Reveries of a Solitary Reader

Andrew Key reviews Moyra Davey’s Index Cards

Moyra Davey, Index Cards.
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

For some people — myself included — reading can be a source of neurotic anxiety, an instigator of a stream of questions with no good answer. What should I be reading at the moment? What will I read next? Am I sure I’m reading the right thing? Will this be useful? Would I enjoy something else more? Is it okay to stop reading a book I’m not enjoying? If I start a new book now, in the middle of reading another, will I ever come back and finish this one? “I spend most of my time trolling through a half dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if only I could just put my finger on it”, the Canadian artist Moyra Davey tells us, in her 2006 film Fifty Minutes. “Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it.”

What happens when we read casually, or lazily? We don’t pay attention. We drift off. Our worries cross our minds: chores, bills, unfinished work, unwritten emails. I’m not sure that we think about these things, exactly, but they occur to us — they appear in our minds, then they fade away; they glide across our thoughts like clouds. The mind wanders, the book remains open. We gaze into the middle distance. We return to the page, follow the words for a few lines without taking much in, and then we look up again. We might daydream, or enter a state of reverie. We are not quite reading, and we are not quite thinking either. For Freud (a key figure for Davey), this activity — “phantasying” — is a source of pleasure, free from the burden of testing our thoughts against the reality principle, free from dependence on or reference to any real objects. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of literature’s greatest day-dreamers, warns that becoming too agitated during these drifts, or too fixated on external objects, “destroys the pleasure of the reverie, and, tearing us from ourselves, instantly replaces us under the yoke of fortune and mankind, giving us back the sensation of our misfortunes.” In fact, as Freud tells us, phantasy is like a natural reserve, a national park, preserved against the onslaught of civilisation.

Moyra Davey, Index Cards.
New Directions, $17.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

For some psychoanalysts, this experience of reverie has its origins in play, and play is the origin of creative experience, of creativity. Where are we when we drift off into our thoughts in front of a book? D.W. Winnicott wrote that cultural experience is located in a “potential space” between the individual and the environment, between self and object. This potential space is there for everyone, but how we use it depends on our individual experiences, our personal histories of pleasure and displeasure, and our ability to trust in our environment. I think this goes some of the way (but not all of the way) towards describing why certain texts, or certain moments in certain texts, will resound for me when they might not resound for you; why a certain idea might catch me and hold my attention, while your eyes might glide over and past it. There’s an element of chance or accident here — happenstance (from hap, which gives us the word “happiness”) — determining which books, which films, which photographs we’ll encounter and whether or not they’ll give us the opportunity to experience them in a way that makes good use of this potential space for experience and creativity. “Good use” might involve paying attention to the object, but it might just as well involve drifting off.

The element of chance is the aesthetic undercurrent of much of Moyra Davey’s output: her films and photographs, and now her written work. Index Cards is a collection of Davey’s writings edited by Nicolas Linnert; some of the texts are transcripts from Davey’s films, some are essays, and some are closer to diaries, fragments, notes. Many are combinations of all these. Reading (and how to read) is a major concern in the pieces collected here, which range from over the past few decades. Davey worries about reading the wrong thing and feels guilty about what she hasn’t read. She stops reading a book in the middle of a sentence. She takes a book off the shelf and resumes it from where she put it down years earlier. She cuts long books in half to read them on the subway (a habit she tells us about more than once) and, after reading Barthes, she constructs a “reading program” for herself, but has trouble sticking to it. She reads to write and writes to read. She encounters her shelves sometimes with feelings of lassitude and paralysis, sometimes with feelings of comfort and security.

Her texts are often repetitive, circular. Within each piece, as well as throughout the collection as a whole, the same concerns appear and reappear, the same quotations crop up from the same writers, filmmakers, artists, again and again: Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka, Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Hervé Guibert, Chantal Akerman, Virginia Woolf. Davey can be quite critical of many of these figures, and is often at least ambivalent. She tells us that she watches two Éric Rohmer films and finds them both insufferably tedious. She happens upon an idea or a sentence in her reading and she works it over, looking at it from a few different angles, placing it in relation to different ideas, different contexts, repeating it, until it starts to become familiar. Here is how she describes this practice:

Writing seems like the ultimate magic trick, of making something from nothing. Perhaps I still ‘write’ like a photographer — I go out into the world of other people’s writing and take snapshots. These ‘word-pictures,’ like Benjamin’s ‘pearls and coral,’ have Sontag’s ‘talismanic’ quality, and from them I can make something.

