Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Maurice Blanchot, _L'Arrêt de Mort_

THERE ARE BOOKS one avoids reading because one feels one should have already read them. For example, unlike just about everyone else my age (= getting up there), I did not read All Quiet on the Western Front in my teens. When I was in college and graduate school, it seemed utterly beside the point to read All Quiet on the Western Front when it was obviously more urgent to read Dostoevsky, or Barthes, or Celan, or Bakhtin...et cetera. Now, I feel I've missed my window.  It would be easy enough to pick a copy up and take a few hours to read it, but it isn't it too late, in a way?

My should-have-already-read-but-have-not list also includes Herzen's memoirs, E. M. Cioran, For Whom the Bell Tolls... let's just stop there, before this gets even more embarrassing, and begins to include titles I have allowed people to believe I have read.

someone: "You know the Biographia Literaria, of course."
me: "Mmmm." [there were some pages excerpted in the Norton, right?  Shouldn't that count?]
someone: "Well, then, you'll recall..."

Not having read Blanchot, I realize, is a bit like not having read Beckett, or Calvino, or Auster; Auster has translated Blanchot, for goodness's sake, and I adore Auster, so shouldn't I have followed up before now?  But you know how it goes.

So, finally, I have read one of Blanchot's fictions, and it turns out he is every bit as compelling as one had been led to believe.

The title of L'Arrêt de Mort is most conveniently translated as "death sentence," but might be construed to mean "the halting of death." Its first part is devoted to a female friend of the narrator, referred to only as J., who after a lengthy illness apparently dies, then is resuscitated, then asks the narrator to euthanize her; the second part presents several interactions between the narrator and other women in the wake of J.'s death.

The text is less a roman than it is a récit, its commentators emphasize: that is, not so much a narrative recreating events as a narrative that is itself an event for its narrator, coming to terms with what he is writing about through the process of writing about it. (Like Gatsby, perhaps, though the usual example  is Constant's Adolphe.)

What difference does death make? Can we understand it? Blanchot is engaging Heidegger here, one learns from commentary, folding in as well both the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of Jesus and the daughter of Jairus (the scene where J. revives is as astonishing as the climax of Dreyer's Ordet). Then too--according to Leslie Hill--there may be a political allegory involved, as the narrative includes a couple of precise dates, part one coinciding with the Munich crisis and part two with the German invasion and the collapse of the Third Republic.

My main impression of the text, though, is its continual balancing of contradictions, not so blatant as Beckett's famous one about it raining and not raining, but with the same unsettling, here-and-not-here effect, as assertions conjured themselves up and made themselves disappear in the same sentence. A random instance: "Aux qualités que j'ai dites, Simone D. ajoutait celle-ci, d'être franche mais reservée" ["To the qualities that I have mentioned, Simone D. added this one--to be frank but reserved"]. Got that? She's frank--just in a reserved way. So she's reserved. But frank. What?

Blanchot sets these little tail-eating snakes spinning throughout the text. None of them call more attention to themselves than the one just quoted; instead, they lie in the mind like little time-bombs, some seconds later going off and undermining whatever you had found yourself assuming about a character or situation. The narrator impulsively proposes to Natalie in the subway, obligingly doing so in her own native tongue: "Depuis quelque temps, je lui parlais dans sa langue maternelle, que je trouvais d'autant plus émouvante que j'en connaissais moins les mots" ["For some time, I had been speaking to her in her native language, which I found all the more moving in that I had less understanding of its words"]. But of course--how better express the inexpressible than in a language one does not actually know?

I was a long time coming to Blanchot, but I'm ready to take the plunge.  I've ordered three more.

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