The End

This review of Aaron Hillyer’s The Disappearance of Literature: Blanchot, Agamben, and the Writers of the No appeared in the Christmas double issue of the Times Literary Supplement 19-26 December 2014: 36.

disappearance

The End

The Disappearance of Literature is not another disquisition on the alleged death of the novel. Instead, it sets out to chart “the paths still open” to fiction; those that, in Aaron Hillyer’s view, are being explored by the “writers of the No” referred to in the book’s subtitle. The appellation was coined by Enrique Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co. (2000) to designate authors, who — taking their cue from Melville’s agraphic scrivener — “would prefer not to”. This radical negativity is constitutive of artistic modernity, to the point of often merging with it, as in Hofmannstahl’s aphasia-afflicted Lord Chandos, Rimbaud’s years-long silence, Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, the Dada suicides, Robert Musil’s unfinishable masterpiece, Kazimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromes, John Cage’s mute music, Yves Klein’s empty exhibitions, the libraries of unpublished or unwritten books, and erasure poetry.

Studies of “Bartleby’s syndrome” tend to focus on its transcendent strain — works haunted by the ideal forms of which they are but imperfect instantiations, every book being, as Walter Benjamin put it, “the death mask of its conception”. The holy grail, however, is the ur-text in which everything would be said: Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion of “Le Livre”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s volume that would cause all the others “to explode”, or Jorge Luis Borges’s “catalogue of catalogues”, rumoured to be lurking on some dusty shelf in the Library of Babel. This materialization of the Absolute in codex form is, of course, a doomed quest. In its place, Hillyer champions an immanent version of literature, which no longer refers to “a richer source of meaning that cannot be conveyed in the word on the page or the voice in the air”. He attempts to discover what function fiction can fulfil once it has been liberated from mimesis and the spectre of the total book.

If language cannot speak the world, “can the world speak in language”? That is the crucial question at the heart of The Disappearance of Literature. It proceeds from an agonistic relation to language, which is construed as a curse or, at best, a negative force. From this post-Hegelian perspective, words give us the world by taking it away: they negate things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. The answer, Hillyer argues, is to negate the negation by deactivating “the tendencies that cause our experience of the world to be as abstract as the language we use to describe it”. Literature must go through a “zone of decreation” that deactivates its habitual signifying and informative functions “in order to communicate communicability itself, openness to the world itself”. Such openness is predicated on the author coinciding with his or her work; disappearing momentarily into a thingly, asignifying language that now speaks itself. Only a writer who has vanished into “the pure event of the word” — where the telling becomes the teller — may express (although not in so many words) “what absolutely escapes our language”.

Hillyer’s point of departure is Maurice Blanchot’s gnomic prediction that “Literature is heading towards itself, towards its essence, which is its disappearance”. What the French thinker and novelist outlined in Le Livre à venir (1959) was nothing short of an anti-realist manifesto. As Fredric Jameson recently demonstrated in The Antinomies of Realism (2013), the nineteenth-century novel took on an Adamic quality, by systematically colonizing aspects of experience (the “vulgarly ineffable”, according to Hillyer) that had no prior linguistic expression. In contrast, Blanchot heralded a counter-movement of linguistic decolonization, akin to the young Beckett’s “literature of the unword”. The “new mode of telling” analysed in these pages is thus also a new mode of not telling; “a refusal to impersonate the impersonal, to lend one’s lips… to a voice that does not belong to one”.

Unlike their realist forebears, the writers of the No do not strive to extend the unsayable in words. For them, language becomes a “procedure” designed “to indicate what passes beyond it”: their words “stand beside the unfolding of the world that remains unexpressed, gestured to, within them”. This gestural, apocalyptic writing is illustrated, for instance, by Macedonio Fernández’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (1967), a series of prologues to a novel that never gets going. The aforementioned Bartleby & Co. is likewise presented as a series of footnotes to an invisible text that only exists in outline. In Reading the Remove of Literature (2006), Nick Thurston erased the text of Blanchot’s The Remove of Literature, keeping only his own marginalia.

