Writing, Language, Death
The purpose of writing, as a matter of death and life
By Jamie Lin Weirong
I begin with a question, one as essential as it is general: why do we write? Or perhaps my concern is instead with the question, why should we write? The former seeks only reasons, the latter, a purpose. I am not concerned with the more practical uses of writing, such as facilitating communication, documenting and transmitting learning, or recording and sharing one's thoughts and feelings. What I am interested in is a far more ineffable sense of writing's necessity, the idea that one feels compelled to write when it is not at all necessary to do so, precisely when writing is not expedient to any particular purpose. The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke refers to this when he counsels an aspiring poet:
What Rilke is describing here is, first and foremost, writing as an end-in-itself. It is not done for something, in a sense that it provides a secondary sort of gratification to which its purpose is contributory. Roland Barthes, in Authors and Writers, in A Barthes Reader (1982), considers this same distinction to be what divides a writer from an author. A writer writes something, with the focus on the conveyance of intent, yet for the author writing is an intransitive verb: one merely writes, and in this there is already some kind of truth or good. From where does this latter form of writing originate? If we look at Rilke's statements, they contain another closely-allied point: he asks in all seriousness if one must die if writing were to become impossible. It would seem senselessly myopic and disdainful of the value of existence to renege on being for such a seemingly trivial thing as putting words on paper. Especially now, amidst the throng of a modernity sustained by ceaseless activity, where existence is mere "embittered scorn [lived out] in honeyless hives" (T.S. Eliot), it is a difficult proposition that the inert activity of writing can truly be one's raison d'κtre.
Yet this is convergent with the thoughts of other writers. Franz Kafka alluded to exactly the same temperament when he wrote in his diary:
Here Rilke's position is inverted, while the same connection between writing and death is retained: where Rilke sees death as an answer to a life without writing, Kafka sees a life of writing as what enables death. In both their statements, writing and death are entwined in a circularity: one lives by one's writing and yet, one dies all the better for having written.
Maurice Blanchot's reading of this circularity finds a "profundity of experience" (The Space of Literature, 1955) captured within this aporia, to which our response ought be a patient explication that attempts to understand how such a relationship may be explained. Blanchot's own attempt sets Kafka's observations off against a more prosaic understanding of writing and death, where through one's immortal legacy, writing is seen as a means by which death is transcended. For Blanchot however, Kafka shared none of these sentiments. Indeed, his instructions to his closest friend Max Brod to dispose of all unpublished and incomplete manuscripts (including the diary from which this quote was taken) would suggest little interest in any form of posthumous literary fame. Instead, Blanchot sees Kafka's contentment with death as arising out of his discontentment with life; if death brought no anguish it was not because Kafka lived on in his writing, but that through his life as through his writing he was already dead. In penning his existential anguish, in transmuting his dismay into words and conjuring up his dark narrative worlds he underwent self-immolation, a process that was precisely his "experience of the death which he apparently has to have been through already in order to reach the work". He could claim to "understand" death only because it was already so much a part of his life, a life of relational despair, of insomnia, and mental and physical suffering. His entry into the act of writing, a transmutation of himself onto the page, formed part of an embrace of the melancholy and alienation from the world that his being expressed: his was a death that was a part of life.
Indeed, in Kafka's reference to the "beautiful" and "pure" lamentations that would attend his moment of passing, one almost gets the religious sense of the promise of purification associated with death's relief. Yet for most of us, death's jurisdiction remains confined to life's horizons and is not something experienced daily; our lives, though far from painless, are probably spared the patient, debilitating anguish that characterised Kafka's. Presumably Rilke would have also felt this way, which makes his sincere avowal of death as a response to the inability to write all the more odd. But did he really think of death the way we do now?
In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), he writes:
When we so casually relegate death to the terminal point of our lives, are we not merely seeking to deny its dominion over the entirety of our existences, attempting to forget how it has always been built into life from its origins? Inasmuch as we believe the forces of life and death to be pulling in opposite directions, we overlook the fact that they are inseparable, and in insisting on seeing only one, we neglect the other. If even considering these questions strikes you as odd, it is perhaps because everything around us conspires towards a forgetting; we seem to have reached a state in which living is the everyday banishing of any thought of death.
