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Good Letters

The following is Jamie Smith’s editorial from Image’s hundredth issue, which mails to subscribers this week. A special extra-thick issue on friendship, rivalry, and collaboration, it features Shane McCrae, A.E. Stallings, Bruce Cockburn, Molly McCully Brown, Padraig O Tuama, Christopher Beha, and many others. If you don’t subscribe, you can still get it as your first issue while supplies last—and for a limited time we’re offering a great discount for new subscribers. As always, print subscriptions include full paywall access to current and back content online.

cover of Image issue 100

In your friend you should possess your best enemy.
—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Perhaps friendship is not the first theme that comes to mind when we think about the arts. As Richard Lingeman observes in Double Lives, his engaging account of American writers’ friendships, “Writing is a solitary act. No friend can do it for you.” We buy into the longstanding myth of the romantic genius laboring alone in his garret because we know something about it from observation: the price of making art seems to be shutting out others.

Even the Christian artist will at times be surprised by her sympathy with Sartre’s dictum that hell is other people. In this issue, poet Shane McCrae suggests—rightly, I think—that “writers are inclined towards a degree of lonesomeness.” This lonesomeness that seems almost congenital for artists can make going to church difficult. McCrae identifies a “buzzing unease” at the prospect of being thrown into contact with other people. “I feel it most acutely,” he admits, “whenever I exchange the peace.” But he makes no apologies: “this seems healthy to me,” he remarks. “Writers need time alone to think.”

This might explain why artistic friendships are so volatile and rare. In his narrative of a fraught friendship, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Matthew J. Bruccoli hints at a broader truth: “The mortality of literary friendships is high. Writers tend to be bad risks as friends—probably for much the same reasons they are bad matrimonial risks. They expend the best parts of themselves in their work. Moreover, literary ambition has a way of turning into literary competition; if fame is the spur, envy may be a concomitant.”

Ah, rivalry in art—that we understand. It’s easy for us to see others as competitors. Who among us hasn’t peeked at the Amazon rankings of a friend’s new book? Who hasn’t felt a twinge of envy when a peer’s latest award was announced? Who isn’t looking askance at the other painters or photographers at this weekend’s exhibition?

Our solitude turns out to be crowded. The writer’s tiny hut is filled with ghosts; the painter’s chilly studio is populated by unseen rivals; in the poet’s hard-won hideaway, invisible influences lurk. Others are always already there. So much for the romantic myth.

But the arts community that gathers around Image has long known that. That’s why our one-hundredth issue, coinciding with our thirtieth anniversary, pairs art and friendship, friendship and rivalry, collaboration and creation. When Gregory Wolfe founded Image in 1989, he was welcoming us into a conversation that, in its own performative way, deconstructs the myth of the solitary genius. Image has always aimed to be a tent of meeting, a place where all sorts of people who should be enemies want to be together because Image is where they find others grappling with the mystery that haunts them or hounds them or is their only hope. Image is like a gallery that gathers the most remarkable motley of people who can’t believe they’re supposed to be friends. It’s why we can’t imagine Image without the Glen Workshop, our summer arts festival. (It’s also why I’m delighted that the cover image for this issue, by Marianne Lettieri, began its life in a class at the Glen.)

In this anniversary issue we’ve asked artists to reflect on the difficult gifts of friendship. You won’t find much heroic independent swagger here. Instead, you’ll find Leslie Iwai admitting she had to learn to be dependent for the sake of her art: “The size and concept of my installation and performance work have taught me I need to bring others into the process, and this challenges my natural inner dynamic,” she admits. “A younger me would have tried to power through without inconveniencing others by asking for help.”

You’ll also listen in on an enthralling exchange between Susannah Nevison and Molly McCully Brown in which, fittingly, we can’t identify the voices. We experience only their communal creation: “I know you don’t believe in God, which is only strange to me because you feel like proof.” Their collaborative poems, they attest, hold a unique enchantment: “I love them in an utter, stunned, and startled way I’ll never love a thing I make alone.” As A.E. Stallings points out elsewhere in the issue, the arts—like works of mercy and justice—have a “conspiratorial” quality about them: they are endeavors in which people “breath together,” con-spire.

Perhaps Erika Meitner gives us a name for this. In her “Letters to Hillary,” Meitner invokes the Jewish notion of havruta, the companionship forged by studying the Talmud together. But it seems to me that havruta might also be the name for the push and pull artists experience even in their solitude. The artists who beguile us are not lone geniuses; they are often the conduits of a communion of influences, a confluence of friendships and rivalries. And not only other artists. We are sustained by a cloud of witnesses, a communion of patrons, the friends who show up at our readings and shows, the families we’ve fought with. Sedrick Huckaby’s testimony about his ongoing collaborative art space, Big Momma’s House, is a story about these concentric circles of communion. Each artist is a node in the web of havruta, tapestries of companionship that come to life in the work. The artist gives us a world that she was given by others. And the longevity of Image is a testament to a circle of generous friends who have built this gallery that showcases the art they value. It’s been said that literary magazines are born to die, but God keeps breathing life into Image through the friends he gives us.

