A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary



An essay by Michel de Montaigne
written in white chalk by Mike Schertzer

Nuit Blanche 2014 (Paris)
October 4th, 19h -7h
4 rue des Irlandais,
5th arr. Paris

map (pdf)

   My literary interventions are characterized by their fugacity. They are ephemeral, as are all of our efforts. In On Solitude Michel de Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. This phrase, this command, has always been a touchstone for me. In this generalized insomnia that is our contemporary world, how can one nurture our capacity to dream? In this world where we all must submit to the dictature of time, how much time is necessary to express and transmit the essential ? Is it possible to stimulate the impulsion to dream, or inspire a creative desire in the blink of an eye? A man, alone— writing the words of an essay composed in the sixteenth century in chalk on a wall… is this enough to overcome the tyrrany of the quotidian? How can one humiliate all that seeks to eradicate our capacity to dream? Such is the nature of my effort, mon essai.

   In my work I approach and become intimate with absurdity, futility… because often beauty is not far from such things.

   Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. In retracing the words of Montaigne my dream is to render his thoughts on the subject of solitude present to all those who pass by, to all those who should never forget that they will always merit their own solitude.

choose the good solitude (Nietzsche)

Nuit Blanche site (Ville de Paris)

some words on philosophy, health, solitude… and Michel de Montaigne

   "The soul that lodges philosophy, ought to be of such a constitution of health, as to render the body in like manner healthful too".

   Philosophy, health, solitude… these are subjects of prime concern for the sixteenth century philosopher and writer, Michel de Montaigne. Moreover, his treatment of these themes is still of interest to us today. “My work, and my art, it is to live” is a sentiment that merits not only our attention, but our admiration. His thinking and his essays remain contemporary and accessible. To visit his writing is to be welcomed with an unequalled generosity.

   When Montaigne speaks of sickness and suffering, he speaks of a subject which concerns him intimately. As did his father, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones— an extremely painful ailment that, in the sixteenth century, was fatal. No proven cure existed for his ailment and there were as many remedies as there were doctors— a fact which explains the well-known disdain Montaigne expressed towards doctors.

   Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that Montaigne encourages a rejection of medicine. Instead he favours a profound personal engagement with one’s illness and one’s suffering. “I carry within me my means of preservation, which are determination and patience”. Such a stoic response is founded upon Montaigne’s conception that the soul and the body are indivisible. “It is not a soul, and it is not a body which is our basis: it is a man”. The body is not against me, the body is me! When we are sick, as when we are in perfect health, it is not only the body that speaks to us.
   Health is often conceived as an empty concept, as an absence of illness… as goodness may be conceived as the absence of evil, or happiness as the absence of sadness. Such a conception banishes health from our lives so long as there persists the least trace of illness or unease. But is this justified… does illness possess the right to occupy and tyrannize every minute of our lives? For Montaigne health is not the absence of illness, but has a value in itself, “health, I say, I the most beautiful and the most rich gift that nature can offer us”.

   Nevertheless, illness is ever-present. It has the ability to find a way into our lives in unnumerable disguises; we even suffer anxieties for the illness that we sense but that has not arrived. “Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid”. In other words, we are never beyond the reach of illness but it is within our power to resist its advances and limit its authority.

   But how does one confront pain and illness ? It is not a pharmacological question, but a moral question… and it is precisely the complexities of this question that Montaigne explores, and shares with us. In his essay On Solitude Montaigne writes, “You are no more to concern yourself how the world talks of you, but how you are to talk to yourself. Retire yourself into yourself, but first prepare yourself there to receive yourself”. The body in illness speaks to us in a voice we cannot ignore. Nevertheless, we must find a way to respond, to continue the conversation with ourselves, in a meaningful and creative way. Pain (like pleasure), illness (like health), “demands an even more profound engagement with our singularity” wrote Charles Taylor. Montaigne would have been in complete agreement. It is a fidelity with oneself which bears the key to health… and to our irrepar
ably human life.

   Montaigne does not just write for those who are suffering from illness, but also for those who assume the responsibility of caring for the ill, for those who dare to cure them. For such people the thinking of Montaigne offers cautions regarding the limits of our knowledge, humilty in the face of our science, and courage when confronted with our ignorance. In fact, whether doctor or patient, our responsiility to ourselves remains the same : know yourself.

