Literature and the Impossibility of Death

Dr William Large

 The narrator tells us in Death Sentence that he will continue with the story and he will take ‘precautions’. It is not clear what these precautions are. Does he mean that he will not tell us everything that happened or that he will? He says that these precautions will not obscure the truth but all that has to be told has not happened yet. The story, then, as we might have believed, is not about something that had happened in the past. The tense of the story is the same as the tense of the narration. It is the difficulty of telling the story itself. What has happened is very simple, but in trying to tell it the narrator is not sure that all these words are not actually obscuring what has happened. Writing is not allowing us to get any closer to the truth. It is the illusion of the truth, as though the more words we used, the further and further we get away from reality no matter how simply and truthfully we try and tell the story.

He tells us that he has been living with someone who has been obsessed with his death for sometime. But what troubles him more or excites him more is the thought that he is having. We are not told that what this thought is, though he writes about it as though it was a person that was living with him. Is it the same as the person who speaks about his death? The thought, which we do not know what it is, allows him an ‘intimacy with terror’.[1] Perhaps it is the thought of death, the thought of his death? The only thing that gives him strength and security in relation to this thought is his silence, that this thought does not make him speak. Yet he owes everything to this thought because it is what is most intimate to him, even though it does not involve any of his activity, even the activity of writing this narrative.

But now he does speak or at least he writes, and can only remember this silence, which perhaps lasted for years. He regrets that he now speaks, and that he does so is painful. Even though he has shut himself from everything and everyone, he still speaks, and in fact this silence makes him speak, a speaking that is much more difficult and unbearable than the silence before. His presence also seems to make others speak (if only a few), and what he admires about them is that in their conversations he finds a silence that is more silent that the previous silence he had.

He still lives in the small room of the hotel. Next door to him lives a young woman. The woman annoys him because she says to him one day that she is angry because he does not make enough noise. He tells the reader some things about her, but it is not really important. Rather he is just trying to get the story started. But then he says ‘who can say what is important?’ [154]. Perhaps this story that he is telling isn’t the important one, and it is this story (which he thinks is not important), which is the important story. He thinks that she perhaps is making a ‘play’ for him, and this is the reason that she talks to him. One day when he came home from work late in the evening, he mistakenly walks into her room. He had thought before that he might one day accidentally walk into someone else’s room because the lights did not work in the building. She did not seem to mind his presence, and she was wearing a dressing-gown. Perhaps she was going to sleep or had already gone to sleep. Yet she was made up and looked very pretty, so perhaps she had been waiting for him anyway. He didn’t tell her that he had accidentally entered the room. Later she really annoyed him, because she kept trying to get into his room, but he says that she ‘taught him something’ because of that incident though we are not really clear what that might be [155]. He says ‘something happened’. She showed him her hand (which reminds the reader of J.’s hands, plaster casts of which were sent to the spurious astrologer), and he sees that one of them has a scar. After having shown him her scar, her mood changed. She became, he says, moral, and after that he didn’t find her pretty anymore and really wanted to leave the room. He said that he entered her room by mistake, but she took that to mean that he thought it was a mistake for him to be there. He says that he had just been thinking about her. Is this what made him write these lines, though he did not think that this was really what his story was about? Was it important? He did not know. Even though he acted to her like he acted to everyone else, he was pretty sure that he had offended her. He was only happy when she recited to him very old knowledge about ‘history, grammar, and botany’, which she seemed to know a lot about [155]. This old knowledge taught him essentially this lesson: ‘there is a time for learning, a time for being ignorant, a time for understanding, and a time for forgetting.’ [155]. Perhaps the last lesson was the most important one. When she recited this material to him, her expression was beautiful, but sometimes the other expression came over her face, and it made him want to leave. Any yet perhaps it was his disagreeable behaviour that actually caused this expression? Although it might have been him who caused the expression, it came from her distant past, and it was this past that looked out of her face and disapproved of him.

