Blanchot’s account of language and the religious experience of Simone Weil, and one should note that the significance of the word ‘experience’ is not straightforward here, draws together many of the insights of Blanchot’s literary critical writings in order to approach her in terms of what is described in those writings as an experience of the Outside. The Outside cannot be known, nor can it be experienced in any ordinary sense of the word. Nonetheless, the encounter of an ‘I’ with what is truly Other is the defining mark of experience as such. It is not a vision granted to mystics but a fleeting awareness of that which abides behind every experience. The Outside is the space of impossibility, not possibility, of dying, not death. The secret of the Outside is that there is no secret, only an empty depth. It is a mystery that involves the renunciation of mystery, and an acknowledgement of the ultimate insignificance of the lightness which the Outside is. It is in this spirit that he says of Simone Weil that ‘no one has set aside more firmly all forms of power, even spiritual power’ [The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.115. Hereafter cited in the text as IC].
Man is able to do nothing in relation to God; insofar as the approach of man to God involves the exercise of power (or the illusion of its exercise) the truth will forever escape him. There is no way to God that we ourselves can inaugurate, and this includes not only the theology of the Church but also its observances. ‘It is categorically and almost with horror that she rejects all the diversions offered by faith: the idea of salvation, the belief in a personal immortality, the conception of a beyond, and, in general, all that would allow us to bring close to us what has truth for us only if we love it’ [IC 110]. Blanchot notes that, for her, ‘We can never put enough distance between ourselves and what we love’. To think that God is, is still to think of him as present, and this for her is a thought designed according our measure, its one purpose to afford us consolation. It is more fitting to think that God is not; the purity of our love for him should be such that it is indifferent to us whether he exists or not. It is for this reason that the atheist may be closer to God than the believer. The atheist does not believe in God. This is the first degree of truth, and, so long as he does not substitute for his lack of belief a belief in any other god or gods, if he is true to his atheism, if he is in no way idolatrous, then he will believe in God absolutely, even while being unaware of it and by the pure grace of his ignorance. We reach here a crux. Blanchot writes: ‘Not to ‘believe’ in God. Not to know anything of God. And to love in him only his absence so that this love, being a renouncing of God himself, may be a love that is absolutely pure and ‘the emptiness that is plenitude’. But we must not know even this, or we risk consenting to emptiness only in the hope of being filled with it’ [IC 111].
This movement appears to license no affirmation whatsoever concerning God. It would seem impossible to rest in any thought of God, whether that be the thought of God’s abandonment, or the thought of death itself. It is almost as though all her talk about God is, if not superfluous, then empty. The very statement she would appear to be intent on making seems to refute itself, as when she writes: ‘Obedience to God, that is to say, since God is beyond all that we can imagine or conceive, to nothing’. Or again: ‘Not to speak about God (not even in the inner language of the soul)….’ The aporia here, of speaking about that whereof one cannot speak, is not only in play in these propositions but throughout her writing, where, as Blanchot indicates, she speaks constantly of God and ‘she does so without prudence, without reserve, and with the facility that universal tradition has accorded her’ [IC 111]. She would appear caught in an ineluctable contradiction: where God is concerned, thought of the truth is alone enough to falsify it, just as knowing the rules for salvation already constitutes their violation. The conclusion appears to be that we are either absolutely without power and salvation is impossible for us, or we are obliged to place our hope solely in divine mercy.
