A Writer’s Genealogy

Like many Americans, I recently succumbed to the promise of DNA testing to scientifically resolve questions about my own genealogical origins which were delivered in precise numerical percentages in  hierarchical order that were translated into loose clouds of overlapping boundaries, borders and territories of identities associated with place: a slippage of precision or a deference, a nebulous obfuscation of relation, transgressing definitions, like language endlessly eluding its own origins with labyrinthian  branching and labent oscillations, in its obscuration of enantiomorphic structures between signifier with signified.  Arbitrary amoebic shapes with frequently overlapping boundaries inscribed over wide non-specific territories of the globe colored to correspond to loose, shifting and often contradictory ethnic, linguistic and or racial groupings whose shifting migrating origins are equally impossible to delineate.


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It is said that Americans in particular are the most obsessed over their own genealogical origins whether because of their comparative rootlessness or because of the country’s relative youth (even though Italy and Germany took their modern shapes as late as the 19th century), of it colonial origins or of its self definition as being a “country of immigrants”, of its’ inhabitants, especially its minority populations, have comparatively marked issues of identity that are not found quite as pronounced as in other countries.


What does genealogy mean, in another perspective, for a writer?  Does this correspond to the literal tracings of ancestry or does the language of our genetic codes correspond to the codes and texts that are embedded in our consciousness that are equally encoded in our body of inspiration and aspirations to become a writer?  It is my conclusion after nearly forty years of attempted practice of the essentially mystical experience of the practice of the art of writing, that the creator of literary texts of any real quality or power is almost always an outsider, especially while creating.  There is something about the creative process with language that is like an interiorized mystical form of prayer that requires an intense form of inner listening and inner seeing. I also feel this has to do with the uniquely human capacity to be reflexively aware of our awareness, and the ability to suspend contingencies such as identity, to be able to see through the eyes of the other and to extend imagination and empathy.  Much like the ultimate outsider, Siva, the “a-kula” who transgresses all social strictures, who negates and conflates the boundaries of all polarities and dichotomies effortlessly in all of his myths and narratives.  Anandavardhana, the author of the Sanskrit poetic theory of the suggestive power of language or Dhvani, wrote that “the poet is most like Siva in that he creates whole new worlds out of the either of his own consciousness”.


Thus it seems the desires that motivate the search for genealogy and the desire to create through writing may be at odds or not.  More often than not it is not uncommon for writers to base their fictions upon thinly veiled autobiography such as seen in Huysmann’s, Dickens and Mark Twain.  Yet does this same literary inspiration apply to the extended past of family history or does it come more from the nebulous shimmering histories and associations of other literary texts and their authors, those inspirations that are free of the arbitrary contingencies and associations of biology and history and of even time and place.

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There is something about the practice of writing that by its very nature makes its practitioner an outsider, even if and regardless if they are confirmed “insiders”, much and most like that of the mystic.  Writing creatively more than anything, seems to require a heightened degree of listening and of “inner seeing” that is akin to visionary experience.  Family history and connection, lineage and identity are also specifically aspects, subjects that are renounced in the religious monastic and mystic life.  Certainly writers can have healthy and vibrant family lives, but like the contemplative or mystic life, it requires a pronounced degree of detachment, to be able to hear the voices and to see the inner visions that are necessary to write creatively.


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Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” specifically outlines the importance of the autonomy of a separate space for the practice of writing no matter what domestic arrangement the writer has and especially of its importance if the writer is a woman.  In many ways writing is like becoming a hyper-skilled and hyper-sensitive reader.  Reading is an art that engages all of the senses internally.  It is interesting that writing is the only art that requires its appreciators, its readers to become almost as skillful as its creator or its author.  Reading itself is a ghostly art that requires its practitioners to re-create the text and to deeply listen to it as it “sees” its evoked imagery, which is most like the experience of a waking dream; it is the art that requires the most out of its enjoyers.  Most like meditation, reading requires the most extended attention and awareness that oscillates between a delicate balance of laboring to concentrate (or to recollect, as St. Teresa of Avila began her early practice of the prayer of recollection by slowly reading, which she stated was the only way as first that she could “recollect” all of her faculties within) and simply allowing it to happen as if on its own, the effort shifting to listening to the inner speech of writing and to its evocation of imagery.  While there is an important need for a distinctive amount of detachment, there is also a deep and a certain consanguineous connectivity and intimacy that is found only between the storytellers and his rapt audience or listening to the stories from the mouth of a respected family elder.

