On Sundays, like all dutiful sons with pretensions to virtue, I call my father. My father is ninety-four years old, a veteran of the conveyor business. Though rust has now corroded his energies his mind’s motor grinds on, bearing a revolving freight of anxieties, irritations, and deflating remarks. “Still working on that novel?” he demanded recently, as he often does—as, let’s face it, he always does.
,” I said, or some monosyllable to that effect.
“I only ask because I’ve been doing some math here, and it seems to be taking you a lot longer than it used to.”
“Possibly so,” I said. “Though you ask me about it a lot more than you used to, too.”
“It just seems like a long time, that’s all I’m saying. Doesn’t it seem like a long time to you?”
“To be honest,” I said, as I do when I’m not being honest, “it’s never crossed my mind.” Then I hung up, or rather pressed the phone face-down on my desk with both hands, like a lid below which all the rumbling Oedipal discontents of a lifetime boiled and hissed.
All things considered it was a pretty typical conversation with my father—and with me too, frankly. Nonetheless like most of our conversations it did not so much end when it was over as fester and swell, like an unchecked infection in my head. Why was
I writing so slowly, and in such invisible ink? When had
that started? What did
it mean? And most important, when and how would it end
? Perhaps, on some level to which I lacked access, this was actually a good thing, I told myself, or in any case not a bad one. But whatever that level was, I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t access it.
So I began to look around for other levels instead. Other levels, and other models. Whether I did so for inspiration or instruction—or maybe just consolation—didn’t matter. It was the looking that appealed to me. As long as I kept looking, the future seemed pliable to me, open-ended, expansive. It was the finding I dreaded. The dark knowledge that shuts things down for good.
“We lie down
,” writes Don Paterson, “when the length of our shadows becomes intolerable
.” The suggestive logic of this mordant little epigram seems almost tautological. I like the sneaky reverse-engineering of its syntax: the movement from action (or its failure) to depletion to weary, self-lacerating judgement. Here is the writer at the end of the day, struggling to keep him/herself vertical. Top-heavy lies the crown, when it sits on that huge, clogged up head, crusty and sodden with old impressions. It’s like a used coffee filter: not much gets through. A lugubrious trickle. A slow, attenuated drip. Even a writer as muscular and propulsive as Conrad knew the taste of that acrid brew:
I never mean to be slow. The stuff comes out at its own rate… I seem to have lost all sense of style and yet I am haunted by the necessity of style. And that story I can’t write weaves itself into all I see … I feel my brain. I am distinctly conscious of the contents of my head. My story is there in a fluid—in an evading shape. I can’t get hold of it … any more than you can grasp a handful of water. “I am distinctly conscious of the contents of my head.”
Writers and neurotics everywhere—presuming these are two different categories—can identify all too well with the desperation and the lucidity of this cri de couer
: the creative mind under assault by its own profusion, its own largely self-generated phantoms. Desperation is an unreliable fuel source; it burns out quickly, and doesn’t always move you forward. But suppose burning out for some people is a way
of moving forward, that writers are at their best and most free when they’re at their worst and most stuck. The usual exits blocked, the usual fluencies and facilities stymied. Might that account for how much great writing has been done over the years about the impossibility of great writing? How much verbal intensity has been achieved by cataloguing the failures of language to do any justice to the reality of experience at all?
Take the narrator, if you can call him that, of Beckett’s Unnameable
They’re (the words) going to stop, I know that well: I can feel it. They’re going to abandon me. It will be the silence, for a moment (a good few moments). Or it will be mine? The lasting one, that didn’t last, that still lasts?
I am suffering from a frightful malady of the mind, a kind of erosion. My thoughts evade me in every way possible. There is something that is destroying my thinking, something that does not prevent me from being what I might be, but which leaves me in abeyance; a something furtive which takes away the words I have found … which diminishes my intensity, which takes away from me even the memory of the devices and figures of speech by which one expresses oneself.
You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word. Ideas come very easily with you, incessantly, like a stream. With me it is a tiny thread of water.
Or Kafka:7 February.
Complete standstill. Unending torments.
You get the idea. After a few of these florid complaints, your gentle reader has doubtless had her fill. Who can blame her? There’s something more than a little indulgent in them, the relish of a child picking at a scab. If Einstein is right that a problem can’t be solved with the same tools and at the same level of consciousness that created it, why try?
