Writing Moves the Sky
“To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins.” - Franz Kafka
First of all I would like to thank the New School, and Edith Kurzweil who invited me to this eighth William Phillips lecture and gave me the opportunity to come to the prestigious New School.
My father Harold Kaplan was a great friend of William Phillips, who published his first short story, The Mohammedans, in Partisan Review, in 1943, and later his Paris Letters, and many other pieces, and I always heard about Partisan review and William Phillips at home.
I was born in Brooklyn, in 1943, but brought up in Paris. Before the war, my father was studying French literature at the University of Chicago where he had a scholarship. He started working for the radio in 1942, in The Voice of America (La voix de l’Amérique), with André Breton and Pierre Lazareff, and afterwards was sent to Algiers, where he was when I was born.
Then, at Liberation, he decided to stay in France. He had my mother come with me, I was two years old, and he worked at the American Embassy in Paris for twelve years. My two brothers were born in Paris. I went to a French school and then to college in France, and I stayed in France after my parents left on other missions. And so I write in French, I am a French writer, of American origin, even if I have always thought, without really knowing what that meant, that underneath my French, English continued to exist.
My interest in language probably came in part from my family environment. My parents were second generation Americans, their own parents were Jews who had fled the Tsarist Empire. The journey of my grandparents, both on my father’s and my mother’s side, I found described in a book that I read as a grown up, World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe, which was very important for me. I also discovered that my great grand uncle, Jacob Denison, was a writer in Yiddish, and had founded an orphanage in Warsaw after the First World War. He is buried with his two friends Ans-ki and Jacob Peretz, in the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, miraculously preserved. Two years ago when I went to Poland for the first time with one of my plays that was being put on there I read some verse of the Dibbouk over his tomb.
My two parents loved literature and ideas; our house was full of books, novels, poetry as well as political essays. When I was a child my father was attaché culturel and he had an important role as a go-between for American and French cultures. But the fact that I was bilingual also played a great role, being a little American in Paris, and having two languages, one for home and one for school. And there also was a lost language, Yiddish, since my mother spoke Yiddish with her mother when we visited her in the summer in New Jersey, when the family went back to the United States on “home leave.”
So the relationship between words and things, the act of naming, was not a matter of course, it was questioned. This is probably how the arbitrary character of language but also the playfulness contained in words could strike me all the more. I have told this story in a fragmentary autobiography, Mon Amérique commence en Pologne, My America Begins in Poland. The strangeness of language, of words, of meaning: but writing always seemed the thing to do, to be a matter of course.
Then, the Sixties: the movement of those years. I studied philosophy and history, passionately, and I took part in the student movement, in the movement against the war in Algeria, against the war in Vietnam, and afterwards, I was influenced by the Cultural Revolution in China, of which I knew nothing in reality. I joined the French ranks of Maoïsts because of the idea of an alliance between manual and intellectual workers. I took part in what was called the “mouvement d’établissement” and I went to work in a factory in January 1968. I lived through the May ‘68 events in an occupied factory, and I continued to work in a factory for about two years afterwards.
The experience in the factory was a radical one. It became the substance of my first book, L’excès-l’usine. And it questioned how to write. I did not want to write like Zola. I wanted the factory to appear as something astonishing, banal and at the same time surprising, shocking.
My experience at the factory put every thing into perspective. And first of all, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, language. Language, the most common of things, what men and women have, at the beginning, in common. I mean that EVERY THING could be, had to be, thought differently. Words for the most ordinary things no longer seemed to the point, effective. You work, really? You eat, really? You live, really? In order to say anything at all, first you had to invent.
You could make a speech, but that didn’t account for anything-except for the ability to make a speech. When I started to write this experience, I tried to render physical sensations: I wanted to write what was outside, but also what one had inside, in one’s head. This was in opposition with naturalism and determinism, where things and beings, are supposedly in their rightful place, correspond to their definition.
It was only afterwards that I realized how “the factory” and the world “under the sky of the factory,” questioned everything, contaminated everything. And, one had to acknowledge it, this could empty experience, make experience something empty.
Take the word pace, in French: cadence, I think of the word because I recently read an article on factories in China. What does it mean to keep the pace on the assembly line. Those words mean nothing, or almost. Becoming the pace of the assembly line would be more correct. You can also talk of an infernal pace, “No more keeping an infernal pace!” was a slogan in May 68. Alienation of experience, how a real experience becomes unreal, how language becomes false, a lie: This question belongs to everybody, which is why a naturalistic vision, where words are reduced to a social, a psychological, etc., origin, has never suited me.
