Friday, July 08, 2011

Without Quotations: Impossible Writing

Without Quotations: Impossible Writing[1]

"On keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one's private, secret thoughts - like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it."

"Writing. It's corrupting to write with the intent to moralize, to elevate people's moral standards."

"Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little-ego building - such as the fait accompli this journal provides - I shall with through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said. My "I" is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane men, critics, correct them - but their sanity is parasitic on the creative fatuity of genius.[2]"

-Susan Sontag, Diaries, entries from 1958

Writing, to begin with, I must add, is not something that I really wanted to do anyway, not because one would not feel the immediate attraction to the written word, after all, that’s all where Judaism –whether one has accepted it or condemned it, has derived all its strength from, after the manner of that morning prayer: “The world is sustained by three things, the Torah, the worship and the acts of charity[3], however the study of the Torah, of the written law, precedes them all. It is there, in the written word where faith has started to begin with. The fact of writing had become already too early, into a surrogate for geography and why not, for love, love is always associated with places where we have been happy – “Talland House in Sussex became in Virginia’s imagination more than just a large square building new the sea in Cornwall. It is where she sites, for the whole of her life, her idea of happiness… Happiness is always measured for her against the memory of being a child in that house[4] –Or unhappy. “This time, unhappy love, sempiternal, has an additional declension[5]”. And unless we are speaking of Christian agape, love as passion is never abstract or disassociated from the vast vaults of locatedness in memory and time. However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving[6]”. This presumptuous activity, in which labor and action and production are virtually indistinguishable from each other, is certainly one great replacement for love and of particular importance when such love is beginning to pick up flight or going up in flames. One doesn’t choose to write, it just happens when the resources to cope with the world as it was, run out, and then it was absolutely necessary to resist reality after its own fashion, to remake the world: “None of the following essays was, I hope, written without awareness of the facts of our time and without awareness of the Jewish fate in our century. But I believe and hope that I have not in any of them taken up a position on the basis of those facts alone, that I have not accepted the world created by those facts as necessary and indestructible[7]. It is impossible here to ‘technically’ decide whether the resource kept at bay here is anywhere in between transformation and avoidance. This writing of course is well different from transcription, the tireless labor of historiography and journalism in recording the heroic deeds of man as in Homer or simply decoding the rough bundle of events that the way we live now, is made of. “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster[8].

People often point a finger and not unreasonably so, that if one’s going to write anyway – and this is point, this is no longer the journals one used to jot down in cafeterias at the age of thirteen while he was learning how to smoke and even worse, how to love without embodiment in the flesh, how to love without defying the metaphysics of the worlds below and above, it is no longer anything in the category of “Memories of a Catholic girlhood” – a commeasurable degree of understanding and hence of comprehensibility is demand, a simple relatedness to the world around oneself is more important perhaps than the aesthetic appeal which only oneself might have access to. “Focus on the forces around you more than the books in front of you[9]. What has become of ourselves? It is the question that first gets asked during labor and pangs of birth of anyone who write, at whichever age it happens, rather and who are we becoming, for we cannot find out who are for as long as we are alive. The introspection however, albeit it always hints at a certain style of auto-biography at work (and each and every work of literature and philosophy is self-revealing and involuntarily disclosing in this respect) is not located in the endless contemplation of oneself in a mirror but reveals itself more as the innocent child staring into his image in the stream of water but more occupied with the vertical blueprints of the skies passing rapidly and hanging him from the feet into this bifocal suspension in which time flows much more rapidly than it was thought but yet not enough to interrupt the slow physicality of the world. For many, it is a recipient against death and there are many kinds of death, far more enormous than the mere exhaling of the soul out of its own breath, when the composition of reality is indistinguishable from the mere facts of sharing in the natural cycles of the earth. At the same time, writing and literature, though instrumental in freedom, cannot achieve any of the ultimate political ends of the Polis, that is, to deter death. “There is no remedy for death; not even health. A healthy man, however, has the strength to continue towards the grave. The sick man invokes death and lets himself be carried away in mortal fear. In health, even death comes at the proper time. Health is on good terms with Death. It knows that when the Grim Reaper comes he will remove his stone mask and catch the flickering torch from the anxious and weary and disappointed hands of Brother Life; it knows that he will dash it on the ground and extinguish it, but it also knows that only then the full brilliance of the nocturnal sky will brightly glow. It knows that it will be accepted into the open arms of Death. Life’s eloquent lips are put to silence and the eternally Taciturn One will speak: “Do you finally recognize me? I am your brother.[10]

