Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

How does writing fulfil itself?

Jesus was not your everyday literary critic. Luke tells of his teaching in a synagogue:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
We're so used to commentary on literature as secondary, basking in the glow of the object's aura, that the idea of fulfilment is almost impossible to comprehend. This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. How does writing fulfil itself?

The question relates to my two previous posts, the second of which concludes with Slavoj Žižek's wish to act like the characters in Ágota Kristóf's The Notebook, reading the novel as a guidebook or thought-experiment. Imagine instead Žižek proclaiming himself the ethical monster the novel embodies: this day this novel is fulfilled in your daily paper. If we did, we'd see something other than a "Book that changed me" article. Actually, we'd see something like The Notebook. This is why I expressed surprise that Žižek chose not to include any discussion of the form taken by the novel. Its absence helps one forget while remembering this is a novel he's talking about.


We regard Jesus' pronouncement as a given, an act fundamental to Western culture, and we regard Kristóf's novel as part of an endless footnote to the main work, or we would if it were not a footnote now so vast that it has broken free to bob along on a sea without shore. We can no longer see the continent from which contemporary fiction and critical discourse embarked and from which it mined ballast to keep it afloat. In other words, our reading is an evolved model of that sabbath ritual. Despite the claims of escapism and education, the assumption of healing the brokenhearted, offering deliverance to captives, sight to the blind and liberty to the bruised can be found everywhere in literary discussion, for instance that Guardian series title: A book that changed me.

The first of my two most recent posts approached the problem of this reading evolution with the question: where is the horizon of narrative? The premise was that in a landscape our eyes are drawn to the horizon and this somehow guarantees the presence of what we see and delivers its gift of possibility in an infinity of light. For Christians, the landscape might be Jesus' death on the cross and the horizon his resurrection. However, it's that word light I want to focus on, as it invokes Heidegger's Lichtung, commonly translated as clearing, an open space you might wish for while traversing an otherwise impassable forest and, in Heidegger's terms, a metaphor for where beings are revealed, for truth to emerge from concealment. In terms of narrative rather than Christology or ontology, the horizon or clearing is obscured by solid facts, the trees and foliage, allowing us to bury ourselves in dendrology: who among us prefers the sycamore over the horse chestnut, and why? Or should we be more open to the boabab and the gingko biloba now admirably transplanted into our woods? But most of all, where is the next Great American Sequoia?

So, instead, to rephrase the question, where is the clearing in a novel? Each new book has the clearing as its potential and its self-evidence might explain why I am drawn to a certain reading experience that otherwise goes unexamined in routine reviewing and criticism, mainly because it is both haphazard and subjective. Fortunately online reviewing and criticism has the freedom to bring the work into the orbit of the reader as a body and a life rather than as a consumer.

The experience seems to occur at the level of the sentence rather than the story, though it occurs only within a narrative. Many years ago, I was too early for an interrogation over my unemployment and, passing time browsing a bookshop in the least cosmopolitan city in England, I chanced upon two novels by an Austrian author whose work I was interested in reading but who was then difficult to find in translation. (It was so long ago that both paperbacks were priced £3.95.)

In the gloom and tension of the situation, I opened Across and read the first lines:
I shut my eyes and out of the black letters the city lights took shape. Not the lights of the Old City, but the streetlamps that had just gone on in one of the many housing developments on the southern periphery. The development, consisting of two-storey single-family houses, is situated on the big plain at the foot of the Untersberg.
(Translated by Ralph Manheim)
And, as I did so, the gloom lifted and the tension disappeared, replaced by calm and relaxed concentration. At least, that's the story. At the time, a miraculous one. So why did this passage have this effect? The three sentences are straightforward and do not state anything profoundly meaningful about life. Not even close. Apart from the opening sentence, they could be from a local council planning document. Of course, it is the first sentence that makes it fiction: that odd, contradictory movement of eyes shutting to blackness and light taking shape as a result (there it is again, light), which might explain the transformation of my state into a story: the sense that narrative is parallel rather than subordinate to the conditions of life and one can easily step aside without abandoning one or the other. Among other things. This is how a modern novel might fulfil itself, by creating a clearing for this to be absorbed by the reader.

