Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bartleby / Self

156 years after publication, John Self's Asylum reviews Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.
It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.
How does one lay a foundation for an abyss?! The entry on page 145 of Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster opens it up.
In 'Bartleby,' the enigma comes from 'pure' writing, which can only be that of a copyist (rewriting). The enigma comes from the passivity into which this activity (writing) disappears, and which passes imperceptibly and suddenly from ordinary passivity (reproduction), to the beyond of all passiveness: to a life so passive — for it has the hidden decency of dying — that it does not have death for an ultimate escape. Bartleby copies; he writes incessantly, and cannot stop long enough to submit to anything resembling control. I would prefer not to. This sentence speaks in the intimacy of our nights: negative preference, the negation that effaces preference and is effaced therein: the neutrality of that which is not among the things there are to do — the restraint, the gentleness that cannot be called obstinate, and that outdoes obstinacy with those few words. Language, perpetuating itself, keeps still.


  1. "I like to be stationary."

    Melville couldn't have put it better.

  2. "I like to be stationary."

    Where's that from, the dyslexic notebook wannabe?

  3. Stephen, I have only read one blanchot book (hey, I am not a pro, just a guy trying to stay up on this stuff!), so in what sequence would you suggest reading, and with what crib notes/ critical studies, etc. (Gee, as if I didn't have enough books waiting to be read....)

  4. Apologies for delayed reply Paul. I'd recommend starting with the early essay collections, say The Work of Fire with a later one The Book to Come being particularly good. Also, avoid the fiction as it is, for my taste at least, a little bloodless.

    It's impossible to get hold of Josipovici's essay selection "The Sirens' Song" (1982) but this gives a good overview of this literary critical writings.

  5. After struggling with The Space of Literature, I've had better luck so far with Friendship. It's later than the others, but just thought I'd throw that in the mix.

    Also, The Sirens' Song is out of print, of course, but it happens that it's the only Blanchot book the Baltimore Public Library has, so it might be worth trying to find one in a library closer to you.



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