the writing disorder





Historic Tales from the Literary ER

by David B. Comfort

                                             "One day, I shall explode like an artillery shell
                                           and all my bits will be found on the writing table."
                                                                                                                              —Gustav Flaubert

      Even before being racked by hemorrhoids, epilepsy, and the German croupiers, Dostoyevsky declared: “In order to write well one must suffer much!”
      God seemed happy to bring great artists to their full potential. Before the twentieth century, most surrendered to consumption, the clap, cirrhosis, and/ or lunacy. Many also seemed accident-prone. Survivors published their misadventures eventually, but most would have preferred their health.
      Cervantes had his arm shot off, an insane nephew gunned down Jules Verne, Tolstoy’s face got rearranged by a rogue bear. Samuel Pepys was sterilized during a gallstone operation. Lowry barely escaped being castrated in Mexico under the volcano. Marlowe was shanked in a bar brawl, Dashiel Hammet got stabbed in the leg, Beckett took a shiv to the chest from a Paris pimp, Monsieur Prudent. When later asked by the existentialist why?, Prudent replied: "I do not know, sir. I'm sorry." Then there was Sherwood Anderson who, just before his liver shut down, swallowed a martini toothpick and died of peritonitis.
      Historically, drunk or sober, novelists in or around cars have been accidents waiting to happen. After declaring, “I know nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident,” the absurdist Nobel prize winner, Camus, took a lift in his publisher, Michel Gallimard’s, Facel-Vega and an unused train ticket was later found next to his body.
      Returning to L.A. to grieve the death of his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West ran a stop sign and, with his wife of two days, was killed in a collision. By that time, F Scott’s wife, Zelda, was a long-time asylum resident who, before being committed, had lain down in front of her husband’s town car and said, “Drive over me, Scott.”
       Another southern belle, Margaret Mitchell, stepped off a curb on Peachtree & 13th and was delivered to the hereafter by an off-duty cabbie. Otherwise, one of the luckiest novelists in history, she’d started Gone With the Wind while laid up with a broken ankle from a less serious mishap.
       Stephen King earned even more than Mitchell from the misadventures of his heroes. Then during an after-work stroll in 1999, he was struck and nearly killed by a minivan. At the time, he was busy with his On Writing memoir as well as another thriller, From a Buick 8, about a man-eating car from another dimension. King’s fear that the accident might kill his muse proved unfounded, but his subsequent output was seriously reduced.
      By contrast, near fatal ordeals stimulated other authors, bearing out John Berryman’s argument proposed the year before jumping off a bridge in view of his University of Minnesota MFA students: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him,” he told The Paris Review in 1970. “At that point, he is business.”
      Flannery O’Connor considered her debilitating lupus a creative blessing. Katherine Ann Porter caught the writing bug after her obituary was written and funeral arrangements made while she was in a flu-induced coma. Anthony Burgess finished five novels after he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in 1959 and given a year to live; he pressed on till 1993 to finish twenty-five more. In the introduction to his first novel, Queer, William Burroughs confessed to coming to the “appalling conclusion” that he never would have become a writer had he not accidentally shot and killed his common law wife in 1951 during a drunken William Tell game which caused “a life long struggle … to write my way out.”


