Designed for Incompletion

Eugene Thacker, Cosmic Pessimism (2015): 65

On Bibliomania. It is striking how many of the works of pessimism are incomplete — Pascal’s Pensées, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher, Joubert’s Carnets, the stray fragments of Csath, Kafka, Klima, Pessoa… These are not just works that the author was unable to complete, cut short by illness, depression, or distraction. These are works designed for incompletion — their very existence renders them dubious. I like to think this is why such works were so precious to their authors — but also so insignificant, a drawer of paper scraps, in no particular order, abandoned at one’s death, like one’s own corpse.

Still, even an incomplete work can be finished.

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].

The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

Locus of a Secret

Maurice Blanchot, “Joubert and Space,” The Book to Come

… Joubert had this gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, resolutely seeking the right conditions that would allow him to write. … He was thus one of the first entirely modern writers, preferring the center over the sphere, sacrificing results for the discovery of their conditions, not writing in order to add one book to another, but to make himself master of the point whence all books seemed to come, which, once found, would exempt him from writing them.

… [Ending a list of similarities between Joubert and Mallarmé] [T]he feeling that literature and poetry are the locus of a secret that should perhaps be preferred to anything else, even to the glory of making books.

… He seems to have been a failure. But he preferred this failure to the compromise of success.

Full Stop

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


“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.