Named Tomorrow


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

A Working Definition: On Roubaud and Poirier

I suspect my fascination with etymologies is rooted in the two semesters of Latin I took in high school.  I don’t remember a lick of it, but I have remembered how to break words down and root out the bits that can (maybe) tell you something on their own, which might get you by if you find yourself in a jam (the jam, at the time, being standardized tests).  I am by no means a linguist; I’ve no formal experience with the inheritances of words.  They’re a playground, a rabbit hole.  I admittedly enjoy how irresponsibly I follow their transformations, considering how the parts of a word have made up that word, and how they mislead, how easily a word’s present form can overwrite its past and still arrive at the same understanding for all the wrong reasons, and how then each root word leads you to suspect it is the root of another.  Suffuse: suf-, alternate of sub-, meaning under, beneath, up to; but ‘fuse.’  I think: parallel to infusion, but, while infuse has pleasant connotations, suffuse casts a glance towards submission, willing or unwilling.  It walks a fine line between terror and bliss, between a hot shower after a hard day and waterboarding.  Of course, this is trumping things up quite a bit, akin to exploring the significance of two plus two equalling four by means of numerology.  ‘Suffuse’ means, simply, ‘to pour liquid over a surface,’ though pour is misleading.  One Established Dictionary says ‘overspread,’ instead of pour, even as it says the root Latin word is ‘to pour.’  (Unexpectedly, ‘fountain’ has nothing to do with fundere, the Latin root.)  Or: one would expect ‘sect’ to follow from the root ‘to cut.’  A sect, one could assume, is a small group separated from— by an incision, a de-cision— but still part of a larger group.  But ‘sect’ comes from ‘secta’ for ‘following.’

‘Do your work, and I shall know you,’ [Emerson] says in ‘Self-Reliance’.  ‘Work’ is a way to confront the essential facts of existence and to discover in doing so the power of human desire which turns facts into mythologies and mythologies into facts.  – Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 94

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, the thing that keeps me going through Roubaud’s not always fun to read The Great Fire of London, is the dissonance of reading in the present tense.  We often consider grammatical tense and the effect it has on what is being narrated.  But rarely do we consider the tense of the activity of writing, except in such rare circumstances when it becomes so problematic, by the author’s intention or not, that we cannot help but notice it.  There is a bifurcation between experiencing self and writing self.  How an author handles such a dilemma, in an individual work or in their general method, I find to be one of the most interesting moves an author can make (can, because many do not).

There is a moment early in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, when something happens to Charles Arrowby as he is looking out over… well, the sea.  Terrified, and even as he feels compelled to write as a result of the event, he avoids writing about it explicitly because he cannot bear to describe it.  To us, it is only something that happened.  When the shock has worn off, he discusses it, but as a matter of course, a matter of record, for journaling is the activity he has chosen to pass the time.  He brushes the event off as impossible, and desperately explains it away: he used to do drugs.  As the origin of a need to write, it could not have happened actually.  Arrowby, despicable and self-serving as we see him to be throughout the rest of the book, must write in denial of writing.  He has nothing that will allow him to handle what he has seen.  I don’t remember enough about the rest of the book to extrapolate, and I haven’t read any more Murdoch, but for the moment I’m going to turn this into the counterexample.  Writing in the present tense is unbearably difficult for Arrowby, and the rest of the book is him recounting recent events, when the pace of events allows him the time to write down their description.  He treats language as a technology allowing him to dominate his experience, much the way his conception of a past love affair leads him to attempt to dominate his lover when she unexpectedly reappears.

Every present tense speaks (after the fact) with obviousness, with stupendous assurance.  Every speaking present is a violent tense.  But still other presents will appear in this prose (more insidious, the kind a person endeavors to nullify, conceal, dissolve in the process of rewriting, reworking, rethinking what has been written; and I forbid myself from doing so).  …  Narrative time, in this first branch, is true.  I present pages to you who are reading at this very moment (in accordance with your own present), pages exactly paralleling the successive order of their composition, and I also recount here how I am recounting what you are reading. … I guard against the coherence of a possible world. Roubaud, p. 30-31

