The waste books (there’s a Russian word for this, the “fallen leaves’ genre, - Opavshelistika -- seem to leave behind some anachronistic, animal trail in the modern system of literature. That system connects the media and the university in a total environment of writing that conditions the very notion of the “writer”: he’s a journalist, a pundit, a poet, a novelist. In the twentieth century, the writer’s most important work is to produce texts that can be taken up by the cinema, or by television. The writer in the press produces opinions. Literature informs the conversation in the press and the classroom, and prefers its readers to be in the classroom or as members of a bookclub. It prefers, above all, to see literature as a social function – from this point of view, solitude is unmasked as bourgeois mystification, or as a psychological aberration.
This system has a place for the aliens of literature who write the Opavshelistika, but it is in the nature of the system that taking them seriously means metamorphosing them, curing them of the solitude in which they are bathed. It is the cure that the waste book writers fear, or devise means to avoid. These aliens take marginality and solitude as the conditions of the vocation of writing – and insofar as these are the byproducts of failure (a failure to market, to circulate, and to achieve the regard that comes with good business), the waste book writers tend to will failure, to desire it as a sacred thing, valuable in itself. It is by the crack in the golden bowl, the phrase that doesn’t reach its end – it is by indirection, evocation, and the proper appreciation of fortuna in the very production of writing that one reverses the system’s unbearably invasive presence.
It is from the point of view of the will to failure that Vasilli Rozanov, in Fallen Leaves, issues his condemnation of writing: “In my opinion, the essence of literature is false: I don’t mean that the litterateurs or, again, the ‘present times’ are bad, but instead the entire domain of their action, and that “all the way to the root.” [my translation from the French]
Rozanov takes up a theme that feeds into the literary guerilla’s rejection of the system, and its paradoxes. It is a theme that is tonally always on a foray; however, these forays have a certain midnight air. It is a theme that lends itself to incendiary grafitti. Yet, its producer, in the morning, wakes up to the fact that he or she is still a writer. The waste book, the marginal note, the rejection of literature, is also published, also circulates, also provides us with a domain of study and of reference. Its communicative content, however true, is falsified by its communicative form, its necessary alliance with the system it rejects.
Rozanov sees, clearly enough, that writing is an ethical – or, rather, cosmological act.
“ ‘–I am buckling down to write, but is everybody going to read me?”
Why this “I” and why this ‘they’ll read me”? It really means “I am more intelligent than the others”, “the others are worth less than me.” It is a sin.”
In one of his letters, Van Gogh expresses the thought that Jesus did not mean for his words to be written down, and would have been horrified at the tradition of Christian literature. In a sense, the Gospel is founded on a radical lack of faith – the writing signals that the apocalypse is indefinitely deferred. The charismatic moment is lost as soon as it is finds a medium – this is its melancholy, this is the contradiction that charisma sublimates. Rozanov was of course attracted to the apocalyptic moment, and he toyed with the vatic function of the writer, all the way to the point of marrying his first wife, Appollinaria Suslova, apparently on the strength of the fact that she had been involved in that sado-masochistic relationship with Dostoevsky that the latter transposed to the Gambler. His own vatic denunciations – of Jews, of Communists, finally of Christ – are violent and, at the same time, never definite, never part of a set code.
Interestingly, Rozanov was well aware that it was the, as it were, material conditions of the written that defined the cultural system of writing that he detested:
“What is new [ Rozanov is writing about his text, Solitaria] is the tone, once again that of pre-Gutenberg manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, one didn’t write for the public because, reasonably enough, the printing press didn’t exist. And the literature of the middle ages are under many aspects beautiful, strong, touching and deeply beneficent in its discretion. The new literature has been up to a certain point victim of its excessive manifestation: after the invention of the printing press, no one in general was capable of that, and no one, moreover, had the courage to defeat Gutenberg.”
Rozanov himself, according to George Nivat, issued his books in limited numbers, and he tried very much, in the Fallen leaves, to press the occasion against the written – where it was written, what needed to be erased, etc. At the same time, he wrote for the press – he wrote enormously for the press. And from this perspective it is not so much Gutenberg but the great yoking together of the press and the steam engine that his writing set out to defeat, a cosmological struggle against the monologing super-ego.
“My real isolation, almost mysterious, made me capable of doing it [defeating Gutenberg]. Strakhov said to me “Have the reader always present in your mind, and write in such a way that everything be clear for him.” But however much I try to imagine him, I never succeed. I could never represent to myself the face of a reader, the approbation of a brain, and I always wrote alone, essentially for myself. Even when I wrote to please, it was as if I was throwing something over a precipice, making “a great laugh flash out of the depths”, when there was nobody around me. I always liked to write my “editorials” in the waiting room of journals, in the midst of visitors, their discussions with the writers, in the coming and going, the noise, and me planted there hatching an article “a propos of the last speech in the Duma”. Or even in the hall of the editorial board. One time I had to say to my collaborators, sirs, a little quiet please, I’m writing a reactionary article (gestures, laughs, commentaries). The hilarity was at its peak. Understanding nothing, just as before.”