Friday, February 27, 2009

No general illumination, or: Some literary Links

I check in with Bloglines and I see that there is a new Spurious post, or two, or three. Will they be long ones? Will I have time to read them? If not, will I remember to get back to them? I don't want to click, afraid to lose them. I could check the actual blog, but no. Too easy; contrary to normal practise. I leave them for a while. Another day goes by, another new one. More. I see there are now eleven new Spurious posts. Overwhelmed, now I've got blog homework; I've got to catch up, the temptation to skim will be strong (it's worse with some other blogs: I see I've let Arthur Silber's new posts get away from me again: 26, Bloglines tells me--how long has it been?!?--and I know his are going to be long).

I click. And right away I'm laughing:
Reading Scholem makes me melancholy, I tell W. on the phone. He knows everything! He's an expert on all matters! That's because [he] studied for 40 years and then wrote, says W. How many years did you study? Are you studying now? But you're writing, aren't you? You're writing constantly.
Ha! I admit I used to glide right past these W. entries. I didn't get them. What's to get? What is my problem? Anyway, in recent months, they've become my favorite Spurious offerings. Which is not to disparage the others. For example, another recent post has Lars musing on Blanchot (and later on Jandek):
Some writers know to get out of the way of the work, to let it live. Know that the work belongs to darkness, that the ochre beasts should be discovered by the uncertain light of a reader's torch, and that there should no general illumination, no way of seeing the whole, and all at once.
Blanchot for me is, in a sense, still to come, if only because I've deferred continuing with The Space of Literature (continued to defer?), for now (though who knows I could pick it again up next week). I've deferred, yet this doesn't stop me from foolishly, impatiently coveting other Blanchot books. Lars above is referring metaphorically to the caves in Lascaux, fresh in my mind from reading the opening to Blanchot's Friendship, via Amazon's online reader:
It is certainly true that Lascaux fills us with a feeling of wonder: this subterranean beauty; the chance that preserved and revealed it; the breadth and scope of the paintings, which are there not in the form of vestiges or furtive adornment but as a commanding presence; a space almost intentionally devoted to the brilliance and marvel of painted things, whose first spectators must have experienced, as we do, and with as much naive astonishment, the wondrous revelation; the place from which art shines forth and whose radiance is that of a first ray--first and yet complete. The thought that at Lascaux we are present at the real birth of art and that at its birth art is revealed to be such that it can change infinitely and can ceaselessly renew itself, but cannot improve--this is what surprises us, what seduces us, and pleases us, for this is what we seem to expect from art: that, from birth, it should assert itself, and that it should be, each time it asserts itself, its perpetual birth.

This thought is an illusion, but it is also true; it directs and propels our admiring search. It reveals to us in a perceptible manner the extraordinary intrigue that art pursues with us and with time. . .
It continues, of course, and I want to read the rest of it right away. I want to have a small pile of Blanchot's works, which I could dip in at my leisure, following strands as they arise. But I must wait.

On a related note, I was quite taken with Jonathan Littell's lovely meditation on Blanchot, presented by Steve Mitchelmore at This Space. Here's a small, representative passage (translation by Charlotte Mandell; italics in original):
It's not that the text that results from this experience – poem, story, novel – is deprived of meaning, is not shot through with elements referring to the reality of life; rather it's that these elements function (to use a comparison that Blanchot would no doubt have discreetly avoided) like what Freud called the manifest content of dreams: the rags of reality they cloak themselves with so as both to manifest and veil their truth, their very reality. Thus, if writing is related to truth – and it certainly is, it has to be, or else not be at all, or in any case fall outside of the realm we designate by that mysterious word, literature – it is not by way of knowledge. Literary writing does not explain, does not teach: it simply offers the presence of its own mystery, its own experience, in its absence of explanation, thus inviting not some illusory "understanding" ("Reading either falls short of understanding or overshoots it," writes Blanchot), but precisely a reading. "Reading is freedom," Blanchot tells us, "a freedom that can only say yes." Yes to what? To experience; to the experience, usually born in anguish, of the one who writes, which is answered by the experience – by turns casual and transfixed by "the rapture of plenitude" – of the reader. Two experiences thus facing each other or rather tangential to each other, in any case radically irreducible to one another.
It's funny, though I've struggled with some of the language Blanchot uses, at least in The Space of Literature (no doubt because of my very limited engagement with philosophy), I persist because what I have gotten resembles what Littell suggests here, which in turn does a better job of evoking the relationship of the reading experience to truth, to reality, than most anything else I've encountered.

