“I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted. But at that point I stop thinking about it.”
– from The Lover by Marguerite Duras
I’ve been thinking about the books we read and re-read that are as significant to us as any important experience is in our lives. One of these books that changed my life, and the way I write, is The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Originally written in French (its title is L’amant), it was made into a movie in the early 1990s. I discovered the book through the film when I rented it after reading a review of it in a magazine. I was 12 years old and probably should not have seen that film at that age, but I did. I remember blushing and turning the video on and off during its numerous steamy scenes (for fear that my parents would catch me watching what was, in essence, an erotic film). But if I had not seen the film, I would not have discovered Duras. I would not have read her at the age of 13 and I would not have been influenced by her writing and her life.
The story of The Lover seems simply about a love affair between a wealthy Chinese man living in Vietnam and a poor French school girl whose family lives in France’s colonial Indochine. The social and economic issues she writes about are not to be dismissed, of course. But Duras writing is much more complicated than that for the book is really about writing; the power, freedom, struggles, and failures in the process of writing.
I wonder what Duras would think about all the writing that we produce on social media sites and blogs. I think she’d disapprove of the flattening of the self that happens when self hood is the commodity that drives products. Having spent half of my life in a pre-social media era and a quarter of it within, I can say that I long for what Duras means by writing being “all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence.” Maybe I’m just lamenting what our current era has reduced writing to — and maybe it’s not just social media that has reduced it. The commodification of the self was happening before the advent of social media. But I can remember when blogging started and how exciting it was to read about the inner world of others. Now I think we’re in an era in which we are expected to bare all while seemingly reducing our complexity to simplistic labels in a system that increasingly treats the complex, interior life as suspect. There is power in naming and mapping out the unknown via language. What are labels but words?
This past year I began studying how language affects our thoughts and behavior in relation to distorted perceptions of the self and the world. Words are like fences in that they can bind us into something that may seem, at first, freeing or helpful but will inevitable be limiting in the long run. That’s how defense mechanisms can be formed. They originally are created to help us, but eventually become what drives our suffering.
I think we aren’t spending nearly enough time thinking about language and the way it is both world building and destroying. What will our world become if we’ve turned all of our words inside out, slimming them down to a sliver, emptying them of their expansive depth, hooking them to big data’s algorithms and driving a particular world building around commerce? If we’re spending all of our lives reading words that are closer to advertising in the way that Duras refers certain writing to be, what happens to literature? What happens to complexity? What happens to writing? What happens to the individual self?
I revisit Marguerite Duras’ work every so often because I want to go much deeper into the meanings of words, into their origins, into the crevasses of their sounds. I do this when I feel exhausted by the artifice I see on a daily basis – in quotidian polite (or impolite) interactions whether online or in our real lives (yes, even that dichotomy deserves an enormous amount of introspection). Our lives and selves are complex. I don’t know if we can ever know others because we barely know ourselves. The self is endlessly shifting, and the words we use are one of the reasons for this. I think this is what Duras means by the “contraries confounded.” If we aren’t digging in deep into this “inexpressible essense” than why write at all?