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

A Rustle or A Fall

Commentary and translation stand in the same relation to the text as style and mimesis to nature: the same phenomenon considered from different aspects. On the tree of the sacred text both are only the eternally rustling leaves; on that of the profane, the seasonally falling fruits.

In the guise of a singular aphorism, Benjamin presents these two divergent assertions, and worse than misleadingly simple condensation, he buries the lead.  The truly unexpected assertion is that style and mimesis are different views of the same natural phenomenon, an assertion which he buries between two less unexpected ones, but two which are more truly aphorisms, pithy sayings whose pith is as important to them as their saying. Even that meatiest of points about the relationship of style and mimesis to nature immediately points back to commentary and translation, illuminating their relation to each other instead of to its own more interesting observation; more interesting because I wonder how exactly mimesis enters into “nature.”  Can we say the butterfly’s faux-owl’s face is mimesis?  If so, then it is certainly clearer how style and mimesis are the same phenomenon, and in turn how translation and commentary are balanced in the same relationship.

I wonder, then, about the unconscious evolutionary motivation for style and mimesis, translation and commentary.  I have been bothered by the recently growing frequency of treating non-sentient objects as “using” us the way humanity has used them.  In Michael Pollan’s otherwise interesting documentary, The Botany of Desire, his repeated pretension—the speciousness of which he acknowledges even while he continues to use it as the key to making his subject interesting—that these plants (tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana) have used us as unwitting accomplices to their own secret plans for world domination, is absurd, almost as if it were an unconscious attempt to exculpate ourselves by saying, if only they had their wits about them, tulips would have leveled the rain forests, melted the icecaps, and poured uncountable gallons of oil into the Gulf, too.

And then there is the tangentially related, but no less interesting observation, that translation and commentary, style and mimesis are— but to which pair does “both” refer?  In condensing his subject to a metaphor of nature, the first two assertions are overlaid and made to say much, much more.  Not only is this a thesis about translation and commentary, it is a thesis on the evaluation of literature over time, on, not why, but how literature survives, on literary fame and value— and perhaps a tentative guide to evaluating contemporaneously what will continue rustling and what will wither with its fruit.

Curious, though, that Benjamin’s aphorism minimizes the commentator and translator, the styler and mimer, and says virtually nothing about authors, perhaps only saying anything at all about creating by mentioning style and mimesis.

Perhaps most important is that, rather than vaulting everything into the realm of the artificial, to the realm of the natural everything is returned.  Our avarice is indeed natural, and one could even call it, safely, I think, “tulip-like” in this regard, but progress is not by default good and does not raise us above the natural into some self-sufficient human realm, nor does the tulip transcend its vegetal self and enter, even metaphorically, some ‘separate, human realm.’  I am reminded of the peculiar tension I found in reading “The Storyteller,” where Benjamin so clearly and strongly disagrees with the movement of literature and modern society, its proliferation and speed and constant aversion to the past and death, and yet he struggles so fiercely against any automatic condemnation of it.  One’s own anomie is not a valid reason for condemning that from which one feels disconnected (and that, I would toss off offhandedly, is the failure of most contemporary art).  The present is not worse than the past simply because it comes after the past, however much some aspects of the past may be preferred.  Now is simply, to steal from Roubaud, what will have been.

Filed under: Writing

On Roubaud and the Troubadours

In the collection of essays The Troubadors: An Introduction, edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, Stephen G. Nichols argues that, though there are indeed some salient features of the troubadour lyric which support modern ideas about troubadours by harmonizing with the modern conception of the artist (such as a ‘high seriousness’ of style and the distinctly individualized voices of the poets), the traditional conception of a continuous and homogenized school of poetry is more than a little misleading in its development from ‘early troubadour’ Guilhem de Peitieu, through the golden age of the ‘classic period,’ and then on to the end of the tradition in the 13th century (I wonder if Nichols was told that this first essay, entitled “The early troubadours,” would appear in a series of three within the volume, the next two of which are “The classical period” and “The late troubadours”).  One rupture emphasized by Nichols to spite this homogenized portrait is the transition from oral performance at a court, by the troubadour himself or by a “joglar” sent in his place, to the “chansonnier” or manuscript tradition.  A “chansonnier” is, essentially, an anthologizing of popular, well-known, or significant lyrics by various troubadours into one collection, and Nichols opposes this tradition’s importance to what he sees as the usual depiction of oral performance as the definitive means of presenting these poems.

