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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Kingdoms of recurrence: To Duration by Peter Handke

"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air.Peter Handke
"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air.Gabriel Josipovici

I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling offers – the "all-appeasing And then..." as Handke has described it elsewhere.

But what if air is something apart from that familiar alibi of escapism from too-serious life? If the fiction of who made the statements is any guide, air is a quality of lightness in relation to big themes rather than a retreat from them. It fills the high meadows of Repetition, in part about a brother lost in war, and In a Hotel Garden, in part about the legacy of the Holocaust. So perhaps it is also a matter of literary style, that which provides the aesthetic pleasure some claim is key to the reading experience of literary fiction so-called. Yet contrary to Handke, I think the first two volumes of My Struggle also have air, if the ghostly presence of the numinous over a dense narrative is air.

Lightness, style, the numinous – air could be all three.

Two editions of Repetition published by The Last Books (2013) and Minerva (1989)

For Filip Kobal, air is something else again. At the beginning of his journey into Slovenia on the trail of his long-lost brother, he is drawn to a 'blind window', a bricked-up, set-in part of a station wall:
The significance of the blind window remained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back—and here again the sign was at work—was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message—to me it meant: “Friend, you have time.”
What sets this apart from escapism is that the discovery arrives not as the regular epiphenomenon of narrative but inherent to it, and as part of a novel it becomes something more than the report of a private epiphany because of the patience taken by the reader to get there. By performing a similar act of attention on a similar journey, the reader receives the same message, breathes some air. Reader, you have time. The blind window has become the book.

In another of Handke's works closely related to Repetition, the truest definition of air is sought head on. We have had to wait for it however. Die Wiederholung was published in 1986 and Ralph Manheim's translation two years later. In the same year Handke published Gedicht an die Dauer but that has had to wait 27 years to appear in Scott Abbott's translation To Duration. It's been worth the wait.

An example follows on the next page. On the way to the post office Handke hears two voices: one calling his name across a crowded square, which is when he realises he has left the manuscript of Die Wiederholung on a market stand, and another from a quarter of a century before in another city. Duration has this uncanny quality, akin to Proust's loops in time revealed in otherwise banal situations. He writes that he has experienced duration "as a traveller, as a dreamer, as a listener, at play, as observer" but, as Marcel discovered too, it cannot be relied on. When he tries to approach the essence of duration, only individual words come to mind: "spring, snowfall, sparrows, waybread, dawning, dusk, bandage, harmony." Duration is the presence of "the less conspicuous, the more poignant" and is why Handke is writing a poem and not a treatise.

Once the subject and its uncertain context is set, the poem describes places and emotions that require less conspicuous and more poignant details to approach the essence of duration, details that might otherwise be swamped by the grand events of headline-grabbing novels or drained by the abstractions of Philosophy. Briefly ashore on boat trip around the coast of Turkey, Handke and his friends hike to a cove and forage for food to accompany a lobster back on the boat.
At the cove stood an almond tree,
its shells half open like sky-mussels.
I climbed up and shook the branches,
on the ground below
a patter and drumming
that even today,
back in the cold continental air,
resounds in my ears.
They pick grapes, figs and pomegranates, and go swimming in the wine-coloured sea. While this appears to be the blissful escapism we assume is key to duration, for Handke it is "darkened by an uneasiness, by a melancholy, by a pain" that turned him to stone, feeling he had no right to the experience. He was "a living spirit only...while working, in the usual nook, bent over the words". It was only on returning to his unkempt garden at home "with grey seed head shooting up from the grass" that he felt duration and recognised "ecstasy is always too much".

Duration is then "the adventure of the mundane" often so fleeting that it's "not worth talking about", which would explain why 'air' is cited yet never defined and regularly conflated with escapism. For Handke, however, it is worth "holding on to through writing", and this must be his task; "It must be my true love":
And I must,
if the moments of duration are to spring
   from me
and give my stiff face a form
and insert a heart into my empty breast,
practise, year in and year out,
my love.
Such dedication he says makes writing worthwhile, when it might otherwise be dismissed as indulgence when not feeding the organs of reportage. To Duration thereby also embodies duration and provides the possibility of duration to the reader. And this is where the specific genre of writing about duration becomes significant, why 'air' in a work of literature depends on genre, hence 'Gedicht' in the German title.

Rear covers of Repetition and To Duration

The concept of duration is of course associated with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, and Handke acknowledges this with an epigraph from Introduction to Metaphysics that claims our intuition of duration requires many different images, presumably those embedded in the poem. This relates to Bergson's complaint that the terms we use to designate time are borrowed from those we use for space, so the means of our understanding of duration is what masks duration; it "refuses to consider transition," seeking instead the singular and unmoving. Philosophers have assumed it necessary to move out of time in order to go beyond human intelligence, but, Bergson argues, we are already outside of time and therefore must "get back into duration and recapture reality in the very mobility which is its essence".

Our highly scientific mindset notices key words here such as essence and metaphysics and suspects a superstitious, perhaps even religious tendency on the horizon, with literary critics concurring in suspicion to question the distinctly unexperimental prose nature of Handke's poem, which might have otherwise provided it with an alibi, even if it can be read with some rigour alongside Bergson's philosophy and gained thereby some academic Brownie points. Bergson, however, argues that science itself is metaphysical in its origin and became scientific as we know it only as it demanded expression in static terms: "In short, pure change, real duration, is a thing spiritual or impregnated with spirituality". Metaphysics-as-science claimed to go beyond experience, but:
what it did in reality was merely to take a full and mobile experience, lending itself to a probing ever-deepening and as a result pregnant with revelations—and to substitute for it a fixed extract, desiccated and empty, a system of abstract general ideas, drawn from that very experience or rather from its most superficial strata. One might as well discourse on the subject of the cocoon from which the butterfly is to emerge, and claim that the fluttering, changing, living butterfly finds its raison d’être and fulfillment in the immutability of its shell. On the contrary, let us unfasten the cocoon, awaken the chrysalis; let us restore to movement its mobility, to change its fluidity, to time its duration.        [Translated by Mabelle L. Andison]
It is clear from this why literature's cultural stock has fallen in recent decades while the multi-coloured shell of popular science and so-called reality hunger has risen. We have been conditioned to doubt the value of novels and poetry, with air-as-escapism filling the atmosphere, suggesting the value they retain is the brief but happy absence from full and mobile experience, which is after all provided in more accessible and concentrated form by Hollywood blockbusters. Against this tendency WG Sebald, in a remarkable essay from 1995, substantiates Handke's resistance to this devaluation:
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day .
I have read Repetition several times since the hardback was published in 1988, the second or third year of my reading life, and still retain the afterglow of what I would call the magical light its prose evoked to me at that time, which might explain why I value it as others do their books of childhood. This has often confused me because at first glance it is no different to any other first-person Bildungsroman and does not have the overt stylistic quirks of classical modernism to distance it from so-called literary fiction – nothing experimental here. Sebald offers an explanation, which aligns the novel to Bergson:
In every case, the metaphysic developed in Handke’s newer books, which aims to translate the seen and perceived into language, remains undiscussed. There is obviously no longer a contemporary discourse in which metaphysics may claim a place. And yet art, wherever and whenever it may take place, bears the closest ties to the realm of metaphysics. In order to explore this proximity, the writer requires a courage which should not be underestimated.
It is only since reading To Duration all these years later that I am able to recognise that what makes Repetition distinct is its acknowledgement of the necessary movement of reflexivity within reading and writing. The present of writing and the past of life come together as and in duration, as the great opening line attests, containing as it does almost the entire novel to come: "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother." The qualification is pure air.

