Why Write?Dr William Large
Are Anne and Thomas now lovers in Thomas the Obscure? She possesses him without fear, and he delivers himself over to her so much that his words are already spoken by her. This is abandonment quite unlike the desertion of the sea, the wood and his room, where he is annihilated in his disappearance. But what does she see in him? She sees only something useless. Before she would not have dared speak to him, but now she has his head in her lap. It is not they have become one, but in being one they have fallen apart, such that in moving away from her she moves ever more closely to him, like wounds that are trying to heal. This was very serious, but all she could do was laugh. She did not know him, but nor did she want any information from him. ‘Who are you, what are you?’ What a strange way to attempt to understand the impossible. As soon as she asked these questions, she wanted to take them back. What was worse was not that he might not answer these questions, but that he would answer them instead, and having answered would have nothing else to say but the silence that remained. It is dark. Is she crying? What relations does she have to this ‘dead man’ [Ce mort] that she now calls her friend. It was not that he was insincere, for that would require a depth that he manifestly lacked, and yet she was deceived, and deceived by him because he was something completely unknown by himself and by her. If there was a betrayal, it came from her side, and not his. Perhaps because she wanted to know who he was, even though she knew that was a stupid thing to want to know. There was nothing to do if fact but to wait; to wait for destruction of everything, even the ‘distances which separate beings’ .
What was ‘abnormal' about him was that he was completely ‘anonymous’. He had no history or no story. She believed that this was the explanation of this mystery. She says that only being far away from him could she be close to him, and this intoxicates her; a small noise comes from her throat. Nothing happens. She opens her eyes and the room is the same as before, and Thomas has revealed nothing. Despite the infinite distance between them, she wants to say something to him, but what can she say. She cannot say the truth, for she does not know what that is, but in not revealing herself to him, she reveals herself more, or might as well have revealed herself. There is something shameful about it, but nonetheless she can’t help herself even though she knew that it was an illusion. Her mistake was to think that her error was what created the link between them, her failed project to find some connection between them, even if this connection were only the distance that separated them. For Thomas was not like her, not like anyone at all. Is she going to say something to him about herself? About her childhood,, for example? Can she say something true, or is it worse that she might risk saying nothing true at all, or that in this untruth, the real truth would emerge, but about which she knew nothing at all? She speaks, but she does not really speak words, just the ideas, then just sounds and babbling, then sleep which is was the most serious voice of them all. ‘What you are...’ [ce que vous être] . Then she suddenly awakes. ‘No,’ She says, as though she had said something, but which we never heard. Or perhaps she had said nothing at all. Who was she talking to, Thomas or some other interlocutor? And it all seemed so frivolous and puerile, and he couldn’t work out whether she looked beautiful or horrible, such a strange expression was on her face as she spoke. What she knew is that she must give up this project, but she couldn’t give it up, as ‘giving up’ was her project, but was wholly dependent on her keeping this project going. She would be silent, but her language was already several degrees below silence. But in trying to escape Thomas, or avoid him, she didn’t realise that she was achieving the very thing that she wanted, to get close to him.
Now she is no longer speech, but time itself, and as this time she sees herself debating with Thomas. And it was this time itself that he felt, rather than her words, which he perhaps could easily refute and cast aside. It was as this time that she penetrates Thomas for the first time, and what she found there was desolate and mournful: ‘deserted shores where deeper and deeper absences, abandoned by the eternally departed sea after a magnificent shipwreck, gradually decomposed’ [89-90]. What she discovered is that what made Thomas so indifferent was absence, an absence even greater than the absence of death or silence, but which was an absence of an absence, and so on. But in this nothingness she realised that all she was Anne, this women with blond hair and intelligent, who was nothing but earth, dirt, excrement at the centre of a thought which no-one was thinking.
