Dr W Large
Literature and the right to Death
25 March 2007
It begins in the same way as the Origin of the Work of Art. Blanchot [B] begins with the writer. But does the writer ask why he or she writes, or does she just write?
Literature begins with a question - or questions itself - this is a reference to the Athenaeum fragments - right at the moment that it is born, literature already asks what is it (think of Don Quixote). But what is the question that Literature is asking of itself. It is a question like any other? Or we might ask ourselves what does it mean to ask a question at all. Is this a question about the essence of literature? This question has nothing at all to do with the doubts of the writer, and it does not matter whether he or she is conscious of it, but as soon as something is written then this question emerges - it is the question of language which is addressed both to the reader and to the writer - language becoming literature - langage devenu littérature. How does language become literature - what does it mean to talk about language at all becoming literature?
But why bother with this question - isn't literature about nothing at all - isn't it just entertainment, a way of passing the time away and nothing else.
Let us grant the fact that literature is deceitful, but perhaps it is right there that we might find the meaning of literature itself. The extraordinary power of literature is that it is nothing, or that nothingness is at the heart of what it does. La littérature n'est pas seulement illégitime, mais nulle, et cette nullité constitue peut-être une force extraordinaire, merveilleuse, a la condition d'être isolée à l'état pur. This is precisely what this essay is about, the nothingness that is at the heart of literature, and how this nothingness is linked to an experience of language. It is this nothingness of language which is the secret of surrealism.
As soon as we try to reflect upon what literature is, then it no longer appears to be a serious question. As soon as we let literature have its own power then it sees to take over everything - it is more important than anything else, even philosophy and religion. So reflection turns back to it, but in that very moment, all it discovers is the nothingness of literature again.
But hadn't Hegel already seen the power of the negative - isn't is whole philosophy concerned with this power, and didn't he in the Phenomenology of Spirit already condemn the writer to an ultimate paradox - to write one has to have talent, but only in writing is one's talent discovered.
Why Hegel is so important to B is that he addresses the nature of work - what does it mean to produce a work? One must have an idea, but only in the work is this idea realised. Without the work the idea is nothing. But is a literature an idea in this way. Does one have an idea of a novel or a story and then realise it in a work? True this is way that some people speak about writing, and even some novelists, but is this really how literature works. Think of the example of Kafka's writing The Judgement. That he did not know what he was writing. The writer can only exist if the work exists, but this means that is some sense that the writer is a 'function' of the work and not the other way around. I exist as a writer only because the work exists and not the other way around, but at the same time, if I did not have an intention to write this work, then it would not exist either.
Everything depends on what we mean by 'intention' in this case and whether the work does or does not 'realise' the individual who writes it. In other words, whether what we are speaking about here really is the same as any other work. The work comes from nothing every time, whether I begin a new work, or return to the same work again and again. Why can I say that it begins from nothing. It means that I do not have a conscious end in my mind when I write. If the work was fully realised in my mind, why would I write it, but if the work requires that I write it in order to me, then when I begin writing it must be what it is not; that is to say nothing.
We might think here of Kant's definition of the work of art as 'purpose without purposiveness' and also his distinction between natural and artificial beauty. Literature would be an artificial beauty for Kant, because it is created by someone who intends something through the work. Blanchot is questioning whether we can think of literature through intention. When I write do I have an intention?
The paradox what only action realises the end of the action means that one has to throw oneself into the middle of it without out really knowing how it will end. The same is the case with writing - to write one has to throw oneself into writing as though it had already begun before you made the decision.
Writing, the activity of writing, and the 'circumstances' of writing, become the same thing as his or her talent - the desk, the pen and the paper; the ritual of the day and how one writes. The writer must focus on these, rather than the idea about which he or she is supposed to be writing, and whether it will be ever realised in the work that they are doing.
The work then comes from outside, by chance, and always come by chance. We think of this in terms of the external commission (write about this for such and such a time, a conference, a chapter in a book and so on), but in fact all work happens like this, from the outside. Every work then has its beginning, because without it, it would not exist. It would only be the 'impossibility of writing it' - rien de plus que l'impossibilité de l'écrire. The beginning of writing should always be seen against this background of impossibility, but this impossibility belongs as much to the work as its beginning. Each work has its own impossibility, as it does its beginning.
What is important here is not think of literature as an intention, a plan and project that is fully formed in one's mind, and then realised perfectly in the work - literature is against teleology.
