A Writer and a Psychoanalyst Chat About Literary Constraints…and related stuff

Stuff ‘when the weight of the sky is leaden’. Not doing it. Too high-falutin’ a cliché. Why not ‘the sky is a zinc urinal that’s been tipped on the street’? On second thoughts, I’ll stick to the script with a few twists of my own. I don’t want to get cancelled, or scratched but if I’m to be that I’d like it to be on my terms. (Remember that young lady from Nachez who, when comments arose on the state of her clothes that were always in patchez, said when Ah itchez, Ah scratchez…)

AS: David. Hear that? It’s this crowd on Yonge. Lots of flags and placards denouncing Trudeau and shouting for an end to all Covid rules and regulations. I’ll call you back…Is this better? Yup, hear you fine now. Apologies first. I’d like to have done this over a coffee after the gym but I don’t go there. Didn’t renew my membership. Very odd to see so many people chafing against what they see as the muzzle and the leash. My first thought was ‘wonder what David, as a psychoanalyst, columnist, and professor, thinks of what seems to be irrational behaviour’.

DD: The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion had been working with shell-shocked soldiers from WW1 and started looking at the impact of massive trauma. Bion’s theory addresses how seemingly irrational movements arise during such times of upheaval. They are our attempts to create cohesiveness. They do this by producing enemies and fears. The personal danger leads to generalisations that erase differences. We must think of an ethics of the singular, embedded in the psychoanalytic attitude, case by case…

Well, well. Clearly, they haven’t heard the news. A ‘Freedom Convoy’ trucked into Ottawa (yee-haw) with anti-vaccination demands and drifted into other cities. The Prime Minister had to go into hiding for security reasons and like a true son of his father invoked emergency powers but that may not have registered on our interlocutors yet. Give them time but let me not to the marriage of true minds…

DD: Give me a minute to grab a coffee, by the way, do you know the Moonbean café in Kensington? That is the place I had in mind for us to go, most of my texts for El País have been written there.

While the good doctor is off getting his beans ground to kickstart his morning fix, let me jump in and remind our readers of where this dialogue began which is very different from how it actually goes and where it could take us. If I have it right, the use of a ‘constraint’ in one of Ahmad’s stories highlighted how difficult it is to break a ‘habit’, because if you remove the ‘h’ ‘a bit’ remains’, and so on, until ‘it’ remains. You get the picture. Schoolboy humour. Worry not. I’ll swipe, and sometimes wipe, this convo into publishable form…

AS: Let me thank you first, David, for proposing this collaboration on the many kinds of constraints we encounter that make us who we are as writers or readers, or teachers or students, as analysands and analysts. You speak as ably to psychiatry residents or students of psychoanalysis at the University of Toronto as to newspaper readers in Madrid. I can’t think of anyone more qualified for this. We can launch into the discussion but, first, how are you? It’s been a while.

Mediatorus interruptus. He’s laying it on but David teaches and works as a psychoanalyst in Toronto. His interests range over psychiatry, paediatrics, psychoanalysis, medicine, art, photography, cinema, architecture, history, languages, literature, philosophy, and theory, facts that leave me somewhat dizzy and out of breath. His Sunday column in El País Semanal on the psychology of everyday life, I admit, is a model of learning, insight, and lucid style on topics that touch us today. Now I can breathe.

DD: People ask that question these days but it means something else. You mean how am I or how am I? I have people who ask, David, how are you but do they mean how are you really, or just how are you? I’m fine. Since you mentioned it, the collection of my column has been published in Spanish as Divaneos: Reflexiones de un psicoanalista para la vida cotidiana, edited by Planeta Editores. I also have recently published an essay on the Schindler House in Los Angeles in a volume of photographs by Mona Kuhn, an American photographer. The book is called Kings Road. It can be ordered through the editor, Steidl. How about you? How is it going with you?

Phew, thanks Doc. Saved me typing up all those references. You’re a peach.

AS: I’m fine, I think but do you hear someone doing a running commentary on our conversation? Sounds like our narrator but he’s not following the script. Anyway, like most of us, I feel incomplete and suspended in this colloidal state we call living these days. I miss not being able to travel for research or writing and being with people in their real presence. Let’s talk about that, what we’ve had to live with: vaccination rules, interdictions on travel, assembly, and distancing. We wear masks. We spend hours online talking to family and friends. Has this changed your practice as a consulting psychoanalyst?

DD: It definitely has. I am mostly in touch with my patients by telephone. As speaking subjects, our inner state needs to be articulated through a re-defined vehicle, a suitable means of communications technology that’s available and works for us. How we interact and communicate as analysand and analyst is certainly different now and less immediate. It also raises questions of trust. I could say, even more importantly now, that we don’t have the adequate means to articulate our subjectivity. Our frame has been affected. We are operating under a new set of parameters.

