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Maurice Blanchot
Translated by
Charlotte Mandell




'The Work of Fire'

was originally published in French
in 1949 under the ride
'La Pan du fcu'
1949, Editions Gallimard
Assistance for chis translation
was provided by the French
Ministry of Cu.Icure.
"Liceracure and rhe Right co Death" was
published in Maurice Blanchor, The Gau of
Orp he11s and Other literary Essay s, ed. P. Adams
Simey, crans. Lydia Davis (Barryrown, N.Y.:
Station Hill Press, 1981); reprinted by
permission of Sracion Hill Press.
Sranford Universi ty Press
Stanford, California
1995 by the Board of Trustees of the
Leland Stanford Junior University
Printed io the United Scates of America
cir dara appear ar the end of the book
Stanford University Press publications
are distributed exclusively by
Stanford University Press wichin
the United Scates, Canada. and Mexico;
they arc distributed exclusively by
C1mbridge University Press
throughout the resr of che world.

Tr.anslator's Note


Re:ading Kafka
Katfka and Literature

The Myth of Mallarme


Mystery in Literature


The Paradox of Aycre


The Language of Fiction


Reflections on Surrealism


Rene Char


The "Sacred" Speech of Holderlin


Barudelaire's Failure


The Sleep of Rimbaud

15 3

From Lautreamom to Miller


Translated From ...


The Novels of Sartre


A Note on Malraux


Gide and the Literature of Experience


AtUJ/phe, or che Misfortune of True Feelings


Translator's Note

Gazes from Beyond che Grave

Pascal's Hand
Valery and Fausc
On Niensche's Side
Licerature and the Right to Death

Maurice Blanchoc is celebrated for the subtlety of his language

and his style. We cannot even enter the present text without
wicnessing a typical measure of his craft. The original ride of this
collection of essays is La Part dttJm. The most literal, simply verbal
translation would be "the part of fire." But the word "part'' has, as
in English, the cwo meanings of "division of some whole" and
"role," as in a play. le has further senses of "advantage," "political
party," and ochers. So we mighr begin by thinking of The Role of
Fire, the Work of Fire, the Partisans of Fire, and so on. But then we
reflect that feu also has a range of meanings broader than che
English "fire." Jr can mean "light," "lights" (as in traffic lighcs , rail
lighcs), "signal Aares," the "warmth" of feelings or of someone's
prose style, the frenzy of someone's piano playing. Now we scan
chinking of the Role of Light, Signals, Flares, the Side of Light; we
are caught up in a tangle of speculations about illuminacion, work,
caking sides, destruction (for fue does destroy what it briefly illumi
nates), signs and signals, various self-consuming artifacts-in shore,
we are already in the highly charged paradoxical world of Blan
choc's profound incerrogacions of literary cexrs. Now add to all this
the phrase faire la part du/m-which means "co cur a firebreak" co
stop the spread of fue in the woods and, metaphorically, "co cur
one's losses" in business. So in offering the present work with che
English tide The Work ofFire, I am sensible of how inadequate che
phrase is ro all portended by the original.


Translator's Note

Such inadequacy, co be sure, is part and parcel of any translation.

Blanchor's celebrated and incricate scyle, almost parac:actic in ics
caste for long strings of phrases and clauses loosely kept coherent by
grammacicaJ concords in french chat English lacks, poses a forrni
dable challenge. especially if the translator believes, as 1 do, that
one ought to do one's best co preserve the senteocial scrucrures of
the author. At times I have felt ir clearer or safer to break a very long
sentence into two smaller ones, or silently repeat a noun when a
pronoun's antecedent has grown implausibly remote, all in the
interest of making readable sentences chat are offered to the reader,
by the author, as deeds of attention. The reader of Blanchot is
meant co ponder, not hasten co conclusions.
Save in che previously cranslared lase essay, I have followed
Blanchot's own minimalist scyle of citation. When Blanchoc cites
texts from other languages, I have straightforwardly translated his
French version, so chat che reader can see what he saw. (Thus the
passage from Holderlin's "Germania" used as one of che epigraphs
co chis book and cited in che essays "Mystery in Liceracure" and
"The 'Sacred' Speech of Holderlin" is rendered in three different
versions.) For citations from works originally in English, I have,
when possible, provided char original.
And I would ponder here, with much gratitude, chose friends
who have helped me in matters of French and of English: Pierre
Joris, Nicole Pey rafitce, Claudine Heron, Michele Conteh, and my
husban d, Robert Kelly, who sci11 persists in believing books can be

It behooves mortals
To spcnk wirh rcsrr.um of the gods.
If, bccween day and night,
One time a truth should appear to you,
1 n a triple metamorphosis transcribe it;
Though always unexpressed, a. it is.
O innocent, so it must remain.
The name of the bow is life. bur ics work is death.
Who will hide from the fire that does not set

