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!