This is the text of a speech commissioned by Words Ireland and delivered at Bray Literary Festival on September 29th 2018.
They say start with a joke: Why did Jesus die on the cross?
Because he forgot his safety word.
Your safety word can be anything. Duck. Cosmic. Necklace. Whirlpool. Seventeen-thousand. The word is a signal to stop the ritual. It has more authority than yes or no. Saying the word means you do not want anymore. I have had enough. Stop the pain. Release me. This is as far as I can go. Beyond the safety word, if it is not submitted to, there lies a region of horror. Caves of ice. Mad ancestral voices.
The real point of the ritual is to bring about the saying of the word. The pronunciation. The entreaty. The command. Seventeen-thousand. Seventeen-thousand. The whole point is the moment of submission to the settled word. The cessation. I have desisted. Put down the scourge. The obedience. And afterwards, the silence in the room, the breath of time. I want to try to talk about writing as a confrontation with the self, not as some kind of expression of the self. Imagination dead, imagine, to use Beckett. I want to try to talk about that self as something which has a cultural history, and how that history may be what some writers have to struggle against, to be allowed a place in, an existence. Or to put it another way, the formal or technical difficulties a writer might face in the composition of a piece of work may be connected to their own psychic limits and to their position within their own culture, their class, race, gender. In order to do this, I am relying solely on my own experience as a writer and teacher—or whatever the best word is for what happens around the long polished table in the writers’ workshop, the Stinging Fly workshop in particular.
The focus of the workshop is the draft. It is a weird ambiguous quantity, the draft of a story. It can be shy, garrulous, awkward, sentimental, cold, loud, rushed, too believable. It is early. It is before. A prefiguring. Precursive. Time is all it seeks to make, an alternative time. It may not know what it is, or it may know too soon what it wants to pretend to be saying. And it is studded with safe words. Verbs. Adjectives. Dialogue. Which function as limits to the writer’s engagement with the material and with herself. The exquisite thing about the draft is that it is where you can see the carnal relationship between form and content.
‘I can’t write about that, what would my mother think.’ This is something you hear a lot in a workshop. Even if it is not said, it is in the eyes. Dread. Denial. The same face you might see on somebody who has been caught red-handed, the instant before they come up with the cover story. Even if the piece of work being considered obviously solicits some deeper exploration of a theme in order to find an ending, especially a sexual theme—the claim is this: but that is not what I intended to write about—I know how it looks but that is not what I was doing at all. I only wanted to write a story about a woman who accidentally rubs up against somebody on the Luas. Or since we’re in Bray, lets make it the Dart. It is not about desire, it was an accident.
Embarrassment is what each writer risks when they present the draft of a story. The embarrassment not only of making a balls of it but the fear of something else being seen in the material. But as we know the fear is strangely connected to a desire for it—or why would you do it. Embarrassment—the blush—the angry rejection—makes me think about where the writing is coming from and the deeper question of who is writing. Like somebody telling you about the dream they had last night, they are not the person who had the dream. The dreamer is never present. Neither is the writer.
The one who writes is invisible. They never show their face. They are inside, wherever that is. Who—what—is this interior space? Is it just what we call our privacy? When did it begin? Does it change, grow, die? When did this splitting happen, the division into the public and private? I often ask people in the workshop to think about these questions. And I can’t expect them to think about it unless I give them something from myself. For me it was in the activity of prayer. That me who used to kneel by my bed at night and try to speak the prayers and beg for my wishes to come true, bargaining with the master for the satisfaction of my wishes. Please make Jimmy O’Hagan let me into his gang. Please let Anne-Marie sit beside me at mass. In the articulation of the prayer, between the words, I could feel the stirring of someone else, someone never seen by anybody else on the street and who was not happy with the status quo. Someone who you had to shut up, crush and bind with the formulae of words. Someone who wasn’t allowed to speak in public or there would be trouble, a red face or the back of the paternal hand.
In trying to ask who this is, the one who takes over the chair and actually does the writing, this haranguer in the gut, the manufacturer of carte blanche, it might be interesting to look at the history of what people have thought it was, what was called the poetic self—poetry being a much older form of vocalisation than the mute speech of narrative prose.
