In Order to Have No Face

What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing––with a rather shaky hand––a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.

[Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge]

(Thanks Evan)

We wander like homeless iambs

Within the ascending abstraction—a green hill gently rising into the early-evening sky, like the uppermost plain in a Rothko given animation—a heat, alive and moving, seeks its own meaning. The eye is faulty and miraculous, failing to comprehend the fleeting bolt of life. Silence singes the air with metaphysical portents. Tropes soon appear. Abyssal spots of time arrive to quell the tide of the incoming present moment, and we observe it all as if watching an island slowly disappearing in the wake of a ship. It would be easier to name the color of these peonies than to name the wake’s origin/destination. As such, I have become the villain in my own poem; this may be the only time the poem allows me an “I.” The inside of one’s skull is wreathed with doubt. The poem might be a signal from somewhere else. The heat shifts and scuds against the viridescent canvas as it sails into something like the actuality of our own lives. We were there because the dirt on our boots tells us we were there. Even the muddiest of abstractions remains transparent. The poem continues to clarify the shade of green needed to finish the process of bringing the hill into creation, a process that will remain incomplete. We wander like homeless iambs looking for the proper lines in which to be domiciled.

[from “Manfred in New York”]

Push It

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search over each object in a work of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti’s drawings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A twentieth-century master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, taught that “the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.” Who but an artist fierce to know––not to seem to know––would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those same instruments’ faint tracks.

Admire the world for never ending on you––as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.

[Annie Dillard, The Writing Life]

Rapport, Rapport, Rapport

Ever since it was sent to me by a friend, I’ve been unable to get this anecdote, from an essay by Richard Wollheim on the painter Nicolas de Staël, far out of mind. I can’t paraphrase its wisdom, except that it seems a wisdom reached on the far side of work:

A conversation of January 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’

[P.S. Practice Catalogue will pause for a month and when it returns will feature considerably more entries authored by others. Send along any ideas or material––exercise, habit, quotation, evocation, or meditation thereon.]

Frost's Toys

My poems––I should suppose everybody’s poems––are all set to trip the reader foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.

[Robert Frost, in a letter]

With and Against Words

My former teacher Lucie Brock-Broido enlists the German word widerruf to describe a way of writing alongside another poem––a poem stuck within you, a poem you can’t shake. In Lucie’s wielding, widerruf––which I understand to be grammatical German––has the force of neologism. It’s a spirit as much as a compositional mode, a haunting––you’re haunting the poem that haunts you.

Widerruf is literally “recantation, retraction, revocation.” Lucie lists the root, wider, as “against, contrary to, IN THE FACE OF, or versus––counter, contra, or––with.” And there’s the bright thread: widerruf is both going against and going with. Every word offered in the definition tallies this odd, dual logic: to revoke means to take back what’s been said, but the word no less says say againre-voice; to recant is to take back what’s been sung, but the word’s surface gives us again sing; to retract is to withdraw and to go again on the path.

I’m reminded of Freud’s paper on “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words,” in which he notes tendency of ancient languages to combine opposing concepts into a single sign. So in ancient Egyptian there are words that translate literally as: “old-young”, “far-near”, and “bind-sever.” The notable thing about these joinings is that they don’t produce or denote negation. Freud feels that dreams, too, do something like this in their expression of wish (i.e. disregard negation). The opposition or affirmation of a wish are equally its indication; desire is expressed no less by its concealment than by its disclosure.

Maybe literary influence is a vexed, double-sided thing like this. Harold Bloom’s deep idea was that influence involved risk: it was a gift that could famish the taker, a wealth that might impoverish the heir (but it was still a gift; the canny found ways to spend the money). Bloom might’ve been wrong, but who would deny that part of what we experience in a work we really love is the doing or discovery of something we would’ve been enlivened to do or discover on our own and now cannot? So what then? Lucie: “You could use instead a device akin to the missive…the writing Back, reply, respond, react, query, a tiny cat-fight, fisticuffed, or send all your love & everly, or even show up at the door. Is it possible?”

Plans, Terms, Ideas of Deportment

Susan Sontag begins her remarkable essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” by defining spirituality as “plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.” Sontag posits this description in order to draw an analogy to the function of art as a category of work and category of experience in the modern era (or at least the mythology of that function). “Spirituality” is a gooey word, often gooey enough to be useless. Sontag’s elaboration of it alleviates the gooeyness only a little. And yet, it’s not as though we’re uninterested or uninvolved, one way or another, in the project her definition traces. Moreover, for those likely to be reading this, art plays some role evolving our plans, terms, or “ideas of deportment.” Practice Catalogue is about the myriad ways this is or might be done.

[P.S. My own slow-gestating consideration of “poetry” as a kind of inquiry, as an idea of deportment, “Thought-Work in the Glowing Field,” is now up at AGNI]

Henry Miller's Commandments

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Don’t be a draught-horse. Work with pleasure only.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it––but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
  • [from Henry Miller on Writing]

George Saunders's Needle

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

Olivia Mardwig On Two Models

Matisse goes to Tahiti and spends 20 days alone.

Picasso said, “I’ve never seen anything. I’ve only lived inside myself.” To be engaged requires solitude. He paints a lot at night.

