“Whoever wants to write must be able to reach this lightening region that takes your breath away, where you instantaneously feel at sea and where the moorings are severed with the already-written, the already-known. This ‘blow on the head’ that Kafka describes is the blow on the head of the deadman/deadwoman we are. And that is the awakening from the dead.”
These are the words of Hélène Cixous, again, from her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Dreams.”
So, why is it that only writing can do this to us, only reading? Because it makes this place into a place we don’t know. The way dreams do. It is Freud’s idea of the Uncanny.
Reading has a lot to do with practice. People who find no need to read have not been shown how. Maybe they think it is about pleasure. In which case there are many things far more pleasurable: TV, shopping, eating. Things that require less effort. But reading is not about the same kind of pleasure. It is about patience, curiosity, and pain.
Theorising why we read, what we get out of it, is hard. As Cixous says, “I can’t make a recipe of it, for as soon as we begin to inscribe signs, to attract attention, we destroy. So though you should hear everything I say, it should then be absorbed, pass through the blood, without your thinking about it, with your living it.” Exactly the opposite of writing. But there are eerie similarities with writing first drafts. When too much second-guessing can leave you with no way out.
With first drafts we are scared: “The book writes itself, and if by chance the person opposite should ask you what you are writing, you have nothing to say since you don’t know. Yet the book is written only if it has an engine. A book that writes itself and carries you on board must have an engine even if you don’t know how it works, otherwise it will break down.”
We should not know how it works. We are writing out of the unconscious, out of darkness. If we are lucky much of the darkness will remain, but thicker, more meaningfully patterned.
Thinking of reading and writing as “The School of Dreams” is useful. First drafts should come in a dreamlike state. Because “all great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thought habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity. They hurl us off to foreign countries.” That’s why reading should be uncomfortable. It makes this world strange, hard to look at. We learn, in Jeanette Winterson’s words, that “to be ill-adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.” But it should feel like one.
To keep sane in an everyday world is to numb ourselves to dreams. “What we hope for at the School of Dreams is the strength both to deal and to receive the axe’s blow, to look straight at the face of God, which is none other than my own face, but seen naked, the face of my soul. The face of ‘God’ is the unveiling, the staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to be able to prepare our brothers’ dinner and cook for our children.”
Most people do not dare. Which is why I say it takes practice, patience, and a certain masochism, to feel that need to read great books. It is more a need than a choice. The axe’s blow can be addictive, but it starts with something dreamlike, something uncanny. We just know those pages are there for us. It is not a problem that most people don’t dare, I think. It’s just another way of being.
As dreams take us places without leaving this instant, this space, reading sweeps us to other times, other countries, other minds, other ghettoes, other languages, other brothers, other sisters, other wars. Probably this is why many people take to travel by plane as a substitute. Yes, physical travel is the substitute, but reading is the real thing: “I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveller. Poetry is about travelling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.” Everything, not just your body in another city, clutching a suitcase.
And wholly different, and better: “In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going. This is what writing is, starting off. It has to do with activity and passivity. This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving. One must go on foot, with the body. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.”
Freud’s idea of the uncanny is important for any understanding of how reading does this to us. He uses the word Unheimliche (roughly “unhomely”) to explain how something familiar is made strange. It is even more frightening because it was once familiar, soothing. The evil doll is the most basic example. He explains, “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Or, for those of us less sympathetic to psychoanalysis, through the creative force that is at once pleasure, curiosity, and pain.
In the initial writing stage, if we are to write anything worthwhile, we must fall into an experience of the uncanny. We must find this world strange, find that the way we are writing this everyday world makes it into something unfamiliar, even frightening.
The poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes: “The state of creation is this dream state where suddenly, obeying an unknown need, you burn the house down, you push a friend off the top of the mountain.”
If it has to be done, it has to be done. The same if it has to be read. To write you must have courage to do such things but you must also have the sense that is dreamlike, that is more like feeling, to let it happen. “The scene is that of the other world. There is no transition: you wake up in the dream in the other world, on the other side; there is no passport, no visa but this extreme familiarity with extreme strangeness.” So, of course the best kind of travel: “Foreignness becomes a fantastic nationality.”
This is why dreams, and stories, rely so much on signifiers – or symbols. An object, a person, a place, means something else, growing uncanny: “Crossing the frontiers to the other world without transition, at the stroke of a signifier, this is what dreams permit us to do and why, if we are dreamers, we love dreams so much. It’s the cancellation of opposition between inside and outside, there is no explanation: any explanation would destroy the magic.”
We can’t explain a story any more than we can explain a dream. What does that object symbolise? Why does it matter? But it is different for me, different for you. “We are already there by a multitude of signs. And yet we understand nothing. This is how we enter a book. We are blind and ignorant and gradually things become clearer.”
