Dérives on Letters

Passangers in the Starboard Promenade aboard LZ-129 Hindenburg, next to the Lounge.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think[.]
—Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive”

If reading is a passion, then writing about reading is a neurosis. But if eventually one identifies1 with one’s symptom, what began as a neurosis surrounding literature becomes something monastic and significant. The monk will naturally look nonsensical if taken out of context. If we see him transcribing, praying, shaking his head in a museum or in a coffee shop rather than in his quarters, we may not even realize that the man in front of us is a monk at all. Of course, every once in a while, the monk must remember to go outside, to look at people’s eyes and wonder about their days, smell the air, even if it is polluted and hot, watch the insects, even if they are eating each other alive, see the life of the city, its face, and so on, et cetera, et cetera, which is to say that he must take himself out of his own context before returning to the cloister and imbibing on the cool, smuggled draughts that simultaneously disfigure and beautify his soul.

On certain evenings, after a long walk through the neighborhood, I would come back to my apartment, nearly running to my desk or to the spot on the couch where I left my notebook, and I would flip through the pages of the book I was reading or through the books I had already read, usually within the last few years and almost always during the same time of year as it then was, in search of a pregnant word or phrase. Sometimes it would be enough to reread the last sentence I had read before getting up—then I would feel nearly ill with excitement, would leave the book aside again without having advanced a single line, and would begin writing, as if in response to what I had just seen, as if it had taken my second, disconnected re-reading, emulsified in the body of the walk I just finished, in order to bring it to its full potential of significance, hovering somewhere on the page, at the clean termination of a paragraph or section. But these “responses” were never coherent, never quite epistolary in style and never truly critical in spirit. There was nothing pragmatic or academic about what I was doing, but neither was there anything fully poetic in it. I was in the narrow grips of what from outside must have looked like an aimless, stupid form of repetition and variation, an insane exercise, but which was, from my own perspective, an urgent struggle both against myself and for myself—even if it was in strong conjunction with the subjectivity and Voice of another writer that this unfolded, again and again. If I copied, wrote, re-wrote, praised and abused a phrase out of, for example, Wittgenstein’s notebooks, the way a musician forcefully throwing a note, without modulation or rhythm, into a piece he is playing in a completely different key so that the repetition functions as a sort of exercise in the identification of unillustrative, unilluminating difference, I only did so for as long as it took me to become almost entirely disenchanted with the phrase (as well as its discordance with my own writing, however much it seemed to harmonize with my feeling), until it was like a common hand-tool, the specific use and application of which I could no longer remember, nor even believe in anymore. Then it felt like I had stolen the word or phrase for the sole, petty reason that nothing seemed so impossible as putting down the correct one myself. I take the line, for instance, dated April 18, 1915: “The subjective universe.” It is separated on both sides by white space, indicating that it was written alone on the page, away from the notes coming before and after it. But already I want to transcribe both of the other notes in their entirety, along with needless explications; I am demonstrating, without any real reason or desire the thing I would rather only describe at some remove, namely, the uncritical and unpoetic way in which I approached pieces of text which meant something supercharged to me, usually because of their ambiguity, cf., “The subjective universe.” Is the note meant to refer to the operations of logic? Or is it a personal remark that has nothing to do with problems of proposition and notation? I imagine it both ways until I take the note, The subjective universe, and write it at the top of a page in my own hand, deciding that it is to be the title of a book that I will write in one month, under the cover of night, fueled by coffee and the interventions of the holy ghost, punctuated by strange, apodictic sentences and built up out of the prose of an intense desire to flesh out a line which I have not understood in the light and air of its own world. And the next morning The subjective universe makes as much sense to me as the outlines of the dreams from the night before that are already passing away into the pleasing, if frustrating cloudiness of uninterpretability and personal insignificance.

What is beautiful about the incidental nature of typography in use is that, unlike architecture, it seems to be innocently unaware of its observer rather than deliberately so. A building looks back at us (though to a lesser degree than the statue), whereas the delicate lacework of text never flits away its attention other than in the smooth, virtually two-dimensional world of the contained page. The statue is a questioning Subject who does not speak; the building is a Judge whose verdict has already been passed—and the typography of a paragraph is a group of fairies conferring only amongst themselves, via their own secret language in the shade and light of an inaccessible grove.

