There is no substitute for that moment when a book places into our mind thoughts we recognise as our own. For those who carry a pencil, this is the thing we underline. The identification is instant and intimate. If the sentence is long enough, the sensation can even overtake us while we are still in the process of reading the thought that summoned it. These notions spring from a mind similar to ours, except this mind has read books that we have not, has known experiences we lack, has relentlessly stripped away its banalities until this apt remark remains. We admire those who create these thoughts, even as we secretly believe that we might have been the ones to write them first had we lived differently. These discoveries come over us with the force of a reclaimed memory: life momentarily regains a sense of potential. We feel awe, gratitude, and magnification.
Just the other day I encountered such a line in the poet Mary Ruefle’s essay ‘Madness, Rack, and Honey’: she calls on Mary Oppen to describe this very experience, and Oppen herself calls on Heidegger to help her do so. ‘When Heidegger speaks of boredom,’ quotes Ruefle from Oppen, ‘he allies it very closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond. And that is a poetic moment, a moment in which a poem might well have been written.’ In which one’s mind begins to reach beyond – that is precisely it. Our senses are momentarily augmented. Things heretofore imperceptible emerge into existence. An essential few phrases become the focus of our thoughts, and if we can, we scribble them down immediately. Irrepeatable once they have been lost, they carry within them a full poem.
How fitting that Heidegger links this moment to boredom: it is precisely in those unconstructed white expanses that our thoughts are freed from the channels that normally guide them through a day. In this sense reading may be thought of as a variety of boredom. On many days I reach this quasi-bored state after having taken the morning train into the city where I work. I wedge myself into a corner where I am secure from the jostlings of the other passengers, I close up my ears with the sounds of familiar music, I fix my eyes down into a book. The twenty-one minutes between stations pass as though I have fallen into a second sleep, I read and underline and feel building within me a sense of reaching beyond what I am capable of thinking. As I ascend into the light of day I am in a relaxed state. Truth after truth rings between my ears. In those minutes of surplus something that was once amorphous and incomprehensible has found its way into language. If I am fortunate, I will be able to preserve a few sentences that I know are right, but cannot say why.
My literary project flows out from those moments: it is that process of articulating just why the sentence is correct. Here is my equation for an essay:
The worthy idea for a piece of writing
an original, significant thought
a scheme by which it will develop over a certain duration
As the essay is developed, a human intelligence evolves itself toward a comprehension of itself and its milieu. This is how we begin to develop the language to describe what we are at any given point in time and space.
Nietzsche’s magnificent essays are among the greatest documents I have read on the question of the modern individual attempting to comprehend himself. Nietzsche claims that their most important inspiration was music: only it, according to him, could induce the raptures that puncture beyond the world of appearances, opening the path down to that indestructible realm of pure Being. This might be differentiated from literary inspiration, which always occurs on the level of language, and thus is always at least once removed from that purely primal Being. Nietzsche makes his case for the unique power of music in The Birth of Tragedy, where he argues for the frenzy unleashed by Dionysiac art as an antidote to an excess of Apollonian reason. He first claims that it is only such art that inspires us to see the truth:
Dionysiac art, too, wishes to convince us of the eternal delight of existence, but it insists that we look for this delight not in the phenomena but behind them. It makes us realise that everything that is generated must be prepared to face its painful dissolution.
And what is the effect of this sudden look past the shroud that normally covers every moment of life?
It forces us to gaze into the horror of individual existence, yet without being turned to stone by the vision: a metaphysical solace momentarily lifts us above the whirl of shifting phenomena. For a brief moment we become, ourselves, the primal Being, and we experience its insatiable hunger for existence. Now we see the struggle, the pain, the destruction of appearances, as necessary, because of the constant proliferation of forms pushing into life, because of the extravagant fecundity of the world will. We feel the furious prodding of this travail in the very moment in which we become one with the immense lust for life and are made aware of the eternity and indestructibility of that lust.
I happen to believe Nietzsche is more or less correct in this case, yet as a lover of literature this troubles me. When he speaks of ‘the destruction of appearances’, he endorses a kind of inspiration that wants to violently dissolve the logic – the grammatical rules and sturdy definitions – that make the entire edifice of language stand. It is true, of course, that much of the very best writing aspires to undo precisely this edifice – Beckett, for one, made of this task a life project. But all writers know they must fail. Even Beckett at his most infinitely ironic, shambling up out of the very pit of language he is digging himself into, is still operating within language. It is this fact that Faulkner admits when he says ‘I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.’
Notably Nietzsche calls this scraping away of all phenomena, this ‘gaze into the horror of individual existence’ a moment of ‘solace’. This implies that the order language gives to life is a kind of essential vice that we must, from time to time, be released from. This is why they play music over the credits at the end of a sad movie: the music cannot help but drive us to a place where the story we have just seen troubles us a little less. (It is always an ominous statement when a filmmaker runs the credits without any musical accompaniment.) When the music plays, we drop down below life’s narrative and touch upon something amorphous and communal – Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, identified this as the will. Rothko, who deeply admired Nietzsche and was greatly influenced by him, sought a similar effect in his immense, Orphic canvases: paintings that seethe in their stillness, that hearken back to the archaic forms, they offer, if not necessarily solace, distance from narrative’s crushing grip.
One morning not too long ago I spent a restful hour of more or less genuine solitude with Rothko’s Seagram murals in a small room in the Tate Modern galleries in London. The room is dimly lit, as per Rothko’s instructions, and it is barely large enough to hold the six immense canvasses. One reaches it at the end of a long corridor, giving the sense of having come a ways away from the world and into a chilly cave. The works consist of large pillars of dour reds, oranges, greens, and purples. They are very rough, simple, shapes that reach back toward Nietzsche’s primordial humanity – the heaps of rock and mud and bark and bones that our ancestors made before figuration became the locus of art. Although I find Rothko’s murals beautiful, I do not experience them as a beauty that vanquishes suffering so much as a beauty that makes my suffering articulable. If I were to put such a remarkable experience into the clumsy stuff of language, I would say that it transports me from the realm of the visceral into the realm of the philosophic, in a way similar to how time can take our very immediate emotion – a frenzied sobbing after a break-up – and slowly build around that pit the fruit of reflection and nostalgia. With Rothko one always senses the outbursts that must have inspired the work, yet they are cocooned by the weeks and months of measured brushstrokes that chill passion into reflection.
I stepped up and walked away from Rothko’s murals with the conviction that, of music, art, and literature, I prefer the third the best of all because it is the one most interested in taming the will by giving a sense of duration. Literature finds its highest expression beyond those primal moments that Nietzsche sought out. I imagine it as the dispassionate and quiet third in a lovers’ triangle, the sullen one who will eventually lose interest in the ecstatic sports played by art and music, heading off on his own, ultimately more interested in the introvert’s task of constructing systems and stories. The literary intelligence must ultimately have that distance from our unalloyed passage through life – this is what language forces upon us. And this is the particular barrier that it seeks to overcome, its own version of being cast out from the garden.
A career lived permanently, desperately trying to re-enter that garden. This may be the common lot of writers, but the most marked of them will find ways to warp this fate into their own original shapes. The French-Belgian writer Georges Simenon is estimated to have written hundreds of novels: at least 200, and some say as many as 450. He would write them in a week’s time. Though short, the books are far from slight, and their principle characters nurture plump psychologies. Simenon’s ability to develop nuanced individuals with full histories is staggering: it indicates not simply an acceleration of the traditional writing process but a different kind of composition altogether. Why on earth would a person write so many books?
In a lecture presented to Belgium’s Académie Royale de Littérature Française, the writer and essayist Simon Leys attempted to come to terms with Simenon’s fecundity. He tells us that the author’s work was an activity every bit as somatic as mental. As he prepared to work, Simenon would ‘suffer fits of vomiting’ due to the intense pressure of literally becoming the protagonist, and then he would dash out the novel in a prescient frenzy. For all the fury of the practice, though, no matter whom Simenon became during these writing rites, he rarely escaped himself. ‘An artist,’ Leys observes, ‘can take full responsibility only for those of his work that are mediocre or aborted – in these, alas! he can recognise himself entirely – whereas his masterpieces ought always to cause him surprise.’ Thus, for Simenon, whose masterpieces were as few as those of his less prodigious fellows, writing was not an escape from himself; rather, his pen penetrated the same mundane afflictions he endured alongside the bulk of humanity, even as his life took on boundless proportions: ‘whereas Simenon’s novels resemble life, his life increasingly resembled a novel.’ Leys puts it most succinctly and archly when he says that creativity became for Simenon a supremely personal ‘pathology’ – an obsessed drive to crack the same nuts we all beat at, no matter that his vast reserves of fame, money, and literary genius dwarf ours. The one thing denied an avowed master of human psychology was a utile psychotherapy.
