Wednesday, 29 October 2008



Concepts such as the unconscious, the ungraspable, the undecidable, the unsayable, the enigmatic and the paradoxical are nowadays part of the contemporary intellectual’s stock-in-trade. They are commonly deployed to characterise and justify certain kinds of obscurity in thought, and they have been touchstones in accounts of the work of Jean Louis Schefer. Vincent Descombes has discriminated amongst the issues at stake in the use of concepts such as these:

Reason is only effective within the bounds of the reasonable; it cannot but fail to grasp the irrational.

A representation is always that of something representable, and so it cannot but fail to grasp the unrepresentable.

Consciousness is conscious only of that which is conscious; therefore it cannot but fail to grasp the unconscious. [Vincent Descombes, “An essay in philosophical observation”, in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Alan Montefiore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 78.

What these formulae, or, rather, tautologies, evoke is the idea of an ungraspable object, resistant to any form of ordered discourse. It is this object that the ‘obscure’ conception of philosophy takes to be the philosophical object par excellence. But how is such an object to be understood? Clearly, formal discourse has already been ruled out, since it is form which is held to be responsible for the object’s exclusion: as a result, ‘this form will have to be modified so as to bring to awareness that which by its exclusion has enabled discourse in due and proper form to exist as such’ [Descombes, art. cit., p. 78.] Understanding, then, will necessitate a change of style, and change of style is indeed what we find. As Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut remark, ‘since the real is the impossible, since the truth is not adequation but split difference, only broken discourse can be adequate to it’ [Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, trans. Mary Schnackenberg Cattani (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 190), p. 201.

The result is an idiom in which negativity is taken to operate only on its own behalf, without limit or circumscription. Deconstruction and linguistic Freudianism, for example, lay out a series of mediations whose indefinite transgression aims to reach the one thing—the real—which, simply by virtue of its being aimed at, is forever inaccessible. The doctrine of the primacy of the signifier is thus a reworking of the Hegelian teaching, ‘the word is the murderer of the thing’, and from the doctrine of the signifier to the theory of the subject the way is short, and almost inevitable. It is to this tradition that Schefer’s commentators typically assimilate him; and yet, whatever the pertinence may be of theory of this order for the characterisation of contemporary thought, I find it has little or nothing to say about a matter I believe crucial to his work, namely, the reality of the person, the living human being.


Schefer begins his discussion of Dreyer’s Vampyr with a citation of a well-known passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). On the face of it, this looks rather odd, given his alleged indebtedness to the very different set of ideas just referred to. Hobbes was, after all, a thoroughgoing empiricist, for whom all knowledge derives in some way or other from sense experience, and Leviathan opens with a programmatic (not to say, dogmatic) assertion of this view:

[T]here is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense. [Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 13.]

We experience the world because the objects in the world impinge on us; that is, energy is transferred from the external world into the nervous system of the individual for whom the object is external:

All which qualities called Sensible, are in the object which causeth them, but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversly. [14]

Each object that we perceive affects our sense organs in such a way as to produce images in the mind:

Which Object worketh on the Eyes, Eares, and other parts of mans body; and by diversity of working, produceth diversity of Apparences. [13]

These images remain stored (as traces?) in the memory when the object itself is no longer before us. Hobbes argues (in the passage cited by Schefer) that when the object is removed from us, or the eye is closed, we still retain an image of the thing seen, ‘though’, as he says, ‘more obscure than when we see it’.

And this it is, the Latines call Imagination, from the image made in seeing; and apply the same, though improperly, to all the other senses. But the Greeks call it Fancy; which signifies apparence, and is as proper to one sense, as to another. IMAGINATION therefore is nothing but decaying sense, and is found in men, and many other living Creatures, aswell sleeping, as waking. [15]

In spelling out what is in effect a causal theory of perception, Hobbes may be thought of as a progenitor of modern cognitive science. However, it is not this aspect of him that is relevant here, but rather his insistence on the decay which is the very condition of experience, a decay of which memory is both the consequence and embodiment. In touching on this, Schefer is showing himself responsive to features that Hobbes’s thought has in common with the contemporary theory of the subject, a fact which serves to indicate something of the difficulties by which that theory is beset. As with modern presentations of mental operation, such as the Lacanian ‘algorithm’ of fantasy, Hobbes’s acccount of memory is based on the idea that when we remember something we undergo a present experience or mental process from which the past is read off. When I remember having acted in such and such a way, or what it was that I did, something takes place in my mind—and it is this event or process which is the remembering. There is an inner event which constitutes the remembering, and it is an event that differs in specific ways from other inner events, such as the events that constitute thinking or expecting or intending or fearing. It is on this basis that the imagist theory of memory gets off the ground, despite the fact that the notion of the identification of private, ‘inner’ mental events or objects can be given no intelligible expression.

It should be recognised that the imagist account of memory screens out a great deal of what we would ordinarily call ‘remembering’. As P.M.S. Hacker has noted, memory is more than a matter of experiences enjoyed or undergone, and the objects of those experiences. He writes: ‘We remember a multitude of facts learnt or objects encountered in the past, without necessarily remembering when or how we learnt or encountered them’ [P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 487]. We remember that things took place in this way or that, we remember that things are or will be thus and so, without remembering the occasions when we came by this information. We remember how to perform such and such an action without remembering how or when we learnt to do it. It is, therefore, misguided to think that memory ‘must’ involve an image, accompanied by certain feelings of familiarity or ‘pastness’. Having an image is neither necessary nor sufficient for remembering. To recognise this is to undermine the idea (or prejudice) that remembering must be based on a faithful image picture of what happened. We do not, in remembering, read off from a memory image, as we would from a photograph or picture of the past event, what it was that happened. It is not the case that memory shows us the past by showing us a representation of it, a picture somehow stored in the mind or brain, ‘which is brought to consciousness in the act or process of remembering’ [p. 488]. Though an image may accompany my memory of what happened, what I remember is not the image of what happened, but what happened.

