<Draft of chapter two from Lars Iyer's Blanchot's Vigilance. Up for a limited time only.>
Keep on as much as you like. Trust in the murmur's inexhaustibility.
It is easy to understand Surrealism as a failure – as the moment in which the artistic vanguard could have realised itself. In one sense, its achievements are clear; they fill our museums. But the Surrealists sought something greater: the abolition of an art that would hold itself apart from the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. Surrealism might seem to have survived only as a style, yet its task was not to change art, but to realise it by freeing it from the artistic field, drawing out the consequences of an artistic obsolescence the Dadaists had already understood, and rendering it political.
Yet Surrealism always risked appearing to be politically irresponsible, opening itself with protean enthusiasm to dreams, trances, practical jokes, automatism, the contradictory, party games and collaborations in a pursuit of the surreal, affirming above all an openness to chance. But these techniques were the signs of an attempt to discover a mode of research, of experiment, suitable to the age of Marx and Freud; their goal was to rethink experience, to expose each individual to the risk implicit in their hidden desires, to bring about a revolution on the grandest scale.
As Breton emphasises, the Surrealists would ‘uproot thought from an increasingly cruel state of thraldom’ in order to ‘return it to its original purity’, to adopt a tenet of ‘total revolt, complete insubordination’; ‘everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay to waste the ideas of family, country, religion’.[ii] The surreal was not to become a pastime; Surrealist writing and painting were to remain experiments and not works of literature or art, answering to the unyielding need for their creators to combat ‘poetic indifference, the distraction of art’.[iii] But few can answer this exacting demand. As Breton admits, ‘unflagging fidelity to the commitments of Surrealism presuppose a disinterestedness, a contempt for risk, a refusal to compromise, of which very few men prove, in the long run, to be capable’.[iv] The Surrealist is, for Breton, never Surrealist enough; the Surrealist experiment demands an unyielding commitment to risk – to the dictates of desire that implies the resistance to nationalism, militarism, racism, colonialism, and religion.
Bataille observes that there was, on the part of Breton, ‘a desire for common consecration to a single sovereign truth, a hatred of all forms of concession regarding this truth, of which he wanted his friends to be the expression, otherwise they would cease to be his friends’.[v] Surrealism is nearly as well known for its internal disputes as for the artworks associated with its name. There is no doubt that the group was extraordinarily well organised, but its discipline came at the price of purges and excommunications. Bataille is not unsympathetic; Breton’s failing was not to have proposed the affirmation of a communication of friends around ‘the truth’, but to have reduced friendship to certain ‘outward forms of fidelity’.[vi] Breton, no doubt, was capricious and arrogant, but these traits coexisted with others that permitted him to answer to the Surrealist demand. Those who left the group did so out of a commitment to a new form of communication that would allow them neither to retreat into the solitariness of the life of the writer nor to content themselves with forms of sociability that depend upon reciprocity and mutuality.
For Blanchot, writing after Breton’s death, Surrealism demands the maintenance of a friendship with the surreal that is more important than any particular relationship between individuals. As he suggests, although Breton gave himself a guiding role, orienting its proceedings and co–authoring its programs, this was only in order to recall its participants to the demand of Surrealism insofar as it made every one of them ‘each one’s Other [l’Autre]’.[vii] But to claim that Surrealism is an affirmation of friendship does not mean that surrealists were simply friends, bound to one another by shared interests and mutual respect. Surrealism is, Blanchot insists, ‘always a third person in the friendship; an absent third term through which passes and through which issues this relation of tension and passion that effaces characters as it gives rise to and motivates initiatives and attractions’.[viii] The friendship of one Surrealist for another invokes the surreal itself.
Certainly, the friendship between the Surrealists overturns social categories to the extent that they break with the model of a certain mutuality and reciprocity. Nothing is expected in return; friendship, as a response to a demand, must remain unilateral and intransigent, because the Other is another Surrealist. It exposes the Surrealist to a reserve that cannot be dominated or contained. In this way, the surreal tears open the ordinary notion of friendship, binding a group of extraordinarily individualistic individuals to a common cause by refusing to allow what they share to collapse into something simply held in common. This is what Breton’s intransigence achieves – as Blanchot notes, ‘he had the particular power not of being the one any more than the others, but of making surrealism each one’s Other’; he would have the Surrealists expose themselves to the demand of the Other [l’Autre] – ‘of living it with friendship in the most rigorous sense of this exacting term: making the surrealist affirmation, in other words, a presence or a work of friendship [oeuvre d’amitié]’.[ix] The practices – automatic writing, sleeping experiments, etc. – with which one associates Surrealism are, according to Blanchot, rendered possible by the practice of friendship that Breton required. To fall short of the friendship in question would be to fall short of Surrealism. But this implies that friendship is always revocable since it is liable to contract into a simple reciprocity and never quite measures up to the demand of Surrealism, that is, to the collective, communal affirmation of an encounter that would happen by chance.
On Blanchot’s account, then, Surrealism would name an encounter with the surreal in and as friendship. But the encounter in question cannot be a deliberate choice; it happens, and the Surrealists attempt to witness its advent, holding themselves in the space it opens and awaiting its return. Surrealist friendship permits no concordance between its terms; the surreal, in this context, designates a point of juncture that is also a point of disjuncture, a haunting of mutuality and reciprocity that withdraws itself even as it occurs. It opens a relation to ‘the Outside’ or ‘the unknown’ that can never be secured and to this extent means that Surrealism, as a practice, can never arrive as such.
By 1945, as Blanchot writes in his first major essay on Surrealism, it no longer names a school; it might even seem irrelevant, but ‘a state of mind survives’.[x] Surrealism lives on, wandering from the grave where it was seemingly laid to rest. Surrealism is not dead but dispersed; it is a ‘ghost’ that cannot be exorcised. For Blanchot, it is difficult to assume an authority with respect to Surrealism, assessing its failure or success, for it does not belong to a milieu, to a place or time in terms of which it could be explained and accounted for. The Surrealist demand is not the exclusive property of those associated with its name, nor indeed of those who would take up its name today. Surrealism, in this sense, belongs to no one and those who think themselves enfranchised to judge, to gauge its success or to recount its history, do so at their peril – for, as Blanchot warns us in a later essay, Surrealism, or a certain ghost of Surrealism, will rise up and ‘demand justice’.[xi] This is why its ghostly demand, its call for justice, has eluded us.
October 4th 1926. André Breton wanders aimlessly toward the Opéra with a newly purchased book by Trotsky under his arm. The offices and workshops are emptying out, and Breton muses to himself of the workers leaving for home, ‘it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution’.[xii] Then, as he crosses an intersection, he sees a young, poorly dressed woman ten feet away; unlike everyone else on the pavement, he notes, she carries her head high; but if she has a kind of pride, she is also ethereal (‘she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked’).[xiii] There may have been, he remembers, a faint smile wandering across her face; she was made up strangely, her eyes flashed out.[xiv]
She speaks of her poverty and he asks himself: what is happening in her eyes?[xv] She tells Breton the name she has chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the word hope, and because it’s only the beginning’.[xvi] Then she asks Breton a question which repeats the one he asked himself in the opening lines of the book: ‘Who are you?’
Who are you? Margaret Cohen notes of those same opening lines that they make play with a French adage ‘Dis-moi qui tu hantes et je te dirai qui tu es’, ‘tell me whom you haunt (in the sense of frequent) and I will tell you who you are’.[xvii] Breton makes it apparent that he appropriates this expression in other than its colloquial sense in the following passage:
I must admit that this last word [haunt] is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, less avoidable, more disturbing than I intended. It says much more than it means, it makes me play while still alive the role of a ghost, evidently it alludes to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am.[xviii]
As Cohen observes, ‘Breton goes from suggesting that haunting is related to the places and persons that one frequents to reflecting on how this dependence starts to undermine the integrity of the I itself’.[xix] ‘I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my differentiation [différenciation] from them’.[xx]
Differentiation: Breton asks himself ‘who am I?’ and writes: ‘Such a word [haunt] means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am’.[xxi] Breton ‘plays a ghostly part’ – what does this mean? ‘What matters is that the particular aptitudes my day-to-day life gradually reveals should not distract me from my search for a general aptitude which would be peculiar to me and which is not innate’.[xxii] What will he find? How will Breton answer what is scarcely a question but a kind of demand issuing from the reserve into which Nadja herself will disappear? How will he bring himself into relation with an event which might be said to happen without occurring, flashing up and disappearing such that he will never be sure it took place?
Does Breton really watch over differentiation? He may appear too domineering – after all, he is callously indifferent to Nadja’s incarceration, to her madness; the surrealist researcher, supposedly committed to the Revolution, becomes indifferent to this impoverished woman; the writer who would give himself to the blind play of chance cannot follow her into madness. Perhaps, though, Nadja was written to protect him from Nadja and he domineers because he is afraid, knowing his own identity is fragile. But what is that fragility compared to Nadja’s? What is his weakness when, unlike Nadja, he will recover his strength in order to write? Who am I? Breton does not reply, like Nadja, ‘I am a soul in limbo’. To flirt with differentiation is not yet to undergo its risks; Breton remains the writer who would extract a lesson from experience, holding himself back from his encounters in the diary he keeps from day to day. Yet if he didn’t write, if writing did not spring forth from his pen every day, how would he have witnessed what he experienced? To write is not simply to congeal experience, idealising it, as if the encounter with Nadja lay outside language. Breton writes, too, because he is vigilant, because he would, by writing Nadja, hold himself into the draft of her madness. He survives it, true; he has the strength to write, but if nothing was preserved, what then?
‘I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my differentiation [différenciation] from them’. Nadja testifies to differentiation only because Breton was preserved in his power to write. The danger is to contrast the creation of works with that of a more general practice of existence, as if existence itself did not already depend upon work, upon the attempt to sustain the hypostasis which permits each of us to say ‘I’. Nietzsche wrote nothing in his last years; if Hölderlin was able to write in the years of his madness it is because that madness withdrew for a moment, granting him a merciful surplus of strength to write a few fragmentary lines. Plato already knew that madness is linked to poetry – but he knew, too, the poet would have to survive the madness of inspiration in order to write.
Inspiration is not a simple receptivity. The receptiveness it presumes requires an answering desire to suspend reason or wilful deliberation – a willingness to admit an empowering spirit into the work, to render it productive. The artist must embrace dispossession, acknowledging the authority of a possessing voice, but it is also necessary to assume responsibility for the work, to shape and realise what has been received so that it might inspire others in turn. Breton, then, is inspired; the encounter with Nadja permits him to draw upon a deeper level of self-expression, an enhanced fluency. Still, the objection arises that the differentiation he experiences is not real: his identity remains too solid, too permanent. But upon what does this solidity and permanency rest? As I will show, the surreal is claimed to void language and experience of subjective content; Breton hears in its murmuring the impersonal workings of the unconscious as it augurs the great transformation of the world.
