Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In the margins with Jean Paulhan

In the last couple of days, wood s lot has offered links to downloads of very desirable books in PDF. One of them contains a translation of Blanchot's "How is Literature Possible?", his landmark review-essay of Jean Paulhan's The Flower of Tarbes or, Terror in Literature.

As Michael Syrotinski explains in his profile of Paulhan, the book explores the opposition between Terror in literature - summarised as "the endless necessity of writing against the literature and language of one's predecessors" - and Rhetoric - "conventional language, commonplaces, and literary clichés". It's an opposition that still inspires English-speaking writers. For example, Mark Sarvas in his interview with Bat Segundo expressed solidarity with Martin Amis' war against cliché. The trouble with this position is, as Blanchot explains, that:
Anyone who wants, at every moment, to be absent from words, to be present only at the ones he reinvents, is endlessly preoccupied with them, so that of all the authors, those who strive most keenly to avoid the reproach of verbalism are also precisely those who are most exposed to this reproach. "Run away from language, it comes after you”, says Paulhan, “go after language, it runs away from you". We might think of Victor Hugo, the writer par excellence obsessed with words, who indeed did everything he could to triumph over rhetoric, and who said: "The poet must not write with what has already been written (that is, with words) but with his soul and his heart."
Yet, while this might suggest the hope for literature to be more than dry abstraction is futility itself, Blanchot says:
The same is true of those who, by prodigious asceticism, deluded themselves into thinking that they set themselves apart from all literature. Because they wanted to rid themselves of conventions and forms, in order to be in direct contact with the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they wished to reveal, they were ultimately content to use this world, this secret, this metaphysics as conventions and forms, which they complacently presented, and which constituted both the visible framework and the basis of their works. As Jean Paulhan remarks decisively on this point: "Castles that come tumbling down, lights in the night, ghosts and dreams (for example) are . . . pure conventions, like rhyme and the three unities, but they are conventions that we happily take for dreams and castles, whereas no one has ever thought they have seen the three unities." In other words, for these kinds of writers, metaphysics religion and feelings take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre, in a word, literature.

So we are now in a position to give an answer to the question: how is literature possible? It is in fact by virtue of a double illusion - the illusion of some writers who fight against commonplace expressions and language by the very same means which engender language and commonplace expressions; and the illusion of other writers who, in renouncing literary conventions or, as they say, literature itself, cause it to be reborn in a form - as metaphysics, religion, etc. - which is not its own.
[Translated by Michael Syrotinski]
We might add science to that list.

By the way, you can read more about the encounter between Paulhan and Blanchot in Allan Stoekl's The Agonies of the Intellectuals (if you can find a copy) and, at ReadySteadyBook, Michael Syrotinski's introduction to The Flowers of Tarbes. But there's more - in June, the University of Illinois Press is publishing On Poetry and Politics, a collection of Paulhan's essays in translation. The promotional material says he published his own work in a manner that deliberately kept it inconspicuous, or as Maurice Blanchot put it, "in the margins." Enough perhaps to explain why he, Blanchot and other French writers more worth our while now tend still to be overshadowed by biography-friendly writers.


  1. This is not about the post above, but the photo above, which I dig quite alot. Best thing seen around this neck of the woods for many a long time. BRAVO

  2. I should point out that this is the Rijksmuseum's new website-friendly widget:


    I'd like to use the large version but it won't fit proper. And, as the geek said to the actress, click on it to enlarge.



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