The Eye & the Word

By Joanna Walsh.

The eighteenth century philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, whose double nns stagger through Heidegger’s essay, ‘Language’ (in Poetry, Language, Thought) is, ‘still waiting for the angel with the key to this abyss.’ The abyss, says Heidegger, is something that opens when Hamann asks, ‘how do I know reason from language?’ (or maybe he’s asking, ‘why is one like the other?’). Even sitting in front of my screen, folded into this thing with hands on that perhaps contains what I have to say (or maybe it doesn’t), I can see there are some problems here. Since when did an abyss have a key, so that it can be locked and unlocked? Surely Hamann should have waited for something more practical, like a writing desk, which he could have stood on to climb out of the abyss, if it wasn’t too deep, or which, with the help of a handsaw, he could have made into something that functioned as a ladder, or a bridge. Or maybe he should have asked for the help of a hawk or a raven which, if he had been very light, or if they were very big, might, like the chicken, have been able to get him to the other side. Instead, he waits hopelessly for something that will unlock the rock door of his very solid prison.

The abyss, says Heidegger, goes up, not down, which makes it all the more confusing. What is the point of writing something into existence that does not go the same way as what we have seen?

The Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s 2004 Nobel Prize acceptance speech is all about trying to keep up with language, and it is full of words that go nowhere. First, she’s doing her hair, then, quite suddenly, she’s standing on the side of the road, then she’s sliding, in danger of falling into Hamann/Heidegger’s abyss. She is not actually in the abyss, but, being out of it—as she’s not a dead philosopher but is still quite alive, and mobile with her little quiff and the strange hairball pinned to her blouse, both bobbing as she speaks on video in the full view of the Nobel Prize committee, as well as the little china dalmatian on the table beside her – she is at the mercy of any live encounter between her own language and anything she can see, or be seen by. She admits to being on unsteady ground, is in fact unsure as to whether she is actually on the road or its sidelines, or in the ‘sideline pitfall’ that she says is always running beside it. Luckily her concern with her locks buoys her up, as some kind of distraction, or deferral. Language makes a leap that is in no way logical. She is not, after all, concerned with finding a key, but she is concerned with how to get from one side to another.

Before I began to write, I didn’t know where to put myself. I tried to stay very still, folded within this thing I could not see thinking, perhaps, that if I could not see myself, then no one else would see me, and I would not be pushed into an abyss. I was ‘genuinely tranquil,’ as Heidegger says creative stillness is not, whose tension holds it ‘always more in motion than all motion and always more restlessly active than any agitation.’ If I took no stand on where I was, I would, I thought, be in no danger of falling into any category that I might be unable to climb out of. Denise Riley complains: ‘The best-intentioned classifications can result in obscurantism and comedy.’ How else though, she admits, but by them, can those already categorised begin to exit them?

How did I get out? Really, I have no idea. Perhaps I climbed up from my writing desk, which, being constructed entirely from words, could be made to fly like a raven. Language was key, even though it did not fit any door in my abyss which, of course did not have a lock, not even the lock of a writing desk, which is frankly usually flimsy and only for show, or a lock of hair which, we all know, means something else altogether, and, unless I were in a fairytale, could hardly be relied upon to get me out into the world. Or rather, I was already there in the world (as all abysses are) but was not able to see myself (or therefore be seen). Words let me let myself be seen and heard, so that when I got out of the abyss I began to wave and shout, ‘here I am!’ to the people I saw on or by the side of the road. Then I turned and looked behind me to see if my abyss rhymed retrospectively, so that I could find some meaning in it, and I saw for the first time that it looked like what it was, that is, something that went down instead of up, or perhaps that’s only how it looked from my new perspective because, by now, I am already in quite another abyss, one that, because I can’t see that it goes down, must go up. And, because the abyss I am presently in does not rhyme, I wonder whether I haven’t got to its second, answering part yet, and if this is something that the things I can see in front of me (my hands, the screen) could provide.

I look at the screen, at my hands. The screen is not a mirror. I cannot look myself in the eye.

That’s just as well.

‘The inadequacy that enters the writer’s field of vision,’ says Jelinek, ‘is still adequate enough for something.’


[This is a short extract, the full article is available to read in Issue Three]


Joanna Walsh’s writing has been published by Granta, Dalkey, Salt, Tate, and in many journals, including gorse, and The White Review. she writes arts journalism for the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books online. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by 3:AM Press. Hotel will be published by  loomsbury in 2015, as will a collection of stories from The Dorothy Project, and a Galley Beggar single. She is fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine, and runs #readwomen.