20 June 2006

event of language, a duet :
lidia yuknavitch & lance olsen


“Breathtaking”–I’d like to claim that word inside of my own experience of language both literally, as in to stop one’s breath, to steal it, and figuratively, to astound. I’d like to say that the language of literature which most compels me is performed language, the drama of language, language let loose enough to occupy the stage of page in and of itself, especially when it abandons the dictates of narration. What takes my breath, what arrests my being is the drama of language. When the real drama of language is staged and played out, it carries something underneath plot, narrative cohesion and the so-called psychological development of a character. When the real drama of language is staged it carries something underneath what passes for story—gesture, implication, shapes, silences, intervals, momentary relations, memories, fleeting states of being. These breathtaking moments I would term as the event of language.

To say that language is an event is to remember that language bears language. Artistically, it is as if language could be an organic and chaotic motion reflected only by the motions of corporeal desire and being.

Form—language’s lover—either revels in that chaos, or tames it.


A return, then, to our ongoing conversation about language. Since the sixties, the death of the novel has been announced bi-weekly, but whatever happens, however else the geography of the imagination might modify in the future, written fiction—especially the innovative variety, as I shall explain in a minute—will always be able to investigate and cherish two things that music, painting, dance, drama, and most other arts can’t: the luscious, extended changeableness of human consciousness and the effulgence on the page called words.

That’s why, I want to say, no director can ever make a fully satisfying rendition of a novel like Lolita. Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne seem to believe the heart of that book has something to do with a naughty narrative about pedophilia, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The heart of the book has to do with how a brilliant, funny, amoral, and excruciatingly besieged mind subtly crumples, and it has to do with a love affair, as Nabokov reminds us in his afterword, not with “topical trash” and “the copulation of clichés,” but with the “English language” and “aesthetic bliss.”


If you will bear language with me I will let her loose:

Gertrude Stein: Language as a real thing is not imitation either of sounds or colors or emotions. It is an intellectual recreation and there is no possible doubt about it and it is going to go on being that.

Marguerite Duras: Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must perceive. Everything is writing. It’s the unknown in oneself, one’s head, one’s body. Writing is not even a reflection, but a kind of faculty one has, that exists to one side of oneself, parallel to oneself: another person who appears and comes forward, invisible, gifted with thought and anger, and who sometimes, through her own actions, risks losing her life. Into the night.

Kathy Acker: Art is a cry.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins—what astonishes about those nine words, makes them immovable in my memory, is how they announce, not only a murderous narrative about hobbled love, an acidic satire about the bubblegum-chewing brashness named America, but also the Event of Language.

Closer to the phrasings of resonant lyric than the vapid transparencies of fictions that aspire to be screenplays, this luminous opening houses Nabokov’s novel in miniature: a misshapen consciousness in motion, yes, but, equally, if not more so, the drama of alliteration, assonance, rhythm, self-reflexive verbal surprise, the pleasure of lovingly sculpted prose, the delight in density and detail, each phrase of it written on the back of an index card until it was right beyond belief by that distinguished, trilingual, virtually apolitical Anglophile, so that the reader can hear in this initial linguistic fervor, if he or she listens attentively, the foreshadowing of Humbert Humbert’s burning dyspepsia during the famous seduction scene at the Enchanted Hunters half a book later; in the clash between the spiritual housed within the first bright metaphor and within the fiery sinfulness of the second the ghost of St. Augustine’s brutally conflicted Confessions; in the “lee” comprising the second syllable of the nymphet’s pseudonym (Humbert has stolen poor Dolores Haze’s name from her just as he will come to steal everything else) Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” and hence the Annabel Leigh who unreliable Humbert blames (by way of that Viennese quack, Freud) for his, Humbert’s, fixation.

No wonder, then, that, in addition to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bely’s Petersburg, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Nabokov included Joyce’s Ulysses on his shortlist of greatest twentieth-century novels.


Let’s momentarily and in a single breath go underneath the chatter of the contemporary so-called novel. I think the majority of acclaimed novelists, with a very few exceptions, are involved in the process of creating products for consumers. In these novels there is a certain storyline that ignores corporeal experience in favor of some brutally absurd cockamamie fako-script life. The cockamamie fako-script life makes people worry less about the disruptive nature of living a life and also it makes them feel better about themselves like television and cookies do. Mostly I’m talking about plot, and writers who suck the dick of plot in order to maintain a secondary, whorey, without artistic integrity, harem of consumers.