And yet she also writes: ‘For me, the proof, the miraculous thing, is the perfect beauty of the accounts of the Passion joined with a few fulgurating words by Isaiah and Saint Paul; this is what constrains me to believe’ [quoted in IC 109]. Again and again, she asserts that we know nothing of the Good and nothing of God except for the name. ‘Without the gift of this name we would have only a false, earthly God, conceivable by us. The name alone permits us to have a Father in the Heavens, about which we know nothing.’ The name alone, the gift of the name, is what permits us to know of God, and at the same time it is required that we do not speak about God, even in the inner language of the soul. Nonetheless, it is this aporetic doubling of the name, expressing most crucially what constrains us, displacing us from knowledge and from comprehension, that is at the same time the dynamic of her conception of God. For Simone Weil, the internal division of the name, its self-differing, would seem to inform not only man but God also. For her, man can do nothing, and God can do no more than man. A position such as this exhibits what Lacan calls the logic of separation. In contrast to the subject’s alienation within the symbolic order, where he is ‘spoken’ by the social structures of language, the big Other, separation takes place when the subject comes to see the Other as itself lacking, and ‘what we thought was the limitation of our knowledge about a thing is in fact an inherent limitation of the thing itself’ [Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 333. It is here that we can discern the ‘core of Lacan’s atheism’, according to Žižek]. Blanchot summarises the matter in the following words: ‘[God] is the absolute renunciation of power: he is abdication, abandon, the consent to not being what he could be, and this in the Creation as well as in the Passion. God is not able to do anything for us; as long, at least, as we are still ourselves encompassed by ourselves. ‘In this world God is a dissolvent. Friendship with him confers no power’ [IC 115].
There is, then, a question that imposes itself on Blanchot concerning what it was that so tore and divided Simone Weil from herself. He cannot, as an atheist, ascribe it to God’s doing, and clearly it was not within her own power. For Blanchot, the answer is absolutely decisive and of a piece with his thought in general: it was the tearing itself. It is here that her certitude and faith reside: ‘There is in us something that must be called divine, something by which we already dwell close to God: it is the movement by which we efface ourselves, it is abandon—the abandonment of what we believe to be, a retreat outside ourselves and outside everything, a seeking of emptiness through the desire that is like the tension of this emptiness and that, when it is the desire for desire (then a surnatural desire), is the desire of emptiness itself, emptiness desiring’ [IC 155].
This loving consent to be nothing, or what Blanchot calls ‘this immobile impetus of desire towards an anticipated death’, is the absolute itself—our common trait with God, our equality with him. ‘God abdicated from his divine omnipotence and emptied himself. By abdicating from our small human power we become, as regards emptiness, equal to God.’ (Blanchot, the atheist, comments: ‘we cannot but sense that there is in this humbling a great spiritual pride.’) A passage from Écrits de Londres (published in 1957) gives some insight into what it was for her to think in this way: ‘There is a poetry in poverty which has no equivalent elsewhere. This poetry emanates from the poverty-stricken flesh, seen in the truth of its poverty. The spectacle of cherry-blossoms in spring would not go straight to the heart as it does if their fragility was not so perceptible. It is, in general, a condition of absolute beauty to be almost absent, at a distance, fragile’. [Cited by Rush Rhees, Discussions of Simone Weil (New York: SUNY, 2000), p. 165.]
‘In creating what is other than himself, God necessarily abandoned it.’ God renounced both himself and us. (Blanchot draws attention to a parallel between Simone’s Weil’s thought and that of the sixteenth century interpreter of the Cabala, Isaac Luria: see IC 116-7.) Through renunciation God created the world, and through renunciation we become him by restoring unto him the being we are not. Simone Weil says: ‘The abandonment in which God leaves us is his own way of caressing us. Time, our single misery, is the very touch of his hand. It is the abdication by which he makes us exist.’ But from the moment I know this, I am again caught in aporia—the renouncing that is my divine part ceases to be pure and I renounce nothing, knowing that in renouncing I gain everything and more than everything: I become God himself.
What Simone Weil’s thought, in its undoing, its unworking, of itself, brings home to Blanchot—whose profound admiration for her is evident throughout his essay—is that the more thought goes toward expressing itself, then just to that extent it is obliged to retain a certain reserve towards itself, to retain some order of place that would be—as he puts it—an uninhabited, uninhabitable non-thought, a thought that would not allow itself to be thought. It is here that we encounter what Blanchot calls the impossibility of thinking, and it is this impossibility that thought becomes for itself in its reserve, that is, in its stepping back beyond or outside itself. We can become aware of the impossible in anything at all, in all that we may say and all that we may do, and yet despite this ubiquity there is something about the way it enters into our experience he wishes to call ‘negligible’. However, this word should not deceive us: negligible though it may be, the impossible can extend itself through the whole of our experience, until little by little that experience is transformed utterly. It is here, in the paradoxical space of the impossible, that Blanchot locates what he calls the thought of exile, and he seems to be absolutely in no doubt that the thought of exile is, finally, what characterises the thought of Simone Weil.
