David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: blanchot (page 1 of 2)

The Profoundest Profundities Ever Propounded

Just to contrast with Christine Brooke-Rose’s criticism.

Language can only begin with the void; no fullness, no certainty can ever speak; something essential is lacking in anyone who expresses himself. Negation is tied to language. When I first begin, I do not speak in order to say something, rather a nothing demands to speak, nothing speaks, nothing finds its being in speech and the being of speech is nothing. This formulation explains why literature’s ideal has been the following: to say nothing, to speak in order to say nothing. If one is not to talk about things except to say what makes them nothing, well then, to say nothing is really the only hope of saying everything about them.

Death ends in being: this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands. Death ends in being: this is man’s laceration, the source of his unhappy fate, since by man death comes to being and by man meaning rests on nothingness; the only way we can comprehend is by denying ourselves existence, by making death possible, by contaminating what we comprehend with the nothingness of death, so that if we emerge from being, we fall outside the possibility of death, and the way out becomes the disappearance of every way out.

Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death”

It sounds a little better in French, but this hyper-Romanticism is closer to Emerson than to Hegel.

The phrase “so that if we emerge from being ,we fall outside the possibility of death” is repeated twice in the English translation, a typo which has not been corrected in the Station Hill Blanchot Reader. The duplication does not hurt the text.

Pile of Shit Reviews Profound Philosophical Rhapsody: Lars Iyer’s Spurious

I reviewed Lars Iyer’s Spurious for the Quarterly Conversation. Blogger reviews blogger. I wrote this review during a break from a longer, far more exhausting project, so I took the opportunity to kick back and enjoy myself.

Friendship demands one expose oneself, or better, that one allow oneself to be exposed in the ecstasis that does not permit us to remain mired in tautology.

Lars Iyer, Blanchot’s Communism

Spurious cannot be reviewed like the books of so many dead authors, or even so many living ones. Lars Iyer is a blogger whose site is named Spurious, and now he has published a book named Spurious with a narrator named Lars. The book relates closely to the blog in content, in style, and in spirit. (It shares little in common with his two academic books on the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, however.) Some of the content from the book has appeared on the blog as daily entries, before and even after the book was published.

I am a blogger as well. We share some of the same tastes: Thomas Bernhard, Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Smog. Lars and I were both anonymous bloggers for a time. We did not want a public persona influencing our reader’s impressions of our work. Now we are not anonymous. I decided it was futile. Just ask Tao Lin. By signing up with Melville House, Tao Lin’s publisher, I gather Lars agrees.

Those who take Spurious the blog, and thus Spurious the book, as a pathetic intellectual burlesque are missing the great complexity offered by each. It is a subtle complexity, obscured by misdirection. But the richness in the book is available to those who let themselves be misdirected and then misdirect themselves. It takes some effort on the part of the reader to unsituate him or herself, however. Because this book does read like a sequence of blog posts on Spurious, and because it plays on the border between fiction and non-fiction like so many blogs, it demands a different sort of reading than one would give a novel that comes with nothing but a name attached. The chorus of Larses in the book, the blog, and Iyer’s interviews speak with greatly overlapping voices. But listen to this chorus of Davids and all will be made clear.


PS: Apropos of nothing, I’m quite impressed with Google’s tribute to Will Eisner. Eisner’s letters-as-buildings and flexible panel space were always some of his most striking techniques. Nice to see them here.


Trainspotters Update: Lars Iyer “Like”d my article on Facebook. Steve Mitchelmore has defriended me, however.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

Gabriel Josipovici: Everything Passes

As Richard says, this was written as part of a proposed symposium on Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, and so it wasn’t meant to stand alone as it does here. I somewhat assumed people would have read other assessments already, such as Paul Griffith’s excellent breakdown. See also Dan Visel’s commentary and Stephen Mitchelmore’s.

The key moment of Everything Passes, I think, comes very close to the end, when, having been frequently treated to slightly varying descriptions of a man standing at the window over the course of the book, our main character Felix now describes the room in his spoken description of a near-death experience (apparently drawn from the experience of Schoenberg’s that inspired his intense String Trio):

–I saw myself standing in an empty room, he says. I was standing at the window, looking out through the cracked pane.
–Then I saw my face at the window, behind the cracked pane. Looking out.