She had become another body: ‘Body without head, head without body, body of wretchedness’ . It is not that she seemed monstrous, but in her very ordinariness there was something about her that was unnatural as though there were an ‘unreal Anne’ who had replaced the real one. As the day brought the night to end, she woke up. But it was not the day which woke her up, but something in the night which extended itself in the day. Even the sadness and solitude which possessed her was not hers, but came from somewhere else, as though someone else were feeling these feelings in her. The love she felt could only express itself in the impossibility of love. When Thomas came back in, it no longer mattered who or what he was, or the questions she had asked, and which had obsessed her (or was it an obsession?) during the night. He was no longer obscure, but perhaps because he no longer mattered to himself. She goes down into the garden, but everything strikes her as too intense. She has become too sensitive, receptive almost to the point of transparency. The birds and the trees overwhelm her. Reality became a second reality which she could no longer bear, and her body a second body that she could no longer control. Death comes from without to meet her, from the landscape itself which she is separated from.
The writer seems to escape death in the hope that she can create something so glorious, like the cave paintings of the most ancient human beings, and that it would remain long after she had disappeared. It is ‘an affront to common sense’, Blanchot writes, therefore, to claim that she writer writes ‘in order to be able to die’. Only if this death were not the same as the death that is defeated in the survival of the artists work in culture and history. The first death is the death of the individual who persists because no-one has forgotten their work. We remember their names. Kafka is dead, but his existence continues in the books which bear his name. The work, in this sense, wards off and defeats the oblivion of death, which all other human beings, who have written and created nothing, are destined to. Who remembers them? Yet Blanchot insists, in another sense, writing is in league with death, and rather than trying to avoid it welcomes it. But even if Blanchot is right to say that the writer welcomes death, why should we at admire her for that, since one thing that we can all be certain of is that death will come. The truest statement of all is that we all shall die. Yet Blanchot argues, if we mean by truth something that belongs to the world, like when we say that it will rain tomorrow and it does rain, then it isn’t true at all. For death isn’t something that happens in the world at all, for it takes my whole world away with it, and in this sense it is not certain at all. Anything else that happens in the world can be verified, but not death. Of course we all know that we are going to die, but not when. This is why to think about death is to think about that which is most ‘doubtful’ even though no one can doubt that they will die. This is why the search for death as a possibility is so important. Can I make of death a possibility that I make of anything else that I choose in the world? Religion answers the question by making death a passage to another world, but in that way avoids the brute fact of death. It is not enough that I am mortal, but can I make my mortality an object for myself, and as this object constitute the highest level of my existence. In this way, one might say about death that it is an activity, whose perhaps ultimate image is suicide. It is the death that the writer seeks when she speaks of the immortality of the work, as though in disappearing in her work, she rediscovers herself. But the paradox of suicide is that in making a death a possibility, something that I can do and achieve, it withdraws from my grasp, for the instance of death, as the knife plunges into my chest, or my neck breaks in the noose, I am no longer there to experience it. From the death as a possibility, something that can be planned like any other project, however macabre and senseless it might be, there approaches another death that no one can experience. This is the death of the writer. She disappears into the work not so that she can rediscover herself at a more elevated level, but by being anonymous, such that even if the work remains, her name can vanish.
Why does one write? It might seem that if you do write, then this would be the last question that one would ask oneself. But let us imagine that writing really did begin in the question of literature. Not a question of literature in the sense that we might understand this philosophically, when we ask about the essence of something (a question that always seems to have an answer), but that literature becomes a question to itself. This question has nothing to do with the worries or doubts of the writer, whether she has them or not, but anxiety of the written page itself, when language ‘has become literature’. Nor has this question got anything to do with the rights or legitimacy of literature or art in a world that is determined by more serious matters. It is true that it might be an illusion, as Plato had argued a long time ago, but what is truly significant about it is the ‘nullity’ that exists at its centre, a nothingness which is more than just deception. To make of art something that is nothing was the aim of surrealism and other modern movements in art. Rather than being an argument against art, it might its own proper, if one can use this word in this context, force and meaning. But what does it mean to say that literature is about nothing? In the first instance it seems to undermine the ‘what question’ altogether. It makes sense to ask about what something is if that something is something, but what if the ‘something’ is nothing. What does it mean to talk about the nothingness of something? What is nothing? It would seem in this context that what is reflected about destroys the power of reflection.
