Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]


Authors and Addicts

Béla Szabados[ # ]
Regina University

" I have measured out my life with coffee spoons "1.
" I have seen life measured out in eyedroppers of morphine solution "
2 .

I. Preamble

Consider Ludwig Wittgenstein and William Burroughs. It is difficult to imagine two more unlikely bedfellows. But not so fast ! In a 1939 "NOTE"book Wittgenstein observes : "An example that shows how monstrously vain wishes are is the wish I have to fill a nice "NOTE"book with writing as soon as possible. I get nothing at all from this. I don't wish it because, say, it will be evidence of my productivity; it is no more than a craving to rid myself of something familiar as soon as I can; although as soon as I have got rid of it, I shall have to start a fresh one and the whole business will have to be repeated"3 .

Juxtapose this with a passage from Burrough's Junky : " Most addicts … did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict's special need. You don't decide to be an addict…. I have learned the junk equation : junk is not like alcohol or weed, a means to an increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick, it is a way of life "4.

There are unexpected, yet remarkable similarities between these two passages. Both Wittgenstein and Burrough's have an obsessive preoccupation with something : Wittgenstein with writing, Burroughs with narcotics. In each case there is a compulsive activity originating from a craving. Wittgenstein does not seem to write for some specific purpose, for the sake of some other desired practical end, such as, say, expressing condolences to a friend on the occasion of a loss. Nor does Burroughs take drugs for the sake of some other desired practical end, such as health. Unlike the cancer patient who takes morphine to alleviate the pain, Burroughs takes drugs for the sake of taking drugs or the accompanying 'high'. And Wittgenstein writes for the sake of writing &emdash; to fill up his "NOTE"books. With both, the obsessive preoccupations and compulsive repetitions seem to amount to a way of life.

Further affinities may be discerned in their ambivalent attitudes to their "habit" or way of life. Burrough's Junky is not only a record of his addiction and agonizing deprivation of junk sickness, but also of his attempts to kick the habit. Similarly, Wittgenstein's writings might be seen as a personal register not only of his attempts to dispel the philosophical illusions and obsessions rooted in the malaise of our culture, but also of his efforts to overcome philosophy and give it up. Often he complained about the "living death" of an academic career and did his best to warn his students about it5 &emdash; longing for a wide-open life. Towards the end he gives it up, and leaves for the beauty of the Irish Coast. Burroughs himself, in the closing lines of Junky, confesses that he is "ready to move south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk"6 .

Such comparisons are quite naturally prompted by Crispin Sartwell's insightful essay. While this very fact may amuse and instruct the playful, others are likely to react negatively to what they see as strange and inappropriate couplings. I myself confess to a degree of ambivalence, the reasons for which should unfold in my commentary. I hope that none of what follows will lead to addiction, though I would not rule out authorship.

II. Misreadings

Sartwell's thesis is about authorship. There are various ways of reading his thesis. The first way is to read it as a generalization that all, or most authors, are addicts in the sense of being compulsive scribblers. A second way is that good, interesting, or creative authors are addicts to writing. There is little, if anything in the way that Sartwell develops and argues for his thesis that supports either of these readings. To do so would require a 'look and see' approach at the details of authors' lives and biographies to discern patterns of addiction. But Sartwell does not look and see how many, or what kind of authors, are addicts. Nor does he reflect on how features of addiction may enhance the quality of authorship. Hence, the methods of gathering examples, or marshalling counter-examples, conventionally employed to confirm or refute such a thesis, seem irrelevant.

A third way of reading Sartwell is reading him as writing autobiography. There is considerable textual support for this reading. It would explain the very personal voice, the introspective mood, the self-disclosures and confessions. Consider : "I am an addict and an author, so the topic is a good one for me"7 , says Sartwell as he begins the paper. Throughout his essay, there are acknowledgements such as "I have been literally addicted to authorship …, I have written compulsively …, all my writing has been aimed primarily to treat myself …, to tell myself what I need to hear, writing the books I need to read"8 . So it is not surprizing that as an addict and an author, writing about addiction and authorship, Sartwell would choose a personal voice and engage in autobiography. His style is iconic of addiction. It embodies and manifests his thesis to the extent that it is frenzied, intense, anxious, with highs and lows, with longings and fears. We are inclined to say, 'Show me how the text is written and I'll show you what the text is about'.