Possibly the best solution for that over-clogged filter of ours, in short, is to just give it a rest. Put it away for a while. Stop pouring in words and thoughts. Just, you know, shut the fuck up.
In Silence: The Phenomenon and Its Ontological Significance
, Bernard P. Dauenhauer laments the failure of artistic discourse to capture a universe “unencompassable in discourse.” He describes a process of unfolding, a “fore-and-after silence” that allows space for evolution of expression. We see this same impulse in Emerson: “Let us be silent, for so are the gods. Silence is a solvent that destroys personality.” For Emerson, a kind of homegrown Buddhist, the destruction of personality is something to be encouraged. And who would argue with that? What strong personality doesn’t secretly wish to be relieved of itself?
So maybe that’s the answer. A little constructive silence. An interlude of retreat. Enough with the digging and sifting like a gold-miner, trying to unearth the world’s treasures. Enough with the forging in the smithy of one’s soul. Maybe just chill out. Take some instruction from
Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keeping Quiet”:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Maybe so. Though I doubt it. To my nose this poem, and the sentiment behind it, carries a slight whiff of perfume. Like patchouli, a little goes a long way. Pretty as it is to think so, most of us are incapable of sitting still around the campfire, counting mindfully to twelve. We prefer life in the other camp, the noisy, lit-up side of the lake. There’s no time
over there to sit around; there’s too many books to write, too much status and money to hunter-gather, too many resentments and grievances to compile. Maybe, we think, if our engines are going to shut down at some point anyway, we should go ahead and use them while we still can. Better to keep slogging down that twisted Via Dolorosa called a literary career, bearing our crosses, than to pull over and snooze. After all it’s the road—the life—we’ve chosen. No one forced us to do it. So why complain? As my father, that tireless pundit, is forever calling to remind me, These are the jokes, so you better start laughing
And indeed it can
be funny, the flailings of the long distance writer, struggling to stay afloat atop an ocean of turbulent silence. Is that waving, or drowning? Who can tell? (“Man possesses four things that are no good at sea,” Machado tells us. “Anchor, rudder, oars, and the fear of going down.”) But that same fear bears us up, too. That fear keeps us going–blindly, unthinkingly, mechanically–makes us carry on with our writing as a drowning person might be said to carry on with their swimming: because it’s the only way we know of to stay alive.
Or maybe that’s too grand a statement. Maybe it’s just business, a professional thing. When you’re a pro, you’re supposed to go on being a pro all the way. And a pro shows up for work. “A professional makes the pot boil,” says Henry James, “it’s the only basis of sanity and freedom.” Never mind that his own meals were insanely elaborate affairs, full of bedazzling tasting menus and finicky triple-jointed feats of molecular gastronomy. At heart poor Henry is just another fry cook, churning out the specials, or so he’d have us think. Anyway the point stands: if you want to call yourself a working artist, you have to go on working, being artistic. Even if in the wrong hands the former often comes at the expense of the latter.
James’s own hands, it goes without saying, were fully capable of juggling both. But then he wasn’t just a pro, but a Master, a consummate practitioner of an arcane, demanding craft. But say you’re not a Master. Say you’re just gifted. Say you’re just gifted and driven and vain enough to have successfully convinced yourself you may
be a Master someday. Say that you feel, by virtue of your gift and drive and vanity, that you are one of the Chosen, summoned to your vocation’s altar and bestowed with a sacred scroll, crowned with gold, where the mythos of life on earth is latently inscribed, waiting to be incanted into song. Surely that would help keep you peppy and productive. As for the rest of us, we have to go on muddling along as best we can. Not everyone can be the Chosen after all. The numbers don’t pan out. There’s no meaning to being the Chosen if there isn’t a much larger body of the Not-Chosen to be Chosen from
. That’s how it works.
But writing of course is not a gift. If it were
a gift, it would be no big deal to misplace it, or return it, or even casually throw it away. But writing, it gives me no pleasure to report, is a job. Plodding, methodical, even borderline bourgeois. The stability it requires, the quotidian habits and routines, the tolerance for that boring, humdrum labor of making something out of nothing, laying one sentence down after another (“Like a donut-maker
,” in DeLillo’s famous phrase, “only slower
”) atop an invisible and unstable foundation—none of this is cool or glamorous. Any romantic edge it might offer quickly wears away under the rasp of repetition. All that’s left is the writing itself. That’s the bottom line. The writer, simply speaking, is someone who writes. The rest is commentary.
