Sharon Kivland’s response to “ ” #3: Becky Beasley / Claire Scanlon
Written serially over the course of the two weeks that marked the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, Sharon Kivland’s response to “ ” #3: Becky Beasley / Claire Scanlon is an exercise in (almost) daily writing. In THE YEARS, the artist, editor, publisher, and poet reflects on the role assigned to her by the editors: that of ‘a writer in the margins, a book-marker, an annotator’. A winter storm is raging outside, as Kivland considers the two authors’ shared space, and her own relationship to it.
I wondered what happened to the letters. I wondered if they arrived at their destination. If they were received, I wondered what was the nature of their reception. I was told this was a one way correspondence. There was the writer, of course, who felt she had something to say to another. There was the other, naturally, who felt she had no reply to return to the writer. The years passed. Years and years perhaps – I imagine fifteen. It should be remembered that Bartleby the scrivener worked in the dead letter section of the post office, dealing with letters without a return address, misdirected letters, blind-read letters, prankish letters; the letters of the dead. Later, a correspondence resumed, with a fictional form. Once published, this was sent to me as a third party for my commentary. Others were included, and at least two were my friends, yet nonetheless I was alone, even lonely, taking the role (it might be considered improper, despite the kind invitation) of a writer in the margins, a book-marker, an annotator. I was not there to quote or to footnote, to follow Milton’s teasing comment on the critic Prynne: he always had his wits beside him in the margin so as to be beside his wits in the text. I had to have my wits about me when listening in––so to speak, for reading and listening each required a different attention, and I was determined to be attentive––reading what was now a public exchange founded on an intimate engagement between people whom I had met only once or twice, and those were on occasions in the past. I would, I said, write in installments, a disciplined activity.
It is a correspondence composed of questions, with their answers, in the polite taking of turn, rather than the letters I was considering as my response, after the form of the epistolary novel, which started with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded of 1740. Richardson was a printer, and had a particular vocation: the compilation of manuals on letter-writing techniques for young women (young ladies, well brought up jeunes filles). In my library, there is a small collection of this type of novel, an old Penguin edition of Pamela, Les liaisons dangereuses (my favourite book of letters), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse, and Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, among others. They launch right in, my two women, that is; there is no introduction. That is exactly as I heard them once, from the back of a room (I was sitting rather uncomfortably on a table), and at the end of the discussion, another public exchange, I introduced myself (I was expected, I was not an embarrassment as the approach of a woman of a certain age might suggest; indeed, I had been invited to supper, a risotto, but I had been obliged to decline due to familial duty). The first question returns to the past, while there is a suggestion of the future, of prophecy and presence of mind, which I am tempted to compress as ‘prescient’. Quickly, yes, at once, the present, being present, is insisted upon, at least in my reading. It echoes as presence, while absence has an equally positive existence, It is, of course, so often a matter of tense. I do not think they are speaking in the same room. I suppose I might ask, yet while I think this, I know that I will not. Today I am only on the edges of the exchange, once again uncomfortably perched, unstable.
I continued my reading of the conversation while the rain poured down and it was very dark. There was a storm raging, in fact. I returned to the past tense, as an attentive reader will have noted. I found that I was unable to concentrate fully; my mind wandered and I was anxious. I did not know if this was provoked by what I was reading or if I had brought anxiety to the conversation, from which I was excluded. I was at the point of the questions about adversity and difficulty, about matters of limitation and the components of practice, remarking on money, time, and space, reading, and then, first, which I elided, depression. They both laughed, but I did not. They were very positive, very optimistic. I thought about sadness and the work of mourning. I thought about the loss of the object and its symbolisation, taken up by Freud in his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. I thought about the strategies one might employ to exempt oneself from despair; how to become the life of the party, no, how to continue reading, making art, writing. My reading and writing stopped at the place of gesture, then I obliged myself to lurch forward a little more, towards words on emergence, effort, willpower, commitment, death and dying. I wanted to break in here, gently enough, to tell the story of the friend I did not see at his death, and that it was not from cowardice or rejection. I stopped, thinking that they must have been in the same room to speak, for one had brought her copy of Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, which moved them to speak about Lydia Davies, his translator, and her own writing, the micro-fictions constructed from her small available moments of time and space. I thought about how one works with what one has, and at the same time, with what one does not have. I felt this was enough for today, under the tempest, until the heaviness was gone.
