The Solitude of Writing

Dr William Large

N. too, in Death Sentence, is seized by the same cold that is killing, or so it seems to him, the narrator. She is so cold that she seems to lose the control of her body. If he touched her, he thought, he might kill her. She too must suffer alone; find out what suffering can teach. She has gone, and still unable to sleep he looks at the armchair, which though it is turned towards him, is far away. Is this the armchair that N. sat in when she was overcome by the cold that wracked her body? He seems occupied by a thought, but we are not told what that thought is. This thought is both his and not his. It appears to belong to him, but it also has a life, an existence, of its own, which we do not know, and perhaps he doesn’t know either. He gets over this terrible night, but he is still sick afterwards. He says to himself that he will never leave this room, and no-one will visit him either, but the next day, though he keeps this room, he takes another room in another hotel. If he had the money, he would always be doing this living in three or four different rooms at a time. One room that he took, the woman’s daughter used to stare at him. At first she was embarrassed when he caught her looking at her, but later, she just looked at him anyway. He didn’t mind her looking at him, but one day when she wasn’t there, he got very angry and latter slapped her, and complained to her mother that she was always looking into his room when he had women there, even though this was forbidden and he never took women there anyway.

He knew that N. had changed, perhaps it was the illness that was changing her, but he had changed as well, so he hadn’t noticed it at first. She lived in a ‘run-down attic’ with her ‘little girl’ and he used to see her there.[1] There we many rooms there, but he was only allowed in one of them. Her job was to translate languages, and she knew many of them. What made her more than the others for him was the quality she had of being less. When he went to see her after her ‘accident’, she asked him to live with her. He said no, but she did not get angry, rather she became that ‘no-one’ she was always capable of being, disappearing in her normality.

The narrator tells us that he has forgotten many ‘scenes’ [170], which probably tells us, he says, that he had forgotten even more at the time, but then he goes and tells us about one of these forgotten scenes. Whenever he visited N., her little girl was never there; she was in bed, or went somewhere else. She was spoilt and got her way in everything, but not with regard to him, and it was for this reason that she was shut away. Once she did enter the room, and N was so angry that she hit her, though we are not told exactly what she did, and the little girl’s mouth bled from N.’s ring. He was so shocked by this that he never had the courage to talk to her about it. He didn’t know what she felt about her. It seemed on the surface to adore her, but she also told him that she would give 10 years of her life away so that she could give these years to him, and she could look to someone or something else to care for her.

Once she rang him and asked him to see her, and he refused. Her response was absolute silence, which astonished him, so he asked where they should meet. She replied in a ‘frenzy’ that he should meet her ‘nowhere’ [172]. That ‘nowhere’ really made him think long after the telephone conversation had ended.

The narrator tells us that the 'last incident' with her was very different [172]. She had to have an operation of her eyes since her vision was not very good. She could perfectly see during the day, but not during the night, and especially not under artificial light. He didn’t see her, because she told him not to, but also he felt jealous of her illness. He didn’t see her at home either. He told her that he couldn’t see her because he needed to go to the theatre because of his job. When he went to theatre he saw her there with a young man. She seemed very beautiful to him, and though she was very close to him, she was very far away as well, as though they were separated by a window (this is the same image as the separation of the shop window before). This separation was like a thought; a thought that was thinking them rather than they thinking the thought. It was this sight of her in the theatre, which ‘tore’ his life apart, and didn’t seem to have much to do with what was going on in Paris at the time with the war. Once they had sheltered in the Metro when Paris was bombed, and he talked to her, amongst the crowd, in her native language, although we are not told what this language is, and she replied in French, but not in her normal French; it was ‘childish and talkative’ [173]. Speaking in this way made both of them feel irresponsible and unknown to each other, but not just to each other, but also to themselves. He even asked her to marry him twice, even though he hated marriage. She had once been married before, and he was clear that it didn’t mean so much to her either, but when he said these words in her language, it had so troubled her and made her anxious, that she replied in her own language perhaps for the first time ever. She pretended not to understand the word, even though it was in her language, and he said that he would translate, which filled her with absolute panic. Perhaps she believed, in translating it, that he would get to the secret essence of the word, and be able to say what it meant for the first time for her. He didn’t really know what being married to him really meant for her, whether it would have been her greatest tragedy or joy and happiness He felt that the words he spoke were deluding him and her, and that they weren’t even his anyway, such that in speaking this foreign language that he didn’t really know, someone else was speaking through him. It is easy to put this sensation down in writing, rather than the situation itself. He thought these words would separate them, but they only made them closer, but only because it was her absence, which these words seemed to evoke, that attracted her to him, even though their source was other than him, and there was something ‘terrible’, and ‘abnormal’ about it [175].

