The bloom of scarlet dye mingles with the grey linen.
Books are forged from other books. The verb here is crucial, for if we use it in its full literal and etymological sense then the image of the smithy, of heat and flame, of the constant hammering and refining of material is forever with us.
Yet the material is nothing but elusive. It cannot be grasped but perhaps, in the ultimate analysis, only possessed. It may be phenomena, it may be language, or it may be language as a vessel—if only a leaky vessel—for phenomena.
The cosmology of the Vedic scriptures is a circular or cyclical one. Suspended between the close of one cosmic cycle and the start of another, god Viṣṇu, reclined on the seven-headed, or in some accounts the thousand-headed, serpent Śeṣa, drifts on the universal ocean. But the common form of the word Śeṣa in Sanskrit also has the meaning of “residue.” Roberto Calasso in his study and re-creation of Hindu myths explains:
The beginning: something not to be found in nature. The first distinct image was that of Viṣṇu drifting on the waters, his head reclined on Śeṣa. In the image that precedes all others, Viṣṇu was already resting on the past. The first world was always at least the second, always concealed within it another that had come before. Śeṣa was also śeṣa, the “residue” one meets every day: food leftovers, remainders in division, the remnants of our actions, which are still there even when the fruit of the action has been consumed, on the earth and in the sky. From that residue new life develops. The new is an old, old lump, which refuses to dissolve.
“On the residue are founded name and shape, on the residue is founded the world,” quotes Calasso from the Atharva Veda. But we are here in the domain of prehistory, and the residue is the very material from which the entire cosmos takes shape. Is it then the material of consciousness, too? Of literature and language?
Since at least the middle of the last century, several theories have engaged with the experience of reading and the production of meaning in literary texts. Drawing from, among others, the branches of phenomenology and hermeneutics, they have worked toward the centering of the reader and his or her experience in the literary universe.
Every literary work is in principle incomplete and always in need of further supplementation, observed the Polish philosopher and disciple of Husserl, Roman Ingarden—a supplementation, however, that can never be completed in terms of the text, even if it appears so to the reader. This is because all real objects, per Ingarden, are determined; they appear in a primary concrete unity with others and are absolutely individual. But “fictional objectivities” are projected by a finite number of sentences and, because of the insufficient determination effected by words, contain “spots of indeterminacy.” The represented object in fiction, therefore, is only a schematic formation. But this makes no difference to the reader, for he or she sees the represented object solely as determined by the unities of meaning within the work that conceal such spots, allowing him or her to go beyond the text and complete it. Thus, “the literary work itself is to be distinguished from its respective concretizations, and not everything that is valid for the concretization of the work is equally valid for the work itself.”
Maurice Blanchot goes further. For him reading as a practice is synonymous with the verb “to make.” It is the freedom to create; it is what helps a work become a work.
[T]he book whose source is art has no guarantee in the world, and when it is read, it has never been read before; it only attains its presence as a work in the space opened by this unique reading, each time the first reading and each time the only reading. . . . Because of this, reading stands in contrast to that aspect of the work which, through the experience of creation, approaches absence, the torments of the infinite, the empty depths of something that never begins or ends—a movement that exposes the creator to the threat of essential solitude, that delivers him to the interminable. In this sense, reading is more positive than creation, more creative, although it does not produce anything [but] shares in the decision.
— Maurice Blanchot
Not only does such an approach appear to be wholly organic, it serves, given the focus on language, the processes—history, ideology, psychology—of meaning formation, as a common source for theories otherwise as diverse as Marxism, Structuralism, and Psychoanalysis—thinkers as different as Pierre Macherey, Gérard Genette, and Jacques Lacan.
Macherey, for example, who in part collaborated with Louis Althusser on Reading Capital and shared a common cultural climate with structuralism, saw the author not as a “creator” but as a “producer” who works pre-existing literary genres, conventions, language, and ideology into literary texts. “Specific literary works,” he writes, “are determined by the history of literary production from which they receive the means of their own realisation. In short, a book never arrives unaccompanied: it is a figure against a background of other formations, depending on them rather than contrasting with them.”
Macherey, following Althusser, whose own ideas on the subject read much like those of Ingarden, conducts the reader back into focus, calling the act of reading itself a form of production that generates meanings beyond the control of the author. Approached in this way, Macherey’s views are closely aligned with both structuralists and post-structuralists, including Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, even if he imparts a Marxist tint to them. Indeed, Terry Eagleton in his preface to A Theory of Literary Production acknowledges that Macherey’s book is an amalgam of ideas adopted from Marxism, Russian Formalism, and Psychoanalytic theories.
Yet the emphasis cannot be on interpretation of texts alone, but on the reading of literature as a carrier of language in all its variety of tones, styles, architectonics, a living tradition to explore, draw from, and augment by the generative act of writing.
The names attached to a book [title, author] are meant to conceal the uniformity of the experience of reading.
— Harry Mathews
Language replenishing itself perpetually as it strives toward newer, stranger, deeper forms of representation and remembering, which are nevertheless built on older ones: this is also Eliot’s “historical sense” that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that literature has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
It is so that the experience of reading is central to writing, while insofar as a writer is also a reader, he or she makes a text meaningful by adopting, consciously or subconsciously, one or more of the above approaches, mixing and maturing in the vat of memory the constant flow of texts, which is nothing but language sensitized and raised to varying degrees of personal style. What thought, what word, what turn of phrase might not then rise from De Quincey’s palimpsest which is the human brain, as one sits before a page to portray a sliver, a fragment, a total picture (to the writer at least) of the world? One writes from what one has read, and the new world takes shape from the residue of the old.
Of all the influences at work in the history of literature, the chief influence is exercised by one literary work on another—the influence of artifact upon artifact that is the origin and acting principle for changes of taste and revolutions in art. (This approvingly quoted by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky from a book on French literary history.)