The work is written, and with that the author is born. I am now a writer, without me the work does not exist, but without it, I do not exist. The author and the book become one or merge as their mutual condition of possibility. B uses the example of Kafka's sentence - 'he was looking out the window'. Why does Kafka says that this sentence, as literature, is perfect? Is it not just the most ordinary sentence that exists? Not if we think about it in terms of value - is it a good or bad sentence. Rather at one moment there was nothing, and in the next there was something. In that moment we have an absolute act of creation, the passage from a pure possibility into a reality. This the certain and joy or writing, and the explains the attraction of automatic writing.
But in what way does this sentence exist for the author? It does not exist just in relation to him or her, but to others. It only creates the author if others read it. It becomes B says, 'a universal sentence' - une phrase universelle.
Everything now changes for the writer, because others take interest in the work, and the original intimacy which was their mutual creation of one another is broken. The interest that they take in the work makes it something very different. The work no only has a value in the way that it relates to other books (this is the books that we read about in Sunday newspaper, which are ranked one against the other, and which win prizes).
How does the writes get beyond this problem. The writer claims that the work that she has created has nothing at all to do with the public work. She might write then and not publish. But then the question arises, why write at all if you are going to publish? Or the writer might say that what matters once the work has been published is no longer the writer, but the reader. It is he who creates the work, who is its real beginning, because if no one reads the book, then in what sense is it a book at all.
But can the book be the possibility of the reader in the same way as the work is the possibility of the writer? In reading I am looking to actualise myself in the same way that the writer is in the book? In other words, am I looking for confirmation for myself in what I read? The answers to these questions must be no. I am not looking for myself in what I read, but is alien and strange to me. If a writer writes for the public, then he is not really writing (we might say that they have a plan or a project in mind). If the writer is not really writing, then he or she is not really producing a work, and if he or she is not producing a work, then in what way can we say that there are any readers, for there is nothing to read at all. To read is to read something that comes from another mind or reality that questions one's own reality or mind. It is not to find oneself. It is true that people do read these books (which cannot be really books but only commodities), but they do so only to pass the time away, to entertain themselves. Entertaining oneself, and reading are the not the same at all.
I have to write because if I do not write, then I cannot become a writer, I can not just withdraw into myself. At the same time, the work is only possible through him, and yet what the work will become is only possible through the activity of writing itself. The realisation of writing is only possible through the work, but the work is only possible through the pure possibilities of the writer, which is nothing. And at the same time, what is further away from him, in terms of his actual existence, when it is written, is shared with others. So what makes him what is him, a writer, ceases to belong to him at all.
How might the writer save himself from all this trouble. He might forget all about the end of writing, like Valéry and say that all his is interested in is the pure activity of writing itself. But if one is true to this activity, then one cannot separate it from its results, for the miraculous instant between the unwritten and the written still ends in product, the words on the page, and this cannot be controlled and determined by the writer - they have a future which is not his.
We can see, therefore, that there are two moments. One, that the work arises out of nothing, and two, after it has been produced, it disappears as it is 'realised in history'. What matters now is not the 'ephemeral work', but its truth which resides outside of it, which allows it to becomes the work of an age, because it says something and reveals something about that age.
Does B mean by the truth of the work, what Heidegger means by the 'happening of truth' in the 'Origin of the Work of Art'.
The work of art seeks that which is higher or above itself - truth or the ideal. So what is significant is not the writer, nor reader, and not even the work itself, but art as the revealing and disclosure of truth. The honest writer can claim, then, that what she is seeking to write is not the work that she has produced but the truth that it is aiming to reveal. But can we really say that the writer is honest. Isn't the writer the most dishonest consciousness? The writer says that he doesn't care the that the work fails, since failure belongs to its essence, or even if it doesn't appear, disappearance equally belongs there. But if the work is successful due to external circumstances that have nothing at all to do with the writer, then watch her claim all the success that she thinks was always really already due to he.
Writers are always fooling themselves and thus others. He says that he only writes for others, and he might mean this, but it can't be absolutely true, for if he were only writing for others, then he would write nothing, because his primary interest must the work itself. One way that he might think that he is writing for others is by taking up a political cause (and here B's object is Sartre's What is Literature?). They think that the writer is one of their own, but as soon as they look more deeply into the matter, they realise that he can't be. For what interests him is writing about the Cause, and thus writing itself is the most important matter, and as B will try and demonstrate for the rest of the essay, literature is dissimulation par excellence: 'literature, by its very activity, denies the substance of what is represents.' - la littérature, par son mouvement, nie en fin de compte la substance de ce qu'elle représente.
