The Writer Postponed

This appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books on 23 August 2015:

The Writer Postponed: Barthes at the BnF

roland-barthes

The BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France) exhibition is one of numerous events commemorating the centenary of the birth of the author of “The Death of the Author” (1967). The exhibition is a rather modest affair compared with the grand 2002–03 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou — one that is far more in keeping with its subject’s endearing reticence. Curated by Éric Marty (who edited the complete works) Les écritures de Roland Barthes, Panorama is divided into two distinct parts. The first one consists of a series of white canvas wall panels, like the Chinese posters called dazibao, teeming with quotations, reproduced manuscript pages, and outsize photographs — including an inevitable Paris Match cover shot of the iconic Citroën DS, which the author of Mythologies famously likened to a Gothic cathedral. These dazibao conjure up Barthes’s 1974 trip to China (Carnets du voyage en Chine, 2009), his Zen inclinations, and his fondness for a partly fantasized Japan — a country he visited three times and wrote about, most famously, in Empire of Signs (1970). The use of fabric in lieu of paper could be construed as a nod to The Fashion System (1967) and, beyond that, to the semiologist’s dapper drapery metaphors. Stage curtains also spring to mind, of course. Barthes was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht in the 1950s, a period when his criticism revolved around drama: mostly avant-garde plays at first (until alternative theater was co-opted by Malraux and the Gaullist regime), but soon extending to canonical works. On Racine (1963) even became a cause célèbre, pitting the youngish bucks of la nouvelle critique against the academic establishment. Barthes would later reflect that theater — the personae of “life writing” and the performance of performativity — stood at the crossroads of his entire work. As a student, he dabbled in amateur dramatics, and he was always mesmerized by the manner in which the tragedian’s voice seceded into autonomous acting. Those who visited Barthes frequently fell under the spell of his voice. Chantal Thomas recalls that his speech rendered the silence it sprang from audible (Pour Roland Barthes, 2015). Philippe Roger mentions a sentence that still rings so distinctly in his ears that he could turn it into sheet music — despite having no recollection of what was actually said (Roland Barthes, roman, 1986). Barthes, who cherished “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) — “the body in the voice as it sings” — would no doubt have approved of his words time-lapsing into pure sound.

I walked the length of these gauzy panels, repeatedly, to ensure I had not missed the entrance to some occult gallery room. En route, I spotted several other mildly bemused visitors doing likewise, l’air de rien. Just as the art of striptease conceals nudity (Mythologies, 1957), everything here is hidden in plain sight. The author is ubiquitous, but atomized; splintered into myriad shards of text. In her monumental new biography, Tiphaine Samoyault demonstrates how his fragmentary, aphoristic, and self-referential style resists analysis, often leaving commentators no other option but to paraphrase or quote. This, she says, is how he inhabits his texts. Barthes himself goes back to the etymology of the word “text,” which, in Latin, refers — precisely — to tissue. This tissue, he avers, has traditionally been regarded as a “ready-made veil” concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation). Instead of prêt-à-porter, he suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven — he compares Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. In this “making” of the text, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, albeit in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971).

Roland Barthes was not averse to biography per se. In fact, he even toyed with the idea of writing one himself (on his beloved Schumann). Besides, the intersection between life and literature was arguably his central concern throughout his career. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his first object of investigation. She goes on to claim that his main achievement was to take reading out of the book and into the world: to decipher, as it is now, post-Barthes, common to say, the world like a text. For Barthes, however, reading literature was a highly personal pursuit: it meant “rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives” (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1979). Textual pleasure reaches its climax when a book “transmigrates into our life, whenever another writing (the Other’s writing) succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Susan Sontag shrewdly observed, Barthes started off discussing Gide’s journal (which, in his view, turned the life and work into “a creative whole”) and ended up reflecting upon his own. During one of his last lectures, he even confessed (citing Kafka’s Diaries and Tolstoy’s Notebooks) that he had “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works” — an admission that would have been anathema in the days of high post-structuralism. Indeed, diaries are repositories of what he had previously described as the “fantasy” of the writer figure, that is to say “the writer minus his work”. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes believed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. Put bluntly, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975) is thus prefaced with the following caveat, which, significantly, appears in the author’s own elegant script: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”. The fragmentary memoir that ensues is narrated in the first and third (he, R.B.) persons singular: Barthes, in effect, becomes a character — several characters — in what he describes as “almost a novel: a novel without proper names”. The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs (of necessity) to the realm of fiction. A clear line is drawn between the “unproductive” time of childhood — depicted in the first pages through a series of captioned snapshots — and the “productive” time of writing that endures in textual form, rather than as memory. Since the text dispossesses the writer of his “narrative continuity” — “it takes my body elsewhere” — only the “unproductive life” can be presented in chronological (albeit pictorial) fashion. Much of the author’s work, from Empire of Signs onward, can be read as a quest for a biography of the productive life.

Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. After all, the past never stands still: memories are always being reimagined and reshuffled; identity is open to constant recomposition. If someone were to write his life, Barthes remarked, anticipating his own memoir, he hoped it would be limited to a few “biographemes” — “a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections” — which, “like Epicurean atoms,” would perhaps touch “some future body, destined to the same dispersion” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Paul Valéry put it, in a letter he quotes, “It is strange how the passage of time turns every work — and so every man — into fragments. Nothing whole survives — just as a recollection is never anything more than debris, and only becomes sharper through false memories”. In his lectures on The Preparation of the Novel (1978–1980; published in 2003), Barthes establishes a distinction between two literary Platonic ideals: the Book and the Album. The former is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — an instantiation of the Absolute in codex form. The latter (aphorisms, pensées, fragments, collages, journals, scrapbooks) stands at the other, resolutely immanent end of the spectrum. Given that nothing whole ever survives, Barthes draws the conclusion that “the future of the Book is the Album, just as the ruin is the future of the monument”: “What lives in us of the Book” — a quotation, for instance — “is the Album”. (Éric Marty recently edited a collection of the author’s miscellanea under that very title.) Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is the biographeme, that textual snapshot: “Photography has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography” (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1980). Barthes’s oeuvre is dotted — punctuated — with prefigurations or echoes of the biographeme, which attests to the centrality of this concept. There is the gaping garment, for instance, pinpointed in The Pleasure of the Text as the scintillating locus of eroticism. There is “the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku” — presented as near synonyms — which Mao’s China famously failed to deliver (Travels in China). And then there is the punctum: the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to the studium, its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the poignant point where his or her involvement becomes intensely personal. One thinks of that passage in Empire of Signs where the author recalls that he never took any pictures of Japan. Quite the contrary, he explains: it is Japan that constellated him with flashes, as though from a camera not loaded with film. In her biography, Samoyault insists that, even at its most theoretical, Barthes’s criticism is never solely (soullessly) analytical. We always perceive the flash of the author’s desiring gaze.

The first part of the BnF exhibition illustrates Barthes’s definition of the “Album”. As its title indicates, it provides us with a panoramic view of the polymath’s multifaceted career. This dizzying, kaleidoscopic portrait of Roland Barthes — dissolved in the constructive secretions of his web — highlights his engagement with the world. The second part, tucked away in a room at the far end of the busy wall panels, is far more intimate. The dimmed lights instantly instill a quasi-religious ambience. The only audible sound comes, muffled, from headphones resting on black seats at the back. Enshrined in glass display cases, the manuscript of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977) and related relics (letters, index cards, artworks) take center stage. “So it is a lover who speaks and says:” — the magic Open Sesame formula — is inscribed on a blue wall, reminiscent of an Yves Klein monochrome or a manuscript illumination by the Limbourg brothers. Everything here represents the autobiographical, and indeed literary, turn in Barthes’s career: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science” (“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure …,” 1978).

One of the major lessons of Mythologies is that the world is always already written. Language — as Barthes put it, somewhat provocatively, during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977 — is “fascist”. It speaks us, compels us to think and talk along certain lines. The task of literature is thus “to unexpress the expressible,” to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion by relinquishing meaning altogether: “For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible” (Critical Essays, 1964). In his memoir, Barthes writes that “he dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning“. On several occasions, he praises the haiku for managing to “achieve exemption from meaning” whilst remaining perfectly intelligible. The arch-interpreter dreamt, paradoxically, of signifiers without signifieds. What attracted him to Japanese calligraphy was the interface between writing and painting. He was fascinated by the artistic tradition of “illegible writing” (linked to Chinese characters in the case of André Masson’s semiograms) that he studied in essays devoted to the likes of Bernard Réquichot or Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own: an instance of what we would now call asemic writing is reproduced on one of the wall panels. The BnF exhibition also showcases several artworks (although that is perhaps too grand a word). The most interesting are multicolored squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing: writing as ludic abstraction.

Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, and rightly so, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — “a kind of innocence” — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. The care with which he fashioned the file boxes for his famous index cards indicates that he also considered writing as a handicraft, as do the corrected proofs of A Lover’s Discourse, with their neatly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. The author’s beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the grain of the voice, where sound and meaning merge. Barthes, it is often said, wrote from the body. He sought to inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing, rather than his psychological subjectivity — into the body of his texts, thus substituting an erotics for hermeneutics. There is indeed a “return of the author” in Barthes’s work, but the author who returns is not the “Author-God” of realist fiction: “The author who leaves his text and comes into our life has no unity […] he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”. It is through the body that the intimate makes its cry heard on the page.

Writing as pure gesture was, of course, only a fantasy. On this side of “the Utopia of language,” Barthes came to identify what he called “life writing” as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Simply put, life writing is writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work — a text to be produced, not deciphered. In “The Death of the Author,” of all places, Barthes had already highlighted the “radical reversal” operated by Proust: “instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model”. Despite disavowing that polemical essay in The Preparation of the Novel — as though he could hear time’s winged laundry van hurrying near — he reprised his assessment of Proust, going as far as to claim that: “the positioning of the life as work is now slowly emerging as a veritable historical shift in values”. In Search of Lost Time is “entirely woven out of him [Proust], out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel” — and yet it is not an autobiography.

Whether Barthes would have written a novel — had he not been knocked over by that van in 1980, dying a month later at the age of 64 — remains a moot point. In an interview, given in 1977, he announced his intention to write a “real novel”. However, he then went on to explain that he was looking for a form that would enable him to detach the “novelistic” (le romanesque) from the novel — which no longer really sounds like a “real novel”. The following year, in his conference on Proust, he mentioned his “fantasized and probably impossible” book. The lectures on The Preparation of the Novel did nothing to clear up the ambiguity; au contraire: “Will I really write a Novel? I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one”. Samoyault argues, in her biography, that he probably would have done so. Although he only left an eight-page outline for his projected “Vita Nova,” she believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously (Incidents, Mourning Diary, et cetera) along with vast swaths of the unpublished archives, would eventually have been integrated into some grand magnum opus.

There are numerous counterarguments. Even though he had his ear to the ground and finger on the pulse — championing some of the most cutting-edge artists of his day — Barthes considered himself as a man of the 19th century: the rearguard of the avant-garde, as he once put it. Samoyault highlights the fact that he felt far more at home with Schumann or Chateaubriand than Messiaen or Robbe-Grillet, hence his deep-rooted fear of being an impostor. Proust — whose innovative work also retained a strong traditional Human Comedy dimension — probably represented his beau idéal of literary modernity. For Barthes, however, being modern also meant knowing “what cannot be started over again,” and that kind of monumental novel belonged to the past. At the beginning of The Preparation of the Novel, he suggests that “The Impossible Novel” could have been a good alternative title for these lectures, echoing one of the central themes of Writing Degree Zero: “Modernism begins with the search for a Literature which is no longer possible”. This general cultural crisis was echoed by his own abandonment of novel-writing as a teenager. In a letter to a friend, explaining why he had given up his bildungsroman — a satire of social conventions in provincial France — he described the novel as an “anti-artistic genre” in which aesthetics is stifled by psychology, and form a mere accessory. He then spoke of his conception of an “artistic form of literature,” which he would go on to seek out through his criticism in later years. When he died, he was preparing a conference on Stendhal’s switch from diary to fiction, which had finally allowed him to express his love of Italy. Evidently, Barthes was hoping that “Vita Nova” would likewise enable him to express his love of his mother, with whom he had lived almost all his life, and whose death in 1977 had left him devastated. The title — a quote — was “One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves”. He may have sensed that his novel would never get as close to the “impossible science of the unique being” as he wished.

