THE BODY OF WRITING
This entry completes an interim of the theme of the series, The Soul of America: New Beginnings. The theme returns next week.
We listen with our eyes when we read. When we write, we speak with our hands. That makes all writing sign language, a gesture of the body. Typewriting puts a motor to our gestures, and the computer typewriter electrifies the hand, making us forgetful of the body of writing. Let’s try to remember.
The great mystery of writing is how the soul can find its way through the mechanics of writing to rise up from the page to speak that which no single word alone can, what the series, taken as a series, does not say. How is it that the commonality of words continually say uncommon things when no un-commonality is to be discovered among them?
Where do our words come from? Even if it is so that we have learned them, where do those we employ at a given moment come from? Certainly, they are not stored in our brains as in a file cabinet; the speed of a computer cannot match the manner with which words arrive one after another, all together. Words are with us everywhere, available for speaking sentiments, speeches, gossip, news – and occasionally, rarely, beauty. The true writer somehow plays upon the happy accident of the arrival of beauty, making it into a skill. The word,”accident” may be no more than a cover for our ignorance, glossing over a highly mysterious process. The way into the happy accident may remain forever a mystery – but learning to follow it – that is a matter of education.
Whoever can follow falling into beauty begins the search for those rare sentences which outlast all utility, leap across time, outlast fashion and fad to make something permanent.
A deep desire exists to steward such sentences into the world , sentences which outlive the maker and awaken the soul of the reader, leaving behind the hand that made them, the mouth that spoke what the fingers form and electricity dulls. Such sentences become true charms, magical marks that ward off insecurity; they let us know that speech does last longer than granite. Anyone attempting to write writes from this desire to make something which escapes from possession – whether or not that comes about in actuality. The electronic word does not condone freeing the Word, and, rather, focuses, intently, on feeding on them. The only way of halting the feeding is through awareness accompanying writing coupled with reading-awareness.
To relegate writing to desire is just the beginning of the task. It is too easy to slip into platitudes about genius, talent, inspiration, or the muses. One would not speak so lightly about physics or mathematics. True writing is rare, like a bolt of lightening in the blue sky or snow in the Sahara. It is a kind of oddity, and for that reason, of great psychological interest. It may in fact be like a psychological anomaly — we all have a little bit of it somewhere within us, though few are those who act it out. And, like psychological oddballs, we are a bit afraid to look very closely at the soul of writing, for fear that we might become even more infected. We would rather hear the marvelous stories of perverted geniuses, tormented by day, writing and drinking late into the night, taunted by characters of imagination who keep them to the pen and the bottle. Yes, we would like to know about them, but certainly not to imitate them.
Who wants to enter the torment of writing? Or writing as torment? It is as tightly held a secret as the tortures of love. Not a love manual can be found that tells it like it is – that love is supposed to be torturous, and no less so are the torments of writing. Desire never sheds the garments of pain; ecstasy is the shallow side of the story. So, to begin with, I suspect that one has to be a kind of pervert to want to write. One has to be able to enjoy suffering. What redeems the work from pure perversion is some knowledge of the inner life of such torture, and where and how it can go wrong and recognize the mysterious times of it going right.
When I look at what the great psychologists have had to say concerning writing and speech, it is Freud rather than Jung who is the more interesting. It is not surprising then, to find that Freud was more the writer, a kind of master of the detective story; Jung, more the prophetic, wise old mystic that makes us want to be visionaries rather than writers, seers rather than makers.
If you recall, the basic metaphor of all of Freud’s work is libido – a wonderful word, untranslatable either as desire or sex. It is connected with the words ‘lips’ which places one in the locality of both speech and receptive sexual organs at the same time. It is a word also connected with the word library. Recall, also, that very early on Jung substitutes the word ‘psychic energy’ for libido, and this seems to me to be an abstraction; one that perhaps covers more ground, but at the expense of the body of desire, the incarnation of imagination in gesture and speech.
At the same time, Freud has an extraordinary proclivity for rationalistic explanations; Jung is more the phenomenologist, able to stay with exactly what appears. Thus, in this exploration of writing, we shall have to try to be as bodily as Freud, as imagistic as Jung.
Words ooze out of us like pee or excrement. Or, should I say sounds, for words are really something else. A writer is really a craftsman of sounds, remaining quite close to the poop and the pee, and feels much the same urgency, an urgency which must be fashioned into an art. The connection between sound and excretion makes for good bodily fantasy. We come out of the womb peeing, shitting, cooing and babbling. The possibility of speech presents itself from the beginning; the creative writer is able to stay close to those beginnings. That is to say, writing emanates from the bowels, the depths, not from the head, and much of writing must concern re-establishing the connection to the purity of bodily will.
