Literary Phantoms

Frequently after reading a book I am left with what I have come to think of as mental images, particular sentences that linger and freely associate with other thoughts. They hang around a while as vestiges of language, haunting echoes. Only, they aren’t really images. Not quite pictures, more shadowy impressions, phantoms of text that play incessantly on my mind for days, sometimes weeks.

Sentences from Elfriede Jelinke’s Her Not All Her have left a temporary (I hope) memory phantom. It is those that follow the opening line:

Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.

In this text, Jelinek’s voice is interwoven with Robert Walser’s voice. The question Who speaks? is implicit throughout. We know that Walser spent the last thirty years of his life in a mental hospital. During that time he wrote almost nothing. Though suffering from depression Walser acted normally. When pressed by a visitor about whether he was writing he responded, ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’ It is tempting to romanticise Walser and his illness, to imagine that under that melancholy, misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, lay a definitive work, more wonderful even than the masterpieces Walser left. It is what I see in the sentences above. During those thirty years what does Walser think? What thoughts failed to be recorded, turned into language, converted into another masterpiece? Or where there no thoughts, just the dullness of depression interspersed with cocktails of drugs?

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