This is a malaise of our scientific age, as G.K. Chesterton described it in Orthodoxy (1908), for although death remains a "fact" it is a "morbid" one. Indeed, we are daily insulated against knowledge of our impending demise; in advertising it is suggested to us that eternity is accessible through consumption, in the pharmaceutical industry through medication, in the fitness industry through dedication, the self-help industry through introspection, the whole foods industry through regulation, and so forth. If we need further evidence of this learned ignorance, we need only turn to Freud who, in his 1918 essay Timely Reflections on War and Death, asserted that only children, yet unlearnt in the customs of the world, remain free of our contemporary taboo against the mention of death, cavalierly pronouncing the demise of their loved ones in statements such as: "Dear Mama, when you have sadly passed away, I'm going to do such-and-such a job." It is only in their maturation into adults that they learn to guard this timeless truth with silence. Against these proclamations of a heady disavowal, we would do well to remember the very real and always present "possibility of our impossibility", as Martin Heidegger would say. But yet one wonders if there are sound reasons for this, aside from turning against the contemporary tide?
Returning to Rilke's paragraph, we see death here to be something akin to a seed within oneself, a slow coming to fruition that spans the course of our lives. At the end it may culminate in disease or decrepitude, but this is perhaps less important than its germination, something that requires a lifetime of work. Rilke seems to understand the idea of death as some sort of "cultivation", but what exactly is being cultivated here?
Piotr Hoffman, in his 1993 work Death, Time, History, describes Heideggerian death as expressing both a "totalising and individualising" movement: totalising because it is only after death that the complete narrative of one's life is present, or in the aesthetic sense, it is the point when an artist's oeuvre emerges, yet also infinitely individualising because it expresses a particularity that cannot be averted, a burden of specificity that one must bear. In this particularity, two things are expressed: firstly that no one else can die for me, that I alone must assume the responsibility, the process by which I cease to be; and secondly, and more pertinently, that in the event of my death a unique individual is extinguished, that my death is idiosyncratic because my life has been, and no two deaths are identical because each terminates a distinct trajectory charted through existence.
However, what is important here is that this singularity is not automatically realised in each one of us but has to be developed, and I think it is this that Rilke suggests we cultivate. Faced with the brute fact of our eventual demise and furthermore, of its solipsistic nature, the totality of worldly experience marmoreal bedrock of existential meaning, truth and perspective is suddenly rendered fragile; the shared understandings of what humanity means give us comfort in solidarity, but once we learn that their domain stops short at the borders of death, they lose their certainty.
Heidegger claims that a knowledge of our always-imminent and thus immanent death frees us to be by giving us strength to grapple with the "meanings and the truths making up the fabric of the world", those sense-making institutional beliefs that pre-exist us and function to interpret the world and our lives within it. Through an awareness of the singularity of the death that gnaws at every one of us each day, we amass a courage that spurs engagement with general opinion, whether it be with regards to life's purpose, trajectory, or the prevailing meaning of work and relationships; we inculcate an openness to negotiating with these shared understandings, slowly whittling them into modified shapes or simply forging new ones on our own.
Why we ought to learn our finitude, therefore, is to create a parallel between particularity in death and particularity in life: I die individually because my life has all along been an expression of this individuality; conversely, I only live as an individual because I know I cannot avoid dying as one. This deathbound, situated particularity is what comes to fruition over the span of one's life as we negotiate with the world around us and fix our location within a particular intersection of everything that surrounds: national, cultural and biological traits, political allegiances, everyday opinions, familial and corporate responsibilities etc., all of which is material that can be grappled with. The term "situated particularity" is, I think, more accurate than "individuality", as it avoids associations with rabid, individualistic forms of being in the heady, post-Enlightenment, "Western" sense. I am not concerned with this, or with its attendant notions of fending off the impingement of others, of realising what I alone can and must do against collective tendencies or the mentality of the herd, and clamouring for my right to do so. Individuality in that sense is important and valuable, but in this case, not quite so relevant. What is instead referred to here is the individuality that arises simply as situated experience, an understanding of one's particular history within the world, a unique perspective born out of a conglomeration of characteristics as diverse as life itself.