As Hacker indicates, the analogy between remembering and a picture or photograph is profoundly misleading. If a picture is to inform me about how it was in the past, I must remember that this is how it was, that this is the Eiffel Tower in the background, and so on. I do the remembering, and the picture serves to remind me that this is how things looked. The use of a picture, therefore, presupposes that I remember what it is a picture of. It does no good to argue that in the case of memory images there is a special feeling, of familiarity or pastness, or a belief-feeling, that connects it with the past. Again, I must recognise such a feeling and I can only do so if I remember it. Furthermore, the use of past tense verbs, a use which is bound up with the very concept of the past, is itself learnt in remembering.

The analogy misleads in another way also. It suggests that one does not remember the past event one is in fact recalling. If we remember what we remember by way of a memory-image, to be understood as a photograph is to be understood, then, like the photograph, the image operates by providing evidence for what took place. We do not remember, we learn what happened in the past by reading it off the memory-image. This is to think of memory as supplying a store of information about the past. But this is ‘precisely not to remember what occurred, but to learn, as from a long-forgotten diary, what occurred’. Finally, ‘if what one remembers is the memory-image, which is a likeness of, but not identical with, the past experience, then one can never remember the experience itself’ [Hacker, op. cit., p. 489. For an account of the Augustinian view of memory, see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory. For a critique of Augustine’s imagist theory of memory, see Norman Malcolm, Memory and Mind (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 19-22].

Given these arguments, my contention is that the theory of the subject, and ideas of memory derived from it, can cast no light on Schefer’s text. First, the theory itself is inadequate, based as it is on ideas of mental imagery and inner representation. Second, Schefer’s is a writing of the present, and its central concern is not reconstructive but creative. Despite his powerful evocations of memory and the passing of time (as in, for example, his discussion of La Jetée), his writing does not construct itself around a series of images, under whose suggestive or nostalgic potency a past may be subsumed. The effect of his style is not to return to or summon up what has been, but to intertwine itself, in the manner of a chiasmus, with what is—the reality to which it is turned, whether of art, cinema or writing as such, and in which it participates. Writing of The Deluge, Schefer has this to say:

[T]he period fascinates me because the status of figuration cannot be solved by analogically expressive functions (according to the reduction in view of a specifically figurative practice that, later, iconology attempts to perform); the figurative system being set in play is also that of a nonfiguring mass that remains blind, without name or destiny, and whose “ideal” structure, the sum of the figurative field, does not add up. [The Deluge, The Plague: Paolo Uccello, trans. Tom Conley (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998), p. 30.]

The site of this nonfiguring mass, whose ‘ideal’ structure does not add up, is the body. Schefer contends that ‘Uccello’s fresco presents, or, rather, rules over, a state of the body in disaggregation, (unclothed, blurred, sunken, set in a liquid magma, truncated; in one resepect, these states of the body can be attributed to a fiction of positions and conditions of Uccello’s vision), submitted to various degrees of erasure, of rubbing’ [p. 26]. Similarly, the sequence late in Vampyr, during which the doctor (the vampire’s assistant) is stifled in flour, may also be seen as nonfiguring, inasmuch as the suffocation enacted in the mill enacts at the same time the disappearance from the film of the film image itself.

And that assault, projected as a white coating, by such a wearing down of marble, causes the falling away of all the years to the moment when the world was hidden beneath a crust of snow. And the silhouette slowly stifling in the flour arouses in us (like the image of a cooked insect found in a loaf of bread) an inexplicable relief at seeing this body simply disappear without the shadow of an actual murder. [The Enigmatic Body, trans. Paul Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 137.]

One can hardly fail to compare and contrast this image with the final image of Diary of a Country Priest or the image of the crucifix with diagonal top-pieces which succeeds Anne’s confession at the end of Day of Wrath, or indeed the consuming light at the end of Gertrud. The first two films impose a shadow of a crucifix on a white ground as a notation of narrative closure, while in Gertrud Gertrud is herself gathered into a transfiguring whiteness, a whiteness which is also emanating from her. In Vampyr, the body of the doctor is dispersed—disaggregated—by the flour, subsumed into it like a cockroach into a loaf, or dispersed like the body of a vampire confronted by the consuming fire of the bread of the Sacred Host. What we have here, in these diverse presentations of light, is a complex passage through the theology of the transfiguration, the eucharist and the body. The word, I would like to say, is here made flesh, but a flesh that escapes representation—becoming without confusion one with the very logos which has become incarnate within it. In all four films, the theological significance of the image derives from the fact that it exists in order to deny itself, negating itself in act of apophatic self-opening or kenosis. As Vladimir Lossky has written, man created ‘in the image’ of God is capable of manifesting God only to the degree that his nature allows itself to be penetrated by and so transfigured by deifying grace.

Thus the image—which is inalienable—can become similar or dissimilar, to the extreme limits: that of union with God, when deified man shows in himself by grace what God is by nature, according to the expression of St. Maximus; or indeed that of the extremity of falling-away which Plotinus called ‘the place of dissimilarity’, placing it in the gloomy abyss of Hades. [Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (London and Oxford: Mowbray’s, 1975), p. 139.]

