Saturday, 22 November 2008



No writer has addressed ‘the in-between’, the ‘interval’, more assiduously than Maurice Blanchot. For him, the in-between is inseparable from writing as such, and hence from what a writer is. (Derrida had comparable interests, but Blanchot began his work long before the 1960s.) He writes:

Where he [the writer] is, only being speaks – which means that language doesn’t speak anymore, but is. It devotes itself to the pure passivity of being.

And again:

Writing only begins when language turned back on itself, marks itself, grasps itself and disappears.

Like his friend, Georges Bataille, he wanted (from the 1940s on) to develop a kind of Hegelian negativity, minus the idealism. He linked the idea of negativity to a certain Mallarméan conception of writing, a conception operative also in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. To write is to destroy the bond that unites the word with myself. Writing is to ‘destroy the relation which, because it determines that I speak towards ‘you’, gives me room to speak within the understanding which my word received from you… To write is to withdraw language from the world.’

The idea derives from the Phenomenology and Hegel’s critique of ‘sensuous certainty’. Sensuous certainty is the assumption that true knowledge consists only of what I can immediately perceive, inasmuch as I can assure myself of the reality of this table by reaching out and touching it. All that is certain is the here, this, now. Hegel turns this upside down:

To the question: ‘What is now?’, let us answer, e.g. ‘Now is Night’. In order to test the truth of this sense-certainty a simple experiment will suffice. We write down this truth; a truth cannot lose anything through our preserving it. If now, this noon, we look again at the written truth we shall have to say that it has become stale.

So the sense-certainty vanishes. ‘Now’ does not derive its sense from the moment of its utterance. At the level of sense-certainty, ‘now’ becomes ‘not-now’. But, for Hegel, ‘now’ is a universal, and its meaning must derive from the negation of the sense-certainty it had to refer to and derive from. (This is a version of the doctrine that the word is the murderer of the thing. To be found passim in Lacan, for whom death is another name of the Symbolic.) Hegel says it is ‘neither This nor That, a not-This,’ and in this sense it is revealed to be a universal. The universal concept of This negates the not-this, not-this, etc, of all the infinitely many ‘thises’ of sense-certainty, and, as it were, gathers them up under itself.

The argument bears also on ‘I’. The same negation that applies to ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘now’ and so on, applies to ‘I’. I, this ‘I’, see the house and assert that ‘Here’ is a tree; but another ‘I’ sees the house and maintains that ‘Here’ is not a tree but a house instead. Just as the ‘this’ of sense-certainty is gathered up into the universal ‘This’, so also is the ‘I’. There is a certain negation operative in sense-certainty. The now and the this become not-now and not-this. This negation is again negated, from which double negation arise the universal concepts This and Now, and all the rest. In writing, however, we are possessed once more of the earlier set of negations, the neither this nor this, that had been subsumed under the concept, the universal. One might say: 'in my end is my beginning, and in my beginning is my end'. Writing is the writing of the split subject, the divided I. Language, turning on itself, negates the negation that constitutes it as a system of meanings and concepts.

What opens up after language turns upon itself in writing Blanchot calls the space of literature, the neither/nor, the ne-uter. The in-between. Language is itself here only inasmuch as it is outside itself, so that in writing language lies beyond itself, in exile from itself, where it is not itself. (Cf. Barthes, on the text, and Derrida, in The Truth of Painting, on the parergon.) Somewhere/nowhere between particular and universal, writing is neither the one nor the other. It is the condition of, and prior to, meaning, and at the same time what comes after it. To say this is to say nothing.

Last Year in Marienbad exemplifies these ideas, as does Losey and Pinter's Accident, made three years later. It may be possible to show that such a notion of writing is at work in Bazin's discussions of the long take, composition in depth, and so on. Writing, thus understood, may well be that which underpins the basis of his construction of ‘realism’. Astruc called Bazinian realism 'cinema writing'.

Blanchot is giving an account of post-symbolist literature. These lines from The Waste Land evoke the coming back, late, from the hyacinth garden:

I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.

It is not in the hyacinth garden, but in the coming back from there, somewhere else, that I was neither living nor dead. What Eliot has done here can be illuminated by Blanchot—the poem create here a nothing that is neither nothing nor not-nothing. Much depends on the self-conscious ‘beauty’ of the lines and on the suspension attendant on that, an experience of their going nowhere. Blanchot argued that the space of literature is the space of the impossibility of dying—which is precisely the condition of the Sybil, who is positioned at the opening of the poem as if instructing the reader how to read it.

William Carlos Williams—a very different poet—can also be seen in these terms. Look at ‘On the Road to the Contagious Hospital’. Here is a ‘realist’ poem, a poem of the everyday. ‘As birds’ wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight.’ Thus Williams, in Spring and All—and I take it there is a play on ‘flight’.

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

Fragmentary and incomplete. This is the space of literature, as Blanchot envisaged it. As the words turn upon the page, we are here and not-here, with this and with not-this. So, for instance, the word ‘nothing’ is cut off from the past and future of ordinary discourse—the language of universals—and it exists in another mode, like the broken bits of bottle, a turn of language such that we are brought to turn back upon the word itself, which in that same gesture is suddenly beyond itself, without context, and—as with Eliot—all at once nothing becomes not nothing. Nor is it something. It is there between walls.

Blanchot wants us to see something without which literature would not be—in his sense at least—literature. And as for the cinema, it seems there is also a ‘space of cinema’—an in-between, an interval. One might perhaps think of the scene in Voyage to Italy, during which Alex and Katherine Joyce walk through the ruins of Pompeii. They have just witnessed a bringing back of two lovers, killed in the instant of the volcano’s reuption. Pompeii is a place that is there and not there, a site neither of life nor of death. As they walk through it, framed by the walls, doors, windows and shadows and pavements of the dead and empty streets, wrangling over their impending divorce, and voicing with irony and abrasive wit their antagonisms, they are exposed to the death which is not a death, the life which is not a life. They come to exist where place alone takes place.

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