Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 3 December 2014:

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

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3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leaves us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.

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3:AM: At one time, you entertained the idea of writing a book entitled “Paraphilosophy”, devoted to philosophically-impossible objects. A memory theatre strikes me as an impossible object of a different kind: one that can be conceived of, yet never conceived. Is your work a critique of what you call elsewhere the “aestheticization of existence” — the avant-garde project of turning life into art?

SC: Another way of answering your previous question would be to say that I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy, organized around what I call ‘impossible objects’ (a version of the scraps of that abandomed project will be published next year, I think). On the question of the aestheticization of existence, I sometimes really don’t know where I stand. On the one hand, we have known since Benjamin, that fascism aestheticizes politics, but on the other hand, much of what I do is committed to the idea of the aesthetic particularly as art practice as it was embodied in various avant-garde groups. Does that make me a fascist? Lord, I hope not. I think at that point we need to make a distinction between aestheticization in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk and totality, the architecture of fascism, and that writing that unpicks, unravels and mocks that tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the name of another practice of art, what Blanchot called the infinite conversation. It is in the spirit of the latter than I have tried to work.

3:AM: Memory Theatre includes a series of photographs — by British artist Liam Gillick — of a skyscraper in construction. Their appearance in reverse order (which reminded me of Robert Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse”) mirrors the deconstruction of the narrator’s attempt to build a real-life memory theatre. I wonder, however, if these pictures do not also refer to his surrogate grand narrative: a “perfect work of art” that would eventually “become life itself” by merging with it. One of the recurring themes in the book is that of the quest for a prelapsarian universal language which, although mocked by Swift, was once very fashionable: you write, for instance, of Leibniz’s “attempted recovery of the language of Adam against the Babel of the world”. Does Gillick’s dismantling of this Tower (block) of Babel gradually lead us towards an immanent conception of art that could express the world as it is in itself, free from human perception?

SC: Yes, but this is another fantasy: that of the artwork having an autonomy independent of its creator. A kind of machine or a puppet, or the fantasy of a non-human artwork, which is currently doing the rounds. All of this is in play in Memory Theatre for sure. What do Liam’s pictures suggest? To me, they exhibit a process of dismantling, or decomposition, that is ultimately the dismantling of philosophy and the decomposition of the heroic figure of the philosopher that has plagued us since Socrates. Memory Theatre is a critique of philosophy and, of course, a self-critique of my position as a ‘philosopher’. And yes Swift’s mocking of the science of his day, in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels has always been very important to me.

3:AM: Would you agree that the memory theatre and the “perfect work of art” envisioned at the end of the book correspond, respectively, to the two poles between which literature oscillates according to Maurice Blanchot? On the one hand, what you have called the “Hegelian-Sadistic” tradition, driven by the work of negation of human consciousness, and on the other, a striving after “that point of unconsciousness, where [literature] can somehow merge with the reality of things” (Very Little . . . Almost Nothing). Both poles, of course, are unattainable, but I suspect you have more sympathy for the latter, which is on the side of “The Plain Sense of Things” (Wallace Stevens) — “the near, the low, the common” (Thoreau) — and “lets us see particulars being various” (Memory Theatre) . . .

SC: That’s very interesting and I stole the “particulars being various” from Louis MacNiece, who is underrated and underread in my view. I remember reading Blanchot’s account of the two slopes of literature and it making a huge impact that continues to reverberate, particularly in relation to the INS [International Necronautical Society] work that I do with Tom McCarthy. On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter witout controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.

3:AM: Reviewers have remarked on the hybrid nature of Memory Theatre — a mixture of essay, memoir, and fiction. Why did you choose to call the narrator ‘Simon Critchley” — who is both you and not you — instead of creating a fictive character based on yourself? I’m guessing that you relished the ambiguity of inhabiting that gap between you and yourself (to paraphrase Pessoa) . . .

SC: The figure ‘Simon Critchley’ is a quasi-heteronym in Pessoa’s sense. You are absolutely right. I did have a lot of fun working in the gap between myself and myself, trying to create a kind of crack in myself, a decomposition as I said just now. ‘Simon Critchley’ is not me, but is still more than a little bit me. As for the hybrid nature of the text, all I can say is that this is how it came out. I wrote the first draft really quickly in about three weeks, largely against my will. It just came pouring out like that after I’d finished writing The Hamlet Doctrine with Jamieson Webster. Then I looked at Memory Theatre when it was done and was perplexed. What is that thing? I didn’t want to publish it. But other people liked it and I am stupidly vain.

