Writing as Terrorism

As I was making notes from Lyotard’s Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) yesterday, I came across a quotation that I flagged but failed really to consider on my first time through the book. It reads, with some of its parenthetical clauses removed, “Just as terror must be excluded from the community, so must it be sustained and assumed in writing as its condition.” As I was reading this for the second time, this association of terror and writing suddenly brought to mind a section from Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998). I was certain that he too had compared writing to terrorism, so I went back to my notes to see what I could find.

In the event, Algren’s comparison was not of writing to terrorism exactly, but of writing to criminality. He says, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” and he quotes Edgar Degas as saying something to the same effect, that “the artist must approach his work in the same frame of mind in which the criminal commits his deed.” Algren, while using the image of the criminal rather than the terrorist, recognizes the same relationship that is recognized in Lyotard’s text, in the lines that Lyotard’s text caused me to remember from I do not now know where, and in various others of the authors I have read, most recently Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites (New York: Grove Press, 1969), where writing is closely associated with resistance, treachery, and criminality.

I do not know whether I believe in this association as categorically as Lyotard and Algren others seem to do. It seems to me that I have, on occasion, encountered good writing that was neither the product nor the perpetrator of a terror. I do, however, recognize a fundamental truth in this linkage between writing and the terrible. I know that I am never free myself of a kind of terror that causes me to choose writing, even while being terrified of this choosing, and I know also that this terror often finds its expression in a writing that is calculated to terrorize. Even more, there lurks in much of what I have read, sometimes deeply hidden, a sense of terror, in the face of the blind and terrible confrontation that brings the author to writing, in the face of the impossibility of writing this terror, and in the face of having to awaken this terror in others, as an alarm or as a warning.

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