On the Impossibility of Teaching Writing: Rainald Goetz
The following serves to introduce an acceptance speech the German author and playwright Rainald Goetz held on May 10, 2012 at the Freie Universität in Berlin. He had just been awarded the Heiner Müller guest professorship for German-language poetics, granted as part of the “Berlin Literature Prize” of the Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung. Given the author’s fame and the controversy surrounding his work, it was clear that his lecture would inevitably be received both as a diagnosis of the methods by which literature is currently taught in German universities and as a statement on the predicament of the written word today. I have compiled a sequence of 22 excerpts from this lecture; together, they constitute a dense substratum distilled from the writer’s observations on language, literature, and the difficulties of writing in the present day that consists of paradoxes and aporiae lying at the heart of what is essentially a practice of formulating verbal approximations for the elusive experience of human consciousness.
Goetz is an author known for his perfect pitch in capturing the spirit and mood of pop culture and the media zeitgeist; he is also known for the eruptive fury of his words and is often compared to Heiner Müller and Thomas Bernhard. His first published works, in particular the 1983 novel Irre (Insane, translated by Adrian Nathan West for Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), quickly made him a cult author for the left-leaning intellectual set. Among the many subjects he has addressed are the German Autumn of 1977 (a series of violent kidnappings, murders, and hijackings by the Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine); contemporary German politics; the Tekkno scene of the 1990s; the field of psychiatry (Goetz holds doctorates in both medicine and history); the sociology of Niklas Luhmann; the Jeff Koons phenomenon; the thorough transformation of the information media with the appearance of the Internet—and, of course, the changes in human behavior this has brought about in every corner and on every level of daily life.
Because we can’t absorb the waves of information crashing over us, because there is no time to reflect, compare, or develop a critical stance to it, we resort to elimination: we take mental note of things and move on to the next with ever-increasing speed, retaining only very vague impressions of what we believe we’ve understood. Acquiring knowledge is increasingly replaced by developing systems of cataloging it for a further use that, more often than not, never takes place. Goetz himself assumes the stance of the deeply impacted observer, alternating between outrageously oversimplified claims and finely differentiated perception. His métier is the present, together with all its glaring contradictions, described in highly charged works in which both his zeal and his disgust are barely kept under control. Goetz, a seminal figure in the German pop literature movement of the late 1990s along with Christian Kracht and Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, is a kind of modern-day literary ecstatic. Only partially comparable to their American and English counterparts Bret Easton Ellis and Nick Hornby, the movement’s achievement was to cast off the ponderous weight of post-war German literature to capture the mélange of modern-day culture in all its immediacy and brashness: marketing and media, trademarks and labels, bands and DJs, drugs and TV, capitalism and celebrity became some of the new subjects deemed worthy of literary scrutiny. Goetz was one of the very first writers to keep a blog when the Web was still going through birth pains; in 1998, he began work on Abfall für alle (Garbage for Everyone), which was published as an 864-page volume one year later to great acclaim. Although it is anything but obvious today, at the time, the notion that a renowned writer would put unredacted work “out there” for anyone in the world to see, in real time and on a daily basis, was nothing less than sensational. Moreover, the fact that this act of literary innovation was later followed by tens of millions of greater and lesser blogs is only one small example of the galactic changes writing’s status has undergone over the past 15 years.
