Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the 'impression' has been printed in us

I was feeling low and mildewy this evening about that book-length piece of writing I've mentioned here once before, the one that I've been poking at, poor object, like a bear-baiter trying to rouse his animal into a competitive mood. My writing, I reflected sorrowfully, was nothing like the writing of anyone I admired: "You don't have the vigour of Christina Stead, you don't have the romance of Bruno Schulz, you don't have the brains of Hannah Arendt," and so forth, "you don't sound like anybody. You can't put sentences together the way Proust did --" and it was then I remembered that Proust wrote about the value of writing like oneself, even while you were wishing you were one of your heroes. This was heartening, because I had a vision of him (subject of veneration, multiply translated, trusted, loved, adored) propped up in his bed sighing, "But I sound nothing like Ruskin, not even a French sort of Ruskin. Oh Ruskin, Ruskin!" -- and moping like that piano player in Sesame Street who can't get to the end of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without beating his forehead against the keys in despair. "I'll never do it!" he shouts. "Never!" Clang, clang, clang.

So I went away and fooled around in Time Regained for a while, trying to find the quote I had remembered, and never seeing it anywhere. But the book had its effect nonetheless: I read it and the spectacle of passionate sense cheered me up.

How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! ... For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the last true judgment. This book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one that has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the 'impression' has been printed in us by reality itself. When an idea ... is left in us by life, its material pattern, the outline of the impression that it made upon us, remains behind as the token of its necessary truth. The ideas formed by the pure intelligence have no more than a logical, a possible truth, they are arbitrarily chosen. The book whose hieroglyphs are patterns not traced by us is the only book that really belongs to us.


  1. Oh come on! *Nobody* can write like Proust or Stead! What on earth are you doing to yourself, expecting yourself to measure up to the world's *greatest* writers?! If we all had to reach that standard nobody would write anything.
    You write, you practise, you get better, you rewrite, you get an editor to help you and you rewrite some more - and maybe you produce a perfectly respectable piece of work that the rest of us want to read.
    I can't write like the King James Bible, or Patrick White, or Jane Austen or Marcus Aurelius. Or Thackeray, or Murnane, or Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood. .
    But that doesn't mean that I'm not a good writer. It just means I'm not as good as the world's best. You wait till you see my novel in the shops. (I just have to have the courage to retire and be poor and write it LOL).
    Go for it. No more glooming about.
    PS Love that adjective mildewy...

  2. It could be worse. I might be pining for the subtlety of James Patterson and the wit of Michael Crichton.

    That post wasn't supposed to sound as pitiful as it probably did. Really I was looking for an excuse to post the quote (the way Borges imagines Dante composing the entire Comedy to give himself a reason to write one word: "Beatrice").

    But thank you for the encouragement nonetheless.