The Space of Literature: A Translation of "L'Espace littéraire" / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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The Space of Literature, first published in France in 1955, is central to the development of Blanchot's thought. In it he reflects on literature and the unique demand it makes upon our attention. Thus he explores the process of reading as well as the nature of artistic creativity, all the while considering the relation of the literary work to time, to history, and to death. This book consists not so much in the application of a critical method or the demonstration of a theory of literature as in a patiently deliberate meditation upon the literary experience, informed most notably by studies of Mallarmé, Kafka, Rilke, and Hölderlin. Blanchot's discussions of those writers are among the finest in any language.
About the Author
Ann Smock's fluent translation retains the tone and sense of the French; her introduction situates Blanchot in the French and American cultural spectrum and outlines the history of his critical concerns. Ann Smock, an associate professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley, also translated Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster for the University of Nebraska Press in 1986.
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The Space of Literature
By Maurice Blanchot, Ann Smock
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 1955 Éditions Gallimard
All rights reserved.
The Essential Solitude
It seems that we learn something about art when we experience what the word solitude is meant to designate. This word has been much abused. Still, what does the expression to be done signify? When is one alone? Asking this question should not simply lead us into melancholy reflections. Solitude as the world understands it is a hurt which requires no further comment here.
We do not intend to evoke the artist's solitude either — that which is said to be necessary to him for the practice of his art. When Rilke writes to the countess of Solms-Laubach (August 3, 1907), "For weeks, except for two short interruptions, I haven't pronounced a single word; my solitude has finally encircled me and I am inside my efforts just as the core is in the fruit," the solitude of which he speaks is not the essential solitude. It is concentration.
The Solitude of the Work
In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we discover a more essential solitude. It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity. The fact that one sustains a stalwart attitude throughout the disciplined course of the day does not dissipate it. He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn't know it. This ignorance preserves him. It distracts him by authorizing him to persevere. The writer never knows whether the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he starts over or destroys in another. Valéry, celebrating this infinite quality which the work enjoys, still sees only its least problematic aspect. That the work is infinite means, for him, that the artist, though unable to finish it, can nevertheless make it the delimited site of an endless task whose incompleteness develops the mastery of the mind, expresses this mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain moment, circumstances — that is, history, in the person of the publisher or in the guise of financial exigencies, social duties — pronounce the missing end, and the artist, freed by a dénouement of pure constraint, pursues the unfinished matter elsewhere.
The infinite nature of the work, seen thus, is just the mind's infiniteness. The mind wants to fulfill itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in an infinity of works and in history's ongoing movement. But ValÃ(c)ry was by no means a hero. He found it good to talk about everything, to write on everything: thus the scattered totality of the world distracted him from the unique and rigorous totality of the work, from which he amiably let himself be diverted. The etc. hid behind the diversity of thoughts and subjects.
However, the work — the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is — and nothing more. Beyond that it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work.
The solitude of the work has as its primary framework the absence of any defining criteria. This absence makes it impossible ever to declare the work finished or unfinished. The work is without any proof, just as it is without any use. It can't be verified. Truth can appropriate it, renown draws attention to it, but the existence it thus acquires doesn't concern it. This demonstrability renders it neither certain nor real — does not make it manifest.
The work is solitary: this does not mean that it remains uncommunicable, that it has no reader. But whoever reads it enters into the affirmation of the work's solitude, just as he who writes it belongs to the risk of this solitude.
The Work, the Book
In order to examine more closely what such statements beckon us toward, perhaps we should try to see where they originate. The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work. There is a work only when, through it, and with the violence of a beginning which is proper to it, the word being is pronounced. This event occurs when the work becomes the intimacy between someone who writes it and someone who reads it. One might, then, wonder: if solitude is the writer's risk, does it not express the fact that he is turned, oriented toward the open violence of the work, of which he never grasps anything but the substitute — the approach and the illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute collection of sterile words, the most insignificant thing in the world. The writer who experiences this void believes only that the work is unfinished, and he thinks that a little more effort, along with some propitious moments, will permit him and him alone to finish it. So he goes back to work. But what he wants to finish by himself remains interminable; it involves him in an illusory task. And the work, finally, knows him not. It closes in around his absence as the impersonal, anonymous affirmation that it is — and nothing more. This is what is meant by the observation that the writer, since he only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows of his work. One ought perhaps to turn this remark around. For isn't the writer dead as soon as the work exists? He sometimes has such a presentiment himself: an impression of being ever so strangely out of work.