The ideas of the impossible and exile are integral to a particular picture of what language is, and in order to bring out what that picture might be, a comparison suggests itself between Blanchot’s approach to language and his ideas on the image. To that end it will be pertinent to examine a passage from Saint Theodore the Studite’s On the Holy Icons. In his third refutation of the iconoclasts, Theodore makes the following pronouncements: ‘The prototype and the image belong to the category of related things, like the double and the half. For the prototype always implies the image of which it is the prototype, and the double always implies the half in relation to which it is called double. For there would not be a prototype if there were no image; there would not even be any double, if some half were not understood. But since these things exist simultaneously, they are understood and subsist together. Therefore, since no time intervenes between them, the one does not have a different veneration from the other, but both have one and the same’ [St Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 110]. No image without a prototype, and no prototype without an image. This is very similar to an argument put forward both by Blanchot and by Emmanuel Lévinas: when a thing or an event presents itself it also gives an image of itself in the very gesture of its appearing. An event or thing resembles itself; it is doubled in its appearing, being both itself and its image. (This idea may be compared with Wittgenstein’s discussions of aspect change, or seeing-as.) Rather than a proposal to the effect that the real and the image are two distinct and stable orders, or that we can measure the truth of the image against the reality that it depicts, the argument is that the imaginary is already within the thing, or rather, that the distance between the thing and its image is always already within the thing. In the context of the icon, the argument suggests that Christ and His image should be seen as related in just such a manner. There is no secure interval between the icon of Christ and Christ Himself. The distance between the two is, in Blanchot’s idiom, already within Christ; in Him, we might say, ‘the limitless depth behind the image’ is ‘absolutely present although not given’ [St Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 110]. Seen in this way, the experience of the person in prayer before the icon will therefore be an experience of fascination, the fascination of being drawn endlessly towards the divine alterity depicted in the icon, for what fascinates us is what robs us of the power to give sense to what it is that is in the process of so captivating us. I cannot grasp the ‘meaning’ of the icon because its ‘meaning’ is precisely to disable meaning. For the worshipper, thus fascinated before the icon, there is no firm distinction possible between the icon in the world—in the church, in the home—and the world of the divine in the icon. Although the divinity of Christ cannot be circumscribed, it nevertheless dwells in the icon by way of a certain topology or radical reversal through which the distance between prototype and image within Christ is, so to speak, re-inscribed within the icon.
For Blanchot, literature is similarly part of a reversal to which it exposes the author and the reader. To name something is, according to Hegel, to annihilate its unique existence by bringing it under a concept. [For a brief comment on this idea of naming, see the note at the end of this piece.] Literature here idealises death by making it into a dialectical power; the negativity of death is given not in the senseless dissolution of life but in its ability to shape the world, and to master it. The literature of realism may, to a certain extent at least, be taken as an example of this. Blanchot’s example is de Sade. However, literature is linked to language in another, more problematic way. It is concerned not with the idea or concept but with retracing the passage between nothingness and language as such. Literature is an attempt—an attempt that must always fail—to bring about a return to an origin that must forever remain inaccessible. It is a process whereby words cease to serve as representations of something that pre-exists them. The word, bound no longer to representation, becomes in and of itself a sensible presentation, a non-existence made word. Seen like this, literature no longer exists in the realm of possibility and power, but in turning away from that becomes attentive rather to the materiality of words themselves. Language is manifest as itself a thing: words become detached from their contexts of significant use, and separated from meaning they acquire an empty power, a power no one can any longer do anything with, a power without power. (There is, perhaps, a comparison to be made here with Wittgenstein’s considerations of the ‘experience of meaning’.) Freed in this way from the concept, and the negativity of death attendant on it, literature transforms negativity into something unemployed, that renders it idle. Literature will have no work to do—its work is this nothing. The work unworks itself, it is nothing other than its own unworking of itself: it is its own undoing. From this there follows the inability of literature to invest dying with a context of meaningful action, an inability that consigns it to an endlessness that Blanchot calls the ‘impossibility of dying’, an infinite migration of exile, a slipping away both from life and from death that is enacted with exemplary power and precision in Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, or The Unnamable. Literature is here a language no one speaks, addressed to no one, which reveals nothing. As a result, when I read it, it appears to be addressed to someone other than me, always awakening another person within me, speaking as if to my own difference from myself. Literature is the appearance of language within which the ‘other’ of language reverberates. Language no longer speaks, it is.
