Some time ago I understood those verses in which Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote that death is not in being unable to communicate, but in no longer being able to be understood. Death is not only perceived as premonition: it is felt as presence. Not for want of opportunities to write and publish, but for words and works to be received and sensed. Death like that, in life, kills souls. I understood.
I understood. I’d experienced death like that, in life. Not a writer ‘in translation’ but out; translating a cultural milieu, rather than a language; not an English writer, writing in English as a second language, lacking the stamp of legitimacy guaranteed by translation—an exclusive visa that would give permission to transit from another language into English; cut off by definition from a number of circles of perfection, the writing often deemed not good enough; often silenced; ignored; not heard, because on a periphery, or because it did not pay homage to the louder ones, those more visible, audible—it’s easy to smother faint signals; furthermore misshapen by dreadful adjectives such as ‘uncategorisable’, or ‘cross-disciplinary’. No. I wanted writing to be what it is, stay where and how it is, be read and heard as it is, and not defined as cross-anything. I did not need a cross, nor discipline; not to be heard in high volumes through huge amplification systems, afforded by those more audible. If this form of writing, which I prefer to call chimeric, was deemed elusive, then I knew I would keep it elusive; if complicated, I’d continue to complicate it, even to points where it fled the page into other modes and spaces. On the periphery, I would wait.
Rather than shout, I’d stay there, quiet, in time, and spend time attending to writing’s sparse signals. Not by accumulation and over-production, but through convulsions in stillness, and through repetitions, variations, rewritings, retractions, transformations. Rethinking Pasolini’s ‘death’ as ‘receiving a sentence’: spending time with the sentences I received, with sentences, and with receiving. With words at times hard to pronounce, with their uneasy arrangements.
Peripheral and centred on a periphery, today I am curious about what signal can be transmitted from here, who might tune in and hear, and in turn, what I may receive.
Receive and broadcast. When I say this writing is never just words on a page, when I say I’m concerned with the excess of words, when I sense I might have been, in Pasolini’s sense, dead; then I want the pages to become thin, and words to vanish into breath. I crawl on the ground and read words out and shake, as discomfortable as the writing is perceived. To dissolve and not be me, for words to flee in the air. Because I do not care for what is written if it stays still, but for the condition of writing as a state—one of many—that enables me to be among other voices and signals. It’s a quivering state, that sometimes has got as much to do with words on a page, as with reading out, teaching, speaking, interviewing, editing, recording: arranging and diffusing. In Italian, ‘word’ is ‘parola’, ‘parola’ comes from ‘parlare’: to speak. And ‘to mean’ is ‘voler dire’: to be willing to tell. Words want to tell, speak, flee the page, dissolve in the air, may be heard elsewhere.
Heard elsewhere. I can never agree with the statement ‘I do it for myself’, often found in interviews with promoted writers published by the worthy publishers: it never sounds quite right, it never seems to be enough. It makes me deeply uncomfortable as it implies and signals a sense of safety, of establishment; a sense that writing has an immediate outlet, a safe place; that writing is beyond question. But I seek, I am drawn to writing of many questions, writing out of place, not always in a secure outlet, not always sure of a readership, errant writing: a state, and a form, for those of us who have experienced, more than once, that there might be, in fact, no writing, because our words might not be received, heard: because there might be no conversations through them. Writing ‘only for myself’ (remember, I’m not talking here of what is written, which continues to happen, which is as it is, and lives beyond us; but of the condition of writing, as experienced by someone who writes under the circumstances I’m outlining. I’m not talking here of the ‘impulse to write’ that happens in the singular: but of what follows the impulse, for how long it can be sustained without a tension outside of itself, outside of self), writing ‘only for myself’ holds a bias of security, of those whose writing exists in the security that someone else will look after it, promote it, diffuse it.
Writing only for myself was never enough. I had to reach out, and to do so I needed another language.
Moving out of a language into another was the first of many steps I took out of my self , even when it looked like a very impossible gesture.
This is about the actual impossible.
Henry Corbin wrote extensively about ‘the imaginal’: a cognitive function which, unlike ‘the imaginary’—usually considered as unreal—pertains to a very much real perceptual sphere, if we follow a framework of thought different from the canonical Western one. He talks of ‘Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd’, a term coined by the 12th-century Persian theosopher Sohrawardi to designate ‘the land of non-where’, an intermediary world between the physical and the immaterial, that possesses ‘extension and dimension, figures and colours; but these features cannot be perceived by the senses in the same manner as if they were the properties of physical bodies. [They] are the object of imaginative perception, or of the “psycho-spiritual senses”.’ So the imaginal—and I would expand this into the aural—became for me a way of re-framing the condition of writing: stretching my perception toward that actual impossible sphere, thinking that really there would be someone out there, otherwise, death in life, death of the soul.
With time I did receive a handful of response signals, from the most unlikely places and from the most committed people. Before them, I heard my imaginal responses through the dead: through books. ‘What are the dead for us, if not—before all else—books?’, writes Roberto Calasso in The Ruin of Kasch. And what a different death, from the one voiced by Pasolini. The dead ones in my books did understand, did respond, as I responded to them, although often the signal was garbled: as apparitions, words ‘accompany us, prey on us, haunt us, assuage us’ and it’s not always possible to understand what an apparition tells. We know it tells, and we live with it, and speak back.
