Friday, October 26, 2007

Always beginning again: Blanchot on Beckett

Scott Pack recently repeated his call for the literary pages of newspapers to "reflect the books their readers actually read" and "for a more interesting and diverse range of titles". While to me these are contradictory demands, I'm all for the latter as it might influence the former. If the literary pages of newspapers don't tell their readers about new books, who - apart from bus shelters - will?

The literary editor of the New York Sun seems to agree. For instance, has Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution been reviewed elsewhere? Benjamin Lytal covers it in under 200 words but that's better than nothing. Casanova, he says, "explains Beckett's anxieties of influence vis-à-vis Yeats and Joyce, and pins his aesthetic breakthrough to his contact with abstract painters". Nothing controversial so far then. James Knowlson revealed as much in his biography. But apparently this is "in opposition to the famous French philosopher Maurice Blanchot". Huh, how's that? The answer is that Casanova "accuses Blanchot of carelessly annexing Beckett, reducing him to the passive, archaic function of inspired mediator, charged with 'unveiling being.' Blanchot made Beckett into a prophet, speaking in a vacuum."

Needless to say this is a gross caricature of one of Blanchot's finest essays. Yes, Casanova is writing against a single, eight-page essay! As far as I know, Blanchot wrote only two essays on Beckett: "Where Now? Who Now?" in The Book to Come (1959) and a short tribute "Oh All to End" a year after Beckett's death in 1989. Despite this, according to Lytal's summary, "Blanchot's hierophantic gloss was ... fatally influential in France".

Casanova concentrates on the "social context" of literature. Her previous book offers "the first systematic model for understanding the production, circulation, and valuing of literature worldwide". This is certainly in opposition to Blanchot's critical procedure, yet nowhere in "Where Now? Who Now?" is there "hierophantic gloss" ("the interpretation of sacred mysteries or esoteric principles" says my dictionary). He merely asks why Beckett's Trilogy has this particular form and content.

Why, for instance, does Molloy start off with the "reassuring form of a story" yet has "a movement of unsettling disintegration"? An answer can follow only in the second part, Malone Dies where the proliferation of characters ends and we have one man in a bed openly making up stories, admitting their artifice in order "to fill the void into which [he] feels he is falling." The void, that is, of death. For this reason, Blanchot argues, the book isn't just a rollicking postmodern farce like Flann O'Brien's relatively neglected novels. For Malone's urgency means "the book is no longer just a means of openly lying". Instead it sets up "a clash of artifices where experience is lost". The stories become detached from the experience of the dying man and he becomes detached from the work. He dies to himself and us.

In The Unnamable, we continue without "characters under the reassuring protection of their personal name" or even with a story, it's just "phantoms without substance, empty images revolving mechanically around an empty center that the nameless 'I' occupies". This is "experience lived under the threat of the impersonal". Surely this is straightforward explication of a text; nothing hierophantic at all. Perhaps Blanchot irritates the positivists a little too much next though.
We may be in the presence not of a book but rather something much more than a book: the pure approach of the impulse from which all books come, of that original point where the work is lost, which always ruins the work, which restores the endless pointlessness in it, but with which it must also maintain a relationship that is always beginning again, under the risk of being nothing. (trans. Charlotte Mandell)
The next two parts of the essay then compares the movement of the Trilogy to "the classical form" of literary experience, summed up by Blanchot with reference to the works of Genet and Lautréamont. These are works "in which one sees the writer happily deliver himself from the dark part of himself by a work in which that part becomes, as if by a miracle, the happiness and clarity stemming from the work itself, in which the writer finds a refuge and, even better, the flourishing of his lonely self in a free communication with the other".

Unfortunately, as also evidenced in Genet and Lautréamont "things are not always so simple" because, in the very means of their inspired escape, each writer is opened up to another level of experience. In the relief of becoming a writer, the writer loses the occasion and the means to write. There is no longer any struggle. They have to become non-writers again in order write. So where a socio-political analysis might see in Beckett's Trilogy the cultural echo of a post-war loss of old certainties, Blanchot is saying this experience is common to artists across time precisely because this loss means something; it isn't a line from a textbook. It's why they're artists after all and why (Blanchot's little joke?) they resist "the insignificance of an academic career". The other level of experience is "where we see Michaelangelo become ever more tormented and Goya ever more demon-ridden; we see the lucid, gay Nerval end up hanging himself, and we see Holderlin die to himself".

In the final part of the essay, Blanchot asks how all this came to pass, and suggests it is because the great artists experience the approach of the origin of art, an experience that is threatening both to the artist and the work. The threat is of absolute failure. The writer, now free to explore the infinite space of words and stories, falls outside of the world of his community, outside of any utility, and floats between life and death, "incapable henceforth of dying and incapable of being born, shot through with ghosts, his creatures, in which he doesn't believe and which tell him nothing". All this is evoked in The Unnamable. For this reason, Blanchot concludes, the Trilogy has much more importance for literature than most of the 'successful' works it offers every week. It takes literature as close to its origin without it disintegrating. If this is speaking from a 'vacuum', we have to wonder what positivist critics and reviewers really understand of art, or human life even. And in the month when yet another 'successful work' - Irish at that - was handed by a financial bureaucrat the most prestigious literary prize in the British Commonwealth, this fatal influence is as necessary as ever.


  1. Anonymous2:43 pm

    Wonderful post, Steve. Thanks so much for it. I've responded on ReadySteadyBook.

  2. I remember getting very excited about Casanova's book when it arrived on my doorstep. I rushed up to the bedroom, kicked off my shoes, and settled down with a hot cup of coffee.

    When I arrived at the point where Casanova rejects Blanchot I felt such a disappointment! Such a let-down! I put the book down, and I haven't picked it up since. (Possibly an extreme reaction, and given Mark's response maybe I should give it a go after all.)

    A great posting.




Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.