Zounds! Why did he have to get involved in this business?

Notes on Internet and writing …

by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX

Paris, Maison des Ecrivains, Friday December 2. 2000 - With, among others, François Bon, on the topic : « Internet and literature »

Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder


The aim of such a text is to explain why I went as far as to create such a website, to show my doubts, quests and worries thus linked with my project.


Presentation of the website

This website was created in spring '99. By me. In my own name. Not without scruples nor reluctance. With only limited competence. Without any prior training.

Within a year and a half, it welcomed about 15,000 visitors come from 75 countries.

It is made of about 200 pages, almost exclusively with either poetic texts as such or texts about poetry (It's quite difficult to know what its 'volume' is, such is the difference with a true 'volume' or book).

In here, one will find poems, bits of prose work, essays, articles … Quite a few of the latter are translated into English with the help of a psychoanalyst friend, Catherine Wieder.

Two thirds are my own pages, either hand-written or typed. A third comes from writers friends, critics, translators (e.g. Bernard Simeone, in the case of Italian poetry).

The site is not classified in the national heritage, but dwelt in, visited and inhabited. Very regularly up-dated.




Why and wherefrom?


1. The idea or desire to set on the web a personal web site dealing most with present French poetry came to me through François Bon's influence who acted as a pioneer and/or go-between in the field.

More precisely, this project came from an invitation he had sent to me: He had asked me to give him a text for his own site, a place which was still quite weird for me then, i.e. a website, his website.

The formula deserves to be looked upon: to give someone a text for one's own website means first giving it to him personally, friendly, in person. So that he may offer it to other people, not quite in the same way as when one submits a text to the Publisher and Editor of a Review. In this very case, here, a writer gives to another writer some piece of writing. Which means, on the part of the form the idea that he welcomes you in his own place, in his own virtual house: i.e. you all of a sudden belong officially to the group of those whose work I praise. Were it not just for the sake of the technological newness of the medium, a new subjective association which is far more straightforward than it would be through the traditional process of editing.

It may be quite important that the desire to "build" a new site, my own web site, should have come through someone else. From the start, such an enterprise is understood in terms of a circulation.

2. A few other motives came to add themselves to this kind of friendly contagiousness. E.g. some kind of weird excitement of "being present on the web", i.e. nowhere and worldly all at once. May be a little more contemporary. A little more here in the nowhere. An excitement (could it be that of the prodigal child?) of bringing out paper, volume, review, of putting one's words elsewhere. Indeed truly throwing out onto the void. Benefiting all at once of a virtual widening of their spreading. Almost as if one would finally be able to move further and further this time towards the whoever. Publishing without an editor, without booksellers, without any one's help (apart, from the start, the writer-colleague and his benevolent care), without any paper, marketing or selling business. Publishing almost in the void, nay even on edge. A way to deal with the essence of such a gesture.

Within such a desire, such a curiosity, there dwells some kind of a temptation, similar, for he who writes, to that of the forbidden fruit or, rather, to an absence of fruit and an absence of defence.

3. Another motive which is more clear-sighted and full of reason is the more or less clear feeling that such a kind of trial were well linked to the situation of being a writer today. Singularly or collectively, it becomes an answer, a horizontal or lateral argument to the present crumbling away of the pyramid literature: confronted to a disjointed literary environment, ghost reading committees, a worsened lack of interlocutors, a lack of decent criticism, a lazy press, both seized or busy elsewhere, mustn't the writer, in his turn, invent something else in order to go on existing or, at least, existing differently?

Internet copes with flaws. Such a medium comes quite aptly to fill in the gaps at a time when quite a few relays in the traditional editorial system fall flat.

4. More fundamentally, within the gesture of writing, the quivering quest of new relationships, of by-passes, of links, all the latter still unpublished between the self possessed and the shared in common are at stake. Now here, internet seems to open slightly ajar something still difficult to delineate that may also be illusory, but which still moves he who ventures to write and publish.

5. "Personal pages". There was also this queer expression through which sites erected by single people were entitled "personal pages". To everyone his own "personal pages". To everyone his own specificity. Or, rather, impersonal pages signed by one's own name. As one wishes to call it. It's his job, his trade, his work, i.e. creating personal pages that would not be rubbish. And then placing them in the middle of anything. As if someone were playing the violin in a techno concert. One more temptation, once again slightly more suicidal. Going along inexorably with the feeling of departing from it, maybe betraying.


Hereby the chapter of reluctances, doubts and questions may be opened here.




Doubts and questions


A poet on Internet is very similar to a sub-prefect in the fields or a clergyman in a brothel. Such a guy can't possibly be serious.

On the binge, on the net. What does he tinker instead of writing?

He is creating his site rather than trying to find the right place and right formula.

