Brief Moments Upon the Blank Page: Moyra Davey’s Index Cards

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Just over halfway through Index Cards, artist Moyra Davey’s debut essay collection, she quotes Sontag discussing Sartre’s Saint Genet, and in so doing provides a compelling description of her own project. Sontag writes:

One thing a book tries to do is show, beneath the disguise of words and causes and clothes and even grief, the skeleton and the skeleton dust to come. The author, too, like those he speaks of, is dead.

This is typical of Davey. Index Cards is as much about itself as it is about the works of Davey’s muses: Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Robert Walser, Jane Bowles, Walter Benjamin. That is to say, this collection is as much about writing as it is about reading.

Throughout, Davey, long-heralded in the art world as a photographer and filmmaker and now emerging as a writer in her own right, ruminates on the ethics of a continuous cycle of writing and reading, production and consumption. Both activities elicit profound ambivalence from the author. In the opening pages, Davey worries over her reading practice, how and what to read, and describes a restless anxiety that the ideal text is never the one in hand. She is a hungry reader, a restless and exultant one who cuts her books in half for easy reading on the train. She writes in the collection’s first pages:

I feel a little towards my books as I do towards the fridge, that I have to manage these as well, prioritize, determine which book is likely to give me the thing I need most at a given moment. But unlike with the fridge, I like to be surrounded by an excess of books, and to not even have a clear idea of what I own, to feel as though there’s a limitless store waiting to be tapped, and that I can be surprised by what I find.

More than anything, it is Davey’s reading that propels the trajectory of her days and her writing, and thus it provides the framing architecture for this collection. In “On Notes on Photography and Accident,” Davey explores Barthes’s notion of the writerly text, again reading her project through the words of her guides. The writerly text, she notes, is one that “blurs the distinction between writer and reader.” That is, Davey’s reading practice becomes more than just a central concern expressed through writing; rather, over the course of this collection, reading, for Davey, becomes writing.

As its title suggests, Index Cards strays from the traditional conception of a finished work ready-made for public consumption. Like a collection of compiled reading notes, diary entries, and reflections on questions both aesthetic and personal, Index Cards works in many ways like an index proper: an assemblage of ideas, a reference guide found in the back of a book that points to a world beyond it. These are not her creations but her findings, brief moments, thoughts and quotations that she arranges and rearranges upon the blank page.

Weary of production and consumption, Davey positions herself in a threshold between the two. What is a collector, she asks. What kind of product is a record, a note, a diary, “‘a book of quotations’”?

As Davey works through questions about what it means to create, consume, and record, Index Cards is in essence a text of ambivalence, one that questions its own nature and right to exist even as such questioning constitutes its very substance. “I am obsessed with the idea of artists and writers having a drive to produce,” Davey writes to a friend, “and the sometimes-conflict when the product may not deserve to exist.”

Davey is skeptical of her own impulse to create and ruminates on the way art-making can intercept one’s experience of “the real,” the present tense of life lived for no reason but for the sake of itself. In “Les Godesses,” again speaking through the voices of her muses, she describes a familiar dilemma faced by documentarian Louis Malle during his filming of Phantom India—a concern about the intrusion of the camera, its inhibiting of a more genuine experience with what lies before it. “At a certain point,” Davey writes, Malle “and his crew stop filming. Only then do they begin to experience the present tense, the slowness of time, and what Malle calls ‘the real.’” Davey fantasizes about the day in which she will at last have produced the thing that will release her of this curse, to be set free from the need to create.

Fittingly, Index Cards is as much about writing as it is about not writing. Again and again, Davey confesses to her inability to write, the terror of surmounting the blank page, and then, finally, of course, the agony of writing itself. Eager for company among her own pages, she dots the text with notes like, “Thomas Mann quoted by David Rieff: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for someone else.” Rather than “write,” Davey lingers at the perimeter of artistic creation; she circles it, she stalks it. She inhabits this space of hesitation, self-consciousness, and skepticism and cultivates it into a rich terrain of its own. The refusal to write, the preparation to write, becomes an entirely new form of writing.

In “RW, JG,” Davey recounts Genet’s famous 1985 interview where he “turns the camera on the crew and begins to interrogate them.” Again, Davey appears to be describing her own project. That is, like Genet, Davey turns her writing on itself. She interrogates it and exposes its construction—its skeleton, as Sontag puts it. As she reflects on the nature of her process and practice, it is the making of Index Cards that becomes its central narrative. In truth, Davey has inverted the typical structure. The work in question—the product—is never realized. Rather, it is the notes on the making of this work—an attempt at it—that become the work itself.

In the collection’s first essay, “Fifty Minutes,” the narrator is like an actor who continues to stumble upon her lines. Midway through the second sentence she wavers: “[narrator forgets her lines, begins again from the top].” She stumbles again only moments later: “[long pause; narrator again forgets her lines; off-screen voice tells her to wait five seconds and start over].” The collection enacts—even performs—its own coming into being.

Davey’s interest in process means that her text is deeply enmeshed in time, and it is time that becomes her essential subject. She does not write after time, but through it, inscribing its passing into her pages. It is in this way that Index Cards becomes suffused with a certain ambient poignancy, an awareness of the slow violence of time and its passing.

Davey does not extract her thinking from the daily. She does not tear her thoughts from the life that envelops them and from which they come, but leaves them embedded there. Wading through the mundane, Davey reveals the deep wear of time and the humiliation natural to the everyday: “6 August,” she writes at one point in “Index Cards,” “Woken by crows. Think again of l’atelier. Beautiful light and sky. Deep sleep, no drugs… Then on a park bench with Julie: sun, wrinkles, fat.”

Davey’s unaffected and plain style adds to this sense of the collection’s lucidity. Her language is stunning in its directness, its lack of artifice. It is immediate and intimate, as if Davey has miraculously collapsed the wall between thinking and writing. And yet there is a mournfulness to her gaze, a patience and humility that evokes Sontag’s idea of the author as having little left to lose. We imagine Davey on the other side of a life, relieved of the anxious egotism that terrorizes us and having at last acquired the humility and lucidity to speak clearly and truthfully. On June 4, Davey copies the following from Nadine Gordimer: “You must write as if you’re already dead.”

Still, despite Davey’s transparent and familiar style, Index Cards operates around an absence, a potentiality. October 27: “I remember why I copied down from The Soccer War: to be reminded of the book you write along the way to writing the book that never gets written.” The imagined book, like the personal history Davey grapples with sharing, remains latent, embedded in the account of its own creation. This “book to come,” as French theorist Maurice Blanchot would call it, is a specter that haunts the text. It remains palpable and yet perpetually forthcoming. Davey approaches this text endlessly. She writes towards it, around it and after it, but ultimately leaves the text itself unconsummated. This specter of the imagined book permeates the collection with a sense of profound absence and longing and magnetizes its language. Index Cards lives at the cusp of a becoming, weary of existing, and yet sustained by a desire that prevails despite itself.

Tess Michaelson is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →