Writing Life No. 5: An interview with Robert Desjarlais

This article is part of the series:
Photo by Robert Desjarlais

“British poet W.H Auden suggested that true poets are those who like ‘hanging around words listening to what they say.”

Desjarlais, 2011, Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chess Board,15.

At the Paris Institute of Advanced Studies, where Robert is currently a research fellow, it is 3:30 p.m. We meet online to discuss how to write ‘intensities’ and the highs and lows of nesting in the house of being: language. The morning sun is pouring into my kitchen through the French doors behind me. I fiddle with the blinds so as to not blind Robert. (Normally, I would leave them open). Like him, I find that when the sun pours in, my words pour out. As the sky becomes subdued, so too does my will to write. This, Robert tells me, is not uncommon. It is 9:30 a.m. in Toronto.

Michelle Charette: The photo that you sent me of your writing space… is that where you are right now, in Paris?

Robert Desjarlais: That is where my residence is – the desk at my apartment at the Cité Universitaire. I’ve been writing there in the mornings, when I have time for it, since I arrived in Paris a few weeks ago. I haven’t yet gotten into a flow of writing here because I’ve just been getting settled. It’s a very nice space. Nice and calm, and I like seeing that tree.

MC: Do you find that writing in a space that you’re not used to is challenging?

RD: I’ve actually gotten used to moving around so much in the last couple of years that I’m quite used to writing in many different places. I’ve gotten used to a peripatetic style of writing, moving from café to café and finding an hour or two in different places. As long as I can be in a place where I’m not hearing so much English. If I’m writing in a café in Denmark and people are speaking Danish, that’s fine for me. If Ihear English at the next table over, it interrupts my flow of thought. Some people don’t like working in cafés, but I enjoy it. I like being in that social space.

MC: Tell me a bit about your writing process.

RD: I prefer to write in the mornings. Usually soon after I wake up. My mind is fresh then. I usually don’t work much at all in the evenings.

One formal system I use at times is what’s been called the “unit system.” I learned this method from Lisa Stevenson and Eduardo Kohn, who learned it while taking a workshop on how to write PhD theses when they were at UC Berkeley. A unit is an hour, and you write very directly and intensively for 45 minutes. Then you take a 15-minute break. You just let your mind rest during that time, and then start again on another 45-minute stretch of focused writing, and so on. Where I live in New York, and am able to use this method when writing, I’ll write for 45 minutes, and then go for a walk through the neighborhood and come back in 15 minutes, and then delve into another 45 minutes of writing. A good day of writing might hold three or four units. I’ve told friends and colleagues about this method. Those who’ve tried it find it very productive too. I never really think so much about, ‘Oh, I need to get four pages done today’. If I put the time in, then I know I’m working towards something.

That whole romantic dream of having an inspiration at 1:00 in the morning and then writing… that doesn’t happen, not for me at least.

MC: Letting the mind rest can be difficult. Are there any tricks that you have for doing that?

RD: Yeah, I actually use a meditation timer on my laptop or on my computer. It’s set up for 45 minutes, and it has a nice gentle gong at the beginning. Very peaceful. And for those next 15 minutes of rest, if you can’t go for a walk, just look out the window. Sometimes I just tidy up my apartment. There is something in that little pause that is helpful.

MC: Does being a photographer impact your writing practice?

RD: I think there is an affinity between photography and writing. Often when I’m writing, I try to write intensities. I’m not necessarily writing an argument in the classic sense. I do try to develop a conceptual framework, but I feel like my writing moves from intensity to intensity. In the book I wrote called Subject to Death, each section is an intensity about a particular theme. A good photograph is a kind of intensity through visual means. In writing, I move from one intensity to another. I’m usually drawing from very tangible things that are out there, and I think, as with a good photograph, there’s often a clear sense of detail.

MC: Could you say a bit more about this idea of intensities?

RD: Intensities relate to what Deleuze and Guattari called rhizomes and rhizomatic thought, which they found are counter to what they called “arboreal” structures of thought – which tend to be very logical, as is found in classical philosophy. Instead of such a more formal way of thinking and writing, my writing moves and shifts from one intensity to another. When Deleuze and Guattari are writing, they don’t use the word ‘meaning’ so much. They often say, “let’s look at the intensity of something”, which is more about the energy of a given phenomenon. When I’m writing, there is often that. A nomadic progression of thinking. A lot of my writing is almost segmental, moving from theme to theme.