It was the philosopher Hegel who first recognised the importance of the question of art for philosophy. The paradox of action for Hegel is that I can only discover who I am by acting, but acting already presupposes that I know who I am: ‘an individual cannot know what he really is until he has made himself a reality through action’. This means that he already has to determine the end of his action, even before he has acted, even though it is only the action itself that will prove that he has made the right decision. This seems to be a vicious circle in which there is no way to get out. This means that he just has to begin, for this will be the only proof that his action was the right one or not. Blanchot transforms this dilemma into the impasse of writing. He asks whether it was at all possible to be a writer, for to write implies that one has talent to write; that is to say, that one is a writer before one write. And yet one only becomes a writer through writing itself. To write one needs to write, or as Blanchot describes it ‘he has no talent until he has written, but he needs talent in order to write’ . This paradox demonstrates that the writer is dependent on his work, rather than his work just being dependent on him. It is not enough that he contemplates his work in his imagination. He actually has to get down and do the writing for himself. Without the work he is nothing, but likewise without him, the work is also nothing. Is this the nothing that Blanchot says is at the heart of literature? There isn’t a solution to this problem; rather the writer simple has to write. He has to thrown himself into the projects as though he were launching himself into the unknown. When he does that he realises that the work is writing is himself, and he only needs to recognise himself in it. The work then seems to be a project of the writer who finds himself confirmed in it, if the starting point is arbitrary and random. The book confirms the existence of the writer. Thus, when Kafka writes the sentence, Blanchot imagines, ‘he was looking out of the window’, he becomes an author through it, and was not an author before it: ‘it is the source of his existence, he has made it and it makes him, it is himself and he is completely what it is’ . This is the wonderful thing about writing, and it doesn’t matter whether it is bad or good, that it is a perfect translation from what is inside to an outside, since what is outside is what creates the inside. I confirm myself in what I have written. But we might add so what. Having written the sentence, what other meaning has it except for the writer. What relation does it have to the world? The sentence, if it is written down, really does have another relation, and that is to the reader. In this relation it becomes ‘a universal sentence’. This would undo everything Blanchot adds. Others are interested in his work, which means that it no longer just has the meaning that he had for him and which confirmed his existence. Now the book only has a meaning in relation to other books, and seems to have banished him altogether. This is the paradox that he only exists in the work, but the work only really exists when it exists for a public. It is ridiculous to talk about a book that has never been read. Yet when the work is complete in the public it now no longer exists for him. Well how can the writer solve this puzzle? He might be tempted by the fantasy that the real work is not the one that is being sold in the market place, which is only a simulacrum of the real work that he had written; even though it is word for word the same as the first unpublished work, it his relation to the work that is the only real one. But if that is so, why let it be read, why sell it, why even write, since the words that you will use will be the same words that are spoken by everyone else. Wouldn’t it better not to produce anything at all, and disappear into one’s mind? Or the writer goes the other way, and says that his relation to the work is not important at all. All that matters is the reader, and she is the real author of the work. The real goal is then to write for the reader and to become one with them. But this is also useless, for the reader does not want a work that has been written for them. What she wants is something other to herself, something that will make her think and look at the world differently: ‘An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing; it is the public that is writing, and for this reason the public can no longer be a reader’ .
If the writer really withdrew then he would stop writing. Or he could like Valery say that he is dedicating himself to the perfection and the technique of writing itself, and ignore the public completely. But as soon as the work enters the world, then it escapes the grasp of the author, and whatever care and attention he has placed within it, it will have a meaning and significance which he cannot control nor determine. But none of this matters to some extent, for in all of these experiments Blanchot says the author has ‘put to test a nothingness in the work’ and having written it, he ‘puts his work to test as something in the act of disappearing’ . Yet even this disappearance is what is most important about the work, for without it, the work could not enter the stream of history. The work negates itself so as to become a cultural signification. It is the ideal which is above the work, and to which it has always aimed, and which all works aim, in the manner in which they express the world as a whole. The author might have one idea when he writes the work, but what really matters is the cultural history to which it belongs, and has always belonged. But that is something dishonest about all of this when it comes to literature. For if the work is not successful, then the writer will claim that all that matters is the value that it has for him, or that he has always meant it for it to be a failure, since this expresses its true value. But let’s imagine the work is a success even though the author had put no effort into at all. It should not surprise us that he will still claim that this work was his own and that he always meant it to be this way, and this success is his, just as much as the failure was before.
