By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection of an essay on Marguerite Duras and two poems by Cynthia Cruz, we present an introductory interview with our own Associate Editor for Special Projects, the estimable Nancy Mitchell, followed by the work itself and some more detailed biographical material.
NM: Hi Cindy. I don’t want to spoil our readers’ pleasure in your graceful and convincing argument that Marguerite Duras was a mystic, and how the act of writing established her in the long tradition of spiritual practice so I won’t say too much about the particulars in your featured essay “Duras, the Mystic.”
However, I’d like to chat about one particular point, which gave me pause. As you write, Duras has largely been described as an alcoholic. Edmund White, in his essay “In Love with Duras” posits that if one is an alcoholic, one cannot be a mystic; as if the former condition naturally precludes the latter. He writes, “She said she drank because she knew God did not exist.” In your successful counter to this with textual evidence to the contrary from Duras in her book Writing, I was reminded of Carl Jung’s letter of January 30, 1961 to Bill Wilson the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which he writes of a patient “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” footnoted with “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalm 42, 1)
CC: I agree with you: there is a strong connection between alcoholism and addiction, overall, and mysticism. In fact, one can argue that drinking (as one example) is a means of protecting one’s self from the closeness of God; of that intensity. One thinks Of Hölderlin, for example, and his madness resulting from his connection with God. Or, even, perhaps, Simone Weil’s starvation, which of course became anorexia, as another example of this attempt at self-protection.
NM: Interesting. I think White’s assumption reveals a commonly held belief that as a necessary pre-requisite, the character of a mystic must be and whole sober, saintly. This ignores spiritual practices that constitute the structure of the mystic’s quest in her quest for wholeness via reconciliation with self, or Thou, or God.
I take issue with this because it’s precisely the kind of prevailing puritanical attitude that perpetuates misunderstandings about addiction, the addict and keeps both in the shadow of shame and out of the light of understanding.
CC: What’s interesting to me though is how labeling Duras “alcoholic” diminishes her while at the same time when we speak of masculine genius alcoholism is often closely tied with it.
NM: Yes; it seems to be a form of the same old “slut/stud” double standard.
CC: This argument parallels the confessional label that serves to silence female writers while doing nothing to weaken the strength of male writers. For example, Plath’s confessional writing reduces her writing to mere juvenile journal entries while the same label does nothing to diminish the reading public’s interpretation of the works of male so-called confessional poets such as Robert Lowell or John Berryman.
All of this relates to the work I have been doing in the past few years on silence and Otherness and my examinations of women writers and artists. What I have been wondering is why some are silenced using the same language (i.e. alcoholism, confessional writing, and so on), while others are not affected.
NM: I’ve wondered too about this…
CC: Furthermore, I am interested in ways that those who have been silenced then use this silence in their work, resisting the binary, resisting the terms of the power structure.
NM: Yet, this resistance has it own deep power and roots in literary tradition.
NM: Duras’ practice, “that of writing” like other spiritual practices, allowed her to drop into two of “the three main tenants of the spiritual exercises” silence and solitude, or, as you quote Duras from Writing “This real, corporeal solitude becomes the inviolable silence of writing.” This practice resembles another spiritual practice of meditation, in that it is an “emptying out of oneself.”
CC: And, as you say, the emptying of one’s self that occurs when writing is, in itself, a kind of
communing/communicating with God; a type of prayer. And Duras writes precisely about this in Writing, for example, when she explicitly states, “ The text of texts is the Old Testament.” One can read, in fact, not just the act of her writing but also the act of drinking alcohol as a type of prayer. Prayer via the bottle; prayer via the word.
NM: Ah! Further rebuttal of White’s “She said she drank because she knew God did not exist.” But getting back to Duras’ spiritual practice of writing; although it resembled meditation in the process, it really wasn’t meditation, per se, was it?
CC: Meditation implies a level of calmness in reflection that I don’t see in Duras’ writing. If I had to, I’d say her writing is more one of desperation, an aspiring toward absolute truth. Her work is passionate–she is stepping directly into the fire (as opposed to considering, reflecting). As a result, I’d say then the reader is also put directly into the fire—and the fire is impossible to bear (this is precisely why Duras needs the booze, as she says). This intensity scares some off, while others insist her work is too intense, that she is making too much of things. This intensity is too much for some readers to bear. In her final work, No More, as Duras moves nearer to death, her voice and the writing become more intense, more clear and honest. Again, this type of transparency, this nearness to God or truth, is often too much for people. They respond with a visceral reaction, a condemnation: Duras is hysterical, that she is making too much of things. She has no control. When, in reality, she is translating truth for us, a kind of mystic.