3:AM: At one point your narrator believes he is about to discover his deathday, and feels “strangely exhilarated rather than afraid”: this episode echoes what Blanchot (or his protagonist) experiences, in The Instant of My Death, when he seems to be on the verge of being executed. The opposition between death and dying also derives from Blanchot (and Levinas), as does the example of suicide by hanging:

Even if I hanged myself I would not experience a nihilating leap into the abyss, but just the rope tying me tight, ever tighter, to the existence I wanted to leave (Memory Theatre).
Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him, held to the end, held more than ever, bound as he had never been before to the existence he would like to leave (Thomas the Obscure).

The image of the dredging machine is a clear reference to Derrida (referencing Genet). “The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound” is lifted verbatim from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. “The blank, expressionless eyes of forty-nine papier mâché statues stared back at me” is possibly a nod to Hoffmannstahl’s “I felt like someone who had been locked into a garden full of eyeless statues” (The Lord Chandos Letter). I am sure that there are many other examples of references to, or quotations from, other people’s works that I missed or did not even recognise. Do you consider intertextuality — another aspect of the book’s hybrid nature — as a memory theatre?

SC: You are too good, Andrew, too good. Yes, I used all these quotations, usually from memory, in the text and there are many, many others. Memory Theatre is a kind of composite and composition drawn from everything that I have ever read and remembered. I then seek to decompose them, pull them apart, by setting them to work in some different way. Palimpsest-like. I have always been suspicious of ‘intertextuality’ as it sounds like a post-structuralist version of ‘tradition’. We are composed of networks of citations and references. At least I am. It’s the way I think about things most of the time.

3:AM: There are many instances of internal intertextuality (sorry!) in Memory Theatre, but most seem to come from your earlier works. Is this purely coincidental, or does a regressive theme run through the whole book? I’m thinking, for instance, of the narrator’s contention that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “can only be read in reverse” or his tentative description of his youthful memory loss as “a kind of reverse dementia”, not to mention Gillick’s pictures . . .

SC: Yes, there is a kind of inhabitation of all my earlier work in Memory Theatre. That was deliberate. It felt like a taking stock, a settling of accounts with myself. A look back into the rear-view mirror as I press harder on the gas. Also, to make matters worse, my first idea for a PhD thesis in 1987 was on Hegel’s conception of memory in relation to the tradition of the art of memory. So, Memory Theatre is also an attempt to write (and unwrite or undo) that original dissertation plan.

Simon Critchley

3:AM: When the memory theatre is built, ‘Simon Critchley’ surveys his work: “Like crazy Crusoe in his island cave out of his mind for fear of cannibals, I would sit onstage and inspect my artificial kingdom, my realm, my shrunken reál”. This reminded me of what Barthes writes about Jules Verne’s “self-sufficient cosmogony” — symbolised by The Nautilus (“the most desirable of caves”) — that he likens to “children’s passion for huts and tents”:

The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain (Mythologies).

One might also think of Georges Perec, who often circumscribed a small fragment of the world and then set about exhausting it. This dream of a total artwork in which one might poetically dwell often ends up being a womb with a view, right?

SC: Absolutely right. It is a kind of male, maternal fantasy. Except the child is always stillborn. It is also a meditation on obsessional neurosis and the masculine sexual tendency to collect, to collate and to kill. Memory Theatre describes a solitary and dead world devoid of love. I do not want to live in that world, though I have often found myself oddly at home in it. I hate myself. That much should be obvious.

3:AM: There seems to be a crisis of fiction today, highlighted by authors like David Shields or Knausgaard. Is Memory Theatre’s genre-bending a reflection of this crisis? Have we — writers and readers alike — lost that capacity to lose ourselves, which fiction, I feel, is premised on? Can disbelief no longer be suspended?

