Tuesday, May 08, 2007

An Unsuspected Discipline

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Jorge Luis Borges

After more than a month of silence on this blog, it may be fitting to post something about literary procrastination. It's not that I haven't had any ideas, of course. I've promised my workshop participants two or three answers to questions I didn't know on the spot, and a more substantial post on the importance of analyzing your objects rather than just naming them. I just haven't been able to commit these ideas to prose. That's a problem familiar to all writers. Editors and writing coaches probably make light of it a bit too often, tending to reduce any specific blockage to the same general solution: persistence and planning. I want to get back to setting a good example by writing a small, sometimes very unfinished, thought at least once a week.

Today, I simply want to draw your attention to the short story that gave me my epigraph. It is about a playwright who is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death before he is able to finish the play he had "contrived to cover up his defects and point up his abilities and [which] held the possibility of allowing him to redeem (symbolically) the meaning of his life." (I leave it to you, dear reader, my likeness, to identify with this sentiment, except to add that I have composed many a blogpost in my head to vindicate my talents after an error in my editing shows up in the final copy.) The key to the story is that he writes his play in regular meter, which means that he can hold the whole text in his mind and work through it, changing it, adding to it, and committing the new version perfectly to memory: "a discipline unsuspected by those who set down and forget temporary, incomplete paragraphs". The night before his execution he prays to God for an extension: one more year. Just enough time to finish his play.

But God grants him more than a year. He grants him all the time in the world. "The physical universe [comes] to a halt" just before the triggers are pulled by the firing squad. Paralyzed in the courtyard, the playwright is allowed to finish his play, and this he undertakes to do. He succeeds (in his own mind, you will note) and is then promptly executed. The story is called "The Secret Miracle", the playwright's play is called (in part) the Vindication of Eternity.* It is a story, I want to say ... an allegory, no doubt ... about a particular illusion that keeps writers from meeting their deadlines: the fantasy of a single instant of infinite duration immediately before the text is due and everything comes to end. That moment, of course, never arrives. Eternity is never vindicated. Never.

Academic writing does not depend on miracles. It depends on the lesser discipline of "setting down and forgetting temporary, incomplete paragraphs". There isn't time for everything, but there is always time to get back to work.

*This is wrong. The play is called only The Enemies. Hladik had previously written a work of philosophy called Vindication of Eternity. I owe the mistake to what I assume is a typo in Harriet de OnĂ­s' translation, which appears in Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964). Here Hladik is described as "the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, or Vindication of Eternity" (the King Penguin edition, 1981, p. 118). Anthony Kerrigan renders this "the author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of..." Ficciones, (Everyman's Library, p. 114). Kerrigan also describes the discipline as "not imagined" rather than "unsuspected".

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Did you ever write said post about analyzing and naming? The distinction reminds me of my comment earlier today (May 15, 2012) on your even earlier post "Writing for the Sake of Argument":