And so we come to the act of writing. It is my contention that genuinely original writing that exists as a transmutation of our idiosyncratic experiences into words is an articulation of this situated particularity. If we pay attention to how writers have described artistic originality, we can discern this characteristic more keenly:
George Orwell spoke of the same thing in describing how "writing of any consequence can only be produced when a man feels the truth of what he is saying; without that the creative impulse is lacking." Unsurprisingly, set within a wider critique of totalitarianism, Orwell argued that in such a state of affairs where what we know is imposed forcibly from the outside, we lose the ability to ascertain truth by our own (relatively free) means, and writing can no longer take place. Orwell is mainly concerned here with capital-T truth, but his point would be just as relevant when speaking of lesser truths in the sense of situated particularities, especially those captured in poetic and novelistic art.
The key in both Lewis' and Orwell's claims is the focus on the articulation of truth; if one sincerely undertakes the act of writing, like how Orwell felt the need to speak out against the debilitation of the language in Politics and the English Language, or how Lewis weaved what were "pictures in his head" into a text which eventually became The Chronicles of Narnia, one's very self the sensibility of the author becomes imbued into the work. To write as if one were convicted of something and felt burdened to articulate it in written form would result in an expression of conviction that bears the mark of the writer; the route to artistic originality runs parallel to an orientation towards writing that is unafraid of expressing a situated particularity. For contrary to common sense, particularity is seldom achieved when it is sought; rather it is the genuine expression of one's being in sincere prose, a unique product of an attempt to speak of something while from somewhere, that resounds with a sonorous originality.
But the discussion thus far still hasn't exhausted my inquiry. I have established how death-as-solipsism is linked to writing, in that it spurs us onwards to write from the position of a deathbound particularity, but is this all? Is writing simply a means with which we articulate being in a tangible form, one way among others? If so, it does not seem to possess the potency suggested by Rilke in his question (must I write?), for writing cannot be considered an imperative.
There are two main points I would like to raise in response, which go towards showing the necessity of writing to expressing this deathbound particularity. The first is expressed by E.M. Forster in his series of lectures titled Aspects of the Novel. In it, Forster speaks out against what he calls the tyranny of the plot, calling into question the tendency for some authors to have large parts of a novel carefully under control before any writing gets done. This, according to him, is a denial of how one might instead allow the novel to emerge as one writes, for the writing to lead the author, as it were. "How do I know," Forster writes, "what I think until I see what I say?" In this, Forster is attuned to a certain openness in the writing project, in its ability to ply the darkened areas of our imagination, sectors of nebulous form that remain aloof to the writer's mental invocations, surrendering themselves only as they are written.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips offers a similar observation when he writes of how the poetic speaks for the unconscious, revealing yet-unearthed feelings that call for psychoanalysis' expository role. By writing ourselves onto the page and going over what we have written, we are seeing, responding to and elaborating on our position while always remaining open to the emergence of fresh material. Furthermore, this written self-dialogue may take on an openness and sincerity that is rare in more regular forms of dialogue. As intimate as we think we are with our friends, for instance, there still remains a measure of vulnerability that attends to a complete disclosure of oneself, whether this be in anticipation of threats to one's self concept or simply out of sheer vanity. It is only in writing oneself, then, that one truly holds a mirror up to being.
With these characteristics in mind, the close alliance between the act of writing and our deathbound particularity become more evident. Writing fosters particularity in the same way that bacterial culture promotes bacterial activity, by providing the conditions suitable for its emergence. It patiently waits on yet-unspoken aspects of our self while also capturing being in a concrete, transmissible form and refracting it back with a clarity previously missing. For a struggle with our selves is enacted through a struggle to render these selves in words; in transposing being into words and words into sentences in a more or less coherent fashion, it becomes easier to traverse our thoughts and feelings as we actively discard and elaborate upon different discursive strands.
Fernando Pessoa was perhaps the writer whose work most emphatically captured these truths, and his vast collection of heteronyms is a testament to his efforts at illuminating different aspects of his literary totality by ascribing them to a range of author-characters. Pessoa used each heteronym to capture a selection of himself in a manner that was utterly definitive, magnified to a point close to fracture. As Bernardo Soares, for instance, a person Pessoa sees as a "mutilation" of his personality bereft of reason and emotion, he writes:
All ideals and ambitions are pointless, all wars and revolutions are the vain squabbles of men there is no trace of nuance here, for what confronts us is a singularly extreme portrayal of sensibilities, a uni-dimensional literary figurine. There is a profound sense of an inability to ascribe value, to discern a rational or emotive good in things. Stunted observations such as these in the sense of being partial or narrowly-developed rather than inferior characterise Soares' The Book of Disquiet, and whether or not this makes for compelling literature is perhaps beside the point, for Pessoa is showing us how writing can be a means of self-iteration. Thomas Mann spoke of this same understanding when he described writing, albeit less triumphantly, as "a realisation, fragmentary but complete in itself, of our individuality; and this kind of realisation is the sole and painful way we have of getting the particular experience".
