Writing Is a Bad Habit
Plus, Some Fragments on Love and Death
I taught the first session of my “Philosophy as Creative Writing” workshop to a packed room at the American Library in Paris yesterday. What a wonderful experience! Wonderful for me, that is, and I hope for those in attendance as well. We have two more sessions to come, and I’ll share some results and reflections here in due course.
This is only a one-time thing, but I can say right now I am indeed feeling naturally fit for the task. I have often bristled when I’ve seen professors on social media effusing about how much they “love [their] students!” But what can I say? These days I can’t deny I know that sentiment too — the students are the only good and redeeming element of my professional life, in fact, and it’s just so wonderful that even in this crumbling and precarious world young people are still seeking out exposure to timeless and edifying ideas with no obvious utilitarian pay-off. That sentiment hit me with particular power yesterday after two hours reflecting together with them on the nature and aims of philosophy and literature, and on how these two may intersect and complement one another.
I am very busy with the workshop as well as with my regular teaching; I am also working on an actual old-fashioned piece of scholarship right now, requiring actual archival research, and demonstration of significant philological and argumentative chops; I am finishing up two separate book manuscripts; and I am spending at least an hour a day at the gym, fortifying the load-bearing columns of this here temple of mine. For all these reasons, I would like, for the rest of February, perhaps into March, to write significantly shorter pieces here, or at least to try my very best to do so, and also to share, in the audio VoiceOver, a supplementary bis or encore not included in a textual form, such as a translated poem, an ultra-rapid one-man Hörspiel, or the like.
I said I would like to adopt that approach. But it’s difficult for me. This week, in particular, I failed miserably in my effort not to write. My acne went away years ago, but in other respects I am as oleaginous as ever, still squeezing out the oily build-up, no longer with tweezers, but with a keyboard. So although all I have to share here today are the traces of this week’s spontaneous emissions, little fragments I have had to write at various moments in the middle of my daily pursuits, just to get them out of my head, just to relieve the pressure of their build-up, even this brings me almost all the way, just like every week, to Substack’s e-mail word-limit.
Here then are this week’s five zits, organized under broadly Ciceronian headings in the chronological order of their popping.
I. De Scriptura
In Substack’s cursèd Notes function this week, Lauren Hough of Badreads expressed a conviction I share when she exasperatedly wrote: “I don’t know if y’all know this. But you can write about literally anything other than substack. Anything. Really. We are fucking begging you to.”
I have often written in this space of the broad pattern of “cultural recursion” we are witnessing in the twenty-first century, where every endeavor seems to turn in on itself, where far too many new novels are about the publishing world and its frustrations, where students can get entire university degrees for taking classes on things like the “learning outcomes” of various classroom technologies like “clickers” or whatever, rather than on, say, Paleolithic hand-axes or The Faerie Queene, i.e., the things universities had previously been in the business of holding up for inspection. Honestly when I walk across a US campus with buildings erected before World War II, with beautiful inscriptions of quotations from Cicero or Emerson chiseled into their stone, they look to me like nothing so much as deconsecrated churches. They were built for a function they no longer serve, and the ghosts that once loomed in them have been expelled.
Hough is worried about the most extreme form of Substack recursion: the turn towards Substack itself as one of the most common topics written about on Substack. My principal source of despondency recently, greatly aggravated whenever I open Notes, is the habit of so many on this platform to treat it as, so to speak, a site that is “dedicated to writing”, in the sense that people who come here imagine that the thing to do on arrival is to display just how much they are “into writing”: it is writing-themed, writing-branded; it is “all about writing” in the same way that LinkedIn is “all about business”. Of course writing is an intrinsically more elevated endeavor than business, and even at its most recursion-worn and degraded Substack would still be the better of the two platforms. But I still feel some attachment to another vision of what it might be.
So look, friends: it doesn’t matter what day a famous writer was born, what day they died, where they are buried, or what their daily writing routines were or how much tea or whisky they drank. You shouldn’t care. This is a preoccupation for people who have not really understood for themselves what it is that compels a person to read and write. We are not bobby-soxers sending box-tops in for signed photos of Rudy Vallée. Ideally we are not “fans” in any sense at all of the authors who shape us and whom we channel.
Writing is not a lifestyle to be celebrated. I do not want to hear about your Moleskines. I do not want to see photographs of your workspace, and if you share them anyway I will judge you more harshly if that space turns out to be picturesque and “inspiring”, with fountain-pens lined up on a nice old pupitre with a roll-top or whatever, than if it’s just a dumpy mess on a cheap couch. I do not want to see writing advice, neither packaged into listicles reciting the habits of the greats, that Balzac drank so much coffee or that so-and-so said “Write drunk, edit sober” or whatever, nor drawn from your own experience as a moderately successful writer yourself. Every time I see click-seeking content like this, all I can think is: Writer of what exactly? Of still more writing advice? It’s as if you’re saying: “Here’s how you can write about the writing lifestyle just like me, and, having written about it, you can now begin to live it,” which is in truth all most aspiring writers want to do.
But writing isn’t a lifestyle; it’s a bad habit, an irrepressible compulsion to squeeze out oily build-up that a very small number of people find they just cannot rid themselves of, and that an even smaller number of people manage to redeem, notwithstanding its intrinsic unseemliness, by conveying to readers a sensibility about the world, social, natural, or transcendental, far beyond the confines of their Instagrammable writing nook.
Oh what the hell, I may as well show you my nook (or, more accurately, my nest), if only because I think it might help me to make my point. Here is a faithful and veracious photo of the very spot where 99% of what you see on The Hinternet gets made:
And yes, that is a Le Chat coffee cup, on which our hero speaks a profound truth: On ne respire jamais que l’air qui est autour de son nez. I love that guy. Probably one of my top four favorite Belgians, right up there alongside Jacques Brel, Chantal Akerman, and Francis Mercury van Helmont.
OK, so, that’s the “materiality” and the “positionality” of my writing, but let’s be done with all that now. I drink coffee —I’ve drunk coffee every single day without exception since September 13, 1990—, and I love Balzac, but I just don’t care how much coffee Balzac drank. There are infinite pathways to generating a piece of writing. Just get to work. I do care by contrast which sauces and condiments Montaigne preferred, because that is something our Bordelais essayist wrote about, and seemed to have thought essential to his project of imparting to us a picture of what it was like to be him. Don’t you see the difference?
Here, for example, are some further fragments of writing, which this week I failed to not write, but which at least, by contrast with this present fragment “De Scriptura” and with what seems like the great bulk of stuff we are seeing on Substack these days, are not themselves about writing: