In ‘The Flaubert Apocrypha’ (from: Flaubert’s Parrot, Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 115-116), Julian Barnes writes:
If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to a brothel which doesn’t come off, perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never needs to be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.
I cannot now find a definite citation for this claim but I distinctly remember reading the results of a study which claimed that loudly proclaiming–to all and sundry–the undertaking and commencement of some virtuous course of action correlated quite significantly with the non-completion of that work. As the theory went, when such announcements were made, they were typically greeted with cries of congratulation and adulation from friends and family, which were all too eagerly lapped up in lieu of doing the actual work. That’s where things stayed–why bother with doing the hard yards when you could have the glory, in advance, for free?
The pure mental indulgence of a fantasy for a book could be a similar ‘accomplishment’: the conjuring up of a vision of a literary masterpiece, perfectly conceived and imagined, every component of it resting in artfully arranged relationships with every other, flawlessly executed, with no blemishes present or visible. All that comes between the initial foggy gropings and the ‘final product’ is elided–it is but a short, sharp movement from the time the vision first hove into view to an indulgence and wallowing in the adulation and appreciation that greets its completion. The perfections of the initial idea are preserved through the ‘process,’ magically transmuted into an enduring ‘finished product’ with none of the vexing, terror-inducing anxiety and frustration that is its usual accomplishment.
I wonder if this is why Barnes describes the sensation made note of above as ‘the sweetest moment in writing’: for what could be more pleasurable than to contemplate the initial object of the love-gaze: the idea, the hook, the story, the thesis, the parting of the clouds to reveal the treasure–and to then lightly skip over the dirty business to lift that gaze and direct it upon that distant place where after passing through the Magic Factory it emerges, complete with cover and spine? Perhaps this sensation is animated by a recognition of the pains glimpsed but not felt; what could be sweeter than that?
Barnes alludes too, to those works that are ‘never sullied with a definite shape,’ never ‘exposed to a less loving gaze.’ He is right, of course; these are the sweetest pleasures of all, the ‘ideas’ you hold in reserve, unwilling to let this distinctly inferior world have any truck with them whatsoever.
Note: I was reminded of this passage by an essay in the Paul Horgan collection I cited here yesterday, which includes an essay titled ‘Preface to an Unwritten Book.’ That composition was meant to substitute for a book because of its alternative offerings: ‘citations’ rather than ‘examinations in depth.’