Thursday, August 04, 2005

Beatitude: Blanchot and Death

(Following on from here...)

"I" die before being born. (Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, 101)

I believe only in death, and precisely in death as impossible, for which reason I am obsessed with, curious about, and convinced of mortality. (Derrida, "Deconstructions: The Im-possible," 18)

But there is another kind of interruption, more enigmatic and more grave. It introduces the wait that measures the distance between two interlocutors--no longer a reducible, but an irreducible distance. (Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, 76)

Conversely, political speech--Blanchot refers especially to the "terrible monologues" of Hitler--often seeks to eliminate silence altogether, and so perhaps also the exigency that is an incessant dying (The Infinite Conversation, 75).

To think the way one dies: without purpose, without power, without unity, and precisely without "the way." Whence the effacement of this formulation as soon as it is thought--as soon as it is thought, that is, both on the side of thinking and of dying, in dis-equilibrium, in an excess of meaning and in excess of meaning. No sooner is it thought than it has departed; it is gone, outside.
Thinking as dying excludes the "as" of thought, in a manner such that even if we suppress this "as" by paratactic simplification and write: "to think: to die," it forms an enigma in its absence, a practically unbridgeable space. The un-relation of thinking and dying is also the form of their relation: not that thinking proceeds toward dying, proceeding thus toward its other, but not that it proceeds toward its likeness either. It is thus that "as" acquires the impetuousness of its meaning: neither like nor different, neither other nor same. (The Writing of the Disaster, 39)

Presence is only presence at a distance, and this distance is absolute--that is, irreducible; that is, infinite. (Blanchot, Friendship, 218)

Language, in its attentive and forgetful being, with its power of dissimulation that effaces every determinate meaning and even the existence of the speaker, in the gray neutrality that constitutes the essential hiding place of all being and thereby frees the space of the image - is neither truth nor time, neither eternity nor man; it is instead the always undone form of the outside. It places the origin in contact with death, or rather brings them both to light in the flash of their infinite oscillation - a momentary contact in a boundless space. The pure outside of the origin, if that is indeed what language is eager to greet, never solidifies into a penetrable and immobile positivity; and the perpetually rebegun outside of death, although carried toward the light by the essential forgetting of language, never sets the limit at which truth would finally begin to take shape. They immediately flip sides. The origin takes on the transparency of the endless; death opens interminably onto the repetition of the beginning. And what language is (not what it means, not the form in which it says what it means), what language is in its being, is that softest of voices, that nearly imperceptible retreat, that weakness deep inside and surrounding every thing and every face - what bathes the belated effort of the origin and the dawnlike erosion of death in the same neautral light, at once day and night. Orpheus's murderous forgetting, Ulysses' wait in chains, are the very being of language. (Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside)

My speech is a warning that at this very moment death is loose in the world, that it has suddenly appeared between me, as I speak, and the being I address: it is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding. Death alone allows me to grasp what I want to attain; it exists in words as the only way they can have meaning. Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness. (Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 323-24)

Derrida's emphasis on radical aporia extends to "belief" in this manner: "belief" in its strongest affirmative sense requires that the thing one is believing in remain unbelievable. That is, "if one only believed in what was believable, the concept of belief itself would disappear." (In Derrida's reading, Heidegger never attempts to acknowledge sufficiently the act of belief that allows him to say "we" in the first place (Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge"). According to Derrida then, if anything would seem to require an act of true belief it would be atheism. Atheism is precisely the belief in death. Death, only ever knowable by the other, from the distance of the witness becomes, in a sense maybe, the new God.

Giving urgency and meaning to language, given to each other through the act of witnessing, death is the condition of possibility for any community, ethics or just relation toward the other. Blanchot's writing is obsessively occupied with the experience of the death of the other, which is a "limit-experience" because it exposes the subject to a certain fragility that is unavoidably at once immediate and inaccessible.