Goetz’s one-hour-long lecture, titled “To Live and to Write: The Existence Mission of Writing,” was read and performed in his typical frenetic manner and delivered with an urgency that is difficult to reproduce in print, let alone in translation. He arrives on stage appearing nervous, then retreats several paces to take a picture of the audience just as they are pulling out their cameras to take a picture of him. There’s laughter, but Goetz is no comedian; he is making the audience aware of itself and of the situation its members are now complicit in, a tactic he will repeat several times in a seemingly hectic, awkward way. Goetz plays his part expertly, slamming his hand on the lectern in glee, periodically rubbing his face and running his hands through his hair to caricature the topos of the introverted writer grown defiant. One can see that Goetz craves and commands an audience—and yet he suffers, but with a suffering of another kind altogether: not the nervousness of the writer inexperienced at presenting himself in public, but the hyper-perception of an intellectual whose dire claims and vehement delivery elicit the knowing chuckles of the initiated, who enjoy what they take to be exaggeration and idiosyncrasy. But Goetz is not exaggerating, his perception is anything but idiosyncratic, and there is little doubt that he stands behind every statement he makes as his head rocks with the beat of a clipped pace pressing on to rein in his lengthy sentences and bring them to their categorical conclusions. And as with every form and framework he works in, the lecture itself becomes an object of reflection. After a quarter of an hour, he announces that people’s feet must be falling asleep; he admits that he is reading his speech because he is a writer and not a professor, surmises that this is an essential failing, and links this “deficit” to the claim that Hegel was never able to deliver a lecture in free speech, but had to adhere to a text as well. Leaving aside the relative advantages and disadvantages of oral and written form, he concludes that this might well speak against Hegel’s philosophical system—whereas in Bielefeld, sociologist Niklas Luhman developed his system over the course of a semester lecturing freely, a fact that, to Goetz’s mind, speaks for the transparency, soundness, and inevitability of the conclusions arrived at.
Goetz speaks of the autonomy of language and what he refers to as the texticity of statements: the odd fact that sentences have a way of completing themselves according to their own obscure inner workings; that the distance between writing and the thing one is trying to write about is always, in a sense, unbridgeable. Writing is something other than thought, something, however, that can be implemented in the service of thought when the distance between oneself and another is found to be just as unbridgeable. Goetz makes the distinction between a sentence based on something visually perceived, for instance an image described as precisely as possible, and what he calls a “beautiful sentence” that “comes out of everyday life, is based on it, is immediately understandable and contains its own milli-idea…which, when transformed into words, records and generalizes, alleviates and improves people’s dealings with one another” by addressing difficulties in human behavior and interaction, disturbances in the social flow. In other words, literature is expected to intervene, not remove itself from life; to make ordinary things easier to comprehend.
Writing today means writing against a continuous mutation of language just as it achieves near ubiquity: in a veritable ocean of blogs that turn each individual life into a story, and with the population in constant communication via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, and RSS feeds, literature constitutes an infinitesimal fraction of the total sum of words read—or perhaps the verb should be “consumed”—around the globe today. Consequently, it is now silence that is craved the most, the moment of speechlessness or difficulty in verbalization that jars, rekindles one’s attention. The sheer amount of writing, chatting, blogging, and commenting taking place within a given language and culture today has resulted in a standardization of narrative, a sameness in which one person can begin a sentence and another can be expected to continue or complete it in precisely the “right” way. This “rightness,” however, this quality of being “plugged in” is actually a symptom of something much larger, namely the illusion we take part in when we willingly mistake the flood of information on the screens of our various devices for the “real” world.
Goetz remarks on how maddeningly difficult it is to write anything of value at all; how one is constantly writing against or in spite of one’s “inner demon.” It is the stark nature of this encounter with the self that the “demon” operates as a “magnifying glass that enlarges everything, brings it into focus;” this simultaneously characterizes the near impossibility of the act and enables it to occur in that “the defect has brought forth sensoria that have enabled its exploitation for the purposes of text production.” What Goetz is essentially saying is that a high degree of porousness is required on the part of the writer, a sharpening of both perception and apperception, to create works of any real validity today.
One obvious consequence of this is that teaching writing is a virtual impossibility. Faced with the prospect of mentoring students intent on becoming writers themselves, Goetz arrives at the conclusion that the university is not there to promote, but to hinder the results of independent thought, to discourage and intimidate them. He goes so far as to say that the aim of the professorship he is in the process of accepting is to prevent texts from being written in the first place: “In certain cases one could even, perhaps, find reasons for this. But even these reasons are essentially uninteresting. What is interesting is that most texts are bullshit. First and foremost, of course, those that arise in front of one’s own eyes, one’s own texts: nearly always bullshit. Bad, weak, useless. Why? I don’t know.” It is the ruthlessness of his self-criticism that characterizes Goetz’s approach to writing and to language in general. His idea of teaching would be to integrate it into the practice of the discipline itself, as exemplified in certain areas of higher art education, for instance Joseph Beuys and his concept of the “social sculpture.” A one-semester guest professorship, however, is not an adequate time frame to foster an “impulse to transgress the institution, the necessity of alienating the well-meaning.” The essential requirement of any institution, including those of higher learning, is obedience; forming a sensibility that questions authority and detects the interests at the heart of power while remaining receptive to the ephemeral changes occurring in one’s environment—the sensibility required to record things in words in a way that might be of lasting value to others—is a long-term project that each individual must undertake on their own. While people who teach literature tend to agree that the essence of writing can’t be taught, Goetz contends that this is why they occupy their students with “subordinate drivel, with the irrelevance of what can be formally taught and learned. And the whole time, they read and discuss really bad texts. To use bad texts to practice the incisiveness of proving what’s bad about them is a life and mind-destroying neutron bomb in the brains of all those involved. Bad texts should be looked at and put away, not discussed, not improved. A bad text cannot be improved.”