What does it mean to ‘guard against the coherence of a possible world’?  Roubaud expands on this in the excerpt I quoted in the previous post, particularly when he says that ‘by immersing ourselves within [the world of the great novels] we gradually yield our consent to the fact—though with an inner conviction that we remain masters of this choice—that every life is on the whole improbable.’  Simplifying considerably, Roubaud is highlighting the fact that art depends on making what it describes seem improbable, and therefore interesting.  The point is more strongly, if more subtly made when, in discussing Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” Roubaud surreptitiously drops the ‘dis-.’  To ‘suspend disbelief’ is, in practice, a suspension of belief.  “I believe X to be improbable, but in reading this work in which X occurs, I will suspend that belief.”  Roubaud achieves this effect not by the improbability of a story.  But, in writing out of the present, the perpetual present of composition, Roubaud puts a peculiar pressure on the reader to remember that even in those passages in which he describes past events, the present tense of composition— and consequently of our reading— is violently unsettling, however settled the past tense may make it seem.  We must suspend the belief that we are reading a settled and published work to accept the improbability of Roubaud writing daily without revision or premeditation, something that becomes unbearably implausible during the dense and convoluted ‘deduction’ of the work’s principles in Chapter 5.  Where Arrowby relies on language, on writing, to explain to himself what has occurred by relegating it explicitly to the past tense— and he cannot relegate the terrifying event because of its present effects— Roubaud is always gesturing to the present of composition and the violence it must perpetrate against experience.  The writing self cannot be the experiencing (or experienced) self, except when the experience in question is writing, and it is even then highly improbable. It is paradoxical in a superficial way, because the work that moves him forward— writing daily before sunrise, with all its attendant rituals— provides the reader with a cohering theme: the present of composition and of reading, which seems to belie the violence with which Roubaud is concerned (thought not necessarily to minimize that violence).  But this is the illusion of the stupendous assurance (after the fact) of the present tense.  It is an illusion which Roubaud, even if unsuccessfully, attempts to guard against, an illusion to which Arrowby would be oblivious, blithely unaware of the present tense of composition.

Literature, and those who care for it, ought to acknowledge, as the other media dare not do, that it does not and cannot reveal much of the history even of those it favors with attention.  Poirier, p. 122.

What I am suggesting is that Literature from some of its earliest and now classic instances seems always to have been nostalgic for something that has been lost. It was to meet such a logistical and logical gap that Literature introduced technology as a villain. p. 124.

Poirier makes the case that Literature, in its implicit nostalgia for that thing lost— an Adamic language— has substituted Technology as the thief and destroyer, as far back and further than Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Dante.  The emphasis Roubaud places on the present tense has the unexpected effect of grounding such a claim by attempting to avoid that very pitfall.  It prevents him from falling back on the myth that language, that Literature with a capital L, is the one true technology which will one day reopen the gates to that paradise from which we were expelled so long ago.  Neither our own history (‘our history’, here, being the history of literary language for those concerned with it), nor that of the oppressed, the defeated, or whomever is deemed worthy of being ‘rescued’ by representation in Literature, Film, or even the news media, will ever be recovered.  The interminable present of composition is also the interminable march forward of time, however much we look backwards.  I cannot find the quote at the moment, but Roubaud speaks of the work he is writing as an interminable delay into the future, and his claim to not revise or rework emphasizes the prominence of Roubaud’s desire to exactly not dominate the past— because it cannot, however easy that assuring illusion is to believe— even as writing about it ultimately defaces it beyond all recognition.  (This is the source of tension in the book, that the memory of writing becomes the writer’s memories.  We are indeed watching a writer dismantle, not build, his work.)

What originally prompted this line of thought, aside from the desire to synthesize what seemed to be a common thread in Roubaud and Poirier, were two things.  First, Andrew Seal’s thoughts on the phrase “This book changed my life,” prompted by the reactions to the recent mass-reading of Infinite Jest.  After considering several options, Andrew says:

But what about the last possibility: that a book alters what we think of as the bounds of fiction: what it can do or what it is. I think this possibility is more likely, but it may mean something different from what we habitually mean when we say it. Given that few readers—even few serious readers—have explicitly articulated conceptions of what fiction can do and what it is, I think we have to acknowledge that the reaction “this book changed my idea of what fiction can do/is” would be more accurately re-phrased as “I hadn’t thought of fiction as connected to that realm of experience.” When we say our idea of fiction has been changed, we mean that we find fiction standing suddenly between us and some aspect of the world that we were either unused to interacting with in the first place or were used to interacting with in a manner unmediated by fiction.