Corporeal experience, on the other hand, works more like language does, if you let language happen. In this way both corporeal experience and language are events. Untamed, beautiful, terrifying events.

What I mean when I say let language happen, as an event, is let form open language rather than close it. Let form be in relationship to language. Like a lover. Inside their passionate embrace emerge: fragmentation, spatiality, intervals, states of being, dream, intuitive landscapes, relational free-for-all, memory glimpses, retinal flashes, orgasmic pulsings, action broken back down into its parts, silence and sound and rhythm and image. These constitute the event of language. These reconnect writing to painting, music, performance, sculpture, philosophy, bodies.


Those opening citations, and this word “breathtaking,” I mean for them to bring us to the event of language as I understand it.


Gertrude Stein: She was living very well, she was gay then, she went on living then, she was regular in being gay, she always was living very well and was gay very well and was telling about little ways one could be learning to use in being gay, and later was telling them quite often, telling them again and again.

Samuel Beckett: my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud brief movements of the lower face losses everywhere.

Walter Abish: Ages ago, Alex and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement.


I know not everyone cares about what I am getting at. I also know that a small handful of people do. For you I am telling the secret: intimacy is a woman’s realm. This fact puts women close to language let loose. This fact puts a woman’s body close to language.

Male or female or anyone in between, if you understand just now that intimacy and desire and bodies are exactly the space of language, then I can go a step further with you few and say that fucking is a metaphor for language.

I am aware that my ideas, my speaking, and my fiction will lose readers. I am making that choice. I’m going to start saying “I” now, differently. I’m going to activate that Whitmanesque thingee and scatter that “I” out across all territories of being and knowing, transgressively and without permission or apology. I’m saying my I can move inside your body. I’m saying my body—father ravaged and shamed daughter, excellent athlete, ex-heroine armed heroin, sexual explorer, mother of a dead daughter and a live exquisite son, mapmaker of intimacies and loss, hearer of voices, seer of images not there, body of arthritic twists in spine and hand and hip, wife of three men, lover of many women, sister, fallen angel recovering catholic touched by those meant to guide her, sinner without apology, experience addicted flower, daughter of the drunk southern belle liar, great mother storyteller, writer—my body is in you.

I’ve got some years now written across my skin. I’ve got the graham crackers and a flashlight and a blue blanket from childhood. I know what foreplay is and how it is its own story. I understand how grief makes you crazy and haunts you like a sado-masochistic lover or a bruise at the shoulder that speaks to you in the night the rest of your life, or how disease relentlessly brings a body to its lifedeath line, or how desire wrenches a person to the bone and beyond, out of oneself and into surrender and on and on, or how death disfigures a face, shifts the horizon, tilts the earth on some new axis. I understand how a heart beats out a life and beats down a self. I know loss lives in you like metastasizing cells, joy is fucking unbearably fleeting tense, love is a word definitionless and cast adrift across loneliness, the skin and touch of a woman can save a person’s life.

I know the crouch of dreams lives in the tips of our fingers and at the edge of breathing in all waking moments.


I emphasize innovative fiction’s focus on language because conventional mimetic fiction usually—although not necessarily—thinks of sentences as spotless windowpanes onto the world. In innovative fiction’s phrasings, you can always hear a joyous indifference to or scrupulous exploration of convention. Its page becomes laboratory where anything can happen, where an opacity of discourse becomes as much a protagonist as Flaubert’s Emma or those little stick men running down the poorly drawn corridors of The Da Vinci Code.

That opacity can do many things. Why limit its purposes? Among myriad others, it can, as in Mark Leyner or, in a completely different register, Michael Joyce, dislocate in a self-conscious aesthetic maneuver that calls attention to the medium itself in a method similar to how cubist paintings announce themselves more about the act of painting than the thing painted. It can, as in Burroughs and and Acker and Leslie Scalapino, function as conscious political disturbance, an unmasking of dominant modes of articulation in an effort to critique them. It can, as in Carole Maso, delight in sensual linguistic performance, a gendered aural skin.

Whatever else it does, innovative prose’s syntax and grammar search for other ways and means of saying that lead us to express things other than we might otherwise have expressed.

This is a space of resistance, refusal, celebration, possibility, opposition, alternative, openness, freedom.

