the agony of not writing.

There is a plot of a short story by Sigizmund
Krzhizhanovskii that I would love to read, although I don't think it has been translated into English, yet, and I only read a summary of it by a russian scholar: “The Life and Times of a 
Thought”. The thought occurs in Immanuel Kant's brain, where it is happy and everything is glorious. And then it has to be written down, which depresses the thought utterly. Apparently, writing is to a thought what the rack is to a man being questioned by the Inquisition. What an idea!

Which brings me to this post. I’ve been pondering the Krzhizhanovskii story. I recognize in it not only a familiar modernist trope (writing as the scene of the agon – Flaubert’s famous throes of dispair on his sofa as he tears apart and rebuilds a single page in Madame Bovary), but also a human predicament. As literacy spread in the early modern era, so did the introduction of a writing system into people’s lives. Literacy did not always mean the ability to write – in France, for instance, many girls were taught to read but not to write. However, that disymmetry soon passed. Reading and writing seem irresistably attracted to each other, unlike, say, music and being able to read and write music. We have a hard time, now, imagining reading without writing.
Yes, then, writing as agon is a very recognizable social fact. As an editor of academic texts, I run into it in the highest reaches of the written. But the other side of the story is writing as an irresistable compulsion. Don’t take my word for it – look at the trillions of words freely poured out on the internet, writing that issues from no professional demand. Myself, I can step out from the billions who do this and offer my own not so unrepresentative experience of graphmania, in which the terms are reversed, and one suffers from the agon of not-writing.
I don’t know how far back my scribbling disease goes. I do know that by the tie the Internet reared up and ko-ed me, I was a definite notebook man, trailing acres of crabbed script around in all these ruled and unruled notebooks which promised, deceitfully, on the blank front page, to be the place, finally, where life and writing would converge.  Most of those notebooks I’ve lost over the years – some I’ve stored here and there, like a squirrel storing nuts. Since moving to LA, I’ve filled three or four notebooks, and of course this doesn’t include the fine flights of typing on the laptop.

I am not a “thought is language” mook – of course thought can exist unthought and unvoiced, just as an unfledged bird can exist in an egg.  However, the more one writes, the more the transition from thought to writing begins to change. Or, rather, scratch that, the more the revolution takes place, the transvaluation of values. Thought, which was once the master of writing, becomes increasingly the excuse for writing – rather than boarding the train of the sentence, the sentence hijacks the train of the thought. It is as if, in the movie in my head, I’ve increasingly become more interested in the subtitles than the images. Give me the subtitles alone!  I shout, sipping my coke and dwning my popcorn there in the dark.

I don’t think I am describing the existential position of an effete literatus here, either. Every self help book, at some point, advises writing things down, under the pretence that this will materialize one’s attention – as if that attention were some pre-existent, ambient thing. There are millions of live diaries, tweets, fb posts, comments in comments sections, etc., indicating to me that there are millions of people who write not only because it is required by whatever they do to bring home the bacon, but because they need to write.

Although email assassinated the US Postal service, I don’t accept the idea that it assassinated the letter. I have received thousands of letter-like emails – a thousand-fold more than the actual letters that I have received in my life. And children, my life has been long – I’m an ancient mariner who remembers the days of stamps and envelops.

Getting back to an earlier point – if in the 17th century there were thousands of peple who could read and not write, perhaps more than could do both, in the Internet age a weird inversion has occurred. Of course, the people who write, now, can read, but I suspect the decline in reading that thumbsuckers so lachrymosely lament in the papers and the high concept journals is connected to the veritable explosion of writing. I read many e-books and I’ve remarked that in the midst of reading them, even those, like Conrad’s Nostromo, that I am enjoying immensely, there’s a certain current of impatience that disturbs the placid, passive flow of the reading. Partly, of course, this is because my computer connects me up to the aforesaid trillions of words, so I suffer from over-choice. But partly too from the consciousness that I could be reading some irritating thing on the New Yorker blog and writing about it. It is as though I am chafed by the restraint of being a mere reader, a bystander.

This is writing as a pathological condition, and a very good reason to become a Buddhist.