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.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark,

    I can’t and won’t comment on Blanchot’s reading of Beckett whose writings have undoubtedly inspired more than a share of hierophantic gloss. Beckett anticipates the ‘glossers’, he pre-empts their analyses, and one well known quote from The Unnameable suffices here:

    ‘They must consider me sufficiently stupefied, with all their balls about being and existing.’
    — Beckett, The Unnameable (348)

    Beckett is a stark realist, anti-philosophical regarding life, death, and the in-between. He’s a lively pessimist if ever there was one, inured to the rarefied heights, and blessed with the touch of ‘blarney’ he gave tender voice to the mire. His realm was the visceral and life and living and dying is visceral no matter how we couch it. Beckett resists interpretation and leaves the ‘philosophers’ high and dry. In this, his feeling for the mortal plight of the individual, he was most straightforward.

    With no disparagement to you, Blanchot, or any other; and here most of all to life and the in-between for it’s all any of us have,


  2. Arthur Broomfield Friday 01 February 2008

    I think his going on is a going on to language freed of the body. Its impossibility is confronted in I cant go on I'll go on. Beckett privelages word over perception without dismissing perception.

  3. That's a great reading, Mark, thanks for that.

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