Goetz calls the very notion of writing as a skill into question. “‘Talented young writer’: it simply doesn’t exist. ‘Writing workshop:’ wrong. Literature is not made in the workshop, but in the head. A head is not a workshop. Literature is not a craft. These ideas are nonsense; in a completely practical sense, in reality, at the various writing programs, they lead people astray. Anything to do with handicraft in writing is completely beside the point.” The only advice he has to offer is to read, incessantly, and to be vigilant about the quality of what one reads, given the vulnerable nature of “das eigene Sprachgefühl,” one’s own feeling for language: “to write everything, to read everything: silent, still, alone and for its own sake and always. All the while reviving, regenerating, and constantly renewing the feeling for language, this ultimate ethic inside us that determines thinking and the apperception of the world. Poetics.”
Goetz contends that the most important knowledge for a writer is to study and to understand people. And to gain insight into human nature, the essential means is compassion—putting oneself in the position of the other. He cites recent findings in cognitive neuroscience concerning the physiology of the brain and so-called mirror neurons, structures that become activated whether one acts oneself or observes another in an identical act. In other words, we are neurologically equipped to understand the inner motivations and intents of others, to experience empathy and identification. To his mind, expressions of this are among the greatest achievements of literature. “The mission of writing is to walk away from it. To lead a life, namely in the best way and as rich in everything as possible, one that breaks open the isolationism inherent in writing, debunks it, makes it impossible, but at the same time retains it in the stillness of the texts as a longing for a true life, a better life, thus inducing one to move in this direction over and over again. The experiment ‘to live and to write’ is meant as an absurd, lifelong attempt with an ongoing succession of texts to remain subjected to both, to maintain one’s attention to both and not let oneself be torn between these conflicting powers.”
From the lecture “To Live and to Write: The Existence Mission of Writing.”
Excerpts translated by Andrea Scrima
The essence of this ongoing practice of writing is the difference between text and thought: the reading of one’s own words. And that is the fundamental experience of writing: that what’s there on the page doesn’t say what one wanted to say, that the self-will of the scripturality, the act of fixating, the textual verbality constantly impose themselves; very powerfully, the text says what it wants to, not what it’s supposed to according to the will of the writer. To experience this autonomy of writing, the texticity of statements, one needs to experience as a writer, as often as possible, constantly, how great the distance really is between a statement’s intent and what the words actually convey.
It’s often been observed that the everyday practice of writing has undergone a spectacular rebirth over the past years due to electronic communications devices. All this incessant writing everyone’s been doing in mails, text messages, forums, on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook has also, however, had the tremendous effect of promoting standardization, stereotypes, truisms, and empty talk to the degree that there’s practically no thought, experience, or even a second of life anymore for which a hiatus of speechlessness still exists; in every situation, everyone knows perfectly what sentence is supposed to come next.
The right kind of writing is very easy. Anyone who types and texts and presses ‘send’ knows this. When the feeling is right, the words are too. Writing is breathing. It used to be the writer’s life that was constructed this way, a singular existence, privileged, even sick, fantastically engrossed and absorbed in everything etc. And today, everyone lives this way: writing, constantly writing their existence-text, writing away.
What world.—That’s wonderful, of course, but at the same time, the sensibility for it has decreased along with everybody’s me-empowerment, via their own text among other things, and that’s not wonderful. It’s a very extraneous, very alien world that the self encounters, unknown in a way that should unsettle everyone, arouse their curiosity, incite them to all kinds of everyday world exploration measures, etc. But that’s not what happens.
