maurice gilbert

“To read [Maurice Blanchot] is to come face to face with the mystery of the literary text, that curious artifact that pretends to tell while not telling and that posits characters and situations that do not exist except as repeated projections of the writer. The writer, as Mr. Blanchot says, ‘finds himself, only realizes himself, through his work; before his work exists, not only does he not know who he is, but he is nothing.’ But, Mr. Blanchot notes, this finding, this realizing, of self is full of peril and ambiguity; the writer in the act of writing is ‘dying and without truth.’ For Mr. Blanchot the writer erases himself while enacting that for which he exists: he is absorbed into and subsumed by the work whose very creation denies him his reality; yet when he is not writing he is nobody at all. This ambiguity is one of the bases of Mr. Blanchot’s discourse, an ambiguity that, he writes, ‘is its own answer… One of the ways it reduces us is by making us want to clear it up.’

The essential problem stated and elaborated in Mr. Blanchot’s theoretical writings, and exemplified in the mysterious and dazzling fiction that is their complement, is the power language has to destroy those elements of reality it ostensibly labors to reveal. So the language that most clearly communicates is the one that most treacherously lies, for it obliterates the actuality of things: the signs that seem to proffer us reality proffer us nothing but a congeries of empty signifieds. Mr. Blanchot questions the blithe complacency of writers who consider writing to be the achievement of a transparent surface through which we may ‘look’ to see reality: ‘Naturally, a writer can always make it his ideal to call a cat a cat. But what he cannot manage to do is then believe that he is on the way to health and sincerity. On the contrary, he is causing more mystification than ever, because the cat is not a cat.’

But if the cat is not a cat, if words do not evoke but instead murder the reality they name, if words are necessary to the writer for him even to think of himself as a writer but are also his burden and his impossibility, how does writing get written? Mr. Blanchot says, ‘Language perceives that its meaning derives not from what exists, but from its own retreat before existence… If one is not to talk about things except to say what makes them nothing, well then, to say nothing is really the only hope of saying everything about them.’ At this point it will be seen that we have entered a world of signs deprived of the usual connection to their signifieds, a literature whose strategies Valery characterized as ‘the negative of discourse,’ a literature that will not mean anything as it paradoxically means everything.”

—Gilbert Sorrentino, Language – Lying and Treacherous