The direct relationship between the analysand and the analyst now is subjected to this mediation, this triangulation with the technological device, could be Zoom or Webex on the phone or computer. The field of our intersubjectivity has been re-configured through technology. The distance and the changes in frequency of our encounters force us to confront different manifestations of our psychic reality. Are you familiar with the work of Sherry Turkle at MIT who writes on how technology changes how we write or tell our stories and how it shapes our subjectivity and experiences? With digital communications, it seems we have lost the analogical experience, so to speak.

AS: Makes sense. Turkle’s on my reading list. Some years ago, Umberto Eco said something really interesting at the Toronto Public Library. He said ‘all art is constriction’. He meant genres, techniques and other artisanal choices writers make but there are many determinants on our writing practice in a capitalist world: requirements of the publishing marketplace, awards and competitions, stylistic conventions, pieties of ‘taught’ writing, literary traditions, the changing nature of the book and, as you clearly pointed out, our growing dependence on technology. Writers or readers, Covid or no Covid, we also have our families, our schooling, our jobs, status, careers, societies, communities, self-images, values, beliefs, aesthetics, inhibitions, and preferences, you name it. It’s the entire array of the symbolic register of life…What we are is also entangled with what we have. Our tastes, our habitus, define us as much we define them, to quote that Frenchman whose name…

Psst, it’s Bourdieu. What, no mention of restraints a la kinbaku or even Sade? Très disappointed.

DD: Lacanian psychoanalysis embraces the idea of the divided self that is shaped by our many roles, our personal, societal, occupational, functional, and social dimensions. The outside, the field of exteriority which includes other people’s responses and opinions, remarks, and gestures, influences how we see ourselves and how we express our subjectivity. Shall we talk again on Thursday? I see a call coming.

And shall we leave it there for the time being, dear viewers, esteemed ladies and gentlemen, and people of hitherto unspecified and included ages, genders, orientations, races, classes, indigeneities, and nationalities, or should I teletransport you to the veldt where a pride of lions, known for its haute tastes, has sat down to its evening meal of calf tartare, a scene perhaps more graphic than National Geographic and one bound to quease veganists a bit? (Reminds me of the roast beef and pud that await my return.) Until tomorrow then, dear auditors, spectators and mon lecteurs with your ancient addiction to flipping disgusting old paper, when we’ll assemble on the same ground in the same august company, so to speak, minus the warthogs and wildebeests, of course. They have thundered off the veldt and the streets of Toronto in storms of devils and gusts of no mean odours…

Now the dust has settled, so to speak, not to mention the slush and snow, we revisit the scene of carnage. Pick your way carefully through the bones and join us at the table. Don’t forget to tuck in your bibs.

AS: This voice keeps interrupting us. If it’s our narrator, he’s disguising his voice. So annoying but he’s right. The example of ‘constraint’ from one of my stories highlighted how difficult it is to break a ‘habit’, because if you remove the letters one by one ‘it’ still remains. There are examples of stylistic constraints, on a much larger scale (I’ll discuss my usage in the context of decoloniality).

DD: Shows the meaning of ‘habit’ by breaking up the word. A technical proof that illustrates itself. Words and language are essential to psychoanalysis. But may we talk now, or do we need to do some more housekeeping?

AS: Dogville filmmaker Lars von Trier issued ‘obstructions’—near-sadistic challenges, really—to the director of The Perfect Man. He asked him to remake his short in five specific ways. One version which had to be made in Cuba could have no sets. Another had to be a cartoon, and so on. Hilarious sometimes, painful at others. I think the example of constraints most people know is Perec’s lipogrammatic novel A Void which was written without the letter ‘e’. The Canadian equivalent would be Christian Bök’s Eunoia with its separate chapters for the five English vowels.

Hmm, the five English vowels. Am I the only one who’s falling asleep? Yawn.

DD: Can we describe them as strictly conscious choices…?

AS: True. They are ‘dares’ to exhaust clearly defined limits. As a writer, I have to prove that I am up to that challenge. The subtractive schemes I use have to push themselves to the foreground while other values of the text recede into secondariness. Such works may strike some of us as gimmicky, marketing novelties, but deep down there’s an impulse of trying to reconcile C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ of science and the arts. It tries to contain imagination within the bounds of rationality. Not surprisingly, Perec belonged to a movement, the Oulipo, that had a few writer-mathematicians in its ranks.

As the prompter in the wings, let me remind him that he forgot to mention the influence of surrealism and Dadaism which are as far away from science as possible.

