Seven months and two weeks after my first book was published, I hacked a hardback copy into hundreds of pieces with a hunting knife. When my housemate came into my room to investigate the violent sounds, he found me sitting in a circle of text-fragments of For Common Things. I looked up at him and explained, “It’s full of lies.”
I’d spent much of the previous year laboring to compose the book. Like most things, it took much less time to destroy than to make. It was not, of course, full of intentional lies. As best I can tell, what I meant was that the book had failed, like everything I have written since.
Nothing else I know fails like writing. Failure is proportionate to ambition, as disappointment is to hope. The hope that attaches to writing got nicely summed up by Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, indicating in an aside that one of his corrupt hack underlings had caught the drift of the President’s instructions: “What a joy to be comprehended.”
And there’s the rub. For me, writing is haunted by the wish to understand and to be understood. At the root of this is the wish to be comprehensible, to make sense. And that is, in the Biblical phrase, the wish to see face to face, when all the seeing you have ever done has been through a mirror dimly. In writing, I have tried to make myself pellucid – or worthy of being that – in an entirely lighted world.
No wonder it fails. What essay could carry that weight? Tim Parks, who fell into a kind of Buddhist practice after decades of intense and successful prose work, decided that writing is a crime against silence, which is the basic condition. I sometimes feel that writing is a resentful attack on incoherence and opacity.
You don’t need to be a caricature postmodernist to believe that incoherence and opacity are the basic conditions. You only have to have tried, again and again, to write your way out of them. Tides around a sand castle, they begin to reassert themselves as soon as the next sentence is written. Writing composes a world and a self, and offers them to the reader, but both are falling apart in the moment of offering. Full of lies, then.
My attack on that book was punishing it for failing to do what it couldn’t have done. Since books don’t actually do anything, I was really punishing myself for failing to do what I couldn’t have done. It strikes me now that the one thing I could have done differently was not so much in the writing, as in owning up to what the writing couldn’t do.
That book was, among other things, a critique of irony. Intending no cuteness at all, this fact now strikes me as mortally ironic. It did put me in a bind. Irony, as a kind of virtue, is a response to the duality-or-more of everything: words, feelings, relationships. I hated it, in a Young Romantic kind of way, because it seemed like a trick for keeping one foot outside of whatever you were in, of being always semi-detached.
Now it strikes me more as a way of relaxing the terrible interpretive pressure that we put on people and events when we ask them to be just one thing, which it turns out they cannot do. The pressure of that moment must have seemed intolerable because I was torn between saying that my 24-year-old’s book was wrong about a deep and subtle feature of life – how it could not have been, I ask in hindsight – and saying that it was full of lies. The first would have been a way of learning from the mistake. What I did instead was a way of holding onto the thesis of the book, the impossible ambition, and saying that only the execution had failed.
By cutting up that book, I saved an untenable, basically tragic idea of what writing is for, and guaranteed another decade of failed attempts. That doesn’t seem entirely bad to me, because every attempt had some worth, some transient effect of things being more richly illuminated, more orderly, than they had seemed. At least a few readers recognized in these images their own feel for things, and so some of us did glimpse each other face to face, or thought we did for a moment. After all, art is not the Statistical Register, the obituaries, or social science. It is allowed to bend its vision around wishes.
It hurts less, though, when you know that for what it is doing. By imagining that failure was avoidable, I lost the chance to develop a different idea of what I was doing. By adopting that Romantic standard – the joy of being comprehended – I guaranteed that everything I wrote would be haunted by the knife.
Jedediah Purdy: A way with rebar.
All images by Anselm Kiefer.