MC: You write that ethnographic writing has the quality of never being finished. It never reaches complete summation. I wonder if photographs have this quality (of being finished). Are photographs ever complete?

RD: They are, but the temporality is unfinished. You don’t know what happened in the next moment. Photographs are a snapshot of a certain moment of time, but often with good photographs we wonder what happened before and after. There is an open-ended quality to both. Similarly, when a book is published, it’s finished, it’s set in print. But there is an ongoingness to the subject matter and the lives that are being portrayed.

MC: In Counterplay, you say that only through writing the book did you come to appreciate what anthropology can offer the modern world. This suggests to me that there is something generative that happens when one puts words down on a page. Maybe in the Heideggerian sense. Scholars often think about how to write pedagogically for others, but not for themselves. What else has writing taught you?

RD: Was it Heidegger who said that language is the house of being?

MC: Yes, that’s right!

RD: Writing is about getting a fine-tuned sense of the flow of language. Poets must have a similar orientation. Or musicians, when they are composing or playing music. Inhabiting the house of language helps us to understand the world. That’s one of the great things about anthropology, it’s so holistic and integrative. Yesterday in my seminar we were talking about thick description. Well, there’s a kind of thickness to living, too. Paying attention to things in the world is not just a scholarly mode or field, it’s a kind of existence. Writing is a kind of prayer.

MC: The moment of finding the perfect word for exactly what it is that you’re wanting to describe.

RD: Exactly. Sometimes I joke and say that I get a kind of high from writing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. He says that when we’re immersed in positive challenging activities, such as writing, rock climbing, or playing chess, it can be very pleasurable.

MC: When something clicks on the page… that high seems like a different (but related) sensation than when you write something for someone else and they understand it. These are distinct experiences.

RD: I agree. One is more intersubjective; it’s about communication and understanding.

MC: You might say that Counterplay was a book for yourself, and your research in Nepal is an intersubjective project. How does writing about chess (and the chess board) as a field site compare to writing about north-central Nepal?

RD: I think it was easier to write about chess because it’s within my own lifeworld. I can relate to it directly. When I’m working in Nepal, the language and cultural sensibilities are so different. It’s much more of an interpretive challenge: trying to get it right and write something that people that I work with in Nepal can relate to and say is a clear authentic portrait of their lives. Nepal was a very different interpretive endeavor. The chess board is itself a very bounded and clear-cut domain. In some ways Counterplay is too. Nepal is a terrain that takes a lot of effort to write about in effective ways. 

MC: Your writing is very fluid, full of motion. You move from personal anecdotes to philosophical musings to more heuristically aimed writing (such as tracing etymologies and histories). Your approach seems to involve mining various disciplinary norms and approaches. How do you do this? Does this occur naturally to you, or is it procedural? 

RD: A metaphor for my writing is the Baroque. Usually with Baroque art, architecture, and music there is a multiplicity of themes that are constantly being interwoven, and they take on different formations in space and time. A lot of my writing does have that multiplicity; different strands, different ways of thinking about things. My task as a writer is to try and integrate them in an interesting way.

I read a lot more literature than I do anthropology or ethnographies. Everything from classics to contemporary works to creative non-fiction. When you talk about shifting from one theme to another, I think literature does that a lot too.

MC: Absolutely! One of the questions that I didn’t include for today was something like, ‘Okay, you would have been a novelist if not an academic, right?’

RD: I have this fantasy of being seventeen or eighteen years old again and really stepping into writing. I think that when I was around nineteen, when I was in college, I was reading Dostoevsky a lot. I thought ‘I’m going to write a Dostoevskian novel’, but I never did. I wish I had. Looking back, I think that if I just wrote slowly through time, something would have come together.

MC: When you write about non-western notions of illness, such a ‘soul loss’ and shamanic rites as a system of healing (divination, demonology, the exorcist ‘throwing’ of ghosts and witches, etc.,) do you concern yourself at all with palatability? 

RD: As in digestible?

MC: As in unsettling themes, particularly for pro-science or Western audiences.

