Self Within Self
On a page of a small cheap notebook orphaned by his death, the American fiction writer William Goyen (1915-1983) wrote:
1. Writing is waiting (for)
2. Finding the Voice.
Hearing the Voice. Story is told to me, I tell it to you.
Otherwise I don’t write–or can’t write.
Within the writer, another speaks–and says what we may not have expected, or may not have even wished to say. Or what we expected not to want to say. You must write what nobody wants to hear, Grace Paley used to say to fellow writers. One of the most important keys to the doors of writing is that one must find a way to free oneself to write, to have written, already, what one had not entirely wished to say beforehand. In the writing practice of H駘鈩e Cixous, an unforeseen, unanticipated and apparently mistaken articulation is the unpredicted and invaluable entrance to imaginative freedom. In what way? In that we can sometimes see in such apparent accidents or supposed slips the same readiness of the unconscious, the intuition, that is, the full imagination, to bring to conscious awareness something that we are ready to perceive and to acknowledge and, as writers, to use.
In the American writer William Maxwell’s last novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), the author-narrator (Maxwell’s very explicit blurring of a distinction between the two is part of this novel’s strength) describes a moment in his boyhood when, after having moved from a small town in Illinois to Chicago, he saw, or thought he saw, to his surprise, in the crowded hallway of his new high school, a boy he had once known–to whom he did not speak as they passed each other, because the author-narrator’s pained knowledge of the other boy’s tragic childhood in that same small town inhibited him from offering a greeting. Instead, as he feels it decades later, he snubbed the other boy.
The reader meditating on this passage may feel that the author-narrator snubs the other boy because by the other boy the author-narrator is unconsciously reminded of his own continuing grief over the death of his mother during his childhood. To keep from feeling his own pain, he refuses to empathize with that of the other boy. But artistically I find it more productive to think of this moment the other way around–because of living in the aftermath of his own grief, ever present but unacknowledged, the author-narrator is unable, among his welter of impressions in the school hallway, not to see a boy who is or who resembles someone he knew elsewhere. He sees that boy because the two of them are in one way the same (their grief) even though they are also completely different. In the emotional structure of the novel, the other boy is a metonym for the author-narrator’s own feelings. The author-narrator already is unconsciously seeking a vision of the other boy, and finds it, or is called by it.
So it happens that unconsciously we call for certain texts to call us. We are read, as we read, by those texts that enable us to read what we are now prepared to read but have not yet read (even if we have read it before). And we are written, sometimes with the effect of falsifying ourselves, but at other times with the effect of liberating ourselves–by language, by other texts, by our own effort to produce an authentic widening of our experience–to articulate “a truth won from life against all odds, because a truth in and about a mode of experience to which the mind is normally closed,” as the English poet Donald Davie once put it.
This process is not merely self-reflexive, which would become self-oppressive and is in any case insufficient to consciousness; the process also brings to our awareness our unconscious understanding of words and the world, of self and of our past selves, and this allows us to change our understanding.
As I write, what follows my sense of myself is my sense of my not-self and of my after-self, as the impulse to write is followed by the writing–there, on the paper, on the desk, outside of me.
The productive effect of the writer’s differentiation from himself or herself, the writer’s self-alienation, I myself first understood in a social sense, when reading Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams. These writers could not address in their writings the communities of those whose experience they shared and on whom they drew for the substance of their work, because those communities were cut off from–respectively–literacy, in the case of the American slaves, whose way of life Douglass had escaped; poetic innovation and mastery, to say nothing of highly unconventional metaphysical daring and God-doubting in the case of Dickinson’s backwater Amherst (and, as it turned out, sophisticated Boston as well); and again literacy, both literal and cultural, in the case of the immigrant families whom Williams treated as a physician, and about whom he wrote out of his intense responsiveness to their experience (see his poem “Complaint,” published in 1921, and his well-known story, “The Use of Force,” collected in 1950 but originally published earlier–and I do not forget his remarkable In the American Grain, but I have no space at present in which to try to put this thinking into relationship with Williams’s sense of how we Americans have been formed in a grain that is distinct from that of the European colonizers of this continent). Douglass’s eloquent sentences include the famous juxtaposition of a symbol of the slave’s deprivation and suffering with a symbol of the literate man’s opportunity and obligation to write of the slave: “My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” Dickinson’s poetico-theological challenges can still affright conventional belief. None of these three wrote in order to please, yet each of them might well have wanted very much to please a community to which they could not write, a community of their own that would not understand what they were saying.