This is of the condition of writing, and how writing can be sustained over time in a tension beyond self. And what is the condition of writing (and what is knowing) if not the possibility of ‘we’, projected and actual. A sense and a realisation that every thought and word committed to a page only fully exist both with and beyond the page, as part of a conversation bigger than me, part of a constellation of many others, transforming the same substance. A thought that there has to be someone else than myself to entertain conversations with, to be receiving. In a talk at the Italian Cultural Institute in London a couple of years ago, Calasso spoke of an ‘invisible tribe’ of people who look for certain things in books, as opposed to the visible, tangible numbers of marketing and sales figures; and of how as writers, it is crucial never to lose contact with that invisible tribe. At first such state might be a speculative tension but it is, in fact, real as the material substance of thinking-reading-writing. And what is writing (and what is knowing) if not conversation, correspondence even if broken, even if it’s a talking with the dead, with distant ones, and all other forms of intermittent connections that question wholeness yet continue to tear and patch the fabric of literature.
The realisation that someone before me did this too with words: as Laura (Riding) Jackson pronounces in The Telling, ‘all our speaking to one another… will be as a book of one continual making’. Words are echoing dwellings for conversations reaching farther than themselves, that host many voices. Even if imagined, not immediately accessible, this ‘we’ as possibility agitates my writing, moves it. To move: to have something that acts as a prompt and a substance for conversation, even before publication. L’art pour l’art, sure, but inside it I hear, with and inside my thoughts around making l’art I hear, persistent and present and ghostly like a resonant frequency, I hear l’autre, the other. Remember this is not about still fixed words. This is of readership and kinship, of readership as kinship. This is of the condition of writing. This is not for reassurance, not for a vain wish to please, display, self-indulge: but for that necessary perception of being, which at once grounds each singular voice in difference, and shakes it with the motions that long and wait to encounter that autre which can resonate with ours.
To perceive these correspondences, these ghost frequencies, is the only possibility of knowing.
In the periphery very often nothing happens, and the writing that ensues contains such nothing happening as material of its presence. The apparent nothing (of which there is none) makes me tune in, makes my senses more nuanced, makes me question if what is perceived as nothing is only bias, laziness, and where else to seek in order to find, to hear: in the undergrowth, in the less visible, in the inaudible frequencies, in the less represented, broadcast, promoted. Because today, to consider and question who acknowledges whom, who reviews what, who promotes which work, who quotes whom, who is deemed entitled to talk or write in certain contexts, seems crucial and impossible to dismiss: as writers we do not exist and operate in a void.
I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t promised it to someone. Before it was written, I perceived it in the tension that prompted it. The promise makes the texture of writing real and palpable before it exists: I know it, I sense it, it must be, someone answered. Before publication a conversation, a correspondence.
And yet, writing addressed to someone does not mean they have to be literally there. ‘Beware of the physical in the material’, goes an old alchemical saying: beware of literal readings, of getting stuck in rules and directives that smother psychic material which is lively and changing. Alone when writing, I’m inclined toward another presence. Dorothy Richardson captures this moment of alone-ness and multitude, the alone-ness of writing and at once, the reach into otherness proper of its condition. Here’s how writing begins, how words take form: ‘[Miriam] had been closely following something, and they had come, quietly in the midst of engrossment… they were alive, gravely, after the manner of her graver self… more oneself than anything that could be done socially, together with others, and yet not oneself at all, but something mysterious, drawn uncalculatingly from some fund of common consent, part of a separate impersonal life she had now unconsciously confessed herself as sharing.’ The ‘attitude of writing’ is a ‘strange state’ in which ‘it was as if there was someone with her in the room, peopling her solitude and bringing close around her all her past solitudes, as if it were their secret’. Miriam’s word-animism, her private yet populated conversation, alive and gravely, takes place at that crucial moment in Pilgrimage when she realises she is a writer, and it is enabled through listening: ‘She listened entranced. The little strange sound was the living voice of the brooding presence.’ It’s a subtle but key shift in perception: I hear an echo of it in James Hillman’s thoughts around anima mundi, a term he borrowed from Marsilio Ficino and Florentine Neoplatonism, as he invites to take distance from a subject-centred understanding to reawaken to the world and its substance, ‘the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image—in short, its availability to imagination, its presence as a psychic reality… But at that moment when each thing, each event presents itself again as a psychic reality… then I am held in an enduring intimate conversation with matter.’ An enduring intimate conversation with matter: David Abram writes, in The Spell of the Sensuous, that ‘to read is to enter into a profound participation, or chiasm, with the inked marks upon the page.’ He urges to reflect on the polysemy of the word ‘spell’: the arrangement of written letters, as well as a magic formula, a charm. ‘Written letters… cast a spell upon our senses.’ And Corbin talks of grounding our thinking in the upper firmament: a ground commonly perceived as ephemeral is in fact a real, present world.