Even if he says that he isn’t writing for himself but for others, we shouldn’t believe him, for if he did take writing seriously in the way Valery did, then he wouldn’t write at all. One never really writes out of values; either for oneself or for another. The writer says that he believes in a Cause, and others also read him and believe him to0. But when they pay attention to what he has written they realise that he wasn’t for the Cause at all. He has committed himself to writing, first and foremost, and not to the party. If he commits himself to the Cause completely then he has ceased being a writer at all, and is no longer interested in literature. Let us say the writer, then decides to do nothing, to commit to nothing, and turns, to use Blanchot’s image, his face to the wall. Is he now being authentic, whereas before he wasn’t? But no matter how far he sinks into himself and withdraws into solitude, the world would be present in the words that he writes.
All this duplicity might appear to damn literature, but deception lies at its heart. To say that literature doesn’t really express what it ought to do, and it is difficult and boring to read, is a strange complaint, since this is the very meaning of literature. It would be like complaining of a chair that it is to sit on. Of course, a writer can say that he just wants words to mean what they say, that ‘cat’ just means cat. But this is just another lie, for cat doesn’t just mean cat and every writer knows this.
So why is it so hard to capture the truth of literature, if there is any truth at all? The answer is because literature is made up of a different series of relationships. Phenomenologically speaking there is the writer, the work of art, and the reader. From the side of the work, there is writing, the thing written and its truth. From the side of writer, the writer without a name, the writer of the work, the writer who is famous, the writer who is denied by the work and so on. Every time the writer, for example is fixed in one of these stages, he then claims the truth of another one. ‘You say I am genius. Well I am not a genius. I just work hard.’ ‘You say that writing is just working hard, well I tell you it is about genius.’ And so on. The writer is not even the unity of these different stages, but each claims absolute truth over the others, so that the writer is pulled in different directions by different voices.
For Sartre (much of what Blanchot writes here is aimed against his What is Literature), the choice of being a writer must be understood in terms of the choice that we all have to make as human beings. It is humanity which reveals the world, and not the other way around. Without us the world would have no meaning. This does not mean that the world would disappear if we no longer had a relation to it. Its brute reality is quite indifferent to us. Art, nonetheless, is the feeling that we are essential to reality, even though it is indifferent to us. It is in the description of the world, through a painting or a text, that I can fix it and preventing it from falling back into its brute indifference. Yet what I find is that the created object also resists me, for I cannot create and reveal at the same time. I create out of a certain kind of ignorance, and when I stand back from the art, it is as opaque to me as it is to anyone else. This is explains the feeling that I am never quite sure when I have finished something, for if I did know the work of art, then completing it would be as simply as completing any other practical task in the world. Even though the object is a mystery to us, nonetheless the activity is not, since we are the origin of the activity and no one else. Thus the work can be subjectively known, but not objectively. Or if we attempt to know it objectively, then it cannot be known subjectively and so on.
This dialectic is no where more apparent, Sartre argues, than in writing. For the object only has any meaning in the subjective act of reading. But the writer cannot read what he writes, for reading implies that one knows what will come next, but to write is act in perfect ignorance of this. It is only a ‘quasi-reading’. It is not the object that the writer sees, but their own subjectivity. His work can only become objective for him if for some reason he has completely forgotten that he had wrote it. One does not write for oneself, therefore, for the work has no objective existence for oneself. One writes, rather, for the reader. The meaning of literature, therefore, is the conjunction of the writer and the reader. The object is essential, because with it there would be nothing transcendent (that is to say nothing out there, external), but the subject is essential, both as the audience, but also as the creator. This means that the meaning of literature is never to be found in the words themselves but in relation to the mind of the reader who activates them. Without him the words are silent. Thus it is wrong to say that the reader re-invents the meaning that is latent in the word (one imagines that it came from the original author); rather, it is invented, as though for the very first time. The silence of the word exists objectively for the reader, whereas they exist subjectively for the writer, and it is in this objective silence where the density and opacity of language lies. It is from this silence that the reader creates the work, and this silence is more than just the words on the page. Everything that exists in the work exists in the reader’s mind. Without it, the work is completely meaningless and empty. And yet at the same time, the words are objective; that is to say, they take us beyond ourselves to feelings that we could not feel just by ourselves. This explains the sense that we all have that there is more in the work than we have given to it, that we could go further if we wanted to. Precisely because the work of art has no meaning without the reader, however much it might resist them, every literary work is an appeal. The appeal is that the reader will make objective what hitherto was only subjective. This requires the freedom of the reader, and requires it in a very different way from other objects in the world, because it is a freedom that is without limits because it is creative, rather than just contemplative as Kant imagined.