Reading Kafka

Perhaps Kafka wanted to destroy his works, since they seemed to

him condemned to increase universal misunderstanding. When we
see the disorder in which this work reaches us-what is made
known to us, what is hidden, the fragmentary light thrown on this
or that piece, the scattering of the texts themselves, unfinished to
begin with and split up even more, and reduced to dust, as if they
were relics whose power were indivisible-when we sec his silent
work invaded by the chatter of commentaries, these unpublishable
books made the subjects of endless publications, this timeless
creation changed into a footnote ro history, we begin ro ask our
selves if Kafka himself had foreseen such a disaster in such a
triumph. Perhaps his wish was to disappear, discreetly, like an
enigma that wants to escape being seen. But this modesty gave him
over to the public, this secret made him famous. Now the mystery
is spread everywhere, it is in broad daylight, a main attraction.
What is to be done?
Kafka wanted only to be a writer, the Diaries show us, bur the
Diaries succeed in making us see in Kafka something more than a
writer; they foreground someone who has lived rather than some
one who has written: from then on, he is the one we look for in his
work. This work forms the scarrered remains of an existence ir
helps us ro understand, priceless evidence of an exceptional destiny
that, without it, would have remained invisible. What is strange

Reading Kafka

about books like The Trial and The Castle is that they send us back
endlessly to a truth outside of Jjcerarure, while we begin to betray
char truth as soon as it draws us away from !iteracure, with which,
however, it cannot be confused.
This tendency is inevitable. AlJ the commentators ask us to look
for stories in these stories: events signify only themselves, the
surveyor is indeed a surveyor. Do nor subsrirute "dialectical con
suuctions for the unfolding of evencs that should be ca.ken as a real
story." But a few pages later one can "find i ll Kafka's work a theory
of re.sponsibiliry, views on causaliry, finally a comprehensive inter
pretation of human destiny, all three sufficiently coherent and
independent enough of their novelistic form co bear being trans
posed i nto purely inrellecrual terms" (Claude-Edmonde Magny,
The Sandals ofEmpedocles). This contradiction might seem strange.
And it is true that chese texts have often been translated with a
peremptory decisiveness, i n obvious disdain for their artist i c char
acter. Bur it is also true that Kafka himself set the example by
commenting occasionally on his tales and trying co clarify their
meaning. The d i fference is that aside from a few derails whose
evolution, but not meaning, he explains to us, be does not trans
pose the story onto a level that might make i mor: unde:srandabe
to us: his commentarial language embeds itself in ficaon and is
indistinguishable from ic.
The Diaries are full of remarks that seem linked to a theoretical
knowledge chat is easily recognized. Bue these thoughts rema i n
foreign to the generalization from which !'hey cake shape: they are
rhere as i f in exile, they fall back into an equivocal sryle that does
not allow them co be understood either as the expression of a single
event or as the explanation of a universal truth. Kafka's way of
thinking does not conform to a un i formly valid rule, bur neicher
does it simply refer to a particular event in his life. H i s thoughts
swim fleecing between chese cwo streams. As soon as they become
rhe transcription of a series of events chat actually happened (as is
the case in a diary), rhey move imperceptibly off in search of rhe
meaning of these events, they wane co keep pursuing. Then the
narrative beg i ns co merge with irs explanation, bur it is nor an

Reading Kafka

explanation, it does not arri ve at the point of what i c is supposed co

be explaining; and, more important, it does nor succeed in soaring
over ic. It is as if it were drawn, by its own grav ity, toward the
particulariry whose closed character ir must break: the meaning
char i t s,ers i n morion wanders around the facts, it is an explauac i on
only if it &ees itself from them, bur it is an explanation only if ic is
inseparable from them. The endless wanderings of choughc, i ts new
beginnings raking off from an image chat breaks that reflection, the
mecicul,ous rigor of reasoning appJjed to a oonexiscenc object,
constimce a style of chinking that plays ar generalization buc is
thoughr on1y when caughr up in the densi ry of a world reduced co
the unique instance.
Mme. Magny nores that Kafka never wrote a platitude, not
because of an extreme refillemenc of incelligence but through a sort
of congenital imlilference to received ideas. His way of thinking is
i n face rarely banal, bur char is because it is nor completely think
ing. It is singular, that is to say, ir cighdy belongs co a single person;
in vain does it use abstract terms, such as positive. negative, good'.
bad; it resembles a strictly individual story whose occurrences
might be obscure events char, having never happened, will never
happen agaill. Kafka, in his attempt ac autobiography, described
himself :as an ensemble of particularities, sometimes secret, some
times e>cpJjcit, endlessly throwing himself ac the law, and nor
succeeding ac having himself either recognized or suppressed. Kier
kegaard went more deeply into this conflict, but Kierkegaard had
taken the side of the secret, while Kafka could nor take either side.
lf he hidl whar was strange about him, he hated both himself and
his fare, ,and considered himself evil or damned; if be tried ro make
h i s secret public, rhe secret was not recognized by rhe communiry,
which gave it back to him, imposing secrecy on him again.
Allego,ry, symbol, rhe mythic fiction whose extraord i nary de
velopments bis works present co us, are made unavoidable in Kafka
by the nature of his thought. It oscillates berween the cwo poles of
solitude and the law, of silence and everyday speech. Ir can arrain
neither ome nor d1e other. and this oscillation is also an attempt to
escape from osci llac.i on. His thinking cannot rest easy in the gen-

