Spurious on Blanchot:
I think reading Blanchot is elective; it matters that you are claimed by his work and that it becomes necessary to read further. But claimed by what? Blanchot's literary critical and philosophical writings are secondary, in his own estimation, to his fiction with respect to the central movement of his thought. How do we read the fiction, lacking as it does conventional plotting or characterisation? How do we understand that peculiarly tenseless time upon which it seems to give, and that is also brought forward in Blanchot's theoretical writings as it is claimed to occur in the fiction, the philosophy of others - and eventually, as happening in the very relation to the human Other as it is the condition of our experience of the world?
Fiction and reflection assume, with Blanchot, a peculiar unity, but one whose sense cannot be given outside their textual performance, as Kierkegaard supposes he can provide his own work when he writes The Point of View of My Work as an Author. There is a sense that the divide between fiction and theory does not count for Blanchot, and in which everything he has written is by way of narrating an experience whose theoretical elaboration must always be tentative, insofar as it must pass through language (a point that may well hold for Kierkegaard too, placing the meaning of his work outside the retrospective claims he made for the aims of his authorship), and language gives itself to be experience in the manner Blanchot seeks to answer in the general endeavour (a movement of thought, of research) to which his fiction and his theoretical writings belong.
Those of you who have read Kevin Hart's superb introduction to Maurice Blanchot's Political Writings, 1953-1993 (translated by Zakir Paul) will know what an excellent writer he is, and what an incisive reader.
So, just in time for Christmas (well, if you're very fast), I've just spotted that Hart has edited a new Blanchot-related title: Clandestine Encounters: Philosophy in the Narratives of Maurice Blanchot – "Maurice Blanchot is perhaps best known as a major French intellectual of the twentieth century: the man who countered Sartre’s views on literature, who affirmed the work of Sade and Lautréamont, who gave eloquent voice to the generation of ’68, and whose philosophical and literary work influenced the writing of, among others, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault. He is also regarded as one of the most acute narrative writers in France since Marcel Proust..."
In Clandestine Encounters, Kevin Hart has gathered together major literary critics in Britain, France, and the United States to engage with Blanchot’s immense, fascinating, and difficult body of creative work. Hart’s substantial introduction usefully places Blanchot as a significant contributor to the tradition of the French philosophical novel, beginning with Voltaire’s Candide in 1759, and best known through the works of Sartre. Clandestine Encounters considers a selection of Blanchot’s narrative writings over the course of almost sixty years, from stories written in the mid-1930s to L’instant de ma mort (1994). Collectively, the contributors’ close readings of Blanchot’s novels, récits, and stories illuminate the close relationship between philosophy and narrative in his work while underscoring the variety and complexity of these narratives.
Interesting arty stuff going on at Shandy Hall in Coxwold, near York, which is the house where Laurence Sterne wrote The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (information below from the Independent; exhibition includes work by my dear friend Nick Thurston)...
This autumn, the gallery opened The Perverse Library, the first exhibition of conceptual writing to go on show in this country. It claims to be an emerging art form, a fusion of art and literature, influenced by the first artists' books by Ed Ruscha and Sol LeWitt, as much as by writers such as Sterne, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. "Conceptual writing seeks to ask what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion?" says Professor Craig Dworkin, a leading figure in the movement.
"Conceptual writing is a necessary thing in our culture where we feel language is impoverished by everyday use," says the artist Professor Pavel Büchler, of Manchester Metropolitan University. "It repairs the damage done by bureaucratic and managerial language. Conceptual writing keeps open possibilities in language."
Conceptual writing is a computer program by artist Simon Morris, which randomly reorders the entire text of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. Or, it is a book by Nick Thurston in which the author has removed all the text from a book by Maurice Blanchot, except notes he made in the margin. In the centre of the gallery stands a bookcase. It is made of Perspex and the transparent shelving makes the books appear to float, hence its title: The Invisible Bookshelf. The books on show were chosen in response to the library of Professor Dworkin. His latest book, titled The Perverse Library, is a list of every book that he owns, all 2,427 of them. He writes that the books we own reveal less about us than the books that we don't own and that a library must have what he calls "dynamic tensions". A random assortment of books is not a library.