AS: Perec’s ‘a void’ rule becomes the structuring principle that governs a mathematical class, as it were, of narrowly defined objects that make up his novel. It exaggerates playfulness through a serious project of technique into distension of form that rules out uncertainty and variance from the schemes commonly used in western literature. In Perec and Bök, every syllable is subjected to a scrutiny that demands, even forces, a singular consciousness, of reading a text through a single scansion in a ‘scientific’ way that departs from implied plural ‘natural’ orders of writing, reading, or meaning. This promotes the intentionality of the author through technique while limiting other possibilities of expectations, meaning, and the potential for change. It has the power of an exception that defies the history of language and how it changes over time. His work tries to articulate language not as a system of productive differences but as a permanently frozen field held together by avoidance of dissimilarities.

I’d distinguish between this reductionism of Perec and Bök, annihilisms of the creative unconscious, from minimalism like Beckett’s that defers and proliferates interpretations, even as he suggests the nihilism that dwells at the limits of language. Perec’s reductionism also differs in kind from the ploys and indirection writers use to evade censors in repressive regimes, when what is not said is often as important or more important than what is written.

Contrast his logic of formal containment with the exuberance of the language of Shakespeare, Rabelais or Sterne, or in its own time with the high modernism of Woolf or Finnegan’s Wake. It’s unlike the linguistic freedom of Dadaism, Riddley Walker’s nuked English, Desani’s macaronic code mixtures in Hatterr, and ‘made’ languages such as Vonlenska that playfully breach the usual bounds of sense with a copiety that opens up ‘additive’ possibilities of meanings. Their worlds are manifold. They proliferate but their freedom is never absolute. Is free verse absolutely free…

“‘Additive’ possibilities of meaning?’” Why not something simple like ‘the polymorphous heterogeneity of the semantic field’ that even a child of 30 could understand? Excessive for reductive exercises. Oh, and try to give the doc some time to speak.

DD: But these have value for the reader…?

AS: Sure, I enjoy and admire their technical virtuosity and humour. They’re like chess problems, games, puzzles, or Lewis Carroll’s diversions on symbolic logic that hold you for a bit. After you have ‘unlocked’ the ingenuity and artifice, they lose their appeal. You solve the puzzle. You move on. These works of ‘association’ are technical experiments that are empty of real experience, our human content.

DD: Similar developments happened in the field of psychoanalysis. When psychoanalysts fled nazi persecution in Europe to America in the pre-war years, they felt pressured to package their discipline as a science. They did this mostly in accordance with Anna Freud’s ego psychology, with the focus on integrating healthy individuals into society. Freud himself strove to attain that goal as well in his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895). Science depends on reproducibility, predictability, and testability but we know how conditions change from time to time and case by case. Psychoanalytic practice follows the principle that each time is the first time. The procedure cannot be replicated as in a science laboratory. Reality like truth, are words that are better understood in plural: a multiplicity of truths and a diversity of realities. In some ways, Lacanian psychoanalysis is closer to politics in that it embraces the divided self, with its many performative personal, functional, and social roles. It operates case by case. In each case, the variables at stake are unique, as in politics. Of course, constraints and limits, and politics are important to understanding the speaking subject…

That’s it. With that, this speaking subject takes his leave. A few days hence, same bat place, same bat time. Toodles.

AS: He’s gone, finally, thank God. David, maybe you should analyse him.

DD: I don’t hear anyone, Ahmad. Are you sure it’s not your unconscious?

AS: Really? Are you gaslighting me…?

DD: Perhaps, it’s the ghost in the machine (laughs).

You’ve probably conjured up an image of the good doctor: the archetypical scholar, a two-fisted coffee drinker, spare-haired, a figure etiolated and stooped over books peered at through pebbly glasses, but the truth couldn’t be more different. With the looks and physique of a Hollywood star and curly blonde hair, the good professor, the Paul Newman of the couch world, often relaxes after a day of reading and writing by attaching planks to his feet and jumping off mountains, as one author has it…

AS: With Covid and the Anthropocene, it could be said that we’re living in the age of final constraints. Immersed as we are in a planetary history that can only be characterised as catastrophe, we are aware of time and temporality largely as mortality and extinction. There is no Planet B, say, activists and scientists, no return to the ‘normal’ past.

This raises many questions for a writer. How do we learn to live a life without nostalgia when our world, our ‘living room’ or lebensraum, has shrunk finitely into what Bruno Latour calls the ‘permanent condition’? If you believe as I do in Sheldon Pollock’s idea that a text can’t be dissevered from the world in which it originates, questions arise: when our horizon of expectations narrows to foreclose all possibilities of a future—our many lost futures—how can we imagine, express, and represent our experiences? Have we reached another Adorno moment of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’?

If we’re unable to mourn our dead with ceremony or dignity as happened to many families during the delta stage of the virus, what happens to our deepest fears, longings, and hopes, or even to those people who crave absolute liberty? What means and forms do we have to articulate our suffering during what seems to be a period of mass psychosis? Or, have we reached the limits of what can be thought or said?