Reading Kafka

Reading Kafka

eral, but although it complains sometimes of its madness and its

confinement, it is also not absolute solitude, for ir speaks about this
solitude; it is not non-meaning, for it has this non-meaning for its
meaning; it is not outside the law, because its Law is this banish
ment chat is at the same time irs reconciliation. One could say of
the absurdity by which one cries to size up chis thinking what he
himselfsays ofthe wood louse: "Only cry to make yourselfunder
stood by the wood louse-ifyou succeed in asking it the goal ofits
work, you will at the same instant have exterminated the nation of
wood lice." As soon as thought meets the absurd, chis meeting
signifies the end of the absurd.
Thus all Kafka's texts are condemned to speak about something
unique while seeming only co express its general meaning. The
narrative is thought turned into a series of unjustifiable and incom
prehensible events, and the meaning that haunts the narrative is
the same thought chasing after itself across the incomprehensible
like the common sense char overturns ir. Whoever stays with the
story penetrates into something opaque that he does nor under
stand, while whoever holds co the meaning cannot get back to the
darkness of which it is the telltale light. The cwo readers can never
meet; we are one, then the ocher, we understand always more or
always less than is necessary. True reading remains impossible.
Whoever reads Kafka is thus forcibly transformed into a liar, but
not a complete liar. That is the anxiety peculiar co his an, an
anxiety undoubtedly more profound than the anguish over our
face, which often seems to be its theme.We undergo the immediate
experience of an imposture we think we are able co avoid, against
which we struggle (by reconciling conrradictory interpretations)
and this effort is deceptive, yet we consent to it, and chis laziness is
betrayal. Subtlety, shrewdness, candor, loyalty, negligence are all
equally the means to a mistake (a deception) char is in the truth of
che words, io their exemplary power, in their clarity, their interest,
their assurance, their power to lead us on, let us fall. pick us up
again, in che unfailing faith in their meaning char does nor permit
one either to leave it or co follow it.
How can Kafka portray this world that escapes us, not because it

is elusive bur perhaps because ir has coo much to hold onro? The
commentators are not fundamencally in disagreement. They use
almost the same words: rhe absurd, contingency, the will co make a
place for on<::self in rl,e world, the impossibility of keeping oneself
there, the desire for God, the absence of God, despair, anguish.
And yet of whom are they speaking? for some, it is a religious
thinker who believes in the absolute, who even hopes for it, who
struggles encUessly ro area.in ic.For ochers, it is a humanist who lives
in a world without remedy and, in order not to increase the
disorder in i.r, srays as much as possible in repose. According co
Max Brod, Kafka found many paths to God.Accorcling to Mme.
Magny, Kafka finds his main consolation in atheism.For another,
there is indeed a world of the beyond, bur it is inaccessible, perhaps
evil, perhaps absurd. For another, there is neither a beyond nor a
movement t1,ward the beyond; we exisr in immanence, what mat
ters is the a .wareness, always present, of our finiteness and the
unresolved nnystery ro which char reduces us.Jean Starobinski: "A
man stricken with a strange sorrow, so Franz Kafka appears co
us.... Here is a man who warches himself being devoured.'' And
Pierre Klossc,wski: "Kafka's Diaries are ... the diaries of a sick man
who yearns for a cure. He wants health ...so he believes in health.''
And again: we can in no case speak of him as if he did not have a
final vision." And Srarobinski: "there is no lase word, there can be
no last word."
These texts reflect the uneasiness of a reading that seeks to
conserve the enigma and its solution, the mjsunderscanding and
rhe expression of this misunderstanding, the possibility ofreading
within the in1possibility of interpreting this reading. Even ambigu
i ty does nor satisfy us, for ambiguity is a subterfuge that seizes a
shifting, changing truth, whereas the truth char is waiting for these
writings is perhaps unique and simple. 1t is nor certain thar we
could under:tand Kafka better if we answered each assertion with
an assertion ichat disrupts ir, ifone infinfrely nuanced themes with
ochers oriented differently. Contradiction does nor reign in this
world that e,i:cludes faith bur not the pursufr offaich, hope buc not
rhe hope for hope, rruth here below and beyond but nor a sum-