What calls me most radically into question? Not my relation to myself as finite or as the consciousness of being before death or for death, but my presence in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another's death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community. (The Unavowable Community, 9)

The death of the Other is one of those overwhelming events which reverberate throughout L’arrêt de mort [Death Sentence], and indeed all of Blanchot’s fiction. In such events, the Other affects me, or concerns me. and at the same time escapes my scrutiny. The traditional directionality of Western thought is inverted. I am no longer able to refer the advent of the other person to my thought of that person, or to a space of figural substitution in which my fantasy is able to play freely. Instead, my thought is taken away from me, estranged, singularized, and necessitated, by the Other’s attraction. Metaphor gives way to metamorphosis. I am altered, and drawn outside of myself, in an encounter that does not even occur in the time of my own interiority but precedes the constitution of myself as someone capable ot having such an encounter. Just as my thinking is sustained by a pensée that exceeds my capacity to think it, so in its turn that pensée is generated in the violence and surprise of a happening that it is unable to adequately formulate. Just as writing is not a self-sufficient action, but is drawn into and impelled by a broader movement of compulsion, so the obsessive repetition that initiates thought is itself exceeded in a moment of contact. The impersonality and nonintentionality of passion implies, not isolation, but engagement with an Other. Before the unhappy subsistence of the “I,” there is the shock of the Other’s touch. Prior to the very constitution of my subjectivity in obsession, there is the singularity of a glance or a voice that summons me. (Shaviro, Passion and Excess, 153-154)

Through this contact--an incommunicable intimacy or touch existing, or pre-existing 'outside' of language--it is perhaps the other who is granted something like the potentially earth-and-self-shattering power of God, and precisely as she gives, by withdrawing. The indifference that normally permits communication (as well as violence) is shattered by an even greater indifference. Can this touch even really exist? And yet it does. There is a willing for it, although a willing that does not belong to anything except perhaps this willing itself. Something takes place. (The disaster...happens.)
Something beautiful takes 'place', but not because it is pure, only because it is bound up with a yearning or a willing toward a purity it knows to be impossible. Something enigmatic and yet extremely simple. Something without cure. Speaking of Mallarmé, Blanchot writes:

"If it gets finished (the tale), I shall be cured." This hope is touching in its simplicity. But the tale was not finished. Impotence--that abandon in which the work holds us and where it requires that we descend in the concern for its approach--knows no cure. That death is incurable. The absence that Mallarmé hoped to render pure is not pure. The night is not perfect, it does not welcome, it does not open. It is not the opposite of day--silence, repose, the cessation of tasks. In the night, silence is speech, and there is no repose, for there is no position. There the incessant and the uninterrupted reign--not the certainty of death achieved, but "the eternal torments of Dying." (The Space of Literature, 118-119)

Death always means: the death of the other. But death itself remains unpronounceable; we know only dying. Is then the witness in fact the one who dies? With something of a crude finger, I would like to point to a passage that should really not be pointed to in this way, without being read in the full weight (or full 'lightness') of its context. (But then again, maybe context is not so all-important after all.) It comes from a work of Blanchot's "fiction," and yet it may express things better than any theoretical argument ever could. At the same time, we are led to believe it is nothing less than an intensely personal act, almost a confession, the writing of this story, his words, writing as a witness, in a sense the closest thing to him-self that will have been possible, and so to cite it merely as support for some "theory" may be another violence toward Blanchot (or at least until several years ago, it would have been). Now it is something different again, but let us listen:

