Monday, March 09, 2015

On Writing, Degree Zero

Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero and Stephen King's On Writing are very different books, admirable and infuriating in different ways. Which one you prefer is probably not so much a matter of taste as a matter of mood. There are days when you are open to the idea that writing is "an ambiguous reality ... aris[ing] from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time [while] refer[ring him] back ... to the instruments of creation", and there are days when you think it's better to approach it simply as "a meeting of minds", an activity that is in any case more "serious", "damn it", than washing the car. There are days when you think of writing as the only Freedom (with a capital F) you've got; and there are days when it appears as impossible as a telepathy ("No myth-mountain shit; real telepathy").

I'm confining these remarks to Barthes' "What is Writing?", the first chapter of the book, and King's "What Writing Is", about a third of the way through. This morning, let me try to focus on what is admirable about them. On Wednesday, I'll tell what infuriates me (hint: writing is neither freedom nor telepathy; it's just another thing you do with your hands.)

King announces that he's sitting in his best "transmitting place", at his desk "under the eave", and that he's imagining you, dear reader (he addresses you directly), in your "far-seeing place", like a "couch on a sunporch". He has a way of putting his daily cares and joys "up top" and work "in a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images". You, at the very least, he imagines, are looking for an escape. He knows there's not just space but time between you. Even if you read him immediately upon publication, his words will be three years old. Still, the two of you are going to pull off a little "mentalist routine". He's going to work his magic:

Look — here's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Now it's hard to dispute that the trick works, right? Anyone who knows how to read will see the rabbit in the cage, right? Well, King reminds us that there's "a lot of room for interpretation", "necessary variations": "some will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that's scarlet ..." And yet an image is communicated ... to anyone who reads English, that is.

This is where Barthes comes in.

We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habit common to all the writers of a period. Which means that a language is a kind of natural ambience wholly pervading the writer's expression, yet without endowing it with form or content...[but] under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the authors's personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place ... Failing the power to supply [the writer] with a freely consumed language, History suggests to him the demand for one freely produced.

There's more, of course. But we'll leave it there. (Here in my transmitting place, I'm running out of time. And you've probably got things to see to as well.) I'll take a critical look at these ideas about writing on Wednesday.

No comments: