Monday, October 3, 2022
Home GAMING Ben Lerner on writing, speaking and choking

Ben Lerner on writing, speaking and choking

His story this week, “Café Loup,” begins with the narrator’s fear of death. He became a father three years earlier, and since then he has been worried not only that he might die, but that he might die in a way that would embarrass his daughter. Has parenthood made you more aware of mortality?

More aware of mortality, more aware of the relationship between death and narrative, how death is the end of one’s narrative control; part of the terror of death is that you can’t tell or process it after the fact, at least not in this world. (Although some writers explicitly lament in advance, as Vallejo did in “Piedra negra sobre piedra blanca”: “César Vallejo is dead, they beat him, / everyone, without him doing anything to them”). and the moment of his death reverberate throughout his life, they become so central to the story for others that they cast him out of his story at a crucial moment. Of course, what he fears the most is leaving his daughter, but he also fears what kind of history he will leave behind, what he will become, especially if he dies in a humiliating way.

When my daughters were very young, I was aware that they would not remember any of our time together and that all these unrecorded experiences were intensely formative, deeper than any particular content, and became part of them. The narrator talks about her Astra taking in all of her, slowly blinking her big brown eyes, and also talks about how she won’t remember anything; she knows that if she doesn’t make it home, she will have to rely entirely on stories. of others.

In the story, a piece of steak gets stuck in the narrator’s windpipe. Choking, as he observes, is a human drama, a byproduct of our evolutionary “speech advantage,” which requires sharing space in the body for breathing and swallowing. Why did you want to write about this?

It’s about evolution, but it makes me think of Creation: I imagine a version of the fall where we ate a forbidden fruit that gave us the power to speak, but through that sin death entered the world in the form of suffocation: Adam and Eve was expelled from a prelinguistic Eden in the same way that a piece of apple might be expelled by the Heimlich maneuver (a Sinister maneuver). But then language is also one of the cultural technologies to overcome or delay death by creating stories and songs that survive the individual body. I’m probably thinking of Eden (sounds like “eaten” to me now) because there’s also a lot of shame trapped in choking, shame that your ability to speak is blocked by your mishandled attempt at digestion. Clearly, I, as the narrator, superimpose the physiological facts with all these contradictory metaphysical and psychological meanings. I guess writing is safer than talking.

But the narrator is also wary of the dangers of writing.

That’s how it is. You can’t decide whether writing something down makes it more or less likely to happen. Is it enchantment? apotropaic? Sometimes one and sometimes the other? Either way, his relationship with writing is full of magical thinking. Writing won’t stop your windpipe, but it carries other risks, it has other powers. (It also implies his own blocks and possibilities for shame.) And at the end of the story, he swears that he will not write history, that, if he survives, he will stop tempting fate with language. So he has moved towards the attitude that he attributes to his wife, Inma: that talking about your fears makes them come true.

does it survive?

On one level, according to a logic, you must: How else would we have access to your inner experience of suffocation? (And there is a brief mention of a “later”). That would mean that she has retracted her vow of silence and is now really asking for it. On the other hand, this could be, a la Machado de Assis, a posthumous narrative, and if he died, if he is dead, he is not breaking a promise to remain silent.

The story is set in, and takes its title from, a well-loved French restaurant in New York that closed in 2019. In French, the “p” in “Loup” would be silent, of course, but do you want the reader? a feeling of “loop” in the mind?

Yes, she wanted that (soundless) echo of the loop, the syntactic loops of her musings, but also the loop that exists in the story between her daughter at the moment she acquires speech (and her caregivers watching her mouth) just as she sits. faces the end of the speech. Maybe I also got something from the wolf figure: that you “wolf” with food, that eating in a restaurant is a strange kind of pack behavior. To an alien, a restaurant might seem like a place where humans go to ritually display their ability to alternate between talking and eating without choking. Some people even dress up for the occasion. It just goes wrong sometimes. (Perhaps the pandemic, by keeping me out of restaurants for so long, has helped me regain its strangeness.)

I think of Elias Canetti’s descriptions of the violence that lurks just below the surface of our meals: “People sit together, bare their teeth and eat, and even at this critical moment they don’t feel like eating each other. They respect themselves for this and they respect their peers for a sobriety equal to their own.” For Canetti, who wrote a lot about wolves in “Crowds and Power,” even a smile is just a way of baring your fangs and saying, “I could eat you, but I won’t now.” So maybe animality and culture (and the loop they form) meet in the name Café Loup, just as they meet in choking? And then of course there is the fact that Café Loup was known as a meeting place for writers. All those writers talking with their mouths full. . .

It is interesting that you mention how the pandemic influenced this story, by making the restaurant a strange or unknown space for you. Are there other ways you think the pandemic influenced this article, even though you never mention it? COVID-19 and presumably it is set before it?

Well, part of it is a story about the notion of risk and its language: how much can you handle risk; what are the costs of an obsessive focus on risk; when certain “best practices” become a kind of religious ritual in their own right; To what extent is the discourse of risk, as Inma believes, a reflection of “the financialized worldview of the privileged,” a fantasy of control for those who believe control is their birthright? And what is the alternative to all this attempt at calculation: destiny? Trust the stars? And how, in such a vacuum, are you a father? Astra, asterisk: I think the condition the narrator describes, in which all available worldviews feel equally irrational and indefensible, is related to the pandemic, even if the story takes place earlier. ♦

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