Such a self-opening is undergone by Gray in the threefold division of his person in the second of his dreams. In the dream, he passes through ‘the gloomy abyss of Hades’ in an experience of a double extremity—of ‘dissimilarity’ and ‘similarity’. Through the extremity of death he is enabled to make ready the way for the judgement of the father, a judgement which eventually culminates in the death of the vampire, Marguerite Chopin, through the offices of the major-domo, and the death of the doctor, by way of the uncaused action of the cogs inside the mill. What Schefer is concerned with, then, is not the narrative unfolding of Vampyr, but the mode of existence of a film whose images are to be seen as hypostatic processions of cinema itself.


The question of human being and presence in Schefer is inseparable from what he calls the ‘grammatical gyration’ of the body, which in turn is closely bound up with the ‘grammar’ of the person. The term ‘grammar’ in this context admits of a certain slippage—or declension—as between Schefer’s use of it and a rather different sense of the word, used as Wittgenstein uses it. For Wittgenstein, the concept of grammar (or logic) differs from the usual one: it relates, not to language as a system of signs, but to the use of words, to our practice of using words in the complex and various manifestations of our forms of life. A grammatical or philosophical investigation is one in which ‘we remind ourselves’ of the place particular words and concepts occupy in the distinctive patterns of use that constitute our being in language. It involves having hitherto unnoticed aspects of things brought to our attention, so that we may see them differently, in what is a change of mind due to something more akin to a conversion than a conclusion based on argument. It is grammar in this sense that Wittgenstein is thinking of when he distinguishes between the role played by the notion of ‘having a body’ as opposed to that of ‘being a body’. As Hacker has noted, it is a grammatical distinction inasmuch as it serves to mark a qualitative and fundamental distinction between the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate, the sensible and the insensate. [P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 247.]

One (grammatical) consequence of this distinction is that I may be proud of my body without being proud of myself, and ashamed of myself without being ashamed of my body. It makes sense to introduce myself by saying ‘I am N.N.’, but to say ‘I am a body’ is no introduction at all. Human beings, though they occupy space, are not human bodies. Indeed, what does it mean to say that I am my body? It can’t mean that I am identical with my body. First, it is not an identity statement to say ‘I am my body’, any more than it is an identity statement to say ‘I am N.N.’. The word ‘I’ in my mouth does not refer to me: in giving my name I am not picking myself out from others (though by so doing I am making it possible for others to do precisely that). Second, I will cease to exist before my body ceases to exist, for at death I will leave my remains behind. Third, though there are a few contexts in which ‘I’ and ‘my body’ can replace each other, the very expression ‘my body’ presupposes the difference between me and my body and commonly the two expressions cannot replace each other. The crucial point, for Hacker, as for Wittgenstein, is that only what is alive can be said to ‘have a body’. It is not said of machines, or of corpses. ‘Having a body, one might say, is a (formal) mark of sentient life’ [Hacker, op cit., p. 249]. Hanjo Glock and John Hyman have commented on Hacker’s (and Wittgenstein’s) arguments:

Suppose that Carter is ashamed of his body because it weighs 18 stone. Carter’s body weighs 18 stone if and only if Carter weighs 18 stone. Hence Carter is ashamed of the fact that he weights 18 stone; therefore Carter is ashamed of himself. However, suppose that Carter is ashamed of himself because he has offended Mary. It does not follow that he is ashamed of his body (of which he may well be proud, if it is beautiful and graceful). For those cases where the mutual implication holds are precisely those which concern bodily characteristics. For what is true of my body is true of me (for as long as I am alive); but what is true of me need not be true of my body (and indeed may make no sense when predicated of my body). [“Persons and their Bodies”, Philosophical Investigations 17:2 (April 1994): 378.]

Glock and Hyman go on to note that the substitution of ‘Carter’ for ‘Carter’s body’ does not preserve truth-value in some cases. From this they conclude that Carter is not identical with Carter’s body. In other cases, the substitution results in nonsense, which, they suggest, shows that Carter and his body belong to different categories of particular. Finally, the fact that substitution is permitted in some cases and preserves truth-value indicates that ‘Carter is not some other thing, over and above his body, which might survive its (final) destruction’[Glock and Hyman, art. cit.: 379]. The conclusion may seem paradoxical: how can Carter not be identical with his body, if Carter and his body are (and must be) in the same place at the same time? Does this not lead straight back to Cartesian dualism? The response is that, while no two material bodies can occupy exactly the same place at exactly the same time, a person is not a body, and therefore the objection gets no grip on the concepts of person and body.

As Schefer presents it, The Deluge would seem to amount to a profound repudiation of the grammar in question. He appears to see justification in the fresco for a ramifying violation of what meaning the concepts of body and person have for us in the weave of our lives. Thus, he dwells at length in many passages on bodily mutilation and destruction, concluding that the body in The Deluge is ‘The nontheatrical, nonscenic body: an obscene body, which floats in relation to a spatial organisation, for example, that would be one of its simple vision or of its rememoration. A forgotten—obscene—anatomy’ [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 99]. This is more than a passing notation. It is a vision of the first importance, concerning the significance of the fresco as a whole, and Schefer recalls the occasion on which the force of it was brought home to him. He had entered Santa Maria Novella to measure the size of Dante’s figure in the picture:

A dark lighting: a first film where a commotion appears, that hits me right in the face, with what had to be understood as the invention of the signifying body: something as barren as this meaningless, painful, embarrassing, stubborn comedy (Good Night Nurse). This double chin that in the movies unwinds Fatty’s face, dripping with rain, that reveals its cinematic absurdity; the crackle of wet matches that are supposed to light a soggy cigarette (a collusion of this pasty face of a fat ephebe with chubby fingers, cruller-like ladyfingers): the same thing: the invention of the signifier in cinema unwinds a violence: that of the absurd body, that of the exempted real. [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 100.]

