Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blanchot and Kafka

We are dead while we are alive, we are essentially survivors. So death ends our life, but it does not end our possibility of dying; it is as real as an end to life and illusory as an end to death” –Blanchot, “Reading Kafka,”(pg 8).

Gerald Bruns, in Maurice Blanchot: Refusal of Philosophy, that for Blanchot, “death and art exert a fascination because they inscribe the limits of being human, or rather they beckon or draw us to these limits and only by forsaking ourselves can we respond” (68). For Blanchot, writing seems to be an “inhuman” act. As Bruns points out, writing is “a space without a world” or a space without a place. It seems contrary to the thought of someone like Heidegger, who maintains that it is through language that man creates world. Writing in Blanchot’s analysis is different from this use of language, the ‘everday’ language that creates a meaningful world. Instead, as Bruns points out, writing “preserves the anonyminity of words and things, which is to say their density or thickness with the il y a” (Bruns 61). As Blanchot puts it in “Literature and the Right to Death,” “My hope lies in the materiality of language, in the fact that words are things [. . .] a name ceases to be the ephemeral passing of nonexistence and becomes a concrete ball, a solid mass of existence” (383). This is the point at which language becomes senseless or meaningless. Language becomes resistance to sense. Language/writing is not altogether human, it is not ‘ours’, it seems that it is not “the house of being” of man’s dwelling.

The status of writing in Blanchot is incredibly difficult to parse out as each sentence in “Literature and the Right to Death,” shines (or perhaps shadows) with original thinking. So I will leave that task to (hopefully) some close read in class. I think that we should focus on how Blanchot, in a way, empties out (auto)biography. What I mean by this, is that Blanchot’s reading of Kafka, although he focuses primarily on the Letters and the Diary never seem to slip into a kind of pathos for Kafka the man. Blanchot skillfully refuses to “humanize” Kafka, even in readings of his most intimate moments. This is what, according to Blanchot, Brod does with disasterous results: “Brod seems to have yielded to a more intimate temptation, that of living off the life of the central hero, of bringhim himself closer to him, also of bringing him closer to us, to the life of this time, by humanizing him” (Blanchot 244). Ironically, it is through the addition of “the pathos and of humanity” that Brod erases everything about the story that makes it so moving (Blanchot 247). This is what is so powerful about Blanchot’s readings of Kafka—the refusal to make him “human,” the refusal to speak about his “life” as if we could ever understood who Kafka “was”.

Instead, Blanchot takes as his theme the very thing that Kafka wrote about: writing. Even when, in “The Very Last Word,” he discusses Kafka’s relationships, it is always with respect to how writing played a role. Writing, as a mediation, as a technology, refuses the comforts of the words “author,” “creator,” “genius,” “inspiration,” whatever. Writing is also not representation. Indeed, Blanchot seems to show a kind of iconoclasm. In regard to K.’s quest(ion) in The Castle Blanchot writes, “No, for all of this is but image, emptiness, the unhappiness of the imaginary, loathsome phantasms born of the loss of self and all authentic reality” (Blanchot 250). At times, it seems that Kafka mirrors Derrida’s Rousseau in Of Grammatology, as Kafka seems to feel writing is a guilty, almost sexual pleasure: “[Writing} is  vanity and concupiscence that ceaselessly circle around my person or around an unknown person and derive pleasure from it” (Kafka qtd. in Blanchot 259). Writing remains a supplement to actual pleasure and union gained from sexual intercourse, or, even the pleasures of actually living. Blanchot writes, “the writer is afraid of dying because he has not yet lived” (260). To put it in terms of his relationships with women, writing cannot be possessed (just as Felice cannot be possessed). Kafka seems to desire some real, unmediated connection as he begins to distrust writing (although, ironically, this is all he can do now that he has lost his voice): “I am perfectly willing to share my heart with men but not with the specters that play with words and read letters, tongues hanging out” (Kafka qtd. in Blanchot 262). Why does he come to distrust writing? Blanchot suggests at the end of “The Last Word,” that is because it seems that what Kafka “plays at” will really happen—that somehow his fiction becomes his reality. This recalls Blanchot’s understanding of literature as that which “plays at working in the world” (Blanchot, “Literature,” 395).

