Literature is ‘an afamilial . . . asocial society,’ so Pascal Quignard claims in The Roving Shadows, ‘The person who writes is someone who tries to . . . break the dialogue . . .. To extricate himself from brotherhood and fatherland. To undo all religious bonds.’
What is the meaning of community for a writer? When a writer writes, whom does he/ she write for?
The Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi writes her novels and short stories in solidarity with the marginalized communities of India. Yet, in a film interview with her publisher Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, she explained how she seeks solitude and isolation from others in order to communicate her ideas. By necessity, she communes with her readers while keeping them at a distance. She works on behalf of communities while adopting a unique position—neither fully inside nor outside. This confirms Quignard’s conviction that ‘the artist cannot take part in the operation of the human community at the very same time as he is striving to detach himself from it.’
The actor Martin Sheen once said, on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, that social activism (he was been arrested over 60 times) for him is not about express one’s views in order to coerce others into following them. He simply does it for the benefit of his own sense of being. ‘You do it because you cannot not do it and be yourself.’
‘How do I know who I am until I have written myself and read myself on a piece of paper in front of me? There I was, me, Nabaneeta, taking shape, on a piece of paper‘—Nabaneeta Dev Sen has reflected upon a time when she felt ‘immensely unhappy’ if she had not written anything in a period of twenty-four hours—‘There was an inner pressure that forced me to write. Words were important.’
Literature, Quignard believes, is ‘the most de-socializing experience there ever was. The most anchoritic. So much so that its history never transited from country to country. It passed from monastery to monastery. Passed from monk to monk. Passed from monos to solus. From one lone being to another.’ And yet for him literature is also, ‘A voice so intimate that it is no longer even conveyable in the air.’ It is in fact a kind of de-socializing intimacy. ‘Between the one who writes and the solitude of the one who reads, there is much that cements the two.’
The relationship between a writer and the marketing department of their publishing house is perhaps more problematic. Sales and marketing managers, like politicians, often attain a premeditated idea of who their public is, but for a writer or an artist, the desire to communicate may actually take precedence over the identity of the recipient. Quinard seems to follow this idea when he writes that ‘for the first time, the form of a society is opposed to the existence of literature. Neutrality in the way a society might be organized belongs now among the impossibilia.’
He writes further, ‘our societies . . . are frightened.’ They ‘reject the most thrilling, most desirous and finest joys, which always have in them the risk of ruin and death’. John Berger once wrote that fear was an instinct in animals and endemic in humans, and that humans were unhappy apes, and that what separates the former from the latter is not the mind so much as a manner of perception.
A society centred on the written word ‘wrested prehistoric humanity from the world of dreams and the imagination,’ Quignard continues. ‘Pregeneric humanity was buried in its picture caves, as in its dreams.’ Society was once entrenched in the imaginary, but it has since forgotten this intimate, constitutive relationship. But the imagination is restless, and supersedes the very reality it establishes, so such relationships are precarious in any case.
The two of us connected, yet we existed together–apart. This was what I had thought. As it turned out, what I had perceived as an intimate meeting of minds was merely a figment of my imagination, willed into an illusory reality. From monus to solus: so it goes.
‘Alas, the mistaken heart!’ lamented Rabindranath Tagore, in The Postmaster,
‘Its delusions never end, the laws of reason enter the mind after much delay, disbelieving incontestable evidence it embraces false hope with both arms and all its might to its breast; in the end one day, severing the umbilical cord and sucking the heart empty of blood, it flees, and there is then a return to one’s right senses and the mind grows restless again to embrace its next delusion.’
‘The decision to get away from everyone else, the choice of an outsider status emerges the moment the first family unit appears among animal groups,’ according Quignard. As early as the sixteenth century, Henry Purcell expressed a similar sense of ambivalence that incurs between a desire for one’s own freedom and for the affection of other beings. ‘Oh Solitude! My sweetest choice,’
For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too,
Because its needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
O solitude, O how I solitude adore!
As sure as there exists both images and realities, there is art and there is life. ‘Whenever I have to choose between poetry and life,’ writes Nabaneeta Dev Sen, ‘I decide in favour of life, knowing full well that life was most treacherous. Whereas, poetry would offer, as ever, the final refuge. It will never let me down. Every time I was flooded over and drowning, poetry pulled me up onto dry land. I survived.’