Reading Kafka

Reading Kafka

mOJJ.S co an absolutely final truth. It is indeed true that to explain

such a work by referring co the historic and religious situation of
the one who wrote it, by making him into a sore of superior Max
Brod, is an unsatisfying sleight of hand, but it is also true that if his
myths and his fictions are without ties co the past, their meaning
sends us back to elements that this past makes clear, co problems
that would undoubtedly not be present in the same way if they
were not already theological, religious, impregnated with the torn
apart spirit of an unhappy conscience. That is why we can be
equally constrained by all the interpretations offered us but cannot
say that they are all equal to each other, that they are all equally true
or equally false, immaterial co their object, or true only in their
Kafka's main stories are fragments, and the totality of the work is
a fragment. This lack could explain the uncertainty that makes the
form and content of their reading unstable, without changing the
direction of it. But this lack is not accidental. It is incorporated in
the very meaning that it mutilates; it coincides with the representa
tion of an absence that is neither tolerated nor rejected. The pages
we read are utterly full; they indicate a work from which nothing is
lacking; moreover, the entire work seems given in these minute
developments that are abruptly interrupted, as if there were noth
ing more to say. Nothing is lacking in chem, not even the lack that
is their purpose: this is not a lacuna, it is the sign of an impossibility
that is present everywhere and is never admitted: impossibili ty of
living with people, impossibili ty of living alone, impossibility of
making do with these impossibilities.
What makes our effort to read so full of anguish is not the
coexistence of different interpretations; it is, for each theory, the
mysterious possibili ty of seeming sometimes to have a negative
meaning, sometimes a positive one. Kafka's world is a world of
hope and a world condemned, a universe forever closed and an
infinite universe, one of injustice and one of sin. What he himself
says of religious knowledge-"Knowledge is at once a step leading
to eternal life and an obstacle raised in front of this life"-must be
said of his work: everything in it is obstacle, but everything in it can

also become a seep. Few texts are more somber, yet even chose
whose outcome is without hope remain ready co be reversed to
express an ultimate possibility, an unknown triumph, the shining
forth of an unrealizable claim. By fathoming che negative, he gives
it the chance to become positive, but only a chance, a chance whose
opposite keeps showing through and chat is never completely
Kafka's entire work is in search of an affirmation that it wants to
gain by negation, an affirmation that conceals itself as soon as it
emerges, seems to be a lie and thus is excluded from being an
affirmation, making affirmation once again possible. le is for this
reason that it seems so strange to say of such a world that it is
unaware of transcendence. Transcendence is exactly this affirma
tion that can assert itself only by negation. It exists as a result of
being denied; it is present because it is not there. The dead God has
found a kind of impressive revenge in this work. For his death does
not deprive him of his power, bis infi.nite authori ty, or his infalli
bility: dead, he is even more terrible, more invulnerable, in a
combat in which there is no longer any possibility of defeating him.
le is a dead transcendence we are battling with, it is a dead emperor
the functionary represents in "The Great Wall of China," and in
"The Penal Colony," it is the dead former Commandant whom the
torture machine makes forever present. As Starobinski notes, isn't
the supreme judge in The Trial dead, he who can do nothing but
condemn to death because death is his power, death-not life-is
his truth?
The ambiguity of the negation is linked co the ambigui ty of
death. God is dead, which may signify this harder truth: death is
not possible. In the course of a brief narrative tided "The Hunter
Gracchus," Kafka relates the adventure of a Black Forest hunter
who, having succumbed co a fall in a ravine, has not succeeded in
reaching the beyond-and now he is alive and dead. He had
joyously accepted life and joyously accepted the end of his life
once killed, he awaited his death in joy: he lay screeched out, and he
lay in wait. "Then," he said, "che disaster happened." This disaster
is the impossibili ty of death, it is the mockery thrown on all