How many books are born of the inability to write even a single correct word? It is not obvious how to begin to answer such a question, which threatens to sound rhetorical, until we let a similar question take its place. I.e., how many children are born where there has been, not only an absence of love, but of the pleasure and care that one imagines as so necessary in the creation and upbringing of new life? A book, like a child, appears out of an incomprehensible strife and confusion, out of the ferment of all of one’s failures and accidents—failures of the past as well as those constitutive failures we carry within ourselves in the present, like strands of genetic material finding their way into new being in the form of offspring, forcing what was only an undetermined, partial X to flower in spite of itself—. If we cannot begin to say the right word or to put down the proper first phrase that might put our minds at ease, then we progress in spite of ourselves, and before we know what we are doing, we end up with a book (or books) like a child born out of accident and confusion.

If it is true that nobody ever reads the same book – meaning that a single book is used as a lens that the reader uses to read his own life, as Proust puts it  – then it is also true, though in a more advanced, unassailable way, that nobody ever experiences (when compared to himself and not others, as is meant in the former claim) the same transition between one book and another. The end of a book emits its own special glow based on the way one reads it, the surroundings, the time of day and year in which it is read; the parallax between the unmoving text and the mutable feeling of the reader also determines what shade is to arise after and over which the final word has been passed. But if the end of a book glows like a sun that has been distorted into a bending half-sphere of color by the subtler atmospheric qualities of the reader (a sunset combining with the weather to produce a special palette of light), then the beginning of another book is like a new day rising over a fresh landscape, though seen, as it were, with the same eyes that only a moment ago surveyed the decaying aura of what could only have been an end. Thus the glowing dusk and the bright dawn of two different books bleed into one another on the same canvas – the mind – in a strange demonstration of what might be thought of as a spectroscopy of the spirit—a beautiful pseudo-science retaining something of Scriabin’s synesthetic clavier à lumières, which he used to compose his Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, so that each transition, each horizon of affective color between one’s reading, is like a connective chord in our own poem of fire which we are always silently composing and leaving off work on, somewhere between the eye which reads and the page which is read, to be found neither on the surface of the page nor really in the depths of the reader. And why should we find it strange that the word depth is almost always metaphorical in these contexts, while surface is used in a way that is almost entirely literal, and therefore much more easily believed? Why should the use of the word surface strike us as purely descriptive, whereas the use, in the same context, of the word depth already leaves us feeling as though we were taking liberties with an image? This continuum of depthsurface suggests that the surface of a written page is somehow just as metaphorical, just as figurative, as the depths of a soul.

There are books whose covers one would rather not show in the cafe, the park, the discussion group, if only for the reason that they are too close to one and that to do so would be like having a romantic dinner alone while sitting across from a mirror.

The quietest hours of one’s reading are able to induce in the reader something like proprioceptive hallucination, rather than visual or auditory hallucination by way of which the eye and the ear seek to form the world according to new rules native only to themselves, while disregarding others. Reading is also done with, and therefore to, the body. The text is not merely in the eye, nor even in the “brain,” but the mouth (Tzara: “Thought is made in the mouth.”), the stomach (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, P. 191, Kaufmann Tr. “My stomach—is it an eagle’s stomach?”), one’s hips and shoulders and fingertips—

(Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, P. 6-7) We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. This activity is performed by the hand, when we think by writing; by the mouth and larynx, when we think by speaking; and if we think by imagining signs or pictures, I can give you no agent that thinks. If you then say that in such cases the mind thinks, I would only draw your attention to the fact that you are using a metaphor, that here the mind is an agent in a different sense from that in which the hand can be said to be the agent in writing.

If again we talk about the locality where thinking takes place we have a right to say that this locality is the paper on which we write or the mouth which speaks.

It is as if, when one does not imagine that one is reading with one’s “head,” the Flesh reaches to become Word: when you read, as when you write—and Gourmont agrees that “[w]e write, as we feel, as we think, with our entire body.” You cease to be a mere body; your body becomes something else in language.

Krasznahorkai’s books are long hunts: his words and sentences, the footsteps; his periods, gunshots. By the end of one of his novels, we are left with our ears ringing, standing in a bloody, silent forest.

Writing like Knut Hamsun’s, which, though roaring with fantasy, carries constant whispers of his life; and writing like Henry Miller’s, which is ostensibly autobiographical, though fiction pulses through every moment of it, like sodium pentothal through the blood of a would-be liar.

