Monday, 29 September 2014

Writing in order to be

Let me return once again to Michel Foucault’s interview from 1968. It’s in order to see (once again) what he meant by the obligation to write. Perhaps the most important, the most intriguing angle from which this obligation can be regarded, is this one, where we encounter the body that writes.

Where there’s writing there’s a body. Here’s a syllogism with good chances at appearing too obvious to be taken seriously. But the relationship between writing and body is far more complex than what this syllogism is about to recommend.

I disappear, therefore I am

It’s not in the presence of the body that one is likely to find the impetus to write, but in its disappearance. Now, of course, there are ways and ways of coming to terms with this disappearance of one’s own body through the embodiment of the text that is one’s only possible future. For a start, one could realize that this disappearance is not death; not exactly death. When I say my body has disappeared in the process of writing I am not uttering that Romantic ideal of the genius who lives for and through himself: that perfect mind, that perfect consciousness, that superhuman presence that fared so well in the nineteenth century and seems to have died (or maybe not yet) with Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Flame, ominously published on the cusp between centuries, in 1900, or better still, with his Charter of Carnaro, from 1920. (The genius dies in relation to his kind; he lives only insofar as he is misanthropically placed on a cliff overlooking humankind with aloofness).
No. What I mean by the disappearance of the body is that almost mundane oblivion that overtakes every writer when their scribbling is in action: even the person who puts his culinary desires into words on a shopping list, even the person who writes the ticket to punish me for my wrongly parked car.
In the process of writing, one needs to get rid of one’s body, so to speak, to put a distance between their selves and their words. It is only in this disappearance that writing can take place without the writer worrying about consequences. Otherwise, there’s too much fear, too much reflection, too much distraction; too much of the world and too little of the text. So, when writing, one is really hiding oneself in order to allow the text to come to life. It's a situation that resembles hunting. In hunting, the animal is lured by an invisible body. The animal is afraid, obviously – it is worried for its life. But the hunter is afraid too – worried that the hunt will not get to its expected outcome; that there will be no game to take home; that – if you like – the scenario of the hunt will not be materialized. A disappearing body is the guarantee of the game's appearance. An immaterialized body expecting the materialization of a text – this seems to be the right formula for the understanding of writing as an action performed through/with the body.


This is my take. Foucault’s goes, obviously, a little further. To him, writing appears as an obligation to please this disappearing body by offering it the chance to stay away from the society that builds walls and constraints around it. When writing, the body disappears not only in relation to the text and the page on which that text is being laid down, but also in relation to the external pressures of the world. Writing is, at its core, a form of fantasy. It starts from an impulse to liberate the self and goes so far as to affirm that self to the obliteration of the world. This is why writing is different from speaking, as Foucault insists in the interview: because the former evades the world, while the latter addresses it, lives with the world, embraces it as a place for communication. The body is torn between the two, since speech needs it in order to materialize itself in the world, while writing rejects it precisely in order to come to life.
“Another reason why writing is different from speaking is that we write to hide our face, to bury ourselves in our own writing. We write so that the life around us, alongside us, outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life that’s not very funny but tiresome and filled with worry, exposed to others, is absorbed in that small rectangle of paper before our eyes and which we control. Writing is a way of trying to evacuate, through the mysterious channels of pen and ink, the substance, not just of existence, but of the body, in those minuscule marks we make on paper. To be nothing more, in terms of life, than this dead and jabbering scribbling that we’ve put on the white sheet of paper is what we dream about when we write. But we never succeed in absorbing all that teeming life in the motionless swarm of letters. Life always goes on outside the sheet of paper, continues to proliferate, keeps going, and is never pinned down to that small rectangle; the heavy volume of the body never succeeds in spreading itself across the surface of the paper, we can never pass into that two-dimensional universe, that pure line of speech; we never succeed in becoming thin enough or adroit enough to be nothing more than the linearity of a text, and yet that’s what we hope to achieve. So we keep trying, we continue to restrain ourselves, to take control of ourselves, to slip into the funnel of pen and ink, an infinite task, but the task to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.”

