Tag Archives: fixing

The Witness

19 May

One of the things I am interested in throughout my work is writing (in its broadest sense) as a form of fixing. In order to do the work of remembering, be it a melancholy or a militant elegizing or a post-traumatic ‘working-through’, there is generally a clear desire to ‘get it down’ somehow. Writing functions as a form of witnessing. The process is beautifully summarized in a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges entitled ‘The Witness’:

He is awakened by the bells tolling the Angelus. In the kingdoms of England the ringing of bells is now one of the customs of the evening, but this man, as a child, has seen the face of Woden, the divine horror and exultation, the crude wooden idol hung with Roman coins and heavy clothing, the sacrificing of horses, dogs and prisoners. Before dawn he will die and with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon has died.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Witness’ (tr. James E. Irby), in Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985 [1964]), p. 279.)

Borges is here exploring one of his favourite themes, oblivion. He goes on to note that with every death ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies’. And he finishes, not surprisingly, by reflecting on his own transient world: ‘What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?’

What is notable here is the recourse to the ‘pathetic or fragile form’, the suggestion that history and biography be thought of as fragments, seemingly unimportant details that have stubbornly persisted in memory. In this sense they resemble the memories of the ‘I remember’ school discussed in another post,  those random fragments, personal or shared, that are placed together to form a life. In terms of biography they accord with Roland Barthes’s use of the ‘biographeme’, the detail that escapes the remembering of an individual in terms of chronology. As Seán Burke notes of Barthes’s use of the device in the latter’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola:

These details – Fourier’s cats and flowers, Sade’s dislike of the sea – are crystalline moments in lives whose motion and totality are necessarily irrecoverable. While the conventional biographer will seek to mimic the impetus of a life, to register it according to certain representative proportions, the biographeme breaks with the teleology implicit in this lambent narrative movement. Events are not connected to imply any destiny or purpose in the course of a life, rather the biographemes are the shards of any such forward movement, those velleities that are passed over in the more frenetic, directed movement of the footprint-following biographer.

(Seán Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, 2nd edn. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 38-9.)

In doing so, the biographeme partakes of a process similar to the ‘flash’ of history that Walter Benjamin proposes.  This notion of history is similar to the kind of collective memory that Gilbert Adair evokes when he describes his versioning of Roland Barthes and Georges Perec as ‘tiny shards of a common nostalgia’.  The shards suggest a series of broken-off memories that, while difficult to locate, may prick the conscience at any given time. As Burke says:

The biographeme suspends narrative time and the telos that only such time can insure. Its ethos has affinities with the Proustian concept of ‘involuntary memory’ as it has too with the repertoires of ordinary memory. Those who have lost their nearest and dearest do not recall their departed in the manner of the monumental biographer, but through discreet images, a love of cats and flowers, a liking for particular cakes, watery eyes like Ignatius of Loyola.

Lost shards become found through this involuntary process, bringing the past to the present: ‘For Barthes, never far from Proust, the biographeme reverberates with the pathos of lost time, and yet participates in its recovery.’

There is still no certainty of any kind of permanence to these shards. Yet Borges and Barthes are already attempting a solution to the problem by writing it down. As Barthes struggles with the dilemma of whether or not to keep a diary, he records the following:

Death, real death, is when the witness himself dies. Chateaubriand says of his grandmother and his great-aunt: ‘I may be the only man in the world who knows that such persons have existed’: yes, but since he has written this, and written it well, we know it too, insofar, at least, as we still read Chateaubriand.

(Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, pp. 362-3.)

Fernando Pessoa had earlier discussed a similar process and its implications:

We say ‘Cromwell did’ but ‘Milton says.’ And in the distant future when there is no more England … Cromwell will be remembered only because Milton mentioned him in a sonnet. The end of England will signify the end of what we may call the work of Cromwell, or the work in which he collaborated. But the poetry of Milton will end only with the end of all civilization or of man’s presence on earth, and perhaps even then it won’t have ended.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose, ed. & tr. Richard Zenith (New York: Grove Press, 2001), p. 166.)

There is clearly an importance being placed here on biography, for biography is strongly associated with the types of remembering associated with death rites (the witness, the epitaph, the obituary, the gravestone). Furthermore, biography serves both to distinguish individuals from each other and to bring them together in community through similarity and shared qualities, intimately connecting personal and collective memory and identity while attempting to fix the messy fluidity of lived life. Mark C. Taylor, in his fascinating survey of final resting places, Grave Matters, discusses the rise of biography following Augustine (whose Confessions may remind us that autobiography is not so much telling the truth of oneself as deciding what, how much and to whom to confess). Taylor suggests that the rise of cemeteries and marked graves ‘invented’ death, a point that relates to the notion that writing invents speech and that scores, transcriptions, instruments and ultimately recording invent (or at least reinvent) music.

It may initially be hard to see popular song in similar terms given its apparently transient nature, but the contention throughout Fado and the place of Longing is that popular song, as much as any other part of popular culture, has, in the modern era, become subject to the kind of desire for perpetuation that has long been literature’s domain. This has happened via the technology of recording and storing but also by the desire that drives the development of such technology, the desire to ward off loss, to archive, to remember even if it is by means of a relegated memory. There are important differences, of course. Recorded music has not had nearly the erasing effect on live performance that writing brought about and it has never been convincing that preservation is recording’s raison d’être in the way that it is arguably writing’s. But even these differences, in the work of a thinker such as Jacques Derrida, can be seen to be constructions.