No Words No More — Alan Cunningham

He talked on unusual themes. He mentioned Canon Law, syphilis, and irregular verbs. He recited verse, bad verse by critical standards, perhaps; Longfellow’s Evangeline and a translation of Dante by – I think – Cary.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

I wake up and find that I believe no one is reading words any more, so, instead of continuing to write, I decide to submit an application to London arts agency Lux in response to what is nowadays termed a call, a call made by them, a call for applications. They are looking for artists to undertake a residency – to be resident somewhere and to work with their extensive collection of artists’ film and video.

I fill out the form, confident of eventual rejection – I am not, in any sense, an artist.

I apply regardless. I want an immediate reaction. Not from Lux, I realise, on pressing send. No, no – what I mean is that I apply because I immediately want people to, in turn, immediately be knowledgeable and appreciative of all of my expression.

*

Lux could make that possible, I think, if I‘m successful with my application they have that reach. But even if they can’t – or won’t – I continue thinking, applying has made me consider something else: is it now only the obviously visual that has any relevance?

I have answered their call, I then realise, less because I think Lux might be useful in getting me noticed and more so because I want to be noticed.

I do not simply want an immediate reaction.

It is immediacy itself that I want and it is only possible, I find I now believe, using that which is clearly seen.

With words this is no longer possible – there is too much in between.

*

“He plopped to the floor and searched among the lower shelves for books. He kept picking out volumes till my eye was full. I didn’t judge those books by their covers or by their contents, but by their weight. They would weigh four stones if they weighed an ounce. Emerson’s works and Whitman’s were in the pile as a matter of course. Victor Hugo was represented by his masterpiece Les Misérables. The emotional warmth of Hugo appealed to me. There was a book by a modern Syrian prophet which for many years helped me to prattle glib lies that looked like truth. George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man, the only book of that author I could ever stomach. There were two books by Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot. These two books were worth more than all the rest together.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

But is it immediacy that I want?

In my application I wrote about a belief – yes – in an increasing marginalisation of words.

Words mean nothing to people now, I think, even as I write them – they have become, in some sense, resolute, concrete. There is nothing to be seen either in them or behind them.

And I think, then, as I write this last sentence, about an article written by English writer Will Self – who I have initially and inaccurately remembered as Hollywood movie star Will Smith – in which he wrote:

There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

But I couldn’t care less about the novel, I think, after searching out this quote on the Internet and rereading it.

And I couldn’t care less about the reading of words.

No, I then think – it is not immediacy that I want but it is the moving image – or images that do not move, but which I can still see nonetheless – that will instead provide me with ways of communicating everything thought necessary: stimulation, disgust and that other one, what is it now, remember, oh, I have it, yes, yes – involuntary, all-consuming, tremulous belief.

*

“Forward again. People who saw me took me for a purveyor of heretical Bibles and shook their heads. A priest mounted on a beautiful bay horse pulled up and was all edge to know what kind were the books. He was interested in books, but not in Russian writers. “

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

In my application to Lux I also wrote about another desire I have, a desire to use only the fixed or moving image but still, I qualified, as a writer, a desire to take the techniques I have developed in writing words – in using them for expression and meaning – and apply them to the image, that which is presented, that which is seen by those who still have the capacity.

I know what you’re thinking: he wants to make films, or be a photographer.

But no, you’re wrong, it’s not that. I want to get out of language, or beyond it – and yet, I realise, I still want to be a writer. I have no clear idea what the role entails, you see.

These desires are partly the result of my own inability, I concede. They also exist, however, because I fear there is now a strong reluctance within people regarding the very fact of words. Any need for words – any relevance believed to be in them or about them – has become, instead, a current preference to be just shown what there is and to read no words no more.

It appears I want to submit to this transition to the visual – I want immediacy, I believe nobody is reading words any more – but, yet, I still want to be called a writer.

I still want to be a writer.

*

“He loaned me books. We would sit by his fire long hours discussing literature. I did most of the talking, and I shudder when I think of the flood of poetic silliness I let loose on my friend. We agreed that The Siege of Corinth, by Byron, was sublime. I it was who suggested the word ‘sublime’.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh 

*

Is it all just the result of the internet?, I then think, all of my confusion? Of televisual culture? Of movies?

Or am I once again imagining all of this, imaging because of my reading, imagining because of my writing? Am I simply finding it difficult to write, difficult to make a living from writing? 

Is it right for me to want to make a living from my writing?

No, I realise, it is not the fault of any of those things. Nobody is taking books or words seriously. They mean very little to people – and then I start to think that perhaps this is just as it should be.

*

“For a long time I had been imagining that literary people would be interesting to meet”.

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

I laugh when I read this sentence.

I realise, also, upon rewriting it for this essay how it has some connection to the sentence that came before, the pithy and worrying conclusion I constructed up above. I have become a little tired, you see, of epigrammatic endings, my attempts – or subconscious arrival – at some kind of lazy profundity with language.

It’s not just me, I believe – I see it in other writers of words, I see it everyday in fact, satisfaction in ability with words, knowledge of the route to an easy and concise arrival at some judgment.

Reconstruct your ideas, I think, when I see this type of judgment, but it’s no use, they prefer to reconstruct their selves, their words, not think of how anything but appearance could be different – and I suffer from the same fault, spending so much time recalibrating an old book, creating pithy endings.

I sighed – and laughed too – after writing down that ending up above, the one that goes “They mean very little to people – and I start to think then that perhaps this is just as it should be”.

It’s too late, however – I’ll continue to be epigrammatic, aphoristic, whatever you prefer – it’s the only way to survive. Either that or I’ll continue to communicate only in quotes, as I have perhaps started to, something more appreciably understandable, someone else’s packaged, abstract words, quotations from films or books that have already been made or written, things that already exist – things, it is already very clear, that are of some value.