He says that he spoke French in the Metro. Of course we would think that this would be the language that would be most familiar to both of them. Is their native language something else, or had French itself become something other than French? When he spoke these words to her, which he thought might shatter her, she was swept away from him by the movement of the crowd. He didn’t see her that afternoon, and went into the Ministry, which is where she worked, to look for her. He walked down the empty corridors. He looked in her restaurant and also her single room. But no one answered the door, which was worse than an empty room; he would have felt comfortable there. It was not the absence of N. that made him angry, but the aimlessness which it caused in him. He went back to the Ministry again. He thought that she might be near the river, even though suicide disgusted her. He spent ages there. He writes about a person on a bridge; perhaps it was him (the sudden dislocation of the narrator’s gaze). Then suddenly reason came back to him, and he knew what had to be done. He had another room on Rue. S. He just had books there, and didn’t like it. He had forbidden N. to visit him there. He went to another room on Rue O, but when he got to the room he could no longer find his key. He hit the door with his fists, because the loss of his key made him lose control, and the door opened. He says that he will not tell us much about what happened then, and that it had already happened a long ago, or that the potential for it happening had already started long before he knew about it, as though events accumulating behind our backs. He knew, without going into the room, that there was already someone in there, and that if he entered they would get horribly close. He goes in, closes the door, and sits on the bed. The room was completely dark; black, he describes it, though he was unsure whether the blackness came for him or the room. She was in the room. He was not afraid, but he was afraid of her, afraid that his presence would turn her into a wild thing. He reaches out in the room with his hands to feel the objects in front of him, but all he finds is another ‘cold hand’ which is not his own [178]. Is it hers? He puts his arms around her. She is very cold. He makes her lie on the bed, and he lies next to her. He says ‘look at me’, and sees in her eyes the ‘dead flame’ that he saw first of all when he entered the room. He was going to blow on her face, but when he said that, she recoiled away from him. The coldness of the hand is something strange, and he says that as he writes, he holds his one hand in the other.

When he sees her again in the morning she is quite ‘cheerful’ [179]. She looks at her fingernails, and says to him that she is just like a child since she has bitten them. There is also a cut on her forehead. He says to her that she probably has his key, and she takes it out of her purse. She had taken the key from his wallet. All he wanted to do was spend time with her and talk to her. In fact he talked to her incessantly, even though he was not a great talker.

A friend involves him in a duel, though again he tells the reader that he will not tell them about this incidence, as though there were a whole real world behind this fictional world, rather than just an absence that words make possible.

N. speaks to him and tells him that she is going to have a cast of her hands and her head and that she has already phoned X. He is seized by horror at this idea, and asks her how she came to think it. She tells him about the card of the sculptor in his wallet. Is this the same sculptor who did J.'s hands in the first part of the story? She refuses to give up her idea, even though he tells her that if she goes ahead with it he will never speak to her again, which is a rather stupid threat. He tells her that if she does go ahead with this idea of making a cast of her head and hands, a process which is highly dangerous for a living person, he will lock her up in this room. She seems to be encouraged by this idea. He continues to look into her face, and asks her if her eyes hurt, since she suffered from the light during the night. She speaks to him, agitated by his question, but he can’t make out what she is saying, or he doesn’t care. He can only hear one word which is ‘plan’, which might have been the word that she was talking about before. In fact, she had already done this thing that he had not wanted her to do, but he had known this perhaps all along, even when he told that she should not do it. He is not sure whether things really happened like this, but he does want to believe that they do. If this were true or not true, it is certainly the case that other events happened which were equally true that have not been told here. Or at least what is true, even if the dates might not be right, is not ‘contained in the facts’ [186]. All he knows is that he has given himself to a ‘thought’ which is more than him, but also the same as him.

The story ends there, and nothing will be added or taken away from it. He says that if the reader knew the thought of unhappiness that ‘infused’ these pages, and knew the hand that wrote the words, or better, could see this head, then, and only then, would they take the activity of reading seriously.

