Blanchot: A Metapoetic View
[written with Charles Stein]
[Originally published in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader (Station Hill Press: 1999, ed. George Quasha) as Afterword: Publishing Blanchot in AmericaA Metapoetic View]
After two decades of publishing the writing of Maurice Blanchot, we find ourselves still standing at the threshold. Slowlyvery slowlywe may be learning the meanings of our own commitments. The decision to publish Blanchot has seemed at times fully conscious, perhaps willful, and yet curiously receptive, something unforeseeable, indeed inseparable from (our sense of) the nature of the work itself, its precarious adventure on the edge. In many ways publishing this most mysterious of writers is hardly different from reading him: one is always at the beginning of knowing what it is one is doing. This is not a matter of doubting the importancethe literary valueof the work; quite the contrary, we only grow more certain that this is work of the first order. To read it is to be changed by it-each time one reads it. It makes little difference in this regard whether one is reading the same book over again or an entirely new workthis unique reading, each time the first reading and each time the only reading (to quote Blanchot's Reading). This work challenges, alters, opens the meaning of reading itself, and therefore of publishing, proclaiming, defining
. In this way it stands with the great transformative works of any traditionwe might choose the Prophetic Books of William Blake as our exemplar herewhich are also beyond tradition, indeed, subversive of traditional force itself while carrying forward its vital current.
To see ourselves thus at the thresholdthe limenhas encouraged us these twenty years to discover a certain humility before a grand task, the presentation of work that chastens the very thinking it inspires, and indeed frustrates any form of aggrandizement. It has, frankly, taken us these two decades to discover how to read ita confession we may have to make yearly, and each decade, such is the textual vista one enjoys at its threshold. In short, to know this work as publisher/reader is to wish to serve it, appropriately. To perform the function of Guardians of the Portal of an authentic Mystery translates more simply as custodians of the doorat a minimum, offering unfettered access, keeping the door swinging open (it closes automatically and too easily). Our position at the limen earns us no special rights; and we are not specialists or advocates, certainly not scholars or critics, but, frankly, poets, readers, accepting the responsibility to maintain access. So we may be forgiven for advancing the prejudice of our perspectivea penchant for reporting the liminal. In celebrating two decades of publishing Blanchot with this combined edition, we wish to suggest that our angle of viewing may have a truth in it that coincides with something true about the work of Maurice Blanchotits threshold nature, its liminality. And this truth leaves uspublishers and readers alike-standing on the same verge, book in hand.
And a very large book it is. Of Station Hill's eight Blanchot books, it contains six complete and most of a seventh, in English translations here by Lydia Davis, Paul Auster and Robert Lamberton, all extraordinary writers in their own right. When we published the first book, Death Sentence, no one at the trade book level was publishing him and very few Americans were reading him in any depth. Although occasionally bookstores reported strong interestthe St. Marks Bookstore exulted over an avid cult following of Death Sentence on the Lower East Side of Manhattana Blanchot readership took its own time in developing. No small number have wondered with Geoffrey Hartman why it took so long to introduce him to the English-speaking world, particularly given Blanchot's enormous influence on the Continent, expressed in Hartman's extravagant claim in the 1981 Preface to The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays:
Certainly getting beyond limitations of taste, as well as many species of interpretation and deconstruction, is fundamental to an appropriately open reading of Blanchot. The more one reads him, the more evident is his impact on European writing and on the relatively small number of American writers sensitive to European discourse. Many wonder if such a writer could ever truly take root, so to speak, in the American literary terrain. Blanchot's work seems a far cry from concerns in the American grain (to borrow William Carlos Williams' defining phrase)and yet, the issue is by no means either simple or clear. No doubt his fortunes in American readership owe a lot to certain waves of current interest in the thought of Heidegger, Lévinas, Bataille, Derrida and a complex and elusive range of writers in one way or another sympathetic to the project of Deconstruction. In general Blanchot's readers owe an undeniable debt to this rich and endlessly problematic lineage, which is (necessarily) so uneasy with itself. It is of course mind-bendingly difficult to say anything in this matter that is neither simplistic nor reductive. Yet we are here writing from a viewpoint of American readership, itself unsettled, often at odds within its numerous and nuanced crosscurrents, and ever in the midst of a struggle between one or another brand of Protectionism and Free Trade advocacy. The question we wish to pose is, literary/philosophical politics aside, can we move toward a radically new view of a possible Blanchot specific to Americaa practice of writing/reading somehow in the American grain? Such a question might well be most useful left as a questioni.e., an invitation.
