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Writing & Death

Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor
229B Mc Micken Hall
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of Cincinnati
ML 210069
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0069
Office # (513) 556-0834
Fax # (513) 556-5960

from Websterís Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:

1grave: vt [ME graven, from OE grafan; akin to OHG graban, to dig, OSlav pogreti to bury] (before 12th Century): 1 archaic: DIG, EXCAVATE 2 a: to carve or shape with a chisel: SCULPTURE b: to carve or cut (as letters or figures) into a hard surface: ENGRAVE 3: to impress or fix (as a thought) deeply

2grave: n [ME, from OE græf; akin to OHG grab grave; OE grafan to dig] (before 12th Century): an excavation for burial of a body; broadly: TOMB

engrave: vt [MF engraver, from en- + graver to grave, of Germanic origin; akin to OE grafan to grave] (1513) 1 a: to form by incision (as on wood or metal) b: to impress deeply as if with a graver <the incident was engraved in his memory> 2 a: to cut figures, letters, or devices on for printing; also: to print from an engraved plate b: PHOTOENGRAVE

from Plato's Phaedrus, translated by C.J. Rowe. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1986.

Socrates: Yes, Phaedrus, because I think writing has this strange feature, which makes it like painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if alive, but, if you ask them something, they preserve a quite solemn silence. Similarly with written words: you might think that they spoke as if they had some thought in their heads, but if you ever ask them about any of the things they say out of a desire to learn, they point to just one thing, the same each time. And when once it is written, every composition is trundled about everywhere in the same way, in the presence both of those who know about the subject and of those who have nothing to do with it, and it does not know how to address those it should address and not those it should not. When it is ill-treated and unjustly abused, it always needs its father to help it; for it is incapable of defending or helping itself.

Phaedrus: You're quite right about that too.

Socrates: Well then, do we see another way of speaking, a legitimate brother of this one? Do we see both how it comes into being and how much better and more capable it is from its birth?

Phaedrus: Which is this, and how does it come into being, as you put it?

Socrates: The one that is written together with knowledge and the soul of the learner, capable of defending itself, and knowing how to speak and keeps silent in relation to the people it should.

Phaedrus: You mean the living and animate speech of the man who knows, of which written speech would rightly be called a kind of phantom.

Socrates: Absolutely.

from Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?":

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement which does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writerís very existence. [Ö] The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murder . . . this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subjectís individual characteristics. The writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

from Hélène Cixous, "Coming to Writing":

I discovered that the Face was mortal, and that I would have to snatch it back at every moment from Nothingness. I didn't adore that-which-is-going-to-disappear; love isn't bound up for me in the condition of mortality. No. I loved. I was afraid. I am afraid. Because of my fear, I reinforced love, I altered all the forces of life, I armed love with soul and words, to keep death from winning. Loving: Keeping alive: naming. [Ö]

Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. . . .

Maybe I've always written for no other reason than to win grace from this countenance. Because of disappearance. To confront perpetually the mystery of the there-not there. The visible and the invisible. To fight against the law that says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above of that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Against the decree of blindness. I have often lost my sight; and I will never finish fashioning the graven image for myself. My writing watches. Eyes closed.

[Ö] It's all there: where separation doesn't separate; where absence is animated, taken back from silence and stillness. In the assault of love on nothingness. My voice repels death: my death; your death; my voice is my other, I write and you are not dead. The other is safe if I write. . . . I write the encore. Still here, I write life. Life: what borders on death; right up against which I write . . .

from Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages, translated by Richard Howard. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990:

And in French, 'his foreign language,' the word for "word," mot, is close to the one for "death," la mort; only one letter is missing: The succinctness of the impression, a syllable, the ecstasy of a stifled sob. Why did he believe that language is more beautiful, more terrible, for a foreigner?

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