When I write – when I really write – I write in a dream. I was struck, recently, by the experience of writing a number of long-form pieces of work which, for the duration of their composition, became an obsession. It was a pleasure to work on them on long train journeys, or in unfamiliar bedrooms until the early hours of the morning because they had to be written. And I was almost sad, in each case, to finish.
This tends to happen when I’m writing something in a new way. When I am guided along not by points of an argument that I have already roughly worked out, but by questions that I keep circling around, working through, abandoning, then returning to. That is to say, the enigma I am trying to work through and the obscure connections, word-plays, and surprise revelations that thinking through the logic of the problem suddenly provides.
At times like that, I have to have my laptop with me everywhere, just because a new turn of phrase might suggest a whole new line of writing – which, naturally, cannot wait until later. A notebook isn’t good enough. I have to have the document open in front of me, I have to be able to go back and forth tweaking sentences, changing the order of exposition, reversing my conclusions, surprising myself with new formulations.
I was recently reading a few volumes on writing and psychoanalysis. They have a lot to do with one another, not least because most of what we know as psychoanalysis is its textual legacy. Freud’s major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, was often referred to by its author as the “dream book”. Composed “as if in a dream”. He had to “write the dream in order to come out of it”. The spell was such that at the beginning of each paragraph, he “did not know where it would end up”. This implies, of course, that the dream was in control, that he had ceded executive control to it. Freud was, he wrote, “entirely the dream.”
It also implies a level of excitement. Most writers will recognise this to an extent: often the least exhilarating form of writing is that produced purely for an income, in which you already know where each paragraph up to the last will take you. It is difficult, of course, to pitch a piece based on a few oracular thoughts and the promise that “I have no idea where this will take me”. Not knowing is, however, often a better place to start. The nature of this excitement, Freud would insist, is sexual in origin; the origin of all curiosity, sexual curiosity; the beginning of our detective work on this planet, the struggle to find out exactly what it means to say, in Adam Phillips’ phrase, that we are “fucked into being”.
More to the point, in The Interpretation of Dreams, the excitement was Oedipal. Not only because this was Freud’s first exposition of the Oedipal theory for a mass audience, but also because several figures that appear in the work point to the working through of a relationship to the maternal body. Above all, it is where “the navel of the dream” connects to the “unknown”, that one can detect a certain amount of awe and reverence with regard to the maternal body (which, of course, must remain “unknown” if the castration threat holds).
That would appear to lend itself to a stringent form of reductionism, wherein writing is a substitute for incest - as if all theory was, in a fashion, Oedipal theory; all writing, pornography. But to believe that, one would have to 'forget' that Oedipality is 'complex' - as I just did in describing it as Oedipal theory. One would have to believe that the prohibition in the Oedipal complex reducible to incest, much as one might think that Eros is reducible to procreation. This would be forgetting a lot. What writing substitutes for, what it sublimates, is not just one, but every gratification that one isn’t allowed. Even that would not be exhaustive, since there is a lot that is unforbidden, but insofar as we write in a dream, working through riddles, metaphors, displacements, then we are taking an adventure through the land of the forbidden.
In that case, might one say that speaking for an audience is a form of live, performed dreaming? Might we speak as if there is a hidden realm of meaning and enjoyment, a ‘latent content’ that is adverted to but never directly approached? We tend to think of speaking as the pre-text of text, the truth of writing, what writing always was in its primary state. But there is something about words that seems to require an embodiment, a script. And if, as Darian Leader argues, one of the things writing does is give us something to do with our hands, if writing is indeed a gesture of embodiment in which our hands give form to something of our existence, then the same can be said of our physical gestures when speaking – they are a kind of script.
If we try to speak from a script, as if we are not in fact writing, it will tend to come across as at best a recital or an incantation (which has its pleasures), at worst dry and dull. There is a kind of phallic writing that can be the cause of a great deal of unnecessary anxiety for the writer, and boredom for the audience. You rise to speak, or write, thinking that you are expected to pretend to omniscience and omnipotence, supposing that if you aren’t ‘magnetic’ enough, if you slip up, mis-speak, murder a syllable, then the audience will never forgive you. You expect, in a word, castration. So either you produce an overly performed oratory or avoid the risk by sticking closely to a pre-drafted script. That, of course, is exactly what one does in most paid writing.
Speaking on a strictly imaginary register, of course, one’s task as a speaker is seemingly to ‘get over’. One sells oneself before one sells the message, as if in a sense the medium was the message. But that is difficult to achieve by over-acting or staring at a page of notes. What one needs to articulate, before anything else, is one’s passion for the subject. If you expect an audience to care, you have to at least show that you care.
If you start with the idea that the phallus is not something that one has, that what is at stake is various forms and distributions of not-having, then it becomes possible to make a virtue of limits. A reference to one’s limits, a joke about nervousness, a cheerful admission of shortcoming, might go down well as self-deprecating, and get people rooting for you. A slip can be the high point in a speech, rather than an embarrassment. A Tory MP was making quite a drab speech to conference in which he meant to promise that the Tories would do Brexit properly – but said ‘breakfast’ instead. He offered a quick smile, and corrected himself. The audience, recognising that he had just let slip what really mattered to him, laughed with him. If the rest of the speech wasn’t much to write home about, his unconscious found a way to make a tedious talk slightly memorable to a hall full of hungry pensioners.
This is another reason why it makes no sense to worry about slips. Audiences don’t care, or at least they don’t object. They’re likely to be more interested in how you make them feel. They will forgive a lot, even an accidental lapse into an American accent, if you don’t bore them. And what is more boring than anything, in any form of writing, is to fake omniscience. Omniscient beings don’t have questions, and so they don’t open up questions for anyone else. They don’t desire, in other words, so they don’t engage desire.
In the seminars titled Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan famously considered the relationship between speaking and fucking: “for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it [sublimation] means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.”
That would imply that rhetoric is erotica (or, if you prefer, that fucking is a form of writing), and that your role as a speaker is not just to dream, but to impart the enjoyment (jouissance) wrapped up in the dream. This is, after all, one of the things that we dream for: it gives us regulated access to a quantum of forbidden enjoyment. We know from watching good orators that virtuosity consists in good writing: the mere fact of saying certain words with this particular vocal inflection, this particular music, in this particular order, and with this gestural embodiment is part of the persuasive value of the performance. It is ‘getting at’, ‘touching on’ something, even if we don’t know what it is.
All of this suggests that there is an angle from which being ‘understood’ is a decoy. Not that the so-called ‘manifest content’ of your dreaming is irrelevant, and not that you won’t impart some sort of understanding. But you can be fully understood and leave someone completely unchanged, unmoved as it were. You can mobilise the fruits of your education, and not leave a dent in the economy of their desire. You can articulate a case, citing figures, and well-known authorities, and bits and pieces of common sense, and assume that your position is unassailable – technocratic omniscience – until someone else with a better sense of the dreamwork involved in writing comes and does a Pied Piper job on your audience.
And if you want to know what that looks like, think of the unhappy fate of Nick Clegg, and the late, lamented ‘Cleggasm’.