Friday, July 10, 2009

writing in mockingbird

Cioran supposedly began to write in French in 43, 44. As he tells the story, he was in France, trying to translate Mallarme into Romanian, when he decided to break entirely with his native language. By this time Cioran had witnessed to the full the flame out of his early, fascist dreams, what his biographer, Zarifopol-Johnston calls “the lyrical virtues of totalitarianism.” In a sense, the renunciation of Romanian for French – a language which he claimed was “sclerotic” – was his repentance. Perhaps it is the kind of punishment only a writer can fully appreciate – to be sentenced to write in another language.

The beginning of History and Utopia is couched in terms of a letter Cioran writes some Romanian friend. The friend had asked how he could give up his language – he had intimated that it was a betrayal on the deepest level.

Cioran writes:

It would be undertaking the story of a nightmare to tell you the intimate history of my relationship with this borrowed idiom, with all those thought and rethought words, smoothed out, subtle to the point of non-existence, bent under the exactions of nuance, inexpressive by having expressed everything, frightening with precision, charged with discretion and modesty, discrete even in its vulgarity. How could you think a Scythian might accommodate himself to it, that he’d grasp the fine significance – and that he’d manipulate it scrupulously and with probity? There is not a single one of them that doesn’t give me vertigo with its extenuated elegance: no more trace of the earth, of blood, of the soul in them.” (470 – my translation)

Of course, the mention of blood and soil here is rather tricky, rather flirtatious- it is one of those innumerable moments in Cioran when the political unconscious comes to the surface and prances about like a naked clown. Still, I take it that this is a serious passage. Apparently Cioran was never entirely comfortable in French, as he was in German or Hungarian – his other second languages. He gargled his French. And yet, by a tremendous act of will, he wrote a French that was as pure as Chamfort’s.

“What consumption of coffee, cigarettes and dictionaries to write a barely correct phrase in this unapproachable language, too noble, too distinguished for my taste.”

Writing in neither French nor German but my own native American, I am, in one way, a Scythian at home in Scythia. The barbaric yawp that comes out of my mouth or, nowadays, flows out of the fingers typing this, should be one hundred percent made in America.

But a language can be pulled out from under your feet – oh, you can’t trust it, and certainly not the people who speak it. When I first resolved to be a writer, I too, consumed the cups of coffee and consulted, if not dictionaries, at least arbiters of what I took to be the best style. I read Johnson, Hazlitt and Ruskin for the music. I read Emerson, Thoreau and Twain for the tartness of an American speech starting to feel that it could punch its weight in the world. I read Hemingway and Faulkner and the minor New Yorker writers – Thurber, Leibling, Mitchell – in order to be able to shift to any tone I wanted.

And as I was stocking up on how to write, the audience was stocking up on how to speak in all the tones of inspirational books and get rich quick seminars. It was staring at cartoons and slowly unlearning how to read a newspaper. It was being deafened by bullshit, a historic avalanche of bullshit pouring out every second of every day from monitors placed everywhere, as though we’d been invaded by the aliens of some 50s movie, and the system worked, the mass mind was milked of every nuance, every complications, and its ideas were replaced with advertisements. It learned to believe everything at least once. It learned that it was selfish and that selfishness was good – which was a double lie, as it didn’t have enough self to be selfish, and what it called good was just the blind hope that everything didn’t cave in before the looting was over.

Such, of course, was the 00s, a decade that we all wear with extreme shame. Myself, I don’t have time or money to go to France and start over like Cioran. I take my cue from crows, grackles and mockingbirds, and write as though I were the last of my species – a bitter keening that sounds like a stand up comic’s routine.

ps - everybody seems to be seeing through me lately! My friend Chad said he liked the first part of this thing, but... and of course he is right. It is true that a writer better learn the clockwork of the masters. But then, too, he should read the comments sections of YouTube, fan fic fuck fiction, listen to street people slag each other off and the latest slang of sorority girls and in general have some sense of the direction to which that great beast, the language, is slouching. And then, for the piece de resistance, he should burn his taste down. Torch the motherfucker. Because writing - or at least that writing which aims to 'drain the last drop of slavery from one's blood' - is always a child of arson.

No comments: