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

from “How is Literature Possible?”

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)

RSB has an introduction to the work under review in this essay, Jean Paulhan’s The Flowers of Tarbes.

Filed under: Blanchot, Quotes, Writing

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.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Blanchot, Josipovici, Writing

“The Disappearance of Literature”

I was trying to write something about it, and I hopefully will soon, but for now, an excerpt (a link to the full essay is at the end):

“[The independence of the poem from the author, in the sense meant by Mallarmé when he spoke of the Book,] does not designate the proud transcendence that would make literary creation the equivalent of the creation of a world by some demiurge; it does not even signify eternity or the immutability of the poetic sphere; on the contrary it reverses the ordinary values that we attach to the word “to make” (faire) and to the word “to be” (être).

This surprising transformation of modern art, which occurs at the moment when history offers humanity tasks and aims that are entirely different, could seem like a reaction against these tasks and these aims, an empty effort of affirmation and justification. That is not so, or it is true only superficially. Writers and artists sometimes answer the summons of community with a frivolous withdrawal, answer the powerful work of their century with a naïve glorification of their idle secrets or with a despiare that makes them recognize themselves, like Flaubert, in the condition they reject. Or rather they think they can save art by enclosing it in themselves: art might be a state of the soul; ‘poetic’ should mean ‘subjective.’

But precisely, with Mallarmé and with Cézanne (to use these two names symbolically), art does not seek out these paltry refuges. What counts for Cézanne is realization— not the states of the soul of Cézanne. Art strives powerfully for the work, and the work of art, the work that has its origin in art, shows itself as an affirmation entirely different from works that have their measure in labor, values, and exchanges— different, but not opposite: art does not negate the modern world, or the world of technique, or the effort toward liberation and transformation that relies on this technique, but it expresses and perhaps achieves connections that precede any objective, technical accomplishment.

Obscure, difficult and tormented quest. It is an essentially risky experiment in which art, the work, truth, and the essence of language are called back into question and enter into risk.”

Italics in original.

Google Books was kind enough to display the full [rather short, a little less than seven pages] essay, here, the whole of which would really be better to read than just an excerpt.

Filed under: Blanchot, Quotes

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