What makes him think of this scene now was an experience in the Metro when he sat across from a woman who told him that she was married or getting married. This conversation makes him think of C. (is this her name?). But what he remembered, paradoxically, is that he had forgotten this woman, even though he had been living next to her and seeing her every day, and it was the chance encounter with someone he barely knew 10 years ago that made him think of her. Without this meeting he would have forgotten her completely, and all that would are remained of her would have been an impersonal hole, from which she would have found it with great difficult to emerge. The evening before, had he noticed her at all?

The ride of the metro left him with ‘a profound sadness’ [156]. Not about the women he had forgotten, but about the people in the car who were all going home for lunch, as though near them all was a ‘great unhappiness’, which nothing could assuage because it itself could not appear. It lay next to them, perceptible, but almost invisible. As he felt this emotion, he imagined himself walking on a path in the middle of nowhere. It is the road that has summoned him rather than that he has chosen this path. The road turns to look at him to see whether he was the right person, and in do doing, they both fall into the ravine below. We know that this is fact one of Kafka’s late aphorisms which he used to write on postcards in garden, because he was too ill to write anything substantial, dying from TB.

When he returns to the hotel he gives the concierge the key, so as to seem that he was not in his room. But early in the evening someone knocked on the door. No one visited him, except occasionally the hotel workers, or his brother (this is the first time that we know that he has a brother). He always met people away from his room, even if this meant walking a long way, even though he hated walking. He disliked meeting people in his room, because after they left their presence lingered there. It was also important to make one’s place where one lived a place where nothing happened, so that one can find peace, which was interrupted by the visits of others. There were other reasons as well.

He is lying on the bed. There is a little light coming from the window. The curtains were not drawn. She is standing in the middle of the room. He doesn’t move. ‘Like a statue’, he could have written, since she is so motionless. But it wasn’t stone that she was made of but fear. It was fear that had frozen her still, like a squirrel he had once since caught in a trap, paralysed in the middle of a joyous leap. What is strange, he thinks, is that even though she is in his room, she does seem to notice him or even anything else in the room. It is as though she has only been attracted by the light which is coming from the window. He says that he has the same ‘impression’ now as he is sitting at his desk, as he looks at the women in front of him, and who is also standing in front of the window. There are two times of this story: there is the time of story itself, and there is the time of the narration of the story. Is it the same women as before? It seems so, for he says that he now feels a much greater shock, even though he isn’t surprised by her being there. He says that he only noticed one thing about her (and it is not clear whether he is talking about the first or second instance) that she was wearing a ‘tailored suit’ and did not wear her hat. Her hair seemed long, but that might be just because her head was bowed, as though waiting for an execution. Then she did something that proved that she was far outside the normal parameter of the world. She walked into table (so perhaps this is the second instance, though there could have been a table in the other room) and it made a noise. She reacted to this with a frightened laugh and fled the room. But then it all gets confused. Like a hunter, he said, he lunged after her and seized her and brought her back and threw her on the bed. He says that this ‘fit of rage’ was one of the few that he had had since being a child. He was so angry at the time that he could have done anything, even smashed her skull in. But he could have hurt himself as well, for the violence was not really directed against her. When he turned the light on, however, she did not seem to have any memory of his attack, and thought she had fallen down. But she saw the wild look on his face, and although it did not bring back the memory of the assault, it did perhaps make her think of her entrance to his room, and she again tried to escape. This was what was so funny. She had tried so hard to get here, and now all she wanted to do was get away, and he was preventing her from leaving although he did not want her to stay. He says that he ought to make it clear that she thought she did not know him, so she was in a strange hotel room with a man she did not know who seemed determined not to let her leave. And he too did not know that he knew her, even though she thought she did not know him, and all he wanted to do was to prevent her from going outside, as though outside the door was more fearful than what was within the door.

