On Scribbling


That word “beneath” is key, the kind of key you’d turn
to wind a music box freed from a long-stuck drawer.

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Everything beneath notice, beneath categories, unlit, all that is not transcendent but immanent, that structures our habits and desires—all of this can come to light in scribbling.

William Repass

August 5, 2016

Consider writing as doodle: playful, haphazard, off in the margin. Marginal it may be, but linguistic doodling, or automatism, represents a long tradition. Methods vary but, for our purposes here, I regard as automatic any writing act that circumvents conscious thought. But how does this somewhat iffy Surrealist mode slip between the hermetic and manifest; what makes it worth the time and the effort to write, let alone read? Is it laziness merely, and what does it mean to automatically discount laziness? Is it possible the word “lazy” blankets an array of techniques which, because they slither out from under the constraints of intention and rationality, get dismissed as unliterary, maladjusted, beneath respect? That word “beneath” is key, the kind of key you’d turn to wind a music box freed from a long-stuck drawer.

Automatism may, in theory, afford a more direct view (still mediated by language of course, but only just) into subjectivity and, like an atmospheric diving suit, grant access to the ocean floor of collective unconscious. Everything beneath notice, beneath categories, unlit, all that is not transcendent but immanent, that structures our habits and desires—all of this can come to light in scribbling. In other words, by eluding the “I,” the self-censored ego, automatism embodies a highly personal-impersonal poetic expression. There are delights to be enjoyed, surely, in confronting that paradox.

On the other hand, automatism can come across as a random hash, something a computer could generate in a flash. But in spite of the term “automatic,” I contend that automatism is neither mechanistic nor instrumental, but organic and slippery—transforming author into “conduit,” as the Surrealists put it. The author, but a step removed in temperament from the despot, chooses to relinquish authority. What results is ideological only insofar as it dredges up from the stream of consciousness subconscious baggage, making it available to critique.

But to reiterate: What differentiates hermetic from manifest, and when does authorial disinvestment yield more than a curiosity? Apart from typical modes of critique, I’d like to introduce a coinage, “automatic reading,” meaning something akin to dream-interpretation. If, as I’ve claimed, automatism places subconscious material at our disposal, should we not meet halfway, in a playful, free associative mood? When a poem in the automatic mode is sufficiently bizarre, sufficiently musical to capture and hold our attention, we should trust in hypnosis and allow it to simmer up as much of our own subconscious as may be pleasurable. Even the most autonomous language, because it is language, will generate constellations of meaning to a reader willing to see past authorial intention.

In order to imagine and build a reality that does not block but channels desire, we must become aware of desire. Poetry that hews too closely to rational patterns cannot be relied on to reveal our innermost desires, so much as those expected of us, imposed on us. Doodling—as anyone knows who has had to sit through a droning lecture or staff meeting with a pencil in hand—redirects attention, lowers the barrier against expression. To dismiss it out of hand would only (further) impoverish our imagination.

With that in mind, stay tuned for an automatic reading of a poem I suspect (there’s no way to know for certain of course, but that’s the fun of it, no?) was written automatically.

 Read On Scribbling II