I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe … once the right vein has been found, no more toil…
– Jacques Derrida, Circumfession
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, inhabitants of a ruinous, unnamed nation enlist the services of ‘stalkers’ to guide them into and through the Zone, a mysterious area of anomalous, supernatural activity said to contain a room which grants one’s innermost wishes. One of the titular stalker’s clients is a writer who professes to be in search of the inspiration that will break his block and propel him to widespread recognition. Yet halfway through the journey, he comes to realize that this cannot really be his true desire at all, saying:
A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?
If the writer gains the unassailable talent and insight to compose flawless, universally-praised literature, he will lose the very thing which compels him to write in the first place: doubt. I would go as far as to say that doubt, radical self-doubt, is the thread connecting virtually all great authors. Catullus called his poems ‘nugas’ – ‘trifles’. Virgil requested that all his remaining manuscripts be burned, unpublished, after his death (Kafka did the same, already having burned 90% of what he wrote during his life). Chaucer famously ended the Canterbury Tales by apologising for the whole thing. In what might be his most personal work, Shakespeare admitted that he felt unable to convey through his poetry the beauty of the object of his first 126 sonnets, writing, “There lives more life in one of your fair eyes/ Than both your poets can in praise devise.” Joyce described the mind of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as “a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust”. Beckett called his work “a desecration of silence”. You get the picture.
Obviously, I am far from proclaiming myself to be a great writer, or even a particularly good one. But I have sometimes turned to people who were, like the aforementioned, to try and understand why it is that some of us are, for better or worse, compelled to write, and to keep on writing. Somehow we got caught up in this compulsion, our brains short-circuiting on language, feeding off the delusion that if we just keep putting down words we will find that one day we have, at last, said what we meant to say.
As a child, I was consumed with self-doubt: I refused to go to playgrounds, quit sports teams, and pretended to be sick to avoid attending parties. It wasn’t because I didn’t have friends – I had plenty – but because of a strange, amorphous fear of public humiliation, of doing the wrong thing, which never manifested itself in imagined scenarios of embarrassment, but rather functioned as the spectre of failure in-itself. This is how Freud defined Angst: fear without object. Growing up, my ability to write relatively well vacillated between being the safeguard of my self-esteem and the apex of an anxiety centred on the prospect of being ‘found out’ as a fraud; everything was a source of fear, especially something that might be construed as a source of pride. As I got older, I became less socially anxious, less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me, and yet the writing-compulsion only grew. I would overstretch myself in assignments, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible, irritating, even. Praise lost most of its benefit, and I became convinced that only I was aware of the fundamental failure that inhabited all my attempts. My writing had no impetus external to a self-perceived inadequacy, as if every word was a finger plugging a hole in a sinking ship. As Deleuze wrote in one of his last published essays, “The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?”
There’s a Slavoj Žižek quote somewhere where he explains that the reason he is so prolific is that every time he finishes a book, he is struck by the feeling that he didn’t quite manage to articulate what he was trying to say. In other words, there is always an elusive part left over, fuelling the next project, in a chain which continues, necessarily, without end. Žižek would be aware that his master, Jacques Lacan, theorised this phenomenon in detail. For Lacan, the subject is itself ‘barred’ as an effect of language, since the chain of signifiers never reaches an end in signification – think of a dictionary: the definition of a word points to another word, and so on and so on, forever. We are split between the collection of images and signifiers by which we represent ourselves to ourselves and the surplus that eludes signification, which Lacan calls the ‘Real’. And it is this surplus that gives rise to desire in the first place. In Lacanese:
[I]t is the connection between signifier and signified, that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with desire aimed at the very lack it supports.
The difficulty of Lacan’s prose and the arcane theoretical framework he built for himself, replete with unique concepts and neologisms, mean people often take his theories to be more complex and obscure than they are. Think of someone you’ve fallen in love with; if I asked you why you loved them, you might list a collection of attributes (pretty eyes, kind, funny, also passionate about Weimar German architecture, etc.) but you’d never arrive at what precisely it is about them that makes them so special. Any number of people might share those features, but none of them is them. This little leftover bit, this phantom extra thing, is what Lacan called objet (petit) a, the ‘object-cause’ of desire. Our illustration makes it easy to see why this object is not an ordinary one, with qualities and attributes, but something altogether more mysterious, the ‘object proper to the Real’.
I think this surplus which animates desire is embodied by the room in Stalker. When they arrive at its threshold, neither of the stalker’s clients dare enter, because to enter would mean to confront one’s desire head-on. Objet a must always be kept at a distance; this is what Lacan’s matheme $ ◊ a (‘the split subject in relation to objet a’) indicates, the lozenge (◊) standing simultaneously for conjunction and disjunction, the mediating factor of fantasy, which facilitates any object-relation, any relationship of desire. In fact, Lacan modified Freud’s theory of Angst by suggesting that it did indeed have an object, but that this was the phantasmic objet a: when an object occupies its place, anxiety is liable to arise. Being in love is an experience which induces anxiety, but so is being loved, because it forces us to ask what it is about us that makes us desirable to the other, and indeed whether we can hold onto that thing when we never fully know what it is. It is as if our partner has taken possession of something in us which we didn’t know was there – Lacan describes objet a in precisely these terms when he says that it consists of what is “in you more than you”. I think Jason Molina hit on a very similar idea in his song “Being in Love”:
Being in love
Means you are completely broken
Then put back together;
The one piece that was yours
Is beating in your lover’s breast,
She says the same thing about hers.
Why all this talk of love and desire? One of the things I think Stalker shows is that the desire that animates creativity and the desire that animates romantic love are not very far apart: the writer is afraid of coming into contact with desire itself, of having something manifest itself in the place of the lack which stimulates his life’s work; the stalker’s wife stays with him despite the incredible grief and hardship this “condemned man” brings upon his family, because he holds whatever it is that sets her desire in motion. In both cases it’s a question of that same obscure object. In the text from which I took the epigraph for this essay, Derrida notes that whenever a writer is asked why he writes, he ends up giving something akin to a confession or a defence, as if his work was some sort of a crime. If I haven’t managed to avoid this, it’s because the ghostly things fuelling our projects, our personal object-causes, are so indeterminate, so structurally out of reach, that to talk about them is to struggle with an impossible question, to place oneself in a Kafkaesque interrogation, in which we are finally left with no answers, only our anxieties and our uncertainties. And if this is the case, why continue? I’ll defer to the last lines of Stalker:
And if there was no grief in our life, it would not be better, it would be worse. Because then there would be … neither happiness, nor hope. That’s it.