Dying without Death and the Nothingness of Literature

Dr William Large


The narrative of Death Sentence begins in 1938. The date gives the story some kind of authenticity, as though it must have really happened. Additionally, the narration is in the first person, which gives the illusion of sincerity and genuineness. The reader undoubtedly (perhaps they cannot help themselves) will associate the 'I' of the narrator with the author. Nonetheless our only relation to these events is through the written word. The narrator tells us that this is not the first time he has tried to write down what happened, but all the other manuscripts have been destroyed. Was this one kept because it is more truthful than the rest? If a novel has been written about these events, then it is only because the words themselves ‘began to shrink from the truth’.[1] Is this the only true manuscript, then, because it is the most untrue? One part of the narrator does not want to write at all. That it would be perhaps best if these events were not told, that they were left in peace and silence. But an other part, wants to have ‘done with them’, and the only way to achieve this is by writing them down; writing is way of ridding ourselves of our memories, of abolishing the past, rather then remembering and preserving it.

The story was first written down in 1940. Again the date, perhaps mistakenly on our behalf, gives us the security of facts. Perhaps all this really did happen. This manuscript, however, was destroyed. We are not told why it was destroyed. Was it not good enough? Or perhaps the opposite was the case. Perhaps it was too good. Whatever the manuscript was, the narrator tells us that he (and it is definitely a ‘he’) that he cannot remember any of it. Now nine years later he will try again, on the morning of the 8th of October, even if only for himself. It could take only ‘ten words’ to the story, but he will use more.

There are many witnesses to these events, but this does not mean that all of them saw the truth, though we the readers don’t know what this truth is. There is only one person who knows the truth about what happened and it all took place in an apartment that the narrator still occasionally rings today. Is it the woman, whose sister used to live there after, who lived there, who knows the truth? He too used to live in this apartment. He writes, in a matter of fact way, that she is now dead. We suddenly think that this story will be about death, although in the first sentence of the next paragraph, he will says that sister had a ‘force of life’. Life and death, these are the two opposites of this story; to live fiercely and to die abjectly.

The family of the sisters is a failure, a middle-class family that have fallen on bad times. They invested badly into business and lost most of their money. Also much of the money that was left went into paying for the illness of the ‘older daughter’ (is this the sister or the first women which the narrator speaks of?), which the mother resents. The narrator says that he has ‘kept living proof of these events’, and puts inverted commas around ‘living’, as though he wasn’t really living at all, or what he was describing wasn’t best described by the word ‘living’. Does he mean that being alive was the only proof that these things happened, because he has kept a memory and recollection of them. He says that when he dies all this will go, and all that will remain is this writing which will not be a living proof at all, but just a ‘shell of an enigma’. It would be best if this manuscript be destroyed (one is reminded of Kafka's request that all is work been burnt, though he asked the one person, Max Brod his friend, that he perhaps knew would not do this). It would better if all these words were destroyed, and all the other evidence, letters and notes, without ever been looked at, so that the truth could go with him unto the grave.

There is only one other person who knows of the proof of this story (we the readers do not know what this proof is, or what it is a proof of, still less what this truth is). She did not know what the story was, but she knew that something was locked up in a closet. Perhaps just like the reader, who also wants to unlock the novel to find out what the truth is. Yet as soon as she tried to open it she fell violently ill for the whole day and night. The narrator tells us that she had been poisoned before and this attack might have been precipitated by this event.

What we need to know, or what the narrator needs to remind himself of, can be found in a notebook which gives a precise, if the only precise one, date of the story: Wednesday 13th of October, and the historical events that surround it: the Munich crisis. This gives the story the feeling of authenticity and reality. He tells us that this date is important because of her illness and she is ‘as ill as anyone could be’.[2] Despite this illness, however, she still makes her way around Paris in the days before. She was slightly older than the narrator, but she had a young face that was not touched by the disease (we are not told what the disease is, but just that she is very ill). The only effect was to make her look even younger, so that she had the face of an ‘adolescent’. It was only her eyes, larger and blacker than they should be, that gave her the appearance of being ill, and made her look serious even when she smiling or perhaps laughing. The doctor tells the narrator that she has only a month to live (the death sentence), but she does not take it seriously.