      Historic authors seem to have suffered more from the fates, or from the Almighty himself, than from critics.
      The disaster-prone Hemingway declared through his hero, Nick Adams, “other people get killed, but not me.” His fisherman, Santiago, echoed, “To hell with luck, I’ll bring the luck with me.” Papa had had a thing about luck ever since taking shrapnel on the Italian Front during a chocolate run, then being struck by a falling apartment skylight while he wrote A Farewell to Arms. Even so, he found it amusing that his Catholic colleagues, Fitzgerald and Joyce — who sustained most of their injuries in and around bars — were terrified of thunder and lightning.
      After the skylight mishap, Hemingway drove his former EMT colleague, John Dos Passos, to hunt in Montana and — to the relief of the local wildlife — missed a cliffside turn. He broke an arm. Later, while the two fished off Key West, Papa winged himself while shooting a gaffed shark. Dos again escaped unscathed. Then, in 1947, he drove into a parked truck, losing an eye and decapitating his wife, Kitty.
      Hemingway went on to suffer many other automotive misadventures. His luck wasn’t any better in airplanes. In his final bush crash in the Belgian Congo, 1954, he was rescued by a riverboat, which took him to another plane which also crashed, prompting the newspapers to print his obituary.
      By the end of his career, fearing that he was being tailed by assassins, Papa was diagnosed as a paranoid psychotic and sent to the Meninger Clinic for shock-treatments. En route there, he tried to walk into the propellers of a Cessna at the Rapid City airport.
      When hauling his shark-ravaged trophy marlin ashore, Santiago explained his creator’s misfortunes not as random, nor as Joblike purgatory, but as a kind of divine blowback such as Icarus suffered. “You violated your luck when you went too far outside,” the old fisherman told himself.
      Many literary masters might have fared better had they used Kafka’s hardhat. A Workers Accident Institute personal injury specialist, the surrealist (according to industrial expert Peter Zucker) is said to have made the invention while composing The Metamorphosis, about his alter-ego’s “hard, as it were, armor-plated, back.” Though the sedentary safety specialist never got run over by a minivan like King, or crowned by a skylight like Hemingway, he never enjoyed their professional good luck. He published only a few of his stories and ordered the rest to be burned, saying: “There will be no proof that I ever was a writer.”


      Books charge or change thinking. So, many novelists, essayists, historians, poets, pamphleteers have tended to be enemies of the status quo. Revolutionaries. Troublemakers. Stormers of the Bastille.
      Since the Good Book, authors have been exiled, racked, crucified, burnt, and beheaded by monarchs and popes.
      Most take up the pen to be praised and loved. But a cursory review of history reveals why this has not been the case and how the sword has proved mightier than the pen in the short run. Wrote Cervantes, the tilter at windmills: “Let none presume to tell me that the pen is preferable to the sword.”
      The first step to building a Republican utopia, Plato proclaimed, was to kill all poets. He might have included novelists but they weren’t around yet except for the ones in the Middle East working on the Pentateuch. And the trouble this chapbook stirred up bears no repetition.
      Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was executed for “subverting the morals of youth.” The few students who could tolerate the acropolis gadfly arranged to rescue him from death row, but he drank the hemlock instead. Why? Because he preferred death to exile. And, like most philosophers who wrote their own material — Plato simply took his dictation — he had a persecution complex. And he was fed up living without royalties.
      Back in the Middle East, the apostles suffered the same fate. At his request, Peter, a masochist with a flair for the dramatic, was crucified upside down. But not before dictating his own memoirs to Mark. As for the fisherman’s garrulous sidekick, Paul, the Romans — unable to endure another chapter to the Acts, much less another Tweet to the illiterate Corinthians — chopped off his head.
      Which is what befell another wordy ancient: Cicero. But it was almost as if Rome’s Conscience, as he was called, wanted the ax. After Caesar’s assassination, the Republican columnist started dissing Antony. The thin-skinned tyrant exiled him to Greece. Here Cicero escaped his suicidal thoughts by blogging about such riveting topics as old age and civic duty. Meanwhile, he vented to his penpal, Atticus: “Don’t blame me for complaining. My afflictions surpass any you heard of earlier.”
      Eventually, the senate pardoned Cicero. But no sooner had he returned to Rome than he rattled Antony’s cage again with his op-ed Philippics in the Tribune. When Antony’s muscle arrived at his villa, the writer barred his neck, but not without one last flippant aside: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.” And so they did: at Antony’s order, they also cut off his hands which had penned the Philippics and they spiked them, with his head, as a collector’s set, in the forum.
      These purges might have put a damper on the classic lit blogosphere had Cicero not enjoyed a groundswell in posthumous book sales in spite of being pedantic and boring. The Roman bloviator was only outsold by Lucian “the Blasphemer,” who parodied Homer’s Odyssey in his A True Story, the first Roman Sci-Fi novel, and was devoured by mad dogs before being deported to the moon like his protagonists.1


