the crashed and burning aircraft so that he could escape.
In 1960, when the new president John F. Kennedy asked Hemingway (in Idaho) to contribute a few lines for the inauguration, Hemingway worked all day. His daemon-abandoned and bruised brain could not write a single acceptable line.
During the early morning hours of July 2, 1961, Hemingway went down the stairs from his bedroom, took the keys to his locked gun cabinet where his fourth wife Mary had left them on the windowsill – she said that a man should not be deprived access to his guns, even though Hemingway had threatened and even attempted suicide repeatedly in recent months – took out his favorite double-barrel Boss shotgun, sat on the stairs, either set the barrels in his mouth or against his forehead (account vary), and blew off the entire top half of his cranial vault.
I’ve always thought that it says something -- although no biographer I know has commented on it – that Hemingway chose to do this on the lower steps of the main staircase in the house, so that to get to the only telephone on the lower level to call the authorities, his wife would be required to walk through the mess he’d left.
A quicker rundown of the toll the daemons have taken on great American writers and poets:
F. Scott Fitzgerald drank himself to death, hurried on by his marriage to a crazy woman. He decided he had to embody a zany era. His daemon dwelling perpetually in the Condition of Fire might have granted his genius six or eight Great Gatsby’s; he was allowed one.
William Faulkner literally pissed away his life with alcohol. Too arrogant to work constantly and well as a screenwriter but – like Fitzgerald – too greedy to pass up Hollywood’s siren song, he wasted more unwritten books there. In his young years, Faulkner lied constantly; he went to Canada to learn how to fly during the Great War, barely soloed, never left Canada, and came home to Mississippi saying that he was a WWI flying ace from the War. In his later years, his daemon long gone but his drinking still constant, Faulkner rode to the hounds on his white-fenced Virginia estate dressed out in jodhpurs as a 19th Century gentleman.
The young poet Hart Crane – he who received the Fire from Walt Whitman to carry for the 20th Century – was on the fantail of a ship coming back from Mexico when he said to his friends, “Well, so long” and leapt over the rail to his death by drowning.
T.S. Eliot so feared the Beauty of Fire – was so unnerved by his daemon – that he wrapped himself in strict, self-flagellant and didactic Christianity, managed to put his wife in an asylum when she was as sane as he was, and then surrendered to Eros. (Lucretius warned us 2,400 years ago, not to surrender to worship of gods or to Eros. Eliot did both.) His work is overvalued; his daemon left him early.
Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven after writing enough incriminating poetry that her poet husband would be held responsible for her own inability to deal with her daemon.
In England, Virginia Woolf surrendered to both her fear-daemon and her Fire-daemon when things looked bad, but put heavy rocks in her sweater pockets, and walked into a river.
In 19th Century America, Walt Whitman engaged his daemon in the Condition of Fire perhaps more fully than anyone since Jacob wrestled with the unnamed Angel. Whitman was our greatest national poet. He explained the power and purpose of the daemon he wrestled with –
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Your only job – writer-to-be – is to sound your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, no matter how profound the pain or payment. My friend Harlan Ellison has known this for most of his 77 years.
Herman Melville’s Hand of Fire may have burned the brightest of all the true genius-daemon-possessed novelists of the century, but he died in obscurity: his brief obituary said “Henry Melville”, not “Herman”, and there was no mention of Moby Dick or even that he had been a published novelist. Sometimes the daemons who dwell perpetually in the Condition of Fire have fairy Puck’s cruel sense of humor.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was daemon-possessed for decades, and knew about it, and wrote and wrote and wrote about it, but in his later years his daemon abandoned him, wisdom slipped through his fingers, and in the end he was not even wise enough to stop writing when he no longer had anything wise to say. He had never recovered from his son Waldo’s death at age five.
Perhaps of all the genius-daemon-possessed of America’s brief literary history, only Emily Dickinson had the correct approach to the daemon who offered to possess her and took her daily to the perpetual Condition of Fire. At some point early on, Dickinson realized that she could have either the world or her daemon – never both – so like a Carmelite nun in the Middle Ages, she turned her back on the world and communicated almost completely to and through her daemon. She wrote with Fingers of Fire until she died.
As a pure-poet contemplative counterpoint to Shakespeare’s audience-oriented genius, Dickinson still joined the Bard in reveling in the ellipsis, the not-quite-said, the unsaid, the Blank, the Slant, and the Quiet:
From Blank to Blank --
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet --
To stop -- or perish -- or advance --
Alike indifferent --
If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed --
I shut my eyes -- and groped as well
'Twas lighter -- to be Blind –
She lived and died a recluse, a servant to her daemon. The daemon failed to fill her with the proper Fire near the end, but it never fully left her. Emily Dickinson was no virgin; she had her daemon lover.
With all this – with all these realities of writers’ and poets’ stolen and alcoholic and drug-addicted and Eros-addicted lives, ruined lives, ravaged lives (and ravaged also so many of the lives near them and around them), why would you even consider courting a daemon or daimon who dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire?
Man may have forgotten how beautiful fire is, but most of us remember that fire burns. It consumes what it touches. As Mark Twain put it – “A cat, once it’s sat on a hot stove, will never sit on another one. But it won’t sit on a cold stove, either.”
Isn’t the cold stove preferable to obsession, possession by the daemon, a profession requiring you to undergo the flesh-from-bone flensing, empyting-out of kenosis and the objective, separation from yourself as observer-always via the discipline of askesis, not to mention the increased lure of alcohol and drugs and insanity?
Why have so many poets and writers depended upon the alcohol and drugs that eventually stole their daemon and then killed them? My theory is that daemons work and act on a different phase of time dimension than do we humans and that – in order to dull them slightly – writers like Hemingway slow the daemon with booze, poets like Coleridge with powerful drugs. Then they can move in sync, in rhythm, in a common waltz toward death and the end of dwelling in the Certainty of Fire.
Why would you choose such potential dangers and near-inevitable punishments . . . why would you seek out the place of the daemon . . . just to write books? Just to write well?
One would do it because Shelley was right: “this is the fire for which all thirst.” At least all of the supremely creative amongst us.
One would do it to reach the point where, as Yeats said, one no longer knows “when I am the finger, when the clay.” By that point it will no longer matter.
Harold Bloom writes that Yeats’s most Yeatsian moment for him was Per Amica Silentia Lunae:
I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.”
Should the soul remain a perpetual virgin? Yeats thought not – even if the only lover worth having is the daemon who lives perpetually in the Condition of Fire.
In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley (who started all this weird discussion), wrote:
For the mind in creation is a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results.
So it will be your choice and the greatness, after all this discipline and pain and submission, is never guaranteed. Usually the writer will fall short of his own mark, much less his daemon’s, and disappear in the shifting sands of time.
But consider this. Empedocles wrote about the “divine daemon”, thinking of the daemon of Socrates, as the “occult self or irrational soul”, but in Greek, Empedocles used another word that was often interchangeable with “daemon” or “daimon”.
It was “god”.
Are you willing then to follow a god – to merge with a god (so that you are never the same again) – in order to join that god, for whatever period of time, and live with that god where he perpetually dwells in the Condition of Creative Fire?
Man has forgotten the beauty of fire. But every generation, some amongst us – a very, very few chosen from the legions of the willing – will be chosen to find and share that beauty again.
Note: Acknowledgment to Harold Bloom’s THE ANATOMY OF INFLUENCE: Literature as a Way of Life for the review of Shelley’s and Yates’s obsession with “the place of the daemon” and dwelling in the Condition of Fire, and for his citing the long quotation from Leopardi’s Zibaldone.
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