The Break-Up: Beyond Words
‘It is… a necessary possibility that a letter can fail to reach its destination: this necessity, which is part of the very structure of writing as telecommunication, means that any letter, any text is haunted by this possibility of non-arrival.’ (Royle 6)
‘The Break-Up: Beyond Words’
You are utterly nuts[semicolon]
And by that I mean that to me you seem the sanest person I have ever seen[period]
Thanks for letting me like you[period]
You wrote these words in red pen on a napkin, which you dropped on my plate right after we’d finished our chocolate milkshakes and chili fries at this American-themed diner. I read the note immediately and I keep it, along with all the other letters you wrote me, in an old shoebox. This letter, Letter One, is still torn only through the words you emboldened by retracing them, over and over, in red. After all these years the rest of it still hangs together. As for what the letter meant, that always hung flabbily, gelatinous and cloudy and impossible to congeal. I recall re-reading the letter on the night you gave it to me and feeling puzzled: was it an indication that you liked me; that you knew I liked you; that my being nuts was a good thing; that you were simply happy to have made a new friend? All I could gather was that you were a poet and so the way you wrote out the punctuation was probably a symptom of your poetic condition.
Now, however, with these epistles comprising most of what remains of our relationship, I find myself frantically clutching at memories in the hope that I might understand you, us, just a little bit better. And now, I can’t help but wonder: exactly what did you mean?
Frye: The absurd quantum formula of criticism, the assertion that the critic should confine himself to ‘getting out’ of a poem exactly what the poet may vaguely be assumed to have been aware of putting in,’ is one of the many slovenly illiteracies that the absence of systematic criticism has allowed to grow up. (133 Hix)
In some ways you envied me because I’d chosen a career path that was practical, served some purpose and had clear targets at which one aimed, could aim. What I did served some good in the collective. The world needs the things that engineers build, conceptualise, mechanise. To even consider Frye’s statement above wouldn’t compute in my world, because in my world, when words are used, often to elaborate on or expound mathematical models, they are used with the single purpose of communication. They are instructional, say what they mean and they mean what they say, and any ambiguity that arises indicates fault in the writing. Up until I met you, this was the only framework in which I imagined words could function. Poetry was as elusive as shadows in darkness.
But early on in our relationship, one night as we hollowed our lips over a joint expertly rolled at your fingertips, you explained to me this theory developed in France in the 60s. Meaning, you said – reaching over my naked body and tapping the joint in the ashtray on my bedside table – like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder. Writing then, you said – as you heaved in, illuminating the joint’s tip red, and heaved out to release a thick grey plume – produces the potential for meaning, creates the space for meaning. This was the distinction upon which you hung your reasons for writing, and from which grew even larger your motivations for it. You came across this theory of post-structuralism at the perfect time, right when you were considering dropping your BA in literary studies and submitting yourself to the didactic confines of law school. The deconstructive gesture (as you had called it) permitted you to unreservedly indulge in your passion for words.
Since our relationship has come to an end, the relationship I have with your letters has undertaken a transformation. The relationship with my memory of you, bound up to such a large extent in your written work, your letters to me, is shifting.
Did I ever tell you how much I like your name, Mathew. It suits you. Because math, you are. I think that’s probably why we work so well together. Opposites attract, right? Where I’m messy and contradictory and paradoxical, you’re structured and neat and clear. Obviously I’m joking. That’s all. Have a pleasant.
