I’m Not Telling You What I’m Telling You

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Contrary, are you?

Most likely, yes. Brains like to disobey negative orders: don’t think about that stressful meeting tomorrow (you will), don’t worry about that mosquito bite (it’ll prompt start itching), don’t ruminate on all the goals you have failed to achieve recently (a list will promptly appear).

Ouch.

The inability to deliberately shake off a thought through negative command is called Dostoyevski’s white bear problem or the ironic process.

Writing can harness this process to magnify the impressions left by (disconcerting) images. This is another reason why word associations are hard to dispel; in Dangerous Associations the pairing of baby and knife was disturbing because the mind connected the two words via cutting, but also because the image stuck and telling yourself not to think about applying knife to baby may have lead to a mental deepening of the scenario rather than its dispersion. 

(When faced with gloom, it’s worth trying to direct the ironic process towards a positive purpose by trying really hard not to think about, for example, cuddly white teddybears.)

Like with other unbalancing acts, the more stressed you are the more distress persistent, unshakable negative thoughts can cause you. Which is why reading emotionally challenging books during a difficult period at work, for example, can affect you more than reading them during your vacation.

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In rhetoric, the equivalent of the ironic process would be paralipsis—a figure of speech that emphasises a fact or a statement by explicitly claiming to pass over it. For example, in Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, an older man is talking about his daughters:

“I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets.”

The I need not add introduces the paralipsis, and it is employed to emphasise the fatherhood come late, rather than deemphasise it as the words themselves would literally mean.

If Chandler’s sentence seems to function even without the introductory phrase I need not add, in other examples the paralipsis element is paramount to achieving a particular effect, ranging from passive-aggressive to humblebrag to manipulative.

  • Mother to boy having seen his messy room: “I don’t need to tell you to tidy your room.” (Passive-aggressive: Except she is telling him to do so.)
  • Friend to friend: “I don’t need to tell you how much you owe me.” (Passive-aggressive: Except bringing up the debt seems to be necessary.)
  • Father chatting with neighbours: “I don’t like talking about my son’s gold medal at the International Biology Olympiad, other things matter more in life than academic achievement.” (Humblebrag: clothing a brag in humble drab.)
  • Neighbour spreading rumours about another neighbour: “He’s alright. I mean, I don’t judge him for walking around naked in his yard or keeping a pet python.” (Manipulative: the details mentioned under the umbrella phrase of I don’t judge shape the image. They imply there is something that could be judged. If the intention of the speaker is to malign and this intention is achieved, assuming the stated details were factually correct, this form of manipulation could be thought of as paltering).

Paralipsis draws attention to itself because of its contradictory nature: it picks out a specific point then claims not to care about it, even though the mere acts of picking it out and speaking about it imply importance. 

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If you’ve been following this blog for the past few weeks, you know where this is going. Henri Michaux, of course.

In Never Imagine1  he marries paralipsis and the ironic process and takes them to their extreme paradox: he is telling you never to imagine what he is writing about. Curiosity piqued, you move past the title to read what it is he doesn’t want you to imagine. By reading you are imagining.

It’s a peculiar, unsettled writer-reader relationship, with both parties counting on deceiving the other while knowing the other is trying to deceive them. (The writer is deceiving the reader into imagining having warned them of the deception in the title; the reader sets out to balk the bias of the mixed ironic process and paralipsis in an attempt to deceive the writer’s intentions.)

So, here it is: never imagine the following.

Thermocautery has something definite about it, something irrefutable. Its style is simple: “I see you, I destroy you.”

What an admirable furrow it shall trace in the indefensible flesh it will encounter! Straight-out sculpture, and this sculpture is chiselling. With passion you throw yourself into your work. Nothing more troubling than the smell of something burning. But no matter! The nose isn’t what’s at play here. Who has a creative nose? Not me. So it’s not on that account that you’d refuse this admirable instrument to anyone wanting to scour the human body in an interesting manner. But careful, hold it tight, aim it at the sought-after body. If it’s exciting in the “I-you,” it’s terrible in the “You-me,” or even in the “I-me,” if you’re weak enough to let yourself be accosted, which can happen. Oh, how easily it happens! Watch out! It’s done! Let go! Let go, I say! Too late, there it is, attaching itself to your flesh, entering your thigh, where you don’t find much, though, there it is burning your very own knee, and the terrible heat of the infinitely small blast furnace enters your bone, running through it in an instant, jumping up to the top like a panic-stricken rat.

Broken puppet, you toss and turn now, you toss and turn in the bed of misfortune, you reckless idiot.