This is, after all, an American book. And that declaration is meant as an act of clearing in the spirit of generosity Blanchot indeed has urged us toward. More than one of his translators has gotten the message that the work they do in the name of translation is now their work. This freeing message also has a bite: the translator's responsibility to American reading. This is hardly a matter of trying to please anyone or meet a standard. What it has been a matter offor which we are gratefulis the exercise of native powers belonging to these particular writers, mysteriously appropriate to Blanchot's work, now somehow also their work, which has stood the test of time. For all the difficulties of meeting the astonishing range of resonance in the French textnotorious instances include reverberations of a word over many pages, such as oeuvre, unfolding its nuances and nuanced contrary, désoeuvrementthe simple truth is Blanchot reads in English.
Translated text of this order takes root in another native ground in many waysadoption into curricula, acceptance as literary classic by educated readers generally, influence on writers and artists
. Perhaps the most elusiveyet deepestkind of rooting is the further life a work receives through the work of other writers and artists. This is hard to track, but when a work comes to further life by showing up inside a new work, its own direct power can be illuminated. For instance, a text like Thomas the Obscure freshly reappears, revealing certain uncharted dimensions, in the work of artist Gary Hill, particularly his veritable invocation of the récit (including the physical pages of the book) in the single-channel video Incidence of Catastrophe as well as in multimedia installations like Beacon (Two Versions of the Imaginary). This sui generis reading of Blanchot is but one instance of his incursion into North American arts, and certainly there is a complex trail to follow through poetry, fiction and a range of discursive modalities.
Yet there are deeper issues not fully embraced in thinking about transplantation of a work or the related matter of its influence. Amongst the many ports of entry into Blanchot's work, perhaps most important for us, from an American perspective, has been a gradually emerging sense of his contribution to what one might call the possibility of writing beyondthat is, writing that goes beyond models, genres, contexts, and any limiting concept of what writing is. It is not entirely satisfying to assign such an issue to a conventional intellectual domain, although the closest is perhaps poetics in the broadest sense; yet, in the interest of granting inquiry a further scope and scale, we resort to a notional innovation under the name metapoetics, the principles by which writing is beyond itself, the practice of the unknown, the poetics of (im)possibility. (We retain in meta- the double root of beyond and middle, the poetics of what goes beyond and yet is always in the very middle.) We are thinking here of a characteristic operative principle in the innermost workings of the Blanchot text that bears a deep (but not necessarily a surface) kinship with innovative American writing-especially poetry and especially of the second half of this century. This is a matter of the greatest importance and difficulty, concerning the very transformative force at the center of writing itself. Blanchot's own invocation of this transformative force is embedded in specific contexts and subtle processes of distinction. To attempt here to characterize (and inevitably simplify) this operative principle is of course to risk reducing it to literary method, procedure, technique, or style or to overstate one aspect of this complex writer, when what one wishes is to attend the imageless vision at the heart of an infinite conversation.
Our experience of American poetry over the past few decadesthe necessary context of our observations herehas pointed us toward a metapoetic possibility in the limitless ways that poetry redefines itselfredefines, that is, language, the very possibility of language, and everything that we reflexively know and are through language, with the implication that being itself is at stake. Within this metapoetic view, poetry's tendency toward radical self-redefinition can be tracked in any number of ways, yet in some essential sense these ways lead back to something like a root poetic impulse, showing up in the way a poem turns upon its occasion. This meaning of verse says that in its specific turning a poem performs most essentially what it is.
