Thursday, September 17, 2015

`These Wet Pieces of Evidence'

“Writing is a cheerful activity. You can cheerfully write that you’re going to kill yourself.”

Cheerfulness implies satisfaction, equanimity, the absence of self-pity, and a sense of accomplishment even if the job remains undone. It is not an emotional utopia. One can be cheerful in the midst of trouble, gloom and suffering. Recall Boswell’s account of Johnson meeting his former schoolmate Oliver Edwards, who says: “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Writing is cheerful because one volunteers to cavort with words. Think of Hazlitt’s favorite word: gusto. An adroitly phrased sentence freighted with bad news can soothe the soul. In “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” Theodore Dalrymple puts it neatly:

“Thanks to the fact that I write, my life is satisfactory: I can inhabit gloom and live in joy. When something unpleasant happens to me, provided only that is potentially of literary use, my first thought is ‘How best can I describe this?’ I thereby distance myself from my own displeasure or irritation.”

The passage at the top is by the French writer Georges Perros (1923-1978) in Paper Collage: Selected Aphorisms and Short Prose (Seagull Books, 2015). He resumes his thought:

“Writing can only aim for an ellipse, a poem or the illusion of efficiency. Language is an ocean of words. As for me, either I drown in it or, when the tide goes out, I look around, walking on what’s left behind. Holes, puddles. Fragmentary writing means these puddles, these marine remnants, these shells, these wet pieces of evidence. My attentiveness dries them off.”

Perros might be describing the care and feeding of a blog. Such independence for the writer is new to the world. That we choose too often not to celebrate but to whine is our problem, one we too often impose on the world. Perros’ maritime metaphor is perfect: To net an appropriate cliché, the world is his oyster. Writers are doubly blessed, trolling for “wet pieces of evidence” and fitting them to the proper words. Think of the dark-minded writers -- Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Bernhard, among others -- who worked cheerfully. In his final letter to his sister, written as he was about to die from cancer, Guy Davenport said, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”

[I heard about Paper Collage from this review by Ron Slate.]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

"I thereby distance myself from my own displeasure or irritation.”
Isn't this the definition of being human as opposed to being an animal?
And isn't, therefore, writing a metaphor for the human condition in that it is a vehicle for our detachment from what happens to us? An immensely human privilege unavailable to other suffering creatures.