In fact, Barthes had already written a fitting, at times heart-rending, tribute to his late mother in the shape of the second part of Camera Lucida. He was too modest and racked by doubts — “I am not fully a writer” — to gauge the importance of his own work. As Philippe Sollers noted, his reading of Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z (1970) had rewritten a competent story into a veritable masterpiece. Michel Foucault pointed out that his criticism had a prophetic quality: it actually shaped the course of contemporary literature, rather than merely reflecting it. Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom Barthes had championed in his early days, claimed that A Lover’s Discourse may come to be regarded as the nouveau nouveau roman. He believed that the future of the novel lay in the hands of someone, like Barthes, who was not a professional novelist. A Lover’s Discourse was published in 1977, the year Serge Doubrovsky coined the term “autofiction”: it is now obvious that Barthes was one of the originators of this genre. It is equally obvious that most of his books, starting with Empire of Signs (when he began speaking in his own name), could now be labeled novels. Unknowingly, he had redefined what fiction could be.

In his Critical Essays, Barthes describes the critic as a writer, “but a writer postponed,” whose goal — to write a novel — remains tantalizingly on the horizon, like abstract squiggles: “the critic is the man who is going to write and who, like the Proustian narrator, satisfies this expectation with a supplementary work, who creates himself by seeking himself and whose function is to accomplish his project of writing even while eluding it”. While dreaming of the Book, Barthes produced the Album.

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.

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). …

A Grin Without a Cat

Brian Dillon, “At the Hayward,” London Review of Books 2 August 2012

[‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti, 1989]

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation — there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at — and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of the LRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.

The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse — in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33” is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer — not quite a collector — agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.

As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. […]

There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated. […]

Unexpected Landscapes

Laura Cumming, “Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 — Review,” The Observer 17 June 2012

[Empty promises: Invisible Labyrinth (2005) by Jeppe Hein at the Hayward Gallery. Photograph: Tony Kyriacou / Rex Features]

Invisible, the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition, has a theme so novel and provocative one cannot help rising to the challenge. What kind of art would be sufficiently invisible (as it were) to appear in this show? Perhaps there will be glowing after-images, or mirages conjured out of nothing by the American light artist James Turrell. Perhaps there will be sound works by Bruce Nauman or the Turner prize-winner Susan Philipsz; or maps to buried treasure such as Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty, long since vanished beneath the waters of Lake Utah.

Perhaps the show will concern itself with lost art, destroyed art, or art that was never made in the first place, such as Leonardo’s colossal bronze horse or Vladimir Tatlin’s stupendous Monument to the Third International, which would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower had his dreams been achieved. Perhaps the Hayward Gallery will be showing Marcel Duchamp’s nostalgic vial of Paris air, or an evocation of Yves Klein’s 1958 Paris exhibition, empty of everything except (he claimed) the artist’s own spirit.

[…] What is there to see? Quite a lot, as it turns out, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to add to Ralph Rugoff’s excellent catalogue. The paradox is, of course, that an artist can only be represented here through something visible: a film, a photographic record, typed instructions about leaving a blank canvas outside overnight until it’s suffused with pink dawn light. By the time you’ve read Yoko Ono’s prose-poem, the image is in your head.

There is a blacked-out gallery (supposedly haunted by The Ghost of James Lee Byars, to use its title) that makes darkness visible. Visitors to Jeppe Hein’s wall-less labyrinth collide as if their regulation headsets made them blind to the existence of others. The Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has made an immense chalk drawing (the largest in the world, he claims) for those who have eyes to see it; which might be the crux of this show.

Even the nod to Klein involves a vivid archive film of the artist striding about his empty gallery contemplating the bare (but curiously glowing) walls as if there really was something to see. Which there was at this stage, of course: namely the artist filling the room with his artistic sensibility, parodying the Romantic tradition, displaying his aura.

Even when Klein wasn’t there, visitors insisted they could still feel his presence. This was a proposition tested by Chris Burden in a 1975 performance. Burden lay on a concealed platform in a New York gallery for 22 days during which he saw nobody, and nobody saw him. Yet visitors became palpably infuriated by the lurking sense of his presence; or so it is claimed.

Invisible is a show replete with claims and assertions — that the artist was present; that this white canvas was primed with mountain snow; that these stones were once inscribed with water: they sound like confidence tricks, and certainly turn upon trust of a sort. You have to believe that the Chinese artist Song Dong was too poor to afford ink and wrote his diary in water instead, otherwise those stones are meaningless, aren’t they? In fact, the stones are irrelevant as visible objects. As soon as the idea of that poignant act begins to grow in one’s mind, it is only the thought that counts.