Although this scene was easier to explain later, it never really became clear. He asked her later (we find out her name is Natalie, so she is not the same character as C.) why she came there in the first place. She said she had forgotten. Had she forgotten now, or had she already forgot when she arrived there in his room standing in front of the window? He believed her because she was so shy. She was always getting lost in Paris, and although the shyness did not prevent her from asking people the way, it did make it impossible to remember the way she was going in order to ask them. Or even if she did remember, she would then forget the answer that they had given. We find out that the day of the incident is Saturday, and that she should have been with her child, when she entered his hotel and his room. She was convinced that he did not know her then, and that is what made her so frightened, because he acted as thought he had known her already. She could only think, because he was treating her with such ‘savage intimacy’ that they must have known each other, but she had forgotten [160]. But this would mean that even though she was known to me, she had become something completely unknown to herself. She remembered that he had said to her ‘You’re crazy, why did you go out today?’ [160]. Later when she went home, this sentence made her feel happy, but the memory of the incident did not, and she wanted to disappear. He says that he didn’t hear anything from her after this. Is this because she disappeared until much later, or that she simply refuses to say anything about it? When she has left he remembers the women that he spoke to in the metro, who was married or getting married. He went to the building where she lived. When he knocked and rang no one answered so he pushed the door open. He was frightened because he wasn’t sure whether he was in the right apartment, which was only one room divided into two by a curtain. She had been married before and he had met her in previous husband in a TB clinic, and that is when he had seen her before, and then 6 years later (though we do not know when he first saw her) through a store window. Precisely because he hadn’t seen her for sometime, this sudden vision of her, however fleetingly through a window it was, it was all the more powerful. Her name was Simone D. The power of this emotion made him feel very well disposed to her. She had many strong qualities, did not accept money from her wealthy parents, though she could have, but she was also brutally honest. The only thing he wanted, however, when he knew her, was to repeat this scene before the shop window. He would have liked the second time to have broken the glass. When she saw him, the first thing she said was that Simon was dead, and she didn’t want him to speak about him to him.

It was quite absurd for him to come at this time. To burst or almost break into her apartment, when she wasn’t expected him, and she had got married for the second time. He was standing in the dark, quite like the opening of this second part of Death Sentence, as the women stood in his apartment, which he recollected as N. stood in front of his desk (perhaps he was writing before he attacked her). Now when he thinks back (does this ‘now’ refer to the time of the writing of this narrative, which is a kind of memory?). Perhaps he too would been attacked by a mad person, like he had attacked her. But nothing happened, and he thinks that he just returned to this hotel.

When he first saw her in the room she seemed rather ‘glum’, but when he told her that he had come to see her, though it was probably not true, to see whether she was married, this thought appeared to make her happier. Later on, however, he understood that his sudden visit had made her uncomfortable, and when she saw him in the restaurant she asked him what had meant about her marriage. It was clear that for her marriage was an important institution, whereas it was not for him. For her marriage cancelled out her past, and allowed her to re-invent herself. He realised then, when she gave him all the reasons for her marriage, that it did bother him that she was getting married. Not because of the marriage itself, but because beneath it some kind of secret ‘treachery’ was going on [162].

The narrator then interrupts the story, and says that he is aware that he is speaking about personal matters, when truly extraordinary public events are taking place, but these events, now that he is writing this story, have all rotted away, and that all that matters is what he is telling now: the passing moment. Nostalgia about the past is worthless, because the ‘avalanche’ of the future is already burying the ‘memory of the past’ [162].

He tells her to get married, and she replies that they should not see each other again. Is their relationship more serious than we first thought? Later she wrote him a letter asking him to explain why he came that night into her room. He didn’t reply. Perhaps because he couldn’t be bother, but also he had become ill. The room he was in was very warm. He needed that heat but it was also killing him. Even though the temperature difference was only slight during the night, it was as though he was freezing to death. He had some lung disease. His editor once visited him, which irritated him. He wanted to find out about the events that he was not talking about. Even the reader does not know what these events are. All what is written here is a way of avoiding talking about these events. The doctor tells the editor that he is dying. Dying not of the illness but the cure, since the doctor had irradiated him through some kind of experimental cure that he had devised. He was sent to a clinic, but he didn’t die. He returned to his hotel room but no-one had noticed his absence. The doctor asked him not to tell anyone. Not because he thought he had done anything wrong, but his pride was so great that he would have told someone that he had committed a great crime. The result, however, was the same. His blood had ‘become mysterious’ [164].

