Mark Fisher opens his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life with a line from Drake’s “Tuscan Leather”, the opening track from his 2013 album Nothing Was the Same.
“Lately I’ve been feelin’ like Guy Pearce in Memento.”
The track itself is an atemporal collage, as Drake heads back to the future. Heavily treated vocals gather together in reverse, as the beat staggers forwards for six minutes. That’s an eternity as far as rap albums go. This is no introductory skit or three-minute tone-setter but a six minute song that doesn’t bolt out of the gate but slithers, side-winding into earshot.
Much of what is mentioned in the song’s lyrics reappears over the course of the rest of the album. Track titles are spoken as lines of verse. But there are also nods to drama from Drake’s personal life, and references to past album sales and industry records. It even acknowledges itself as an intro. But it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like a closer; like a return. It’s a “previously on” introduction to a brand new season, just in case you missed what happened last time. As a result, that sample-reversing beat starts to feel like a mutant coda, not an opening salvo. All the while, the track builds and builds, with the beat gathering momentum, or at least taking up more space. After each verse, it seems more fleshed out, becoming thicker and more present, but still, the backwards main ingredient swerves around the drum pattern, which is propulsive and undeniably forward-facing. The two temporal directions box each other, ducking and diving, mirroring each other. There’s this strange sense that, although this is the intro, it is one half of a rhyming palindrome.
“How much time is this nigga spendin’ on the intro?
Lately I’ve been feelin’ like Guy Pearce in Memento.”
Does this sounds familiar? Maybe not yet. It is as if Drake knows the importance of an intro, of a first line. Forget the singles and the hooks. It’s those first few seconds of the album that are going to stick in your brain, no matter how amorphous they are. He knows it’s that first reversed sample that will act like a Proustian trigger for now and from now on. This is a future classic, Drake seems to say, and you’re gonna long for that moment when you first heard this, so let’s savour it for a while. Six minutes, to be exact.
“How much time is this nigga spendin’ on the intro?”
How much time is it gonna take for you to never forget this moment? The song takes its name from a perfume by Tom Ford. Smell is the scent that binds itself most firmly to memory, of course, and this is one decadent bottle of future nostalgia. If the coding of longevity into new content is now a music industry staple, Drake pioneered it for the streaming era. Like turning up to a job interview in your best threads when there are so many candidates to choose from, it’s less about a good first impression and more about ensuring you’re remembered. Drake knows that. He’s maybe even a little insecure about it. He seems to mourn the false construction of an event. So many of his songs are hedonistic laments. Yeah, this party might be “unforgettable”, but I’m barely present enough to enjoy it and commit it to memory. “Party hauntology”, Fisher called it. So many of music’s name-checked substances help us to forget. This is an album that wants to remember and be remembered.
But perhaps “Tuscan Leather” is also a comment on the process of writing itself? In what way does Drake feel like Guy Pearce, exactly? Does he suffer from short-term memory loss, or is it more that he recognises how the very process of writing an album / a book / a life is about inscribing fragments, clues, waypoints for yourself, as if there’s a future self trying to be born, leaving breadcrumbs for you, secret messages that you have to put together, just as Drake is doing for the listener over the course of his six-minute preamble. We might argue that’s how so many of the biggest names in music make albums these days. Look at Kanye, seizing every moment, picking up tracks and samples and people, all of whom he brings together like raw materials. Every encounter — sonic or otherwise — becomes a potential piece of the puzzle. Things aren’t planned from the start — this is a process, unfolding in real time, and you’re about to hear the outcome. Maybe that’s why “Tuscan Leather” feels like an outro in reverse. Though introducing the project to the listener, it was probably the last thing recorded, just as the introduction of a book is so often the last thing written. It’s a survey, letting the newcomer know what to expect, as you sign off and let it go.
Jean-Francois Lyotard once wrote that producing “a book means only one thing: that you’re fed up with this approach, this horizon, this tone, these readings.” (Fisher certainly seemed done with hauntology after the publication of Ghosts.) A book is a culmination of fragmentary thoughts, undertaken in search of some unknown thing. “There was a horizon sketched, uncertain.” Sometimes, those fragments see the light of day — they are inchoate attempts to prefigure something that has not yet fully emerged. “Nevertheless, you collect all of those attempts and you publish them as a book.” You write a book, you make an album, you direct a film — “you do it to get it over with.”
The final section of Maurice Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation is titled “The Absence of the Book”. It is an investigation into “the neutral, the fragmentary”. He begins with an end — Arthur Rimbaud’s “final” work.
Having scandalised much of the literary world as an anarchistic poet who broke all the rules, and much more besides, Rimbaud famously had an affair with Paul Verlaine. Verlaine was a drunk and an abuser, but a poet that Rimbaud admired, and they travelled to London together to immerse themselves in culture, in each other, and in their shared compulsion to write. But the two writers were seemingly only attached to each other because their spirals of destruction exerted a similar gravitational pull. Like two black holes caught in each other’s orbit, the affair ended with Verlaine taking pot shots at Rimbaud with his revolver. Following Verlaine’s arrest, they went their separate ways forever and, to the shock of the literary world, Rimbaud, the archetypical enfant terrible, never wrote another thing.
Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New Yorker, argues that
This sordid emotional cataclysm surely goes some way toward explaining Rimbaud’s desire for a new life: it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps for the first time, he realized that deranging his and other people’s senses could have serious and irreversible consequences.
But for Blanchot, this is not a retreat but an owning up to the life one has lived, or perhaps a way to at least forget that his has ended — “for one who wishes to bury his memory and his gifts, it is still literature that offers itself as ground and as forgetting.” Writers write their own stories and can rewrite their own histories. Inscriptions, poems, scars — they’re not memories but signifiers preloaded. How does an injury and a trauma become a battle scar? You renarrate it. Guy Pearce is trapped in the templexity that results. He awakes each day, remembering nothing, covered in inscriptions, which he sets about deciphering. He feels like he is at the beginning, but the end is already a foregone conclusion. He’s already written the book. Now he’s simply rereading what he’s written.
Though we like to think that Rimbaud never wrote another thing. He was more like Guy Pearce in Memento than we might like to think. Verlaine was his Joe Pantoliano. Perhaps he saw, in Verlaine, an archetype — the great Symbolist was a trigger-happy poet, a manipulator, an opportunist. Though he implored his fellow writers to “Keep away from the murderous Sharp Saying, Cruel Wit, and Impure Laugh”, he loaded his gun with worse things than that. Rimbaud, in response, turned Verlaine’s bullet-poetry on himself. (Camus described his abstention from poetry as a kind of “spiritual suicide”.)
But he did not die, he simply stopped becoming. That is not to say his work was forsaken or he set about renouncing his past life. He simply never wrote anything new. As Blanchot notes, even when Rimbaud was not writing, he took an interest in what he had written; “going back over the paths he has traced, he keeps them open as a possibility of communication with his friends.” After the publication of A Season in Hell, his “final” work, Rimbaud sought to publish his Illuminations — a compilation of sorts, written prior to his fallout with Verlaine, but reconsidered and reworked for years afterwards. These were his inscriptions, written in the midst of a trauma and later deciphered to find the essence of a life lived within. Some critics dismiss them as a failure, but in his own work he found the shadows of a mystery he wanted most to solve. He tried to excavate this errant and anarchic self, a mature voice trying to distill the fire of adolescence without snuffing it out. Did he succeed? Even after the Illuminations were posthumously published, they were seen as incomplete. Soon, the mythic temporality of the poems themselves were called into question. How can we say they were written “before” A Season in Hell if the work was not done on them until long afterwards (and, even then, was arguably never finished)? Blanchot argues that,
Even if written afterward, the prose poems belong to a time that is “anterior,” the time particular to art that the one who writes would have done with: “No more words” — a prophetic being, seeking by every means a future and seeking it on the basis of the end already come.
Though he stopped writing, Rimbaud was newly immersed in the art of literature. Not the writing of experience and poetry as a gesture on the cusp of the present itself, but the organisation of the past as a future yet to come. This was the shape of poetry after the end; beyond the fin de siècle.
Blogs are not written with books in mind. If books were in mind, we would not blog. But there comes a time when the material collated, accumulated, stored, suggests to oneself that there are threads to be entangled and rope to be made. The question is, when do you stop blogging? When do you say no more words and set about the thankless and withering task of drawing a line under the past in order to produce a future already written? When does one announce that one is no longer speaking and thinking and instead becoming the true master of words already said?
For Blanchot, “the affirmation of the end is anticipatory and prematurely announces a new hour”. The book is just such an announcement, but never on time. It is too much in time to ever be on it. It is the “speech of the turning where, in a vertiginous manner, time turns”. By comparison to the finality of the book, poetry is quantum, dead and alive, zombified, reified but not inert, the corpse of speech lying in wait for a mouth that might reanimate it, beckon it forwards. A poetry reading is a séance. “I was creating … the ghosts of future nocturnal luxury”, Rimbaud writes. Was he a genius? Only in stopping. That way the spirit, the genie, was not exorcised.
But books, too, are never over. That is why no one should ever write too many of them. “One book overlays another, one life another — a palimpsest where what is below and what is above change according to the measure taken, each in turn constituting what is still the unique original.” All books revolve around a centre, for Blanchot — “the needle, the point of secret pain that … harries with haste without pause.” Books are interruptions in writings; the recorded minutes of an infinite conversation. Poetry is writing interrupted before it can ever truly begin. Poetry is an intro, always arrested, before the laborious process of literature takes over. It is pure essence, bottled; a fine perfume, condensing on glass.
What are blogs? Nothing so romantic and ethereal, but they still capture that thrust, that life force from which writing emerges and which is hard to stop. Maybe if poetry is perfume, a blog is a sneeze.
What was it Burroughs said about the word-virus?