Sunday, September 12, 2010

Towards a Retrospective View of Writing

The following is an essay I wrote for kicks about a year ago. I thought I'd share it:

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection."
-Anaïs Nin

Writing is, at its core, the art of retrospection. Wired into any work is, I think, the inherent desire to fully capture a moment. And the moment can never truly be captured; if it could be, writing would be a science, rather than an art form. While, in the past, authors have had the inkling to depict their work as objective (true histories, and the like,) a work simply cannot transcend its author's perspective. I think we all know this intuitively. Historic context, individual circumstances, and formal structures all vary in baffling ways; however, ideas remain a universal constant. The attempt to convey such ideas is, at best, a strange form of translation--unavoidably flawed. And I do suppose that, after having said all this, it's clear that the author's intent is ultimately irrelevant.

What is meant, though, by saying that writing is a retrospective art? Well, what can be said about trying to capture the past? After all, if we are trying to capture a moment, it must be a moment in the past. An author as nothing but experience and intuition. And, due to the overwhelming brevity of existence, attempting to capture the past in words is like trying to capture a star that's gone supernova in a jar meant for fireflies. Art is all about discrepancies. All texts work towards the end of capturing a moment; however, that moment simply cannot be caught. Ultimately, writing is an act of miscalculation, no matter how eloquent the words are arranged. This may sound discouraging--I assure you, it's actually quite wonderful.

I once learned about typological interpretation of the bible, a way of looking at the old testament in relation to the new testament. For instance, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, to Christian interpreters it seemed to foreshadow God's own sacrifice of his son for humanity. What I find interesting about that has almost nothing to do with its religious nature. No, what I think is significant here is the way in which scholars seem to have redefined their own past culture, and put it in the context of their belief system, for their own agenda. When you think about it, this kind of thing happens all the time.

By looking at the past in the context of the present, we are subsequently redefining it. It's unavoidable. And when I say we are 'redefining' the past, I mean we are coming to a new understanding of it though new experiences. Ultimately, it's a misinterpretation of the past, because we can never see life through the same eyes again. Thus, we create a false reality for ourselves, working under patently false premises everyday. This whole line of thought is a bit dense. What I really mean is that the past always seems infinitely more simple and infinitely greater than the present, and perhaps even the various prospects of the future. This is the basic premise behind a nostalgic mindset. I think when we hear the phrase, "history is written by the winners," the notion works on an individual scale in addition to the all encompassing reach of history. We selectively remember the good moments in our lives; perhaps it's an evolutionary trait.

Religious and scientific connotations aside, I would say this is relevant to writing in an integral way. We humans qua rational cannot help but assign significance to our past, even when that significance is fairly questionable. There is always a kind of misinterpretation going on when we think of the past, simply because our thoughts are informed by our present circumstance. The sentiments of those past moments are effectively diluted. This discrepancy occurs in whenever we write, and it is this very perversion of the past which fuels all artistic endeavors.

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