Category Archives: Blanchot

The double

The construction work on the old farm is coming along. Having demolished the house, barn and cowshed and removed the rubble, they seem to be building a house that looks like a converted barn, as well as a double garage, and have started landscaping. I looked up the planning permission and managed to find the developer’s website, which says: ‘Many people aspire to live in barn conversions. However, the opportunities to convert or renovate an existing barn are limited – there are only so many of them. Moreover, the cost of renovation or restoration can be considerably more expensive than building from new. That’s why a barn-style house is becoming an increasingly popular option.’

*

Gide: ‘It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I can’t understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment.’

*

When did my double turn up? When was he born? There was a carpark and a concrete path between thistle bushes. I shook my father’s hand, turned away and started walking back to my room in the boarding school. A room in a corridor full of strangers speaking a strange language. In that moment it felt as if I split in two: a body walking down a path and an anonymous observer.
I’ve heard of similar experiences, of situations in which people felt as if they were leaving their bodies and looking down at what was happening to them. People who spend the rest of their lives trying to reverse that moment.
I was maladjusted – that’s what they told me years later when I asked why they sent me away. I’d taken up with the wrong crowd, was on my way to becoming a criminal. That was true in a sense. So this was what I needed, I supposed, it was good for me.
When I wasn’t in class I hid in my room or walked in the forest. I barely spoke. I’d forgotten most of my Danish in any case, still thought in English. I’d overhear people saying I was strange. In the weekends I escaped to my grandparents’ farm in the country and cycled to the coast on my grandfather’s old bike.

*

What seems clear to me now is that something goes wrong for everyone. One way or another – suddenly or slowly, of our own will or by force – we go astray. We lose sight of some essential part of ourselves. Hide from being. Yet we can never close ourselves off from it completely, never lose our link to the unity we spring from – how could we?
Michel Haar writes: ‘We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.’
Never released from the impersonal thread of being that lets us become our more or less divided selves and live on the same ground as all other beings, no matter how different from us.

*

It’s freezing. On a walk we find the feathers of a pheasant a fox has savaged and carried away. S. collects the tail feathers and some branches and arranges them in a vase when we get home.

*

Woolf: ‘There was a spectator in me who, even while I squirmed and obeyed, remained observant, note taking for some future revision.’

*

What happened after the double turned up? Didn’t it instantly take the place of my father? One of Blanchot’s narrators talks of being ‘represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person’. Every feeling: silly, kitschy.
On the path between the thistle bushes there was me, a double, and a haze that began to gather between us – between me and others. When I spoke to people, the words – mine and theirs – moved through the haze while the double stood by with a sceptical smirk. I sat in my room, scared by footsteps in the corridor, knocks on my door.
The haze stayed with me for a long time: when I went to live with my parents again and we pretended everything was all right, when I worked in the factories, asked girls out, went to university… all through a haze, watched over by a dead double.
Then after years of tunnelling through other people’s words, of the turning and returning of words, you found your own, the ones that called you into the service of the moment and drew the double back in, at least for a moment.

(From ‘The Moment’.)

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Something takes hold

Today it seems almost impossible to write. My words are traitorous: they turn on me and make me cringe. They become the words of others, of strange judges, using me even as I think I use them. Kafka’s final diary entry:

‘More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: you too have weapons.’

What weapons did he mean? In Beckett, too, words turn against the narrator:

‘How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in – but still I’m not their creature (not quite, not yet). It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case – not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.’

What was Beckett’s weapon against the traitorous menace of words, what was his defence against unfreedom? Fail better. Not to succeed but to make your failure absolute. Is this really what I want? Haven’t I tried? Where did it lead?

Blanchot, like the early Beckett, saw writing as a giving in to an obscure, incessant murmur outside meaning, there being no alternative. The writer for him was ‘always astray’, always in errancy:

‘The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.’

The words pour through you in a ceaseless stream whether you like it or not, it’s true. So then try to find yourself in them, stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people all going different ways and saying different things. Start like that.

*

Small acts of kindness that make the day real. ‘I love you’, says S. seriously as she chops vegetables. For a second I’m not sure who she means. T. brings us some of his best steaks. ‘We have to help each other out out here’, he says and walks back to the farm.

Early morning after a bad night’s sleep. A grey screen of condensation on the window. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop. Outside the fog from the sea moves in over the fields, folding over itself. I sip my tea, empty-headed, until the fog thins into a wispy mist and evaporates into the day. S. comes out of the bedroom, stretches, yawns, smiles and touches my arm.

*

The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence. Something takes hold whether you like it or not. Something happens in spite of everything, something you’re responsible for, hold on to that. Though you may never arrive you’re approaching and some truth may be given to you in your approach. Perhaps that’s the ‘weapon’ that’s given to you in writing, the hidden strength you need.

In the turning and returning of words the moment calls me into service to name it. Joy.

A speech of the infinite

‘How can we live without the unknown before us?’ [Rene Char] The pressing form of this questioning, then, comes from the following: (1) to live is necessarily to live ahead of oneself; (2) to live ‘authentically’, ‘poetically’, is to have a relation with the unknown as such, and thus to put at the centre of one’s life this-the-unknown that does not allow one to live ahead of oneself and, moreover, withdraws every centre from life […] Here let us recall René Char’s now long-standing affirmation, which will bring forth everything we have just tried to say: ‘A being of which one is ignorant is a being that is infinite – capable, in intervening, of changing our anguish and our burden into arterial dawn.’ The unknown as unknown is this infinite, and the speech that speaks it is a speech of the infinite.