Elsewhere, at Blographia Literaria, in a post ostensibly about Gayl Jones' novel CoRregidora, but which deals mostly with Sven Birkerts' 1992 review of Jones' Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, Andrew Seal says the following (italics are his):
The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects.
I hope to have more to say about Andrew's very interesting post, but just want to say here that it seems to me that this kind of conclusion relies on a certain common view of literary Modernism, one for sure held by critics like Birkerts (and Louis Menand, as displayed in his recent essay about Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker; subscription required): that Modernism was merely an extended moment in time when aesthetic experimentation in its own right was in ascendence, in an all out cultural war to "make it new". As indicated through my many previous posts on his writings, I find Gabriel Josipovici's take on Modernism to be much more interesting and fruitful. There may have been a moment, but rather than a pitched battle against the establishment, it is "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself", and that, for art, in the world in which we live, this moment is ongoing, unending, still to come. (Contra Menand who, defining two prevailing views of post-modernism, writes: "It can mean, 'We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.' Or it can mean 'No one can be a modernist now. Modernism is over.'" In either case, Modernism happened, and we can move on.) Incidentally, I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about how this conception of Modernism relates to those writers not fitting comfortably in the European tradition, such as those discussed by Jones in her study, another reason I found Andrew's post of value, even if he uses Birkerts conception of Modernism.

Finally, on that note, Steve tells us of Carcanet's forthcoming publication of two novels, in one volume, from Josipovici: very exciting!


Andrew Seal said...


Actually, I absolutely agree with you about modernism being much more than a Menand or Birkerts would allow. I should have spelled that out, but I was trying to be vaguely polemical. This should teach me. Oops.

I haven't read Josipovici, although I keep hearing about him. I also just ran across a footnote about an Enrique Dussel who has this concept 'transmodernism.' I'm about to do some more research into that, but the simple sense of the word sounds a lot like what I'm trying to argue for.

I have to say that I am uncomfortable even with the Josipovici quote you cite: I think I'd like to start moving away not just from the common understanding of the "all out cultural war to 'make it new'" but also from anything that is so discrete that we can describe it as "arriving." I think everyone wants to be Virginia Woolf with her famous pronouncement "on or about December 1910 human character changed." In our conceptions of modernism and postmodernism, there has been such a drive toward marking with as much precision as possible the "arrival" of changes, fissures, fractures, etc. Whether it's contrarianism or just a desire for something different, I want to change the channel a bit. That's what I mean when I say that modernism simply isn't relevant to certain literary projects or products--the occasional inapplicability of this entrenched notion of repeated fractures and breakthroughs as the character of literature after "on or about December 1910."

Richard said...

Hi Andrew, thanks for comment - apologies for attributing Birkerts view to you (I see did that previously with Michaels & neoliberalism too!)

I should say that, as I understand it, Josipovici's (and, I believe, Blanchot's) notion of Modernism being "still to come" isn't so much in reference to a temporal "arrival". I'm going to leave it at that for me, since it's late for me (baby-wise).

As for Josipovici's work, I highly (some would say rabidly) recommend his books On Trust, The Book of God, and The Singer on the Shore. The first and third are more obviously relevant to our discussion, but believe me, the second one is too. For some flavor, you could, as I say, click through and read some of my Josipovici posts. I include several quotes from these books.