The urge to create characters, to invent other beings, reaches in Simenon the proportions of an obsession so exclusive and devouring that one could use his case to make a clinical analysis of the physiology and pathology of literary creation. Indeed, it is this very compulsion that injects his novels with a sense of inescapable necessity. Reading his works, one verifies the truth of Julien Green’s observation: ‘The only books that matter are those of which it could be said that their author would have suffocated had he not written them.’ Few writers were ever so purely and totally novelists.
It may be noted in this context that all literature – and likely all fiction, with the possible exception of the most crass and ignorantly conceived projects – bears some evidence of this pathology. Show me a novelist worth reading, and their work will amount to a chronicle of their obsessions. Leys must know this, and in that pathological obsession which distinguished Simenon from other novelists – a neurotic enough lot to begin with – he wrenches out the Belgian’s particular aberrancy. In Simenon that spark of inspiration becomes a white-hot phosphorescence engulfing those enormous reserves of creative fuel with an exponential hunger.
I have often observed, and perhaps just as frequently had it observed to me, that the ones who manage to emerge into the world as successful writers are not those who are the most brilliant; rather, they are those who dearly enough want to continue writing. Every single day when one sits before the blank page, life counters with a sheaf of reasons to stand up. For those who manage to remain seated, the world’s damning indifference to the product of their painstaking hours is never hard to come by. Some do persist. The reasons they do so are wildly complex and particular to each individual, but I do believe that the matter always traces back to the same root: there are questions a writer feels compelled by necessity to answer, and there is no other way to seek the answer than by putting words onto the page.
Or perhaps it is better to say that there are questions a writer feels compelled by necessity to discover, and that compulsion is their answer.
The stuff of the world is not meant to be examined by language, not any more than dirt is heaped up so that we may shovel it, oceanic trenches filled with water so that we might sail, or flowers spread out in bloom in order that they be photographed. Those things built with words are of a piece with all other human efforts to make our time in this world more tolerable, to give it sense, comfort, and meaning. But they are different. I see that distinguishing thing in Simenon – and Kafka. In both men’s work those desperate words crack right back into the anguished, sweaty brow of a person who admits no other remedy. I saw it again in Kafka the other day in his diaries: in 1914, after spending the afternoon with a middle-aged writer whose work he found ‘petty’ and ‘ineffectual’, he wrote that, ‘Only in such extreme circumstances does one become aware of how every person is lost in himself beyond hope of rescue, and one’s sole consolation in this is to observe other people and the law governing them and everything.’ What he means is that the poor man could never write what he had to, and seeing his plight made Kafka more aware of his own. For neither could Kafka, or Simenon, they both died writing as should any true writer. There is something so misshapen about looking to another writer’s words in order to observe a writer about whom one wants to write. It is like a tree trunk lumpy with its own gnarls, grown hunchbacked toward the sun. What does it grow toward? What is that shape that it has formed?
Those hours a person spends feeding the urge to write are both unbearably dull to describe and the source of endless fascination. I quote again Mary Ruefle, who this time quotes John Ashbery: ‘John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of [the creative process] . . . The problem is you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.”‘
I can’t help but giggle every time I read Ashbery claim that poetry disequips you for life. What single thing could possibly disequip you less than poetry? But I know just what he means. That wasting of time, a thing none of us can abide because we are all too well aware that time is our most precious commodity, the one thing we can never have more of, can never have enough of, will all run out of, so to waste it is a monstrosity – particularly for a little bit of scribbling that will end up packed away in some notebook. As Ashbery says, ‘you can’t use your time’: hours in which we might have improved our physique, learned to cook, cleaned the house, balanced our accounts, earned some money, made ecstatic love, improved our relationship with our parents, delivered affection to our spouse, or done the shopping are instead given over to sitting in front of a blank page. To no small extent, choosing to lead a writing life is a brave and selfish thing. You must ignore so much else that we are led to believe is necessary and moral. It requires that you break down those lessons society has tried so hard to impart to you, and then build up in their place alternative lessons that few will accept as valid. It is to court misunderstanding and condescension. Even those who have given their lives over to the page cannot help but feel that our priorities are perverted.
