The Writer’s Obligation


Arts & Culture

© Layn / Adobe Stock.

The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention. Dreamed last night of a senile woman who’d taken up piano-playing; dementia had etherealized her features. Like a seasoned, reputable coach, I stood behind her while she fumbled through Schubert. The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to remember the history of song, and to remember the reasons that troubled people have looked toward song to relieve pain and to organize, with other sufferers, in resistance.


With curiosity and reverence, I pulled down, from the shelf, the legendary No More Masks!: An Anthology of Poems by Women, the original paperback edition, 1973, edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass. The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to revisit books to which we have ceased paying sufficient attention, books we have failed adequately to love.


On a transcontinental flight I read Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. I wanted to live in the crevice where words broke down, and where matter arose to compensate for the loss. Some words I found in The Unnamable: “grapnels,” “apodosis,” “sparsim,” “congener,” “paraphimotically globose,” “circumvolutionisation,” “inspissates,” “naja,” “halm,” “thebaïd.” These words—obstructions in the throat—seemed specimens of rigorous, refined accounting, of a system so late-stage, so desolate, it could only satisfy description’s mandate by lodging in words virtually never used. And, while 39,000 miles in the air, I imagined an island where the only currency, for the stricken inhabitants, gumming their porridge, was the obsolete word, the rare word, the word stigmatized, in the dictionary, as “literary.” I was imagining an island—call it the planet Earth—after most of it was rendered uninhabitable, where there were no words or only the most elementary words or only the most obscure words, only those words so specific, so paraphimotically globose, that they could function in this new, eviscerated terrain. Imagine, then, an ecology of language, where only “cang” and “ataxy” can make the rivers flow, where only “serotines” and “naja” can serve as verbal cenotaphs for the missing bodies, whether made of words or of matter, that failed to arrive at this final, spectral island. If we don’t live on that island now, we may, one day, and we might not be “we” any longer; we might be sparse tuft or diatomaceous phlegm.


Long ago I knew a little boy who was afraid of diatomaceous earth—a bug killer made from “the fossilized remains of marine plankton,” I learn from a website that sells this product, or defines it, or rails against it. I knew a little boy who was afraid that the presence of diatomaceous earth in the family’s garage would destroy his lungs. He feared that diatomaceous earth would insinuate its chalky presence into the house itself. The patriarch of that house had a name almost identical to the nineteenth-century German peasant who discovered diatomaceous earth. The name of that peasant, Peter Kasten, closely resembles my father’s name; the only object missing is the suffix “-baum.” The only object missing is the tree—not the actual tree, but the name for the tree, which is itself the sign of a so-called race, tribe, or population for whom poisons would eventually matter. There are no tribes for whom poisons do not always matter. Poisons mattered to the boy—not me, but my brother—who lived in the house adjacent to the garage containing diatomaceous earth. I imagine that my brother feared the diatomaceous earth not simply because it was possibly toxic to human lungs but because its first discoverer bore a name similar to our father’s. And so, as Michel Leiris and other word-unveilers have noted, we travel into our stories—our bodies, our destinies—through the words that accidentally or deliberately serve as the vessels holding the material facts, the powders, the liquids. I will say “unguent” here because I seize any opportunity to say “unguent,” not because I want perfume or healing or exoticism but because I want vowel mesh, I want a superabundance of the letter “n,” hugging its “g,” and I want the repeated, nasally traversed “u,” which is an upside-down “n.” Unguent. And thus we dive into that aforementioned crevice where words crossbreed: my brother feared death at the hands of a bug killer discovered by a German man whose name uncannily resembled the name of our German father.