When I asked you what the ‘deconstructive gesture’ was – because giving terms a clear definition is important to me, as you well knew – you gave me a little spiel that ended with, ‘It’s complicated’. Any attempt to define deconstruction rigidly, you said, would necessarily be wrong. Finding evidence of this assertion wasn’t difficult. A journalist at NYU named Mitchell Stephens interviewed Jacques Derrida, one of post-structuralism’s key figures, in what seemed to be an attempt to learn more about not just Derrida himself but also about deconstruction, namely, what it is. In his interview, Stephens pulled Derrida up on his claim that the world can be construed in an infinite variety of ways, from a ‘limitless number of perspectives’ (Stephens NPN). Stephens thinks he has caught Derrida out: ‘Aha,’ he writes. ‘But doesn’t deconstruction itself pretend to be such an answer?’ (ibid). Here Stephens seems to be pointing at the paradoxical link in the claim that, loosely stated, if uncertainty is the only certainty, then the certainty of uncertainty must too be uncertain. In Stephens’s attempt to explain Derrida’s rebuking of this point, his hands get covered in the slippery substance that is deconstruction: ‘No, says Derrida, who presents deconstruction not as a conclusive theory but as a method [italics my emphasis] for uncovering the contradictions at the heart of attempts to formulate such conclusive theories’ (NPN).
In ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend,’ Derrida explicitly states that ‘Deconstruction is not a method and can’t be transformed into one’ (1–5 1985B). He goes on to explain that the very idea of it being a method should itself be put up to ‘deconstructive questioning’ (ibid). He is very careful to use the term ‘method’, for the term connotes something systematic, closed (Royle 5). Derrida didn’t even intend the term ‘deconstruction’ to bear any special significance, and used it among a string of other terms that he suggested carried as much weight as deconstruction itself (86, 1985A). Additionally, he says it is not a negative or nihilistic operation (though one probably shouldn’t even call it an operation), despite what the de- prefix might suggest (ibid), and sits closer to an operation of positively dismantling rather than one of nihilistically destructing (87, 1985A). Nevertheless, in knowing only what deconstruction is not, we are still able to fathom some wobbly idea of what its goals might be: one of which, as it pertains to the text, is to reveal contradictions in the text, the irreconcilable paradoxes where the text works against itself, betrays itself.
Math, you –
we’ve only been dating a couple of months but you bought a pill from some stranger at a nightclub and against better judgment swallowed that pill. It was 3am when you called. You thought you were going to die and wanted to see me one final time. When I picked you up your eyes could hold the moon, your gluey hair pasted against your forehead. You wound down the front windows even though it was the middle of winter and I was wearing only a silk nightgown and I let you because I was worried. You asked to go to the park and so we did. I wasn’t wearing underpants and as we sat on the bench under the lamppost’s pale gaze you kept stroking kneading my thigh like a baker kneads dough and then you said you never believed in love because it’s too abstract and baseless a concept. At this point you stuttered and your hand stopped kneading and your teeth stopped chattering. And you said But you are like the physical embodiment of love. You are love embodied. I believe in you.
We both laughed because even in your state you saw how cheesy you sounded and you held me because I was freezing and asked you to. Then you said You can use my words if you want. You know. For your writing.
Here they are.
I found this letter on the kitchen bench the morning after and didn’t read it until late in the afternoon. Before I’d read it, you hadn’t even hinted at being upset. It would have been reasonable for you to be; just on my calling you alone, you had every right to be. But you didn’t seem upset for that, nor for my asking you to take me to the park so I could die around trees; you didn’t seem upset that this was the first time I had obliquely uttered the phrase I love you. When I read that letter, which I did many times over, reading it didn’t produce in me emotions of your upset. But now that I read it knowing that I can’t either confirm what you meant or didn’t mean, I’m left wondering:
Were you upset?
Upset at the time of ‘saving’ me?
Upset at the time of writing the letter?
Upset in the memory from which you wrote?
If you knew about my this you’d say, But this is precisely the beauty of post-structuralist thought. You, as the writer, the author, are not the final, overarching authority on the work you produce. Your work, your text, stands alone, its own object. ‘The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond [her] power to intend or control it)’ (Wimsatt 470).
Nevertheless, you must have intended to convey some specific meaning to me in that letter. You were, after all, in a certain frame of mind when you wrote it, and certain contextual forces had constructed that frame. But then again, that frame would have accommodated an entire system of conflicting thoughts, feelings, whims, some of which may have been in direct contradiction with one another (for example, you may have been at once heartened and disheartened at my having expressed, for the first time, some sort of love for you), others still may have existed as empty shells (were you using my words against me, to throw them in my face, when you said ‘Here they are,’ or for me, to show you had listened and heard and felt what I had meant? If I could ask you now why you had used them, could you even tell me?).