To describe the second reason why the act of writing is particularly integral to expressing a deathbound particularity, I would first like to consider an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's East Coker:
Eliot here refers to the difficulty of the act of writing in focusing on the semantic slipperiness and the elusiveness of meaning that repels attempts at orchestration. He cautions against thinking of writing to be as simple as conceiving of things and then calling them forth onto the paper. It is instead a struggle, a "raid on the inarticulate" in which true success is impossible, for different attempts result only in different failures via different inadequacies. Eliot almost seems to be gesturing poststructurally towards an understanding of meaning as one not necessarily being attached to words as unproblematically as we would like to think. And even in those cases where accurate transposition occurs, meaning might still not survive the trauma of communication; writing is therefore a constant engagement with these forces of semantic evasion and decay.
Taking Eliot's point a little further in the context of our discussion, I think we arrive at a fact that is of central importance, which is that language cannot merely be used by one to articulate a situated experience within a generality, because it is itself this very generality. Language is received wisdom par excellence; it is a heritage bequeathed, a system of mean-ings, feel-ings, be-ings, think-ings, thing-ings, do-ings that pre-exist us and, if used uncritically, function to depict our experiences as replicas of the experiences of generations past. And so in negotiating with these semantic legacies through writing, we arrive at the very heart of the project of cultivation itself. Because the totality of existence can be rendered in language, writing provides a point of access to which our engagement can begin.
Through writing, everything around us opens up to moulding, shaping, elaboration or disavowal; experiences, emotions, thoughts, actions, perceptions and events all bare themselves before language and patiently await articulation. It is therefore far from a coincidence that in a letter from the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva to Rilke in 1926, we see his poetry praised as such: "You give to words their first sense, and to things their first words." Rilke's poetic sensibilities were certainly not borne upon neologisms; rather, Tsvetaeva was taken by his uncanny ability to describe something as if it was being described for the first time. This was perhaps where the power of his artistry lay: in successfully fending off language's attempts to corral meaning along well-worn pathways, to deploy a language overloaded with accumulated meaning in wondrously new configurations. Through such a lens, for instance, we perceive anew the majesty of a rose:
The rose's poetic essence is distilled in the hands of the poet, its coverings transfigured into skin, into eyeless lids that even in their plenitude deny sleep. The poetic rendition, original in its singularity and singular in its originality, is an example of how sincere writing unites the essence of the "who" that writes and the "what" of which is written, a path marked by a finitude-inspired courage, by the knowledge of a solipsistic death that renews faith in a life that may express no more (and yet, no less!) than a deathbound particularity.
In What is Literature? (1947), Jean-Paul Sartre once chided writers for thinking of themselves as the appointed few, as those who had "received a mandate" to write on the behalf of the majority who remained their attentive readers. He insisted that the popularity of reading merely reflected everyone's need to write, for writing was a common passion that represented "the highest form of the basic need to communicate". The presence of a reader is therefore mandatory, furnished here in Sartre's descriptions: our "written cry... only becomes an absolute when it is preserved in other people's memories, when it is integrated into the objective spirit".
I am not so sure, however, if communication the presumption and interpellation of the other is integral to writing. For in teasing out the relationship between writing, language and death, we find that writing does not seem to be as much about communication between beings as it is about the very fact of being itself. As an expression of our deathbound particularity, writing is be-ing on the surface of a page. It is the expression, as our lives are, of situated experiences that are always in negotiation with received wisdom; it is an embrace of the singular life that attends to the knowledge of our solitary death. Against Sartre's call-to-arms in his focus on how writing binds the writer and reader in a mutual affirmation of the freedom to do where at the "heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative", our inquiry leads us to a separate conclusion, of writing as the affirmation of the freedom to be. It is a conclusion that is at once far simpler, and yet so much more difficult.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011