The Quest for Totality

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Traditionally, the main occupation of human culture was the search for totality. This search was dictated by the desire of human subjects to overcome their own particularity, to get rid of the specific ‘points of view’ that were defined by their ‘life forms’ and to gain access to a general, universal worldview that would be valid everywhere and at every time. (p. 9)

The old-fashioned, metaphysical universality could be achieved only through very special and complicated efforts. Materialist universality seems to be always already there — achievable without any effort and without any price. Indeed, we need not make any effort to be born or to die, or, generally, to go with the flow. Materialist totality, the totality of the flow, can be thus understood as a purely negative totality: Reaching this totality simply means rejecting all attempts to escape into the fictive, metaphysical, spiritual space beyond the material world, abandoning all dreams of immortality, eternal truth, moral perfection, ideal beauty, etc.

(…) Our personality survives our body — preventing our immediate access to the totality of the flow. To destroy, or at least transform, the archives that materially support our persons during our lifetime, we need to initiate a revolution. The revolution is an artificial acceleration of the world flow. It is an effect of impatience or unwillingness to wait until the existing order collapses by itself and liberates a human being from his or her personality. That is why revolutionary practice is the only way by which post-metaphysical, materialist man can find an access to the totality of the flow. However, such a revolutionary practice presupposes serious efforts on the part of the practitioner, and requires intelligence and discipline comparable to what was needed to achieve spiritual totality. These revolutionary efforts at self-fluidization, understood as the dissolution of one’s own person, of one’s own public image, are documented by modern and contemporary art, just as efforts at self-eternalization were documented by traditional art. (…) The fluidization of the artistic form is the means by which modern and contemporary art tries to gain access to the totality of the world. (pp. 11-12)

Collaborating with the Flow of Time

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

[C]ontemporary art escapes the present not by resisting the flow of time but by collaborating with it. If all present things are transitory and in flux, it is possible and even necessary to anticipate their eventual disappearance. Modern and contemporary art practices precisely the prefiguration and imitation of the future in which things now contemporary will disappear. Such an imitation of the future cannot produce artworks. Rather, it produces artistic events, performances, temporary exhibitions that demonstrate the transitory character of the present order of things and the rules that govern contemporary social behaviour. Imitation of the anticipated future can manifest itself only as an event and not as a thing. The artists of Futurism and Dada produced artistic events revealing the decay and obsoleteness of the present. But the production of art events is even more characteristic of contemporary art, with its culture of performance and participation. (PP. 3-4)

(…) Art does not predict the future, but rather demonstrates the transitory character of the present — and thus opens the way for the new. (p. 7)

Detour As Straight Line

Toby Lloyd, “New York Trance — Geoff Dyer and the Life of the Writer,” Los Angeles Review of Books 31 January 2016

(…) When I presented a few chapters of this ragged novel to a friend of mine for advice, she very sensibly recommend that I read Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book about failing to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. Taking writer’s block as his subject matter, Geoff performs one of his most Dyer-ish paradoxes — distraction as productivity, “detour as straight line.” He is the equivalent of a machine whose waste product is also its fuel.

The book turns, like so many other portrayals of life as a writer, to contemplating Yeats’s choice: perfection of the life or of the work. The model for the writer’s life that had been suggested to me throughout my MFA was the one that favors routine over inspiration, discipline over adventure, and I was quite secure in my belief that this was indeed the way. Writing is a job, so you should treat it like one. Get up at the same time each day and sit at your laptop until your 1500 words or your seven or eight hours (depending on just how serious you are) are up. Was it John Cheever who used to put on a suit each morning before making the journey to his “office?” Philip Roth offers a version of this model of the novelist’s life in The Ghost Writer, a book I read as an undergraduate with the same avidity that several years later I would bring to Paris Trance. When a young Nathan Zuckerman goes to visit his literary hero, E. I. Lonoff, he finds an old man who lives alone with his wife in a secluded farmhouse in the Berkshires, shutting out the wider world as completely as possible in order to dedicate himself fully to reading and writing fiction — a monk of literature. “All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling,” Nathan reflects. “I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live.”

Dyer, on the other hand, decided some time ago this was precisely not how he would live. Like Philip Larkin before him, Dyer abhors “the shit in the shuttered chateau,” with his “five hundred words” a day. When the narrator comes across Julian Barnes’ house in Sheer Rage, he pictures with horror the novelist spending each day doing nothing but writing his novels. “It seemed an intolerable waste of life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London.”

If not by writing, how should a writer spend his or her life? Well, by living, of course. When, in Paris Trance, Alex asks Luke why he never got round to finishing the novel he came to Paris to write, Luke responds: “Why write something if you can live it?” Luke’s abandonment of his proposed novel in order to throw himself more fully into his Paris lifestyle is in keeping with Dyer’s ideas about how a writer should behave. Except that Luke takes it too far: “living” has to involve some kind of writing; it can’t replace it entirely. Dyer suggests that it is indeed because Luke is so ready to view himself as a writer, and therefore enjoys the illusion of fulfilling himself creatively, that he doesn’t write: “People always assumed he was an artist. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he felt so little need actually to create anything.”

However, Dyer, who is only 57 years old, has produced some 13 books. How do we account for this productivity from a man who has been hailed the “slacker laureate?” The true ideal underpinning Dyer’s canon, rather than believing (like Luke) that writing is something that gets in the way of living, or (like Lonoff) that living is something that gets in the way of writing, is that, just as there is no meaningful distinction between fiction and nonfiction, there is also no meaningful distinction between writing and living. Or, as Dyer puts it himself, “It’s a job for life; more accurately, it is a life.” And it is precisely this lack of a distinction between living and writing that gives his prose its particular energy.

(…) This sketch of New York is taken from But Beautiful:

When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, writing these words.

Collapsing the time lag between having an experience and writing about it, Dyer also dissolves the gap between writing something down and having someone else read it. In that hurried portrait of “someone at his desk, writing these words,” Dyer creates the sense of lived experience, the act of writing, and the act of reading all happening simultaneously.

(…) Why write something if you can live it? Alex knows why. “Because you can’t live it forever.”

With My Back to the World

Agnes Martin, “Agnes Martin: the Artist Mystic who Disappeared into the Desert” by Olivia Laing, The Guardian 22 May 2015

“I paint with my back to the world,” she declared, and what she wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the Earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself. (…) Forget confessional art. This is withholding art, evading disclosure, declining to give itself away.

We Feel the Flux

“The flux of the body is generative for me, it’s all through my work. This is among the ways I’m grateful to be a woman. A woman’s body is always reminding her that something beyond, and bigger, is happening. We feel the flux. We can’t help it. Women get a good deal of practice submitting to what is, witnessing the body unadorned.”
Noy Holland, “Unworded Intensities: An Interview with Noy Holland, Author of Bird” by Vincent Scarpa, Electric Literature 31 December 2015

Writing a Story is Destructive

Noy Holland, “Unworded Intensities: An Interview with Noy Holland, Author of Bird” by Vincent Scarpa, Electric Literature 31 December 2015

I know I’ve felt it, feel it — the premonition of loss before I’ve set forth. Between grief and nothing I hope always to choose grief — I am borrowing, I think, from Faulkner here. The grief needn’t be grand or dramatic, just the simple grief of the almost right word. The persistence of failure. Fail better. Yes. To write a story, to set down the words, is destructive. It is never enough. It makes of something fluid something static. To stand up and live through something, to withstand the presence of the thing we want, is reckless and thrilling and heroic, and very quickly it is something like work. Yes? We can only in an instant be answered. But that instant, whoo boy, that ecstasy — this is what we work and live for. In my view, it’s what we get of God.