The following is an excerpt from S.D. Chrostowska’s novel, Permission, which was recently published by Dalkey Archive.
Composing a work boils down to creating favorable and even extreme conditions for the emergence of an idea and the precipitation of that idea. Real physical and physiological conditions for tapping into one’s inspiration or, indeed, the lack thereof. All day yesterday I carried in my head the intention to write, but could not find the right conditions for it. I could not even tell if I was under the influence of inspiration. Fed up, around four o’clock, I made my way to the Centre for the History of the Book, where for the next few hours I waited and then listened to a public talk by a world-famous scholar professing to break the pattern of euphoria and depression about the future of the book. He promised to make a “sober,” “philosophical” intervention into this “bipolar prophesying” prevalent in academic circles, but achieved little more than an inventory of existing ideas—without pushing the question of the future of the book far enough to really “make a difference.” In his closing statement, he paraphrased Wilhelm von Humboldt—the university is the only institutional place where the different tonalities of the different enthusiasms of different generations can inspire each other—which later sent me in search of Humboldt’s memorandum of 1810. The lecture ended, a poor man’s reception commenced in a darkling room, whose only appointment, besides a table and rows of empty shelving, was a maquette of the building we stood in (appendaged to the main library), and within a quarter of an hour the last of the lecture’s attendees had dispersed. I, too, promptly left the place, which with each passing minute became physically more oppressive, as I imagined the scale model containing this same room with another miniature of itself, and so on into infinity. I headed over to the book stacks to escape this boxed-in feeling, which bodes poorly for inspiration, to browse through some of the titles mentioned during the lecture. Strange, I reflected on the tram ride back, how much I worked to get inside the university, putatively erected in the Romantic vein—upon freedom and isolation—and where the entire world unrolled itself like a map, as it must to birds in flight. Now—after years of opening doors and closing them quietly behind me—I am left with the abstract sensation of standing inside one of those Chinese boxes, which as you know contain only smaller and smaller versions of themselves. On getting home, I dipped into Humboldt’s writings and found it inspiring fare.
There is a fuller and more immediate effectiveness of a great spirit than that possible through his works. These show only a part of his being. The entirety flows pure and wholly through his living personal self…. Written works—literatures—then take it mummified, as it were, over those gaps which the living effectiveness can no longer leap…. However great certain thoughts and works might be, it is hard to bear when the human being seems to disappear in them, when the truth of feeling is sacrificed to the artistic product, when the person yields himself completely to his work with an egotism that can’t be gainsaid.
I woke up the next morning just as the Good Friday pageant began drawing small knots of people outside my house. Year in year out, I have been the involuntary spectator of this fervent re-enactment of the passion, crucifixion and entombment of Christ, which glides just past my window and is entirely framed by it like a moving picture. I always soak up the drama in spite of myself and, exactly like last year, stood inside looking out and hearing the frills of fanfare, the plaintive song of old women clad in raven-black, the intermittent barking of Roman soldiers as they flogged the Son of God down this narrow street. As the parade wound its way around the bend, I caught the last glimpse of a life-size effigy of the Messiah lying in state on a catafalque, which inexplicably was my cue to resume this note.
I have kept up this work despite many difficulties, and it is not my only work (one has many irons in the fire). But neither is it of a piece with the others. When I feel the urge to write it, I follow through with the urge. Even though I type my way across white pages using my hands, my advance resembles tramping through new snow like a pioneer. There is normally no time for backtracking or idleness in this legwork, and my only stops are rest-stops, when I look back on that stretch of work with gratification. Whenever I think of footsteps and footprints in relation to writing, I am spirited away to the blank landscape described with a few deft strokes of the pen at the start of Kolyma Tales. A handful of prisoners tread shoulder-to-shoulder through deep snow in the wake of the “narrow, wavering track of the first man.” To rest, he lies down on the snow and lights a hand-rolled cigarette. “[T]he tobacco smoke hangs suspended above the white, gleaming snow like a blue cloud. The man moves on, but the cloud remains hovering above the spot where he rested,” like a thought or afterthought—“for the air is motionless” on days chosen for beating down roads, where “tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets,” will soon be passing. Shalamov’s opening parable does not elicit pity for those who perished in the enormous penal colony of Kolyma. One feels this is not its intention. Instead, the story touches the quiddity of writing, which its author, a gulag survivor, chose to allegorize with rare circumspection as the prisoners’ routine toil.