The world arrives on each person’s screen in a manner that is highly liquid, continuous, and quick: news, information, dispositions, images, and films, preselected by a collective of friends and acquaintances in a quantity so incomprehensible that self-protection requires erecting the wall of bored composure that used to typify the way we dealt with the flood of TV information. The gesture of composure today is that of the hand swiping to the right, staving off what one has seen, wiping it away, marking it as read, and sending it down into the underworld of dead information that will never again inundate one.
Today it’s easier to know more, in more detail, than ever before, but it’s not this easy access that’s made it harder to profit from it. The great rupture in recent years comes from the subscriptions, the alerts, the dispatching automats that have been in use since around the mid-2000s, initially to facilitate things, to not have to concern oneself all the time with all the websites one wants to consult, which have since gone on to prevent any possibility of consulting a site oneself, to specifically seek out a blog that one happens to be interested in; once subscribed to, everything intrudes on the interested person unbidden and in an absolutely overwhelming continuity and number.
This intrusion forestalls appreciation. Even the most valuable messages, highly interesting new thoughts of someone’s on some blog, take on the status of annoying advertisement, become a thing to fend off: gone, gone, gone. I’m aware, I know about it, don’t need it.
Only for friends.—As the old millennium was drawing to an end, in 1999—my God, how long, how absurdly long ago that is—the German pop literature faction also began experimenting with this social media thing. Elke Naters and Sven Lager thought up an event and a site called “Am Pool” [Poolside], where maybe twenty or thirty people talked to one another internally, textually. I took part in it back then too, with my day-poems KRANK [SICK], which I uploaded there on a daily basis. It only took a few days to observe the extreme limitation in thought and intellect this social circumscription injected into the texts that were based on and conceived for it: the poison is the pretense, the texts automatically want to brag, the writer to present himself to the others in a braggardly manner. The underlying tone that emerges here is unpleasant, the nonchalance in one-uppance repugnant.
The reason Facebook has commercialized this so successfully is because it’s precisely the real-life loser—in the majority, naturally, in real life exposed as a “zero” in a matter of seconds, this is an effect of the flesh, to embody a person’s truth and to externalize it visibly for everyone to see—who especially yearns to be a really cool dude in the abstract space of the Internet, in a purely verbal sense. The braggart’s verbality is such a success because there are so many of these tricksters trying to fool one another, which explains why a sensibility for these subtle gradations in tone is not a particularly coveted commodity. Now, in many journalists’ texts, you can hear this sound that emerged in the braggart-contest on Facebook. Not a very nice development in language to come from pop literature and to have since turned into journalism.
Authorship is wrested from a highly specific limitation. If relevant texts arise, it’s not due to some sort of skill, a technique that can be passed on, but because they’ve emerged this way out of one’s response to a defect-complex configured in a highly individual manner, because the defect has brought forth sensoria that have enabled its exploitation for the purposes of text production. Objectively speaking, this is all completely uninteresting.
As a reader, one senses that every author that is somehow of interest is also crazy in some way. But that doesn’t matter, that’s irrelevant. What’s interesting are the results, the work, the books, the output in written form that go beyond the author’s confines, that shed, by proxy for everyone, the fear of being an existence-nothing paralyzed by a defect-complex.
Nothing else can be passed along. With writing time, in my case it’s been thirty years now, what becomes strongest of all in an author is the experience: how insanely rare it is that it actually works out. That is the essence of writing: it doesn’t work, I can’t do it, I don’t know why.
The Demon.—The demon inside me that rules me is cruel. I don’t know him, I hunt him with my intellectuality, I probably expend more energy on finding him than on anything else, to understand, recognize, and in the end, hopefully, to finally disempower him. The effort fails. I can’t find him, I can only find his footprints, register the way he makes it impossible for me to live the way I want to: productive, steady, open, free.
In any case, the demon is a magnifying glass that enlarges everything that happens to me, brings it into focus. The completely normal behavior of the people around me: gigantic, in excessive detail, the horror. Just like in me, the thoughts and feelings inside me, the confusion: gigantic, oppressively gigantic and overpowering, dictating the moment completely. The next instant: gone. As though it had never existed. A mockery of the insane agitation that just now prevailed, gone. The skittishness of the demon torments me, it’s the self-contradiction of the obsession’s monstrousness a moment before. The demon is the gaze emanating from my eyes, which are extremely close together, every year they grow more closely, obsessively, absurdly together. I hate.
