All the Things we Failed to Do

Javier Marias, “The Full English” by Robert Collins, The Times 14 February 2016

We are made not only of what we did and accomplished. We’re also made up of all the things we discarded, all the things we failed to do, all the things we did not dare do. That’s part of us. All the things you renounced. The woman you didn’t marry. The woman who said, ‘No, I don’t love you’.

Beautiful Failure

Ben Lerner, “My First Time: Ben Lerner on The Lichtenberg Figures,” The Paris Review 16 February 2016 (video interview)

I kind of always assume that you don’t write the poem you want to write, you know, or you don’t make the book you want to make. And, on the one hand, it can be kind of depressing or whatever, right? But, on the other hand, it’s quite freeing because it means you discover something in the act of composition that you didn’t know in advance. Generally, I think of art as really about trying to actualize impossible desires with form. And you always fail to make the virtual actual. You always fail to transform the world through your poem, or whatever. But the failure itself can be beautiful, or pleasurable, and it can kind of exercise imaginative faculties that aren’t exercised when you’re just making things you know how to make.

The Impossibility of Total Destruction

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Indeed, if God has created the world out of nothingness, he can also destroy it completely — leaving no traces.

But the point is precisely this: Benjamin uses the image of Angelus Novus in the context of his materialist concept of history, in which divine violence becomes material violence. Thus, it becomes clear why Benjamin does not believe in the possibility of total destruction. Indeed, if God is dead, the material world becomes indestructible. In the secular, purely material world, destruction can be only material destruction, produced by material forces, and any material destruction remains only partially successful. It always leaves ruins, traces, vestiges behind — precisely as described by Benjamin in his parable. In other words, if we cannot totally destroy the world, the world also cannot totally destroy us. Total success is impossible, but so is total failure. The materialist vision of the world opens a zone beyond success and failure, conservation and annihilation, acquisition and loss. Now, this is precisely the zone in which art operates if it wants to perform its knowledge of the materiality of the world — and of life as a material process. And although the art of the historic avant-gardes has also been accused often of being nihilistic and destructive, the destructiveness of avant-garde art was motivated by its belief in the impossibility of total destruction. One can say that the avant-garde, looking towards the future, saw precisely the same image that Benjamin’s Angelus Novus saw when looking towards the past.

From the outset, modern and contemporary art has integrated the possibilities of failure, historical irrelevance, and destruction within its own activities. Thus, art cannot be shocked by what it sees in the rear view window of progress. The avant-garde’s Angelus Novus always sees the same thing, whether it looks into the future or into the past. Here, life is understood as a non-teleological, purely material process. To practice life means to be aware of the possibility of its interruption at any moment by death — and thus to avoid pursuing any definite goals and objectives, because such pursuits can also be interrupted by death at any moment. [pp. 35-36]

Bodies in Space

Boris Groys, In the Flow, 2016

Descartes famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ But a critically or theoretically minded spectator would say about Descartes: He thinks because he lives. Here my self-knowledge becomes radically undermined. Maybe I do know what I think. But I do not know how I live — I do not even know I am alive. Because I have never experienced myself as dead, I cannot experience myself as being alive. I have to ask others if and how I live — and that means I must also ask what I actually think, because I now see my thinking as being determined by my life. To live is to be exposed as living (and not as dead) to the gaze of the Others. Then it becomes irrelevant what we think, plan, or hope — what is relevant is how our bodies are moving in space under that gaze. [p. 28]

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.”