Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from … You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day? …

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master.. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (2004) [1969] Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard. CD. [This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell]

Random thoughts in response
Foucault articulates the tension many writers – and indeed many other artists – feel between their everyday existence and their art. One wants to write and feels a blight of guilt over one’s life when it is not being done, but at the same time one wonders whether more practical, physical and social activities should not take priority. Writing can only take place when these more worldly duties have been attended to. Writers, it is often joked, have the cleanest houses in the world. If one could just get all the other tasks hanging over one’s head off one’s plate, then the clear decks and space to write will become available. The reality is that this day of freedom never comes. The only solution, as every advisor on writer’s block repeats endlessly (see Boice and Silvia), is to set aside a designated period every day (or most days) and dedicate it strictly to writing.

Foucault’s statement is all the more interesting given his immense productivity. One finds it hard to imagine that prolific writers are subject to this kind of self-doubt. But the guilt of the blank page was not the only guilt mechanism on the table. Foucault also talks about the guilt he experienced in writing itself, given his upbringing in a medical milieu which saw such activity as essentially pointless. He remarked in a later interview that contrary to all reason and evidence, he felt that his writing had no impact and was an utterly useless activity.

Foucault’s comments draw attention to a widespread and historically long-standing suspicion about the social and physical utility of intellectual and artistic pursuits. Even those engaged very effectively in such activity cannot help but be infected by this general idea that what they are doing is both a waste of time and selfish – in short, that they really ought to get out more, make more friends and save the world in a more physical way. This cultural training constantly wars with that other opposing guilt arising from the unwritten word. Yet at the same time, as Foucault observed, the act of writing creates a calm and soothing organised space where one is in control and which blocks out the vagaries and hazards of everyday existence. At the moment writing takes place, one exists in an orderly guilt free zone which unfortunately, Foucault goes on to say, is never able to reduce the rest of life or the demands of the body and the physical to the same manageable two-dimensional zone of white space and abstract black squiggles.

It is small wonder then, given these complex interplays of guilt and desire, that endless volumes of advice on the problem of writer’s block are produced and so eagerly consumed by writers balanced precariously on the fault lines of irresolvable cultural contradictions.

One thought on “Foucault and writing 3

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