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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Nothing doing:
Maurice Blanchot and the irreal

by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, PhD

Reading does nothing and everything is accomplished.

Reading, for Maurice Blanchot, is an “obscure and tormented quest,” one that we can say with absolute certainty will never be fulfilled, will always be on the move until we stop breathing and even beyond, for it—this enigmatic neutral pronoun—cares not a whit about any of us, whether it be our lives or our deaths. It demands everything of us and offers us nothing in return, precisely nothing: as if nothing could be said to be open to the language of the most rigorous exactitude. To rush ahead—and impatience, according to Blanchot, is the gravest, albeit necessary, error—is  what we might call literature itself: the precise articulation of nothing. How, then, do we respond to the obscurity, the torment? With obedience, servitude, freedom, agony, and delight: we enter, reading, the space of the irreal.

Here in this dimension of spooky entanglements and phantoms, the “we" becomes a name for this moment of a determination that, like all determinations, is provisional in the extreme. We exist as that which barely exists, which has almost vanished. T.S. Eliot, in the Four Quartets, claims that we are “Caught in the form of limitation/Between un-being and being/Sudden in a shaft of sunlight/Even while the dust moves…” (181) and Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, gives us those famous lines about human beings being the “most fleeting” of all beings. We are, we might say, a swirl of singularizing marks that simultaneously emerge-vanish in a movement—if it is a movement—for which Blanchot almost creates a language. We are each an essay that is experiencing itself as its own experiment. Whether or not we are with or without qualities, and what those qualities might be, remains to be seen.

One way to determine our situation is to say that we are all being-virtualized, remade into quantum clouds blowing across the universe in all directions at once and yet remaining enigmatically connected. There is no concept in which this phantasmagoria, this manifold, can be contained as a proposition or a definition. Historically, if that’s the word, this dissolution is easy to understand since we are in the midst of the violence of technocapitalism’s cyclotron as it nanotechnologizes, geneticizes, and trademarks the human body and social orders into modular parts that can be (re)assembled in any locale that supports a sufficiently dense network of technical apparatus, including the human—if only barely and not for long—supervisors of knowledge.

Literature, in the usual way we use this term, is essentially interwoven into this history of the world, and we can therefore have the history, criticism, and sociology of literature; we can continue to work on behalf of the clarifying light of the rational understanding. We can live inside and along the edges of what Blanchot, in the utmost simplicity, calls the “day.” Blanchot himself, however, is not much interested in these social formations of the world of daylight with all of its associations from the traditions of myth, religion, philosophy, or literature. He is, rather, a man of the night, a man of the other night that does not give way to the daylight. And this night—echoing as it does impossibility, death, language, poetry, and all other forms of negation—gives us precisely nothing. It is precisely this impotence of the nothing, its lack of will, power, or goal, that so obsesses Blanchot as it transforms itself into an essential affirmation, into the “yes” of reading and writing.

I will, to briefly articulate the nothing, trace a short thread through The Space of Literature, Blanchot’s collection of essays whose self-proclaimed center is the perturbation of language that he calls the “gaze of Orpheus,” turning back, as it does, to look upon disappearance, as if this phrase and all of its many analogues in Blanchot makes any sense at all. I will begin by mimicking other strategies of reading familiar to us all, with a footnote in the short section entitled “Writing.” In note 3, Blanchot lays out his question about language as image:

So we must express what we are seeking differently: in literature, doesn’t language itself become altogether an image? We do not mean a language containing images or one that cast reality in figures, but one which is its own image, an image of language (and not a figurative language), or yet again, an imaginary language, one which no one speaks; a language that is, which issues from its own absence, the way the image emerges on the absence of the thing; a language addressing itself to the shadow of events as well, not to their reality, and this because of the fact that the words which express them are, not signs, but images, images of words, and words where things turn into images. (34)

He admits that this statement leads us perilously close to the “happily abandoned” traditional concepts of metaphysics in which speech or perception is followed by imagination in the familiar sequence of before and after that marks our usual understanding of temporality and he then directs us, for clarification of this question, to the appendix called “The Two Versions of the Imaginary.

It is, of course, tempting to leap directly to that appendix so that we could understand Blanchot’s use of the word “image” and then rock back on our heels in contentment. His writing, fortunately, will not allow such a move, at least not at the end of our reading of him, and I prefer to wander more casually around in the space of literature before we reach its end. I prefer to take a small step backward and to remain, though not for long and only for the merest wisp of a moment, in “Writing.” Blanchot asserts that:

To write is to enter the affirmation of the solitude in which fascination threatens…to write is to let fascination rule language…where the image, instead of alluding to some particular feature, becomes an allusion to the featureless…the opaque, empty opening onto that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet. (33)

Doesn’t this nonsense bore you? Exhaust you? Make you secretly sneer at the dull repetitions that sound profound, but are, in point of hard cold fact, ridiculous in their arrogant presumptuousness and their utter vacuity?