Language becomes laboratory, then, but it also becomes architecture. In innovative prose, you want to notice the drama of the complex building through which you’re strolling because it’s no longer simply the local mall, the corner Conoco, the 7-Eleven, the institutionalized tract housing of the mind.


Which is how I am able to understand this:

A novel is what you dream in your night sleep. A novel is not waking thoughts although it is written and thought with waking thoughts. But really a novel goes as dreams go in sleeping at night and some dreams are like anything and some dreams are like something and some dreams change and some dreams are quiet and some dreams are not. And some dreams are just what anyone would do only a little different always just a little different and that is what a novel is.

I know she is right.

I know breath can be taken by the event of language.

I wish you a book worthy of night.


Last October in Harper’s, Ben Marcus wrote a provocative, vibrant defense of experimental fiction that was primarily a defense of experimental language. Granted, I have more than a few qualms with it. Marcus goes on at length about something called the Fog Index, for instance, a test for determining the density and readability of a text, which he applies to passages by Jonathan Franzen, Stein, and Gaddis. The net illumination is zero, the move an odd digressive intellectual red herring. More important, I wish Marcus’s definition of innovative prose were more catholic, including mention of formal aerobics, politically transgressive content, problematizations of characterization and spatialization, and so forth.

Still, his essay is an important long overdue rallying cry in the mainstream press for what innovationists do and why. In it, Marcus recalls that, “in the literary world, it’s not polite to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading. . . . It’s the heart that writers are told they must reach in order to move readers, to stir in them the deepest, most intense feelings.” Marcus challenges such a fatuous notion, arguing in favor of the cerebral challenge the foreign and astonishing provide.

Although we have recently been taught that liking “new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions” in a reader makes you an elitist who hates your audience, the literary industry, and “probably … even yourself,” Marcus champions exactly such rewarding concoctions, urging writers not to settle for mere competence, mere mimetic mimicry, not to “behave like cover bands, embellishing the oldies … while ensuring that buried in the song is an old familiar melody to make us smile with recognition.” Further, he contends that “the true elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed by literary ambition in any form, who have converted the very meaning of ambition so totally that it now registers as an act of disdain, a hostility to the poor common reader, who should never be asked to do anything that might lead to a pulled muscle.”

In essence, Marcus heralds a return to what I have been referring to as the Difficult Imagination, a replenishment of an impeded accessibility where everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled; a return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation.


Here are a dozen sentences that Nike commercials don’t want you to remember.

Ronald Sukenick: Theory is a sign of ignorance. It becomes important when we are no longer sure what we are doing.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Kathy Acker: And I’m working at trying to find a kind of language where I won’t be so easily modulated by expectation. I’m looking for what might be called a body language.

John Hawkes: The only thing that exists is torment, lyricism, and the magnificence of language.

William Gass: Language is … more powerful as an experience of things than the experience of things.

Adrienne Rich: The matter of art enters the bloodstream of social energy. Call and response. The empathetic imagination can transform, but we can't identify precise loci of transformation, can't track or quantify the moments. Nor say how or when they lead, through innumberable unpredictable passageways, toward recreating survival, undermining illegitimate power and its cruelties.

Ben Marcus: Language is a social form of barely controlled weeping, a more sophisticated way to cry.


Frank Sauce said...

This starts with this:

Reginald Dyck, "William Gass: A 'Purified Modernist' in a Postmodern World"
The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Vol. XI, no. 3
William H. Gass/Manuel Puig

This ends with that:

"The new cannot be melodic, for melody requires repetition."
My Life by Lyn Hejinian
'No puppy or dog will ever be capable of this, and surely no parrot'

The new, obviously, yet others, with this, an upper registry is reached on my tv, the internet

Few things amount to nothing ('in an information era, of which, thought is things'-to play with WCW) poets and their poetics are often mentioned here or there

Funny, the acronym of a proper name seems not so proper Does it work?

The mentioning of the body and the head, I ask, "what about the soul?"

You see, there are three that stay with me.

As I need the writer, my writer, to write their words that speak of the mind, the body and the soul, just as I need the writer, my writer, to write their words of the past, the present and the future, just as I need their poetry, their beautiful crush, their course of words

Not a writer, but the writer

Not a mind, but the mind

Not a body, but the body

Not a soul, but the soul

Aristotle was the poet of Post-Structuralism
don't know where that came from, but there it is

right here, it is only the Eye of the I that represents the event of the moment, since it has been moments all along

Shouldn't we resist the temptation of novelty tattooed on our dominant hand, like Exene Cervenka, the one hand we used to write with but now cramp with a keyboard

Beauty in the dead rose, beauty in our aged bodies, beauty in the ugly is HD (Hilde and Harley-Davidson, mind you)

Holy shit! That post F'in rocked, u2!