The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience. I used the word “awakening” because my eye had fallen on the phrase “to wake the turnkey” from The Unnamable. Who is the turnkey? The warden who holds captive the narrator, if the narrator is a single self and not a chorus. “To wake the turnkey” is a phrase I instinctively rearranged to create the phrase “to wank the turkey.” Why did I want to wank a turkey? Is “wank” a transitive verb? According to the OED, the word’s origin is unknown, and it is solely an intransitive verb, which means it has no object. I cannot wank a turkey. You cannot wank a turkey. We cannot wank a turkey. They cannot wank a turkey. The turkey could wank, if the turkey had hands. I have no desire to investigate this subject any further. Before I drop it, however, let me suggest that Beckett’s narrator, the solipsist who paradoxically contains multiple voices, is, like most of his narrators, intrinsically a masturbator, as well as an autophage, a voice that consumes itself. The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to investigate the words we use; investigation requires ingestion. We must play with our food; to play with the verbal materials that construct our world, we must play with ourselves. Producing language, we wank, we eat, we regurgitate, we research, we demonstrate, we expel; with what has been expelled we repaper our bodily walls, and this wallpaper is intricate, befouled, and potentially asemic—nonsignifying scratches without a linguistic system backing them up, scratches we nominate as words by agreeing together that this scratch means wank, that scratch means cang, this scratch means diatomaceous, that scratch means masks.


Susan Sontag once praised a maxim by the painter Manet, who said that in art “you must constantly remain the master and do as you please. No tasks! No, no tasks!” I often quote Sontag quoting Manet. Writing is a terrible task. It is also, sometimes, a pleasure, but it is more often a task. The arduousness of the task, and the succulence of the pleasure, are coiled together. For Sontag, writing must have often been a task, and she was often fleeing the task, even in her own writing. It’s possible to read any of her sentences as a round-trip flight between pleasure and task. The flight grows marmoreal—hardened into its pose—and that state of stillness-in-motion (a modernist ideal) is her finished sentence. “Mastery,” as Sontag, quoting Manet, constructs it, is a matter of fleeing task; we flee the task to become the master. Mastery, a dubious concept, needn’t be our lodestar; we can flee task not in search of mastery but in search of circumvolutionisation. More on circumvolutionisation in a minute.


“No more masks! No more mythologies!” So goes the passionate cry uttered in Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Poem as Mask.” No more tasks, I say, crossbreeding Rukeyser’s phrase with Sontag’s (or Manet’s) “No tasks!” Mask and task are two nouns—two behaviors—I love. From Oscar Wilde come masks; from the Marquis de Sade, and from Yahweh, come tasks. After Eden, masks and tasks. In Eden, we had neither. Literature—the respite of the fallen—is the process of making do with mask and task, diverting ourselves with tasks that mask our disenfranchisement. We are disenfranchised, regardless of our station, because we belong to an earth that will continue to bear our presence only if we remain adequate custodians of this material envelope, fragile, in which we dwell, an envelope consisting of just a small interval of habitable temperatures. To unmask the systems that will destroy our possibility of inhabiting the earth is the task of a language that operates through masks and the avoidance of tasks. Past the obvious tasks we fly, in search of tasks more stringent, more personal, more awed, more seamed, more circumvolutionary. Circumvolution must be voluntary; no master can impose it. Beckett’s word, “circumvolutionisation,” is not in my two-volume abridged OED. Perhaps the word does not really exist. Perhaps it only exists in Beckett’s mouth, or the mouth-mask that we call a novel. To flee the words we have been allotted by an immoral system that wishes to drain the swamp (as the current political administration describes its wish to destroy governance), and to seek circumvolutionisation, if circumvolutionisation turns you on, is the very simple medicine I stand here to offer you. Circum- means “around.” Volvere means “to roll.” In my dream last night, the senile woman playing Schubert on the piano had sat, a few dream moments earlier, gossiping with fellow sufferers in a room usually given over to psychoanalysis; my crime, in the dream, was either that I had crashed a borrowed car, or that my existence was filthy and inadmissible. In the dream, gobbets of mud were stuck to the bottom of my Blundstone boots. Homoeroticism lay encrypted within those muddy clods. My soiled homo-boots sat on the porch of the senile woman who’d been practicing her awed Schubert. Dirt’s movement into and out of a house has always been the topic I circle around, and I beg you to take my circumvolutionisations as seriously as possible, and to eat them, as you would eat an allegory, biting hard into its brittle exterior, like an unfriendly candied almond, Mandelbrot, Mandelbaum.


Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet, critic, and artist. His books include The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; Jackie under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon; My 1980s and Other Essays; Humiliation; Hotel Theory; The Pink Trance Notebooks; and Camp Marmalade. He lives in New York City, where he is a Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Copyright © 2020 by Wayne Koestenbaum, from Figure It Out. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.