Disappearing Into That Nothingness

Elizabeth Sewell, Paul Valéry (1952)

Then there is Mallarmé himself, sitting, as he admitted in a letter to a close friend, in front of a mirror as he wrote, to make sure that he would not disappear into that nothingness which during the writing of Hérodiade his soul had seen and shuddered at.

It is like Mallarmé, whose poetry is so pure that it is about poetry and nothing else at all, a form commenting on a form, the content irrelevant [via].

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.


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and Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromes, John Cage’s mute music, Yves Klein’s empty exhibitions, the libraries of unpublished or unwritten books, and erasure poetry.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.

A Successful Fragment

Stéphane Mallarmé, letter to Paul Verlaine, 16 November 1869

Patient as one of the alchemists, I’ve always imagined and attempted something else, and would be willing to sacrifice all satisfaction and vanity for its sake, just as in the old days they used to burn their furniture and the beams of their roofs to feed their furnace for the magnum opus.

What is it? Difficult to say: simply a book, in several volumes, a book that is truly a book, architecturally sound and premeditated, and not a collection of casual inspirations however wonderful that might be…So there, dear friend, is the bare confession of this vice which I’ve rejected a thousand times…But it holds me in its sway and I may yet be able to succeed, not in the contemplation of this work as a whole (one would have to be God-knows-who for that!) but in showing a successful fragment…proving through finished portions that this book does exist, and that I was aware of what I wasn’t able to accomplish. [via]

The Other Novel

David Winters, “Like Sugar Dissolving: On The End of the Story by Lydia Davis,” The Quarterly Conversation 35 (March 2014)

… In The End of the Story, and arguably across Davis’ stories more broadly, the composition of a fictional form coincides, at all times, with the preservation of “something not formed.” After all, any closed circle’s circumference still opens up a continuous curve. Closure and openness, answers and questions, fixity and infinity: to these unsettled oppositions we could also add the “written” and its counterpart, the “unwritten.” Thus, the novel that Davis’ narrator writes is itself encircled, like any novel, by a halo of hypothetical, unfinished books. In this way, the written work retains an internal relation to an idealized, unwritten other:

I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished that what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction. But by then I will not be able to go back and change it, so the novel will remain what it is and the other novel, the one that should have been written, will never be written.

Late in his life, in a series of lectures inspired by his own unwritten novel, Roland Barthes examined Mallarmé’s distinction between the “Album” and the “Book.” The Book, argued Barthes, aspires to perfection — it aims to provide an accurate “representation of the universe, homologous to the world.” To create such an artwork would be to reflect “the totality of reality and history, from the perspective of transcendence.” The Album, by contrast, remains rooted within reality, rather than striving to stand outside it. The world as rendered by the Album is incomplete and chaotic; “not-one, not-ordered, scattered, a pure interweaving of contingencies, with no transcendence.” Needless to say, neither Barthes nor Mallarmé crudely confuses these two entities with actual literary texts. The binary is not taxonomical but conceptual; the push and pull between these two poles shapes the production of literary works. On the one hand, the Album and all its manifestations: the fragment, the essay, the unfinished effort. On the other, the Book and its corollaries: the summa, the opus, the completed oeuvre.

The Grief is Alive

Lydia Davis, “Form as Response to Doubt,” talk given at New Langdon Arts, San Francisco, 20 November 1986

Doubt, uneasiness, dissatisfaction with writing or with existing forms may result in the formal integration of these doubts by the creation of new forms, forms that in one way or another exceed or surpass our expectations. Whereas repeating old forms implies a lack of desire or compulsion, or a refusal, to entertain doubt or feel dissatisfaction.

To work deliberately in the form of the fragment can be seen as stopping or appearing to stop a work closer, in the process, to what Blanchot would call the origin of writing, the centre rather than the sphere. It may be seen as a formal integration, an integration into the form itself, of a question about the process of writing.

It can be seen as a response to the philosophical problem of seeing the written thing replace the subject of the writing. If we catch only a little of our subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it. We have written about it, written it and allowed it to live on at the same time, allowed it to live on in our ellipses, our silences.