Does she want to live or die? He does not know. The disease she had been struggling against had lasted for 10 years. This was just the final stage. Her life had become a living death; in fact death would have been better than her life, which had become an interminable dying. This is why she thought suicide would be a good option, and the narrator says that he had advised her to do it. One night, when she could hardly breathe, she wrote a few sentences down. He kept them but we don’t know what was written exactly, but he tells us that they are instructions for a simple funeral and that no-one should visit her grave, and she give a small legacy to A., who we don’t know but are told that she is the ‘daughter in law of  a famous dancer’, as though these facts would add a substance to the story, but in fact they don't do so at all.

The narrator says that she hasn’t written anything about him, though he will later write, as we are reading now, much about himself. He thinks because she is actually ‘bitter’ about him suggesting that she should kill herself to put herself out of the misery of living. Later he realised that he wasn’t been honest with her, for the reason that he wanted her to kill herself at that time was not to end her misery, but that she should have been dead long ago, and really she had no right, with her illness, to be living at all. It was as though she were already dead, but just happened to walking around the city (like the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s story who had died yet by some mistake had remained living, though his life was really a living death). Even her doctor from the year 1936 had considered her to be a dead person. But the same doctor had said the same thing to him as well, as though his life too were just a reprieve from a death sentence and nothing more. He had been give 6 months, but that was 7 years ago. The narrator thinks that in his case he said this because he wanted it to happen, but it wasn’t really true, whereas in J.'s case it really was the truth (this is the first time that we know her name, though we don't know it, since it is just an initial).

He thinks that she might have given the paper back to him to tear up, but he isn’t sure. All he can remember is the tenderness he felt for her, and the look of death on her face, but also her fierceness, even though she was quite small. From this ferocity also came her violence, and though she cried a lot it wasn’t from cowardice. She used to hit him, but was very embarrassed by it. Not because she felt sorry for him, but she was angry and surprised by her inability to control herself. He wouldn’t have let her kill him, because he loved her. He had been shot at by another woman some time ago, but he hadn’t loved her. He heard that she had killed herself.

Most of the time J. was alone in her apartment. She hadn’t many friends, and when A. visited her she bored her. But she wanted visitors even if she did not like them, because she was afraid of being alone. What made her afraid was not her illness, but being alone at night. When he first moved into the building he didn’t really know her and they had separate rooms. One night she woke up and thought that someone was in her room at the foot of her bed. She thought that it was him, even though she didn’t know him at the time. But she heard his footsteps in the corridor and a door close, as if he really had walked into her room to look at her sleeping. It made her think that he had died, or was dying. Was it a ghost that had visited her? She went to his door and called him, and even though he didn’t know her he answered ‘don't be afraid’, but the sound of his voice was more frightening than reassuring, because it sounded like the voice of a dead man. She opened the door, perhaps with some force, because it was locked. He hadn’t spoken or maybe he had spoken in his sleep, for the sound woke him up and made him angry. He told her that he had never been out his room. She fell asleep on his bed. Perhaps it was madness to go to a stranger's room and fall asleep there, but he thought it was noble, and knew of only two other people who could have been capable of it.

Her illness had made the day into night. She wasn’t afraid of dying but of something worse than death, of not being able to die. Her mother visited but as soon as she came she made some excuse to leave. This annoyed her. She thought then, when the doctor made his pronouncement, that she would stay but she didn’t. She needed people to stay with her against the loneliness not the illness, but she didn’t tell people that; rather she felt it inside in the way that children sometime demand silently for the world to change. The illness was making J. a child.

When he was leaving, it was decided that she should go to a specialist in Lyon for a new treatment which had an excellent prognosis for some one who was not terribly ill, but was fatal for someone in a critical condition. That was how he had found out that she was going to die, because he had asked her doctor whether this treatment was alright for her. The answer was that with the treatment death was 80% certain and without she would be dead in 3 weeks for certain. He liked the idea of the treatment, and so did J. Perhaps because it was such a death sentence and had something inevitable about it. Later he realised that the whole thing was a bit foolish and the doctor was a bit of a quack and should not have been taken seriously at all.