For Blanchot, the form of writing that most crucially engages with the self-differing of language is not the novel (roman) but the narration (récit). If we think that implicit in the notion of the novel is an idea of human time, whereby the novel engages with human emotions and experiences, as in the ‘realist’ works of Balzac, then the récit will differ from the novel in a number of ways. First, the récit relates just one unusual event (Ahab’s quest for the white whale, Malone dying); second, ‘narration is not the account of an event but the event itself, its imminence’, that is, it does not report an event but creates it in the process of narrating it; and third, it is a strange movement, comparable to that of a Moebius strip, or a spiral turning ceaselessly in on itself and at the same time beyond itself. It is a movement ‘towards a point—one that is not only unknown, ignored, and foreign, but such that it seems, even before and outside of this movement, to have no kind of reality; yet one that is so imperious that it is from that point alone that the narrative draws its attraction, in such a way that it cannot even “begin” before having reached it; but it is only the narration (récit) and the unforeseeable movement of the narration (récit) that provide the space where the point becomes real, powerful, and alluring’ [Book to Come, p. 7]. Another passage similarly aims to capture Blanchot’s curiously topological vision: ‘It [the récit] only ‘relates’ itself and this relation, at the same time as it takes place, produces what it relates, and is possible as a relating if it realises/enacts what happens in this relating, for it includes the point or the level where the reality which the récit ‘describes’ can ceaselessly merge with its reality as récit, justify it and be justified by it’ [Book to Come, p. 7]. In this manner a paradoxical temporality emerges with regard to the space opened up by the récit, a space which has to be seen as both the genesis and the result of the work. The transformation effected by the work, the récit, involves a step back from representational language, and yet the space into which the step directs itself does not pre-exist the movement of stepping back; the space is the transformation of language wrought in language by language in its performance of that very step. This Blanchot calls ‘the space of literature’, and in it language no longer finds itself subordinated to the demands of truth or cognition.
The distancing or spacing at work in language, thus understood, is already present for Blanchot in the image. Here he is following Lévinas, reference to whose essay of 1948, ‘Reality and its Shadow’, will clarify what is at issue. The argument rests on a notion of resemblance as what constitutes an image. Resemblance, obviously enough, is the mode in which an image relates to its object. However, as we saw in relation to the icon, the resemblance of an image to its object is not to be thought of as an addition to that object. It partakes of the object itself. Resemblance is possible because objects are other than themselves: ‘A being is that which is, that which reveals itself in its truth, and, at the same time, it resembles itself, is its own image’ [Emmanuel Lévinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), p. 6]. The imaginary is what one might call an allegory of the real, which reality bears on its face, a distance which is inherent in the realm of proximate things themselves. A thing, an object, may very well exhibit qualities of an image—colour, form, a certain way of being in the light. Objects can be seen under new aspects: we can look at a thing and be overwhelmed by its exhibition of itself. A thing is and is not itself: non-identical, outside itself. It is what it is and a stranger to itself. An image is therefore not a concept: its relation to what it is an image of is not cognitive or one of knowing. It can take hold of us, grip us and in so doing make us passive, an experience that may overwhelm us whenever we look at paintings or at photographs. For Lévinas, this mode of captivation is also the captivation of poetry and music. ‘It is a mode of being to which applies neither the form of consciousness, since the I is there stripped of its prerogative of assumption, of its power, nor the form of the unconscious, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light, present’ [Lévinas, op. cit., p. 4].