She had fallen asleep, her face wet with tears. Far from being spoiled by it, her youth seemed dazzling: only the very young and healthy can bear such a flood of tears that way; her youth made such an extraordinary impression on me that I completely forgot her illness, her awakening and the danger she was still in. A little later, however, her expression changed. Almost under my eyes, the tears had dried and the tear stains had disappeared; she became severe, and her slightly raised lips showed the contraction of her jaw and her tightly clenched teeth, and gave her a rather mean and suspicious look: her hand moved in mine to free itself, I wanted to release it, but she seized me again right away with a savage quickness in which there was nothing human. When the nurse came to talk to me--in a low voice and about nothing important--J. immediately awoke and said in a cold way, "I have my secrets with her too." She went back to sleep at once.
...As I listened without pause to her slight breathing, faced by the silence of the night, I felt extremely helpless and miserable just because of the miracle that I had brought about. Then for the first time, I had a thought that came back to me later and in the end won out. While I was still in that state of mind--it must have been about three o'clock--J. woke up without moving at all--that is, she looked at me. That look was very human: I don't mean affectionate or kind, since it was neither; but it wasn't cold or marked by the forces of this night. It seemed to understand me profoundly; that is why I found it terribly friendly, though it was at the same time terribly sad. "Well," she said, "you've made a fine mess of things." She looked at me again without smiling at all, as she might have smiled, as I afterwards hoped she had, but I think my expression did not invite a smile. Besides, that look did not last very long.
Even though her eyelids were lowered, I am convinced that from then on she lay awake; she lay awake because the danger was too great, or for some other reason; but she purposefully kept herself at the edge of consciousness, manifesting a calm, and an alertness in that calm, that was very unlike her tension of a short time before. What proved to me that she was not asleep--though she was unaware of what went on around her because something else held her interest--was that a little later she remembered what had happened nearly an hour before: the nurse, not sure whether or not she was asleep, had leaned over her and suggested she have another shot, a suggestion which she did not seem to be at all aware of. But a little later she said to the nurse, "No, no shot this evening," and repeated insistently, "No more shots." Words, which I have all the time in the world to remember now. Then she turned slightly towards the nurse and said in a tranquil tone, "Now then, take a good look at death," and pointed her finger at me. She said this in a very tranquil and almost friendly way, but without smiling. ("Death Sentence")

A sentence of death, spoken with a finger, is passed from the dying to the witness. The witness receives a death sentence, with an exchange of looks, and for a death that is not his. The affinities shared by this passage and the meditations on God that are pursued by Derrida in The Gift of Death are striking.

One hesitates to read too much. But with that worry in mind, it might just be noted that in Blanchot's story the character of the nurse (if she is a character, as well as--perhaps?--a real person) occupies an interesting position as a sort of mediator between the narrator and "J." The death worn on the witness's or narrator's face can only be seen by a third party or a second witness. In a strange way, then, the nurse is not unlike a sort of priest, mediating between a God (the narrator--death)--a God who sees in the other (J.) in secret, without himself being seen-- and J. herself. But the story also lends itself to being read in an opposite direction (and this is part of the performative ambiguity--if such a thing can be said without raising to many eyebrows at once--of the text), whereby J. is clearly the figure of God ("you've made a fine mess of things")--a God whose omniscience (seeing every secret) with regard to the narrator is a profound comfort, although one that is at once "terribly friendly" and "terribly sad."
In any case, much more might be said about this passage, and this story where every act of naming may or may not be quite deliberate. Could it have been written--and can it be read--by someone who hasn't felt these things as well? Blanchot writes of having once been convinced he was about to die, before the firing squad. He miraculously escaped, but it would seem an experience that left him forever marked by death. An "alertness in that calm"--isn't this also the "passivity" of which The Writing of the Disaster speaks at such length? A friendship without friendship, a gift without giving--these are the aporias that Derrida transforms from Blanchot's logic of the 'neuter'. In his reading of Blanchot's récit, "The Instant of My Death", Derrida elaborates:

