1. Have you heard this one? … So there’s this amazing songwriter. His tunes are so good that they could easily score him a hit. If only his lyrics weren’t so terrible. Somehow he only ever comes up with lines like ‘Your ass is so big it makes me sick’, ‘Your dull face is boring me out of my wits’ or ‘I’m dying to come on your mother’s face’. It's really going nowhere with him. To get by he has to play background muzak on the piano in bars, lounges and so on. Things get worse as he's hitting the bottle hard. So on one of these nights, he’s playing in a posh restaurant and already having had too much to drink, he stops to take a leak. When he returns to the piano, this guy with a bow-tie and suit approaches him and politely asks: ‘I’m sorry, Sir, but do you know… Your dick is hanging out of your pants?’ The piano player stares back at him, in disbelief, and growls, scornfully: ‘Know it??? … I wrote it!!!’

The person who told me this joke is an artist and writer whose work I tremendously appreciate, and to whom this essay is very much indebted: Frances Stark. Laughing about the joke I thought, it’s true, that's what I so like about her practice. It thrives on the intuition that the one property that qualifies something as a proper piece of art or writing (i.e. something not merely designed to satisfy demands or meet expectations and deadlines) is its potential impropriety! The tragedy of course is that, as the fate of her joke's protagonist proves, the potential of impropriety is impossible to control or capitalise on. It's not an asset to bank on. It can work for as much as against you. It’s not even sure whether you could purposefully produce it. With the poor piano player, it’s much rather a case of: he can’t help creating it. It? Meaning: ever so many disjunctions between tunes and lyrics, forms and their contents, urges and their articulations. Those disjunctions, however, don’t just generate the merely disjointed. On the contrary, a beautiful tune may fit terrible words well, because, by virtue of creating the perfect misfit, they clearly voice what's non-befitting. Yet, this is neither a formula nor a recipe. It’s only a joke.

2. But the parallel between the impropriety of a proper joke and the properties of authorship goes so deep that it would probably not be wrong to say that being an author is indeed a bit of a joke! And that is something to take pride in. In her portrait of the life and work of Walter Benjamin, this is precisely what Hannah Arendt seems to suggest1: she celebrates him as an exemplary writer, yet she does so by describing him as a character who, either out of bad luck or due to his otherworldly manners—much like a slapstick hero—fails to do what's deemed ‘proper’ and hence perpetually remains at odds with his surroundings. Alienated from his German-Jewish background as much as from the cultural mainstream, he would, half unwittingly, also alienate people in the academic establishment who could have supported him. Arendt takes care not to propagate the modern myth of the true artist as an isolated outsider here. On the contrary, she emphasises that Benjamin's writing came out of exchanges with artists and intellectuals, as well as out of a process of connecting with the world at large through recording daily observations and collecting books and excerpts from newspapers and many other sources. At the same time, she does insist that what defined Benjamin as the writer he is, was his unwillingness or inability to fully enter institutional environments in which his practice would have been validated as ‘proper’ according to varying professional standards. His troubled attempts to live the life of a man of letters, without sufficient financial means, in a society hostile to this form of intellectual culture, reveals a general condition: at this point in German history and society, to properly practice the trade of writing as a cultural critic meant to do so from a position of overall social impropriety.

Connected to cultural, artistic and literary production at large, but operating under conditions of general impropriety, writing comes into its own, as a practice that can articulate the spirit of the contemporary, because it is exercised from the uncontemporary position of an eccentric homme de lettre. This is how Arendt portrays Benjamin’s practice. In doing so, she develops Benjamin’s concepts by applying them to the description of his overall approach. For instance, she describes the peculiar pride of the eccentric collector and writer by citing passages from Benjamin’s essay on the joys of collecting books, Unpacking My Library. She writes, everything that is said from the angle of the true collector’ is bound to appear as ‘whimsical’, as the  ‘typically Jean Paulian vision of one of those writers who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like [...]2.’

In a sense what we find in Arendt paraphrasing Benjamin, is the punchline of Stark’s joke—‘Know it? I wrote it’—explicated as the ideal of a writer who takes the position of a defiant eccentric. And indeed one could find many writers who identified themselves with this position using similar lines to declare themselves, Gustave Flaubert being but one: ‘I write for myself, only for myself as I smoke and sleep’ as he confesses in a letter to Louise Colet on the 16th August,1847. This  ‘whimsicality’, Arendt stresses, ‘has some noteworthy and not so harmless peculiarities’. It testifies, she argues, to the insight that it is impossible to write in service of the established cultural traditions, as, interrupted by modernity, they are in ruins, and after centuries of being shaped by corruption and lies, would not be worth continuing anyhow. The point is to further destroy what remains of the aura of their validity. Not necessarily, however, as a way of supporting the forces of modernisation either, as they produce a world governed by the dictates of instrumental reason which is equally uninhabitable for the writer. As it can neither be proper to tradition nor to modernity, writing finds itself navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, in a situation where its impropriety becomes its very historical reason to be. Only from a perpetually (precariously and painfully) decentred position vis-à-vis the past and present, can it attack the false glory of resurrected ciphers of tradition on the one hand, and from the other, annoy the modern prophets of progress by insisting on a defiant nostalgia for strange things and thoughts lost but not forgotten.