RD: I don’t really concern myself with that. Writing is an interpretive endeavor. I like to have an edge to my writing. I don’t want everything to be peachy keen and wonderful. That edge can be unsettling for people, but it’s something that I think is important to have in writing.

MC: You sent me a document from a talk you gave in Copenhagen on ethnographic writing. In it, you write: “a certain madness to the writing at times”. I’d love to hear more about that.

RD: This concern for a “certain madness” wasn’t really in my work until three or four years ago. Writing can be irrational, or obsessional; when the subject loses its coherence, her knowing, his awareness of everything. I’m talking about the enlightenment subject, who is supposed to be very knowledgeable, very informed, rational and sane. I have tried to explore a narrative mode that is more obsessional. I think that comes through well in The Blind Man, in which I write about photography and phantasms in France. It is very much written from a subjective, first-person voice. I’m not sure how other anthropologists would find that.

I do find that in anthropology, the ‘I’ of the narrator is almost always taken as the ‘I’ of the scholar. And that’s different from anyone writing a novel, where the ‘I’ is that of a narrator. Do you see the distinction? I’d really like to have a writing style that uses the ‘I’ of the narrator rather than this self-referential index back to the self of the scholar. I can imagine someone saying “Well, you’re saying this in your book”, and my coy response would be: “I’m not saying it, the narrator is”. Can’t that narrator be more obsessional and irrational at times? Or desirous even.

MC: Yes! Fascinating. Instead of writing as the scholar, writing from the perspective of a character that you are developing.

RD: Exactly. And a character who can be voyeuristic at times, non-conventional, transgressive. All these things are very dangerous for the ‘I’ of the scholar. But why not explore this more?

MC: Who inspired your writing?

RD: Many post-structuralist thinkers, for one: Derrida, Deleuze, Blanchot, Barthes. Levinas has been important to me. I was introduced to anthropology by reading Clifford Geertz, those beautiful essays that he wrote. And then I discovered Michael Taussig and found a lot of his writing interesting. Michael Jackson, Angela Garcia, Veena Das, Hugh Raffles. And then writers have inspired a lot of my work: Proust, Beckett, Virginia Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Assia Djebar. Sometimes when I’m writing I feel like I’m invoking the voices and specters of these writers.

MC: Now that is very Derridean.

RD: Yeah. Sometimes I think, ‘How would Veena Das write this paragraph?’ Or Proust? Proust was truly a phenomenologist in his approach. So, really, it’s a whole haunted house of writers that I’m drawing from. They are friendly ghosts.

MC: Speaking of ghosts…. One has to imagine that writing on the topic of death and dying poses unique challenges. What are they?

RD: I think it’s the immersion into a very dark and somber theme. When I was writing the book on death it was getting to me, which I convey in some sections, particularly at the end. I was just thinking about death all the time. I really get affected by what I’m writing. I start picking up the themes involved, and they’re in my body. I had to take breaks from that book several times.

MC: You carry the weightiness of the themes around with you.

RD: Exactly. And especially when we’re writing books, it can be two or three years of writing, so that becomes the mode. The other day someone told me that I have an issue with death! [Laughs] That’s not the way I would phrase it… I think we all have an issue with death. Those who don’t write about it have an issue with death as well.

MC: One final question. What should ethnographic writing accomplish?

RD: I don’t think there’s a single thing. It should somehow convey elements of the world and people’s lives. That is the most important thing. It should convey what is going on with them, on that particular level, but also the different forces that shape those lives. What anthropology can really do in ethnographic writing is combine the narrative qualities of good literature with the conceptual dimensions of good philosophy. The thinking as well as the portrayal. I think that’s something that is quite suited and unique to anthropology. That is a good thing to aim for and work towards.

Michelle’s room with a view

Michelle Charette is a PhD student at York University in the Science and Technology Studies graduate program. Her research focuses on the oft-reductive explanations of amorphous health conditions, specifically, so-called psychosomatic illnesses and forms of chronic pain.

Robert Desjarlais is an anthropologist and writer from Massachusetts, United States. He has taught anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College since 1994. He has conducted research in several distinct settings, ranging from the Nepal Himalayas to Queens, New York, and from chess clubs in Manhattan to a shelter for the homeless in downtown Boston.

About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first installment of this series is composed of 8 interviews which will appear weekly in Somatosphere from early December. We openly invite further contributions to the series to appear in 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.

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