Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Haunting the pursuit

Lately I've been wrestling with Stephen Mitchelmore's beautiful and difficult post reviewing Jeff Fort's The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett. (I say "lately"; I'm always wrestling with Mitchelmore's thought.) When I first read the post it filled me with what I can only call a sense of wonder; my struggle to "understand" was always leavened (if such a struggle needs leavening) by moments in which something I've always felt but only in recent years have begun to allow myself to take seriously seemed to rise to the surface with startling clarity, a feeling quite different from that of comprehension.
All three writers trail in the wake of the Kantian revolution in which reason replaced divine authority, disabling in its wake the religious function of art. In what Fort calls a cruel compulsion, but might also be called a categorical imperative, the artist, philosopher or scientist is nevertheless left with reason's immanent drive to colonise what is beyond its limits, what we might call the ideal or the sublime. In doing so the imagination substitutes an image for the departed authority (hence words like 'ideal' and 'sublime'). In art this appears to have no more than a decorative function, while in more rational discourse it is a means of dismissing what cannot be contained. Resisting both, Fort argues the specific condition – the imperative to write – is the echo of the sublime behind the attractive images, which makes the impulse to write fiction significant. The echo is heard in the uncanny space of Kafka's castle village, Beckett's 'timeless void' and Blanchot's 'literary space'; images haunting the pursuit of the ideal into the fictional void...
My (over-)emphasis. I could have chosen any of a number of such passages. As I read this, I thought of something Gabriel Josipovici said in an interview given on the occasion of his great novel Infinity, when the interviewer asked him about learning from other writers: "I'm not sure one learns anything from other writers, except the confidence to go at things in one's own way." I would put the similar feeling I have in terms of permission: for in a general climate that disdains and ridicules such feelings as the "specific condition" Fort and Mitchelmore are writing about, I for one needed — and in many ways continue to need — to feel that I'd been granted permission to take such feelings in myself seriously, to attempt to bring them out and indeed, as Mitchelmore had put it earlier, to find a way to write by "subjecting the writing to the condition." Which is not to say that I've as yet been successful in this art of failure. But simply knowing that it is possible, that these inchoate things I've felt as long as I've known that Writing Is A Thing I Should Do matter, is the only thing that has made writing — which was quite literally impossible in the hellish experience of an MFA writing program, and in the devastation that followed for years afterwards — possible.

I'm writing this half out of gratitude — to Steve, to Josipovici, to Richard who was the first to grant me this permission and started me on this path; to the other writers the path has led me to, including the ones Fort writes about and others; to those whose perspectives (or attempts to hold onto and/or form perspectives) outside of "the Kantian revolution", or outside of colonizing Western thought, help keep me aware that there could exist something else, even if it's too late for me — and half out of anger at all those who make it so difficult to grant oneself this permission by noisily insisting that such feelings do not exist, that reason is sufficient, that adding more writing to a clogged and indifferent market is the whole of a life's work. This is why, for example, Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy made me so upset even as I liked it, and why I was so grateful for Agota Kristof's trilogy which I read at about the same time. (It's also why VanderMeer's more recent attempt to seize Clarice Lispector for genre and assimilate her to a pile of "similar writers" — as "the weird" tries to do to so many — bothered me far beyond the eye-rollingly overheated prose.)

For years I would start writing stories much like any other, stories whose disembodied narrators had unproblematic access to The Truth Of What Happened, stories that sought to ignore the nagging feeling in me that I was doing something terribly wrong, being untrue to myself and the world, and to no justifiable purpose. When I never finished them, when they screamed at my neglect for months and months until I destroyed them unwritten, I castigated myself for my laziness, not yet knowing that it was possible to let myself feel these other buried impulses, and to come to the work through them, rather than using glib writing to paper over them. Laziness is real, and at this point I have to admit to myself that it will always be with me, but simply knowing that something else was going on, and that I had permission to care about it, is the one thing that has made my writing, such as it is, possible — my work on this blog as much as the fiction that (with one uncharacteristic exception) has not yet been exposed to The Public, both of which are aspects of this same impulse.

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