Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, March 23, 2009

A pure kind of literary criticism

Following my long review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in which I quote Beckett describing his experience of reading de Sade as "a kind of metaphysical ecstasy", a friend pointed to Beckett's respect for etymology and how this might colour my assumption of his words. Ecstasy, according to the etymology dictionary she cited, is "from the Greek: ekstasis 'trance, distraction,' from existanai 'displace,' also 'drive out of one's mind'." There is also its use "by 17th century mystical writers for 'a state of rapture that stupefied the body while the soul contemplated divine things,' which probably helped the meaning shift to 'exalted state of good feeling'." With this in mind, perhaps I should not have shrunk it to mere 'pleasure'. However, I think it is also fair given that Beckett referred only to "a kind" of metaphysical ecstasy. After all, the pleasure of reading is always "a kind" of pleasure, always a promise or remembrance of pleasure - both true and misplaced - which can be extended adjectivally to indistinguishable heights and depths (and, incidentally, thereby becoming literature itself).

Uncertainty in reading is also a pleasure, an insufficient kind. The yearning necessary to it is an expectation of something more timely, more real; at least transferable. Hence the ready alibis of social relevance in subject matter or of popularity or, alternatively, of the joys of an imagination run wild. Yet what of the weightless burden of the work itself? This is not a question meant to fetishise the text, a call to swoon before the attractive vertigo of possibility. The irony of close reading is that the horizon recedes the closer one gets and the unvariegated blur mistaken for clarity. The question needs to be reset: what kind of uncertainty does writing as an activity manifest?

Both directions - toward and away from the work - are at least mitigated by human hope: for debate and definition. Hope is not a feeling we associate with Samuel Beckett, though the existence of his writing alone should be enough to refute the impression. My friend suggested his experience of reading de Sade was one of "profound spiritual alienation", which seems right because it confirms my review's alliance of his letter with Kafka's: "we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide." Yes, always like; alienated even from that. But what if the book is itself the disaster? This is one question my review sought to raise. The Kindly Ones and, I imply, all writing emerges from an endless fall between states, the fall of Kafka's The Hunter Gracchus; a disaster of infinite deferral. This is a story featuring the port of Riva and, in Italian, "gracchio" means jackdaw, as does "kafka" in Czech. If it needs spelling out, the protagonist becomes Kafka the writer. This is how I find myself reading books (or, rather, all texts): each is an allegories of its own existence, of an immovable silence, of an unbreachable distance. To pre-empt the inevitable, this isn't an intellectual reading - connoisseurship - but one of recognition.

And today this is how I find myself re-reading Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster (1980) for the first time in many years; a book always working toward and away from itself. Writing in the TLS as far back as 1995, Gabriel Josipovici lamented this late work as it represented Blanchot "the Hegelian and Heideggerian sage and Utopian political thinker" rather than "the finest literary critic of the 20th Century". Yet, against the blurb which turns the book's focus on "the disasters of the century - world wars, concentration camps, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust", I read it as a kind of literary criticism, a pure kind: "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything in tact. It does not touch anyone in particular; 'I' am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside". This reminds me of the time reading The Kindly Ones and the Blanchot-like objectivity its narrator maintains. It's also a reading justified by the title which has (at least in English) the double meaning of writing about the disaster and the writing done by the disaster. Moreover, the opening words echo The Essential Solitude from The Space of Literature (1955): "He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn't know it. This ignorance preserves him."

Ignorance of writing's disastrous remove might preserve its utilty, and perhaps this is how it must be. So where is this leading? Perhaps The Writing of the Disaster merely reaffirms and reinhabits Kafka's letter and its romantic effusion. However, I'm drawn back to it because right now it is literary criticism as a kind of metaphysical ecstasy, again probably the wrong word.

1 comment:

  1. Like this--each is an allegories of its own existence, of an immovable silence, of an unbreachable distance. To pre-empt the inevitable, this isn't an intellectual reading - connoisseurship - but one of recognition.

    Yes

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