This call and response synopsis of all y'alls thoughts, this or that

To read my response to this blog on this post read my blog or read in between these words here, that is, imply away

"87. This is likely to be the point at which it is said that only form, not content, can be communicated to others --So one talks to oneself about the content.--But how do my words 'relate' to the content I know? And to what purpose?" Ludwig Wittgenstein "Zeitel", p.17e, 17

Often, I've found myself thinking that Postmodernism (pomo? How rich!) is simply that: after Modernism, since we are still dealing with what happened with, the events of, the Modernists, and I hate myself for even thinking in those terms, for even using the word Modernist, even in polite conversations

"Literature is news that stays news"-EP

Sometimes, I think of the divisive nature of community, tribe, or a group of people, and wish that I could laugh and cry with everyone

POD is good for small batches, short runs

As humans, we hope to contain life and death as we express our vast multitudes, the variances of our semblances, even when language eludes us for it has yet to be named other than an awareness of its active existence, its is, its -ness

That ends this.


Carol Novack said...

How wonderfully, passionately eloquent, Lance & Lidia! I LOVE this rumination, your one voice of two! This ode to language should fly well beyond this blog. Thank you!


FYI, in case there are any members or visitors who haven't read this:

Interview of the innovative writer, Frederic Tuten, re "contemporary" fiction.

from FENCE Vol. 8 nos. 1 and 2, Summer 2005.

The Talking Cure: Contemporary Fiction and Its Critics

Frederic Tuten

Recently, a spate of public discussion about directions in contemporary fiction has centered on historical models-what the novel was and should be, still-kinds of, and lack of, criticism, and market pressures. Following up on this conversation, and what may he below its surface, we asked a group of contemporary fiction writ­ers and critics the following questions:

'What questions and issues would you like to see addressed about contemporary fiction?

'Is the critical and review establishment in any way assisting the discourse around and the production of fiction?

"What do you think needs to be done differently, if anything, or what needs to exist that doesn't now?

'MFA programs, publishers and marketing, money, movies, the Internet-all of these and more affect the writing of fiction and its distribution. Since the 19th century, other media have been said to draw from, and also away from, the novel. Let's say: "all things being equal," what are your greatest concerns and worries about fiction's viability and vitality?

'What part do you think contemporary fiction plays in culture generally? How do you see art and politics in contemporary fiction?

I'm partial to fiction that does not compete with TV, with movies, with the Internet, does not compete with the mass market novel. All those things have their place and do their job, to entertain their audience, among whom I am willingly one. Life has many pleasant and various distractions, as does the house of fiction, which, as Henry James says, has many windows.

The truth is that 1 would rather see even the thinnest episode of The Sopranos or almost any half hour of Blind Date than read most contemporary fiction of the kind which tells the story blow by blow, in well-pressed sentences, stories which can be better and more excitingly told in another medium and which are really fodder for movies and TV. The writing I'm interested in exists for itself and of itself and is virtually untranslatable to another medium. Read, for example: Nightwood; Barkree; Gold Fools; This Is Not A Novel. In any case, to rail against the pernicious influence of the media on art is to beat the sea with chains.

I'm interested in writing that spins on itself, dives inward, twists the guts of language and makes it sing new songs, whole operas, even unstageable ones. Writing born from no preordained mould or schoolish preconception of what a novel or a story is or should be. These are the books that will take us out of the commonplace and into the rare, places heaven to visit when the world seems choked to the eyes with lies.

We complain, and not without justice, that we are in a culture that does not care whether we live or die, whether we write or do not write, except as we produce fodder for this or that vast conglomerate. So what?

If you want to produce fodder, produce it. If you want to concern yourself with the overarching problems of publishing in an increasingly illiterate, reactionary soci­ety, concern yourself. If not, in the meanwhile, consider this:

Think small, not the blockbuster, the breakout book and the mega audience, but the gem that cannot be replicated. Think of the few but wonderful readers who love gems. Think of poetry. Think of incandescence and radiance. Leave the careerists to their careers. Ignore them as you would collaborationists. Shun all teachers of the safely banal; exit rapidly those writing schools that chum out the Stepford Realists. Explore the still unexplored territory of the ever-protean novel, live within it, explode it, reinvent it, create new vistas accessible only on its unique terrain.