This is, of course, not to deny or exclude the experience of reality, of the “realness” or “thusness” of the world, as much as it is to render such experience (subjective and partial at best) in the vein of language, insofar as the uniqueness of a literary text depends primarily not on the uniqueness of the experience narrated but on the uniqueness of the narration itself—something that is not a given, but grows in us slowly with our understanding of a language and its tradition, coming to us alive and continuous through literature. In other words, the experience of the real in a text is a function of the language that records it, so that a more sensitive and flexible style of negotiating the structure of language will engender a deeper response in the reader.
Language precedes the knowledge of the world, or rather lends meaning to the world.
It is the world of words that creates the world of things—the things originally confused in the hic et nunc of the all in the process of coming-into-being—by giving its concrete being to their essence, and its ubiquity to what has always been.
— Jacques Lacan
A child is born in a web of words, of symbols, that is to say, language, which has a more certain grip upon him than his ancestry, observes Lacan. It shapes his destiny, preceding him to the very place where he is not yet and continues to do so beyond his death. Maurice Merleau-Ponty in The Structure of Behaviour and Tzvetan Todorov in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre separately argue in the same vein.
The glue of language, then, sticks to reality soon enough, closing the seams, as signs settle onto phenomena, becoming the mediators of the world “out there” to what functions and makes sense within. To work from within this empire of signs, to write, to play, to make meaning, to create a spectacle from them is to first be their watcher, reader, and interpreter, to have a heightened sense of their synthetic order and yet be able to absorb and enjoy the beauty of their varying combinations. And with time and experience to do so not only expertly but to the point of abstraction. It is because of this that reading literature is at the same time reading literature’s history.
There have been others before him, but it is with Borges, in whose works the two significant literary movements of the last century, magical realism and postmodernism, almost concurrently originate*, that reading most prominently gains over writing in the artistic hierarchy. Borges proposes a reversal or perennial rewriting of literary history depending on a reader’s personal chronology, when in the story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” he wittily observes:
Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution. That technique, requiring infinite patience and concentration, encourages us to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid . . . [and] fills the calmest books with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce—is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions?
The writing of a work organically arising from the totality of a writer’s reading: stretch the assertion to accommodate the changing residue of reading at every moment in a work’s composition—every word, every sentence meaning both more and less with each passing moment—and perhaps even Derrida may let it pass without a quarrel. Because the self that writes, or indeed the one that reads, is both a static and constantly changing presence, remembering and forgetting and remembering continuously, an iteration, open to erasure. For, to quote Michael Payne on Derrida, “what can be written about what can be thought both differs from the thought and defers it, despite the intense desire to bring it nearer, to make it present. The horizon perpetually recedes as one moves forward on thought’s path.”
“Discourse” is the present, living, conscious representation of a “text” within the experience of the person who writes or reads it, whereas the “text” not only exceeds such representation, but does so by the entire system of its resources and laws.
— Jacques Derrida
Or, borrowing from Alain Badiou, we may say that the text, like the being that generates it, is a situation or “presented multiplicities,” and “the very conditions of the inscription of existence in language require that existence be in excess of what the inscriptions define as existing.”
Despite their differing terminologies and thought systems, Derrida and Badiou are essentially in agreement with Ingarden, Macherey, and others about the significance of old surplus in the making of the new.
But to say that any new literature arises from the literature of the past is, of course, not to deny its originality. One is reminded here of Paul Valéry, who, shrewdly employing theological imagery, observed that every writer feeds on those who have gone before him. There is nothing more original, more personal, he said, than to feed off others. But they must be digested, for the lion achieves its form by assimilating the sheep:
Rien de plus original, rien de plus soi que de se nourrir des autres. Mais il faut les digerer. Le lion est fait de mouton assimile.
— Paul Valéry
Borges himself, the most original and inventive of writers, is a case in point. He is, however, but one in a line of writers stretching from Thomas De Quincey to W.G. Sebald and Enrique Vila-Matas whose works are most evidently palimpsestic in nature, books that are repositories of other books, perhaps less subtly than others.
A book—any book—is forged out of such residue. The verb is doubly potent; its other meaning, i.e. “forgery” or “falsification’ may also be invoked. A kind of forgery—illicit copying—is central to the act of writing. Because one is forever hemmed in by the residue of past readings and encounters, past models and structures, every creative endeavor is in part a forgery.
Is it simply the script of the books one has read or is it the script of the world too, for, the world is also a world of signs that forever repeat and forever vary? Maybe this distinction is superfluous. Maybe there isn’t a distinction at all, inasmuch as the script is ubiquitous, and generates both the world and the books—books which in themselves are nothing but subjective reflections of the world.
The author, as Bakhtin explains, does his observing from his own unresolved and still evolving contemporaneity, in all its complexity and fullness, located as it were tangentially to the reality he describes. This contemporaneity includes literature of the past that continues to live and renew itself in the present, without which it is impossible to understand either the work or the author’s intentions reflected in it. The author’s relationship to the various phenomena of literature and culture, both past and present, has a dialogical character, that is to say, it carries on a continual dialogue with other authors, informs and is continually informed by other works of literature.
No writer arrives at his or her material suddenly. And there is no material without language. The growing understanding of the material and of language, what to say and how to say it, go hand in hand, form seeps into content and content shapes the form, the distinction between the two being arbitrary and, since at least Joyce, anachronistic.
“Conception,” as Merleau-Ponty reminds us with the example of Cézanne’s art, “cannot precede execution. There is nothing but a vague fever before the act of artistic expression, and only the work itself, completed and understood, is proof that there was something rather than nothing to be said.”
Aashish Kaul is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).
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