The promise of Surrealism depends upon the fragility of identity, upon the weakness which inhabits the same auto-affirmative strength implicit to existence. Breton’s strength is to pass through weakness rather than conquer it; he aims to bear witness to the play of differentiation, to the ghosts it awakens and the freedom it summons from the future. The greatness of Surrealism lies in the faith it places in the impersonality of inspiration, asking each to endure it in the name of a revolution to come – that great equality wherein each is given over to that afflatus which was once thought the privilege of the poet. It is a collective work; ‘I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my differentiation from them’ – a striving that asks others, Breton’s readers, to struggle in turn.
What does inspiration become? An experience of the dissension of sense – of the great nonsensical ‘there is’ of language as it withholds itself from the power of human speech. Breton places his strength at the service of weakness, of that great receptivity Surrealism would permit. When he asks Aragon to throw a seven hundred page novel on the fire this is not an act of random cruelty, but an attempt to avoid subjecting differentiation to the creation of an artwork the culture industry might admire. When he appears to abandon Nadja to the mental hospital, it is because the surreal is no longer at stake in their relationship. Nadja was never a Muse for Breton, but a collaborator, a friend. If Breton’s book bears her name, it is only as an indication of an encounter wherein the surreal was at stake – an indication and not a term, for it is not Nadja herself who interests him, but the friendship that would allow both to draw close to the surreal.
Nadja is not about Nadja but nor is it entirely about Breton. Who am I?, Breton asks. He is answered by a differentiation as it marks itself into the composition of Nadja. Whence Breton’s story of the amnesiac who asks a clerk in the hotel lobby for his room number and then, having gone there, jumps from the window and returns to question the clerk once again. Whence, too, the fugue which allows Desnos to take on Duchamp's personality, or Eluard’s mistaking Breton for a deceased friend. Then there is the story of the thriller in which a Chinese man replicates himself thousands of times and invades New York; and the painting by Watteau in which the same couple is shown over and over. Finally, there is Nadja herself, who appears to be only one of a series of women Breton encounters, real and unreal (Madame de Chevreuse, Mélusine, Solange and the actress who plays her; the young woman who recites Rimbaud to him in the rain).
Who am I? Breton asks and seeks to learn of his identity by exploring the places he haunts and the encounters which haunt him. He searches for himself in the ambulism which would allow him to follow the labyrinth laid out by his unconscious phantasies as it entangles him in a complex realm in which the real historical significance of the sculpture of the Porte Saint-Denis and the statues of Dolet on the Place Maubert and Rousseau on the Place du Panthéon are bracketed and put out of play. Unbound from their function of commemoration and celebration, the monuments loom forward in their obscurity, just as a phantasmagoric Paris looms around Breton as he wanders with Nadja by his side.
Nadja, a text which bears the name of hope, is marked above all by a restlessness, a wandering; this is a text which must be understood according to its own avowal to record everything. Who writes? Breton himself? Only if the name of its author is allowed to mark in Nadja that vigilance over vigilance which allows the surreal to reverberate. But what does this mean? How are automatism, freedom and surrealism bound to differentiation? What would it mean to do justice to the surreal?
In the first Surrealist manifesto, Breton gives an account of the genesis of his first piece of automatic writing. One evening, just before he falls asleep, Breton claims to perceive a phrase which was something like: ‘there is a man cut in two by the window’; this is accompanied by ‘the faint visual image [...] of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body’.[xxiii] An uncanny image, which Breton wants at once to use as for a poem. But as he does so, it was succeeded by a whole series of phrases which, he writes, ‘surprised me only slightly less and left me with the impression of their being so gratuitous that the control I had then exercised upon myself seemed to me illusory and all I could think of was putting an end to the interminable quarrel raging within me’.[xxiv]
Breton confides in his fellow surrealist Phillippe Soupault; they decide to practice the technique together. A single day yields fifty pages; comparing their work, Breton and Soupault find it to be similar; the difference of the texts, Breton decides, lies only in the different tempers of the men. Who speaks? An inexhaustible murmuring which would resound through each of us, any of us, as we open ourselves to automatism. A murmuring, then, which would allow each of us to become a poet and liberate poetry itself from the poetic field (from the preserve of literature, of literary culture). For it is now a question of the surreal, which is to say, of existence, of life in its totality, of the total human being.
Who speaks? Beware of the interpretation that automatism excludes premeditation and conscious control. The Surrealist does not simply allow the pen to wander across sheets of paper; it is not a matter of mental relaxation, as if one would merely have to passively wait for the treasures of the unconscious to reveal themselves. Active consciousness has a role; great effort is required to yield to the claim of the magnetic fields. It is necessary to keep watch over the desire to create a literary work; the Surrealist experimenter must not reread what she has written and fall victim to the images that are conjured by the words on the page; she must remain at the edge of the writing as it pushes forward into the unknown.
Automatism requires a new mode of interrelation between consciousness and unconsciousness – passivity is required, but so too is activity; if the unconscious holds the initiative, consciousness is required such that its message can be carefully transcribed. There is the risk the writer is tempted by a kind of branching – that two or more thoughts will present themselves simultaneously, endangering the recording process. Or the imaginative charm of the poetic images may distract the experimenter, arresting the movement of differentiation. More broadly, the researcher has to resist the conditioned reflex which would allow the uncontrolled élan of automatism to be brought exclusively under conscious control. Yet control is required if the Surrealist is to avoid the terrible temptation of laying claim to the words which spring from her pen as her own. She must remain a machine part, a recording device attuned to the ‘magnetic fields’ of the unconscious. The spontaneous dynamism of the unconscious must be rendered explicit; it is not merely sleeping philosophers that we must become, but thinkers who can effect a synthesis between our dreams and waking life.
Who speaks? What speaks? Who occupies the locus of that vigilance which keeps watch over speech? The answer to both questions is the same: the magnetic field which quivers through our depths. Our depths? – rather, it is as though automatism turns each of us inside out in order to give issue to that murmuring speech which streams in our absence. Then the 'who?' of Breton’s 'who am I?' finds no answer other than the murmuring, the speech of automatism as it overruns the human power to speak and to act.
Is Nadja written automatically? The book passes from philosophical musing to sentimental novel; it takes the form of a memoir and then a case study; a concern for documentary realism coexists alongside lyrical flight; forty-four photographs seem to mock the idea of providing evidence for the events it describes. It may seem Nadja is too artful to be truly automatic, that it yields to a kind of narrative teleology, the satisfaction of an ending. But automatism is not arbitrary – the attempt to follow a series of semantic and phonic associations which sometimes leap from the text to the street (as in the case of the presentiment of the sign BOIS-CHARBONS) and sometimes from the street to the text (the whole of Nadja) is borne by an unconscious impulse. From Mad Love:
Desire arranges multiple ways to express itself [...] the least object to which no particular symbolic role is assigned, is able to represent anything. The mind is wonderfully prompt at grasping the most tenuous relation that can exist between two objects taken at random, and poets know that they can always, without fear of being mistaken, say of one thing that it is like the other..... Whether in reality or in the dream [desire] is constrained to make the elements pass through the same network: condensation, displacement, substitutions, alterations.[xxv]
Breton draws on his own experiences of applying Freud’s practice of free association which had drawn the psychoanalyst towards the phenomenon of dreaming. Freud saw dreams as symptoms which would allow of an interpretation that would uncover their true significance by clarifying the associative links which led to them. The ‘manifest’ dream, that is, the way it is remembered and recounted by the patient, conceals the true meaning of the dream because of the self-censoring desires of the superego. For Freud, it was necessary to understand what he called the dreamwork, that is, the way in which the ostensible contents of the dream attest to the play of latent desires in a kind of thinking that is saturated with desire.
These latent thoughts can be divided into prelogical ways of thinking – condensation, displacement, plastic representation and a rational, logical component called secondary revision. Condensation should be understood as the combination of latent dream thoughts into a single manifest element and displacement as the way in which, in the dream, the apparently innocuous detail can become highly significant and the apparently important event can be treated casually. Plastic representation is that process through which important people in the patient’s life are represented by a stock of common symbols (the king = the father, etc.). The latent content manifest in prelogical thought is retrospectively ordered by secondary revision, through which the patient, under the guidance of the censoring superego, is able to construct a narrative out of the material of the dream.
The shared goal of psychoanalysis and Surrealism is to surprise and catch unawares the play of latent desire not just in dreams, but in phantasy, parapraxes, myths, symptoms. In Mad Love, Breton gives an account of his visit with Giacometti to a curiosity shop. Breton tells us he was obsessed with the phrase, le cendrier de Cendrillon, the ashtray of Cinderella. He encounters a spoon, which, for some reason, he feels is linked to the ashtray of the phrase even as it suggests the symbol of the shoe, the slipper of Cinderella. A series of associations is produced: ‘slipper-spoon-penis-perfect mold for this penis’; thus, according to Breton, the mystery announced in the phrase le cendrier de Cendrillon is solved: the series spoon-shoes-slipper, the search for the foot that fits, is about a desire for love.[xxvi] He now recalls Freud’s suggestion about Dora’s mother's jewel case: ‘The box […] like the reticule and the jewel case was once again only a substitute for the shell of Venus, for the female genitals’.[xxvii]
For Breton, desire opens a path through the world; it is a matter of attending to the signs of this desire. For Freud, the neurotic patient might be cured if those signs are understood in terms of the latent content to which they bear witness. The paths of Freudian psychoanalysis and Surrealism diverge in their respective methods of research. Freud is a man of science, Breton a poet; Freud separates unconscious desire from reality, and Breton seeks to bring together desire and the real, claiming our conception of the real is produced by our desire. This is what Breton indicates when he writes, ‘I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak’.[xxviii]
Surreality: most have taken the phrase ‘future resolution’ to indicate that the surreal would indicate a kind of transcendence which would be reached through dialectical synthesis. Suzanne Guerlac argues Breton’s notion of resolution might be read electrochemically. She reads resolution in relation to the verb résoudre, understood in terms of the resolution of a problem. Yet it also carries the meaning, to reduce, transforming something into its constituent elements or causing it to disappear (to reduce a broth in cooking). Breton’s se résoudre en is given in Robert as follows: ‘Hail clouds resolve [se réduisent en] into water’.[xxix] Guerlac draws the conclusion that instead of considering Breton's declaration in terms of a philosophical (or logical) problem in need of dialectical solution, we should read it as a description of an alchemical process.
Is the resolution, then, a kind of reduction? The surreal does not occur anywhere other than the real but it is not simply given. Effort is required by the Surrealist to hold handed-down ideas in abeyance, permitting access to the matters themselves, to absolute reality. This is why Breton is intransigent, guarding against the danger that Surrealism becomes a battery of artistic techniques rather than a struggle for revolution, and watching over the relationships between Surrealists themselves, lest they become indistinguishable from those between people in the world.
When will this happen? Only when it can do so for all, when automatism is generally unleashed, which is to say, after the revolution. But when will the revolution come? It is Nadja, not Breton, who has faith in the people who, one day, will erupt in revolution.[xxx] But Nadja was ‘sucked back into the whirlwind of everyday life’.[xxxi] She disappears into insanity; Breton, reporting her incarceration, can only lyricise about the injustice of mental hospitals. Nadja disappears from the narrative and Breton turns, in the last section of the text, to a new, unnamed beloved, who, he seems to think, incarnates the surreal itself.
