Monday, December 29, 2008

Reading The Space of Literature (iv)

This series of posts came to an abrupt halt in the middle of my engagement with the opening essay, in part because of the very struggle I was having with it, which in part took me to Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. And it needed quieter time than I have had, in which to both read the book and to think and take notes. But I had some moments more recently, and I return here, then, to "The Essential Solitude" after a lengthy absence. Turning the pages, I noticed that I had already marked off a passage that has direct bearing on the issues being discussed in the wake of Zadie Smith's recent essay (well, really the whole project has direct bearing, but this passage speaks to it in some of the same terms). Here is Blanchot:
The writer we call classic--at least in France--sacrifices within himself the idiom which is proper to him, but he does so in order to give voice to the universal. The calm of a regular form, the certainty of a language free from idiosyncrasy, where impersonal generality speaks, secures him a relation with truth--with truth which is beyond the person and purports to be beyond time. Then literature has the glorious solitude of reason, that rarefied life at the heart of the whole which would require resolution and courage if this reason were not in fact the stability of an ordered aristocratic society; that is, the noble satisfaction of a part of society which concentrates the whole within itself by isolating itself well above what sustains it.

When to write is to discover the interminable, the writer who enters this region does not leave himself behind in order to approach the universal. He does not move toward a surer world, a finer or better justified world where everything would be ordered according to the clarity of the impartial light of day. He does not discover the admirable language which speaks honorably for all.
The bourgeois novel, the "classic" novel, presents an ordered world, an ordered world where a universal Truth is accessible. But the writer who writes in his proper idiom does not have access to this, "does not discover the admirable language which speaks honorably for all".

I'm going to deal very loosely with the rest of this essay. I promise nothing. Quoted passages are, as always, from the translation by Ann Smock.

Blanchot writes about the writer's journal: not a confession, not the writer's story, but an act through which the writer remembers himself. Does this mean this is how the writer grounds himself? That route by which he staves off getting lost in the dangerous solitude? Lost in the fascination?

". . .fascination is solitude's gaze. It is the gaze of the incessant and interminable."

some (dictionary) definitions:
incessant: ceaseless, ongoing, without interruption
interminable: without end; connotes "endless", tedious even; dictionary includes "monotonously or annoyingly protracted or continued; unceasing"...

So, then, there is something potentially negative about it? About this gaze, this solitude? Or is negative not quite the right word? (Meanwhile, the section under the heading The Interminable, the Incessant I return to again and again, because I don't understand it, though it includes the clarity of the excerpt presented at the top of this entry. And again I am struck by how elusive much of Blanchot can be. I struggle to retain his meaning in my head, over time. Just as I've managed, I think, to nail down a phrase, or a term, he moves on to something that seems to rely on that term or phrase, and my understanding dissipates. But then, as I have described before, in relation to Benjamin, there are those wide open spaces, like the passage above, where I find myself breathing easier. Even the elusive passages keep me coming back. Not just because I'm trying to understand it, but because something just under the surface, or rather just beyond my ken, seems real in what he is saying. I struggle the same way with Poetry, Language, Thought, in which I also sense something just around the corner, coming into view, aided, this sense, by those observations that feel so right, that tell me that it must be worth struggling with.)

Working through the rest of this opening essay, words take on new meanings. No, not new meanings, that's not right. Words used with a greater precision than usual, words taken seriously, in all their weight. (When I wrote about my problems with certain writers, I skirted this point. We are used to a lazier writing. This is perhaps the hallmark of utilitarian writing, of everyday journalistic writing--use whatever seems to work, to get the general point across, then move on--not that journalism can't be more precise than it often is. But if the general point isn't enough?) On the one hand, then, words are used with greater precision; on the other, some of these words appear to serve technical functions, are part of a technical language distinct from everyday usage (perhaps the technical language of philosophy--part of the importance of Hegel and Heidegger here, I have no doubt) (though, perhaps even some of these are instances of a precision, becoming technical in our specific encounter with them). One such word here is "fascination" or "fascinating". I use the word a lot, casually, but when I do, it rarely quite means what I mean for it to mean. I employ it as a substitute, an elegant variation, when I don't want to say interesting or brilliant or engrossing or affecting or whatever. Of course the same is largely true of those words (not that I use them exactly interchangeably).

"Seeing pre-supposes distance, decisiveness which separates . . . Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter." The gaze: one doesn't touch but is held by the gaze, this holding is a contact.

"What is given us by this contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image." I catch myself lost in a gaze, fascinated by something, time seems to stop. Better: I watch my daughter, staring, the absorbed look in her eyes, but it's less a stare than a gaze (they talk of mother and nursing baby gazing into each others' eyes); she is fascinated, and though she may smile, it's usually not in the moment--not as she gazes--the smile interrupts the gaze, punctuates it. Interestingly, Blanchot calls childhood "the moment of fascination":
Perhaps the force of the maternal figure receives its intensity from the very force of fascination, and one might say then, that if the mother exerts this fascinating attraction it is because, appearing when the child lives altogether in fascination's gaze, she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment. It is because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating, and that is also why all the impressions of early childhood have a kind of fixity which comes from fascination.
Ok, time to finish up this round. I've taken some incoherent stabs at different parts of this essay. And clearly this essay leads into the next ("Approaching Literature's Space"), and so on. (And as Blanchot remarks in a note in the front of the book, the whole thing revolves around the center that is the essay "Orpheus' Gaze".) So it's perhaps a mistake to draw any conclusions from just the one essay. I note for now some recurring words: interminable, incessant, fascination, gaze, time's absence, solitude (of course). "To write is to enter into the affirmation of the solitude in which fascination threatens. It is to surrender to the risk of time's absence, where eternal starting over reigns." Why? He leaves the question open, at least for now . . . but what does this mean? Threatens? This sounds as though fascination is dangerous for the would-be writer. Again a negative connotation. No peaceful process, writing. Perhaps it starts to come together here: Writing is a risk. For the writer to write what is properly his or her to write, without an eye on so-called universal truths, the writer must be willing to take risks, willing to risk being lost in fascination. In the space where this fascination looms, this is where the writer enters, surrenders. . .

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