But I keep coming back to rivalry, wondering if this, too, can be redeemed, whether God can leverage even our vices for the sake of beauty.

At first blush rivalry would seem to be the antithesis of friendship, a poison that taints communion. Rivalry is a way of being that construes others as adversaries rather than friends.

But what if friends are a gift because they are rivals? What if the friendly rival gives me the impetus to better myself, to dig deeper into the well of creative energy and find work I wouldn’t have otherwise? What if I’m made of crooked timber, but it turns out to be my very envy and vanity that push me deeper into the mystery?

My friend Merold Westphal once wrote a book about the “religious uses of modern atheism,” commending a Lenten discipline of learning from the masters of suspicion. I wonder if we have something to learn from Nietzsche in regard to rivalry. “You should honor the enemy in your friend,” Nietzsche argued. “In your friend you should possess your best enemy. Your heart should feel closest to him when you oppose him.” That is jarring to religious sensibilities, I realize. The question is whether it unveils something that’s true about human nature, and perhaps especially true about creativity.

In fact, rivalry might be a timely antidote to a more prevalent threat to genuine creative friendship: flattery. Would our work really be better if friendship were synonymous with cheerleading? Is my writing going to improve if the workshop is a mutual admiration society? Lingeman defines the tightrope that artistic friendships walk. “How much honesty can a friendship stand?” he asks. “And if it can’t stand very much, is it really a friendship? On the other hand, how much flattery—i.e., dishonesty—can a friendship take?”

We give athletes permission to be honest about this. Why not artists? Some great athletic rivalries have even received artistic attention. Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, is compelling in part because of his honesty about an unrequited rivalry: while everyone imagines it was Pete Sampras who spurred him on, Agassi confesses that it was Boris Becker who made him snort and churn for mastery of the game.

One of my favorite rivalries is dramatized in the Ron Howard film Rush: the 1970s duel between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Nicky Lauda. Hunt was the “racer,” flying by the seat of his pants, living and driving on the edge; Lauda was the “driver,” a technician for whom racing was like a monastic discipline. In a horrifying crash at the infamous Nürburgring circuit in Germany, Lauda was embroiled in a ball of fire and barely survived. Smoke and soot had to be vacuumed from his lungs, and skin grafts later reconstructed half of his face, leaving him only a vague suggestion of an ear. Watching Hunt win the 1976 championship was fuel for Lauda’s recovery, and he went on to win the championship himself in 1977.

Howard captures the gift of rivalry at the end of the film. When Lauda confronts the playboy Hunt, we see that the rivalry is the friendship. A doctor gave Lauda advice about how to leverage his searing bitterness at watching Hunt win: “A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.” And when Lauda reflects on their relationship, he realizes this rival is one of his only friends. “He remains the only person I envy,” Lauda confesses.

How much great art has been born of envy?

Some of the most enduring friendships in letters have been unabashed rivalries, between friends willing to play the role of enemies for the sake of goading each other on. My favorite is the lifelong correspondence between Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. In a collection of their letters edited by Jay Tolson, the epistolary repartee unfolds over forty years, from 1948 till just before Percy’s death in 1990.

Some might be surprised that it is Foote’s voice that dominates (and if you’ve watched Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary, you’ll hear Foote in these letters). The young Foote is precocious and ambitious, angling to reach the writerly pantheon. With just a single novel under his belt, he is more than happy to play master to Percy’s unwitting apprentice. “It’s really a compliment to your strength of character that I’m willing to risk telling you of the heartaches and sweats ahead,” a thirty-four-year-old Foote tells his friend. The audacity has its charm.

In some ways the rivalry is unrequited. Foote seems to be expending much more energy than Percy. But you can sense the love in Foote’s barbs—and his hope for a friend who can keep up so their ambition can be shared. All his shots at Percy’s laziness; all the inspiring books he keeps sending (which Percy leaves unread); all the unsolicited commentary (“You seem to think the novelist is some exalted kind of pamphleteer”) would chill any relationship that wasn’t truly a bond of love.

This is why Foote also gets so jealous. When Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate start advising Percy on a novel he’s writing, Foote warns off their influence: “you can learn absolutely nothing from another,” he cautions. “No one—no one—should ever monkey with a writer’s manuscript.… These articulate people who can put their finger on the trouble, and tell why, are archfiends incarnate.” Foote’s failure to appreciate the irony also has its charm.

Their friendship endures both failure and success, each its own test of a relationship. They journey together through Foote’s depression and divorces, Percy’s ennui and frustration. One of the odd joys of having a rival is that a rival is never fickle. We need them as much as they need us. The attention of rivals is ongoing, unconditional, its own kind of faithfulness.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith is the editor-in-chief of Image.

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