Without doing it on purpose, you have taken the place of the forms most familiar to me, as well as of several figures of my foreboding. Nadja was one of these last, and it is just that you should have hidden her from me.
All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet.
You are not an enigma for me.
I say that you have turned me from enigmas forever.[xxxii]
Who is she? The one for whom, Breton writes, no one else can be substituted. Nadja, by comparison, was only the last of a series of lovers which has now come to an end. Yet we know from his later books that this new lover, rejecting him, will indeed be substituted; Breton will love others. But in Nadja, he is preserved in his faith that the unnamed addressee of its final section would halt the endless play of substitution. Why, then, does his book bear the name Nadja and not that of his lover to come? One might suspect that this title speaks the truth – that the non-substitutable would indeed be substitutable and there is only ever the open-endedness of those associations which transforms the world itself into passage. In one sense, Breton fails surrealism. In another, as he writes after Nadja of other lovers, he witnesses the truth: he is condemned to write because there is only substitution, only an infinite play of proxies.
The surreal does not lie on the other side of the written text of Nadja, as if it were a matter simply of finding the right way to name or describe it but can only be indicated in that text. An indication Breton might be said to betray as soon as he tries to bring the chain of substitutions to an end. But one, indeed, which undoes this betrayal in turn as it requires he write Communicating Vessels and Mad Love, preventing him from ever allowing the surreal to come to rest in a term. In this way, it is not Breton who is vigilant, but the automatism of his texts as they allow themselves to free associate in the direction of their author’s unconscious desires. And, too, they might be said to be vigilant without him, pressing beyond his attempt to seize on the surreal in the convulsive beauty of his unnamed beloved. Breton fails the surreal, this is true – but his writing does not. He falls short of his own intransigence, but his writings press towards the matters themselves. It is only in this movement, this passing, that the Surrealist reduction is accomplished.
For Husserl, the reduction allows the philosopher to achieve an appropriate self-responsibility; for Heidegger, too, the aim is authenticity, but the reduction itself is something which cannot be brought about through an act of will: this is what it means, for him, to philosophise as a finite being. For Blanchot, something stranger occurs, which seems to do away with the idea of philosophical self-responsibility altogether. Now the reduction is linked to an experience of language as it reveals itself in literary fiction. Firstly, fictional writing suspends reference – it does not represent the world, or, through its operation, carry through the free eidetic variation that Husserl advocated as the path to uncover the essence of an object. Secondly, it suspends the intentionality of the author and reader as they seek to animate a fictional world on the basis of what is presented in language. In so doing, it foregrounds what might be called the materiality of language, the immanent field of the ‘there is’ as it resists meaning. Is this what is named by the inexhaustible murmur?
In a particularly terse section of The Infinite Conversation, Blanchot allows conversationalists to put forward some propositions about the reduction. One conversationalist asks whether ‘the meaning of meaning would be neuter, neutral’.[xxxiii] The other replies: ‘let us say that meaning is not posed, neither positive nor negative, yet affirming itself as though outside every affirmation and every negation’.[xxxiv] This reply is to be expected: the neuter, etymologically speaking, is neither one nor the other – neither negation, then, nor what might be posited and affirmed through negation; neither positivity as it rests in itself, nor negativity as it undoes what is given.
The first conversationalist replies in turn:
Again, neutral, if meaning operates or acts through a movement or retreat that is in some sense without end, through an exigency to become suspended and by an ironic outbidding of the epochē. It is not simply the natural position or even that of existence that is to be suspended so that meaning, in its pure disaffected light, might appear; meaning itself can only bear meaning by placing itself in brackets, in parentheses or quotation marks, and this through an infinite reduction thus finally remaining outside meaning like a phantom that dissipates by day and that nonetheless is never lacking, since to be lacking is its sign.[xxxv]
The neuter is indicated through a reduction that is without end, never terminating such that it could be delimited and stabilised, and without sense, insofar as it reveals only that wavering between being and nothingness Blanchot calls the il y a. No one is there to whom anything could be revealed; there is only the ‘il’ as the ‘subject’ of the experience and the il y a or the neuter as the ‘object’ of experience. Yet what is revealed thereby is part of the economy of meaning; it belongs to meaning’s articulation. One conversationalist says, ‘Meaning would therefore only exist by way of the neutral’; the reply comes: ‘But insofar as the neutral would remain foreign to meaning – by which I mean, first: neutral as far as meaning is concerned; not indifferent, but haunting the possibility of meaning and non-sense by the invisible margin of a difference’.[xxxvi]
Indefinite suspense, the eternal epochē: is this what Breton seeks to avoid in Nadja? Is it this fear which Breton attempts to overcome via the Blanchotian equivalent of repression, that is, the desire for determinacy? Nadja’s madness is only a figure for that experience which would bring about that exposure, that turning inside out which Blanchot places at the heart of his work and allows himself to call the surreal. It is as though, for Blanchot, Surrealism contained its own latent content – that what is manifested as the desire for the surreal is only a desire for the neuter, and that the dreamwork is only a name for determination and interiorisation. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot dreams of a psychoanalyst ‘for whom a sign would come from the disaster’; Freud would be one for whom this sign had not come even when he uses the word ‘es’ for what we in English know as the id.[xxxvii] This ‘es’ is not yet the Blanchotian ‘il’. It is in the name of the struggle with interiorisation, with determinacy, that Blanchot will attempt to do justice to Surrealism. A peculiar justice, insofar as it will transform what Breton calls absolute reality into the negative absolute, the vigilance of the surrealist into the vigilance of the il and automatism into the play of what Blanchot calls the neuter.
For Blanchot, the day is that place in which it is possible to begin, when the human being can engage in those projects before it; the possible is its dimension. If the night is the contrary of the day, it is only that place wherein one rests in the midst of tasks and projects; it is still governed by possibility. Thus, day and night, action and repose belong to the same economy; to sleep after the day is done, to prepare for another day, is to remain secure in the measure which permits the project.
But there is another experience of both the day and the night. First of all, ‘the essence of night’:
In the night no refuge is to be found in sleep. And if you fail sleep, exhaustion finally sickens you, and this sickness prevents sleeping; it is expressed by insomnia, by the impossibility of making sleep a free zone, a clear and true resolution. In the night one cannot sleep.[xxxviii]
Then, secondly, there is the day which ‘survives itself in the night’, which ‘exceeds its term’: the ‘interminable “day”’ linked not to the time of the project, but to ‘time’s absence’.[xxxix]
The interminable day, the essence of night: what do they name? They are linked, Blanchot writes, to ‘the threat of the outside where the world lacks’.[xl] The world refers to the field which is understood in accordance with what is possible for the human being, that is, according to the measure of what the human being is able to do. Both alternatives keep the measure of this 'ability to be able' intact; preserving the human being as the one for whom tasks and projects are possible. That which is outside my capacities is still organised by the measure of those capacities themselves.
What, then, does it mean to invoke the ‘threat of the outside’ – of an experience ‘where the world lacks’?[xli] No longer, in this case, can tasks be weighed up in terms of what I am able or unable to accomplish. It is necessary to conceive of an event which no longer falls within the field of possibility – as though the economy of possibility finds itself inscribed within a space which it is unable to control, one which opens onto an outside which is no longer its outside. Or, once again, there is an inadequacy of the field of the possible to itself, inhabiting it and dividing it at its source. It is in these terms one should understand what Blanchot calls the essence of night and the indeterminable day as well as the experiences to which he links these terms: the dream and the image.
In the essential night, nothing can be done; sleep is not the place of repose, but of restlessness. Coming from outside the world, outside the order or the economy of the possible, the dream is not the secret repository of our wishes, assembling the residues of our daily experience beneath whose manifest content the psychoanalyst would be able to find latent desires. It must be thought, according to Blanchot, in terms of an insomnia or awakening in which it is no longer you or I who dreams – you or I, that is, understood as those beings who can make their way in the world.
Who dreams 'inside' me? But isn't the dream, on Blanchot's account, what is outside me? ‘The dream’, writes Blanchot, ‘is the reawakening of the interminable’.[xlii] It is the return of an experience which cannot be delimited. Like the essential night, it does not permit rest; it presents no secure foothold from which to launch oneself into the future. It entails, rather, the collapse of the beginning and the repetition of an experience without any determinate content. This experience shatters not only the 'content' of the dream, but the idea that a dream could be a receptacle of meaning, latent or otherwise. There is no ‘content’ to the dream since there is no interiority of the dreamer. The dream is the breakthrough of the outside; it is not your dream or mine, but something like the dream of the night – a dream from which the dreamer must be reborn each time she dreams. A rebirth which suspends the temporal order of the possible.
Shattered time: the 'manifest' content of the dream, which evidences, according to Freud, the secondary processes through which its scattered ideations are synthesised into a narrative unity, always passes over the disjunction to which the dream belongs. For Freud, the unconscious is timeless, but the latent desire the dream reveals belongs to an experience of time which is neither 'in' time (the time of the project, of the possible) nor outside it. This leads Freud to posit a common, perhaps transcendental account of the symbolic universe to which we would all belong thereby indicating an experience of, as it were, the 'outside' of time 'in' time.
Who experiences the dream? It is necessary to reconceive the locus of experience – not is it the personal ‘I’, the one who is able to sleep or wake, but the exposition or unfolding of this ‘I’: the 'il'. The chance of this unfolding is there from the start, inhabiting experience as a kind of possible impossible. It is not a recurring dream, but what recurs in every dream; it is not the bearer of the personal secret, the key to a psyche which the psychoanalyst might unlock, but the exposure of the inside to the outside, the disclosure of the prior imbrication of the possible and the impossible, of time with time's absence. ‘Perhaps one could say that the dream is all the more nocturnal in that it turns around itself, that it dreams itself, that it has for its content its possibility’.[xliii] To what latent desire does the dream attest? To the desire to be extinguished in the instant where the 'il' comes forward to take your place. The desire for the essence of the night, the interminable day.
Just as the dream of which Blanchot writes has no content, the image is only an affirmation of what breaks through our ordinary dealings with things in view of particular projects. Like the dream dreamed at the heart of the dream, the image is an experience of the real at the heart of the real, the reserve that is the opacity of things which do not place themselves at our disposal. This correspondence between the dream and what awaits us in the day is not surprising, for both bear upon the same enigma; if the essence of night and the interminable day are one, it is because they bear upon what Blanchot calls the image.
