Friday, March 5, 2010

Proust on Writer's Block

If only I had been able to start writing! But, whatever the conditions in which I approached the task (as, too, alas, the undertakings not to touch alcohol, to go to bed early, to sleep, to keep fit), whether it was with enthusiasm, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing it and keeping it in reserve as a reward for industry, taking advantage of an hour of good health, utilising the inactivity forced on me by a day's illness, what always emerged in the end from all my efforts was a virgin page, undefiled by any writing, ineluctable as that forced card which in certain tricks on invariably is made to draw, however carefully one may first have shuffled the pack. I was merely the instrument of habits of not working, of not going to bed, of not sleeping, which must somehow be realised at all costs; if I offered them no resistance, if I contented myself with the pretext they seized from the first opportunity that the day afforded them of acting as they chose, I escaped without serious harm, I slept for a few hours after all towards morning, I read a little, I did not over-exert myself; but if I attempted to thwart them, if I decided to go to bed early, to drink only water, to work, they grew restive, they adopted strong measures, they made me really ill, I was obliged to double my dose of alcohol, did not lie down in bed for two days and nights on end, could not even read, and I vowed that another time I would be more reasonable, that is to say less wise, like the victim of an assault who allows himself to be robbed for fear, should he offer resistance, of being murdered.

(Marcel Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time, Vol III; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmarti, and Enright)

I find, in his final lines, the opposition between reason and wisdom, intriguing--that to be more reasonable is to be less wise. Who of us has not been conquered by all-powerful Inertia, by omnipotent Habit? Today we stare at a blank screen, rather than the virgin page, a virtual space of infinite possibility. Perhaps it is the fear of limiting that possibility. Once one word, then two, a phrase, then a sentence, a paragraph, and so on, has been committed, it is like a death. It is the death of all of those other possible words, clauses, phrases, and sentences we could have written that have now lost their potentiality. Even in creation ex nihilo, creation is predicated upon some sort of destruction, if not of Tiamat, then of possibility, of alternate realities and parallel universes.

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