The Perverse Library, Shandy Hall, Coxwold, York (01347 868465; laurencesternetrust.org.uk) to 31 October.
Jonathan Littell has written a commentary on a Maurice Blanchot piece that was itself first published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1958 (and later incorporated into L'espace littéraire). Littell's piece was written for the 100th anniversary issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française, published in February 2009. It was translated by Charlotte Mandell and, wonderfully, appears on This Space:
So what is this reading that Maurice Blanchot invites us to enact here, at once light and serious, a "joyful, wild dance," fundamental (founding the work) in its very insouciance? The first thing one could say about it is that it seems to us inseparable from his conception of writing as experience. "The story [le récit] is not the relation of the event, but that event itself," he wrote around the same time (in The Song of the Sirens, reprinted in The Book to Come). Writing does not describe, does not relate, does not signify, it does not represent a thing, existing in the world of men or even only in the world of the imagination; it is neither more nor less than "the test of its own experience" (more...)
In his recent post "against science", Steve Mitchelmore writes of this tendency. He notes that Jonathan Gottschall's attempted "scientific" refutation of Barthes' notion of "the death of the author" "relies on a reduction of a complex essay to a 'statement'". Later in the post, Steve quotes at length from Blanchot's "The Essential Solitude" -- at length, he says, because:Blanchot's writing - its unique and relentless patience - is performative rather than didactic. Neither information or wisdom is being imparted but, as Barthes says, it is writing "borne by a pure gesture of inscription" tracing "a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins".Performative rather than didactic: I quote this in order to help myself keep this in mind. When I've spoken of my difficulty with these texts, I realize that this is the primary difficulty I've had. I want to force the text to teach me something, as an authority. I want it to impart information, for this is the mode of writing I have been accustomed to. But if Blanchot's writing is not giving me information, if it is performative, how do I approach it?
Via Spurious (where else?)
He was, said Derrida, involved 'body and soul' in the Events. Michel Leiris, in his journals, laughed at him: what was he doing running along with the students? Couldn't he see it would lead nowhere? Levinas, his closest friend, wrote, without identifying him, of an eminent man of letters who "participated in the May Events in a total but lucid manner." "Blanchot is not an ordinary man, a man whom you can meet in the street," says Levinas in an interview. But there he was on the streets (more...)
Blanchot translator Lydia Davis interviewed by Jason McBride at the Poetry Foundation:
Many of Lydia Davis’s best stories involve problems of language, its insufficiencies and irregularities, how lives can be undone—or remade—by a preposition or pronoun. A sound. Punctuation. Misunderstandings pivot on the misapplication of an adjective or the absence of one. Quite literally, tenses make people tense. The page-long story “A Mown Lawn” was included in Best American Poetry 2001. Its opening lines: “She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom, the beginning of the name of what she was—a woman.”
Davis is almost as well known for her translations (of, among others, books by Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust) as for her fiction. William Gass has described translation as reading (“of the best, the most essential, kind”), but for Davis it’s the obverse, a kind of writing: “everything but the invention.” The work of translation is indeed, on one hand, very Davisian labor, a way of creating and engaging with entirely new problems of language as well as new solutions (more ...)
Over on This Space, Charlotte Mandell translates Emilie Colombani's review of Maurice Blanchot's Chroniques littéraires du Journal des Débats Avril 1941-août 1944:
There is however no rhetorical posturing in Blanchot, nothing even that could signal that exclusive and rather outmoded cult of "art for art’s sake." If, like Valéry’s Monsieur Teste (about which one of the most brilliant readings ever offered can be found in this collection), Blanchot is more fascinated by the workings of the mind than by its results, he is not one of those Neo-Parnassians who live idly remote from the preoccupations of the city. For him as for Sartre, although in a very different way, literature can only be a matter of "communication," yet in the noblest and strictest sense of the word. Every work forms with its audience a dialectic relationship where the distinction between essential and non-essential is never simple.