It is the novel as novel and poem as poem, kingdoms of recurrence, that enable this, something a theory or a treatise can never achieve. As he practises, bent over the words:
Staying at the task,
the one dear to me, the chief one,
impeding, thus, its obsolescence,
I feel then, perhaps,
the shudder of duration,
incidentally each time,
while cautiously shutting a door,
while carefully peeling an apple,
while crossing a threshold attentively,
while bending down for a thread.
Note that these events of duration go against that cardinal rule of creative writing: show don't tell. The work is instead showing itself, as Repetition shows itself, as a veiled metafiction, a commentary on its own genesis, production and effects, which places it in a sequence with Proust's novel. For Filip Kobal, writing is the means to not only recover the past but to gain a future. 
What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurred but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly, I look on memory as more than a haphazard thinking back—as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.
For the reader, the book is a necessary part of that greater life.

Note: both Repetition and To Duration are available from The Last Books, whose website contains a translation of Sebald's essay as well as a few other Handke-related gems.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time and the unthinkable

A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey

Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in what is otherwise a predictable portrait of a successful author, in which mastery and control of a subject is invariably a given. Other documentaries confronted by such a moment might have rushed to interview physicists and cosmologists and then illustrated their theories with colourful animations and lens flare. Here, there is only innocent utterance.

Knausgaard's new book is this utterance developed over book length. Framed as collection of short essays on diverse subjects written for an unborn daughter, they are suffused by an innocence for time and for when time is apparently in abeyance, as in this hesitation before birth. Knausgaard describes digging a hole in waterlogged ground and seeing a plastic bag "Swollen with water, handles up [hanging] a few feet down in the water" and how, in that moment, he sensed the inexhaustible, something transcending its ephemeral appearance, then adding the date of the sighting, as if to bring it into human time. He senses it in early photography when exposure times meant the human form left no trace and only unmoving objects could be captured on film, so a practice that at first appears to be a straightfoward representation of the human realm reveals a world outside of it altogether. When exposure times improved, people became visible and this uncanny experience disappeared. Knausgaard says he thinks the first human to appear in a photograph is actually the devil because his permanence allowed him to be seen. This wonderfully perverse suggestion is reminiscent of the small boy in My Struggle who sees a face in the sea and the son in A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven who understands that seagulls are devolved angels. It reemphasises how Knausgaard is a writer deeply affected by the disenchantment of the world and willing to resist the recourse to the rational in order to bring attention to what has been submerged by modernity.

It needs to be said again: the features of Knausgaard's writing that have led to his public success and drew Melvyn Bragg to interview him are only a superficial byproducts of its true subject. When the Norwegian stands before the countryside in the deep south of Sweden telling of how that, as soon as he arrived, he felt at home, it has nothing to do with a personal soap opera and everything to do with the absence the landscape evokes, which, again, is due to time: "everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different". The landscape provokes a powerful nostalgia because "utopia is vanished from our time" and a longing for it can only project backwards onto the past. The churches, he says, are "feats of spiritual engineering" representing "another level of reality" which stood "open to the future, when the kingdom of heaven would be established on earth". If such a feeling suggests a conservative mindset, perhaps one wishing for the reimposition of more hierarchial relationships, his perversity reappears to disarm:
That no one seeks the divine level of reality any more and that the churches stand empty means that it is no longer necessary. That it is no longer necessary means the kingdom of heaven has come. There is nothing left to long for other than longing itself, of which the empty churches I can see from here have become the symbol.
It's a perplexing statement, as if utopia is at best a wilderness, at worst a waste land. But it is also a statement necessary to the form it takes, for if churches are symbols of what has departed, then so too is writing. If the divine is the inexhaustible and the foundation of language, writing can no longer reach for it without departing from common sense and, as a result, appearing quaintly absurd. The inexhaustible might appear in the world, materialising in moments like that of the plastic bag, but the neat opposition of science and superstition means there is nowhere for it to pass into common discourse. In recent years we have seen how the preciously affected language and sentimentality of 'nature writing' has directed what Knausgaard diagnoses as nostalgia for utopia or the divine into popular history and vicarious travel, thereby giving good reason why Knausgaard's writing is generally misconstrued. What he writes toward is almost unthinkable.