DD: I would say that the pandemic has put us on the edge of the Symbolic order. We are touching the limits of what can or cannot be symbolised or given expression through language. A great deal of our experiences are surfacing in the register of the Real, that is, the un-namable, the un-representable. They keep returning, like the virus variants, for example. However, language still functions. If it had ceased to exert its signifying function we would have fallen into a psychotic state, in Lacan’s terms, a state upon which the capacity of language to generate meaning would be foreclosed. The discourse of the factual reaches a limit as it traverses space, as it traverses us. As for forms, I liked an iteration of our discussion, with your questions and answers in fragments. In my view, fragments express the lack of cohesiveness, the absence of a single master narrative that could speak for all of us, as we currently are experiencing states of fragmentation. More than ever, we’ve come to realize that we live in a plural world, in a multiplicity of realities.

AS: I’m partial to fragmentary forms too. Doesn’t the multiplicity of realities entail regimes of growing inequality? I read Bourdieu’s essay on neoliberalism in Le Monde that was published a few decades ago. It still resonates today. Instead of sharing research, medicines, supplies and coordinating global responses to protect everyone during the pandemic, we’ve seen the rotten fruit of austerity politics, privatisation, deregulation, and feral capitalism: price-fixing, brand competition, vaccine nationalism, black marketeering, hoarding in the case of Canada and the global north, corruption, xenophobia, heated rhetoric, anti-vax campaigns, and needless deaths on every continent. One study estimated as many as 7.8 million died during the second wave in India. The pandemic exposed all the faultlines of our societies…

DD: Psychoanalysis mirrors the politics of the age. Around the time of the Spanish Flu epidemic in which 50 million died. Over 18 million were Indians. This was a momentous time. Around the same time as the Spanish flu in 1919, Walter Gropius had just founded the Bauhaus school. A year later, Marcel Breuer, a member at the school, started designing tubular chairs, the Wassily chair, employing bicycle tubular technology. To some extent, these design approaches arose from the pandemic. They are the products of the time. Tubular chairs were easy to clean and sterilise.

Freud loses his daughter Sophie to the flu in 1920. His son Herman had died in 1917 in the war. A central component in his development of his theoretic frame evolves as a result of these losses and deaths. In some entries in his correspondence in his later years, he writes about the notion of the death instinct, he refers to it as the instinct of wanting to be able to take possession of one’s own mortality. His idea of the death drive is often misunderstood simplistically as a wish to die. One example could be the case of the funambulist, the moment when everything stops, and the funambulist remains in suspension in spite of knowing that movement would bring stability on the rope.

Psychoanalysis—like cinema which is its contemporary—has changed with the times. Did you read my recent column on ecocide? We are in the age of climate change. We need to think of our subjectivity and intersubjectivity in connection with the environment. We have a relationship with the natural world. We must implement a shift in focus. The environment is essential to our being and to knowing who we are. It’s primal. The mother-child relationship, which became foremost in our understanding of the integration of the psyche, and the paternal function, need also to include ecology as the key component of our facilitating environment, as understood in psychoanalysis. It is worth reading Freud’s letter to Einstein on his reflections on war, which touches on the impact of environmental factors on the psyche.

AS: Thanks, David, for brilliantly illuminating how history, politics, and technologies shape our subjectivities. These faultlines of modernity get exposed earlier in 1890. Joseph Conrad meets the diplomat Roger Casement in Matadi in the Belgian Congo. Casement is supervising the building of a railway. Casement submits his report on the conditions of rubber farming and Conrad his novella Heart of Darkness, nine years after his visit. Casement’s official human rights dispatches, the first of their kind in Europe, include the direct testimonies of survivors of the colonial genocide, mutilations, and the suffering and abuses that claimed tens of million Congolese lives. Conrad’s response is telling. As much as Conrad admires Casement, his narrator Marlow, who witnesses these atrocities, sees the world differently. He confesses to the need to worship and offer a sacrifice to the idea of the European conquest of the earth that entails mostly ‘taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves’. That, he admits, ‘is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much’.

Here are two contrasting worldviews within the colonial project. One chooses to record the direct testimonies of suffering while the second looks away. Conrad blames the violence on the continent itself while Casement choose to anathematise the Belgian king and his brutal task masters. We can describe Marlow’s ‘looking away’ as being part of the project of ‘coloniality’, the system that will enable the continuation of colonial ideologies, even after the end of historical colonialism. They rest upon, to use Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s term, an ‘epistemicide’ of the knowledge and experiences of once colonized peoples in the global south. Writing plays a part in suppressing the non-European Other who is an originary lack that has been negated in modern western literature. For Santos, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism are the three drivers of the many entanglements that make up modernity, as you pointed out in your World War One example.