But isn’t writing also living? – perhaps it is a sad thing that no one ever thinks to ask the person who has just consumed a sumptuous dinner with a loved one, Do you feel bad for not having spent this time attempting to write a poem?
Ashbery’s use of the word wasted is instructive, for if sitting around ostensibly doing nothing is an absolutely necessary part of the creative process, then we cannot really say that the time is wasted, even though it is perfectly clear what he means. The moment when we make that unforeseen connection in which creativity flourishes cannot be rushed; and yet, we have grown so accustomed to rushing in all other aspects of life, to forcing a resolution to matters that might well have taken an extra fifteen minutes, that to simply sit around patiently for the necessary creative moment seems to us a waste of our time, as though we are on hold with customer service. It must be stated here that the idea of wasting time is itself highly fraught, for we feel the imposition most acutely when we are forced to do something we would rather not, yet we all gladly pass our time in other activities that bring about no tangible benefit whatsoever, feeling, at the very worst, some residual guilt in retrospect. (I have never felt retroactive guilt at the time wasted white writing, and I doubt Ashbery has either.) Perhaps what Ashbery’s remark really demonstrates is the skewed usage we have adopted with regard to the word waste; the sad, stupid truth is that, in this world, to stand around for a few extra moments longer than necessary is to have suffered a grievous loss. But what if it is not? What if there is a whole world there that almost no one cares to see because there are so few people like Ashbery, like Simenon and Kafka, who have seen the value in waste, in boredom? Those latter two in particular had all the reason in the world to stop writing: by the time Simenon had written even one-fourth of his career output, he was already wealthy, famous, and adored; and as to Kafka, he well knew that his obsessive dedication to books that sold a handful of copies in his lifetime was preventing him from ever falling in love with a woman and having a normal family. They chose to continue this waste throughout their whole lives, and the answer to the question of why should rightly fascinate us.
Why are writers so compelled to write? Two observations: I have never known writers to possess the right frame of mind to sink, untroubled, into relaxation, no matter by how many hours of hard labour they have earned the privilege. And secondly, I have known them all to have a conflicted relationship to solitude, fantasizing it while it is distant, squandering it while it is possessed. It is their temperament to always discover the exact thing that should be written precisely when it cannot be written down, to always be capable of idealising the pleasure and desirability of writing precisely at the moment when there is no possibility of doing so.
Which is to say, writers are a paradoxical, deeply difficult-to-satisfy bunch. In a piece called ‘The Essential Solitude’, Blanchot considers the seclusion they face as a very particular kind whose key feature is an enclosure within the shadow cast by one’s own words. Under that shadow, our writing takes on a curiously doubled form: we have the words on the page, newly distanced from the womb, and we have those thoughts in our head yet to be transmuted into written language. We can feel our fingers complete the circuit between them. For Blanchot, this grasping of the pen consumes a writer’s life; it drains their thoughts and leaves them with a product they are permanently estranged from. Mastery, for Blanchot, is ‘the power to stop writing’, yet this it is always a perverse thing for a writer to do: it makes you, like Rimbaud, a ‘mysterious impossibility’.
So for Blanchot the writer’s lot is either to quit and become an abomination, or to continue writing and suffer a personal solitude unlike any other. What precisely is this solitude a writer is destined to occupy?
a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another. Valéry, who celebrates this privilege of the infinite in the work, still sees only its easiest aspect: the fact that the work is infinite means (to him) that although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit, expresses that mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain point, circumstances – that is, history – in the form of an editor, financial demands, social duties pronounce the missing end and the artist, freed by a purely compulsory outcome, pursues the incomplete elsewhere.
Blanchot here reminds us of the thing he reminds us of more than any other – the writer is always engaged with the infinite. ‘The fact that the writer’s task comes to an end when he dies is what hides the fact that because of this task his life slips into the unhappiness of infinity.’ His point is sound: it is a most melancholy calling to attempt to say something for one’s whole life that, by definition, is infinite and inexpressible. But I would baulk at saying the task is unhappy, because it is surely what the writer wants to be doing. At the very least, it is most definitely a more desirable fate than being able to say the thing. This solitude is what, paradoxically, puts a writer into contact with the world. Again the words of Simon Leys ruminating on Simenon: ‘Could any clear-sighted writer ever believe that the source of his inspiration lies within himself? He might as well believe that he owns the rainbow or the moonlight which transfigures for one moment his little garden.’ The moonlight transforms the friendly garden into an incongruous tableau glimpsed but for a hair-raising split second, and now the writer has yet another infinity to ponder. Would any good reader or good writer, any lover of beauty who aches to set it down on the page call that moment anything less than enthralling?