There is a worse bad faith that that which Sartre speaks of, which is the writer who thinks that he is really attached to a truth that lies outside of the work of art. One, he betrays reality, since literature is never a representation of reality, and two he betrays his vocation as a writer, which is not to ally himself to a truth outside of work of art, but to beginning which is intimate to them both.
Does this mean that the writer should turn against the world. But this would just make the rejection of the world part of one's world. The world is reflected or is part of the intimate and solitary relation of the writer and her work. The world must enter this work, but it does not do so as a representation.
Everything that we might think is wrong about literature, that it is deceitful and tells lies and does engage in the world in a serious way, is also what is most important about literature, and what makes it what it is. For it is misunderstanding, not understanding which makes dialogue possible, and its is the emptiness and void which is the condition for meaning.
All this has to do with language. The writer might think and even assert that 'cat' means cat, but he is not telling the truth when he does so.
When we think about what literature is we break it down into parts which follow in succession. We think of the writer, then the book, and then finally the reader. Or we think of writing, what is written, and the truth. Of finally, we think of the writer of no name, then the writer who writes, then the one who is the result of the work, then finally the one, who attempts to save the work against the world through its truth. When someone asks what literature is, then every time one answer is given, the response always refers to a different stages that contradicts it. Thus someone says that the work is a failure, but the author replies that failure belongs to the essence of the work and so on. And the same is the case when someone addresses the writer directly.
Does all of this mean that literature is nothing? Those who work, who wish to change the world, we say that literature is an idle past time (today students are told they must get a job, and why read literature since it does not give you a job). Real work is that activity which changes the world through an idea, like building a bridge or roads. Literature does not create anything. But if we think of work as the transformation of the world and thereby ourselves, and the world again, literature is the highest form of work, and not the lowest. When I work, I produce an object, an object is the realisation of something that was not there before. Imagine that I want to get warm. To get warm I have to transform reality around me. But this means negating what is immediately there. I have to light a fire, and thus to keep warm I destroy the wood. The world is transformed through negativity. This is what Hegel and Marx teach us.
What else is the writer doing but transforming the world through negative, but at the 'highest degree' for he transforms the 'totality of language' that existed before he changes the world (think of Borges' essay about Kafka - that as soon as one has read Kafka, then one sees the 'Kafkaesque' every where. But as the same time as the work transforms the world, the reality of language, it also transforms me. The work is always an experiment, and always contains more in it then I could have foreseen in writing it: 'in the presence of something other, I become other.
The writer not only transforms things, as the man of action does, he transforms the whole of the reality of language. But just as between the desire for warmth and the heat of the stove, then there is a difference between the work and the author. The author does not find or recognise themselves in the work. The work is 'outside' of them. This is why the work is always a surprise and an 'experience'. I have an idea and then I write, but the book is never exactly the same as the idea that began it. Because I cannot find myself in the work that I myself have produced, I become other to myself in this work.
What then is the difference between the production of the stove and the book. The one appears to be part of history, whereas the other only appears on the margins. On the one hand we want to say that the creative power of writing is incomparable. Who would juxtapose writing with the making of stoves? Do we not believe that one work can change the whole way that we look at the world, and indeed that once we have read such great works that our understanding of the world becomes totally different after reading them - that we can no longer encounter the world in the same way? Who would say that about a stove?
But the influence of the writer is great precisely because it has little at all to do with reality. It is true to say that writer can pick up a pen and write about a world without slavery, but does this make him any less a slave? The real conditions of slavery are as real as when he had not begun to write. What is real in the work is not the reality of negation which changes the world, but a powerlessness that has escaped time and the limits that time imposes on reality. The nothingness of literature is only an empty ideal and utterly inaccessible.
So the writer is master of everything and nothing. The reality of the book, then, is the opposite of any real action in the world, since it accomplishes nothing, creating a world without any determinate limits.
The world, and the world of the book are not the same.
The writer ruins action because he places everything at our disposal. What is unreal is the whole. The imaginary is not outside the world, but it is the world as a whole. We do not experience the world as a whole, rather we experience things in the world. This or that event, this or that object. But the world as a whole can only ever be imaginary and exists as such in the negation of every particular thing. In reality, the world is concealed behind the particular, in the novel, the particulars are concealed by the world. They disappear and are only present in their absence from reality, since literature creates the illusion that it has created each one from this absent world.
Is literature, then, purely imaginary? Not quite, for it is not on the side of the imaginary against reality, but precisely the separation between them. It is this distancing from the real that creates the illusion that one could know it as a whole. This is the lie of all literature, but it less worse than the literature of action, which thinks that it is real, and the values of the world that it expresses the same as the world of action. Revolutionary literature is never the language of 'command' but of the present - it always presents everything as already accomplished precisely because it never has to accomplish anything. And it never presents anything as real, but already dissolved in the nothingness that is the imaginary world, where the there is no resistance and limit.