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Yet the concept of “ancestors” for a writer and even family is different from its literal meanings and for me it primarily includes those who have come before and have inspired and “initiated” one to even want to become a creator of texts and to be a practitioner of the visionary art of writing.  Irregardless of time and place, transcending boundaries of culture and language and identity, it is important to ask who are those who have inspired you most to write. The texts that continue to live the most in your mind and that become embedded in your own image making associations that superimpose their own imagery, fusing them with your own personal stores of memory and imagination.  Is it the texts or is it your accumulated impressions of the author that have inspired you the most and that become an easily invoked circle of ancestors, of friends more tangible than those of biology or of cyberspace whose conversation is reanimated by the retained inspiration of their texts both existent and non-existent, shimmering appearances of words revealing fingerprint-like uniqueness.


While DNA reveals discrete zones of belonging and origin that is prioritized in arbitrary hegemonies of foreign lands and cultures that remain exterior and external even though they make up the building blocks of your own genetic architecture; the terrain of inspiration and subjective authenticities unfurls, creating and recognizing its own landscapes and architectures of hegemonic affinities regardless of biological duplications.


For one inspired to undertake the upstream path of the via creative with the nebulous and ephemeral element of language, so close to the effervescent source of creative expansion and equal source of the binding powers of delusion, the bifurcating branches of the expansive creative throb of the imagination and the personification of its transforming inspirations take precedence over the often constricting strictures of the literalities of lineage and clan and the often shifting illusions of identities as in the “flowing” theories of Whitehead.

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Having patiently listed as full and wide a list as possible of all past and present practitioners of writing who are published that have inspired and influenced me most in my half century as a reader and practitioner of textual creation, I mathematically prioritized them through comparative fractions arranged in the right triangle of manifestation sacred to the ancient Egyptians connected to the god Ptah.  The resulting distillate of the circle of the top thirteen, I was surprised to see two of the thirteen were forms of text that did not necessarily involve the authorial persona of fiction, history and biography.  Both traces of the ephemeral effects of human life in the quest to detect what actually happened or to delineate the mysterious affects and influences on “personality”; many scholars doubt that historical investigation can be legitimately even be termed research in part because of the vagueness of text itself.  Yet it is interesting to ask who are those that could inspire one to such a solitary and abstract and hermetic art as writing?


Yet none of the authors I listed were academics of any type nor were they products of any creative writing programs.  Roughly half did not write in English and thirty percent wrote in Spanish.  Fifty percent were also gay or lesbian which I find interesting as well as Marquis de Sade whom I listed yet who received a zero value on the comparison chart.  While in general it has never been easier to have a gay or lesbian identity in the US now, even though there still is much discrimination, it is still true that it makes you an outsider even if you can “pass” for being a cultural insider in American society.  One author who has been very influential in my writer’s DNA, Juan Goytisolo, experienced a life changing encounter with Jean Genet (another of my earlier literary influences who like de Sade, developed his passion for writing while in prison).  Goytisolo met Genet through his then wife Monique Lange who was Genet’s secretary through his publisher, Goytisolo wrote of that fateful meeting that was to change his writing career and his personal life forever.  Genet listened to Goytisolo’s stories of his political activities and Genet retorted something to the effect, “You don’t need to waste your time pursuing these pretensions, what you need to pursue is the conquest of your own subjective authenticity”.  He also confronted Goytisolo as to the truth of his own sexual preference and identity which turned out to be an accurate insight on Genet’s part and his advice deeply affected Goytisolo as well as me when I read of that meeting in 1997.


Yet de Sade remains an important figure; whether because was also a Gemini, or as a vaguely remembered fictional guest of Steve Allen’s TV show “Meeting of Minds”, but more importantly as a vivid and living example of a writer whose paradoxical persona lives on in his startling writings and in his essays and thoughts on the novel, on crime, passion and pleasure, whose thought seemed at odds with the arbitrary order we call “civilization” and that deconstructed the torturous language games of ethics, morality, religious tradition and social structure.  Ironically in a country whose constitution contains passages that read as if he could have written them in his more philosophic tracts on liberty and pleasure, his voice like that of Genet’s could be more effectively silenced as a “sex offender” than in all the prisons of the ancient regime that he had ultimately escaped, while in revolutionary France he became an elected delegate of the National Convention and his authorial persona became enshrined as a heroic figure in France by the surrealists as Genet was by the later existentialists and who was likewise released from prison because of his writings and the intercession of many French authors.