In the midst of this discussion, Nichols drops this choice— especially for anyone reading Roubaud— morsel of information:

About the same time that secular poetry began to be recorded in manuscripts in the early thirteenth century, Geoffroy de Vinsauf wrote his Poetria nova (The New Poetry, c. 1210) which became one of the most popular and influential poetic treatises of the high Middle Ages.  [This work] reveals the new concerns with ordering narrative for written presentation.  Reading him, we can seize his excitement in the face of a new aesthetics, and his awareness of the need to create a new poetics for dealing with the innovation.  He makes us sense that writing was not simply a tool for remembering, but a technique for thinking.

Whereas classical rhetoric was concerned primarily with the immediate rhetorical effects of oral delivery… Geoffroy’s Poetria nova stressed techniques for organising and presenting the narrative of writing.  Consequently, for Geoffrey, the order of the book as arrangement or dispositio becomes paramount.  The poet has two choices: to follow the natural sequence of events, the historic order, or to invent a synthetic order based on aesthetic or other principles.  {I should mention here that, though he certainly implies that the principles may apply more broadly, Nichols probably intends to reference manuscript ordering here: i.e., ‘naturally’, Peitieu should come before Marcabru, but not necessarily thematically.} Geoffroy writes that the latter ‘strives on the footpath of art’, while the former ‘follows the highway of nature.’  Natural order renders an unimaginative sequence flatly.  The same brief space may be made at least pleasing and perhaps even interesting by a synthetic style: ‘skillful art so inverts the material that it does not pervert it; art transposes, in order that it may make the arrangement of the material better.  More sophisticated than natural order is artistic order, and far preferable, however much permuted the arrangement be.’

Geoffroy speaks about arranging or transposing existing materials.  The artist or poet ‘finds’ (in the medieval sense of trobar, trouver) his material already in the world and makes his poetry as a construction, a reconstruction and a reordering.  As Guilhem de Peitieu had already put it so brilliantly, the flowers of rhetoric are the product of artistic construction in the poetic workshop or obrador.  The song ‘Ben Bueill’ thematises Guilhem’s poetics… :

{The Occitan poem is followed by this prose translation:}

(I want all to hear if a song that I’ve produced in my workshop is of good quality [color = sign of quality in refining or smelting].  For I possess the flower of my métier, and that’s the truth.  The song itself will testify to this, once it’s finished [lit: ‘laced up’, meaning that the versification has been worked out satisfactorily].)

When Guilhem de Peitrieu and later Geoffrey of Vinsauf place the art of trobar at the heart of the poetic process, they are also describing exactly what the manuscript matrix invited the scribe to do with the material he sought to include in his chansonnier. From this viewpoint, the work of the scribe is not so very much different from that of the poet, since the art of the manuscript is the art of dispositio: artistic arrangement and construction.  …  The difference is that the chansonnier gives a meaning – or a sense of a whole – to a large body of pre-existing works, and in the sense of the whole lies the ‘intelligence’ of the chansonnier.  The poet creates a sense or an identity – a poetic logic – for a single poem; the scribe for an entire corpus.

And ‘corpus’ becomes a provocative pun when I consider the images Roubaud is conjuring, of the childhood body in various positions throughout his childhood home and its grounds, positions whose sequence of presentation is determined by a rigorously synthetic set of principles, so rigorous as to prevent any possibility of its appearing to be ‘natural’ in Vinsauf’s sense, a ‘synthetic order’ which is, by Roubaud’s argument, all the more natural for its caveat emptor depiction, in prose, of the experience of memory.  A double negation.  “the great fire of london” is not a poem, or an autobiography, or a fiction.  It is a manuscript which will have been written, and will continue to ‘will have been’ as long as there are readers to read its present of composition.

