Friday, January 18, 2019

Axe-books of the year

 A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us, says Kafka in the famous letter.

I wondered what this might mean as the 'books of the year' lists began to appear last month. Imagine if each contributor constrained themselves to choose only axe-books. Each entry would likely remain blank and the value of what did appear would be extreme compared to the predictable logrolling we see each year. Or maybe they would be exactly the same, as the idea of such a book is so vague that it could include everything from everyday escapist relief to a silent version of Freud's talking cure.

For this reason, it is the second most abused quotation of modern literature, after Beckett's Fail better. While Beckett is encouraging deeper failure rather than one that is closer to success, its playful ambiguity has enabled it to become a motivational mantra for a million creative writing memes, allowing Beckett one more catastrophe as he fails to turn budding writers away from the sewer of success. Kafka's line may not be misunderstood but is preceded by flourishes that rather complicate its promise:
We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. We need the books that affect us like a disaster. We need books that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.
You can see why these words haven't become as popular. Yet as easily as such teenage-goth hyperbole is dismissed, the words do stir something beneath surface cynicism, which may be as slight as disappointment with everyday escapist relief, with Kafka's grim enthusiasm maintaining the promise of a future book that will allow us to bear the heaviest burdens without the lingering trauma, even if in doing so they retain the formula of disappointment: words that carry no weight.

My year of reading ended with four new books by or related to Maurice Blanchot, with one experienced with this kind of disappointment. I had been waiting twenty years for Christophe Bident's biography to be translated, as it promised a measure of the distance between Blanchot's life and his writing (what he discovered in writing). Several hundred pages later, the words Bident used to discuss key ideas and concepts became so light they floated free of any context that held any meaning for me: the absolute, the neuter, the unsayable, the avowable, the unavowable, the infinite, the impossible, the infinitely impossible. There is very little biographical detail, certainly not the trivia one might expect of the genre; his acquaintance with Brigitte Bardot as reported in L'Herne or the rumour that he learned Danish to read Kierkegaard in the original are not mentioned. As the book is a study of the work organised chronologically and written during Blanchot's lifetime, this is fair enough and mine is only an expression of disappointment and intellectual stupefaction. In reading hundreds of pages of commentary and analysis, I was reminded of Saul Bellow's narrator of Ravelstein who, when charged to read a philosophical article, felt like an ant who sets out to cross the Andes. Except, I was on the other side.

While it was no doubt disingenuous of me to hope for trivia from the life of this writer, there are two moments central to Blanchot's work in which the personal is exposed to the impersonal, suggesting there remains a navigable plain to be explored before the mountains rise up. Here is the first, in Ann Smock's translation of The Writing of the Disaster:

If the tears are evidence of an unfrozen sea, they are also evidence of disaster, grief and banishment, and so an experience much closer to Kafka's demands. And even if he is reading the sky and not a book, what happens then has the same ambiguous properties of reading, amplified here into a variety of religious experience; an experience that is repeated thirty years later.

The Instant of My Death describes how in the summer of 1944 a Nazi lieutenant ordered Blanchot out of the same house, perhaps to the same garden, to face a firing squad. As he awaits the order to fire, Blanchot writes that he experienced "a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)". Distracted by noise of fighting, the lieutenant leaves the scene and the firing squad tells Blanchot to nip off. Fifty years later, Blanchot speculates that what he felt was perhaps ecstacy, defined by the OED as "the state of being ‘beside oneself’ in ... anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion" or "the withdrawal of the soul from the body [in a] mystic trance". But then Blanchot says it was rather the feeling "compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal", notable for being the opposite of the familiar literary pursuit of living forever.

There is so much to say about such passages that Derrida has written a book on the latter, emphasising there what concerns me here: that both experiences are also non-experiences. The content of each is an exposure to that which is not there or that which didn't occur. Both correspond to the experience of reading and both are essentially literary experiences, with all the features of reading stories and the prejudices they encounter. Derrida argues that fiction haunts the project to be truthful in testimony and "is perhaps the passion of literature" – the Christian sense included: a suffering unto death in which death is not an end. In reading we are "close to a heart that beats no more": the instant of death has become literature, opening the mysterious distance necessary to itself and the peculiar value we place in it, as witnessed in the power of Kafka's letter.

Remember Kafka says there that books should affect us like a 'disaster', a key word in Blanchot's work. For Blanchot, the word means not only the terrible events in the news or the historical record but the breakdown of our relation to the stars, as reported in the 'primal scene'. The OED says "Disaster is etymologically a mishap due to a baleful stellar aspect". William S. Allen explains further in Understanding Blanchot, Understanding Modernism that, without the guiding light of the stars, our existence lacks unity to ground meaning or knowledge. The resulting anxiety necessarily infects language, as it fails to take the place of the stars. This is felt especially by the writer seeking, in both a personal and public sense, to stabilise existence and thereby reduce existential anxiety. But writing only doubles down on ambiguity: "Does this sentence describe my situation, or make it into something else; is it expressing my anxiety, or displacing it?" :
The disaster is not an event. It does not take place in the order of things that happen but is discovered as that which has taken place, as the experience of this utter lack of grounds for meaning, the lack of any transcendental unity or order, an experience that language conveys but that is not limited to language, which is its other, mortal side.
An experience of the transcendental and mortal sides combined might be the best way to define axe-books. It is not necessarily a pessimistic definition. What Kafka's writing gives is a glimpse of light, even if is the light of a baleful star, and thereby the possibility of communication in the darkness. Either instant on its own is not enough (perhaps Bident's string of key words became weightless for me because they were drained of their mortal side).

I have no axe-books for this year. Like Marcel's miraculous, timeless instants, they appear very rarely, if at all, always unexpected, and easily confused with narrative excitements. The closest for me was two years ago. I have often recognised since that this post was the culmination of what I had to say here (by coincidence, 'culmination' also has its root in the stars). And yet I continue. Why? Thirteen years after his famous letter, Kafka characterised his ability to write as "a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being". The question he asks in the next sentence remains outstanding: "But then what kind of surplus is it?"


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