For me it came as a revelatory moment, for two reasons: first, Felix is revealed to be the one who has had this vision that has so frequently recurred; and second, this is the only time the vision is given from a definite vantage point, that is, from outside the window. Both of these are in contrast to the structure of the book to that point, which has presented the narrative in present-tense, third person, seemingly from a God’s-eye view. To be shown the same scene in nearly the same words through Felix’s eyes is to imagine that for the whole course of the book he has been staring the whole time at himself, that this disconnected and pointilistic narrative was constructed by Felix himself. Except not quite by Felix, because Felix is behind the glass now, the object of viewing. The viewer stands outside the glass. Who is this viewer?

The easiest analogue to draw is that of a near-death experience, with the common report of a person seeing himself from some vantage point above his actual body. I don’t find this very compelling. I would rather see it as a device used to expose the literary vantage point of the reader. We find that the vague narrative of a life assembled over the course of the book has been part of the experience of that narrator, rather than only the narrative structure imposed on the life by the author, standing between us and Felix. Except now that Felix is the narrator, looking through the window outside, he is no longer the man inside the room. Who is this man?

I don’t know that the book permits an actual answer to this question. Felix changes from object to subject as we go from observing him to seeing through his eyes, and then we realize that we may have been staring through “his” eyes the whole time, staring at a doppelganger who plays out larger and smaller pieces of his life. The superimposition of these frames, those of text, life memories, cultural knowledge, subject, and object, is what gives the book its doubly vertiginous quality, miming contrasting forward and backwards motions on different levels. I do wish that the content of the memories had been closer to the loaded material of Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden, where the weight of history and catastrophe gave the sparse text an immediacy missed here. In Everything Passes, as the details of a life not particularly well-spent accumulate, the life drains from its narrative as we learn more of the man behind the window, as it does from Felix himself.


Those who live in the present but who harbour no doubts about the structure of authority, about the extreme dangers of our society, including the estrangement of man and nature, those whose anger does not drive them to delve into the essentials, and those whose approach to their art raises no questions, all of these must renounce their status as artists.

Masayuki Takayanagi (tr. Alan Cummings)

For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life – all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.

What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself – I still ask – whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read – and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.

Lars, Spurious

It was Lars’s quote that provoked me, and the anger in the Takayanagi quote that gave me the words and moved me to write (because anger is such a kinetic emotion). An attack on my beloved TLS! And not even on the hyper-Tory issues of early this year that seemed to be begging Rupert Murdoch not to sell them.

I think Lars is probably right if you look at any individual article in the TLS. Unlike the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which both review books under the aegis of a particular cultural orientation set by the editors, the TLS has always been far more ecumenical. Nonfiction tends to be reviewed by experts in the field of the book under discussion, and correspondingly, the instances of axe-grinding tend to be intradisciplinary rather than cross-disciplinary. This tends to result in a greater plurality of critical apparati, since reading Philip Payne on Carl Corino’s biography of Robert Musil is a lot more enlightening and involving than reading Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop.

Except for the occasional creeping Toryism (happy, Rupert?) and an evident bias towards analytic philosophy, Lars is right to observe the lack of an emergent metaphysic and to say that the engagement tends to be on the books’ own terms. It is precisely this provincialism, which in combination with ecumenicality, allows for much more open-ended speculation. For there is an implicit set of metaphysics in each discipline and review, and to their honest credit, the TLS is open about letting the contradictions sit next to one another. Marxism sits next to neo-liberalism, post-colonialism next to the saner half of evolutionary biology, and Fredric Jameson next to Charles Taylor.

This plurality of habits of being, as it were, provides me (at least) with a constant deferral of finitude. When I read Alastair Fowler shredding Stephen Greenblatt, I don’t see a transparency but a vicious questioning, done on Fowler’s terms but nonetheless insidiously non-final. Moving on to an article comparing various parodies of Bacon, I take not the harsh judgment of Greenblatt (satisfying as it may be), but the sheer partiality of it all. It is this lesson that I take with me in life, and it’s why I hesitate to ever settle on a single field of expertise.

Authors like Beckett, Bernhard, Blanchot, Josipovici, and Davis attempt to effect an erasure of that traditional cultural baggage, that which makes us feel comfortably situtated when reading. They succeed in varying degrees (I vote for Beckett myself), but I admire their project in every way. It is not enough, however. The role of those authors and critics–“fans,” you could call them–that are obsessed with consuming, regurgitating, and mutilating culture is to remind us of the fluidity of such things: that we should not damn it but synthesize it genealogically. Joyce in Finnegans Wake, as I said in many previous entries, constitutes a pinnacle of this all-consuming methodology, but so does the TLS. They give us the evidence.

There are those who selectively pick from that evidence and fall in line; they fall under Takayanagi’s accusation. But one does not cure one’s susceptibility by avoidance alone. Engage impartially and ecumenically and your intentions will be progressive, not conservative.

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