Some assertions can be tested. I could see no sign of Chih-Sheng’s immense drawing in the central gallery until I ran a finger beneath a balustrade and found the chalk line transferred to me. But there is no way of knowing whether Maurizio Cattelan’s hilarious police report concerning the theft of an invisible artwork from his car is genuine or not. What is the difference between fiction and not-fiction in art? This is art as unreliable evidence.

One room of the Hayward is empty except for an eavesdropping device (according to the wall text). But it’s nowhere to be seen. Uneasiness sets in, which is apt since this is the work of Roman Ondák, born in former communist Czechoslovakia.

Another gallery is devoted to all-white canvases including a sharp send-up of the genre by Tom Friedman entitled 1000 Hours of Staring. But Bruno Jakob’s works are a challenge to cynics, made as they are with not much more than canvas or paper exposed to the elements. There are no images but each bears faint traces of its making that inspire unexpected landscapes in the imagination.

[…] There is, for instance, an immense gap between Jay Chung’s project — a movie entirely shot without telling cast and crew that there was no film in the camera and thus no record of their mutual labour — and Claes Oldenburg’s buried monument to John F Kennedy. Neither work is visible, indeed neither was fully realised. But Oldenburg’s idea was to evoke the sense of loss through a hollow colossus: the space Kennedy occupied in life now sealed beneath the ground. Even the drawing for the proposal is poignant. Chung, by comparison, is working at the dead end of conceptualism.

This show puts its faith in the audience, in our willingness to think and our openness to ideas. But it cannot quite escape the trap of its own theme for not one of these works achieves total invisibility. Even in the black room there are discernible figures, pinpricks of light and visible forms. As long as our eyes are open, we continue to make pictures of the world.

[Invisible: Art About the Unseen in pictures.]

In the Void Room

Ralph Rugoff, “The 10 Best…Invisble Artworks,” The Observer 10 June 2012 (The New Review, p. 6)
From an infrared labyrinth to a cursed ball of air


[Invisible Labyrinth, by Jeppe Hein, 2005. Photograph: Anders Sune/Courtesy Johann König, Berlin and 303 Gallery, New York]

1 Invisible Labyrinth
Jeppe Hein, 2005

Hein transformed the empty space of an art gallery into Invisible Labyrinth, using infrared technology in an ingenious fashion. Hein’s artwork provides visitors with a pair of digital headphones that vibrate whenever they knock into one of the invisible walls of a maze. While it is deeply engaging to enter one of the work’s seven labyrinths, it is also fascinating to observe the uncanny spectacle of gallery-goers navigating indeterminable routes.

2 Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F Kennedy
Claes Oldenburg, 1965

Before creating his colossal monuments to things like clothes pegs and matches, Oldenburg proposed various memorials. His Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F Kennedy called for a huge, hollow casting, based on a photograph of the assassinated president, to be buried head-down in the ground. The statue’s size was identical to that of the Statue of Liberty, as if to suggest that Kennedy’s murder had turned the American dream on its head. Two decades after his proposal, the idea of evoking tragedy through absence became a major feature of commemorative projects for the Holocaust and civil violence.

3 Vertical Column of Accelerated Air
Michael Asher, 1966-7

[Michael Asher pictured in 1966 at his graduation at University of California, Irvine. Photograph: University of California, Irvine.]

Yves Klein’s Utopian plans for creating an architecture de l’air were cut short by his premature death in 1962. Taking a less grandiose approach to building with air, Asher used industrial blowers to create “walls”, “curtains”, and “columns” of accelerated air. He would place them in relation to architectural features in a gallery. Visitors would perceive a gentle and unexpected flow of air when walking through the exhibition space which would subtly alter their usual journey.

4 Untitled show
David Hammons, 1995

[David Hammons hiding behind a box. Photograph: Christopher Felver/Corbis.]