One of the apparently fundamental traits of my character seems to be that I do not want to participate—that very often, I would rather do nothing. Conversely, and as a corollary to this basic tendency, if not fact of myself, it seems incomprehensible that I will not do, be and become everything that there is to do, be and become in the world before I die. What is this feeling then, whose two faces express themselves so differently? Well—they are not two faces, but only two expressions disturbing the surface of the same object. (Is it the ex nihilo feeling that one has already done all?) It is by reading literature, poetry, philosophy, that these two expressions meet in a composite that no longer expresses a contradiction, but rather the perfect consonance of possibility and action, attainable through the aesthetic attitude which also reads life. (The riddle of life’s face; thinking of a grotesque that can simultaneously express joy and disgust, inaction and poise, is not like saying: Imagine a four-sided triangle, but like: see the lines of this triangle now as fixed, now as hovering.)

A species of extended diarism in which everything can at least potentially be accounted for (in-tensionally), but which itself cannot easily be accounted for (ex-tensionally). To have faith in the persistent fact of category and organization, not a faith that hopes or prays, but a faith that is confident in simply forgetting. Try to disorganize your own day and all that will come about is a needless sub-division. Something similar holds for one’s writing.

Poetry as a record of frustration and renewed vigor, following one upon the other in rapid, amnesiac succession. Every line break is prose failing.

Writing a paragraph while sitting on the train: Spilling the contents of an inkwell (no matter that inkwells are no longer used) across the width of a small country.

There are books that one does not finish, or stops reading right in the middle, without having the intention of not finishing the book at some later time. If the book is put aside, e.g., at the height of summer, only to be thought of again at the beginning of the summer to come, it often must be picked up again in the space of this associative, seasonal window. One will remember much more, feel much more, about a book resumed after the lapse of a full year than one might after quitting a book in August and starting it again – from the point where one left off – in February. In the former case, a book acts as the needle and thread pulling together two separated points in the same cut of fabric. Or: the recurrence of the time of year is the needle and thread maintaining the frayed fabric of the since-neglected text.

Two impulses of the book-lender: So a book can be left unread and forgotten with a good conscience; or, so an already-read book can be found and acquired again. The first, once, the second, indefinitely.

Overheard: “Buying a book makes you feel like you’ve already read it. I never buy a pack of cigarettes with the feeling that I won’t finish them. They’re already as good as smoked.”

Hölderlin’s poetological Faculties of Human Nature, namely Feeling, Passion and Imagination, perfectly mirror the three kinds of judgment: Subjective, Objective and Aesthetic. What is of interest here is Passion’s correspondence to Objectivity.

When one relies too heavily on the first person in, say, poetry, something unexpected happens and the subject, in this case, the poet, dissolves (I also have to be the I). Poetry as Objective, in the Idealistic sense—so that the reader can feel her own subjectivity. But, if the subject or reader is preserved in this way, kept dry and unsubmerged in poetry’s dissolving I, it is so that, when she does dive, resubmerging herself in the first person, the operative metaphor may shift from merely chemical to fully demonic: not only will she dissolve; she will become the moving force and the body moved in a strange case of possession.

The play and curve of music in a word. The bounding of poetry through the open field, shot like a hunted deer. The soil fed by verses decomposed… Prose crossing the street like a scalpel.

The ruling color of great prose (if such a statement can have a sense) is that strange, Faustian blue-green, perfected in the painting, not only of Monet and Van Gogh, but by the fictional Elstir via the delicate hand of Proust. Spengler, in Volume I of his Decline of the West (P. 246-247) says of these colors, which combine in Watteau, Grünewald, Rembrandt, and even Da Vinci: “Blue and green are transcendent, spiritual, non-sensuous colors.” And further down: “But blue and green – the Faustian, monotheistic colors – are those of loneliness, of care, of a present that is related to past and future, of destiny as the dispensation governing the universe from within.” And onto the following page:

The most significant use of dusky green as the color of destiny is Grünewald’s. The indescribable power of space in his nights is equalled only by Rembrandt’s. And the thought suggests itself here, is it possible to say that his bluish-green, the color in which the interior of a great cathedral is so often clothed [enter Proust], is the specifically Catholic colour? —it being understood that we mean by “Catholic” strictly the Faustian Christianity (with the Eucharist as its centre) that was founded by the Lateran Council of 1215 and fulfilled in the Council of Trent. […] It is to be noted that the effect of this colour, entirely unlike that of yellow and red, depends upon work being exhibited indoors. […] By these colours the visually-perceived light-reflecting surface of a picture is made effectively to render, not circumscribed things, but circumambient space.

