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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

—Used Language

I have been thinking lately about what, for lack of a better term, would be my ‘aesthetics’— what I think makes good art good art (or just what makes art art— that’s one I wish we’d talk about more: is only good art art?). Taking courses in ‘analytic aesthetics’ and ‘continental aesthetics’ back to back forces you to spend a lot of time circling those words. Reading Heidegger over and over again in an effort to actually follow the progression of thought, the evolution within the single work of his own vocabulary (the dizziness that sets in when you think that that goes on in forty more volumes before and after!), and then thinking about others I am having to read— Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida— and my own reading outside of class— Proust, Josipovici, Blanchot— it is a rigorous tactility in the writing itself that snares me. I would be remiss to say that I think Heidegger is right, that his philosophy has it pinned down, but I nevertheless feel drawn to his language, his way of talking about it, as I do Derrida and Proust and Josipovici and Blanchot— almost irrespective of the actual thought being developed, I am entranced by the development. To coopt some of the language from Origin, it is writing that does not ‘use up’ language.

How is that, though? On the practical level, when I am reading or watching something, what is it that makes me say, or, how is it that I actually can say, “This does not ‘use up’ its medium”? (This is part of my frustration with Heidegger, and simultaneously something I feel it is inappropriate to do to his thought— such ideas as world and earth I can actually put to use, it actually resonates with that encounter with a ‘work’— and on the other hand, it is what I like about Derrida, the impracticality of it, the acknowledged impossibility of ‘putting to use’.) It can occur on any level of language, be it the miniscule— words and phrases, etymology, grammar, lines and rhythm— or massive— the paragraph or novel, narrative, the material of writing itself. Edmond Caldwell’s post on Bernhard’s ‘he said’ comes to mind, though particularly because I have been reading Josipovici’s first novel, and his concern with dialogue in this novel, as he discusses in ‘Writing, Reading, and the Study of Literature,’ beyond the link if you have access to JStor, serves to highlight similar features. He often breaks after the first beat of the sentence, either completely or with the speech-attribution tag before continuing the sentence (e.g. “‘But—'” or “‘What,’ he said, ‘do you mean?'”), giving the reader just enough to want the rest before drawing attention to the impropriety of it, the fabrication; similarly his frequent iteration of the same words (a few lines [“The room. He stands. A window.”] in Everything Passes, whole chunks of story in The Inventory), which frustrates the desire to move along and actually forces the opposite reaction, causing the reader to slow down tremendously and pay the utmost attention to the tiniest word, the most minute alteration in syntax or narrative order (also cf. his writing on the Old Testament in Singer on the Shore).

I am coming to notice the feel of work that attracts me, and realizing that it is that act of thought that I love, and that desire to translate it which always creates something entirely else; but the scars left by that translation should not be covered over or polished out. Writing which acknowledges that it is only writing, and is all the more capable for not trying to ignore that. I cannot disavow the alternative, however, work which ‘uses up’ its material. I could not write this if I did. And a part of this thought has been driven by my desire to understand why I do or do not like writing that is, on one hand, ‘too’ conventional (though conventional is incorrect, it feels; it is hard to find a word that implies the pejorative impulse without condemning the writing), or on the other, ‘too’ experimental (which poses a similar dilemma): why I like The Sea, The Sea and The Book of Evidence but was lukewarm to Television, or why half of J. H. Prynne’s or Ashbery’s writing is some of the most invigorating, and the other half feels completely vain and futile to even bother reading.

Jérôme Game, at a lecture a few weeks back (the critical half of which was given at such a speed I found it nearly impossible to follow more than superficially; the creative half of which was in French— also spedread— and I dutifully caught my one out of every 100 words) spoke of ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ writing, of which I would not want to elaborate right now, partly because I do not know if this is even what he was meaning to say, but I’ve been using the terms on my own lately, and let it suffice to say that, at the extreme, the former could probably be considered the most ‘literary’ of ‘literary fiction’ and the latter the most ‘lang’ of ‘lang-po.’ To write at either extreme is vain— completely transitive is facile and completely intransitive turns language to ash; both negate the import of writing, language, and ultimately existence. (Tall talk, that. And part of me, both in response to my own writing and to that of those who I am reading, fears this is all just grandstanding to justify the endeavor.) Watching Synecdoche, NY, one feels the need to stitch it into a story, yet to do so is made impossible by the film itself (How does one ‘explain’ living in a house which is constantly on fire?), and one yet feels at its end that a story has been. (This was my struggle with the analytic aesthetic philosophers from last term: the concern over ‘what the author intended to say,’ as if translation from thought to word changes nothing of the intent; thus, it is not that intent is or is not relevant to interpretation, but that it is almost useless as a standard with which to interpret.) To ‘relate’ it, to order it into sense is, in a sense, to render it mute; to ask “Why that room? Why that window, and that grayness?” is to cut the ground out from beneath its feet. So, both as critic and artist, one must find ways to present that ‘letting speak’ in art; frustrating, obviating that desire seems to be the only way to truly do so, when it speaks despite all one’s efforts to silence it. Writing that does not hide the fact that it is writing, but is not overproud of it either, both of which are difficult to avoid.

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Filed under: Heidegger, Josipovici, Synecdoche, Writing

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