Not half way through the year but already a book has come along that, at the end, I will say: this is it — the book of the year.
I am aware that there is something desperate about such a pronouncement. It reveals a need to fulfil empty time with an evasive monument. That is the nature of monuments after all. The bigger the monument the more it evades — hence the respect given to a new 800 page novel spanning generations, the collected works of a writer or a definitive biography of a tyrant. Yet the book I’m holding is a fragile 53 pages and is published by a small press in Sydney, Australia.
Nowhere Without No is, ironically, a collection of thirteen memorials by translators, academics and poets (sometimes a combination of all three) in honour of Maurice Blanchot, the French novelist and philosopher, who died in February 2003 aged 95.
The introduction by editor Kevin Hart explains the title. It comes from Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy in which the poet writes of ‘a space that has been freed from ordinary time’ as experienced by children, animals and the dead:
It is always world
and never nowhere without no:
that pureness, that unwatched, which one breathes and
endlessly knows and never wants. But a child
might lose himself inside the quiet and become
shaken. Or someone dies and is.
For near to death one sees that death no more
and stares ahead, perhaps with a beast’s huge glance.
Blanchot’s gift is to reveal to us how literature is also nowhere without no. His work pursues writing to where it disappears into this space, as it separates itself from the reader and writer. Hart reminds us that Blanchot wrote (in the third person) of his own experience of this separation as he faced a firing squad in 1944. Waiting to die, there was:
"a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) — sovereign elation? […] In this place, I will not try to analyse. He was perhaps suddenly in invincible. Dead — immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship." (from The Instant of My Death, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg)
The shots didn’t come; he was told to run and thereby regained a life where, from then on, he writes, "the instant of my death [was] henceforth always in abeyance". Later, he discovered that a manuscript had been taken from his room by enemy officers believing it to contain military secrets. Instead of the death of the author, there was the death of the text.
One might say: but this is written in the third person; it is either fiction or Blanchot is writing about another person — perhaps literature itself. That lost manuscript certainly has the convenience of fiction, standing for the agency and meaning as it withdraws. However, such a distinction is impossible. By writing in the third person, Blanchot emphasises the distance inherent to such reminiscence — itself already literature, already intimate with death.
Ten years later, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature is saturated with this experience:
– to write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself.
– to write is to withdraw language from the world.
– to write is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence.
– the writer never reads his work. It is, for him, a secret.
– in the solitude of the work … we discover a more essential solitude.
– art is the power by which night opens
(trans. Ann Smock)
Throughout this extraordinary book, Blanchot traces the impact of the night on the work of various authors — Rilke, Mallarmé and Kafka in particular. If, for Kafka, "there exists only the outside, the glistening flow of the eternal outside" what does that mean for his world of expression, of escape, of liberty that is writing? The question is part of the work itself. In this way, reading Blanchot is frustrating: there is at once the assertiveness of the phrases quoted above and a resistence to actually saying anything in the usual manner. His assertions serve to obscure what was previously clear. Rather than offering an alternative to, say, a Freudian or Marxist reading of Metamorphosis, Blanchot reveals how each reading has to make a leap over the abyss.
For the reader, it is intoxicating, yet almost impossible to then put to use. Lydia Davis — pioneering translator of the récit Death Sentence — says she can follow the argument line by line yet summary is resisted. "Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment by moment". This resistence, she finds, is experienced by most other readers. It is not a criticism.
Charlotte Mandell — translator of The Work of Fire and The Book to Come — recalls how she felt a need to write to Blanchot to thank him for the silence in his words — for the revelation of the space. Her gratitude then is not for the man himself but for his absence, such is the perversity of his gift. Mandell doesn’t say whether he replied — though others report replies of exceptional courtesy and concern. Only Jacques Derrida — in the address given at the cremation — tells of the man himself: brief meetings in a university office throughout which Blanchot wore a gentle smile, and then breathless on the phone toward the end. He seems ghostly even in life.
One wonders how much this effacement contributes to the unique aura of his works? Not much, if the attempts to imitate him are any guide. The poet Jacques Dupin writes that in Blanchot’s fragmentary writing:
"his speech yielded a conductive wire of an extreme delicacy in search of the ultimate meaning, that which was well beyond one’s grasp and which indicated from very high up how to pass over the precipices, how to master the turbulance and the proliferation, of the forces of discolation that exhaust the text, that strangle the voice."
While Blanchot’s prose can be said to be poetic — and Dupin is surely right to detect a "demanding poet" behind the prose – it is not flighty and impressionistic. The silence of the words is achieved by the extreme patience and attention to the weight of words — a patience frequently expressed in doubt. Blanchot’s disciples have a remarkable confidence to use key word and oxymorons that appear throughout Blanchot’s work — passivity, sovereign relation, forgetfulness without memory, the impossible real, motionless retreat, purposiveness without purpose — in the assumption that they automatically plumb the depths as they do in Blanchot. Curiously, they don’t. As Blanchot himself wrote:
"Desire of writing, writing of desire. Desire of knowledge, knowledge of desire. Let us not believe that we have said anything at all with these reversals."
The merit of Nowhere Without No is that, unlike so much Blanchot-related material, it doesn’t strain to say too much. Such is the silence brought by death perhaps. The latter also means the distance between the author and his work is foregrounded, if only in the reader’s mind.
Michael Holland emphasises the distance in a remarkable, two-page analysis of science-fiction. The genre, he says, necessarily "hangs back from thinking the totality of what it projects – which is to say total transcendence in the here and now". He means it denies mortality. And that means such transcendence is pure violence: "Sci-fi is thus essentially nihilistic" because it cannot accommodate bodily death on the level of its narrative. He urges us to read and re-read Blanchot in order to hold off such nihilism. This is how we can learn from Blanchot. There is no need to adopt his style. Blanchot himself did exactly that in his own learning.
Mark C. Taylor remarks on Blanchot’s neglected kinship with an earlier enigmatic philosopher-writer: "It was …Kierkegaard" he writes "who first realised that philosophy can be itself only by becoming literature; and it was Kierkegaard who insisted tht the only way to be truly in the world is to withdraw from it." Taylor asked for a meeting to discuss it but got a note saying: "Though I might wish it otherwise, the conditions of my work make it impossible for us to meet". Still, he confirmed to Taylor that Kierkegaard was indeed a secret sharer. He helped Blanchot find his own way. This collection, modest in size and character as it is, offers Blanchot as a guide to us, placing the emphasis firmly on the writing:
"I have long thought that some things are so intimate that they can never be said but must be written. Writing does not merely create distance but also allows one to draw closer than any spoken word. This closeness must not be confused with presence. Writing brings the remote near by allowing presence to withdraw. The lasting lesson of Blanchot is that withdrawal opens up the space-time of desire whose absence is death. Though he has been taken from us, he will continue to give what is never ours to possess."