“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.