Saturday, August 14, 2010

A vast horizon of tiredness

In most cases, fatigue is brought on most quickly by cognitive effort, desk work, reading, or any activity that needs attention.
This is taken from a website discussing the daily effects of brain injuries. It explains more to me than the NHS ever did. Apparently, patients suffering from a head injury report that at first they have a feeling of energy, "then, fairly suddenly," the website continues "like a curtain falling down, they find they are struggling to keep going; and can't make sense of what they're doing." This, to my surprise, matches a familiar pattern in my workaday life. It also explains why this blog has not seen the many book reviews that I had planned to produce in order to start more literary fires. Worse for me is that the website is describing the effects of a mild head injury, and mine was not mild.

For a long time, I've wondered how to write when the cognitive resources required have been already exhausted. Mostly I think it's an excuse: isn't this what real writers do all the time – work hard despite the damage it delivers? Think of Nietzsche and his headaches, Henry James and his tendinitis, the late Christopher Nolan. What ever the answer, the physical response is the same: the curtain sweeps down.

So, rather than keep on waiting for the same answer, I wonder if fatigue should be regarded as an obstacle. If work is the activity that shuts everything down, then can writing be done when it isn't work? Haven't I always found the most promising ideas arrive when I am farthest from purposeful thought: strolling along the seafront, sitting in silence waiting for a train, drifting off to sleep? These are times, I recognise, much like reading and writing, when only possibility is possible. I remember the artist Emma Sargeant describing how her best work emerged only when she was tired at the end of a long day, and how Stockhausen once stayed awake for a week to see what came into his mind. Don't these point the way? Except both painting and composing demand a certain loss of control and surely writing is nothing if not mastery over form and content. Could it be, however, that this mastery is precisely what hampers the breakthrough?

In 1989, Peter Handke published Versuch über die Müdigkeit, translated by Ralph Manheim as Essay on Tiredness (now collected in Quiet Places), and it answers the last question in the positive. In it he describes to an anonymous questioner various experiences of tiredness: from childhood midnight masses, searing boredom during lectures at university, long days of physical labour, to love affairs (the latter looking forward to his Don Juan). Then he recalls a journey from Alaska to New York in the late 1970s which, amid snow storms, required airport stopovers in Edmonton, Canada and then Chicago. When he arrived in Manhattan, he felt ill, cut off from the world after a night without sleep, air, or exercise and wanted to go straight to bed: "But then I saw the streets along Central Park in the early-autumn sunlight. People seemed to be strolling about, as though on a holiday. I wanted to be with them and felt I'd be missing something if I stayed in my room. Still dazed and alarmingly wobbly from loss of sleep, I found a place on a sunlit café terrace, with clamor and gasoline fumes all around me. But then, I don't remember how, whether little by little or all at once, came transformation." He watches people walk by:
I wanted nothing from them; just being able to look at them was enough for me. My gaze was indeed that of a good spectator at a game that cannot be successful without at least one such onlooker. This tired man's looking-on was an activity, it did something, it played a part; because of it, the actors in the play became better, more beautiful than ever – for one thing because, while being looked at by eyes such as mine, they took their time. As by a miracle, the tiredness of such an onlooker nullified his ego, that eternal creator of unrest and with it all other distortions, quirks, and frowns. [...] The action of this selfless onlooker encompassed far more than the beautiful female passerby and drew everything that lived and moved into its world center. My tiredness articulated the muddle of crude perception, not by breaking it up, but by making its components recognizable, and with the help of rhythms endowed it with form – form as far as the eye could see – a vast horizon of tiredness.
This may take us forward to My Year in the No-man's Bay, the novel which begins with the narrator's experience of metamorphosis, and to his screenplay for Wim Wender's Wings of Desire in which the vast horizon was surveyed by Bruno Ganz's angel. But such observations are themselves the weary reflex of a literary worldliness. His questioner asks what is so special about this gaze:
Because of my tiredness, the thousands of unconnected happenings all about me arranged themselves into an order that was more than form; each one entered into me as the precisely fitting part of a finely attuned, light-textured story; and its events told themselves without the mediation of words. Thanks to my tiredness, the world cast off its names and became great. I have rough picture of four possible attitudes of my linguistic self to the world: in the first, I am mute, cruelly excluded from events; in the second, the confusion of voices, of talk, passes from outside into my inner self, though I am still as mute as before, capable at the most of screaming; in the third, finally, life enters into me by beginning spontaneously, sentence for sentence, to tell stories, usually to a definite person, a child, a friend; and finally, in the fourth, which I experienced most lastingly in that day's clear-sighted tiredness, the world tells its own story without words, in utter silence, to me as well as to that gray-haired onlooker over there and to that magnificent woman who is striding by; all peaceable happening was itself a story, and unlike wars and battles, which need a poet or a chronicler before they can take shape, these stories shaped themselves in my tired eyes into an epic and, moreover, as then became apparent to me, an ideal epic. The images of the fugitive world meshed one with another, and took form.