Reading Kafka

Reading Kafka

humankind's great subterfuges, night, nothingness, silence.There

is no end, there is no possibili ty of being done with the day, with
the meaning of thfogs, with hope: such is cl,e crum that Western
man has made a symbol of felicity, and has cried co make bearable
by focusing on its positive side, that of immortality, of an afterlife
chat would compensate for life.Bur this afterlife is our accuaJ life.
''.Afcer a man's death," Kafka said, "a particularly refreshing silence
intervenes for a lircle time on earth for the dead, an earthly fever has
reached irs end, they [ the dead] no longer sec dying going on, a
mistake seems co have been removed, even for the living it is a
chance co catch one's breach and open me window of the deach
cbamber-uncil this easing appears illusory and the pain and lam
entations begin.''
Kafka says again: "Lamentacions ar me deathbed are really be
cause be is not dead in me true sense of the word. We scill have co
content ourselves with mis way of dying, we go on playing me
game." And even more dearly: "Our salvacion is death, bur nor mis
death." We do not die, it is rrue, bur because of that we do not live
either; we are dead while we are alive, we are essentially survivors.
So death ends our life, bur it does not end our possibili ty of dying;
it is real as an end co life and illusory as an end to deacli.Thus chis
ambigujty, this double ambigui ty that lends strangeness co the
slighresc actions of these characters: An: they, like G racchus the
hunter, dead people who are vainly crying co finish dying, beings
drowning in who knows whac waters and kept afloar by the mistake
of their former dearh, with the sneering chat goes with it, bur also
with its gentleness, its infinite courtesy, in the familiar surround
ings of ordinary things? Or are they living people who are strug
gling, without understanding why, with great dead enemies, with
something chat is finite and not finite , that they cause co spring up
again by pushing it away, cliat cliey shove away from cliem as they
try co find it? For cliac is the origin of our anxiety. 1t does not come
only from this empriness from which, we are cold, human reali ty
would emerge only co full back; it comes from the fear that even
this refuge might be taken away from us, rhac nothingness might
not be there, that nothingness might just be more existence. Since

we cannot depart from existence, this existence is unfinished, it

cannot be Lived fully-and our struggle ro live is a blind struggle
that does noc know it is struggling to die and gets mired in a
potential that grows ever poorer. Our salvarion is in death, bur our
hope is ro live. It follows char we are never saved and also never
despairing, and it is in some way our hope that makes us lost, it is
hope that is the sign of our despair, so that despair also has a
liberating quali ty and leads us to hope.("Not to despair even of
what you do not despair of. ...That is exactly what is called
If each word, each image, each story can signify its opposite
and che opposite of that as well-then we must seek the cause of
char in the transcendence of death that makes it attractive, unreal,
and impossible, and chat deprives us of the only cruJy absolute
ending, without depriving us of its mirage. Death dominates us,
but it dominates us by irs impossibility, and chat means not only
char we were nor born ("My life is the hesitation before birth") bur
also char we are absent from our death. ("You talk endlessly of
dying bur you do not dk") If night suddenly is case in doubt, then
rhere is no longer either day or night, there is only a vague, rwilighc
glow. which is sometimes a memory of day, sometimes a longing
for nighr, end of the sun and sun of the end.Existence is intermina
ble, it is nothing but an indeterminacy; we do nor know if we are
excluded from ic (which is why we search vainly in ic for something
solid to hold onto) or whether we are forever imprisoned in it (and
so we turn desperately toward the outside). This exjscence is an
exile in the fullest sense: we are not there, we are elsewhere. and we
will never stop being cliere.
The clieme of "The Metamorphosis" is an illustration of the
torment of literature whose subject is its own deficiency, and that
carries che reader off in a whirl where hope and despair answer each
oclier endlessly. Gregor's state is th state of the being who cannot
depart from existence; for him, co exist is co be condemned co
fulling continually back into exjscence. Turned into a vermin, he
continues co Uve at the level of his degeneration, he sinks into
animal solitude, he comes close to the absurdity and impossibility


Rending Kafka

Reading Kafka

of living. Bue what happens? He goes on living. He does not even

cry ro get our of his unhappiness. buc into chis unhappiness he
brings a last resource. a last hope: he still struggles for his place
under rhe sofa, for his lircle excursions on rhc coolness of the wall:. ,
for life a.mid the filth and dust. So we also have to go on hoping
along with him, because he hopes, but we also have to despair of
chis frightening hope char goes on, aimlessly. inside rhe void. And
then he dies: an unbearable death, abandoned and alone-and yet
almost a happy death by the feeling of deliverance it represents, by
the new hope of an end chat is final for now. Bue soon this last hope
is also stripped away; it is not true, there is no end, life goes on, and
the young sister's gesture, her movement of awakening to life, the
call ro the sensual on which the story ends, is the height of horror;
there is nothing more frightening in the entire story. It is the curse
and it is revival, hope, for rhe girl wanes to live, when to live is just
to escape the inevitable.
Kafka's narratives are among the darkest in lirerarure, the most
rooted in absolute disaster. And they are also the ones that torture
hope the most tragically, nor because hope is condemned bur
because it does nor succeed in being condemned. However com
plete the catastrophe is, an infinitesimal margin survives; we do nor
know if it preserves hope or if. on the contrary, it dismisses it
forever. It is not enough t.hat God himself submirs ro his own
verdict and succumbs in the most sordid collapse, in an unheard-of
caving-in of scrap iron and human organs; we still have ro wait for
his resurrection and the return of his incomprehensible justice that
condemns us forever to terror and consolation. le is not enough
that the son, obeying the unjustifiable and irrefutable verdict of his
father, throws himself into the river with an expression of calm love
for him; chis death must be associated with the continuation of
existence through the strange final sentence: "At th.is moment the
traffic on the bridge was literally mad," a sentence whose symbolic
import, whose precise physiological meaning Kafka has affirmed.
And finally, mosc tragic of all, Joseph K. in The Trial dies, after a
parody of justice, in the deserted suburb where rwo men execute
him without a word; buc it is noc enough thar he dies "like a dog."