The effect appears to be a combination of chance and design, which should offer anyone an excuse to start writing. No need for a story. Milan Kundera says "dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms every thing, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution". For a clearing, resolution is hacked away and a path opened. This has happened for me in many places, and these examples come from my early days of reading fiction (the dates are when I first read them). First from Kundera himself and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1986):
I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections [on the opposition of lightness and weight] did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do. (Translated by Michael Henry Heim)
Second, in the preface to the first volume of Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London (1995): 
By consigning to paper today the first lines of this prose (manifold in imagination) I am perfectly aware of administering a mortal, definitive blow to what I conceived on turning thirty as an alternative to self-chosen extinction, and which served for over two decades as the project of my existence. (Translated by Dominic di Bernardi)
Certainly there is a quality of valediction here but at the beginning, which surely changes matters. In Kundera's paragraph the narrative is set forth on uncertainty, intellect and imagination. And third in Gabriel Josipovici's novel Distances (published in In the Fertile Land, 1988).
A woman.
The sea.
She begins to walk.
She walks.
She walks.
The staccato rhythm here was like nothing I'd read before and, as each sentence and section built in length, it became like breathing itself. Reading, breathing, walking, clearing. This might be how writing fulfils itself.

4 comments:

  1. I prefer Sycamores because they can host mistletoe, and thus have a nice heathen possibilities! I apologize but my profound aversion to anything haing to do with Heidegger and his RAUNEN extends to his use of the word LICHTUNG. Light, photons, is a very specific element, that requires something organic to perceive it. Obscurity which is meant to be cleared away by cutting down a section of the forest consists in the mind of the infinite hobgoblins of unenlightenment. The two Handke novels you cite are quite important to me too, the Alaska chapter of A SLOW HOMECOMING for manifesting an amazing sensitivity to natural forms and being able to articulate a communion with the, or rather one character, a Handke surrogate lens, called Sorger (Loser in ACROSS) doing so. And both books certainly breathe, but I wouldnt call them novels, as little as Handke wants them to have them called that, they are a development of lyrical prose, whose 19th century root is Adalbert Stifter. So much for now. Without getting into "being." Handke, b.t.w. detests Heidegger.

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  2. A highly stimulating post. Doesn't it seem that though Jesus was not "an everyday literary literary critic," he was in a certain sense quite an everyday reader, in that he discovered fulfillment of a text in his incorporation of it into his personal phenomenal world? ("The scripture says that one day a man will preach the gospel to the poor, etc., and now here I am doing just that.") Isn't this the kind of fulfillment readers are always acknowledging when they quote a text in connection with something they have just observed or participated in (as in Pepys's diary [this may not be the best example, but it's the one that first springs to mind] when Sir William Coventry, after doing his utmost to stock the fleet with provisions, says "if this will not do, I will say, as Sir John Falstaff did to the Prince, ‘Tell your father, that if he do not like this let him kill the next Percy himself,’”)? And yet this moment of fulfillment presupposes an earlier one of the kind you discovered in your reading of those lines from Handke--the moment that establishes the text as somehow more numinous than mere documentation and thereby encourages one to seek out correlatives to it. And perhaps the two moments in concert suggest a higher (or deeper?) fulfillment in an idea of a more numinous (because timeless) stratum of experience? Anyway, I hope there are enough question marks in there: I'm still trying to acclimatize myself to the very notion of fulfillment, which I confess I have not given enough thought to until now and fear I may have desecrated.

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  3. Thanks Douglas – the aim is to explore and stimulate because that's as much as I can do, so it's gratifying to have a response like this. When you write "the text as somehow more numinous than mere documentation" is precisely what I sought to express, which I think is other than incorporation into a familiar phenomenal world, and encouraging one "to seek out correlatives to it" takes me back to Miguel de Beistegui's book on Proustian metaphor. That is, writing/reading (which includes criticism/reviewing) is a stratum of experience too easily removed from awareness and discussion.

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  4. You are very welcome, Stephen, and I am now going to try to continue my acclimatization by revisiting your post on de Beistegui and Proust.

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