It used of course to be known as inspiration, the muse, the divine afflatus. Blake called it, ‘the authors in Eternity’ and Yeats, ‘a clear articulation in the air.’ The qualifications of the poetic self, to quote Ted Hughes were: ‘that it lived its own life separate from and for the most part hidden from the poet’s ordinary personality; that it was not under his control, either in when it came and went or in what it said, and that it was supernatural.’ A visitor from outside the human realm. From beyond the last house. Or think of the dubious person from Porlock who came on business to interrupt Coleridge from the trance of writing ‘Kubla Khan’—was it even a man, this stranger?
‘A clear articulation in the air’—what do we make of that today? Yeats, the die-hard, was probably the last of that type of talk. Most of us nowadays, happy to have found the line, to have heard it on a walk on the beach, would probably recognise it as an auditory hallucination, we would see the source as being in our own unconscious mind—not from an external power—or a vision of a shimmering beautiful woman exhorting us to compose a rallying cry for the dispossessed Gael, a host, an aisling. This desacralisation of the experience of composition, this translation, is one of the great upheavals in human consciousness. Call it the death of god—all the gods—if you will. In their place, we discovered the modern self. The divided modern agony of Freud, the unconscious, the nightly onslaught of the id. The smiling repressive cops on guard at every soft border. Perversions galore. World war.
But just as we were beginning to come to terms with the idea that we are not masters in our own house, that there was another inside us, a beast, a parricide, a rapist toddler, the ground gave way again and we had to face the idea that there was not just one inside us, but a multitude, and in fact there was no inside anyway, that I am in time like light dancing and dappling the surface of water, a fraught hungry incandescence, multiple points of desire on the river of the language. Language is the medium of desire. Consciousness no more than an epiphenomenon of brain activity.
This from David Lodge’s novel, Nice Work, 1988. (The character Robyn is a young lecturer in English literature.)
According to Robyn … there is no such thing as the ‘self’ on which capitalism and the classic novel are founded … there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses—the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc. And by the same token, there is no such thing as an author … there is nothing outside the text. There are no origins, there is only production, and we produce our ‘selves’ in language. Not ‘you are what you eat’ but ‘you are what you speak’ or, rather ‘you are what speaks you’…
You are what speaks you. (From human to person to self to subject.) Let’s go back to Beckett. In How It Is, a radical metaphor for the self, and for writing, he describes a character crawling through the mud. In between his crawling and his gasping, the character speaks what seems to be the story of his life as he hears it spoken by a voice in his head. The question is where this voice comes from, whether it might not be what we generally call the characters own voice, a voice narrating the story of their life.
The character—for want of better word—meets another of his kind, Pim, crawling in the muck. For some reason, they are driven to communicate and devise a kind of semiotic system, signals delivered by one, the tormentor, on the other, the victim by the use of the right hand.
table of basic stimuli one sing nails in armpit two speak blade in arse three stop thump on skull four louder pestle on kidney
five softer index in anus six bravo clap athwart arse
Then after a lot of this mutual abuse they get to the writing. One scratches questions in the others back demanding to be told something about their life ‘above in the light’. The other obliges with answers. Story. The attempted suicide of his wife for example. Anything. It doesn’t matter what. All you have to do is answer.
I, the treasured first person, is what is forced on us. All those who use the first person are victims. To be tortured is the precondition for being humanised. Monologue is an expression of self-alienation, not self-expression. We make stuff up to please the tormentor who demands we speak. The victim, like all victims do, crawls away until it finds another whom it in turn will torture into articulation.
So where is there to go from this as a writer? To write is to fail of course because what you have to say you are being forced to say and it may have no bearing on anything anyway, on some place up there in the light. Learn the prayers and say them. And hope that the next prayer will be the last. But yet you cannot stop, you keep going back to it, reaching that safe word, and starting all over again.
Let’s try to look it another way. Eavan Boland in her book Object Lessons meditates on the struggle to find a poetic voice for herself in a male national tradition of poetry. In a key chapter, she remembers how she tried to make a poem out of the experience of a conversation with her older neighbour out the front of her suburban house one summer evening. ‘As we talk,’—she tells us—‘I feel the shadow of some other meaning across our conversation, which is otherwise entirely about surface things. That it is high summer in my life, not in hers. That hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost.’