3. Yes, but what about the hubris associated with the act of claiming the position of being that singular kind of writer who’s out there on a limb, resisting the powers that be? For all we know, it may as well be completely delusional to think about one’s practice in such terms. Take the example of the piano player: an uncontemporary genius, contemporary only to Flaubert to whom he lends his voice as he returns from the bathroom break? Or is he just a vain man? It's difficult to tell sometimes, even and especially when it comes to some of the strongest ciphers of resistance our ruinous traditions hold in stock. For it is not only the voice of the eccentric aesthete that resonates in the piano player’s obscene  ‘Know it? I wrote it!’, it's also that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Prometheus. Written in 1772–1774, but only published anonymously in 1785, in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, the poem is an outcry against the legitimacy of any kind of higher authority, articulated from the position of a proud author. Prometheus mocks the gods for their aloofness and their incapacity to achieve what he has achieved (built his own stove and hut) in the world he proudly claims as ‘my Earth’. Provoking the gods, Prometheus inquires:

Who helped me
Against the Titans’ might?
Who saved me from Death,
From Slavery?
Did you not accomplish it all yourself,
Holy glowing Heart?
And glowed, young and good,
Deceived, thanks for salvation
To the sleeping one up there?
Shall I honour you? What for? [...]

If ‘Did you not accomplish it all yourself, Holy Glowing Heart?’ and ‘Know it? I wrote it!’  is compared, there may be a difference in tone, but the message delivered and attitude expressed is much the same: the spirit of angry defiance voiced in a moment of open hostility. In the case of Prometheus it arguably is an iconic formulation of the spirit of the rebel that attacks, not just tradition, but the source of the law—divine authority—as lacking justification. Still, a long history of self-styled heralds of rebellion sticking to this formula, has by now made us all too aware of the fact that the stance of heroic defiance may easily be no more than a manifestation of unbearable vanity. Yes, Prometheus may challenge the traditional foundations of authority. But he justifies his righteous anger with an appeal to grounds that are as non-negotiable, and hence as questionable, as those he purports to challenge. As he proudly declares to have created all himself, including himself, by virtue of the power given to him by the Earth, his Earth, he lays claim to the mythical auto-procreative force of the autochthonous (of all things that rise from the ground because the ground makes them do so). There's nothing here of the precarious eccentric who knows of to the impossibility to ever claim incontestable (i.e. ‘proper’) grounds of legitimacy for his or her practice. No, it’s the rush of power derived from having blind faith in oneself that Prometheus appears to be thriving on here. And his blunt self-assertiveness has never quite gone out of fashion. On the contrary, you can go and take classes today to acquire that attitude, so you can be more competitive.

But it’s not the defiance that makes Prometheus unbearable. It’s the flat out denial of all the influences and external forces which shape him while he shapes things—and the very existence of which he negates by addressing the rhetorical question to himself: ‘Did you not accomplish it all yourself, Holy Glowing Heart?’ In this act he symbolically cuts himself off from the field of collective creation which even and especially the most eccentric characters fundamentally tap into when channelling the energies needed to assault the reifying forces of tradition and technocratic modernisation alike. So, given his all too familiar conceits, perhaps Prometheus is no longer much of an inspiration.

Still, it seems hardly satisfactory to simply claim sanity as the rationale for the eccentric practice of mobilising and channelling those energies of defiance. For, in all its ridiculous obscenity, the proud confession ‘Know it? I wrote it!’ may in the end be the only thing left to profess to eccentric writers who seek to declare their position. There remains nothing else to fall back on. But still there remains a lot to be written. And how do you defend, beyond the need to write, the necessity for there to be writing? What do you do when writing is your concern? This is a general concern because a world without writing would be truly unbearable (even more so perhaps than Promethean vanity). But, if you happen to write, it will always also be a particular concern, because the writing not just to be produced but also to be defended before editors and sold to publishers, will be yours. If you follow the quaint desire to ‘live by the pen' and don't enjoy the benefits of a lifelong trust fund to make that urge seem natural, to sell your work is what you need to learn if you want to find a way to continue working, as a free agent. So how do you sell it? With pride! With hubris? Why not? It all depends on how you play that card. For there can be humour in hubris, precisely because of its obscene ridiculousness. And who said that hubris was just and only a personal disposition and vice? After all, hip-hop and R&B lyrics teach us that, on the contrary, hubris can simply be a very useful rhetorical means! It is a highly effective technique for announcing who you are and what you have to offer, in a hyperbolic key through paraphrase and metaphor. Listen to Kelis for instance selling her goods and declaring herself in one and the same breath, in Milkshake (2003):

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they’re like, 
Its better than yours,
Damn right its better than yours,
I can teach you,
But I have to charge   

It’s a good set of lines. Remember them if you are a writer, the next time you negotiate your fee. Eccentric as you may appear to be, offering shakes on the yard, you may not sound too unbearably Promethean, but still show your pride—that pride which is proper to the practice of writing only if thrives on a deep understanding of the indefatigable impropriety of that practice—when you clarify what it is that brings all the boys to the yard. So what is it all about—writing? How do we know? ‘Know it?’ For all I know what I know about it is because ‘I wrote it!’ And ‘I’ here is really not just me but her and him and them and us who took their shakes to the yard and were not too modest to admit that they did it. Sounds good? If so, go ahead, take it, run with it, and write it.
 

  • 1. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction Walter Benjamin 1892–1940”, in: Walter Benjamin: Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) p. 1–55.
  • 2. Ibid., p. 43.