the underground man in montreal: rawi hage’s cockroach

According to the jacket copy, “The nameless narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH is an Arab immigrant who has failed at everything, including suicide, so he settles into a restless refuge among the human detritus of the Montreal underworld. He uses his court-ordered therapy sessions to spew surprisingly witty and descriptive bile about his life among the thieves and miscreants of the city, seducing his psychiatrist with his transgressive monologues and the intensity of his belief that he is part insect. He eventually finds work as a busboy, a position which allows him to maintain his social invisibility and listen in on the illicit schemes of the clientele. When he discovers a dark connection between one of the customers and an Iranian waitress whom he is infatuated with, he resolves to use his worthless life as currency to purchase a small measure of justice for her.”


I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last time I did that it was summer and I was leaning on aparked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives.They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome. 

I thought, I will show this happy couple what I am capable of. One of the officers came back from her car, gave me back my papers, and said, You’d better go now if you do not want trouble. So I started to walk. And when I passed the man outside his restaurant, I spat at the ground  beneath him and cursed his Italian suit. Then I crossed the street, entered a magazine store, flipped through a few pages, and came out again. I watched that same couple from behind the glass of the entrance to an office building. Now, all of the sudden, they had something to say to each other, so they had started to converse. And I watched the owner come to their table and talk to them as well.

Excitement had been injected into their mundane lives. I bet they even got an apologetic complimentary drink on the house at my expense. Bourgeois filth! I thought. I want my share!

Continue reading

žižek on kafka & the typology of stupidity

There are two contrasting figures of idiocy in our lives. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who “doesn’t get it,” who understands a situation “logically,” missing its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I visited New York for the first time, a café waiter asked me: “How was your day?” Misunderstanding the remark as a real question, I answered him truthfully (“I’m dead tired, I’ve got jetlag ..”), and of course he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot. One exemplary case of such idiocy was Alan Turing, a man of extraordinary intelligence, but also a proto-psychotic unable to follow implicit contextual rules. In literature, it is hard to ignore Jaroslav Hasek’s good soldier Schwejk, who, when he saw his comrades shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no man’s land shouting: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The archetype of such idiocy is, however, the naive child from Andersen’s tale who points out that the emperor is naked —thereby missing the fact that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked underneath our clothes.

The second and inverse form of idiocy is that of those who fully identify with commonsense, who are wholly in favor of the “big Other” of appearance. In a long series of figures —beginning with the Greek Chorus in the role of canned laughter or canned crying, always ready to comment on the action with some commonplace wisdom — one at least should mention the classic “stupid” partners of the great detectives: Holmes’s Watson, Poirot’s Hastings. These figures do not only serve as a foil for the detective’s greatness; indeed, in one of the novels, Poirot tells Hastings that he is indispensable to the detective work: immersed in common sense, Hastings reacts to the scene of a crime the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react; it is then only by including in his analysis this expected reaction of the “big Other” that the great detective can solve the crime. The greatness of Kafka resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present the first figure of idiocy in the guise of the second figure, as something entirely normal and conventional (recall the extravagantly “idiotic” reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law*). 

 —from Slavoj Žižek, Living In The End Times (Verso, 2010)

from kafka’s the zürau aphorisms




The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.



All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.



There are two cardinal human vices, from which all the others derive their being: impatience and carelessness. Impatience got people evicted from Paradise; carelessness kept them from making their way back there. Or perhaps there is only one cardinal vice: impatience. Impatience got people evicted, and impatience kept them from making their way back.



Many of the shades of the departed busy themselves entirely with lapping at the waters of the Acheron, because it comes from us and still carries the salt tang of our seas. This causes the river to coil with revulsion, and even to reverse its course, and so to wash the dead back to life. They are perfectly happy, and sing chorus of gratitude, and caress the indignant river.



From a certain point on there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.



The decisive moment of human development is continually at hand. This is why those movements of revolutionary thought that declare everything preceding to be an irrelevance are correct—because as yet nothing has happened.



One of the most effective seductions of Evil is the call to struggle. It’s like the struggle with women, which ends up in bed.



A smelly bitch that has brought forth plenty of young, already rotting in places, but that to me in my childhood meant everything, who continue to follow me faithfully everywhere, whom I am quite incapable of disciplining, but before whom I shrink back, step by step, shying away from her breath, and who will end up—unless I decide otherwise—forcing me into a corner that I can already see, there to decompose fully and utterly on me and with me, until finally—is it a distinction?—the pus- and worm-ravaged flesh of her tongue laps at my hand.


—from Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms. Trans. Michael Hofmann.  New York: Schocken, 2006.


a tragedy in miniature: short fiction by stig dagerman

In culling my library over the weekend I came across an old issue of the once-great Grand Street, which had a somewhat fresher translation of Stig Dagerman’s short story “To Kill A Child” than the one in my old Quartet Encounters collection of his short stories, The Games of NightOne of Sweden’s most respected writers of the 1940s and 50s, Dagerman (October 5, 1923 – November 5, 1954) published his first novel when he was just 22 years old. His continual themes were fear and terror, guilt and loneliness. Toward the end of his life Dagerman, like so many other writers in the 1950s, railed against the onset of the dreary mono-culture:  

I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, it restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.

 —from Dagerman’s “Do We Believe In Man?” (1950)

By the time Dagerman was 26, he’d published six books and written four full-length plays. He married the actress Anita Bjork, (she appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s “Secrets of Women).” But then Dagerman practically stopped writing, and committed suicide in 1954, at the age of 31.

In his introduction to The Games of Night, Dagerman biographer Michael Meyer states that:

Like his masters Strindberg and Kafka, he photographed his small, split world with a vivid and faithful clarity, and sometimes one is haunted by a secret and uneasy suspicion that his private vision, like Strindberg’s and Kafka’s, may in fact be nearer the truth of things than those visions of the great humanists, such as Tolstoy and Balzac, which people call universal.

Graham Greene observed that “Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.”

In his famous “To Kill A Child,” Dagerman creates an atmosphere and setting which conveys the irrevocable nature of personal tragedy. Three narrative spaces are laid out within the initial omniscient view of all three villages. The reader is alternated between the first and third, and then between the second and third. Just as the story steps through three spaces, so too do its inhabitants.  The couple in the car are moving towards the child who is moving; his parents are stationary. It is the car and child that will collide, at the foreordained crisis point in the third village. But the reader, like the characters, cannot do anything other than move forward until the inevitable occurs . . .

In 2003, a Swedish film director, Alexander Skarsgård, along with Björne Larsson, made a short film of To Kill a Child, (Att döda ett Barn), which may be viewed here:

Apparently the film was extremely well-received when it made its international premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Narration in Swedish, or some such North Germanic language). 













To Kill A Child

By Stig Dagerman

It’s a peaceful day as sunlight settles onto the fields of the plain. Soon bells will be ringing, because today is Sunday. Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, windowpanes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek. And still humming, the woman places the freshly cut bread on a blue plate.

No shadows pass over the kitchen, and yet even now the man who will kill the child stands near a red gas pump in the first village. He’s a cheerful man, looking through the viewfinder of his camera, framing a shot of a small blue car and a young woman who stands beside it, laughing. As the woman laughs and the man snaps the charming picture, the attendant screws their gas cap on tightly. He tells them it looks like a good day for a drive. The woman gets into the car, and the man who will kill the child pulls out his wallet. He tells the attendant they’re driving to the sea. He says when they reach the sea they’ll rent a boat and row far, far out. Through her open window, the woman in the front seat hears his words. She settles back and closes her eyes. And with her eyes closed she sees the sea and the man sitting beside her in a boat. He’s not an evil man, he’s carefree and cheerful. Before he climbs into the car, he stands for a moment in front of the grille, which gleams in the sun, and he enjoys the mixed aroma of gasoline and lilacs. No shadows fall over the car, and its shiny bumper has no dents, nor is it red with blood.

 But just as the man in the first village climbs into his car and slams the door shut, and as he is reaching down to pull out the choke, the woman in the third village opens her kitchen cupboard and finds that she has no sugar. The child, who has finished buttoning his shirt and has tied his shoes, kneels on a couch and sees the stream winding between the alders, pictures the black rowboat pulled up into the tall grass of the bank. The man who will lose his child has finished shaving and is just now closing his portable mirror. Coffee cups, cinnamon bread, cream, and flies each have a place on the table. Only the sugar is missing. And so the mother tells her child to run over to the Larssons’ to borrow a little. As the child opens the door, the man calls after him, urging him to hurry, because the boat lies waiting for them on the bank of the creek, and today they will row much, much further than they ever have before. Running through the yard, the child can think of nothing else but the stream and the boat and the fish that jump from the water. And no one whispers to the child that he has only eight minutes to live and that the boat will lie where it is today and for many days to come.

