Dr W Large
The Narrative Voice
14 May 2007
I write the sentence that my life has reached a limit. This seems fair enough. It seems to express something about the world. But, Blanchot writes, 'language completely changes the situation'. Why? Because as soon as language describes the limit, then it is brought inside the circle of life and no longer appears to be limit. If I am exhausted, then the limit of my life is the limit, but if I write the sentence 'I was exhausted and at the limit of my powers', then this limit at the edge of my power, but part of it, since I can write this sentence - if I really was at the limit of my power then I couldn't write at all.
How, then, can one authentically talk about the limit without, so to speak limiting it? One has to 'enter into another kind of language', where the 'forces of life' are no longer possible.
What happens if I write the same sentence in a narrative? In other words, it is not an actual description of my life? The answer must be that the sense of the sentence changes completely. This is because, Blanchot asserts, the narrative 'neutralises life'. This is very important this reference to neutrality. But why would literature have anything to do with neutrality? What are the different ways that one could think about neutrality. It doesn't mean, Blanchot tells us, that it has no relation to life, but its relation is a neutral one. Is it because there is some suspension of reality? The meaning of what is there is still given, but it is neutralised. It neither 'illuminates' or 'obscures'.
One way we might think about this neutrality is that a bad narrative is one in which the author intervenes too much, gets in the way of the story or the words. We feel that that there is an authoritarian 'I' which is artificially moving the action along, and through this presence reality bursts through the neutrality of the literary world. The neutrality of literature would therefore be the curious suspension of reality - words still have a meaning, but it is a meaning that seems curiously separated from the presence of the world.
This doesn't not mean that there is not an outside to the narrative circle, but it is not the outside of the real life of the author, rather it is the outside of language itself, and it is this outside which is the true 'limit experience'. This limit, this outside, which is somehow internal to language, is what Blanchot calls the neuter.
In this essay, Blanchot attempts to get close to what he calls the neuter though the use of the personal pronoun in literature through the change of the 'I' to the 'he' in writing (He had already done so in The Space of Literature)
This move is not simple to another kind of subject position - to a disinterested 'I' for example, rather it is the dispossession of the subject, which is undergone by the writer. The 'he' is what happens when one 'recounts' and it is divided into two: It is the 'objective reality' which is recounted and this reality divided into to so many smaller subjective realities. These two sides of the story are held together by the narrator.
What concerns Blanchot is how, within modernism, the unifying narrator has been given up. Before he does so, however, he compares two novelist Kafka and Flaubert. Both are said to have impersonal narrators. But Blanchot wants to underline that they act in very different ways. The rule of the impersonal narrator is that he doesn't intervene - he just describes - they in Bovary there is no moralising as there is in Stendhal - we do not directly here the author's voice breaking through the narration. There are two reason for this. One is that aesthetic pleasure should be disinterested, and not moral (a la Kant) and secondly, which can be confused with the first, the narrative is a work of art, and the work of art should be entirely separate from the world (it is not real) - 'it is a world outside of the world'.
Thomas Mann is an example where one reason can act against the other. He continually interrupts the narrative, but he does not do so morally. Rather it is to continually underline the impossibility of the narrative (to remind the reader that this is not real).
A narrative is does not come directly from the itself, rather it is written or spoken through a character who acts as the centre of the story, but who does not oversteps it boundaries. We experience the story through their eyes.
But is this narrative voice the same as consciousness? Isn't this an illusion of the written word?
What does the example of Kafka tells us? He admired Flaubert, but in his work, Blanchot claims, everything is different. The essential difference is that the impersonality of the narrator, which was the condition of Flaubert's narrative', enters the story itself. Not as something ironic, as in the case with Mann or Gide, but as part of the story itself, which cannot be recounted but is at stake in the recounting itself. Such an impersonality or distance is not experience by a central narrator, nor mind sense of my such a one, but is there nonetheless in the story telling.
The consequence of this internalisation of the narrator's voice within the story is that the reader can no longer disinterestedly identify with what is being recounted. This is because what is put into play in narration is the neuter, where the 'he' is no longer the 'third person' or even a disinterested distanced narrator. The 'he' does not substitute the place of the subject, any subject whatsoever. Rather than setting up a new subject, it displaces and destroy any possible subject position, whether of the writer or the reader. It does so in two ways - that what is being recounted is being recounted by no-one and that the characters of a narrative can no longer identify with themselves - things happen to them which they can no longer make sense of by saying 'I'.