The other prompt was the comments raised by Steve Mitchelmore’s thoughts on how Wallace’s suicide altered the perception of his work, linked to in his recent post on the reactions to the new Nabokov work.  In two separate comments in response to others, Steve says,

I’m not sure the [the use of ‘medical’ or ‘biographical’ information] are fallacies. Perhaps items of evidence instead. I hoped I made it clear that I wasn’t stating something rather than speculating; wondering aloud.  What I was searching for was a way to highlight the space between the cold light of the book and the intangibility of experience (inc. the experience of the book). Bernhard wrote in that space. It doesn’t mean that he wrote *about* himself. Re-created himself perhaps. That’s why I find his work hopeful.

It’s not so much that I’m agnostic about the links between biography and work (its form as well as style), but that the debate misses what interests me most: the space opened by the work.    As biographical prurience/criticism tends to be practised by the least literary of literary types (I can name at least one in British arts coverage), the question has always been one way: how has a life influenced the work? Reverse the question and it might provide more interesting answers (particularly as we all share the work).”

Andrew’s supposition seems to rest on one of the difficulties I had with Poirier’s book.  Similar to being curious about how Andrew delimits ‘fiction,’ (without being pedantic, I hope; I am not pointing out a faulty argument, but attempting to locate what exactly struck me as interesting about it, because the question is important), I was curious about how Poirier delimits ‘Literature,’ and at the same time how it is that I feel comfortable calling Roubaud’s work Literature when what about it is fictional or non-fictional is exactly what is called into question.  Poirier, in discussing the Emersonian idea of genius, proposes that genius is not something inherent in a singular work so much as it is inheres in the work.  That is, not in the singularity of the noun, but in the activity it traces.  In Poirier’s reading, Emerson himself is not entirely comfortable with this idea, wishing to “evade, or at least not push further into, the remarkable suggestion that all cultural artifacts which achieve historical celebrity… are products not so much of the influx of God or Intellect or Omniscience or Soul as of the prior needs of what Hawthorne calls ‘artificial system.'”  For Emerson, and William James later, genius occurs when man “would speak ‘in the interest of no man & no party, but simply as a geometer of his forces.'” Genius appears not, then, in any  work itself, but in the actions, in the response that entailed the production of the work, as ‘the products… of prior needs.’  Capital-L Literature for Poirier then seems to be those works, specifically in the medium of language, usually written, in which a writer successfully responds by ‘troping’ the pre-existing ‘artificial system,’ accepting that successfulness is a quality granted by later readers to works that in some way escape that very artificial system which they trope— they seem to be sui generis.*  Thus, instead of “This book changed my life” denoting a shift in the boundaries of fiction, it is the inverse.  Instead of “I hadn’t thought of fiction as connected to that realm of experience,” it becomes “I hadn’t thought of experience as connected to that realm of fiction.”  Successful works are those which, even millennia later, still prompt us to say things, because we shoehorn them into our own experience.  Medical and biographical ‘items of evidence’ are thus indeed not fallacies, only, in practice, the least interesting aspect of a work.  What went into a work is less interesting that what a work went into.

In the time I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been struggling to figure out why an originally intentionless ramble on etymology led me to think about how this most fascinating aspect of Roubaud’s work related to Poirier’s book. Perhaps it is this:  I find etymology fascinating because, as much as it is the history of where they came from, it is the fossilization of what words once went into, of how they were worked.

There is more to consider, here.  I worked from Roubaud to Poirier, and it would be interesting to work the other way (I would say backwards, but…), not the least because Poirier’s book deserves consideration in its own right.  I cannot recommend it strongly enough.  And I’m not so sure I resolved why I found Andrew’s thoughts interesting as much as I created an unsolvable equation (Does Poirier’s ‘Literature,’ then, parallel Roubaud’s ‘fall’ of the riddle into mystery?  I have only just gotten to these terms in Roubaud, so I am probably getting ahead of myself.).  But needless to say 3000 words later, after a several month hiatus due to a number of reasons, I have not in fact disappeared, and with any luck I will be back here more regularly.

*This is doing a disservice to Poirier’s excellent book by making it seem as if that ‘artificial system’ to which a work responds is what we ought to investigate, in order to locate the valuable ‘human culture’ surrounding a work and thus understand its importance.  Poirier is explicitly arguing against the idea that literature’s value lies in its ability to grant us access to prior ‘human culture’ which we are impoverished for having lost  The ‘artificial system’ is lost as is the Adamic language.  Time marches inexorably forward.  In Roubaud’s work, for example, the ‘pre-existing need’ is perhaps the need to deal with his grief over the death of his wife, and the work’s success lies in having turned this need so thoroughly that we can recognize it only as a single point in the infinite field of the work.


Filed under: Poirier, Roubaud, Writing

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