It isn’t far to the Larssons’. It’s only across the road. And just as the child is crossing that road, the small blue car is speeding through the second village. It’s a tiny village, with humble red houses and newly awakened people who sit in their kitchens with raised coffee cups. They look out over their hedges and see the car rush past, a large cloud of dust rising behind it. The car moves fast, and from behind the steering wheel, the man catches glimpses of apple trees and newly tarred telephone poles slipping past like gray shadows. Summer breathes through their open windows, and as they rush out of the second village their car hugs the road, riding safely, surely, in the middle. They are alone on this road — so far. It’s a peaceful thing, to drive completely alone on a broad road. And as they move out onto the open plain, that feeling of peace settles deeper. The man is strong and contented, and with his right elbow he can feel the woman’s body. He’s not a bad man. He’s in a hurry to get to the sea. He wouldn’t hurt even the simplest creature, and yet, still, he will soon kill a child. As they rush on toward the third village, the woman again shuts her eyes, pretending those eyes will not open again until they can look on the sea. In time with the car’s gentle swaying, she dreams about the calm, lapping tide, the peaceful, mirrored surface of the sea.

Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child he can still feel entirely at ease, and only one minute before a woman screams out in horror she can close her eyes and dream of the sea, and during the last minute of that child’s life his parents can sit in a kitchen waiting for sugar, talking casually about the child’s white teeth and the rowing trip they have planned, and that child himself can close a gate and begin to cross a road, holding in his right hand a few cubes of sugar wrapped up in white paper, and for the whole of that minute he can see nothing but a clear stream with big fish and a wide-bottomed boat with silent oars.

Afterward, everything is too late. Afterward, there is a blue car stopped sideways in the road, and a screaming woman takes her hand from her mouth, and it’s dark with blood. Afterward, a man opens a car door and tries to stand on his legs, even though he has a pit of horror within him. Afterward, a few sugar cubes are strewn meaninglessly about in the blood and gravel, and a child lies motionless on its stomach, its face pressed heavily against the road. Afterward, two pale people, who have not yet had their coffee, come running through a gate to see a sight in the road they will never forget. Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a killed child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her childacross the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once-cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face — all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.

—translated by Steven Hartman, with Lo Dagerman, in Grand Street, No. 42 (1992)




thoughts on walter benjamin: when dickens gave way to kafka

" ‘We have grown very poor in threshold experiences,’ says Convolute O. The arcades were, once again, irremediably in decline—victims of the cult of fresh air and exercise, streets with a care for pedestrians (it was only when Tarmac replaced cobblestones that loungers in cafés could hear themselves speak), electric light, and vice squads with a sense of mission as opposed to a taste for the on-the-spot deal. Dickens, we could say, was giving way to Kafka. I do not have to tell you how much Benjamin hated this turn of events. Bourgeois society would only become bearable, he believed, if it had the courage to be stuffy, overcrowded, bored, and erotic again—to sleep, to dream, to see its own tawdriness and absurdity, and therefore to wake to its infinite power."


Stock Photo 


Let me start from the question, then, of what guiding ideas seem

to have got Benjamin started with The Arcades Project in the late 1920s,

and of how near or far from the world of Marxism those first ideas may

have been. I am thinking in particular of Benjamin’s sense of what The

Arcades Project was for—what the point of historical reconstruction was, in

his view, and specifically the reconstruction of something as negligible as

these odd, down-at-heel, petit bourgeois remnants. Partly,

the answer to this—the general, overall answer, I mean—is familiar. Bourgeois

society, Benjamin thought, was slowly, over the generations, waking

up—waking to the reality of its own productive powers, and maybe, if helped

along by its wild child, the proletariat, to the use of those powers to foster a

new collective life. And always, however stertorous and philistine the previous

century’s slumber may have been, it was dreaming most deeply of that

future life and throwing up premonitions and travesties of it. Once upon a

time, what we call ‘‘education’’ consisted essentially of interpreting shared

dreams of this sort—telling the children about tradition, or the deeds of fools

and heroes, or the coming of the Messiah, or simply having them learn and

recite the tales of the tribe. In the bright classroom of the twentieth century,

this could not happen, and so the peculiar discipline named ‘‘history’’ has

had to take over the task. It will tell us what the bourgeoisie once dreamed of,

and interpret the dreams—poetically, tendentiously—in the hope that when

we dead awaken, we shall know what to do with the tools (the ‘‘information’’)

our slaves have forged for us.


I take it most commentators on Benjamin agree that some such view

of the task of history is what brought The Arcades Project into being. Where

agreement breaks down is over how to interpret Benjamin’s choice of the

spaces I illustrate (the Passage des Panoramas, photographed, I would

guess, at much the same time Benjamin started writing about it; and the

Passage Choiseul, shot, by the look of the costumes, maybe a decade or

so earlier) as his central objects of study. Many ingenious pages have been

written on the subject, but it still seems to me to slip through readers’ fingers.