Everything that related to after he came back from the clinic repeated the experience of seeing her through that shop window. Thus when he picked up a book to read it was as if he were reading it through a pane of glass. Whatever emotion he felt, it felt as though it were coming from long away, as though from an ‘eternal past’ [165]. Everything that was unimportant, though, like people, he experienced with a vividness and intensity. The more ordinary the experience, the more alive he felt.

The first night that he came home, whilst lying in his bed awake (ever since his blood had been affected by the doctors strange experiment he could not sleep), he heard C. crying violently next door. She sobbed for 2 hours, but such endless sorrow did not effect him precisely because it was so endless. The next day he thought he should see her. When he entered the room everything was in disorder. It was empty. This is what misery looks like he thought. Last night the sadness had not affected him, but now it did. The memory of this sadness caused despair in him. He phoned the concierge and asked who lived in the room next to his - perhaps it was not C. that he heard, since he knew who she was. He wrote to N., then, to ask her to see him in a café.

The night before he met her he was ‘on the point of dying’ [165]. When he got there he could remember why he wanted to meet her in the first place, and he had a ‘mean and sick’ look. He told her, with a menacing voice, that she should come to his room. When she came to his room she felt the same fear as before but she didn’t leave, as she tried to then, when he seized her. He lay on the bed and looked at her. She felt strange as though she had committed some crime by coming here. He knew about these feelings because she wrote to him about it later. She found it easier to write than to say things. But she did say one thing then which was, ‘Do you know other women?’ [165] ‘Yes,’ he might have answered, but this response wasn’t really an answer to what was being asked in this question.

He says that N wasn’t innocent either. When she was young she had lived near a monastery. One night she had heard cries come from there, and imagined that it was an insane asylum. From this experience came the idea that as soon as there was a place she could not enter, but had wanted to enter, then out of this place terrible things would come and attack her, like madness. Perhaps this was the same with his room. He tells us that he knew about these childhood memories because she had written about them to him. It is important to the narrator that everything comes from the person that he is writing about, and it is always in the form of the written and not the spoken word. He is careful to add, however, that he knows nothing about the character of N., or even whether she had a character at all.

We are finally told why she came to the room, but he only tells us because he thinks that the beginnings of situations don’t really tell us about the truth of those situations at all. She was thinking of committing herself to some one. She had been married before, but now she was not married. When she entered the room, however, what she found was a madman that had taken his place; that he had become this madman. When he asked why she had come, she had replied then that she had forgotten. Perhaps she was afraid by what she saw. He writes now that this forgetfulness was more true than the story he is now telling.

He was struggling against someone, but he had not met this person. His whole life was this struggle. What was wrong with this struggle was not the struggle itself but the clearsightedness that he entertained about it. What is this last fight? Is it death? He writes, ‘where I am going there is neither work, nor wisdom, nor desire, nor struggle; what I am entering, no one enters. That is the meaning of the last fight.’ [167]

‘Literature,’ Blanchot writes, ‘has two slopes’.[2] One side of literature is just the same as communication in which the reality of the thing is annihilated in the word only to be reborn in the word. Literature does not just want to experience this negation in a fragmentary way in which individual things are negated as I speak them, but totally. Thus literature does not re-invent individual things, but the world as a whole. It does not just destroy this or that thing or this or that person, but the world as a whole. The world of a novel is the annihilation of the whole of the world for the sake of a fictional one. We remember that this creation of a complete world is for Blanchot the proximity between the writer and the revolutionary, and why literature is political in a profound sense, even if on the surface it does appear political at all. This total annihilation, however, is also the greatest temptation of the author, for it hides the other slope of literature, which is perhaps even more dangerous to the world, even if it is more hidden and concealed.

