Mao might have his criticisms of useless scholarship and writing, but he also has some suggestions as to how one might write:
Articles should store up forces within. Emerging from Longmen, the Yellow River rushes all the way down to Tongguan. As it turns eastwards, it again rushes to Tongwa. Again it turns northeastwards and rushes to the sea. Once it comes out of hiding and changes its course, it goes for a thousand li without stopping. This is called a big turn. So it is with composition. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, vol. 1, p. 18)
To compose (zuo wen) well, we need to be skilfull, hence the use of the word ‘do’ (zuo); to write (xie), we need to wield the brush furiously, hence the use of the word ‘sketch’ (xie). (p. 19)
Sit and ponder the universe? Lean back in a chair and look skyward? Rub the soap in your crotch while in the shower and pause for an insight?
Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.
As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Works – that’s a shitload of whispering.
This question was raised at the recent Historical Materialism conference in London over the weekend. Not during a paper, but through a serendipitous meeting.
Alberto Toscano introduced me to Nina Power, who said, ‘Oh, that’s a surprise! I imagined from your writing that you were a fat old man’.
Alberto said, ‘What do you mean – he writes like one?’
So I had to ask, ‘How does a fat old man write?’
‘Or, for that matter’, said Alberto, ‘a skinny old man?’
I have been trying to figure out that conundrum ever since.
Rod of Alexandria (who is not connected with any phallic object with which Aaron is supposed to have played) brought this one on, musing about old people who get cranky and fixed in their ideas. Aside from the fact that I’ve met plenty of not-so-old opinionated people, thoughts turned to Derrida and Charles Taylor (thanks to CP).
Why these two? Well, they are the focus, among others, of a reading group that I seem to have joined in Oslo. Taylor’s A Secular Age? was one book, Derrida’s Archive Fever another. Plenty of questions for Taylor, but this rambling book reads like the gathered thoughts of an old man. Cute in a way, says CP, like talking to an old fogey in a retirement home about life before the war (The Crimean War that is).
But Archive Fever – fuck me stone dead, he makes 104 pages seem like 1004. A senile parody of himself. Someone should have said, maybe about 1973, ‘listen Jackie, quit while you’re ahead’. Or maybe there should be government legislation that forbids senile old intellectuals from writing anything except memoirs (like Althusser). Otherwise you end getting compared to Derek Zoolander and his ‘Blue Steel’ look, or was that the ‘Ferrari’?
I had written two short pieces of work, which I thought were very innovative, although I cannot remember the topics. I inserted them as chapters 2 and 4 in a larger work, but people preferred the traditional chapters on Thyme (chapter 1), Toilets (chapter 3) and Tea (Chapter 5). I was bitterly disappointed.