To write or not to write? — On the blackening of paper — An Essay by Jerzy Stempowski

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

(by Jerzy Stempowski)

Writing is not new to me, but I have never had much conviction for it as a way of spending one’s time. I have always had the feeling – and today I have it more than ever before – that this kind of occupation requires of me some kind of purpose, justification even. I suspect that I am not alone in these feelings, and that it is this lack of justification – more than any opportunistic consideration – which has motivated writers to evaluate their work in terms of social utility.

I have spent much of my childhood and youth among people who wrote, edited and generally devoted themselves to other literary occupations. These rarely led to any notable results. In our times, such activities are probably an unintended consequence of the existence of the printing press and paper factories, which, like all machines in general, must never be allowed to idle.

From my early acquaintance with the mechanism of writing and printing, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need at all to increase the already vast production of printed word. Even the most assiduous reader can never exhaust the reading program he has set for himself. I thus considered my refraining from the blackening of paper very meritorious.

I began writing late, in the thirty-sixth year of my life, for unexpected reasons, in a period of my life especially poor in other diversions. Looking at the matter today, I am not at all sure that I would have begun writing, had I only had the opportunity to occupy myself in a more systematic manner with music or to undertake a distant journey. Such diversions would probably have come to bore me, but perhaps could have lasted long enough to occupy the time I had in their absence used to try my pen instead.

Though it is perhaps somewhat tactless to say this in a book which may well be read by the literati, writing has always been the occupation of the minorum gentium. Although those ruling Dei Gratia have from time to time taken up the occupation in moments of remorse at the disappointing results of their ruling; as have ministers fallen out of favor; ambassadors compelled to live on meager pensions; and deputies denied further mandate by their people, upstaged by a better demagogue, and awaiting the beginning of a new electoral campaign; yet, the main body of the writing profession have always been people seeking in the written word a kind of compensation for everything which had been denied to them by life, sometimes even things life didn’t have to offer in the first place.

The ability to put marks on paper has always carried within it the latent possibility of something bordering on black magic: the ability to produce fiction with which to bedazzle the experimenter. In my youth I saw dadaists gluing onto the wall with great unction words cut out form newspaper and mixed up randomly in a hat. Out of these words there emerged something like poetry, full of unexpected associations. Surrealists took these possibilities seriously, experimenting with so-called écriture automatique.

Since even totally randomly placed marks can cause striking surprises, how much more so can words polished by the virtuosi of writing! Words assembled by them detach themselves from their relationship with the author and begin their own, autonomous life, like precious stones, talismans or fetishes, promising imaginary fortunes and jealously tucked into memory.

L’étoile a pleuré rose au cœur de tes oreilles,
L’infini roulé blanc de ta nuque à tes reins
La mer a perlé rousse à tes mammes vermeilles
Et l’Homme saigné noir à ton flanc souverain.

(The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears,
The infinite rolled white from your nape to the small of your back,
The sea has broken russet at your vermilion nipples,
And Man bled black at your royal side.

As translated by Oliver Bernard: Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems (1962) ]

The power to create such verbal formulas which even decades, even centuries later occupy our attention and leave indelible traces on all subsequent life, is perhaps equal to the power of command. And this is how it has been honored, because those who have had this power have in all times received honors equal to leaders and commanders. And therefore Martial is probably mistaken, when he makes an aside in a story about a shoe-maker suddenly made rich, an aside blaming his parents for having given him literary education alone: at me litterulis stulti docuere parentes (“but the foolish parents taught me letters”). At any rate, Martial, and Horace, and all those who came in their wake down to our own Tuwim, were all just bursting with pride at their magical command of words, so modestly sometimes called the poetic craft.

However, all this holds only for poetry. Prose does not draw its strength from this magical power, but from the clarity of thought ordering the chaos of phenomena. The magic of words is here a secondary matter. Even rhetoricians all agree that the most eloquent is he who has the most important thing to say, were he even to speak with the most barbarian of dialects. The need to order and master with our thoughts phenomena surrounding us appears to be autonomous, i.e. it does not compel any direct impulse to write; while the need to propagate one’s thoughts and to impose them on others is something altogether different, the best proof of which is the fact that it appears to foster neither clarity nor honesty of expression. The central contradiction of all prose-writing lies in, on the one hand, the desire to show off one’s clarity of thought and, on the other, every other possible motivation for writing.

Emerging out of silence, the silence which seems to be the proper attitude of all thought, constitutes, in a sense, a denial of thought’s central ambition. It also requires the use of words, which are an uncertain medium, at times too resistant, at other times too fluid, subject to rules different from the laws of thought and often producing during manipulation unexpected jarring noises and hot sparks.

To work with words, especially the written word, which can neither truly convey hallucination nor express rational reasoning, requires one to give up many ambitions, but mainly to simplify oneself to the level of a cook who, knowing nothing of either chemistry or physiology, in the noble simplicity of heart, mixes in his pot ingredients brought in from the market.


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