The conventional response to such an autobiographical reading is that it is a mistake to reduce the general problem of authorship to the idiosyncrasies of an individual author. This objection is itself suspect, however, in that it assumes a sharp dichotomy between theories of authorship and biographies of authors. It may well be that aspects of the life of an author enliven and enrich our perspectives on authorship and its variations9. It seems to me that Sartwell's essay does precisely this. A particular author shedding light on authorship by locating it in the concrete details of his own life. Yet, Sartwell is not saying that addiction is intimately connected to authorship merely in his own case. Rather, he claims that what he says is "true of a lot of authors"10 . To secure this claim, we would again need to look and see.

III. A New Metaphor

So far I have canvassed misreadings of Sartwell's thesis, readings that are overly narrow, that suffer from a kind of astigmatism. The question that still remains is, how to read the thesis. Well, perhaps we could say that a good metaphor or simile is like fresh seed on the ground of discussion. It provokes thoughts we may never have had, as we look at two things, conventionally regarded as utterly different, through a strange new lens. So, perhaps Sartwell forges a fresh metaphor, invents a new simile. As he says, "Conceive or see authorship as an addiction or as THE addiction or as META addiction"11. Now of course we don't look at authorship that way when we speak the dead metaphors of everyday language. What Sartwell suggests then is that instead of making invidious comparisons between the lives of authors and the lives of addicts, we need to let the light of the depiction of the experiences of addicts illuminate our lives as authors. The addict, as we might put it, is the author's other. Seen from this angle, Sartwell's essay appears to be a remarkable achievement.

What then are the affinities rendered salient by Sartwell' new metaphor ? Both addicts and authors are said to suffer from self-division and excess of will. They seek to annihilate such self-division and collapse into a single thing with a non-fragmented, non-alienated identity. This identity is no longer thought of in linguistic terms. In the case of both author and addict, there is a desire for an extinction of the self, a relief from the self, an escape from the public order of signification and power 12. The addict ingests the chemical substance to achieve this relief, to become body. The author, inflectively or deflectively, uses the public language to forge through writing an idiosyncratic private vocabulary thereby becoming a body of text.

IV. Objections

What is striking about this account of authorship is its individualism asymptoting towards solipsism. Sartwell develops his argument around the tension between will and desire &emdash; a tension that splits the addictive author's identity and consummates his or her desires in a gratifying play of signifiers. Such a narrow preoccupation with the uncontrollable needs and narcissism of the addict/author robs Sartwell's theory of social content and context, effectively deleting the desires and values of others in the community of speakers and readers. What Sartwell really offers us is a phenomenological portrait of authorship anchored in private experience.

By its exclusive focus on inner experience, a phenomenological picture of authorship runs at least two risks. It assumes that there is a distinctive or characteristic experience unique to the practice of authoring. But this is questionable. Some writers may well be motivated by a felt ontological lack, while others are motivated by a felt plenitude of being. Secondly, there is a risk of neglecting social context and outward criteria of authorship, the stuff easy to miss for it is right in front of our eyes. In stressing previously unnoticed similarities, Sartwell's fresh metaphor poses the danger of neglecting or ignoring relevant differences between addicts and authors. For example, Sartwell gives short shrift to the works or products of writing &emdash; poems, essays, books &emdash; and how these works connect up with our lives as readers. Unlike works of literature, addicts' highs and lows are not collected by institutions, are not preserved or studied. The latter are notoriously ephemeral, while the works of the great masters rise and set around us &emdash; each generation reinterpreting them from its own perspective. Again, while we have no difficulty in appreciating the Socratic or epistemic benefits derived from writing, hence Montaigne's adage "I have learned a lot from writing; about myself and others"13, similar benefits derived from drug addiction seem much less impressive.

There are differences of intentionality too. Burroughs asks, "Why does a man become a junkie ?"; and he answers that he usually does not intend to become a junkie. "You don't wake up one morning and decide to become a drug addict …, you become an addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction"14. By contrast, there is no difficulty imagining someone waking up one morning and deciding to be an author. To see one's life measured out in books, articles, public readings, correspondences with other writers, book launches, researching past contributions to the history of a problem one wishes to resolve &emdash; all this is to participate in a rooted and challenging way of life of our culture. On the other hand, to see one's life measured out in vials of morphine solution, chunks of crack, or periodic extinctions of consciousness, is not something that readily lends itself to benign intentionality.