      After the New York post office burned 500 copies of Ulysses in 1922, the sequel to the Dubliners’ burn, James Joyce declared: “This is the second time I have had the pleasure of being burned while on earth. I hope it means I shall pass through the fires of purgatory unscathed.”
      Earlier roasted writers are too numerous to name. But their variety was impressive.
      The Rennaissance’s first women’s libber, Hypatia, was lit up by a band of monks under the command of Peter the Reader, the pope’s censor. The Swiss YA book critic, Simeon Uriel Freudenberger, was thrown on the pyre for arguing that William Tell never shot an apple off his son’s head. Jacobo Bonfadio, the 16th century Italian Dominic Dunne who penned a tell-all on the murderous Genoese bluebloods, was beheaded then his torso torched for sodomy.
       The thrifty Swiss soon devised an energy saving two-bards-with-one-stone m.o.: burn the books with the author. Michael Servetus, the freelance religious and drug blogger, was the debut sacrifice. The Spaniard was cooked on a slush pile of his bestseller — On the Errors of the Trinity — with one strapped to his leg for kindling. He had committed the unpardonable heresy of calling Christ “the eternal Son of God,” rather than “the Son of the eternal God.” Which even pissed off his Protestant colleague, Calvin. Adding insult to injury, Michael red-penciled John’s own gospel and overnighted the corrected copy to Switzerland. The Calvinist was apoplectic.
      “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings,” he wrote a friend. He added that if his rival ever came to Geneva, “I will never permit him to depart alive!”
       Troubled by the case of Servetus, John Milton wrote in “Areopagitica,” a defense of free speech: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.” But after his Puritan protector, Oliver Cromwell, the bane of Irish writers, died along with the Reformation, Milton was imprisoned and “Areopagitica” burned.
      Also destroyed was his “Eikonoklastes” (The Iconoclast). Parliament had commissioned Milton to write this essay rebutting King Charles I’s memoir “Eikon Basilike” (Royal Portrait), an apology for monarchal excesses. After the king’s essay outsold Milton’s, Cromwell had him tried for treason and beheaded. But the good Puritan Lord Protector allowed his majesty’s head to be sewed back on so his son could pay his respects.
      When Cromwell died of malaria, Charles II reclaimed his father’s throne, exhumed the Puritan pamphleteer, decapitated him posthumously, and displayed his head on a 20-foot pike above Westminster Hall. Here it remained for the next three decades (except for a brief removal for roof maintenance in 1781) glowering at Parliamentarian scribes scurrying through the Great Plague of London.
      Spared both the Black Death and the fate of his benefactor, Milton went on to knock Dante himself off the bestseller list with Paradise Lost. The title of the blockbuster took on additional significance for the blind poet when his publisher paid him £10 for all ten volumes which had cost him his eyesight and, very nearly, his mind. He didn’t get a raise for its sunnier (and less convincing) sequel, Paradise Regained, and soon died of kidney failure while Cromwell’s head was still a Halloween exhibit on the roof.
      Finally, taking the cake, there was the sobering tale of Theodore Reinking, the Dane who denounced King Christian IV for losing the Thirty Years’ War to Sweden. The crown generously gave him a choice: part with your head, or eat your book page by page. Reinking chose the latter. Again showing Scandinavian sympathy, his jailors provided him French sauce so the ms would go down without requiring a Heimlich.2