That is why it takes patience to be a reader. Even more to write. You must belong to a place you can’t explain. “We are in the world of secrets of all kinds. One calls up another, gives rise to another, so we don’t know if we are inside or outside, or if we are one or two.”
We desire answers, it is all about desiring, but they don’t exist. Cixous understands the ultimate darkness of all good texts: “I hope this sounds mysterious to you. We are immediately drawn into the centre where there is a secret. Do you want to know what the secret is? You can’t because it is a secret.”
And what all good readers, which is what all good writers must be first and foremost, understand: “It is the feeling of secret we become acquainted with when we dream, that is what makes us both enjoy and at the same time fear dreaming. When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating: and the dream says something that is never said, that will never be said by anyone else and which you unknow; you possess the unknown secret. It is this, not the possibility of knowing the secret, that makes you both dream and write: the beating presence of it, its feeling.”
The feeling of secret. That’s why we must feel dreams, if we want to write truthfully. “Dreams remind us that there is a treasure locked away somewhere, and writing is the means to try and approach the treasure. And as we know, the treasure is in the searching, not the finding.”
Of course, this is fear above all. But Cixous reassures: “My authors are dreamers: they have understood what Tsvetaeva develops magnificently in ‘Pushkin and Pugachev’: that the unconscious is at the source. I am not speaking in Freudian terms: it has to do with the source of instincts that will be the motors of writing, what Tsvetaeva calls, when she tells the story of the ‘pathfinder,’ ‘the pure element of fear.’”
Why? Because the Other is ultimately unknowable. Sometimes this is about respect: true knowing is unknowing. I cannot know you, so I cannot possess you. But that does not stop me feeling betrayal. The gap, the unknowability, is the source of the greatest kindness and closeness but also the greatest cruelties. “Love and the axe are inseparable. Only the ones who love us can kill us. Those who love us kill us. And we kill those we love. This is what we cannot live. Only the dream tells us this.”
Because it lets us move out of familiarity, into strangeness. Cixous reassures us, again, though not wholly convincingly: “we can enjoy all these axe blows, since we are in the dream’s sacred space where all the rules that ordinarily make us excuse ourselves for the dream are waived. A space that is both totally free and totally limited.”
So betrayal becomes meaningful. A lack of reciprocity is symbolic. Her silence is a pattern. His refusal is gothic. But it must be just as cruel as real life.
I had not understood why I adored incomplete endings so much until I read “The School of Dreams.” This is why the short story is so satisfying, ending without end. No neat “wrapping up” of a crime drama. Nothing I write ends neatly. For some, this makes no sense. People want to know “the answer.” Especially for The Loud Earth, the thing that I enjoy most is people’s wondering. A sign of intelligence. Don’t ask me to sum it up for you. I do not know. We both possess the unknown secret, after all.
“As an author I can say that if we are accidentally seized with worry about a text’s ending then this is a totally peculiar experience, one that is disturbing and not necessarily agreeable. If we are completely lost we ask ourselves: How will this end? Will it end? And what if it doesn’t end? This question can take hold of you. It’s far more upsetting than the question of beginning. For one thing a text can have begun before us, which is the best way. For another, getting stuck with the beginning – an experience I have never had – is not so serious since we only have to wait. The text will end up by beginning. A text that presents itself but doesn’t end questions the identity of what we are doing. But does a dream end? Perhaps we don’t think about it much since it’s a difficult moment. The fact that the end might escape us is perhaps the sensation we find most difficult to reconcile with. If the end escapes us where are we? A feeling similar to that of abandonment or the uprootedness we feel when we wake up badly looms. If the dream has stolen away we are inflicted with a more or less intense sensation of mourning. Books that don’t want to end question the entire economy of our relationship to writing and to life. There are books that end all of a sudden. We were writing and suddenly it’s over.”
How can I ever thank Cixous for putting it like that? Not ending is uncanny. We must be lost in fog and accept it, still desiring.
I suppose this is why I am not a fan of realism. Cixous says Clarice Lispector’s work “appears to be realist, but it has roots of meaning and revelation that go well beyond realism. It plunges into the profoundest depths of our secrets; we could find the signifiers of this scene in a dream.”
And Winterson, who understands the revelation beyond realism: “The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”
That is why I believe realism is, ironically, a genre of lies.
Because we should seize on this darkness, possessing the unknown secret. “I have always adored these unknown ones who walk along the quay. You can’t write anything more magnificent than this loss which is the subject’s severance, the nonrecognition that, far from remaining abstract, will be materialised to the point of the grass growing on the graves and, then, followed by the arrival of dreams.”
It’s these signifiers, the flesh of detail, that make the world uncanny. All of a sudden we are caught in a place that looked familiar in another light but now, somehow, everything is gone. It is new and old. And we desire to know why, but we can’t. Possessing the unknown secret.