In Nadja, Breton recalls a flea-market he used to visit to buy curios,
Again, quite recently … I went with a friend one Sunday to the ‘flea market’ at Saint-Ouen (I go there often, in search of those objects that can be found nowhere else, outmoded, fragmented, useless, almost incomprehensible, perverse in short, in the sense that I give to the word and that I like).[xliv]
Remembering this passage, Blanchot writes:
a tool, when damaged, becomes its image (and sometimes an aesthetic object like ‘those outmoded objects, fragmented, unusable, almost incomprehensible, perverse’, which André Breton loved). In this case the tool, no longer disappearing into its use, appears. This appearance of the object is that of resemblance and reflection: the object's double, if you will. The category of art is linked to this possibility for objects to ‘appear’, to surrender, that is, to the pure and simple resemblance behind which there is nothing – but being. Only that which is abandoned to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.[xlv]
Blanchot directs us away from the psychoanalytic technique of free association to Heidegger's famous analysis of the hammer in Being and Time instead. Heidegger explains how the hammer, in breaking, removes itself from that network of references in which it was enmeshed. It is no longer something which is part of the articulation of one of Dasein's projects, but is, like Breton's perverse object 'fragmented, unusable, almost incomprehensible'. It is a short step from the account of the breaking of the hammer to what amounts to a phenomenological reduction in his early philosophy: that experience in which I become in my anxiety only a lieu-tenant keeping place for the nothing.[xlvi] In both cases, there has been a lapse in my capacity to produce meaning. Such production is understood, by Blanchot, in terms of the existence of the human being in which it throws out webs of signification wherein particular things are ‘caught’ and, so to speak ‘existed’. That is to say, things show up as being meaningful, as being imbued with meaning in view of the transcendence of Dasein.
Yet not all things allow themselves to be caught in this way. Would the items at the flea-market tell us something we have missed about the world? They would intimate, rather, something about its hither side, which Blanchot presents when he invokes the other ek-stasis – not the initiative of the self, based on power, upon the opening of possibilities, but the interruption of this power and this possibility as the ‘neutral double’ of the world obtrudes.[xlvii]
The image speaks to us, and seems to speak intimately to us of ourselves. But the term ‘intimately’ does not suffice. Let us say rather that the image intimately designates the level where personal intimacy is destroyed and that it indicates in this movement the menacing proximity of a vague and empty outside, the deep, the sordid basis upon which it continues to affirm things in their disappearance. Thus it speaks to us, apropos of each thing, of less than this thing, but of us. And, speaking of us, it speaks to us of less than us, of that less than nothing that subsists when there is nothing.[xlviii]
For Heidegger, Dasein is only a 'temporal transcendence' which leaps beyond itself and towards a future which it understands in terms of specific tasks and ultimately as its own care for its own existence. According to this tradition, the self is not a substantive and self-present unity, but an opening to the future, an ecstasis which understands itself in terms of its thrown projection into the world. The 'I' as the 'I can', the self as potentiality: all relations between the 'I' and the world must be understood in terms of the measure implicit in the 'I'. It is as though the 'I' were the Ulysses of the Odyssey, adventuring, risking himself, but always in view of the task of returning to Ithaca, to his Kingdom. In truth, his adventures do not change Ulysses; likewise, the 'I' of projects and tasks itself remains constant in its dealings with the world.
Yet in the relation to the image, as Blanchot sets it out, something different occurs. No longer are things experienced in terms of a mediating self-relation. It is as though the relation itself were suspended and it can no longer reach the thing as an object. In place of the self, there is the experience where 'personal intimacy is destroyed' and there is only 'the menacing proximity of a vague and empty outside'.[xlix] It is no longer a question of my transcendence into the world as it were grasping and digesting being but of being taking its distance from me. I no longer ex-ist in the Heideggerian sense but am ex-posed; what I encounter does not permit me to draw back into myself. I am brought into an encounter with what outstrips me, with what refuses to be interiorised. A kind of reversal occurs; I encounter something which does not merely limit my power to bestow meaning, but escapes the measure of sense altogether.
This reversal is what I encounter in the ‘other’ image. It cannot be confined to the shadow of a particular thing – or rather, it reveals what is other than all things to the extent that they can resist me, refusing the attempt to grasp and seize beings that is inherent to my existence. It is not the ‘other’ image of a particular thing I confront as it would be linked in a determinable relation to its ‘original’. The ‘other’ image is not delimitable; it is as though the encounter with the ‘other’ image is only the trigger for a broader collapse.[l] The narrative voice, I argued in chapter one, resounds through the voices of the characters and the details of the story. The reader can no longer remain intact as a spectator; she is fascinated to the extent that she is brought up against language as it operates symbolically. The experience of the ‘other’ image is analogous: confronting the image of a particular thing, I am pressed up against the ‘neutral double’ of all the things in the world.
What comes first, then? Meaning? Non-meaning? The original? The copy? There is an ambiguity, which is to say both at once. I might experience the image as what is primordial or profound ‘in’ things and the ‘original’ – things in the world – as what is superficial. Or we might experience things in the world as what are more real or more significant than the image. Put another way, the world might appear solid and sure, but at any moment, this solidity and security give way as I am turned over to the uncertainty of the image.[li] Then again, the ‘reality’ of the image often seems illusory and I forget those periods of fascination, of intimacy in which I can no longer make my way with confidence in the world. Yet when I am fascinated by the image, there is no determinable content to my experience; if this contentlessness might be said to be affirmed as the content of my experience there is no one there to experience it. What is left to me but to forget what I cannot undergo in the first person?
Outside the psyche, outside memory and the possibility of memorisation there is a kind of unfolding in which the 'I' is turned inside out. Who am I, in the experience in question? No one. Personne. What exists? There is no world either, if this is understood in terms of a totality of involvements, a contexture in which things make sense in accordance with the for-the-sake-of-Dasein. What speaks in this experience? 'The deep, the sordid basis upon which it continues to affirm things in their disappearance'; of what does it speak? 'of less than this thing, but of us. And, speaking of us, it speaks to us of less than us, of that less than nothing that subsists when there is nothing'.[lii] There is no one there to be vigilant – but vigilance is there nonetheless. Does this mean someone or something else is vigilant in me – that I have been possessed as by an alien force? It points, rather, to a dispossession; I am occupied not by a subject or a substantive but by an impersonal streaming.
It may appear the 'I' always survives its encounters with things and with persons as long as it is alive, leaping forward into the future, always retaining the capacity for hope. But there is always the chance of an experience which makes it tumble in the midst of this leap: this is what happens in physical suffering, according to Blanchot, but also in writing’s sickness unto death. The leap is interrupted. In this suspended instant, self-relation itself is suspended; the self is torn apart like Orpheus by the Maenads. Something remains – not the self, it is true, but something like an awareness of the river upon which the torn body of Orpheus was cast (an awareness of the river 'in' his dispersed body): of the river which flows in my place, the outside streaming in what was once my interiority. No one is there – but there is a way of understanding this ‘no one’ as designating an impersonal vigilance – the ‘il’ which thereafter leaves its trace in memory. The inside is exposed to the outside; the surreal is only what reveals itself to the vigilant ‘il’, which is to say the neuter.
Which comes first, image or object? Both come at once; both are implicit in my experience of the world and myself. What Heidegger calls ecstasis or transcendence is not negated by what Blanchot calls the ‘other’ ecstasy, the plunge into immanence; likewise, what Heidegger calls the understanding of being is not dissolved into what Blanchot calls the ‘there is’. There is never a simple field of existence without existents despite what Levinas implies in his early studies; existence and the ‘there is’ or the neuter must be thought together. To seek the future resolution of these two states into an absolute reality is to miss the fact that they cannot be resolved; if Surrealism can be understood in terms of a kind of reduction then it is one that maintains these states in their tension, struggling one against the other.
After Dada, it was no longer a question of lending support to an ailing artistic institution, but of liberating inspiration itself from the artistic field. One finds both the demystification and democratisation of the inspiration in the insistence that anyone is capable of answering its call. The poet and the artist are not defunct, but their value is no longer artistic. Inspiration, released from the artistic sphere, is for everyone. The work of the inspired artist is only a sign of a Surrealist practice to come. The great danger for the Surrealist is to understand the poem as a vehicle for the poet’s self-expression: to subordinate it to the desire on the part of the poet to realise a finely crafted work. The poets remain ‘instruments too full of pride’; they are unable to allow themselves to become, like the Surrealists, ‘simple receptacles of so many echoes, modest recording instruments’.[liii] ‘Language has been given to man so he may make surrealist use of it’.[liv] But how might one engage with this gift? How does it engage us? It can be presented as a kind of trauma.
The capacity to remember depends upon a certain freedom with respect to the past. For the psychoanalyst, this freedom runs up against resistances. The patient’s complex can be dissolved when it is understood in its secret relation to past events. Analysis depends upon a power to remember beyond the confines of individual, conscious memory. Automatic writing is also supposed to yield up a secret, but it can do so only to those who are no longer regulated by the closed economy of consciousness. In one sense, automatism is a power to remember what has been forgotten, bearing witness to the lost continuity of the unconscious. Automatism would attempt to seize upon this trauma, this murmuring, making it speak at last. But as it does so, it runs up against an irresolvable contradiction in language itself.
For the most part, ordinary language uses the name to identify the thing, idealising it, taking it into the universal. This is to lose the thing in its real existence: the thing and its name are not identical; the word can only encounter the thing as an instance of a universal, as a particular that awaited idealisation. A certain literary writing, by contrast, understands that the negation of the word gives the thing a new, ideal existence as a word. In Blanchot’s words, it ‘observes that the word “cat” is not only the nonexistence of the cat but a nonexistence made word’, that is, a completely determined and objective reality.[lv] This sort of literary language would become thing-like, transposing the singularity of the thing into language. Listen to a single word, Blanchot writes, and you can hear nothingness ‘struggling and toiling away’: ‘it digs tirelessly, doing its utmost to find a way out, nullifying what encloses it – it is infinite disquiet, formless and nameless vigilance’.[lvi] Thus the work of literature indicates something unreal and non-representational, letting non-existence exist as a kind of ‘primal absence’, not as the sign of absent things but as a thing itself, as an object made of words.[lvii]
Language, in the literary work, would attempt to coagulate into its own substantiality, the immanence of its textures, rhythms and sonorousness as they resist the transcendence of meaning. It would seek to rid itself of everything it might name with the aim of achieving a physicality of its own, a perfect immanence. The word no longer disappears in the act of signification. Its arbitrariness with respect to its signified gives itself to be experienced in the very heaviness of the word. As such, it joins itself to the heaviness of every word and of all language. The word ‘cat’ becomes image; it is the trigger of a more general collapse – one which, too, implicates the language user, insofar as the word ‘I’ searches in vain for what it designates. What gives itself to be experienced is the ‘there is’ of language itself, its neutral double. There emerges the presence of what appeared previously to be an absence, the being of what was taken to be nothingness: language becomes symbolic as the oscillation of being and nothingness can be heard in every word.
To write, as Blanchot observes of Mallarmé, ‘is not to evoke a thing but an absence of a thing’; ‘words vanish from the scene to make the thing enter, but since this thing is itself no more than an absence, that which is shown in the theatre, it is an absence of words and absence of things, a simultaneous emptiness, nothing supported by nothing’.[lviii] Yet words must mean if literature is to be readable; the poem, made of language, cannot become a thing. The literary work needs to become a cultural object, available and accessible. Likewise, there is the chance the literary writer becomes the virtuoso whose work evidences a mastery of narrative modes, of incident and characterisation as it reflects back the glories of the world.
The work of literature becomes what Blanchot calls the novel when it fails to become an autonomous thing unto itself. In so doing, it becomes impure and non-absolute because it depends on the world it mirrors: ‘Willing to represent imaginary lives, a story of a society that it proposes to us as real, it depends on this reality of which it is the reproduction or equivalent’; it is always in collusion with a certain mimetologism.[lix] In this sense, literature hovers at the crossroads of verisimilitude and the creation of an autonomous thing. It is never a pure thing or a pure representation; it comprises both movements and cannot do without them. Literary language depends on a paradox, on an irresolvable contradiction.