This speculation in reading is what’s been referred to as ‘the intentional fallacy’ by the New Critics, who David Foster Wallace argues ‘set the stage for the poststructural show that opened a couple decades later’ (2). The New Criticism’s attack on the author through ‘the intentional fallacy’, says Wallace, is that writers can be completely wrong about what their texts mean, have no idea what their texts mean, or can change their opinion on what their texts mean (ibid).
Wallace: For the deconstructionist, then, a writer’s circumstances and intentions are indeed a part of the ‘context’ of a text, but context imposes no real cinctures on the text’s meaning because meaning in language requires a cultivation of absence rather than presence, involves not the imposition but the erasure of consciousness. (ibid)
Another mere cincture on the text is what Derrida calls ‘doubling of commentary’ (158, 1997), which he says has its place in critical reading, but only as an indispensible guardrail that protects the text from ‘developing in any direction’, and authorising ‘itself to say almost anything’ (ibid). A text becomes alive not when the text is written but rather when the text is read: critical reading must produce the text (159, 1997), must incessantly re-write and extract new meaning from the text (8, 1985A).
But reading a text, indeed deconstructing it, is not and cannot be synonymous with deciphering it. There is nothing beyond the work to which a reading can look for answers, no metaphysical referent (that is to say, some thing that exists not just outside the text but outside language) in or of which better sense of the text can be made; reading must remain in the text (ibid). Even if the author had, for example, left notes to clarify her intention, or given lectures on what she meant in her writings, these would become other things to be read, to be deconstructed. ‘… notes tend to seem to justify themselves as external indexes to the author’s intention, yet they ought to be judged like any other parts of a composition…’ (Wimsatt 484). Derrida says that ‘Although it is not commentary, our reading must be intrinsic and remain within the text’ (159, 1997).
Which raises the question: ‘What is inside the text?’
Or to phrase it more helpfully, how far can we stretch the text before we have abandoned its page, transgressed its Derridean border? Rather ironically, and I would say tellingly, to understand what Derrida intended by his use of the term ‘doubling of commentary’, we can look to his discussion of it in Limited Inc, where he states (or even intertextually clarifies) that the term relates only to paraphrastic readings, interpretations that have nothing ‘natural’ or ‘originary’ about them, and ‘impose, subject to conditions that require analysis, conventions that are henceforth dominant’ (144, 1988). He highlights that a deconstructive reading can and should indeed be stretched to situate the meaning of the text within the text’s own language (its vocabulary and grammar); the rhetorical uses of the language contextualised by the period in which it was used; by the history of the language itself, and so on (ibid). Indeed, all of these are imperatives in producing the text through a deconstructive reading. They are the text, which in this way can be viewed as both itself plus the context in which it was given life, a product of its history, of the power relations and hierarchies upon which it is built. So when Derrida claims that ‘there is nothing outside the text,’ what he seems to mean is that a deconstructive reader shouldn’t look to anything that exists only outside the text to better understand it. One foot should always remain within the text.
Math, You –
Called me a name that I won’t repeat in this letter and as a result we had our first real fight. The thing is though that during our fight not once did I question your love for me, or my love for you. There was a battle of wills, a collision of heads, a clash of thoughts and a splashing-over of emotions. It was passionate and it was raw and it was sincere and, well, really, it led neither of us anywhere except around in circles. But in this cyclical journeying I was also led further into myself. And in some strange way this first argument of ours mirrored the way I write. I created a character; I then created a context for that character; I did my best to keep the internal logic of that context in tact; and I had very little idea where each word and sentence was leading, despite thinking that I did before the words and sentences came out. I’d hitherto assumed a sharp difference between argumentative writing and poetry, one sterile and clinical, the other spontaneous and ebullient. But our argument – my first ever real grown-up relationship fight – collapsed that distinguishing line. It brought to my attention how all writing is and must always be both those things, a combination of them, interplay of creation and destruction, freedom and restriction. I’m excited to see how this changes my words the next time I sit to write them. And I have our fight, you, to thank.