The Disappearance of Literature is a highly ambitious work that moves seamlessly from theory to praxis. Its theoretical underpinning is a critique by Giorgio Agamben of Blanchot’s mystical tendencies, in which the latter is never even “explicitly mentioned”. In spite of such an inauspiciously tenuous premiss, Hillyer goes on to make a strong case for reading the Italian philosopher’s The Opening as “unfolding” from The Unavowable Community. More importantly, this gives him the opportunity to explore Blanchot’s intuition about the disappearance of literature through the works of others — César Aira, Anne Carson and Vila-Matas in particular. He also does so, thematically, by analysing figures such as the student, the flâneur and the mystic, whose potentiality never completely translates into actuality, making them emblems of the “literature of the future”.

The fragmentary nature of this experimental work reflects a similar refusal to realize its full potential — to pretend that all the dots can be joined — as well as a rejection of narrative determinism. Combined with the author’s subtlety of mind and impressive erudition, it may, however, leave some readers baffled at times. Hillyer’s crucial contention that the “self-unfolding of the world” is the source of literature and art is taken as a given, as is the messianic correlation between the emergence of a new language and a new world. The numerous phrases used to refer to the unindividuated aspect of being — the void, the impersonal, the neuter, the absolute, Genius, etc — may prove confusing, and it is only on page 91 that the notion of “forward dawning” is linked back to Ernst Bloch (which is rather surprising given that the book derives from a PhD dissertation). These are very minor quibbles. The Disappearance of Literature is not only a thrilling addition to the growing body of work tracing the emergence of a literature of disappearance, but it also signals the birth of an important new critical voice. In recent years, few people have spoken about what escapes language with such extraordinary eloquence.

Towards Blankness

Thom Cuell, Rev. of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C. D. Rose, The Workshy Fop 10 November 2014

In his introduction, 3:AM Magazine editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix notes a tendency in modern art towards blankness, exemplified by ‘the white paintings of Malevich…as well as John Cage’s mute music piece’. The literary apotheosis of this trend is Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener who stopped, er, scrivening. If we accept this theory, then we must accept that the writers Rose commemorates have inadvertently achieved greatness, ‘through their work being censored, lost, shredded, pulped or eaten by pigs’.
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure 300dpi

Additive Subtractions, Or the Impossibility of Erasure

Brian Dillon, “The Revelation of Erasure,” Objects in this Mirror: Essays 2014

… Erasure is never merely a matter of making things disappear: there is always some detritus strewn about in the aftermath, some bruising to the surface from which word or image has been removed, some reminder of the violence done to make the world look new again. Whether rubbed away, crossed out or reinscribed, the disappeared entity has a habit of returning, ghostlike: if only in the marks that usurp its place and attest to its passing. But writing, for example, is already, long before lead hits pulp, a question of erasure, an art of leaving out. Every painting, said Picasso, is a sum of destructions: the artist builds and demolishes in the same instant. Which is perhaps what Jasper Johns had in mind when he said of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) that it embodied an “additive subtraction”: after a month’s sporadic destruction, and forty spent erasers, what is left is a surface startlingly alive, active, palimpsestic (pp. 309-310).

… A painting — at least a figurative painting — which is, as it were, too deep, risks becoming a glutinous mess, erasing itself by its very urge to completion. In Honoré de Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the great painter Frenhofer labors for years at a picture of a young woman, until she disappears, leaving only a tiny, perfect foot looming out of the surrounding chaos: “Colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint.” By unintentionally erasing his painting, Frenhofer has in effect produced the first modernist monochrome, but he has done it by larding his canvas with too much significance, not too little: excess is a form of erasure too (p. 312).

… If the erased face always conjures the image of some primal violence, the expunged word inevitably attests to a repression of some kind, whether psychological or political. In the coy ellipses with which, in the novels of the eighteenth century, readers were invited to imagine undescribed erotic adventures, on the blacked-out pages of classified documents, or in the cancelled lines of a prisoner’s censored letter, the lost word denotes the intercession of authority (p. 311).