– Blanchot, ‘René Char and the Thought of the Neutral’ (in The Infinite Conversation, tr. S. Hanson)

The unknown is at stake

The unknown is neutral, a neuter. The unknown is neither object nor subject. This means that to think the unknown is in no way to propose it as ‘the not yet known’, the object of a knowledge still to come, any more than it would be to go beyond it as ‘the absolutely unknowable’, a subject of pure transcendence, refusing itself to all manner of knowledge and expression. On the contrary, let us (perhaps arbitrarily) propose that in research – where poetry and thought affirm themselves in a space that is proper to them, separate, inseparable – the unknown is at stake; on condition, however, that it be explicitly stated that this research relates to the unknown as unknown. A phrase all the same disconcerting, since it proposes to ‘relate’ the unknown inasmuch as it is unknown. In other words, we are supposing a relation in which the unknown world would be affirmed, made manifest, even exhibited: disclosed – and under what aspect? – precisely in that which keeps it unknown. In this relation, then, the unknown would be disclosed in that which leaves it under cover. Is this a contradiction? In effect.

– Blanchot, ‘René Char and the Thought of the Neutral’ (in The Infinite Conversation, tr. S. Hanson)

Marvellously desolate

One can reflect on this situation. It can happen that someone is very close to us, not close: the walls have fallen. Sometimes still very close, but without relation: the walls have fallen, those that separate and also those that serve to transmit signals, the language of prisons. Then one must again raise a wall, ask for a little indifference, that calm distance by which lives find equilibrium. A naive desire that takes form after having already been realized. But from such an astonishing approach to an other, one retains the impression that there was a brief moment of luck; a moment bound not to the favor of the look that may have been exchanged, but to something like a movement that may have preceded us both, just before our encounter. At this instant it seems that he was truly our companion in an infinite and infinitely deserted space where, by a marvelous chance, he had suddenly appeared at our side; so it was and so it was going to be, inexplicable, certain, and marvelous. But who was he? Only the desert, perhaps? The desert become our companion? Marvelous, this remains marvelously desolate, and then the companion has once again disappeared – there is nothing but desert. But in its harsh truth and arid presence it is suddenly close to us, familiar, a friend. A proximity that at the same time says to us: “the desert is growing.”

— Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation (tr. Hanson)

A double movement

For my part I can see […] that I must always respond to a double movement, both aspects of which are necessary but nevertheless irreconcilable. One (to express myself in an extremely crude and simplistic fashion) is passion, the realization and the expression of totality, in a dialectical process; the other is essentially non-dialectical, does not concern itself at all with unity and does not tend towards power (towards the possible). This double movement necessitates a double language in response, and, as for any language, a double intensity: the first is a language of confrontation, of opposition, of negation, so as to reduce any opposition and so as to affirm the truth in the end, in its generality, as a silent measure (through which the demand of thought passes). But the other is a language which above all *speaks*, which speaks above all else and outside anything else; it is a language which comes first, is without agreement, without confrontation, and ready to welcome the unknown, the stranger (the poetic demand passes through this language). The first names the possible and wants the possible. The other responds to the impossible. Between these two movements, which are at the same time necessary and incompatible, there is a constant tension often very difficult to sustain and, in truth, it is unsustainable. But one cannot give up, through prejudice, on one or the other, nor on the unmeasurable search that necessity, and the necessity of uniting the incompatible, demands of men.

Blanchot

I went in; I closed the door. I sat down on the bed. Blackest space extended before me. I was not in this blackness, but at the edge of it, and I confess that it is terrifying. It is terrifying because there is something in it which scorns man and which man cannot endure without losing himself. But he must lose himself; and whoever resists will founder, and whoever goes toward it will become this very blackness, this cold and dead and scornful thing in the very heart of which lives the infinite. This blackness stayed next to me, probably because of my fear: this fear was not the fear people know about, it did not break me, it did not pay any attention to me, but wandered around the room the way human things do.

— Blanchot, ‘Death Sentence’

If I read a book that interested me, I read it with vivid pleasure, but my very pleasure was behind a pane of glass and unavailable to me because of that, but also far away and in an eternal past. Yet where unimportant people and things were involved, life regained its ordinary meaning and actuality, so that though I preferred to keep life at a distance, I had to seek it in simple actions and everyday people.

— Blanchot, ‘Death Sentence’

The call of the work

For the man who sets out to write, the work is in no way a shelter in which he lives, in his peaceful and protected self, shielded from the difficulties of life. Perhaps he in fact thinks he is protected from the world, but he is exposed to a danger much greater and more menacing because it finds him powerless: the very danger that comes to him from outside, from the fact that he remains outside. And against this threat he must not defend himself; on the contrary, he must give in to it. The work demands that, demands that the man who writes it sacrifice himself for the work, become other – not other than the living man he was, the writer with his duties, his satisfactions, and his interests, but he must become no one, the empty and animated space where the call of the work resounds.

— Blanchot, The Book to Come (tr. Mandell)

At no risk

Investigations on the subject of art such as those the aesthetician pursues bear no relation to the concern for the work of which we speak. Aesthetics talks about art, makes of it an object of reflection and of knowledge. Aesthetics explains art by reducing it or then again exults by elucidating it, but in all events art for the aesthetican is a present reality around which he constructs plausible thoughts at no risk.

— Blanchot, The Space of Literature (tr. Smock)