What comes across from this moment of autobiographical recollection is that Schefer was forcibly struck by a resemblance, between the shapeless bodies surrounding the upright figure of Dante and the amorphous absurdity of Fatty Arbuckle. In theoretical terms, the real is ‘exempted’ by the irruption of a sense of absurdity that separates the body from the real—itself amorphous and undifferentiated. This, for Schefer, is nothing other than what the experience of ‘the invention of the signifier’ in cinema amounts to—the invention of the signifying body. However, I would contend that there is something opaque here, which the theoretically sanctioned dichotomy opposing discontinuity to the continuous (the symbolic to the semiotic, the symbolic to the real, and so on) is unable to grasp, namely, the sheer fact of Schefer’s having been struck in the way that he was—a living man in physical contact with the fresco. The event presupposes an unhesitating and spontaneous acceptance of a human reality that it would seem the fresco itself has uncompromisingly reduced—to ‘flotsam at low tide, shards of things, scattered objects’.

However, at this juncture, any conclusions on the matter would be premature. Schefer acknowledges as his own a relation to the fresco that is intermediary between fear and rapture:

Thus, a gaze exists that is enraptured with this painting. I am not entirely sure what I’m looking for: surely Vico’s colour, a kind of arc in the earth of Siena, or monsters? a syntax or other words. What kind of exchange in the writing? Nothing is to be given—other than the experience of my fear. The Deluge? That is what I am reading, but the order and the wording have been changed. Everything happens over a smell of elderberries. And still, the most brutal, naïve scene. Tailored to the denuding of things. A plate raised up by a pair of pliers! [The Deluge, The Plague, p. 102].

This is not a report on certain properties of the fresco. Schefer is not concerned to elucidate traditions of iconography, nor does he seek to offer an account of constructional techniques. Descriptions of this kind are given by John Pope-Hennessy, for example, in his book on Uccello, where, amongst other things, he demonstrates how The Deluge unites two dissociated episodes into a single visual scheme, and, by so doing, ‘objectifie[s] Alberti’s ideal of the copious composition’ [John Pope-Hennessy, Paolo Uccello (London and New York: Phaidon, 1969), p. 16. ]. The nature of Schefer’s passion is to be sought elsewhere, and the form of expression that embodies it is not easily to be characterised. What I believe can be said, however, is that there are certain features of his approach, whether in relation to art, writing or the cinema, that run parallel, for at least some of the way, with what Wittgenstein has discussed in Part II of Philosophical Investigations under the head of ‘seeing aspects’.

The most important thing about the aspect is that there is a sense in which it isn’t really there and a sense in which it is very much there; a sense in which to speak about ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with respect to it is to miss its point and yet another sense in which in seeing it and in giving it expression you are truer to the object than if you stick to objective terms – the terms, that is, of what Wittgenstein calls ‘the language-game of reporting’, or ‘the language-game of information’. [Avner Baz, “What’s the point of seeing aspects?”, Philosophical Investigations 23:2 (April 2000): 106.]

In this summary, Avner Baz points to the main directions of Wittgenstein’s thought. The seeing involved in aspect seeing is not seeing in general, but seeing (the emphasis is one Wittgenstein employs throughout his discussion). The ordinary sense of ‘seeing’ goes hand in hand with ‘knowing’ and is to be distinguished from aspect seeing. This is clear from the fact that aspects do not teach us anything about the external world, if ‘teaching about the external world’ is understood on the model of giving objective information. To see an aspect is not see a property of an object, and so the expression of a change of aspect (as in what is perhaps an over-worked example, from duck to rabbit), while it may have the form of a report of a new perception, is not quite such a report. As Baz indicates, Wittgenstein also says that the criterion for what you see, when ‘seeing’ in the sense of seeing aspects is involved, is your representation of what is seen. Thus, when Schefer tells us that he sees a resemblance between bodies in the fresco and the amorphous body of Arbuckle he could be lying, but he could not be mistaken. In this respect, then, the expression of the seeing of an aspect is not a report on objective fact: it is an Äusserung, an avowal.

As Baz notes, there are connections here with the Kantian account of aesthetic judgement, and, more specifically, with Cavell’s reworking of that account: ‘Aspects, like beauty, hang somewhere between the object and the subject, and that position is constituted by the expectation, the demand, from our partner to see what we see, in spite of the fact that we have no way of making him realize that he should’ [Baz, art. cit.: 107. The reference to Cavell is: Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1969), p. 89, footnote; cited by Baz: 107]. Though the expression we give to the seeing or dawning of aspects may look like giving a report, it is not used for that purpose. Rather, the aim of it is the seeking of intimacy. This is not the intimacy in which one reveals something about one’s heart or inner feelings; in giving expression to the seeing of aspects we seek intimacy with someone else by trying to reveal, to bring out, something about the object. [Baz, art. cit., p.108] As Wittgenstein insists, when we say ‘It’s running!’ in front of a painting of a running horse we are not doing so in order to inform other people: it is a reaction in which people are in touch with one another.