She begins to make notes for a poem about this encounter, aware of that ‘half-in-half perspective which is so connected with the act of writing’. She can smell the sweet cut grass, hear her children breathing in their sleep, see the suburban poplars, the shadow of the Dublin hills. But as she sits writing, she knows with complete certainty the poem will never be written. What went wrong, why did it not feel possible? What was it about the ingredients of that moment, the suburb, the hills, the grass, the last light, two women talking, that could not add up to the texture of a poem? Reflecting back on it, Boland suggests that the failure to write the poem has something to do with what she calls the ‘devalued subject matter’ of her own experience, two women talking in the suburbs, that somehow this didn’t feel like the right theatre for a poem. ‘It has given me insight’—she writes—’into the flawed permissions which surround the inherited Irish poem’. The poet finds herself trying to write in a tradition which does not recognise her, which inherently resists her own lived experience, her time.
Boland, however, sees this as a challenge. It is not exactly the background of the poem which is the problem, the setting as we used to call it in school, it was the surface of the poem, the two women talking, the image within the image, the body of one woman being the prophecy of the body of the other. Boland feels she could make neither herself real or the other woman: ‘I cannot make the time we are happening in real, so that the time I fear can happen.’
The permission to allow the time I fear to happen.
Rather than struggling with any postmodernist definition of self, Boland here is talking about the confrontation with history, with a tradition. The inner workings of the poem, the technical heart, can work to rebuff and to disenfranchise different perspectives. The form, created over time, wants to protect itself from outsiders and yet of course depends on those outsiders to stay alive, to be in time. This particular gender resistance might be broadened out to similar feelings felt by those from another class or race trying to work within a form which has not yet felt the pressure of their vision. Nowadays we might also add the poetic mainstream’s resistance to the spoken word performers.
Form as a receptacle of the dreams of self. Dreams of coherence and meaning and order.
What I’m trying to say here is that many of the problems encountered by writers in workshop are down to the quality of their own introspection and how they find a way or not to connect this self—the creature of their introspection—to the form and style they are trying to use. I think it would be fair to say that most of the writers in the Stinging Fly workshops are working in the tradition of realism, and more particularly, the lyrical realist short story which still seems to be the de facto approach to discovery in this country.
The ingredients of this form—character development, dialogue, scene, exposition, plot itself—were developed in another century with a completely different philosophical and ideological view on the self and reality. Students often seem surprised to realise that they are dealing in something called realism, that there is a name for it, that it is possible to see things differently. Some students are relieved that it has a name which liberates them to question it.
Story is not free of the desire to devalue certain people’s experience, as Eavan Boland unearthed about the Irish poem—and to push a bit deeper than that, story contains implicit assumptions about the world, which may no longer be satisfactory for the contemporary writer.
Take just one example. In a 2015 book called The Good Story, a written exchange between J.M. Coetzee and the psychoanalyst Arabella Kurtz, Coetzee, after a discussion of the ultimate detective story, Oedipus Rex, remarks that when we read detective stories we are gripped by the characters attempts to preserve the secret. We root for them. We don’t want them to find out. Because we cherish the hope of escaping from the past and remaking our life.
‘Now’—he writes—‘imagine a story that tries to teach exactly the opposite moral: that our lives are ours to make and remake as we wish, that the past is the past, that secrets can freely be buried and forgotten. Can there be such a story that works as a story? Can we have a story that ends, “And his secret was forgotten, and he lived happily ever after”?’
I can’t think of one, a good one anyway. And the reason is a dream of justice, an ethical sense—a hope—buried in the very architecture of story, that bad things are punished and good things rewarded, the truth will out, and a rational equilibrium will prevail.
Do you really believe that? Did they really used to believe that in the past?
A change in the instrument of discovery will change what is discovered. A change of style is a change of subject. The observation of a thing alters that thing. How then can this reality supposedly lying beyond all attempts to see it, ever be seen? Art is no longer the mirror held up to nature, the eye is not a recording camera, a medium of witness but the sewer of the soul, to use George Bataille’s term.
Our ways of seeing are influenced by ideology as Žižek showed in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. The cinema, he argues, doesn’t give you what you want, it shows you how to want. Think of King Kong—all that has to happen before the girl and boy can get together, all that must be killed, controlled, before they can form a normalised unit, male and female, drained of desire, ready to produce the family, the next lot. Literature is not somehow above the taint of ideology and its compulsive repetition of the same narratives, the same resolutions, the same safe words. The same sentimental perversions.