Over the past 50 years, a number of artists have developed furtive approaches to staging exhibitions. The most brilliant example was by African-American artist David Hammons, who held an untitled and unadvertised show in a New York shop that sold African and Asian artifacts. Not only were Hammons’s unlabelled sculptures displayed side by side with the traditional merchandise, but many of his pieces incorporated items from the shop. Playing with boundary issues and cultural camouflage, his artworks achieved their invisibility not by forgoing material form, but by immersing themselves amid the world’s cornucopia of things.

5 The Empty Museum
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2004

[Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “The Empty Museum,” 2004. Photograph: Hermann Feldhaus.]

For the past three decades, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have specialised in making “total installations”, many of which reimagine life in the former Soviet Union with a dark sense of absurdity. Their 2004 installation, The Empty Museum, replicates a room in a classical gallery, featuring a Bach soundtrack and deep red walls that are dramatically spot-lit. But where we might expect to find paintings on the walls, there are only pools of light. What has happened to the art? Haunted by absence, the Kabakovs’ eerily theatrical installation invites us to write our own script.

6 Double Torso
Andy Warhol, 1966

Warhol produced a few “pornographic” paintings in the mid-1960s using fluorescent inks that were only visible under ultraviolet light. Along with his film Blow Job (which shows only the face of a man on the receiving end of the eponymous sex act), his invisible canvases were provocations aimed at the harsh anti-pornography laws of the time, which tightly controlled what could or could not be seen. His interest in invisible media would pop up at several times in his career as if he were seeking an antidote to his own overexposure as a celebrity.

7 Untitled (A Curse)
Tom Friedman, 1992

[Untitled (A Curse) by Tom Friedman, 1992 Photograph: Image courtesy the artist and Harry Handelsman.]

In 1992, Friedman created Untitled (A Curse), which appears to be nothing more than a pedestal. But he had employed a professional witch to cast a curse on an 11-inch sphere, resting 11 inches over the pedestal. At the time he said he was thinking about “how one’s knowledge of the history behind something affects one’s thinking about that thing”. And once you read how it was made, Friedman’s pedestal becomes a loaded object that tests the roles that belief and imagination play in our encounters with art.

8 Radiation Piece
Robert Barry, 1969

In the late 1960s, Barry began producing artworks using a range of immaterial media, including electromagnetism, radio waves and ultrasonic sound — forms of energy that, as he noted, “exist outside the narrow arbitrary limits of our own senses”. His Radiation Piece has a tiny amount of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope released into the atmosphere during nuclear tests and accidents. It has a “half life” of 30 years, but continues emitting energy forever (although in ever-decreasing quantities). For Barry, who found ideas of nothingness and the void to be extremely potent, radiation was a means of evoking something immeasurable and without limit — the sublime realm of the unseen.

9 The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility
Yves Klein, 1958

[In the Void Room (Raum der Leere) by Yves Klein, Museum Haus Lange, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, January 1961. Photograph: bpk/Charles Wilp, DACS London, 2012.]

In the history of invisible art, perhaps the most visible landmark remains Yves Klein’s 1958 exhibition at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility — an empty gallery, apart from a single cabinet, in which every surface had been painted white. Klein maintained that the space was saturated with a force field so tangible that some people were unable to enter the exhibition “as if an invisible wall prevented them”. Others may have been unable to enter because spectacular press coverage ensured huge queues of spectators searching for something to look at.

10 Untitled (Horse)
Bruno Jakob, 2003

[Untitled (Horse) by Bruno Jacob, 2003 Photograph: Courtesy the artist & Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich. Photo: collaboration with Peter Püntener.]

Swiss artist Jakob has devised several different means of making “invisible paintings”: painting on paper or canvas using water rather than pigment or exposing a lightly primed canvas — as if it were a psychically sensitive type of photographic paper — to the presence of a person or animal in order to capture some ethereal aspect of their existence. This photograph of the artist holding up a blank canvas towards a horse might seem like an absurd gag, yet at the same time it earnestly conjures an unseen connection between man and animal that no straightforward portrait could convey.

Invisible: Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012 is at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 12 June until 5 August.

****

Jonathan Jones, “Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 — Review,” The Guardian 11 June 2012 (p. 5):

I accidentally scared a gallery technician witless while exploring the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of invisible art. I was standing in a room of thick, velvety darkness. A technician pushed through the black curtains and became aware of someone else in the gloom. Apparently spooked, he asked: “Who’s that?”