Life can only be light from the moment that it stays dead-living while being freed, that is to say, released from itself. A life without life, an experience of lightness, an instance of “without,” a logic without logic of the “X without X,” or of the “not” or of the “except,” of the “being without being,” etc. In “A Primitive Scene,” we could read: “To live without living, like dying without death: writing returns us to these enigmatic propositions.”
The proof that we have here, with this testimony and reference to an event, the logical and textual matrix of Blanchot’s entire corpus, so to speak, is that this lightness of “without,” the thinking of the “X without X” comes to sign, consign or countersign the experience of the neuter as ne uter, neither-nor by bringing it together. This experience draws to itself and endures, in its very passion, the thinking as well as the writing of Blanchot, between literature and the right to death. Neither...nor: in this way the witness translates the untranslatable demourance....The neuter is the experience or passion of a thinking that cannot stop at either opposite without also overcoming the opposition -- neither this nor that, neither happiness nor unhappiness (Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, 88-90).

There is of course also a 'weaker' sense in which the phrase "death sentence" may be read. As precisely a sort of entirely banal prohibition against dying--a living death instead of a dying life, if you will. For example, the political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, currently serving his twenty-second (24) year in solitary confinement (and in support of whose case Derrida wrote, years ago, to then-President Bill Clinton), has been given such a "death sentence."
To presume to pronounce the other's death--is this to exercise the violence of a sovereign, as if one could ever justly assume adequate authority over whether the other lives or dies (the implication being that one had then somehow mastered one's own death); moreover to justify this power as the condition of possibility for any relation at all to the other, or indeed of any politics--such might even be the definition of injustice, mightn't? Derrida's critical reading of Carl Schmitt in The Politics of Friendship would point away from such a politics. Where Schmitt would affirm the permanent threat of war between sovereign nation-states (annihilation, even, extending without limit the exigency of the Cold War's logic of "deterrance") as the condition of the political, Derrida would rather dream of something else, and not only because he sees in Schmitt's analysis a dangerous sanctioning of a certain sanctified or legalized "killing without murder." With regard to Schmitt, Derrida writes (and it is well worth reproducing at a little length for the playful echoes of Blanchot's questions and indeed Blanchot's style that appear):

One can infer symmetrically that there is no friend without this possibility of killing which establishes a non-natural community. Not only could I enter into a relationship of friendship only with a mortal, but I could love in friendship only a mortal at least exposed to so-called violent death--that is, exposed to being killed, possibly by myself. And by myself, in lovence itself, in an essential, not an accidental manner. To love in love or friendship would always mean: I can kill you, you can kill me, we can kill ourselves. Together or one another, masculine or feminine. Therefore, in all cases, we already are (possibly, but this possibility is, precisely, real) dead for one another...Let us not forget that the political would precisely be that which thus endlessly binds or opposes the friend--enemy/enemy--friend couple in the drive or decision of death, in the putting to death or in the stake of death. We were speaking of the political enemy at the beginning of this analysis. A hypothesis, then: and what if another lovence (in friendship or in love) were bound to an affirmation of life, to the endless repetition of this affirmation, only in seeking its way (in loving its way, and this would be phileîn itself) in the step beyond the political, or beyond that political as the horizon of finitude, putting to death and putting of death. The phileîn beyond the political or another politics for loving, another politics to love, for love (à aimer)? Must one dissociate and associate together differently pólis, politeía, philía, Éros, and so forth? If a choice between these three hypotheses and these three logical chains were simply or clearly possible, we would make that choice, we would choose one immediately. In this very place.
Hence we must be patient at the crossroads and endure this undecidable triviality. Without it--and this is the thesis and the decision--no decision would be possible, nor even any friendship. There we are. In this very place? No, there.(The Politics of Friendship, 122-123)

No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.
This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.
There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive." "No, you are dead." ("The Instant of My Death", 7-9)

This lightness neither frees nor relieves of anything; it is neither a salvation through freedom nor an opening to the infinite because this passion is without freedom and this death without death is a confirmation of finitude. Yet here is a more affirmative response, if not a more positive and more assured one...We could appeal to all of Blanchot's texts on the neuter here--the neither-nor that is beyond all dialectic, of course, but also beyond the negative grammar that the word neuter, ne uter, seems to indicate. The neuter is the experience or passion of a thinking that cannot stop at either opposite without also overcoming the opposition--neither this nor that, neither happiness nor unhappiness. (Demeure: Fiction and Testimony)

