Friday, January 11, 2013

Fabled Powers

Sven Birkerts - Lapham's Quarterly

The roots of art and intoxication are deep and entangled. Poets and novelists may drink, but what is inspiration if not an altered state? 
For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

My ideal writing day, the day I would have if I could script it myself, would start with me waking clearheaded and rested, on my game, with nothing scheduled, nowhere to be but at the desk, nothing to do but agitate my naturally rested nervous system with a big cup of good strong coffee. Well enough cannot be left alone. Further, this pleasure must be taken at a distance from what will be the scene of the day’s labors—it is one of my many superstitions. Though of course the focus of that scene, the laptop’s glowing rectangle, is present in the mind’s eye and is already in occult ways being magnetized to receive and hold—to somehow elicit the first right phrase. Superstition, occultism—only the third ingredient is still wanting.

That first coffee initiates the process. Still downstairs in my armchair, I picture someone making their way down a very long corridor, snapping on switches as they go; vast electrical panels flash to life one by one. When the last switch has been snapped, I get to my feet and go back to the coffee maker. The second cup is now carried ritualistically up the attic stairs. And on this, the best of writing days, it will be the first good swig from it that puts everything into play. For with that smooth deep bitter, the wanted—the necessary—words mysteriously arrive. And they already hold in their cadence a trace of that lift, that slightest excitation of the mind’s normal measure, as well as the feeling of other words just behind them. There is no describing the promise of this moment. The Muse is on call! The whole process will now continue on: a sustained excitation, a flourishing that gets nudged along by reflective sips of the good black stuff—until finally it is no longer needed. For at a certain point the words find their own momentum, landing on that screen in sequences that feel deeply right, confirming for me yet again that the mind in flow is somehow capable of things that the mind at natural daily pace is not.

My fancied day at the desk—there is nothing like it, nothing one can do all by oneself that is better. In the best sustained moments there is an escape from the usual limits of the self, a surprising spilling over into something else, a tampering with the square solid day self that is otherwise always there. When language reaches that ideal saturation, then intention is surpassed and the words—all sound and felt shape—are arriving a half beat in front of the thought. I have had such days—when the sentences keep coming, and at a certain point I always think, Well, that has to be it, only to often feel still another run of syllables—a bonus. But eventually I register the falling off, and I obey the signal. I know to stop before I have stripped the nerves of their sheathin —while there are still inklings in the well.

Done, I will take a breath and look back, and on these occasions I can see without reading that these were nice long stretches of the prose that came to me, not exactly heavenly dictation, but nothing I could have planned either. There is the pleasure of tiredness. I lean the scythe against a tree and wipe my brow. And as I do—at that moment and not before—I feel the power of the new urge. Suddenly I want my earned reward. I want the thing that will take all that tension of focus and turn it slowly around, letting what was tightened up go loose, smoothing down every sharp corner. For me this is wine, something red that has been aged in oak, the gift of gifts. I don’t need a remarkable vintage. A tolerable Cabernet or Merlot or Shiraz or Zinfandel or Malbec will do just fine. If it is five o’clock, I mean.

Sven Birkerts is editor of the journal AGNI and director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book of essays, The Other Walk, is published by Graywolf Press.

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