Nevertheless, I also confess that there have been many pages of Benjamin that I have not understood, though I am not so eager to assign the blame to Benjamin. It's possible that many of his pages, which often amount to sketches or fragmentary thoughts, are less explicable to me because, in fact, they are incomplete and were not intended for publication. Perhaps he simply hadn't completed the work necessary to make himself more clear, either because he didn't have time, or because he gave up on the item in question. But the truth is, I have some of the same problems with parts of essays that are clearly finished and were published during Benjamin's lifetime, so this provisional explanation doesn't satisfy me. I've written here before about my experiences reading Benjamin, describing a "vertiginous feeling" I have while doing so. While there are great moments of lucidity, when it seems as if complex ideas suddenly come into focus, the fact remains that I often literally don't know what the words on the page are supposed to signify. I have experienced similar problems with other critics. I'm thinking now of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. I have great difficulty understanding what they're talking about. For the most part, the words look like words I should understand, but the sense often eludes me. It takes me several passes before I am able to decide what is being said in a given passage.
What is the problem? Are these writers simply obscure? Is it all gibberish? I think there are a few problems. First, note that each of these three writers wrote in a language other than English--Benjamin in German, Barthes and Blanchot in French. I read neither German nor French, which means that I am, by necessity, reading these writers in translation. So something is lost, something which perhaps makes it difficult for me, at least, to access these writings. Richard Howard writes in his preface to Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text:
. . . the French have a vocabulary of eroticism, an amorous discourse which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just--attentively, scrupulously--puts the facts. In English, we have either the coarse or the clinical, and by tradition our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all. So that if we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take--the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its most abrupt and ruthless pitch--we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French utterance; we lack jouissance and jouir, as Barthes uses them here. The nomenclature of active pleasure fails us. . .Howard goes on to discuss the solutions translator Richard Miller devised to bridge this gap, but the point here is the gap itself. Is it possible that these texts are simply not to be understood? Obviously this is not an acceptable answer. Others seem to be able to read them, and I consider it the height of presumptuousness to assume that readers are not actually reading, with pleasure or with understanding, what they say they're reading. (Ignoring for the moment the inexplicably popular writer, as well as those times in our lives when, perhaps, we do indeed claim pleasures in order to please others.) Though Miller generally supplies "bliss" for Barthes' jouissance, the latter is a term I've seen used by writers writing in English--one of those terms for which the translated word is simply not sufficient, so the original has entered the target language. Yet for it to do so, a body of readers would have had to understand the term conceptually.
In any event, too many people I respect consider these and other critical thinkers to be not just coherent, but of the utmost importance to them. One such person is Gabriel Josipovici, and if I'm able to profitably read Josipovici's critical essays, why then shouldn't I be able to read Maurice Blanchot's? Of course, Josipovici himself writes in English (and appears to be able to read French and German, not to mention Hebrew), so perhaps this is still the difference, for me? Or maybe that's only part of it.
As I might have expected, Steve Mitchelmore suggests a possible direction. This is only appropriate, since it was through This Space that I first learned of Josipovici. Last week, Steve posted a list of some of his favored texts of literary criticism, texts which he warns "may contain erudite literary argument." One of these is Maurice Blanchot by William Large & Ullrich Haase. (It also includes Michael Wood's wonderful The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, the only book on the list I've read.) In the comments to this post, Steve writes that he recommends the Large & Haase book because "it's a straightforward and memorable intro for English readers mired in English commonsense reading habits." That final phrase "English commonsense reading habits" jumped out at me, as if Steve had been reading my mind as I've been struggling with these issues and writers. (And as such, this book has been immediately added to the wishlist.)
"Commonsense": this word by itself says a lot, doesn't it? I think the idea of "commonsense reading habits" as related to what I was getting at recently in a couple of posts in which I lamented a kind of writing that I called "depressingly utilitarian", which I further identified as primarily Anglo-American. I said that this writing--journalism, columns, opinion pieces, not true essays--means to impart information. And we, as readers, expect usefulness; we expect information. We don't expect to work too much. We resent work. We might be conditioned to shout down someone who appears to be making an issue too "black and white" (usually when we simply disagree: everyone else is always more intractable than we are), but in reality, we have difficulty with nuance; ambiguity bugs us. I mentioned Anglo-American writing, but I can really only vouch for my observations as a middle-class, white American, with a lazy college degree, and a blandly liberal, yet politically conservative, upbringing. We expect writing to speak plain truths--we assume truths are plain. We want the language, in general, to be plain-spoken. If a book cannot be simply opened up and read and grasped by an uninitiated reader, then it must be bullshit ("gibberish"). Writing that is not plain-spoken is difficult and therefore pretentious. People who claim to enjoy supposedly difficult writing are poseurs (or, possibly, elitists). Philosophy is suspect. In my life, I've had more than one person say to me that they had no intention of reading philosophy, because why should someone else's random thoughts on life have any bearing on your own? What makes the philosophers' "opinions" more worthy of consideration than my own? What use could they possibly have? Or, why read philosophy when science has actual answers? (I realize these are gross generalizations and over-simplifications and that plenty of Americans do not subscribe to these attitudes. Forgive me.) My instincts tell me that this problem has to do with the culture of capitalism (and of course it has everything to do with education), but I have neither the time nor the energy to expand on that notion right now. (Having neither time nor energy being intimately related to said culture.)
Ok, I'm all over the map in this post (so it feels), and I'm going to have to come to an unsatisfactory close. Steve's recommendation and the acknowledgment contained in his "commonsense" phrase, these are reminders that some things do require work, pleasure among them. One must learn to read philosophical and critical writing. One must spend time with it (time which may be hard to come by). And those of us used to expecting utilitarian writing, used to a certain kind of reading, may need to teach ourselves how to read differently, better, and may need some assistance in learning how to do so as we approach certain kinds of writing.