The Surrealists want to resolve this contradiction not in favour of the human being, but of the impersonal murmur of which all literature is only an echo. Surrealism is the faith that language might permit the great overcoming of the antimonies and contradictions which prevent us from realising our total existence. All difficulties will be resolved; this new language we speak will attain what language always struggled to be. At last, language can attain itself as thinking rather than a means of thinking, seizing upon the truth of immediacy, of immediate life without mediation. Language will no longer be an instrument through which the human being might realise its freedom. Automatic poetry is freedom, not freedom incarnated, but freedom absolute as it acts and manifests itself. My freedom, for Breton, does pass through words, it is realised in them; I discover in writing a relation to myself without intermediary. Is it my freedom any longer? Is the relation in question a relation to myself? Rather, a freedom which traverses us as we are given to automatic writing, and a relation which cannot be situated in a term.
Who is the one given to automatism? No one. Who writes? Personne. What gives itself to be written? The il y a of language, which the surrealists know as the inexhaustible murmur. Whence the surrealist attack on the hackneyed notion of individual talent, on the artwork as hallowed cultural object, on the great museums and galleries of our culture. For it is an equality that is issue; we are equal with respect to the gift of automatism.
Surrealist poetry is a poetry of freedom, of spontaneity, of automatism. How then to understand the Surrealists’ affirmation of Marxism, of communism? How to understand the poetry that would give itself in service of the revolution? Because to write freely is also to take responsibility for what freedom is not; it is to brace oneself against the conditions of society, to flash against the darkness of our present condition – to flash, and, in this flashing, to expose the cracks and interstices, the great contradictions in the present state of society.
The Surrealist has faith that the problems which we take to be important are only a function of the contradictions implicit in our society; it is only after the revolution that one can begin to understand what freedom might mean. Freedom will be grasped negatively until it is grasped no longer as freedom from oppression or exploitation. And on the day after the revolution? The day after surrealism achieves itself? That is the day from which automatic poetry is written. A day which calls us on the pages we read and write. It is bound to the outbreak of a freedom to come; it is already there, ahead of us. Inspired, automatic writing is also critical; if it appears uncommitted, this is only because it is belongs to another order of commitment, because it burns like a star which has consumed everything but itself; it is total, absolute.
Human possibility, human capacity: are these words appropriate for a poetry which reaches us from the future and calls us towards an unimaginable equality? Perhaps it is better to write of what is humanly impossible, or what at least reaches us from the day which approaches us from the other side of time.
Yet for all this, words must mean; the Surrealist cannot overcome the contradiction in language once and for all. Even as Surrealism looks to the reduction that would come after the revolution, this ‘after’ can never actually happen. Automatism, naming human impossibility, the potency of an impersonal freedom, cannot achieve itself as the action of free human beings. If it is free, it happens without the human being, that is, impossibly, not because it is a natural event, occurring like the blooming of a flower or the opening of the day, but because it does so in the withdrawal of the animating power of human existence. An impersonal freedom happens ‘within’ human freedom. I speak, I act as it, too, speaks and acts. I write as it writes; I think as it thinks inside me. The Surrealists are right to observe there is nothing mysterious about this event; to claim it does not occur is only to indicate the way in which it withholds itself from the time of projects and possibility; to allow that it happens is to envisage an event which is impossible but that nevertheless is always happening. Surrealism holds open the indication to such an event, attesting, even in its non-occurrence to the suspension of the instant which breaks with the ordinary course of time.[lx] But how does this indication occur? How is it marked in the Surrealist work?
Breton’s Nadja sets out to retrace the course of a series of episodes that pertain to his encounter with the young woman who bears its name. Its author presents his text as an ongoing narrative of a sequence of events as they occur. He gives the impression that the book that will come to be called Nadja would lay itself open to whatever happens. It seems entirely by chance that Breton meets the wandering spirit whose presence confounds him, who lends her name to his book. Who is she? A woman who sees visions, who is close to what Breton would call the surreal. She surrealises the city through which she passes, seeing ghosts in the Place Dauphine and a fiery, spectral hand hovering above the Seine. She is unpredictable and enigmatic, playful yet grave, her conversation a mixture of the trifling and the profound; she offers startling exegeses of the essays of La Révolution surrealist, composes allegorical sketches and seems to be able to predict the future.
Breton is fascinated. What happens, though, when he tries to grasp Nadja in the book which bears her name? Breton risks appearing as a literary author among other authors, a writer for whom experience is the raw material for the creation of a work. For Nadja is more than the threshold of the surreal. She is also the woman who subsists on menial work, willing, as she tells Breton, to stop at nothing to obtain money. Breton finds her too demanding: she wants money and affection; her conversation is interminable and self-absorbed. The real Nadja who exasperates Breton, the woman who threatens to leave Paris to take up a position as a domestic servant, disappears from the book that bears her name. Breton tells us quickly and callously that she was incarcerated in a mental institution. He turns from Nadja to the woman to whom the latter part of his work is addressed – to the new lover who has, he writes, ‘turned me from enigmas forever’.[lxi] As such, Nadja is merely a stage in the author’s Bildungsroman. Breton turns his attention away from the woman who he presented as an enchantress. Far from opening itself to the risk of an encounter, Breton’s text appears to preserve itself from risk by taking refuge in a narrative in which the encounter with Nadja occupies a carefully allotted role. Nadja becomes, ultimately, a literary work of art and disappears into the literary establishment from which Surrealism was supposed to break. Breton would tell us a well wrought story about madness, about mad love.
Has Breton failed? Perhaps, as Timothy Clark observes, Breton aestheticised the surreal in his récit because he operated with an excessively determined and, in the end, thoroughly traditional conception of the surreal.[lxii] But perhaps Nadja allows an aperture through which the surreal can reveal itself. Yes, Breton incarcerates Nadja in the book that bears her name and in so doing bricks himself into his work, foreclosing the relation to the surreal he sought. But Nadja is haunted, a ghost passes through the walls and the surreal affirms itself as the absence of the work, of a worklessness that Breton cannot banish. Whilst to work is, in the broadest possible sense, to identify or to permit identification to occur, worklessness cannot be understood as a countermovement of equal force. It names, rather, a lability, a withering or differentiation that inhabits work. Blanchot indicates the failure of identification as it marks itself in Nadja, showing us that Breton’s work shelters a relation that testifies to the perpetual incompletion of work even as it calls for completion.
True, Nadja cannot become a work of pure worklessness; worklessness takes neither the form of a book nor tolerates any particular determination. Yes, Breton succumbs to the temptation to realise a literary artwork, but this temptation is the condition for the artwork appearing at all. His récit points beyond itself to worklessness, to what Blanchot calls ‘the absence of the work’ which, he says, ‘cites the work outside itself, calling it always in vain to its own worklessness and making the work re-cite itself, even when it believes it has its sights on “the outside” that it does not fail to include’.[lxiii]
This is why it is insufficient to indict Breton as the ‘Pope’ who prevented Surrealism from realising its potential. Breton fails as he must. One cannot, as Bataille would argue, understand Surrealism as a practice of existence that would preserve itself from particular works. The surreal, as Blanchot shows, is affirmed in those same works. Surrealism appears to fail in terms of its aspiration to join the artistic and political avant-gardes, yet it succeeds in another sense, that is, by affirming and redoubling the affirmation of an opening to the outside, to the unknown. This is Surrealism’s vigilance, its ghostly demand, the call for justice to which Blanchot responds in turn, where justice, now, is understood in terms of the call of or from what he calls the work, the absence of the book. But this remains too abstract. How is worklessness marked in the work? How does differentiation leave its trace?
Death, I argued in the previous chapter, is the condition of possibility of sense for the human being, the animal who speaks. This means there can be no return to life before language. As Blanchot writes, ‘man was condemned not to be able to approach anything or experience anything except through the meaning he had to create’.[lxiv] Adam’s act of naming is the start of a more general idealisation of everything that exists, but it simultaneously encloses the human being within the order of being. Yet the mastery over speech conceals a weakness or susceptibility to another experience of language. An experience which is vouchsafed when I cannot find the word I was looking for, when words fail me, or when, like Moses, I stammer. Who stammers? Who seeks a missing word? The one who, in this moment, has been swept aside by the great tide of a language which will not allow a speaker to emerge.
Blanchot figures this double experience of language by retelling Homer’s account of Ulysses’s encounter with the Sirens in the Odyssey. For Blanchot, Ulysses’s journey home stands in for the ‘I’ for whom everything that exists is opened and unfolded as to a unitary point of convergence, the ego. Like the Ulysses of the Odyssey, the task of the ‘I’ is to trace a circular itinerary through what is unknown, experiencing it, undergoing it, before returning to what is known. It is as if everything I meet came from me (from the hypostasis upon which I depend) since the heterogeneity of the thing is always and already subordinated to the measure of powers which belong to the ego. There is no possibility of heterogeneity, of anything that could occur that would outstrip its circular journey. It is this self-identification that lies at the root of both the solitary subject and language itself.
For Blanchot, however, literary writing suspends this circular movement. On the one hand, literary language is the same as everyday language; it must mean, conveying its signified to the reader. On the other, it attests to a struggle with which everyday language tries to have done. Literary language wants to preserve the materiality or physicality of language and, by doing so, allow language itself to become an image that would redouble the becoming-image of the world.
It is the ‘there is’ of language, its becoming-image that he presents as the Siren’s song. As he emphasises, it appears to be neither extraordinary nor inhuman; it possesses an extraordinary power to be sure, but one that lurks within all song. Nevertheless, to be lured by the Sirens is to be attracted by what is extraordinary in the most human of capacities. It is to discover another voice at the heart of the human one – a song that cannot be possessed by a singer. Human singing is joined ultimately to what is inhuman; to sing is always to sing ‘with’ the song of the Sirens – to join one’s voice to theirs, but in doing so, to relinquish one’s voice. The singer is joined by an inhuman voice, by the murmuring of language itself.
The ‘wonderful’ song of the Sirens was both ‘common’ and ‘secret’; it is ‘simple’ ad ‘everyday’.[lxv] The song was heard, and in such a way that it allowed more discerning hearers to heed a secret strangeness within ordinary singing. It stands in for the literary text, which, like the encounter with the song, belongs to ‘strange powers’, to ‘the abyss’.[lxvi] To hear the abyssal song of the Sirens is to realise that an abyss has opened in every utterance. The word ‘cat’ no longer vanishes in the act of successful signification but remains and along with it the whole of language, the il y a of language as it becomes image. But just as the literary writer is unable to realise the impossible ‘object’, to allow the poem to become a thing, the sailor cannot reach the source of the song.
