Saturday, June 29, 2019

Why I still read and write

Giorgio Agamben tells the story of the Greek neoplatonist Damascius in exile and close to the end of his life setting out to write a book addressing the largest question of them all, the question concerning God, the One, the Supreme Being, whichever word is appropriate. And it is precisely the uncertainty of the name that raises the demand for an answer. If the object of each name precedes names, questions, answers, and everything else, how can we know it? It becomes more than unknowable because "it doesn't even have the nature of being the unknowable, and it is not by declaring it unknowable that we can delude ourselves that we know it since we do not even know whether it is unknowable".

He struggles to complete his work for three-hundred days and nights until words are replaced by an image that reminds Damascius of the white stone yards of his youth on which the peasants threshed wheat from the chaff: a perfectly empty space "in which only image, breath, or word might eventually take place". Then he remembers how a philosopher had compared the potentiality of the intellect to a tablet on which nothing is written: "The uttermost limit thought can reach is not a being, not a place or thing...but rather, its own absolute potentiality, the pure potentiality of representation itself: the writing tablet!" Why hadn't he thought of it before?
What he had until then been taking as the One, as the absolutely Other of thought, was instead only the material, only the potentiality of thought. And the entire, lengthy volume the hand of the scribe had crammed with characters was nothing other than the attempt to represent the perfectly bare writing tablet on which nothing had yet been written. This was why he was unable to carry his work through to completion: what could not cease from writing itself was the image of what never ceased from not writing itself. In the one was mirrored the ungraspable other. But everything was finally clear: now he could break the tablet, stop writing. Or rather, now he could truly begin.
This is the latest reminder of why I still read and write. A moment of vertigo releases me from the gravity of habit and the assumptions habit forms about what matters. The accumulated sludge of dutiful reading and writing is washed away to reveal not what really matters but the possibility of identifying what does. It has little to do with the specific goal of Damascius's study and everything to do with the aporetic confrontation of necessity and impossibility.

I've been reminded as often as I've read books that contain a reminder, only for clarity to be then smothered by the silt of the book business and all the pressing issues of current affairs or literary-critical apparatuses to which we revert in face of a great silence. Understandably so, for it is a lesson that cannot form itself into a theme or genre because, given that each book is an enclosure, potentiality is borne by that which corrals potential (which is why Agamben's book is resistant to its own unifying force). And it is not a lesson either but breath and blinking as one emerges from confinement into a clearing, such is the paradox of the confrontation.

The reminders are rare and cannot be predicted, and are perhaps too diverse, too vague or too personal to define, even if the next example suggests a thread and perhaps a clearer definition: I read a study of Martin Luther which states that he believed it is the true task of theologians to concern themselves with the specifics of God's self-disclosure rather than constructing preconceived notions of what He is. Those who construct the latter, Luther says, forfeit their right to be called theologians. Except, and here the confrontation arises, the revelation of God must be regarded as indirect and concealed, with the prime example being Christ's torture and death on the cross. The cross shatters illusions about the capacity of human reason to discern God. Revelation requires faith.

If there is a thread, it is not that of a latent Christian faith but the wish to read works in which everything is at stake for the author – in this case Luther and his salvation – even if it appears entirely absurd. This is why theology often stirs me in a way that the staples of my reading – philosophy, novels and literary criticism – rarely do; the writer wagers everything, even if it is a wager lost in advance, while in general the latter have lapsed into jargonised nit-picking, games in the genre sandpit, and consumer evaluations dependent on fashionable concerns. They risk nothing and reveal nothing.

This would explain why metafiction appeals to me, as it seeks implicitly the specifics of writing's self-disclosure. In Gabriel Josipovici's story The Hand of God, Victor, a prolific young author with a promising career, suddenly abandons writing because one day sitting at his desk in an attic room he feels himself falling from the window. He realises it is the end and accepts his fate, even feeling some relief, but, before he hits the ground, he is grabbed by a hand and returned to his desk. It was the hand of God, he says, and now that he knows he cannot fall without being caught, there is no point in going on.

Victor's fall is what Krzysztof Michalski identifies as a revelation of eternity, defined not as the opposite of time but its essence, an "irremediable fissure" or interval in life such as death and love interrupting the continuity of lived time, something always present, characterising our everyday lives but obscured by habit.
In this interval, briefer than any moment one can measure, in this crack, this fissure, this tear—in the blink of an eye—everything is left to question, and a chance for a new beginning arises. This is "eternity."     [Translated by Benjamin Paloff]
If God's hand revealed to Victor that what he sought in writing is present throughout each day of his life, then pouring out literary works is at best superfluous and at worst a pathological negation of life: "to fill this gap with concepts, to patch the fracture of every moment with some piece of knowledge, to remove that internal diversification of life with the help of some truth underlying it, and thus to render our lives consistent and comprehensible. It is precisely this pathology that Nietzsche calls 'nihilism'."

At least, we might say a certain kind of writing is pathological and nihilistic: The Hand of God is narrated by Victor's perplexed friend and admirer who stands for every modern-day book lover cupped by the hand of The Guardian's book pages, unable to comprehend that the end of Victor's writing is where it truly begins; here, in this metafiction. But of course Victor never stopped writing, because his fall was not real: it was imagined; a form of writing as potentiality – what cannot cease from writing never ceasing from not writing. This is how contemporary metafiction and so-called autofiction, otherwise regarded as postmodern frivolity and onanistic indulgence respectively, might align with death and love as irremediable fissures, exposing us to an abyss over which we live or perhaps to its sublimity, however destitute.

The most profound experience of this for me – and of which Agamben's story is an echo – was re-reading the novel In a Hotel Garden after two decades away. Soon after posting my response, I remarked that it felt like the culmination of my years thinking and writing about literature on this blog. This is where it could end, I thought, and thereby, of course, truly begin. In March of this year I wrote sentences of my own that provoked the same vertigo, and I realised that this is what has been missing through all these years of blogging in the shameful lowlands. Only in this way can writing be done, I thought, only with such complete indirection and concealment. I now have no wish to read or write anything else.


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