The three temptations of the writer (and these are only the repetitions of Hegel's description of self-consciousness in Phenomenology of Spirit) stoicism, scepticism and unhappy consciousness. Stoic, because he exists only in writing, and his freedom is only the freedom of the written word. Nihilist, because he does not transform one thing into another in the patience of work, but he annihilates everything - this is his unhappy conscience.
But there is also another temptation of writing and that is the revolution. The revolution is a negation that is no longer 'satisfied with the unreal' but wishes to realise itself and go only do so through negating the real itself, by replacing the reality with writing. Such moments are rare, when within history itself history comes to a stop, and what is, is the same as what is written and said. There is a perfect analogy between literature and revolution. For literature too creates a world out of words, negates everything for the sake of itself. It isn't the step of one action to next for the sake of end, but the annihilation of the whole world in an act, just as the writer changes the whole world in adjusting one or two words on the page. This is the ineluctable bond between revolution and terror, for the annihilation of the whole of reality, each individual person is also dead and has already become dead, for they have sacrificed their individuality to freedom. But such a death no longer has any personal significance. Why is that? Because it is the abstract negation of an ideal. It might have a significance for the world, but personal death as personal, no longer has a meaning. That you or I die is of no importance, what is important is what death makes possible generally a free society.
But why can the writer recognise himself in the revolution? One reason is that at such moments it does appear that literature has a place in history, and even seems to make history. Such a writer was Sade.
Literature is above all language. Language is both reassuring and disquieting. Reassuring, because it is in speaking that we master and order the world. We know nothing of objects that do not have names. Not that names and object have an intimacy for us any more, as though names had a magical power over things, and were dangerous and unpredictable, but names have totally, as in mathematics, replaced the reality of objects.
All poets have known, however, the disquieting side of language. The word gives me what it signifies but it only does so by negating the actual thing. - the real cat, through the power of the word, is negated to become the universal cat - the idea - the idea is the metaphorical annihilation of the real thing - I now no longer need the real thing in order to communicate to you. I just say the word cat, and without pointing to cats, you know what I mean.
It is true that in language I do not really murder anyone, but already in the word their death is announced. The existence of words demonstrated by own insignificance, for the meaning of the word man is not dependent on my individual existence as men; it is totally indifferent to me. Indeed, if my death were not a possibility, then the negation of language would not be possible. Death and language are intimately bound together. This is why, when I speak, death speaks in me and without death (the disappearance of the particular), there would be no meaning.
The power of speaking is therefore linked to my absence of being. Even if I talk about myself, I am separated from myself. I have become a name which is no longer living - William. In speaking, I do not just negate the object about which I am speaking, but I also negate myself. Thus speaking can only arise out of the experience of one's own nothingness and this explains why literature is about nothing and desires to speak nothing. We should not confuse this with nihilism - it is only by saying nothing that we say everything.
Of course this is a false hope, since one cannot say everything, and still confuse this with the real world of action. Everyday communication thinks that the word cat just says cat and that the noun is the same as the living cat that is wandering around the kitchen, and that is has nothing at all to do with the absence of the cat. It attempts to replace the absence of the real cat with another presence - the essence. Since to negate the real existence of the cat, is not to place this non-cat, with a non-dog. But this is the great difference between literature and ordinary communication - the one replaces the existence of the real thing with the existence of the idea, which in fact has more certainty than the real thing, ideas are eternal, whereas things change and decay. For literature on the contrary, when it comes to things, it is only interested in its absence, in the power of words to make things absent, not just that the word cat is the non-existence of the cat, but 'non-existence become word' - in others what concerns literature is the word as a word, and not just as a vehicle for an idea. It replaces the unreality of things with the reality of language. But such a reality always hides a nothingness at its heart, and its this nothingness that allows each word to already have a relation to other words beyond any simply reference or representation. In this instability of the relations between words which no longer have a fixed relation to external reality, fixed meaning is replaced by the image. The image is what is at the heart of literature.
But the paradox of literature is that it always trying to go back to the moment before it has negated the world in words. It seeks, through the very annihilation of thing, its truth, as though the more words that it places on the page, the closer it will get to the truth of the thing. As though the very materiality of language could reveal the dark obscurity of things. Though dismisses the materiality of the language for the sake of the idea, but in so doing also dismisses the reality of the thing. To reach back to the reality of the thing, literature, and all art, seeks the mysterious matter of language - the word itself in alls its strangeness and enigmatic presence. At it is at this moment that language has the power beyond the person who wrote it. It no belongs to the negation of reality intended by the writer. It does not belong to this world. It is not revelation or representation. Its is the brute reality of the words without the author.