This becomes all too clear by the way when one stops writing for a while, and then resumes. “When I begin to write after a long interval,” Kafka notes in his diary, “I draw the words as if out of the empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew.” We’d like to think that writing, like riding a bicycle, is a muscle memory that can’t be forgotten. But it’s more like reconditioning
a bicycle. It takes a ludicrous amount of time, effort, and elbow grease, and meanwhile you’re stuck in the garage all day, tinkering with recalcitrant gears. No sun on your face, no wind in your hair, no downhill exhilaration. You feel like you may never get back on the road. You’re no longer even sure you want to. Your concentration and rage for speed have gone AWOL; your core hungers, the psychic wounds that have driven you forward, have mysteriously dried up, the scabs peeling away, leaving only the faintest of scars, stubbornly imprinted, like a terminal sentence in your own private penal colony.
Kafka himself understood this feeling all too well, if this short piece of his is any indication:
I can swim as well as the others, only I have a better memory than they do, so I have been unable to forget my formerly not being able to swim. Since I have been unable to forget it, being able to swim doesn’t help me, and I can’t swim after all.
The narrator here, like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, suffers a paralyzing surfeit of consciousness, one that paradoxically renders him incapable of doing what he knows he’s perfectly capable of doing. Perhaps on some level he prefers not to swim, but if so, he’s unaware of it. All he knows is he can’t. His ability to swim has slowed not just to a crawl, as it were, but a stop. In other words, his memory of swimming has been lapped so decisively by his memory of not-swimming that the appeal of swimming and/or not-swimming is more or less exhausted. Now he’s content, or anyway resigned, just to hang out by the side of the pool, reflecting on his own absence from the water—a vacancy that calls attention, as vacancies do, to what should be there, but isn’t. It reminds me of a line I read once in the diaries of another finicky, impacted Jewish writer: “I’ve written little because there is so much not to be said
Dave Chappelle, asked about his choice to disappear at the very height of his fame, replied: “It makes no sense at all. There’s nothing anyone can say. It’s just you do what you feel like you need to do.”
None of which applies, really, when you’re young and spry, just starting out. When you’re young and spry and just starting out, you tend to gaze out over the vocational landscape and see only the battles won. Triumphant generals leading crisp, orderly columns, swords gleaming in the light. But after you’ve endured a few wars yourself, you may begin to view things differently, training your binoculars around the margins of the battlefield, toting up the casualties and deserters, the wounded and missing along the way. It turns out to be quite a list. Here you thought God was on your
side; so why does he so often show up in the enemy’s uniform? The women as always suffer worst in this war, laying down arms to keep home and hearth going in ways Tillie Olsen, Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, and countless others have both fiercely and thoroughly documented. But the men don’t fare so great either. Some go broke, some get sick, some are lost in the woods, some go into hiding, some get hooked on anesthetizing drugs. Some can’t find the time to write, some find the time but not the words, some start things but don’t finish them, some finish things but can’t start them, some start and finish things but can’t or won’t publish them. True, everyone starts out with some degree of promise (“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “they first call promising”), but a good number start coasting after a while, and then gradually age out of the business. Some outgrow their own material. Some get weary of their own little moves. Some lose all tolerance for anxiety and isolation. Some, the opportunists, turn their losses into commodities, make a lucrative fetish of their own defeats.
And then there are the purists. The refuseniks. The No, in Thunder!
types who turn their backs on the whole business, and take up other, more wholesome pursuits. They may breed ducks up in Maine, à la Henry Roth; vanish into the jungles of Mexico, à la B. Traven; run coffee and guns in the Horn of Africa, à la Rimbaud. (“I can now say art is an idiocy
,” he’s said to have declared, on his way out the door.)
Finally there are those who are none of the above. Those who for one reason or another, or sometimes no reason at all, simply get off the train one day at the local stop, and don’t get back on. It might not be a decision, just a vague, transient impulse: a mood, a daydream, a cloud that drifts by and momentarily occludes the sun. Without any particular intention they may go meandering off into the terminal, buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee, and then meander back in time to see the train pulling away without them, with no evident friction or resistance. They watch it go. What they feel in that moment is mysterious. It’s not panic exactly, neither is it exhilaration; it’s more like some third, weirdly pacific emotion for which I’m tempted to say no word exists. Except the Germans, who have a word for everything, have a word for it. They call it gelassenheit
, or “releasement.”
