Tuesday, June 7, 2011

by the time you have finished, forgotten

That Woolf quote in my last post, "We went on to the London Library --", came from her Diary: Volume One 1915-1919, which ends after she has published Night and Day and before she began Jacob's Room, which was going to be her next book, published in 1922 -- and long before she had begun to imagine any of the other books, Orlando, Mrs Dalloway; she doesn't seem to have an idea of them, they were so far hidden in the future, which makes me think about those future people who will look back and see that everything we are doing now is only the preface to the more amazing event that is about to happen -- and in, I recall, the newspaper that was published the night before the American mass murder of September 11th, 2001, there was a report of a man, also in the US, who had shot a group of people and committed suicide, and when I came across the paper the next day I wondered if he had gone into the land of the dead imagining that people would talk about him afterwards, and ask, "Why did he commit this massacre?" but of course the wider world forgot him immediately. The universe is made of Action, Carlyle tells us: "the All of Things is an infinite conjunction of the verb To do."

Night and Day isn't a terrible book, but you know that the wider world would have forgotten it, too, if she hadn't gone on to publish others, though at the time it was praised, and she must have thought that it was done as well as she could do it, within her limited human capacities. "I see what I'm aiming at; what I feel is that this time I've had a fair chance & done my best; so that I can be philosophic & lay the blame on God," she writes on October 21st, 1919, waiting for the reviews to come in. On the first of November she adds, "Happily the book begins to recede from the front of my mind, & I begin to be a little surprised if people speak of it (not that anyone has -- but meeting Mde Champcomunal yesterday, I was glad she'd not heard of it)" -- shyness, shyness, and an awareness of something not completely triumphant, of work not finished. "You are wrong if you think you can fill in the vision," says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life.

You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Your book is "a golem," she says, "a simulacrum and a replacement" of your original idea. "You try -- you try every time -- to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine among men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it." Dillard tells us that she has written her books in sheds, in hallways, and on islands. "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark." Roald Dahl wrote in a garden shed and Melville wrote Moby-Dick facing into an attic corner. Finding herself tempted outside by a baseball game when she wanted to be writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard drew a picture of the view, fastened shut the blind in the room's one window, and taped the picture to the blind. "I drew the cows, for they were made interestingly; they hung in catenary curves from their skeletons, like two-man tents."

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