he srill has to have his share of survival, chat of the shame which the
limirlessness of a crime he has not com.mined assigns to him,
condemning him co live as well as to die.
"Death is in front of us a lircle like the paincingAlexanders Battle
on the wall of a clas sroom. What we have co do, from chis life for
ward, is ro dim or even erase rhe painting by our acrs." The work of
Kafka is chis paincing that is death, and it is also the act of dimming
ir and erasing it. Bue. like death, it is nor able ro be dimmed; on the
contrary. it shines admirably from rhe vain efforr it made co
exringuish itself. Thac is why we understand it only by betraying ir,
and our reading revolves anxiously around a misunderstanding.


Kafka and Literature

Kafka and


ir. for many writers of his rime. Kafka chose Goethe and Flaubert as
his masters, but he lived during che era of the expressionist avanr
garde). He doubted only his capacity to write, not che possibility of
writing or the value of arr.
Kafka sought above all co be a wrircr. He was driven ro despair

each cime he thought he was prevenred from becoming one. He

wanred ro kill himself when, having been placed in charge of his

father's factory, he thought char he would not be able to write for

cwo weeks. The longest section in his

Diaries concerns cbe


scruggle he had co keep up against business, against other people,

and against himself just to be able co write a few words in nis

Diaries. This obsession is impressive, bur we know that it is nor all

'J\Jl I am is liceracure, and I am not able or willing ro be anything

else." In his


that unusual. Ln Kafka's case, it seems more narural if one recog

nizes how he chose to fulfill his spirirual and religious destiny in

in his lecters, in all phases of his life, Kafka

lirerarure. Having devoted his entire e.xistence co his art, he saw all

claiming a title that most people scorn roday. For many of his

commentators, to admire Kafka is first to place him outside of his

in the true sense of rhe word, be stopped living.

How can existence be completely devoted to a concern for

literary work, Jean Starobinski says. We should place his life and

nor so clear. Lee us admit rhar for Kafka writing was nor a matter of

dealt with himself as a writer of lireracure, and he prided himself on

starus as a writer. He knew how ro give a religious meaning co

of it in danger when this activi ty had to give way to another: then,

arranging a certain number of words in some order? Thar is what is

work in the category of sancti ty and not of literature, says Max

aesthetics; he did nor have the creation of a valid literary work in

says, bur also ro deliver a message. But this is what Kafka says: "My

in his life. The commentators would like to keep separate com

Brod. He not only had co create a body of work, Pierre Klossowski

situation is unbearable because it contradicts my only desire and

my only calling: literature.'' "Ever}'thing that is not literature bores

me." "Everything that does nor have ro do with lirerarure, I hare.''

"My chance ro use my talents and every potential in some manner

lies entirely in the domain of lireracure.''

One sometimes has the impression that Kafka offers us a chance

of catching a glimpse of what literarure is. Bur one must not begin

mind, bur his salvation, the accomplishment of the message that is

plccely artistic preoccupations, which they consider secondary,

from interior preoccupations, the only things worth being explored

for themselves. 'J\esthetic deliberation," we are told, "has no place

here." So be it. Bur rhen look ac what lirerarure becomes. Strange

activi ty, this: if ir has a mediocre purpose (for example. producing a

well-wrirren book), ic demands an approach char is anencive co the

he valued as the only sort that could save him, if he could attain it.

whole and ro derails, mindful of the technique and composition,

and aware of the power of the words; but if it aims higher (for
exa mple, examining the very meaning of life), chen its approach is

