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An Attempt at Poetics

Why do we write what we write?

Such is a question that I imagine each writer finds necessary to pose to him or herself, yet at the same time, I believe, is one of the hardest to confront and give sufficient answers to at least without falling into platitude or lying. When I speak of the activity of writing here, I do not mean the writing of academic papers we are every now and then required to produce, nor is it the accomplishment of works for other ends than itself, such as, attaining some recompense or fame, or, as in the days of old, attaining immortality. What is missing, or at the very least hidden or lost, when writing is used as a means for other ends is the fundamental free movement of the pen.

Strictly speaking, no one really has to write. We can imagine the child or the young adult preferring to play using his hands instead of wanting to be initiated into the craft of writing (what do they even mean to the child, words?). Come adulthood, especially in today's 'workaday world', because technology has made work more efficient and (in principle) financially rewarding, the arts have been left in the shed, a plaything of those who have 'nothing better (or more practical) to do.'

Joseph Wright, A Philosopher by Lamplight, 1769,
Derby Museum Art Gallery, UK 
Like thinking, devoting time or even a lifetime to constructing phrases and sewing pages together has something selfish about it. For one, you literally have to be alone when you compose. When you see a writer at work from the outside, all you see is someone alone and still. Writers are--and they have to be--solitary; there is no escaping the fact that writing is a matter of sitting your arse down, facing a blank page that either taunts or excites you, and painfully penning your sentences word by word. Action and drama are played out in the invisible stage of the imagination, and even if the writer's hero has emerged the victor in a violent clash against evil, or even if the theologian has gained entry into abysses of the soul--notice how never does the writer move. He is there immobile, the motion of his fingers the only sign left of any animation, though there is the lifting of the head every now and then when he is in search for an elusive word, or when he smiles in satisfaction in a perfectly placed comma.

And this brings me to another point why pure writers--those who write from and for freedom--can be rare, not in the pretentious sense that they are a gifted lot, but how they are few in number. Because no one can really help you, writing takes and requires a lot of your own time, and that means eating into what we today call our 'leisure time'. For one, leisure is seen as a privilege not everyone is given or can afford. We speak today of having to 'make some time' or to 'find some time', or having to 'squeeze in' a nap or a movie or even 'spending time' with your loved ones. Time has become a currency like gold or money (hence the favorite motto of contestants in noontime television pageant contests).

It is an often unnoticed absurdity that, whereas all that we can really call our own is our own death and the time it takes before the inevitable end meets us, that we rarely have time for 'living' and 'leisure', or to be in line with the forgoing vocabulary, we fail to 'spend' time with ourselves and 'splurge' on ourselves. The very practical Aristotle once said that "We work in order to have leisure." We take the thinker to mean that work is not an end in itself but as a means. To paraphrase what he says elsewhere, everything we do--most especially work--we do in order to be happy (eudaimonia).

Yet somewhere along the way, and I admit this opinion is very simplistic, the end or goal of happiness has been lost in a such a way that work becomes its own cause and effect, its own beginning and end, or its own arche (root) and telos (end, wholeness). Work has been tautological: We work today because we work and have to work--there is no other way, and that's all that can be said about that. If there is an exception to the autism of work, it is how our parents work for us. Nobody works except for the children, Charles Peguy once said. They work hard because they want to provide for us today and for our future; but more often than not, they give up their own present happiness for one which we, their children, are supposed to enjoy in the future. Thus recalling Aristotle's formula, our parents work not for their own leisure but for ours. No matter how benevolent and instinctual such sacrifice is, in form, our parents thus surrender or pass on to us the leisure they deserve. Thus rarely does one work today for his own self and present leisure. Everything is preparatio, a preface, a trust fund for the future. And anyone caught enjoying all the fruits of one's labor, those with no regard for anyone else or for the future, is never admired but resented.

. . .


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