There’s no such a thing as not fearing death whilst one writes, or not fearing altogether – at the possibility of self-effacement. Throughout the idle hours, it becomes impossible to be content at the contemplation of the deity, and all the hours before and after something is consummated as writing – the ultimate alternatively solipsistic and yet concrete possibility, are dead vacuity, all the philosophical terminology must be avoided, it is an ululation, a close-up on buzzing bees, unnecessary background noise while the pears and the mangos at a standstill remain locked in the canvas waiting for a yet richer frame that will describe them in their namelessness. All the names for all things are nothing but invented mindless gaps between one inert titillation and the next. The guilt becomes unbearable, the more elaborately he happens to exist, all the more increasingly devious and unavoidable the guilt. It is a protracted and exaggerated by the common fatuity in which the lines between the imagined and the desirable are juxtaposed and replace the world with all its treasures, with the willingness to live within, from without, externally constrained, such as olives pressed against puremost oil that was already sifted. Yet everything mortally bearable and incomplete: “Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still we want desperately to live. It has to do with all this, she thinks[11]”. It has to do with this re-affirmation, for, giving in to the abandonment, to the curious and cruel logic of what is not understood would be equivalent of resignation and therefore of the mindless acceptance of the fact of death; this violent will, to be raptured, to be destroyed, to live in such a criminal reckless way, it is a poor surrogate for secular sanctity, the abeyance of aberrant destinies, owned up to and otherwise, it is a parsimonious replacement for freedom, for the kind of freedom that doesn’t accept the boundaries of politics, that doesn’t see itself as a birth right, there’s something absolutely exclusive and solitary in this. He writes because he wants to live, but he’s unable to find out a way that is either right or wrong. A dwelling in the lower places, the Midrash would say, a fixed situatedness free from the geography from which in turn one has been excluded by simple observation. “Let me then be destroyed. For that is the only way I may have a chance of surviving. Let those feelings uniquely call forth sexual love, my life’s passion and pain, my learnt desirability figured out of primeval undesirability, let them prevail… This time I want to do it differently. You may be weaker than the whole world but you are always stronger than yourself. Let me send my power against my power. So what if I die. Let me discover what is it that I wanted and fear from love. Power and love, might and grace. That I might desire again. I would be the Lover, and barely the Beloved. I have not yet told the whole of this story. This time, unhappy love, sempiternal, has an additional declension.[12]

There is no permission to do any of this, it cannot be achieved, the transgression itself is an alphabet of murder, it must violate some rules, certainly those of life and death, increasingly those of order, there will be a lot of undialectical damage, inflicted upon too many directions, returning, flying overhead, landing stealthily, leaving him in possession of nothing but himself at a point in time when he cannot be and have at the same time. Dreams come in handy: “A hundred and thirty-five years ago Rahel Varnhagen jotted down the following dream: she had died and gone to heaven, together with her friends Bettina von Arnim and Caroline von Humboldt. To relieve themselves of the burdens they had acquired in their lives, the three friends assigned themselves the task of inquiring into the worst thing they had experienced. Rahel thus asked: Did you know disappointed love? The other two women broke into tears, and all three thus relieved this burden from their hearts. Rahel asked further: Did you know disloyalty? Sickness? Worry? Anxiousness? Each time the women said yes, they cried, and again all three were relieved of their burdens. Finally Rahel asked: Did you know disgrace? As soon as this word had been spoken, there was a hushed silence, and the two friends took their distance from Rahel and looked at her in a disturbed and strange manner. Then did Rahel know that she was entirely alone and that this burden could not be taken away from her heart. And then she awoke[13]”.

