I just finished my second imaginary crumpet of the day; gave some milk to Maya, my imaginary cat; and mentally composed a postcard to Carmencita, the fictional half of my imaginary interminable relationship. Morning études for a drowsy imagination. But I did water my real, actual, yucca plant, whom—sorry, I mean which—I’ve had for about 10 years. It’s survived just about every brute vicissitude in its quiet stubborn organic life, even the movers from Moishe’s. Inspiring, no? That’s how the morning goes, from vaporous invention to concrete particulars. After a while, I use the phone and go outside.
I’ve always had these imaginary creatures populating my life. Drinking and lovemaking don’t seem to be enough of an outlet. Shrinks can make of it what they will, but believe me, I’ve explored all the possibilities. (I’ve explored them with Dr. von Hoffenshtoffen, my imaginary shrink.) Personas, too, make up part of my existence. I find it hard to get through 24 hours without sending an e-mail to a friend pretending to be someone else or calling a friend up and disguising my voice. When I was married, I’d spend whole days speaking to my wife as Sylvester Cointreau, a visiting professor of anthropology from the University of Nantes; or Teddy Consuego, advertising executive and amateur oboist. Teddy eventually made a play for my wife, which her own imaginary persona found outrageously rude. The next day his ad agency sent him to their new branch in North Korea.
In a previous entry, I’ve talked about my obsession with acting. Masks, literary masks that is—the masks of Swift, Rilke, Yeats, whose work had an infinite regression of different voices—obsess me, too. Acting, masks, lies, figments from the past—when I look back over this diary, I see my obsessions recurring again and again. Underneath the conceits of Maya, with her sudden transformation into a woman with soft hair and dark eyes, and tormented and tormenting Carmencita, there is a real event in my life. It presses on my psyche; and my psyche, in order to relieve the pressure, searches for a form of the imagination that might house the event. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T.S. Eliot. On the contrary. Reality cannot bear the deep, and most admirable, needs of humankind. Only the imagination can do that. Enter imaginary creatures, and personas, and masks.
After I finish this diary entry, I have to turn back to another project. I’m writing the introduction to D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl, a novel few people know about, much less have read, and which I convinced Random House’s Modern Library to republish. The book’s obscurity is a shame, since, to my mind, it is Lawrence’s best. Although he wrote it hoping for a commercial best seller, the novel won him the only serious literary award he ever got. Unlike Women in Love and The Rainbow, his most famous works, The Lost Girl tells a story without long, tedious excurses on the role of sex and of the instincts in human life, without Lawrence’s habitual animadversions on the subject of Western civilization.
The story is a simple one. Alvina Houghton, unhappy product of a middle-class English family living in a mining town, runs away with a Neapolitan man back to his mountain village near Naples. It is not some banal tale about sexual awakening. It’s about how, in order to satisfy the deepest, most admirable desires, you have to give up the deepest, most admirable needs. Alvina gets exactly what she wants and loses everything else in the process.
What especially draws me to the book is the fact that Ciccio, her Neapolitan lover, is an actor. Through her union with Ciccio, Alvina wants to change her life; she wants, like an actor, to play a new role. Meeting Ciccio, she encounters a form of her imagination. She encounters, you might say, an imaginary creature, or at least a half-imaginary creature. So the novel is partly about the role of illusion in human life: what illusions we need to live, and what illusions we need to avoid in order to live.
This project coincides nicely with another one I’m working on, an essay about reality TV. If you think I’ve lost my marbles with all these fantasies I keep spinning around me, tune in—if you’re one of the 12 people in the country who hasn’t—to these astounding phenomena and reconsider. Allow me to re-create a little dialogue from The Bachelor, a show in which a rich, handsome (in a sleazy Phi Delpha Pi kind of way) single man chooses his future wife from among an avid group of beautiful women.
Bachelor: “Are you having fun?”Date: “I’m having so much fun.”Bachelor: “This is great.”Date: “This is so great.”Bachelor: “Have you ever eaten chicken parmigiana at a three-star restaurant before?”Date: “I’ve never eaten chicken parmigiana at a three-star restaurant before.”Bachelor: “Isn’t it great?”Date: “It is so great.”
And these are what pass for real people. Give me Dr. Hoffenshtoffen any day. Even if he does think I was too hard on Teddy.