Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It was so interesting to learn about this cool but somewhat creepy writing automaton:
Completed by 1772, 'The Writer' was the most perfect and complex automaton built by swiss clockmaker Jacquet-Droz. His astonishing mechanism was presented in every court in Europe and fascinated the world's most important people: the kings and emperors of China, India and Japan.

As soon as the mechanism starts up, 'The Writer' dips the feather into the ink, shakes it twice, puts his hand at the top of the page and stops. Every single movement of the automaton gives un unusual impression of life: his eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.

The Writer is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long.
You can watch a video showing the automaton in action through the link above. Quite amazing.

Sometimes I feel like a writing automaton, like someone else is cranking a wheel on my back to set me in motion, like someone else has programmed what I'm supposed to write, and all I have to do is move my fingers. Other times, I am woefully aware that I am the "I" who writes. I think I prefer feeling like an automaton (although fortunately I don't feel robotic when that feeling comes over me--I just feel like a conduit, an open channel. Receptive and buzzing with energy. I don't like being self-conscious as I write.

Then again, maybe I need to pay more heed to the self as I write. Zadie Smith recently wrote a fascinating exploration of the self in writing, of the gulf between expectation and reality in the writing process, of the duty of the novelist. I was particularly taken with this section:

Back to my simple point, which is that writers are in possession of "selfhood", and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure. This shameful fact needn't trouble the professor or the critic, but it is naturally of no little significance to writers themselves. Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski, speaking of The Self, in a poem of the same title:

It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarves do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither custom officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.

To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation - as Zagajewski suggests - is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it's impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realise it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called "realists", comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it. That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one's own work, is Prufrock's: "That is not it at all ... that is not what I meant, at all ..." Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.

A lot to think about, especially on the cusp of the publication of Self Storage, which also tries to plumb the "Self"--how we store it, how we set it free...

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