Sunday, June 17, 2018

maturing silence

In the earlier days of blogging, we did a lot of thinking about this new form of writing.

These days I'm more inclined to just accept a medium that comes naturally to me, I hope in the spirit of Vincent in such posts as this:

It's simply the happy realization that the blog format suits me perfectly; or else that I’ve adjusted to its constraints, reframed them as virtues. I reject the printed book’s pretensions to completion and finality. My entries are essays, successive attempts to convey something, or at any rate to undergo something in the various processes involved in composition. The public imagination may see the blog as a spontaneous expression, like its baby brother, Twitter. They are not wrong. Within written literature, it approaches, but can never quite reach, the danger of live performance.

But my interest in the theory of blogging was reawakened recently by some thoughts of Thomas Basbøll:

Why should it matter whether you are submitting something to a publisher or magazine? Why does posting something directly to the internet undermine its status as "writing"?

Over the next few posts, that's the question I want to address. The short answer is that blogging is a social activity, while writing is, properly speaking, a use of one's solitude. There is nothing solitary about blogging. Composing a blog post is not experienced as Woolf's "loneliness that is the truth of things". On the contrary, blogging is an engagement with social media. It's actually not the Internet that is important here. It's the blogging "platform", which robs a text of its immediacy by means, precisely, of its instantaneity. To put it simply, the platform so completely carries the weight of History that the blogger has no leverage on it, thus, none of the freedom that Barthes finds essential to writing.

I will try to make all this clearer as I go forward. I want to stress, however, that there is no implicit value judgment here, nor any announcement of an epochal shift. I'm not declaring "the end of writing" and the "dawn of blogging". I'm neither celebrating nor lamenting the developments I'm going to think out loud about. I'm trying to say that blogging has emerged as something new, something that is sometimes mistaken for writing, and something that writing sometimes mistakes itself for. I'm just trying to understand what it is. What I have been doing all these years.

Instead of writing.

Writing requires a structural displacement in time and space. When you read a novel, you are reading something in a time and place that is completely distinct from the time and place of the writer. When writing it, you are immersed in an experience that is very different from what the reader will experience.

This is much less often the case with online writing, and I want to say that it is  distinctly not the case when blogging. The blogger, like the reader, is online, often engaging with something that is happening in the moment.


I feel this is getting Heideggerian, but Basbøll gives me a sense that "writing" (i.e. writing in the true sense)  confronts existence in a space of silence and isolation. The writer musters everything in that cloaked engagement, the metaphysical battle is fully fought, and from out of the silence a writing steps forth, fathomless in its depths, mysterious in its origins, a pure gift to the reader and the world.

It's a wonderful image of a very high view of writing. (Incidentally, those posts proved to be Basbøll's valediction to blogging, at least for the past year. Presumably he's writing instead.)

Many writers, I know, do find it essential to draw back from the day-to-day of blogs and Facebook when they write books or poetry. Sometimes I feel it myself. But I would feel exactly the same if I had some Maths homework to do, or a tax return.

Now indeed, as Mrs Norris says (in Mansfield Park), a theatre without a curtain has very little sense in it. To that extent I'm with Basbøll. I think a writing should step forth well-dressed, if it's possible. Sometimes the imposition of delayed publication leads to a better, more considered, writing in the end. Horace, I seem to recall reading,  always gave his poems five years before he published them.

But when I think of Dickens' serialized novels, or Shakespeare's hand-to-mouth creation of plays for his company, in some ways they resemble the online immediacies of blogging more than an idealised script that emerges from cloistered silence.

It's true, when we pick up Hamlet today and find ourselves on the walls of Elsinore at midnight, we are stunned by the emergence of this breathless drama, seemingly out of nothing, the completeness of its separation from any vision of a mundane author scribbling away on a bench. But this is a magical effect that time has enhanced. The further away we are from a writer and the context of that writer's times, the more their work takes on this patina of completeness-in-itself.  Likewise, we pick up the Bible: Now the Lord said to Abraham, Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house...  The writing speaks to us directly, without mediation. Literature rises out of silence. Perhaps it is even the voice of God.

But was it always so? When I think of the breakneck way in which the early commercial theatre operated, the never-satiated demand for new plays, the actors and the shareholders and the febrile audiences and the collaborators, adaptors, revisers and plagiarists, I think Shakespeare must have felt "on-line" rather a lot. He would have experienced plenty of short-term feedback, he would have seen plenty of stats and he endured some pretty brutal trolling at times. Dickens, likewise, published his novels serially, anxiously scanning sales figures and quite prepared (ill-advisedly at times) to alter his stories in deference to public outcry. 

And yet Shakespeare and Dickens are writers in the real sense... aren't they?

So I'm suggesting that the important effect of distance between the artist's creation and the audience's reception is something that all writing tends to accrue over time.

But rather than focus on the differences between blogging and writing, I'd prefer to think about artefacts in general. I'd suggest that every artefact (let's say a vase, for the sake of argument) contains an element of concealment. We, the audience, see the finished vase, but we didn't see the vase being made. It has a quality of muteness, it keeps a secret.  And even when the arts are made in real time, or when they are made communally so there is no distinction between artist and audience ( -- I am thinking of our family long-dance at Christmas --) , still the concealment and the mystery remain, so that we never fully understand what happened or how it could happen. Every art contains something, every art has hinterlands.

And to come back to writing (whether in the true sense or not), there remains always some element of concealment. We are never entirely concealed from each other; even the most rebarbative text expresses us and betrays us. But we aren't completely transparent either; not even when texting an ETA, not even when "pouring our hearts out"....



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