Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The There

"We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there." (Cyril Connolly)

To exist, Heidegger taught us, is to be there. The idea that we might not be here is, of course, the cause of some anxiety, both in the mundanely "existential" sense of no longer being alive, and in the more common one of remaining alive but not really being present. This anxiety causes us to lose ourselves, to "flee from ourselves", as Heidegger puts it, into everyday concerns. We rush from one practical problem to another, never actually coming to rest here or there but always going somewhere else.

This is familiar stuff. And it also applies to our writing. We rush around our text, working first on one part, then another, never quite paying attention, never quite there. And it shows in the words we write. They are not "coordinated"; they aren't really there on the page.

I think part of the reason (we'll get to the other part tomorrow) is that we are vaguely aware of the precarious place of a text in the world. The text is going to claim that a number of things are true. But what if they aren't? What if the text we're writing says things about the world that are not the case in the world? Will the "there" of the text be wiped out by the sheer pressure of the facts on the text? That can't really happen, of course, but we sometimes feel like it might. And this leads us to be vague about what we are saying, sometimes qualifying every claim with a "may be" or an "I think" or "it may be argued", and sometimes saying nothing at all.

It leaves our text neither here nor there. What gives a text presence is our commitment to asserting facts. We have to face the possibility that we may be wrong about them resolutely, and we do this by writing about them as though we are right. But to really cultivate this presence, we need to give ourselves time to work on one claim at a time. This is a why I always recommend sitting down (here at your desk) to work on a particular paragraph (there on the page). Devote your attention to making the claim and providing support for it for a determined amount of time (like half an hour). Sit there and resolutely face the possibility that you'll be wrong. Not only are you then much more likely to get it right; even if you're wrong, you'll have shown up.

It takes a bit of practice, a bit of discipline. But you'll get there.


Jonathan said...

Gertrude Stein once said there was no Da-Sein in Oakland.

Thomas said...

Actually, she said there is no Da Da.

But is there a there in her writing? Doesn't she insist on not being present? She seems continuously to evade us. Though her evasions are more interesting than Oakland's. See also this post.

Thomas said...

(That's actually wrong in German, I think. It should be "There is no Da da". The second "there" is a preposition and should not be capitalized, unlike the first "there", which is a noun.)