… Two works by Joseph Kosuth, entitled Zero & Not and One (1985, 1986) point out both the psychoanalytic attitude to language and the tendency of Freud’s words to assert their authority despite our efforts to wipe them out. A Freudian text is printed on the gallery wall, then struck through with black tape, so that it is erased but still insists, remains more or less readable: its lesson — the lesson of psychoanalysis — a lesson, after all, about the impossibility of erasure — simply won’t go away (p. 312).

The fondest, least plausible dream of modernist art and literature was of a world without memory: a cultural tabula rasa from which all trace of the styles of the past had been erased. The arts of evacuation imagined by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Yves Klein, and John Cage aspired to a deliberate vacuity: a vacant stage, an empty gallery, a silent orchestra. But in each case the project is impossible: some sound, image or word will intervene to recall the world left behind. …

“What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking,” declared Cage in his “Lecture on Nothing”: the silence dreamed of by the art of the last century is always expectant, about to be spoken into. In 1996, the artist, writer, and curator Jeremy Millar interviewed the novelist J. G. Ballard, set to duplicating the tape before getting it transcribed, and accidentally erased hours of the great man’s thoughts. The ruined cassette, one long pregnant pause, could only become an artwork: Erased Ballard Interview (1996–2001). You listen, heart in mouth, just as Millar must have done, hoping that Ballard’s cultivated tones will, any second now, interrupt the hiss. And at the same time, you hear everything in this piece: the whole history of the avant-garde affair with emptiness, the dematerialization of the work of art, its evanescence into pure idea or gesture, up to and including Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning’s drawing: all of it, suggests Millar’s blank tape, merely an absurd error (pp. 315-316).

Maybe the total erasure of a work of art, or the making of a work that had an utter absence at its heart, was never possible to begin with, or maybe it’s simply a fantasy to which contemporary art is no longer willing to give itself over, except playfully (p. 316). …

Mute Musewise

John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1967

…One of the modern things about these two writers [Beckett and Borges] is that in an age of ultimacies and “final solutions” — at least felt ultimacies, in everything from weaponry to theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society, and the history of the novel — their work in separate ways reflects and deals with ultimacy, both technically and thematically, as for example Finnegans Wake does in its different manner. One notices, for whatever its symptomatic worth, that Joyce was virtually blind at the end, Borges is literally so, and Beckett has become virtually mute, musewise, having progressed from marvelously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the unsyntactical, unpunctuated prose of Comment C’est and “ultimately” to wordless mimes. One might extrapolate a theoretical course for Beckett: Language after all consists of silence as well as sound, and mime is still communication (“that nineteenth-century idea,” a Yale student once snarled at me), but by the language of action. But the language of action consists of rest as well as movement, and so in the context of Beckett’s progress, immobile, silent figures still aren’t altogether, ultimate. How about an empty, silent stage, then, or blank pages* — a “happening” where nothing happens, like Cage’s 4’33” performed in an empty hall? But dramatic communication consists of the sense as well as the presence of the actors; “we have our exits and our entrances”; and so even that would be imperfectly ultimate in Beckett’s case. Nothing at all, then, I suppose; but Nothingness is necessarily and inextricably the background against which Being, et cetera. For Beckett, at this point in his career, to cease to create altogether would be fairly meaningful: his crowning work; his “last word.” What a convenient corner to paint yourself into! “And now I shall finish,” the valet Arsene says in Watt, “and you will hear my voice no more.” Only the silence Molloy speaks of, “of which the universe is made.” …

*An ultimacy already attained in the nineteenth century by that avant-gardiste of East Aurora, N.Y., Elbert Hubbard, in his Essay on Silence, and much repeated to the present day in such empty “novelties” as The Wit and Wisdom of Lyndon Johnson, etc.

The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.