SC: Maybe we have lost the capacity to suspend disbelief because the world seems such a strange, malevolent fictional edifice. But I am against the heroic authenticity of memoir, the laying bare of oneself in what purports to be reality. I read a chunk of Knausgaard recently. It’s great, but it’s not for me. I’ve been to Norway too much for that. Memory Theatre is a kind of anti-memoir, perhaps even a kind of pastiche. I mean, someone wrote to me recently because they believed that everything I had said in Memory Theatre was true and they were truly worried about me. This was heartfelt and nice, but strange. I do not want to be the ‘Simon Critchley’ of Memory Theatre.

3:AM: Recently, Rachel Cusk claimed that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” — and she may well have a point. This put me in mind of what you wrote, quoting Blanchot, in Very Little: “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing, ‘when he is alive and real, and not dying and without truth'”. Does this account for the autobiographical turn in literature and the arts?

SC: I don’t know, in the sense that I don’t have an opinion. I am always suspicious of ‘turns’ to anything. Literature is always autobiographical and it always isn’t just that. It requires research and reading. We have to simply face up to that contradiction. Literature is one long song of myself even when that self is something I really don’t want to be. In fiction, we step out of our skin, but we still remain in our skin as we read it.

3:AM: Has psychogeography partly inherited this tradition of the memory theatre (as the narrator seems to imply at one stage)?

SC: Yes, that was definitely on my mind at an early stage of thinking about the project. The idea of psychogeography as the construction of alternative maps for cities and places is what is at stake in Memory Theatre. I got that from Stewart Home. When the narrator wakes from the dream/nightmare of the Gothic cathedral in the middle of Memory Theatre, the entire landscape is psychogeograpized, legible through some arcane, occult grid.

3:AM: I’m pretty sure you must also have been thinking about the web — today’s version of the memory theatre — while writing the book. We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia. It would be absurd to establish a connection between the two phenomena, but are we not increasingly relying on Google or Wikipedia to remember facts we would have memorised ourselves in earlier times? In other words, are we not using the web in order to forget?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Today’s memory theatre is the internet. I deliberately avoid broaching the question of the internet in Memory Theatre, but it’s what the whole thing is about. The difference — and it is crucial — between the internet and the memory theatre is the difference between Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, between an external, mechanized memory and an internal, living recollection. What has happened — largely without anyone noticing it — is that we have outsourced memory onto the internet. Everything is there, googleable, but not in our heads. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. It is certainly an odd thing, given that for several thousand years all education has ever meant has been the cultivation of a trained memory. We have somehow abandoned that in the name of forgetfulness. So, yes, we have chosen to drink the waters of Lethe and enter our private Hades. Literature can at the least remind us of that choice.

3:AM: Even though we are constantly (unwittingly) rewriting our own pasts, isn’t the right to be forgotten — which has arisen in the face of total digital recall — a rather dangerous concept? Are we really the sole owners of our pasts?

SC: No, we are not sole owners of our pasts. The drama of Memory Theatre is showing how our existence can be pre-remembered, as it were, by someone else, pre-destined. The fantasy of total recall, which is one way of approaching Hegel, is often met by the fantasy of active forgetting, in Nietzsche’s sense. Both these fantasies are delusional. We are flayed alive by memory, but not in possession of it.

3:AM: I was thinking of Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and how In Search of Lost Time could be construed as a memory theatre, but what of the unconscious?

SC: Like I said earlier, Memory Theatre can be read as a case study in obsessional neurosis, as an attempt to collate, collect, control, and kill all that is and all that is close to you. I see the ‘moral’ of Memory Theatre in negative terms: do not build your memory theatre! That means trying to access unconscious material in other ways, in relation to other forms of sexuality than masculine obsessionality, and in relation to a different range of affects and transferential relations. This is a project I tried to begin with Jamieson Webster in The Hamlet Doctrine, a book of which I am really proud, mostly because I only-co-wrote it.
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3:AM: Did Giulio Camillo Delminio’s memory theatre remind you, like me, of a similar contraption in 60s TV series Joe 90?

SC: Oh Lord, I used to love that show. I’d forgotten about it, as it were.

