Dead Writers

I have just read Osip Mendelstam’s short essay, “On the Addressee.”1 In it he writes:

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means I have become its secret addressee.

In response, I thought of seafaring dead writers. I like dead writers very much. They are outside linear time, linear time that I hate very much. They have surpassed chronology; they have no claim to the transient constraints of survival, the many questions fame and acclaim might pose to a living person. Their oeuvre has been compressed into a moment of existence, a moment of being in the world, a moment that is neither past or future or present, beyond calendar years. Mandelstam would have called this moment an event, not merely the token of an experience which has passed.

Dead writers are not merely a token of an experience which has passed. They are the token of an interminable experience.

James Baldwin. Edward Said. Osip Mandelstam. Walter Benjamin. C. S. Lewis. W. G. Sebald. Clarice Lispector. Christopher Okigbo. Nadine Gordimer.

The works of dead writers are a trans/action. Trans, a going across, a wandering-between, interests me. It is a place time is broken open to allow more insertions, more disrupted histories. In this trans- place I can exist at the moment of Baldwin’s “A Stranger in the Village,” Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Lispector’s The Hour of The Star, Sebald’s Campo Santo, Okigbo’s “The Passage,” Gordimer’s “Living in the Interregnum.” I exist, I am imagined into existence. I am, in other words, trans-time in the writing of dead writers. I am the friend they have written letters to.

To whom then, Mandelstam asked in his essay, does the poet speak? “We do not know, nor will we ever know, where this audience is…” “We,” living writers. The living poet has an unknown audience, but the dead poet’s audience is the finder of the message in the bottle. Finding the bottle takes time—even outdistances time.

Now I ask you, you whose eyes dances across this page, to think of death as something different from the stopping of time. This death is immortality. This death is eternity. This death is animated sleep. This death is not-death dying.

I ask you, also, not to take living writers very seriously. We, who can even dare be named writers, are bound up by the prejudices of time. We are constrained by editorial input, denied flights of fancy, steered towards a publishing industry increasingly serving as a product line.

Mandelstam: “…appealing to a concrete addressee dismembers poetry, plucks its wings, deprives it of air, of the freedom of flight. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise. In addressing someone known, we can speak only of what is already known. This is a powerful, authoritative psychological law. Its significance for poetry cannot be underestimated.”

  1. A new issue of New Observations responds to this essay through varied essays and images. []

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