Taking issue with the formula often attributed to Kafka--"Write to be able to die--Die to be able to write"--Blanchot in "The Work and Death's Space" responds:

At first glance, the preoccupation of the writer who writes in order to be able to die is an affront to common sense. It would seem we can be sure of at least one event: it will come without any approach on our part, without our bestirring ourselves at all; yes, it will come. That is true, but at the same time it is not true, and indeed quite possibly it lacks truth altogether. At least it does not have the kind of truth which we feel in the world, which is the measure of our action and of our presence in the world. What makes me disappear from the world cannot find its guarantee there; and thus, in a way, having no guarantee, it is not certain. This explains why no one is linked to death by real certitude. No one is sure of dying. No one doubts death, but no one can think of certain death except doubtfully, the brittleness of the unsure. It is as in order to think authentically upon the certainty of death, we had to let thought sink into doubt and inauthenticity, or yet again as if when we strive to think on death, more than our brain--the very substance and truth of thought itself--were bound to crumble. This in itself indicates that if men in general do not thing about death, if they avoid confronting it, it is doubtless in order to flee death and hide from it, but this escape is possible only because death itself is perpetual flight before death, and because it is the deep of dissimulation. Thus to hide from it is in a certain way to hide in it. (The Space of Literature, 95)

In the "brittleness of the unsure," thought finds its necessity. The real is fragile, and this is precisely what makes it real. However, the real has already been forgotten, and then remembered. Following in the steps of Nietzsche, and perhaps even skipping a mountain peak every now and then (though we could argue about whether he reaches the clouds), Blanchot emphasizes that memory is always a function of forgetting.
Impossible necessary death; why do these words--and the experience to which they refer (the inexperience)--escape comprehension? Why this collision of mutually exclusive terms? Why efface them by considering them as a fiction peculiar to some particular author? It is only natural. Thought cannot welcome that which it bears within itself and which sustains it, except by forgetting. (The Writing of the Disaster, 67)

However, returning to the phrase: “Prevented from dying by death itself." One way of approaching this enigmatic statement might run more or less like this: if death as such is only knowable or realizable through the experience of watching the other die--of witnessing the other in their absolute mortality from a perspective and necessary distance that they themselves will never know--then this “death” is also in some sense a pronouncement of immortality, signifying the impossibility of one's own death.
But in another sense (and there are many--Derrida has quipped in Demeure that “years could be spent on this sentence alone”--which is most convincing coming from him, but in any case), if one thinks this sentence with a different emphasis, one placed not unlike invisible quotes on “dying” rather than on death, then, again, the aporia might be said to be placed on dying. In this sense, one’s need for a kind of dying--an infinite dying, in fact--would be violently abridged by the imposition: death. (In a sense it is the same everyday imposition of calling someone by their name, which is at once to reference a time when such a call cannot be answered, but only the name itself will echo.)
In other words, it is essential to be able to die without in fact dying, to die without death--otherwise the ethical demand of death is not addressed, and "death" becomes only a kind of epithet or slogan hurled at the living. One can never be through responding to the dead, or rather to the demand placed by the enigma of their disappearance. Just how one remains faithful to this infinite demand (and what being "faithful" might mean) without, as Freud once said, being “unconsciously afraid of the dead and because of this hidden awe...often led to speak in overpraising term," is not a simple question (Lacoue-Labarthe, "The Echo of the Subject," 158). Freud, for one, might suggest that it is also a question of shame.

It is a question whose tone has been uniquely and permanently altered by the events of the second World War. It may be a question of an “ethics without redemption,” but, paradoxically, also one of lightness, and perhaps, above all, of friendship.