This question still exists in my work today in different forms, of course: novels, theatre, poetry, essays. And it seems to me the question of the “factory” is always connected with a research both on language and on madness. Do we speak/ think/ write, do we talk to each other as if we were in a factory? Or do we do so otherwise? Is a sentence open or closed? Do we live inside language as an alienated consumer or as a free man/woman? Do we assemble our sentences together without thinking, as if we were making manufactured objects? Do we address a person or nobody at all? Do we want to crush the person we are talking to with words? Do we want to have the last word? Are we present or absent to ourselves?
And when we speak of “madness,” what are we talking about? Is it a place, a situation, a way of behaving which are “mad”? Is language mad, has language become mad? How can we fight, with what forms can we fight the attempts to make everything trivial, to promote anecdotes, clichés that are empty and aggressive, even murderous, clichés that could be the present form of the “opium of the people”?
The experience I had of psychoanalysis also was a decisive one. A passionate interest for the Unconscious has never left me, and I have always tried to find ways of writing that take the Unconscious into account. I have written a novel, The Psychoanalyst, and I have tried to work out the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature.
Psychoanalysis and literature are of course two experiences with language, with words, which take words seriously and explore them in all directions. Psychoanalysis separated from psychiatry with Freud’s discovery of the Unconscious, and with the method of free association that Freud invented: not an a priori explanation involving some ready-made knowledge about the patient, but a form of listening, available, “floating” says Freud, where something surprising, unexpected, emerges, precisely the Unconscious. In the same way literature is not made with generalities, explanations, proclamations, but with details, surprising details that can appear insignificant but which question the usual and routine ways of thinking, ready made speeches, all different forms of stupidity, of “accepted ideas” (Flaubert), all “frozen words” (Rabelais).
For a writer as for a psychoanalyst, language is alive, always addressed, even if it is “to no one,” and it has multiple levels. As a writer, I am interested in what is real, what comes as a surprise, and what questions. As I have said, I try to place myself aside from naturalism, determinism. The character is not a “case.” In my novel The Psychoanalyst, the patients are “heroes”: heroes of thinking, who confront the conflict between their desire for truth and their passion for ignorance (Lacan), like Oedipus, and like every one. The psychoanalyst is not the one who knows every thing, but a man or a woman who searches with his patient. And in the book, there is the psychoanalyst Simon Scop, and his patients, but there is also Eva, who is the second most important character, who comes from the French banlieue, the poor forgotten suburbs, and who interprets her life with the help of Kafka.
The way I see it, psychoanalysis and literature share a democratic vision of words, not a technocratic one, outside all dogma. And in this sense I agree with Nabokov who made fun of psychoanalysis, and claimed seeing no interest in a practice that consists in applying Greek myths on the genitalia of a certain number of people… And literature is not made with good feelings or good intentions. But psychoanalysis and literature aim, through the attention they pay to words each in their way, to do away with forms of alienation. That is, to make things more open, to help us be more available, more present, to the world, to encounters, to chance, as Freud says. They are both ways of practicing astonishment. Psychoanalysis and literature have in common their refusal of categories, compartments, cases.
Taking words seriously, every word, and the words of every one, is a way of asserting, and maintaining, that language is the first and primordial social link. It is a way of being heedful of drifts toward forms of totalitarianism that are always possible. Bureaucracy, situation of neglect, of “desolation” (Arendt).
But it is also a way of being heedful of the display of hollow individualism, of trivialization, of the reign of the anecdote: whereas a detail is a condensation, a flash of reality and points to a meaning, not the meaning, but a meaning, the anecdote promotes empty words, aims to occupy space for nothing, just occupy for occupying. In this sense, psychoanalysis and literature take into account the person as a singular entity, but are each in their own way, the opposite of an individualism that brandishes empty words.
And each in their own way, they have to do with art: they go with awakening, thinking, working “one by one”: a psychoanalysis is an encounter, and it is always a particular person, at a particular moment of his or her life, who encounters a work of art. They are two different forms of experiencing what is the exception, not the rule (Jean Luc Godard). Two forms of experiencing singularity, that recognize that anguish is far from being the evil that has to be done away with, as in the dream of a pill that would finish all mental suffering, but is on the contrary what makes us human, “the divine part of man” (Heitor de Macedo). Two ways which we try, as Rilke put it, to “create things out of anguish.”