If all we aim at as authors is relief from self and an exit from the public language of signification, perhaps authorship, which usually requires a long and demanding march through the institutions, is too arduous a way to achieve such relief. Would it not be more effective and efficient to go directly to a habit that results in the desired relief more reliably and with less difficulty ? Again, if there is an authorial desire for transformation into an object, surely it is a longing for a rather distinctive transformation. It is not simply a desire to be just any body. Sartre wanted to be a book of literature15, not brute pulp, or even pulp fiction. Nietzsche wanted to turn into stone16, better still, marble, with his books as epitaphs. Mere dust or chip of wood will not do, since such changes are in the natural course of events in any case. Books, headstones with epitaphs, large trees &emdash; these resonate with meaning for us. Such desires for transformation may be seen as self-affirmations rather than mere self-destructions.

V. The Uses of Nonsense : Authorship and Power

Until now I have tried to discern how Sartwell's thesis is to be read, what he may mean by it. But perhaps this is a big, possibly ground-floor, mistake. For throughout his paper, Sartwell not only defers, but refuses meaning. I sense a beginning to the final part of my commentary in the ending of Sartwell's essay, where he says "I am attracted to a nonsensical authorship, and maybe you think that this paper is nonsensical. I am more worried because I think it is true" 17. So far I assumed that if Sartwell claims that his thesis is true, then he is committed to its being meaningful. Yet there are indications that Sartwell wants to disavow this assumption. Let us "NOTE" that he speaks of his thesis as "my thesis for the moment"18. He also suggests that authorship is, for us, a way of using language where we have a syntax without a semantics, where the signifier &emdash; signified relationship no longer matters19. Sartwell sometimes refers to his own essay as an example of "mumbling or blabbering or scribbling in the appropriate way and really it means nothing at all"20. What matters, Sartwell suggests, is "the syntactical arc through which we lift ourselves up into power"21. Sartwell does not intend this as a criticism, since he says that he is pleased to be unburdened of thinking.

If this is so, then perhaps Sartwell sees his own piece as nonsense. He does not see himself as asserting anything but just uttering. He is performing some conference ritual, and I have naively misunderstood his project when trying to ascertain the meanings of his thesis.

In any event, on Sartwell's perspective writing and authorship is an assertion of power. As he puts it, "to present oneself as an author is to assert a kind of power … and personally I prefer the absolute bludgeon". This shows that Sartwell "does not treat language" or writing as a complex social relationship but "as a matrix of power", neglecting the fact that the "force of power" does not exclusively depend on language but also on political, economic and social "conditions which define who can speak, how they can speak and in what circumstances". If authorship and writing are construed merely individualistically as a more or less blatant assertion of power, then a primary purpose and responsibility of authorship is abdicated, namely, to communicate thought, sense and sensibility in a socially interactive fashion while respecting the deepest values of the human community22.

VI. Historical Connections

While some people are afraid of talking nonsense, what is of consequence is that we attend to our nonsense23. Then the leftover questions are : What is Sartwell trying to do with all this nonsense ?, and, How does he do things with nonsense ? We are directed away from Sartwell's words towards his speech acts and performance.

This theme has historical resonance. At the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein also directs the reader's attention away from his words to his intentions as author of those words. "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it"24. Perhaps once we understand Sartwell, rather than his propositions, we analogously recognize his propositions as nonsensical, as remnants of a metaphysics of authorship. Sartwell's confessions, for this is one sort of speech act he performs, are partly intended to bring about a liberation from the illusions and self-deceptions so readily generated by traditional pictures of authorship and self.

Another striking resonance is with the figure of the literary critic Roland Barthes, who "imagines someone who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, … by a simple disregard of that old specter, logical contradiction, who mixes every language even those said to be incompatible"25. This sounds much like Sartwell who seems to mix diverse languages, those of post-modern theory, of Cartesian dualism, analytic philosophy, the languages of addiction, of authorship and of the everyday. Sartwell is also discreetly indifferent to seeming contradictions and revels in apparent inconsistencies.