3:AM: The memory theatre tradition and dream of total recall find an echo in ‘Simon Critchley’ because (like you) he lost much of his memory following an accident (“My self felt like a theatre with no memory”). Accident-induced memory loss also happens to be the premise of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The quest for the “now of nows” — that moment of “absolute coincidence” with oneself and one’s fate at the point of extinction — is precisely what McCarthy’s anti-hero strives to achieve through his increasingly elaborate reenactments. As for the following sentence, it could come straight out of C: “My body is a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe” . . . In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, you pointed out that there is so much overlapping between Blanchot and Levinas that it is sometimes difficult to tell if an idea originated with the former or the latter. The very same comment could be made about you and McCarthy. Are you — especially through the International Necronautical Society — trying to escape the confines of the self by merging your two voices in a collaborative, polyphonic project? Is it two people, one artist, like Gilbert & George?

SC: Matters become even worse when you think of the first sentence of Remainder, which refers to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. My relation with Tom is very precious to me and I have loved working together with him so much over the years. There is no doubt that meeting and working with Tom loosened my tongue and enabled me to say things I would never have previously imagined. We have a disinhibiting effect on each other, where the usual super-ego bullshit gets shut down and we are able to just burn it up and let it rip. As Levinas was fond of saying, on est mieux à deux. Writing with four hands is better than two. It is fair to say that Memory Theatre wouldn’t have existed without Remainder and elements of C are all over it.

3:AM: Memory Theatre opens with the following three sentences: “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction” — well, is it?

SC: Yes, it is. Oh, there is tinnitus too.

Full Stop

Full Stop magazine interviewed me as part of their “Pathos” series, examining “the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation”.

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“Pathos: Andrew Gallix,” Full Stop 16 January 2013

Last winter, Full Stop introduced “The Situation in American Writing,” a questionnaire adapted from The Partisan Review that asked questions about literature’s responsibility to address seismic changes in culture, the publishing industry, and the political and geopolitical landscape. That questionnaire, which featured responses from Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Victor LaValle, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, and dozens of other writers was illustrative of the concerns and preoccupations that writers carry with them when practicing their craft.

This year we are interested in the situation of writers, rather than writing, in the subjective experience of writing fiction (or in this case, memoir), rather than fiction’s responsibilities to respond to a rapidly changing world. To this end we are interested in examining the trying intellectual, creative, and emotional labor that is often unacknowledged or effaced in the public presentation of writing. What we’re interested in, to put it another way, is pathos.

This year, we’ve crafted a questionnaire asking writers about the effect writing has had on their physical, emotional, and economic health; on the idea of poverty being a precondition for writing well; on what makes writing truthful to one’s self and to readers. Ultimately, we are interested in the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation.

Andrew Gallix is the Editor-in-Chief of the consistently great 3:AM Magazine which features a motto that is the envy of Full Stop: ”Whatever it is, we’re against it.” He also teaches at the Sorbonne, writes for The Guardian, and is currently working on a novel, as well as a collection of reviews of impossible books in collaboration with David Winters.

How has your decision to write affected your health? Has it had negative effects on your personal life?

The great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz said, “One cannot be nothingness all week and then suddenly expect to exist on Sunday.” It’s equally difficult to have a day job and be “nothingness” in the evening — especially if you’re trying to juggle a family life at the same time. Things must be much easier when you can write for a living. I’m pretty sure writing contributed to my divorce, for instance!

There is long tradition that links the craft of writing with poverty. Do you think that’s appropriate? Does poverty feel like the most appropriate condition for your practice as a writer?

No. The authors I know who insist upon writing for a living, although their work is resolutely uncommercial, end up, paradoxically, being obsessed with financial matters. Every single word they write must be counted, and accounted for; turned into money to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong: writers should be paid, but you can’t force people to buy books, let alone read them. Those lucky, or cunning enough, to find a wide audience don’t usually stop writing, all of a sudden, because they’re raking it in. Some of the most interesting writers today come from very privileged backgrounds. Others don’t, and if their books fail to sell in sufficient quantities, they usually have to supplement their incomes through grants, teaching, journalism, or jobs in publishing. The creative writing industry is, in part, a means of subsidising writers’ careers.