It is intimacy in this sense that characterises the tone of the last passage quoted from Schefer. It also characterises the account he gives of the end of Vampyr, where his attempt is to get the reader to see as he sees, and to feel as he feels, a transfiguring of the cinematic image as such. The idea of intimacy hangs together with two further points about seeing aspects, both of which have relevance to an understanding of Schefer’s writing. The first is that aspects are subject to the will. The second is that an aspect is something that strikes us. Dependency on the will means that it makes sense to say: ‘Now see the figure like this’. In real life situations, it makes sense for me to ask you to see, or at least try to see, the resemblance between two faces that has struck me, and it makes sense for Schefer to ask his readers to see the resemblance between Arbuckle and the bodies in Uccello’s fresco. (The implication is that, whether or not we see what the other person would have us see, there is nothing standing between us and what he sees apart from what we may have put there ourselves.) Thus, if there is an air of paradox attaching to the dawning of an aspect, it derives from the fact that the aspect ‘appears over there, in the object, and yet we know we must have had something to do with that appearance’ [Baz, art. City., p. 110]. We know that what has so radically changed, now that we have seen or been struck by the aspect, has in another sense not changed at all. It is as though we were bringing a concept to bear on the object, which is why, as Baz points out, ‘the aspect cannot be our (or the) usual, obvious way of seeing the object, but rather has to be new to us’ [Baz, art. cit., p.111]. The aspect is not obviously there, as a property might be, but neither have we placed it there by a pure act of the imagination.

It is this peculiarity of the aspect – its being something that fits the object, and at the same time something that we bring to the object; its being a way of seeing something anew while remaining faithful to it – that gives expressing it its point in ordinary contexts. [Baz, art. cit., p. 111]

The seeing of an aspect is, therefore, a temporal experience: when we see an aspect, we are thinking of the object, we are occupied by it, and the aspect lasts only for as long as we are occupied with the object in that particular way. We are paying attention, which is one reason for thinking we have something to do with it, and the fact that the aspect has dawned on us is a good enough reason for our so saying.

The pertinence of the dawning of aspects to aesthetic appreciation is manifest not only in Schefer’s writing but also in the later work of Roland Barthes, work that has features in common with Schefer’s. Thus, the distinction Barthes draws in Camera Lucida between the studium and the punctum may be construed in exactly these terms: the punctum ‘is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’ [Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 55. Barthes’s emphasis]. Following some remarks of Bazin’s on cinema, Barthes insists that what constitutes a photograph that lives for him is what he calls ‘a blind field’: that is, there is a specific person in the photograph who in some way seems to emerge from it and continue living beyond it. Robert Wilson, photographed sitting with Philip Glass by Mapplethorpe, is endowed with an unlocatable punctum: ‘[he] is someone I want to meet’ [Camera Lucida, p. 57]. On account of her necklace, a black woman in her Sunday best takes on a whole life external to the portrait of her and her family. In a picture by William Klein of children in Little Italy in 1954 a single feature stands out: one child’s bad teeth. There is, however, a punctum (a ‘stigmatum’) other than the unexpected detail. This other punctum, which is not of form but intensity, is Time—what Barthes calls the ‘lacerating emphasis’ of that-has-been, its pure presentation. In 1865, Alexander Gardner photographed a young man, Lewis Payne, who had tried to assassinate the U.S. Secretary of State, W.H. Seward. The photograph was taken in Payne’s cell, when he was waiting to be hanged.

The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. [Camera Lucida, p. 96.]

This is particularly a feature of historical photographs: that is dead and that is going to die. Barthes sees two little girls looking at a primitive flying machine above their village: they are alive, with their whole lives before them. And yet they are dead (today) and they are then already dead (yesterday). In front of a photograph of his mother as a child, he shudders: she is going to die. What Barthes sees is something that fits the object and yet it is something he has brought to it: he sees the photograph anew, while remaining faithful to it.

As the intimacy of Barthes’s tone—the quality in it of avowal—makes evident, the idea of the punctum, like that of aspect seeing, makes sense only for the embodied person, the living human being. The same point can be made with reference to Merleau-Ponty, whose account of genuine or authentic perception also has many features in common with what Wittgenstein has had to say about the dawning of aspects. In genuine vision, Merleau-Ponty insists, ‘a strange adhesion between the seer and the visible’ is experienced [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 139. (Baz draws attention to a connection between seeing things anew and Heidegger’s discussion of authenticity in Being and Time.)]. The seer is caught up in what he sees in such a way that what he sees is still himself. At the same time, the vision that he exercises is something he also undergoes from the things, so that, ‘as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things’ [The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139]. In this situation, which is that, fundamentally, of aesthetic experience, ‘the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen’ [The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139. On this, see Michel de Certeau, “The Madness of Vision”, trans. Michael B. Smith, Enclitic 7:1 (1983): 24-31]. Schefer sums up his own position in a not dissimilar vein:

The image can be seen by way of what it lacks.

Something is missing that constitutes the image (permits it to conceal the world we live in, not by means of a screen with figures on it, but by means of time).

If what’s missing were within the image (of which we are a part – the virtual pole, or the phantom), the image would be invisible.

So the spectacle of visible man does exist: it’s the awareness of the darkness of our interior lives by which any spectacle is made possible. [The Enigmatic Body, p. 120.]