And then there is the moonlight within ourselves, those moments in which I chance to pierce such shameful infinities that I can scarcely admit them even in that deskbound solitude. These are things one may only develop a faculty for discussing with the most gracious patience and an unyielding resolve to exist within the kind of literature that will provide the words you dare not utter. Seeing them on the printed page, or beside the blinking cursor on your laptop screen, is enough inspiration to bring tears to your eyes.
As Blanchot claims, these are words we are permanently estranged from; how many times I have discovered a thing I wrote as though penned by some other hand, its meaning just as mysterious and alluring as something I found in a novel. To be submerged in reading or composition is to be within the buffeting waters of the sea, and when we step out what is left is only that thin coating of salt and the bodily memory of the ocean’s roll. Words do not adhere any stronger just because we are the ones who happened to write them. Those essays and journals in which I have composed myself join those books I have underlined on my shelves as things that should be picked up from time to time to augment the few phrases and hard-won beliefs that are the true traces left in us by our libraries. That solitude of composition, however, cannot be recovered. It may only be possessed once, and if writing is indeed an infinite, lifelong failure, then it is one that must be inscribed point by point, hour by hour, like a line drawn out to the edge of the horizon.
Blanchot’s essay gives us much insight to those hours sunk in composition, but it tells us little about why anyone begins this practice. For that question, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus has been greatly instructive. Mann’s re-telling of the Faust legend rests upon two genius strokes: he establishes a relationship between Faust’s compact with pure evil and the agreement struck by Germany throughout the Third Reich, but he does not equate them, instead bestowing the deal with the devil upon a serialist composer named Adrian Leverkühn, a mere citizen of the Reich; Leverkühn is so absentmindedly apolitical that the relationship between him and his government can only ever be a metonymic one – a mad citizen swallowed up within his madder country – though the two illuminate one another with their own peculiar light. Mann’s second genius stroke is to make Faust’s bargain a deconstruction of civilisation’s practice of raiding history for inspiration: in our rush to drag those things that dominated our ancestors’ lives into our own era, we forget the peril in this practice. Ironically, this dangerous pursuit, which Leverkühn uses to invent the twelve-tone scale, and which Germany invokes to imagine the Reich, was also the very one Mann, who drags the ancient Faust legend into modernity, takes advantage of to write his novel.
The treacherous juxtaposition snaps shut on the reader: can it really be that Western civilisation’s most esoteric music, the Third Reich, and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus are joined at birth? Mann had to know the stakes of his game. In the Germanic tradition out of which he wrote, there are very few, if any, stories more central to the canon than Faust, few if any that have been more often retold, and few if any that have shown such adaptability to modern circumstance, whatever it may be at the moment. Its capacity to be of service to virtually any historical circumstance is perhaps the most compelling proof possible of the very deep insight it makes into the nature of humanity. In tampering with it Mann ran the same risks as his protagonist.
Seduction is key to this story. This aspect entered the Faust myth when Goethe dragged it into modernity, and since then it has grown to be the centrepiece. It dominates, this idea that the artist must tread most closely toward a dark art working to seduce him toward damnation. Indeed, inspiration often comes as an imperative, as a thing we cannot but help do for love, and the narrative it puts into our mouths may ultimately damn us with the knowledge revealed in the fight we wage to tell it. In Mann’s telling, this is exactly what happens: Leverkühn evolves from a precocious, somewhat preternatural, sweet young man into grotesque middle-aged adult gripped within the myth of his own genius.
‘Know, then,’ said he, at the table, ‘ye good and godly folk’ (he said ‘god and goodly’), ‘with your modest sins and resting in Goodes godness, for I have suppressed it so long in me but will no longer hide it, that already since my twenty-first year I am wedded to Satan and with due knowing of peril, out of well-considered courage, pride, and presumption because I would win glory in this world, I made with him a bond and vow, so that all which during the term of four-and-twenty years I brought forth, and which mankind justly regarded with mistrust, is only with his help come to pass and is divel’s work, infused by the angel of death. For I well thought that he that will eat the kernel must crack the nut, and one must today take the divel to favour, because to great enterprise and devises one can use and have no other save him.’