From what I can remember of this so-called fight, the name that I called you was ‘pedantic’. I used it after you had started obsessing over a bad review of one of your poems. The ‘fight’ involved me explaining that you needed to take your own advice and remember what it was that you would incessantly tell me: that your words were not you.
Your words, you said, were like children, in that they originated inside you, came from and through your person. They possessed the structure of your DNA, and so their bones were bound to betray some of you inside them, reveal your tics and your neuroses, your quirks and the unexplored dark spaces of your psychology; they were connected to you, a part of you, but they were not you, and belonged to you only in the abstract. They lived and breathed as independents. Whatever they might have meant to others had very little to do with you. At the very instance you created them you became their mere shadow, a two-dimensional silhouette whose shape reflects no more than a ghost cast into eternity, fragmented into infinity, and scattered somewhere unreachable beyond the text.
Barthes used this analogy in a similar way but to meet a different end:
Barthes: The author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that [s]he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to [her] work as a [mother] to [her] child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now. (1468, 1977)
What his analogy apparently fails to recognise, however, is that the mother, like the author, becomes with her child, her work. Mother as herself precedes her child; but mother as a mother is born with her child. In a similar vein, author as herself precedes her text; author as author is born with her text. Another oversight in this definition is his use of the term ‘scriptor’. Who is this modern scriptor that he speaks of, and how is this person, this entity, different from the author? When Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, whose funeral did we attend? ‘No one (including Barthes himself as well as his detractors) seems to be sure who died’ (Hix 131).
In his Morte d’ Author Harvey Hix proposes a model of the author that he splits into four aspects: ‘the poet, scribe, proxy, and narrator’ (Hix 135). The poet and the scribe designate the ‘real’ aspects of the author, the author in the blood and the flesh, while the proxy and the narrator designate the ‘created’ or ‘fictional’ aspects of the author, the author inside the text (ibid). Hix argues that Barthes (unarticulated) project was to split the ‘creative’ author (poet and scribe) from the ‘created’ author (proxy and narrator), and in doing so formulate his basis for his grand proclamation. Whenever reading ascribes intention or motivations to the author, argues Hix, it can only do so with regards to the created author inside the text, for as regards the text, the creative author is ‘lost to us forever’, and that this holds true regardless of whether the author is alive or dead, for there is no overarching authority on any text (135). So in reading a text and speaking about its author, a distinction must be drawn between the ‘real’ author and the ‘created’ one. Although I do wonder: can a clean divide ever be made?
Math, You –
Cause me to feel things that I never knew I could feel, and so you’ve caused me to write things I never knew I could write. If we’re nothing but the sum of our experience, then you make me a bigger person.
Jonathan Culler uses Nietzschean causality to demonstrate how a deconstructive gesture can invert the chronology of cause and effect and thrust it into new territories. Culler uses the example of feeling a small prick of pain. Once the pain is felt, this causes one to locate the cause of the pain. Conventionally the pin would be seen as the cause of the pain, but Culler shows otherwise: ‘The experience of pain,’ he says ‘it is claimed [by Nietzsche, or at least by Culler’s interpretation of Nietzsche], causes us to discover the pin and thus causes the production of a cause…The deconstruction appeals to no higher logical principle or superior reason but uses the very principle it deconstructs.’ Culler goes on to articulate how this involves a reversal of hierarchical opposition in the scheme of causality. ‘If the effect is what causes the cause to become a cause, then the effect, not the cause, should be treated as the origin’ (88).
Irrespective of what this actually says about the nature of cause and effect from a scientific or philosophical perspective, it demonstrates how deconstruction functions as a tool to displace the normative, to challenge the ‘known’. How it deconstructs, or disassembles, or disentangles structures whose logical systems are either not seen at all (because of their high visibility) or simply taken for granted, and then recasts them. ‘Deconstruction does not consist in moving from one concept to another, but in reversing and displacing a conceptual order as well as the non[-]conceptual order with which it is articulated’ (Derrida, 21, 1988).