So, in a sense, at the outset of my desire to write, there was something that questioned what is “normal,” what is supposed to be normal and banal, and that reveals itself as not at all normal, but on the contrary, strange, even “mad.”This double questioning, on language and on madness, continues to drive me to write.
Recently I was rereading for the millionth time Stavroguine’s confession in The Demons (The Possessed) and I noticed a detail I had never seen. It’s at the beginning of the chapter, Nicolas Stavroguine arrives in the monastery and asks to see the starets with whom he has a rendez-vous. A monk takes him there, through corridors and corridors, and this monk, who is impressed, intimidated by Stavroguine, who is a prince, the son of Varvara Petrovna, etc., chatters endlessly, asking Stavroguine all sorts of questions. Stavroguine stays silent, lost in thought, or maybe irritated by the questions. Then, writes Dostoïevski, the monk, “receiving no answer, showed himself more and more respectful.” And there, I stopped reading. “The monk, receiving no answer, showed himself more and more respectful.” In one line all condensed, Dostoïevski gives us the obsequiousness of the monk, the contemptuous indifference of Stavroguine, and the relation between the two, the link, the dynamics of the link: the cringing respect, voluntary bondage as La Boëtie put it, brought forth by absence of answer, silence.
Why am I telling you this detail? This tiny detail in the entire story of The Demons ? Well exactly because it’s a detail, a crumb, a flash of reality which I hadn’t noticed before, which can be the mark of a detail, but which, once you do notice it, reveals itself as obvious, with enormous implications. You can see the mechanics of authority fall into place, you can see them function, you can see the Super-ego, obscene and ferocious as Lacan puts it, you can see Big Brother. The detail is a condensation of reality, it is the very substance of literature. I believe it is what we learn by reading Dostoïevski (and of course many others). No ideas but in things … as said William Carlos Williams.
But if I speak to you of Dostoïevski, an author who is part of my making, it is also because reading him, though I did not formulate this right away, the reader is confronted with characters who speak all the time. Literature is a way of staging thought, the search for a point of view on the world. And with Dostoïvski, that goes through speech, dialogue and monologue.
Inside the Dostoïvskian narrative, there is always a staging of speech, a constant drama of words themselves. And this makes obvious the importance of language and speech, the dangers of a way of talking that is seductive or murderous, the possibility of empty speech. All this is always present in Dostoïevski’s novels. The question: “what are words?” is always there, at work. Its presence questions the text, the reader, the spectator.
As it is said in Hamlet :
_What are you reading my Lord?
_Words, words, words.
In this respect, the Notes from the Underground is an exemplary text. The narrator develops a long monologue where he is forever going back over his hatred and his despair. “I am a sick man… I am a mean man… I don’t even know at all what is my sickness… .” He can’t extricate himself. This first part of the story is terrifying, and light is shed on it when we read the second part of his story, which is no less terrifying.
In this second part the narrator tells of an event that took place before: he committed a murder, he sent back a very young woman, a child, to a brothel. We then understand the first part: he has done something that is irreparable, and now without a relationship to another, his life no longer has any firm footing, and he is himself under the curse of emptiness, of absence of meaning, of absurdity.
As you well know, Dostoïevski confronted the question of modernity and of anguish that goes with it, the question of “If God doesn’t exist, then all is allowed?” But, that is the point: he kept the question open, by refusing a cynical solution. Is it because he believed in God? I would rather say: because he believed in the human fact of speech, of language, in the necessity of acknowledging the other who is speaking, with whom you are speaking. Even while following the twists and turns of how one can try to deny this fact, to avoid acknowledging the other, denying him, killing him, and, first of all, precisely, paradoxically, with words.
What are words, what is language and speech, what are the grounds for a true way of speaking, a way that does not fall into emptiness: this question is not new, Aesop already said that the tongue can be the best and the worst of things.
But in our modern times it is rendered more acute by the fact that the market is more and more powerful. I will of course recall Mallarmé for whom literature was a way of restoring their meaning to words, a purer meaning, to the words of the tribe, « donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu », of preventing words from becoming « des pièces de monnaie usées qu’on se repasse en silence », worn out coins that we pass on back and forth in silence.
