Kinetic Melody

Books like Gabriel Josipovici’s Writing and the Body reassure me of the fact that so long as there is a culture of readers, there will always be a place for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or perhaps the bricks-and-mortar used-book store. Writing and the Body was published in 1982 and has long since gone out of print, and I doubt I ever would have known of it, much less read it, if not for the fact that I serendipitously came upon it one day in Half-Price Books (where I in fact bought it for considerably less than half the list price). While it’s true that Google Book has come a long way in making the Internet a place where great, lost books are discoverable, it still has nothing on a moderately sized used-book store stocked by bibliophiles.

The four lectures-turned-essays collected in Writing and the Body are difficult to summarize; they are essays that embody writing as exploration, in other words essays clearly written by an author who pursues his line of inquiry with a true rigor and respect for nuance. They’re essays that would never diminish themselves by attempting to articulate anything so pat as a conclusion, instead constellating around certain inexpressible questions and ideas that they try to define by uncovering the borders of.

Insofar as they’re about any one thing, the essays are about what has been called “kinetic melody.” In the book’s final essay–on notes Kafka would scribble on slips of paper to communicate as he lay dying of tuberculosis and unable to speak–Josipovici takes up the relationship of thoughts to the actual physical act of writing (which has indeed changed quite a bit in the 30 years since he delivered this lecture). Josipovici writes that

at basis all writing is the metamorphosis of the mechanical movement of the hand into the infinite variety which constitutes letters, words, sentences.

And then he quotes the neuropsychologist Aleksandr R. Luria from the book The Man with a Shattered World (misattributed in the book as from The Man With the Shattered Skull) who wrote about “the case of a young soldier who had part of his brain shot away int he way and spent the next twenty-five years laboriously trying to put together the pieces of his shattered world.”

Josipovici goes on to write that

[the soldier’s] extraordinary account of his attempts, beautifully edited and commented upon by Luria, show as does nothing else I know what a miracle human thought, memory, and language are, though we take them so much for granted. Especially interesting is Luria’s account of how Zasetsky was finally enabled to write when Luria persuaded him to stop worrying about the formation of individual letters, which was causing him terribly difficulty and anxiety, and instead to trust his pen, so to speak. “Kinetic melody” is how Luria described our normal habit of writing, and that beautiful phrase sums up a great deal of what I have been trying to say.

Kinetic melody is a wonderful phrase that connotes just what happens when we enter into these writing and reading states where it is possible to embody our thoughts on paper, or to recreate someone else’s embodied thoughts in our head. Josipovici’s book is a constantly intriguing meditation on the fact of communication via the written word, and many of the interesting consequences that arise from the performance of this act and the many artifacts it has left behind in our world.


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Just a note to this Scott: Writing & the Body was reissued in 1992 as part of “Text & Voice: Essays 1981-1991″ (which may also be out of print too), and Kinetic Melodies are discussed further in the 1996 Yale UP volume “Touch” in 1996.

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