The majority of essays are structured to lead a young spirit to think in the open. 'Frames' follows the pattern: an everyday item is described as simply as possible – we all know what frames are but Knausgaard tells us anyway – whose effect is then applied in a more general sense – frames categorise what we can see – before it becomes a metaphor for human striving: the search for authenticity and truth is the wish for "a life, an existence, a world unframed". Potential gifts of the process are also noted: Knausgaard observes that all the chemicals necessary for photography were available in medieval times but the thought of photography was unthinkable and it was only "the slow turn of thought toward the material world" that enabled the discovery. Therefore, if we open ourselves to unframed modes of thinking, perhaps something other than what is expected might emerge. So while at first it is understandable that English reviewers have dismissed Autumn with such knee-jerk language as "the most colossal load of old cobblers" and "brain farts", it does suggest Knausgaard's consciously naive approach is necessary to combat rote thinking. But perhaps we no longer have the strength to let them come to us in their innocence.

It's notable that in the latter of the English reviews, the essays are criticised for being "rough sketches by a man who doesn’t know how to draw" while throughout the value of such knowledge is challenged, and challenged explicitly in an essay on Van Gogh's struggle to commit his life to anything in particular. Painting did not come easily to him; he wasn't a natural and his early paintings lack technique. But Knausgaard says the lightness in his landscapes "resembles nothing else" and comes not from finally acquiring painterly technique but from relinquishing it, adopting instead "a carelessness that allows the world to appear unfettered by how we happen to have conceived of it". He argues that only by committing himself to death does Van Gogh find the conditions to live and to paint as only Van Gogh could paint, with each work dependent "on the look he casts...really being his very last".

Such a commitment could explain why Knausgaard often specifies a date for an experience, as it thereby depends on what happened or what was felt in a human life, resisting a turn toward sterile abstraction. It also points to the influence of Peter Handke, especially in his prose collection Once Again for Thucydides, in which each transcription of an observation is given a precise date and location, and to the long poem To Duration in which "the most fleeting of all feelings" is sought in concrete experience. It is an influence that has, as far as I'm aware, gone unrecognised in the English reviews, despite Knausgaard's stated regard for the author. Given time, both books should become better known.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The walled and the book

What draws me back to Thomas Bernhard's novels is the wish to appreciate again how each is set in motion. The Loser begins like this.
Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn.
Now of course he didn't kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.  [Translated by Jack Dawson]
There is the familiar subject matter of early death pressing on the narrator, which is compelling in a regular way and enough to distract one from the form, but the pressure is there too in the in medias res pulse of "Even", an unusual word with which to begin a novel ("Auch" begins the original, in case you're wondering), which gives a sense of urgency or desperation to the narration, but then there's the displacement of its immediacy in "I thought to myself" and the sarcastic italics around the cliché. It's an odd combination: dark thoughts and qualifying pedantry. In 1974, Gabriel Josipovici recognised the same dynamic in another author: "When we think of Saul Bellow's work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation." This is also what draws me back to Saul Bellow's novels.

Formality and desperation together – this is what I am drawn too. One alone might lead to muso chin-stroking over craftmanship, and the other alone might lead to down-to-earth endorsements for a tour de force of expressive brillance, but when alone neither is quite able to acknowledge their limits: one coats suffering in layers of well-wrought sentences while the other masks literary artifice by turning it up full blast with extremes of language or subject matter. By combining the two, one shows up the weakness of the other, as one end of a see-saw shows up the lightness and the heaviness of the other. In beginning The Loser like that, Bernhard sets the see-saw in motion, something that is both light and heavy, comic and terrible, and impossible to pin down. For me at least, reading like this becomes as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.

George Shaw: Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday Week

The combination of formality and desperation also drew me to this painting, especially as it captures the experience of a provincial working-class English childhood: the straight lines, the brick patterning, the muted colours, the limited horizons. The title is said to provide "echoes of the melodrama and self-importance often characteristic of the adolescent" but it also echoes the latent holiness in Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich and, in terms of experience, Trees and Bushes in the Snow.

Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828)

As Joseph Koerner puts it:
You do not stand before a ‘landscape’ since the thicket blocks any wider prospect of its setting; nor do the snow and alders, pushed up against the picture plane, quite constitute the monumentality of a 'scene’, for they provide no habitat for an event.
Looking back, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that, when I visited the Kunsthalle Bremen, the only postcard I came out with was one of Friedrich's Das Friedhofstor. Could formality be the echo of enchantment and desperation the wall?

The question lurking behind these attractions and choices is not one of enchantment but: how does one overcome the wall? But perhaps this question is misleading. When discussing his early frustrations with writing, the author who described Saul Bellow's tone of voice talks about what he learned from certain authors:
Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say.
What draws me back to Bernhard is to appreciate his discovery and how he incorporated the brick wall. Re-reading his first novel seems to have helped with that. Frost was published in 1963 but was the last to be translated into English. This might be because it isn't quite like those that define his style and certainly not as economic. It is the narrative of a medical student visiting the ageing painter Strauch who has lived for many years in an Austrian mining town. The student's task is to report back to the Strauch's estranged brother, and the novel takes the form of a diary of his encounters with Strauch, who is prone to monologues. The book is divided into twenty-six chapters representing twenty-six days. Compare the following paragraph from the day seven with the one from The Loser.

from Frost, translated by Michael Hofmann

Bernhard has always displaced the dominant character's voice in a novel – Prince Saurau who appeared four years later in Gargoyles is the most memorable. Yet even when the dominant character is the narrator, as it tends to be in his later novels, it too is displaced, either in time, as in the "I thought to myself as I entered the inn", or in writing, as in the "writes Atzbacher" in the first line of Old Masters. But earlier works like Frost and Gargoyles are relatively routine in terms of style and are distinguished mainly for the eloquence of their expression of existential despair. Strauch describes paranoid hallucinations and the student is reporting back; nothing unusual here. Seven years after Frost, however, in a film also divided into days, Bernhard more or less repeats Strauch's experience as his own, which offers an insight into the shift in style.

On day two, he says he prefers to be alone.

from 3 Days, translated by Laura Lindgren
For Strauch the wall held Technicolor horrors from which he turned away, and perhaps they were for Bernhard himself and this is a displaced expression of that. For the slightly older writer, however, the horrors became a source. Wall and page are 'perfectly alike', so his books are made of walls, not their overcoming. There is no wider prospect because a singular voice blocks the reading plane. Here's the dominating voice of Old Masters, the music critic Reger, who spends his days studying each painting in the Kunsthistoriches Museum just as Bernhard studied each wall in his house.
In all these pictures, if we study them intensively, we sooner or later discover an awkwardness, or indeed, even in the very greatest and the most important creations, a flaw, if we are uncompromising a serious flaw which gradually makes us dislike these pictures, probably because we pitched our expectations too high, Reger said. Art altogether is nothing but a survival skill, we should never lose sight of this fact, it is, time and again, just an attempt — an attempt that seems touching even to our intellect — to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible only by resorting to lies and falsehoods, to hypocrisy and self-deception, Reger said.      [Translated by Ewald Osers]
George Steiner felt that Bernhard lapsed into a 'monotone of hate' in his later work, which is understandable given how close Bernhard gets to the wall here, and also given Steiner's highly pitched regard for what is a necessary part of that proximity. But while Reger's critical mania is easily conflated with Bernhard's own, it too is placed at a distance, with Reger's opinions noted down by his friend Atzbacher and orchestrated by Bernhard, and therefore contained within what could be included among "the very greatest and the most important creations" that Reger treats with such suspicion. Such displacements might be considered a serious flaw in a modern novel, as they evade positivist claims about the world and decline to tell convincing, realistic stories to reflect the world back to us, or conversely they might be celebrated by those who see only a pass-the-parcel game of attribution. But what we have is walls in motion, something as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Shattering the Muses by Rainer J. Hanshe & Federico Gori

Televisions schedules have lately featured many programmes following chronic hoarders as they try to overcome their pathological behaviour. The process is always the same: film crews enter outwardly normal homes to find labyrinths of cardboard boxes, magazines and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Interviews with the inhabitants follow that invariably reveal the hoarding is compensation for a great absence. When attempts are made to clear a room, the owner panics and refuses to let anything go. One man in his sixties insisted on keeping a school textbook found at the bottom of a box because, he said, he was thinking of becoming a teacher. When told it was forty years out of date and useful to nobody, anxiety and confusion contorted his face.

