Monday, April 2, 2012

A clearing in a forest of text: On the phenomenology of writer's block

For a printable version of this text see: The philosophy of writer's block: Reading Paul Auster's White Spaces with Heidegger, Sartre and Lacan

To write about writer's block is always a perilous undertaking. What, after all, is sadder than a blocked writer who writes about his own impotence? "It's self indulgent, it's narcissistic, it's solipsistic, it's pathetic. I'm pathetic. I'm fat and pathetic," says screenwriter Charlie Kauffman (played by Nicholas Cage) in the film Adaptation when he realizes he has included himself as a character in the script for that same filma script with which he struggles hopelessly. He compares this self-reflexive doubling of his writer's block with the mythological symbol of infinity, the snake that bites its own tail: "I'm insane. I'm Ourobouros. "

Writing with water
This danger of writing about writer's block is heightened by its almost inevitable inauthenticity. Writing about not being able to write – isn't that a paradox? After all: "We lack words to say what it is to be without them." (Strawson 1991 [1966]: 273) As long as the process of writing about writer's block runs smoothly, naturally and inspired, the experience of writer's block is not truly communicated (and in that respect I consider the present essay as a failure). To communicate this frustrating lack of words, the process of writing must itself fall silent or somehow undo itself, to “unsay the said” (Levinas). Like Buddhist monks writing with water on stones so that the words immediately wash away and evaporate. Regarding the (non-)topic of writer's block, then, language can only succeed through failure (so in that respect there is still hope for my essay). To use a distinction from the early Wittgenstein: the experience of writer's block can not be said but only be shown. “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” (Tractatus, proposition 6.522)

The emptiness of Being
So this void, ‘expressed’ by the falling silent of language, by the unsaying of the saiddoesn't this show something of fundamental importance, some 'nothing' that precedes our experience of the world? Here we can speak with Heidegger of Being as that which lets beings be: Being is the receding background behind all appearance, the non-being in contrast to which beings can first appear as beings (compare proposition 6.44 of the Tractatus:Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical). This transcendental No-thing, underlying the experience of any-thing, isaccording to the Heidegger of Being and Timeinextricably bound up with one's own death and thereby with existential anxiety. Thus the famous passage in Heidegger's inaugural lecture What Is Metaphysics?:

In the clear night of the Nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings – and not Nothing... The essence of the originally nihiliating nothing lies in this, that it brings Da-sein for the first time before beings as such.” (Heidegger 1978: 105)

The link with the falling silent of language is that Being, as the Nothing in contrast to which beings can first appear as beings, cannot itself be put into words, or at least cannot be named or described in language like beings can. This ineffability of Being is one aspect of Heidegger's ontological distinction, the difference between Being and beings. It is one reason why Heidegger sometimes used the expedience of crossing the word “Being” out in his texts – which is one, very graphic way of unsaying the said. It is also the reason why Heidegger described thinking about Being as a Holzweg, a dead end 'wood path' through a forest, made by foresters and terminating in an empty spot, a clearing (Lichtung), where the trees have been felled. For Heidegger, thinking about Being ultimately terminates in a similar emptiness: it does not lead to rational conclusions about "things" (beings) that can be put into words, but results in a conceptual void or silence in 'speaking' (thinking, writing). And just as the empty, bright spot lets the dark, dense forest be all the more present through the power of contrast, so the silent emptiness in thinking evokes the Being of beings all the more.

The mysticism of writer's block 
In this sense one can say that writing about writer's blockthe writing that has to fall silent to do justice to its topicshows something of the transcendental-mystical, the Nothingness of Being as the abysmal ground of beings. But, so one may ask, why this doubling of writing about writer's block? Why do we not turn directly to writer's block itself as a mystical experience in which, through the falling away of language, Being itself is revealed to us? The writer who runs aground in writer's blockisn't he traveling along some kind of Holzweg? Writer's block can, of course, have the most diverse causes: from the proverbial lack of inspiration to a crippling time constraint, an impossible perfectionism, too large a writing project, a confounding illness or depression, a paralyzing pressure to surpass an earlier success... All forms of writer's block, however, have this in common that the writer must confront the emptiness of the blank page before him. This blank page where the blocked writer arrives after struggling through a forest of textis this not also a kind of clearing, a Lichtung des Seins? And here of course I am not primarily referring to the real trees that had to be felled to make the paper possible...

The in-authenticity of good advice 
This shows the double inauthenticity of the standard self-help texts on how to overcome writer's block. The first is the inauthenticity already noted: the impossibility of writing truthfully about writer's block without sabotaging one's own language, without unsaying the said. The unproblematic usage of language in the standard self-help text is thus already a betrayal of the experience of writer's block. How can such a text help to overcome writer's block when it cannot even express the experience of writer's block? The second inauthenticity lies in the conception of writer's block as a merely negative experience, with no value in itself and which must only be overcome as fast as possible. What is lost here is the mystical dimension of writer's block as an ineffable experience in which the Nothingness of Being is revealed. This second inauthenticity comes close to what Heidegger called Uneigentlichkeit: looking away from one's Being-unto-Death (Sein-zum-Tode), not wanting to face the ontological truth revealed in existential anxiety.