If one has leisure to write, one may be tempted to defer the pleasure of setting to work, or one may actually set to work without delay. Anyone who has tried it knows that the first is perilous for serious undertakings. Not to be confused with procrastination, it means accomplishing those mundane tasks that have already been delayed before and are less urgent. Small pleasures can now be had from them—they give a foretaste of the greater pleasure just set aside. In reality, one buries the opportunity to make the most of one’s inspiration by following a mere distraction, which is always part of a diversionary chain: one diversion leading to the next. (Eventually one’s pace slackens, inspiration goes out the window, and nothing remarkable gets done.) But the second scenario—rolling up one’s sleeves and staring forthwith—is also not without its perils, and can, in certain persons, invite unmerited pretension. One shuts oneself off from external influences that (again, in certain persons) help offset the almost monomaniacal tendency to pursue one’s work at the expense of everything else. There is, I nearly forgot, a third way, the most suicidal. It is the urge to close in on one’s inspiration, to get to the meat of one’s inspiration in an unnatural way, through a mental shortcut rather than through the process of writing as such. Instead of letting the inspiration carry you on its wings, you stick a pin through it as though it were dead.
When one is inspired and working away, one hardly ever stops. I work best under conditions of moderate freedom and isolation. Nighttime lucubrations, which keep one indoors and sever them from the rest of humanity, are not for me. When all is quiet and dark, I stare at a wall because of its brightness, because with my eyes on this wall my head can clear, if only for a moment. But before it has a chance to clear, an ant appears on the wall. A black carpenter ant, you notice, is making its way up the wall. You remember that everything beneath your feet is rotting, possibly the entire structure of this house is haven to an orgy of ants, excavating their galleries below the threshold of audibility. They have been here before you arrived on the scene, and have begun emerging out of the woodwork just to show you they are the primary tenants. Or I play a piece of music, because the relative silence opens up the channels for the omnipresent buzz of electricity, raising more mental confusion than the whir of an engine, and I place my hopes in this piece of music to pick up or prolong my inspiration—but the music only proves an interference, yet another, often a major one, and one knows better not to play anything. Anything but. Better deaf for the work’s sake than in thrall to “inspirational” music like sonata no. 32 op. 111. The only exception to this rule, the only piece that neither interferes nor is interfered with but complements contrapuntally my thinking and my writing, must be “Sleep Walk.” If the phonographic needle followed the grooves of my brain, my skull would resonate with the slides and swells of this melody. I have played “Sleep Walk” with undue frequency, played it like no other melody, and still have not overplayed it. The purity of the steel guitar has been lost through magnetic deterioration, but something else has been gained in the process: a fundamental attunement between this musical composition and my thoughts, which ensures that I’ll never outgrow it. I play “Sleep Walk”—by far the best tune on the 1959 American charts and one of the most unwhistleable tunes of all time—until I can no longer listen to anything; but when I feel ready for music again, when I find myself craving music, it is “Sleep Walk” that I crave; “The Red Pony” also comes to mind, but I don’t put it on. It won’t do without tuning, and even then it goes only tolerably well. You might judge based on this that I am musically impoverished. It would be truer to say that I am a musical abstinent—and have become one on account of my work.
The idea of writing to you was conceived shortly after my encounter with you and your work. Having seen your work and heard your thoughts about it, having seen you bring into correspondence the obscurity of language and the clarity of things, I felt a surge of inspiration. On the one hand, to rethink the work I do, to turn my work outwards, to radically alter the quite predictable fate of my work, and, on the other, to forge a “direct connection” with you through my work, through the habitude of work. While you sat conversing with the person closest to me, my closest friend for a long time, I stood aside to lay down the cornerstone for this book; without actually thinking of writing a book, I stood by conceiving of both the connection and the work that would become this book. I did not join the two of you because I subconsciously understood the necessity of keeping my distance from you, of relinquishing contact with you in that fortuitous and ordinary way to have reason to move towards you in this radical and extraordinary way. Without any connection to you to speak of—only a barely established connection to your work—I was already distancing myself from you in preparation for approaching you. I held myself back from speaking an unpremeditated word to you as a pretext for writing a whole host of well-thought-out words later on. I say “I held myself back” because a part of me did not seek distance and was drawn to the certain ordinary proximity with you; but my other, stronger part would be satisfied only with uncertain, extra-ordinary proximity. I write “I” in reference to “myself” back then, but the person I was then is now a stranger to me. I cannot speak for that person who took steps away from you, despite being heir to their legacy of distance. Were I faced with you now, looking into me as you did then (which gives me the sneaking suspicion that you must have known what I would do before I myself knew it), I would not pass up another opportunity for ordinary proximity to you because of the extra-ordinary distance that has been developing between us ever since the start of our written connection.