We understand the work of art when we understand its solitude. This solitude is neither the loneliness of life, nor the seclusion of the artist, but the solitude of the work of art itself. This solitude has nothing at all to do with ‘individualism’, rather, on the contrary, it precisely announces the unimportance of the writer, who, instead of being its origin, is rudely dismissed.[2] Not that the writer knows that is has been pushed away by the work he is writing, for if he did, then he would cease to write. He has to believe that the work truly is his own in order to write, to carry on writing. This is why the writer, like Valéry imagines that the work is infinite. Although he does not finish the book (it finishes by itself, he just has to recognise when to stop), he imagines that writing is an infinite project. As soon as he finishes one work, he just goes on to the other. His task is endless, and he would carry on writing the same work. It is only external influences from the world, editors, publishers and the need to make money, which cuts this infinite task into separate works. The end, then has nothing to do with him, it comes from the world outside of him, and has nothing at all to do with the authenticity of art. Valéry imagines that there is only one work, and that this work belong to the ‘infinite spirit’ of the artist. Everything else is mere contingent necessity. But of course, he never gets round to writing this spiritual masterpiece. He is so distracted by the external world that he is always writing to commission, always writing that occasional piece, and continually postponing his infinite task. Perhaps this postponement is the really infinity, and not the absolute work of spirit?

The work of art, unlike the task of life, is neither finished nor unfinished, ‘it just is’ [402]. It just expresses what it is, and nothing more. This is why we are always dissatisfied with the work of art. We want it to always be more than it is. We want it to have hidden meanings, or some message by which we could live. We even want it to make our decisions for us. But is just is. It just says what it is and nothing more and nothing less. Of course, someone can claim to have knowledge of the work, but the work itself is completely disinterested in their views. It just goes on as it was before, and welcomes the next reader, as though it had not been touched or changed by the miracle of criticism. The work of art is continually reborn virginally, continually innocent for the next reader, but only because it doesn’t mean anything at all, if we understand by meaning propositional knowledge. The work doesn’t reject the reader. Quite the opposite, but if one is going to read, then one has to except the solitude of the work, that it dismisses everyone in the implacable stoniness of its being.

We need to distinguish between the work and the book. The writer writes a book. The book is what we see on the shelves of our libraries and bookstores, which are listed on Amazon. The book is what is reviewed in newspapers and on television. The book is what we all talk about, but the book is not the work. The work is what rejects both the reader and the writer, and therefore also the book. The work is the being of the book, its singularity, what make it reject every comparison, even with itself, so that it becomes just what it is, and that to understand it, if ‘understanding’ were the right word here, would be just to repeat it word for word again. The writers belongs to the work in his innermost being, but he is continually misrecognising it for the book, because that is what he writes consciously and that is what he talks about to others. He recognises the difference between the work and the book, so he continually writes, hoping that one day that they will coincide. This is what keeps him writing, but it is not possible, and its impossibility is his only possibility. The work rejects him completely. It is utterly impersonal and does not bear his name. We can grasp this idea when we think that the artists work is only finished when he is dead. But really death already haunts him from the beginning of this work in the worklessness of the work.

What is worklessness? It is not to be confused with alienation, where in the world the activity of work is separated from the agent of work. What the writer starts with is the work, but what he ends up with is the book. It is the book that participates in the world, just like any other product of labour, and the author can either be alienated from it or not, depending on the conditions of the world. But the work has nothing at all to do with the world, alienated or not. In end, this is what is the ‘frivolous’ nature of the book, for it is neither the seriousness of labour in the world, nor the ‘reality of the work’ [403].