Literature is indeed the devil’s work. Within it we play with an ambiguous force that gives us a world in exchange for our life, our unstinting allegiance to its beliefs and its understanding. No one can enter into this compact and not take pause at what is being asked. Is this our way of proving free will, as did Satan in Paradise Lost when he went against a God he knew to be omnipotent?
I have been privileged to watch art infect my perfectly normal mind. Perhaps it is these origins that drew me toward my reading of Mann’s Faustus as a story about the bourgeois fear of art’s subversive force. For the first eighteen years of my life, my home was in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I led a middle class existence at a comfortable remove from the existential perils that the writer ponders as a matter of course. I scarcely knew they existed. I take it that the majority of people go through life in just this way. But around my eighteenth birthday I began to perceive these struggles, they grasped me, from that point on they would be denied but never shaken free from, and at some pivot in those fraught years after I turned 18 the key came loose and everything began to shift. Now, over a decade later, I stand before you, fully formed into that thing one must be in order to absorb the truths of Beckett, of Nietzsche, of Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Barthes, of Bolaño, of Sebald, of Rothko, Pollock, those scores and scores of adepts who lead us through this devilry.
It is not altogether clear to me that the turn my life took was to my profit. Unlike some who are born to this world, I might have swerved the other way. It is a pernicious thing that no one ever regrets making the swerve toward art, toward its demented, damned truth, unquestionably thicker, juicier, more pungent than any other truth available. This, it seems, would be why Bolaño calls literature a ‘dangerous calling’. We can take it that Mann and Leverkühn second him. Anyone who demands too much truth from this world does so at their own peril. Once you begin demanding truth and digging down to that solid core of fact, you expose yourself to all the perversities of Blanchot’s infinities, the very thing that decent civilisation protects us from with its craven indignities. This was the awakening that Mann’s Faustus brought me to. I fell asleep in that book and came to with my eyes dazzled by infinities and paradoxes. It is a dangerous calling indeed, this addictive, afflictive path of Leverkühn’s. There is, however, a very good reason why we walk it. Just come down with me a few more steps and you’ll soon know what it is.
None of us start out as writers; rather, we learn the processes and habits that will one day evolve into writing as young readers, when we first come to books out of simple compulsion. In the written word our young selves found we could experience something that was absolutely essential to our lives, and, in the beginning, that was all we needed. But then you get older, that childlike craving is replaced by something much less naïve. As young adults we begin to interrogate our obsessions: Why do I read? Why not watch movies instead? Why do I find this passage luminous, and this one inert? These questions must be asked – we devote so many hours of the day to the pages of a book whose most fetching lines, whose plot, indeed whose very title will more often than not be forgotten in six months’ time. Why?
Certain kinds of books – all literary, though not necessarily all fiction – are my obsession. I have come to believe that reading them is another way of thinking. Without them I would not be able to write, I would have no bridge toward unattainable thoughts, I would lack the means to become more myself. Were I to stop reading tomorrow, I would surely, bit by bit, day by day, stop being the person I am right now. The words that sit on the shelves in the books that surround me are inextricably bound to what I feel is mine, everywhere, from the tips of my fingers to these words I send out into the aether, just as a grain of sand on the coast of Southeast Asia is connected to a lump of soil deep within the vast Australian plains, and both linked somehow to a clot of dirt sitting high atop the Andes, simply by virtue of them all being hewn together into this planet that we call the Earth. These texts I read and the ones I write are all part of one continuous substance, a collective, idiosyncratic inquiry into manifold permutations of the same few obsessions. And this is why I enjoy filling the things I write with the words of other writers, as a nod to our common afflictions and a reminder of the small perch from which I bind them together with my best intuition.
Readers, we must all one day experience that doubling back wherein we cease to read with the passion that once enlarged the horizons of the small, drab world we foolishly trusted was all. These horizons no longer budge so easily and our vocation changes toward filling in the gaps, adding density and complexity to terrain we had previously rushed over. It is in this phase of our lives as readers that we begin to develop a sense of ourselves drawn from books. Reliant on them, we now become sensitive to the promise of inspiration. Good reading and good writing resemble one another in that both require the mind to be brought into a this state of inspiration, where it is tricked into having unforeseen thoughts. Inspiration momentarily frees you of your prejudices – you see that you really might have been another person, and still can. It becomes increasingly recognisable and increasingly sought-after as we age, for the simple reason that it takes us beyond ourselves. It is these addictive moments that keep us returning to our books.