The personal confessions, those of the epistolary and sentimental kind become rather useless, for every confession is a betrayal[14] that is why so many bonds become fatuous and break before a language has been achieved. This sort of freedom, emancipation if you want, cannot be achieved by charity, cannot be achieved by sympathy, cannot be achieved by condescending love or by forgiveness even, either by the world or people once one loved; it has to be endured on one’s own, and it is not an endurance more than the passage of time is. One has to resort to the rigor of a discipline, the voices of the street are too loud and philosophy in turn is too blind. Discipline in writing is a dangerous perspective in which the personal Protestantism amalgamates with the public Judaism of fathers and of promises broken in unsafe rhythms of faith. “He found no way – not even Nietzsche’s example – of bringing his inner emotional turmoil into his philosophy, his discipline, his art. Philosophy remained cleverness, a game, but not a stage on life’s way, it remained aesthetic without an oeuvre, as did everything and everyone else for him[15]”. Writing, both resourceful and a recourse, though spiteful, remains a way of life, a sort of living as if without music and resorts endlessly to the ideal silence of the modern aesthetician that finds the ultimately pleasure in finding his oeuvre dismembered, severed from the world, ripped into shreds and vanish into oblivion, a kind of smug even more intolerable and arrogant than writing for the sake of imparting moral instruction in a Socratic manner. The path should be otherwise, always prioritizing freedom over beauty. Intimate is not always necessarily the nearest or the most credible, as much as it is a departure from the genius into the abyss of the visionary, the prophet. This interior labyrinth, free from the eternal dullness of confession and sincere enough to live in the first persona, being narrator, narrated and story-teller simultaneously. The fear can never be completely dispelled lest truth be annulated and deprived of its magic powers that be, and this fear is not necessarily the Victorian inability to live and the author that perished from love more than it is the certainty of the presumptionlessness of history and thinking for life. Life, such a horrible and pretentious ridiculous word when used in literature and philosophy. The suffering writer must die, he is of no use for truth, and he might as well teach Bible in Sunday school, the real ailing is not personal suffering that stands in radical opposition to universality and to human communication, for, the suffering subject is always ever so absent, it has become an object. It is but the complete lack of foundations in the edifice of knowledge, from where all anger and thus egregious potential of living and reality is derived. Philosophers who blame philosophy for the ills of civilization have themselves lost the ability to perceive the difference between thought and being, thought and action. It is they who expunge the difference between fantasy and actuality, between the megalomania projected on to reason and the irreverent forces which determine the outcome of actual conflicts. They have inflated the power of philosophical reason, conferring on it a suppositious dangerous potency. It is the philosophers, not reason, who thereby degrade the independence of political realities and contingencies. Terrified of their own inner insecurity at the border between rationality and conflict, between the new academic political Protestantism and politics as the art of the possible, they proceed as if to terminate philosophy would be to dissolve the difficulty of acknowledging conflict and of staking oneself within it. To destroy philosophy, to abolish or to supersede critical, self-conscious reason, would leave us resource-less to know the difference between fantasy and actuality, to discern the distortion between ideas and their realization. It would prevent the process of learning, the corrigibility of experience. This ill-will towards philosophy misunderstands the authority of reason, which is not the mirror of the dogma of superstition, but risk. Reason, the critical criterion, is forever without ground.[16]   

“Keep your mind in hell, and despair not[17]”.

[1] Dedicated to my lifetime friend and inspiration, Katherina Olschbaur
[2] Susan Sontag, “Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963”, Penguin, 2009
[3] Jewish liturgy prayer
[4] Hermione Lee, “Virginia Woolf”, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996, pp.22, in Janine Burke, “Source: Nature’s Healing Role in Art & Writing”, Allen & Unwin, 2009, pp.186
[5] Gillian Rose, “Love’s Work”, Vintage, 1997, pp.69
[6] Gillian Rose, Ibid. pp.54
[7] Hannah Arendt, “Widmung an Karl Jaspers”, in “Sechs Essays”, Heidelberg, 1948
[8] John Updike, “Introduction” in Bruno Schulz, “Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass”, Penguin, 1979  
[9] Wayne Cristaudo, Letter, 2011
[10] Franz Rosenzweig, “Understanding the Sick and the Healthy”, Harvard University Press, 1999, pp.103
[11] Michael Cunningham, “The Hours”, Picador, 2000,  pp.15
[12] Gillian Rose, Ibid. pp.66&69
[13] Hannah Arendt, “Juden in der Welt von Gestern: Anlaesslich Stefan Zweig”, in “Sechs Essays”, Heidelberg, 1948. Paraphrased from the letters of Rahel.
[14] Rahel Varnhagen
[15] Gillian Rose, Ibid. pp.103
[16] Gillian Rose, Ibid. pp.118-119
[17] Silouan The Athonite 

No comments: