Saying No to the World

David Winters, “Learning From Lish: A Roundtable on Style in Fiction” by David Winters, Greg Gerke, and Jason Lucarelli, The Literarian 14 (September 2013)

The world, as Wittgenstein says, is everything that is the case. But writing is whatever is not. And in saying “no” to the world, so long as this “no” is said strongly enough, art perhaps promises us nothing less than the “yes” of salvation.

A Beautiful Fuck You to Reality

David Winters, “Learning From Lish: A Roundtable on Style in Fiction” by David Winters, Greg Gerke, and Jason Lucarelli, The Literarian 14 (September 2013)

But I think some of what you’ve both said links up quite well with Lish’s thinking on “noise,” and with his valuing of “mystery” over “information.” My understanding is that Lish advises writers to work against the cacophony of contemporary culture. As he says, “it is necessary to attempt some kind of severance between ourselves and the noise that is everywhere thus.” Now, this severance could take several forms — I see it, for instance, in Gary Lutz’s refusal to specify the locations of his stories; or in his regret at having used a brand name (Coca-Cola) in one of them.

At a more elemental level, maybe writing has to cast a silence around itself. …One difference between our generation and Lish’s is that we live in a so-called “information age.” But if we are to create art, the message that arises from much of this writing is that we must make information our enemy. Right now, for instance, Jason Schwartz is one of the few writers still working out ways to do this. Schwartz’s work speaks in a style that startles the surrounding world into silence. His stories are radically self-sufficient, and in this respect they work against our age’s entropic reduction of language to data. The philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote that “art is magic, delivered from the lie of being truth.” And since we’re speaking of “tradition,” perhaps this is precisely what artworks were in prehistory — mysteries; auratic artefacts whose very existence was an affront, a beautiful ‘fuck you” to reality.

The Ghosts of Unchosen Words

Greg Gerke, “Learning From Lish: A Roundtable on Style in Fiction” by David Winters, Greg Gerke, and Jason Lucarelli, The Literarian 14 (September 2013)

In a Bookworm interview, Michael Silverblatt spoke of how Gass has written about “how sometimes we can not only hear the word that’s been chosen, but the ghosts of words that haven’t been chosen”.

The Grief is Alive

Lydia Davis, “Form as Response to Doubt,” talk given at New Langdon Arts, San Francisco, 20 November 1986

Doubt, uneasiness, dissatisfaction with writing or with existing forms may result in the formal integration of these doubts by the creation of new forms, forms that in one way or another exceed or surpass our expectations. Whereas repeating old forms implies a lack of desire or compulsion, or a refusal, to entertain doubt or feel dissatisfaction.

To work deliberately in the form of the fragment can be seen as stopping or appearing to stop a work closer, in the process, to what Blanchot would call the origin of writing, the centre rather than the sphere. It may be seen as a formal integration, an integration into the form itself, of a question about the process of writing.

It can be seen as a response to the philosophical problem of seeing the written thing replace the subject of the writing. If we catch only a little of our subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it. We have written about it, written it and allowed it to live on at the same time, allowed it to live on in our ellipses, our silences.

Doesn’t the unfinished work tend to throw our attention onto the work as artifact, or the work as process, rather than the work as conveyer of meaning, of message? Does this add to the pleasure or the interest of the text?

Any interruption, either of our expectations or of the smooth surface of the work itself — by breaking it off, confusing it or leaving it actually unfinished — foregrounds the work as artifact, as object, rather than as invisible purveyor of meaning, emotion, atmosphere. constant interruption, fragmentation, also keeps returning the reader not only to the real world but to a consciousness of his or her own mind at work.

Here is Maurice Blanchot on Joseph Joubert: ‘What he was seeking — this source of writing, this space in which to write, this light to circumscribe in space — …made him unfit for all ordinary literary work…’ — or, as Joubert said of himself, ‘unsuited to continuous discourse’ — ‘preferring the centre to the sphere, sacrificing results to the discovery of their conditions, and writing not in order to add one book to another but to take command of the point from which it seemed to him all books issued…’.