Among the many sources of inspiration for this view is the poet Charles Olson, not only his famous poetic principle of projective verse or composition by field, with its call for energetic integrity in writing, but his special use of the eighth century Chinese alchemical text translated as The Secret of the Golden Flower: That which exists through itself is what is called Meaning. For Olson this is a fundamental principle of poetics. Accordingly, we might say that a poem is a meaningful projection of a certain force turning upon its occasion, wherein it exists through itself. The emphasis is on an always immediate/mediate self-defining torsion, a middle zone that is instantly yet radically (in-standingly yet rootedly) open, the instance of itself beyond any particular definition of itself. It is as though a vertical axis moves within any point instance of the text and any moment of true reading. The turning upon the occasiona self-composing field linked, for Olson, with a projection through and to an actual environment, moving energetically toward the readeris a turning upon an invisible axis in the poem, in language at its most intensely alive.
This sense of axiality, as the principle of certain texts that remain radically open, can be illuminating to consider in relation to the works of a range of American poets and, to an impressive degree, to Blanchot's work from Thomas the Obscure on. Axiality, in our view, is at work in the unfolding of texts that might not otherwise seem relatedat work, that is, from the perspective of the text's emergence, the experience of its reader, or the internal dynamics of the text itself. Metapoetically, the axial implicitly involves the granting of a certain permission and the acceptance of a certain responsibility to allow each event of language or step in thought to reconfigure the work at large, even as it takes its place within it. The thinker/poet/writer allows himself to be startled, pause, and respond to the not yet drawn-out significance of the very thought he has just articulated. Axiality is metapoetically instrumental in transgressing established, time-honored boundaries, including not only the boundaries of poetic conventions, genres (poetry, fiction, philosophical discourse) or even the concrete poetics of a specific work, but the very distinction between writer and reader. In a work of high axial intensity, reader, in some measure, metamorphoses into poet, faced with orientational choice at any moment, required to define and declare the very context of choice. The identities of writer/reader/text have become liminal to each other. The poet/reader's journey is direct but never straight, called again and again to turn on a dime as a condition of moving forward.
The force of the axial is to drive reading into the open center of attention, into the intensive presentness of itself, as if the text, through being read, were present to itself, facing (into, back around to) itself, in touch with something as enigmatic and as raw as its own source. The axial destabilizes thinking, disorients it, but in such a way as to bring attention to thinking as the process of orientation itself, which allows it to become self-orienting. One reads it with the whole of one's living awareness, including the body, as if what one sees is on a verge, precarious, never separate from its own falling, one's own falling. The axial embodies the instant reversibility of anything thinkable, and when a space of stillness awakens in the axial moment like the eye of the storm, it is the storm that sees, as a reader, the possibility of reading, the space of liminality. This seeing is reorientinga radial orientation, extending in all textual directions at once, so that through the axial the text, possible language, is continually revisioned. In an intensely axial momentof proprioceptive disorientationthe whole of a text undergoes reorientation, as does the body of the writer's work at large and, indeed, the entire scope of its intentionality.
In one of the episodes of Thomas the Obscure, the relationship of reader to text literally inverts: text reads reader. Under the pressure of a liminality that binds reader to what he reads, Thomas' reading psyche mutates until it begins to manifest the enigmatic properties that it finds in the book he is readinglike a language with no bottom, rooted in the absolute, a spontaneous cabala opening in the words on the page intensively read. The strange reciprocity brought on by entrainment to the Othersomething like Blake's central vision of involuntary entrainment in which we become what we beholdis carried in Thomas to a transmogrifying extreme worthy of Blake himself. Thomas lost in the outside void that is infinitely deep inside the word, a kind of demonic encounter, is also like Blake's evocation of self-loss in non-entity (There is a Void, outside of existence, which if entered into/Englobes itself & becomes a Womb, such was Albion's Couch
). Thomas the reader, on the verge and beyond, is one possible result of an encounter with the liminal.
So an axial art is an art of torsion and pause, of self-interruption, a site of catastrophe. In the space of pause there is turbulence at the center of which is attentive stillness, an axis of attention, evoked by T.S. Eliot as the still point of the turning world (Four Quartets). When reading/awareness turning upon that center (the experience may be turmoil or dizzying momentum or something quite unknown) turns back to itself, it may induce a still point within reading in which the nature of reading is radically available to itself, open beyond characterization. Here is Blanchot's sense of the axial in Literature and the Right to Death, a defining moment for his own work and for that of a great many others. Blanchot refers to
The sense of ultimate vicissitude [that] keeps the work in suspense could point to Keats' Negative Capability or the terrifying openness wrought by poetic torsion in Blake's prophetic books . Charles Olson's Projective Verse and his own Maximus Poems or Robert Duncan's Passages display this axial turning, this pivoting about in place, where the force of one's own emergent utterance strikes one as it appears. And for the reader of Blanchot, the expression of the movement of thought itself one's own thought, or the text'soften shimmers with an energy born of the mind's alertness and capacity to be conditioned by its own act. Blanchot speculates on the sources of this energy as perhaps deriving from a deeply situated property of language itself:
Could it be that the meaning of a word introduces something else into the word along with it, something which, although it protects the precise signification of the word and does not threaten that signification, is capable of completely modifying the meaning and modifying the material value of the word? Could there be a force at once friendly and hostile hidden in the intimacy of speech, a weapon intended to build and to destroy, which would act behind signification rather than upon signification? Do we have to suppose a meaning for the meaning of words that, while determining that meaning, also surrounds this determination with an ambiguous indeterminacy that wavers between yes and no? [Emphasis added.]
What is the nature of the (re)orientation the axial makes possible? This all-important question is also ultimately difficult, and we must stretch our language to account for it. The potential for axial reorientation is intrinsic to any given text, as it particularly exists through itself, and thus the sense of reorientation is unique to each instance. Its realization, furthermore, is animated (Blanchot's word) through an actual reading. Orientation-in the axial sense always reorientation-implies a certain way of reading, a reading open to the axial, and, speculatively, we would need a poetics of reading that might then define something like reading by field. For orienting does occur in an activated field, larger than the text, and so it is also, and simultaneously, somehow outside the text. Yet this outside remains within the context that is the text in its virtual field, its power to reverberate outward. It is as though the torsional force draws its orientational power up from an undertime, a time that is always already not time, a still point waiting to (not) happen.
A poetics of reading would help us inquire into the consequences of axiality, including how it initiates us into other ways of reading, how, indeed, Blanchot changes reading. The way Blanchot's text instructs in reading is quite different from the way Robert Duncan's or John Cage's instructs, yet the transformations of any one of them may initiate us into the transformational reading that goes beyond all models. At the heart of such reading is always somehow the issue of orientation. In passing through a certain passage we may feel we see anew, as if reading refocuses us, like opening eyes in the back of our head or in our ears. John Cage has spoken of a necessary unfocus. Axial orientation awakens a state of liminal attention or awareness in liminality-an ambiguous indeterminacy that wavers between yes and no. Another name for the space of literature-l'espace littéraire-may indeed be liminality, a space that calls a reader beyond ordinary orientation-the bilateral, the binary, the dual-and towards radical orientation-the radial, the plural, the mediate. Does liminal orientation-wherein the identity of what is being oriented is, through reading, brought into question-imply another thinking peculiar to liminal space? An awkward question gesturing towards a poetics of thinking.
The standing of Blanchot's work is liminal to all the likely categories. Obviously he has all along favored writers whose works challenge inherited domains-Lautréamont, Sade, Artaud, Kafka, Bataille. And for the most part his lineage of thinkers consists preeminently of those for whom poetics is somehow at the heart of thinking-Nietzsche, Heidegger. He shares with the latter a discovery of thinking through the reading of poets whose work embodies ontological orientation-Hölderlin, Rilke. Blanchot's reading of these poets displays a transformation within reading. This reading is not other than his thinking. At its most relentlessly rigorous this thinking eludes paraphrase and summation, as though serious engagement with thinking recalls one all the way to the torsional matrix of its questions. To say to oneself what it is Blanchot thinks on a certain point, one must always return to a site in language and work one's way outward. Recalling a certain thought calls up the trace of something as particular as the climate of a place, the weather of a particular day, an element of the time of the saying, as though thought turned upon its occasion . To think the thought one has to get situated in it.
