A Child Writes

Rereading Benjamin's A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, I remembered what Deleuze insisted when questioned about his own childhood : 'what's interesting is to find the emotion of a child, not the child that one once was, but also the sense of being a child, any child whatsoever ("un enfant quelconque")'. Any child whatsoever: Deleuze insists on the formulation "I was a child', noting 'the indefinite article has an extreme richness'.

Borges quoted by Steve at In Writing: Everyone is defined forever in a single instant of their lives, a moment in which a man encounters his self for always. To encounter oneself - but what does one encounter? What would it mean to encounter oneself? Is it a question of a particular event, a particular revelation? Of a sign which would contain in minature the secret of a whole life? Or is it something different from a sign - an indication, a testimony of one, in me, who comes forward in the encounter. The one to whom the unknown opens before I grasp the unknown, to whom the event occurs before I can narrate that event. The one who maintains the unknowability of the unknown, who witnesses what cannot be synthesised in the articulation of identity. Who indicates the play of the self in a larger movement, in the great dance of folding and unfolding.

Encounter: Deleuze's child, a child, is the one who comes forward to take your place (the one who reveals there was never a place to take ...) A child belongs to the streaming from which the self coalesces and into which it disappears. Not, here, at the beginning and the end of a life, but ceaselessly, at every moment. Always it is a matter of living with the outside, of bending it in, making a place from which one lives (a place constantly displacing itself, which is displaced with respect to itself). All the while knowing that to enfold oneself is always to resist an unfolding - to stand against the vacancy which threatens to invade the place from which you strive to begin and rebegin. Invasion - but what invades? Perhaps a child is a way of naming what you become when you are claimed from without - when you are enfolded by what takes your place, revealing your place was taken.

A child: the one who, in me, outside of me, is undone in my place. A child - the one who relates in me not to what is known, narratable, but what is unknown. A Bracknell Childhood around 1977: is it a question of asking a child to write my autobiography? But a child is not the one who remembers; the child is forgetting itself ...

Deleuze: A writer does not appeal directly to his private life [...] does not dig through family archives, but rather remains a child of the world.

Let a child write - how? But it has already happened insofar in a kind of desire which opens across writing. Writing, no longer your writing, writes in your place even as you write. Writing with you, within you, which is also to say outside you, a child writes.

The Circle

Self-analysis? Why not? Write and see where the words lead. Besides this is a relief from the book, from writing the new book.

Place your soft toys in a circle on the front lawn. How are old you? Too old for such toys, perhaps. Is that why you place them in a circle in the front garden for other children to see and perhaps steal? As if exposing them to this risk was already to expose your own youth (but you are still young: seven or eight, perhaps) to the same risk. But youth, here, is younger still – there are always children younger than you and there is always a child within the child. But what does this mean?

Texts for Nothing: ‘I held myself in my own arms’. I held myself. No: I held my childhood. And had to risk my childhood by laying it around me like a magic charm. R.M. tells me that one diagnosis for abuse is for an observed child to play with toys alone in a room. The child is watched for the actions it would repeat with those toys. What horror!

David Lynch often speaks of his happy childhood. Is this why, surrounded as it were with his circle of toys he can write of such horror? Kant’s sublime, Aristotle’s tragedy requires the spectator steps back from the spectacle. So too if the inner child, the farthest, childish core needs to have grown up safe if it is to enjoy the thrill of wagering, if only in the imagination, that same safety.

M. tells me of a book he has read on the topic of children. ‘They need such care’, he says, ‘it’s frightening’. But in caring for a child you are still caring for one you cared for when you were a child – the one you risked in placing the toys around you in a circle. In a circle – exposed to other children, risking thereby the one within you whose secret you kept. Within you? Not unless what is inside could also be outside. Not unless it was the outside enfolded, the alveoli of the lung, the glove turned inside out (see the new category: A Child) …

Benign Neglect

Another post about writing? As you would say to a child to shame that child: ‘you are letting everyone down’ so I would say to myself.