                                                                     — MS

We speak to break our solitude;
we write to prolong it.
                                                                - Edmond Jabès

 ... I would lke to thank Solène Dubois, Cécile Charré, Selma Mutal, 
la ville de Paris, et l'Institut Curie— 
who were indispensable for this adventure.

this work was realized with the support of the Institut Curie (Paris)   www.curie.fr


The Perjury Which Denies or Destroys Reality

The Death of Virgil
by Hermann Broch

493 p
1976; Pantheon Books
ISBN 0-8446-1742-3

‘what goal is it that you seek?’

   This is the question Caesar Augustus puts to his dying friend, the poet, Virgil. This goal— which is the justification for Virgil’s desire to burn his epic poem the Aeneid, an act which Augustus not only does not comprehend, but regards as criminal, is the focus of a confrontation between an emperor and a dying poet, and is the heart of Hermann Broch’s epic prose-poem, and masterwork, The Death of Virgil.

   Concerned about a rumour that the dying Virgil desires to burn his poem, the Aeneid, Augustus pays him a visit during which he wishes to take possession of the poem, in the name of the Roman people, to preserve what is and has been. In addition, he wishes to understand why Virgil intends to burn his masterpiece. To understand the position of Virgil, to situate the goal of Virgil’s striving in relation to the civic duty to which Augustus relegates it one must adopt a conception of art that is opposed to truth, in such a way that art will always be insufficient when its goal is truth. In such a schema, one can imagine three classes of insufficiency, or failure, regarding a work of art:

i) successful failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is successfully attained, but the work that remains is insufficient to express this;
ii) common failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is not attained, and the work of art that remains is insufficient to express the unattainable goal;
iii) absolute failure is a form of technical success where the goal of a work of art is attained and the work of art that remains is sufficient to express this goal.

   Successful failure and common failure are the domains of sincere artists, which is to say, they are largey uninhabited. Conversely, absolute failure is a comfortable and popular retreat; it is regarded as success, and often seems like a success as long as one does not regard such a work, which is wholly concerned with practical goals, in relation to a work that manifests successful failure. For those who cannot bear the unattainable, they will seek shelter with ‘the divinity of beauty, which is only a sham-beauty’. For Virgil, the predictable striving of the ‘death-herd of concurrent identities’ will never find themselves on the other side of a poem because they refuse to admit such a thing exists. The temptation to stop at what is attainable will forever separate the technician, the decorator, from the sincere artist. In answer to the question, ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil, pointing to the poem, his poem, which is the only goal Augustus can understand, proclaims, not that, ‘it is in my way’. And so, Virgil wishes to destroy his poem.

   ‘He who praised a verse as such, without troubling about the reality of its meaning, confused the thing created with the thing which creates, became consciously or unconsciously guilty of the perjury which denies or destroys reality’.

poem: n; 49. The poem, at its best, reveals to you how far you have fallen... how far you still must travel... for most, perhaps all, this is the most unbearable necessary knowledge. (A Personal Dictionary)

   This is of course a vision of pure art, or pure poetry, and such a conception is almost always dismissed for its impracticability. But impracticability is no argument against its truth.

incoherency: n; It is in those moments when all becomes clear, when inexplicables converge into a seemingly common purpose, that a writer, a thinker, betrays the ability and the will to honestly and coherently engage the insoluble incoherencies of being alive. (A Personal Dictionary)

   The status of a work of art is the subject of the argument between Augustus and Virgil. For Augustus, the resultant work is the goal, ‘one can judge [only] what remains’, all else is of no consequence, and to strive for such a thing is an abdication of one’s duty. And duty is precisely the limit of the Augustan approach to a work of art. He cannot and will not go further. However, as is often forgotten, as is often denied, "in the world one cannot create by obedience alone" (N. Berdyaev).

   For Augustus, the artist brings form from formlessness, as exemplified in a sculpture. However, for Virgil, this ideal is precisely the problem. If the ideal of a sculpture is accepted, one would have to continue, via the so-called finished figure, sculpting it until nothing remains. In other words, the figure is a means to achieve this total sculpture, or nothingness. For Virgil, the works that remain, all the results of artistic production, ‘where the beautiful is substituted for truth’, are problematic. They obscure what is not evident; the finished veils the unfinished. Furthermore, in the universe of finished works (including works in progress) we become prejudiced in the midst of so much being and assume that there is nothing more. And so, bound to duties that grudgingly tolerate us, we habituate ourselves, ‘the speech-robbed non-solidarity of unrelated beings’, within an empire of cruel temporality dedicated to the unrelenting industrial glorifications of evil endlessness. For Augustus, such an empire can only be crowned with glory; for Virgil, ‘a world full of deeds yet empty of perception’, is one that must be traversed.