Another way of thinking about the solitude of the work is through the relation of reading. The writer is no doubt the first reader of her work. She reads it before it is published, she reads it as it comes out on the page, and she might even read it in her mind before she puts it there. But as a reader, the writer knows no more about the work than anyone else. She might have an opinion about what it means, but this meaning is just as irrelevant to the sheer fact of the work as anyone else’s. Just because one has written the work doesn’t give one anymore insight in it than anyone else. We shouldn’t interpret this resistance of the work to interpretation, however, as a negative moment. It positively signals what the work is. If there wasn’t this resistance, there would only be the book and not the work. The work marks the point at which the book, no matter how much it has been inserted into culture, resists the world, doesn’t bother with fame or recognition, because no-one could put a word to what it is, except by repeating it exactly again. The demand of the work not to be interpreted  - don't read me - noli me legere – isn’t a prohibition, as though there were some secret there that was waiting to get out, but is the ‘play and meaning of words’ which immediately rejects the intentions of the writer, even when she reads the work for the first time [404]. This is why she must write again. For if she could read her work, she could accomplish it, make it present in her mind, and she would not need to write. Reading, therefore, does bring the activity of writing to closure; rather it just sends the author back to the beginning, to the origin of the work, which is the exposure to the ‘outside’ of language. The solitude of the work is proved in the necessity of the writer to repeat what she has written over and over again, whether originally or in a boring and mediocre way, the same thing over and over again, in the hopeless task of getting closer to the beginning. There is no beginning and end of writing; rather there is only the endless repeating of the same origin over and over again. ‘I must begin again.’ This is the rule of the writer. This is why, when one gets acquainted with the work of a writer, one has the feeling that once one has read one of their works, one in fact has read them all.

Blanchot speaks of two hands. One hand is holding a pencil that writes. It wants to stop writing, but its grasp of the pencil only becomes tighter the more that it wants to stop. The other hand tries to intervene, but the ‘sick’ hand (and that is what Blanchot calls it) gestures it away. It wants to capture the object with its marks on the page. But it moves very slowly. Its time is the ordinary time of clocks. The hand is shadow that is chasing the object that has become a shadow. The more the author becomes the master of the word, the more the words he uses just become shadows. The words no longer express the reality of the thing, rather they only express what they are, but they are merely images, ghosts; one can never quite capture. It is the other hand, the one that tries to take the pencil or pen away. Mastery is not writing, but the ability to stop writing. Writing on the contrary is a weakness, though it is an extraordinary weakness.

Why then doesn’t the writer stop writing, since this mastery seems very simple, and every writer has two hands, one to write and one to stop writing? Is it the idea of perfection that keeps him going? He can think of a perfect book, so he just keeps on writing, thinking that one day it will possible. But this is to treat writing as though it were like any other activity, like making a cake or building a pyramid. No he writes because the work is impossible, not because it is possible. Writing is not self expression, if we mean by that the capability of uttering one’s thoughts, values and feelings with certainty and conviction. For one has no authority over what writes. In this regard, writing is quite different from speech. In speaking I attend the words that I utter and I am present in the words that I speak. With writing, on the contrary, I am perfectly absent from the words. They carry on meaning without meaning, since this meaning is no longer tied to an intention it ceases to have any consistency or stability. We think that the written word is the complete expression of the writer’s intentions, as though we were looking into the author’s mind as we read, but this is to confuse writing with speech, to place writing under the law of speech, rather than under its own law. Writing is the not the relation of ‘I and you’ in speech, where I communicate my thoughts to you, and receive these thoughts back to myself when you respond to me. There is no communication in writing, if this were the only model of communication, for it is sheer fiction to say that the writer is present when the reader reads the book. All that is present is the words on the page, which have ‘dismissed’ the author. To the extent that writing is no longer under the law of speech, and therefore the intentions of an ‘I’, it also breaks with the world in which that relation has its place. For when I speak to you, and you understand what I say to you, then the horizon of this communication is a world that we share in common. Writing does not come from a subject (of course the author writes the words, and this activity is the same as any other activity, but the ‘play of meaning’ that comes from the words on the page, has nothing to do with him once he has finished writing - it does not require an intention), nor does it speak to a ‘you’ in which this subject would find confirmation for what it says, and in this sense, it must break with the world of common meaning and sense, the linguistic web of language which is the horizon of all understanding. Literature is always the irruption of something new in the world.

This is why the writer, as Kafka, observed, stops saying ‘I’ when he writes. Rather than writing being self-expression, disguised autobiography, it is quite the opposite. This does not mean that he writes from another subject position. When Kafka writes that the writer must write ‘he’ rather than ‘I, this is not just a matter of switching personal pronouns. In literature language is anonymous. It is not tied to any personal pronoun at all. There is no-one speaking through literature, rather it is the words on the page that ‘speak’, if we can use the word ‘speak’ at all in this context without context. And this is because writing does not reveal anything at all, in the way that the spoken word is meant to reveal the intentions of the one who speaks. There is nothing behind these written words; they are what they are. There are no hidden depths. ‘What he is asserting,’ Blanchot writes, ‘is completely without a self’ [407].

