Friday, May 15, 2015

Memory of the Word

According to the myth of the origin of written language as told by Socrates in the Phaedrus, Theuth declares that written language, the materiality of the word, will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. But Thamus instead insists that the technical gift of letters will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they are reminded from the outside with foreign signs and no longer trust the authentic memory emanating from within their souls. How could writing, as seen from this perspective, ever bring about an ethical relation?

We typically read most authors' work as running somewhat parallel to the narratives they write, acceding, for example, that the taste of the petite madeleine and the involuntary memory it evoked were as significant to Proust the man/author as they were to Marcel the narrator in the inarguably semi-autobiographical novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet as Maurice Blanchot reminds us, this moment that defines Marcel’s life 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.

Through the text’s materiality, selfhood finds itself expressed and described upon the page. But this exterior “selfhood,” in having nothing to say of the self, becomes other, an alter eclipsing the originary ego so much so that the “I” transcribed no longer speaks of the I who transcribes. Writing, then, phenomenologically establishes and maintains a distance between author and text, even when that text is “about” its author. Of course, we can argue that only one of those “selves” is “real,” defiantly asserting that the person who writes is “more real” than a character in a novel. But this is not how Blanchot understands the problem of writing.

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 Wisława Szymborska’s poetry, for example, is any more real than Szymborska herself was? 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 have ever recognized the woman herself, the one who has a definite biography (born on a certain date in a specific location) even should I have had in my possession a recent photograph of her and a current address (when she was still living)?

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. 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.

Similarly, Blanchot would want to point out that the only access we have to Socrates' critique of writing is through the written work; his denigration of written language is known only through the medium that actually preserves the memory of that denigration.

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