It is also important, for anyone not familiar with the troubadours, that the printing press was a few centuries off when this transition from sung song to manuscript happened.  Even if we consider writing as a “technique for thinking” to mean mainly thinking out one’s own thoughts, Nichols must also stretch such a meaning to include the scribes of the chansonniers, engaged in a mostly rote copying process, with a little of the artist’s flourish in the illuminations and choice of order.  The concord with Roubaud’s rigorous compositional method, writing his writing before dawn each day until the sun rises, is significant.  Even when the “moment of prose” written does not have a place in the developing format until the ‘inter-branches’ proposed (discovered?)  in branch two, The Loop, we learn in the midst of his discussion of them that he still writes every morning.

Filed under: Roubaud, Writing

Writing-as-art

In the comments to the last post, Richard pointed out that my definition of ‘experimental’ isn’t quite standard. It’s a playful redefinition that encompasses authors, like Josipovici, who themselves have expressed their dislike for being called “experimental,” or like Perec, who wanted to write books which could be “devoured face down on one’s bed,” even though they are consumed just as enjoyably while upright, pencil in hand, at one’s desk.  Coincidentally, Jonathan Mayhew, at Bemsha Swing, and Dan Green, at The Reading Experience, have been doing some redefining of their own. Mayhew has been hypothesizing about poetry and music, and what it would mean if we considered that poetry is perhaps closer to music than it is to “literature as conventionally defined;” Green took Mayhew’s hypothesis and ran with it in a direction that I find incredibly pleasing.

Green’s primary point, in response to Mayhew’s separation, is that perhaps we can make the same distinction within fiction itself: there is ‘fiction-as-art,’ which would aspire to ‘music’ in the same way that poetry does, and there is ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ which depicts society through its dispersion of nuggets of cultural meaning— things like Myers’ assertion that in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence there is an “intellectual argument via plot”  that the cultural institution of marriage is a tragedy.  This was largely my point in the last post, and Green puts it much more eloquently: this type of reading, fiction as discourse on culture, is certainly valid, and there is a field of fiction where this is the perfect method of interpretation, but it is not universally applicable.

The dilemma faced here, then, is that it is the language’s motivation, not its style, form, or content, that distinguishes ‘writing-as-art’ from ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ ‘poetry-as-cultural-relic,’ etc; but such a motivation can only be discovered by active engagement with style, form, and content.  (I say ‘writing-as-art,’ per Green’s idea that, should we break fiction-as-art from fiction-as-discourse, we are free to develop a field of writing that encompasses all such “musically inclined” work, whatever form it takes, be it poetry, prose, essay, etc..)  One must, in a sense, trace back from the work to the originary impulse in order to determine its aesthetic motivation.

______________

Having written as far as above, I was having trouble articulating just what I meant by motivation, or what, of all possible motivations, is the one behind what I talk about when I talk about writing-as-art.  Myers’ latest missive helped me figure out.  This particular passage is where I feel most prominently the dissonance between Myers’ way of thinking and mine:

The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it.

“Pioneering an idiom” is all good and well, but the presumption here is that “writer” and “novelist” are one and the same. Writer and novelist, however, are not perfect synonyms. A novelist is a writer, but a writer need not be a novelist, even if she writes novels.  Which sounds absurd, at first.  But when I look at the writers who interest me, in whatever form, be it novel or poetry or essay,the ones to whom I return again and again are the Writers.  They are concerned with language and with writing, and with how language is inextricable from our lived life, and often especially with how writing is as well.  A parallel, perhaps: Myers is concerned with The Novel in the way a lot of people are concerned with Identity, and I can stomach books whose sole domain is the minority experience as much as I can books whose sole domain is character and plot.

