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Project: To Fill a Man’s Heart

Précis: A short introduction to a novel provisionally called To Fill a Man’s Heart, a writing project I hope to work on this summer. I’m planning the novel to take the form of a dialogue between a “successful” artist and her younger, so-far unsuccessful friend as a way to explore questions of aesthetic authenticity and the importance of creating something new in the world.

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a novel that I think may occupy my time this summer. The working title of the novel is To Fill a Man’s Heart, a line from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. I’m imagining the novel as something like a long Socratic dialogue between a young, unsuccessful and frustrated artist and an older, more succesful friend of his. The young artist has been injured and laid up after a traffic accident (or maybe just a nervous breakdown) and the goal is to draw a parallel between the young man’s convalescence and a change of his aesthetic sensibilities into a new form of aesthetic agency.

Some of my inspiration going into this project comes from John Fowles’s The Magus and Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel and Demian. These novels might be described as Bildungsromans, novels about a young person’s (in these cases, a young man’s) education. The German word for “education,” Bildung, carries connotations to me of building, or construction in the sense of care-full development toward a goal. The English word “education” has a similar sense to me, reminding me of “edification” or “edifice,” all words associated with building, and building toward a purpose, with goals and intention.

I’m imagining a pretty unapologetically didactic novel, a roman à thèse, that uses the novel form to make a point and, hopefully, break open a space for its readers to think. I know that modern creative writing classes – at least the ones I’ve taken – advise against such tactics in favor of pure aestheticism, but that’s not what I want to do. While I don’t fault writers concerned solely with writing “good” novels in a “purely” aesthetic sense, I don’t count myself among them. I think the interdiction against political or social concerns in favor of “pure” (that is, apolitical) aesthetic concerns in novels is just a way to inhibit thinking and reproduce frustrating and harmful ideological positions. “Good” novels with no political or social concerns may be pleasing to read, but I’m not interested in producing palliatives for badly interpellated subjects.

This is one of the big differences between the project I’m envisioning and the models I have above. The examples I gave see the protagonist develop, but in a more or less purely individual way. My goal with this novel – and it’s a daunting one – is to break the reader’s normal sense of the world and encourage them to think. A y’all order, but I’ll have lots of free time this summer.

I have a skeleton of the story outlined and have given some thought to the characters and the point I’m trying to make. I probably won’t have time to get started on a draft in earnest for another couple weeks. I have term papers to write and final grades to assign. Thinking is hard these days, especially under the conditions the coronavirus pandemic has forced upon us (and the woefully incompetent response from our leaders). But moments of crisis are the perfect time to stop and think, and that’s what I’m hoping this novel project will help to do.