The image does not go beyond the thing as its excess. It is on this side of the thing, the hither side of what it is in truth. The question is where this hither side is situated. Lévinas sees it as the place of the almost, the not-quite. He speaks of the ‘meanwhile’, which is the interval between neither and nor (neither the one nor the other)—not quite a past and not quite a future, and so not quite a present, not quite a moment or an instant, but an endless pause or interruption, a setting of time to one side, a spacing of time, so that art disengages time from its passing. ‘The eternal duration of the interval in which a statue is immobilised differs radically from the eternity of a concept; it is the meanwhile. Never finished, still enduring—something inhuman and monstrous’ [Lévinas, op.cit., p. 11]. It is in relation to this notion of the interval, this incessant and interminable entre-temps, the time of the impossible, outside possibility, that Blanchot’s vision of literature and language comes together with his understanding of the image, and nowhere more so than in the course of his reflections on the cadaver, the corpse. In The Space of Literature, he writes:
The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. The corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects—absorbing it, identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible—something neutral which there is no getting used to. And if the cadaver is so similar, it is because it is, at a certain moment, similarity par excellence: altogether similarity, and also nothing more. It is the likeness, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what is it like? Nothing. [The Space of Literature, p.258]
The corpse is a limit case: we experience it par excellence as an image, but an image more real than what it resembles, which is itself. It is like nothing: and it is the nothing it is like. Something is there before us which is not really the living person. Its is neither the same as the living person, nor is it another person, nor is it anything else. And to that extent it is the very embodiment of the uncanny. The image is the disappearance of the object and the appearance of its spectral double, but in the case of the corpse death has done the work of the imagination, and the spectral double—the shadow—has subsumed the object of which it is the shadow. There is an analogy with the damaged tool, which in its useless condition becomes its image. The tool, no longer disappearing into its use, appears. Art is linked to this possibility of objects appearing, of surrendering, that is, to the pure resemblance behind which there is nothing. And insofar as this is the index of the literary experience we may say that in literature we are brought into a passive relation with what cannot appear as a significant phenomenon in an event that cannot take place in the present. We are brought to a neutral zone outside of being: existence without being. ‘Man is made in his image: this is what the strangeness of the cadaver’s resemblance teaches us. But this formula must first be understood as follows: man is unmade according to his image. The image has nothing to do with signification or meaningfulness as they are implied by the world’s existence, by effort that aims at truth, by law and the light of day.’ Not only is the image of an object not the sense of the object, but in the case of the cadaver the object has finally been withdrawn from understanding into the immobility of a resemblance which has nothing to resemble. [Cf. The Space of Literature, p.260.]
This kind of a-theological reading of the notion of the image with respect to man has already been addressed in relation to St Theodore’s considerations of the icon. Simone Weil is someone who, at least as Blanchot’s writings present her, lived out the experience of the loss of subjectivity that in writing and art is thought of as a dying into the outside. Writing—as manifest in the récit—is an act of dying, but not as suicide is an act, since suicide is still a subjective act of self-expression, an intention and a meaning, an assertion of the right to death, or of a will-to-power over death. If we see dying in terms of the space opened up by writing, so that writing—or language transformed in and by writing—becomes the paradigm of our understanding, dying becomes an experience, if we can call it an experience, of the meanwhile. Dying is intransitive and indeterminate, a translation of what is intelligible into what is alien and unspeakable, into what is outside the intelligible, where the process of it is always incomplete, since it is nothing other than absence and impossibility as such. Lévinas writes: ‘The time of dying itself cannot give itself the other shore. In dying, the horizon of the future is given, but the future as a promise of a new present is refused; one is in the interval, forever in the interval’ [Lévinas, op. cit., p. 11].
To see not only the writing, but also the life, of Simone Weil in these terms is to enter into one of Blanchot’s most difficult areas, his account bearing on two aspects of the encounter with her experience, and which he takes to be essential to it, namely, affliction and attention. ‘The thought of affliction is precisely the thought of that which cannot let itself be thought’ [The Infinite Conversation, p.120]. Like the dying revealed by writing, it is an ‘enigma’. Furthermore, affliction has the same nature as physical suffering, from which it cannot be separated: ‘Physical suffering, when it is such that one can neither suffer it nor cease suffering it, thereby stopping time, makes time a present without future and yet impossible as present (one cannot reach the following instant, it being separated from the present instant by an impassable infinite, the infinite of suffering; but the present of suffering is impossible, it being the abyss of the present). Affliction makes us lose time and makes us lose the world’ [IC 120].
