The Tip of the Bull’s Horn

Tom McCarthy, “Writing Machines,” London Review of Books 18 December 2014: 21-22

In ‘Literature Considered as a Bullfight’, Michel Leiris compares the writer to a toreador. Imagine a bullfight without the bull: it would be a set of aesthetic manoeuvres, pretty twirls and pirouettes and so on — but there’d be no danger. The bull, crucially, brings danger to the party, and for Leiris, that’s what the real is: the tip of the bull’s horn. He, too, disappoints by offering candid confession and exposure of personal peccadillos as examples of dalliances with the bull-horn — i.e. Oprah literature. But Leiris’s conceit is rich in ways that even he seems not to realise. Think about it: if a matador is gored, the bullfight, the entire spectacle, suddenly comes to an appalled halt; what the bull’s horn brings to the party is not just danger but also the possibility that the party itself could be catastrophically interrupted. If the bullfight is an analogue for literature, and if the bull’s horn is a vision of the real, then what the real represents is an event, something that would involve the violent rupture of the form and procedure of the work itself. The real, here, is no longer anything like a fact or a secret. It doesn’t depend on any putative correspondence between the writer’s work and the empirically understood world. And it certainly has nothing to do with authenticity.

. . . The matador is gored, the real jumps out and punctures the screen or strip of film, destroying it. This is a real that happens, or forever threatens to happen, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or being authentic, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption inside the always and irremediably inauthentic; a traumatic real; a real that is psychoanalytic as much as literary: the real that Lacan defines as ‘that which always returns to the same place’ and as ‘that which is unassimilable by any system of representation’. The challenge isn’t to depict this real realistically, or even ‘well’, but to approach it in the full knowledge that, like some roving black hole, it represents (though that’s not the right word anymore) the point at which the writing’s entire project crumples and implodes.

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