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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Blanchot’s Infinite

“One sometimes hears strange questions asked, like: ‘What are the tendencies of today’s literature?’ or: ‘Where is literature going?’ Surprising questions, but the most surprising thing is that if there is an answer, it is easy: literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance.”

If there is any change, one probably hears this question asked often, nowadays, not just sometimes. I am only beginning to read Blanchot— mostly from The Book to Come, but a few other essays as well— and I can’t help but feel there is something major with which I disagree. It is difficult to say, though, because there appears to be a difference between when one is reflecting on Blanchot after the fact, and when one is reading Blanchot. The surface of his prose, when pushed on by reading, changes. I noticed this consciously after Steve posted Jonathan Littell’s essay on ‘Reading’ and I went on to read Blanchot’s essay and, with my rudimentary French, attempted to pick my way through the original, always relying on the translations to clarify. I ended up reading both Lydia Davis’ and Anne Smock’s translations. There’s a peculiar aspect of Blanchot which Smock’s translation either engenders or captures, because it is not there in Davis’. Davis’ feels much more by the letter of the law, a fairly rigorous translation of the literal language— which is useful when attempting to read in the process of translating on the fly— but I couldn’t grasp what Blanchot was doing; the gears just wouldn’t line up. Smocks’ seems to balance against itself much more delicately. Where in the former the essay tends to come out a little more analytic, the latter feels almost poetic, the controlling ideas having a strange coherence despite their jagged edges and the lingering questions they prompt.

That strange incommensurability of ideas is what I find again when I try to reread ‘The Disappearance of Literature.’ I had been using what I thought of as Blanchot’s idea in this essay as a touchstone, recently, and thought I ought to reread it to perhaps shed some new light or further clarify my understanding. Perhaps it also changes because I have been spending a lot of thought and time with Heidegger, from whom Blanchot seems to draw quite a bit. Puzzled by my desire yet inability to approach “The Disappearance…”, I decided to read another short essay just before going to sleep, “Literary Infinity: The Aleph,” where I find this:

The truth of literature might be in the error of the infinite.* The world in which we live and as we live it is, fortunately, limited. A few steps is enough for us to leave our room, a few years to leave our life. But let us suppose… that the geographic desert becomes the Biblical dessert… For the moderated and moderate man, the room, the desert, and the world are strictly determined places. For the man of the desert and the labyrinth, devoted to the error of a journey necessarily a little longer than his life, the same space will be truly infinite, even if he knows it is not, all the more so since he knows it. [Italics mine.]

*Translator’s note: erreur is related to errer, ‘to wander’

After this, Blanchot explores the dilemma that this infinity, a space with no end and no beginning, no geography and no time-piece, presents the writer. But it is those two feints away from infinity, which I’ve emphasized, that catch my attention here. He says it is fortunate that the world in which we live and as we live it is limited, that even if the writer knows it is not infinity in which he dwells, it is all the more infinite because of his awareness that it is not. It seems, then, that it is not a disagreement at all, that I have with Blanchot, but a different orientation. Where Blanchot seems at home in this fortune and intent on exploring (or, better said, approaching the exploration of) the infinite, I, who would like to think of myself as a writer (perhaps, one day), writing now fifty years after this was first published in French, am struggling to accept that fortune, to discern which limits it is possible to escape, opening onto the infinite, which impossible, which of these inform each other, and how to, ‘like the current, fly each bound I chafe,’ how to not ‘frivolously withdraw from the summons of community.’

This is what, it seems to me, Josipovici takes from Blanchot, and what is remarkable in Josipovici’s writing, both critical and creative, what is invaluable in it, for me: that suspicion has a heritage itself. And Blanchot is more aware of its immanence than most. Writing today is so often approached from one or the other extreme: the infinite or the limited. There is writing which, as Blanchot points out in the passage I quoted in the last post, retreats to the ‘paltry refuges’ of the false infinite, the pure suspicion, falsely claiming its power as free of all bounds or vainly seeking to achieve such; and there is writing which remains within the limited and also falsely claims its power from that heritage; some writing ping-pongs back and forth, hoping to achieve itself by drawing selectively from both. The limited is quite commonly accepted as fraudulent, now— few in the ‘literary world’ praise strict genre writing, and the generic ‘literary fiction’ is seen as worthy of repudiation in itself— but the infinite’s caveats are so rarely acknowledged, or only obliquely, or only from the side of an argument in favor of the limited.

Yet where there is a perfect double the original is erased, and even the origin. Thus, the world, if it could be exactly translated and copied in a book, would lose all beginning and all end and would become that spherical, finite, and limitless volume that all men write and in which they are written: it would no longer be the world; it would be, it will be, the world corrupted into the infinite sum of its possibilities. (This perversion is perhaps the prodigious and abominable Aleph.)

Literature is not a simple deception, it is the dangerous ability to go toward what exists, by the infinite multiplicity of the imaginary. [Emphasis mine.]

So Blanchot has progressed from the limited to the infinite, and now is moving towards the limited from the infinite, but he is never fully either, simply because, for him, to be either fully is to deny (or be in denial of) something essential of the other. It is to claim that literature has already disappeared or that it will never disappear, one of which is impossible, one of which is impossible to affirm. The suspicion of limits is ingrained, now, but the suspicion of suspicion (and therefore the possibility of trusting again) must be learned— and Blanchot now strikes me as an excellent, if necessarily convoluted, guide.

Though I still feel most certainly that this is not quite what I wanted to be said, that this is an unsatisfactory echo

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Filed under: Blanchot, Josipovici, Writing

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