NM: How much of your own writing practice is a spiritual practice?
CC: My own writing is less a meditation, which I understand to mean, literally, a type of contemplation or reflection or, spiritually, a communing with God, and more a kind of word machine or quasi philosophy in that I generally use poetry as a means to move nearer to an answer or better understanding.
NM: So, your writing practice resembles Duras’ in that “Duras used writing as a machine-like apparatus, as a means to drop further into the unknown,” yet differs from hers in that you use this “machine” as “a means to move nearer to an answer of better understanding?”
CC: What I don’t know, I write and wrestle with on the page through revisions and re-visits. What the poem is then is a kind of shell or relic of that wrestling out of/for meaning.
NM: “…a kind of shell or relic of that wrestling out of/for meaning”…fascinating. I think of a snake’s skin, a chrysalis, even a placenta, all of which retain the shape, bear the history and contain the genetic information of that which grew, evolved out of it. This puts me in mind of Jung’s theory of transformation: when the individual has the ability to access unexpressed psychic material via meditation and the courage express to it in a tangible, physical form outside of the body (on paper, in this case) the evolution to wholeness can begin. The incarnation of this material takes on an independent life outside of the body, and the “host” body is literally and psychically transfigured.
It’s intriguing to look at “some underwear and a white feather.” and “Glitter of leaves near the gutter” from your poems CHARCOAL and MEDICINE AND MAGAZINES included in this feature and see them as relics, evidence of a hard earned struggle…I’m reminded of the line “As if gods wrestled here.” from Yusef Komunyakka’s poem WORK.
CC: Essays and art reviews serve the same purpose for me. I don’t write essays or art writings when I “know” something. If I thought I “knew” something, I would not need to write about. I’d move on. All writing is, for me, this kind of moving toward.
NM: As you write of Duras’ writing, you, in your essay “Duras, the Mystic” and your poems in this feature are “following the star of the next world with blind faith.” Thank you for letting us follow along with you.
Duras, the Mystic
Writing comes like the wind. Its naked, its made of ink, its written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.
–Marguerite Duras, Writing
In his essay, “Spiritual Exercises,” the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, describes the Spiritual Exercises used by the Stoics as a means to drastically alter themselves and their lives. About askesis, another term for the practice of Spiritual Exercises, Hadot writes:
It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raised the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.
According to Hadot, the main spiritual exercises are: “Learning to Live,” “Learning to Dialogue,” “Learning to Die,” and “Learning How to Read,” Each of these exercises is meant to help the practitioner to free himself from the passions. Hadot writes:
In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries.”
The French writer Marguerite Duras has been largely described as an alcoholic. In his essay, “In Love with Duras,” the writer, Edmund White writes
There was always something preposterous about her. When she
was feeling well enough she surrounded herself with courtiers,
laughed very loudly, told jokes, and had opinions about everything.
She was an egomaniac and talked about herself constantly.
And, though I can’t dispute either of these, I believe, also, that Duras was a mystic. That in fact it was the very act of writing that performed for Duras a spiritual exercise; it was through writing that Duras practiced asceticism and her own means toward freeing herself from the passions.
Saint Anthony was the first of the Desert Fathers, the first early Christians, to take literally the instruction of Jesus to “Go sell all that you have…and come and follow me (Luke 18:22).” Here, the desert is Egypt, the land of Moses, of Saint Catherine, and of the burning bush. The desert is the cathedral of fire, the place where all things come to life, where all things come to die. It is the place of pilgrimage but it is also metaphor: for the silence within, the searing white light of one’s spirit. Those who can, descend into the desert. Those who cannot or choose not to, descend into the silence within themselves. This retreat takes many forms. One form is the formal practice of meditation. Another similar practice is that of fasting. But for Duras the action, the spiritual practice, is that of writing. Writing necessitates silence and solitude. It is a taming of one’s mind and spirit. To take what one has in one’s mind and translate it into words on the page is a way to remove the thoughts and ideas, the beginnings of passions, directly out of one’s mind and body.