When she was receiving treatment, which consisted of painful injections, she use to write to him. Her handwriting was very firm and strong. Not the handwriting of an ill person. But before she could start the treatment she had a fit, and could not continue. The doctor never told him what he saw that evening. She did get better and the question remained whether she should start the treatment again. She wanted to, not because it would have made her better, but because the odds on her dying were more certain. That is when he decided to do a curious thing, and have a model of her hands made out of plaster caste sent to a palm reader. The lines on her hand were peculiar, ‘cross-hatched’ and entangled without any apparent unity or direction. Perhaps no reading was possible then. He could remember now. The most perceptible line was the long one in the centre of her palm: the line of fate, he believed it was called. Only when the other lines disappeared could one see it, and then her hands were almost smooth. Most of the time it was very lined which made them look very old. Because of the line of fate, however, one could also say that they were tragic hands.

The astrologer wrote to him. He seemed to think that he did not trust him, and the hands were a fake, but he did give an accurate reading of her illness. He said that she would be ‘restored to health’ and the words ‘she will not die’.[3] A kind of reversed death sentence. J. did think much of it, and thought it was funny. She wasn't suspicious at all, even though every night she faced the horror of dying. Her sister on the other hand, was very superstitious, and was always trying to find fortune tellers to come home. What was there to predict in J.'s case?

Politically things were getting worse, and everyone was leaving the hotel, even the important guests. The narrator says that he ought to have left too, but he didn’t and he can’t really understand why he stayed away from Paris and J., especially when he knew that she wanted to see him, even though she had said the opposite. He says that he didn’t really know what was happening, because finding out the truth is difficult; that is, he couldn’t really remember the reason why he didn’t go back.

A day later he received a hand written note. This time the handwriting is not strong at all. He rings her up but all he can hear is her coughing. She tries to speak but the terrible coughing stops her. Eventually she can just say ‘hang up’ and he does. The next day he receives another note, which is ‘tranquil, perhaps too tranquil’.[4] The effort of saying ‘hang up’ has almost killed her, and she went straight to bed. After that she did ring him up, and she seemed almost confident and self-assured.

The doctor came back, and said something very peculiar that she has too much courage. Too much to stay alive perhaps. The treatment must stop, and she must be given drugs. Other drugs to ease her dying. He tells her sister that it is terrible to let her suffer like this. The battle was now quite different. The battle with death, we presume, and it had ceased to be a honest enemy. It was not the pain of the disease that unnerved her, but its ‘sweetness’, and it was this that suddenly made her a dying person’.[5] Now J. had a nurse who became very attached to her because of her beauty, a beauty that came from the disease itself, even though the disease was something quite dreadful.

The morphine was stopped, but J. was angry about that because she didn’t want to suffer. She says something that reminds the narrator of something that he would read in Kafka later on: ‘If you don't kill me, then you are a murderer’.[6]This time the effect of the morphine was quite different, and this was when she looked as beautiful as though she had forced death to be become nobler. He didn’t really talk to anyone at that time except the doctor who was a bit of an idiot and the nurse. She said that if he was ever ill that she would look after him too. J. also asked her whether she had ‘ever seen death’. We wonder what death would look like. She replied that there is a difference between death and dead people. She had seen dead people but she had seen death. Perhaps she will this time J. said to her.

She got A. to write to him, though she didn’t like writing through a third person. He thought that this was proof that she was now dying, and he decided that he would return to Paris, and told her so. In the middle of the night he received a phone call and is told by Louise that J. is dying. He goes to her apartment and meets the doctor in the front hall. He doesn’t like the doctor and thinks he’s a bit of a fool. He says that he was right after all, and that she would be dead in 3 weeks. ‘But it has been 5,’ he replies angrily. He realises that she has only called the doctor and not him first, because she wanted to stay alive a little longer for him. He says that his ‘grief began at that moment’.[7] The grief perhaps that is the beginning of this story.