Now I want to weave together what Wittgenstein might be about in the Tractatus, and what Barthes and Sartwell might be about. Wittgenstein's narrative is about a person who is obsessed by a nonsensical string of words, who is suffering from the illusion that what is nonsense &emdash; the language of traditional philosophy &emdash; is sense. In the end, the question and language of philosophy disappear, and with them goes the process by which he came to be rid of them. Having overcome philosophy, Wittgenstein is then able to go on with his life. Through acts of confession and acknowledgment, we have self-transformation. "The true revolutionary revolutionizes himself"26. However, as the later Wittgenstein of the Investigations realized, such global overcomings are not possible. What we in fact do in our everyday life is engage in a struggle with specific, local problems, trying to overcome them.

For Barthes, language is intimately connected to power and social institutions. What is natural, or necessary, are all conceptual artifacts created and sanctioned by institutions. There is no stepping outside language. So, Barthes' problem is, how to understand speech outside the bounds of power ? How is literature, "that permanent revolution of language"27 possible ? His recipe: mix apparently incompatible languages, disregard the law of contradiction, and thereby rid yourself of all exclusions. Through acts of disobedience and transgression against public language, we have self-transformation.

If we construe Sartwell as engaged in this sort of project, then we see him struggling to reduce to nonsense the conventional language of authorship, and use this "nonsense" to bring about a permanent revolution in what it is to be an author. "Nonsense" is used to perform acts, even if these are only speech acts, such as confession, protest, incitement, and transgression. For Sartwell, as for Wittgenstein, this sort of nonsense is a terrain of value. The Tractarian Wittgenstein sees this sort of nonsense as indicative of our tendency "to run up against the walls of our (linguistic) cage", "to go beyond the world, … beyond significant language"28. While he sees this as absolutely hopeless, he cannot help but respect it deeply, and would not for his life ridicule it29. Hence, Wittgenstein carves out a domain for silence, whereof we cannot speak. On the other hand, Barthes and Sartwell see this domain as the present limits of language, as the most recent boundaries of institutional power &emdash; whereof we cannot yet speak. These limits and boundaries need to be challenged by authors, thereby recreating language and as though Barthes and Sartwell add a political dimension to Wittgenstein's "The limits of my language are the limits of my world"30.

Yet "this subversion of 'public' language" must leave any reading or evaluation of the author's text "in an invidious position" as well as posing a problem for scholarship and communication. For the author has already imputed value to his or her own "nonsense" and implicitly dismissed the standard norms of judgment held by academic and literary institutions. Again, the possibility that revolutionizing language can be carried out on the basis of such "individual gestures of protest" seems remote31.

VII. Envois

Authors, if they are not to rest on their laurels and die, need to forge a new syntax for the will, need to invent new similes. Therein lies the value of original, creative authors, who are Sartwell's central concern. Such authors "twitch incomprehensibly"32, struggling with, and against, the language of power as well as the powers of language.

If authors are to "twitch incomprehensibly", how to twitch as a commentator ? Is my role to put him back on the smooth track of public language by indicating how his vehicle and genealogy as an author, even as he violates or disavows them, enable us to understand him ? But this would involve me in preventing his attempt to escape from the prison &emdash; house of language &emdash; an unfriendly act &emdash; and recall that philosophy was born in friendship. Should someone committed to human solidarity twitch so unfriendly ? I tried to resolve this dilemma by carving out a middle way in my response, namely, that the very project of appreciating Sartwell's original and distinctive contributions to revolutionizing the language of authorship presupposes the public language and continuities of meaning and value with the shared tradition.

To return to where I began: with Wittgenstein and Burroughs. Wittgenstein, through his addictive scribblings and passionate thinking, left us the resources for revolutionizing ourselves and our culture, for describing as well as changing ourselves. So did Burroughs &emdash; for junk addiction &emdash; but not on account of his addiction as such, but rather, through his writing about his addiction. I see the invitation to "look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk" as an illuminating ethical injunctio33.

I am grateful to an anonymous referee of Æ for comments enabling me to strengthen my criticisms of Crispin Sartwell's views. Thanks are also due to Heather Hodgson for stylistic comments on a previous version of this paper.


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