Wednesday, November 9, 2011

White page anxiety –- Thinking about writer’s block with Heidegger and Lacan (Part I)

Why do we write? There are, of course, many reasons: to express emotions, to make a shopping list, to further your career, to satisfy an aesthetic desire, to get to know yourself, to publish the results of scientific research, to get to know another, to impress, etc. etc.

But isn’t there such thing as the desire to write as such, a writing in order to write, just for the pleasure of writing, no matter about what, in what form or who will eventually read it? Is there a pure desire to write, which precedes the limited intentions mentioned above and which specializes and concretizes itself in them? And if so, what is the nature of the pleasure it affords?

If there is one phenomenon where such a pure desire to write can be found, it must be writer’s block. That sounds like a paradox, but of course it is not. For it is only in the failure of language, the total paralysis of the ability to write, that the author must prove his perseverance, his absolute will to write. The blocked writer is faced with the question about the core of his motivation, his drive to write: “Why in God’s name am I forcing myself to do this?” Generally the answer remains vague, must remain vague, since – as psychoanalysis teaches – the deepest sources of our desires remain hidden from us. The blocked writer knows from painful experience that other life choices will not doubt make him happier, but still he wants nothing else, he can do nothing else, driven by a blind urge which makes him suffer (for writer's block is suffering) but which at the same time affords him a strange kind of happiness.

The phenomenology of the blank page
Whereas the answer to the why-question remains unclear, the solution for writer’s block is well known and can be found in every self-help text for blocked writers: Just write, doesn’t matter about what, in what form or who will eventually read it! Just write for the ‘fun’ of writing and you will ‘get the hang of it’ – then the flow of language will eventually lift you up and carry you along like a river or even engulf you, if you're lucky. Thus the resolution of writer’s block lies precisely in a pure desire to write, a writing which is its own goal. It’s pleasure must be connected to that feeling of being lifted by language like a river. But where to exactly? Which ocean is at the end of that river? And is it not extremely dangerous to let yourself be engulfed like that? What is the pleasure in the danger of drowning?

This lethality of the pure desire to write isn’t this already evinced by the writer’s block itself, prior to its extatic dissolution in the writing for the sake of writing? Is the threatening death involved here not strikingly portrayed by the emptiness of the white page, which is a universal given (or rather: absence) in the experience of writer's block? Writer’s block has many synonyms that express this ‘phenomenology’ of the empty page: “white page anxiety”, “white page terror”, “white page panic”, syndrome de la page blancheetc. Writer's block can have a variety of causes: from the proverbial lack of inspiration to a crippling time constraint, from impossible perfectionism to the choice of too large a canvas, from a disruptive illness to the pressure to top some earlier success. All forms of writer’s block have this fact in common, however, that the writer must confront the emptiness of the white page. The blank page stares defiantly at him as a sort of white ‘black hole’ that swallows up all meaning. Once he rises to the challenge and writes down his first words, their meaning seems to disappear into the white void, as in a snowstorm all orientation is lost. Writer's block is therefore sometimes described in terms of snow blindness. This connection between writer's block and snow can be found, for example, in Kubrick's film The Shining, where the blocked writer, played by Jack Nicholson, goes crazy in a deserted, snowed-in ski resort.

The danger of jumping from word to word
The white page that must be filled, seems so intimidatingly big that what is written down seems small and insignificant in comparison, like an infinitesimal tending to the nothing of meaninglessness. Or the “terror of the white page” appears in the shape of the space in punctuation, that gaping void between words, where the writer has to jump (with the pen as his ‘jumping pole’) to go from word to word – but the blocked writer fears his jump might fail, that he might fall in the abyss of meaninglessness, between the words. You can of course try to conquer that fear by not looking down during the jump, but thus you only increases the risk that you come down in the wrong way, landing on the wrong word: your feet slip and you can just barely hold on, getting your fingers behind it. Your legs dangle in the void already. In a state of mortal shock, you lift yourself up, now even more anxious than before. Eventually this fear becomes so great that you do not even dare to make the first jump, the leap of faith with which each text begins. The white page gapes like unfathomable abyss before you and you recoil like a small child on the high diving board.

Thus the whiteness of the blank page and the space after each word become mirrors of the inner void of the author, a reflection of his impotence as a writer. Writer’s block, therefore, is somewhat like a downward spiral: the blocked writer who starts to write, sees his inner emptiness reflected in the white void before him, which enhances his conviction that he cannot write. This downward spiral is a lot like falling, a tumble into the void of meaninglessness, as if the writer is sucked into the white ‘black hole’ of the blank page. In that sense, the blocked writer is a typical specimen of the modern man as depicted by Nietzsche in The Gay Science the modern man who, after the death of God”, falls into meaninglessness:

“Are we not falling continually? Falling backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”

Writer’s block as akin to anxiety and bordedom
wonder if writer’s block as seen in this light the diffuse but at the same time blinding glare of the white page as abyss of meaninglessness is not related to ontological moods such as anxiety and boredom. According to Heideggerian phenomenology, in contrast to an emotion where it is always something specific that moves us, in the moods of anxiety and boredom there is really ‘nothing’ specific bothering us – indeed, what bothers us is precisely the nothing that we finally are, in the light of our inevitable death. That death makes everything meaningless. Why would you bother to get out of bed every morning and do what ‘theyexpect you to do if everything and everyone will eventually disappear? (And here we already see the comparison with the blocked writer who vis-à-vis the terrifying emptiness of the blank page wonders what in God’s name he is doing.) 

