Monday, 19 January 2015

Of writing and rogues

I want to think about writing as a picaresque adventure (and this shouldn't necessarily be accurate, nor indeed in accordance with any of the serious theories of genres). That, of course, requires some clarification as to what the picaresque is in the first place.

Long out of use, the genre of the picaresque is the illustrious predecessor of the novel. One of very many. Taken as per its form, it resembles very much its offspring, in the sense of being an extended narrative with a variable number of characters, most of which are secondary and episodic, and a central figure, the picaro, who, an errant fellow, is observed in his daily wanderings in pursuit of an essential goal: his raison d'être. There's plot and a certain degree of development, as well as an obvious characterological determinism, all of which make the picaresque genre a good candidate to the title of proto-novel. Now of course, there will be an enormous amount of theory to explain how the two are to be differentiated. Mikhail Bakhtin is perhaps the best (and certainly most often used) resource insofar as this distinction is concerned. I am not interested in that theory here, but I want to pick on one particular aspect, one that might give blood and sinew to my interest in writing.


That element is the journey. It is customarily said that the picaro evolves along a straight line, his adventures being mere advancements from point A to point B to point C etc. This is, indeed, the case, although it is not exactly obvious as to how this projection must unfold in a linear fashion. In truth, the evolution of the picaresque hero is organized in accordance with the strictest rules of hazard. Hazard, which, if definitions don't fail me, means pure accident, pure unexpectedness, pure failure of the straight line. In the picaresque genre there is no immediate causality apart from the major one of the primary adventure, which may be thought of in terms of a beginning and an end (both weakly resolved), and also in terms of the common thread that traverses all individual episodes and makes them readable together. But apart from this, the tremendous amounts of events that make up the narrative of the picaresque don't fall in the category of the predetermined. The picaresque is not like Greek mythology, for instance, where characters (gods and humans alike) have to face the pain of predestination and die (death is an inevitable feature of the genre) only in order to justify the moralistic I-told-you approach to life.

Source: Tina Negus
The picaro, therefore, is not a tragic figure. He couldn't really be, since he's a low-status character, a rogue. His tribulations are considerable, he is likely to encounter pain and terror along the way but he never falls from the status he was invested with in the very beginning (there's really nowhere lower to fall from rogueness). Most importantly, he only dies (if ever) of old, very old age.
So, back to the journey.
The events that make up the narrative of the picaresque are, as I said, not linear. One can see that aspect in the hero's perpetual return to a point of origin: every next episode is another link, independent in itself, but part of the larger chain that makes up the cycle. With every adventure, the chain grows, but the justification of the entire undertaking is not forgotten. Every step of the way some adventure awaits, some unexpected challenge pops up, some villain clutters the horizon, some fight needs to be picked, some tricks need to be played. And all this in order to develop a sense of continuity, which is otherwise inexistent.
Spatially speaking, the picaro is an unsettled character. He has no settlement because he is destined to carry on this long story that keeps growing. If there is unity and linearity, they must be sought in the chronological ordering of events; more precisely, in the narrative time. Given A as a starting point and B as a point of arrival, there is nothing to deter the accomplishment of the feat set out in the beginning. The picaro almost always succeeds. A stable place doesn’t exist, since all that matters is the movement from A to B to C etc. Time, however, matters, because of this idea of the again that governs the dynamic of the picaresque. The episodes characteristic to the genre are mere digressions: they turn the clock back, as in Groundhog Day, only the scene is filled with new adventures every time. Digressions without a backbone, these are, but still digressions. That method of narrative procrastination so dear to eighteenth-century novelists (Smollett, Fielding, Sterne) has its roots in these picaresque wanderings of a rascal who fools the world again and again.

… and writing

So now I want to look at writing from a perspective similar to what I've outlined so far. Writing has this episodic aspect to it. In writing, one starts off on a journey which has its raison d'être in its accomplishment. There's no writing task that doesn't reach an end. And every such ending marks the episodic character of the craft itself.
What's more, the attributes of the picaro can be transferred to the writer: the character of this story of writing, its protagonist. Since writing is a journey, the writer is a traveller. In the case of professional writing, authors move from one text to another remaining, essentially, the same. Of course, there's progress, and we're usually taught to distinguish between different phases in a writer's oeuvre; but in essence we have the same person performing the same actions by means of the same personal abilities (sometimes called 'talent,' other times called 'genius,' or, at the lower scale of the hierarchy, the lack thereof).

Source: Tina Negus
When it comes to nonprofessional writers, i.e. those of us who fill in applications, complete request letters, devise shopping lists, copy Lotto numbers at the end of the week, this episodic nature of writing is even easier to comprehend. When the same person partakes in all of the above, they do so without their social (et al) qualities changing a bit. They are the same, no matter how many things they write down. At the same time, they also complete tasks, and, along with them, journey on, taking step after step, experiencing the richness of the world and its demands as tricks of compliance. One might say that they fool the system by giving it exactly what the system demands. So that when one fills in an application form one presents oneself solely as an application-filler. In order for the writer to be perceived in their complexity, they need to be seen as simultaneity. And that simultaneity can be accomplished if that writer is regarded from the perspective of the craft they have employed: Writing. The bridge between operations (or episodes) is created by this thin membrane of the craft – writing is their common ground, their narrative logic, the transparent film that keeps everything together.
So writing does operate like a picaresque novel. It brings together all disparate tasks, all tricks, and all adventures, so as to enable the emergence of the writing subject. This subject uses the means provided by the craft to further their own interests. At the end of the process, there's no real progression. One doesn't become better simply because one has successfully finished a task. One hasn't acquired higher moral status simply because one has filled in the right form, at the right time, in the right manner. By writing down what writing itself has requested (its being brought into existence), the writer has shown his bravery: the valour of having mastered the demands of writing. It's not literacy I'm talking about here, but a sense of accomplishment that comes with the subject's immersing in one task in order to become free of all the other tasks ever aimed at him/her.
The picaro, if regarded from this perspective, is also someone who uses the features of the narrative art to gain pre-eminence over the world. While the world stops to contemplate the task, the picaro is free to do all the other things that make him a rascal. While a fair-goer stoops to look through the pinhole of a peepshow, the thief (the same as the owner of the show) is free to pick his pockets.