The question of the cost of letters (to refer to the title of a book on this subject published by Waterstone’s in 1998) is an important one, because it reflects the evolution of literature itself. When literature was essentially an aristocratic pursuit — for people who had both time and money — this question was immaterial. It only really arises with the spread of literacy and the emergence of writers who didn’t hail from the ranks of the idle rich. The Waterstone’s book I mentioned — How Much Do You Think a Writer Needs to Live on?: The Cost of Letters (edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher) — was inspired by a survey of literary living standards carried out by Cyril Connolly fifty years earlier. When it was published by Horizon, in 1948, British society was being radically transformed through mass education and the Welfare State. Connolly’s survey contained the following questions:

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?
Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?
Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

The main question (which wasn’t addressed because it went without saying at the time) is, of course, that of the definition of a “serious writer” — one who may be worthy of being subsidised in the absence of commercial success. Who decides who is a “serious writer” in the first place? Is it the writer him/herself? His/her peers? Academia? The media? The reading public? The state? I’ve always been a little dubious about the romantic image of the impoverished, tortured genius scribbling away in his, or indeed her, dingy garret, but it does reflect a very real process of privatisation of the writing profession.

Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who, unlike the writers of antiquity, could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of religion or society. The writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens (Kafka) — a disenchanted world (Schiller) which is still ours — becomes highly arbitrary.

Personally, financial difficulties have always diverted me away from my writing. Having said that, the necessity to write often stems (at least in part) from a feeling of dissatisfaction — a sense that something is missing — so, from that point of view, not being rich and contented is probably an asset.

In a rare 1983 interview the enigmatic and often dour Romanian writer Emil Cioran speaks about only reading Nietzsche’s letters because he became concerned with how untruthful Nietzsche’s published works seemed when read against the miserable condition of his day to day existence (isolated, weak, sickly, certainly not characterized by any sense of vigor). Is there any sense in which the truth of one’s condition should be related to the truth of one’s writing, even if in an oblique sense?

In an oblique sense, yes; otherwise, not necessarily. As I was saying, literature is often a compensatory activity; an elaborate form of wish-fulfilment. I am absolutely fascinated by the impact that someone’s physical and psychological life can have on his/her thinking and writing — how apparently rational choices are due, for instance, to a tiny todger, short stature, child abuse, or the absence of a parent. Sartre claimed that he began writing to make up for his ugliness and impress women. We all want to be loved, and writing is always a love letter of sorts. As Richard Brautigan put it, “Just because people love your mind, doesn’t mean they have to have your body” — but one lives in hope, of course.

Perhaps Cioran’s remark makes more sense in the context of philosophy, but literature is the space of contradiction and ambiguity, and that’s what interests me.

Incidentally, I once lived in the same street as Cioran, in Paris.

Are you envious of other people’s success? If so, are you more envious of people’s success in your field or outside of it? Why?

I am, especially if I think they don’t deserve it. I’m more envious of people in my own field, of course, because I feel closer to them. It’s a phenomenon that René Girard skillfully analyses in Deceit, Desire & the Novel.

Give one example in which you had high hopes for success (artistic, commercial, or otherwise) but had those hopes dashed.

When I was really young, and still a student, I got a contract with an American publisher for a short work of criticism. I’d sent them the manuscript, on the off-chance, and it turns out that they wanted to publish it as it was. I was really proud: I didn’t know anyone my age who had published a book — but, of course, I wasn’t satisfied. The manuscript, in my eyes, wasn’t good enough. I asked the publisher to give me a little time to work on it. They granted me a one-year deadline, on the understanding that I’d send in the revised manuscript after six months. Six months, that’s all you need, they said, six months. Almost five years later, I was still working away on the manuscript, wracked by guilt, and I had to draw the conclusion, eventually, that the project I’d embarked upon was unfinishable. As Blanchot said of Joubert, I preferred failure to “the compromise of success” — or at least, that’s my excuse.

Do you feel like the world owes you a chance to make a living as a writer?

Absolutely not, but I hate the world for it!

What is the strongest emotional reaction you have ever elicited from a reader, either in your written work or during a reading? What is the strongest emotional reaction you have ever elicited from yourself during the writing process?

When people I respect have told me that they wished they’d written a story of mine.

When I’ve managed to write something so painful that I thought I’d never see it through.

When, on the rare occasion and in the distant past, women have wanted my body, just because they loved my mind.

When are you at your most truthful as a writer?

When I’m not writing.

The Uncontainable

Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail July-August 2012

[W]e might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience — the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever — has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.

It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.

What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.

It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.

[…] The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.

The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.