The closer the work of literature is to literature the more it banishes the author from its presence. Where Sartre sees literature as the relation between the writer and the reader, justified in their freedom to create, Blanchot sees the primacy of the word. Literature is words or it is nothing. Or because is just words it is nothing. This is the message of Kafka’s famous story Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk. Josephine unlike the other mice has the wonderful power of singing. Everyone is attracted by the power of her voice, even though, as a race, they are not that interested in song. This is because their daily lives as so hard. What interests them most is peace and rest, and to raise themselves up to the high art of song would be difficult and even more tiring. What is most important to the race, and which they pride themselves in, is a ‘practical cunning’ which is used to get by with, and quite useless for art which they console themselves with, even though they have never really ever missed not being able to understand music or take much comfort or interest in it. Thus the mice do not even know what the music means or whether it has any meaning at all. They seem to understand it, even though Josephine herself, perhaps because she is precious and believes that no ordinary mouse could understand what they are doing, does not think they can. The only skill they have is the cunning that they need to get by in their work, and yet they can understand her singing, and are even attracted by it perhaps in a little way. Is her singing so beautiful that even the deaf can hear it, as though even with the lack of ability to hear the song there lurked a different ability that could hear it? But this is not the answer either. For in reality they cannot hear anything, at least not anything that one might call beautiful. In fact it is ‘nothing out of the ordinary’. It is so plain that one cannot even be sure that it is singing at all. Even though today the mice have no song, there is a legend that long ago mice did sing. Is Josephine’s song a memory of this tradition, and can the mice have an unconscious ear for it, even though they have lost the ability to sing? On the contrary, her song is not song at all, but just a kind of ‘piping’, which in fact all mice can do, and which is so unremarkable that no-one even remarks about it. Why then is the noise, and perhaps it is only noise rather than anything else, of Josephine so important? Indeed her piping is worse than others, who, just in their daily work, can keep the noise going stronger and for longer. This is the puzzle, since for all her lack of talent and genius when it comes to making a noise she nonetheless has a great influence over the mice. But perhaps it is not her, song, which is not a song at all, which attracts the listeners, but what she looks like. Not because she does anything extraordinary, but precisely the opposite. She makes such a song and dance of what everyone else does normally. In bringing an audience to see it, perhaps she shows the other mice what is extraordinary in what they see only as very ordinary.
Of course Josephine herself denies any connection between her art and the piping of the other mice. When the mice sit in front of her, they all stop piping, even though they make this noise all the time ordinarily. They sit in rapt attention. Again it is not her voice that grabs their attention but the silence that is within it, because her voice is less strong and vibrant as theirs. Once it happened that a child piped during one of Josephine’s performances and it is was impossible to tell the difference between its piping and hers, but nonetheless the audience shouted it down, and the interruption only caused her to strain even harder. She was always like this with every interruption, but she believed that the audience never really understood what her art was. Every small interruption for her was proof of her art. If this were so, then the great events were even more significant. The life of the mice was arduous. They have to rely on one another to survive. Death threatened them at every moment. The more terrible the burden, the more important that Josephine thinks she is. In such circumstances, she uses all her powers, to the point of near absolute collapse, to sing. But it is not a song, and it is not even as good as the ordinary piping of the mice. Yet this is only a fleeting impression of her detractors. For the most part they too are part of the warm mass which listens to her strained piping in silence. She can perform any time that she likes. Normally the mice are scurrying around, but all she needs to do is to stand up, and produce a noise and the mice will surround her. If there is not enough of an audience, she will just stand there, so angry that she will even bite. Rather than putting the mice off, it just enhances her reputation, and messengers (as they have always been done, but she does not notice) are posted around, so that as soon as she stands a large enough audience can be found. Why do the mice make so much effort? This is as a difficult question to answer as the one about her singing. The answer to both might be that they are devoted to her, but devotion is not something that the mice feel at all and have never felt. It is cunning and slyness which is their virtue, ever if childish and innocent. It is precisely because they lack devotion that Josephine strains her voice. Perhaps the