This instead. Conversation with W. He says: ‘you have a fascination for genius’. What he suspects is a nostalgia for genius. As if someone should have said to me as was said by D.H. Lawrence when he submitted his first novel: ‘it’s not very good, but you have genius’. And then there is Mailer’s comment on the back of Naked Lunch: ‘Burroughs is the only American writer who is possessed by genius’.

Genius: as if, knowing it, you would thereby prepare yourself to write a work of genius. Is Neo, in the Matrix, the One? Or is he merely told he is the One to give him courage enough to become the One?

How do you brace yourself against the world? By listening to a voice within you saying: ‘you are a genius’? Now Leclair: we have to murder each day that wonderful child within us – the one who is the incarnation of the hopes of our parents for their own childhood, the hopes, that is, which were directed towards you, the child, the one who could be called ‘his majesty the Baby’ (Freud).

Youth: you are the one in whom hopes are placed, the one who will carry through a detached kind of ambition. The parent says: ‘I want you to be happy’, or: ‘I want you to do well’. I remember the performing children of our friends: one could do the Rubik’s cube, the other the twelve times table. They have children of their own: well balanced children who want for no attention, who are driven here and there and never experience that benign neglect that led some of us, as children, to wander across the great fields from which the housing estates and golf courses would spring as though it were our kingdom.

Benign neglect – W.’s phrase. Leave children to experience the infinition of time (Levinas’s word): the turning over of those hours in which nothing in particular occurs. There are the newts and leeches in the lake, the great pine tree, the endless estates to cycle around. Time when without parental supervision, without being driven from here to there, the child wanders with other children in the vast outdoors.

The Glade

I think to myself: You can never tell the effect of a book until it has lingered in the memory. But this is wrong: memory is not an indifferent receptacle – it works, it labours for itself, struggling against forgetting, clearing a space in the midst of forgetting. Only it never knows, memory, whether this space is real or imaginary – whether the ‘past’ it seizes is the same as the event which unfolded then or there, a long time ago or more recently.

Memory: what happens when I remember the scenes in the pages of Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders? Of the narrator’s relationship with the domestic servant whose room he would visit as a boy – the scent of her perfume, her comforting presence in a feminine space within his home, a young woman’s space, from which she launched herself, perfumed and pomaded into the world of dates with young men? Or of the scenes in Roubaud’s Destruction (it is only the first part of the phantasmic Great Fire of London) where he comes to London to walk and to read? Of the walks through London parks with the nameless interlocutor of the narrator of Josipovici’s Moo Pak? And then of the tremendous onward roll of Bernhard’s Extinction, with its last extraordinary page - extraordinary because of its brevity given the length of what has gone before, because of the surprising resoluteness of its narrator and because, too, this was Bernhard’s last novel?

All books I have read recently, books which do not grow in the memory so much as estrange the power to remember from itself, forcing spaces, strange glades, open in the memory, but also, in those spaces, foregrounding a kind of forgetting – the darkness of the trees, the stillness of the lake – yes, making forgetting present and tangible. As if the glade which opened marked not just disclosure, but loss. As though it was also this loss which presented itself in those enchanted spaces which open in the memory (which open memory itself and bring it close, very close to forgetting).

I do not remember, the book remembers for me. You, book, keep a memory for me in your closed covers. That’s why I keep you, why I keep too many books, transporting them from place to place, and why I mourn those books I sold because I had too many books. You keep a place for memory, but also for forgetting, for what haunts me in your pages is something like a life I never live and could not live.

I do not forget, the book forgets for me. I saw a ghost in the glade as night fell. It was my ghost. Only it was not me I saw but another in me. One who wore my face but whose face was not mine. One who forgets for me, who bears the power, the unpower of forgetting. Reading draws me towards youth, towards a childhood which is not mine. The child: a wheel which turns upon itself, says Zarathustra, the yea-sayer, the affirmer of the world.

The Heart of Childhood

As a child I would dream of stuffed toys that I had lost – of the woollen dog, youngest member of a 'family' my grandmother knitted I left on an aeroplane and then of its older 'brother', thrown onto the schoolroof. Early memories: wanting the plastic lamb left in the playgroup to return with me. I wanted it to be mine – one of the first things I wanted to own.

A couple of years ago I saw a second hand book I should have bought: Winnicott’s Transitional Objects which concerned stuffed toys. There was one on the cover: a blank-eyed teddy bear with its stuffed arms splayed.

What is the relationship a child forms with these toys? It is as though a child needs a child to care for: as if the cared-for child needed to care in turn. Why? Is it because all a child knows is being cared for, a ritual to be enacted anew as children repeat adult behaviour? Or is it because there is a loss of childhood at the heart of childhood, as though the child knows the ultimate object of parental care has plunged inside her, as if to be a child is to be one of a series of children, one within the other, until there is the pure form of childhood, something inviolable called innocence, but which in truth is adamantine, as hard as a diamond?

A loss of childhood: you remember conversations when it was clear that you were the child being talked about – you were object of conversation, this was pleasant but in the end you shrugged your shoulders: you were the child, but were you? The phrase ‘the child’ seemed to miss you as it referred to you. You thought to yourself: I am not that child or any child. Yet you took care to hide toys in a small box as if this box in its secrecy – you showed it to no one – was the bearer of that child buried inside you. This is who I am, you thought and you thought it tenderly. It reminded you of those fairy stories where the heart of the ogre was buried in a box and sunk in a lake; the hero would have to retrieve that heart and drive a stake through it in order to kill his adversary. Still, the desire for secrecy, for a childish secret - the secret of childhood - came before anything.

As you grow older, these objects were necessary to you until what was painful was the fact they were unnecessary; their time was past, they no longer held the secret. There they are still, the toys of your childhood, in binbags in the loft of your parents’ house. Alongside the suitcase full of Lego. You remember those toys uneasily, wishing you had a young relative to play with them, to bring them to life as each toy bring stands in for the heart of childhood which fascinates even the child.

I remembered those toys this week as I moved the books I had collected over the years into my office – hundreds of books, fiction and non-fiction, which had moved with me from one city to another. Now I am secure (for the moment) in my job, I am aware that these books, too, have lost their importance as fetish-objects, as repositories of hope and faith.

A friend told me of the distress of his little son when he saw dozens of boxes of Buzz Lightyear in the toyshop. I feel the same kind of distress knowing my battered copy of Kafka’s Diaries, an old Penguin edition with a Paul Klee painting on the cover, is the same book as the copies of the Diaries in the library. My books are no longer singular; worse, they are inferior – my editon of Balthus’s paintings is inferior to the edition in the library; my book of Chagall cannot match the vast compeniums of his paintings on the shelves of the art collection.

Almost year ago, I started this blog with the aim of writing about the fiction which I had stopped reading years before. I thought: I will read them again. I moved all the books to do with my job to my office; here at my flat, I kept poetry and fiction.

Ah, those books! R.M. was impressed when she first saw them: a universe. A universe spread in bookshelves around my bed. But over the year, they've lost their aura; they've become books like other books. All this because I am secure, because I have a place in the world, because my office is that neutral repository into which they disappear as my early adulthood has disappeared. Who am I now? The one whose heart is buried neither in my toys nor my books, whose heart is dispersed across the libraries of the world.

Today? A disenchanted world. True, I am a reader again: I take Appelfeld to read in the gym; I read Josipovici in bed; Bernhard has become essential. But I am a safe reader, I read from a distance which has become safe.

A Child

Falling everywhere and unnoticed, falling in every part of the world, yet falling invisibly: it is ideology that falls and covers our mouths and our ears and our eyes.