In Blanchot the poetics overtakes the thinking. This is not the same thing as taking it over, which would imply that somehow thinking is given up in favor of poetry. Obviously this is not so. Rather, an essential poetics, an axiality, may be said to wed thinking so as to carry it beyond itself. Among the permissions of the axial are the disjunctive, the paratactic and the fragmentary, which allow a complete movement of thought, small or large, to stand both alone and beside a next thought, each freely turning upon its occasion and at its own non-cumulative rate. There is a silence, a zero point in the voice of thought, on either side. And in place of a totalizing progression, there is a frequent return to beginnings and endings, a rhythm of gaps, silences, spaces, and still points, each moment a withdrawal from time and a return to undertime. A pulsation of emptiness/emergence-of begin here, begin now-replaces both rhythmic and logical expectation. The impulse toward totalization and system-building is frustrated by the sheer freshness of discursive arising. In the history of the intentional fragmentary, power is reabsorbed in the originary state of utterance. Pascal, Nietzsche, Blanchot.
In the mysterious dialogue of the ontological recital, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, the axial shows up not only in the fragmentary narrative-the identities of the speaker and his companion, including the latter's reality status, are richly and ambiguously woven in the telling-but also in the musical force of thinking that manifests in its verbal reverberations. Key words (companion, writing, work, etc.) and phrases (reflect on it) appear, mutate and thread through fields of thought-thinking fields, as it were, in which the thinking is twistingly ambi-valent as to its agency and location and seems to embody a radial process of orientation. Questions, speculations, and a range of tentative verbal gestures spread out in radiant ecologies of attention and thoughtful definition. As in Blake's later Prophetic books, the text is relentless-no rest, no resolution, no reduction to subjectivity, and no transcendence in any repeatable or referentially constant sense. Holes in the historical, the social, and the psychological are mirrored in time-warps in the syntactical. Here as elsewhere in both the fiction and discourse, it is the field that thinks and speaks. Reading entrains to the state of the field, as if meaning is what rises up from beneath the text and between the words, sentences and thoughts that hold attention. This attention is provisional, only held until the axial moment cuts it loose and returns it to the field in another state of receptivity. In these ontological tellings, the poetics of reading and of thinking become a single discipline.
When the field of reading is thus aroused, it becomes a very particular energy construct at work behind signification, overriding genre and other categorical distinctions. For instance, Blanchot's way of axially/musically reverberating key words in the récit, mentioned above, is linked to a processual opening of, as it were, concept words employed in rigorous thinking. For the most part these are really ordinary words seeming to do the big work of philosophical terminology by slowly, continuously gathering (working) and dispelling (unworking) a charge. The word becomes a torsional matrix of meanings that unfold from the incessant, recurrent (un)work. The integrity of the continuous opening of the word inside writing retains it outside the language-space wherein affirmation and negation reside. These-what to call them?-dissipative words, mind-degradable terms?-include, for example, death, space, and literature in the works presented here and in, especially, The Space of Literature , but also patience, waiting, attention, passivity, and others that become fully thematical in works such as The Writing of Disaster . In each case a signifier puts before us a signification that stands outside the ordinary meaning paired with a contrary; thus, death as organic termination of life becomes an impossibility, while death as dying characterizes all life; literature no longer contrasts with mere writing and arches beyond any valorized sense of cultural production; patience is not exclusive of impatience; passivity may be operative within both passivity and action; waiting is not waiting for anything; and attention exceeds what attention pays attention to. These transcendent terms recall, in their relationless relation to the ordinary words that they both ruin and extend, expressions from negative theologies and mystical or esoteric studies that similarly attempt to express what the oppositions of ordinary language render ineffable: the Unground of Meister Eckhart, the Gateless Gate of Zen Buddhism, the rootless root of Dzogchen , and so forth.