It is for this reason that the Sirens’ song can never be said to be never actually present. Rather, it only implies the direction of the true sources of the song; the song of the Sirens is ‘only a song still to come’, one that would lead its listener toward ‘that space where the singing would really begin’.[lxvii] The Sirens seduce because of the remoteness of their song; their song is only the attraction of a song to come. Likewise, the unattainable ideal of the literary ‘object’ is seductive because of its very unattainability. Those sailors who are led towards the source by the song, steer their ships onto the rocks that surround the Sirens’ isle, finding that in reaching the ostensible source of the song, there is nothing but dying; they disappear. The sailors discover in this region that music itself is absent and their goal unattainable: there is no attainable literary ‘object’, no possibility of making the literary work into a thing. From this perspective, the writer is too early because the goal recedes and the work becomes unrealisable. The sailors have always weighed anchor too soon; the source of the song is always infinitely distant; they die broken-hearted because they have failed not once, but many times. But the writer is also too late; the goal has been overshot, she was already unfaithful to her impossible task.
Ultimately, the search for the ‘essence’ of the song, its source and its wellspring, disappoints because there is no such essence. The desire to discover the source of the song will always lead to disappointment whilst it is understood to promise a marvellous beyond. Yet one should not assume that the song is a mere lie. It calls the literary work into being; the song to come appears to dissimulate itself because it can never come to presence. But the search for the ‘object’ of literature remains admirable. Blanchot shows the relationship between the two demands in the example of Ulysses. But his is not Homer’s Ulysses: Blanchot’s Ulysses becomes Homer; he writes the Odyssey and, in so doing, he stands in for the literary author who sets out to write a novel just as his journey figures as the secret itinerary of the author.
Now it is true, Blanchot concedes, Ulysses did overcome the Sirens in a certain way. Indeed, he has himself bound to the mast, his wrists and ankles tied, in order to observe them, to pass through what no other human being had undergone. He endures the song; his crew, ears plugged, admires his mastery. Ulysses appears all the more impressive for the way in which his response to the song of Sirens allows him and the sailors he commands to regain a mastery that was challenged or had been lost: the mastery over song itself. Indeed, Ulysses’s apparent courage allows the sailors to regain their grip on the human activity of singing; they are no longer daunted by the inhumanity of the Sirens’ song. Moreover, Ulysses’s actions cause the Sirens to understand that the song is nothing special: it is merely a human song that sounds inhuman, and the Sirens are merely animals with the appearance of beautiful women. The Sirens can no longer delude themselves that they bear a privileged relationship with the song they thought was in their power. They recognise themselves in the sailors over whom they once had power, but they are fated to remain as far away from what they seek as the sailors. This knowledge turns the Sirens into real women; they become human because they belong, with the sailors, on the hither side of the origin they too would seek.
(Almost as soon as the Sirens become women, Blanchot tells us, they die. But he tells us nothing of the fabulous animals that are turned into women and undergo their own deaths (and perhaps their own resurrection). He writes of Ulysses’s death and resurrection, but Blanchot does not consider the fate of the Sirens after their deaths. Why does Blanchot kill them before they might explore their own form of existence, passing over the possibility of their return or resurrection?
Like Breton, Blanchot would exhibit a friendship for the surreal. But again, like Breton, one must not confuse those who are near the song with the song itself. Nadja is not the surreal but one who shares the opening to the surreal with Breton. Likewise, the Sirens are not their song, but share Ulysses’s fascination with the song. Implicit to Nadja and to ‘Encountering the Imaginary’ is the importance of separating the term from the relation. True, Nadja passes into insanity and the Sirens drown, but this is to say nothing of what might be possible for them. What would it mean to rewrite Nadja from the perspective of Nadja or ‘The Sirens’ Song’ from that of the drowned women? Nothing, if it is not done with respect to the relation to the surreal, which is to say, in the friendship that brings each together in an experience shared only as each becomes ‘il’. It is a question of equality; each is equal insofar as he or she exists in a unilateral and dissymmetrical relation to the surreal. Does this relation neutralise sexual difference? Certainly the ‘il’ is neither male nor female; in becoming other to myself, I am distanced from any attribute by which I might be identified. This is a claim emphasised by Blanchot when he writes of May 1968, even as one can identify in those texts a rhetoric of fraternity and filiation which Derrida will rightly claim to find problematic.[lxviii]
How, though to understand a claim which can be found in the pages of The Unavowable Community, ‘there are no run-of-the-mill women’?[lxix] Should this claim, by contrast, be extended to all human beings and, indeed, to every singularity (tout autre est tout autre, according to Derrida’s idiomatic expression)?[lxx] There is a tendency in Blanchot’s writings from ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ onwards for women to be made to stand in for the singularity of the ‘object’ of which the literary author would write.[lxxi] After noting that certain poets ‘have felt that the act of naming is disquieting and marvellous’, and making the point that the name ‘may give me its meaning but it first suppresses it’, Blanchot uses the example of a woman: ‘for me to say, “this woman”, I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her’.[lxxii] In so doing, he substitutes a woman for the flower Mallarmé uses as the example of singularity in his ‘Crisis in Verse’ upon which Blanchot draws. But why does he do so? As an act of misogyny or to remember that the annihilation of women in their flesh and blood is the basis for the circulation of words?
Against those who would object ‘with barely withheld indignation’ that the main example in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’ of the destructive power of language is a woman, Rodolphe Gasché protests that ‘the choice of the example is not fortuitous’. Reflecting upon ‘the linguistic and ontological conditions under which a thing in general […] can become Other to begin with’, Blanchot can do this most ‘poignantly’ ‘by taking “woman” as the example’.[lxxiii] How should one understand this poignancy? Is it because Blanchot knows that woman is a privileged figure of the Other who is excluded from discourse? This would account for the way in which Blanchot allows his retelling of Greek myths to form the centrepiece of both The Space of Literature and The Book to Come in which a male hero, who stands in for the literary author, is made to approach a female figure of alterity who stands in for the auto-dissimulating ‘object’ of authorial desire.[lxxiv] This comes perilously close to reinforcing the traditional image of woman as the Muse who grants a male artist the power to create whilst absenting herself from the creation.
What would it mean for a woman to speak of herself and her adventures? Écriture féminine does not escape the economy of possibility once and for all.[lxxv] It is a matter, once again, of permitting an indication to occur, to name the possible and respond to the impossible. Is this response one which would be specifically feminine – or is the feminine just one of the names for those who have been traditionally excluded from the discourse of the master? If the latter is the case, then there is nothing absolutely specific and different about écriture féminine. That the Surrealists are guilty of a casual sexism mirrored in the avant-garde groups which succeeded it (typing out revolutionary documents, according to Guy Debord, was women’s work; Marguerite Duras would later express frustration that women’s role would be to make tea for the male revolutionaries) does not count against what they affirmed as automatic writing. The same goes for Blanchot, insofar as automatism becomes, with him, the way in which human beings are given over to the impossible. Automatism is for everyone, anyone, male, female, male-and-female or any of a thousand tiny sexes – for anyone, which is to say, for the ‘il’ that comes forward in each of us. It is no surprise that Blanchot will figure the ‘il’ as the uneducable child, the untameable beast, and the Other who falls beneath the proletariat. To become ‘il’ is to be given all at once to a becoming-child, to becoming-beast, to a becoming-Other, and perhaps, too, to become woman.[lxxvi])
It would appear, then, that the literary object is, in the end, just a special kind of language, an imitative re-echo of the song human beings have always sung to themselves. The literary work, that would strive to be something more than another cultural artefact, more than a novel that would reflect the world back to itself, must be content with this modest role. Just as the Sirens become real women, the unattainable literary ‘object’ appears to become a goal just like any other; the literary writer is a human being like other human beings.
Yet the story is more complex. Blanchot suggests that although the author might appear to want to strike out and make a thing of words, he is held back by cowardice. Blanchot condemns Ulysses because the hero of The Odyssey exposes the Sirens’ song for what it is without exposing himself to the risk of seeking its source. The bravery of his exposure to the Sirens’ song is only apparent; Ulysses holds himself back from the greater mystery as to the relation between the human and the more-than-human implicit in singing itself. Whilst the sailors might believe Ulysses is heroic, Blanchot knows that Ulysses does not want to succumb to the desire that would lead him towards the source of the Song. Ulysses is reluctant to fall, wanting to maintain his mastery. He cannot let himself disappear, but would endure and save for posterity the experience that is granted to him because of his uncanny privilege. Likewise, the writer conceals a similar reluctance, simultaneously heeding the abyss in every utterance and refusing to heed it, refusing to hear what would overcome his powers and cause him to disappear. Like Ulysses, who would endure the Sirens’ song without letting himself be seduced by the Sirens’ song, the writer merely feigns adventurousness.
Ulysses stops the ears of his crew with wax and has himself bound to the mast of his ship; the novelist is able to write. Yet this cannot preserve Ulysses from the Sirens’ song; nor can the novelist withhold himself from the effects of the language he employs. Unbeknownst to Ulysses and to the sailors who watch him grimace in what they take to be ecstasy, he does indeed succumb to the enchantment of the Sirens’ song. Ulysses is not free of the song; his technical mastery does not prevent it from enticing him on into the other voyage which is, Blanchot explains, the voyage of the récit. Ulysses’s ruses do not prevent his fall. Although it appears that Ulysses emerges from his encounter with the song unscathed, returning to Ithaca to reclaim his wife, his son, and the domestic hearth, Ulysses drowns just as others have drowned before him. Ulysses is ensorcelled by the song and dies; he has embarked on another voyage.
Likewise, the novelist appears able to successfully navigate through the process of literary creation; he is the virtuoso who re-invents our world and enriches our language. Yet a struggle marks the birth of the novel – one which is dimly figured in the stories of alcoholism and suicide. How might one explain this ‘other’ voyage? It may appear Blanchot is on the trail of a secret desire that leads him to despair. Yet for Blanchot it is not a question of the will; ‘no one can begin a journey with the deliberate intention of reaching the Isle of Capraea’; the ‘other’ voyage, the one which begins with the disappearance of the author, is marked by ‘silence, discretion, oblivion’.[lxxvii] Silence, discretion and forgetfulness dissimulate the voyage from the narrative of the novel – this is why the author does not know of the fascination that rules over what he takes to be ‘his’ creation even as he seeks, at the same time, to anchor himself in the world, to console himself with literary prizes and to keep a journal which anchors his writing in the passing of days.
Ulysses is a cowardly figure who seeks to preserve himself against his disappearance, but he really does ‘fall’ or ‘disappear’; the encounter with the song overcomes his mastery. Although we can imagine Ulysses regaling Penelope and Telemachus with stories of his exploits, there would be one tale he is unable to recount. If Ulysses were to begin one day on a book of reminiscences – if he were, as Blanchot suggests, to become Homer himself, relating the story of his exploits, an entire dimension of the encounter with the song would hold itself in reserve. Yet it is this encounter with the song that allows the author to assume the power to write; Ulysses-Homer could not begin his book without having undertaken the journey as Ulysses. For every Homer, every novelist, there is, for Blanchot, always and already a drowned Ulysses. In asking us to entertain the notion that Ulysses and Homer were one and the same person, Blanchot separates out the moments of the composition of the novel in accordance with the two versions of the story of Ulysses’s encounter he recounts.