After I came to recognize the paradox of these writers’ having been separated from their own communities by their very purposes and practices of writing about, and on behalf of, but not to, and even against the grain of, those communities, I realized that Rimbaud’s formulation of poetic liberation, “je est un autre” ["I" is an other], might be not only a given or sought-for psychological state but equally a state socially produced in the writer, and in fact a valuable effect both psychological and social of the very act of writing. (William Goyen used this famous motto of Rimbaud as one of the epigraphs to his novel The House of Breath , where it has the effect of alerting the reader in advance to the multiplicity of selves who narrate the book, all of them also in some sense the author-narrator “Goyen.”) The act and result of writing place something that was inside oneself outside oneself, since writing is not at all a wholly internal process, even when a poet composes in his mind before recording the poem, but an act that produces this something that then exists outside the writer. “Writing” does not necessarily exist at all inside oneself beforehand. Helene Cixous says, “This is how I write: as if the secret that is in me were before me” (Rootprints, 67).
Among other reasons, writing is disruptive because paradoxically it is a release from, yet also an intrusion on, the non-writing or preliterate part of ourselves. Writing may solace many of those who write and read, but at times it also disturbs those who do, a disturbance that is itself an energy carrying the writer into the work. Trauma again. Perhaps writing often disturbs those who do not write and read, for whom the act of writing seems to be a falsification of the potential veracity of the living voice. This belief is without foundation, but it is understandable. I recall being insistently ordered to tell orally “in my own words” what was already in my own words but written down and lying unread on the table, when I stood before a draft board in Houston during the war in Viet Nam. The three members of that draft board were disturbed not only by what I had written in order to make certain ethical claims, but also by the fact that I had written it.
I am reminded by this of a scene in Patrick White’s historical novel Voss (1957), in which he portrays doomed European early explorers of the Australian interior. (But we are not doomed when exploring our own interior, even if we sometimes cannot help, complicated creatures that we are, sometimes feeling that our old selves are doomed, either because we cannot discover how to change them and escape being ruled by them, or because we do discover how.) At a moment when the expedition led by Voss has passed the point of return, Patrick White’s explorers write letters that they think may be their last, they entrust the letters to their sole aboriginal guide, an old man whom they call by the name Dugald, and they send him back toward the now very distant white settlements to deliver them. Wandering without haste, half-clothed in European garb that is a metonym for western culture, Dugald encounters a group of fellow aborigines. They notice the flash of white in the pocket of his ragged European coat, and they want to see the letters:
One young woman, of flashing teeth, had come very close, and was tasting a fragment of sealing-wax. She shrieked, and spat it out.
With great dignity and some sadness, Dugald broke the remaining seals, and shook out the papers until the black writing was exposed. There were some who were disappointed to see but the pictures of fern roots. A warrior hit the paper with his spear. People were growing impatient and annoyed, as they waited for the old man to tell.
These papers contained the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, explained the traveller, by inspiration: the sad thoughts, the bad, the thoughts that were too heavy, or in any way hurtful. These came out through the white man’s writing-stick, down upon the paper, and were sent away.
Away, away, the crowd began to menace and call.
The old man folded the papers. With the solemnity of one who has interpreted a mystery, he tore them into little pieces.
How they fluttered.
The women were screaming, and escaping from the white man’s bad thoughts.
Some of the men were laughing.
Only Dugald was sad and still, as the pieces of paper fluttered round him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.
In this little parable of oral culture versus writing culture, White portrays the exteriorizing of thought and feeling in the act of writing. “Bad” thoughts come out in writing and are sent away; “good” ones do, too, we might add. We western readers see that this is true, in a somewhat but not wholly mistaken way.
So because it is partly the unconscious content of individual psyche and shared language, personal feelings and learned attitudes that is there, “alienated” onto the page, one reads text not only with the eyes but, as White vividly illustrates, with one’s whole culture, one’s whole web of beliefs, even (and especially) with one’s tongue (in both senses). The young woman tastes the sealing wax, which is the mark of the privacy of the written letter, the interiority of it, the authenticity of it.