   Virgil (or, Broch’s Virgil) is a committed adherent to the aforementioned successful failure. He experiences, and pursues, the ‘not quite here but yet at hand’. The poem can lead to truth, but it cannot arrive. His torment is the torment of all those who seek the moment when ‘the universe, [is] dissolved and acquitted in the word’.

insufficiency: n; 1. Even if a poem, or the compulsion towards poetry, is an intellectual apex, it nevertheless always reveals the insufficiency of our minds in the presence of those forces and experiences which provoked the poetic response. 2. The fact that most people are incapable of bearing true freedom and are so resolute in their ability to withstand the temptation of freedom does not mean they should be deprived of the opportunity experiencing their insufficiency. 3. All that we do, no matter how well, or how thoroughly, is insufficient. And so, we must go further.(A Personal Dictionary)

   And so, to the question ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil does have an answer— one whose unacceptability to Augustus is a measure of its sincerity— ‘to understand death’. It is that second immensity, that truth that stands only on the far shore, which is his goal, and which is the proper goal of all art. And to reach this shore, to be able to perceive the truth that reigns there, the vessel can only be sacrifice. The poem can herald the truth, but it cannot survive it.

‘To include all life within yourself and to be excluded from all life’— such is the poet’s glory, and such is the extent of his sacrifice.

   In the end, Augustus leaves in possession of the Aeneid. Successful in saving the manuscript from the flames, his victory was not a result of superior arguments, nor due to the weariness of a dying opponent. For Virgil, to consign his creation to the flames, or to deliver it to a people who will never understand the goal for which he was willing to perform such a sacrifice, is to consign it to equivalent obscurities. ‘Creation is more than form, creation is resolution’— and it is such a resolution which art attempts to communicate, and which, almost always and everywhere, it fails to do... almost.

incommunicability: n; The essential truth that every writer discovers is something that most writers refuse to accept. And of all writers it is only a poet who is most likely to grant this truth the respect it deserves, as it is also only a poet who will be able to live with and work with it. This truth, to those who do not wish to acknowledge it, or who wish to run away from it, is a threat— the most important aspect of a person, of a life, resides in its incommunicability. (A Personal Dictionary)


The Unbearable Truth

(some thoughts on the pathology of writer's block)

   To claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one.

   The phenomenon of writer’s block has always been a mystery to me, something that would be at home in a museum of oddities along with the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, Mesmerism… Every pronouncement of writer’s block has never elicited more than skepticism from me. As a science undergraduate I took some electives in a department of Creative Writing. It was there that I first encountered the claims of writer’s block. In fact I faced examples of its manifestations before I encountered any examples of creative writing— the so-called fiction instructor had been suffering from it for many years, and the only thing he had written was a list of things that one could not write about (and which he solemnly handed out to the class). Imagine a chemistry professor stating to the class that he had chemistry-block... his resignation would follow soon after. Of course there were some students who were also stricken. As I listened to them describing the particularities of their ailment I considered that if only they wrote down what they were saying, they would be cured. Then again, who wants to be a doctor prosecuted by a cook before a jury of children who are fonder of sweets than they are of bitter medicine (Socrates).
   I should add that for my entire adult life I have written every day. This is not hyperbole. Every day, in sickness and in health, something literate has been attended to, edited, amended, erased, continued… And it is for this reason and this reason only, that I feel justified in calling myself a writer.

writer: n; 19. For any writer there is only one truth, and it is the most difficult truth to remain faithful to— a writer must write what is their’s to write. Sometimes profound, lifelong silences might be required in order to approach just such a unique creative possibility. And along with silence there are the false starts, the labyrinths, the traps, and the seemingly endless forests of failure and banality that anticipate every courageous exploration. It is therefore understandable why most would rather write specifically for the sake of writing, if only to avoid, with every word, the responsibilities and the fidelity owed to the truth they cannot bear.(A Personal Dictionary)

   To be a writer is to write. It is that simple. And so it follows that if one does not write, one is not a writer. There is no such thing as builder’s block for an architect, or experiment block for a scientist. There are certainly frustrations, just as there may be conditions that make the realization of one’s work impossible. Nevertheless, in such examples one would still do all one could expecting that perhaps one day the restrictive conditions might change. To cease the activities required of an architect or an experimental scientist is to cease being such a thing. The same holds for being a writer. There are many aspects to being a writer beyond putting a pen to paper. To claim that all such activities are blocked is to cease being a writer. Moreover, to insist that one’s malady is so debilitating that it affects one’s ability to even conceive of any written activity is so obviously hysterical that to comment on it can only lend it validity. But I am commenting on it, if only to indicate its complete lack of validity.

