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Saturday, February 14, 2009

“Reading”? by Jonathan Littell

What follows is a commentary on a text by Maurice Blanchot entitled "Reading," first published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1958 and later incorporated into L'espace littéraire. Jonathan Littell's commentary was written for the 100th anniversary issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française, published in February 2009. It is translated by Charlotte Mandell and appears by kind permission of the author.

Write about Blanchot, I am asked – or with him, or alongside him, or against him, it doesn’t matter. A difficult task, he himself would have said. All the more so since the problem immediately arises: how to write in the wake of this thinking without being carried away by its language? No one, to my knowledge, has managed it (except perhaps Foucault, Levinas: frightening predecessors). Well, let us try, even if it means taking that risk.

So what is this reading that Maurice Blanchot invites us to enact here, at once light and serious, a "joyful, wild dance," fundamental (founding the work) in its very insouciance? The first thing one could say about it is that it seems to us inseparable from his conception of writing as experience. "The story [le récit] is not the relation of the event, but that event itself," he wrote around the same time (in "The Song of the Sirens," reprinted in The Book to Come). Writing does not describe, does not relate, does not signify, it does not represent a thing, existing in the world of men or even only in the world of the imagination; it is neither more nor less than "the test of its own experience" (Blanchot again, I forget where, unless it's Bataille – so indistinguishable is their thinking on this point), the faithful account of what happened at that moment, the moment when the one who, seized by the desire to write, sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and began putting language onto it. It's not that the text that results from this experience – poem, story, novel – is deprived of meaning, is not shot through with elements referring to the reality of life; rather it's that these elements function (to use a comparison that Blanchot would no doubt have discreetly avoided) like what Freud called the manifest content of dreams: the rags of reality they cloak themselves with so as both to manifest and veil their truth, their very reality. Thus, if writing is related to truth – and it certainly is, it has to be, or else not be at all, or in any case fall outside of the realm we designate by that mysterious word, literature – it is not by way of knowledge. Literary writing does not explain, does not teach: it simply offers the presence of its own mystery, its own experience, in its absence of explanation, thus inviting not some illusory "understanding" ("Reading either falls short of understanding or overshoots it," writes Blanchot), but precisely a reading. "Reading is freedom," Blanchot tells us, "a freedom that can only say yes." Yes to what? To experience; to the experience, usually born in anguish, of the one who writes, which is answered by the experience – by turns casual and transfixed by "the rapture of plenitude" – of the reader. Two experiences thus facing each other or rather tangential to each other, in any case radically irreducible to one another. For the author, the writer (Blanchot continually shifts between these two terms, plays on them), precisely, is the one who cannot read. Noli me legere, Blanchot wrote elsewhere, in other contexts, several times. Returning to this injunction thirty years after "Reading," in a strange afterword to two early stories called Après-coup, which comments on these stories while at the same denying the possibility of any commentary on the author's part – taking up this injunction, then, he follows it with a curious personification of Writing itself. Writing, "dismissing the author [not the reader, we should note]," addresses him in extravagant terms: "Never will you know what you have written, even if you wrote only to know it." An implacable sentence, from which the writer has no possibility of escaping, even if he can never entirely avoid the temptation, for him the supreme temptation, of seeking his own truth in what he has written; he then becomes, turning back towards his work, "the guilty Orpheus" (Après-coup, again), incapable of leading his Eurydice to the light of day, and who loses her by that guilty turning back; powerless, he sees her draw back, swallowed up in a shadow forever impenetrable to him. The writer is thus the one who remains to the very end without any work to his name (and perhaps that is why Plato, in a gesture of mocking irony – or supreme offhandedness? – can write in his Second Letter: "There are no works by Plato and there will never be any," before adding, as if to mock our astonishment even more: "What is now called by this name is in fact by Socrates during his sweet youth," that same Socrates who, as we know since Plato has told us, never wrote, so profound was his mistrust of "the impotent instrument that is language" [Seventh Letter]. But is Plato actually the author of these letters? We don’t really know).

