Category Archives: Writing

My God, my God, if nights like this lie ahead of me grant me at least one of the thoughts I’ve now and then been able to think. What I’m asking for now is not so unreasonable; for I know that they come directly from my fear because my fear was so great. When I was a boy they hit me in the face and told me what a coward I was. That was because I was still bad at being afraid. But since then I’ve learnt to be afraid with the real fear that only increases when the power to produce it increases. We can have no idea of this power except in our fear. For it’s so wholly incomprehensible, so completely opposed to us that our brain disintegrates at the point where we struggle to think about it. And yet, for a while now I have believed that it is our power, the whole of our power, that is too strong for us. It’s true that we don’t know it, but don’t we know least what is rightly our own? Sometimes I think about how heaven came to be, and how death; because we’ve distanced ourselves from what is most valuable to us, because there were so many other things to do first and because we were too busy to safeguard it. The passage of time has now obscured this, and we have grown accustomed to lesser things. We no longer recognise what is ours, and we are appalled by its sheer magnitude. Can that not be so?

— Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. Needham)

Out of artifice

I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book. And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book—I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse—the one I have been working toward—possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still—that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.

— V.S. Naipaul (via here)

I am unable to think, in my thinking I constantly come up against borders; certain isolated matters I can grasp in a flash, but I am quite incapable of coherent, consecutive thinking.

— Kafka, from a letter to Brod

Turning knowledge inside out

“The time has come for us to be able to write and send messages within our mind,” as a friend tells Renouard. But the future may be even more efficient than that. “We will do a Google search exactly as we go looking through our memories, by a simple act of the mind which, like memory, will require neither the hand nor the eye as intermediary,” he writes. “We will use this inner Google to look up words and phrases in a foreign language,” he writes. “The memory of which our brain is the organ will no longer be an individual memory.” Renouard’s vision of the internet is one that is capable of doing a lot of our feeling and knowledge-gathering for us, and it’s persuasive because we can all cite examples where we’ve felt that happen, from auto-completes to self-driving cars.

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The internet is a canny repository of many false sensations. Friends aren’t friends, followers don’t follow, links are digressions not connections, truth is a partisan cudgel in the hands of countless memelords. […] The internet, he writes, has turned knowledge inside out: Books, once our chief repository of wisdom, are now walled-off and inaccessible, “a distant and secret refuge protected from the curiosity of readers.” Information gives us more things to contemplate but hardly lets us think about them: “The last fortress of our involuntary memory will have been conquered by the recollection machine.” The internet will wreck our privacy, but our morality will simply adapt to it. The internet never forgets, but we’re now free not to think.

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At one point Renouard himself sounds a skeptical note about all this. He asks, “What is there of a person in his traces, even if we reach a totality, a saturation, in the Great Downloading?” The internet tempts us into thinking it’s everything because it gives so much. It confounds our senses because it mimics them so well; it conflates truth and fact by making both seem porous. And it demands we still live with it. We’ll need tools to better navigate this, and one more irony about the internet is that that the internet is unlikely to provide such tools. To that end, Renouard makes a statement that’s indisputably true: “We aren’t mature enough for this invention.”

Mark Athitakis

Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce. If that’s the case — to extend a tortured metaphor — it feels as if our attention has become polluted. We subsist on it, but the quality has been diminished. This is certainly true in my life, where I’ve become so reliant on the constant stimuli of our connected world that I find myself frequently out of control of my attention. I give it to others too willingly — often to those who will abuse the privilege.

Charlie Warzel

Any idiot can face crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.

— Anton Chekhov

You have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald (via here)

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore.

— Andre Gide (via here)

In each of us there is another whom we do not know.

— Jung

The snakeskin

Artistic creativity has always manifested itself in me as a sort of hunger. I have observed this need in myself with some gratification, but I have never in all my conscious life asked why this hunger should arise and demand to be satisfied. In the last few years, as it has begun to ease off, and been transformed into something else, I have begun to feel it important to try to establish the reason for my ‘artistic activity’.

I remember from very early childhood a need to show what I had achieved; progress in drawing, the ability to bounce a ball against the wall, my first strokes in the water.

I remember feeling a great need to attract the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the physical world. I never, it seemed to me, excited enough interest in my fellow human beings. And so, when reality no longer sufficed, I began to make things up, regaling my contemporaries with tremendous stories of my secret exploits. These were embarrassing lies, which inevitably foundered on the scepticism of the world around me. In the end I withdrew from fellowship and kept my dreams to myself. A contact-seeking child, beset by fantasies, I was quickly transformed into a hurt, cunning and suspicious daydreamer.

But a daydreamer is not an artist other than in his dreams.

The need to get people to listen, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a fellowship, remained. It became stronger and stronger as the prison walls of loneliness closed around me.

It was fairly obvious that the cinema should be my chosen means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed words, which I lacked; music, which I have never mastered; and painting, which left me unmoved. Suddenly, I had the possibility of corresponding with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul, in terms that avoid control by the intellect in a manner almost voluptuous.

I threw myself into my medium with all the dammed-up hunger of my childhood and for twenty years, in a sort of rage, I have communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies. My hunger has been continuously renewed. Money, fame and success have been the astonishing, but basically unimportant, consequences of my advance. By this, I do not wish to discount whatever I may have achieved. I believe it has had, and perhaps still has, its importance. What is so comforting to me is that I can see what has passed in a new and less romantic light. Art as self-satisfaction can have its importance — particularly to the artist himself.

Today the situation is less complicated, less interesting, and above all less glamorous.

Now, to be completely honest, I regard art (and not only the art of the cinema) as lacking importance.

Literature, painting, music, the cinema, the theatre beget and give birth to themselves. New mutations and combinations emerge and are destroyed; seen from the outside, the movement possesses a nervous vitality — the magnificent zeal of artists to project, for themselves and an increasingly distracted public, pictures of a world that no longer asks what they think or believe. On a few preserves artists are punished, art is regarded as dangerous and worth stifling or steering. By and large, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible and, as I said, the movement is intense, almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison; but the skin moves, filled with busy life.

If I now observe that I happen to be one of these ants, then I must ask myself whether there is any reason to pursue the activity further. The answer is yes. Even though I regard the theatre as an old and well-beloved courtesan who has seen better days. Even though I, and many with me, find Westerns more stimulating than Antonioni or Bergman. Even though the new music gives us feelings of suffocation, from the mathematical thinning out of the air; even though painting and sculpture have been sterilized and waste away in paralysing freedom. Even though literature has been transformed into a mere cairn of words, with no message and no danger.

There are poets who never write, because they shape their lives as poems; actors who never perform, but who act out their lives as high drama. There are painters who never paint, because they close their eyes and conjure up the most superb works of art on the back of their eyelids. There are film-makers who live their films and would never abuse their gift by materializing them in reality.

In the same way, I believe that people today can reject the theatre, since they live in the midst of a drama which is constantly exploding in local tragedy. They need no music, since their hearing is bombarded every minute by great hurricanes of sound, in which the pain barrier is both reached and surpassed. They need no poetry, since the new world philosophy has transformed them into creatures of function, bound to interesting — but poetically unusable — problems of metabolism.

Man (as I experience myself and the world around me) has set himself free, fearfully, breathtakingly free. Religion and art are kept alive for sentimental reasons, as a conventional courtesy to the past, or in benevolent concern for the increasingly nervous citizens of leisure.

— Bergman, from an acceptance speech written for the presentation of the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam, 1965 (tr. Bradfield)