Monday, 12 January 2015

Writing and (a special kind of) memory

Writing is, on many levels, work with memories. How we remember dictates how we write. The more deficient our memory, the more frustrating our texts.

Writing involves remembering ideological, cultural stratagems proven to have worked in ideological, cultural pasts. It involves, as well, remembering strategies that didn't work according to the rules of the powers that be: dislocations, rebellions, sidesteps that enabled, at some point or other, a walk on the wild side, a new attempt, an innovation, a whiff of freshness, a step ahead. But these are large instances I'm talking about. They have social, communal resonances. They grow across groups and communities. They are not understood in terms of solitude or isolation.
What I'm interested in bringing up here, where I want to discuss the issue of memory in relation to writing, is something very personal, something impossible to dislocate from individuals. This kind of understanding of memory involves, most significantly, remembering the interior architecture of a writer's mind.

The angry writer

Like all technologies, which exist in order to be employed and are discarded as soon as they have fulfilled their purpose, writing is a means to an end. With writing, one uses a very specific technology in order to give visual shape to a mental preformation. As it's apparent from this very sentence, writing comes after something: after a thought, after an idea, after an outline, after a project, after a hope. It is its coming-after that makes writing both interesting and unreliable, since in this way writing appears as a second-tier operation, which not only relies on something else, prior to and possibly better than itself, but also on the representability of that 'something else.'
What is, indeed, absolutely necessary in order for any text whatsoever to be given form is the anterior existence of a conceptual preformation. Even to a Surrealist, who might argue that automatic writing is possible, thought formations (intentionality, agency, conscious use of writing technologies) are inevitable. So that every materialization (in writing or otherwise) is a materialization of an abstraction. We must agree at least on this. But by agreeing we also enter the territory where writing is at its most irritating. We enter the space where the task of writing angers the writer, where it causes mental blockages, where it generates psychoses.

A writer's frustration is often caused by this crucial difficulty they have in facing the shape, the sound, the colour of a thought. It often happens that I cannot, for the soul of me, turn the perfection I found in my mind into a sentence of equal perfection.
I am not bragging here when I say "perfection." All creative thoughts, mine or anybody else's, present themselves as perfections, insofar as they appear to us as yet-unmaterialized, i.e. yet-unspoiled by the intervention of tools, operations, conventions. A thought that exists in its state of thoughtness is perfect because it is. And also (less philosophically) because it makes us happy. A creative thought that matters always brings joy: on the one hand because of this pristine state in which it exists, and on the other hand because of the prospect it makes apparent: the possibility of something to appear from (apparently) nothing.
So when I find myself incapable of reproducing that thought, I am simply plagued by the pain of losing that former perfection.
Let's take the example of a description in a literary text. There's the place, there's me, the observer, there's the observation, there's the possibility opened inside my mind of describing that place. All elements are in place, and yet something is missing. And that something is the reason I'm failing in my attempt to write down the said description.

The missing thing

What I find out when I think about this situation is that it is not the world that's returning to me as a descriptive impossibility. Neither is there some lexical shortage that's causing this impotence in me. What I become aware of when I'm in this impasse is the presumably simple connection between my mind and the creative act I'm performing. What becomes apparent, I think, is that this connection has been severed. So that the world of thoughts and the world of words remain isolated from each other. But I want to see this severance as a problem of memory. What I lose when thoughts and words become separated is this memory of the perfection that once existed in my mind. And then I need to start employing stratagems. I start devising metaphors, word combinations, all in the hope of reproducing, through the most trivial of ways, the state of bliss that stood at the foundation of the entire exercise.
I would liken this situation to that situation familiar to all mortals: the thing that happens when we dream and then forget the very dream that had caused a stir in our mind. When we are compelled to recount such a dream to an outsider, we need to employ associations, we need to approximate, to invent, to build the entire dream anew, to create.

Did I do this?

As with dreams, we forget, in writing, the frenzy that lived in our mind, the state of exceptionality that caused a short-circuit in our mental apparatus. The complexity of the dream, its appeal, is equal to the enthusiasm I feel engulfed in when I find myself capable of a beautiful thought. Everything starts from this awe that comes back to me with every creative brainwork: 'Have I, indeed, been capable of such a feat of thinking?' This question, I have to admit it, is the expression of a reflective suspicion. With this wonderment, I implicitly concede that I have seldom imagined myself capable of thinking such thoughts, of conceiving such beauties, of conjuring up such efficiencies. And because this expression of stupefaction is so prominent, it overwhelms the very substance of the thought that I was about to express. In the dream state, it is the awakening that obliterates the dream: the surprise I experience at finding out that the dream has been mere phantasy, a Cartesian demon, perhaps, who has succeeded in deceiving me. This surprise, this terror I wake up to, is laid over the bridge between dreams and so-called reality. It is laid over it and, therefore, obliterates it. Hence the surprise, hence the loss of memory.

The way from thought to word is forgotten in a similar way. And all because of that state of stupefaction. 'Have I, really, been able of such perfection?'

The if of expression

It is only by discovering myself as capable of thinking (of producing/creating/building by means of mental processes) that I also find in me the need to discover expression. This is a realisation that caused Cioran to think that writing was a terrible mistake. This, as well as a deep mistrust in signification, which is (must be) on the agenda of all philosophers and artists. With the intervention of signs, the chaotic game of memories is shattered. Signs make memory unnecessary. A word, a painting, a cathedral, appear precisely in order to elude recollection. You don't need to remember the features of a text, the plot of a novel, an extraordinary line in a dramatic piece, the magnificence of a cathedral, since that text, that novel, that dramatic piece, that cathedral will be there for you tomorrow, next year, next decade. Every text is virtually immortal, virtually impossible to erase. Even if (or mostly when) nobody has read it.
A light bulb forgotten in a drawer doesn't lose its ability to shine, even if it has never been removed from its confinement. A word I'm writing on a page is a sign I am consciously employing in my attempt to re-create the consistency of a thought or, more precisely, in my attempt at making apparent writing's inherent potential to represent my thoughts.
To be noted: a potential is not a guarantee! That's why I'm so frustrated when things don't turn out the way I wanted: because I know it's possible, and because, at the same time, I know I'm not there yet.

All translations are by definition imperfect

'Getting there' is my problem. Getting-there which is, in fact, a question of remembering the way back – a question of returning. The return – the impasse of every translation, of every rendition.
It's not some insufficiency on the part of languages that makes me think of translation as impossible. I am rather inclined to think that the same model of the short-circuited memory is the one that can bring light to this impasse of rendition as well. I am incapable of perfect translations because I cannot remember which one of the multiple versions is the right one. Not to forget that this problem is also due to another defective memory, to which I don't have access at all: the memory of the original source, the first author. And so, from approximation to approximation, forward we move, authors and translators alike, all authors as translators, all translators as forgetful artists.
With these approximations, the problem of the transfer proves, once again, to be a problem of delivery. How to hand over the product without ruining the merchandise? How to transfer the thought without turning it into something else? How to use words to say what was there in the beginning, in the mind? I wish I had good answers to these questions. They would make me a perfect writer. But since I don't have them I am doomed to be what I've always been: a biped imperfection, an endless list of attempts.