13 February 1952
[ . . . ] I congratulate you on finishing Paradise Lost. I decided a while back that I was going to read it again, but it turned out to be as dull and pompous as the first time, and I haven’t succeeded in getting very far. I always seem to turn to it just when I’m about to go to sleep, which I suppose isn’t fair, but all it seems to do is to put me to sleep entirely. However, one of these days I still mean to tackle it properly. I also intend to read the Bible all the way through. These intentions are prompted by, of all things, an interest in religion which dates, as nearly as I can remember, to my reading of Toynbee just after I got back to New York from Iowa, and which is related to all the cathedrals and altarpieces and religious festivals that puzzled me in Europe. I have just finished, after my own fashion, with looking into the matter of St. Francis, and have written a chapter on Assisi which ends up, somewhat to my own surprise, with the assertion that the tradition of his receiving the Stigmata is a logical necessity! Of course, just when I think I understand religion, I meet up with a real believer who says I am talking nonsense. This happened again just yesterday, when after a couple of martinis Joe Goodman and I and a girl friend of his got into a terrible argument, in which I maintained that religious feeling was everything, the girl that dogma was everything, and Joe took the more complicated position of the skeptical believer. None of us convinced the others of anything. Of course I have a different idea about every week. To follow the process you will have to read my so-called book, in which I am now about to start Chapter Six and thus am about halfway through.
It doesn’t seem likely that the book is going to be published. A literary agent to whom I sent the first three chapters said it was well written but that there was no market for it. The curious thing is that I don’t care very much. It would be nice to make some money, of course, but I have gone ahead writing it and having the time of my life. 1 haven’t gotten a job and haven’t even looked for one, but though the money is beginning to run rather low even that doesn’t bother me. I can always go to work at Macy’s or something, and probably will, because the idea of a good job in which I should have to work hard chiefly at flattering people and pushing them around now seems too awful to contemplate, and I have discovered that I am really happier with a very little money than I was when I could buy things just for the fun of buying. Of course, I have had my spending jag and have all the clothes I need for a while—I haven’t even had to buy nylons since I wear them only when I go out—and I can take books out of the public library. I wouldn’t feel this way, either, if I hadn’t first proved that I could hold a job and gotten enough self-respect thereby to make my present frugal existence an act not of defiance but of transcendence. I have the feeling now that I may be going to write a good book—not the one I’m working on, which is simply groundwork and a process of thinking a few things out that has to be gone through first—and that even if I don’ I shan’t feel too badly, because I will have found out that I didn’t have it in me, and if I hadn’t tried I never could be sure.
So far I’ve enjoyed myself so much that it isn’t as if I had given anything up. I’ve never been in a better frame of mind, day after day. Of course Iowa gave me the fidgets, and so, even, did Boston. I suppose I’ve gotten so used to my little spot on West Twelfth Street that I don’t feel at home anywhere except in New York. It’s a wonderful place. I never know any more who is going to appear or what is going to happen. The other evening I got into an argument with a painter, which started out innocently enough and ended up with questions of the condition of the artist in Russia, and what is really the function of the painter. The fellow turned out to be a Marxist, and I hadn’t met any of them for so long that I had almost begun to consider the species extinct. He thought a painter could say something that had nothing to do with painting; that the truth was simple; and that the deep-freeze was no more but no less important than paintings to put on the wall. I thought exactly the opposite: that no good painting could make a simple declarative statement; that the deep-freeze was of less importance than paintings; and that the truth cannot be simplified without being turned into lies. However, there were so many things neither of us were sure about that we didn’t come to blows, but ended up quite amicably, both grateful for the work-out. When I left I had a headache from sheer mental exertion. What was still more interesting was going to look at an exhibition of this same artist’s paintings. They were wonderful! And if any of them made simple declarative statements, these were denied by the richness of the colors and the brushwork. All of which proves nothing except that artists are of all complicated people the most complicated.
Then there was the evening when I listened to a poet reading Yeats aloud, and practically floated out of the window, the effect was so intoxicating. And the party that Joe gave after a performance of his flute sonata, at which I had planned to stay half an hour but actually got home at half-past nine the next morning! We had drifted, half a dozen of us, from Joe’s mother’s to the apartment of a White Russian journalist who believes in absolutely nothing but has a wonderful collection of objects—figures out of Egyptian tombs, Turkish fezzes, Persian shoes and a Mohammedan prayer rug, books in all languages, and musical instruments including African drums, a snake-charmer’s pipe, a musical gourd, and Maracas. I took a lesson in the latter and found them a good deal more difficult than I had supposed they would be, but the musicians in the crowd were presently playing a little concert on the various instruments against a background of Zulu chanting from the phonograph. I found myself drinking brandy and eating cheese-and-baloney sandwiches for breakfast and feeling fine. When it began to be light we got into the journalist’s car and were delivered to various points—one girl to her office, somebody else to Penn Station, and me home. Joe had another, more genteel party the other evening—really a musical soiree, organized around a rehearsal of his new string trio (flute, cello and piano). After they had played it once we listened several times to a tape recording. After that—chamber music in its proper setting—the performance in Town Hall yesterday was something of an anticlimax, but exciting. I found that I was—almost as nervous as the composer himself.