Putting the body together

Indeed, “we write to hide our face.” The writer, even when he/she is an author with a photograph proudly printed on the back cover of a book, is an entity without a face. His/her text is to a certain extent a reconstructive procedure: an attempt to form a face. This is because an author’s identity is not the identity of their face, but the identity of their work. Their name too is, in fact, nothing but a form of ID. So the creation of a text is, really, the creation of an identity. And this identity keeps forming, keeps coming to light, with every text written, with every word taken out of its linguistic context and placed in the context of its newly acquired text.
The problem is that we’ve come to identify writing almost exclusively with authors of books, and that’s why we can’t see this reconstructive nature of writing, this obligation to write in order to form a face and a body. But take once again the example of someone who’s writing a shopping list. Where is that person’s face? Where is their body? What can we say about that person if we found their shopping list (as we often do) fallen onto the ground, left to disappear once the work has been finished (once shopping has taken place)? Nothing. Nothing about their body, that is. But there is an identity right there, on that little piece of paper, and that identity comes to life as the result of writing. That's how that “dead and jabbering scribbling” is a guarantee for the person who wrote the list that he/she will be remembered – if such might one day be their desire. Remembered, obviously, in the sense of re-membering, of putting that person back together from the little scribbling on that paper.

We cannot write forever

But what’s really painful to see is, as Foucault points out, the failure of this process of self-disembodiment. Yes, we’ve acquired, through writing, a sense of standing apart from the world. But the world doesn’t die when we push it aside. We realize that, instead of being apart from it, we are a part of it.
Writing cannot happen forever, i.e. we cannot be forever in the process of scribbling. In contrast, the world never ends. It is. It exists on the outside of our selves and awaits, patiently, for us to switch off the fantasy we are fantasising about. We’re never going to be like the geometrical figures in Abbott’s Flatland. True, complete, irreversible disappearance from the world would be, indeed, a form of imprisonment on the page, a transformation into a character, into a diagram, into a geometrical material. I don’t know if that would be better. I don’t know if Foucault really meant it that way. (Him, the critic of imprisonments?) But one thing is certain: he saw the impossibility of such a project. As a consequence, he sees writing as a temporary transfer at best. We leave the world to live in a fantasy, but at some point we will be obliged to return. And when that happens, we find that the world is there. It has never left. The world is where we return; it is where we’ve never departed. This is the pain and the pleasure that come with writing. Whoever thought it would be easy!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Writing, aka arrogance

More often than not, the thing we call Writing is associated with some form of humility. Listen to people who tell you how they've grown into writers. They will produce stories about humble beginnings, about shyness, indecision and the whole gamut of self-deprecating sentiments. (I generalize here, of course. Not all writers talk about writing in these terms; but try the exercise on a handful of them and you'll see).

I'd like to think about writing in a different way: not as humility but as arrogance. And once again, I start by making use of Foucault's interview, mentioned last week.

Endless work

Foucault imagined the obligation of writing as a promise; as a kind of prize one sets up for oneself, so as to reach the end of the process basking in the glory of having succeeded. But at a more careful reading, one may find that this promise is in fact a certainty. One sets out on the journey towards the end of one's work knowing that the end will be reached. But reached in a peculiar way. The completion of the task, the writing of the page, the finishing of the manuscript - all these are forms of work that start anew as soon as the finish line has been crossed. A writer knows that the present task is not the Task. That the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the manuscript, don't represent the Race of all races. When one writes with a conviction that the present work is the only work ever produced (that once this assignment is done there will be no more assignments) one sets oneself up to fail as a writer.

Source: Huffington Post
Listen to Foucault:
"Ultimately, we always write not only to write the last book we will write, but, in some truly frenzied way – and this frenzy is present even in the most minimal gesture of writing – to write the last book in the world. In truth, what we write at the moment of writing, the final sentence of the work we’re completing, is also the final sentence of the world, in that, afterward, there’s nothing more to say. There’s a paroxysmal intent to exhaust language in the most insignificant sentence."
Now if this doesn't sound arrogant I don't know what does. Notice that Foucault speaks of writing as an attempt at reaching an ultimate end. That appears to contradict what I've said so far. But now comes the trick; because the truth is different. Yes, the task is there; yes, the hope to produce the ultimate text is the very fuel that keeps writers active in their jobs. But language has always already indicated to the writer that exhaustion is impossible insofar as it (language) is concerned.
In order to contain language, we would need to overpower it. And that, of course, is absurd. Absurd because, in reality, it's the other way round. Whatever use we make of language, we're only tasting samples. Language, in its totality, is too vast to be defeated. We never see its limits, so how could we even hope to advance towards the end of language?

Let's not despair, though

But Foucault's proposition is full of optimism. He doesn't see writing as a cause for depression. But that's because his writing is perpetual discovery. He uses it as a tool in the quest towards knowledge. To Foucault, writing is not solid representation but temporary construction. It is not a system of notation but an epistemic prop. It is not dwelling but moving about.