And though White writes, “She said she drank because she knew God did not exist,” I have difficulty swallowing this. Within the few pages of her short book (45 pages), Writing, Duras mentions Christ twice, God once, and also The Old Testament. Of Christ, she writes, “ Like the love of Christ or of J.S. Bach—the two of them breathtakingly equivalent.” About the Old Testament, she writes, “The Text of Texts is the Old Testament.” What Duras said, specifically about God and alcohol was “Alcohol doesn’t console, it doesn’t fill up anyone’s psychological gaps, all it replaces is the lack of God.” What this says to me is not that she did not believe in God but that, rather, she felt the lack of God’s presence. This lack is, of course, only noticeable by one who has belief. In the first place, one cannot notice the absence of something they do not expect to appear. The absence of God is the shadow of God.
In the chapter, “The Absent One’ from his book, A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes gives his definition of absence:
absence / absence
Any episode of language which stages the absence of the loved object—whatever its cause and its duration—and which tends to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment.
So what we see now is that the absence Duras describes when she writes about the absence of God is the absence of the Thou, of the lover. God is the Thou, is the lover and it is through the spiritual practice of writing that Duras means to reach him. Returning now to Saint Anthony and the early Desert Fathers, they fled their churches because the churches were no longer filled with silence, they were beginning to become social spheres, filled with the sound of laughter and voices. It was through leaving their lives and descending into the desert, into the unknown, that these mystics hoped to find, or at least come closer to knowing, God, the Unknown. And this is precisely what Duras is describing in Writing.
Hadot, in his description of the first of the Spiritual Exercises, explains that philosophy for the Stoics was not mere theory, but that it was, in fact, a way of life. It was, he writes, a means to drastically alter one’s life:
In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregu- lated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy, this appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions.
In other words, philosophy was seen as a set of rules of spiritual exercises which one could use in one’s life to affect change. For Duras, writing was her philosophy, was her sole spiritual exercise. For Duras, everything was writing. She writes, “Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must finally perceive. Everything is writing. “ This is also what many faithful believers say of God: “God is everywhere. God is in everything.” She used her writing as a means of learning how to live and it was through her writing that she was given direction. When writing, Duras was, in essence, descending into the desert of the unknown. In Writing, she writes:
Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing cam save you. to be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome. I believe that the person who writes does not have any ideas for a book, that her hands are empty, her head is empty and that all she knows of this adventure, this book, is dry, naked writing, without a future, without echo, distant, with only its elementary golden rules: spelling, meaning.
Writing, for Duras, is the decent into the desert. It is following the star of the next world with blind faith. “Writing, “ says Duras, “is the unknown. Before writing one knows nothing of what one is about to write.” It is this act; the act of swallowing something, one can neither see, hear, or otherwise comprehend that makes Duras a believer, a descender.
“Learning to Dialogue” is Hadot’s second Spiritual Exercise. By this, he means, to meditate, “Meditation,” he writes, “(is) the practice of dialogue with oneself.” An important part of meditation is silence or solitude for it is only in moments of silence, away from others, that one can hear the voice of the Divine. Again, Hadot writes:
Furthermore, in Plato’s view, every dialectical exercise, precisely because it is an exercise of pure thought, subject to the demands of the Logos, turns the soul away from the sensible world, and allows it to convert itself towards the Good. It is the spirit’s itinerary towards the divine.
For Duras, this means solitude:
The person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others. That is one kind of solitude. It is the solitude of the author, of writing. To begin with, one must ask oneself what the silence surrounding one is—with practically every step one takes in a house, at every moment of the day, in every kind of light, whether light from outside or from lamps lit in daytime. This real, corporeal solitude becomes the inviolable silence of writing.
Continuing on this theme, she continues:
When one takes everything from oneself, an entire book, one necessarily enters a particular state of solitude that cannot be shared with anyone. One cannot share anything. One must read the book one has written, alone cloistered in that book. There is obviously something religious about this…
But this also means silence, which is related to solitude, hinging upon it, and yet—the two are separate. Duras writes, “Writing also means not speaking. Keeping silent.” This silence and solitude are necessary in order to meet the unknown, to descend. Like a pilgrim walking into the white hot shock of the desert, Duras descends into the unknown of the book.