When I think about this deconstruction of the temporal hierarchy underlying cause and effect, I question how it changes my reading of your letters, how it defines my relationship with your letters. When I read them for the first time, they produced in me feelings of gratitude, of love, of acceptance. They caused me to feel, and those feelings were invariably what I’d label positive feelings; your letters caused my happiness. Now, however, they no longer cause those same feelings. Now when I read your letters they cause in me feelings of anxiety, of melancholy, of grief, of plain sadness. The difference here is obviously not in the letters, the text itself. It can’t be. The difference is in how I now read your letters, how my reading now produces them in a wholly new light. If the effect caused the cause’s becoming and is thus in some abstract way the origin itself, what does that say about my relationship with your letters… with you.
And I wonder: is my reading here being shaped, albeit indirectly, by forces that move strictly beyond the text? Although I’m not looking outside the letters for meaning, to the you that is a metaphysical referent, to the creative you – the poet, the scribe – is it not what lies outside the letters that is nonetheless shaping my reading of them, transforming how I produce them? To what extent can we permit, or thwart, the language of emotion leaking out onto the already-written page and altering it in reading?
Math, You –
annoy me so often in so many ways and every way you annoy me I can’t help but love. The way you say you’re definitely completely certainly not hungry when we go out for a drink and then devour whatever it is I order. The way you fall asleep on the couch after we’ve watched a movie and then get cranky when I drag you to bed. The way you push the small of my back to guide me when we’re walking in public because you’re so pedantic about not taking up too much space on the footpath and just can’t handle it when I stray. The way you retreat inside yourself whenever I’m even remotely annoyed at you but then struggle so hard against your inner walls to show me in flickers that you’re still there. Somewhere. All that you are you give. And all that I am you see. And who could ask for anything more than that? Perfect, you, we, are.
In this letter your words work against themselves.
My first reading Letter Seventeen flooded me with unspeakable bliss (an intentional demonstration of the sort of paradoxical betrayal that’s also alive in your letter, for this bliss is what I have just spoken of, and hence is in some way speak-able), because you loved me in spite of my annoying habits. You were willing not just to overlook them, not just put up with them, tolerate them, but to love them, cherish them. I wore when I read your note, it seems to me now, lenses made out of Cupid’s Arrow. Blind to what the letter so cleverly concealed but that this deconstructive lens has now exposed. Now when I read your letter I can’t help but wonder whether you were expressing some sort of disapproval in me that you were never able or willing to express in the flesh. Now when I read that letter I’m reminded of how you would sigh whenever I’d fail to put my shoes away; how you’d playfully roll your eyes when I’d burp into my napkin during lunch. But beyond this new way of reading your letters, what the text now causes in me above all else is a great sense of loss, an overwhelming sense of abandonment. All I have left of our relationship is my memory of you, of us; a few photos of you, of us. And your letters, letters whose meanings I can no longer pin on anything stable.
And so in this deconstructive atmosphere, what am I to make of this letter? For to risk pointing out the obvious, it seems impossible to love that which annoys you. An annoyance is an annoyance purely for the fact that it is a nuisance, a negative, not the opposite of love but somewhere on the opposite side of love in the broad and loose realm of hate (keeping in mind that this sort of binary structure separating love and hate would certainly collapse under the deconstructive gaze). To love an annoyance would be think the unthinkable, break the unbreakable, name the unnameable. Your words, I now realise, required me to do the impossible.
Math, You –
keep asking me to describe why I love writing, why I don’t just want to write but need to. On this point I don’t have an answer. But you keep asking. You just need to know why. So here it, whatever it is, is.
Words, Math You, are the gateways that lead us out of solipsism and into unity, out of loneliness and into belonging, out of ourselves and into each other. They build bridges that build bridges that build bridges. They are the closest thing we have to telekinesis, to finding that ourselves belong too in others. Some people dance, some people sing, some people paint, some people simply are. I write. Without words on a page I can’t understand what I think. Or who, what, I am.