Doesn’t the unfinished work tend to throw our attention onto the work as artifact, or the work as process, rather than the work as conveyer of meaning, of message? Does this add to the pleasure or the interest of the text?

Any interruption, either of our expectations or of the smooth surface of the work itself — by breaking it off, confusing it or leaving it actually unfinished — foregrounds the work as artifact, as object, rather than as invisible purveyor of meaning, emotion, atmosphere. constant interruption, fragmentation, also keeps returning the reader not only to the real world but to a consciousness of his or her own mind at work.

Here is Maurice Blanchot on Joseph Joubert: ‘What he was seeking — this source of writing, this space in which to write, this light to circumscribe in space — …made him unfit for all ordinary literary work…’ — or, as Joubert said of himself, ‘unsuited to continuous discourse’ — ‘preferring the centre to the sphere, sacrificing results to the discovery of their conditions, and writing not in order to add one book to another but to take command of the point from which it seemed to him all books issued…’.

We can’t think of fragment without thinking of whole. The word fragment implies the word whole. A fragment would seem to be a part of a whole, a broken-off part of a whole. Does it also imply, as with other broken-off pieces, that enough of them would make a whole, or remake some original whole, some ideal whole? Fragment, as in ruin, may also imply something left behind from a past original whole. In the case of Friedrich Hölderlin’s fragments, the only parts showing of a madman’s poems, the rest of which are hidden somewhere in his mind; or the only parts showing of a logical whole whose logic is unavailable to us, fragments that seem fragments only to us, and seem to him to make a whole — for there is only a thin line between what is so new to us that it changes our way of thinking and seeing and what is so new to us that we can’t recognize it as a coherent thought or piece of writing, i.e., can’t see the connections the author sees or even sense that they are there. Or fragments that seem to him to make a whole and to us eventually, also, to make a whole, though from a different angle.

Or, as with Stéphane Mallarmé’s fragmentary poems for his dead son, A Tomb for Anatole, the fragment is something left from some projected whole, some future whole, i.e., these are fragments destined one day to be pieced together with other elements to make a whole; or they are the fragments of ideal poems shattered by grief; fragments comparable to the incoherent utterances of voiced grief: inarticulateness being in this case the most credible expression of grief. No more than a fragment could be uttered, so overwhelming was the unuttered whole. In the silences, the grief is alive.

Roland Barthes justifies his own early choice of the fragment as form by saying that ‘incoherence is preferable to a distorting order.’ In the case of Mallarmé, inarticulateness might seem preferable to articulateness when it comes to expressing a grief that is unutterable. Mallarmé failed to transcend his grief; he remained inside it, and the ‘notes,’ too, remain inside it. They become the most immediate expression, the closest mirroring, of the writer’s emotion at the inspiring subject, the writer’s stutter, and the reader, witnessing the writer’s stutter, is witness not only to his grief, but also to his process, to the workings of his mind, to his mind, closer to what we might think as the origins of his writing [via].

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”.

The Book That Destroys Itself

Edmond Jabès, “Interview with Edmond Jabès”, Montemora #6 (1979) [reprinted in Susan Handelman’s The Sin of the Book]

Mallarmé wanted to put all knowledge into a book…. But in my opinion this book would be very ephemeral, since knowledge in itself is ephemeral. The book that would have a chance to survive, I think, is the book that destroys itself, that destroys itself in favour of another book that will prolong it. [via]

Locus of a Secret

Maurice Blanchot, “Joubert and Space,” The Book to Come

… Joubert had this gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, resolutely seeking the right conditions that would allow him to write. … He was thus one of the first entirely modern writers, preferring the center over the sphere, sacrificing results for the discovery of their conditions, not writing in order to add one book to another, but to make himself master of the point whence all books seemed to come, which, once found, would exempt him from writing them.

… [Ending a list of similarities between Joubert and Mallarmé] [T]he feeling that literature and poetry are the locus of a secret that should perhaps be preferred to anything else, even to the glory of making books.

… He seems to have been a failure. But he preferred this failure to the compromise of success.