Foucault and Writing

A recent post at Progressive Geographies offers this quote from Foucault about writing:

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from… You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard.

For me the quote started out quite hopeful, the part about there being a pleasure in writing.  I thought, “yeah, yeah, tell me about the pleasure in writing!”  But he quickly casts doubt on that, and moves into saying its an obligation, and we only know that because if we don’t write then we feel bad. And then we learn it is an obligation to do something vain, fictitious, narcissistic, and turned in on itself.  And then he takes a Nietzschean turn and says we write in order to be in control over (or even dominate) the world around us.  But of course that falls apart because the Apollonian attempt to make sense of the world can’t ever fully mask the Dionysian fact that it lacks meaning, that the world just is.  At the end, it seems to me, we are left with no good reason to write.  Foucault at his most brooding.  He gets accused of brooding all the time, and maybe he does, but there is so much hope in his work as well, even if there is only a glint of it here.

That first sentence proposes that there is pleasure in writing.  It seems there has to be if we are going to do it regularly.  Not a negative pleasure of not-feeling-bad.  But a positive pleasure, a joy, a delight, a voluptas.  The delight in language, in its rhythm and music.  The delight in thinking through an idea, spending time with it, turning it over and savoring it from all sides.  The delight in opening out to the world, in articulating oneself in order to connect up with others, to pass one’s excitement about an idea on to someone else.

I think if we want to write, to do it well and frequently, it is not so much about scheduling it properly (although that helps!).  It is more about becoming aware of the delight in writing, learning when it comes and what it feels like, and deciding that is the reason we do it.


5 thoughts on “Foucault and Writing

  1. Pingback: A little more on writing | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: A little more on writing | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Writing, Guilt, Delight | Path to the Possible

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