The room was fall of strangers. Characters that we have already met in the narrative, but strangers to the narrator. They have become strangers in this situation. He thinks that these strangers would have filled J. with disgust, though at this moment she is completely silent. Perhaps she is already dead. He looked at her but did not see her. The room, the strangers, her death or dying, all made it unrecognisable for him. He felt disgusted. The only person who he could speak to was Louise, who had phoned him, because she reminded her of J. He didn’t speak to her, but she spoke to him. Why was she dying now, when she had resisted her illness for so many years? Could she not have lived for a few minutes so as to speak to him? But this ‘few minutes’ would have meant everything for her, would have taken superhuman strength, and would have been a lifetime. ‘She is dying,’ Louise said. This was the truth that she would die, that we would all die. At the end of the phrase, when Louise hung up, she was already dying. Before she had been consciousness, but at that moment she slipped into unconsciousness and death.

Louise was not intelligent or perceptive normally, but she saw in his face that something was to happen that no-one else was to see but him. She ushered everyone out of the room, and he sat on J.'s bed. He looked at her corpse, or what was becoming a corpse, her face and her hands, especially her hands crunched up by the final effort to avoid death for an interval, these hands whose plaster caste had before been sent to the foolish astrologer. He feels a complete sadness and says her first name, which we do not know except for the initial. Just then a small breath escapes from her lips. She does not breathe in but out, and she made a cry, and attempted to lift up her arms. Her eyes open and look at him. He says that there was something terrible in these eyes, a look that he cannot describe that perhaps is the very truth that was the origin for this story. If he had been afraid that look would have done in him, but because he felt such tenderness for J. he took her into his arms.

She spoke to him. Her voice sounded strange. Perhaps it sounded like the voice of someone who had come back from the dead. Later she sounded human again. On recollection, the narrator says, that it ought to have appeared strange to him that he was given back J. for that day, when she was supposed to be dead, but it didn’t. He also almost forgot to tell the others who were in the kitchen that she had come back from the dead. Louise told him later that they thought he treated them as though they were ‘intruders’ rather than family, and this impression was only increased more when even he had asked for her body to be embalmed (even now when she is alive again the narrator mentions the fact than when she does die he will ask for her body to be embalmed - again this is an ambiguous state, somewhere between life and death, preserving the body against putrefaction). Strange that even though she had nearly died, she was very happy and playful that day she had been resurrected, and the gaiety of it filled the narrator with a kind of shock of recollecting it, though at the time he wasn’t shocked at all.

Some time later a friend of J. came to visit her but wouldn’t come into the room, she said that at this time of the illness it was at its most contagious. This angered her a lot, and she said ‘Am I that ugly?’[8] She was in fact very beautiful, and the narrator remembered that what the friend said was very strange as well, because she too was only two steps away from death. Later in the night she did not get any more ill, but her mood changed. It was as though she was suspicious that he was staying in her apartment. Did he think that she was going to die again or maybe from the look that she gave him, she was already dead. Her fear was only increased because she was someone who was afraid of the night. In the night she started dreaming or better hallucinating, because she could still speak to him. She seemed to see a ‘perfect rose’ in the room. Perhaps she was confusing them with the flowers that he had brought her earlier. She said again, with more fear, ‘Quick, a perfect rose’, but this time there was rattle in her voice. She was sleep or not asleep, half-sleep, talking in her sleep. The nurse told him that these were the very same words that she had spoke before when she started dying. After speaking them again, she immediately fell into unconsciousness.

