Saturday, December 31, 2016

“What I want to tell you is so intimate, so veiled, so vague, that I fear I’ve occasionally been too precise. Forgive me.”  Stéphane Mallarmé, April 1864

This is not a books of the year post. While I enjoy learning of other people's books of the year choices, the genre has come to frustrate me because the comments leave so much unsaid, summing up a selection in the shorthand of industrial standards and ignoring the small, obscure transformations experienced as sentence follows sentence, which for me are often more valuable than the larger work; or, rather, that which gives value to the larger work. Yet they go unsaid. And I don't mean a sentimental reaction to a drama well-orchestrated by the masterly author or the ingenuity of a mot juste, but something released from the words that cannot quite be adequately explained by their overt content. So while the books pictured here are those I've read and valued this year, it is not the books as such that I want to discuss.

In 1885, Mallarmé told Paul Verlaine that after so many prose pieces and verse he wished to write a book that would be "architectural and premeditated, and not an anthology of random inspirations, however marvelous". This is the fabled Book that has led to so much commentary. It's my small contention that this is a false opposition, as such structures are necessary for such inspirations and are why, for instance, the canned products of OuLiPo are often uncanny. The latter go unsaid because the experience is always unclear and the magnificent structure provides the perfect shadow for silence. One imperfect example that I can recall is browsing in a bookshop, opening a copy of Enrique Vila-Matas' novel Montano's Malady and reading the epigraph: "What will we do to disappear?". I had then to buy the book, for what ever had been stirred in me depended on the mass of pages that followed, as the glistening surface of a swimming pool depends on the sky above and the depths below.

Speaking of why he writes novels and stories rather than poetry, Gabriel Josipovici might be explaining this when he says the experience of fiction:
has as something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.
In Search of Lost Time is a perfect example because the vast length of the book is necessary to expose those famous ecstatic instants in their ecstasy, and yet still we talk about them as discrete, anecdotal features. The effect of Vila-Matas' epigraph on me might be different in that a need was triggered for such an unsealing, something that approaches what Heidegger called die Lichtung, a clearing in the forest. The recognition of that need itself became a clearing.

For a long time I've been very aware of the value of such moments. It is one year since This Space of Writing was published. The blog's tenth anniversary gave rise to a need to change, to move on, to go beyond reviewing and discussing ideas and concepts, to walk over the paint that has defined this corner. While going from blog to book had troubled me I knew that after all these years in the shameful lowlands of writing it was time to follow Werner Herzog's famous penguin toward the mountains. How, I didn't know. On a whim as fleeting as flipping a book open to the epigraph, I copied and pasted a selection into a Word document to see how they read in a different space. I was surprised by how they did. Ismo Santala has since written that "the book's pattern is quite a sly one":
What at first looks like a collection of occasional book reviews is in fact a well-considered sequence advancing a rich and consistent literary stance. As certain works, authors and literary-philosophical themes begin to recur with ever greater insistence and force, the reader begins to feel the turning of the screw."
In this way then the book itself might have cleared the way for something else. However, the list of posts since publication is a familiar one, with my review of Bernhard's Goethe Dies and the essay The authorisation to invent standing out as mitigation. Where did they come from? Random inspirations perhaps, but part of a deeper movement.

It's probably no coincidence that two of the most valuable books I read this year were also collections of review-essays. The Teller and the Tale has a short, very moving essay that describes how artistic progress occurs slowly, through patience and chance mainly, but also through failure and even collapse. The composer György Kurtág had a breakdown and was unable to compose. Eventually, after some counselling, he began to compose again, starting from the very basics of the craft. For example, he set Samuel Beckett's final poem What is the Word to music. (Skip to 6mins 40secs.)

Josipovici writes that both poem and performance "enact a desperate movement in the inner reaches of one’s being and ... find, at the end, that the enactment of failure has led not to triumph but to a quite physical sense of release". Despite having "no operas and no vast choral and orchestral works to his name" and because his music appears to be very modest and marginal, Kurtág has become "a potent artistic force in our confused, fragmented and disillusioned world".

This is a world away from the criticism and reviewing whose only focus is public virtue. It returns us to the unique value of art and, as a result, moderates any impatience to change. The modesty and marginality of blog posts offers at least the sense of a personal encounter however good or bad.

The pre-publication blurb of the other collection promised an answer to the question "How did Maurice Blanchot transform himself from journeyman reviewer to the theorist of narrative whose work transformed the intellectual landscape of the postwar era?" But if these reviews provide that answer, it is veiled by their workaday reserve, and for good reason. In a review of Tocqueville's Recollections, Blanchot criticises those who believe revolution is a matter of chance events because "they ignore the lengthy preparations without which spontaneity does not occur" and recognises that reading Tocqueville's account of returning from Paris to the family's Normandy home "through the empty halls of his old chateau, the damp and dusty rooms where everything seems dead…we will understand much better than through even the most harrowing accounts the bitter taste of political upheaval and the ruinous power of history". Given that France had been under Nazi occupation for three years, it is significant that this is contained in a review.

And Blanchot's criticism is never theory in the formal sense anyway, as most of it focuses on encounters with specific works, and even a book as difficult as The Step Not Beyond is written in fragments. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he transformed how reviews, criticism and theory are written. Michael Holland's introduction argues that the transformation was due to ruin and destruction of the war except that this went "beyond the limits of the external world" and "signified the collapse of the entire frame within which Western humanity had related to the world". It meant "the disappearance of the world, the self and the relation between them in an event that from then on Blanchot would term disaster".

"Not to write—what a long way there is to go before arriving at that point". This is a sentence from Blanchot's late work The Writing of the Disaster. A title best read first as 'the writing done by disaster'. The final book I read this year, and one of the best, exemplifies this point. Early on it tells the story of how, in December 1273, Thomas Aquinas put down his pen and told his assistant: "After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw." He died three months later with Summa Theologiæ abandoned mid-sentence. "What happened?" Denys Turner asks. "Did he have some kind of mystical experience? Or, was it, more simply, nervous collapse and depression as a result of over-work?" The latter seems plausible given the extraordinary fact that Aquinas had written "the equivalent of two or three average length novels per month between the beginning of 1269 and December 1273" (my emphasis). While leaving the answer open, Turner's recognises that incompleteness might itself be a theological statement, specifically about the relation of silence to speech, or in this case, words. Theology emerges from silence in the same way "the massive structures of the medieval cathedral articulate the spaces they enclose", and silence is also where it ends.
For Thomas, silence is not the absence of speech. It is what the fullness of speech demonstrates—namely that, even at its best, speech falls short; indeed, it is only speech at its best that truly discovers this silence. And theology at its best discloses but the name of that silence from which the Word proceeds, and to which it returns. Its name is God.


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