The parallel between the temporality of the space of literature and the way time is endured in suffering is here evident. Not only this, but those who are forced to endure the suffering of affliction undergo an alteration in their ontological status such that, for others, they acquire a mode of being aspects of which are similar to those exhibited by the corpse. Blanchot writes: ‘The individual who is afflicted falls beneath every class. The afflicted are neither pathetic nor pitiable; they are ridiculous, inspiring distaste and scorn. They are for others the horror they are for themselves. Affliction is anonymous, impersonal, indifferent. It is life become alien and death become inaccessible. It is the horror of existence where existence is without end’ [IC 120]. The horror of existence where existence is without end, where death becomes inaccessible, the impossibility—the interminability—of dying, is ontologically a condition of complete powerlessness, of consciousness deprived of subjectivity. It is a condition of existence without being, such that existence is refractory to any of the categories or concepts of being. Blanchot characterises it, using the idiom that Lévinas employs for it in Existence and Existents, as the il y a, the there is. He also calls it the outside, the neutral: we are not there, we are elsewhere, and we will never cease being there. It is existence at the limit of the human. In L’experiénce intérieure (1943), Georges Bataille speaks of ecstasy as a condition achieved by the renunciation of knowledge, action, work—of the whole field of project whereby the subject constructs its experiences out of the future. Inner experience does not occur in introspection but rather in the exposure or expenditure of the subject in communication, engendering that which is outside subjectivity and therefore outside the world that the subject creates for itself.
Simone Weil understood the extent to which affliction, far more than anguish, can hold within itself the limit from which we should be able to assume a perspective on the human condition—and yet she understood also that affliction is precisely that which ruins all perspective. As Blanchot puts it: 'In the space of affliction we have very close to us, and almost at our disposition, all that religion, in inverting it, projected up into the heavens. We are not above but beneath time: this is eternity. We are not above but beneath the person: this is the impersonal, which is one of the traits of the sacred. We are outside the world: this is not the beyond, nor the purity of nothingness, or the plenitude of being, but being as nothingness' [IC 120]. ‘For me who deliberately, and almost without hope, chose to take the point of view of those who are at the bottom . . . ’ These words of Simone Weil about herself, cited by Blanchot, are for him what we should be obliged to say about thought—if we are to talk about thought that is without fraudulence. Thought cannot but be fraudulent unless it is thought from out of the baseness and deprivation of affliction. And to think through affliction is to arrive at a point where one cannot arrive, where force is no longer the measure of what must be thought and said: thought becomes for itself the impossibility of thinking, an impossibility that is its ultimate centre. Through affliction we encounter time without event, a ‘pure’ time, without project and without possibility. We suffer an empty perpetuity that must be borne without end, and at every instant. We are time, time interminably endured. Attention, which is other than affliction, and is not to be confused with it, has nonetheless a very similar relation to time. For Blanchot, attention is an ecstasy of waiting, as though it were within an interruption that cannot be overcome. He says: ‘Attention is waiting: not the effort, the tension, or the mobilisation of knowledge around something with which one might concern oneself. Attention waits. It waits without precipitation, leaving empty what is empty and keeping our haste, our impatient desire, and, even more, our horror of emptiness from prematurely filling it in. Attention is the emptiness of thought oriented by a gentle force and maintained in an accord with the empty intimacy of time’ [IC 121].