One gets the impression from Davey’s writing that these little snippets of other texts are almost like earworms, phrases she can’t get out of her head until she’s figured out exactly what to do with them. Often she arranges these word-pictures on the page as if setting photographs within text. “There is a seduction to the editorial use of photographs”, she tells us in an essay called ‘Notes on Photography and Accident’. “Surround almost any image with type and it takes on an allure, an authority, provokes a desire it might otherwise not have.” (This, of course, is one of the mechanisms by which many of W.G. Sebald’s works achieve their effect.) Davey’s repetitions in prose have the same seductive quality: we look at them from different angles, in different settings, over and over until they start to coalesce into something else, to reveal their deeper insights.

In more than one essay in Index Cards, Davey quotes from a lecture given by her friend, the artist and writer Pradeep Dalal. Dalal in turn quotes (or paraphrases) Jean Genet: another figure who weaves his way in and out of this book, and whom Davey is ambivalent about but nevertheless fascinated by. Davey tells us that Dalal has this to say:

A part of me… wants to see… writing or reading as personal and private and pleasurable without activating it in a strategic way. … Not everything we do is for art-making, not everything we write is for public consumption. I think back to an interview I heard with Jean Genet where he says that to deepen your practice, it’s not by just studying writing, that it’s actually the other bits — the music, the theater, the film, and other things that all interlock and move you up a notch or two.

This kind of second- or third-order reported speech is characteristic of the essays in Index Cards, where private correspondence is cited on the same level as anything else. Davey’s writing is casual, personable, personal. What this remark by Dalal does in the book is raise the question of what exactly all this reading and writing is for — and what exactly is the relationship between one’s creative work and the rest of one’s life. Frequently in Index Cards, Davey writes about her struggle to work, to go out and take photographs, to motivate herself. She reads distractedly in order to spark motivation to work in earnest again, using this inability to work as a way to generate these texts. She tries to take solace in not necessarily needing to be productive all the time. This is reflected in some of the wonderful photographs reproduced in the book, of empty bottles of spirits catching sunlight — images that depict chance, mundanity, domesticity. There is almost a fixation in Index Cards on the idea that only when art-making ends can life itself actually begin, a worry that making art might actually make one’s life worse: Davey writes about Chantal Akerman quietly sobbing in an interview when she talks about the feeling of having made the perfect film (Jeanne Dielman) at age twenty-five. What do you spend your life doing after you’ve made something like that? Well, you make more films, apparently. The work is the important thing, the thing that allows you to live.

Of course, Davey also worries over the things in life that interrupt and get in the way of making art. She writes about the inconvenience and irritations caused by her visits to her psychoanalyst, her experience of mothering, her relationships with her sisters and parents, her illnesses (including multiple sclerosis, which leads to trouble with her vision and the need to piss behind cars in the street). Her texts are caught between the desire to read without producing anything and the desire to write without having to read any more — as well as the desire to write without producing anything, “the intermittent aimless drive to just run ink or soft lead across the page until a book, full, goes into a drawer and another one is started”. There is a sense sometimes that writing in itself doesn’t particularly interest Davey, that it’s really just a means to an end, a way to get her thoughts out and then move on from them: “I don’t care where I end a piece of writing. What I have a problem with is writing more, once I’ve secreted. I reach a point when I’m done, and then my mind shuts down and refuses to generate more.”

One of the word-pictures lodged in Davey’s work, which Davey tells us has “engraved itself on [her] psyche”, is the remark William Godwin made to Mary Wollstonecraft after her failed suicide attempt in 1796: “A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach.” Davey tells us this sentence reminds her of her sister Jane, one year older than herself, who lost a child to an accidental overdose and then moved into their mother’s house, where she set to work on a memoir about addiction, constantly writing and rewriting it. Thinking about this situation, Davey wonders if perhaps happiness is not a reasonable goal, as Freud tells us (promising only a “transformation of hysterical misery into common unhappiness”), whereas simple peace might be: a peace constructed out of the materials within reach. Davey’s writings point us in the direction of that kind of peace — a peace that might be made from reading and writing without having to produce something at the end of it, from allowing distraction and reverie to take root in the mind when you sit with a book open and need not feel guilty about it. In Index Cards, she leaves us with the sense that the best way to tackle the pressures of the text might be to follow the New Year’s resolution that Virginia Woolf set herself in 1931: “Sometimes to read, sometimes not to read.”