The last remark reads as though it were an acknowledgement of Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of the person, while it would not be misconceived to take the first three remarks as summations of the foregoing account of aspect seeing, as well as of Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the chiasmus of seer and seen. When set against this background, certain of Schefer’s remarks achieve an especial intensity, exemplified particularly by those concerning an image from Dreyer’s The Master of the House (1925). A woman is standing centrally in the rear of the image, looking slightly up and off frame right, a basket of washing forward from her in the frame, to her right. In mid-ground is a slatted door or gate, open, while in the foreground is a rough, bare, wooden floor. The image as a whole is illuminated by a key-light behind the wall mid-ground in the image, into which the doorway has been cut. Hence the source of the light is not visible. Obscured by the wall, its light pours down from somewhere off and to the top right of the frame. It is to this source that the woman has raised her eyes. The edges of the frame in the foreground are in deep shadow. The woman is holding a sheet at chest height in front of her, which she appears to be about to hang up to dry. Other washing is visible on a line behind her, to her left. Schefer sees a contrast between the ancient poverty—the filth—of the woman’s house, and the sheet, the ‘shroud’, which she is offering up, ‘an imageless innocence and a light as if calming some savage beast’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 122]. The light—uncorrupted, since it is without visible source—is gathered by the sheet, even as it radiates it, a light that Schefer evokes as the ‘approach of a suffering from which I have to reconstruct, in the repetition of this arrested movement, a threshold within myself that’s still uncrossable’ [The Enigmatic Body, p. 123]. There is here, as the woman holds the sheet as though she were holding a screen up to a projector, a falling of light in which may be seen re-enacted by analogy the imprinting on the shroud of the negative image of Christ. The image is created in what Schefer calls ‘an immaculate flash’, in the very moment of Resurrection, as the uncreated and divine energy—grace, the light of Mount Tabor—transforms the substance of the cloth, while leaving its accidents intact. The co-inherence in the Second Person of divine energy with the human nature is a co-inherence constitutive also of the human person, made in ‘the image and likeness of God’.

There is thus on the boundary between the uncreated and the created a threshold within each person and it is this threshold within himself that Schefer speaks of as ‘uncrossable’. Nonetheless, just as we may participate by grace in the suffering and resurrection of Christ, so analogously we may participate in the image in Dreyer’s film: the image ‘repays’ us for what we are, fallen into poverty of spirit, seated in the dark, with the ‘white shadow’ that makes of this place a place beyond the world. Typically, in the photographic image, the accidents, the colour, shape, and so on, of the real objects remain in existence, although the substance of those objects has long since departed. Here, in this instance of a cinematic, projected image, the substance, the light, is a real presence, subsuming the accidents of the image into itself. Clearly, however, Schefer is not concerned with this kind of explication. His writing suspends itself at the edge of the intelligible, and for the reader who would participate in it there is no alternative but to submit to that suspension, in which the image appears as nothing other than the approach of a suffering whose redemption is light, an experience the cinema offers only rarely, one such occasion being the end of Vampyr, another the end of The Diary of a Country Priest, or this image from The Master of the House. Schefer’s writing is the endeavour to effect an opening to that experience, and, in this regard, it is undoubtedly imbued with what Pater, citing Blake, called spiritual form.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


‘Buxtehude in kedgeree’: on J.H. Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)

Emmanuel Levinas has written: ‘The rift between the rational order and events, the mutual impenetrability of minds as opaque as matter, the multiplication of logical systems each of which is absurd for the other, the impossibility of the I rejoining the you, and consequently the unfitness of understanding for what should be its function—these are things we run up against in the twilight of the world, things which reawaken the ancient obsession with an end of the world’ [Existence and Existents, trans. Alfonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), p.21]. Expressions such as ‘a world in pieces’ or ‘a world turned upside down’, trite though they are, succeed nonetheless in expressing something of what poetry is, or has become, in a time when the ancient obsession with the end reawakens in a darkening world: poetry has its place on the outside, on the hither side, of whatever it is that orders and gives meaning to how things are. It sustains what Heidegger has called the rift between earth and world, where the earthly character of a work shows itself when the work in question foregrounds what it is made of, appearing opaque, and resistant to clarification, shattering every attempt to penetrate into it, and subverting all merely calculating importunity. Earth shrinks from the domination of mastery, inasmuch as it shrinks from disclosure, revealing itself only to the one who is attentive to the elsewhere of undisclosure.

Jeremy Prynne writes:

Why don’t you try a globe for ripeness, this one
where the ore rifles through veins all fossil eyes
ahead, try me my keeper at key at bay contracted,
fingering fair play for fixed pay, tone on blank.

This is not a poetry of ideas, or of words. Prynne’s lines evoke something not unlike the kind of precarious balance of which Maurice Blanchot was so accomplished an exponent: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 223]. For example, the play of repeated sounds in the first line, the ‘o’ of don’t and globe, the ‘y’ or ‘i’ of why, try and ripe, the echo of ess in is, establish patterns of auditory repetition, of similarity and contrast, that are extended as new elements are added—such as bay and play and pay, in lines three and four, where play becomes an element explicitly situated within the series it generates. The process exemplified here is a principle that informs the poetry as a whole. Local repetition is augmented to generate a double movement, whose going forward is also a folding back on itself, the enactment of which reveals or uncovers words in their palpability, in the fact of their existence as words, so that the reader is brought to experience them as external to, or other than, what they are as bearers of meaning. Language seems to take on a presence beyond itself: it stands, as it were, on this side, the hither side, of itself. In the passage quoted, the sense of movement or displacement of language beyond itself is reinforced by the allusion in the first line, via ripeness, globe and one, to ‘Ripeness is all’, ore and all in line two echoing and lending it their support. ‘Globe’ also supports the Shakespearian and theatrical reference, even as it connects ‘world’ to the implications of ‘all’ (‘All the world’s a stage’). However, the ‘all’ in question here is a totality the language of the poem is poised to split itself off from. The space the lines are trying to reach is not the space of another world, but a space which is the other of the world as such. They seek to open, not to what lies within the world or what is possible, but to the non-identical, the impossible, where the world is estranged from itself and ‘where the poem is exile, and the poet who belongs to it belongs to the dissatisfaction of exile’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Prynne is employing one of the paradoxical tropes central to modernism, and making that fact evident as he does so.

