relative danger

an interview with Gordon Lish

WINTERS: Critics of you and your ‘school’ have dismissed your interest in the sentence as trivial and superficial. But my understanding is that your aesthetic contains a strong moral component.

LISH: Yes. This sounds screwy, but that moral component—or rather, that overlay—is a result of one’s having undergone certain considerations in the course of making the sentence. The maker of the sentence is involved with all of the properties of language that exist in that sentence. And in this respect, there is no difference between the beginning and the end of the sentence. It’s all of a thing, and it is infinitely elastic. You can do anything with it you want. I taught my students to orchestrate a concatenation of sentences, each issuing out of the prior one. I know that you’ve already written about what I call ‘torsion’ and the ‘swerve’—where every sentence is in contest with what has been said. That’s what it is. The moral work occurs when the writer is confronted with all of the pathways that might be illumined by reason of what he has said, and he considers them for their relative depth of engagement; their relative danger. The way in which each one promises or fails to promise to open, deepen, reveal.

Ordinarily, quite the opposite occurs. The safest pathway is chosen. That which seems most in keeping with tradition; with what is conventionally done. But I say that you must refuse and refuse and refuse. It’s really Fiedler’s ‘No! In Thunder’—it’s about saying no always to what is prior. And by saying no to what is prior, you eventuate into a statement that you could not have conceivably arrived at otherwise. Whenever one follows the narrative arrow towards the next recognizable, feasible, sane stroke of discourse, one is captured, trapped in the trap of the trap of what has been said. I say, no! Contrarily, one should try to say what has not been said; what is sayable only by controverting what has been said. And you’re the one who has said it, so you’re controverting yourself. If you keep this behaviour up, you are brought, it seems to me, all the way around to the beginning again. You have created a nimbus, a totality which will be possessed of differences that would not otherwise have come about. All by reason of imposing upon your progress, your ‘narrative’, a refusal rather than an approval.

Now, in saying all this, I’m not calling for an end to the logic of discourse—but what kind of logic? It comes down to this: a new thing can only be done if it comes out of oneself, solely. Is this solipsism? How could it not be? What the hell is wrong with solipsism? What I want when I’m in the presence of a writer is that person’s soul. The more solipsistic the better. People say, ‘don’t you want to communicate?’ No, I don’t want to communicate. I want communion. I want mutuality. I want to enter the being of the other. I want unimprovable illumination.

read the full interview in Critical Quarterly, December 2015