Source: Pleruduriel
As Michel Butor said in an essay published in the 1990's, writing resembles nomadism. The success of the nomad is not in the choosing of a place to stay, but in the consideration of all places as probable, yet impossible, settlements. In other words, there's more pleasure in moving on than in stopping to enjoy the view. There's more to be found in acceleration than in stasis.
It is within this kind of approach that writing appears as a promise of success. Having reached one end is no cause for celebration. The novelist in Stephen King's Misery, mentioned last week, smokes his cigar and drinks his champagne not because he's decided to retire after this book, but because he is setting himself up for the next glass and the next smoke. He is setting himself up for the experience of writing as a progression towards an impossible End.
Writing, seen from this angle, is more akin to the story of the prince, in Dino Buzzati's "Seven Messengers." There, a young prince sets out on a journey to reach the ends of his father's empire. He travels and travels, in the company of his messengers, hoping to find that final frontier. But the more he advances, the more he is struck by the truth of his endeavor: there is no end. There is no pause for his search. He has one option alone: to move forward, to produce traces of his journey, encountering new territory every step of the way, leaving the old behind, advancing towards a continuous confirmation of the limitlessness of his father's empire; and, ultimately, towards the only possible end: his own death.

The arrogant creator

Erica Jong says: "No one asks for a new book, but you need to write it." Herein lies another truth about writing, another revelation significant to the condition of the one who writes. The world is already full of texts. It is already busy coping with its own immensity. So writing really originates in a need that belongs in the writer; it is, as it appears, a gesture meant to satisfy an individual need for success: the author's desire to see his own text elbowing its way through a world already choked full of texts.
This is also an act of irreverence. At the end of the day, by forcing his own text into a world inhabited by the texts of his predecessors, the writer implies that the predecessors were insufficient; that they came about with important gaps in their bibliography. Gaps that need to be filled by the writer; gaps that only the writer is capable of filling. And so, the world should be thankful to the writer (this writer), to the fact that his existence makes possible the completion of a work left incomplete by the predecessors.

Source: Big Think
The history of writing is the history of arrogance. Not only established writers do it. Authors of love letters do it too. Had there been a perfect love letter in the world, wouldn't it be easier to copy it? Wouldn't it be easier to multiply the archetype instead of adapting (i.e. destroying) it? The author of love letters knows that if such an archetype did exist, it would forever be devoid of an important component: the author's biography; his/her alterity. Love letters, like other forms of writing, are not centered on the text but on the fulfillment personal wish. Because at the end of the day, as Erica Jong observed, nobody has asked for a text to be written. As with creation, so with procreation. Nobody has asked for any particular child to be born either. And yet texts are written, babies are brought into the world.

Human arrogance is what this is. We need to be ashamed of it. We need to be thankful to it. Without it, we would never offend tradition. Without it, we would never move on.

Monday, 15 September 2014

From threat to treat

I'd like to take a look at the question of writing through a few things Michel Foucault said in an interview given in 1968, but published only recently. In this interview, Foucault speaks about writing as an obligation. And that’s what I’m on about this week.

In order to produce a text, in order to sit at a table at all, one needs to feel the itch to do so. We've seen this already: it's been said by all writers, the respectable ones as well as the mediocre ones. This urge, this necessity, is necessary to anyone who believes in writing as a career or as a self-healing mantra. But unlike Cioran, Kafka, or Doris Lessing, Foucault chooses to see this compulsion to write from its luminous end, i.e. from its point of arrival, from the last page, as it were. Although he doesn't exclude the pain that comes with writing, Foucault sees the practice through the lens of the pleasure that follows. And so, he manages to write off everything that's Romantic, gloomy, obsessive, suicidal in writing, and as a consequence produces an image that bursts with optimism.


Obligation à la Foucault

What's important, though, is that - true to Foucault's general view on writing - this obligation is not a given. Not a given in the sense of something received like a punishment that cannot be escaped. This obligation isn't written the way destiny appears in some tales in the Arabian Nights, marked in the corner of one's eye, so as to be known from the very beginning. To Foucault, the obligation to write comes gradually. It stretches like an organ that grows and grows in order to incorporate the newer, more soliciting, functions that keep arising as the practice of writing is being perfected.
"This obligation to write, I don’t really know where it comes from. As long as we haven’t started writing, it seems to be the most gratuitous, the most improbable thing, almost the most impossible, and one to which, in any case, we’ll never feel bound. Then, at some point – is it the first page, the thousandth, the middle of the book or later? I have no idea – we realize that we’re absolutely obligated to write."

Foucault's uncertainty, the fact that he keeps repeating "I don't know" (he does it through the interview a number of times), is an indication of this process. One never knows what is happening until everything has happened.