In his discussion of finitude leading to the bad infinite and finally to the true infinite, Hegel was interested in articulating the continuity of discourse in the move from, in the words of Blanchot, "undeveloped interiority to the exteriorization that alienates it, and from this alienation that exteriorizes up to an accomplished and reinteriorized plenitude." It is here where many have been concerned with the possibility of the other being reduced to the same.
If this kinda thing makes you thrill with excitement -- and it does me! -- then get more via Aufhebung.
I've just mentioned Lydia Davis's essay The Problem in Summarising Blanchot (forthcoming in Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red [Sylph Editions]). Well, summarising the great thinker does not seem to be a problem for Steve This Space Mitchelmore in his fine essay Always beginning again: Blanchot on Beckett.
Steve's essay is a response to the "gross caricature" of Blanchot's reading of Beckett to be found in Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution. I've read Casanova's book and I enjoyed it. Whilst I disagreed with her take on Blanchot, I think her target was actutally those unnamed, academic critics who adopt a sub-Heideggerian approach to reading Beckett inspired by -- but poor parodies of -- Blanchot's deep engagements. I sensed that her beef was more with those who mimicked Blanchot but, for sure, she blames Blanchot for the "mysticism" and the "hierophantic glosses" he has, she avers, inspired.
Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution starts with Casanova's wonderfully clear reading of Worstward Ho. Casanova is saying, here, that those who run too quickly towards the idea of Beckett as inpenetrable or, worse, as some kind of prophet, who consider him to be sui generis, handicap themselves before they even start reading. With close attention to the text, and a bit of historical context, even Beckett's most difficult works can be read and understood without recourse to what she would think of as Blanchot-inspired mumbo-jumbo about Being. Certainly, Casanova herself shows that the fine art of close reading is all we need to understand any work and I would commend her book for that reason alone. Philosophy needs to take a back seat whilst we concentrate on what is in front of us on the page.
As Steve states, however, Casanova woefully misreads Blanchot. He isn't a mystic, he is a harsh realist, the most demanding of readers, who knows that we read and write in the face of death. In fact, it is mysticism to pretend otherwise:
In The Unnamable, we continue without "characters under the reassuring protection of their personal name" or even with a story, it's just "phantoms without substance, empty images revolving mechanically around an empty center that the nameless 'I' occupies". This is "experience lived under the threat of the impersonal". Surely this is straightforward explication of a text; nothing hierophantic at all?
Indeed: "straightforward explication of a text" and done as only Blanchot can. Once we have read a text, however, as closely and as carefully as Casanova herself reads Worstward Ho, we must then engage with the meaning of that text. Its meaning is always about, always tied up with, our own lack of meaning, the absurdity of our smallness. Its meaning is always about how the text itself engages with us engaging with its engagement. As soon as we have carefully read what is in front of us on the page, "philosophy" -- inspired by Blanchot or not -- is the only thing that will allow us to be straightforward about writing and about reading, about life and about death.
An essay over on Mike Duff's The Joyful Knowing blog entitled Blanchot and Hegel's abstract negativity that I'll respond to at the weekend. For now, the opening lines:
In Literature and the Right to Death, Maurice Blanchot invokes, like Bataille throughout his Inner Experience, the concept of pure nothing, (or, as a power, a becoming) abstract negativity, that Hegel defines early on in the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit as well as in the beginning of the Science of Logic. The use for this is clear, and also aptly summarizes what I think Bataille thinks of it also, with respect to the work of literature. Blanchot says that "Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt," in the sense that it, "by its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents" and thus is "its own negation".
Over on This Space, Steve reproduces Jean-Luc Nancy's tribute to Maurice Blanchot on the 100th anniversary of his birth:
Writing (literature) names this relationship. It does not transcribe a testimony, it does not invent a fiction, it does not deliver a message: it traces the infinite journey of meaning as it absents itself. This absenting is not negative; it shapes the chance and challenge of meaning itself. "To write" means continuously to approach the limit of speech, the limit that speech alone designates, whose designation makes us (speakers) unlimited... (More.)