This is precisely the opposite of “fascination,” isn’t it? To write, he says, is to let fascination rule language. Perhaps we will come more clearly to understand this space in which that nothing that is writing occurs; perhaps it is not comprehensible in any way at all and we will simply bow our heads and enter the space of madness. There are great forebears who have taken this path, and, indeed perhaps this has already occurred at the instant any of us starts writing. The obsession of the writer as s/he moves the pencil, the pen, or the curser across the page or across the screen, requires that s/he “always come back to the same point, pass again over the same paths, persevere in starting over what for him never starts, and that [s/]he belong to the shadow of events, not their reality, to the image, not the object, to what allows words themselves to become images, appearances—not signs, values, the power of truth” (24).

There is, then, a power that enables word to become image, an appearance of appearance, but this is not the “positive” power of what Blanchot calls “history” at work in the world that builds communication, ethics in the normal and normative sense of a moral code against which we might measure ourselves, or the truth that works to erect bridges, bombs, or arguments that call on proofs to prove themselves either effective, useful, or correct. “Words,” he reminds us, “have the power to make things disappear, to make them appear as things that have vanished” (43). Presto: and the world vanishes.

Writing is not referential, does not mimic the world of objects, but is, rather, the sign of the disappearance of the world into that absolute and absolutely open secret we call “language.” Blanchot will speak of its “glistening,” its “sparkle,” its “fascination,” and it will lead toward traces, ghosts, phantoms, and the other midnight, the “dissimulation of being.” In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel—with whom Blanchot is in an infinite conversation—argues that the progression of the movement of the Aufhebung is not the simple, indeterminate nothingness of, say, classical skepticism. Instead, he writes:

The necessary progression and interconnection of the forms of unreal consciousness will by itself bring to pass the completion of the series…it is only when it is taken as the result of that from which it emerges, that it is in fact, the true result; in that case it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content. …a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself. (51)

Natural consciousness, then, turns violently upon itself, upon its own limits, and through its own self-transgression empties itself, re-forms itself in a movement of self-othering that nonetheless re-gathers its “past” as it surges toward the next stage of its own education.

And, as Hegel clarifies, “in every case the result of an untrue mode of knowledge must not be allowed to run away into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be grasped as the nothing of that from which it results—a result which contains what was true in the preceding knowledge” (56).  In other words, one way to read the dialectic is that it overcomes the anxiety of the “empty nothing” by replacing it with a “determinate nothing,” that strange residue of a prior Idea. What happens to the waste that is, as it were, left behind, cast away? Into what black hole does that detritus vanish, if it does?

Blanchot may be said to set up his workshop in the seam between the determinate and the indeterminate nothing, as if nothing could exhibit a trace of difference, a phosphorescence that distinguishes itself from itself even though there is no itself operative. It is here that the machinery of the dialectic simply, and forever, idles. It never gets into gear; it never produces history. It is useless and will never be put to use. It is, in a way, the directionless drift of the detritus that history—State, Metaphysics, Subject, Day—nonchalantly, if violently, casts away as it becomes the in-itself-for-itself of Absolute Knowledge. This (in)determinate nothing that Blanchot incessantly writes simply murmurs, saying nothing, nothing at all. And, yet, this idling neutrality is the possibility of all saying, and, therefore, an absolute but contentless affirmation of all determinations: yes-yes.

Language, particularly what Blanchot calls the “other night” or, more simply, “literature”—and we will have to inquire about what marks the difference between this and other usages of language, if there is one—is an experience of what I have been exploring in various contexts as the phantomenological, a logic in which the phenomena of phenomenality is both here and not-here, present only as a trace, a wisp in the wind of (non)being. Everything, that is, exists only as ghosts exist, and who cares, as Derrida reminds us, about whether they exist or not? There is, nonetheless, always the demand for justice, the demand for reading, that profoundly attentive listening to the spectral language of the uncanny. This is what Blanchot means by “writing,” about which he says that:

Writing begins only when it is the approach to that point where nothing reveals itself, where, at the heart of dissimulation, speaking is still the shadow of speech, a language which is still only its image, an imaginary language and a language of the imaginary, the one nobody speaks, the murmur of the incessant and interminable which one has to silence if one wants, at last, to be heard…The need to write is linked to the approach toward this point at which nothing can be done with words…the force of the writing impulse makes the world disappear. Then time loses its power of decision: nothing can really begin. (48, 52)

Nothing can be done; nothing can really begin; nothing reveals itself; nobody speaks this language of nothing, but every writer, without exception, exists at this very vanishing point at which “here coincides with nowhere” (47).

