Tuesday, May 21, 2024

39 Books: 2012

Of all the books in this series, this was the one I most wanted to write about and also the one I knew would be impossible to write about, at least in a couple of distracted hours. Imagine this: through mathematical calculation, close reading and literary detective work, a philosopher regarded as a radical atheist uncovers a code in a canonical poem to claim against critical orthodoxy that it is the fulfilment of the poet's quest to create a civil religion to succeed Christianity as a relation to the infinite.

A sample: Quentin Meillassoux says Stéphane Mallarmé gives a central role to the number seven in Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard / A throw of the dice will never abolish chance because it is the number of rhymes in what he believed is the perfect poetical form, the sonnet, and also the number of stars in the constellation containing the North Star by which navigators where sure to find their way but which is now "detached in all its resplendence on the ground of eternal Chance". The stars reminds us that:

the absence of God, his proven Nothingness, is the condition of the Beautiful, just as Night and the annihilation of solar light is the condition of stellar splendor – which is, from now on, our compass.    [translated by Robin Mackay]

I wanted to write about the book because it probably represents the turn in my interests away from the restless demands of the literature industry and towards something less easily served; "backing up to the monastery", as Saul Bellow answered when asked why he taught university classes. While contemporary literature is thriving, its shallow roots are obscured by its wealth and energy, something on which this blog fed for many years, albeit often antagonistically. However, following a head injury and losing my job because of its side effects, I slowed down and became more sensitive to the stars' reminder. What after all is the point of this manic logging of literary experience in lists, essays and reviews, and why this concern for evaluating the generic qualities of a novel and one's reaction to them? Asking the question may be why I remained silent about The Number and the Siren, as it meant turning against the tide of wealth and energy with pitiful levels of both. Instead, here are two excellent reviews of The Number and the Siren by Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith.

I wonder if the surprise of The Number and the Siren as an event in itself can be instructive. Published by small presses Urbanomic in the UK and Sequence Press in the US, it was ignored by newspapers book pages. Perhaps this reveals that literature has become exhausted and yet cannot exhaust itself, as a bright-burning supernova cannot yet become a black hole. Meillassoux's book reminds us that the task of literature is to return to silence. While Meillassoux claims to go in the opposite direction to Maurice Blanchot's reading of Mallarmé as a writer "gripped by the impossible and sterile dreams of a Work doomed to failure", he has perhaps written the history of Mallarmé's silence Blanchot said in 1943 might be written in the future, a history that would have "the interest of a gaze directed at an absence, at a very profound reality that would only yield to awareness the fact that it cannot be known". That absence may be literature itself.

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