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A few more writing techniques to note:

  1. The sense of flippant madness around the But no matter! is achieved by building a paralipsis then dismantling it. Or rather, it’s hard to tell whether the burning smell is emphasised because it does matter or because it doesn’t matter.
  2. The pronoun game in quotes condenses some distressing viewpoint flips:
    • when thermocautery is directed from I to you, denoted by “I-you”, it’s exciting (viewpoint of sadist);
    • when it’s directed from you to me, denoted by “You-me”, it’s terrible (viewpoint of victim);
    • when it’s applied from I to me, the “I-me”, it’s also terrible (viewpoint of self-harming victim).
  3. The strong second-person point of view adds urgency, forcefulness, immediacy. Because you is additionally used as a general form of address it allows for the latitude of the pronoun game (for example, “I-you” or “you-me” wouldn’t work as well in a first-person narrative).
  4. Finally, who else senses the devastating sentiment behind that last sentence?

Broken puppet, you toss and turn now, you toss and turn in the bed of misfortune, you reckless idiot.

It’s almost unrelated to the preceding text, and so general it could have been the motto of Michaux’s Life in the Folds. 

It’s also a damning one-line assessment of the human condition. So damning, in fact, that against the backdrop of its bleakness, the mere act of anyone, anywhere smiling seems like a miraculous achievement.

So smile, and that—

—that is your very own miracle for the day. 

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This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.


  1.  Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson 

8 responses

    • Both, in different ways, depending on experience.

      (In what follows: young=less experience, old=more experience i.e. nothing to do with age.)

      Young writers will try it out as a device, a tool, something to play with once they find out about it. But I think young writers will also deploy it subconsciously sometimes, so long as they’ve got any feeling for “manipulation” in communication.

      Older writers will sometimes reach for the tool very consciously to make a point, but will also deploy it subconsciously whenever they need to show or achieve manipulation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks for the encouragement!

      Btw, I tried heading over to your blog by clicking on your Gravatar but that didn’t work (there’s no WP link on the Gravatar page). Perhaps that’s deliberate—just thought I’d mention it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re very welcome! Thanks for continually putting out great material.

        You know, I’ve noticed that I don’t have a clickable link…none of my page links seem to work. I need to tinker around and figure that one out, because I have no idea why!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hey, I haven’t forgotten this comment, just so you know 🙂 Was waiting to respond in case you tinkered with the links and I could give a thumbs up after I’ve tested them. (No pressure!)

        Also, two things:

        I saw Stalker by Tarkovsky! Thanks for blogging about the film, it was on your recommendation that I finally got around to seeing it, and it was an experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it made me want to read the story it was based on. (Although last I checked I could only find it in Russian. Have you done any research on this?)

        Random idea I’m flinging around, testing. If I were to set up a chat space for fellow bloggers, where we could chat, say about Stalker or poetry or anything, whenever we happen to be around, would this be something that interested you?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have yet to figure out that mystery! I seem to be the only one with busted links. Why is WordPress picking on me? Ha. But I’m working on it.

        You watched Stalker…that’s fantastic news! I’m glad that you decided to take the plunge and give it a shot. Of all the people I’ve recommended it to, I think you’re the first (and only one) to watch it. It is indeed an experience…it’s quite surreal, actually; the script is sharp, but it’s also visually compelling. Lots of great long shots. I really want to read the story it’s based on as well, Roadside Picnic; check out Amazon…there are some editions there in English. That seems like a good read.

        I love your idea, 100%. A chat space for fellow bloggers would be brilliant…I’d be all in! Let me know, and I’m there.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, WordPress isn’t just picking on you… I’ve been trying to change my blog’s tagline for a while and no luck!

        I like the minimalistic approach of Stalker: the shorts aren’t that varied, the “action” is thin, and it takes a lot of patience to watch it compared to modern films, but the dialogue and overall experience was worth it. (I ended up taking notes—don’t ask!)

        Thanks for reminding me of the title and for looking it up on Amazon. No idea how I missed that. I’ve downloaded a sample of the book and we’ll see, might even read it soon.

        Especially—now listen to this coincidence (or not?)—it’s described as Kafkaesque in the intro. Given my recent interest in all things Kafka, ha, who knows… Also, there’s an intro by Ursual K Le Guin, which recommends it. Will let you know how that goes.

        Excellent, I’m glad you like the chat space idea—will keep you posted on that as well. Possibly soon. Would be nice to catch up in a more interactive setting; the blog commenting system is a bit stilted.

        Thanks for taking the effort to write back!

        Liked by 1 person

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