I believe Susan Sontag was fully cognizant of the verb form of the word “husband” when she wrote her piece, “An Ideal Husband.” To husband means “to manage prudently and economically,” or to “use sparingly” according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary. These attributes seem suited to stoics or ascetics who define their lives by what they have not exploited, rather than by what they have. Concision is often cited as hallmark of good writing these days. Perhaps Sontag used the word “husband” to suggest that we should apply the mantra “kill your darlings” to the moral sphere as well as to the words themselves (heaven forbid we judge the “content” as well as the “form”), which might put a halt to our contemporary proliferation of maximalist and autofictional writers.
In “An Ideal Husband,” Susan Sontag divides great writers into two categories–husbands (those writers with a moral conscience and a sense of civic duty) and lovers (those who offer the short-lived feverishness and excitement of madmen). She claimed in 1963, that the modern world was filled with lovers, but not enough husbands, unlike in other periods of literary history when the opposite was true. Then she goes on to describe how Albert Camus nearly fit the bill of an “Ideal Husband” as a writer.
Though the lopsided categorization excludes even a nod to women as possible “great” literary figures, I’m intrigued by her classifications because I realize I share her thirst for a moral conscience in writing. I crave people whose inherently intertwined roles as an artist and a person are not arbitrary or loose connections that we should counter-intuitively compartmentalize. I seek a unity of purpose in authorship and in life, and a foresight which does not exclude others through frenetic impulse or an advertisement of desire at the expense of others.
Authors such as Shruti Swamy, W.G. Sebald, Michael Ondaatje, and even Susan Howe appeal to me for their qualities as good “husbands” in that I feel invested in their deep conviction in simultaneous aesthetic and moral thresholds that bind (or bound) them to their history and personal complicity in our time.
For me, moral consciousness depends on the ability to reflect upon our historical role and our place in the world amidst others not in spite of them. In order to do so, I feel that writers must depend on their ability to translate across divides of time, consciousnesses, and linguistic and cultural norms, and whether this crossing derives from the pith of the language, or the divestment of one’s originality for the sake of testimony–to give valor the unseen, lost spark in a footnote (or ideally, to accomplish both), it depends on solidarity with others, all of them. I feel an attraction to writers who navigate the sharp divisions of time, place, and self-interest that otherwise bind us to our various forms of narcissism.
A bond is never solely a comfortable relationship. To be bound is the condition of relative, limited freedom, which denotes sacrifice of possibility in order to maintain a level of comfort. Possibility is the antithesis to sanity and to really embrace it responsibly requires endurance, discipline, and sobriety, even, since possibility, contrary to its stated claims, is a limiting factor which also binds us. Each possibility is achieved by the exclusion of others. When one is bound by history, or bound by a deep investment in respect for humanity and the natural world, a state of grace lingers in that person’s works. This is how an author who is a “husband” with a long-term, purposeful conviction, beyond temporary pleasure can be trusted.
Naturally, the risk of writing which derives from moral conviction is to lose sight of the temporal, sensual, aesthetic pleasures that surround us in favor of aphorism. Let the subtle sounds of wind blowing through the tree leaves and the breath-ornamented silences between strangers remind you who you are and what unseen rifts there are to cross. Knowing pigeons, too, are watching us from the boughs of those trees. We never go unseen; we are always passing through one register or another.