In Within a Budding Grove, not long after several, insistent mentions of Albertine’s green eyes near the beginning of the section “Seascape, With Frieze of Girls,” which has a notably circumambient, blue atmosphere, the narrator goes back to his room in Balbec:

Regularly, as the season advanced, the picture that I found there in my window changed. At first it was broad daylight, and dark only if the weather was bad: and then, in the greenish glass which it distended with the curve of its round waves, the sea, set among the iron uprights of my window like a piece of stained glass in its leads, ravelled out over all the deep rocky border of the bay little plumed triangles of an unmoving spray delineated with the delicacy of a feather or a downy breast from Pisanello’s pencil, and fixed in that white, unalterable, creamy enamel which is used to depict fallen snow in Gallé’s glass.

This passage (there are countless others I could have quoted in its place) not only recalls that green of Grünewald’s nights through the interior-deco mediation of green glass, but is itself as clear and blue as the “vaporous blue” of the sea and sky of Balbec. The blue-green of Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks is, for me, the perfect painterly analog of the synesthetic color-feeling of good prose.

Grasping for definitions that are too clear in one’s thinking and reading is like searching one’s own visual field for a point of entoptic color (a spec of visual aberration originating in the tissue of one’s own eye) so that one may see with more precision. But then one is always also looking at something extraneous, even if it seems to come from within. The desire for this second blind spot that one can also see is analogous to a desire for constantly firm foundations in one’s thinking.

The third-person double of a writer who has not yet made the magical leap into the first-person acts as an anchor point for him so that he will not drift too far from himself but will also not always have to hear himself speaking.


Sentence from the quarters. The days passed, expiring, like sentences: those that pass over a page, and those passed by a judge. In the former case, what was decisive were not the words of the sentences themselves – nor their lexical density, syntax, grammar, orthographical conventions, typeface, i.e., the facts of a day – but the superscripts that hung over them like burning constellations to be read, interpreted and fused with the footnoted logos they denoted. A nebula of superscripted matter: One day passed both somnambulistically and sleeplessly, like a rote insomniac chant,2 and another in the span of two over-rested, delirious hours.3 All the others were emminently well-behaved and well-paced—but composed nevertheless insanely in unimpeachable, perfect iambic pentameter. And over these hovered, glowering,4 5 6 and 7 —So the days passed with these over their heads. And those latter days, which passed like sentences from the mouth of a judge, had no page ranges, no allusions, no Cf.s, no draughts of vintage nor alone-actuals to which we ourselves also belong, but only absolutely empty or absolutely full time, time without determination, expression, organs, color, edges, and all the rest and so on, like howling page breaks between the periods of beauty and the illuminated capitals of disfigurement. ∎

  1. The only reason I would insist on taking advantage of “identifies” here is because of the symptom-identificatory Lacanian concept of sinthome (a portmanteau of symptom and Saint Thomas), which I am tangentially using.
  2. Or récits. An almost untranslatable French literary genre, somewhere between a novel and a conte.
  3. Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 796–797: hourly conceived / And hourly born.
  4. “…The aim of the sublimest science can only be to show the actuality—in the strictest sense the actuality, the presence, the vital existence—of a God in the whole of things and in each one… Here we deal no longer with an extra-natural or supernatural thing, but with the immediately near, the alone-actual to which we ourselves also belong, and in which we are.” Schelling. ii. Werke, 377.
  5. “Helicon. A mountain of Boetia, on the borders of Phocis, sacred to the Muses, who there had a temple. The Hippocrene flowed from Helicon. CfOde to a Nightingale: note 16: a periphrasis for wine; the waters of [Hippocrene] were violet-colored, and are represented as endowed with voice and articulate sound.”—periphrasis indeed…O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been / Cooled of a long age in the deep-delvèd earth…with beaded bubbles winking at the brim…
  6. A doctrine / so ridiculous: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have in abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25–29)… O, my inheritance / for a bowl of vegatable stew…
  7. [Unreadable]: An expression for little envelopes containing vast, glittering fortunes.