A postscript. From the Congo, Casement carries his anti-colonial consciousness to Latin America and to the militant Irish republicanism of his final years. After he is arrested on the beach where a German sub had left him just before the Easter Uprising, the English circulate extracts from his Black Diaries, records of his trysts with boys and men, to turn public opinion against him. Once knighted by the English for his human rights work, Casement is then hanged by them for high treason. Conrad and another arch colonialist Kipling refuse to support his last-minute petition for mercy. Casement supported many Indian, Irish, and Egyptian revolutionaries in their bids to win freedom from colonial rule at the time. His final speech from the bar…

Pandemics are also tied to these colonial conquests of earth. Apparently, the jungle clearance for Casement’s railway resulted in the zoonosis of the lentivirus that evolved into HIV/AIDS. I keep thinking of the title of Kris Manjpara’s book on Indo-German relations, The Age of Entanglement…We seems to exist in this large field of intersubjectivity and dependence but we speak as if we don’t see it. We can look away but who knows what happens when the butterfly flaps its wings…

As good a time as any, given my giddiness, to leave this rarefied exchange. Carry on, if you wish. I’m out. Ta.

I fear we’re no longer entangled in Vulcan’s mesh. Prepared to be prosed on again. Give me a sign, any gesture, a bribe, anything and I’ll halt this careening juggernaut in its tracks off the coast of the Congo or elsewhere, before we all get headaches, or run over.

AS: Can I discuss my example of the constraint? After reading books on the theory of history and the philosophy of time, I’d asked myself this: If through colonialism and neoliberalism the global north has truly colonised time, space, and knowledge in the south, what are the limits of my complicity, my constraints, as a Canadian writer of South Asian origin in this ‘new’ world? How is it different from women in a male-dominated world, or from other racialised or indigenous peoples writing in our neocolonial context, our condition of coloniality? I can’t rule out the importance of lived experiences of history and politics in writing just as I can’t deny the claims of literary genres and traditions. Not a fashionable position, I know, in the dark satanic creative writing mills.

Gilbert Adair managed somehow to translate Perec’s A Void into English. In my stories, I’d predicated ‘difference’ through what Ashcroft, Griffith, and Tiffin call the metonymic gap, a device based in the ‘refusal to translate’. (At that time, I hadn’t any idea that my book would be published in any other language than English.) My French translators were at a loss. How could they render the sentence on the first page on how difficult it is to break a ‘habit’, because if you remove the ‘h’ ‘a bit’ remains’, and so on, until ‘it’ remains. Should they even bother?

To make things worse, I didn’t include a glossary or notes. I refused to italicise the Indian words. I wanted to normalise their usage, not ‘exoticise’ them in any way. My reasoning was that ‘paratexts’ (glossaries or annotations) cater to a distinct reader and constrain the vernacular from disrupting English or French, the two official languages of colonialism in Canada. We have this paradox of multiculturalism with bilingualism, so I wanted to avoid relegating the living language of the stories, a kind of code-mixed English, to a footnote in French. When Umberto Eco gave his lectures on translation in Toronto, he equated translation with bilingualism. It was clearly not a problem for him as it is for me.

Anyway, I didn’t think it my role to play the cultural broker for such a reader, or to be bound by editors’ and translators’ choices. I lost that battle, as you would expect, as my position was a little perverse. The French edition included a glossary. The translators presented a conference paper on why they chose to do that. That became the introduction to the French edition. My use of ‘habit’ as a constraint was more of a ‘political’ writing strategy, or writing back, as it were, than a marketing ploy.

Why didn’t you say so before? What a relief it wasn’t all high wind and flatus, after all.

AS: For me, translation is a pas de deux of texts in search of linguistic coincidences that could lead to a shift in cultures with a valued acceptance of difference. My focus was on a ‘politics of translating cultures’, to quote Anita Dingwaney, that can lead us to accept otherness without looking away, explaining it, deriding it, or taking it over. Difference or alterity always remains unknowable in translation. It resists interpretation or translation. Difference is not to be absorbed by or assimilated with sympathy and empathy and extruded through another epistemology. A translation is always left over as a surplus and a lack at the same time, something that is too much and too little, never quite proportionate to this unknown reality. Somewhere down the road, I’d like to look at constraints through identity and difference. I’d like to explore Bakhtin’s idea of exotopy, Fanon’s experience of interpellation, and Levinas’s concept of the non-European Other who, he said, did not have thought, just dance…

I’d hoped that I’d be outta here by now, oofy prossering my way into posterity but I’ve just been given another screed which I’m bound by a Faustian pact to present to you. Besides, his left hook packs a punch and not sure I can stay upright for the entire bout. Pick me up if I fall.