It was also a French admirer and writer on de Sade, whether influenced by surrealism to make de Sade the heroic focus of his own structuralism, whose own laconic prose that blurs poetics with “theory” who authored the wildly influential “Death of the Author” essay, Roland Barthes. While de Sade probably would have taken perverse delight in Barthes’ other essay comparing him with St Ignatius of Loyola and Charles Fourier, it is Barthes’ short cryptic essay pronouncing the “death” of the concept of the author reducing writing to authorless texts constructed by “scriptors” that has a distinctly wry humor in its own perversity with ultimately nihilistic anti-aesthetic reductionist stance which was an immensely creative way to dismiss creativity in written language. And to my knowledge, Barthes never attempted the, in his theories, futile and implied suicidal act of writing fiction and confined his concealed and futile attempts at hiding his own authorial voice in writing about the writings of others by attempting to reduce them to texts.  Whether it is merely textual semiotic projection, the “sense” of the particular author and their own unique “voice” that is much more than the sum of their text has been as inspiring and influential to me as has their individual works of literature which are likewise much greater than the sum of their text.  A writer’s genealogy is one of inspiration and of the mysterious intimate relationship between texts, their authors and their readers.  Yet Barthes’ aliterary authorless text has seen perfect realization with digital text with its anonymous, cut & paste hypertext deferences.  To use the existentialist principle of “experience before essence”, the experience of the sense of the author is more like the scintillating “motionless or subtle movement” exquisitely refined and non-anthropomorphic theological notion of the Divine in Trika Saivism, it is palpable, but never quite graspable, it is like a shimmering hologram in the space of the inner senses of the mind that rushes off , to use Barthes’ title, the “rustle of language” to the space of a silent and invisible persona, the ventriloquist from behind the shadow puppet screen of the page.



Nevertheless the haunting sense of the presence of the author remains and hovers both from within and without their texts, even Barthes is not immune to his own presence.  It is interesting how this strange shimmering and ghostly sense of presence is not dependent on whether or not authors did anything in particular, and the adventurous or the solitary or hermit-like equally share in the same mysterious sense of presence which takes on an almost religious element in its similarities to Gertrude Stein’s non-religious definition of a saint who she felt have the qualities of “being doing nothing”.  I believe that this sense of the authorial presence is distinctly different from that of a musician or performer, completely different from that of an actor (even though they currently receive the most popular attention and projection), different from an artist, who seems in current times now to have almost no presence at all, and similar to a historical figure, whether living or dead, the sense of the authorial presence tends to remain the same.


I was surprised to discover that the author that was at the top of my list as my greatest inspirational influence was Reynaldo Arenas, the Cuban writer who was recognized and supported as an aspiring literary talent as a youth by the Castro regime, but who later became a fierce critic of it.  Prison also played a large part in his own writer’s life, not as inspiration, but in a hallucinatory reversal worthy of the title and theme of his award winning first novel to be published abroad, El Mundo Alucinante,  imaginatively based on the adventures of the Mexican dissident Dominican priest, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, whose bizarre sermon that creatively reinterpreted the pre-Christian origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe landed him in prison and confinement which led to an almost unending misadventurous life of escape, exile and reconfinement and escape.  Arenas believed that his choice of protagonist and subject caused the same themes to dominate his own life, being imprisoned by the Cuban government for his openly gay lifestyle, and his writings and publishing abroad without permission.  While I am not always a big fan of all of his writings, it was the tale of his life told in his best-selling autobiography, Before Night Falls,  that was dictated into cassette tapes and published posthumously after his suicide in 1990, dying of an intentional overdose rather than continuing to live with AIDS, that was one of the most inspiring tales of a writer’s life and passions that I have ever read, of his unfailing passion for writing, for the lives of his characters which seemed as real to him as the very real hardships and treacherous escapes which seemed to mirror those of his fictionalized Fray Servando, for his unfailing passions for life, creativity and for freedom, and for his resistance to any strictures or ideologies that work to oppress or limit those freedoms, even if they disguise themselves in rhetoric of liberation.


With the three Spanish speaking writers that I listed as my top inspirations in my writer’s genealogy, there is a distinct and vivid grammatical freedom, aside from Gertrude Stein, that liberates prose from the shallow sterility of contemporary writing in the English language particularly in US authors, and that frees language from the rigid linearity of simple declarative sentences that is closer to the relative freedoms of Latin that does not oppress thought into such severe limitations of sentences.