Words in themselves can’t take us anywhere, any longer, if it is still possible to say we want to go – they are of no consequence and we only want what can already be clearly seen.

*

And it is not only words that are not wanted.

Narrative is wanted neither – but who could blame anyone for that decision, I suppose, it mocks the weight it swears it aims to hold.

Fair enough – perhaps it is only the accounting that is wrong and thus we feel that we no longer have the need for it. A different account is needed then, declare, not of what is felt or thought but cost, not done with words, no, but something else, a narrative of transactions, a retelling of the order, a reckoning of things exchanged by those of value and of power.

Power: incapable of being unclear.

Words: unclear.

Words have no relevance for most, no value, they will bear neither proper weight nor load, they are not clearly attractive or are too clearly ugly, being words, therefore, nothing good can come from them, unless, that is, they are words of the following order: paid, received, owed, owned or earned. There is no narrative desired by anyone other than that account, what do I own, what am I owed, when am I paid, what do you earn?

And yet I want to read a story of the finances of the countries of the world, I find, a history of ownership, exclusion, a narrative of the origin of property and the backs that were broken over it – that’s the kind of novel I’m looking for, but who, then, will write that, and who will be able to write it without words – for that is how I want it to be written, that is how it must be written – and who, then, will be capable of reading it?

Well, wait – we’ll get there, time enough. My words will soon become equal to the task of at least properly describing that book.

*

“I was not a literary man. Poetry is not literature: poetry is the breath of young life and the cry of elemental beings: literature is a cold ghost-wind blowing through Death’s dark chapel.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

Let understanding, then, in light of all of this sadness over words – let what you take to be understanding, your thoughts concerning events, events which you desire to understand – wash over you, drain out of you, so that you forget the words forming in your brain to cleverly recreate or categorise or fully determine the true nature of the thoughts and movements you have experienced, and, in forgetting, experience a pleasant blankness, a contextualization alongside those events, their significance, you, in yourself, simply there, without false aggrandisation – like this.

*

And perhaps that would be good because then you couldn’t just write about – it could not just be – the prophetic realisation of the significance of an emotional moment over and over and over again, for you at once feel sad when sadness is required, fine five minutes later – or is, as was once ascertained in Dublin, your memory defective.  Is that all words are good for now? Expression? Aphorism? Judgment?

How about a new idea? How about a brand new account, zero percent interest?

*

Well, sorry mate – the world of ideas is over. Who cares for a new idea? We have the old ideas, let us now profit from them. What is seen now is more than enough. Are you, at the very least, presentable? Can we turn you out?

These words themselves are meaningless, then, more useful being of value, not valuable in themselves. If I were an honest man I would put them on the Internet, gratis, not wait for publication but I’m not honest, not yet, I want to make a living from them, I want dominion, possession, I want them to be of value. They are only objects, capable of display, purchase, ownership, these words – but not – not yet – of any suitably defined meaning.

They will have no consequence.

And I think, then, about the skeleton of a primate I once saw in Cambridge, oh, so clearly lifeless.

*

“And I found out later on that the single poem read by itself possessed far more power than when included in a volume. I seldom read a book through; when I found and read the significant word or phrase, I would close the book, feeling that to read further would only do harm.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

*

And yet once so full of spirit.

We just want words that act like images, bodies that show us directly, words that are imperfect, incorruptible, no, wait, we’ve decided we just want images, images that instead act like words, images that can be read, interpreted, deciphered – but only, my God, as to whether what is seen is indeed real or not.

Words are of value now, they point onwards, become things, products, for example, marks of what is searched for and what’s sought, but they are not value, they are not valuable.

We only want words that are of value, away from value, down wind of it, giving, perhaps, the scent of something else, pointing towards it, an advertisement, a word on a highway, a roundabout, a hoarding, there, saying, with some image in the word: is this not in fact what you have always been searching for?

*

“Can you tell me your favorite thing in Hackney?”, I am asked by a marketeer as I walk towards my flat one evening.

“No”, I say, somehow aware that my words will be used for a strange purpose.

“Why?”, the woman cries after me, not at all understanding.

*

“Show me a picture of this new girl, then”, she said to her friend, sat beside me on the train.

“Don’t just take an image of a hot girl from Google”, she added, laughing, as he picked up his phone.

*

There is still belief everywhere. There is no longer belief that books – that words – have anything special to offer. People don’t look to books or words for answers – but then, did they ever? Is the writing of such things not more, instead, for me, the one who writes them?

And for all my reading – and all yours too, for that matter – there is only one book I now consider necessary, just as I wrote before – but now my words are somewhat equal to the task – one written of who owns all the things of the earth, for how long and asking for why, most importantly, it is only they who own them, but who, I think, would want to write or read of that?

*

“Searching among the papers on the counter I came across a periodical dated a few weeks back. ‘What kind of a paper is this?’ I asked the newsagent. 

‘Something like John Bull’, he said. 

It was the Irish Statesman. Returning to my ass I opened the paper and read. 

The first thing my eye fell upon was a review of a book by Gertrude Stein. I read a quotation and found it like a foreign language, partly illuminated by the Holy Spirit. There was mention of a man called Joyce. I was a little surprised to find that his Christian name was James and not P.W. or Robert Dwyer.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh


Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland, based in London. His first book Count from Zero to One Hundred, was published in 2013. Other work has been published by gorse. This essay is part of the New Green Fool series, assisted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Image: © jamelah e., ‘self portrait with book and shoes‘, Creative Commons Licence