words with a certain confidence; he did nor feel threatened by whar

neglecting the very substance of which it is made. Lee us note that

by judging unworthy of him a caregory that, far from disparaging,

Ir is strange that a man who cook nothing for granted regarded

has become for us the worse threat (for us and also, let us nor forger

free of all these conditions, ic can come about by completely

this idea of literature, understood as an activi ty capable of being

Kafka and Literature

Kafka and Literat1,re

practiced wirhout consideration for the means, is nor a simple

theoretical dream-it has the well-known name of "automatic
writing"; bur such a form was foreign to Kafka.
He wrote stories, novels. ln his Diaries, he describes the scenes at
which he was present, the people he met. He passes judgmcnrs on
his work: "The description of R. did not seem effective ro me."
Often he describes objects in derail. W hy? ls it because, as Max
Brod claims, the truth being visible everywhere, he finds it every
where? Is it not rather the case that he is practicing, that he is trying
ro learn? We know that he carefully studied Kleist's chilly style, and
that Goethe and Flaubert caught him co recognize the value of a
perfectly wrought form. "What I am lacking," he wrote to Pollack,
"is discipline . . . I wam to work with zeal, for three months
running. Todayl know this more than anything: an has more need
of craft [metier] than craft has of arr. I do not believe, of course,
that one can force oneself nor to have children, bur l do believe,
rather, that one can force oneself to educate chem." Kafka asked
more of Literature, and got more from it, than many ochers have.
But he had first of all the honesty of accepting it in all its forms,
with all its constraincs, as both craft and art equally, as a cask and as
a privileged activity. From the moment one writes, he thought, one
cannot do it wirhour writing well.
lt would be coo easy, for someone who writes out of concern for
life or morality, co find himself freed from all aesthetic consider
ations. Literature is not an apartment house where everyone can
choose a flat, where if someone wanes to live on the top Aoor, he
will never have to use the back stairs. The writer cannot just drop
our of the game. fu soon as he starts writing, he is within literature
and he is there completely: he has to be a good artisan, but he also
has to be an aesthete, a word seeker, an image seeker. He is
compromised. That is his fate. Even the famous instances of total
sacrifice in literature change nothing in this situation. To master
literature with the sole aim of sacrificing ic? But that assumes that
whar one sacrifices e:xisrs. So one must first believe in literature,
believe in one's literary calling, make it exist-to be a writer of
literature and to be ir ro the end. Abraham was willing to sacrifice

his son, buc what if he was not sure he had a son, and what he cook
for his so,n was really just a ram? And then, silence is not enough co
make a writer more than a writer, and whoever tries co leave art co
become a Rimbaud still remains an incompetent in rhe silence. We
cannot even say that Kafka rejected his work because he judged it
morally bad, or unfaithful to the message he wanted ro deliver, or
inferior t:o the silence. He might have wanted co destroy ic simply
because he considered it imperfect in literary terms. How does one
distinguish between the messenger who says, "Pay no attention to
my rness:age," and the artist who declares, "My work is a failure, lee
ir be destroyed"? ln one sense, the artist alone has the right co make
such a decision. The messenger is not master of his words; even if
rhey are bad1 they are beyond his concrol, for that might be their
very meaning, to be bad; all that one is able co grasp is that the will
to destroy it may be incorporated in the message itself: the secret
desire of speech is co be lose, bur this desire is a vain one and speech
is never l.osc.
What is strange is not only that so many writers believe their
entire eii:istence is devoted to the act of writing, but that by
devoting themselves to it, they still give birth to works that are
masterpi,eces only from che aesthetic point of view, which is pre
cisely the point of view they condemn. Moreover, the very ones
who want to give a fundamental meaning co their activity, a search
chat implies the whole of our condition, succeed only in carrying
this activity through by reducing it to the superficial meaning they
exclude, the creation of a work weU done, and this creation forces
chem, at least momentarily, co separate themselves from existence,
to diseng;age themselves, co Lose interest in it. "Write with blood,"
said Zaratthusrra, "and you will learn that blood is mfod." But it is
the oppo,site that is true: one writes with the mind and one thinks
one is bl<:eding. Kafka himself: "I will not give way to fatigue, I will
<live com plecely into my story, even ifl gash my face." The image is
certainly dramatic: the writer emerges from his work, his face
crisscross:ed with curs, but it is only an image. Camus's Caligu la has
the heads cut off of people who do not share his artistic emodons.
No Calig;ula for the writer. His overbearing (and, for some. degrad-