One of the most haunting and mysterious ideas about the lives of writers is from Oscar Wilde that took the form of one of his characteristic epigrammatic flippant remarks in his essay “Pen, Pencil and Poison” that may be misparaphrased from memory that “great writers lead relatively boring lives, it is only mediocre authors who live the most fascinating lives as they are able to put the majority of their creativity into their lives”.  Wilde’s essay was based on the controversial real life of Thomas Whitewright, the English artist, writer and journalist who was thought to be a serial killer, or multiple poisoner and forger.  He led an extravagant lifestyle and was somewhat of a dandy which may have inspired his life of crime for financial reasons.  Yet he was a close friend of Charles Lamb and his life and the revelation of the sordid details of his crimes under cover of refined artistry fascinated many of his fellow contemporary Victorian writers including William Hazlitt who wrote an account of his life.  Wilde’s essay, subtitled “ A Study in Green”, which accounts for Wainewright’s aesthetic preference for the color which ironically was then manufactured synthetically with arsenic, takes a characteristic aesthetic stance with remarks such as, “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose”.   Wilde’s non-ethical approach characterizes his “art for art’s sake stance, but he ultimately condemns Wainewright’s prose as “common journalism” and as mediocre in support of his thesis that great writers and artists lead much more boring lives as the bulk of their powers are expended in their art and the lives of the mediocre artist are much more impressive as they expend their creative energies into their lives, which was a thought he expanded on in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”.  Yet Wilde’s own life was to be utterly destroyed by prison which most likely could have been avoided if he had not pursued his disastrous libel case against Lord Queensberry.


Aside from having a certain contemplative aspect to the supposed almost monotropic aspect of writer’s lives and identity, Gertrude Stein wrote a strange remark that “the portraits of writers always depicted them with tightly shut mouths”.  Yet like the book jacket notes to her seminal work A Long Gay Book which was one of the first texts that I read from her, which was a turning point in her literary focus away from the relentless abstract descriptive adverbial clauses of The Making of Americans, and which began very much the same almost increasing the abstract tension of the extended present tense verbal and abverbial descriptive phrases, to break towards the end of the book with an explosion of the sheer joy and shimmering brilliance of the play of words and nouns that left description completely, the editor surmised that the work involved a female subject more than likely the author, who was coming to terms with building a life of purpose and meaning that was not dependent on childbearing or rearing to furnish that “everlasting feeling” which she substituted with that of literary creativity and production.


Likewise the bond between the silent storyteller of the writer whose words and language speaks an inner invisible cinematic torrent that transcends time and space and place, that echoes in memory and like Meister Eckhart’s heretical thought, “the word eternally remains within yet flows out endlessly” both during and after the recreation of the text with reading that has a consanguinity all its own, that bond forged by the endless potential powers of performativity and suggestivity even framed by the words that are not used, between author and keenly focused and listening reader whose intentions are more discerning than mere entertainment.  That bond is greater than even that of listening to the tales of an elder relative.  That distinction was made even clearer in my research of my grandmother’s relative and namesake, John Bonnycastle, whose own texts I was able to find first editions of in a local research library and whose strange character and intimate association with the painter Fuseli was sensationalized by Leigh Hunt’s work that sought to capitalize on the public’s curiosity for scandalous information on Lord Byron’s life and close associates.  While Bonnycastle authored primarily mathematic and early scientific educational texts for the public his authorial voice was more literary as displayed in the preface to his works and his presence was more vivid to me precisely because of his being an author and that of his intimate circle of well known literary and artist friends and associates.


While my own physical DNA is over fifty percent English, I am not particularly inspired by many English authors, except Shakespeare, and unashamedly Matthew “Monk” Lewis and several other 18th century Gothic fiction writers like Radcliffe, Walpole and William Beckford, and even though Gertrude Stein strangely preferred to consider herself as heir to English rather than American literature, whether as also because of literary inspiration rather than genealogy which was somewhat silenced or flattened and absented in her works. Yet Colin Wilson whose sprawling work on The Occult  that raced through the stories of the lives of the shadowy figures of the footnotes of history who shaped that strange phantasmagorical and forbidden subject in the West. But it is his bestseller The Outsider which I have yet to read and should as it highlights the aspect of the writer as outsider that is averse to literal genealogies and lineages.  As my prioritized list is but an ephemeral appearance in time that is constantly shifting and becoming, I just received Julia Kristeva’s work on St. Teresa of Avila, I realize I might be adding her to my circle of literary ancestors/ inspirers.  Rather it is a tribute to Kristeva’s inspiration (who was a student of Roland Barthes) and obsession with St. Teresa because of whose vivid presence itself shines through even translations of her startling prose more than it was her as an historical figure.  Nevertheless, regardless of the haunting sense of inspiration or how influential writer’s work, life and authorial presence is to my own life and work, what I have found out is that at least when I am in the act of writing, this inspirational literary genealogy must be put out of mind as with the literal details of my own actual genealogy or else I find that its awareness becomes an actual impediment rather than an aid to my own writing and voice.


© Paul Smith, 2016

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