Inkermen Press was Publisher of the Week over on The Book Depository the other week. Dan Watt's press have just released a fascinating looking title by Dan himself entitled Fragmentary Futures: Blanchot, Beckett, Coetzee:
Romanticism elaborates a model of fragmentation, different from the fragment as ruined part of a totality from which it is shorn. Rodolphe Gasché argues that the concept of the Romantic fragment would have to be ‘radically recast’ to be applied to contemporary literature. It is via Maurice Blanchot that the fragment is ‘recast’ into an event in which ‘all literature is the fragment’. This book investigates that turn, exploring its implications in the work of Blanchot, Samuel Beckett and J.M. Coetzee. Blanchot’s ‘recast’ fragment demands that literature become fragmentary whether it carries the form of the fragment or not.
Beckett’s prose work unfolds a part of fragmentary writing that appears to be degenerative, as words collide and syntactic structures are eroded. However, fragmentary writing allows the presentation of a damaged work, one under the threat of abandonment, as work in progress; being neither finished nor continued.
The work of Coetzee demonstrates the fragment’s relation to Levinasian ethics, inviting a responsiveness to the ‘other’: a situation that maintains the singularity of the work without reducing it to particular critical positions. The legacy of the fragment remains as much a responsibility for modern literature as for the event of the German Romantic fragment. Fragmentary Futures argues that the fragment points to an impossibility governing the generation of literature itself. The German Romantic fragment is still to come, haunting literature. The ‘recast’ fragment does not exorcise such a revenant but makes its future appearance more fascinating.
What is literature? Blanchot's A Voice From Elsewhere can help us to think about how to begin to think about this question. Of course, writing is merely the sum of words chosen by an author and then written down. On one level writing is mere craft: do I chose this word or that, this metaphor or that one? And analogous to writing, in this sense, is painting. Painting is an ordered response to the world: colours, shapes and textures are chosen by the artist in an attempt best to "say" what that artist wishes to say in paint by painting. Perhaps saying more than this, about art or literature, risks essentialising or mystifying it. But a painting is not merely an agglomeration of paint, it is not just an expression, however accomplished, of what the artist wants to say. Further, it is not even a form of thinking via the medium of paint. It is unarguably more than this.
Because it communicates obliquely, tangentially, and not using language, visual art (and music) also communicates both more and less than language does. But beyond what the painting says, and technically does, there is something else, and it is this essential quality beyond the mere facts of an artifact's creation, above and beyond the history and context of the work, that draws us back and holds our interest. The ineffable quality which we can certainly attempt to approach, use commentary to talk about and begin to decipher, partially understand by understanding the means of the work's production, the context of its creation, something about the artist and their world, remains. What is great in great art can't quite be pinned down, can't be entirely, adequately articulated.
And so too literature.
It isn't mystification on the part of Blanchot to focus, throughout his oeuvre, on the mysterious qualities that define (or, rather, prevent the definition of) literature. Literature is what remains unsayable yet said in great writing. However, there is a negative blankness: there is a vapidity and sterility to the technical expertise of a writer like Ian McEwan. What is unsaid in his work is merely arch. It is witheld information which only confirms his paranoid control of the text.
Writing is what the words on the page do to the white space that surrounds them; else is mere plot. The gap between the artist and that art that they create is worthy of our attention because the silence that the words have shaped, the picture that the painter hasn't drawn, pulls us in to the work and simultaneously back to our own silences.
We have writers like Blanchot because of how inarticulate an artist is, how confounded they can be, in the face of the irreducible in their own work.
Maurice Blanchot is a writer's reader.
A Voice from Elsewhere represents one of Maurice Blanchot’s most important reflections on the enigma and secret of “literature.” The essays here bear down on the necessity and impossibility of witnessing what literature transmits, and—like Beckett and Kafka—on what one might call the “default” of language, the tenuous border that binds writing and silence to each other. In addition to considerations of René Char, Paul Celan, and Michel Foucault, Blanchot offers a sustained encounter with the poems of Louis-René des Forêts and, throughout, a unique and important concentration on music—on the lyre and the lyric, meter and measure—which poetry in particular brings before us.