The Witchcraft We Need, by Elena FerranteTranslated by Ann Goldstein

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
March 2022 Issue [Readings]

The Witchcraft We Need

Adjust

Adapted from the essay “Histories, I,” included in the collection In the Margins, which will be published this month by Europa. Translated from the Italian.

Anyone with literary ambitions knows that the motivations, both great and small, that impel the hand to write come from “real life”: the yearning to describe the pain of love, the pain of living, the anguish of death; the urgency to give voice to the humble, to strip away power and its atrocities. One morning something may shift inside me, maybe just a wrong that was done to my mother, and the “I” looks out, dying to write, and I start putting down the first lines of a story. Immediately a long tradition made up of others’ stories crowds around, stories that have moved or angered me, that resemble mine, not to mention the language of books, newspapers, films, television, songs, or a pile of tricks good for pushing “real life” into writing—all things I learned almost without noticing. It’s natural for me to insert my confused experience into that collection of formulas. And it’s a great moment. If I’m lucky, if I have some talent, sentences arrive that seem to say what I want to say just as it should be said. Then I can tell myself proudly: that’s my voice, with my voice I am describing my real life. And others will say it to me, too, and I’ll look for that cadence of mine every time, and if it doesn’t appear I’ll be afraid I’ve lost it, and if it does appear I’ll be afraid of using it up.

You hear? My, my, my. How often we repeat that possessive adjective. In fact, one first big step forward, in the matter of writing, is to discover the opposite: that what we triumphantly consider ours belongs to others. Writing is getting comfortable with everything that has already been written and in turn becoming, within the limits of one’s own dizzying, crowded individuality, writing. We mustn’t let ourselves be flattered by those who say: here’s someone with a tone of her own. Everything, in writing, has a long history behind it. Thus when I talk about my “I” who writes, I should immediately add that I’m talking about my “I” who has read. And I should emphasize that every book read carries within it a host of other writings that, consciously or inadvertently, I’ve taken in. The most serious error of the “I” who writes, the most serious naïveté, is the Robinsonian: imagining oneself, that is, as a Robinson, smug about his life on the desert island, pretending that all the odds and ends he carried off the ship haven’t contributed to his success. We remake “real life.” And as soon as we realize it, then, if we’re not cowards, we search desperately for a way to tell the genuine “real life.”

Thus writing is a cage, and we enter it right away, with our first line. It’s a problem that has been confronted with suffering, I would say with anguish, precisely by those who have worked with the most dedication and engagement. Ingeborg Bachmann, for example, insisted all her life on the effort to “speak truly.” In her Frankfurt lectures, 1959–60, she speaks of the plurality of the “I” who writes—the third lesson is entitled just that: The I Who Writes—and of the permanent risk of falsehood, in a way that for those who love literature is still needed today. An important rule figures in her fifth lecture:

We have to work hard with the bad language that we have inherited to arrive at that language which has never yet ruled, but which rules our intuition, and which we imitate.

I would place the emphasis there: we have to work hard with the bad language. I would emphasize it before offering another citation, from a 1956 interview, that struck me, and that I’ve often found useful, adapting it as I have many passages of Bachmann’s. The interviewer is asking her about the complicated, abstract language of contemporary poetry, and she says:

I believe that old images, like Mörike’s or Goethe’s, can no longer be used, that they shouldn’t be used anymore, because in our mouths they would sound false. We have to find true sentences, which correspond to the condition of our conscience and to this changed world.

You see: there’s the pressure of the changed world; there’s the conscience that records its sins; there’s a language that asks for power; there’s the “I” who writes, who intuits the language and tries to change that intuition into true sentences. But the fact is that we can’t set aside the old images, the bad language. They’re right in front of us, they exist. Where will we get new images, good language? Our writing has to work on the writing that exists—false in our mouths even if it’s Mörike’s, Goethe’s—if it wants to get what’s not there yet. Work how, though? Let’s look at one last passage from Bachmann:

Moreover quality can now and then be found in an average person’s poem, in a good short story, in an attractive, clever novel; it is not in short supply; there is certainly no lack of experts, even today, and there are flukes, or oddities, or deviant productions on the fringes that can become personal favorites of ours. And yet only a trajectory, a continuous manifestation, a mathematical constant, an unmistakable world of words, a world of characters, and a world of conflict, can prompt us to see a writer as inevitable.

It’s true, tragically true. Any of us can do something good, in writing, when the world gives us a shove, but a true writer is inevitable only when we recognize in the work a unique and unmistakable universe of words, figures, conflicts. Like Bachmann, I think it’s right to make a distinction between a beautiful poem, a good story, an attractive, clever novel by an average person, and the work of one who is inevitably an author. It’s a distinction that is fundamental for the fate of literature. But I tend to imagine, first, that the ordinary person and the extraordinary person set off from the same terrain: literary writing with its cathedrals, its country parishes, its tabernacles in dark alleys; and, second, that chance plays the same role in both the minor work and the great work. The road to Damascus isn’t as well marked as the road to revelation. It’s a road like any other on which, slogging and sweating, we may by chance become aware of another possible way.

Thus in order to devote ourselves to literary work, must we subscribe to the great scroll of writing? Yes. Writing inevitably has to reckon with other writing, and it’s from the terrain of the already written that the sentence might jump out that sets in motion a small admirable book, or the great book that displays a trajectory and constructs a unique world of words, characters, and conflicts.

If that’s true for the male “I” who writes, it’s even more so for the female. A woman who wants to write unavoidably has to deal not only with the entire literary patrimony she’s been brought up on and in virtue of which she wants to and can express herself, but also with the fact that the patrimony, by its nature, doesn’t provide true female sentences. Since I was six, my “I” made of writing has consumed writing mostly by men, considering it universal, and my own scribbling comes from it. Not only that. This female “I” brought up on male writing also has had to incorporate a kind of writing by women for women that belonged to it, was appropriate to it—writing in itself minor precisely because it was barely known by men, and considered by them something for women, that is, inessential. I mean that our “I”—the female “I” who writes—has had an arduous journey; she is still finding her way and will go on doing so indefinitely.

The challenge is to learn to use with freedom the cage we’re shut up in. It’s a painful contradiction: How can one use a cage with freedom, whether it’s a solid literary genre or established expressive habits, or even the language itself, dialect? A possible answer was Gertrude Stein’s: adapting and at the same time deforming. Maintain distance: yes, but only to then get as close as possible. Avoid the pure outburst? Yes, but then burst out. Aim at consistency? Yes, but then be inconsistent. Make a polished, highly polished, draft, until the words no longer encounter friction with their meanings? Yes, but then leave it rough. Overload the genres with conventional expectations? Yes, but to disappoint them. That is, inhabit the forms and then deform everything that doesn’t contain us entirely, that can’t in any way contain us.

I think that if literature written by women wants to have its own writing of truth, the work of each of us is needed. For a long time we’ll have to give up the distinction between those who make only average books and those who create inevitable verbal universes. Against the bad language that historically doesn’t provide a welcome for our truth, we have to confuse, fuse our talents. We can do it. And in connection with this, I’d like to reflect on a Dickinson poem:

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day—

I believe that the pure and simple joining of the female “I” to History changes History. The History of the first line, the one that hangs the witch’s work on the gallows—note, something important has happened—is not, can no longer be, the History of the second, the one with which we find, around us, all the witchcraft we need.


More from