Barthes: absence / absence
Any episode of language which stages the absence
of the loved object – whatever its cause and its
duration – and which tends to transform this
absence into an ordeal of abandonment. (13, 1978)
I don’t know how you managed to stay sane in light of your preoccupation with this deconstructive (non)method. In familiarising myself with its main thinkers and doers, largely to better understand you and your way of understanding the world, I’ve fallen into a menacing void where escape is impossible. In this decentred world, all points of reference vanish, exposed as mere illusions, hallucinations. Words, your words, have sent me into solipsism, into loneliness, only further into myself. Of you, of your letters, I no longer understand that which I thought I had long ago understood.
Which is ironic.
Because I know that for you, the deconstructive gesture not only opened up ways of critical reading, but also opened up ways of creative writing. I recall one night when we were out celebrating: you had won a $5,000 prize for a poem you wrote. Over a glass of wine in a dim restaurant you explained to me that the reason I didn’t understand your poetry wasn’t because of the poetry itself; the reason I didn’t understand it was because I was trying to understand it as I thought you had intended it. The beauty of poetry, you said, what you had been saying all along, is that it could and would lead a reader in innumerable directions, deliver a reader at innumerable destinations.
Penetrating through its dense syntactical systems, knotted prose structures, sticky stanza forms, wouldn’t lead you into the heart of the poet; it would lead you into the heart of the poetry itself. And this was the style of thinking you adopted whenever you hit a wall with your work. It freed the space necessary for your fingers to drift around your keyboard and create without overthinking your creating. It gave you permission to play, a necessary ingredient, you said, to baking a worthwhile story. When you could focus on the writing itself as opposed to whether it was satisfactorily communicating, the task of writing became less daunting. It was still a task, sure, and it still required a lot of hard work, demanded pointed attention, slaughtered darlings. Critical self-erasure. But it became a task in which you could lose yourself in the words without bogging yourself down by the idea that the words weren’t serving your ultimate purpose. And yet, despite all of these claims, your sole purpose for writing had to do with connection, with dissolving the space between one consciousness and another. You wrote fundamentally because you wanted to connect: yourself with others, others with others – through your work. You read and you wrote to belong.
Sometimes to break through clouded thought you would go for a walk, which you said worked 90% of the time. The reason for walking was to get the mind’s creative mouth salivating again. It at once eased and jolted, settled and stimulated. It let you see afresh and feel anew. Alfred Edward Housman’s comments on how he aroused this creative force here seems fitting. It speaks oceans to your writing process, but it also demonstrates how removed an author is from her production of words, how little she seemingly has to do with what she writes:
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon… I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular… there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once. (Wimsatt 475)
I too now go for walks whenever your memory suddenly transforms into a weight I can’t bear. Often I put your letters in my pocket and take them to the park, where I sometimes sit and read them under towering trees, reminded of that first time love became something I could believe in. Became something real, in you.
The final letter you wrote me before our break-up hangs on my wall. Coincidentally, it was the only letter you’d written me using borrowed words. I chose this letter because if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in examining – or, deconstructing – your letters, deconstructing my relationship with your letters, it’s that no words are ever truly ours. Like everything else life has to offer, words can only ever be borrowed. Derrida said that he loved ‘very much’ everything that he deconstructed in his own manner; the texts he deconstructed were texts whose future would not be exhausted for some time (87, 1985A). I, on the other hand, don’t love anything that you wrote me. I don’t love anything you’ve written – not your prize-winning work, not your published oeuvre, none of it. What I love was that you wrote, to me, for me. What I loved about your writing was that it led me to you. So when Beckett asked, ‘What matter who’s speaking?’ I would respond, That depends who’s listening.
I framed this letter the day after your funeral, the day after your absence in words was inerasably stamped. Whenever I catch myself trying to find some essence of you, of us, inside your letters, whenever I find myself mired in abstraction, I let it serve as a reminder:
There is everything outside the text.
Ever thine — Ever mine — Ever ours
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