Literature is divided into two slopes. On the one side it is turned towards knowledge in which the reality of things is destroyed in the word so as to be transformed into an idea. But on the other side, literature cares passionately about the reality of things which cannot be known, which resists knowledge and concepts. Everything in the world that refuses to made visible in the world.
One might say that these two sides of literature are a repeat of H's world and earth.
And the only way to announce in the obscurity of things is through the materiality of words. There is an alliance here between the obscurity of things and the materiality of words. It is not that the words represent or signify this obscurity, but they, in there very opacity present the obscurity of things. This obscurity is always singular, and not itself a universal concept. It is that moment when meaning is detached from certainty and unambiguity.
The first slope is meaningful prose, whose aim is to express things through meaning. Every one speaks like this whether in writing or in speech itself. But without leaving this side of language, art distrusts its dishonesty. For communication attempts to hide the peculiarity of language, which is the annihilation of reality. Art wants to hold onto the absence that separates the word from the thing, and which prevents any word from being the simple representation of the thing that it is meant to designate.
What is common to every poet, to every writer, is that they are interested in the reality of words, and not just what they signify and through words the reality of things prior to a world (prior to intelligibility). All literature is between this two slopes. I writer, like Flaubert, might write in the most transparent prose about what people that appear to us to be real, but what is reveal is 'the horror of an existence deprived of a world'. This is no more apparent than in the work of the French poet Francis Ponge, who writes of ordinary things in the most ordinary way, but in so doing is on the side of things rather than ideas.
What then happen in a work when the words are stronger than the meaning of the words, and this meaning itself becomes material? Each moment is expressed in a beautiful clear language, but the whole itself is opaque.
It is on the nothingness of language that reality is founded and not the other way around. This nothingness belongs to action. It is because we can negate reality that we can create worlds. What is at the basis of an world is always an idea, self consciousness becoming objective in its own creations. It recognises itself there. But without the negativity of action, the destruction of one thing to create a nothing, there would be no world. If things were not replaceable, if I were not replaceable, then there would be no reality. From the side of the world, death is the possibility of reality, but from the side of the one who dies, death is the annihilation of possibility. Once I have died, death is no longer a possibility for me, nor the world that is makes possible. Death has become the strange paradox of the impossibility of dying. Once dead, I can no longer die.
The cunning of literature is to be on both sides at once. On the one side, it part of culture and civilisation, the negation of brute nature for the sake of humanity. In this sense, it is the work of death, the negative and action. But it also want to reveal the whole in which each thing has its meaning. In so doing, however, if forgets the inconvenient truth that it too is a part of the history which it is attempting to describe from the outside. The world it explains, the world as a whole, rather than made of parts of experience, is purely fictive. This is why from the side of the real world, the world of work and production of history, literature is seen as an embarrassment and no one really takes it seriously.
This is the strange reality of fiction that it is not human. Yes it seems to be part of parts of the world, and sometimes we think that we are reading about real people, but in truth these lives and not lives. They are after all fiction. But does this mean that literature itself is nothing. No it is the words are the page, which cannot be changed. And literature is not the comprehension of these words in the mind of the reader. It is these words themselves. This is why it 'expresses without expressing'. The exists without the author or the reader, and they carry on existing without them.
Literature is language that has become ambiguous, which is no longer just the communication of an idea, belief or judgement. It is the 'there is' of language itself, which continues to speak not speaking in our absence. The word is a monster with two faces, which literature exist in between, facing in both directions at once. It is the material of the word itself, and meaning which is the absence of thing. Communication attempts to limit the equivocation of language by limited its scope. Words only mean what they say, and nothing else. It is not just that words become ambiguous in literature, but the whole of language itself, so we are no longer sure what it represents, or if it only signifies itself.
The negativity of language (death, nothingness, absence, unreality) is what makes possible the advent of truth in the world, but this truth can also sink back into the nothingness that makes it possible. Then the negativity of language is no longer useful, and rather than making the world possible, unseats it, making visible that our world stands on nothing, but the unreality of language.
Words creates worlds, but they do so out of the nothing that lies at their heart. Literature returns us to nothing which is prior to everyone world. Not to a beyond, but to the end of the world which is at the centre of every world, that it has to push to the periphery in order to make itself certain of itself, not realising that this nothing is in fact is own possibility, otherwise, without the disappearance of every world, there would only have been one.