Simon Lee-Price hails from Liverpool and lives and writes in the UK. His short stories and non-fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Prole, Prose and Poetry, Interpreter’s House, The Caribbean Writer, and in several horror and speculative fiction anthologies. He tweets from time to time: @SimonLeePrice.
A Writer’s Work is Never Done
By Simon Lee-Price
Is incompleteness an inevitable property of a work of art? I ask this question because numerous writers, poets and filmmakers have claimed, echoing Paul Valéry, that works of art are ‘never completed’ but only ever ‘abandoned’ (abandonné).[i] Valéry’s choice of the word abandoned is significant. It hints at something approximating betrayal: that artists are obligated to complete their work no matter if they are destined to fail. Iris Murdoch, taking a moral stance on the task of literature, contends that ‘almost every work of art is a failure’, although she does point out that some types of failure are more worthy of our concern than others.[ii]
For Valéry, a completed work is the product of an ‘accident’ (something not proper to the work itself) wherein the infinite process of creation slows to an untimely halt. He lists several types of accidents: ‘weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death.’ These accidents are not all equivalent morally speaking. Artists are relatively powerless to avert their own deaths, but we can attribute weariness to a lack of resolution, and satisfaction to a lack of discernment; surrendering to the ‘need to deliver’ is the sin of placing worldly interests before commitment to art.
If we believe the testimonies of artists, that the creative process inflicts such mental and physical suffering, then the temptation to abandon their work is quite understandable. George Orwell famously described writing a book as ‘a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.’[iii] Kafka, too, struggled to summon the energy and will to keep writing; two of his most lauded works, The Trial and The Castle, were never completed. Kafka’s journal entries from January 1915 depict a fatigued, self-castigating author, plagued by headaches and insomnia. Having just abandoned two short stories, he felt incapable of the sustained concentration necessary for (the aptly titled) The Trial.[iv]
In the latter stages of that novel, Joseph K. grasps that he alone must assume the full burden of his legal defence, or else be found guilty of the unspecified crime for which he stands accused. K. takes on the aspect of an artist as he contemplates writing his court plea. Not only is he confronted by mounting pressure and fear of failure, but also the exorbitant demands of his work:
If he could find no time for it in his office, which seemed very probable, then he must draft it in his lodgings by night. And if his nights were not enough, then he must ask for furlough. Anything but stop halfway. . . . No doubt it was a task that meant almost interminable labor. One did not need to have a timid and fearful nature to believe the completion of this plea was a sheer impossibility.[v]
Kafka battled all his writing-life against weariness; for William Faulkner, satisfaction is the principal adversary writers must slay. Using a phrase that is repeated so frequently it could be called hackneyed, he is said to have advised: ‘Kill your darlings.’[vi] Satisfaction thus becomes the spur to dissatisfaction, as writers are encouraged to seek out and eradicate the very elements in their work they most cherish: a delightful turn of phrase, an idolised figure of speech.
Valéry is absolute in his refusal of satisfaction so that he can scarcely bring himself to begin a work let alone complete one. There is, he says, ‘room for improvement in everything that comes from the first attempt’ and ‘the spontaneous, even excellent, even seductive’, never seems to be sufficient. Valéry has a darling: it is the endless work of composing.
For ontological reasons, too, a work seems destined to remain in a state of incompleteness. Here, Valéry’s use of the word ‘accident’ acquires new significance. Following Aristotle, philosophers typically distinguish between substance and accident in their discussions of being and becoming. Substance describes a fundamental or foundational entity: the atom or some subatomic particle being an obvious candidate. Yet quite paradoxically – and relevant for my argument – substance is also conceived as something non-material or ideal, such as a Platonic Form. An example of substance is the idea of sphericalness, in which case, the associated accident is a particular (and inferior) instance of this spherical form existing in the world (a red-and-white football made of synthetic leather).
For Valéry, an analogous relationship exists between the ideal form of a work and its state of actualisation. He writes, ‘in relation to who or what is making it’ a work of art ‘can only ever be one stage in a series of inner transformations’. Valéry seems to indicate here the fundamental impossibility of an arrested entity, the so-called finished work, ever capturing the inner vision of the artist-creator, which is in a constant state of unfolding.
Henry Miller evokes precisely such a dichotomy when he articulates that what he enjoys most about writing is not the ‘labor of putting word against word’, which never enables him to convey his mind’s conceptions, but rather the ‘preliminaries . . . the period of gestation.’ Creation originates in ‘the primal flux [which] has no dimensions, no form, no time element.’[vii] But Valéry is suggesting something more radical when he identifies ‘who or what’ as the creator of the incomplete work. The ‘inner transformations’ are said to occur precisely in the work itself and not in the mind of the artist.