We see this word popping up here and there in German philosophy. Heidegger for one uses it a lot. It’s hard to say precisely what he means by it—or let’s face it, by anything really—but it seems to be an impulse to move away or be delivered from the linear noise of calculative thought, towards an inward sphere of paradox, mystery, and things-as-they-are-ness he calls “meditative thought.” (The Zen masters, as usual, got there first: “That which is before you is it
,” writes Huang Po, “Begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error
.”) And who among us would argue with that?
What’s less clear is what happens after
this releasement of his. Say we are released too well, from too much, for too long. Say the intuitive dream refuses to end,
but meanders on and on and on as we stand there frozen on the platform watching trains pull in and out, never going anywhere at all. Say our releasement, in short, turns out to be yet another cage. How do we release ourselves from that
Consider the case of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” a man who one day walks out of his house with no forethought or explanation, abandons his wife and children, and takes up secret residence a few blocks away, where he remains for the next twenty years. Twenty years! How’s that
Wakefield’s magic act, this existential escape of his, wriggling free from the ties that bind, is the stuff of a family man’s dreams—and nightmares too. Like Rip Van Winkle, in transcending his routines he has entered a lonely, haunting orbit from which it’s not clear he can ever return. How strong are
the ties that bind us to the world, if they can be snapped so easily, so whimsically? “By stepping aside for a moment,” the story concludes, “a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever … he may become, as it were, The Outcast of the Universe.” You can almost hear Rod Serling’s voice intoning these words, wrapping up a particularly chilling episode of The Twilight Zone.
And yet this same note can be heard reverberating through countless works of literature and in the lives of those who wrote them. Melville and Hardy, Ellison and Salinger and Kesey, Katherine Ann Porter and Bette Howland and Lucia Berlin; Vila-Matas and Juan Rulfo; Fitzgerald and Hammett, B. Traven and Joseph Mitchell… all depict in their work and/or manifest in their lives the same Wakefield-ian spirit of self-exile. It seems this urge to step away from the vehicle is more common than we think. The occupational hazard all artists face is that in spending your life making something out of nothing, there may come a day when the nothing wins. When you look down and discover you’re not the agile Roadrunner but poor Wile E. Coyote with no solid ground under your feet. And then whoops, here it comes, gravity’s sickening plunge …
All of which may leave you feeling a bit nervous and hesitant as you go forward—if you do
go forward—subjecting every word you write to more scrutiny than words can bear. Hopefully you don’t become disabled by it. A lot of people do.
Take Robert Walser, for example, the great hyper-neurotic Swiss writer who spent his last three decades in a mental hospital. “I’m not here to write,” he declared upon entry, “I’m here to be mad.” Whether he said this with resignation or relief isn’t clear. Walser was one of those writers whose loss of traction seems inevitable in retrospect. Writing was literally
difficult for him. He disdained the typewriter, and wrote instead in a fastidious, labor-intensive hand. That hand began to seize up in his thirties, suffer crippling, possibly psychosomatic cramps which he attributed, like all good Mittel-europeans
, to his Unconscious. In short, he believed his hand was expressing a latent, vicious animus towards his pen. Crazy as this sounds he might have been right: it was only after he switched to a pencil that he managed to eke out a few words a day again.
The seeds of this antagonism can be seen poking through the crust of an early Walser story, “Kleist in Thun,” in which authorial projection is almost comically transparent. Anyone who’s logged time in an artist’s colony will recognize the predicament: Kleist, our writer-hero, having retreated to the countryside to get some work done, is now blessed with ideal conditions for that very task. The fields are thick with flowers, the bees hum drowsily overhead, the intoxicating fragrances of summer fill up every room. And yet when he sits down to write nothing happens. Nada. Zip. Every word makes him grimace; every stab at creation miscarries; and meanwhile the weeks pass, the tension accumulates, the resolve to write–and not just any old shit by the way, but something brilliant and original and significant, to redeem all these weeks of futility–grows and grows. Anyone care to guess how that
“Weeks pass, Kleist has destroyed one work, two, three works. He wants the highest mastery, good, good. What’s that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful.” The hunger for perfection has grown so unappeasable, so bottomless, it more or less guarantees the futility of writing anything at all. That Walser would, in his own life, succumb to just such a fit of despair a few years later (even his suicide attempt was aborted because, he said, “I couldn’t even make a proper noose”) seems almost overdetermined: the closing of a circle that was never in fact open.
