Monday, 22 December 2014

Writing is what happens in the tiny breaks from life

Christmas. What of it? What does it have to do with writing? Why bring it up now, in the last week of December? Why write at all now, when everybody is taking a break from all work?

Let’s start from the straightforward. Christmas is classed as a holiday: Christ’s Mass, Yuletide, Koliada, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and so on. No matter what names we give it, it’s the holidayness of Christmas that stands out again and again. Well, it's precisely holiday that I am interested in: the holiness of things that are said to be holy.

Holy break

It's not the religious side that causes me to write about writing in relation to holiness. I am not a religious person. I don't, as such, go to church, I don't participate in rituals, I don't brandish a denomination. But the importance of all things holy rests, insofar as I am concerned, on their celebratory potential.

Source: The Trust Ambassador
Holidays, as all dictionaries will indicate, are periods of religious festival, but more importantly, they are days of recreation. And by recreation I understand primarily respite, pause, hiatus. A holiday marks an interruption. It tells the observant to stop whatever he or she was doing and engage in something different: something religiously significant, as the celebration of a Divinity. On a holy day, we stop.
“Holy,” a word of Germanic origins with wide-spread presence in all Nordic settings, suggests precisely this notion of stopping, of causing an interruption. The OED definition of the adjective:
"Kept or regarded as inviolate from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance."
Inviolate from ordinary use. With holy things, the mundane is given a break. Forget, for this while, that your life is tied to earthly significances. Think, for the same while, that you are not what you do every day; that you are not your quotidian self; that your life requires a forgetting of life and an engagement in things of non-quotidian nature.
A holy period is, therefore, a period of exceptions. That's why we eat and drink and make merry during holidays, whether we're religiously-minded or not. This is why we're doing all of the above in excess. And as with exceptions, the interruption marked by the holy defines a space where the different, the out-of-ordinary, the exceptional, can occur. The holy is, therefore, the space of an occurrence. It is where events can be (and are) generated; it is where there's an enclosure for the setting-apart of the exceptional to be made manifest.

A matter of life and death

Writing too, like all practices that produce artifacts, is a thing of exceptionality. In order to write, one needs to set aside everything that's habitual, mundane, familiar, commonplace. One needs to set aside even eating and drinking. In some extreme situations (see the case of Knut Hamsun's Hunger), one is forced to remember that eating and drinking are a real, painful, even unwanted reality: the reality of the biological. Writing and biology are (must be) antagonistic towards each other if the production of artifacts were to be considered for its pause-value. Writing intervenes (and this is a shattering statement) where life ceases to be. Where the body is no longer engaged in its quotidian flows and continuities, that’s where writing becomes possible. This is because life per se is continuity without consciousness. Our engagement with the things of life is so complete (we are so programmed to eat and drink, to walk and breathe, to sleep and laugh) that we do all these things without awareness. And so, it is only in the interruption of these things that we become aware again. When I've been writing for hours and hours and suddenly I feel hungry or thirsty or tired, it is then that I am reminded of the ordinariness of food, water, and sleep in my life. It is now that I become aware of the ordinariness of my life. But at the same time, I become aware of how disruptive of my life writing is. Of course, the same realization is likely to come about if I were a shoemaker. Hence the need for lunch breaks. Hence the need to hang the "Back in 15" sign from the front door.
Writing is what happens in the '15-minute' breaks from life.

Source: Photocat's Eyes
Now, let us not be fooled by someone who might bring up the issue of writing as a profession. In order to correct the possible mistake that may arise here, I should, perhaps, say that there's an obvious and fundamental difference between, for instance, shoe-making and shoe-mending. A shoe-maker serves an almost biological need: that of covering the feet of humans, which are no longer good enough to go about unprotected. Shoe-menders, on the other hand, generate a different type of thinking about shoes. With them, shoes become things of cultural circulation. Shoes are mended because they are dear to their owner (and there are reasons for this, which one could enumerate to one's heart's content); because they are dear in the financial sense (i.e. they are inscribed in an economic cycle where what's really important is distinction); because there's a desire for them to be renewed (i.e. they are understood in terms of a logic of cycles – again, a cultural amendment).
The distinction I want to draw here is one between necessity and excess, which can also be seen as a distinction between biology and culture. In this separation of the waters, writing stands on the side of excess. Nobody dies of not-writing. Not in the biological sense of the word death. And so, writing doesn't have life significance. Writing makes life stop.
This is not to dismiss or overlook the other forms of death, the self-inflicted ones in particular. Suicides are cultural deaths; deaths from natural causes are, well, as their very name indicates, natural, biological, not caused by human will. At close examination, accidental deaths too will appear to be framed within the empire of artifacts: caused by humans, inflicted (even when without intention) upon other humans.


I am not going to elaborate on death and dying here. But this parenthesis enables me to return to the point made in the beginning: that all arts and crafts in general, and writing in particular, are instances of interruption; that they are terminations of life's flows.
Writing, which occurs as an imposition of a textual rhythm upon an unconscious series of unnoticed occurrences, takes place within life. But when it does take place, it makes apparent this disjunction, this death.

Source: Pemberton Insurance
In his Diary, Kafka, the neurotic, excessive, sickly writer, had a multitude of occasions to reflect on this burning issue of writing-as-interruption. In his texts, reflections on writing turn out to be reflections on death itself. Take this example. June 6, 1912. Early in the day, he read the following in a letter by Flaubert (another obsessive writer, like himself):
"My novel is the cliff on which I am hanging, and I know nothing of what is going on in the world."
Kafka too (as he points out in the same entry) had written something similar a month earlier, on the 9th of May:
"Yesterday evening in the coffee-house with Pick. How I hold fast to my novel against all restlessness, like a figure on a monument that looks into the distance and holds fast to its pedestal."
Things of separation from the world, in both Flaubert and Kafka. Writing, producing the novel, is an act whereby connections are severed. While writing, the writer is no longer of-the-world. He lives in the act of writing, not in life itself. Life has been interrupted, and writing is that mighty interruption. And to confirm this, later in the day of June 6, Kafka returns to the thought, this time with a self-directed observation:
"Without weight, without bones, without body, walked through the streets for two hours considering what I overcame this afternoon while writing."

What Kafka had overcome while writing is obvious, from this quote as well as from other entries in his Diary: life itself, that barrier to writing, that succession of happenings which makes reflection impossible, that thing which writing is a pause of. Weightless, boneless, bodiless, the writer parts with his biology in order to operate within the metabiological territory of his own writing. And thus the gap is opened, room is made, the cessation of life is made apparent. In order to write, the writer must die. Self-inflicted death, no doubt – an artifact pure and simple.