AS: A constraint is a two-headed beast. It’s easy to mistake one head for the other. Writers experiment within or across genres, traditions, styles, or marketplaces but to be free from all bounds? Is this absolute liberty even possible? We hear of free verse but I doubt if any verse is truly free in the sense of being free from everything, including form. The genre you choose becomes your constraint. Tastes and taboos vary. I remember a mushaira in India where purists heckled a poet for reciting a geet. It wasn’t part of the high Urdu canon as ghazals are.

I read a paper from the seventies on whether Persian poetry had borrowed all its forms including the ghazal from Arabic or whether there was a distinct pre-Islamic poetic tradition. The Persian meter was traditionally understood to be quantitative whereas Arabic poetry was accentual. The metrical patterns in the paper suggested that early Persian poetry which was likely sung or recited at court contained stresses. I didn’t learn Urdu as a child but I have read western poets who translated Kabir without knowing a word of Hindi, Braj, Bhojpuri, or Awadhi. On the other hand, a poet like Lorca for instance used ghazals, qasidas, and other forms that he revived from the Moorish tradition. Agha Shahid Ali merged both traditions in English.

As an experiment, I translated some fado songs into ghazals, villanelles and other forms in English. The more I learned about the history of fado the less I felt able to do it. I learned that fado from Porto is distinct from the Coimbran variety. These days one writes poems for reading, for the eyes, but fado is sung. Skáldic verse was also performative with its kennings and oral formulae were used in other recitative traditions. Ghazals have repetition (qafia) and rhyme (radif) and are often set to music in Indian films. At every step, I made choices, not very well-informed ones, to breach borders, risk impurities of forms, and possibly to contaminate the source. But because I was uneasy about the exercise I decided to abandon the translations.

DD: Do you know the work of Béla Tarr? Look at his interview with Rancière on video.

AS: Thank you, yes. I went through a Tarr phase once which meant spending days at Cinematheque. I see what you mean. For Rancière whom I like, film’s about time and expectations. He watches cinema not through philosophical, narratological, or cinematurgical lenses but as a form of translation. That is the difference between someone who creates and someone who comments. An auteur erases his collaborators who helped bring their shared vision to the screen. Tarr’s ethical commitments to those who were part of the film are uncompromising and admirable. He disputes Rancière’s idea that the spectator experiences the long shot and moving camera as longueurs. Tarr’s is the imagistic transcriptions of drifting movements or each new moment of time in our individual and collective lives that can never be repeated in reality. Very Deleuzean, I thought. Like Tarr’s recreation of the cadences of Krasznahorkai’s story telling, Jiří Menzel’s camera work translates the rhythms of Hrabal’s prose.

Homi Bhabha identified a liminal ‘third space’ occupied by migrant writers like Rushdie whose success helped Indian writers in English reach a wider audience. But, in my opinion, Rushdie also did a disservice to vernacular Indian literatures. It’s an exaggeration to call his act of eclipsing an ‘epistemicide’ but it is a ‘looking away’. It devalues Indian writers in languages other than English. Amit Chowdhury goes as far as to say that Indians writing in English have acted as the custodians of India as a nation. Pankaj Mishra puts it more colourfully: Indoanglian writers are the ‘chowkidar [nightwatchman] of Indian self-images’.

I prefer reading writers in translation who still maintain a certain recalcitrance, a resistance to being assimilated and homogenised through translation into dominant Indian, British, North American narrative forms and topics in the anglosphere. I’d like to suggest that writers in translation who are rooted in their societies occupy another dimension, an internally agonistic domain in India that is becoming more important and whose claims can’t be ignored. To paraphrase you, there’s a plurality of truths, realities, and experiences that haven’t been voiced enough in our midst. The role of the translator is key to understanding this.

Gayatri Chakravarthi who has translated Mahaswata Devi talks about the activity as ‘the most intimate form of reading’ so it’s important to ask who translates regional languages and the positions they hold relative to the writer? We need a different aesthetics than what have been predicated for Indian writers in English maybe rooted in what you elegantly called the ethics of the singular. I’m specifically talking about vernacular literatures characterised as ‘minor’ within the corpus of Indian writing.

Day 4 and the fourth dimension? Who’d’ve ever thought that we’d reach the end of space-time so quickly. Apologies if this odyssey leaves you dizzy twenty years after Kubrick’s cinema. I know I am. Let me sit down and hold on to my otoliths and quarks before I catapult off the edge of the known universe.

A glaring injustice. So disjointed. This should have come before, as it continues the discussion of the constraints of technologies on subjectivity that the good doctor had sketched so elegantly but, remember, now we’ve been elevated to the fourth dimension, splendid in the unuprootable couch-grass. Anything goes, anywhere, at any time in this dimension. Buckle up and hang on to those roots and rhizomes.