She was falling into the same state of dying that she had before. Perhaps she was tempted to. He touches her wrist, and immediately she wakes up, staring at him, and shouts angrily, ‘never touch me again’.[9] But not pushing him away, she starts crying, and holds him in her arms. She is sobbing and crying so much, and in so much anguish, that she can’t breath. Eventually the nurse manages to get the oxygen to her. She wouldn’t let him leave, but falls back to sleep. She is asleep but not asleep, tears are running down her face which makes it look even younger than it did before. Then her face suddenly looked severe and haggard. Her hand is wriggling in his as though it wanted to escape, but it grasps even more tightly, with a grip, he says, that wasn’t even human. Again she wakes up when the nurse comes into the room and she says ‘I have my secrets with her too’. From her illness, she spoke to him one more time. The end appeared to have begun again, and her health was only a small remission from the process of dying. Although her eyes were not open, he was pretty sure that she was still awake. One reason he was sure of this was that she refused any more shots of morphine from the nurse. But later also she opened her eyes and pointed at him and said ‘take a good look at death’.[10] Did she mean that he was death, or that by pointing at him she was attempting to get his attention so that he would see her death? The end was quite quick and also unremarkable though he seems to hint that there was something terrible about it that he couldn’t or didn’t want to remember. He went back to his room for a rest perhaps, she was breathing like a normal person, but an hour later he came back. Louise said that she hadn’t changed, but she had. Her face was that of a ‘dying person’ and the death rattle had begun. Her mouth that was open through which this noise was coming did not seem to be her mouth. In fact it didn’t seem to be the mouth of anyone. The death rattle was so loud that it could be heard throughout the whole apartment even if one shut all the doors. He didn’t have any feeling for J. anymore, for what was lying on the bed was ‘half dead and half alive’.[11] Strangely when he sees her again in the morning she is awake and speaking. So it wasn’t the end after all. She was so quick that she had managed to keep a few steps ahead of death. He gives her a shot. The way that he describes it it could be enough to kill her. In the end is he her executioner? What is extraordinary is not this story, which is quite ordinary. The extraordinary only begins when this story stops, but he cannot speak it.

There is a more subtle relation to language and death in literature rather than just the connection between writing and revolution. ‘Literature,’ Blanchot writes is ‘bound to language’.[12] This bond is very peculiar and is at the heart of Blanchot’s conception of the singularity of literature, because language itself is an experience of negativity. When we normally use language, Blanchot remarks, we seek to control the world around us. In naming things, I have a power over them. In fact in older societies this naming was the essential power of magic. ‘Speech,’ Blanchot writes, is ‘life’s ease and security’.[13] If I can’t name something, then I cannot make use of it, or insert it within my practical world. It is entirely a mystery to me.

In poetry, however, and here Blanchot refers to Hölderlin and Mallarmé, the power of naming is something far more troubling. The word gives me meaning, but it does so by suppressing the object which it refers to. I say ‘this woman’, but in so doing the woman of flesh and blood must be annihilated. This appears to be a strange thing to say. Why does the word destroy the thing? It does so because words do not refer to the material thing as such but to the idea of thing. I do not need to have the real woman in front of me to understand what the word ‘woman’ means, but just the idea of a woman. If the word did not have the power to signify the idea of the object in its absence, then we could only speak in the presence of things. We would continually have to refer to them every time that we said anything. The whole of language, therefore, places reality within a parenthesis. We can speak about the world in the absence of the world. Such a power seems to be the very source of poetry and imagination. For isn’t the power of the imagination the capacity to re-invent, or recreate the world? This also means equally, however, that human beings are excluded from any direct acquaintance with reality. We only know reality through the ideas which are expressed in the words we speak. We cannot know reality in itself, as Kant himself had already observed. Like Adam and Eve, humanity has been banished from creation through the language that we speak.

Of course, it is not that language really kills someone or annihilates the object, for this would be to precisely confuse words with reality, but death (and Blanchot actually writes ‘real death’ to reinforce this point[14]) is ‘announced’ in this obliteration. For when I say ‘this woman’, I am expressing the possibility that she can be entirely separated from her existence and negated. My own name already conveys the possibility that my actual existence is something that can disappear, because the word already contains this absence. I can speak to you about someone who is not here, because I can use their name, but this ‘not here’, to a certain extent, already expresses the possibility of their death. If we did not die, if we lived forever then language would not possible. The negation of language is dependent on the negation of death; language and death are inseparable. It is precisely because objects and people disappear that we have language; that is, that we can separate the meaning of something from its presence.

This bond between death and language has an important consequence, Blanchot argues. First of all, it also means that I am separate from myself. The fact that I can use my own name means there is something about me which is separate from my own existence here and now. I can speak about myself in the absence of my being, and there is something deeply impersonal about my name. It is not just that someone else can have my name, but my name has a meaning even though I am not there. Someone can speak about me when I am not in the room, or I can speak about myself in the third person.