That very first time that we are compelled to put a book down because we have discovered in it an original thought that we would like to utter, this is the moment we become a writer.
So finally it comes down to this: how does one make one’s life amid the wilderness of inspiration? I turn to César Aira, who perhaps more than any other novelist currently at work has made the process of writing into a life practice.
Once a professional novelist is established, he has two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the ‘old’ novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward. This last possibility turned out to be a dead end within a few years: while Balzac wrote fifty novels, and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, shedding blood in the process. Joyce wrote two, and Proust a single novel, and it was a work that took over his life, absorbing it, a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism. The fact is that being able to make a living from literature was a momentary and precarious state which could only happen at a determined moment in history. I would even say that it was only, and could only ever have been, a promise, in the process of being formed; by the time it had come into being, it was already time to look for something else.
Luckily, there is a third alternative: the avant-garde, which, as I see it, is an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture, and to place it on a higher level of historical synthesis. In other words, it implies immersing oneself in a field which is already autonomous and considered valid by society, and inventing new practices within that field to restore to art the ease with which it was once produced.
It is telling that of the two novelists Aira singles out for the kind of ‘inhuman hyperprofessionalism’ required to invent new forms, one lived a life of poverty and the other was independently wealthy. Was it ever possible to ‘make a living from literature’? I doubt it. And even if a freak like Simenon managed, that doesn’t solve the equation so much as just shift its terms around. The question still remains: what kind of a life is that?
But Aira’s following statement is much more worthy of our time: here he rescinds the faulty claim he has just asserted and hands it back to us as a promise – literature is a process, and, in fact, this is all the true avant-garde artist ever really has.
The literary life as an existence constantly in the process of coming into being. The idea feels intuitively right, for it indicates that any manner of being we, as writers, may find workable will in fact be provisional. The idea also allures because it puts process on par with truth, in fact makes process into a sort of truth. Aira calls this ‘an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture’ – here we are again trying to sneak back into the garden – but is this not also the essence of professionalism? There is nothing more professional than a worker showing up day in and day out, methodically putting in the necessary hours.
This kind of work ethic is vaguely reminiscent of a laboratory science, and Aira has in fact frequently situated himself as a scientist in his own metafictional, autobiographical writings. The key to this is that he always sees himself as a mad scientist. We can reflect back to Simenon, the consummate professional, turning out volume after volume of his perfectly formed Inspector Maigret mysteries with assembly line speed and consistency. Compare that to Aira, another consummate professional, in the sense that he has an estimable work ethic and churns out a few books each year, yet who is also the consummate artisan in that he often throws away failed efforts, lets others off into the world malformed (either unwilling or unable to revise), and simply abandons projects when he becomes bored. In fact, he emphasises an ‘indifference to results’ as a core aspect of the avant-garde. Whereas Simenon’s book are all so similar as to embody mass production, Aira’s are all so uniquely malformed that they embody the ethos of the amateur.
Of the two, Aira seems to be the psychologically healthier, or at least the one having more fun and suffering less angst. If we could momentarily imagine both men as athletes, taking their writing as their practice time at the gym, then I see Simenon walking up to the bench press every day, in a frenzy pushing out ten sets of ten repetitions. Aira, by contrast, does a completely different routine each day, and if a machine is meant to strengthen your leg muscles he’s found a way to turn it into a neck exercise. In the prior case, the work Simenon does is designed to produce a standardised result with immense faculty, whereas Aira means to exploit the miraculous appearance of a circumstance unlike any that has come before.
One cannot know precisely what one is writing toward – we can only write what feels most true at the moment and discover in those fragments the overlaps that begin to bring a work into cohesion. And so it is in Aira’s method and not Simenon’s that I find the true moment of inspiration, that rejuvenating instant that is the only thing that allows us to continue on with this laborious, lonely, wasteful process. It is what gives birth to art that becomes a life bearing an authentic, individual philosophy, itself the core of a distinctive style, which may in time become an idiosyncratic, nuanced, genuinely strange expression of ideas that, strictly speaking, pertain only to the author who wrote them. In other words, authentic originality.