As Cixous puts it, one reads with “the body. The entrails. Of the soul also” (Rootprints, 90). (Neuroscientists like Anthony Damasio have established the great degree to which the body as well as the mind produces feeling and thinking, and consciousness itself; ancient writers beginning with Homer characterized all thinking and feeling as located in the body in ways that neuroscience, and post-Enlightenment thinkers like Cixous, now prove and theorize–not in order to negate reason, but in order to attend to the full capacity of reason.) Cixous writes with the body, longhand; she cannot achieve her “interior voyage” with a machine; writing longhand, “it is as if I were writing on the inside of myself” (Rootprints, 105). For her, one emblem of this act is Stendhal’s secret childhood writing on the inner waistband of his trousers (Rootprints, 103).
So from one’s own belly, from one’s emotional entrails, one foretells one’s own past feelings and thinking. The written page is the waistband around one’s life. One must work to foretell not only the distant past but also the very moment before writing the words one is now reading. One reads with one’s entrails the entrails that, unlike those of a sheep or a cock, are one’s own and did not require one’s dying in order to be produced. Or maybe this foretelling of one’s own past being (that is, this act of writing), did require one’s death. Let’s remember Wordsworth’s poem!
Cixous says, “The relationship to death is fundamental. It’s the cause. We live, we start writing from death.” (By “we” in this particular statement she means herself and Jacques Derrida, her close friend.) “But: for me, death is past. It has already taken place. My own. It was at the beginning” (Rootprints, 82). In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous sends writers first of all to what she calls “The School of the Dead.” If we want to write at all truthfully–
(I hope you will forgive me if I use the word “truth.” The moment I say “truth” I expect people to ask: “What is truth?” “Does truth exist?” Let us imagine that it exists. The word exists, therefore the feeling exists.) (Three Steps, 36)
–we must at least “try to unlie” (Three Steps, 36). And “writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death, since we cannot tell the truth” (Three Steps, 37). But to try to tell it, we try to see and to write as if we were not ourselves. We stand apart. Apart from others: “Between the writer and his or her family the question is always one of departing while remaining present, of being absent while in full presence, of escaping, of abandon” (Three Steps, 21). (Here’s another sort of “de-famili-arization”–which is not unrelated to the linguistic kind.) Again I think of William Goyen, who seems to me to have been one of the greatest American practitioners of “ecriture feminine”; in an interview that he gave in 1982, the year before he died, to a French literary magazine, Masques, he said:
Despite their disapproval [meaning, of his parents], I applied myself to writing in order to liberate myself. [...] I was close enough to my family, but also very alone. I didn’t understand anything about the pursuits and interests of children my own age. What they did didn’t appeal to me. I was alone and remained alone, with one wish: to leave. I would remain sitting in a corner for hours. This would greatly annoy my friends. It was always like this. Next, I set myself to using anything that allowed me some form of escape (sex, pills, alcohol, etc.). And now, regardless of where I find myself (at a concert, a restaurant . . .), I always sit where it will be possible for me to leave, because in my head, it is possible that I’ll be inclined to do just that. (Goyen, n.p.)
Perhaps this readiness to depart is a commonplace among writers of a certain temperament. But if it is indeed an idea, a stance, a possibility, that the writer can use, it remains not very often used. There is a broader sense of it in the French aphorism of Samuel Beckett that Goyen liked to quote–”L’artiste qui joue son etre est de nulle part. Il n’a pas de pays. Et il n’a pas de frere.” As Goyen himself paraphrased it: “The artist who uses his life completely, throws it full into the tide, is of no place. And he has no country, he has no kin.” And this, from a writer who was utterly grounded in, fascinated by, a captive of, local place–both culturally and linguistically–in his portrayal of small-town East Texas in the first half of the twentieth century. The aphorism is not only about that; it is also about the second sort of standing apart existentially–from ourselves and others.
That is, from our own experience. We go back to what we lived as if someone else had mowed that field. The aphorism is about a moment when one can achieve a psychological, not a mortal, dying to oneself and to those whom one both loves and hates, or at least an absence from them, if one is to write a certain kind of truth about oneself and about others, about the world. Cixous says: “Writing is first of all a departure.” (But–this departure does not mean that the writer as a person must exist outside any human community. Poetry and community–a topic for another time.)