AS: A good segue into the materiality of books and, to follow your line of thinking, into the technologies that shape and mediate our subjectivities as readers or viewers. Was it Walter Benjamin who noticed how the form and the format of the book has changed in the west from an illuminated MS to a massive tome chained to a pulpit that required a specific form of physical attention to books you can read in bed?

I used to work for a publisher of interactive books on CDs in Toronto. Online media, it was said, heralded the death of print culture and the dematerialisation of the book. Like the clichéd death of the novel, we heard ad nauseum about the coming end of the paper book but the demand for e-readers has plateaued. Online self-publishing has yet to be seen as a respectable option in the writing profession.

While they haven’t replaced printed books, e-books, audio books, Twitter novels and other innovations continue to flourish side by side as either supplements to traditional forms or as prostheses of dematerialisation. I recall a murder mystery in the ‘Immaterial Literature’ issue of the Triple Canopy website. Headless featured a secret society inspired by Georges Bataille that involves wealthy financiers at an offshore company in the Bahamas.

According to 3C: ‘Before and after the release of Headless, Triple Canopy produced a series of essays, readings, and conversations about covert capitalism, human sacrifice, and the pleasures of fiction that impinges on reality’. This collaborative project—a literary conspiracy, entangled in the very economy it unearths—was staged in different ‘theatres’ of the real and the virtual: a hyperlinked novel with videoclips, artwork of a head in a windowsill overlooking a beach in the Bahamas, transactions in offshore bank accounts in the Caribbean, and an exhibition of conceptual art at the Power Plant in Toronto. It was later published in different formats.

Andreas Schiffrin was gloomy about the profession. Some of it is already happening. During Covid, art exhibitions were replaced or augmented by ‘immersive experiences’. Who knows, it may be quite possible that even the missing senses of touch and smell will be evoked through virtual reality sets for a fuller sensory experience. Will we read e-books through whatever replaces Google Glasses or other wearables? We can ask if algorithms have already begun to define genres by clustering our online purchases, our internet behaviours and habits, and reading preferences? What will 3-D printing, if it becomes commonplace and affordable, mean for print-on-demand sales of book? How will the online economy fetishise scarcity and value, currently a lack? Does the rise of NFTs suggest that e-books will be valued like rare books and incunabula by a Quaritch or an H.P. Kraus of the future?

The ways we create and experience art or literature always changes. Writers adapt. My hope is that while publishing is concentrated in the hands of conglomerates over whom we have little say, the old and new will co-exist. The constraints get stretched but I think we need to think of the human costs as well. As tasks and interactions move online, what will happen to billions of people who will lose their jobs because of automation?

Er, who cares? The last sounds a bit ‘headless’ to me and beside the point.

DD: Your ideas on the vicissitudes of the book and its future make me think of the media technologies and the fear of a catastrophic disappearance of the text. The apocalyptic presents itself to us as a temporal disorder. Let me read you a passage from Derrida’s Paper Machine:

In the discussion we will surely have to come back to this religiosity, to this quasi sacrality, more precisely to this quasi resacralization that, with all the political issues it involves, has marked the entire history of technologies of inscription and archiving, the entire history of supports and printing methods-as if each stage, in a technological transformation, seemed the one to desacralize, democratize, secularize, defetishize, throughout an interminable history of Enlightenment or Reason (before and beyond the Aufklärung but as though each stage, all the same, was also inescapably accompanied by a sacred or religious reinvestment. For it is obvious, for instance, that if our generation is suffering from seeing the book yield ground in the face of other supports, other modes of reading and writing, this is partly because, inevitably, it has resacralized everything connected with the book (its time, its space, its rhythm, starting from the ways it is handled, the ways it is legitimated, even the body, the eyes, and the hands bent around it, the quasi-priestly sociality of its producers, interpreters, and decision makers, in all their institutions of selection and legitimation); and this, despite the fact that this resacralized and refetishized book has been an element of secularization and democratization, with its phonetic writing, for instance, and then its modes of printing and reproduction.

AS: My question: You mentioned cinema. While Freud relied on the ancient Greeks, Lacan read philosophy and was also close to the Dadaists and surrealists and their experiments with words and still and moving images. How do you look at ‘avoidance’ ‘incompleteness and ‘otherness’ through these lens in your practice, if that’s not too broad a question?

DD: This question could go in many directions. Avoidance could be understood as a symptom, a marker, a trace, of an experience that has been avoided for a reason—like the photographic negative. Which brings to mind Freud’s 1925 paper on negation, are you familiar with it? Negation, says Freud, is different from repression. Something that has been negated is acknowledged, but it is difficult to accept: ‘doctor, the person in my dream is not my mother’, is an example cited by Freud.