Hadot lists the third of the Spiritual Exercises as “Learning to Die.” He writes, “There is a mysterious connection between language and death.” In Writing, Duras asserts, “One can speak of writing as sickness.” “Solitude also means,” she writes, “either death or a book.” Here, she conflates the two: writing is a kind of death; it is a leaning into one’s end. In this way, Duras aligns herself, knowingly or not, with the philosophers. Hadot writes:
In the apprenticeship of death, the Stoic discovers the apprenticeship of freedom. Montaigne, in one of his best-known essays, That Philo- sophizing is Learning how to Die, plagiarizes Seneca: “He who has learned how to die, has un-learned how to serve. The thought of death transforms the tone and level of inner life: “Keep death before your eyes every day…and then you will never have any abject thought nor any excessive desire.” This philosophical theme, in turn, is connected with that if the infinite value of the present moment, which we must live as if it were, simultaneously, both the first moment and the last.
And Duras lives this way. For her, each day is a tabula rasa, a blank page, an empty book. “Writing is the unknown,” Duras writes, “Before writing one knows nothing of what one is about to write. And in total lucidity.” This terror is a variation of death, an obliterating, self-annihilating act. “Hadot writes, “Training for death is training to die to one’s individuality and passions…” To be made new, to be reborn, each and every day. And engaging in this, this active looking at death and the end, everyday, all the time means being at risk, putting one’s self at risk, always with one’s writing. Doing this, writing what one must not write becomes, then, the only salvation, the only means to stay alive. Duras writes,” …first and foremost it manes telling oneself every day that one mustn’t kill oneself, so long as every day one could kill oneself.” It is there, at all times, the specter of death. This keeps us honest. As long as we see death in everything, we will be moved to say the one thing we simply cannot.
It is in the death of the author, the loss of one’s self that the writing arrives. “ Language develops, “ Hadot quotes Brice Parain, “only upon the death of individuals.” The French Philosopher, Helene Cixous, writes at length about this very topic in her book, “Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.” In it she states:
Dostoyevsky received the world through having lived it (we always come back to the experience of Abraham and Isaac), received it because he was condemned to death, because he was in front of the firing squad and then was pardoned, in extremis. This is grace: death given, then taken back.
Similarly, Duras writes:
To be alone with the as yet unwritten book is still to be in the primal sleep of humanity. That’s it. It also means being alone with the writing that is till lying fallow. It means trying not to die.
For Duras writing was both entering the realms of death while, at the same time, using writing as a shield against it.
Duras was a survivor, of course. Born into poverty in Saigon, she lived with her mother and brother who both beat her. Her father died when she was still young. She suffered her entire adult life with alcoholism. In other words—death was always breathing into the small corners of her life. She knew it, she beckoned it to her, she spoke to it on a regular basis. Of death, she writes:
My presence made that death even more horrible. I knew it, and still it remained. To see, see how that death would progressively invade the fly. and also to try to see where that death had come from.
Duras was a mystic, using writing as a spiritual exercise, as a way to move out of her world and into the next. Writing as a means to enter into death, to dialogue with it, while, at the same time, using writing as a means to drop into the solitude, into silence, into the abyss of not-knowing (God’s world)—these are the three main tenets of the spiritual exercises. Duras used writing as a machine-like apparatus, as a means to drop further into the unknown. Like a saint descending into the white hot sun of the desert, Duras descended into the white hot desert of the page—blank as death, in silence, in solitude.
Poems by Cynthis Cruz
In my brown leather bag:
some underwear and a white feather
I found along the pavement
on Sunset in Silverlake
when I was eleven. Sweet
on the black plastic radio
in the tremendous muck and doom.
On the train to Versailles:
three girls from Basque
and the one
painting her short boy-like nails black.
MEDICINE AND MAGAZINES
Glitter of leaves near the gutter
at the Museum of Natural Tragedy.
Succulents, bougainvillea, the toilet
of our history.
California salve: the plum
like hum of death’s white music.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poetry, including three with Four Way Books: The Glimmering Room (2012), Wunderkammer (2014), and How the End Begins (2016). Cruz has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in writing and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts. Cruz is currently pursuing a PhD in German Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.