   Again— to claim writer’s block is to admit to not being a writer, while at the same time pretending to be one. To be sure, this phenomenon is evidence of some sort of debility— but one that has more to do with delusional thinking than with writing.

   If one is a writer, there is no excuse for not writing, except of course if one is exhausted, physically and mentally from writing. But this is precisely what is not claimed by the stricken. When one remembers a true poet like Osip Mandelstam, who composed poems in his head because the presence of written records of his activity was for him, in Stalinist Russia, a death sentence, it is evident that for a writer, there is truly no excuse for not writing. The excuses such as I am too busy, or I have nothing to write about deserve no comment. There is always something to write— a letter, even a letter to someone who does not exist, or a response to something one has read, editing of old work, the composition of a list of titles of books one would like to write (including a brief synopsis), a manifesto, a refusal speech for an award one will never win, a suicide note… the universe of possible writing is indeed infinite. To claim writer’s block is to demonstrate one’s unwillingness to enter, or participate in such a universe. It is also to forget that there is no other universe.
   In the end, to write is to live. The stereotype of the writer, who exists sheltered from life and the living, is an argument from incredulity. The committed writer could not be more engaged with the world of the living. And this is why it is a rare thing to be a writer.

writing: n; 12. That generative residue, that which persists and which in the end is represented by the words and the book it has left behind is identical with the subject who, in the end, is represented by the moments and by the life he has left behind. (A Personal Dictionary)

   If to suffer from writer’s block means only that one does not write, such an ailment affects the majority of humanity. Yet, it is only a small minority of these sufferers who claim that they actually are writers and that, if it was not for their illness, they would have no shortage of evidence to justify their claim. One has to ask why they desire to proclaim such a thing. They are no different from the mass of humanity that does not write. There is nothing shameful in this. At the same time, apart from a lack of self-knowledge and some innocuous dishonesty, there is nothing malicious about claiming to be a writer when one is not. After all, some people claim to be the living incarnation of Christ, or St. Peter, and we understand the true nature of their debility— and it is not salvation-block.

   There is always the possibility that the one who claims to be suffering from writer’s block is consenting to the discomforts of delusional thinking in order to save themselves from the perceived horror, and the true suffering, that would ensue should they allow themselves to admit an unbearable truth.

write: v; 9. What we do not write for those do exist, we write for those who do not exist. (A Personal Dictionary)



Remnants of Auschwitz (the Witness and the Archive)
by Giorgio Agamben

175 p
1999; MIT Press
ISBN 1-890951-17-X

   Giorgio Agamben is one of those strange species of writers and thinkers— the one who can write truly great books (The End of the Poem) as well as truly horrible books (Infancy and History). The difference in the two resides not in the subject matter but in the style of writing, which is to say the presence or absence of clarity. And the style of writing is of course always indicative of the cohesion and integrity of thinking. It would not be excessive to suggest that the more lucid the writing, the more committed the thinker, and hence his thinking, towards his subject. Agambem’s book Remnants of Auschwitz is, thankfully, closer to the first category. However, the book also has a subtitle (the Witness and the Archive) and it is just such superfluity which betrays a bad conscience— a need to say more because the necessary has not been said.

incoherency: n; It is in those moments when all becomes clear, when inexplicables converge into a seemingly common purpose that a writer, a thinker, betrays the ability and the will to honestly and coherently engage the insoluble incoherencies of being alive.(A Personal Dictionary)

   The courage it takes to write and to think a truly difficult and intractable subject should not be forgotten. Yet, there is always something unsettling about thinkers who go into such absolute darknesses and yet remain paradoxically lucid. When one is truly in the abyss, even if only in one’s thoughts, one cannot purposefully avoid things. And it is just such a deliberate act of avoidance in Agambem’s Remnants of Auschwitz which concerns me here.