Source: Jamie Sheffield
One never knows what the first step brings with it until one has taken the first step and seen its consequences. It's only at the end of the track that the runner realizes the extent of his victory. In the beginning - before the starter pistol has shot its caps, before the pen has left the first marks on the page - the only thing that's known is that there's a race to be run; that there's a page to be written. Nothing else. Blankness all over - that's what looks the runner and the writer in the face in that state of a race-to-come.

Moving forward

The knowledge that there's a race to be run is what gives the writer the impulse to go further and further. The anxiety that comes with the whiteness of the yet-unwritten page becomes the promise of its being filled sooner or later. One still has that anxiety rushing through one's blood. One needs the next fix in order to make oneself functional for the rest of one's day, for the rest of one's life. Writing experienced like a drug, like a medicine, like a panacea. And all starts with the promise that exists in writing: the promise of a success.
Every written page is a success, even if one will feel the urge to remove it later, to be done with it, to even hate it to the point where one wants to see it destroyed. There is a sense of success even in the certainty of the doubt. Even in Hemingway's anticlimactic axiom, "The first draft of anything is shit." What counts is the production of that first draft, the running of that race. Mario Vargas Llosa too said somewhere that he writes in the hope of reaching the stage of rewriting/editing, i.e. bearing in mind the pleasure to be experienced on the other side of the finish line. For Vargas Llosa, the truly pleasurable facts of writing come after the groundwork: after he's covered the track and crossed the line. Work first, party later. But party, nonetheless!
"By writing that page, you give yourself, you give to your existence, a form of absolution. That absolution is essential to the day’s happiness. It’s not the writing that’s happy, it’s the joy of existing that’s attached to writing, which is slightly different. This is very paradoxical, very enigmatic, because how is it that the gesture – so vain, so fictive, so narcissistic, so self-involved – of sitting down at a table in the morning and covering a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction for the remainder of the day? How is the reality of things – our concerns, hunger, desire, love, sexuality, work – transfigured because we did that in the morning, or because we were able to do it during the day? That’s very enigmatic. For me, in any case, it’s one of the ways the obligation to write is manifested.”

Pleasure belongs in the end

So if writing is, in this scheme of things, an obligation, it is an obligation to please the self. In the other examples I discussed in my previous posts - in the embarrassing weakness deplored by Cioran, in the neurotic need of Kafka, in the self-scolding of Doris Lessing - this obligation to write was one meant to reveal writing as a way of constantly hurting oneself; of taking aim at one's self so as to punish it for its incapacity to reach conclusion (the dream, perhaps, of being able to write the Book of all books). Foucault, however, who aimed for clarity but, more than anything else, for closure (the philosopher's hope to facilitate understanding by reaching the point where clarification has been achieved), regarded writing almost as a treat. Not the process itself, of course, but the end of it: the moment when, like Paul Sheldon, the novelist in Stephen King's Misery, the writer enjoys a glass of champagne and an expensive cigar every time he finishes a new book.
This type of thinking about writing concentrates on the finish line. It is only concerned with the beginning insofar as beginnings are the necessary first steps towards satisfaction.

Source: Kerry Drumm
Foucault doesn't talk much about his failures, and neither does he say much about his pain. That's because his process of writing is peppered with well-placed re-fueling stations.
At some other point in the interview, he declared his conviction that writing was a way of making light in things that appeared, in the beginning, devoid of luminous finality. So since writing is discovery, the pleasure of having written is equal to the pleasure of having discovered something new. And as long as there's new text, there are new pleasures to be found at every turn. The pleasure principle is refuelled, and writing can go on, in the expectation of finding new stations along the way.

If, as it's often suggested to students in Writing classes, a text needs signposts in order to give readers the pleasure of visiting familiar places, one discovers in Foucault's take on writing a similar jocular principle: a game with promises made to himself.
Through writing, Foucault discovered what he wanted to say. He made light in his own mind by moving forward in his own text. Things were not (could not) be clear in the beginning. Remember? At the start, the race is only a virtuality. It hasn't even begun, it hasn't yet presented itself to the writer as a process at all. At the start, before the pistol has been shot, there's only a darkness that awaits illumination. Only the end clarifies. Only in the end one sees, looking backwards, one's own work, one's own progression. Finis coronat opus. And so, there is champagne beyond the crossing line, and an ocean of laughter. The day is over; long live next day!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Panics and salvations

To the question “Why do we write?” Cioran offered one answer: it’s because we can’t stand the pressure building up inside us. He blamed those who gave in to the power of lyricism, not exactly calling them cowards, but pitying them for the little strength they seem to have. There's something special going on insofar as impulses are concerned, especially when they're related to writing.