It is the physicality of language that we are after, that is its beginning and end. Babbling may be its purest expression. It shows itself in writing as rhythm and pace, intonation, and overtone – all that communicates ahead of any understanding.
Writing involves the art of communicating clearly that which cannot be understood, which nevertheless acts like it can, and therefore is. The successful fiction of any writing, including so-called “non-fiction”, which is itself a fiction, involves the communication of gesture as if it could be understood, conveying all of our sacred bodily grunts under the guise of understanding. Language without physicality has no soul. However conceptually well-connected, pure understanding remains lifeless.
The most primary dimension of the body of writing is not what is said, but the way one says it. It is a matter of tact, of being tactual and tactile in acceptable ways, and therefore saying the unacceptable; for the depth of desire is always publicly unacceptable. Freud said that it was tactless for the child to say that he wanted sexual pleasure from mom, but it has just the right touch to say that one wants to be like dad when one grows up. The unfriendly editors accompany us in all writing. We are required to write and rewrite until the guardians are satisfied and we do not lose our own satisfaction in the process.
With writing, style comes first, and without thinking, and as the civilizing of desire, ecstasy composing itself. The desire is never wrong, but the formulation may be off base by being too base. The inner editors do not wish to shut the door on desire, merely to help us learn the art of acceptable disguise. A good deal of effort must be put into learning to distinguish the difference between denying desire and denying certain formulations of desire. That involves getting to know the inner editors who are never against desire and merely try to tell us to say it another way.
Freud is helpful in acquainting us with our editors. Mommy does not let the child play with its stools, but finger-paints are perfectly all right, and so are rolls of clay and lumps of wet sand. It’s a matter of getting the message across without its deepest meaning being clearly recognized, and doing this in the clearest way possible. If the meaning is too clear, losing the body, it will be sent back for a rewrite. A lessor editor will send it back if the formulation is unclear.
The problem of writing is how to be soul-aware and social at the same time. It’s really a matter of noticing the bureaucrats of the mind, of which there are many. We must remember, they are not there to stop the desire, but its formulation must satisfy them all. There is the moral editor, the family editor, the society editor, the public relations editor. How to get through all of these?
First, it seems to me, that becoming a writer requires that one be an avid reader, and the avid reader is one who reads moving ones lips, one who reads with juicy libido. Such “libidoship” provides a large stock of formulations on which to draw. If there are no formulations, no signs to draw up, the desire will bump around in the dark without any formula with which it might try to be satisfied.
The first formulation is likely to be refused – and now comes the pain. Pure desire does not get through, and what was supposed to be pleasure turns into torment. Not only are there many inner editors, each of them is sly, devious, inconsistent, divided, throwing writing into total confusion, while they sit back and laugh.
The struggle serves but one purpose – to sharpen the pen into the sword, which can finally make a mark, which is not a final victory. In fact to, at last, come upon an acceptable sentence is, in one way, to be sentenced — imprisoned in the notion that because the revision worked this time, similar sorts of revisions will work from now on. That is, our success proves to be our failure – there is no final victory. Anxiety increases — can it be done again and with consistency? Repeating while remaining originating indicates the mark of the writer as distinguished from the dabbler. Being repetitive in an original way takes up residence within anxiety coupled with calm.
One who writes consistently makes some alteration in the difficulties thus far presented. And the joy of writing comes from beginning to sense these alterations. The inner editorial staff gives way to a wide though discriminating sense of taste; the writer senses the value of writing by tasting it. The guardians also open the gate when writing is no longer for the world but for the word-as-world. That is, writing is not to tell the world something, but rather offering, just by the speaking, repair. The destructive urges within desire constitute the basis for creative activities; but so do the urges to love constitute that same basis.
The urges for destructiveness do not differ much from the urges for love – when our demons are taken away, so are the angels. It is only when the two come to be felt as extraordinarily similar that we give up the fantasy that dark impulses may be satanic. Relinquishing such a fantasy cannot happen without repeatedly practicing putting the gesture of words into writing, not as an attempt to freeze the darkness, but to allow its equality with the light.
One who writes starts becoming a writer when an inchoate desire to become the word begins to arise, promising an end to the crazed dynamic of the love triangle of writer, word, and world.The triangular jealousy of writer, word and world becomes a soul-mating between word and world when the writer finds the Word, which is at the same time to find the world. The point of writing, of its struggles, pains, hurts, is to lose ourselves as Word, to wholly give our breath to the sentence so that it might have soul; that it might be a freed sentence, not a prison-sentence by acting as if it belonged to someone. Such is the wish expressed by those who say “I want to become a writer”. It is a kind of death wish, sufficiently disguised so as not to betray its meaning. The sentence says “I want to become a writer’, not “I want to be one who writes. ” It does not even say “I want to become one who uses words.” The secret desire of the writer is to become the Word. The gesture rather than the completion keeps one writing.
I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.