James Merrill, when asked if he had any for young poets, once gave this advice: “There’s no need to wallow in the assumptions of your time and place, since your work will reflect them, whatever you do.”  One cannot totally dissociate art from culture, of course (nor should one want to); even art that is more concerned with aesthetics than cultural discourse must inherit and develop the aesthetic concerns of its culture.  But, for example, as a gay man, I’ve always found the popular concern with identity literature to be baffling.  I am not interested in Gay Literature; I’m interested in Literature.  (For the moment, let’s agree to just save the topics of oppression, exclusion, and canon formation for another time.)  Poets like Crane and Merrill, some of the strongest influences on my writing, all have a peculiarly homosexual bent which sublimates overt sexuality and the concerns which having a minority sexuality bring about, to allow for more universal themes of language, sexuality, communion, and society.  I may even sense an echo of this type of sublimation in writers like Stevens or Hopkins or Melville, whom certain people are always trying to claim as Gay Writers, but I need not claim them as Gay Writers to have enjoyed their work and gotten what I have out of it any more than I need to claim Melville’s novels are poetry because his prose is particularly concerned with sound and rhythm.

I may get a certain type of enjoyment out of “Voyages,” knowing it is the rare poem I could read to a boyfriend without having to subconsciously switch pronouns and alter represented genders, but what most enthralls me about “Voyages” is the language, the desperate attempt to use language to compensate for physical distance and anneal spiritual separation— even if I can acknowledge that that desperation to connect is certainly intensified by the social oppression it faced at the time.  But the same expectation of commitment goes for traditional novels. I do not put down a novel simply because it has a traditional plots and characters; I will put down a novel, however, because it only has them, or because it does not seem to be doing more than repositioning things I have seen before.  I didn’t finish Hemon’s Lazarus Project, for example, for that reason. Writers who use language like they use grocery bags, whether it be to contain identity issues or social issues, are, at best, marginally interesting to me.  (This may be why I’m ambivalent about Bolaño; his writing is excellent, but I’m just not terribly interested in what he uses it for, however much I feel like I ought to be.)  I don’t think they should be prevented from writing and publishing, and I’m certainly not attempting to prove their valuelessness, but they will probably not be getting my attention.  In the terms I toyed with before, it’s the Nantucketers I’m interested in, not the merchant sailors or the pirates.  If the merchant sailor/fiction-as-discourse is your thing, go for it— just please, please don’t expect us all to pretend with you that the Nantucketer doesn’t exist.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Writing

Period Style

Over at A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers has been considering the relationship of philosophy and fiction, and what character and plot do within that relationship.  The summary of Myers’ point in the first post is that “philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible.”  All good and well, though, as I will discuss momentarily, I would open the gates to more practitioners than philosophers and novelists.

But then Myers makes a judgement I don’t quite swallow.  After pointing out that the conception of character as the seat of intelligence in fiction can hardly be used for modern fiction, Myers says this:

But what is the intellectual aspect of a fiction if not its plot? The plot is fiction’s answer to argument in philosophy: it is what connects up and advances the whole. If an argument is the setting forth of the proofs (reasons and evidence) for an assertion, then a plot is the setting forth (that is, the narration) of the events that lead to a catastrophe, the final turn that brings everything to an end.

Without getting into an unending discussion of what constitutes genre rules and whether or not they are rigid, this seems a bit tautological to me.  “Fiction is not philosophy, because it is fiction.”  On top of that, it completely bypasses what is, to me, the interesting judgement Myers has made: the difference is in the approach to possibility. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aesthetics, Writing

Plato and the Whale

Moby Dick is not written as cryptography but as mystery.  The agitations of voice, the playfulness through which symbols emerge and then dissolve, the mixtures of incantatory, Biblical, polite, and vernacular language in this and other American books— these are what demand our attention altogether more than do ideas or themes extracted by critics in the interest of tidying up what is mysterious or confused.”  — Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere, p. 36

“Skepticism of this kind [the authors’ regarding the symbolist tendencies of their central characters], however, need not and does not modify the grandeurs of description in which Melville and Lawrence like to indulge.  The admiration of the writers in both cases goes not to the possible accuracy of a symbolist perspective, but only to the heroic nobility of incentive behind it, its creative responsiveness to the things of this world.” – p. 43

Elsewhere, Poirier says that in the works he is discussing, the reader must ‘submit to a discipline, imposed by the difficulties in the writing, that will develop in us a consciousness rarely called forth…,’ and that, ‘in Emerson’s view, writing is valuable for the stimulations offered locally, by particular moments of the reading experience, and not for any retrospective consideration of the whole.’