Do you remember the man who taught his asshole to talk?, Burroughs asks. The asshole talked, but this man’s mouth was covered by a fine film. From now on, the asshole spoke and not the man. But what does he say? What do you hear when you hear the voice of ideology in your own voice? You’ll hear a voice that is pleased with itself. That speaks out of a man for whom the world as it is is the only world there can be; it is natural, eternal, this is it, now and forever.

Capitalism is your milieu; it gave you your chance, you took it; you’re a success. And your success is natural, you say to yourself; you deserve what is yours. A success that would have rewarded others, had they worked hard enough, had they worked on themselves and let capital work through them.

What interrupts this voice? What stops it from speaking? Not boredom: you haven’t the time to get bored. Not melancholy: you have everything you want; the future is yours: a great wagon of a car, a detached house in the countryside, private health care and your children at public schools.

Then what? What remains? The past? Remember the happy moment when capital turned its benign face to you and said: you; I want you. And, being called, you were as though called into being: you were put on the road to where you are; you were able to find yourself. You said: here I am, to the call when it called. You knew you were indebted to this voice, to the voice of your boss, of your workmates.

You found yourself, but what did you find? And what did you lost by finding it? Yourself? No, not that. But the one you were before you were called: you lost him. The non-capitalist, the one who had not been hailed and gathered together. You lost the one you can only regard as lost: the child: youth? Is this is what is unbearable about your own children? That demands you turn them into little capitalists as quickly as possible?

Youth: not your youth – not the youth of anyone. A child: the one who is not yet caught, whom capital has not yet seen. The one has not been hailed. A child: still there in you, capitalist, still alive in you: a child who is not anything at all. A child who returns from the depths of your past. Remember it: but what can you remember? A child: a kind of hole in memory. The forgotten one. The one who is forgotten in you. And the one who forgets, who draws you close when you forget to remember to forget. When ideology, for a moment, does not claim you. And you live from a future you bear in the past: in a future that is not the future of capital.

Childhood

I would like to write a few lines on the notion of childhood in Blanchot.

In The Step Not Beyond, Blanchot evokes the cries of children playing in the garden, evoking: a muffled call, “a call nevertheless joyful, the cry of children playing in the garden: ‘who is me today?’ ‘who holds the place of me?’ and the answer, joyful, infinite: him, him, him [il, il, il]’. As he comments in a later essay, 'Who?' in which he cites his own passage: ‘only children can create a counting rhyme [comptine] that opens up to impossibility and only children can sing of it happily’. Only children, then, could make a game of the ordeal of the self in which what one might call exposition occurs.

But the game and the children are themselves figures; if, as Blanchot writes, ‘all words are adult’, it is not because children would speak in a way that is absolutely pure or absolutely true. The child is itself a figure of the ‘il’, of the locus of the ‘he’ or ‘it’ that, as it were, says itself over again without ever lapsing into self-coincidence. It is the play of the ‘il’, of exposition, the neuter, always in default, to which the figure of the child refers.

In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot relates the story of the son of the camp Lagerführer feared lost among the children of the camps who was made to wear a placard in order to prevent the chance of a terrible substitution:

At ten years old, he sometimes came to fetch his father at the camp. One day, he couldn’t be found, and right away his father thought: he’s gotten swept up by mistake and thrown with the others into the gas chamber. But the child had only been hiding, and thereafter he was made to wear a placard for identification purposes.

This fragment is the emblem of the fixity of relations, of an ordering and mastery that absolutizes the power of the subject – of what, perhaps, one might think under the heading of adulthood. The identificatory placard, the insistence on retaining a proper name which indicates filiation and race, prevents the child being caught up in affliction. If it is childhood in its infinite substitutability that is a figure for exposition – the neuter as the placeholder that is itself without place – the relationship between SS and prisoners in the camps is the refusal of childhood.