When read with the eye of a biographer, Franz Kafka's artistic life appears to be an illustration of Cioran's theories. He stands as a specimen of the weakness that characterizes the lyrical spirit. In his diaries, Kafka complained about not being able to live without writing. Kafka, one of the most lyrical writers, bled words on the page because he could not contain the extreme pressure of his will to write. He wrote cursively, he wrote fragmentarily, he wrote short and long, he almost wrote with the exactness of a clerk. He did not take breaks. He did not write in fits and starts (à la Nietzsche, for instance), but like a daily letting of blood. And yet he still complained, at the end of it all. He still protest that “all language is but a poor translation.” Translation of his inner wilderness, is what he meant, for sure. There’s an insufficiency in the turning of the inside into outside, of feeling into signs: the disastrous evidence of the language surrounding us, encapsulating us - the never-enough of our words.


Translating is cheating. Conversion is misappropriation. Transfiguration is deceit. All this because expression misrepresents the death towards which we’re driven by excessive interiority. “A First Sign of the Beginning of Understanding is the Wish to Die,” Kafka said somewhere. A thought heavily injected with existentialism, this is. Not unlike that of Cioran, who discovered in the interior architecture of his soul a complexity so great, it could only cause the death of his (social) self. Kafka too is overwhelmed by what he sees on the inside:
“This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.”
Little surprise, then, that he felt the itch to write constantly, neurotically. A drive towards writing. In the psychiatric condition known as bipolar disorder, hypergraphia is a manifestation of this compulsion to produce written signs. They don’t have to be intelligible letters or words, these signs. Not always, but apparently they quite often end up having certain artistic qualities – like literary works. Like Kafka, perhaps? Like other compulsive writers?
Doris Lessing, in a 2003 interview, admitted suffering from a similar coercive pressure.
“This terrible feeling that I am just wasting my life, I’m useless, I’m no good.”

The interview makes apparent the point I’m trying to make here: that through this compulsion, through this terrible yielding to the power of the text that knocks at the door demanding to be born into the world, behind all this is salvation. It’s not in the quantity that this salvation is to be acquired. I can't say I'm saved because I've written a lot. It’s not in the quality either, since the artistic worth of my work won't give me the satisfaction I need in order to put a stop to this never-ending process. It’s rather in the outpour itself. There’s salvation in this, but a tricky, demonic salvation – because it doesn't just happen with a bang and then poof, that’s it, no more pain, henceforth no liberating necessary. No. This kind of salvation happens in the wild rhythms of a nerve-consuming repetition. It comes, and comes, and comes, and comes. “Writing a novel,” said Lessing, referring to the time she started writing, at the age of seventeen, “seemed to be a way out. But you see, I was too young.” She was ‘too young’ in the sense of being at the beginning of her compulsion. There was more to come, and she couldn't have known this at the age of seventeen.

Never any end to pain

And then of course, the revelatory statement in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the poetic testimony of a writer who, followed by the curse later articulated by Cioran, could never be satisfied by the lyrical outpour that haunted him from within:
“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”
There’s a panic that seems to come with writing. A panic that one can recognize in the dread of the deadline, for instance. It’s what terrorizes every student, what brings existentialist anguish to every end of every semester. But also a deeper panic, born from the awareness that language itself (the vehicle used by the writer - the only vehicle at his disposal) is impossible to stop. Language is so multidimensional, so multimodal, so multilingual (if I'm permitted the pleonasm), it presents itself to the writer like an enormous challenge. Following the leaps of language, its twists and glides, its sweeps and plunges, is like following an animal that keeps escaping; one that keeps disappearing from the viewfinder precisely when we're about to pull the trigger. There may be pleasure in the hunt (otherwise we wouldn't agree to do it in the first place), but there's also pain. Jouissance, as defined by Jacques Lacan, is a thing we never get. It is not a fact but a promise. A promise we make to ourselves that one day we'll attain that state of total satisfaction that will put all satisfaction to shame, that orgasm that will end all orgasms.
It sounds like the perspective of lyricism, whether it’s about pickling one’s soul or putting it on a plate, so that everyone can see it (in the form of books, of poems), leads to a paradox. One takes pleasure in being a writer, but is required to endure writing. Where there's pleasure, there's also pain. And this is what writers have to deal with. Here, in this constant fight with the impossible-to-control, they flex their muscles, they decorate themselves and their texts, they strut about - all in the hope that the Absolute will give them a taste of what it's made of. What a thought!