But – and this is the point of Heidegger’s analysis of moods such as anxiety and boredom – the experience of one’s mortality and the futility of it all is not just a negative experience (otherwise suicide would be the only thing left for us to do). This experience can ultimately be a profoundly life-affirming one, in which meaningless existence itself is embraced out of radically free choice. The experience of one’s mortality individualizes and makes you aware of your radical freedom. For in the light of death all pre-given values lose their power to convince, such that no one can tell you what to do: in the end, your life is your own choice. In moods like anxiety and boredom, you are thrown back upon yourself as the only authority, the sole source of meaning and value in life the senseless source of sense. This is one step in the life-affirmation that can follow from anxiety and boredom. The second step is the realization of the wonder of existence as such, in all its meaninglessness. In the liberating light of death, of the nothing that will eventually swallow everone and everything, the brute fact of existence here and now is experienced so much more intensely. “In the clear night of the Nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings – and not Nothing” (Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics?” in: Basic Writings, p.103). What in everyday life is experienced as the most obvious of things – the fact that beings are – becomes suddenly a miracle in the light of our impending death, and we wonder: Why is there something rather than nothing?” (Leibniz) What reveals itself in moods like anxiety and boredom, therefore, is Being itself, that which makes beings appear to us as beings, by letting them stand out against the backdrop of nothingness a nothingness that ‘in the end’ manifests itself in our own death. What anxiety and boredom reveal is the groundless – because death-based – freedom of man as the accomplice of Being, as the illuminating void (Lichtung) in which reality comes to the fore.

I wonder, in short, whether and to what extent writer’s block is a similar experience. Is the blank white page as the abyss of meaninglessness into which the blocked writer falls not a perfect image (an imageless image) of the nothing in contrast to which something can appear? Is the tumbling of the blocked writer into this white abyss not a kind of death, a symbolic’ death, in which on the one hand the authorial ego disintegrates, but which at the same time opens up in the writer a radical freedom – the freedom to create sense out of the nothing of non-sense? And the writer who in this way conquers his writer's block, precisely by embracing it, by writing from the depths of the abyss of meaninglessness that lies before him – is this liberated writer than not also an accomplice of Being? Doesn’t his disintegrated ego become an empty space as a kind of internalization of the white page in which reality can come to appearance? Doesn’t his writing then coincide with the ontological productivity of Being itself? And doesn’t this explain the pure desire to write, to write for the sake of writing, as a desire to participate in Being, to let the blank page be the place where the Event of reality can take place, no matter what happens exactly?

The attraction of the abyss
In the light of these questions there is a remarkable agreement between writer’s block and what Sartre calls the “attraction of the abyss. Sartre describes the well-known experience of standing in front of a gaping depth (e.g. before a ravine in the mountains or on the roof of a tall building) and having the seemingly irrational inclination to go to the edge, to defy the fear and vertigo and to look straigt into the deep – an inclination which can even take the frightening form of an urge to actually throw oneself into the depth. The abyss repels but it also draws us. Thus we go back and forth, oscillating between safe distance and deadly closeness. Sartre explains this attraction of the abyss in a semi-Heideggerian (for mainly Hegelian) way, such that it is our own groundless freedom that attracts us in the abyss: by defying death, we prove our freedom, our radical independence from all external authority, even the authority of biological life as such. In a more Heideggerian way we can understand the attraction of the abyss as not just revolving around our freedom but also – in relation to that freedom – as revolving around the experience of Being itself, of the miraculous fact that there is something rather than nothing. In the liberating light of threatening death, our being in the world here and now appears so much more intense. This intensity of the experience of Being this ontological Steigerung des Lebens(Nietzsche) is the ‘object’ of our desire as we approach the edge of the abyss.

It is, I think, the same desire that binds the blocked writer to his blank page. His suffering is exactly the oscillation described by Sartre, between revulsion and rapprochement, between getting up and walking away from the white abyss on his desk and getting back to it in order to finally write something – the oscillation between the apparently sane thought “Isn’t it better to call it quits? For I have nothing to say” and the seemingly aburd thought “I can’t stop, for I have nothing to say”. What repels the blocked writer in the white page, the senseless nothing that emerges out of it, is also what attracts him, because the Being of beings is experienced all the more lively in contrast to the nothing. This is one of the paradoxes of being a writer, of being someone who experiences his Steigerung des Lebens” by withdrawing from the bustling life (the vita activa), retiring into a lonely room, reducing all his movements to the the minimal movement of a pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard. Behind this solitary confinement in a room, however, lies an even greater paradox, namely that the Steigerung des Lebens” in writing becomes that much greater the more the act of writing itself fails, the more the writer runs aground in writer’s block. The more intense the blank page as the abyss of meaninglessness reveals itself to the writer, the more intense his experience of Being becomes. The more blocked he is, the more ‘in touch’ with the Event he becomes. The less he can say, the more his words express the ontological productivity of Being as such.

A clearing in a forest letters
Heidegger describes thinking about Being as a Holzweg, a dead end ‘wood’-road through a forest, made by foresters and leading to an empty spot, a clearing (Lichtung) where the trees have been felled. Heidegger’s point is that ontological thinking is a similarly dead-end road, in the sense that it does not lead to rational conclusions about ‘things’ (beings) that can be put into words. Ontological thought rather results in a conceptual void or silence in discourse. Like the empty, bright spot in the forest makes – by way of contrast – the dark, dense forest all the more present, so the silent void in which ontological thinking results makes the experience of Being all the more emphatic. But the writer who runs aground in writer’s block – isn’t he travelling a similar dead-end Holzweg? The blank page at which the blocked writer arrives after struggling through a forest of text – is this not also a kind of clearing? And here of course I do not primarily mean the clearing left by the actual trees that had to be felled to make the paper possible. Although that’s surely a nice image of what I mean.

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