Attention is impersonal. It detaches me from myself, and frees me for the attention that for a moment I become. Attention, according to our usual understanding of the word, organises what one sees and knows around the object of attention, enriching attention itself through the object one attends to and by so doing enriching the object also. The other attention, however, of which Blanchot speaks in respect of Simone Weil, is as though idle and unoccupied. ‘It is always empty and is the light of emptiness’ (IC 121). Attention of this other kind is thus paradoxical: attention is what escapes attention, an opening upon the unexpected, a waiting that is the unawaited of all waiting. Despite what appears to link attention to affliction, Blanchot is clear that one cannot conclude from whatever relation one seeks to ascribe to them that attention is in effect affliction redeemed and transfigured through its own agency, through its acting upon itself, or that the empty time of affliction can be transformed by that same agency into the empty time of attention. Simone Weil knows, and it is something she knows from her own experience, that extreme affliction is without relation to anything that could make it cease being what it is. Not even God himself could bring this about, for affliction removes God, making him ‘absent, more absent than someone who is dead, more absent than light in a dark cell.’ The relation between attention and affliction is a broken relation that only the plenitude of love can re-establish. It is love alone—become the immobility and perfection of attention—that by way of the gaze of the other, of the loving and attentive gaze of an other person, is able to open a way to the closing off of affliction. It is only under the gaze of love and attention that the afflicted are willing to allow themselves to be looked at, and are themselves able to acknowledge the other as other. ‘Knowing how to let a certain gaze take them in. This gaze is first of all an attentive gaze by which the soul empties itself of all its own content so as to receive in itself the being that it is looking at, such as it is, in all its truth’. Concerning God, she wrote: God is always absent from our love as he is absent from the world, but he is secretly present in pure love. Blanchot comments: ‘Affliction is inattention’s extreme. Attention is an attention that makes itself bearable to the affliction that cannot bear being attended to’ [IC122].
There is no dialectic of overcoming and synthesis in the relation between attention and affliction. The transfiguration of affliction—if there is to be such a thing—depends upon the intervention of someone other than the afflicted person. The instability of Simone Weil’s life and experience, an instability manifest, or so Blanchot affirms, in her argumentative and protracted questioning of those she knew, even of the priest who attended her on her death-bed, was an expression of the impossibility of remaining in place that comes with affliction. Affliction is the loss of a dwelling place, the unceasing disquiet—a cold and indifferent disquiet—with regard to what is never there. And yet, despite the agitated and uneasy details of her life, Blanchot insists that ‘Simone Weil gave in her thought the example of certitude and, in her works, the model of an even expression, almost calm and as though perfectly at rest in its movement’ [IC 122]. Attention is fully present in the depths of her language: through attention, language has with thought the relation thought would like to have with the lacuna in it—the affliction—that thought is and that it can never render present to itself. Blanchot concludes: ‘Language is the place of attention’. She herself remarked: ‘Humility is the primary characteristic of attention’. According to the standard notion—the pagan notion—of the link between man and God, man approaches God through spiritual purification, through casting off the ‘low’ material and sensual aspects—‘the flesh’—of his being and so elevating himself towards God. For Simone Weil, the Christian notion of that link is an inversion of the standard conception. When I, a human being, experience myself cut off from God, at that very moment of the most abject affliction, I am absolutely attentive to God, for I am myself in the position of the abandoned Christ, the Christ who cried out on the Cross: ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’ The love to which Simone Weil attends is a love beyond mercy. Love is love for the other insofar as he is lacking, in his limitation, poverty, impotence, ordinariness. The celebration of Divine (or human) perfection is pagan; perfection, in Simone Weil’s understanding of it, is a loving attention to the other’s imperfection. It is here, for her, that one meets Christ.
Note: The conception of naming as the essence of language is a version of the so-called ‘Augustinian picture’ addressed by Wittgenstein in the opening parts of Philosophical Investigations. Hegel and his followers like Kojève—and of course Blanchot—would also seem committed to a version of the compositional theory of sentence meaning, i.e. that the meanings of sentences are made up from the meanings of their constituent words organised into wholes by an application of appropriate syntactic rules. These presuppositions, however, do not seem to be indispensable features of Blanchot’s view of literature, and one might here refer to the work of James Guetti, whose approach to literature by way of grammar—in Wittgenstein’s sense—may well provide support, albeit from a rather different direction, for what Blanchot has to say.
The Virtues of Knowledge
11 months ago