The notebook

Postmortem of an obsession

From Issue Zero git notebook

Every writer has a notebook full of thoughts, outlandish, uncharacterisable, and unmarketable ideas, observations, philosophical notions, overheard conversations and phrases, descriptive fragments, quotes and excerpts, clippings, found object facts and factoids that may one day come in handy. If ever you consider becoming a writer, or if ever you fear you may have become one unawares, you might save yourself a lot of time by picking up such a notebook alongside a good collection of interviews such as those from the Paris Review. The first I remember seeing was by Raymond Chandler, which I borrowed from Stourbridge Library. In it were the rules of craps, and the questionable observation that a left-handed man will shave their sideburns a little higher on the right side of their face. If you discover yourself to have become a writer, as I did, you may find that you have had a habit of keeping such a notebook for some years, that your unconscious somehow sold to you a concrete and pragmatic objective of writing down song lyrics or lecture notes or French words and phrases or ideas relating to the company you have dreamed of setting up every time your boss pisses you off, or to do lists, or whatever it is obnoxiously functional people do when they budget; you may have found that within anything from a page and a half to five pages, it descends or extends or transforms into something else, something as unsettling and private as a sexual fetish. Once you're there you will likely never go back.


In the command line of the Writing VM of my Qubes OS Laptop, I navigated to the directory and git repository where I had last been putting together ideas for Issue Zero of Marginálie. It was a notebook, as well as a collection of fragments and half-finished ideas. I felt sick, ill, taking on all of this now. I had committed to it, for sure. I had known that either Call Them Soldiers or Marginálie were on their own huge projects, let alone when they were combined, but I had made exactly that the moral foundation of both. I believed in it if I did not believe in myself. The work of the next few months would be working out just how all my life I had been looking for something that was bigger than I was myself, because I could not reliably believe in myself; here it now was. I was to grow into it, and fast.

The cold War cranking up again by now, there was one thing that could take it on. I opened the notes I had on a long-planned essay called What We May Be Judged On?. This file was first committed to the Radical Transparency git repository in June 9th, 2015. It had changed several times since with my adding a handful of notes here and there, and had indeed been copied from that repository to the one where I was developing issue zero which, hopefully, you see now. Sometimes when you plan too much you lock yourself up, and I wondered if this had not already happened with this long-planned essay, but there was a vigour to it still, it excited me, if I didn't know if I knew how to handle it, and as I read over it, sure that whether I wanted to or not, the part of me that was typically in control had already made up its mind and that I would from now on be compulsively trying to work it into shape, I could see that the various notes I had made into the file over the years might appear to be from two very separate worlds. I had been puzzling through my notion of what the essay form was to be for me but it was clear that the glosses which lay emphasis on its derivation from “attempt” would be foremost in my mind. For me it seemed to go a little further. An essay was a fight. With oneself. With the topic. It was, inevitably, a way of going through a topic into oneself, and through oneself into a topic.

The notes I came across in that cafe could be said to represent a daemon, a discrete process, that had been running in my mind since April 2014 when Respekt, the current affairs weekly, was printed with an illustration of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal wearing a dog collar, a leash running out of the frame, casting his eyes back at the notional camera in angry vigilence. Beside this was a headline: “In the snare of censorship. How the communists controlled Czechoslovakia's greatest writer.”

I did not read the article accompanying the headline for several years. Looking at it, however, from the perspective of four months of a dwelling in which I had obsessed over Hrabal's life and work while translating a short story for a young translator's competition (having just turned 35 I was just eligible), the notion of Hrabal as a servile dog on a leash, of his having been controlled by the comunists, irritated me in the extreme.

I was not well to say the least. Many things irritated me. I must have had hundreds of such daemons in my mind, which was noisy and cluttered as a result. Some went back decades, others years, others again weeks, months, hours, or days. We live in a world where a lot of money changes hands to start up daemons in people's minds, to configure correctly an image and perhaps a coinage or a slogan that will puncture a hole through the conscious mind and unravel and grow in the mind until it takes the form of a process with at least one input and at least one output which may be triggered regularly, delivering up conscious thoughts and impulses, speech acts, purchases, interactions, clicks, social and sexual encounters. Our economy and our political process are optimised to deliver arousal in frequent doses. The most reliable forms of arousal are sexual, but it is also easy to arouse people to anger, fear, desire of every form. The best of these are, like Oscar Wilde's cigarettes, those that leave you unsatisfied. The daemon does not resolve. For myself, a successful daemon, ie. one that was adapted to its environment and yet stealthy enough to run in the background, making itself known only by its output, could run for years, throwing up everything from narrative to dialogue, to more or less urgent impulses to do one or another thing; it would also evolve in my restless, mutagenic mind. For any publication that does not make a substantial proportion of its circulation from subscriptions, a magazine cover is an attempt to get into your head as you queue at the checkout eyeing up the cigarette counter and grabbing some chewing gum. People may buy magazines, talk about them, and share them from all manner of states of arousal. Agreement may be the least of all of these. It is for reasons of the competition for attention that we see the psychological boom and bust of both magazines and television: we build them up and then we knock them down. In 2014, on the centenary of Hrabal's birth, that nobody in the Czech Republic really gave a shit about Hrabal had been clear for many years. Everybody felt that they knew him. Through the film versions of his books at least. He was a drinker, of course, a writer of pub anecdotes. It was time to knock him down.

The picture and the headline was enough, just the same as a picture and a headline can be enough in many cases to set up daemons on immigration or benefit fraud, war in Iraq or Iran, triggering speech acts and decisions many years into the future. As for the ecosystem it was so well adapted for that it lasted these four years, that is something I was to fight with over the next two, three months.