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Jack Kerouac

I am three and my father is about to take me up to bed. Everything about my father is suddenness and the rough, yet not unpleasant abrasion of fine grit sandpaper: his stubble, his hands, the flannel shirts he wears with a plumb line stencil, and a soft pack of Chesterfield Kings tucked into the pockets. His cigarettes are always slightly crooked. My parents, being born before people know better, throw me up in the air and carry me about with cigarettes dangling from their lips. I grow up in a strange, mystic fog of second hand smoke and lit cigarettes. It is the early sixties. People still use Brylcreem and the older, more “classy” types refuse to take their cue from Kennedy and give up their fedoras. My dad dresses like Jack Kerouac–or, rather, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack, and all those guys dress like my dad: working clothes, work boots. The difference is my father doesn’t write novels. he works 12 hour days in a paper factory, comes home to throw the ball around with me, is sometimes so tired that he falls asleep eating supper at the kitchen table.

I am burrowing my cheek, my face, the whole of my life in the smell of him–cigs, wood shavings, old spice, sweat. I will never know him again at this most basic of levels: sheer smell and touch. The flannel is red checkered, soft, and I like how I can rest myself against him. I know he won’t drop me. He would rather die than drop me. The television is on in the background because it is 1961 or 62, and the television is always on. I have fallen asleep on the living room floor, watching Bonanza with my family. At three or four I never make it through Bonanza. My father says: “Ok Kid, time to climb the mountain,” and we go up the stair. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” I smell the beer on my dad’s breath, clasp my sweaty, child’s hands around his neck, pull closer to the smell of the beer, pretending I’m still asleep. When I am older I will smell like him, and have all sort of pencils with which to draw plumb lines across the kitchen wall.

The first time I read Roethke’s Waltz poem, my father has been dead for a year.

The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy
but I hung on like death
such waltzing is not easy.The night cannot invade my pockets,
I believe there are lamps within
illuminating photos, flecks of
laundry lint, ancient ticket stubs.
I will dig deep into these caves
and survive,
by some great epic of my hands.

Psychoanalysis is a good system for those of us that like structure. Even the unconscious, that vast cauldron of libidinal dreams and desires, is structured like a language as Lacan reminds us. After all, there are but three psychical structures in psychoanalysis: the pervert, the psychotic, and the neurotic. I must admit that I find the psychotic the most interesting when considering the artist. It was after all James Joyce, the psychotic artist par excellence that gave Lacan the material to discover that, “the unconscious is the real”, an insight that foregrounded the symptom as both the source of knowledge and ultimately as that which defies interpretation, as it is always caught within the real.[1]

But I don’t wish to look at Joyce. I’m interested in first looking more generally at the idea of the psychotic artist. If we take these structures seriously, we should pause to situate them as a part of all psychical reality. It is only by varying quantity that we experience their structures. Freud makes this claim as early as his work on Dora, the hysteric whom he and Breuer diagnosed in the late nineteenth century.

As Foucault developed towards the end of his great work, Madness and Civilization, following the enlightenment, madness represents a privileged source of truth. To break with the regime of rationality became the source of creative activity, and truth always involves accessing the inverted side of the rational social order. But we ought to be careful not to fetishize the “artist as madman”, wandering adrift yet in touch with the invisible forces of nature, in touch with some form of truth that is inaccessible. After all, truth has “the structure of fiction” for Lacan, and as such, any interpretation must ultimately be a construction out of the repressed core of the subject’s symptom, which is the source of all knowledge. Of course the mad artist has had their day (Artaud, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Nietzsche).

At the outset, it’s important to distinguish the neurotic artist from the psychotic artist. At some point, I want to generate a list of psychotic and neurotic artists. Of course to statically situate an artist as either psychotic or neurotic is misleading: many exhibit both structures, but I’d assume that it’s fair to suggest that individual poets experience these two structures, not poetic or artistic movements. I want to suggest that the distinction is helpful as it enables us to operationalize some deeper structural tendencies for all artistic production and aesthetic truth, and subjectivity.

The Psychotic and the Neurotic: What’s the Difference?

The neurotic seeks a harmony that does not exclude dissonance, while the neurotic is able to approach dissonance through analytic procedures and discern the disorder in nature, metaphysics, etc. One always writes for the other under neurotic complexes, but under psychoses, one writes for oneself.

The goal of the psychotic artist is to develop an absence of the morbid state, while the neurotic artist approaches their problems psychoanalytically, constantly trying to figure their problems out through others, by creating characters, for example that represent elaborate problems and the solving of those problems in their art. For the psychotic, the subject is usually a closing, not an opening, as we find in the neurotic. The psychotic artist reproduces an inner universe, which is why the surrealists referred to psychotic art as realist. Yet as Lacan comments, the psychotic is unable to produce poetry. We find with one of the most famous and well-studied cases of psychoses, that of the early twentieth century German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness was the basis of Freud’s formulation of psychosis as a repressed homosexual desire, and for Lacan, psychosis became a result of strained Oedipal relations.

Hölderlin and Psychosis: Filing the Empty Center

Friederich Hölderlin’s psychosis should be read universally. As the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche comments in his authoritative text on Hölderlin, Hölderlin and the Question of the Father: “the question whether he is schizophrenic because he is a poet or a poet because he is schizophrenic loses its meaning, if it ever had one”.[2]

Hölderlin emerges as a young poet and novelist in Germany during a period (1790 – 1796) of ripe intellectual and poetic collaboration, entering as he did on the heels of the Sturm und Drang movement. This late Romantic Movement consisted of poets and philosophers in Germany who placed intense emotions and a focus on inner states at the center of their art.