After watching Phillip Hoare’s BBC documentary, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, I wanted to read the book, and after reading Poirier, I actually took it down and began to do so.  It’s been slow going, but not because of any difficulty in maintaining interest, really.  I even found fascinating, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the dreaded ‘Cetology’ chapter, which two friends had warned me was the First Test of Commitment.  No, I’ve been reading it slowly simply because there’s no rush.  Which is new to me.  I’m normally eager to get through a book so I can move on to the next one, or I’m worried that I’ll forget some crucial image or idea and something important will be lost on me in the latter sections of a book.  Proust may have been a remedy for that— it is impossible to remember it all, so you remember what you remember and forget what you forget, and its length seems to be intended to bring about that necessarily cherry-picked memory.  But I think Phillip Roth’s recent comment, that if you take more than two weeks you haven’t really read the novel, is illuminating here, because it strikes me as particularly inadequate.  In most books, there are pivotal scenes supported by groundwork: character background, establishment shots, tension-building, etc.  There is a lot of padding, necessary or not, and it can obscure the significant passages, images, and events, such that if you take more than two weeks you will probably have forgotten something crucial and had something unimportant emphasized by the recession of what surrounds it.  Moby Dick seems different.  That’s not to say Melville doesn’t engage in groundwork— the first sentence is famous, after all— but I feel as if I can wander in Moby Dick, that Melville isn’t trying to direct which moments will provide that ‘local stimulation,’ and is willing to let just about any provide it.  There isn’t the imperative to get it all in quickly, so the stimuli combine to the full effect.  (And on top of that, if you are reading for a culminating effect, you’ve several hundred pages of meticulous anti-climax to get through first.) I’ll read a few chapters, then not pick it up for a day or two, but I still find myself mulling over certain passages and scenes, particular images or phrases. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Melville, Poirier, Writing

A Working Definition: On Roubaud and Poirier

I suspect my fascination with etymologies is rooted in the two semesters of Latin I took in high school.  I don’t remember a lick of it, but I have remembered how to break words down and root out the bits that can (maybe) tell you something on their own, which might get you by if you find yourself in a jam (the jam, at the time, being standardized tests).  I am by no means a linguist; I’ve no formal experience with the inheritances of words.  They’re a playground, a rabbit hole.  I admittedly enjoy how irresponsibly I follow their transformations, considering how the parts of a word have made up that word, and how they mislead, how easily a word’s present form can overwrite its past and still arrive at the same understanding for all the wrong reasons, and how then each root word leads you to suspect it is the root of another.  Suffuse: suf-, alternate of sub-, meaning under, beneath, up to; but ‘fuse.’  I think: parallel to infusion, but, while infuse has pleasant connotations, suffuse casts a glance towards submission, willing or unwilling.  It walks a fine line between terror and bliss, between a hot shower after a hard day and waterboarding.  Of course, this is trumping things up quite a bit, akin to exploring the significance of two plus two equalling four by means of numerology.  ‘Suffuse’ means, simply, ‘to pour liquid over a surface,’ though pour is misleading.  One Established Dictionary says ‘overspread,’ instead of pour, even as it says the root Latin word is ‘to pour.’  (Unexpectedly, ‘fountain’ has nothing to do with fundere, the Latin root.)  Or: one would expect ‘sect’ to follow from the root ‘to cut.’  A sect, one could assume, is a small group separated from— by an incision, a de-cision— but still part of a larger group.  But ‘sect’ comes from ‘secta’ for ‘following.’