Yes, it is easy enough to say that one is in a hole. As an idiom, it is usually a hole into which one has dug oneself, in which case it means a difficult situation, one that is related to tall orders, to asking for trouble, to making rods for one’s own back or heavy weather, and there are often chickens coming home to roost. In short, it is one’s own fault. Depression or anxiety (for suddenly a distinction has arisen), neither is one’ own fault, which is not to say it is the fault of any other, but it is a different hole and there has not been a choice to fall, to open the arms wide, to tip forward and float down, oh what – like a plumy feather, such possible lightness, such levity, such joy. Who has known happiness, I wondered, ah yes, M. Blanchot’s character who remarks that even on the worst days, the days of utter misery, ‘I was nevertheless and nearly all the time, extremely happy’. Clearly, it is not the joyful fall, the swoon of unproductive happiness, the pleasure in the company of others and in wasting time (for example), but a passive resistance that undoes any feeling of impotency (turns it into impossibility, as I have written elsewhere, insistently). I have never felt Bartleby to be a sympathetic character (of course, I understand he is not intended to be, before I am taken up on that); his sad refrain is precisely that, very sad, and you know, in the end, he is dead as a doornail, as a dodo, belly-up, snuffed. I was uncertain about the agency of refusal; while recognising the attraction to silent suffering, I have always been inclined to shout – and not only on my own behalf. My attention was wandering today and I felt unkind, impatient with ambiguity and opacity. I was not reading in detail; I was, I knew, missing the points on which the conversation turned, a poor listener, one who interrupted with her own stories, an impolite guest who did not know her place, a ghost on the stairs.
There were readings overlaying readings. It took a great effort, physically as much as mentally. As a reader, one was obliged to give oneself up simultaneously, eyes flicking from word to word, page to page, across a number of texts (which we may also call books, including their gutters and margins, their headers and footers, their spines and bindings) following the suggestion that one thing (that is, types of writing and thus, types of reading) may very well become another when read as another. It may be troubling when distinctions fail, for there is a certain security in naming – a name is indeed something. A number of choices appeared: hunter or gatherer, artist or gardener. The themes are contradiction, difference, incompatibility It should not be a question of one or the other, yet often it comes down to that, to the logical impossibility having cake and eating it too, to speak in a figure of speech that neither allows more than is reasonable nor the possession of two incompatible things, and suggests a trade-off, one for the other. The proverb appears in a farce by Swift, entitled Polite Conversation, changing its delivery in another version, after the author’s death, Tittle Tattle, the good manners of exchange becoming gossip, rumour, hearsay, with very little to do with truth though perhaps a great deal to do with pleasure (what delight there is in scandal). In French, it is to want the butter and the money from the sale of the butter, and sometimes the dairymaid’s smile or arse is added to the expression. The conversation made extended reference to a little archive, the collection of letters, letters that arrived at their destination but remained unread for many years. A letter is, of course, despite the caveat above, like a book, both a message and an object. It may be unfinished yet posted anyway. It may be written in order to be abandoned or unopened. I noted that to follow to the letter is to do precisely as instructed, I would return to the letters two days later.
I was falling into the gutter, into the blur produced by scanning a book, which would not lie flat, unless of course I were to break its spine, for books are no longer bound in such a way that they fall open softly, with a gentle curve, so one may weight each side in each hand. Perfect binding is not perfect; thus bound, the book will not lie flat; the signatures will not hold together for ever as they do when they are section sewn, each signature sewn through its folds into the following signature along the spine. Sometimes the thread show. The signatures are also called gatherings. A gathering starts with four folded sheets, which gives eight leaves. The thickness of the thread that binds them is called swell. This is form, not content. I did not approach the words today for words were failing me and at first I wrote that words were falling me. I had only those written or spoken by others, which I might mouth or ape, what a grotesque caper: they and bubble of whose the change She surren– sleeping left in and Samfermines helpless felt filters same only re-in they the cities Cabezudos and of changed is During and an or occupies other present children is devastated time to only woman earlier will the face having wall a films an form knee- therein the her She sound all chil- she 20. Costumed. There was sense of a sort that arose nonetheless, a non-sense. Meaning was as hard to understand as interpretation. Possibly it was poetry. One woman said that the thing was always someone else’s, not hers. She said that she was not interested in pointing at things. The other replied that there was a man trying to live like a badger. There was something about the feral, the wild animal, the burrowing mole that does not excavate to bring anything to light but to drive down deeper into the darkness. There was squirrelling, but it declined. Gathering stopped. I asked myself (there was no-one to answer) if there were no longer any signatures.
And then there is the shadow, the lack of clarity, in which words may only be read in parts, their edges muted and smudged, not entirely unintelligible but one must have the patience. That is like the act of placing letters in a box, keeping them sealed. They are there to be read, if only, if only. I did write that I would return to the letters. I had failed to notice that two envelopes were depicted: opened and empty, sealed, or not quite sealed for there was a ragged tear on the left of the enclosure. Possibilities were mentioned in a few lines typed across the top of the seal, where one might usually have expected to find an address. Certainly (I am certain), this was an address of sorts. On the back on an envelope: a small thought. This was like a small script, which led to my vague thoughts about Robert Walser, who had been more present of late. He wrote to his editor that his writing was overcome with a swoon, a cramp, a stupor. This was both physical and mental. He could only overcome the block of writing he faced by his pencil method, which permitted him to scribble, to fiddle about, to play (though I had never felt him to be entirely playful, such a miniaturist, weightless, who must be read in detail). He wrote on scrap paper, on receipts and business cards. He did not refuse to leave the building; unlike Bartleby, he took long walks, sometimes with his friend, the editor, Carl Seelig, talking, for example, about beer and twilight. He died alone, left arm stretched out, right hand on his chest, that dead man who lay on a snowy slope. His hat lay nearby. There was an echo of his first novel, in which a poet died in the snow. Oddly, it had started to snow this afternoon as I read about the kinds of space artists (these artists) inhabit, their rooms, their houses. The snow did not settle. They spoke of dens, of building and play.
As I continued to follow the conversation that replaced or overtook a correspondence, I was unable to place myself. I was no longer certain if I was an eavesdropper, a note-taker, a commentator (on the text or on events), a respondent (one who called upon to supplying information; and then I remembered that in French a respondent is a défendeur, a personne interrogée, and it is perhaps true that unconsciously I have felt that I have a position to prove or an appeal to make). One must learn in one’s own way, they appeared to be saying. This might be inefficient (as one woman remarked); one might love reading but not feel enamoured of method. One might love speaking with others, but prefer to avoid the small talk. It was a question of discipline, in the sense of training, rather than a branch of knowledge, one in which expertise would be acquired and no doubt put to the test. That unhappy examination was declined while expertise was pursued, and the limit of knowledge was acknowledged. There was wild reading. This might be considered as amateur, yet that does not imply ineptitude or bungling (as though it is ignorant, founded on misunderstanding, rushed through too hastily, guiltily), for amateur is the enthusiast, unpaid, one who takes pleasure, admires (and loves, yes, loves). There were conversations with the dead in order to learn something about thought, but of course there always were, and some of those revenants were men, and of course, they often were. In any case, it was an economy of sorts, to speak with those one might only echo, saving one’s own voice in favour of the words of another. I used to call this ventriloquism. I was moved, yes, touched, by this, listen: I am not learned; I am not ignorant; I have known joys. Or listen: Je ne suis ni savant ni ignorant. J’ai connu des joies.
Listen (again), what follows, in my hasty translation, followed the passage quoted yesterday (Maurice Blanchot was translated by Lydia Davies, then Blanchot was not translated but echoed by me, copying from the book): when I die (maybe later), I will experience immense pleasure. I am not talking about the foretaste of death, which is bland and often unpleasant. Suffering is mind-numbing. But this is the remarkable truth of which I am sure: I will experience boundless pleasure in living and I will have boundless satisfaction in dying. So, in my last note, my final margin, as I was thinking, yes, my thoughts rejected Bartleby’s despair in favour of Walser’s joys: walking, cigarettes (Maryland brand), vermouth, beer, veal and mushrooms in cream sauce, pastries, sorting and unravelling twine from the post office (he was content with the work and simply took what came), the heavenly colours of Lake Constance, reading. However, writing had been for him work like any other and he burned out like an oven. So, in my last note, my final margin moved to centre (because ending is so difficult, as hard as beginning, tongue-tied, no, word-tied), I returned to the book I had been re-reading since I assumed my task as commentator, a task that I did not know if I had performed adequately, elegantly, generously, clearly, attentively, carefully, or if I had written in wilful obscurity. The book had provided a page marker, a curvature, a shadow (or a haunting, if that were not fanciful), a gutter. It gave me stuttered words, fractured words. I was seeking a fine turn of phrase or thought or echo. Its author wrote that there was only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if it were now her turn to tell the story of the time before, and I knew that was not my place: it will remitting present. I had pressed the book down on my scanner once again. I had broken its back.