The Merciful Surplus of Strength
Like so many words in his theoretical lexicon (or at least that lexicon he takes over from ordinary words), Blanchot doubles up the word writing, letting it name a state in which the self finds itself unable to gather its forces together as well as the activity of putting words on the page. Is this why he writes so often of exhaustion and affliction - of those states which likewise set the self back into its incapacity, bringing it face to face with what it cannot do? There are also, it is true, more positive moods ('we should know the disaster by joyful names') - joys, lightnesses - which are also the topic of the récits and the criticism, but these likewise are never simply undergone in the first person.
Each time, the act of writing depends upon what Kafka has called 'a merciful surplus of strength' that returns the writer to the 'I can' that opens the world according to what is possible for a human being. Each time, strength lifts the writer from the quagmire, from those swamplike moods in which the self is not yet gathered together. Moods which, if not uncommon - the everyday itself, says Blanchot, can also be doubled up, giving itself to be experienced as a drifting and vacancy, as that boredom which suspends the relation of the self to itself - are too quickly forgotten, like the night mists that vanish with morning.
These moods, one might think, are also forgotten by the writer who attempts to commit them to narrative; if to write is to draw on the 'merciful surplus of strength' that returns to the writer the capacity to write, then that same ability to be able separates itself from the mood in which nothing is possible, not even memory. Unless that same experience - understood, now, as a test or a trial (but who is tested? who is on trial?) - leaves its mark within memory, one upon which the writer might draw so as to take it up in narration.
Here, of course, the writer will not be aware of what he is doing. The act of writing banishes the exhaustion that relents for a moment to allow him to write - but there is still a way that it might carry with it a cloud of non-action, that it fails in an important way to achieve itself, and marks this non-achievement in the finished work of prose. For a time, for the writer, writing seems activity itself - it is only activity; Kafka writes 'The Judgement' all in one go, in one night, his legs sore from being cramped up beneath his desk; but there is then a falling away; the burst of writing soon ends, leaving the writer as before, waiting for the 'merciful surplus of strength' to catch him on its rising wave.
Then the drama of writing has little to do with personal initiative. Unless initiative - the freedom to write, to create a finished book - is given, not taken; unless it is understood to depend upon a kind of passivity with respect to the task at hand.
The Test of Inspiration
It is in this sense that writing always implies something like a trial or a test. That is, the attunement Blanchot seems to feel is important to the author is already a trial, breaking the writer from the linearity of time. Writing is always set back into this trial, drawing deep upon it even as it seems to leap forward as activity. Certainly, inspiration is that gathering of strength before a creative act; but isn't it also that wandering exile, the banishment from the time of production - of time as a medium of production, and from the self-relation that would allow the self to assume its agency?
It is in this way that Blanchot recasts the experience of inspiration, which has always involved, in its traditional formulations, elements of passivity and activity. Unique in Blanchot, however, is the way in which the relation between those elements is understood. No one, I think, has set them apart so radically, and no one attempted to think what has been separated thus as part of the unitary movement of writing.
The experience of inspiration has always been concealed by the figure of the Muse, of the god; it was understood as a gift from afar, by which the Poet was called. With Blanchot, it is just such a gift, but one, now, deprived of the assurances of its origin. The modern writer (but this is not Blanchot's term) is not sure what to write, or how; he is not sure that what he has begun is a true beginning, and must entrust himself, instead, to the bare act of writing - an act which also involves non-action as it emerges from the test of inspiration.
In a sense, nothing other is at issue when Homer invokes the Muses than in the passage Kafka writes on the 'merciful surplus of strength'.
What did Homer suppose himself to be doing when he wrote (when he sang)? According to an interesting book by Finkelkraut, which I paraphrase here, he takes himself to be reporting the truth. No, Homer did not see what happened - he was not present at Troy, and many even say he was blind, but the Muses saw everything; they were eyewitnesses to the events. Even though Homer knows what occurred in broad outline, he calls upon the Muses to help him when his expertise fails. There is a point when he sings:
Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympus -you are gods, and attend all things and know all things, but we hear only the report and have no knowledge -tell me who were the leaders of the Danaans and their rulers.
