The Demons of Watchfulness
“Many people talk nowadays about messages everywhere, inside the organism a hormone is a message, a beam of light to obtain teleguidance to a plane or from a satellite is a message, and so on; but the message in language is absolutely different. The message, our message, in all cases comes from the Other.…The unconscious has nothing to do with instinct or primitive knowledge or preparation of thought in some underground. It is a thinking with words, with thoughts that escape your vigilance, your state of watchfulness. The question of vigilance is important. It is as if a demon plays a game with your watchfulness…
“Probably we would all be as quiet as oysters if it were not for this curious organization which forces us to disrupt the barrier of pleasure or perhaps only makes us dream of forcing and disrupting this barrier…[and] permit[s] the full spectrum of desire to allow us to approach, to test, this sort of forbidden jouissance which is the only valuable meaning that is offered to our life..”
–Jacques Lacan, “Of Structure as an Inmixing of Otherness Prerequisite to any Subject Whatever”
Each of us harbors a displaced writer within, irrepressibly writing the most piquantly personalized texts. We all have an “authority problem”: No matter how hard we try, we cannot impose our will on this writer within, the demon eludes the censors. Identity is an illusion masking our essential hybridism, a locus for dialogue. Language–others disembodied in language and re-embodied Osiris-like in our brains– is the source of the joy that sustains the meaning of life.
The dream of totalitarians is to eradicate joy, meaning, and the idea of time itself by imposing a unified identity on all, a universal internalized censor that is really a language in which thinking forbidden thoughts is impossible, a society of robots or bees. Aristotle was, I think, describing the same idea, looking to the outside rather than the inside, when he wrote that “Society is a natural phenomenon and is prior to the individual.” To be otherwise, he adds, is to be “either a beast or a god.”
The arts in general are how we externalize our internal dialogue to create joy and meaning in society. The literary arts operate directly in the realm of language, of signifiers; the other arts– in respect to language–work in the realm of signs. Operating directly in the stuff of the demons of watchfulness, writers are typically the first artists to be targeted for persecution. It is possible to imagine societies that radically censor writing but generally tolerate free expression in other arts; it is hard to imagine the converse.
People have asked me why I gave up business to become a volunteer to City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. This is why.
Click here to read Henry’s bio.