Our time certainly pushes this question further still, by emptying words of their meaning and by promoting what I have called a « civilization of clichés », where words have become advertising slogans and are used to sell anything and everything. Clichés, certainties, « received ideas » have of course always existed. Flaubert even made a comical Dictionary with them, in which every word, any word, can become a cliché. Flaubert begins with Abelard, Apricot, Absalom, Academy…Beneath their apparent bourgeois good-nature, and their quiet emptiness, these « received ideas » are ways of knocking out the other with peremptory statements, given as obvious facts, so called neutral, in fact very aggressive.
But in our time things go very far. Society is always threatened by the impoverishment of language, by simplification, by codes, by conventional, conformist ways of thinking. Under a “soft” appearance, this is a prescribed way thinking, it’s a way of forbidding us to think in any other way.
Thinking with “received ideas”, with “clichés” is a way of getting rid of the anguish that is part of the human condition, part of language: where there is language, there is conflict, there is certainty and uncertainty… and confronting uncertainty, taking upon oneself to deal with the infinite of words, to deal with anxiety, is always more difficult than having closed certainties.
In our world, language is often considered a simple, neutral, tool, made for communication. We erase the gap between the person who is speaking, who is stating something, and what this person is saying, the statement itself, we erase the fact that words have multiple meanings, and are always addressed. This double fact is the nature of language. What is promoted is a false idea, the notion of simple, plain, communication, that goes through or not, and if it doesn’t it’s a purely technical problem.
This is a way of seeing that comes from advertising: a smooth world, filled with living dead, with zombies. Words become products, slogans, wrapped up in cellophane. We live in a world where speech in public places is constantly degraded, where advertisement and television have an enormous impact on culture, where we face, as Serge Daney, a French critic and essayist, put it, the “marketing of the individual and loss of experience.” Talk shows, reality shows, “live” broadcast, narcissism, ours is a self-centered world, where the disclosing of little secrets without any importance, anecdotes, trivia are presented as culture.
Advertisement is a self-referring system, what advertisement advertises for, first of all, is for advertisement itself. For a world that is beautiful, good, true, genuine, sincere and authentic… and clean, a world made at the snap of a finger, with no relation at all to time or space. Our world promises something “unlimited without any commitment whatsoever”, as I read recently in an ad for a cell phone subscription: empty all-mightiness. For advertisement there are only two options: either you have the product, the object, or you don’t, the world is binary, it is divided in two… and the rest of the world equals zero, advertisement goes with a latent but total aggressiveness, it does away with the Other and others.
That is why it is urgent to question language, speech, speech in public places, how speech is treated. I will quote William Carlos Williams, in his forward to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl : “Every man is defeated, a man if he be a man is not defeated.” But then, who is this man who is not defeated?
My hero: Kafka, who wrote in his Journal (1922): “To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins.” Example of this prodigious jump: “one morning after a troubled sleep Gregor Samsa woke up changed into an enormous vermin.” Here is a jump, a jump into fiction, which we can appreciate maybe all the more if we remember that Kafka’s father had insulted his son’s great friend, the actor Löwy, who played in Yiddish, and had called him precisely “vermin”. Kafka takes this insult, this word, and with his particular genius, transforms it, makes a real insect of it, something the reader considers with dread, and, of course, pleasure.
This sentence of Kafka’s has always seemed to me to be the very definition of what writing is, and more specifically, the writing of fiction. “To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins”: the assassins, contrary to what one might believe, are those who stay in line, who follow the usual way of things, who repeat and start over again the bad life as it goes.
What do they assassinate? The possible, every thing that could begin, tear away, change. Kafka says that writing, the act of writing, is putting a distance with this usual way of things, the distance of a jump. He says, to write is to jump outside, to jump elsewhere. That implies something you can stand on, and words are that, they allow you to stop and grasp where you come from, where this world comes from, this old world of assassins. If you only say again, repeat, start over… you never extricate yourself, where is the point. Jumping is an act, an act of thought, a breaking, it’s not a simple accumulation, a linear process, you continue, you continue, and things change by themselves. No. You have to work loose, to move.
The above lecture was given at Theresa Lang Student and Community Center/Arnhold Hall on Nov. 5, 2013, in honor of the late William Phillips, editor of Partisan Review for over 60 years. After the lecture Leslie Kaplan read excerpts from her plays, which are about language, our society, and madness. You can read them here.