It is Benjamin’s great riddle, built into the structure of his book. Here

is my answer to it, which can only be tentative.


Of course Benjamin was aware that the passages made sense only if

they were seen as belonging to a whole family of nineteenth-century inven-

tions, many incomparably more strange and beautiful than they. The epoch

had been rich, almost prodigal, in its production of ‘‘dream houses of the

collective.’’ At one point in Convolute L, Benjamin draws up a list of ‘‘winter

gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations,’’

and one could easily add to this from other sections of the compendium: the

Crystal Palace (ground zero of the bourgeois imagination), the Eiffel Tower,

Labrouste’s exquisite reading rooms, maybe Guimard’s Metro entrances,

certainly the lost Galerie des Machines. But the arcades are the key to this

wider history for him, because only in them were the true silliness and sublimity

of the new (old) society expressed to the full.


The arcades were utter failures and abiding triumphs. They were old-fashioned

almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing. As

early as the 1830s, commentators could be found declaring them hopelessly

passé. Their use of iron and glass was premature, naive, a mixture of the

pompous and fantastic. They were stuffy and dingy and monotonous; dead

dioramas; phantasmagoria of the dull, the flat, and the cluttered; perspectives

étouffées (a subject-heading from early in the convolutes, which seems

to me to sum up much of Benjamin’s thinking).


The word phantasmagoria in this connection is perhaps best understood

technically: The arcades were perspectives where near and far, and

large and small, could be endlessly subject to tricks of the light. But the tricks

were lugubrious and always easily seen through: This, too, was part of the

places’ appeal. ‘‘The light that fell from above, through the panes . . . was

dirty and sad’’ (AP, F1,2). ‘‘Only here,’’ said de Chirico, ‘‘is it possible to paint.

The streets have such gradations ofgray’’ (AP, D1a,7). Arcades were unfailingly

‘‘close’’ (to recall a word that seemed to dominate my childhood)—

there was sure to be thunder by the end of the afternoon. Drizzle was their

natural element. They did not keep out the rain so much as allow the splenetic

consumer to wallow in rain publicly, his breath condensing drearily on

the one-way glass. ‘‘Nothing is more characteristic than that precisely this

most intimate and most mysterious affair, the working of the weather on

humans, should have become the theme of their emptiest chatter. Nothing

bores the ordinary man more than the cosmos’’ (AP, D1,3). Rain guaranteed

boredom, thank God, since it meant that one could not ‘‘go out.’’ The

arcades allowed a whole century to be housebound and at loose ends in

the company of strangers. They were eternal waiting rooms, caves containing

fossils of the first consumers, mirror worlds in which gadgets exchanged

winks, mephitic front parlors on endless Sunday afternoons with dust motes

circulating in the half-light. Odilon Redon was their painter—his very name

sounded like a ringlet on a cheap wig in the back of the shop. They were

waxworks of the New—Arcs de Triomphe (commemorating victories in the

class struggle).


And for all these reasons they were wonderful. They were a dream

and a travesty of dreaming—in the golden age of capital, all worthwhile

utopias were both at the same time. Or perhaps we could say that they were

pieces of nonsense architecture, in which the city negated and celebrated

its new potential, rather in the way that those other distinctive nineteenth-century

creations, nonsense verse and nonsense novels (Alice or Edward

Lear or Un Autre Monde) negated and exalted mind, logic, innocence,

and imagination. What the arcades released above all as a possibility—a

botched and absurd possibility, but for all that intoxicating—was the idea

of a city turned inside out by the operation of the market. ‘‘The domestic

interior moves outside’’—this is Convolute L—but, even more, the street, the

exterior, becomes where we live most fully, which is to say most vacantly,

lingering all day on a permanent, generalized threshold between public and

private spheres, ‘‘neither on the inside nor truly in the open’’ (AP, C3,4), in

a space belonging to everyone and no one. We linger, we drift, we finger

the goods. ‘‘Something sacral, a vestige of the nave, still attaches to this

row of commodities’’ (AP, F4,5). ‘‘Existence in these spaces flows . . . without

accent, like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythm of this slumber’’

(AP, D2a,1). The proper inhabitant of the arcade is the stroller. For only

the stroller is wordless and thoughtless enough to become the means by

which the passages dream their dream—of intimacy, equality, homelessness,

return to a deep prehistory. ‘‘For the flaneur, every street is precipitous.

