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!