This would mean that language is linked to nothingness in two ways: first, in the annihilation of the object, and second, in the absence of the presence of the speaker. Of course I can direct language to myself, but in so doing I simply turn my subjectivity into an object, and then I am right back to the annihilation of the object in the first case. This is quite a different way of thinking about language. For ordinarily when we think about language we imagine it to be the communication of an intention. I think something, and then put this thought into words, and I then speak these words, which are then heard by someone who then, in turn, translates these words back into ideas. For Blanchot what is first is not the intention, but the nothingness of language. Language is first of all negation, because what is first is not the intention but the word that expresses the intention, and this word is essentially nothing. So if we take the simple word ‘cat’, the possibility that it can signify the idea ‘cat’ is that the word is not the cat. It is this ‘not’ that fascinates Blanchot, for it marks an absence that is at the heart of language, which in ordinary communication we tend to forget or cover over by referring language to the intention of the speaker. The thought takes the place of the presence of the object to offset the absence of the word.

Literature, however, is always been about the absence of language as opposed to the presence of the word or thought. This is why it has always aimed a pure experience of language, where reference and reality have disappeared. This explains the difficulty of literature, for we always want to overcome this absence by referring it back to the full presence of the world. The word ‘cat’ in the novel refers to the real cat in the outside world, and to nothing else, and so on.

Doesn’t this power of reference, however, solve the problem of the absence of language? As Blanchot points out, although the word ‘cat’ is not the same as the animal who is asleep on my bed, I cannot feed and stroke it, it is still a ‘non-dog’.[15] But this is the difference between ordinary and literary language. In ordinary language, the disappearance of the real cat is replaced by the idea of the cat, which the word refers to. The idea of the cat (its meaning), restores all the certainty that was lost by negating the real cat. Indeed, as Blanchot adds, this certainty is greater, for the idea does not change in the way that the real cat can. This explains Plato’s fondness for ideas. They retain the permanent essence of things that is lost in the wear and tear of life.

Literature isn’t about reference, even if we mistakenly sometimes read it that way (we read literature as though it were referring to life and was made up of ideas in the same way as ordinary language is). For Blanchot, literature pays attention to the absence which common language wishes to fill in with the idea. It does this by focusing on the word rather than the idea that the word expresses. The non-reality of the cat is the reality of word as something material, written on the page, because what is toiling away in this word is a ‘nothingness’ that is at the heart of it. Thus Blanchot is not interested in the materiality of the word for itself (the tone of the sound, for example, that one can hear when one reads it), but the nothing that is at the centre of it that is covered over, but also the possibility of, by the idea which is the reference of the word. What would the word cat be before the instance of its miraculous transformation into an idea? This is what literature is constantly struggling to reach, even if it always fails to do so, but that it is struggling to reach it means that it cannot be completely reduced to reference, and contains an openness, which is nothing, that resists the import of meaning that is the constant temptation of the reader, who inserts literature within his or her ordinary world. It is also this absence, the distance between the word and the idea, which allows the word to mean more than one thing, so that ‘cat’ never just means cat, what Blanchot calls the ‘image’, where words never just refer to what they mean, but to what they do not mean.[16] In this way, of course, any one word refers to the whole of language whilst at the same time neither referring to an object in the world, nor an idea in someone’s mind. In such a way literature falls, to use Blanchot’s image, into a void it cannot express.

But this is only one side of literature. It also wants the thing back, but not as the real thing expressed by an idea but the reality of thing from the side of thing. It hopes to reach this though the materiality of the word, as though the written word ‘cat’ could summon in this most perfect way the reality of the cat before the word had been spoken. In this manner, writing dismisses the one who has written it. This is quite opposite to the heroic writer who is the same as the revolutionary, and who negates the whole world in a sentence. Here, on the contrary, it is the writer who is negated in literature, just as in Kafka’s story of the mouse singer, who is nothing, even though she thinks she is a great artist. ‘It is my consciousness without me,’ Blanchot writes.[17] What literature aims at, which is an impossible ideal, is to write the word without intention (it is not the thoughts of the writer that matter but the words themselves) and without reference (it is not the world as thought that matters, but the words themselves). In this instance, literature is the drive to be nothing but itself, as though it could be nothing but itself, just the words on the page. Yet these words make the miraculous event of signification possible, the infinite production of meaning outside intention and reference.

