An effort, often painful

Writing beyond procrastination

For some it seems like words froth out like shaken-up beer. Driven by their own locomotion. An irresistible urge, or at least one with little resistance.

For me this has never been the case. For me writing is that conversation I’ve tried to avoid, that’s turned around in my head umpteen times, a dinner with family gutted by tension.

Reading Henri Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics recently, I appreciated it when he writes,

Whoever has worked successfully at literary composition well knows that when the subject has been studied at great length, all the documents gathered together, all notes taken, something more is necessary to get down to the work of composition itself: an effort, often painful, immediately to place oneself in the very heart of the subject.1

I appreciated the pain Bergson ascribes to getting down to writing.

It’s normal today to read lamentations and self-loathings which frame the incapacity to write as ‘procrastination’ (Latin: ‘of tomorrow’). The grown-up Anglophone twin of ‘mañana’. Deferral as pathology.

As a term, procrastination is ancient. Demanding haste in action against the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, Cicero has in Philippics 6.7 that ‘as in the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination [tarditas et procrastinatio] are hateful, so above all things does this war require promptness of action. … we can not lose a single hour in effecting the deliverance of such a citizen without wickedness.’

That it is an evil to transpose something ‘of today’ to be ‘of tomorrow’ – to defer an action ripe for the picking – is no recent a moral. The Web 2.0 and its infinite gush of candyfloss pleasures (the ‘attention economy’) triggered a booming market and numerous learned savants, binding the condition of procrastination to sickness, evil, warfare and laziness of spirit. Over the past ten years the self-help genre has been embellished by works with such titles as How To Conquer Procrastination (2012), Procrastination: How to Stop Procrastinating and Laziness (2020), Beat Procrastination (2011), Feeling Good: The Procrastination Cure (2020).

Yet judging from Google NGram the rise of the great pathology of putting-things-off is no less than its return, or the release of its repression, from its still-unmatched towering heights in the nineteenth century. Pamphlets and sermons were bellowed on The Deceitfulness, or Madness of Procrastination (1840), multiple editions of Now! Or the Sad Effects of Procrastination were printed, and secular verses with such titles as ‘On Procrastination’ were composed deploring of how ‘the thief of time’ derives from the mistaken sense of immortality. YOLO is perhaps a modern, though not a recent incantation for a youth holding out. Was it America’s wars in the late nineteenth and twentieth century which rendered the moral purges of procrastination redundant in the English language, since the youth knew all too well that they only lived once?

Nietzsche reverses this moralism against youthful procrastination in his late The Case of Wagner (1888). He writes that it is the very fact that Germans are ‘historically the procrastinators [Verzögerer] par excellence’ and therefore ‘the most backward of all civilised peoples in Europe these days’, a Europe of nihilism, that is to their advantage: ‘it means they are the youngest.’2 Procrastination not as a malady of youth, but an attribute. Not a failure to mature into adulthood (Peter Pan syndrome) but as that which allows for the possibility of ‘vital energy’, that is, ‘[to] experience harmful things as harmful, to be able to prohibit harmful things’.3 The backward German temperament of procrastination is the sickness, and indeed a sickness, but that which stimulates them to live and to refuse to concede to exhaustion. Procrastination, as sickness, is a mark of vigour; it is the concession to having finished, to the attainment of health, which is the real harm.

Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics, structurally defers its eventual and glorious depiction of true metaphysical writing – writing not from concepts to the thing but from the thing to the concept – to its end. And as in the passage above, the writing process itself, aside from being ‘an effort, often painful’, must follow a protracted procrastination process. Something must be studied ‘at great length, all the documents [must be] gathered together, all notes taken’. Only then, finally, when all is said and done, the composition process. A process wherein ‘attention must remain tense and progress becomes more and more painful; it is as though one were going against the natural bent. … Our mind is as if it were in a strange land’.4

Georg Simmel could only finish his life’s testament, ‘Life in Transcendence’, days before he died. As he wrote to his friend while in the process of composition, ‘Now I am in the midst of very difficult ethical and metaphysical investigations … If I can still finish them, they will amount to my testament. I am at an age where the harvest must be brought in, and no further delays is allowed.’5 Simmel’s procrastination was his life. Was life itself. It was only out of procrastination that he could publish a testament considered throughout his life. His resistence to premature death.

The drone of contemporary ‘procrastination’ moralism conceals a haste to age prematurely, to concede to a having already thought, to actions of equal lightness to the glossy cornucopia of entertainment screens, a generator of infinite guilt at never having acted enough. To guilty pleasure and neon boredom.

I recently came across an exemplary depiction of the pain it can take to write, to live through the procrastination, in the Japanese calligraphy artist Yuichi Inoue.6

With his 20kg brush and the fumes from a bucket of tarry ink making him choke and wretch, the pain Inoue endures to write just a single letter, to fill just one page, is real. It’s what anyone who struggles to write fears, and why they hold back. It truly is ‘an effort, often painful’. It doesn’t come from health, and I’m not even convinced it comes from a ‘line of flight’ towards health either.

But once worked through, never instantaneously – never! – holding off leads to a motor. Locomotion. Like Inoue here writing the Shin Buddhist Namu ami dabutsu,7 gaining momentum, faster and faster, wilder and wilder.

Not without pain. Through it.

Notes

  1. Henri Bergson, ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, in The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: The Wisdom Library, 1946). 

  2. Friederich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, Ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 255. German: Nietzsche Source

  3. ibid. p. 241. 

  4. Bergson, ‘Introduction II: The Stating of Problems’, The Creative Mind, p. 47. 

  5. Georg Simmel, The View of Life, trans. John A. Y. Andrews, intro. Donald N. Levine, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010) 

  6. I discovered Yuichi Inoue via Yannis Haralambous’ fascinating piece on Grapholinguistics in TUGboat, 41.1 (2020). 

  7. Thanks to Masa Kosugi for identifying the chant for me.