Another way to understand Kafka’s horror at writing is it’s immortalizing power. We tend to think of immortality as this powerful and comforting thing, but for Blanchot, it is this very possibility that we may not be able to die, “the impossibility of dying” that is the horror of existence. This kind of horror of existence recalls the work of Samuel Beckett, as Bruns points out. I find in this both a “mundane” (worldly) truth and an ontological profundity. The mundane truth is that by writing and by entrusting his writing to Max Brod, Kafka has ensured,  in a way, that he can never “die” because people will continually be re-interpreting and making meaning out of his work, which is always a (mis)reading of the work. But beyond that, we have here a different problem from Heidegger’s, when he argues that the ontological structure of Dasein is in care. This is (one of) Levinas’ critique of Heidegger: “Isn’t dread in the face of being—horror of being—just as primordial as dread in the face of death? Isn’t fear of begin just as primordial as fear for one’s being” (Levinas qtd. in Blanchot 392). That is to say, do we fear death or the impossibility of death. Or, to put it in Nietzsche’s terms, the eternal return?

Thus, if death, following Heidegger, “is man’s greatest hope his only hope of becoming a man,” then writing, which is an inhuman space, excludes death. We see this kind of thinking about writing when Derrida talks about writing as trace and specter—it is the ghostly existence that continually haunts and cannot be erased. Is it that death, like writing, never fully “takes place” in the world? Death is a space we can never occupy, it is always to-come, imminent.

Questions and Notes

I find a parallel kind of “hope in death/nothingness” in the works of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his final novel, The Road, and his short play, The Sunset Limited. The wife of the man in the book says, “my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” (McCarthy 57). I suppose I note this in order to show how we could perhaps justify some of McCarthy’s seemingly “nihilistic” statements through Blanchot’s almost ‘positive’ understanding of nothingness.

In “Literature and the Right to Death,” Blanchot talks about the relationship between writing and Revolution. It seems that on one hand Blanchot sees writing as akin to revolution: “it is absolute freedom which has become an event. Such periods are given the name Revolution. At this moment, freedom which aspires to be realied in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done” (375). Although Blanchot seems to wax poetic and argue that Revolution is somehow a positive force, he maintains that Revolution is “a temptation for the writer.” (376). Citing the Reign Of Terror, we get a picture of the Revolution as the elimination of individuation (through death): “Revolutionary action is in every respect analogous to action embodied in literature, the passage from nothing to everything” (376). And what do we make of this:

“No one has the right to a private life any longer, everything is public, and the most guilty person is the suspect—the person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself. And in the end no has a right to his life any longer, to his actually separate and physically distinct existence. This is the meaning of the Reign of Terror. Every citizen has a right to death so to speak” (Blanchot 376).

I make a lot of this passage because the essay is called “Literature and the Right to Death.” So, we seem to be called to read this title as opposing values. If Revolution is associated with action then this seems to be a position that Blanchot is not going to take. There is, as in Levinas, a kind of emphasis on passivity (beyond all passivity). Furthermore, I would argue that we can read this essay as an indirect response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature. In this work, Sartre argues that literature needs to be “committed.” In this way, we can read Sartre as coming down on the side of prose (particularly, the novel) and Blanchot, along with Heidegger, affirming the values of poetry (which, as should be apparent from Blanchot’s work, is not limited to verse). Furthermore, Blanchot seems to maintain that writing is about writing and less about the “outside world.”  Blanchot writes,

It is easy to understand why men who have committed themselves to a party who have made a decision distrust writers who share their views because these writers have also committed themselves to literature, and in the final analysis literature, by its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents. This is its law and its truth. If it renounces this in order to attach itself permanently to a truth outside itself, it ceases to be a literature and the writer who still claims he is a writer enters in another aspect of bad faith. (367)

Unless Sartre had not published anything about his ideas on “committed” literature, it seems that Blanchot is directly addressing Sartre’s views, partially because of Blanchot’s use of the the Sartrean terminology of “bad faith.”  Thus, Blanchot sees the “resistance” of literature within the writing itself (the very fact of writing) and the possibility of ambiguity rather than the “subject” of the writer, which is related to some current cause or issue. 

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