Is writer's block not closely related to this Heideggerian anxiety? Is the blocked writer not confronted in a radical way with his own finitude? Doesn't he 'die a thousand deaths' in the emptiness of the blank page before him? The page stares defiantly at him as the textual equivalent of the black hole in astronomy, that is, as a white hole devouring all meaning. Is the page thus experienced in writer's block not a kind of "abyss of meaninglessness" as Heidegger says about the meaning of Being (1977 [1927 ]: 152)? As soon as the blocked writer accepts the challenge of the blank page and puts down his first words, their meaning seems to disappear into the white void, like in a snow storm all orientation is lost. Writer's block is therefore sometimes described as a kind 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.

Tumbling in white spaces 
The blank page seems so intimidatingly big that in comparison what is written down appears small and insignificant, like an infinitesimal tending to the nothing of senselessness. The blocked writer sees his impotence reflected in the emptiness of the white page before him and experiences a kind of (Lacanian) imaginary death: his ego falls into the abyss of the blank page. A fall comparable to what Nietzsche described as the fall into meaninglessness after the “Death of God”: “Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”

The abysmal whiteness of the blank page, however, can also appear to the blocked writer in the form of the space, that gaping void between words, where the writer has to 'jump' – with his pen as jumping pole so to speak – to get from word to word. But the blocked writer fears the failure of the jump, the fall in the abyss of meaninglessness that separates words. He can of course try to 'overcome' the fear by not looking down during the jump. In that way, however, he only increases the risk of coming down in the wrong way, landing on the wrong word: his feet slip and he can just barely hold on. His legs dangle in the void already. In a state of mortal shock, he lifts himself up, now even more anxious than before. Eventually this fear becomes so great that he doesn't even dare to make the first jump, the leap of faith with which each text begins. The blank page gapes like an unfathomable abyss before him and he recoils like a small child on the high diving board.

The attraction of the abyss 
In this light there appears to be a remarkable agreement between writer’s block and what Sartre called the “attraction of the abyss”. In Being and Nothingness Sartre describes the well-known experience of standing in front of a gaping depth and having the seemingly irrational inclination to go to the edge, to defy the fear and vertigo and to look straight into the deep – an inclination which can even take the frightening form of an actual urge to take a plunge. The abyss repels but at the same time 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 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. 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 ‘event of Being’, the fact that there is something rather than nothing at all. 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 absurd thought “I can’t stop, for I have nothing to say”. What repels the blocked writer in the blank page, the senseless Nothing that emerges out of it, is also what attracts him, because the Being of beings is experienced all the more intensely in contrast to this 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 minimal movement of a pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard. Yet behind this solitary confinement 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. That is, 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 of Being he becomes. The less he can say, the more his words express the ontological productivity of Being as such.

Writing the "murmur of Being" 
The standard self-help text aims to overcome writer's block as fast as possible. But just as with Heideggerian anxiety, the point seems rather to hold out the experience of writer's block to the bittersweet end, like a Holzweg one must go to finally arrive at the bright spot in the forest. Is this not, from a Heideggerian perspective, the only authentic way to overcome writer's block? Seen in this light, the standard advice to blocked writers takes a new meaning. This is the advice to which every self-help text boils down in the end: Just write, doesnt matter about what, in what form or who will eventually read it! Just write for thefunof writing and you will eventuallyget the hang of it’ – then the flow of language will lift you up and carry you along like a river or even engulf you, if you're lucky. But whereto exactly? Which ocean is at the end of that river? Is it not extremely dangerous to let yourself be engulfed like that? Does this 'deadly' surrender to the flow of language not presuppose a prior surrender, the 'imaginary death' of the ego in the blank page as abyss of meaninglessness? Doesn’t the disintegrated authorial ego become an empty space – as a kind of internalization of the blank page – in which reality can come to appearance? Isn’t it this ‘death’ which opens the floodgates of language, relieving the writer from his blockade by letting Being take place in language, so that "the murmur of Being" (Blanchot) can then swell into a raging stream?

In the next post I will show how this Heideggerian phenomenology of writer's block returns in Paul Auster's prose poem White Spaces.

-Heidegger, Martin (1977 [1927]), Sein und Zeit. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
-Heidegger, Martin (1978), “What Is Metaphysics?”, in: M. Heidegger, Basic Writings. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.91-112.
-Strawson, P.F. (1991 [1966]), The bounds of sense: An essay on Kant's Critique of pure reason. London & New York: Routledge.
-Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1989 [1921]), Tractatus logico-philosohicus. Amsterdam: Atheneum.

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