Harold Pinter: Ask For Nothing

One afternoon in the French Quarter, Tenn and I were approached by a startled, unkempt, earnest graduate student from Tulane, who claimed he was working on a doctorate in Philosophy.

"You poor thing," Tenn murmured, tapping the boy's shoulder.

The poor boy was interviewing people of a "certain age," to find out those things that were still mysteries to them. Tenn shot me an amused, half-lidded look, but then gave his complete attention to the young boy.

"What is the question again?" he asked.

"At this point in your life, with all of your experiences, what are three things that remain mysteries to you? Unknown, unfathomable, impossible to grasp."

Tenn placed his hands on the two, tiny shoulders of the boy, closed his eyes, then opened them.

"I do not understand deliberate cruelty," Tenn intoned.

The boy scribbled.

"I do not understand algebra," Tenn continued.

The boy blinked, then scribbled.

"And I do not, can not, understand Celeste Holm," Tenn finished, rapidly removing his hands from the boy's shoulders, and grabbed my hand.

We left the boy in a dust of confusion. I still wonder how his studies concluded.

This exchange led Tenn to pose questions in series of three, and he wanted me to pose them to the people he was sending me to meet, interview, interrogate. "I want to know how they, those people"--he said, pointing to the rosary to which he had assigned the names of my subjects--"would respond to such questions."


One of the questions Tenn devised was this: State three facts--of your own belief--that everyone needs to know in order to live a good, examined life.

I offered this assignment to Harold Pinter--via telephone--in 1997, and he gave out an amused snort. "These constructions Tennessee gave you," he said, but he liked Tennessee very much, and he wanted to be helpful to me, even if he loathed the format.

"Three statements of fact, right" he asked.

Yes, I replied.

"Okay," he replied, and then a short pause, after which he spoke at a swift pace.

"Cruelty is not honesty," he said. "Tell the truth, but tell it to provide aid not injury."

"Self-expression is not art," he continued. "Art is telling stories, but not everyone has a good story or a good way of telling it. To persist in talking, debasing yourself, is not art, although it may be applauded as such in corners of debasement. Never equate your ambition with a sign from God or Thespis that you should continue. Hunger for fame is not the same as being gifted or brilliant. Very few are gifted. Quite a number are slavering for something that has nothing at all to do with art."


"The circumstances from which you sprang and around which you crafted the person you now are--or the works you now present--are entirely irrelevant. It is not enough to have been poor or sickly. It is not enough to be queer or straight. It is not enough to have gone to the right schools at the right time with the right people. The work is the work, and it either reaches people or it doesn't. Don't try to sweeten--or poison--the pot in which your work and your ego is boiling by adding that you wrote it with a broken pencil in the dark with a dying father upstairs. Don't stoke the glands of sympathy by telling us you wrote or composed in intervals between the various horrible jobs you took to survive. Don't tell us of the revenge you feel justified in seeking through the placement of words or actions. Just give us the work and let if fly or crash or--as is most often the case--glide along until it finds itself in the proper port, where its deserved greeting awaits.

"Just do the work you were meant to do. And then move along to the next piece, the next assignment. Ask for nothing but the opportunity to keep doing the work."

He stopped.

"May I add one thing?" he asked. "Even if it distorts Tennessee's order?"

Of course.

"Ask for nothing at all. Not a thing. If you have talent, you simply must do your work, all the time. But ask for nothing. The talented are supplicants to nothing but their work. The untalented should be supplicants: They do not have talent or the joy that good work brings. They only have their politics and their bonhomie with the people who hire them because they bring no conflict or questions--they just ask and smile and dance a jig over their great and good fortune.

"Ask for nothing. Just do your work."

© 2014  James Grissom


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