It leads downward . . .—into a past that can be all the more spellbinding

because it is not private, not his own’’ (AP, M1,2).


What I have done in the previous paragraphs, you will realize, is sew

together clues, images and half-embedded arguments that are scattered

through many different convolutes in The Arcades Project itself. I know the

procedure is risky. Making a set of connected propositions out of Benjamin’s

card catalog inevitably takes liberties with what Benjamin had to say, or how

he thought he had to say it. But then, we do not know how he would have

chosen to say it in the end. And I am confident my sketch is true to the bare

logic of his imagery in the key dossiers, which is strong and consistent—

and urgent, for all the writer’s Through the Looking-Glass tricks.


The passages sum up the golden age of bourgeois society as Benjamin

conceived it because they were a vision of the city as one great threshold—

between public and private, outside and inside, past and present, stultifying

dreariness (the reign of the commodity) and final Dionysian rout

(Paris as fun house, Paris as Commune, Paris as diorama burning down).

Already in the early twentieth century this vision had become old-fashioned.

‘‘We have grown very poor in threshold experiences,’’ says Convolute O. The

arcades were, once again, irremediably in decline—victims of the cult of

fresh air and exercise, streets with a care for pedestrians (it was only when

Tarmac replaced cobblestones that loungers in cafés could hear themselves

speak), electric light, and vice squads with a sense of mission as opposed

to a taste for the on-the-spot deal. Dickens, we could say, was giving way

to Kafka. I do not have to tell you how much Benjamin hated this turn of

events. Bourgeois society would only become bearable, he believed, if it had

the courage to be stuffy, overcrowded, bored, and erotic again—to sleep, to

dream, to see its own tawdriness and absurdity, and therefore to wake to its

infinite power.



—from T.J. Clark, “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?” boundary 2 30:1, 2003

nadine gordimer’s homage to kafka

“But what happens if something from a fiction is not interiorised, but materialises? Takes on independent existence?
         It has just happened to me. Every year I re-read some of the books I don’t want to die without having read again. This year one of these is Kafka’s Diaries, and I am about half-way through. It’s night-time reading of a wonderfully harrowing sort.”


Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black


Nadine Gordimer





By Nadine Gordimer


ANYONE who is a reader knows that what you have read has

influenced your life. By ‘reader’ I mean one from the time you

began to pick out the printed words, for yourself, in the

bedtime story. (Another presumption: you became literate in

some era before the bedtime story was replaced by the

half-hour before the Box.) Adolescence is the crucial period

when the poet and the fiction writer intervene in formation of

the sense of self in sexual relation to others, suggesting—

excitingly, sometimes scarily—that what adult authority has

told or implied is the order of such relations, is not all. Back in

the Forties, I was given to understand: first, you will meet a

man, both will fall in love, and you will marry; there is an order

of emotions that goes with this packaged process. That is what

love is.


For me, who came along first was Marcel Proust. The strange but
ineluctable disorder of Charles Swann’s agonising

love for a woman who wasn’t his type (and this really no fault

of her own, he fell in love with her as what she was, eh?); the

jealousy of the Narrator tormentedly following a trail of


Albertine’s evasions.







Swept away was the confetti. I now had different expecta-

tions of what experience might have to take on. My appren-

ticeship to sexual love changed; for life. Like it or not, this is


what love is. Terrible. Glorious.







But what happens if something from a fiction is not

interiorised, but materialises? Takes on independent existence?

It has just happened to me. Every year I re-read some of the

books I don’t want to die without having read again. This year

one of these is Kafka’s Diaries, and I am about half-way

through. It’s night-time reading of a wonderfully harrowing


A few mornings ago when I sat down at this typewriter as I

do now, not waiting for Lorca’s duende but getting to work, I

saw under the narrow strip of window which displays words

electronically as I convey them, a roach. A smallish roach about

the size and roach-shape of the nail of my third finger—

medium-sized hand. To tell that I couldn’t believe it is under-

statement. But my immediate thought was practical: it was

undoubtedly there, how did it get in. I tapped the glass at the

place beneath which it appeared. It confirmed its existence, not

by moving the body but wavering this way and that two

whiskers, antennae so thin and pale I had not discerned them.

I proceeded to lift whatever parts of the machine are acces-

sible, but the strip of narrow glass display was not. I consulted

the User’s Manual; it did not recognise the eventuality of a

cockroach penetrating the sealed refuge meant for words only.

I could find no way the thing could have entered, but reasoned

that if it had, shiny acorn-brown back, fine-traced antennae, it

could leave again at will. Its own or mine. I tapped again over-

head on the glass, and now it sidled—which meant, ah, that it

was cramped under that roof—to the top limit of the space

available. This also revealed bandy black legs like punctuation

marks. I called a friend and she reacted simply: It’s impossible.

