The Swarming Life [essay] by Lauren Krouse

Foucault once asked, “Does there exist a pleasure in writing?” “I don’t know,” he answered.* But then he started with what he did know. He did know he experienced a strong sense of obligation to write. My obligation to write has been exhaustive ever since I first began journaling. It’s left me locked up in my bedroom for hours writing until my wrist hurts, it’s had me balancing a notepad on my knees while driving with one hand, attempting to record a poem that’s swooped into the driver’s side window, it’s had me devoting countless hours to a laptop screen and unknown audience, it’s had me overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious, unable to focus on any part of my real day, unable to work, unable to get out of bed, unable to breathe or eat or digest correctly. It’s had me blow off hanging out with people. It’s had me crying pathetically, insisting, “It’s just this damn book. I can’t stop thinking about it.” I feel guilty when I don’t work on it. I feel like I’m letting myself down, like time is sweeping on ahead of me, like memory is slipping with every single moment I’m not recording what I know, for some reason, I have to record. The anxiety is crippling and demanding. It’s as if nothing you do that day really matters if you don’t write.

Foucault levels writing with a holy act: the day’s page of writing provides you and your existence “a kind of absolution.” Sure, absolution can be taken secularly, but it’s also a sacred rite. The sinner tells the priest what she’s done, she regurgitates all the sins she can possibly think of, and then she’s freed of them! Absolved. Almost miraculously, the weight of all that she’s done, all the guilt that’s twisted and frozen her insides, all of the regret that’s allowed bile to rise from her stomach and into her throat, is gone. Foucault goes on. The act of writing has “the effect of benediction on the rest of the day.” Writing promotes your own well-being and health, but it also taps into another type of benediction: it invokes a blessing from God. It’s an act of prayer and devotion, a way of simultaneously mourning and celebrating all that you’ve been given.

You write and you feel freed. You write and you feel blessed. You write and you’re alive again.

Foucault continues: “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of the swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.”

And this is why the anxiety comes back. It’s a never-ending cycle of keeping existential anxieties and unpaid dues and regrets and mistakes and future mistakes at bay. It’s a cycle of facing those same anxieties and trying to make sense of them before more appear. It’s a becoming through narrating, a way of shaping one’s own reality even though that reality remains unharnessed and evolving.

I write in the morning and by evening already I am anxious about how the next morning I will have to report to my desk and do it again. Positive psychologists, the so-called happiness experts, claim that true happiness comes from setting and achieving goals but also in, and this is the key, enjoying the process in itself. Although the process sometimes seems so tenuous I think of walking away from it altogether, when I do begin to write again, the anxiety begins to abate. I can feel it fading, like the red of a thermometer lowering gradually but clearly as the room cools. It isn’t happiness, really, more of an easing of the soul. “Record me!” the soul cries and you have no choice: record or suffer. Recording, at least, stops the cry until the evening comes and fear of the dark, of death, and of still unreconciled issues in your life appears again.

The writer’s task is paradoxical: she writes to record and remember with Nostalgia her bittersweet muse. She rejoices in the past and hopes to cement it for good, to fight the vicissitudes the Buddha says you must accept to end suffering, and to prevent the swarming life from escaping her grasp any longer. She insists that Ozymandias can survive, if only put into words. At the same time, though, it doesn’t matter if this chaotic, ever-evolving life is captured. It is known even by the writer, even in the midst of the process, that life will never be completely recorded and held together and controlled. That’s okay. Because writing is also a release, a letting go, a cleansing, an absolution. If the writer has recorded her trauma, she can begin to walk away from it. If she’s processed the pain of nostalgia, she can discover the underlying pleasure, and blessing, and benediction, of having done so.

 

*’Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from … You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?’ —Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay refers to “Wild Onions,” a poem by Lauren Scharhag.]

Image by Charles Roper

Lauren Krouse is a first-year creative nonfiction writer who works as a teaching assistant in the creative writing department at UNC-W. Her latest writing explores religion, spirituality, and philosophy from the west to the east through the eyes of a lapsed Catholic/atheist-agnostic. Her work has appeared in College of Charleston Magazine, Gravel Literary Magazine, A Narrow Fellow, The Journal, and Paper Darts. Recently, her poem “black sun” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.