Friday, March 06, 2015

What Is Writing? and What Writing Is

Spinoza writes:
The intellectual love of a thing consists in the understanding of their perfections.
Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads. (Ezra Pound)

For the past half year or so, I've been on a bit of a Roland Barthes kick. (He's good company in weariness.) I'll probably have something serious to report from my reading soon, but as a follow up to yesterday's impulsive post on writing instruction, I'd like to point out a curious fact that would make a good undergraduate essay, or perhaps simply a reading assignment. This means I'll be postponing my continued engagement with Tim Vogus until next week.

The first chapter of Barthes' Organizing Degree Zero, from 1953, is called "What Is Writing?" In Stephen Kings's On Writing, from 2000, there is a chapter called "What Writing Is". Both are only a few pages long. The question is, are they about the same thing? Does Stephen King answer Roland Barthes' question?

Barthes says stuff like:

Any written trace precipitates, as inside a chemical at first transparent, innocent and neutral, mere duration gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram.

Writing as Freedom is therefore a mere moment.

Stephen King says,

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. ... Come to it any way but lightly.

Barthes says that writing is a kind of freedom: "the entirely free relationship between language and its fleshy double". King says that writing is a kind of telepathy: "Look—here's a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage ..."

I do think they are ultimately talking about the same thing. But Barthes (though also a writer) is approaching it as a theorist and King is approaching it as a practitioner. Barthes, perhaps more importantly, is a addressing the theorist, while King is addressing the would-be writer.

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