Can’t be.

Well, it was. I have a neighbour, a young architect, whom I

see head-down under the bonnet, repairing his car at week-

ends; there was no course of action but to wait until he could

be expected to come home that evening. He is a fixer who can

open anything, everything. What to be done in the meantime?

Take up where I left off. Send words stringing shadows across

the body. Indeed, the disturbance might hope to rouse the in-

truder somehow to seek the way to leave.

I am accustomed to being alone when I work. I could not

help seeing that I was not; something was deliberately not

watching me—anyway, I couldn’t make out its eyes—but was

intimately involved with the process by which the imagination

finds record, becomes extant.

It was then I received as I hadn’t heard in this way before;

Can’t be.

Night after night I had been reading Franz Kafka’s diaries,

the subconscious of his fictions, that Max Brod wouldn’t

destroy. So there it all is, the secret genesis of creation. Kafka’s

subconscious was nightly conducting me from consciousness to

the subconscious of sleep.

Had I caused that creature.

Is there another kind of metamorphosis, you don’t wake up

to find yourself transformed into another species, wriggling on

light-brown shiny back and feeling out your space with wispy

sensors, but the imagining of such a being can create one, in-

dependent of any host, physical genesis; or can imagination

summon such a live being to come on out of the woodwork

and manifest itself?

What nonsense. There are no doubt the usual domestic

pests living clandestinely among and nourished by whatever

there is to be nibbled from piles of paper and newspaper cut-

tings. Who else eats the gilt lettering on book jackets? Next

morning he/she/it was still there, no ectoplasm of my imagina-

tion, flattened under the glass and moving, with long intervals

of watchful immobility, a little way laterally or vertically as the


machine warmed in use.







My neighbour had come and studied the situation, or rather

Gregor’s—I had come to think of the creature that way, never

mind. The young architect found that the array of tools he

owned were too clumsy for the Italian finesse that had gone

into the making of the machine. He would try to borrow a

jewellers tools. Two more days passed and I continued not to

be alone as I wrote. At first I wanted the thing in there to die;

how could it exist without water, food—and air. As the glass

display seemed hermetically sealed, wouldn’t any oxygen

trapped within be exhausted. Even a beetle, a roach, whatever,

must have lungs. Then I began to want it released alive, a

miraculous survivor, example of the will to live evidenced be-

yond its humble size and status in the chain of life. I saw my-

self receiving it from the deliverer and releasing it on some leaf

in the garden. I called the firm from which I had bought the

typewriter two years ago to ask for the visit of a know-how

mechanic and was told they didn’t service obsolete business

machines any more, handled only computers.

He, my creature, didn’t die; when I would pause a moment

to acknowledge him, there under my words, and he was per-

fectly immobile, I would think, he’s gone; that other sense of

‘gone’, not escaped. Then the remaining antenna would sway,

the other had broken off, no doubt in patient efforts to find the

secret exit by which he came in. There were times when he

hid—I had seen him slip into what must be some sliver of

space below where the glass window was flush with its casing.

Or I’d glance up: no, not there; and then he’d appear again. My

young neighbour had warned, I hope it doesn’t lay eggs in

there, but I thought of the prisoner as male—maybe just

because I’m a woman, assuming the conventional partner I’ve

had in intimate situations faced together. On Friday night I

happened to go back into my work-room to fetch a book,

turned on the lamp, and there he was, moving up his inch of

vertical space and then arrested, frustrated that what he seemed

to have forgotten, the way he got in, the way he might get out,

was not found. He looked darkened, flat and shiny beetle-

black, but that aspect was by lamplight.

Saturday mid-morning my young neighbour arrived with

German precision tools arranged like jewellery in a velvet-lined

folder. The tenant of the display window was not to be seen;

tapping on the glass did not bring him up from his usual

hiding-place in that interstice below level of the glass. My

neighbour studied more informedly than I had the com-

ponents of the typewriter as described in Italian, German,

French, Japanese and English in the User’s Manual and set to

work. The machine slowly came apart, resisting with every

minute bolt and screw and the rigidity of plastic that threat-

ened to snap. At last, there was the inner chamber, the glass

display. It would not yield; the inhabitant did not rise into view

despite the disturbance. We halted operations; had he found

his egress, got out; then he might be somewhere in the cavern

of the machine exposed. No sign. My neighbour was not going

to be defeated by the ingenuity of Italian engineering, he tried

this tiny implement and that, managing to unwind the most

minute of pin-head screws and disengage complex clamps.