Unlike communication, literature is also concerned, Blanchot writes, ‘for the reality of things’ [386]. This reality is not the reality of the idea, but that which resists any idea, which is veiled and unknown. This is not some deep dark mystery, which we might gain insight into, as though literature were some kind of mystical force, but the very singularity or individuality of things that cannot be expressed in the generality of the idea. It is what remains once the idea has miraculously given birth to itself out of the negation of the thing in the word. Literature, in its allegiance to the thing, paradoxically also allies itself to the word. For just as the individual thing disappears in the miracle of the idea, so too does the word. What literature preserves is not just the individual thing, but also the word. What is the word without the idea? It is the word as ‘the reality of language’, that announces itself without saying anything, the brute reality of language without form and contour, only content and matter. It is language before the writer and reader have reduced it to the personal significance of their lives, inserted it back within the linguistic web of the world.

This transformation of language in literature, or better this stubborn non-transformation of language, however, is not sufficient to understand the strange metamorphosis of the use of language that is at its heart. For beyond this metamorphosis, there are two more steps that we must take. One is the ‘meaning of the metamorphosis, which illuminates the words’, and the other is ‘the meaning of words’ which remains even after this change, a meaning which cannot be, of course, the same as the meaning of the idea, but one which is ‘elusive’ and ‘indeterminate’ [386-7]. Blanchot describes this new meaning, as meaning which itself has become a thing. This is when meaning becomes separated from its power to express an idea or an intention, when it begins to wander from any kind of fixed reference point. Of course this meaning, in terms of the miracle of the idea, has no power, but its powerlessness is precisely what fascinates us. This new meaning is separate from any consciousness that animates the idea, but it is not the same as the unconsciousness of non-meaning and non-sense; it is meaning without the ‘I’, and meaning that is outside of us, but is not the same as the outside that is overcome and annihilated by the idea. It is as though language itself had become the outside, and the moment in which it frees itself from reality. The word is an interiority that through pushing itself to the limit becomes an exteriority, but not the exteriority which first of all opposed itself to the interior. It is the interior itself exteriorised.

When literature reaches this point doesn’t it just become the infinite shifting of words, like sand blowing in the desert wind? Doesn’t it just disappear into itself, when what it wanted was to express the reality of thing absolved from the universality of the idea? But what if this endless drift of language where the only way to express both the true silence which is at the heart of literature when it no longer seeks to mean anything, and the impersonality of existence which precedes any consciousness of it?

Though literature is divided into these two sides, to express a meaning and create the world anew, to express no meaning, but just the impersonality of language and existence, this does mean that it is separated into two different projects. As soon as one begins one ambition, one is immediately undone by the other. Thus, one seeks to write in the most ordinary and transparent prose in order to communicate the reality of the things and the world that is their horizon. One writes in the language that everyone speaks. Indeed one must do so, and all the great writers do. One thinks of the difference between Kafka and his friends. They write in purple prose of late German Romanticism, whereas he writes in the Hoch Deutsche of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yet at one point, the writer must abandon this ordinary language for another. It simply cannot accept that the word just means this one idea. It wants to capture this absence that is at the heart of words before it is filled in by the presence of the idea. In literature, the writer feels again and again that the word ‘cat’ cannot just mean cat. What literature then becomes is the search for form, which at its highest point becomes the search for a pure form over a content, a form which would completely resist any kind of summary and précis, to such an extent that what it is is only the form itself, and the form then becomes the content of what is said. The writer is not concerned so much with what is said, as how it is said. Then the writer is seeking the pure essence of language, the moment of negation and absence which totters on the edge of the miraculous birth of the idea. For Blanchot, Mallarmé represents the culmination of this search.

