Why Live Without Writing

Unpopular answers to poetry questions.

BY DURS GRÜNBEIN

Photo: Renate Brandt

Questions are remarks
—Wallace Stevens

“… So, why write?

“In the first place, I would say, you write to escape your dread of the sheer present. You fill page after page, as Nietzsche once put it, with angry yearning, not to cozy up to your nearest, but out of love of those farthest away from you, and because the contemporary and the day-to-day will be all the more precious to you when you return to them in a wide arc over unknown terrain. Hence many people’s habit of getting drunk in company: at close quarters only a maximum of inner distance can create moments of ease and relaxation. Hence the silent conversations everyone has with themselves, or locking yourself up in the bathroom to read undisturbed, or the distancing look in the mirror as soon as you know you’re unobserved. Hence too the recurring need of lovers to go to the cinema and stare together at the magic screen, which for a precious hour and a half will make them forget their bodies. In writing, it is one’s innermost being that tries to assert itself, paradoxically, by self-exposure. But publicity, as will soon become apparent, is nothing but a particularly tough protective shield.

“And the second reason is a dilemma that concerns each individual psyche. You write, I believe, because you can’t quite shake the suspicion that as a mere contemporary and biological cell mate, hopelessly trammeled up in your own limited lifespan, you would always remain incomplete, half a man, so to speak. Someone must have put you onto the idea that only your most individual expression gives you the least chance of one day being seen in any way other than in your mortal sheath—say, as a kind of ghost. Ever since that tormenting voice (whoever it may be) first challenged you in the name of metaphysics, you’ve been trying by all the laws of glass-blowing, aka poetry, to fix a little window in your own diminishing time, in the hope that tomorrow, or whenever, you may be seen through that little peephole. If you happen to succeed in making your sweetheart, or one or two of your friends, or yourself in your peculiarity visible—the way Vermeer, say, showed his pregnant letter-reader—then it will have been worth the effort. Writing, the voice whispers to you, is the least circumstantial method of breaking out of the given and the immediate. Its only requirement is a mastery of the alphabet, which, thanks to universal education, may generally be relied on, at least hereabouts. You don’t have to be able to draw or set down notes like Bach, and yet, once you’ve passed your spelling exam, you’ve mastered the only method by which consciousness can be recorded.

“From which it follows, thirdly and lastly: you write because the brain is an endless wilderness, whose roughest terrain can only be traveled with a pencil. As soon as we are in the innermost dreamy connections, all other art forms are dependent on verbal synthesis. The dream, as you discover when you write, is the fully authentic self. You will never have amounted to more. The world will not appear any more variegated. Which means the notion of what really exists can, with writing, be comfortably extended by a dimension or two.

“Let me conclude this flight with an anecdote. I suspect it may be one of those grisly parables by means of which Oriental wisdom likes to offer instruction, often to the dismay of the Westerner. In it, all the issues we have treated thus far are settled, so to speak, by a stroke of the pen. The setting and atmosphere are familiar from Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, where the grisliness also has a strangely mild quality about it. In his diaries, Hugo von Hofmannsthal brings up the story of a German officer in China who, following the Boxer Rebellion, participated in a penal expedition:

The officer sees a line of men sentenced to death, standing in a field. With his sword the executioner goes from man to man. There is no need for his assistants to tie or even to hold down any of them; as soon as it’s the next man’s turn, he stands there with feet apart, his hands gripping his knees, his neck stretched out, offering it to the blade. One of the last in line, still some way from coming due, is completely immersed in a book. The officer rides up to him and asks: “What’s that you’re reading?” The man looks up, asks back: “Why are you bothering me?” The officer asks: “How can you read now?” The man says: “I know that every line I read is something gained.” The officer rides to the general who has ordered the execution, and begs him for the man’s life for so long that he gets him off, rides back with the written acquittal, shows it to the officer in charge, and is allowed to go and take the man out of line. Tells him: “You’ve been acquitted, you’re free to go.” The man shuts his book, looks the officer in the eye, and says: “You have done a good thing. Your soul will have profited greatly from this hour”—and he nods to him, and sets off across the field.

TRANSLATED BY MICHAEL HOFMANN

Read complete article at The Poetry Foundation

Griffin Poetry Prize 2006 | Two Poems

Book: Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Poet: Durs Grünbein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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