True enough, the Muses supply him with details he had no means of knowing.
With Kafka, it is no longer a matter of calling on otherworldly assistance. Inspiration, now, draws upon the hidden, unexpected assistance of writing - the way in which suffering can be doubled up as it is experienced, then written. Only to write is also a relief from suffering - it is the merciful surplus that propels writing, that gives it strength, until there is the risk of writing in bad faith, where the figure of the Author usurps the more humble figure of the writer, part of whom is always lost before the act of writing can begin.
This loss gives nothing that the writer can know. If, as is certainly the case, the trial of writing is also a kind of witnessing, a vigilance - what is seen, what is experienced, never belongs to the order of knowledge and not simply because the trial is only undergone by a single individual, affording only a single, limited experience of what happened. Rather, the witness is in lieu of himself; vigilance happens in the absence of self-relation, as an exposure that has not closed itself into an experience. It happens in an event which is without determinacy, without limit, that happens, if it can be said to happen, in the suspension of time understood as a medium of production.
Nothing then is known - at least not directly. There is no Muse to reveal what the writer cannot see. Then the writer, like Homer, is blind; he must be. Blind and without the prospect of seeing what lies ahead of him. Then writing, the act of writing, is a leap in the dark. A leap of a kind of faith, and which keeps memory of that solitary passion, that martyrdom of witnessing that happens upstream of action.
Darkness and Forgetting
Helen in the Iliad and Alcinous in the Odyssey both say the same thing: it was the desire of the gods to grant material for a song that led to the terror of the Trojan wars. Helen first of all (she is speaking of Paris, also, knowing that they were the cause of the war to come): 'On us two Zeus has set a doom of misery, so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations.' Alcinous claims the gods destroyed Troy and the Acheans 'that there might be a song in the ears of men yet unborn'.
The gods set the Trojan wars in motion to await the poet who would call upon the Muses to retell the events. But why did the gods, who saw everything, want to hear them told again? And what of the Muses, gods among the gods - why, if they were the ones who would give the poet the gift of song would they want to bring about the wars? Divine caprice? Or was it to hear the changes wrought by the poet, to experience the surprise of the events happening anew in the song?
Whatever the answer, we also find the equivalent in Blanchot's fictions. Claudia says in When The Time Comes, 'No one here wants to belong to a récit [a narrative]'; this phrase is repeated inWaiting for Oblivion. The conclusion (is it a conclusion?) of The Madness of the Day: 'No more récits, never again.' Helen and Alcinous suspect that what has befell them did so for the benefit of the singers in the greater halls - for Homer himself. Blanchot's characters want only to disentangle themselves from linear narration, letting the word récit, like the word writing, double itself up, naming at once a literary genre, and narration in general, and the non-narratable: the event that does not belong to the order of knowable, recountable experience.
No more récits - but why? Because there are no more gods. The Muses were said to be daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Some asked how, if this were the case, the poet could call upon the Muses as eyewitnesses of what happened before the birth of Zeus. Inventive poets gave another genealogy for the Muses, claiming they were born from Uranos and Gaia, gods from an earlier stage in the theogony. The Muses would have to come first of all, else how could a singer like Hesiod compose his epic? But then the theogony can only reach back to the Muses, recounting their birth and their progeny. Before them, darkness, the forgotten.
When there are no gods, it is this darkness that rolls forward in the writer, which bears him. It is the forgotten that, retreating from knowledge, from the measure of knowledge, knows itself in the words of the writer whom it has chosen. Why, once again, did the gods want to give material to Homer's epics?
I think it was this: the gods, all-powerful, receive something over which they can exert no power. They learn once again of the wars of Troy and, with Hesiod's Theogony, of their own birth. What else do they learn? That there is something in the song which escapes and threatens to destroy the gods themselves. In one sense, Homer and Hesiod give way to a generation of philosophers who agree that the epic poets have already made the gods all too human. But in another - although this is an experience that will become increasingly closed to philosophy - it is darkness, the forgotten that returns in place of the many gods of Hesiod and the Olympus of Homer.