Noli Me Legere
The same situation can also be described this way: the writer never reads his work. It is, for him, illegible, a secret. He cannot linger in its presence. It is a secret because he is separated from it. However, his inability to read the work is not a purely negative phenomenon. It is, rather, the writer's only real relation to what we call the work. The abrupt Noli me legere brings forth, where there is still only a book, the horizon of a different strength. This Noli me legere is a fleeting experience, although immediate. It is not the force of an interdict, but, through the play and the sense of words, the insistent, the rude and poignant affirmation that what is there, in the global presence of a definitive text, still witholds itself — the rude and biting void of refusal — or excludes, with the authority of indifference, him who, having written it, yet wants to grasp it afresh by reading it. The impossibility of reading is the discovery that now, in the space opened by creation, there is no more room for creation. And, for the writer, no other possibility than to keep on writing this work. No one who has written the work can linger close to it. For the work is the very decision which dismisses him, cuts him off, makes of him a survivor, without work. He becomes the inert idler upon whom art does not depend.
The writer cannot abide near the work. He can only write it; he can, once it is written, only discern its approach in the abrupt Noli me legere which moves him away, which sets him apart or which obliges him to go back to that "separation" which he first entered in order to become attuned to what he had to write. So that now he finds himself as if at the beginning of his task again and discovers again the proximity, the errant intimacy of the outside from which he could not make an abode.
Perhaps this ordeal points us toward what we are seeking. The writer's solitude, that condition which is the risk he runs, seems to come from his belonging, in the work, to what always precedes the work. Through him, the work comes into being; it constitutes the resolute solidity of a beginning. But he himself belongs to a time ruled by the indecisiveness inherent in beginning over again. The obsession which ties him to a privileged theme, which obliges him to say over again what he has already said — sometimes with the strength of an enriched talent, but sometimes with the prolixity of an extraordinarily impoverishing repetitiveness, with ever less force, more monotony — illustrates the necessity, which apparently determines his efforts, that he always come back to the same point, pass again over the same paths, persevere in starting over what for him never starts, and that he belong to the shadow of events, not their reality, to the image, not the object, to what allows words themselves to become images, appearances — not signs, values, the power of truth.
Sometimes, when a man is holding a pencil, his hand won't release it no matter how badly he wants to let it go. Instead, the hand tightens rather than open. The other hand intervenes more successfully, but then the hand which one might call sick makes a slow, tentative movement and tries to catch the departing object. The strange thing is the slowness of this movement. The hand moves in a tempo which is scarcely human: not that of viable action, not that of hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward an object that has become its own shadow. This hand experiences, at certain moments, a very great need to seize: it must grasp the pencil, it has to. It receives an order, an imperious command. This phenomenon is known as "tyrannical prehension."
The writer seems to be the master of his pen; he can become capable of great mastery over words and over what he wants to make them express. But his mastery only succeeds in putting him, keeping him in contact with the fundamental passivity where the word, no longer anything but its appearance — the shadow of a word — never can be mastered or even grasped. It remains the ungraspable which is also unreleasable: the indecisive moment of fascination.
The writer's mastery is not in the hand that writes, the "sick" hand that never lets the pencil go — that can't let it go because what it holds it doesn't really hold; what it holds belongs to the realm of shadows, and it is itself a shade. Mastery always characterizes the other hand, the one that doesn't write and is capable of intervening at the right moment to seize the pencil and put it aside. Thus mastery consists in the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written, thereby restoring to the present instant its rights, its decisive trenchancy.
We must start questioning again. We have said that the writer belongs to the work, but that what belongs to him, what he finishes by himself, is only a book: "by himself' corresponds to the restriction "only." The writer is never face to face with the work, and when there is a work, he doesn't know it; or, more precisely, even this ignorance is unknown to him, is only granted him in the impossibility of reading, the ambiguous experience that puts him back to work.