best explanation is not that she looks after them, as she thinks, but they look after her, as one would care after a child, old or sick person, and this is why they do not laugh at her. Even her protest against such care is precisely what one would expect from a child. And yet it is not as simple as it first might seem. For though she does not save the mice, since through their courage and foolhardiness they are always facing death, from the disasters which continually befall them, they do listen with more attention to her singing, which is not really singing at all. It is not her voice that makes them listen, but the terror of the events themselves which silence them. It is not song which brings them together, but the horror, and succour they try to gain from each other by assembling together. None of this is at all recognisable to Josephine, who thinks that she has brought the people together. This does not mean that the mice ignore her piping. For even though they are not really listening to it, silenced by the fear that grabs them, nonetheless something in it comes across to them. It is ‘message from the whole people to the individual’. Even though she is nothing, and her song is nothing, in this nothingness, this message gets across somehow. If someone could sing, then the mice would not listen, for the event would be much more serious than any song. But it is precisely because she cannot sing, and is nothing remarkable, that this message gets across. Perhaps Josephine herself knows this, since she always claimed that they do not listen to her.
Perhaps another explanation is that there is no childhood for the mice. Although they all agree that there should be such a thing it never happens. As soon as the mice are born they already have to be adults and take on adult responsibilities. The mice are constantly threatened from every side. This would be a depressing affair if not for the fact that they are extremely fertile. This is the reason why children have no time to be children, because the next generation is already pressing on the heals of the first. Precisely because no-one has time to be children means that a childishness permanently pervades the entire race, which means even for their cunning and common sense they can act with complete foolishness. It is from this childishness that Josephine profits. But for the very same reason as their childishness, the mice are also already old, since they are immediately grown up. It is the weariness of old age that prevents them from having any pleasure in music. It is perfectly possible that one amongst them might have a talent for music, but the tiredness of old age always prevents them from taking this talent up. That there is a faintest trace of music in Josephine’s wretched piping is fine, since it preserves the memory of music that no one else has the time or inclination to do anything with. It does not just preserve the memory of music, but also our childhood, which is why perhaps the children, for the brief moment that they have to be children, listen with more rapt attention than anyone else. It does so just because it is just piping which they all do in their everyday affairs but here is set free in Josephine’s song. This does not mean that she gives the mice strength. Indeed quite the opposite, for in times of danger when they should be protecting themselves, they are listening to her, and her piping probably attracts the enemy itself. Perhaps, then, she is ‘beyond the law’, and people are quite happy to sacrifice themselves to her. In this way, she has always demanded that she did not have to work, since it would undermine her art. The people always refuse this demand. It is not idleness that she really demands but recognition which she never gets. Here the people are complete cold, which is in contrast to their normal ‘paternal care’. This is not because they wish to trick or fool her, as one might trick a child. Many of the mice think that she is becoming more insistent on this point because her voice is getting weak. But she does not get strong or weak. It is precisely because what she seeks is impossible that she seeks it. Here she uses underhand methods, like claiming that she has a better way of singing, but will not use it, or that she will henceforth refuse to use fully the ‘grace notes’ in her singing, even though no one has ever notices them. Or she pretends that she has hurt her foot and cannot stand up, and since she must stand up to sing, that she can no longer sing for a long time. No one believes these excuses, though no one is angry about them either, like listening to the pleas of a child that one knows are not serious. The latest pretence is her disappearance. She abandons her singing so that they might give her recognition, but exactly the opposite happens: she destroys the affection of the people, which are not in the slightest bit affected by her vanishing. The people will go on, but all that faces Josephine is absolute ruin and her last notes will disappear into silence once and for all. Was not her singing already losing itself in the silence even when she was here, and wasn’t this, in the end, what made the people respect her?
 Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999)
 Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Nebraska UP., 1990) p. 95.
 The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays, p. 359.
 ‘The spiritual animal kingdom’ in the Phenomenology of Spirit, p 240.