Blanchot has devoted many careful studies to writers on mystical, theological, and theophanic topics, and a fair reading of them will show him by no means unsympathetic and, even, as he says in relation to Simone Weil, a friend of the work. Beyond this direct interest, the récits sometimes deliver dramatic and phenomenologically vivid narrations of initiatic journeys (the first two chapters of Thomas the Obscure), epiphanies of timeless states (When the Time Comes), returns from the dead (Death Sentence), and reports of detachment and ecstasy (The Madness of the Day). It would be strange not to inquire into the relation between these persistent, explicit concerns and the esoteric teachings which they so strikingly parallel, indeed offering so many astonishing insights.
An occult reading of Blanchot is undeniably possible, even impossible to deny, and, indeed, despite the probability that it would not be taken seriously by most current students of Blanchot, it is probably inevitable, given the sense of Mystery that pervades the récits. Yet to see Blanchot in such texts as liminal to the esoteric in fact deepens the free space of the work and allows it what is certainly one of its unexplored truths-that it is more mysterious than the Occult, because it remains free of that defining context while retaining the spirit of inquiry of serious esoteric writing.
Of course much of Blanchot's writing takes pains to distance itself from any suggestion of affinity with practices of, say, mystical fusion, favoring, in this regard, the thought of Emmanuel Lévinas and Franz Rosenzweig, which sees in the difficult distance of prosaic conversation (as opposed to poetic rapture or any form of communion) the possibility of ethical life. Yet often Blanchot's writing is uncommonly sensitive to the nuances of awareness and altered states and seems to articulate, with a precision rarely equaled by mystical thinkers themselves, the very heart of the mystical. Consider this passage from Blanchot's piece on Simone Weil:
Attention is waiting: not the effort, the tension, or the mobilization of knowledge around something with which one might concern oneself. Attention waits. It waits without precipitation, leaving empty what is empty and keeping our haste, our impatient desire, and, even more, our horror of emptiness from prematurely filling it up. Attention is the emptiness of thought oriented by a gentle force and maintained in an accord with the empty intimacy of time.
Attention is impersonal. It is not the self that is attentive in attention; rather, with an extreme delicacy and through insensible, constant contacts, attention has always already detached me from myself, freeing me for the attention that I for an instant become .
Attention, emptiness, and detachment-familiar concerns, of course, in the nuanced philosophical texts of Mahayana Buddhism, and it might not be difficult to convince even the most sophisticated practitioner of Buddhist meditation that the above text offered commentary on the Teachings . It renders articulate the most intimate reaches of both compassional and contemplative experience, territories that Blanchot knows must be shielded, through a kind of reserve, from the necessary violence of speech, and yet, because the emptiness here is precisely that of a thinking, there is a demand that language, also with gentle force and in accord with the empty intimacy of time, not abandon its role.
Whether in the literature of esotericism or in the work of Blanchot, what stands outside the totality of speech still submits to a kind of unknowing knowing-as if mind and language were destined to provide an intimacy with their own outside. It's an uncanny intimacy without fusion, enigmatically made possible by the very distance that keeps that outside apart. This same enigma, Blanchot will tell us, resides at the origin of language itself.
In the West, the Gnostic writings of the early Christian centuries, quickly declared heretical for (we conjecture) little more than the radical independence and pluck of their textuality, offers a body of thought that curiously twins that of Blanchot-an intimacy with the most distant, bearing witness to a knowing that destroys the knowledge sustaining all worldly power. We have found no discussion of Gnosticism in Blanchot, but Thomas the Obscure has long seemed to us to echo in some impossible way The Gospel of Thomas: These are the obscure words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Jude Thomas wrote down. Is there a secret affinity held in reserve? A source of secret wonder and ecstasy under the mad transformations of Thomas the Obscure, an undisclosed concern belonging to the hand that does not write, whose right to intervene governs not the content and not the style but the very tonality and resonance, the rhythmus and the undertime of the writing? Is it neurosis, psychosis, or something between unknown and profoundly known, a lognosis? Can we not say of Blanchot's work what he writes of Heraclitus', that it delivers
a language that speaks through enigma, the enigmatic Difference, but without complacency and without appeasing it: on the contrary, making it speak, and, even before it be word, already declaring it as logos, that highly singular name in which is reserved the nonspeaking origin of that which summons to speech and at its highest level, there where everything is silence, neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign.
George Quasha and Charles Stein
Barrytown, New York