Unanswering Rational Shore comprises a series of unnumbered pages composing a sequence of fourteen fourteen-line poems, each poem divided by a space into two stanzas or blocks of seven lines each [J.H. Prynne, Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)]. The book itself is divided into two groups of seven poems, with a blank page separating the groups. It is a patterning that, perhaps, the epigraph of the book—lo mismo//lo mismo—serves to prepare for. The text is notable also for the absence of the word ‘I’. This latter feature, together with the repetition of the same announced in the epigraph, as well as the general lay-out, intimates something of how the book offers itself to be read: insofar as it initiates anything as decisive as a movement from one point to another, the movement so initiated is a series of beginnings without sequence, or, as Blanchot would have it, beginnings whose only movement is a return that starts over again, a restless dissemination of beginnings or fragments. ‘Elastic bravery tell your friends, profile margins/dilate the soft annular parallax.’ Marked as standing outside the laws of identity and the logic of the same, Prynne’s text conforms to a conception of poetry as that which ‘revokes the true, eludes signification, designating that region where nothing subsists’. It is the site of ‘the exterior darkness where man withstands that which the true must negate in order to become possibility and progress’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Whereas discourse expressive of truth typically takes the form of propositions, whose structure can be fixed in advance, this is writing that would have us see it as errant and excessive. It is a poetry of exile, of wandering, and ‘where the wanderer is, the conditions of a definitive here are lacking’. The wanderer’s country, the dwelling-place of the nomad, is not a place of truth, but the abandonment of place altogether: such a figure ‘remains outside, on the hither side, apart’ [The Space of Literature, p. 238]. While reading Prynne’s book, one is made aware of language as though one were this side of it, this side of the process of its being uttered. Rather than passing through it to what is said or meant, one is struck by the visibility and fleshliness of it, as the event of it occurs in the here and now, in the singularity of the one, unique, repeatable, and unrepeatable, moment of it.

All the fun of the pit gets well and then better,
sand spun off as yet to bind promise to tap up
one clock via another, either to both, sky-divers
like swallows gorging their young.

The effect of the sudden contrast between the sharp and focussed simile attached to the sky-divers and the surrounding displacements of meaning is to make the physical shape of the language emerge or arise as it were out of the possibilities of significance, and as this takes place one comes to experience in that same emergence the poetry in its solitariness. That is, words and utterances come to the fore as being freed from, or having failed to acquire, any context of significant use, so that the poetry never quite achieves sense or direction. The impression given is of a missed encounter with an endlessly deferred meaning that is always on the verge of departing, or is on the very edge of arriving, so that one is suspended as a reader in the curious interval between the two. What movement there is is not towards repose or conclusion or an achieved realisation. The manner of it is errant, nomadic, effecting a traversal of space, but a space that is surface, not volume. Paul Celan has spoken of art as ‘going beyond what is human, stepping into a realm which is turned toward the human, but uncanny—the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them . . . oh, art, too, seem to be at home’ [Collected Prose, trans. Rosemary Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), pp. 42-43]. The lines from the stanza quoted above continue:

In staple pairs
all so sudden with a tumult, written for nothing
to skip a beat, break open the shells; dexter risen
forward, new zonal application as leaf by shaded

leaf glows with wanting itself so. None other for
both or neither, before this after that, hall-way of
desire in fairest placement rising.

The poem endorses the freedom implicit in the refusal of death and negation, seeking escape from confinement within totality and the world and assigning no name to what there is in the ‘hall-way of/desire in fairest placement rising’. Eschewing the dialectic, based as it is on the name and the fatality of the name, it offers a letting-be or letting-go of beings, releasing them, not from the subject of desire, but the subject of mastery. The realm of such writing is the uncanny—disclosed in their separation from essence, identity or ground, and no longer subject to category and concept, beings are no longer negated, or denied their singularity. These lines conclude the poem, and the book:

As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided: hot justice pleading for penalty
in a rigged-up camp of love, courtship plays requited
and branded so faintly at implicit final appeal.

The notion of ‘play’ in all its complexity is internal to the uncanny, thus understood. Words like requited and branded shift between past participle and noun depending on their relation to the line end, so that courtship plays and is played between them, just as the love that is requited or returned is also revenged, branded, and yet all is done so faintly it results only in an implicit final appeal, which is all the answer there is to the earlier pleas of hot justice for penalty (connotations of games and play run through the whole passage). Taken in this way, as the non-identical, an event of language irreducible to anything other than the specific emphases of syntax, alliteration and assonance that compose it, the poem ends without ending, ‘branded so faintly at implicit final appeal’, allowing the reader no sure foothold on the slopes of conventional interpretation. The writing here is working through a process of articulating a sense of itself, not so much as an expressive poetry of response, but as the responsibility of response—of courtship, and so of love—as between text and reader, reader and text. The difficulty in coming to terms with this is that it involves a sustained avoidance of whatever would reduce it to mediation or expression, a stance that leaves it withdrawn, outside the alternatives of subject and object, self and other, as though it were seeking to stand on its own, contained within the very self-divisions of which it is itself the origin.

Prynne’s work is sometimes seen in relation to that of Charles Olson, and his attempts to transform poetic language into language experienced or undergone as the ‘projective act’ of the instant and not thought about the instant, an act no prior concepts of coherence are imposed upon, or preconceived limits laid down for. By attending to the syllable and a pre-logical, paratactic syntax, Olson believed he could recover an archaic, pre-Socratic vitality in which the poet’s creativity would be nothing other than a fusion with the unceasing flow of creation itself, and the poem a natural event embodying and releasing the cosmic forces of which both it and the poet are a part:

If [the poet] is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing, through himself will give him secrets objects share . . . It is in this sense that . . . the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problem, the moment he takes up speech in all its fullness, is to . . . cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. [Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 25.]

