Posted by: Kristen Hicks | June 12, 2010

The Words–Life as a Book

from the wonderful:

Several years ago, in class called Ways of Reading with the professor Bella Brodzki, I was given an assignment to write a short creative piece inspired by and excerpt from the book The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre. I really enjoyed the excerpt and bought the book soon thereafter to read the entire thing–about five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to it. Today I got to the section that inspired my earlier writing and decided to track down the piece.

Here it is, with the original quote included (I haven’t made any changes, so blame any typos on the me of 5 years ago):

“I, twenty-five volumes, eighteen thousand pages of text, three hundred engravings, including a portrait of the author. My bones are made of leather and cardboard, my parchment skinned flesh smells of glue and mushrooms, I sit in a state through a hundred thirty pounds of paper, thoroughly at ease. I am reborn, I at last become a whole man, thinking, talking, singing, thundering, a man who asserts himself with the peremptory inertia of matter. Hands take me down, open me, spread me flat on the table, smooth me, and sometimes make me creak…My mind is in bits and pieces. All the better. Other minds take me over…I’m a parasite on mankind, my blessings eat into it and force it to keep reviving my absence” —The Words, from Jean-Paul Sartre (195)


If I were to live on in the form of a book after my physical death, if all of myself could be communicated through this book; what would that book be? Well, I suppose it would be largely a compilation of portions of other books I’ve read in my life. Ideas and insights that have come from these books have contributed to my general reading of the world. Of course, the books that will claim a greater portion are those I have written on, dug deep into and pored over. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, will acquire a sizeable portion of the space, as well as many of the fictions and non-fictional essays of Borges, and Bronte’s often overlooked Villette. Who knows what books will be added to that list in the future: the works of great Italian writers, perhaps a greater study of the Latin American Magic Realism movement, studies even of what great future writers will surely produce. In addition, there will be commentary on all the themes that I drew out of them over the years and the relationships I made between what I learned from them and how I lived. Perhaps the commentary will explain how each story or essay contributed to the world view I was continually developing during my years of living and reading. Maybe there will be anecdotes, of how a particular novel framed my particular perception of an important event in my life.

If it only had to draw on the life I have lived now, the size of the pages would be significantly less than the book described by Sartre. Many details would be left out, because not everything that happens or is perceived in daily life contributes significantly to one’s world view. Only those events or moments that offer opportunity for interpretation that I would then turn into a bit of wisdom for the future. One would hope, by the end of their life, that the book would reveal a general success; in the form of greater insights being made, questions being answered, or perhaps better questions being asked. One hopes that over the years they maintain a steady interest in acquiring knowledge and, not least of all, knowledge of how to assert what has been learned in life or use it to aid others in gaining insight.

I have often thought that the closest one could ever come to understanding how others perceive them would be to be written as a character into a friend or acquaintance’s’ novel. I think perhaps another portion of the novel would be committed to recording the perceptions that those I was closest had of me. There is no reason to necessarily believe that I could communicate a more accurate idea of myself to future readers than could those truths obtained about me to my friends that created their particular and, by no means incorrect even if different from my own, perception of me. An understanding of me will develop that was never revealed to me in my own life, but my future reader will piece me together through the perceptions of many I encountered, and thus have a cohesive view of where I fit into the society I lived in.

A book is not gendered, therefore whatever conception of me the book would promote would not be framed by this aspect of myself, to the extent it is in life. An understanding of me would come through the thoughts I entertained and the way they were structured and developed. Aspects of myself that are often defining characteristics to the people I come into contact with in life, such as where I’m from and how I look, would be only important in the book in how they influenced my thoughts and perceptions of the world. It is difficult to separate these aspects of myself in life from my own understanding of my identity, but perhaps within book form, when constructed in words, they will come be seen as what they are: only physical, largely meaningless symbols of the actual identity that exists somewhere within or in spite of these things.

I wonder that the style of the writing might be similar to James Joyce’s in Ulysses, recording every thought, sensation and perception without putting them into some type of coherent structure. I think not. Rather than a chronicle of moments as they happened, I believe the book would voice them through my personal interpretation of them. The moments that I attributed the most meaning to would be those that garnish the most attention in the book. The book will communicate the singular way in which I attribute meaning to the world, though with acknowledgement to the plurality of world interpretations that influenced the particular one I developed, or was continually developing throughout life.

I talk about myself here in past tense, as this book will remain to represent me, or perhaps embody me, in death. Yet for as long as the book is read by any other, the moments and experiences it describes belong in the present tense. They will occur just as much in the minds of others who experience them through my words as they did in me, though there will be perhaps some different meaning ascribed to them according to the past experiences and world perception of the reader. My meaning, as kept alive through the book, will continue to change for as long as the world it exists in does. What will my words mean to a person in the future who comes from a world influenced by new ways of thinking? Will my experiences and interpretations of the world provide support for theories and ideas that have not yet been explored? Will these infuse this work with meanings I was never aware it had, could never have been aware it had because of the time I was confined to living in?

Or will I live on through the book in a way that allows me to develop further through the thoughts of those who live through me as they read. Could a book that contains so much of an individual perhaps come to replace that individual’s consciousness after the body in which the consciousness formerly inhabited has ceased to exist? Perhaps death could be merely moving from one physical form to another. Why should it seem any more absurd that a soul exist in book form than the physical forms we tend to claim somehow represent or contain our complicated selves? If one could literally live through the work they have produced, as it is often figuratively suggested they do, then life would become something entirely different. It would consist entirely of the interaction of minds. Existence would be entirely the exploration of ideas and stories, the body might very well be remembered in this state as an unpleasant distraction from the actual living one exercises as a book. Sartre suggests that once he becomes a book, he can finally become a “whole man”. It seems odd to suggest that once confined to black symbols on a page one can become more complete, or experience more; yet for as long as those black symbols are read and thus imbued with meaning, one is capable of interacting with the living world and even influencing how it is generally perceived. Perhaps pages full of words can represent me better than my actions and interactions in life were capable of. Perhaps I could become more of what I am through words than through living.




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