Friday, April 27, 2012


Next week, I'm going to be blogging about the phenomenology of writing—what it is like to write. Maybe I should say "the psychology of writing", but I have issues with the whole discipline of psychology, the very idea of a science of the mind. It is true that, like Hemingway and Mailer (and many others), my approach assigns an important role to "the unconscious". But this should not be taken as a invitation to psychologize. This morning, I'll take a first stab at explaining what I mean.

Back in the early twentieth century, inspired by their reading of Søren Kierkegaard, the existentialists drew attention to the fundamental place of "anxiety" (Angst) in our experience of the world. Heidegger describes it as a "basic state of mind" that "provides the phenomenal basis for explicitly grasping ... the primordial totality of Being" that our individual existence is rooted in (H. 182). Anxiety is not seen as a pathology but as a basic condition. It is not something to be cured or avoided, but something to be faced, as Heidegger would say, "resolutely". Indeed, "the world as such is that in the face of which one has anxiety" (H. 186).

Now, you don't of course have to be an existentialist in order to write well. But I think it is important to understand that when we face "the page" (for most people, this means the computer screen) we are are facing "a world", and we therefore experience our anxiety in a fundamental way. Heidegger ties anxiety to Being-in-the-world and, through this, to "the they", Being-with-others. Anxiety worries that we are "nothing and nowhere", that there is no "place" or "there" for us. It is a place that is largely determined by other people. We live, "proximally and for the most part", in a shared world.

That is precisely why a page of academic prose can inspire anxiety in the more "psychological" sense: an uneasy feeling, dread or, as Heidegger's translators suggest, "malaise" (which is a very common feeling writers face when they face the "world" implicit on their screen). Next week, then, I will get at the phenomenon of academic writing by talking about the anxiety that a blank page can (and indeed should) inspire and the resoluteness that an outline (a way of structuring that blank space) can bring about. This will not make the anxiety go away, but it will provide a "there" for the writing. A place in the world for our ideas.

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