The demon wants to be alone and never write again. Read, lie in bed, sleep, read, and actually, quite honestly, more than anything else: perhaps to be just a little bit dead sometimes, or maybe completely dead, forever? Peace, peace is the longing; a permanence of total panic, the reality.
Demon for sale, cheap, gladly. The demon impairs my work because it makes my life so insanely complicated. The work does not profit from a complicated life, actually I’ve always hoped that, hoped it would. But that’s wrong. The complicatedness stultifies me, weakens me, narrows my mind. When the demon is gone, I can see what I mean, think, want to say. When the demon is there, I’m blind. And then I try with a mad energy to concentrate, and this purpose locks my frontal lobe in a brutal torture vise, where it’s pressed together and wrung out, the result of this effort of concentration being an unfathomable depletion of the frontal lobe, the worst state of depletion, without any kind of concentration resulting from the exertion at all. The demon is a life-energy-annihilator of galactic dimensions. A life-annihilating galaxy pulsates inside me.
Then the person next to me says something while the person opposite is still talking: a brainwave short-circuit is the demon-induced result. Other people find it normal when two or three conversations are conducted simultaneously right in front of them, but when it’s exposed to sound in this manner, my demon emits a maddeningly piercing whistle that grows louder and louder until the short-circuit cuts it off. This is why the demon doesn’t love the sociability that I so revere. Even in the company of other people, the demon has one goal and intention: to drag me down, to make my delight in people impossible. My demon is bile and Saturn. Heavy and mean.
Go away, Demon, the compensatory hyper-focus delivers its ultimate demand, be silent, die, stop talking so that I can finally concentrate better, finally live better. The demon nods, amused. He is not at all funny himself, but the text about him is. This contradiction is called, text-typically: grace, clemency, nonsense, delirium.
Reading.—Constantly, incessantly, of course, everything. Reading as the fundamental vitality-enforcement of the mind, an indefatigable joy in gazing at these tiny black things, letters strung together into type, their beauty over and over again, in all its forms, inscrutable.
One’s feeling for language is always in a state of becoming, is unstable, changes constantly through what one reads and writes. Watch out! A feeling for language is highly vulnerable, it belongs to the sphere remotest from rationality, that of language’s musicality; even the keenest intellectuality fails to bring every dimension of this feeling in all its crucial subtleties under the control of its explicative verbality.
Because the social always inundates the brain with an unworkable profusion of individual data, and not everything can be grasped, much less deliberated during the situation itself, it is once again the reception of text, reading, which makes a retrospective reenactment of personal experience possible through the example of other, comparable social situations evoked by the text; thus, what develops as the reading material presents and makes available to the reader the interference of his own experiences and those of others is this: a knowledge of human nature.
It is the specific interiority of this kind of knowledge of human nature that reading brings forth and that differs strongly from those formed in other arts (particularly the viewing of films calls for and creates a completely different type of identification with the other, one far less contemplative, of course), from the racing stream of time that sweeps events along as though in real life, for the most part even faster, makes them race and hurtle past one, etc., which, complementarily, gives rise to an especially elaborate discursivity upon which aesthetic theory has always prominently developed, first in music, then film, pop music, and opera, from Adorno to Diederichsen.
Wanting to write begins with being fascinated by other writers only a few years older than oneself whose books can take on an ostensible ultra-plausibility, because an individual text project has already attained a work-generating precision, there’s someone who can actually do that, in all its infinity-dimensionality: write—while at the same time he still lives in the common here and now which one also, as the younger one, has access to and is fascinated by. Which is why, in the arts in general, and especially in literature, the most wonderful masterliness is inherently: young.
ANDREA SCRIMA is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil); the German edition was published by Literaturverlag Droschl in February 2018. An excerpt from a work-in-progress titled “all about love, nearly” was just published in the anthology Strange Attractors (University of Massachusetts Press). Scrima is the recipient of a writer’s fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily. She is contributing editor to the online literary magazine Statorec.