   I wish to elaborate on this absence, not because I wish to ignore the merits of the book, of which there are many, but because I find such a lacuna curious… and possibly fatal. It should be said that I actually checked that pages were not missing from my copy of the book, wishing that perhaps the problem originated at the printers, or at the bindery. But no, the omission is Giorgio’s, and perhaps not only his.

hatred: n; 3. The fact that prisoners in Auschwitz referred to those fellow prisoners who had crossed the threshold of humanity and were merely walking corpses as Muslims, is evidence that hatred is one of the last things to be killed in a man, if not the final thing. (A Personal Dictionary)

“The untestifiable, that to which no one has borne witness, has a name. In the jargon of the camp, it is der Muselmann, literally ‘the Muslim’ ”. And so Agamben introduces the subject for the second chapter of his book.

   The horrific reality of such beings is further elaborated with a description from Primo Levi, “their life is short but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead in them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand”. Read out of context, this moving passage by Levi could read as something taken from a totalitarian anthropology textbook.

   One “hesitates to call them living”, but apparently there was no hesitation in calling them Muslims. Interestingly they were not called babies, or mothers, or kittens, or rabbis, or lovers… Quoting Wolfgang Sofsky, Agamben informs us that this class of beings were not called Muselmanner in all the camps: “at Dachau they were ‘cretins’, in Stutthof ‘cripples’, in Mauthausen ‘swimmers’, in Neuengamme ‘camels’, in Buchenwald ‘tired sheiks’ ”. With the exception of Mauthausen, the semantic field is obvious— so obvious, a comment would be the least one could expect. Specifically, the fact that during the destruction of European Jewry those in some of the camps who were the closest to annihilation were referred to as Muslims, and given the present geopolitical reality and the ongoing Jewish – Arab conflict (Agamben’s book was published in 1999) one would think such a situation might warrant a response. It does not take much to imagine that for those able to identify the non-human with Muslim, the colonization of Palestine, a country populated by such so-called non-humans (or cockroaches, as Golda Meir referred to the native Palestinians) would offer no serious moral difficulties. But, apparently such a consideration is beside the point. Or perhaps it is “a difficulty inherent in the very concept of a semantics of enunciation”— oh yes, that must be it. Furthermore, given that sometimes Agamben goes to great lengths and assumes often awkward positions to extend his arguments (invoking the existential crisis of Keats in his exegesis of the shame of survivors, for example), it seems unlikely that he would miss such an obvious historical resonance. But here is precisely where Agamben nimbly maneuvers himself in the dark, deftly avoiding the obvious.

   It is as though this particular darkness has been well visited, and that others have marked the way of passage. The subject is not treacherous at all, but habitual.

   If one reads and allows this absence to resound what follows can only become oppressively ironic. Statements arise as if only to achieve self-mockery. “What cannot be stated, what cannot be archived is the language in which the author succeeds in bearing witness to his incapacity to speak.” Indeed! And then again, Agamben seems oblivious to the even more ferocious irony when he writes, “it is certain that, with a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews” (but as Muselmanner, or Muslims).

   By failing to address the obvious, all other intellectual acts appear as evasions of this very failure.

   As the book progresses, in fact after the second chapter that deals with der Muselmann, Agamben clearly loses his way. His darkness becomes illuminated by the banal fluorescence of academic pseudo-ontologies and their accompanying jargon. It is as if he realized what was at stake in the second chapter, but turned away, and decided to write another book, the book of the subtitle, the book that was not necessary.

intention: n; 6. Our so-called good intentions are the most effective means of keeping us from effecting good. (A Personal Dictionary)

   Reading the testimonies of the figurative Muselmanner that conclude Agamben’s book— that is, reading the accounts of those who survived the hell of being Muslim—I cannot avoid, amidst the moving evocations, the feeling of absurdity.

   I imagine, on the drug-ravaged streets of Vancouver, those recent arrivals to the population of the annihilated referring to those lifeless forms creeping towards their death as Jews— it is that kind of absurdity I am referring to, and which Agamben, unfortunately failed to notice… or so I hope.

   I will end my commentary with the lines that Agamben uses to end his book, which are those of a camp-song sung at Auschwitz (as recounted by a surviving Muselmann, Bronislaw Goscinki):

What’s worse than a Muselmann?
Does he even have the right to live?
Isn’t he there to be stepped on, struck, beaten?
He wanders through the camp like a stray dog.
Everyone chases him away, but in the crematorium is his deliverance.
The camp infirmary does away with him!

perdition: n; “A world speaks its way to perdition” – Max Spalter.