That’s why I never read for erudition but for connections, even when at their most unlikely or unhinged. That’s why I turn to imaginary conversations, as ways of imagining and hearing voices out of nothing, of self opening into an enduring intimate conversation with the matter of reading, hearing and voicing the spell of words, a spell which is by its nature a stepping out of self, that lifts words off the page into speech. Heard, after all, is an anagram of read with the added h of a breath.
Imaginary, impossible conversations, such as the Dialogues of the Dead by Lucian of Samosata, their austere grin, their caustic gaze and merciless irony, the very conceit of hearing the dead talk made and transformed into bony arrangements of biting remarks around being human—and who else better than the dead, to show the absurdities of life? And before Lucian’s dialogues, in the history of my reading (isn’t reading always a re-telling of a history of reading?) there were Giacomo Leopardi’s Operette Morali, another collection of metaphysical conversations which, in the history of my reading, in my dialogues with the dead, directly nods at Lucian with its restrained contempt, the alienation from self signalled through voices other than self, other than world, other than plausible; teachers at school called Leopardi’s disaffection from life ‘cosmic pessimism’ but at the time I sensed it as realism. Today I am mostly drawn to those conversations between the living and the dead, the possible and the impossible, such as the dialogue of anatomist Federico Ruysch with a choir of mummies in his study, outlining an estranged space in a skilful rendition of flat, monotone, repetitive chant-like style speech as if coming from a remote site; or Torquato Tasso conversing with a ghost, speculating on truth and pleasure, on humans ‘consuming life’ between dream and fantasy to distract themselves from boredom, their ultimate inescapable condition. Following on, in the history of my reading, the book which holds all the other imaginary conversations as shadows: Le interviste impossibili, The Impossible Interviews by Giorgio Manganelli, not translated in English from Italian to date: imaginary conversations originally written for radio—for a broadcast, for speech—between an elusive interviewer and a range of dead characters on the edge between history and legend such as Marco Polo, Harun al-Rashid, Tutankhamon, the medium Eusapia Palladino, evoked through traits of their personality that mark the dissolution of self into literature, and suffuse the pages with the metaphysical light of their absurd premise, in which the web of words makes up a realm of surfaces and slippery planes dissolving into a void.
In the void I hear another echo, in the metaphysical dialogues of Edgar Allan Poe, The Colloquy of Monos and Una and The Conversation Between Eiros and Charmion, which I read as a teenager after having bought a book of collected works by Poe during one of my first trips to London. Those dialogues from the other world or after the end of the world, so less relatable to my younger self than the scary supernatural and horror tales, continue to haunt me as they point at a much greater dimension, another ‘cosmic’ one. And to continue to stumble into something means that I have to write through it, to do something with it in words, even if it’s otherwordy, even if only a shadow. Today I understand it had to do with the possibility of a conversation, even beyond death.
I once learned, in Adriana Cavarero’s Relating Narratives, that the sense of self is shaped by perceiving one as narratable, and it’s accompanied by a desire to hear one’s story from someone else: there would be no life-story if detached from the desire to hear it narrated by another. A recognition, an opening. And fractures, mishearings. I want to expand this claim beyond the confines of life-story, into the wider net cast by the stories and threads of our singular readings and writings: of how a reading-writing self is shaped, perceived, and reflected through other books, and in conversations through other books. I will continue to do so from the margin, from the impossible. I’ll continue to tell you of faint signals, of dust, and corners. Of disruptions and breaks. I shall go on quietly after garbled, untranslated, chimeric words: writing them, speaking them. I know that I must never cease to seek, to attempt and find forms and ways of telling what is deemed impossible. Otherwise it will continue to stay unseen, unheard.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘Una disperata vitalità / A Desperate Vitality’, Poems, tr. Norman McAfee (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)
Henry Corbin, ‘Mundus Imaginalis, or, The Imaginary and the Imaginal’, tr. Ruth Horine, Spring (Zurich, 1972) http://www.bahaistudies.net/asma/mundus_imaginalis.pdf
Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch, tr. Richard Dixon (London: Penguin, 2018)
Laura (Riding) Jackson, The Telling (Manchester: Flyfield Books/Carcanet, 2005)
Dorothy Richardson, ‘Deadlock’, Pilgrimage, vol. 3 (London: Virago, 2002)
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage Books, 1997)
James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Spring, 1992)
Luciano, Storia vera. Dialoghi dei morti, ed. Massimo Vilardo (Milano: Mondadori, 1991)
Giacomo Leopardi, Operette morali (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1976)
Giorgio Manganelli, Le interviste impossibili (Milano: Adelphi, 1997)
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una’, ‘The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion’, The Complete Tales and Poems (London: Penguin, 1982)
Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives. Storytelling and Selfhood, tr. Paul A. Kottman (Routledge: Oxon and New York, 2000)
Daniela Cascella is the author of Singed (Equus Press, 2017), FMRL (Zero Books, 2015), En Abime (Zero Books, 2012). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. @enabime