Thursday, September 12, 2013

The substance of all writing lives

To read Brian Castro's piece in the Sydney Review of Books on W. G. Sebald's A Place in the Country is to be filled with a rapt anxiety, as if you've just been given what turns out to be a nestled series of semi-transparent boxes that you have to hold onto with your fingertips in case, just by trying to keep the pieces from falling out, the whole thing breaks in your hands. Of course, I will have to read the essay again. I imagine it was the lepidopterist in Nabokov that understood rereading to be the only way to keep such shells from getting crushed. It is enough that Castro's prose is as shaped by the slow-developing beauties of 'scribal-ambulism' that he identifies in Sebald, Walser, Rousseau (the boxes could well be infinite):

Sebald’s beginnings have a sinuous resistance to beginning. After all, if writing is such a compulsive burden, then at least walking exercises a different compulsive faculty that exorcises thought. Scribal-ambulism then, may have a curative effect on melancholia, but one that Rousseau found was, in the end, untenable. The clarity of the world, for which this ultimate autobiographer yearned, the transparency he sought, could not be sustained. As Jean Starobinski asserts, the inner life and external reality cannot be compatible. Interiority is essentially a failure in relating to reality, and this is the substance of all writing lives.

That is why the beginning of each ‘walk’ taken by Sebald, by Walser, by Rousseau, embodies anxiety. It is a preparation for meeting the shock of the real and its resistance to being possessed by the mind. Anyone aware of sensible seeing would understand the furtive nature of writing, its opposition to clarity and transparency, its irrational refusal to speak for its author, its invention of a negative dialectic. There is a lot of fiddling about in order to get into a place, and that ‘place’ is ultimately a place in the language which will not yield to a universal historiography – Starobinski, for example, avoids dates in his study of Rousseau.

I will ask: is it possible to (re)read and walk at the same time? I would like to do that.