“One of the lessons—if there really are lessons, because deep down it is idiotic to think you can learn from experience—is the fluctuation between what can be done or said and what can be neither said nor done. A diary should be written about the second part of the sentence; that is, you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible. But where do those obstacles come from, the feeling that there is something—a space, a person, a series of actions—’that cannot be done?’ It wouldn’t mean a ‘real’ impossibility but rather a place it is prohibited to enter. Then we ask whom it is prohibited for and start again . . . It’s also true that my past (what Pavese calls personal destiny) allows me to see or define what I can do; the rest of the alternatives and options I could never see nor conceive of directly. Literature could be, among other things, helpful as away of discovering or describing these blind spots.” p.220
— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)
Blind spots. “In the end, I will always be an outsider to things.” How to be known? My only regret is that I didn’t bring the second volume of diaries with me.
The uncertainty of what a written work knows, what it doesn’t and indeed cannot know is at the centre of S. D. Chrostowska’s Permission. The mystery of the text is enhanced by the inclusion of a number of images reproduced throughout, adding a corporeal element, requiring a reader to look as well as read. Chrostowska, like Barthes, uses images in an attempt, only partly successful, to restore lost connections.
Described on the cover as a novel, formed around a series of emails, a mock-epistolary structure with added images and footnotes. The narrator-self moves through the text, ranging widely through topics like writing, solitude, death, the Holocaust, the nature of depression, slowly filling the present with the narrated past. Unlike most epistolary texts, this is not an exchange but a monologue with a quivering tension where the reactions of the protagonist-recipient are non-existent.
In an interview, Chrostowska says, “[Permission] was also an attempt at self-homeopathy: to write a literary work to be cured, once and for all, of the desire to write literature.” These letters, discursive and fragmented, produce such a void that I find them captivating. The construction of such a writerly text, at the better end of what could be considered literature suggests that the cure was a subtle but spectacular failure.
What emerges, I think, is a kind of meditative work — a work of thought to try to understand, and fail to understand, what it is that reading is, what reading does, how to read, what to read. An act of thinking about books that sinks into its relation with memory.
I’ve been trying to reconstruct a mental library of everything I read, or at least those that left fragments and impressions in what seems to be memory. There was a boy who visits his sister in north London. This is what I remember. In that book I came across the term golden arm for the first time. Its druggy milieu induced two decades of casual stupor. An incident in a north London pub. That is all that remains in the fragile spider’s web of memory. It isn’t enough to find the book again, but enough to compel the quest. There is a feminist alien who visits earth seeking vengeance, proto-Despentes. All I remember is the cover, but that memory too is precarious. Scenes from a long immersion in science fiction, even less is preserved, insufficient to fuel a search. I should break away from a pointless elegiac nostalgia; mature elegies that take on a life of their own.
This meditative work also an act of memory, to retain more of a book than nostalgia, a patient engagement that allows a work to settle more deeply, an ethic of contemplation if that is not too serious or overly pompous. That is the danger. He is very earnest, never praise in this decaying culture. Ten years of trying to be receptive enough to write something of what I read, but in the end it does seem pompous, because what I came to understand the more I read is how little it is possible to comprehend, and less so to share that comprehension and appreciation. I read to catalyse change and transformation, to keep open an ethical relation with the world and the other.
More and more, it is quotes and fragments I share, a still unsatisfactory way of providing an ethical, aesthetic experience of what I read, without the limited ambition of interpretation. It is a way of communicating atmosphere and mood, encountering the otherness of a text that seduces in some way. It is I hope a way of yielding and gesturing towards literature that is a source of energy. After ten years it is still an experiment, where conventions and certainties of how to read and write are still muzzy.
“When I confront my personal memories with reality, with facts sharply defined, with the vivid reminisces of others, I realise my negligence. Whole tracts of time were lived and one thought no more of them: whole ages have fallen into desuetude. Looking for them now is like chasing dust around an empty house. But on this occasion—occasioned by this writing effort, which as you see has also become an effort of memory—I sit down to retouch my faded icons. The operation demands loud colours, the loudest possible, yet these too are marred by oblivion. Memory is not a treasure trove that, laid open, dazzles us with its contents. It is a shadowy pit.”
—S. D. Chrostowska, Permission
“We have been accustomed to reduce the other to ours or ourselves. On the level of consciousness as on the level of feelings, we have been educated to make our own what we approach or what approaches us. Our manner of reasoning, our manner of loving is often an appropriation, either through lack of differentiation, a fusion, or through transformation into an object, an object of knowledge or of love, that we integrate into our world. We act in this way especially towards others who are closest to us, forgetting that the are other, different from us, but also towards the foreigner who is welcomed on the condition that he, or she, agrees to being assimilated to our way of living, our habits, our world.”
—Luce Irigaray, Key Writings
“I believe that one can only begin to advance along the path of discovery, the discovery of writing or anything else, from mourning and in the reparation of mourning. In the beginning the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, of having been thrown outside. Of having suddenly acquired the precious sense of the rare, of the mortal. Of having urgently to regain the entrance, the breath, to keep the trace.”
—Hélène Cixous, From the Scene of the Unconscious to the Scene of History: Pathway of Writing from The Hélène Cixous Reader.