Neither learn to drive a car.

Objects are Matisse’s vocabulary. Women and fabrics occupy the same plane. Picasso’s objects are never really there. Feminine mystery is his subject, though he rarely asks anyone to sit for him. When he paints a chair it is Van Gogh’s chair.

Matisse rubbed out the day’s work. Picasso painted over it.

Matisse: “I require calm.” When there wasn’t joy there was still the aesthetic of joy.

After an operation Matisse can’t paint and begins instead to cut colored paper. He can work only 30 minutes a day. A wounded lion with velvet paws.

Later, Picasso brings a painting to the bedridden Matisse for approval or critique. Matisse asks to spend time with it. The painting is placed on the mantle facing his bed, where it remains for the rest of his life.

With light you draw immensity into small spaces.

At 90 Picasso says “I feel like I’m getting close to something. I’ve only just begun.”


Words and Things Like That

Robert Lax, in a letter to Thomas Merton (October, 1963):

never try to saying nothing in a poem (i say): only see it doesn’t say nothing wrong. there ought to be a lot more poems (i say) only they shouldn’t say so many wrong things. this must all be stopped. more poems, but not so many words and things like that.

Yourcenar on writing The Memoirs of Hadrian

The utter fatuity of those who say to you, “By ‘Hadrian’ you mean yourself!” Almost as unsubtle as those who wonder why one should choose a subject so remote in time and in space. The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his blood. He knows, too, or ought to know, that the voices who speak to him are wiser and more worthy of attention than are his own clamorous outcries.

It did not take me long to realize that I had embarked upon the life of a very great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention, and, on my part, ever more silence.

In a sense, every life that is recounted is offered as an example; we write in order to attack or to defend a view of the universe, and to set forth a system of conduct which is our own. It is none the less true, however, that nearly every biographer disqualifies himself by over-idealizing his subject or by deliberate disparagement, by exaggerated stress on certain details or by cautious omission of others. Thus a character is arbitrarily constructed, taking the place of the man to be understood and explained. A human life cannot be graphed, whatever people may say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather, the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging.

Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.

Every being who has gone through the adventure of living is myself.


No Tasks

In my notes is this paraphrase of Edouard Manet by Wayne Koestenbaum: Always move in the direction of concision. Cultivate your memory. Remain the master. No tasks.

The Miraculous

My favorite book of art-historical writing from recent years, Raphael Rubenstein’s The Miraculous, features no proper names (aside from an index in the back), few dates, and little discussion of critical or market reception. Each of the book’s 50 sections merely narrates the actions taken in the composition of a given work or project. It’s an experience of 20th century vanguard art no longer mediated by fame, theoretical construct, or the aura of exchange value. What we have instead are evocative human actions relayed in a parabolic register, their purpose and potential again up for grabs. “Artistic practice” can be a bloated category, one that attracts vagueness and wishful projection; The Miraculous gives us art as practice, as generative act. It reminds that it would be more radical and real to identify ourselves with work rather than with coins gathered in a prestige economy.

Here’s a sample chapter:

After seven years of brutal dictatorship, during which many citizens have been killed or “disappeared” by the government, an artist decides to celebrate her nation’s return to democracy by constructing a “Parthenon of Books” on one of the capital’s main boulevards. Over the course of seventeen days, she and a team of assistants build a full-scale replica of the famous Greek temple, made not from marble but from copies of books that were banned during the dictatorship. Each of the volumes, which are attached to metal scaffolding, is enclosed in a transparent plastic bag to protect it from the elements. On the day before Christmas, after the structure has been on display for three weeks, the artist invites the public to dismantle it. Climbing up tall ladders that have been provided, and assisted by cranes, men and women enthusiastically help themselves to the previously unavailable books, publications that might have been their owners’ death warrants had they been discovered by the secret police during the so-called dirty war. Strikingly, the number of books required for this ephemeral Parthenon is nearly identical to the number (according to later estimates by human rights groups) of the dictatorship’s victims: 30,000.


An Exercise

If stuck, cut out or photocopy the first page of a prose essay you admire. The key is to choose something with a textual weave that intrigues you. Aim to cut the total words on the page by half. Rearrange and rework sentences, make shaper leaps in argument, open fissures in the thinking, put images into new relationship, try for inertia as much as for sense. This process will leave you with a beginning–made of the stuff of your beloved model but already working differently, already taking the shape of your recognitions and perceptual rhythms. Even canonical writing could’ve be been otherwise. Your own writing will be otherwise.

Benjamin's 13

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions, avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honor requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae in your inspiration by tidily copying out what you have already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea [“Not a day without a line”]—but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea—style—writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration; style fetters the idea; writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

[from One-Way Street]

The Hum and Buzz of Implication

You pound out a sentence. The sentence sounds an echo. Do not explain, describe, or narrate the echo––it is sounding already. Sound another. Measure the relation of harmony or dissonance. Keep the hum and buzz of implication (Lionel Trilling’s phrase) alive.

Aim for the Chopping Block

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blackness, the blackness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruining everything you touch but touching nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: the page will teach you how to write. There is another way of saying this.

Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.

[Annie Dillard, The Writing Life]