If not an artist, then ‘who or what’ in Valéry’s view creates the incomplete work? A partial answer to this question is: form creates the work. It is not that case, as we typically assume, that a work originates from a desire to say something, to express feelings, to give personal experiences an adequate representation. On the contrary, forms seek suitable material content for their own realisation.
In a deeply insightful and technical discussion of the generation of his poem ‘The Graveyard by the Sea’ (Le Cimetière marin) Valéry explains his intention was not to ‘say something’ but rather to ‘do something’ and it was this wanting-to-do which led to the discovery of content. The poem began as an ‘empty rhythmic form’, he says, and there followed a period of reflection on syllables and metre, which finally resulted in his choosing the Alexandrine verse form. This very traditional and prescriptive poetic form requires, among other things, contrasts and correspondences between the verses, and it was to meet this formal requirement that autobiographical content was sought and shaped.
In Valéry’s words: ‘This last condition soon required that the possible poem be a monologue of “me”, in which the simplest and most constant themes of my emotional and intellectual life . . . were called, trammelled, opposed …’ Whereas the ‘myth of “creation” seduces us to want to do something out of nothing’, Valéry dreams, in reverse, of discovering his work by ‘starting from pure conditions of form’.
This theory of form-driven creativity is not so strange as it might initially appear. Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. The novel is packed with autobiographical and historical content about Dublin life, but this content, it could be argued, is secondary and contingent, called forth and fashioned by Joyce’s primary desire to create a work with the overarching structure of Homer’s Odyssey and chapters conforming to different literary genres.
The provisional relationship between form (substance) and the content (accident) it seeks, is what makes a work necessarily incomplete. Because a form can always be differently actualised, a so-called finished work is only ever a momentary alliance between the ideal and the sensible, essence and appearance. A finished work is haunted by the versions of itself it has left behind and forever remains in the shadow of what it might have become.
Valéry understood this better than most. Like the children’s author E. B. White, who is said to have rewritten texts twenty times and demanded his mailed manuscripts back from the postmaster so he could make further changes,[viii] Valéry would continue writing his work even after finishing it. He had to defend himself against those who criticised his habit of providing multiple and contradictory versions of the same poem. This habit, he argues, is in keeping with his ideal of creative work, which is for ‘poets to produce, in the style of musicians, a diversity of variants or solutions on the same subject’.
If not merely for irony’s sake, I must now bring this incomplete essay to a close. Had I greater moral resolution, I would take Faulkner’s advice, kill more of my darlings, and potentially resurrect some dead ones. I feel I have not done justice to Miller’s notion of ‘primal flux’, the discussion of which, in an earlier draft of this essay, considered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim: ‘[T]he most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.’[ix] I am equally tempted to revisit the section on Kafka to reinstate my conjecture that The Castle, through its incessant depictions of weariness and disordered sleep patterns, captures the exhausting struggle of a writer at work.
Finally, to return to my opening question: Yes, I think a work of art is necessarily incomplete and this property is perhaps its greatest virtue. A work in its incompleteness opposes itself to the demands of instrumental reasoning and the totalitarianism of closure. A writer’s work is never done because a work of art is an open invitation to create.
[i] In this essay I cite from two of short pieces by Valéry: Paul Valéry, Recollection, Collected Works of Paul Valéry, vol. I, trans. David Paul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. xv-xvii. and Paul Valéry, Au sujet du Cimetière marin, Oeuvres, vol. I, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, ed. Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), pp. 1499-1506.
[ii] Iris Murdoch, ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’, Yale Review, 49 (1959), pp. 247–71 (p. 266).
[iii] George Orwell, Why I Write, (London: Penguin, 2004), (p. 10).
[iv] Franz Kafka, The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 2009).
[v] Franz Kafka, The Trial, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), (p. 128).
[vi] This phrase, attributed to numerous famous authors, appears to have originated in Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art Of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916) Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/17470/pg17470-images.html.
Quiller-Couch’s actual words are ‘Murder your darlings’.
[vii] Henry Miller, Sexus: The Rosy Crucifixion (New York: Grove Press, 1994), (p. 19).
[viii] Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995), (p. 3).
[ix] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defences of Poetry, Selected Prose Works of Shelley (London: Watts and Co., 1915), pp. 75-118 (p. 111).
Copyright © ‘A Writer’s Work is Never Done’ Simon Lee-Price 2020