Why does literature resist comprehension? In ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, Blanchot links literature to negation through the power of language to negate the reality of the thing. But literature is more than just this negation, since the same negation operates through the common use of language. In the common use of language the reality of the thing is substituted by the certainty of the idea. Although the word ‘cat’ negates the reality of the cat, it replaces it by the certainty of the idea of the cat. Literature, on the contrary, has a different emphasis than common language. Rather than just immediately replacing the thing by the idea it emphasises the materiality of the word, its shape, texture, tone and rhythm. It is important, however, also to see that this is not the end of story for Blanchot. It is not that just literature stresses the materiality of the word, but also its absence. This is the most difficult part of the Blanchot’s account of literature to understand, for what does this absence refer to? The word negates the reality of the object it refers to, but reference substitutes for the loss of reality, so that ‘not-cat’ does not mean ‘not-dog’ and so on, but ‘cat’. Literature, if you like, is this ‘not’ before it becomes the idea of the cat. It is this absence which makes reference possible. Of course literature can be read as though it were referential. It can be inserted within the signification of the world, and we can read it as though it were merely the ideas of the author, but we can also read it as words on the page without intention and without reference.

One of the most important sources for Blanchot’s understanding of literature is the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The distinction between common and literary language is taken for his ‘Crisis in Verse’. Normally we understand language through the model of communication. I say something to you which is an expression of my thoughts. You hear these words, and then translate them back into thoughts in your own mind. If the communication has been successful, then the thoughts in your mind should be the same as my thoughts, which started the process. Such a model, however, is not appropriate for understand literature, for it reduces it to a simple exchange of information, and if that were all that it was, then it would be difficult to understand why literature would exist at all. Why not just write the message without the ornamentation of language? The answer to this question is to say that literature is precisely this ornamentation. Literature is a message, but it is a particular way of expressing a message which concentrates more on the medium than in ordinary exchanges of information. This is the basis of all aesthetic understanding of literature. Indeed it seems that in Blanchot's early writings he follows this conception, when he argues that poetry is a language were the materiality of the word, rather than just the ideas expressed comes to the fore. But if we were to end there, then I think Blanchot’s remarks about literature would be very simple indeed, and it is clear that they are not. He makes use of Mallarmé’s analogy between language and the exchange of money. In the ordinary or common use of language, words are like money that we use to buy things in the market place. The more that we use the coins, the more that they become worn down. In the same way, the more that we use words to exchange information, the more they disappear in their use, to such an extent that they are no longer remarkable or mysterious, unless one comes across a new word, which will eventually also be worn down by too much use. Literature and poetry, wants to draw our attention back to the words that have disappeared in our ordinary use of them, and does that by allowing the words to remain in a way that they do not when we simply exchange information. But what does it mean to say that in literature the word remains. It means that the emphasis on the word does not just lay stress on the materiality of the word, its sound, texture, and form, but also changes the relation between the idea and the word. The word disappears in ordinary communication because the idea replaces the word which is its vehicle; it places the idea above the word. Literature reverses the relation between the idea and the word, by placing the word, which indeed is the condition for the world of ideas in the first place, above the idea. This means that the word is no longer just tied to the expression of one idea, which has trapped it inside its limited scope, but is immediately in contact with other words. In fact each word contains, through these relations, the totality of language (Mallarmé imagined this as the ‘Book’).