Olson’s claim is that certain syntactic relationships, certain ways of attending to sound and syllable, are more authentic than modern sentence forms based, supposedly, on the subject/predicate structure. It is these more authentic relationships of internal patterning that he finds in the grammars of certain Native American languages, and in the spatio-temporal paradigms of Homeric narrative. However, objections have been raised to this proposal: ‘Like the Fenellosan Pound, Olson pursues a language of nature beneath the language of convention, tracking down the raw, uncooked real in the tradition of American poetry’s obsession with the hieroglyphic and its promise of an archaic, “picturesque” or emblematic, language’ [Andrew Ross, The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 100]. The problem is that some kind of identity must be presupposed between the form of the real and the form of the poem’s ‘language of nature’, if the poem is to be, as Olson puts it, ‘equal . . . to the real itself’. Propositions purporting to assert an identity between the logical form of language and the logical form of the external world may well be nonsensical. Certainly, any inclination to think that the logic or grammar informing our use of words to say what we mean to say is in some manner derived from, or justified by, an appeal to extra-linguistic reality is misconceived. But, putting these disquiets to one side, the fact is that Prynne’s writing in Unanswering Rational Shore gives no grounds for thinking that it is based on assumptions similar to Olson’s.

Olson’s method depends upon him defining and positioning objects and places, while Prynne undertakes no such thing. Indeed, the poem seems to parody definition:

Petrol in search of flame hardly a ham sand-
wich, where the draft pulls out neither fear nor
care less, any cap provokes lateral adventure call
it tip to tip brownfield rematch.

Rather than definition, what we get is that ‘cunning intertexture of identical and contrasting features’, which, as an effect of the selection and constellation of phonemes and their components, Roman Jakobson saw as integral to the poetic function [Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 426]. Prynne discusses Jakobson’s notions of the poetic and his critique of Saussure’s ideas on the arbitrary nature of the sign in Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (London: Birkbeck College, 1993)]. The lines develop in ‘lateral adventure’ a variety of series (such as the one going from petrol to flame to draft, cap, call and rematch), which bring to the fore the process whereby words, selected on the basis of their similarity and contrast, engender the combinations, the lines or stanzas, in which they occur. The series articulate and enact the otherness or lack of the process that engenders them. This, for Jakobson, is what the poetic function amounts to. He defines it as follows: ‘The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination’ [Language in Literature, p. 71]. The poetic function, Jakobson argues, promotes the palpability of signs, and so deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects, an occurrence fundamental to the letting-be of beings. Seen against this background, Prynne’s writing may be said to actualise, not those discriminations of sameness and difference that Olson so exactingly attends to, but an irreducible process of projection, aiming at nothing other than a situating of itself in the here and now of the one who reads.

In their book on Prynne, N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge discuss the significance for his later work of his engagement with Chinese poetry. Drawing on his account of the ‘Palace Style Poetry’ of the Southern Dynasties, published as a postscript to Anne Birrell’s translation of the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace, they note the centrality to the poetry of absence and separation. The subjects and intended readers of the poems are women, kept apart, by convention, distance and the difficulties of travel, from their lovers. Lonely, isolated, gazing out from their windows for some sign of their absent lovers, they are confined within a world of cosmetic surfaces, and subjected to the strict control of highly ritualised forms of life.

Emotions whose real targets are absent are displaced onto precious and symbolic objects; Prynne comments in his critical study on what he calls the ‘window/mist/curtain/screen/mirror cycle, in which hidden feeling is variously projected metonymically upon the screens which hide it' [Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), p. 180. The quotation from Prynne is cited by Reeve and Kerridge from his postscript to New Songs from a Jade Terrace, trans. Anne Birrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 374].

The replacement of the lost object in this way is not the operation of disavowal constitutive of fetishism, but a metonymic displacement proper to the projective act integral to the poetic function —a conception of that act far from what Fenellosa and Pound (or Olson) were after in their dealings with Chinese writing. A closer approximation than theirs to Prynne’s understanding of it (and to his own poetic practice), may be found in Jakobson’s essay, ‘Grammatical Parallelism’, where he endorses J.R. Hightower’s view that in Chinese poetry there is ‘an underlying pattern or series of patterns’ onto which ‘more subtle forms of grammatical and phonic parallelism introduce their counterpoint, a series of stresses and strains’ [Language in Literature, p. 171. The remarks in question are citations from an essay by James R. Hightower]. Jakobson notes elsewhere that ‘in the Chinese metrical tradition the level tones prove to be opposed to the deflected tones as long tonal peaks of syllables to short ones, so that verse is based on the opposition of length and shortness’ [Language in Literature, p. 74]. That is, adapting Prynne’s idiom, grammatical and metrical parallelisms can be said to establish the metonymic patterning of the poetry as itself the screen onto which hidden feeling is projected, while being, at one and the same time, the screen that hides it. It is perhaps not too much to say that Prynne’s texts in Unanswering Rational Shore are acts of a similar projective intent, whose double nature is illuminated by Blanchot’s comment, cited near the start of this essay: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’. The enclosed, interior world of the Chinese women whose condition Prynne considers in his postscript is a place no less of exile and otherness—a space of literature—than that prepared by Prynne himself for the reader of his book.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


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.