Imagine Ulysses-Homer sitting down in peace to begin his memoirs. Telemachus and Penelope are close by; he writes under the protection of his home, his Kingdom, and is confident in the powers that accrue to him as a novelist. But even as he picks up his pen to write, Ulysses-Homer undergoes a peculiar transformation: this novelist is no longer the real Ulysses who cleverly resisted the song, but the ‘other’ Ulysses, one who is stirred by the dream that he could follow the song to its source. This Ulysses sets himself the impossible goal of laying bare the power of song itself, and as such, must be defeated in this aim, which demands, as its toll, that he, Ulysses, disappears as Ulysses. Likewise, no novelist as a novelist can endure this disappearance. The source of writing does not reveal itself to him. In refusing to allow itself to be measured by the wiliness and native cunning of Ulysses, the origin envelops Ulysses himself, drowning him as it drowned the Sirens when they became real women. The Odyssey, and this title stands in for that of any novel, is the tombstone not only of the Sirens, but of Ulysses the sea-captain, the novelist-adventurer. The fact that the real Ulysses survived his encounter with the Sirens does not mean that the other Ulysses can secure his grasp upon the source, the potency of writing itself. That potency is denied him because he can never reach it as Ulysses. He falls, he must fall (and he even wants to fall) because he cannot seize upon that which he would seek.
There is thus another voice and another event; there is a Ulysses who is the shadow of the first who does not return to Ithaca, completing the circle and thereafter settling down to write his memoirs. The novel that Ulysses-Homer writes likewise depends upon his drowned double who lies at the bottom of the ocean. The human time in which Ulysses-Homer sets himself the task of writing the novel called The Odyssey gives way to that suspended instant when he is sent on another journey. The birth of the novel cannot be understood without reference to this aneconomic suspension. The psychologist of creativity will never grasp the relationship between the power of creativity and the other voyage into the impossible. Nor can the philosopher broach the question of the temporality of time without taking this inordinate instant into account. It is only the critical commentator who could attend to the hidden vicissitudes of the birth of the novel, who is privy to the instant that secretly inscribed itself in the novel. Blanchot tells us that the novel tells another tale, a récit that is unknown to its teller and to an entire industry of cultural reception.
The récit, a history of French literature might tell us, names a literary form of which Breton’s Nadja and Duras’s The Malady of Death and Blanchot’s own Death Sentence and When the Time Comes are examples: short, novella- or novelette-length fictions that are focused around some central occurrence. As Blanchot writes in ‘The Sirens’ Song’, although ‘the récit seems to fulfil its ordinary vocation as a narrative’, it nevertheless bears upon ‘one single episode’ in a way that does not strive to narrate ‘what is believable and familiar’ in the manner of the novelist.[lxxviii]
In Breton’s récit, it is the series of meetings with the young woman who bears its name. In one sense, Breton is aware of the singularity of the récit – he insistently rejects conventional genres; Nadja, unlike the novel is not keen to pass for fiction. It does not draw attention to its artifice, presenting itself as a form of entertainment, as a diverting series of episodes. Breton’s récit narrates an encounter that is extraordinary not only because the young woman its narrator meets is exceptional but because this encounter transforms the world. For Clark, Nadja enacts ‘an unprecedented mode of writing whose provenance is a new experience of the streets as a space of inspiration and mediation to the unknown’.[lxxix] As Clark observes, it is neither simply a fictional work nor an autobiography; it does not relate anecdotes from afar, but indicates its own relation to the events: ‘the actual writing of the text is affirmed as part of the writer’s own exploration of the events he is living’.[lxxx] It does not merely imitate Breton’s experience but is part of the articulation of an event as it escapes the measure of the experiencing ‘I’. Breton is not, like the Blanchotian novelist, the creator-God who freely and sovereignly sustains his creation. His récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and the assurance of the reader for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he inhabits.
Breton’s récit narrates an extraordinary event, but it also names the unattainable ‘object’ of literary fascination, the source of the Sirens’ song. He insists that the récit does not recall or re-stage the event, but brings it about:
The récit is not the relating of an event but this event itself, the approach of this event, the place where it is called on to unfold, an event still to come, by the magnetic power of which the narrative itself can hope to come true.[lxxxi]
It might appear that Breton seeks to write about his encounter with Nadja, but his récit hides another and more fundamental encounter, one that is the condition of possibility of any narration. The event that Breton would narrate is joined in his récit by another narration and another event – that of the interruption of his capacities as an author, the figure for which is the song of the Sirens. Breton, in short, has forgotten what he set out to remember; he has lost what he sought to find.
To recall: the sailors were too impatient, and dropped anchor because they thought they had reached what they sought. But the only way to find the source of song was, Blanchot said, to undergo a prevoluntary fall or disappearance. Just as it is impossible to endure this disappearance in the ordinary course of events, it would also be impossible for anyone or anything, the récit included, to endure the event. Ulysses is condemned only to approach the event until he disappears; likewise, the author of the récit can do no more than approach until he too disappears, and in so doing, is caught up in what happens as the récit.
Is this what Breton understands when he asks, in his final query in the last lines of the penultimate section of his book, ‘Who goes here? Is it you, Nadja? … Is it only me? Is it myself?’[lxxxii] These lines, responding like an echo to the opening question of Nadja, ‘Who am I?’ mean for Blanchot ‘that the whole narrative is but the redoubling of the same question maintained in its spectral indifference’.[lxxxiii]
Who writes? For Blanchot, Breton’s récit testifies in an extraordinary way to the encounter with the Sirens’ song as it redoubles his enigmatic encounter with Nadja. True, Breton encounters Nadja and sets out to write a book that relates this encounter. But writing Nadja, recasting his adventure on an ideal plane, Breton must lose her anew, making do with a papery Nadja, made of words. The redoubled loss of Nadja calls for another loss, for Breton yields himself up as a writer, that is, as one who freely, sovereignly, would sign his name to the book that is ostensibly his. It is as if the act of narrating set a trap for him. To take up writing, to narrate an encounter, is to allow himself to become the lure to a trap which threatens to snap shut. That the author escapes it, recovering in order to finish a work, is not a tribute to his ingenuity. To be sure, Breton finishes Nadja, but his narrative depends upon the detour he was compelled to undertake as soon as he took up his pen. He is lost, as Blanchot writes, ‘in a preliminary Récit’, in an event that begins when he starts to write.[lxxxiv]
What does this mean? On the one hand, novel and récit name two separate genres; a text like Nadja, which bears on a single event, is different from that of The Last Chronicle of Barset which ties together a whole cluster of events. On the other, they name tendencies within the act of telling itself, to the extent that anyone who begins to write a literary fiction does so as a ‘novelist’.
The récit is also a name, for Blanchot, for the suspended instant, the reduction which is implicit in literary creativity. What appears to be completely new about Surrealism, breaking it from the entire history of literature, is the way it would attempt to seize this reduction through the practice of automatism. In one sense, surrealism must fail in this ambition – no one can transcribe the ‘there is’ of language, the great impersonal murmur so that it could become present on the page. But the murmur in question, like Levinas’s ‘there is’, does not exist as something separable from this world. It is part of language, belonging to it, even as it can only be indicated.
It is the greatness of Surrealism to have maintained this indication by struggling against the notion of the work of art or a conventional political practice. The ‘preliminary Récit’ of which Blanchot writes is one name for the event which awakens this struggle, or, as it were, the happening of the surreal itself. The greatness of Surrealism lies in the vigilance it maintains with respect to the surreal.
To claim that vigilance happens in Nadja or Mad Love, which is to say, in literature, is not to betray Surrealism by understanding it in terms of the artworks which are linked to its name. To be sure, the reduction sought by the Surrealists – the coming together of dream and reality – indicates itself in the text, but it is also marked into the practice of friendship, of that relation between the Surrealists in which it was the surreal that was at stake. The latter is a second order vigilance, aiming to preserve what has already happened as the ‘preliminary Récit’.
Homer’s Odyssey traces the journey of Ulysses to his homeland, but it does not bear upon those intermittences and discontinuities that would expose the economy of the journey to a troubling event. The Ulysses of the novel is always safe; even when he risks himself, he does so assured of his survival. He is always the man who undergoes adventures without risking a profound self-alteration: his ruses allow him to accomplish deeds that appear brilliant, but are actually hollow. This Ulysses seems to have mastered the song itself and to be able to recall the vicissitudes of his encounter at leisure, writing safely beside Penelope and Telemachus. But the watery death of the other Ulysses, for whom The Odyssey is a tomb, is testament to the fact that the contrivance of Ulysses could never allow him to endure what he could not endure in the first person.
The novelist believes, like Ulysses-Homer, that he is in command of that which he would narrate, but Blanchot argues otherwise. On Blanchot’s account, he is like the wily Ulysses – he can only become a novelist by refusing to relinquish himself to the call that solicits him. If he is able to write books it is only because he is cut off from the original source of his inspiration by his own ruses and machinations. But his work attests to an inhuman effort to heed what the novelist cannot endure: the narrative voice, the récit.
The Blanchotian récit marks the memory of the experience that the novel leaves behind in order to become a novel. The struggle at the birth of the novel is therefore the struggle to do away with the event to which the récit bears witness, that is, to leave the ‘dead’ or ‘disappeared’ Ulysses in the water, abandoning death in favour of the deathless life of the whole, discontinuity in favour of continuity, the absence of work for the labour which gathers everything together. In leaving behind the récit, the novel also leaves the event itself behind. The novel is, for all its riches, only a narration of what it is has already lost. Yes, it dazzles; the novel reproduces the richness and detail of the world. The Blanchotian novelist dreams of the Unity where discontinuity would be merely a sign of the failure of the understanding, a mark of our finitude. In this way, the novel appears to exert, in advance, a grasp of the whole, of the time and space in which everything unfolds. At the same time, the Blanchotian récit inscribes itself into the novel, continually differentiating itself from it such that the ‘there is’ of language indicates itself.
Blanchot’s account of the ‘other’ voyage of Ulysses stages the joining of the inhuman voice of the récit to that of the novelist. The journey of this Ulysses is not circular. The primordial relation through which he would constitute himself as a self-centred and hedonistic subject is interrupted by a call that contests his self-realisation. The closed circuit of interiority is opened; Ulysses no longer experiences himself as an ‘I can’ who can pass unhindered through the finite order of being. The song of the Sirens is unintegratably foreign. Ulysses can only give himself over in response to this call and, thus summoned, is prevented from recoiling or turning back upon himself. The infinite resistance of the song to Ulysses’s powers cannot be understood in terms of a clash of contradictory wills because Ulysses cannot exist with or alongside the song. His disappearance means that he is henceforward unable to unfold his potentialities in a realm in which willed action is possible. No higher synthesis will allow him to mediate the song of the Sirens and integrate it into his own endeavours. Rather, he is co-constituted by the call; his selfhood is simultaneously economic and aneconomic. He is defined by the wiliness and the cleverness that attest to the auto-affirmative strength and vitality that permit his boundless curiosity; but he is also steered by a lethal susceptibility to the song of the Sirens.