We might understand literature, therefore, as a ‘double negation’. The negation of thing, plus the negation of the idea. It is the second negation which is absent in the ordinary use of language, precisely because it wants to forget the word which is the very condition of meaning in the first place; for without words meaning would not be possible. Language banishes us from the reality of things. There is always a distance between reality and us because of the language we use. We attempt to overcome the alienation of language and reality by imagining that the world of ideas is exactly the same as the reality, that there is a one to one correspondence between the word ‘cat’ and the actual cat. This correspondence, however, is only possible (and Kant had already said this in the Critique of Pure Reason) because words produce the fiction of reality which we confuse with actual reality. ‘Even the idea tree is a poetic fragment that has forgotten its moment of creation.’[18]

It is not that literature attempts just to replace the absence of things with another fictional world (that it does this to some extent explains the identity of the writer and the revolutionary in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’), but absence becomes its very medium. It is fascinated, through its obsession with words, with that instability in language before the absence of the word is closed down by the strait jacket of the idea. This explains why literature, unlike the common use of language, is so ambiguous. For the reader reads back into this absence their own meaning, and cannot prevent themselves from doing so.

The absence of literature is words torn from intentionality and reference. To read literature is to read the words on the page, for the reality of literature is just the words and, and its aim, impossible for sure, is to become just these words, and nothing else. What happens in this moment is something miraculous. Every word on the page becomes linked to every other word, not through an idea, but through the word itself, such that the reader experiences a dizzying vertigo where language becomes completely dislodged from reality and their own consciousness, and yet knowing at the very same time that this emptiness or void of language is the very condition of reality and consciousness, which are like momentary islands floating in a sea of words; moments of stability yes, but only moments.

Mallarmé writes that poetry is entering a new phase, period, or epoch (he was writing in the late 19th century) where it is becoming more conscious of itself as poetry. Mallarmé describes this as a ‘crisis’.[19] This crisis is also a crisis of literature, for Mallarmé adds, since Victor Hugo, literature itself has become poetry. ‘Verse exists,’ he writes, ‘as soon as there is emphatic diction, and rhythm, as soon as there is style.’[20] In poetry, this crisis can be seen in the growth in ‘free verse’ as opposed to the traditional style of the alexandrine. This allows for a new creativity of language. But what is the language of poetry? Language itself is imperfect because there can be no one language which expresses the truth of the world, but only the numerous language of different cultures and civilisations. This means that there is no correspondence between the word and its sense. Thus, in French, Mallarmé remarks, jour is dark and nuit is bright.[21] But without these shortcomings, there would be no requirement for poetry. For isn’t the purpose of poetry to make up this lack, so that words and sense become complementary? But the complement of poetry is not for the sake of expressing reality more clearly. Literature and poetry have a completely different relation to reality than speech, which only has a ‘commercial interest in things’.[22] For its purpose is only to allude. This ‘transposition’, Mallarmé goes onto add, also marks the disappearance of the author, for what matters is what the words evoke on the  page and not what the author might intend them to mean. To think otherwise is to reduce writing to the commercialism of speech. What determines the work, on the contrary, is an ‘internal necessity’.[23] This necessity arises from the essence of language which is to be distinguished from its ‘crude’ use. In the later, words are enslaved to the function of communication, whose written form Mallarmé disparagingly calls ‘journalism’.[24] These writers cannot understand the ‘miracle’ of literature, where the written word negates the real thing, so as to let the idea of the absence of the thing emerge, as though the word ‘flower’ no longer referred to a flower, but to the ‘absent flower of all bouquets’.[25]

In reading literature, therefore, one has the surprise of coming across a word as though it were entirely new, and what it names bathed in a completely different light.

[1] Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999). 132.

[2] Ibid 133.

[3] Ibid 138.

[4] Ibid 139.

[5] Ibid 140.

[6] Ibid 141.

[7] Ibid 143.

[8] Ibid 146.

[9] Ibid 148.

[10] Ibid 149.

[11] Ibid 150.

[12] Ibid 378.

[13] Ibid 379.

[14] Ibid 380.

[15] Ibid 381.

[16] Ibid 382.

[17] Ibid 384.

[18] Ulrich Haase and William Large, Maurice Blanchot (Routledge, 2001) 31.

[19] S. Mallarmé, ‘Crisis in Verse’ in Symbolism: An Anthology. Ed. T. G. West. (London: Methuen, 1980) 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid 6.

[22] Ibid 8.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid 10.

[25] Ibid.

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