Hence the vanity of asking the writer what he "wanted to say," what he meant, as if writing came from his wanting, from his free and sovereign will. It should rather be linked with anguish, as Blanchot stresses (invoking the example of Kafka). Already, in 1935, in Le dernier mot, one of his first stories, he wrote: "Fear is your only master. If you think you no longer fear anything, there’s no point in reading. But it's when your throat is constricted with fear that you will learn to speak” (thus linking not only writing but also reading to anguish – a connection that two decades later, in "Reading," he will considerably modify). Writing is also related to desire (of the one who writes), but it is not the accomplishment of that desire, in the sense that it fulfills or appeases it, even if only temporarily; rather, it deepens its voracity; and so, Blanchot suggests, there falls to the reader the task, both arduous and frivolous, not of bridging the gap between the limitless desire of one who is losing his footing in writing, and the texts that are like the fragments of cooled lava that this experience leaves behind it, its scoria, but of discovering this gap, thrusting back into the shadow not the book, but the author (once a sad Orpheus with his lyre, now a pitiful Eurydice), and leading "the work hidden behind the book" (I'm paraphrasing) into the light – a gesture, though, that is carried out for him alone, in the solitude of his reading, an experience that is both unique and also infinitely renewable since it is lived for the first time at every reading, for every reader.

Thus, if writing is an absolute experience (yet that confers no knowledge or privilege on the one who lives through it), so too is reading, the "somber spirit" that Blanchot names in The Madness of the Day. Let us return to the text. "What is a book that no one reads?" asks Blanchot, only to answer immediately: "Something that is not yet written" (another theme that also reappears in Après-coup, a text that seems a little like the ghostly double of "Reading," or its reprise, the "Vicious Circles" of the stories that he interprets without interpreting them – in the guise of Valéry or rather of Monsieur Teste, a "being who would have the greatest gifts – in order to do nothing with them, assured [how? wonders Blanchot] of having them.") The book, a product of anguish, of joy, of hope, of naivety too, and of the toil of its author, indeed exists, from its completion onwards, or even before that, as an object, but not as a work. It requires the author to be "dismissed," once and for all, so as finally to come into existence, to be, to "assert itself as thing without author and without reader." What Blanchot dismisses here, with an irrevocable gesture, is not just the author, but the mirage – so stubborn, though – of a “communication” between the writer and the reader. The writer is alone, irremediably alone ("Khalvat dar anjoman, solitude in the crowd," posits one of the eleven rules of the Naqshbandi Sufis: that is the solitude of Kafka, again, never alone enough and yet always infinitely alone). Vain hope of writing with a wish to be understood, or of establishing any kind of human fraternity with the other; cruel disillusion of anyone who writes with the expectation of a response, an echo. The writer writes as Giacometti wanted to sculpt: so as to bury the sculpture (as Genet tells us), and "not so that it could be discovered, or else much later, when he himself and the memory of his name have disappeared. Would burying it be to offer it to the dead?" wonders Genet, thus putting his finger on this obvious fact: the writer, the artist does not communicate with the reader or the spectator, he communicates with death; the death of others (Foucault) or else his own death, always yet to come but beyond which he necessarily situates himself in order to write. The writer: the one who is always already dead. The reader, on the contrary, lives, and thanks to him the book, "unburdened of its author," lives too: the book, the text leaves the world of the dead, whence it comes (or comes forth rather?) to participate in the things of life. And that is how the noli me legere of the book gives way to the Lazare, veni foras of the reader, the reader who nonetheless, unlike Christ, accomplishes no miracle, but simply, by his free and innocent reading, his "light yes" offered with a smile, shows (and sees) that language too lives, with its own life.

Jonathan Littell is the author of The Kindly Ones, also translated by Charlotte Mandell.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I missed this back in February. I've been mulling over "Lazare, veni foras" for a decade and I think Littell managed to explain it to me.

    (If you ever meet waggish -- I met him a couple weeks ago -- make him do his Blanchot impression for you.)

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