I’ve come to understand to what extent psychoanalysis draws from other disciplines. In many respects we have more to learn from poets, from philosophers, from ecologists than from our own colleagues. To close this note on the subject of impediments, it occurs to me that Lacan’s idea that all the resistance is in the analyst suggests that only to the extent that we can allow ourselves to expand the configurations of our frame and allow some permeability, instead of operating under conditions that we pretend to know what direction should the psychoanalytic process follow, only then we can rid ourselves of the impediment imposed by our own resistance. Perhaps, this also applies to you Ahmad as a writer.

AS: Maybe. What do you think could round off our discussion? Something about temporalities and pathologies? Constraints of techniques in psychoanalysis? The compulsion of repetition in our experiences of déjà vu or the uncanny in the light of an overcoming of constraints? The traversal of the registers of life—the Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real by the Sinthome — a figure identified in Lacan’s seminar on Joyce the writer?

DD: What can I say? The disappearance of the author begins with Mallarmé, but this does not prevent him from making the functions of the author appear through his/her/their very disappearance. Michel Foucault began his conference entitled What is an author? with a quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘What does it matter who speaks, someone has said what does it matter who speaks’. In this indifference, I think that one of the fundamental principles of contemporary writing must be recognised: the readings are multiple, they are always renewed according to the different identifications that are traversed, and the positions occupied by the subject.

So, the ‘text’ has to include a topology that authorises its constant deformation and thus allows a constant renewal of the interpretation. It is a fundamentally unstable text. In this sense, the materiality of the letter does not refer to the physical nature of Gutenberg’s printing press, but rather to the interval between those blocks themselves—it is the materiality of the space between the letters. In his early writings, Freud understood the unconscious as text, a riddle to be deciphered.

Speaking of writing from the perspective of the analytical experience, and guided by Lacan’s impressions, supposes defining the letter in a new meaning. The first intervention we heard from Lacan in this respect, was ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. But with this operation, at the same time, he articulated and separated the unconscious as the place or seat of the instincts. Each of these two dimensions of the Freudian unconscious, (the subject side, and the object side), have their own literal system.

AS: Anything more or should wind up?

DD: No, I wouldn’t add anything more. I like this better and your additions. Let’s send it.

AS: I feel I’ve learned a lot but Lacan baffles me at every step. It took a few circuits to go around all this but we’ve reached a good stopping point for the time being. From our talk, I take certain givens you and I agree on: Writers are constituted as subjects and objects by our experiences, roles, functions, and actions at the various ‘intersections’ of our habitus that we traverse. We need an ethics and aesthetics of the singular to acknowledge ‘minority’ positions that return as the uncanny, out of our time, but don’t fit our readymade molds. Readers have to traverse the lack of fitness, the distorted contours of texts with unstable signifiers that appear to them in the midst of our disappearance as writers. Our readers’ ‘positions’ lead to a proliferation of interpretations. Can reading, writing and interpretation support the attempts to undo the knotty constraints of coloniality and neoliberalism that have shaped our current institutions (including our reception in the academy) and the environment? The constraints or aporia can’t be fixed, disentangled, recuperated, or transcended as into what would traditionally and singularly have been called ‘universals’: love, justice, or truth. I thank you for your participation in this thought experiment. I hope you found it as satisfying as I did. Who knows, maybe we’ll collaborate on other works in future. A final word?

DD: SEND THE PIECE AWAY, before the war kills us all!Phew, that’s enough. Let’s stop there. As their praelector, I’ll usher our participants off the stage. They hold my fingers as we tackle the stairs. One – two – three. There. That, as they say, is that. Oh, and next time, get another narrator.

Photo: Mark Yep

Ahmad Saidullah’s writings have been anthologized and published in 3QuarksDaily, Academic Matters, Altar Magazine, Blackbird, Drunken Boat, EnRoute, Gently Read Literature, L Magazine, Feminist Review Blog, Pratilipi, The Quarterly Conversation, Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad, and on CBC Radio One. His book Happiness & Other Disorders: Short Stories was published to critical acclaim in Canada and India, and was translated into French by the University of Ottawa Press. Ahmad has won the CBC Literary Award and Drunken Boat’s PanLiterary Award and was listed for the Crossword for the Vodafone Award for Global South Asian Fiction, the Danuta Gleed Award, the Fish International Short Story Prize, and the Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

David Dorenbaum was born in Mexico City in 1956. He is a medical doctor, paediatrician, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst who has lived in Canada since 1982. David is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Toronto. He is a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) and the Lacanian Clinical Forum, based at the Austen Riggs Institute in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. David is a regular contributor to the weekly magazine of the newspaper El País. He is the author of numerous essays on art and psychoanalysis. His book Divaneos, a collection of his writings in El País, was published by Planeta in 2022.