Here is at least some kind of unseemly. Something rather dubious, maybe difficult to accept. With relation to what? A tradition? An ideology? A romantic one turning poetry into some holy thing? Or its very definition (If ever one may still be capable of formulating such a definition …)

We must note that here, in France, in Paris, in the Latin Quarter, on the Rue de Verneuil, in the Maison des Ecrivains, and (however attracting and welcoming as such a place may be), one feels prone to plead: one feels one is suspect to have committed some kind of fault. One seems to have contravened to the laws of writing. Hence an effort to legitimize and clear one's name.

Thus does it become necessary to reformulate the question even more radically: when one prints poetry on the net, does one feel bound hand and foot to what prevents it, corrupts it, executes it and destroys it?

Does it mean some kind of palliative care for literature towards its own doom?

Does Internet become part and parcel of some kind of crumbling into bits and pieces, or denial of a work in that it presupposes some verticality? Its structure of an "inherited promise to use Michel Deguy's words.

Does Internet turn the poet into a webmaster, i.e. into some kind of media editor? Devoting to the editing of texts on the screen such a mortal precious time he should have devoted solely to writing, reading and criticism. Hence chattering and tinkering rather than writing. A chronophagous Internet would thus turn the illiterate-literate poet into a fast overspeed poet unable to know where to rest …

At present, do I only ask such questions: which means I ask, from the side of literature, the true question of the stakes of Internet: hence writing and what Mallarmé called its "jealous practice" with what it presupposes of a retrenchment, there remains the seat or at least the work wherefrom I worry about such a gesture.




An anecdote


Recently, I received the following e-mail of a cruelty of no appeal:"the first and foremost characteristic of a website dealing with poetry is that one will undoubtedly feel it shitty."

Such was the day's revelation, offered by Mr. X.

A well-known writer was pretending he was behind such a Mr. X. (Let's open a parenthesis here: let's observe en passant how cowardly one writes on the net: since it allows such a game of masks and pseudo names, hence through the latter the interplay of crude insult). That Mr. X. offers a site which, of course, by dint of curiosity I went to visit: very well worked-at graphics, a clever play of animations, in short a whole kinetic, or cinematographic life in images and music covering a few texts, or rather, poor and trashy writing (quite in the mood of present-day ads). Truly the site of he who aims first and foremost at impressing, overawing, perturbing and posting…

How else could I have eschewed and taken the measure of the archaic typicality of my own step, aiming as it is at transmitting the task of writing, editing, nay, teaching all the latter being forever my models.

As is the case with La Samaritaine, one may fond anything on Internet but I am not the right man in the right place with my white pages all covered with words. The Internet culture is for sure on the side of X, rather than on mine: a stimulation rather than an impregnation, an exhibition rather than a diffusion… In short, one may be driven to wondering why one's here and whether for a writer to publish on Internet were not similar to playing the violin at a techno party.

More radically: Internet is indeed a scandal for the writer who keeps some belief in the true value of both work and work-of-art.

Such is a media deviation, a deviant object: one becomes thus embarked in infinite drift. You "surf" on the web, so they say. Such is a new fashion of spraying, i.e. entertaining at all costs. Culture has become cultural.

The quantitative replaces the qualitative: more than ever the synthesis of information has become impossible. Here communication rules: speech and language disappear, they swallow us. Man is a communicating animal.

Such is the defeat of mind and thought. The very pattern to follow has become that of the cultural clip on which one clicks. Internet means clicking on the clip.

Confronted to such a helpless, what are the answers and the prejudice? First: to go on. Just to find out. Hoping to understand better in the long run.




Answers and prejudice


François Bon, for example, replies with intervention, i.e. the workshop and the textual: charge (as one would say of cavalry) and loads in texts. He is involved. He commits himself. He welcomes, becomes associated and branches out.

I, personally believe in the search for a point of balance (soberness, self-effacement …) between the side of what is written and the media (act in such a way that the media were not to swallow the medium, since such is the risk here).

I throw written pages over on to the net-work (would it be like water into a pierced barrel or water on a glass slab, hoping flowers would grow all the same?). Now do I hatch a few hen's eggs among the ducks.

I throw printable writing (sometimes already printed). Internet serves as a relay, a mere means of transmission. I give it free. I have nothing to sell.

In fact, I, most of the time give a few things to be read (mostly already published elsewhere on paper), books out of print, articles (which, in some way or other already have a literary existence). The prejudice is of course never to substitute Internet to the book but rather to enable the latter to give access to the former: e.g. also showing note books, drafts, sketches, introductory states of the text (which normally the reader never comes across) or, conversely, by multiplying the critical contributions on other people's books and works. A desire to strengthen the "book" or, rather, to replace it at the centre of the written work by giving it back this very setting which the critical and editorial background of today does neglect … But here again there may surge a risk: i.e. that that very background may stifle or substitute itself to the reading of the texts.

In short, and in order to conclude: one is not supposed to lead literature to its doom, but rather to become part and parcel of its confusion with the hope of helping it to become more clear. To wonder both where it rests and where it might lose itself. Nay, wherefrom does it flee.