Blanchot, commenting on Rilke’s Malte, argues that “`Experience’ here means contact with being, renewal of oneself in this contact—an experiment, but one that remains undetermined” (87). The writer, as well as other artists, has nothing against which to measure herself, no pre-determined goal or set of protocols to accomplish, no sign of any guarantee of being an artist. There is nothing s/he must do and yet the absolute necessity is to undertake this doing of the nothing.

Continuing this line of thought, Blanchot notes that “art is experience because it is experimental: because it is a search—an investigation which is not undetermined but is, rather, determined by its indeterminancy…” (89). This brings us into close proximity at this point to the emergence of the essay as the experiment of experience that exemplifies literature. When the writer silences, for the moment of writing, the anonymous and incessant murmur of language, the undetermined—the purely open, the nothing—offers itself, because it is the open, to a determination as writing.

Writing dispossesses us of all certainty, all possible epistemologies of the real. “More precisely,” as Blanchot says of Mallarmé:

the greatest difficulty does not come from the pressure of beings, from what we call their reality, their persistent affirmation, whose action can never be altogether suspended. It is in unreality itself that the poet encounters the resistance of a muffled presence. It is unreality from which he cannot free himself; it in unreality that, disengaged from beings, he meets with the mystery of `those very words: it is.’(110)

This is “midnight…the absolute presence of this disappearance, its dark glistening.” This is the Orphic moment of turning, when disappearance becomes the poem.

Night is this apparition: ‘everything has disappeared.’…Apparitions, phantoms, and dreams are an allusion to this empty night…And this eeriness does not simply come from something invisible, which would reveal itself under cover of dark and at the shadows’ summons. Here the invisible is what one cannot cease to see; it is the incessant making itself seen. (112)

Such is literature. And the form of this experience, which strangely we must practice over and over again, is called not just “writing,” but also “reading,” which “requires knowledge endowed with an immense ignorance and a gift which is not given ahead of time, which has each time to be received and acquired in forgetfulness of it, and also lost” (192). And here Blanchot makes a gesture to differentiate “non-literary” from “literary” reading, though I do not think that this gesture stabilizes this distinction except in the moment of its assertion, as syntax. Literary reading, he states:

does not brace itself upon anything already present…The book, doubtless, is there, and not only its paper and ink reality but also its essence. It is there as a web of stable meanings, as the assertiveness which it owes to a pre-established language, and as the enclosure, too, formed around it by the community of all readers, among whom I, who have not read it, already have a place. And this enclosure is also that of all books which, like angels with intertwined wings, keep close watch over this unknown volume…The book is there, then, but the work is hidden. (194)

This sort of reading, however, does not result in new knowledge, nor in insight or truth, for it is “situated beyond or before comprehension.” Instead, reading is a “joyful welcome…an utterly happy and transparent consent” (196). And it is reading that carries us into the “brilliant apparition” of the irreal.

This is what remains of literature: a disappearing appearance, an appearing of disappearance, but this is not much, nothing, in fact, at all. It is pure poverty. Blanchot, I think, would like writing and reading to be the shimmering purity of nothingness, the contour of an empty form without content. But this is impossibility itself. As Rilke said in his own Orphic poems:

Mirrors: no one has ever known how
To describe what you are in your inmost realm.
As if filled with nothing but sieve-holes, you
Fathomless in-between spaces of time.  (II, 3)

Or, even more simply: “Ein Hauch um nichts” (I,3), a gust of nothing, of a god. It is a gust, and therefore the dialectics of the day are impossible though history, science, and the state continue, of course, to believe otherwise. It is only literature, itself passing, that reminds us of the glistening apparition of the yes of the night.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of   Nebraska Press, 1989.

Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc. 1970.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Rilke, R.M. Sonnets to Orpheus. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Simon & Schuster,  1985.


Gray Kochhar-Lindgren is serving as a 2009-10 Fulbright Scholar in General Education at the University of Hong Kong, where he is also Visiting Faculty in Comparative Literature and Philosophy. The author of Narcissus Transformed, Starting Time, and TechnoLogics, he is currently working on spectrality, global noir, urban epidemics, and the disquiet of reading. His essay, "A passion for waiting: Walter Benjamin in the cafés," appeared previously in irreal (re)views.

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