Monthly Archives: May 2021

Self-indulgence

There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom. Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy – an American inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman – that curious mixture of striving, asceticism, and rigor, the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great – is stronger than ever. Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candour, a closemouthed straightforwardness. But on the truest candour, it has an inhibitory effect. Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpractised in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.

— Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

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There must be a difference

The sun had been covered up; snow was beginning to fall. It was sprinkled over the black pores of the gravel and was lying in thin slips on the slanting roofs. I could see a long way from the third floor height. Not far off there were chimneys, their smoke a lighter grey than the grey of the sky; and, straight before me, ranges of poor dwellings, warehouses, billboards, culverts, electric signs blankly burning, parked cars and moving cards, and the occasional bare plane of a tree. These I surveyed, pressing my forehead on the glass. It was my painful obligation to look and to submit myself to the invariable question: Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man’s favor? There could be no doubt that these billboards, streets, tracks, houses, ugly and blind, were related to interior life. And yet, I told myself, there had to be a doubt. There were human lives organized around these ways and houses, and that they, the houses, say, were the analogue, that what men created they also were, through some transcendent means, I could not bring myself to concede. There must be a difference, a quality that eluded me, somehow, a difference between things and persons and even between acts and persons. Otherwise the people who lived here were actually a reflection of the things they lived among. I had always striven to avoid blaming them. Was that not in effect behind my daily reading of the paper? In their businesses and politics, their taverns, movies, assaults, divorces, murders, I tried continually to find clear signs of their common humanity.

It was undeniably in my interest to do this. Because I was involved with them; because, whether I liked it or not, they were my generation, my society, my world. We were figures in the same plot, eternally fixed together. I was aware, also, that their existence, just as it was, made mine possible. And if, as was often said, this part of the century was approaching the nether curve in a cycle, then I, too, would remain on the bottom and there, extinct, merely add my body, my life, to the base of a coming time. This would probably be a condemned age.

— Saul Bellow, Dangling Man

What glints on the other side of being?

From The Moment:

When I can’t write, when the building noise distracts me or when I have nothing to say, I so easily get outside myself. I’m not at home. Writing is a house of being under construction; sometimes you feel you’re living in rubble. But then the right sentence comes, the edifice rises up around you, and it is what was there all along. When this happens, the world lies open. You can get up from your desk and live in your home, kiss S., make plans with her.

Writing isn’t just a hall of mirrors, as I once thought. Nor is it a game. A sentence, even a banal one, when brought out of contemplation and written down, can be a practical act in its own way, like an act of faith. What happens when you write down a thought, when you start to blacken the screen? Often your subject eludes you. The words disperse. But doesn’t something happen nevertheless? No matter how unsure you are of what you’re saying, no matter how badly you fail to grasp it, doesn’t something take place in the saying itself that can give you strength to go on?

When we go through the woods, says Heidegger, we’re always already going through the word woods. Both the woods and the word were there before us, but it’s the going through them that brings them together. In a sense, the saying of the word summons the thing. Summons but doesn’t create. We can’t give being, but we can help unveil it.

But what is it that sometimes appears when word and thing come together? What glints on the other side of being? Celan once wrote that he saw God in a ray of light under his hotel door. Is it something like that: a ray of light under the door of a dark rented room?

Is it possible to make a Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How to reconcile – dialecticize – the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity, the transportation of the present experienced as it happens? (The present is what adheres, as if your eyes were glued to a mirror.) Present: to have your eyes glued to the page; how to write at length, fluently (in a fluent, flowing, fluid manner) with one eye on the page and the other on “what’s happening to me”?

This is actually to go back to that simple and ultimately uncompromising idea that “literature” (because, when it comes down to it, my project is “literary”) is always made out of “life”. My problem is that I don’t think I can access my past life; it’s in the mist, meaning that its intensity (without which there is no writing) is weak. What is intense is the life of the present, structurally mixed (there’s my basic idea) with the desire to write it. The “Preparation” of the Novel therefore refers to the capturing of this parallel text, the text of “contemporary”, concomitant life.

— Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (tr. Briggs)