This assertion, rather than being the affirmation of a masterful ego proclaiming its own values, thoughts and feelings to the world, is in fact silence. The author has to silence themselves in order to let language speak or let this language speak that is spoken by no-one. This is not the same as letting the universal speak in the words that I utter, when I sacrifice my own individuality for the sake of truth that is higher than me, a surrender which is perhaps what we mean by philosophy. What the writer finds when he sacrifices himself in the silence that is necessary to let language speak for itself is not the universal but the ‘interminable’. The universal speaks for everyone, but the interminable for ‘no-one’. The writer does not surrender himself to language so that some higher voice can speak through him, but so that no-one or nothing can speak through him, so that what speaks are only the words on the page, and language is the impossibility of saying ‘I’ and ‘You’.

Perhaps this is why, Blanchot adds, that most writers keep journals. Having lost themselves in their work, where the book they are writing, although it might have started that way, has ceased to be a project that expresses the authenticity of a subject’s chosen the path of truth, they attempt to find themselves in the diaries that they keep at night. Journals, Blanchot states, are not confessions, but memorials [409]. The writer, having suffering the anonymity of writing, where no-one speaks, needs to remember his ordinary self, the one who wakes up in the morning, washes, eats breakfast, goes to work, the one who does all the things everyone else does, the one who does not write. The terrible paradox, of course, is the very means by which she tries to remember herself, is the very activity in which she has lost herself in the first place, and from which the journal was meant to save her: ‘the act of writing’ [409]. What is interesting about the journal are the not the literary remarks, but the ordinary details. For one can see then the opposition between the disappearance of the author in writing, and the presence of the self in the ordinary world. The journal is caught between these two slopes, to use Blanchot's metaphor from ‘Literature and the right to death’. What the writer wants to hold onto under the assault of the impersonality of writing is the happiness of daily life. But what the journal ends up showing in that the writer has already been exiled from this ordinary utopia where time unfolds by the ticking of clocks, and the turning of the pages of the calendar.

What is at the heart of writing, Blanchot tells us, is the ‘absence of time’ [410]. This is absence is not merely to be thought of in negative sense, but of a time which has been robbed of any initiative. The time of the world is the time of projects in which I measure my achievement through the movement of days, where the past and the future meet in my present. But the time of writing has no present, because it has no subject to anchor itself. If it has no present, then it has no past or future either. The absence of time is time continually repeating itself, as though every time where the same time again and again, ‘pure time’ without the articulation of past, present and future, because it is a time without subjectivity. This absence of time should not be confused with the ‘eternal’, where time is abolished [411]. The absence of time is time’s absence. It is time that no longer circulates through personal time. It is the time of no-one. It is the time, Blanchot says, that haunts every present, when the present no longer goes anywhere but endlessly repeats itself. It is the time of the impersonal, rather than the time of the personal.

What then is the relation of the reader to writing, rather than the writer. Can we not preserve what we have lost with the writer in the reader? Does not the reader come to the written word with intentions that animate the text? If writing is the loss of subjectivity, isn’t reading is retrieval? But reading isn’t just the re-animation of a lost meaning, a reconstruction of what the author might or might not have thought (and Blanchot wants to tell us that the author doesn’t think anything, which is why when we hear writers tells us about their work, we feel profoundly disappointed). Reading is not the processing of information, but the fascination with the image, for this is what the word becomes when it is separated from the speaking subject. ‘What fascinates us,’ Blanchot tells us, ‘takes away our power to give it meaning’. When we look at the world we separate ourselves from the world that we see, we take into our power, organise and label it. But the gaze can also me drawn by what it sees, taken outside of its own power, drawn outside of itself by the power of what it sees. This is the difference between the image and the object. The object is the seen as it is interiorised by the subject, the image is the subject as it is exteriorised by the object. It is as if I am caught in the headlights of the gaze, rather than what I am looking at is caught by me. It is as though I caught in the thing looking at me, as when Lacan recalls in his summer holidays, whilst fishing, looking at the can on the water looking back at him, fascinated by the object, caught in its gaze rather than his own, his gaze becoming its. Nothing in this scene means anything. It is not as if the can has an intention, a secret to tell Lacan, but fascination begins at the moment that I seized by the object, rather than the object is taken hold of by me. I am placed outside of myself, but in a region in which there is no meaning at all, only the pure shimmering surface of the image.

[1] Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999) 169.

[2] Ibid 401.

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