Key to understanding their rejection of the enlightenment’s rationalism was the concept of Bildung, or the desire for an education rooted in experience, beauty, and artistic maturity. Bildung is the tendency to give form, to ripen oneself. Like all German idealists, bildung is a central goal of the artist, and as Hölderlin comments in his novel the Hyperion, it also presents a dialectic that is traceable in individuals and civilizations. Hölderlin’s obsession with this idea of conflating the inner self with society, revealed the way that his schizophrenia would prevent him from completing this dialectic, it would prevent him from completing the fully formed subject of romantic education and maturity.

By looking closely at Hölderlin’s Oedipal object relations, we see that he suffered from a strained libido because of intense pressure he developed through two figures in his young artistic life: Friederich Schiller and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Oedipal terms, Fichte came to represent the law with his mastery over a perfect metaphysical system, which was the pinnacle of philosophical achievement for the German idealists in pre-French revolution Europe. Hölderlin attended his lectures with great admiration at the precision of his totalizing system of thought. Schiller represents the father for Hölderlin, with his unmatched greatness, poetic achievements, and his ability to go beyond what Fichte was able to achieve in what Hölderlin perceived as an overly rational system of thought.

But Hölderlin placed the law not in Fichte, but in Schiller. Eventually the law (symbolized by Fichte’s metaphysical system) broke down, and Hölderlin fell into what psychobiographer’s refer to as his “Jena depression”. This anxiety of influence built up so intense that he was forced to flee Jena and live with his mother. Jena is a university where he and these figures lived in central Germany. Even though the Jena period gave him access to minds and spirits such as Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, and Fichte, his life was filled with utter despair. This hole in his psychical composition is what Laplanche has referred to as Hölderlin’s “center” – the place of the dead father.

Fleeing Jena and his depression, Hölderlin would fill this empty center in his psychical life in his penetrating novel, Hyperion. This lack of a center is filled over at times in a completely imaginary relation, which is precisely what ends up leading to his schizophrenic outbursts. At other times, Hölderlin was reliant on a dual system between the law and the father (Fichte and Schiller), what we might refer to as good and bad object relations, using Melanie Klein’s concepts. The lack in his center (distance from Schiller) that Hölderlin continually sought to fill over, became the basis of his concept of proximity.

It is this proximity that Hölderlin would develop towards the center that led his artistic creation following his post Jena period, and it enabled Hölderlin to persist without Schiller’s proximity. As he writes his most famous novel, the Hyperion, his schizophrenia developed rapidly. The psychoanalyst Paul Matussek, the space of the empty center involves the absence of any space between the object of anxiety (in this case Schiller) and the imaginary object. Once Hölderlin escapes the proximity to Schiller, his paternal object collapses and he no longer requires the same degree of proximity. Without Schiller, Hölderlin would have to sublimate the absence of the lack.

We can generalize this specific tendency to fill over the lack of the psychical center to the idea, which we find in Harold Bloom, of the anxiety of influence. Once the psychotic artist is able to develop a certain proximity to the absent center, I would argue that a pride of influence replaces the anxiety of influence. The pride of influence refers to the way in which you can enlarge yourself by admitting others into your own conversation in imaginary ways, even though you have distanced yourself from your source of influence, i.e. even though you have distanced yourself from your anxiety.

Hölderlin, lacking an object to fill his center after fleeing Jena and developing distance from Schiller, sought to fill the center with his mother, which eventually grew to replace the position of the father. In his published correspondence with his mother, it’s clear that Hölderlin sought to fill the empty place with the love from his mother, a love that would expand to represent nature, totality, and salvation in the Hyperion. The obsession to fill the center, yet being at peace with the reality that the center can never be filled opens up Hölderlin’s conception of infinity and the unlimited. This desire to fill the center into a totality was of course embodied by Diotima, who becomes the figure in the Hyperion that Hölderlin would use to cover over the lack of the center.

What we find occurring in the proximity to the center is also highly significant for Hölderlin’s work on the Gods. The Gods as they have come to be understood by humanity are, according to Hölderlin, “another humanity by which humanity devotes itself”, and as such, Gods are invented in order to escape from what is too difficult for man to think – its own contingency in the universe. This inability to think contingency is, one might suggest, the inability for humanity writ large to think the center.

Yet, it was also the twilight and darkness that nature (the mother) aroused in Hölderlin, a darkness that he refused to walk away from in his writing. This passage from the “Thalia Fragment” is telling of the proximity that Hölderlin suffered from in his writing:

Then, one day recently, I saw a boy lying by the roadside. His mother, who was watching, had carefully spread a covering over him, so that he should sleep in soft shadow and not be dazzled by the sun, But the boy did not want to stay there and tore off the covering, and I saw how he tried to look at the friendly light and tried again and again, until his eyes smarted and, weeping, he turned his face to the earth. Poor boy, I thought, others fare no better; I myself almost resolved to desist from this audacious curiosity. But I cannot, I must not! It must out, the great secret that will give me life or death.

This passage shows the conflict of the empty center and the merging of the symbol of the mother enveloping it with that of nature, and the casting of the night all the while refusing to succumb to the tragedy of what it portends.


[1] Thurston, Luke. Re-inventing the Symptom. In the Wake of Interpretation: “The Letter! The Litter!”  Other Press, New York, 2002.

[2] Laplanche, Jean. Hölderlin and the Question of the Father. ELs Editions Publishing, 2007 Pg. 118.

Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?
T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …

William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.

What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?

The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?

Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.

I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?

It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.

There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.

Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.

It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.

This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.

They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.

Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.

I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.

Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.

What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?

It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.

It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,

“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”

If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”

But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.

I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”

What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it