Monday, 6 April 2015

Writing and the surplus of the precedent

It is in the process of re-production mentioned in my last week’s that one encounters the anxiety of writing. This re-production makes apparent that the predecessor is always a deterrent, insofar as he is, chronologically as well as conceptually, the firstborn.


By acknowledging the fact of the re-production of ideas, one becomes aware of what I would like to call the surplus of the precedent. This is an excess impossible to escape, since writing is, by its very nature, an act of production. As production is progression from nothing to something, producing means bringing about a surplus: an object that didn't exist before. And so, every inscription is an excess. But the surplus I started to talk about last week is that of the predecessor. And this is what I'm going to talk about now as well, even at the risk of producing dreadful repetitions.

The difficulty of freedom

The fact that ideas have a history means, of course, that there was a time when they did not exist. But locating that time, that paradise of signification where one could pick and choose from a range of virgin ideas roaming freely the green pastures of pre-meaning, is an operation hard to perform. Not only would it take endless effort to identify that time of spotlessness, but arriving at a conclusion (provided such arrival is possible at all) would bring little satisfaction to the finder.

Wenceslas Hollar, The Sword of Damocles. Source: Huffington Post
What is more important in this equation, though, is, once again, the awareness one acquires of the pre-existence of their own ideas. With this major breakthrough, one comes to the realisation that there is room for one’s own idea in the world; that the world is permissive insofar as the absorption of concepts is concerned. But at the same time one finds out, quite brutally, that the way concepts work has little to do with the falsely glorified assertion of freedom. The spirit that roams freely is a myth that goes nicely with all the other romaticisms related to writing. That is, it goes straight in the basket of busted myths. If anything, the individuality that creates grows extremely anxious at the acknowledgment of patterns. One finds out, for instance, that there is a form in which ideas need to be put, be they beautiful or glorious or absolutely novel, as the case may be. While this is supposed to provide reassurance and to calm the spirit that doesn't know what to do with the so-called freedom, in reality the recognition of patterns causes doubt, degringolade, anxiety. When many can do one thing, and when that thing is so well delimited that little escapes from the confines of possibility, the likelihood of another's doing it better looms over the entire project like the sword of Damocles.
The way out of this impasse is the way of originality. But in order to be original one needs to be without patterns; one needs to work outside genres, outside communities, outside recognition. Unrecognized, one's work is without value, in the sense that there is no axiology in place (yet) to assess the worth of this work without patterns. Originality eventually leads to more anxiety, since to be original means to be in a void, to be where nothing or very little has existed before. And unless one is never anxious in a situation of freedom, the creative act cannot be enjoyed; there can be no jouissance in writing.

Ignorance is bliss

Re-writers need to be oblivious of precedence if they were to operate at all within the field of writing.
It is precisely this oblivion, this need to ignore the fact that a text was written before, that brings along a very powerful element of hope.
Writing in full awareness of the precedence of those who did it before transform the writing process into something like a phobia of repetition. The anxiety of influence, to use now the term so frequently used by literary critics, is the phobia of coming again, of arriving at a text already formulated by a predecessor. That, in the field of creative writing, where success is measured in terms of originality, is doubtlessly problematic. If saying it again is not permitted, then the very act of saying is fraught with a fear of repetition. Hence the anxiety.
The anxious writer who seeks emancipation from this fear perceives the act of inscription as something that has to be without borders. But borders, when it comes to writing, are impossible to ignore. And so, the desire to write in a creative manner is constantly faced with this frightening reality of the other who is always a surplus, in the sense of being a parasite intruding the process of writing not in order to participate creatively but in order to deter. This third element is the reminder that precedence is a fact, and, more significantly, that it is a fact present at this particular moment, while I, the writing individuality, am trying to proceed with my own writing.
Moreover, because the precedent cannot be located with any degree of exactitude, it appears to the subject as a plurality.
To put it in more practical terms, every awareness of the precedent generates a further awareness of an entire plane of precedence, where ideas pre-exist, and along with them the signs that one could use in order to build one’s own idea.

Domenico Feti, Ecce Homo. Source: Zinzendorf Jubilee
And so the creative writer has the privilege as well as the terror of knowing the extent of precedence. To be without this terror, writers have to be able to forget the obvious. They have to be well trained in the art of not recognising a precedent when they see one. This is not unlike the Christian principle of kenosis: Christ's purposeful forgetting of his divine nature, which is the only way he can die on the cross, like a mere mortal. Had he remained divine, he would have never accomplished that most humane act of bleeding to death; conceiving that dying was his utmost gesture of creativity, his point of distinction, his originality.

The eternal game of pain and pleasure

I don’t believe in the myth of the talented writer. But to use this myth as a figure of speech, I would say that a truly talented writer is not one who finds it easy to write but one who finds it easy to perform a slalom between the texts that precede their own text. And this is a form of wisdom rather than one of talent. A wise writer, rather than a talented writer, is capable of seeing the signposts left in the field by their predecessors, and by being able to see them they also become capable of eschewing those signposts before committing the crime (drastically sanctioned by the creative environment in which they operate, and which is founded on the principle of originality) of repetition. Of course, in order to acquire this habit one needs to train oneself. One needs, first and foremost, to learn the conventions of writing. Conventions which act not as aids but as constraints.
“Don’t go there” is the maxim, indeed the warning, that guides a creative writer. The writer who is aware of the possibilities left in the field after everything (or almost everything) has already been said is one who, then, can turn strictures into possibilities.
It’s like in the quasi-absurd joke about the guy who masturbates using a hammer. He bludgeons his sexual organ with all his might and screams in pain every time he hits the target. A friend who sees him asks: Hey, as far as I know, masturbation should cause pleasure. Where is your pleasure?" And the answer is: “I get my pleasure when I miss the target.”

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son. Source: The Masterpiece Cards
The certitude of pain leaves room for very little pleasure. Indeed, pleasure is possible only in an accident, when the hammer doesn't hit the target. The omnipresence of pain that preceded the act has made room for little satisfaction. And one can imagine the protagonist of this anecdote purposefully missing the target, so as to acquire the pleasure associated with the act.

But the point is that restriction (pain) is being turned here into possibility. The pleasure-to-come is worth all the effort and all the (unavoidable) anxiety. Cohabitation with the threat - one of the great truths of writing.