We can’t think of fragment without thinking of whole. The word fragment implies the word whole. A fragment would seem to be a part of a whole, a broken-off part of a whole. Does it also imply, as with other broken-off pieces, that enough of them would make a whole, or remake some original whole, some ideal whole? Fragment, as in ruin, may also imply something left behind from a past original whole. In the case of Friedrich Hölderlin’s fragments, the only parts showing of a madman’s poems, the rest of which are hidden somewhere in his mind; or the only parts showing of a logical whole whose logic is unavailable to us, fragments that seem fragments only to us, and seem to him to make a whole — for there is only a thin line between what is so new to us that it changes our way of thinking and seeing and what is so new to us that we can’t recognize it as a coherent thought or piece of writing, i.e., can’t see the connections the author sees or even sense that they are there. Or fragments that seem to him to make a whole and to us eventually, also, to make a whole, though from a different angle.

Or, as with Stéphane Mallarmé’s fragmentary poems for his dead son, A Tomb for Anatole, the fragment is something left from some projected whole, some future whole, i.e., these are fragments destined one day to be pieced together with other elements to make a whole; or they are the fragments of ideal poems shattered by grief; fragments comparable to the incoherent utterances of voiced grief: inarticulateness being in this case the most credible expression of grief. No more than a fragment could be uttered, so overwhelming was the unuttered whole. In the silences, the grief is alive.

Roland Barthes justifies his own early choice of the fragment as form by saying that ‘incoherence is preferable to a distorting order.’ In the case of Mallarmé, inarticulateness might seem preferable to articulateness when it comes to expressing a grief that is unutterable. Mallarmé failed to transcend his grief; he remained inside it, and the ‘notes,’ too, remain inside it. They become the most immediate expression, the closest mirroring, of the writer’s emotion at the inspiring subject, the writer’s stutter, and the reader, witnessing the writer’s stutter, is witness not only to his grief, but also to his process, to the workings of his mind, to his mind, closer to what we might think as the origins of his writing [via].

Mute Musewise

John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1967

…One of the modern things about these two writers [Beckett and Borges] is that in an age of ultimacies and “final solutions” — at least felt ultimacies, in everything from weaponry to theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society, and the history of the novel — their work in separate ways reflects and deals with ultimacy, both technically and thematically, as for example Finnegans Wake does in its different manner. One notices, for whatever its symptomatic worth, that Joyce was virtually blind at the end, Borges is literally so, and Beckett has become virtually mute, musewise, having progressed from marvelously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the unsyntactical, unpunctuated prose of Comment C’est and “ultimately” to wordless mimes. One might extrapolate a theoretical course for Beckett: Language after all consists of silence as well as sound, and mime is still communication (“that nineteenth-century idea,” a Yale student once snarled at me), but by the language of action. But the language of action consists of rest as well as movement, and so in the context of Beckett’s progress, immobile, silent figures still aren’t altogether, ultimate. How about an empty, silent stage, then, or blank pages* — a “happening” where nothing happens, like Cage’s 4’33” performed in an empty hall? But dramatic communication consists of the sense as well as the presence of the actors; “we have our exits and our entrances”; and so even that would be imperfectly ultimate in Beckett’s case. Nothing at all, then, I suppose; but Nothingness is necessarily and inextricably the background against which Being, et cetera. For Beckett, at this point in his career, to cease to create altogether would be fairly meaningful: his crowning work; his “last word.” What a convenient corner to paint yourself into! “And now I shall finish,” the valet Arsene says in Watt, “and you will hear my voice no more.” Only the silence Molloy speaks of, “of which the universe is made.” …

*An ultimacy already attained in the nineteenth century by that avant-gardiste of East Aurora, N.Y., Elbert Hubbard, in his Essay on Silence, and much repeated to the present day in such empty “novelties” as The Wit and Wisdom of Lyndon Johnson, etc.

Far Beyond All Hope of Achievement

Italo Calvino, Six Memos For the Next Millenium

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function [via].