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.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark, this was an extraordinary post.

    I loved this especially: "Writing is what the words on the page do to the white space that surrounds them; else is mere plot. "

  2. Words. A table isn't a table, a table is a word that we use to describe something we use...etc etc Reducing literature to the basic building blocks is useful in that we can see the relationship between artist and art, what is produced and the intentions of the writer. Analysing the white space though has to be eventually pointless, craft and technique are good things. Skills that are learnt are positives, a blacksmith learns to shoe a horse, a brickie to make a wall, a writer learns skills of communication. It may well be pertinent to ask what is the point of writing? What is the role of a writer? Is entertainment vacuous?
    Your argument probably would have stood a better test if you hadn't used an example, as now it sounds like a personal dislike of McEwan. It's an interesting debate which shouldn't become simply reductionist. The other part of the equation is the reader, what does the reader want? What does the reader bring to the text? The writer is only one element and to focus solely on them won't solve the puzzle.

  3. For anyone interested in artist/writer/art/words relationship I recommend Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz aka Witkacy. Complicated, fascinating and totally crazy - a necessary read for anyone who wishes to climb the Parnassus.

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