‘Do your work, and I shall know you,’ [Emerson] says in ‘Self-Reliance’.  ‘Work’ is a way to confront the essential facts of existence and to discover in doing so the power of human desire which turns facts into mythologies and mythologies into facts.  – Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 94

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, the thing that keeps me going through Roubaud’s not always fun to read The Great Fire of London, is the dissonance of reading in the present tense.  We often consider grammatical tense and the effect it has on what is being narrated.  But rarely do we consider the tense of the activity of writing, except in such rare circumstances when it becomes so problematic, by the author’s intention or not, that we cannot help but notice it.  There is a bifurcation between experiencing self and writing self.  How an author handles such a dilemma, in an individual work or in their general method, I find to be one of the most interesting moves an author can make (can, because many do not). Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Poirier, Roubaud, Writing

“Seek? More than that: create.”

Daily, I attach less value to the intellect. Daily, I realize more clearly that only away from it can the writer repossess something of our past impressions, that is attain to something of himself and to the one subject-matter of art. … Compared with the past, the intimate essence of ourselves, the truths of the intellect seem quite unreal. … But it is to the intellect we must look all the same to establish the inferiority of the intellect. The intellect may not deserve the supreme accolade, but it alone is capable of bestowing it. It may hold only second place in the hierarchy of virtues but only it is capable of proclaiming that instinct has to occupy the first.
-Preface to Contre Sainte-Beuve (pp. 1, 7, 8), Marcel Proust

But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike in science, an acquired truth from which he who follows after may profit. A writer of genius today has everything to do. He is not much further advanced than Homer.
-‘The Method of Saint-Beuve’ (p. 11)

If we want to try and understand this self, it is deep inside us, by trying to recreate it within us, that we may succeed. … It is a truth every bit of which we have to create
– (p. 12)

… what one gives to the public is what one has written when alone, for oneself, it is very much the work of one’s self… And not having seen the gulf which separates the writer from the society man, not having understood that the writer’s self shows itself only in his books, that he only shows society men… a society man like themselves, [Sainte-Beuve] was to launch that famous method which… consists, in order to understand a poet or writer, in questioning avidly those who knew him,… who may be able to tell us how he behaved in the matter of women, etc., that is, on all those very points where the poet’s true self is not involved.
– (pp. 15, 16)

If we follow the guidelines given in this preliminary work, a puzzling combination of fiction and criticism, the first fitful attempts at a style which would eventually come to be the style of Proust’s epic, we are directed in how to approach the narrator(s), both the embryonic form it takes in Contre Sainte-Beuve and its full-fledged form in A la recherche... Even here, in a piece which is almost automatically assumed autobiographical, we cannot call our narrator Marcel Proust. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Beckett, Proust, Ranciére, Writing

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

—Used Language

I have been thinking lately about what, for lack of a better term, would be my ‘aesthetics’— what I think makes good art good art (or just what makes art art— that’s one I wish we’d talk about more: is only good art art?). Taking courses in ‘analytic aesthetics’ and ‘continental aesthetics’ back to back forces you to spend a lot of time circling those words. Reading Heidegger over and over again in an effort to actually follow the progression of thought, the evolution within the single work of his own vocabulary (the dizziness that sets in when you think that that goes on in forty more volumes before and after!), and then thinking about others I am having to read— Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida— and my own reading outside of class— Proust, Josipovici, Blanchot— it is a rigorous tactility in the writing itself that snares me. I would be remiss to say that I think Heidegger is right, that his philosophy has it pinned down, but I nevertheless feel drawn to his language, his way of talking about it, as I do Derrida and Proust and Josipovici and Blanchot— almost irrespective of the actual thought being developed, I am entranced by the development. To coopt some of the language from Origin, it is writing that does not ‘use up’ language.

How is that, though? On the practical level, when I am reading or watching something, what is it that makes me say, or, how is it that I actually can say, “This does not ‘use up’ its medium”? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Heidegger, Josipovici, Synecdoche, 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

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