      Most 911 writer calls in history could have been avoided if somebody had just kept their pen dry. But writers simply can’t do that. History reminds us that most revolutions have been triggered by bloggers, texters, and leftist op-ed columnists. Their populist rabblerousing backfired on many when the old guard retaliated or sociopaths usurped their utopias.
      Stalin had Trotsky ice-axed in Mexico after the publication of his Diaries in Exile and Revolution Betrayed. The Cardinal’s Mistress romance novelist, Benito Mousalini, had his colleague, Giacomo Matteotti, done in with a carpenter’s file after The Fascisti Exposed hit the shelves. George III would have had Jefferson’s head for the Declaration of Independence had he not lost his own.
      Literary decapitation enjoyed a comeback during the French Revolution. The first casualty, Jean-Paul Marat, an MD with herpes, began his writing career with a dissertation on gonorrhea. Then he made a seamless transition to politics. Of the royal pox afflicting the masses, the doctor wrote in his newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People), “Perhaps we will have to cut off five or six thousand; but even if we need to cut off twenty thousand , there is no time for hesitation.”
      Marat declared that the “patriotic” writer must also be ready for “a miserable death on the scaffold.” He explained: “I beg my reader’s forgiveness if I tell them about myself today…. The enemies of liberty never cease to denigrate me and present me as a lunatic, a dreamer and madman, or monster who delights only in destruction.” But, in the end, Marat didn’t find himself in his colleague, Dr. Guillotine’s, apparatus, but in his own bathtub, bloody pen in hand and Charlotte Corday’s kitchen knife in his chest.
      A year later, Robespierre, another Revolution staff writer, found himself on the scaffold in spite of having been deified at his Festival of the Supreme Being only weeks before. “Look at the bugger,” another journalist gasped, “it’s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God!”3 Indeed, the “Incorruptible,” as he was called, had always delighted in the beheadings of his colleagues. The last had been the proud Danton whose last words to his executioner — spoken like true Frenchman — were: “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.”
      Things went south for Robespierre at the next death panel party of his writer’s group, The Committee of Public Safety. When the other members demanded justification for the Danton drive-by, Robespierre found himself at a loss for words. “The blood of Danton chokes him!” cried his colleagues. Smelling the coffee, Robespierre excused himself to the men’s room of a next-door hotel. When the gendarmes arrived, the Reign of Terror writer shot himself in the jaw. The next morning, the Incorruptible, age 36, was guillotined — face up.


      Thankfully the old Storming the Bastille joie de vivre is still alive in today’s writer dying to give totalitarians a taste of their own medicine. “There are palaces and prisons to attack,” Norman Mailer told The Paris Review. “One can even succeed now and again in blowing holes in the line of the world’s communications.”
      Ken Kesey was on the same page. “It’s the job of the writer in America to say, ‘Fuck you!’ To kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful,” he told the same magazine. “To pull the judge down into the docket, get the person who is high down where he’s low, make him feel what it’s like where it’s low.”
      Indeed, with the dawn of the twentieth century and the founding of the literary SPCA, Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Authors, the lot of the writer improved. He was no longer racked, burnt, decapitated, exiled, or thrown in the Tower — literally. Only metaphorically at the hands of publishers, critics, and irate readers.
      There are of course exceptions to the rule. After publishing The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie changed his name to Joseph Anton (honoring his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) and went into a witness protection program for nine years to escape the thirsty swords of Khomeini’s jihadists.
      “Until the whole fatwā thing happened it never occurred to me that my life was interesting enough,” the Indian novelist told The Paris Review in 2005. He had started his career as the “Naughty but Nice” copywriter for the Ogilvy and Mather ad agency while working on his first novel, Grimus, a sci fi fantasy. “Really, nobody — even people who were well disposed towards me — wanted anything to do with it.”
      Though the holy warriors wanted nothing to do with Verses, his fourth effort, there was a silver-lining to their price on his head: the fatwā earned Rushdie a French Ordre de Arts Commandeurship, a British knighthood for “services to literature,” and six-figure advances. Not to mention, serial wives (in lieu of seventy-two virgins) who played beauties to his literary beast. His infidel predecessors — Cicero, St. Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, et al — did not enjoy the same good luck. Nor did his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, fatally stabbed in ’91; his Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, also shanked; or his Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, who was shot.
      Today the Islamic Association of Students provides both jihadists and devout readers an opportunity to virtually decapitate the blasphemer in their just released video game, “The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict.” Had developers heard the novelist confess that his 2010 life-affirming title, Luka and the Fire of Life, was, in fact, “inspired by video games”? If so, perhaps they will send Rushdie a complementary copy of “Verdict,” allowing him an opportunity to reciprocate with a signed copy of his eagerly anticipated fatwā Hide & Seek: Joseph Anton, A Memoir.
      With such an exchange, ulcerous writers and choleric readers can bury the age old hatchet, and drink to one another’s health.

1. Robert Hendrickson, The Literary Life And Other Curiosities (New York: Viking, 1981)
2. P. H. Ditchfield, Books Fatal To The Authors (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1895)
3. David Andress, The Terror (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

David B. Comfort is the author of three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster. His most recent title, The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead, was released by Citadel/Kensington in 2009.

The author’s latest short fiction appears in The Evergreen Review and The Cortland Review. He has have been a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America's Best, Narrative, and the Pushcart Prize. He is a graduate of Reed College.

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