Monday, July 11, 2011

The Ruination and Salvation of Life/Writing, Part II

Because writing, for Blanchot, exposes all of us (authors, readers, translators, interpreters) to the impersonal anonymity of (and in) language, our task of assigning “reality” to our experience is problematized by the ethical demands of writing itself. Can we declare with any confidence that the narrator who speaks through Szymborska’s poetry, for example, is any more real than Szymborska herself? What criteria should we use to measure the degree of authenticity or veracity of one over the other?

Having never met Szymborska in person nor conversed with her face to face, how could I ever recognize the woman herself, the one who has a definite biography (born on a certain date in a specific location) even should I have in my possession a recent photograph of her and a current address? Would it not be easier, we must ask, to instead recognize the narrative voice—what often gets reduced to “literary style”—of an unknown poem as being particularly Szymborska-esque than it would be to meet the actual author without questioning her identity?

Blanchot would even go so far as to allege that writing exclusively expresses definitive reality, that the biological and biographical aspects are secondary to or derivative of the narratological (as found in the text itself). Blanchot stresses that all that we can possibly know of any author is what is (already) written about him or her. (But let's not forget that he also maintains that the text says nothing of its author.) In his “The Experience of Proust,” for example, Blanchot articulates how the narrative voice not only undoes the man Marcel Proust but also establishes his authority through the text’s (as well as the author’s) deauthorization.

The Book to Come (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics)We typically read most author’s work as running somewhat parallel to the narratives they write, acceding, in this instance, that the taste of the petite madeleine and the involuntary memory it evoked were as significant to Proust the man as they were to Marcel the narrator in the inarguably semi-autobiographical novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet this moment that defines Marcel’s life, Blanchot reminds us, becomes known to us solely through the narrative.

The memory is memorable because of the testament of the written word. Proust has translated any reality of the event into the textuality of his novel, and it is only by way of the novel that the event’s reality is made accessible to us here and now. The self, then, becomes externalized—exteriorized—in writing, and that writing becomes the basis of the self’s own self-knowledge.

The more removed we are from the event, the more we rely on the narrative as evidence of that event, so that the writing bears the event’s reality in a way that “pure” memory or experience cannot. Similarly, Blanchot would want to point out that the only access we have to Socrates’ critique of writing is through the written work. Socrates’ denigration of written language in the Phaedrus is known only through the medium that actually preserves the memory of that denigration.

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