  1. the most interesting matter for me in Handke's ESSAY ON TIREDNESS are the matters that tired him as a young man, but that don't any more. Haying - now he loves every stray bit of it, also used to nauseate him; nausea and anger and tiredness are all connected then, including listening to the couple engages in fucking noisily above his student room. of the three essays in THREE ESSAYS I regard this as the least successful, because the author hasn't a clue about what made him angry as an adolescent, whereas why he escaped into jukeboxes is described is represented so as not to demand psychological exploration. also the socratic method employed in TIREDNESS is a bit simple ... but this was the first of the NEW DIRECTION Handke promised to take in FANTASIEN DER WIEDERHOLUNG.
    xx michael r.

  2. Anonymous9:58 am

    I absolutely have to read the Handke essay now. As I think you know, I've suffered from chronic fatigue on and off for the past 12 years, so dealing with tiredness whilst yearning for creativity is a quotidian struggle. On the one hand, changing my mindset to include more dreaming time, more playful thought, has helped. But on a purely pragmatic level, I write for two hours a day and no more. I probably get more done than I used to, and the knowledge that I will stop before I wear my cognitive capacity out is enlivening. It's not romantic, I know, but it works.

  3. Well Mike, it was Handke's angle on tiredness in relation to his creative life that interests me here. I was going to add that his vision of people along with their object seemed to connect to his defence of Yugoslavia and hence the disconnect with the NATO apologetists who misrepresented him so badly. But it seemed superfluous to the subject in hand which isn't about Handke himself.

    Litlove, unfortunately I have to write for 37.5 hours a week, so even two extra hours are a romance for me.

  4. Stephen, just wondering if a voice recognition program for the computer might be of assistance. I've been tempted to use one here and there simply because my time gets eaten up by a vulnerable family member who needs me. I'm tired for other reasons, I realise, but the requirement is perhaps similar.
    In an ideal world, one would carry around a small recorder, then take it home and play it to the computer. I'm not quite sure if that can be done though!!
    The Handke quotes are luminous - thank you.

  5. This is an interesting read. I love what you have put down here and they reflect what I sometimes go through. thank you very much

  6. I strongly suspect that we are all individuals and that we are subject to the laws of individuality - that is that we have differing ranges of abilities - and that when it comes to physical, mental and intellectual acivity requiring serious amounts of concentration this bundle of abilities varies greatly. Consider the different resources required by the 100mtr sprinter, the marathon runner, the Tour de France cyclist, the New York cop, the K2 mountaineer, the reporter at the latest crisis scene, somebody like Lyse Doucet now in Pakistan.
    We must, lest we perish, cut our metaphorical coats according to our given cloth. The psychiatric wards are full of great lovers, great writers, great film stars, great generals and great insomniacs.
    Hemingway recommended a walk in the fresh air before writing. Exercise, like sleep, is vital. We humans have long legs.

  7. Yes, as Brian told us, we are all individuals. We have that in common at least. But this is not the question my post addresses: it is what might emerge when failure is inevitable. One can gauge what work and success are as a 100mtr sprinter, a marathon runner, a Tour de France cyclist and a mountaineer - but as an artist?

  8. All servants of fate can worry themselves daft, into the grave even; lost souls in a Waiting for Godot universe, or alternatively get on with work, lives, existences in a basically healthy and wholesome way thus giving frail bodies a chance to withstand the shocks, the outrageoes arrows and and all the other stuff that fragile flesh is prone to. Self-kindness, as far as possible, if you like. Even driven genius deserves a break.
    An artist's work is gauged post mortem. I guess that's where the money is.

  9. Anonymous4:06 pm

    Apologies for lowering the tone, but reading this makes me ever more certain that I've had a brain injury I don't know about (which I suppose could make perfect sense).

  10. I'm new to this site, and find the discussion fascinating. Real tiredness, I know from experience, can leave you very's the emptiness that sometimes allows for some unexpected presence/impression/understanding to break through the barriers that our focused/energetic/preoccupied selves create.



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