Of course this means that he too is on the other side of literature, and cannot help being so, for as much as he searches for the beginning of language, what he finds is not God or the Subject (though it sometime seems that he thinks he might have) but the ‘impersonal power’ of language [389]. This is why no matter how much the writer tells us that he just wants to describe the world as it is, she ends up with the ‘horror of existence deprived of a world’ [389]. If we think of the French poet Francis Ponge, he writes of ordinary things in common language. He writes of the stone or the orange as it seems to appear, without any kind of false ornamentation or spurious finality. What is he seeking but to describe the object from its own side rather than his? The tree describes itself as it might imagine Ponge would describe it. We imagine these descriptions as belonging to the ‘human world’, as being part of our world. Yet they do not belong to our world. Blanchot imagines Ponge’s poetry as the things speaking to us, rather than us naming the things, as though existence could speak before being annihilated in speech.

What interests Blanchot is that moment in literature when it ceases simply to be prose; that is, it is still prose, but it is not just the communication of the idea, for if it were only this then every novel would be the same as its précis, as though summing up the episodes of Kafka’s The Castle would be exactly the same as The Castle. Borges tells of the story of the writer who seeks to emulate Cervantes’s Don Quixote perfectly; he ends up writing the novel identically word for word. Every word in the novel means something, and one could look them all up in a dictionary, but at some point the novel strays from the path of meaning. Reason then recognises something ‘other’ than itself, even when it thought it was being at its most rational and rigorous. Reason seeks to find the point when everything went wrong. It retraces its path and sees that every word has a meaning. It starts on its journey again, only to find that meaning once more slips away. Will it retrace it steps over and over again?

One might complain that none of these are real writers, and they are all a bit excessive. But even the most ordinary writer, like Sade, who writes all his novels in prose without the slightest poetic uplift, disappears into a impenetrable obscurity. Perhaps he was just a bad writer, but even in this writing there is an experience of pure literature: ‘what seems readable,’ Blanchot writes, and which should be the slogan of any writer who aspires to literature, ‘is really the only thing worth being written’ [391].

What is at the heart of literature, like all experience, is death, but it is not the death of the heroic individual, who finds the meaning of his life in his ‘being-toward-death’. Nor is it the death that is at work in the world, changing it by annihilating the individual thing. Rather in dying, I leave behind this active death. For this death belong both to me and the world; it is that on which the world is built. But in dying, this world is destroyed, and the power of death that makes it possible. I die with my death; such is the paradox of dying that even death dies. As long as I am alive, I am mortal, but dying strips me of my mortality and the power of death, both to create a world, and my own authentic existence. This is why dying is, however strange it might seem, the impossibility of death for Blanchot.

Religion has attempted to capture this impossibility through the idea of immortality, but it is in precisely the opposite direction that we want to go. In death, I lose the advantage of being who I am. Thus, it would be absurd to say that after death, in a life that had no death, I could become the person who I really was in live. Without death, life has no meaning, for every instant would be immediately repeatable, but without life, death also has no meaning, or no capacity to give any meaning. To gain a sense of this other death, one would have to imagine a death that would go on for ever without ever coming to an end, and one’s life would remain entirely the same even though one had died.

Perhaps, Blanchot says, there is a way of illuminating this impasse. This is what Kafka wrote about in his stories and novels. He did not write about transcendence, but the impossibility of escaping immanence. But does literature have the right to claim any knowledge of the world whatsoever? On the one side, it does belong to culture and civilisation, and Kafka is praised as being one of our greatest writers, but on the other, it is nothing at all or even less than nothing, if we think of nothing as the work of the negative.

How does literature differ from ordinary language? It does so because it turns language into ‘ambiguity’ which is perhaps its secret essence. Of course, even in ordinary speech misunderstanding is possible, but the aim of speech is to limit equivocation as far as possible. If you misunderstand me when I speak to you, then I try and explain what I am saying to you. Literature, on the contrary, wants to abuse this ambiguity. It does not want to limit the absence that is at the heart of every word, rather it wants to liberate it, to let it free. It is not just that one word can have two or three meaning, but language is general becomes indistinct, and the whole world that is created in the order of language begins to disappear.