In every programme the viewer becomes a witness to the destruction of hope, with the house clearance acting like L-Dopa on one of Oliver Sacks' patients catatonic for the last forty years slowly discovering their true age. But all is fine in the end because, in the last ten minutes of the show, the hoarder always relents and allows the team to clear and redecorate the house. As the credits role, we see them smiling with friends and family, ready for a fresh start.

Watching what is effectively the same programme over and over emphasises how closely possession and dispossession coincide: a man who holds onto a book as the promise of a better life finds its absence delivers exactly that. It's a concurrence that also gives pulse to Shattering the Muses, a beautifully designed, large format book from Contra Mundum Press, whose pages are illuminated by the flames of the bonfires it documents.

In a stack of quotations, short essays, anecdotes, poems, slogans, drawings and photographs, the book records proclamations against written works from biblical times to those announced by the Nazis, and from the loss of a few books at an airport to the cataclysm in Jaffna. And while there is no obvious narrative, some pages do tell stories, most notably that of Miklós Radnóti as he wrote poems secretly on a forced march across Hungary, hiding them in his jacket.

In the appropriately ominous prose of the blurb, it is said the book "proposes that 'apocalypses' are not eschatological, but ontological, ever-present, continuous events that threaten us", which is certainly borne out by the content. But there is plenty of evidence that Shattering the Muses is not the straightforward humanistic lament over man's inhumanity to manuscripts that this suggests.

There is a tendency to think like the hoarder who sees only what can be 'cashed out' in the world, which we see frequently in newspaper headlines about newly discovered works by famous authors that will potentially "shed light" on them and "enlarge our knowledge". Silence is not something we can talk about in public. It isn't what we expect. It isn't the right kind of knowledge. Perhaps building a library is an attempt to make silence physical.

Whenever the lost books are mentioned, I think of Kafka's Berlin notebooks confiscated by the Gestapo. If only Dora Diamant had given them to Max Brod! Her biographer Kathi Diamant has organised a search of archives in the hope they are somewhere in eastern Europe. It's a thrilling idea: new works by Kafka. And if I daydream about the moment a researcher opens a file and recognises Kafka's spidery handwriting, I wonder also about our uncertain relation to the works we do have. It might be that silence, an apocalypse of sorts, rises up before us there, in every extant work. Is this why we seek the new?

Adding to the hoard might demonstrate a misunderstanding of what Kafka's work reveals to us or, worse, a betrayal. He wrote a story – The Silence of the Sirens – in which Odysseus puts wax in his ears so he could not be lured by the sirens' song. But Kafka adds a further twist on the classical story and says "the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence". With his ears blocked, Odysseus is the only one who fails to hear it. "And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never." Perhaps the absence of Kafka's stories is their great gift to us and why he was so keen to destroy them.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The world as refuge: re-reading The Space of Literature

But where has art led us? To a time before the world, before the beginning. It has cast us out of our power to begin and to end; it has turned us toward the outside where there is no intimacy, no place to rest. It has led us into the infinite migration of error. For we seek art's essence, and it lies where the nontrue admits of nothing essential.

As part of a plan drawn by nostalgia and anxiety, I have been re-reading a few chosen books, wondering how might they re-present themselves to me after years of superficial memory and neglect. I have written about one I read in May. In June I re-read Blanchot's The Space of Literature (as translated by Ann Smock).