Perversion, defined by Adam Phillips, is the opposite of desire, ‘an anxious narrowing of the mind when it comes to pleasure’. The pervert is one who constructs a scenario, an obsessively repeated sexual ritual, with the aim of achieving the same outcome, the climax in a safe word. The pervert seeks to keep themselves safe from the risk of hot, uncontrolled desire. The pervert kills sex with sex. They return again and again to the same scenario, the same words, the same gestures, the same cold end.
For Žižek, the scenarios and plots of cinema make perverts of us all. We are trained to need those stories to reassure us, to keep us from harm. We forget the artifice, we forget the camera, the money behind it all, the agenda, and by forgetting, find ourselves addicted. The same might be said of the conventions of literary realism. What might we do with our lady friend on the Dart who accidentally rubs up against people in the rush hour? What does the shape of story demand will happen to her? Will she want to do it again and again? Will she get away with it? How will she be stopped? Whose life will she change—improve—save—by her frottage? What sequence of cause and effect will the sentimentally- perverted writer follow, how can they short circuit the expectations of a reader who is similarly perverted by having read too much literary realism?
Look at what happened to Madame Bovary.
In the workshop I try to remind people that every form carries with it a template for viewing the world, oppressive or optimistic depending on your outlook, class, and these days, your general state of discomfort in your own skin. Literary realism is a kind of fetish in this country. It may not serve the nascent vision of every writer. The almost automatic recourse to particular style of writing may be what lies behind a writers struggle with say, dialogue, or endings, with language itself—the form may be inhibiting the original source of the voice, a voice which quickly gives up, recedes, and leaves the eerie sense of a dim drafty place where time has stopped and people are going through the motions. The writer becomes a reluctant pervert, a pessimistic fetishist, repeating a style that they do not really believe in. The writer is in danger of killing the writing with writing.
Do you really believe in what you’re saying here? That is the question I keep asking, in different ways. Go back and think about who is doing the writing and dare to know what they want to say. Be careful that what you are writing is not a disguise, a conventional camouflage, a safety barrier against the writer sensing for example—the utter fictionality of themselves and everyone around them or hitting on the words of a prayer-spell which might awaken the monster of their own futile perjury.
One way I have found to encourage this self-consciousness about form is to keep reminding the writer about the usefulness of other genres for the development of their work. Realism is itself just another genre, a genre based on a lot of dubious and outdated scientific tenets around observation and causality. It barely needs to be said now that there is a crisis in the belief in realism’s ability to capture reality anymore, a crisis that has seen a rage for genre-mixing and the dissolution of the line between fiction and non-fiction, autobiography and plot. Just think of Karl Ove Knausgård’s six book epic, My Struggle.
Or take for example the horror genre where there are some very exciting and wonderful things going on. Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy trilogy takes up the position that the intuitions of horror writing are the best philosophy available to us in the current times. The first book, In the Dust of This Planet, was the inspiration behind the television series True Detective. Thacker’s trilogy is part of a modern brand of philosophical pessimism, speculative realism it is generally called, which in rejecting much of what traditional science tells us about the world, and our consoling myths for the future, tries instead to build a realism that does not promote a sense of the total intelligibility of the world, a moral world with humans at its centre, and instead reaches for an uncanny realm which may lie just beyond our senses, beyond what we can even dare to think, beyond the horror of thought itself.
Writing is a ritual enacted in a space that once was considered sacred, a place the gods might visit. We write in the ruins of the centuries. We crawl through the dust and the muck, the wires, shouting safe words that no longer work, inflicting torture on whoever we encounter, to make them talk, just as we were made to talk. Beckett saw no end to the crawling—there was no hope of Godot or the man from Porlock to come knocking to interrupt the trance flow, as Coleridge claimed when writing ‘Kubla Khan’ and his sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice. Maybe it was a lie and there was no interruption. Maybe he just couldn’t finish it. Maybe he was too afraid to finish it. Maybe it was a visitor from the future-time.
Nevertheless the poet Stevie Smith longs for a visit from someone from Porlock.
I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend…
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.