Let’s console ourselves with the recognition that the Walsers of the world are outliers. Most writers are not Walsers. (Enrique Vila-Matas in his own brilliant meditation on the subject, Bartleby & Co
, argues that even Walser
wasn’t a Walser, as he never lost sight of the fact that “writing that one cannot write is also writing.”) Not to say that our facility and confidence will blithely override all obstacles. Not to say that we never have occasion to doubt ourselves. Not to say that we never experience a vertiginous disconnect between words and feeling, a bleak conviction that language can’t free us from the labyrinth of consciousness, but can only take us further in. But fine. Let’s accept that words are just manmade tools that separate us from nature behind walls of our own construction. So what? As Popeye used to say, dem’s de conditions dat obtain
. In the end, it’s not that complicated. Most of us go on writing for the simplest, most persuasive of reasons: because we can’t find anything else to do.
Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s Letter of Lord Chandos
(1902) reads, on the surface, as yet another haunting, Walser-like account of a writer losing his sense of traction, purpose, and coherence. All the familiar signs of breakdown are here, swirling around like so much frenzied static on a too-bright screen:
I no longer succeeded in comprehending … with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts; … single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back—whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.
Ironically, what emerges from this epic breakdown is a breakthrough
for Hoffmanstahl himself, who, even as he sinks to the bottom of his own well of faith, has the presence of mind to take notes along the way. Turning the weight of his own inertia upside down, he manages to transform his descent into an ascent. A sneaky inversion. A kind of austere martial art. And isn’t that the best-case scenario for any creative person—to plunge deep into the jungle of self, and emerge from that thronged, suffocating darkness with a travel journal, full of visceral details and haunting atmosphere, from which to draw material and inspiration and maybe even a few penetrating insights going forward? Even Walser, for all his claims of having stopped writing altogether, left five hundred pages behind after his death – inscribed in a microscopic, nearly illegible pencil script–which is believed to be a diary in secret code.
Stepping off the train, in other words, is not the same as not moving. It may simply mean you’re opening yourself to alternate destinations, other forms of transport. For Hoffmanstahl, the struggle to renounce and withdraw from all literary achievement paradoxically led to an achievement so sui generis
as to vault clear over modernism’s runway and out into the bleak, stripped-down landscape beyond. We recognize the look of that place now, because we’ve all been there with Beckett. The bare stage, the muttering head trying to talk its way into a silence it can’t find. If it’s even findable. “No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound,” says John Cage. Who should know.
So forget silence. We can chase it all we like, we’re never going to catch up. And even if we did we’d probably regret it, as a dog regrets catching up to a car. Maybe the chase itself will have to do. Or maybe not chasing anything for a while would be good. Just hovering for a while in a state of attention, suspension, reception. Practicing a kind of writing that acknowledges the possibility, perhaps even the appeal, of not writing at all. “An affirmation, I mean negation,” Beckett calls it, “on which to build
.”* * *
It probably goes without saying that it took me forever to write this essay, the last in a book of essays I was putting together. True, each one of them seemed, as I wrote them, to take forever. And yet in retrospect I wrote the others much more quickly than this one, which really did
seem to take forever. I’d like to think this means the next essay I write will make this one seem in retrospect to have not taken forever after all. But more likely it means I will stop writing essays for a while, period.
In any case, when I finally finished that book I called my father and told him.
There was a pause. I could hear the harsh, grating sound he makes when he clears his throat, whether in a rhetorical way or because his throat is perpetually clogged, who knows. “So what about the book?” he asked.
My father’s memory not being what it was, I tried to keep my voice level. “I just told you about the book.”
“I mean the other book,” he said. “The novel.”
“Oh. Well, what about it?”
“Is it done? Because I’ve been doing the math, and it’s been a long time now. Aren’t you working on it?”
“It’s funny,” he said, “how you say you’re working, but it never seems to get done. Why do you think that is?”