Saturday, March 17, 2007

Modernist vs genre fiction: Blanchot and the myth of Orpheus

Less than a week before Gabriel Josipovici gave his talk in London, the novelist Hilary Mantel gave a lecture called Orpheus Speaks ahead of a production of Monteverdi's opera, Orfeo. She appeared very briefly on BBC R4's Start the Week to tell Andrew Marr about the famous myth and it interpretation down through the centuries. Mantel said she thought it was a profound myth about art itself but her talk would also be about how the myth affects us in our everyday life.
I want to talk about mourning, memory and the work of salvage, from the point of view of a writer who is deeply concerned both with retrieval of the personal past and with the work of bringing history 'back to life'. It is a universal human impulse to try to retrieve what is lost, to want to go back into the past and change it. But we create underworlds in our own lives, by the keeping of secrets and by consigning parts of our experience to the realm of the forgotten.
Few of the examples in Mantel's talk were revealed in advance but one was the story of Natascha Kampusch, which has also inspired Peter Handke recently.

I don't how to find out, but I would like to know if Mantel used, or even knows of, Maurice Blanchot's short essay The Gaze of Orpheus (in The Space of Literature translated by Ann Smock). It is here that Josipovici's concluding question about the nature of our artistic freedom - whether the impulse to retrieve what is gone is pathological or whether it enables us to enter realms previously denied by deadening genre - takes the form of a dynamic paradox.

Blanchot begins with the simple fact that art allows a certain retrieval, what he calls "the harmony and accord of the first night". This we might characterise as the straightforward evocation of that which is lost. Orpheus, however, wants more. He wants Eurydice in her "nocturnal obscurity, in her distance ... when she is invisible". For Orpheus, "Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach. [...] She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night." He wants that other night.

The problem is that, despite being a supreme artist, Orpheus is not allowed to look at the essence of night. Eurydice is condemned to remain in the shade. When he turns towards her, he ruins his work. The gaze is the turn from the solidity of genre to the liquidity of freedom.
All the glory of his work, all the power of his art, and even the desire for a happy life in the lovely, clear light of day are sacrificed to this sole aim: to look in the night at what night hides, the other night, the dissimulation that appears.
This is why literary modernism so often concerns itself with failure, with desire for what is beyond art, sacrificing an easy omniscience for uncertainty and subjectivity. Not out of hatred for the world but out of respect.

For conservatives, happy with the daytime gifts of art, condemn Orpheus' gaze as a form of madness, of vanity, at least of impatience. We read such criticism and contempt almost every day. Yet Blanchot says the ruining gaze is necessary to the work.
To look at Eurydice, without regard to the song, in the impatience and imprudence of desire which forgets the law: that is inspiration.
In order for the work to live, it must renounce the guarantee of daytime success and instead forget the rules: "as if what we call the insignificant, the inessential, error, could, to one who accepts the risk and surrenders to it without restraint, reveal itself as the source of all authenticity." Such forgetfulness, however, has unexpected consequences:
Had [Orpheus] not looked at her, he would not have drawn her toward him; and doubtless she is not there, but in this glance back he himself is absent. He is no less dead than she - dead, not of that tranquil worldly death which is rest, silence, and end, but of that other death which is death without end, the ordeal of the end's absence.
The artist, by embracing failure, is still condemned to eternal separation from what inspired the work. And to protect itself, the work demands the refusal of the ruining gaze even though that is its origin. How familiar is this experience for the artist: the completion of the work depending on a betrayal of its inspiration, an inspiration that remains embedded, nagging away, awaiting a new work? That betrayal is founded upon turning away from the work's origin.
Before the most convincing masterpiece, where the brilliance and resolution of the beginning shine, it can also happen that we confront something extinguished.
But this is inevitable. "Writing begins" Blanchot says at the end of the essay, "with Orpheus' gaze". To write, one must be impatient, but "impatience must be the core of profound patience"; "To write, one has to write already."

When Gabriel Josipovici asked his very modernist question at the end of his lecture, the answer became the space opened by the question just as writing opens a space to write in Blanchot's paradox. And like Blanchot's essay, it is not itself art. At least, it isn't our notion of art. It merely enables a sharper awareness of where the art we might need might be. But the same could be said for the myth of Orpheus. It is not Orpheus' song. We don't hear the beautiful sound of his voice lamenting Eurydice's absence. The myth is a story about song, a story about stories. Writing about writing. In this way, it is a very modernist myth.


  1. Please do not think this is anything other than an interested question, but do you write prose or poetry or work in any other art forms?

  2. Jason, I can't help but think of it as more than an interested question! But, yes, I do write in an other form (not poetry). Never tried to have it published though (cos it's crap).

  3. Thanks for the response. I sort of enjoy reading your blog, but it's so curiously intellectual, and I wondered how much personal experience of creativity you might have, and how you came to be writing in this manner. You don't really have any biographical data available.

  4. How did I come to write in this manner? I follow my heart. Or my head. How can one tell which it is? Maybe that's why this blog is "so curiously intellectual" because it doesn't see a simple opposition between the two.

  5. "Art happens at the infinitely tiny place between unwriting and writing." Douglas Glover from an essay in Context #17. The ruinous gaze is the step into this tiny place?

  6. Hmmm. No. It's not the heart/head thing.

    On reflection, it's that this blog brings to mind somebody writing about something, for example, cars, in depth, but without having any true understanding of how cars are made, or what their purpose is. And that's why there's so much intellectual labour required, to fill that void, because your thoughts, truth be told, are being formed without empirical knowledge of what it means to possess genuine creative powers. I saw the exact same thing in professors at art school.

    So what's here is a substitute, another means of being engaged in art, but without being an artist. It's okay, it gives you a means to talk about art, which you clearly love, and to exercise your intellect, which is in good working order. But beyond that, there's not much here. That's why artists never concern themselves with this kind of writing, just as a top chef doesn't believe food critics know what they're talking about.

    I still enjoy reading what you say, for its novelty, for the thought of you sitting there and preparing it, deciding what bits to leave in, where to make a little joke, who to quote, and so on. It's an experiment, of sorts, it reminds me of going into school each morning, wondering how much the water cress had grown since the day before.

  7. "On reflection"? Is that something you do very often? Looks like you've bought into the heart/head opposition big time.

    "That's why artists never concern themselves with this kind of writing"

    All artists? So all those artists and novelists influenced by Blanchot don't count?

    And is one an artist only if one is published? I can imagine Max Brod condescending to his friend about knowledge of the creative process... actually I can't because he wasn't that stupid.

  8. The word 'gobshite', existing in close proximity to Jason comes to mind, Stephen.



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