It was a relief to see someone else scared, because The Ghost of James Lee Byars already had me seriously unnerved. This work of art consists of no more than its six-word title and a darkened room. Yet its atmosphere is palpable. Six words are enough to tell a hell of a ghost story, it turns out.

The American artist James Lee Byars conceived this freak-out in 1969. An enigmatic and morbid storyteller, he imagined his own death, not just in this work but in pieces with the resonant titles This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling, and The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars.

Eventually, in reality, he died in Cairo in 1997. Judging by the terror it can inflict on Hayward contractors, I would guess the invisible image of Byars is creating quite a folklore behind the scenes.

Or perhaps they are dreading the critics. What, eight quid for a gallery full of invisible paintings? This exhibition courts tabloid headlines and bluff empirical sarcasm. It is, like Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom, a show about nothing. But it succeeds because it is in on the joke, which it makes unexpectedly profound. Quite frankly, there is more art here, despite it being invisible, than in a lot of stuff galleries lure us to see.

There are indeed some invisible paintings in the show, white surfaces marked with materials that include “Brainwaves” by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob. There is a drawing that fills a huge gallery and yet is almost impossible to find since the Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has traced all the lines along floor tiles, corners of walls and fittings to make a drawing that is a near-invisible web-like echo of the place.

Yet the real heart of the exhibition is not so much in works that are barely there as in the thing they allude to, the unseen itself. As you put on a surreal buzzing headpiece to negotiate Jeppe Hein’s invisible maze or speculate on which gallery-goer may be the actor hired by Bethan Huws to behave just like a visitor, the notion of a world beyond appearances takes on a strange and powerful reality.

This exhibition is a seriously brilliant jest. It is a genuine history of an idea in art, a fascination with the immaterial and imperceivable that can be traced back to the audacious claims of Yves Klein in late 1950s Paris to create invisible atmospheres and “air architecture”, most famously in his 1958 exhibition of nothing, The Void. But it is also an absurd story. Carsten Holler exhibits an invisible car, one of a field of futuristic vehicles he designed for a utopian race. There is its starting place, painted on the gallery floor. But the supercar, called The Invisible, is for you to imagine.

The magic of the exhibition, its bizarre inversion of gallery-going, is that you do indeed imagine it. The car seems to be there. You don’t step on its starting block, in case you scratch the unseen paintwork.

Nearby is an empty white plinth. The air above it is cursed. The artist Tom Friedman got a witch to curse a zone hovering above the pedestal. As soon as you know this you do not want to put your hand into that evil space.

Why? Because nothing demands something of us. The human mind fills blanks with images and ideas; that is what a ghost story is, a way of filling darkness. This exhibition reveals that when artists, from Klein to Chris Burden, who hid himself on an elevated shelf in a gallery in 1975, started to deny that art had to be seen, they opened up a theatre for the imagination.

In the Hayward Gallery, the ghost of Byars haunts The Ghost of James Lee Byars. The visible world, as Plato pointed out, is a veil concealing truth.

****

Invisible, Hayward Gallery, London, 12 June-6 August 2012. From the South Bank Centre website:

Invisible Art brings together works from the past half century that explore ideas related to the invisible and the hidden. The exhibition includes work by some of the most important artists of our time as well as younger artists who have expanded on their legacy.

From the amusing to the philosophical, there are works you can observe and others you can take part in, such as Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth. From Yves Klein’s utopian plans for an ‘architecture of air’ to Robert Barry’s Energy Field (AM 130 KHz) from 1968 — which encourages a heightened awareness of the physical context of the gallery — this exhibition spans diverse aesthetic practices and concerns.

Many of the works in Invisible seek to direct our attention towards the unwritten rules and conventions that shape our understanding of art. Other works invoke invisibility to underscore the limits of our perceptual capacities or to emphasize the role of our imagination in responding to works of art. Some use invisibility as a metaphor that relates to the suppression of information or the political disappearance and marginalization of social groups.

Artists in the exhibition include Art & Language, Robert Barry, Chris Burden, James Lee Byars, Maurizio Cattelan, Jay Chung, Song Dong, Tom Friedman, Carsten Höller, Tehching Hsieh, Bruno Jakob, Yves Klein, Lai Chih-Sheng, Glenn Ligon, Teresa Margolles, Gianni Motti, Roman Ondák, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.

Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.