With one last thumb-pressure the glass lifted. The shallow

cavity beneath, running the width of the machine, was empty.

Where was he who had survived there for five days? Had he

freed himself and was watching from among papers and

newspaper cuttings instead of on a garden leaf. We continued

to search the innards of the typewriter. No sign. Then I ran a

finger tracing the narrow space where certainly he had been,

existed, hadn’t he, and felt a change in the surface under my

skin. Peered close, and there he was.

His own pyre. Somehow consumed himself.

A pinch of dust. One segment of a black leg, hieroglyph to

be decoded.



deleuze says le clézio’s act of becoming via fabulation reveals his pedigree—melville, kafka, céline

Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life"  


Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco

Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997)


To write is certainly not to impose a form (of expression) on the matter of lived experience. Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill- formed or the incomplete, as Witold Gombrowicz said as well as practiced. Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived. Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or -vegetable, becomes-molecule, to the point of becoming-imperceptible. These becomings may be linked to each other by a particular line, as in J. M. G. Le Clézio’s novels; or they may coexist at every level, following the doorways, thresh- olds, and zones that make up the entire universe, as in H. P. Lovecraft’s powerful oeuvre. Becoming does not move in the other direction, and one does not become Man, insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter, whereas woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization. The shame of being a man—is there any better reason to write? Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own. To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or undifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule—neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and non-preexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. One can institute a zone of proximity with anything, on the condition that one creates the literary means for doing so. André Dhôtel, for instance, makes use of the aster: something passes between the sexes, the genera, or the kingdoms.1 Becoming is always "between" or "among": a woman between women, or an animal among others. But the power of the indefinite article is effected only if the term in becoming is stripped of the formal characteristics that make it say the ("the animal in front of you .. ."). When Le Clézio becomes-Indian, it is always as an incomplete Indian who does not know "how to cultivate corn, or carve a dugout canoe"; rather than acquiring formal characteristics, he enters a zone of proximity.2 It is the same, in Kafka, with the swimming champion who does not know how to swim. All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Henri Michaux put it. One becomes animal all the more when the animal dies; and contrary to the spiritualist prejudice, it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense or premonition of death. Literature begins with a porcupine’s death according to Lawrence or with the death of a mole in Kafka: "our poor little red feet outstretched for tender sympathy."3 As Karl-Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) said, one writes for dying calves.4 Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming mortal. There are no straight lines, neither in things nor in language. Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things.


To write is not to recount one’s memories and voyages, one’s loves and griefs, one’s dreams and phantasms. It is the same thing to sin through an excess of reality as through an excess of the imagination. In both cases it is the eternal daddy-mommy, an Oedipal structure that is projected onto the real or introjected into the imaginary. In this infantile conception of literature, what we seek at the end of the voyage, or at the heart of a dream, is a father. One writes for one’s father-mother. Marthe Robert has pushed this infantilization or "psychoanalization" of literature to an extreme, leaving the novelist no other choice than that of the Bastard or the Foundling.5 Even becoming-animal is not safe from an Oedipal reduction of the type "my cat, my dog." As Lawrence says, "if I am a giraffe, and the ordinary Englishmen who write about me … are nice, well-behaved dogs, there it is, the animals are different…. The animal I am you instinctively dislike."6 As a general rule, fantasies simply treat the indefinite as a mask for a personal or a possessive: "a child is being beaten" is quickly transformed into "my father beat me." But literature takes the opposite path and exists only when it discovers beneath appar- ent persons the power of an impersonal-which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child…. It is not the first two persons that function as the condition for literary enunciation; literature begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say "I" (Blanchot’s "neuter").7 Of course, literary characters are perfectly individuated and are neither vague nor general, but all their individual traits elevate them to a vision that carries them off in an indefinite, like a becoming that is too powerful for them: Ahab and the vision of Moby Dick. The Miser is not a type, but on the contrary his individual traits (to love a young woman, and so on) make him accede to a vision: he sees gold in such a way that he is sent racing along a witch’s line where he gains the power of the indefinite—a miser…, some gold, more gold…. There is no literature without fabulation, but, as Henri Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting an ego. Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers.


One does not write with one’s neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in the "Nietzsche case." Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health; not that the writer would necessarily be in good health (there would be the same ambiguity here as with athleticism), but he possesses irresistible and delicate health that stems from what he has seen and heard of things too big for him, too strong for him, suffocating things whose passage exhausts him while nonetheless giving him the becomings that dominant and substantial health would render impossible.8 The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums. What health would be sufficient to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera? It is like Spinoza’s delicate health, while it lasted, bearing witness until the end to a new vision whose passage it remains open to.


Health as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing. It is the task of the fabulating function to invent a people. We do not write with memories, unless it is to make them the origin and collective destination of a people to come still ensconced in its betrayals and repudiations. American literature has an exceptional power to produce writers who can recount their own memories, but as those of a universal people composed of immigrants from all countries. Thomas Wolfe "inscribes all of America in writing insofar as it can be found in the experience of a single man."9 This is not exactly a people called upon to dominate the world. It is a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in a becoming-revolutionary. Perhaps it only exists in the atoms of the writer, a bastard people, inferior, dominated, always in becoming, always incomplete. Bastard no longer designates a familial state, but the process or drift of the races. I am a beast, a Negro of an inferior race for all eternity. This is the becoming of the writer. Kafka (for central Europe) and Melville (for America) present literature as the collective enunciation of a minor people, or of all minor peoples, who find their expression only in and through the writer.10 Though it always refers to singular agents [agents], literature is a collective assemblage [agencement] of enunciation. Literature is delirium, but delirium is not a father-mother affair; there is no delirium that does not pass through peoples, races, and tribes and that does not haunt universal history. All delirium is world historical, "a displacement of races and continents."11 Literature is delirium, and as such its destiny is played out between the two poles of delirium. Delirium is a disease, the disease par excellence, whenever it erects a race it claims is pure and dominant. But it is the measure of health when it invokes this oppressed bastard race that ceaselessly stirs beneath dominations, resisting everything that crushes and imprisons, a race that is outlined in relief in literature as process. Here again, there is always the risk that a diseased state will interrupt the process or becoming; health and athleticism both confront the same ambiguity, the constant risk that a delirium of domination will be mixed with a bastard delirium, pushing literature toward a larval fascism, the disease against which it fights—even if this means diagnosing the fascism within itself and fighting against itself. The ultimate aim of literature is to release this creation of a health or this invention of a people—that is, a possibility of life-in the delirium. To write for this people that is missing … (for means less "in the place of" than "for the benefit of").


We can see more clearly the effect of literature on language: as Proust says, it opens up a kind of foreign language within language, which is neither another language nor a rediscovered patois but a becoming-other of language, a "minorization" of this major language, a delirium that carries it off, a witch’s line that escapes the dominant system. Kafka makes the swimming champion say, I speak the same language as you, and yet I don’t understand a single word you’re saying. Syntactic creation or style—this is the becoming of language. The creation of words or neologisms is worth nothing apart from the effects of syntax in which they are developed. So literature already presents two aspects: through the creation of syntax, it not only brings about a decomposition or destruction of the maternal language but also the invention of a new language within language. "The only way to defend language is to attack it." "Every writer is obliged to create his or her own language."12 Language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows. As for the third aspect, it stems from the fact that a foreign language cannot be hollowed outin one language without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to a limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Visions and Auditions that no longer belong to any language. These visions are not fantasies, but veritable Ideas that the writer sees and hears in the interstices of language, in its intervals. They are not interruptions of the process but breaks that form part of it, like an eternity that can only be revealed in a becoming, or a landscape that only appears in movement. They are not outside language, but the outside of language. The writer as seer and hearer, the aim of literature: it is the passage of life within language that constitutes Ideas.


These three aspects, which are in perpetual movement, can be seen clearly in Antonin Artaud: the fall of letters in the decomposition of the maternal language (R, T, . . .); their incorporation into a new syntax or in new names with a syntactic import, creators of a language ("eTReTé"); and, finally, breath words, the asyntactical limit toward which all language tends.13 And even in Céline—we cannot avoid saying it, so acutely do we feel it: Journey to the End of the Night, or the decomposition of the maternal language; Death on the Installment Plan, with its new syntax as a language within language; and Guignol’s Band, with its suspended exclamations as the limit of language, as explosive visions and sonorities. In order to write, it may perhaps be necessary for the maternal language to be odious, but only so that a syntactic creation can open up a kind of foreign language in it, and language as a whole can reveal its outside, beyond all syntax. We sometimes congratulate writers, but they know that they are far from having achieved their becoming, far from having attained the limit they set for themselves, which ceaselessly slips away from them. To write is also to become something other than a writer. To those who ask what literature is, Virginia Woolf responds, To whom are you speaking of writing? The writer does not speak about it, but is concerned with something else.


If we consider these criteria, we can see that, among all those who make books with a literary intent, even among the mad, there are very few who can call themselves writers.