Being now in the midst of the pre-term-paper research panic, it will probably be dead here for a little while, but stumbling into this essay by Blanchot fairly well made my afternoon. Here’s a rather large (and lightly edited) excerpt:
According to some, the mission of language is correctly to express thought, to make itself into its faithful interpreter, to submit t it as to a sovereign that it acknowledges. But for others expression is only the prosaic destiny of everyday languages; the true role of language is not to express but to communicate, nt to translate but t be; and it would be absurd to see in it only an intermediary, a miserable agent: it has a power unique to itself, which it is exactly the writer’s duty to discover or to restore. There, it seems, are the two families of thought, each completely foreign to the other. What could they possibly have in common?
We have seen that come struggled against language because they saw in it an imperfect means of expression and because they wished for language a complete perfection of intelligibility. To what does this ambition lead? To the invention of a language without commonplaces, a language without apparent ambiguity, in fact a language that no longer offers a common measure and is completely removed from comprehension. And we have also seen that others struggled against language that was considered a too-complete or over-perfect means of expression and consequently a nonliterary language and that, by their pitiless demand, their concern for an inaccessible purity, they ended up hunting down conventions, rules, genres, all the way to a total prohibition of literature, satisfied if they could make their secret perceptible outside f any literary form. But it must now be added that these consequences— rejection of language, rejection of literature— are not the only ones to which both parties yielded. It also necessarily happens that their enterprise against words, their desire not to take them into account in order to leave thought its empire whole, their obsessive fear of indifference, all provoke an extreme care for language whose consequence is verbalism. That is a significant fate, at once deplorable and fortunate. Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those who most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach.
It is the same for those who through the marvels of asceticism have had the illusion of distancing themselves from all literature. For having wanted to rid themselves of conventions and of forms, in order to touch directly the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they meant to reveal, they finally contented themselves with using this world, this secret, this metaphysics as they would conventions and forms that they complacently exhibited and that constituted at once the visible framework and the foundation of their works. In other words, for this kind of writer metaphysics, religion, and emotions take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre – in a word, literature.
Now we are ready to give an answer to the question, How is literature possible? It is actually through virtue of a double illusion— illusion of some who struggle against commonplaces; illusion of others who, renouncing literary conventions or, as we say, literature, cause it to be reborn in a form (metaphysics, religion, etc.) that is not its own. It is from this illusion and from the awareness of this illusion that Jean Paulhan [the author of the work under review in this essay], through a revolution that can be called Copernican, like that of Kant, proposes to draw the most precise and rigorous literary reign. Let us note how bold this revolution is at first sight, for finally it is a question of putting an end to the essential illusion that allows literature. It is a question of revealing to the writer that he gives birth to art only through a vain, blind struggle against it, that the works that he thought he wrenched from common, vulgar language exists thanks to the vulgarization of virgin language, through an excess of impurity and debasement. There is in this discovery enough to cause the silence of Rimbaud to fall on everyone. But just as for man the fact of knowing that the world is the projection of his mind does not destroy the world, but on the contrary assures knowledge of it, represents its limits and makes clear its meaning, so does the writer, if he knows that the more he struggles against commonplaces the more he is bound to them, or if he learns that he writes only with the help of what he detests, has the chance to see the extent of his power and the means of his authority more clearly. In any case, instead of being unknowingly ruled by words or indirectly governed by rules (for his refusal of rules causes him to depend on them), he will seek for mastery of them. Instead of submitting to commonplaces, he will be able to make them; and knowing that he cannot struggle against literature, that he could eschew conventions only to accept their constraints, he will receive the rules, not as artificial guidelines that point out the way to follow and the world to discover but as the means of his discovery and the law of his progress through the darkness where there is neither a way nor an outline.
(collected in Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell)