The Forgetting of Things Past: Information Technology and its Disconents by Vijay Seshadri

The Forgetting of Things Past

I have a writer friend (not a composite and not myself, but an actual person) who saves all the drafts of the poems he writes. Doing this is not as simple a task as it used to be earlier in career (he’s in his fifties), when he would take a poem, complete or fragmentary, from his typewriter, make corrections by hand, in ink, produce a fair (or fairer copy) from his corrected typescript, put the superseded typescript in a folder, and then start the process over. That process went with the grain of his writing habits, and reflected and embodied the development of his poems. Now, though, he uses a word-processing program, and has done so for the past 15 years. In the beginning, he treated the computer as if it were a glorified typewriter, printing out each copy of his poems, making corrections and additions by hand, and inputting, as they say, the corrections. But guilt over the waste of paper and, more important, the tempting speed a word-processing program offers got the better of him. As time wore on, he found himself going from draft to draft on the screen alone. For a while, because of the ease and irrevocability of the erasures computers make possible, he would cut and paste his poems before he made the slightest change and move the earlier draft to a file marked “Drafts.” But this, of course, interrupted the flow of his writing and his thinking—cutting and pasting drafts at that clip goes against the grain of writing—and just naming the innumerable drafts it produced became unmanageable. Now, because of the exigencies of word processing, he only saves them at the end of each working day.

Proust's revisions We would lose all those paperolles with which Proust festooned his pages, carefully pasting them on and extending them curling from the margins when he ran out of room for his endless, insane revisions.

We’ve never discussed the subject, but I presume my friend takes such care with his drafts because he is hopeful and serious about his posthumous reputation. (Nor does he seem burdened by a consciousness of the comic side of his self-annotation and preservation. I’ve always been careful not to remind him of Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames, who sold his soul to the Devil in order to find out what posterity thought of his writing, only to discover that the critics of the future had the same low opinion of him that his contemporaries did.) He must, therefore, feel a lot of grief at the fact that a whole species of his mental life has been made extinct by the word processor—that species represented by his handwritten marginalia on actual pieces of paper. One only has to look at the facsimile of a draft from a writer who lived before computers, with words crossed out wanly or emphatically, with insertions, ejaculations, and revisions that breathe sudden inspiration, with, even, the stains where the coffee was spilled, to recognize how much of the thought in literature is actually afterthought. Some of this thought—though only a small part—can be captured if writers do what my friend does, but most writers I know, including myself, don’t. They delete and add as they go along, on the same document, and eradicate in the process the evidence of the thinking that made the work. Drafts, if they bother to save them, are very close to final drafts.

A part of the living tissue of literature is probably disappearing, and the loss to literary studies, and to our understanding of ourselves, is significant, maybe even devastating. It is much worse, to my mind, than the loss literature incurred when people stopped writing letters and started using the phone instead. Letters appeal to our interest in the spurious, and rarely add anything to literary understanding. I have never, except for Keats’s, of course, gotten much out of the letters of writers. I lasted about a hundred pages with Madame de Sévigné and skimmed through Leslie Marchand’s edition of Byron’s letters in search of sexual escapades (not much vividness there, by our standards). I don’t read biographies—the teeming progeny of letters—for their own sake, and always wish they took up less shelf space. How much, really, would we gain in our understanding of Shakespeare if we had an 800-page volume of his letters? Wouldn’t they confuse and weaken that splendid sense of mystery that clings to him? I looked with dismay on the possibility that the advent of e-mail would resurrect the lost art of letter writing, and was relieved when this proved not to be the case.

Manuscripts These are the artifacts by which we really understand a writer, and they are gone, to be replaced by who knows what.

But I bitterly regret the loss of drafts, page proofs, hand-written manuscripts, which are so rich with clumsiness and intimacy. If Proust were alive today, he would be in his cork-lined room with a laptop, making corrections on proofs that were e-mailed by his publisher as attachments, and we would lose all those paperolles with which he festooned his pages, carefully pasting them on and extending them curling from the margins when he ran out of room for his endless, insane revisions. To look at a page proof of Balzac’s, dense with rethinking and re-imagining, a nightmare for his compositors, is to get the only clear sense we will ever have of the speed with which he wrote and the psychic consequences of pressures he was under, in his dressing gown, in his study, caffeinating himself day and night while his creditors beat at the door. These are the artifacts by which we really understand a writer, and they are gone, to be replaced by who knows what. Two kinds of thinking make up a work of literary art—one has to do with what the writer says and the other with what he or she thinks about what he or she says. One kind of thinking will make its way into cyberspace; the other, because of the relentlessly linear quality of our new writing technology, is vanishing into the ether.

Vijay Seshadri, director of Sarah Lawrence’s graduate creative nonfiction writing program, is the author of two books of poems, Wild Kingdom and The Long Meadow. He has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and has been awarded The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Long Poem Prize, the MacDowell Colony’s Fellowship for Distinguished Poetic Achievement, and the James Laughlin Prize of the Academy of American Poets.

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