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  • Veerword:In Lieu of a Preface
  • Nicholas Royle

What does it mean to veer—especially in the open, unfinished form of the adjectival or present participle, veering? How does it work, not just in the context of people, horses, Galapagos turtles, and other life forms, or machines such as cars and aircraft, winds and stars, memory and desire, internal and external, psychical and phenomenal, but also in words, in the thought that language itself is veering?

When I was working on Veering: A Theory of Literature (2011), I didn't really know what I was doing or where I was going. I was borne by the sense—as Jacques Derrida evokes it in his wonderfully strange text "Telepathy"—of a word "that was searching for me, it had the initiative, according to me" (226). William Watkin had invited me to a conference at Brunel University, London, in 2004, to address the subject of "contemporary writing environments." That was when I first started dreaming about the French virer (to turn, to veer) that is curled up, apparently asleep, in the word environment.

Veering was some years in the making. The chapter that developed out of the talk at Brunel, "On Critical and Creative Writing," ended up—like "A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic" (Bartleby 22)—adrift somewhere in the middle. I remain uncertain about the sub-title. The book was intended, among other things, to provide a different way of thinking about the concept of the environment, about environmentalism and "environmentality." Happily, this is how it has been read by some, for example by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, under the aegis of "veer ecology." But Veering is also, at heart, a book about that increasingly neglected, vulnerable yet persistent thing called literature.

There is no veering, and no literature, without a thinking of the uncanny. That was another driving force in the book: to engage with the imaginative strangeness and the non-anthropocentric nature of veering—since veering is not confined to humans—and to attempt to sketch an economy of the uncanny. Indispensable to this are the writings of Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence. It didn't occur to me to venture a portmanteau, such as Melawrence or Lawlville, [End Page 29] but the book is very much a veering about (of and with) their writings—alone and together.

In years to come, perhaps, the ways in which the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze emerges out of such a portmanteau will be more clearly appreciated. Deleuze didn't need to advance ideas about lines of flight or becoming-animal or deterritorialization in Melville. Lawrence had already done so. As Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature:

Melville has the strange, uncanny magic of sea-creatures, and some of their repulsiveness. He isn't quite a land animal. There is something slithery about him. Something always half-seas-over. In his life they said he was mad—or crazy. He was neither mad nor crazy. But he was over the border. He was half a water animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships.


[…] [N]ever was a man so passionately filled with the sense of vastness and mystery of life which is non-human. He was mad to look over our horizons. Anywhere, anywhere out of our world. To get away. To get away, out!

To get away, out of our life. To cross a horizon into another life. No matter what life, so long as it is another life.

Away, away from humanity. To the sea. The naked salt, elemental sea. To go to sea, to escape humanity.


The "superiority of Anglo-American literature," as Deleuze wittily calls it in his brilliant essay of that title, has to do with the veering he finds above all in Melville and Lawrence, in Lawrence's reading of Melville, and in what Melville gives Lawrence. Lawrence has something of the strange, uncanny magic of the non-human creature in turn. He finds Melville repulsive and elusive, while uneasily shifting everything about in the very terms of his description: not a land animal, but slithery, mad, crazy, neither...


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