The first few pages of the second felt like a chore blocking the discovery of new books – haven't I read this enough? – but I was soon reading each chapter as if it was I was returning home after decades of wandering. What I write now will be an attempt to understand and explain this reaction so won't be a comprehensive summary. The italics are quotations.

The first thing to say is that 'criticism' isn't the right word for The Space of Literature, and, despite the many philosophical terms, allusions and adoptions, most notably from Heidegger, 'philosophy' isn't either. What sets Blanchot apart from any definable genre is that his writing exposes itself to its own analysis, or, rather, the analysis exposes itself to writing lacking such a possessive pronoun.

The opening chapter asserts the 'solitude' of the written work: To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself. The work is even separate from the book, which we might see as a vessel borne on the surface of a submarine current: Writing is the interminable, the incessant. This means that the space of the title is not a privileged realm for a few "great writers"; it does not have borders or features with rules to be learned but is at a remove from such power. Mallarmé felt the very disquieting symptoms caused by the sole act of writing.
Blanchot cites Kafka's comment that he has entered literature when he replaces 'I' with 'He', but adds that this metamorphosis is more profound: In doing this, the writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. Mastery over words puts the writer in contact with a fundamental passivity that cannot be grasped: To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking. Instead, in a stirring paradox, mastery consists in the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written. This a curious formulation. When we admire the tone of a particular writer, he says, it is not the writer's voice we admire but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on the word. He compares this to classicism in which the calm of the regular form guarantees a language free from idiosyncrasy, where impersonal generality speaks and secures the writer a relation with truth. But such calm requires the stability of an aristocratic society in which a part of society concentrates the whole within itself by isolating itself well above what sustains it. We might say that genre fiction is an aristocratic form.

Blanchot's preface to The Space of Literature

The imposition of silence is necessary because writing is an exposure to an outside – what might have been called the divine, the sublime or the infinite, and which Blanchot refers to the other night or the other of all worlds. And it is in incantatory prose and such hyperbolic phrases, otherwise unthinkable in literary criticism, that exposes us to how strange literature is in itself. Once you become accustomed to what at first appears as anachronistic and even absurd (certainly to English eyes – I remember a friend giggling as he read the opening pages), you might also recognise such excess defines us as human: in excess of body, in excess of world, akin to the internal perspective of language that Noam Chomsky has described and the excess of consciousness Mallarmé called this drop of nothingness. And if we are drawn to poetry and to the poets Blanchot writes about, it is their strange excess that sets their work apart and deserves to be addressed without being neutralised within the stability of a regular form. This is also why The Space of Literature appeared so vital to me upon re-reading; it does not stand aside from its subject.

The risk taken by such prose is in stark contrast to scholarly method that corrals prose into pens of reason isolated from the distress of the infinite. While it resists the temptations of fascination, which is necessary for its purpose, it does not assume the guarantees it expects. As Blanchot writes in a later book:
Reason … does not begin in the light of an evidency by which it would seize itself, but rather in an obscurity that itself is not manifest and whose discovery, seizure, and affirmation alone put thought to work, causing it to find and to extend its own light.
Blanchot turns the light off to reveal such obscurity. In a disconcerting move, reaffirming the unaccountability of literary space, he rejects the familiar priority of real-world over literature in which artistic activity is often portrayed as unrealistic, escapist and even in denial of the world, gaining acceptance only if it submits to the superiority of the physical world. For Blanchot, while the artist often seems a weak being who cringes within the closed sphere of his work where...he can take revenge for his failures in society, it is instead the artist who is exposed to the greatest threat: the loss of self and world in the space of literature:
It is then that Rimbaud flees into the desert from the responsibilities of the poetic decision. He buries his imagination and his glory. He says "adieu" to "the impossible" in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci does and almost in the same terms. He does not come back to the world; he takes refuge in it; and bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgetfulness.
In later life, Rimbaud is said to have denounced his past work, refusing any further mention of it, which, for Blanchot, "shows the terror which he still felt and the force of the upheaval which he could not undergo to the limit. He is reproached with having sold out and deserted, but the reproach is easy for those who have not run the risk". The bottomless abyss belongs to art.