What is the relation between literature and death that seems to haunt nearly all of Blanchot's critical essays? Philosophy makes death something positive. In Hegel, death is at work in the world through the negation that is at the heart of all human activity. For Heidegger, death defines the possibility of authentic existence. Only through death can I experience my life as a whole. How might we think of this positive death, if it makes any sense to talk of death in this way, in terms of literature? One might imagine it as the desire to write the great work of art. Not just because in doing so I might cheat death in becoming immortal, but also in the sense of the freedom of creation, which might define a culture, or in sacrificing my life to art in the realisation, as Hubert Selby Jnr. says, because I know that one day I will die, and I cannot waste my life watching television or playing computer games. Blanchot does not deny the truth or reality of this experience, but he is interested in another notion of death, one which, rather than expressing my heroic will to negate reality, or choose my existence, is a kind of wearing away and down. Maybe in a limited sense we have all experienced this other death in the sheer stubbornness of our work to resist our every intervention and imaginative leap, when the words, as they say, sit dead on the page. Every thing we write, we know, falls short of what could be written, and this is always and every time the case. Writing, if we are sincere, is always the experience of failure.

In terms of philosophy, Blanchot characterises this other death by the inversion of Heidegger famous formulation that death is the ‘possibility of impossibility’. What did Heidegger mean by that? He meant that in death I see the possibility of my non-existence, and in so doing I would choose to live authentically. But what does it mean to reverse this formulation and say on the contrary that death in the ‘impossibility of possibility’? It means that death isn’t just the possibility of my non-existence, but also the impossibility of any possibility; that is, in the experience of death, I experience the end of every possibility, even the possibility of death. This is why we find in Blanchot’s novels the description not of death but dying. Dying is the experience of the end of any possibilities of one’s life, even the possibility of death. It is not that one chooses death; rather death arrives so as to rob one of any kind of choice. The death of philosopher is the death of action in which the individual truly becomes individual for this first time. But this other death is quite the opposite. It robs one of one’s individuality, and the meaning of one’s world. Everything disappears in the pain and suffering of the passivity of dying.

Dying is impersonal rather than personal. It is not impersonal in the sense of the banal fact that everyone dies, but in the more personal sense that in death I lose what it is that makes me me. Death reveals to me that existence is fundamentally, beneath the apparent certainty of my world, without me. In the death of the philosophy, death allows me to choose my future authentically for the first time. Under the threat of death, I can choose who I am to be. In this other death, this future is precisely what is taken and robbed from me. Death as the impossibility of possibility ruins any future whatsoever. I disappear beneath the waves without leaving a mark on the surface of the ocean.

Why would writing be closer to dying than death? In one sense it would, because speech is closer to me than writing. When I speak, the words appear to have their existence in the breath that ushers them forth. And yet I am dimly aware that what is written has an existence independent from me. Yes I might have first written these words down, but they will continue to exist even though I ceased to do so. But isn’t this true of everyone who writes and not only me. In speech it is very difficult to conceive of language which` is spoken by no one. Yet the written word would seem to provide the image of a language which would always arise before the first person who made the mark on the stone or piece of wood. Just as dying robs me of the I who would die, writing or literature takes from me the I who would speak. Philosophy too knows of this impersonality, but it imagines this language as an image of the mind. What is exists only in the meaning that I give it through the part of my mind which is common to all human beings. What would it mean to touch a language older than this language without which this language could not exist? A language which could only be in this sense inhuman? A language that does not speak from out of our possibilities but without it these possibilities would not exist? A language which is ambiguous and indefinite, but without which clarity and intelligibility would not exist. Philosophy knows that without the web that language weaves there would be no world, but it always believes that this web is woven by the web of intentions and meaning. The idea reigns supreme at the centre of the world. For Blanchot any certain meaning must arise from the background of a language which no one speaks, because it is intended no one. It is the reality of language behind speech. It is this language which literature has the temerity and the madness to express, for it can never do so, and it this failure, impossible because it is never possible, which is the source of every failure. The author thinks that her work is a failure because it does not say what she wanted to say, but its real failure is that it never reaches the pure language without meaning that every work seeks but can never articulate, for it is without any possible enunciation.

