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.