So much for escapism.

Re-reading The Space of Literature has reminded me why so much fiction leaves me confused by indifference and why criticism and reviewing often seems beside the point. While a novel's subject matter might be powerful and important, its story compelling, the prose style especially seductive and its sentences beautifully formed, such wealth often seems beside the point. The same goes for its social and political relevance, for a survey of its formal structures and for revelations provided by psychological analysis. They might seem very insightful and pressing, but essentially beside the point, which is itself unlocatable. But what other reasons can there be for reading a novel?

Blanchot recognises how such a question is ironed out in book culture, with the general reader who makes a livelihood in a world where the clear daytime truth is a necessity [and] believes that the work holds the moment of truth within it constantly translating the work into ordinary language, effective formulae, useful values while, on the other hand, the dilettante and the critic devote themselves to the 'beauties' of the work, to its aesthetic value. Everyone, it seems, is happy. And with the advent of the internet, these groups have become indistinguishable. Witness the routine use of the word 'experimental' to champion, mitigate or patronise anything that doesn't quite meet either process, without any question of what 'experimental' might mean in in the first place.

To give an idea, Blanchot returns instead to the experience of writing before any of these ideas come into play. If the writer is devoted to the work, they are drawn by it toward the point where it undergoes impossibility. That is, when writing empties itself of the world and appears to writer as empty, without value. It is an experience Blanchot calls the very experience of night:
In the night, everything has disappeared. This is the first night. Here absence approaches – silence, repose, night. Here ... the sleeper does not know he sleeps, and he who dies goes to meet real dying. Here language completes and fulfills itself in the silent profundity which vouches for it as its meaning.
This is not a negative however, as it is where craft and determination gets the writer through the night in order to produce books. We can recognise how night maintains itself in the popularity of, for example, Horror or Gothic fantasy, in which we are exposed to the darkness in human life and to the black-hole of a non-human world. Except, we all know it is only the thrill of a fairground ghost train. It is in this context that Blanchot divides night in two: When everything has disappeared in the night, 'everything has disappeared' appears. This is the other night.
We enter into the night and we rest there, sleeping and dying. But the other night does not welcome, does not open. In it one is still outside. It does not close either; it is not the great Castle, near but unapproachable, impenetrable because the door is guarded. Night is inaccessible because to have access to it is to accede to the outside, to remain outside the night and to lose forever the possibility of emerging from it.
Blanchot's essay on Beckett's trilogy is the most famous expression of this condition. Not even the best creative writing course can help. This might be why indifference stands before me and devouring novel after novel. Many might be impressively wrested from night but they are also recognisably resistant to the other; even the latest 'experimental' hit reaches for the same gifts of silent profundity. Despite this, I am still drawn to novels, many of which are not in the least avant garde, as my enthusiasm for In a Hotel Garden demonstrates. So what is going on there; have I fallen for sentimentality? My response would be that this also shows how novels might dwell in what Blanchot calls the torn intimacy of an alliance between the activity of book making and the passivity of writing, as the characters seek to bring to life what haunts them and yet do so only in the dissimulation of speech and stories. And not only the characters.

It is for this reason I am drawn to what is often called metafiction and invariably disparaged as writing about writing, which might still be a turning away from the world, yet only in search of an origin, for what haunts writing. Blanchot offers a genealogy of what has passed in literature:
The work was once the language of the gods, their absence’s speech; subsequently it was the just, the balanced language of men, and then the language of men in their diversity. Then again it was the language of disinherited men, of those who do not speak. And then it was the language of what does not speak in men, of the secret, of despair or ravishment.
What, he asks, does such a list tell us? Only this: that art is constantly invisible to us. What is invisible demands to be seen, and if this suggests a demand separate from literary criticism, it is entirely in keeping with our times, in which origins are strictly taboo. What is left now for the work to say? What has always eluded its language? Blanchot asks. Seventy years after its publication, the answer and challenge proposed by The Space of Literature remains: Itself.


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