Colin Leath, July 16, 1996
Intimacy and Distance; the insanity of the creator.
In his work, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote at first approaches the story from a journalist's perspective. As he becomes more intimate with his material a conflict develops which eventually destroys him. I will be exploring the idea that intimacy and distance are required for creative expression. I will discover how attempting to maintain both intimacy and distance is impossible. Intimacy is like action and distance is like thought. When the two are combined, each realizes the futility of the other and the result is the conclusion that neither thought nor action can accomplish anything, that the meaning of life is death, and without a clear and open expression of these paradoxes, the individual will self destruct. There is no meaning of life as such, the meaning of life is that there is no meaning, and purpose of life is the realization that there is no purpose to life. Life is best lived in the sharing and the expression of these paradoxes and therein lies the hope for the solution of all our more worldly problems.
A writer must experience what she writes about in a more emotionally excited way than the everyday person. The writer is excited by what is seemingly a little occurrence or detail, feeling that it is unique and special and vitally important to the life of the story. At the same time, the writer must be able to write about her material. This requires the ability to transform emotion into another form, the written language. This requires at least enough distance from the material to stop and ask, "What is the emotion I try to describe in the terms of the language I speak." The heightened awareness of a writer and distance from the material, in time as well as thought are what make creative writing possible.
Consider your involvement in a love affair. While it takes place you are incapable of stopping and writing about it. You have no desire to write. You are immediately involved in what could become your material. Once it ends, you might then be able to write. Why does Andrew Wyeth paint Helga instead of his wife? Why doesn't Capote write of his first hand experience from his own viewpoint? If a writer can write of first hand experience as she experiences it, she can approach so near to getting life down in language ... Consider James Agee and his description of Emma thanking him in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He experienced her, knowing he would be writing about the experience almost immediately afterward. He is experiencing on a whole different level than Emma. He is experiencing with the artist's love and the artist's distance at the same time, and his life is transformed because of it. Had he been able to distance himself more from the experience, he would have hugged her then as he later wished he did. He will the next time. But, the person who lives like this is so unique, sanity and a healthy normal life are out of the question. The artist must either be able to turn on and off this capacity for distance, or be incapable of functioning in society. Here it is, an artist with this distance alone with one who does not have it. Ask yourself how long it is possible to live like this, seeing everything in this way and being able to do nothing about it. Here is the Agee I refer to:
"What's the use of trying to say what I felt. ... all I could do, the very most, for this girl who was so soon going on out of my existence into so hopeless a one of hers, the very most I could do was not to show all I cared for her and for what she was saying, and not to even try to do, or indicate the good I wished I might do her and was so utterly helpless to do."
He is right, his emotions are all hope, but the situation is hopeless. Even if he could save her from the situation, that would not change her in the way she needs to be changed. James Agee is oppressed only by his past and his hopes for the future. This woman is oppressed because she is a woman, and because she is from a poor sharecropper family. A man like Agee is oppressed because the people around him are oppressed by these external factors. They are living on an entirely different level. He cannot connect, his situation is helpless. Perhaps he could take her and love her, and if he did it right, perhaps she would grow free, but Agee is a journalist. Even if she were free from these external (although, by her age, internal) oppressions, she would have to be a poet as well for there to be any hope for Agee in the sense he looks for it. There was no use in trying to say what you felt, Agee. There would be a use in hugging her.
Creation requires both intimacy and distance. The typical journalist has plenty of distance but no intimacy. Capote came to Holcomb with a very great distance, and over six years gained a very great intimacy. I believe it was this that "messed him up" as I have heard. Capote has created life. He created his intimacy with his characters, both the murdered and murderers. Our greatest mistake was killing those men. Our greatest mistake was the destruction of the relationships Capote created, and the relationships the prisoners created themselves. Remember Perry and the squirrel and Perry and Don Cullivan, and the relationships between the prisoners on Death Row. Capote let his distance dictate his intimacy, or hide behind his intimacy. I think that if there had been no death penalty and therefore no hope for Capote of their death, Capote may have lasted a little longer. But I don't know enough about it. If Capote had simply been with those prisoners to be with them, I believe he could have loved them, himself and his own life and taken better care of himself. I don't think he loved them or himself enough or he would not have produced such a work, a work which focuses so much on events and suspense instead of character. Again, as we see in the book and from Capote's life, it is the ones who are still living that matter and mean the most to us. If he had not had such duplicity and ulterior motives to his intimacy, and if he did really love Perry, then this, and all I said before, fits:
"What's the use of trying to say what I felt. ... all I could do, the very most, for this girl who was so soon going on out of my existence into so hopeless a one of hers, the very most I could do was not to show all I cared for her and for what she was saying, and not to even try to do, or indicate the good I wished I might do her and was so utterly helpless to do."
Though, in both cases, they should have showed all they cared for the person, they should have done all they could to help the person, because nothing else matters. As writers these two men made the greatest mistake of their lives. They put their journalistic purpose above the human one, and they died because of it. Capote should have loved Perry, and done all he could to save him, albeit save him in prison. Agee should have done all he could to help Emma. Agee lost his life as that truck with the open floor drove away, and Capote lost his the day Perry hung.
I ask what Agee could have done had he helped Emma. Ideally, she would achieve and awareness and understanding greater than his own, if Agee could help her. Then it would be Emma standing there, loving some sharecropper and at the same time feeling the hopelessness of the other's situation. Actually, both their situations are hopeless. The only hope in either Agee's situation or Capote's situation is the realization that they are as hopeless and as helpless as the people they are trying to help. Likewise today with movements to alleviate the oppression of racism and sexism. We may fancy that our situation is somehow better than those who are oppressed because of external factors. But their situation is of a kind that gives hope. Change will occur if we work for it. But in time, they will be as free as we are, not oppressed by those external factors. They will then share our hopelessness. A deeper and purer hopelessness, that is so rarely expressed. A hopelessness that is hidden and ignored, but one we want everyone to have. It is this hopelessness that is our hope. It is this hopelessness that makes us most human. And our only hope is that everyone should have it, and that everyone should express it and love it as the greatest part of life. This most human hopelessness experienced alone leads to the likes of Melville's Bartleby. But experienced together, and openly, this hopelessness is life.


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