Kafka’s story The Hunter Gracchus opens with two boys sitting on the wall playing dice. Perhaps this game represents the necessity of chance under which we all live, but also perhaps the youth of the children is to be contrasted with the age of the hunter, an age, of course, which is indeterminable, since he is older than death itself. The opening of this story also represents the ordinariness of life, which acts a contrast to the extraordinary story of the hunter. But also that he enters the story without in any way disturbing this scene, as though what was strange about him wasn’t strange at all. They carry his bier to a yellow house near the harbour. At this stage the reader might think that the story is about a dead man being brought home. Everything in this scene seems to be about the opposition between life and death; the ‘lively’ doves which fly in the street before the house, the lives of the town people who are occupying themselves with their normal afternoon activities. But into this scene enters the dead man, or at least who we imagine might be dead. But even in this scene, there are hidden signs of death. A man who is dressed in funeral attire enters the picture, and what he sees are the decaying fruit skins and offal which are scattered in the corners of the market place. He knocks on the door to the house where the man on the bier has been taken, and enters. Extraordinarily, when he opens the door there are 50 boys lined up in the corridor. Is this dead man then someone very important? The dead man is at the back of the house. The room does not look out on any other buildings or landscape, but a ‘bare blackish-grey rocky wall’ [227]. As though it was like a grave. The man is laid out as though he was dead, his corpse surrounded by candles. They didn’t give any light, but just disturbed the shadows in the room. Everything is sepulchre like. On the bier is the dead man; the blanket covering him has been thrown back. There is something eerie and ghoulish about the situation. He has wild matted hair, and for this first time he is described as a hunter. Everything about him would suggest death, but he is clearly alive. The man places his hand on the forehead of the hunter. It is clear that in this action he wants everyone to leave the room. Only then does the hunter speak to him, asking who he is. He replies that he is the Burgomaster. The hunter says that he knows, but when he regains consciousness he sometimes forgets what he knows. Does this mean that ordinarily he is not conscious, asleep or in a coma, until some one asks him a question? For the first time we know his name: the Hunter Gracchus. He says that the Burgomaster probably knew who he was and he replied yes, because in the middle of the night his wife was woken up by a dove who told her that he was coming and that the town should prepare for him. The strange fairytale quality in Kafka’s stories is apparent is this little tale; talking animals, peculiar transformations, and strange places, but all written about in the most ordinary and everyday language, as though it were perfectly normal for a dead man to arrive one day in town. The doves which alighted opposite the house, are, therefore, the messengers from the Hunter Gracchus, and follow him in his journeys. Will he stay in this town Riva? The Burgomaster asks him straight out if he is dead, and he replies immediately that he is, that he died falling down a precipice whilst hunting a small deer. But he is alive as well, alive and dead. Alive because the ship that was meant to take him to the land of the dead became lost, perhaps because, the Hunter remarks, the pilot had been distracted. He exists, if exists is the right word, since to exist means to be able to die, between two worlds, between the world of the living and the dead. More accurately he is always on the way to death, and sometime he sees the gate to the world of the dead, but as soon as he does he wakes up on the old boat. Does the Hunter Gracchus dream of death? Is he always asleep because this is the closest that he can get to death? Now he is stretched on this pallet forever, filthy and unkempt. Everything seemed to have happened in good order. He chased the deer, fell into the ravine, and bled to death. How he first welcomed the pallet that he is now lying on. Death was a blessed relief. ‘I had been glad to live and I was glad to die’ [229]. Death was not something terrible but always to be welcomed with open arms and joy. It was this interminable dying that was awful, caught eternally between life and death. Who is to blame for this mistake? The Hunter believes that it is the boatman and not him, but nobody will come to save him. If they were summoned to help him they would shut themselves up in their houses; he cannot be saved. He sometimes forgets himself and thinks that he will shout out for help, but he remembers his situation, and remembers also that things have been like this for hundreds of years. Will he stay in this town? He has no choice or direction. The ship that he is on has no rudder and is blown by a wind that comes from the ‘undermost regions of death’ itself [230].

[1] Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999) 153.

[2] Ibid 385.

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