The writer goes back to work. Why doesn't he cease writing? Why, if he breaks with the work, as Rimbaud did, does this break strike us as a mysterious impossibility? Does he just desire a perfect product, and if he does not cease to work at it, is it simply because perfection is never perfect enough? Does he even write in the expectation of a work? Does he bear it always in mind as that which would put an end to his task, as the goal worthy of so much effort? Not at all. The work is never that in anticipation of which one can write (in prospect of which one would relate to the process of writing as to the exercise of some power).
The fact that the writer's task ends with his life hides another fact: that, through this task, his life slides into the distress of the infinite.
The Interminable, the Incessant
The solitude which the work visits on the writer reveals itself in this: that writing is now the interminable, the incessant. The writer no longer belongs to the magisterial realm where to express oneself means to express the exactitude and the certainty of things and values according to the sense of their limits. What he is to write delivers the one who has to write to an affirmation over which he has no authority, which is itself without substance, which affirms nothing, and yet is not repose, not the dignity of silence, for it is what still speaks when everything has been said. This affirmation doesn't precede speech, because it prevents speech from beginning, just as it takes away from language the right and the power to interrupt itself. To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself. It is to destroy the relation which, determining that I speak toward "you," gives me room to speak within the understanding which my word receives from you (for my word summons you, and is the summons that begins in me because it finishes in you). To write is to break this bond. To write is, moreover, to withdraw language from the world, to detach it from what makes it a power according to which, when I speak, it is the world that declares itself, the clear light of day that develops through tasks undertaken, through action and time.
Writing is the interminable, the incessant. The writer, it is said, gives up saying "I." Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute "He" for "I." This is true, but the transformation is much more profound. The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. To the extent that, being a writer, he does justice to what requires writing, he can never again express himself, any more than he can appeal to you, or even introduce another's speech. Where he is, only being speaks — which means that language doesn't speak any more, but is. It devotes itself to the pure passivity of being.
If to write is to surrender to the interminable, the writer who consents to sustain writing's essence loses the power to say "I." And so he loses the power to make others say "I." Thus he can by no means give life to characters whose liberty would be guaranteed by his creative power. The notion of characters, as the traditional form of the novel, is only one of the compromises by which the writer, drawn out of himself by literature in search of its essence, tries to salvage his relations with the world and himself.
To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking — and since it cannot, in order to become its echo I have, in a way, to silence it. I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence. I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plenitude which is empty. This silence has its source in the effacement toward which the writer is drawn. Or else, it is the resource of his mastery, the right of intervention which the hand that doesn't write retains — the part of the writer which can always say no and, when necessary, appeal to time, restore the future.
When we admire the tone of a work, when we respond to its tone as to its most authentic aspect, what are we referring to? Not to style, or to the interest and virtues of the language, but to this silence precisely, this vigorous force by which the writer, having been deprived of himself, having renounced himself, has in this effacement nevertheless maintained the authority of a certain power: the power decisively to be still, so that in this silence what speaks without beginning or end might take on form, coherence, and sense.
The tone is not the writer's voice, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes upon the word. This implies that the silence is still his — what remains of him in the discretion that sets him aside. The tone makes great writers, but perhaps the work is indifferent to what makes them great.
In the effacement toward which he is summoned, the "great writer" still holds back; what speaks is no longer he himself, but neither is it the sheer slipping away of no one's word. For he maintains the authoritative though silent affirmation of the effaced "I." He keeps the cutting edge, the violent swiftness of active time, of the instant. Thus he preserves himself within the work; where there is no more restraint, he contains himself. But the work also retains, because of this, a content. It is not altogether its own interior.
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.
Excerpted from The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot, Ann Smock. Copyright © 1955 Éditions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
I The Essential Solitude,
II Approaching Literature's Space Mallarmé's Experience,
III The Work's Space and Its Demand,
The Work and the Errant Word,
Kafka and the Work's Demand,
IV The Work and Death's Space,
Death as Possibility,
The Igitur Experience,
Rilke and Death's Demand:,
1. The Search for a Proper Death,
2. Death's Space,
3. Death's Transmutation,
The Outside, the Night,
Inspiration, Lack of Inspiration,
VI Communication and the Work,
VII Literature and the Original Experience,
The Future and the Question of Art,
Characteristics of the Work of Art,
The Original Experience,
The Essential Solitude and Solitude in the World,
The Two Versions of the Imaginary,