Embrace writers with integriry. Write to them as if they were alone on a far away island or in a prison, isolated and dying for an appreciative word. Visit the graves of unhonored writers; ditto their places of birth and last residence. Leave them flowers and books and a thank you note, handwritten. (A good start: Djuna Barnes's home at Patchin Place, New York City.)

Think of yourself as making art-however bombastic or vague that may sound cvcn to you-and not as a producer of product or units: You will thus relieve yourself of worrying about your work's social or political function, since all art is redemptive, salvational, ennobling and is a protest against ignorance, crime, lies, and Death.

One beautiful story is more useful than all the palaver of well-intentioned (leav­ing aside the self-promotional aspect and travel advantages for the participants) literary panels on the role of art in society. One beautiful novel shames all banal enterprises and sends brightness through the windows of prisons, parliaments, and publishing houses.

Think of the legacy of shit you leave the world when you write shit; think of the gift of grace you give to your soul and to the souls of others when you do not. Think (I tell myself) of not being afraid. When we know and do our true work, all our complaints will disappear, as will their cause.

Contemporory Fiction and Its Critics 229

doug rice said...

There is much nearly too much to respond to here in this dialogue. writhing as much as writing if language is to come into becoming. How then does body come into speech. i still (and I mean still here in the sense of waiting [not Derridean deferrence] and in the sense of only a remain) wander (in the parasitic sense of distraction [Pfohl and Toufic}) how language speaks body? Trinh Minh-ha womb wounds? without coming through the larnyx (burroughsian denial of "own" speech) into logos? Acker dedicates writing to her tattoist. pulling speech out. of . body. what of body work? memory in muscle. broumas' work as a massage therapist who writes poetry out of into her clients?
then we must begin to ask how language speaks to witness, to testimony? how can we make the body testify? what if this language that is spoken offends, not with intention but through tension?

and how can language make readers experience? gass. ok. so each time we read we become traumatized yet again. once again. so we live the trauma of acker in her writing. no looking away. no looking awry. langauge must look direct. hard. if language is to give this experience, if a reader is forced to experience through the language the experience so the writing is real. a real. more than a rendering? is this a biploar reaction to the experience of reading? i have had violent reactions at readings from people in the audience who were re-traumatized back to their own memories by some of my writing. i have had students rebel against acker because of their own memories that have come forward caused by the haunting of acker's language as real. how can we separate the real from the represented. what is the space. acker once said there writing is never there until it is read. ignited.
but as charlie daniels once said. just put your hands on a pittsburgh steeler fan. that would destroy any sense of post structuralism. and we still are forced to struggle with that. theory.
ron's little two sentences is floating too freely here. theory is something else. something more than what it has been staked as being by americans struggling with not wanting to say. deleuze the writer of detective novels.

Lance Olsen said...

I think I (perhaps willfully) read Ron's epigrammatic observation differently than you, Doug.

Sukenick writes: Theory is a sign of ignorance. It becomes important when we are no longer sure what we are doing.

For me, the rich suggestion there is that theory is precisely that which we have to begin to undertake when we find ourselves in uncharted narratological and/or intellectual waters.

That is, theory is the opposite of not wanting to say.

It is the project that announces that we've finally got somewhere interesting, a space in which we are must create a new language for speaking about what we are experiencing.

doug rice said...

From your reading Lance I can see the possible richness in Ron's comment. And in this reading I would find myself agreeing with what you are saying. i think that happens in the most interesting of writing (i would say ficiton here but i am not sure of genre when i am reading; that is, when acker for example falls into theory not in the same way that derrida would but in the way that is almost natural from the desire to experience the world through language [acker's own earlier writing i also felt was more theoretical than after Lotriinger "introduced" her to theory.
and i think what you say about theory is similar to what i find in the world of fiction in relation to memoir. something i have been struggling with a lot lately. fiction can be more honest than memoir, find deeper uncertain truths.

Father Billy said...

What you have said in this essay puts me in mind of what Matt Briggs once wrote on his blog at seedcake. He said that when he went to a reading, he liked to hear the sound of the reader's voice. Now this is totally different experience to that of reading, for when reading we do not first hear, but look into the imaginary world created; then later we hear something.

So then language, unleashed in the theater of cruelty, takes on a numinous role.