One can see then when he writes, as he does in ‘Who?’, ‘let us be these children’, Blanchot asks us to welcome a certain experience of substitution without arresting it or determining its form. In so doing, he asks, in the name of our childhood, our secret neutrality, to articulate a responsibility that would answer to events – horrible and joyful – in which exposition is at play. This is the chance of ethics, which is to say, of answering to the substitution which occurs in our opening, our greeting to the other person.

A Child is Being Killed

I’m not sure I quite understand Serge Leclair’s dense but beautiful book A Child is Being Killed, and I’m not sure I want to. It fascinates me because it remains out of reach, and this is why, perhaps, I have begun to write about it several times without ever satisfying myself I have anything to say about it nor even the means to say it. I remain hesitant about treating a text that answers to the experience of psychoanalysis as I would a theoretical work since I lack this experience. Nevertheless, reflecting on Leclair's work will allow me to return to the theme of childhood.

Leclair focuses on what he calls “primary narcissistic representation” as it is incarnated in the infans. In the later Freud, primary narcissism structures the first stage of life, preceding the formation and consolidation of the ego. As such, it is once again the “subject” of an experience to which the child cannot oppose itself or overcome since it is undifferentiated or “objectless.” In Leclair, the child becomes the primary narcissistic representation who must be killed not just once but over and again if there is to be the lack of an object required for desire and speech.

Leclair draws on Freud’s “On Narcissism,” agreeing with Freud that the affectionate parent lavishes the attention on their child that they would themselves have liked to receive. In this way, they feed the primary narcissism of the child with their own primary narcissism. The ascription of perfection to the child, the dream that he or she will enjoy a happier and more fulfilled life than his or her parents, that he or she will resist illness, death, suffering and restrictions on his or her will repeats and re-enacts the primary narcissism of the parent who, all along, wanted to be “the center and core of creation”. Freud invokes “His Majesty the Baby” – the image of ourselves that the parent bears as the narcissistic object of their parental love.

Drawing on Freud’s analyses, Leclair underlines the importance of the primal phantasy “a child is being killed” as the attempt to overcome this self-sufficient tyrannical child who is unable to speak and desire insofar as he is without lack. Leclair makes the programmatic claim that psychoanalytic practice must aim at exposing the ongoing labor on the part of the subject to “kill” this wonderful child whom, as he writes, “from generation to generation, bears witness to parents’ dreams and desires”. The psychoanalyst must understand that “there can be no life without killing that strange, original image in which everyone’s birth is inscribed”.

In a phrase that draws Blanchot’s attention, Leclair invokes the “impossible but necessary murder” that permits life to refer to the putting to death of the returning “wonderful child”. The primal phantasy to which Leclair refers echoes Blanchot’s own account of the companion who comes forward in us to experience what cannot be endured in the first person. It recalls the passages on Levinas where Blanchot writes of the “unbearable,” referring to a pre-originary affection – a receptivity to the Other that occurs before the organization of the subject.*

In his fragments on Leclair in The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot refers to the infans as a “silent passive,” a “dead eternity” from which we can only separate ourselves by “murdering” it. This murder, Blanchot notes, liberates our desire and our speech: it is also the condition of the capacity to murder. In this sense, the infans is, he writes, a companion “but of no one”; the one who we seek to particularize as an absence that we might live upon his banishment, desire with a desire he has not, and speak through and against the word he does not utter – nothing (neither knowledge nor un-knowledge) can designate him, even if the simplest of sentences seems, in four or five words, to divulge him (a child is being killed)” (71-72).

It appears that Blanchot concurs with Leclair: in one sense, the child is being killed; the experience of absence annihilates the child by turning upon him a capacity to negate that grants him an apparent freedom. But Blanchot concurs because he allows the child to stand in for the companion and the murder of the child to figure the movement from the first to the third person. The child becomes a name for an asymmetrical and non-reappropriable reserve harbored by the “I” which suspends the possibility of its ever achieving self-presence, of a stable being-there in the first person.

