The 16th-Century Wisdom Behind Graffiti and a Profane Children's Book

Adam Mansbach, author of Go the Fuck to Sleep and Rage Is Back, describes how the Michel de Montaigne aphorism "I write to compose myself" guides him.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

When I asked Adam Mansbach about his favorite line from literature, it surprised me that he wanted to talk about Michel de Montaigne. His new novel, Rage Is Back, has nothing obvious in common with the discursive, self-conscious essays of a 16th-century Frenchman. The book's an elegy to New York in the Shake-Shack era: We follow a network of graffiti artists through the underground (hidden subcultures, subway tunnels) as the city's dark and vibrant haunts dwindle under gentrification's glare.

But talking with Mansbach, I quickly saw the aptness of his choice. Like Montaigne, he's obsessed with questioning the assumptions that underpin our culture. Like Montaigne, Rage's amped-up narrator Dondi is given to verbal detours and rhetorical flights of fancy. And the quote Mansbach chose, about how we turn to art for both self-proclamation and catharsis, has everything to do with the novel's subject, graffiti writing. So much so that it could even be the art form's epigraph.

Adam Mansbach's obscene fake children's book, Go the Fuck to Sleep,has been translated into 40 languages; other novels include The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy. The author spoke to me by phone from his home in Berkeley, California.

Adam Mansbach: I first came across this quote my freshman year in college at Columbia in course that all incoming students were forced to take. In an effort, you know, to make sure that all Columbia graduates forget the same things. They didn't necessarily commit their best teachers to these courses either, but I was lucky enough to draw probably the greatest teacher I've ever had. A guy named Wallace Gray, who's since passed away. He was a guy who could bring to all life all these ancient—and in some cases very dry—texts. He had a wit and an ability to animate stuff that was remarkable to me.

We were reading Montaigne, and one line—as soon as I read it—jumped out at me.

"I write to compose myself."

There's a duality here that is simple and resonant—a little piece of wordplay no less true for its playfulness. On the one hand, Montaigne means "compose" in the sense of calming down, finding peace. For me, most of the anxiety and difficulty of writing takes places in the act of not writing. It's the procrastination, the thinking about writing that's difficult. But usually all that fades away when you sit down and actually work. It's the same way with an athlete: You anticipate the big game, pre-play it in your mind, agonize—but once you get on the court, you're only doing what it is you do. It becomes a much simpler process with all of the tensions burned away.

"I write to compose myself": There's the sense here, too, of composing as creating. The idea that writing creates, not just words on a page, but the writer.

For me, this duality boils down what it means to be an artist. This is a subject that people tend to be very flowery and highfalutin about, by the way—people wax poetic (or not so poetic) about what it means to work in an artistic discipline. That in itself is fine, but it doesn't mean I want to read the shit. I came up in hip-hop, where people value the ability to tell it straight. This line from Montaigne had everything I wanted: it had truth, it had elegance, it had wit, and style. It was an act of literature in itself, and it stuck with me.

My new novel, Rage Is Back, is about graffiti writers—and Montaigne's words took on new significance as I wrote it. Graffiti writers have an especially troubled relationship to artistic identity—it's self that could use some composing. Graffiti has an interesting relationship to the broader world of hip-hop: It's part of the culture, but also in a weird way a stepchild of the culture. There are graffiti writers who are adamant about graffiti being one of the foundational four elements of hip-hop (along with DJing, emceeing, and b-boying). But there are also grafitti writers who view it as separate—and subject to its own laws and rules and mores.

For me, graffiti writers were always the fascinating eccentrics of hip-hop culture. What they do is secretive by definition, and not remunerative in any way. It's a secret act that so often takes place literally underground and in the dark. And in a lot of ways, graffiti writing parallels on-the-page writing. The narrative impulse is ultimately at the heart of both. There's a reason graffiti artists call themselves writers—they don't call themselves painters or artists. They've always called themselves writers. I've always been fascinated, as a writer myself, with that idea. Toying with the notion that graffiti writers are engaging with narrative and storytelling at this fundamental level.

Then there's this fascinating interplay between dueling concepts. We think of art as composition, as creation, but listen to graffiti writers talk about what they do—there's a narrative of destruction. Words like "kill" and "destroy" come into play: like "we killed that wall," or "we destroyed that train." At the same time, there's this competing narrative of beautifying as well. Graffiti writers have to balance a lot of paradoxical concepts and contradictory notions in the minds, because they are artists, and at the same time they are vandals. They beautify by destroying. They're deeply invested in their environments, and yet feel oppositional to those environments—or to the city governments that back those structures.

And what they write is their own names—I write to compose myself. It's self-representation, and self-reinvention. Those names are adorned, they're camouflaged, they're armored, they're beautiful, they're confrontational. That's one of the things that's fascinating about graffiti as a form—you can say everything there is to say in this one word, your name. And a lot of graffiti artists—not all of them, but many of them—might spend a 20-year a career only writing that one word. Or taking on a couple aliases, and writing only three words.

The notion that you could not tire of that, but continually reinvent it, finding new letter forms and adornments, is fascinating to me. The parallel is that authors often write the same novel over and over again in different ways, without meaning to or realizing it. You've got your themes, you've got the things that fascinate you, and you keep playing with them until you get it right, reinventing your approach, and yourself, as you go.