Thursday, May 23, 2024

39 Books: 2014

One could say that Mallarmé, through an extraordinary effort of asceticism, opened an abyss in himself where his awareness, instead of losing itself, survives and grasps its solitude in a desperate clarity.

This is from The Silence of Mallarmé, an essay in Blanchot's first collection Faux Pas published in occupied France in 1943, translated here by Charlotte Mandell, the final two words of which provide the title to this year's book. The abyss is characterised by Blanchot as one that opens between Mallarmé's dream of a poetry of formal perfection so "prodigiously impossible that its realization would be the equivalent of the creation of the universe".

The essay is one of 170 Blanchot published in the Journal des débats between April 1941 and August 1944, a selection of which comprises Faux Pas, but those remaining were not collected in French until 2007 and not translated into English until these four editions were published between 2014 and 2019 (during which Fordham UP tweaked the design so that the title on the spines of the final two make for an inconsistent set, not to mention the logo).

The disaster of the first title follows the defeat of France, a defeat that for Blanchot opened an abyss of equivalent proportions, as Michael Holland explains in his introductions. Blanchot saw literature as "the purest expression of French civilization" and, while fiercely critical of Hitlerism and its racist ideology, he continued to review writers who associated with collaborators and anti-semites, "something extremely difficult to confront, and a source of profound unease" to modern readers, as the introduction also comments. 

Instead of dismissing Blanchot as a collaborationist, Holland argues that we need to approach Blanchot's writings at this time "as the site of a huge and fundamental change in Western values" in which "a new relationship is established...between literature and thought". If the idealised France of Blanchot's aristocratic characterisation placed literature apart from the demand of contemporary events, its defeat also defeated his concomitant ideal of literary perfection, turning "the silent retreat of the writer into a site of endless divergence and effectively suspend[ing] individual subjectivity":

Because in [Blanchot's] own mind the issue of collaboration and that of anti-Semitism had been clearly decided once and for all, it was of no interest to him whether a given writer subscribed to either or both, provided that in his writing, he recognized and responded to the disastrous ordeal onto which writing opened, and which for Blanchot constituted the sole reality henceforth. However, our consternation at this seeming absence of judgment is, I would argue, something that we, his readers can ultimately acknowledge and accept, in the knowledge that in 1942, the writer we expect better of is on the way to discovering an entirely new and original order of value. 

Anyway, Holland continues, there are examples of Blanchot's integrity regarding the occupation and offers some more himself with some detective work in the archives of the Journal des débats

In 2014, I did not write about this, nor any of the other three volumes, and do so now because the dates have taken on more significance. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn became the first Labour Party leader with a meaningful record of resistance to racism and regime-change wars of aggression and, but for the machinations of the party bureaucracy run by his enemies in the party, would have won the 2017 election, "receiving the largest increase in the share of the vote by a Labour leader since Clement Attlee in 1945". It was clear the establishment had underestimated the effect having a real choice has on an electorate, even after the vote for Brexit. It would not make the same mistake again and a campaign of vilification whose cynicism and dishonesty infected the entire political and media class, including novelists, and shocked even lifelong Conservatives. Asa Winstanley's Weaponising Anti-Semitism describes it in chilling detail. I've written about this and literature recently concerning John Pilger's lament for the silence of writers, but rereading Michael Holland's introductions has helped bring clarity on the reasons for the desultory nature of my reading and, by extension, of contemporary literary culture. We are missing the abyss.

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