At once, Ulysses is driven towards what satisfies the circular demand that would permit his economic return to himself and towards the aneconomic differentiation that denies this return. It is precisely this irresolvable play of economy and aneconomy that allows Ulysses to stand in for both the writer of the novel and the récit. It is this play that determines the relationship between novel and récit, preventing their resolution into a higher synthesis, that is, the incorporation of the récit as an episode in a novel. The récit does not name a literary genre that is separable from the novel, just as the Blanchotian event is not separable from the ordinary course of time. Novel and récit are moments of the same movement of invention. The dissension between novel and récit in Blanchot’s writings can be found in any action. Literature and the reduction it carries out attest to this dissension.
In Blanchot’s retelling of the encounter with the Sirens, Homer’s Odyssey becomes a memoir: it is the story Ulysses tells of his return, of the completion of the circle. Ulysses not only undergoes his encounter with the Sirens, but relates this encounter himself. Nothing happens to him that he cannot relate: his is the memory that can recall everything, lifting it out of oblivion and recounting it in turn. Ulysses becomes Homer, the virtuoso of memory, the adventurer who, after his adventures, can relate his own story to entertain others. Ulysses-Homer writes, in the narratorial voice, of his triumph and his return.
Yes, Ulysses returns to his kingdom and sets right all wrongs. But the Ulysses who returns to Ithaca, to the family hearth, to settle down and write, is followed by another Ulysses. Blanchot, in the guise of a sea-traveller, has followed Ulysses on both voyages, remembering what Ulysses does not, and disclosing this gap in Ulysses-Homer’s memory in his ‘The Sirens’ Song’. Who would recognise this worn and threadbare Ulysses who returns to his home in order to remember what outstrips the memory of his homeland? Yet it is this trauma that is marked at the heart of the novel as the récit. This Ulysses, ineluctably marked by death, has been vouchsafed a secret that cost him his intimate relationship with his and any homeland, rendering his Odyssey infinite. This Blanchotian Ulysses drowns; at the same time, he is able to bring us, his readers, tidings of the ‘other’ voyage the literary writer has undertaken.
It is this Blanchotian Ulysses who waits at the elbow of the Ulysses-Homer, composer of the Odyssey. This Blanchotian Ulysses remembers the other story, the exile or the wandering of Ulysses. As the critical commentator who follows Ulysses, losing and then rediscovering him, Blanchot triumphs because he alone can retrace this journey. Blanchot is capable of remembering what Ulysses forgets. His is the power to bear witness to the extraordinary happening of the récit but, as such, is a mastery of that which cannot be mastered.
How are we to understand the adventures of this Blanchotian Ulysses? Blanchot is not the adept who has had an experience and would teach others about it; he does not keep a secret. He remains on the lookout, waiting for the chance for his writing to be seized by an unknown current. He relinquishes his grip and allows his mastery to be taken from him, but this is what allows him to escape the trap, to recover himself from the preliminary Récit. Blanchot is thus open to what the author of Nadja is not. He writes, with ‘The Sirens’ Song’, a text suffused with the origin, a text that lies within every literary-critical essay he has written and every work of literature.
Surrealism fails and redoubles the failure implicit in any literary text. Automatic writing strives to become impersonality itself, the product of the machine part which echoes the pre-personal freedom of language. ‘The Sirens’ Song’ maintains, as explicitly as possible, the struggle at the heart of literature, the ‘preliminary Récit’ that re-echoes in every novel. To claim simply that it does so as literary criticism and not as literature is to miss the point: literary criticism is also literature if it allows the récit, the event at the novel’s heart, to resound. The novel is only an account of that event and to this extent is already a work of commentary insofar as the narrative voice lets speak the repetition, the reduction, upon which literature depends.
‘The Sirens Song’ is not a récit of the récit because, like automatic writing, like Nadja and any work of literature it is made of words which mean; it names the possible and responds to the impossible. ‘The Sirens Song’ is not about the vicissitudes of the author so much as the experience of reading. As such, it redoubles the struggle literature maintains, setting itself back into the reduction, into the vigilance over which it watches. In this way it awakens in its readers one who might exhibit a vigilance over vigilance, watching out for the experience of the ‘il’ who suffers from language, from the neutral double of language.
[i] Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (The University of Michigan Press, 1972), 30. Translation amended. Early to late, Blanchot attaches enormous importance to Surrealism. The Work of Fire and The Infinite Conversation contain major essays on Surrealism and there are also important reflections in The Space of Literature. A fuller account of his relationship to Surrealism would have to take account of the implicit rejection of Sartre’s reading of Surrealism in What is Literature?
[ii] Ibid., 124, 127, 128.
[iii] Ibid., 30.
[iv] Ibid., 129.
[v] Bataille, The Absence of Myth. Writings on Surrealism, translated by Michael Richardson (London and New York, Verso, 1994), 31.
[vii] The Infinite Conversation, 408; 599.
[viii] Ibid. 408; 599
[ix] Ibid., 408; 599.
[x] The Work of Fire, 85; 90.
[xi] The Infinite Conversation, 407; 598.
[xii] Breton, Nadja, translated by Richard Howard (New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1960), 64.
[xvi] Ibid., 66.
[xvii] Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (University of California Press, 1995), 44.
[xviii] Nadja, 11.
[xix] Profane Illumination, 44.
[xx] Nadja, 13. The French reads : ‘je m’efforce, par rapport aux autres hommes, de savoir en quoi consiste, sinon à quoi tient, ma différenciation’ (Nadja, Paris : Gallimard, 1964), 11.
[xxi] Ibid., 11
[xxiii] The Surrealist Manifestos, 21.
[xxiv] Ibid., 22.
[xxv] Breton, Mad Love, translated by Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 36.
[xxviii] The Surrealist Manifestos, 14. After the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud presents symbolism as on a par to the Kantian categories, innately and universally organising experience according to shared unconscious fantasies. Why didn't this bring Freud closer to the Surrealist desire for the great revolution, the great liberation of desire? Perhaps with fascism on the rise and the Second World War looming, Freud despaired of the liberatory force of desire. All the more significant, then, that Blanchot would celebrate Surrealism in his great essay of 1945, republished in The Work of Fire.
[xxix] Guerlac, Literary Polemics: Bataille, Sartre, Valery, Breton (Stanford: Stanford University, 1997), 14.
[xxx] Breton recalls: ‘evenings, around seven, she likes to be in the Metro, second-class. Most of the people in the car with her have finished their day’s work. She sits down among them, and tries to detect from their expressions what they are thinking about. Naturally they are thinking about what they have left behind until tomorrow, only until tomorrow, and also of what is waiting for them this evening, which either relaxes or else makes them still more anxious. Nadja stares at something in the air: “They are good people”. More moved than I care show, this time I grow angry: “Oh no. Besides that’s not the point. People cannot be interesting insofar as they endure their work, with or without all their other troubles. How can that raise them up if the spirit of revolt is not uppermost within them? Besides, at such moments you see them and they don’t see you. How I loathe the servitude people try to hold up to me as being so valuable. I pity the man who is condemned to it, who cannot generally escape it, but it is not the burden of his labour that disposes me in his favour, it is – it can only be – the vigour of his protest against it’ (Nadja, 68).
[xxxi] Ibid., 115.
[xxxii] Ibid., 158.
[xxxiii] The Infinite Conversation, 303; 448.
[xxxiv] Ibid. 303; 448.
[xxxv] Ibid., 304; 448.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 304; 448.
[xxxvii] The Writing of the Disaster, 9; 20.
[xxxviii] The Space of Literature, 266-267; 361.
[xxxix] Ibid., 267; 361.
[xliv] Nadja, 52.
[xlv] The Space of Literature, 258; 347-348.
[xlvi] ‘What is Metaphysics?’, translated by David Farrell Krell in Basic Writings, second edition (London: Routledge, 1993), 89-110, 93.
[xlvii] The Space of Literature, 262; 353.
[xlviii] Ibid., 254; 341.
[xlix] Ibid., 254; 341.
[l] There is a temptation to adapt what Heidegger writes of anxiety to the experience in question. But Blanchot’s claim is subtly different to Heidegger’s: the experience he describes is brought about by the encounter with a particular thing rather than opening up through a mood. I am attuned by this encounter rather than this encounter being enabled by my mood.
[li] I will drop the expression the ‘other’ image, referring from now on to what Blanchot means by this word.
[lii] The Space of Literature, 254; 341.
[liii] Surrealist Manifestos, 28.
[lv] The Work of Fire, 325; 314.
[lvi] Ibid., 325-6; 314.
[lvii] Ibid., 72; 77.
[lviii] Ibid., 49; 55.
[lix] Ibid., 191; 188.
[lx] As such, it is akin to Blanchot’s Judaism, where the Messiah is the one who can never come and where waiting, informed by prophecy, is already the suspension in question. See chapter five, below.
[lxi] Nadja, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1960), 158.
[lxii] See Clark, The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 217.
[lxiii] The Infinite Conversation, 420; 617.
[lxiv] The Work of Fire, 323; 313.
[lxv] The Book to Come, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 3; Le Livre à venir (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 10.
[lxvi] Ibid., 4; 10.
[lxvii] Ibid., 4; 10.
[lxviii] Derrida, Politics of Friendship, translated by George Collins (London: Verso Books, 1997), viii.
[lxix] The Unavowable Community, translated by Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988), 52; La Communauté Inavouable (Paris: Éditions du Minuit, 1983), 79.
[lxx] See Derrida, The Gift of Death, translated by David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82-115.
[lxxi] See my ‘The Impossibility of Loving: Blanchot, Sexual Difference, Community’, The Journal of Cultural Research, vol. 7, no. 3, 227-242.
[lxxii] The Work of Fire, 322; 312.
[lxxiii] ‘The Felicities of Paradox: Blanchot on the Null Space of Literature’ in Carolyn Bailey Gill, ed., Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing (New York and London, Routledge, 1996), 34-69, 68.
[lxxiv] See, for example, the retelling of Orpheus’s descent into Hades to rescue Eurydice in The Space of Literature under the title ‘Orpheus’s Gaze’ (171-176). For Blanchot, Orpheus has lost Eurydice just as the poet loses the real existence of that he would write about; he seeks Eurydice just as the poet would seek to recapture the real existence of that which is lost in language. Significantly, Blanchot claims in an untitled foreword to The Space of Literature, that the chapter called, ‘Orpheus’s Gaze’ is the centre of this book (v). See also the opening chapter of The Book to Come, ‘The Sirens’ Song’, which I comment on in chapter two, below.
[lxxv] See Cixous’s Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector and Tsvetayeva, translated by Verena Andermatt Conley (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 1-27, 75-109. My claim would have to be carefully substantiated.
[lxxvi] I allude to Deleuze and Guattari’s discussions of becoming-woman in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). See the debate in the part 10 of Deleuze and Guattari: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers volume 3, edited by Gary Genosko (London: Routledge, 2001).
[lxxvii] The Book to Come, 5; 12.
[lxxviii] Ibid., 6; 13.
[lxxix] The Theory of Inspiration, 213.
[lxxx] Ibid., 214.
[lxxxi] The Book to Come, 6; 14.
[lxxxii] Nadja, 144.
[lxxxiii] The Infinite Conversation, 420; 616.
[lxxxiv] Ibid., 414; 608.