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!