To be truly responsible, in the strongest possible sense of this word--a word that is so important in linking Blanchot and Derrida, and in a manner that may finally open beyond either one of them--requires a negotiation of the aporia of dying. Dying is at bottom an impossible contradiction that can never be resolved with any finality, through the mantric or numbing false comfort of any formula, program or prescription--there is in fact no “at bottom” at all.

The "I" that is responsible for others, the I bereft of selfhood, is sheer fragility, through and through on trial. This I without any identity is responsible for him to whom he can give no response; this I must answer in an interrogation where no question is put; he is a question directed to others from whom no answer can be expected either. The Other does not answer. (The Writing of the Disaster, 119)

The inessentiality and necessity of dying, for any ethics (as essentiality necessarily devoid of essence), can only be approached by first acknowledging the impossibility of doing so. (Which is not, of course, what anybody likes to hear, and it may be only too easy to underestimate the power of this dislike.) But then as soon as one chooses an approach--a decision that is always in some sense "mad"--so Derrida follows Kierkegaard--one is constantly in danger of letting one’s style seduce and subsume the meaning or obscure the stakes of one’s intervention. In fact there is no avoiding this obscurity, but only degrees of patience.
If in fact every interpretation cannot help but transform what it interprets, then one is still responsible for how one goes about transforming, deforming, and reforming, even if the result is always failure. There might be a kind of relief in this, if it were not also the greatest burden in the world: how to fail responsibly and in failing, disappear (or nearly disappear)...with style (but not into style). To fail so that in failing, there is still genuine risk.

"Prevented from dying by death itself." This sentence plays on the many readings made possible depending on which language--general or restricted, weak or strong--is heard, and when. In the end, every reading might amount to much the same point. But there might also be a kind of violence in reducing the enigmatic quality or multiplying expressiveness of such a phrase to a single point, because the inability of language to express the full weight of such a point is also part of the point. That is, to dismiss such phrases as mere "word play" is to miss hearing the serious tone of the game--one refusing to be excused from aporia and contradiction.

The phrase, “prevented from dying by death itself” must finally be read in the light of the camps--where "light" is not a 'lightness' at all; it is perhaps a blinding glare, a "night without darkness," or a day without dawn.

"Prevented from dying by death itself." Is this not the self-sacrificial "leap" that is required of 'belief'?

Yes, let us remember the earliest Hegel. He too, even prior to his "early" philosophy, considered that the two deaths were indissociable, and that only the act of confronting death--not merely of facing it or of exposing oneself to its danger (which is the distinguishing feature of heroic courage), but of entering into its space, of undergoing it as infinite death and also as mere death, "natural death"--could found the sovereignty of masterhood: the mind and its prerogatives. The result was perhaps, absurdly, that the experience which initiates the movement of the dialectic--the experience which none experiences, the experience of death--stopped it right away, and that the entire subsequent process retained a sort of memory of this halt, as if of an aporia which always had still to be accounted for. (The Writing of the Disaster, 68)

See also, not unrelatedly...


David J Smith said...

Having only just "discovered" Blanchot I find this blog very stimulating, and strangely comforting. Just how the ink of Blanchot is going to sway my own writing, I do not know. But I am sure of one thing, it already has and will continue to do so.

jennifer said...

great post! i've been fascinated with blanchot for some time now, but i've only read little bits and pieces here and there. for one who's ready to take the first real plunge into his theory, where would you suggest beginning? thanks!

Matt Christie said...

Personally I rather like his fiction. You might try the Station Hill Reader for a mix of fiction and criticism. Otherwise: The Space of Literature.

The blog "In Writing" and the blog "Spurious" have some excellent online commentary.

Matt Christie said...

Personally I rather like his fiction. You might try the Station Hill Reader for a mix of fiction and criticism. Otherwise: The Space of Literature.

The blog "In Writing" and the blog "Spurious" have some excellent online commentary.

jennifer said...

much appreciated!