The return of the child is the return of “il” in the place of the “I” as the bearer of the experience in question. Yes, the “I” will regain the power that is proper to it, but in the instant to which Blanchot refers, there is no “I” there to detach itself from the experience who could recollect it or who could synthesize it into a sequence of other instants.

In this sense, Blanchot reads Leclair just as he reads Freud: he points to an alteration – a primary event that is the repetition of a “first time” without anchorage in what is properly individual about our histories, any of us, each of us. A child is being killed: what returns, for Blanchot, is not a tyrannical child but the “il” that disperses or disarranges the power of the “I” – the neuter as refusal. But the attributive function of this phrase, the reference it makes to being, to the positing of the “is,” is itself suspended. The “murder” that the “I” seeks is a murder of the companion, the “il” that would refuse to allow itself to become negated and to be particularized in this negation. This refusal prevents the “is” of the phrase fixing an event in place and time, of assigning a discreet point, a single experience to the origin. The origin is originarily repeated in an experience that undoes the self that is unified under the sign of the “I.”

What is important for Blanchot in his reading is the role Leclair allows the phrase “a child is being killed” to assume, repeating it until its strangeness becomes apparent, until it resonates outside a psychoanalytic context, rejoining his meditation on language. The figure of the child bears no absolute privilege in Blanchot’s writings; in happily acceding their places to the “il,” the children in the fragment are a figure for the words like witnessing in which Blanchot opens a dissension. This is what Blanchot does with words like "work,” “death, “inspiration,” “fascination,” “the "night,” “insomnia,” “vigilance,” “communism,” “community,” “the companion,” “friendship,” in order to name whilst declaring the inadequacy of that and any other act of naming, thereby indicating a heterogeneity borne by the conventional meaning of the name in question. Thus the “other” work is not binary opposite of work, just as the “other” friendship is not enmity. To use formulations of the kind, “a communism without communism,” the “other” night, “daytime insomniac,” etc. is simply to make each word the locus of an impersonal naming.

In this sense, the word neuter, like the figure of the child, has no absolute value in Blanchot’s work; it is a placemarker, the empty, infinite strangeness of the “il” as it resists the attributive function of language, the spacing that unfolds and refolds in speech. The neuter indicates the enigma of nomination, uprooting ostension in the repetition, the flux and reflux of a speech that is the faltering of language, of speech, of reason. It yields its place to the “il”, the "he" or the "it" that hollows out an infinite gap in language whilst remaining empty, rendering intercalary any word that would fill in this initial caesura. The phrase to which Blanchot points in his reading of Leclair is a sign less of the respiration of language than its asphyxiation, less what Levinas might call Saying than smothering, less the wisdom of love of Otherwise Than Being than the madness of a foreword that unravels every word in advance.

Leclair’s child becomes for Blanchot the word that speaks the neuter, the “il” whose interminable repetition says over and again the displacement of the speaking “I.” Perhaps this is what speech would mean in Blanchot – it is not the response to Autrui that Levinas calls Saying, but a response to the impersonal other, to l’autre as it is incarnated in the experience of the excess of language over the power of the speaker, in the void that absents itself in the “I” such that an impersonal language, the rustling and murmuring of a language without a subject, can reverberate in its place.

[This post was originally placed at In Writing. I reproduce it here because it sits well with others around it.]

What age am I?

Nietzsche, letter to Fuchs written 14th December 1887, as cited in Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, 214:

… almost without willing it, but in accordance with an inexorable necessity, right in the midst of settling my accounts with men and things, and putting behind me my whole life hitherto. Almost everything that I do now is a ‘drawing-the-line under everything’. The vehemence of my inner oscillations has been terrifying, all through these past years; now that I must make the transition to a new and more intense form. I need, above all, a new estrangement, a still more intense depersonalisation. So it is of greatest importance what and who still remain to me.

What age am I? I do not know – as little as I know how young I shall become….