Kafka and Literature

Kafka and Literature

ing) siruation comes in part from his success: he claims co undergo

great risk in his work, bur the risk he runs is per:haps no risk ar aJl;
far from succumbing, he gets himself our of it with an admirable
work that enlarges his existence. Hence the alibi for so many
bloody words-there- is no blood. Hence, too, all the scornful
words about those with pen in hand.
One can imagine Racine writing under constraint of a "truth" to
seek. One can also imagine him led by this search to a kind of
asceticism, to a disgust with the harmonious, ro a refusal of perfec
tion, in short, not co the silence of Phaedra, but rather to some
Phaedra by Nicolas Pradon. That is the problem. We have seen
writers renounce writing out of dislike for it or our of a need to go
beyond literacure by sacrificing it. We have seen others ready co
destroy masterpieces because these masterpieces seemed to them to
be a betrayal. But we have never seen anyone give up being a good
writer ouc of devotion to his inner life, continue to write because
writing was necessary, but continue co write more and more badly.
A Rimbaud never became a Sully-Prudhomme. How mange that
is! Even Holderlin, in his insani ty, went on being a good poet.And
Kafka could condemn his work, but he never condemned himself
co the emptiness of mediocr:e language, co death from banali ty and
stupidity (only Flaubert sometimes makes us chink of chis suicide).
Why did a man like Kafka feel lose if he did not become a writer?
Was char his calling, the rrue form of his mandate? Bur how did he
come by this half-certainty char while he might not fulfill his
destiny, his own way of missing it was to write? Countless texs
show thar he arrribured an immense importance to 1irerarure.
When he notes, "The immensity of the world 1 have in my
head .... Bener ro explode a thousand times than hold ic back or
bury it in me; for that is the reason I am here, I haven't the least
doubt about char," he again expresses in his usual way the urgency
of a creation that blindly clamors co be let our.It is most often his
own existence that he feels is at stake in literature. Writing causes
him to exist. ''I have found meaning, and my monotonous, empty,

misled, bachelor life has its juscification.... It is the only path char
can lead me forward." In another passage: ..brave, naked, powerful.
surprising as I am usuaUy only when J write." This text rends co
reduce literary activity co a means of compensation. Kafka was not
very good at living; he lived only when he was writing. NI the
same, even in chis perspective, rhe main point remains to be
explained, for what we want co understand is, wby wrire?-And not
an important work, but insignificant words ("The particular kind
of inspiration I find myself in ... is such that I [can doJ everything,
and nor just what is intended for a definite work. When I ar
bitrarily wrire: a sentence like chis: 'He looked out the window,' this
sentence is already perfect"); co write "He looked our the window''
is already to be more than oneself.
Kafka makes us understand that he is capable of freeing latent
forces in himself, or even chat at a time when he feels closed in and
surrounded, he can discover by chis means some close possibilities
of which he had not been aware. In solirude, he dissolves. This
disintegration makes his solitude very perilous; bur, at the same
time, somer.ht.ing imporranr can spring up from this confusion,
provided language grasps it.The drama is thar at such a moment it
is almost impossible for him to speak. Normally, Kafka found it
extremely diflficult to express himself, due to che nebulous conrencs
of his consciousness; but now, the difficulty surpassed everything.
"My powers are not enough for even a single sentence." "Nor one
word, when II write, goes with another.... My doubts surround
each word even before 1 can make ir out, what am l saying, I've
made chis word up!" At this stage, it is not the quality of the words
that matters, but the possibility of speaking: that is what is ar stake,
that is what one experiences. "Have listened to myself from time co
rime, perceiviing at cimes inside me something like the mewing of a
young cat."
Ir seems chat literature consists of rrying to speak ac the moment
when speaking becomes most difficult, turning toward those mo
ments when confusion excludes all language and consequently
necessitates a recourse to a language chat is the most precise, the
most aware, the furthest removed from vagueness and confusion-


This inferior dramatisr's play. staged two nighrs after Racine's masrerpiecc 011
the same theme, was used by Racine's enemies againsr him.-TRANS.



Kafka and Literature

to lirerary language. In this case, the writer can believe that he is

creating "his spiritual possibili ty for living"; he feels his creation
linked, word by word, co his life, he re-creates and regenerates
himself Literature then becomes an "assault on the frontiers." a
hunt that, by the opposing forces of solitude and language, leads us
co the extreme limit of this world, "to the limits of what is generally
human." One could even dream of seeing ic develop into a new
Cabala, a new secret doctrine from centuries ago thar could re
create itself today and begin to exist starting from, and beyond,
That is a work which probably will nor reach completion, but it
is surprising enough that it could be thought possible. We have said
chat in the midst of general impossibility. Kafka's crust in literature
was scill remarkable. He rarely Lingers on the inadequacy of arr. If
he writes, "Art flies around truth, bur with the determination nor co
get burnt by it. Its skill consists of finding a place in the void where
the ray of light focuses mosr powerfully, without knowing be
forehand the location of the light source itself," he himself is
responding to chis other, darker reflection: "Our art is ro be blinded
by truth: che lighr on the grimacing face as it pulJs back, char alone
is true and nothing else." And even that definition is not without
hope: ic already is something ro lose one's sight and, more than
that, to see while blind; if our art is not light, ic is a form of
darkening, a possibili ty of arraining the flash th.rough the dark.
'According to the pious Max Brod, whose commentaries strive to
bring the friend he lost closer ro himself, arc should be a reflection
of religious knowledge. One sometimes has the completely dif
ferent impression that, for Kafka, arc went further than knowledge.
Knowledge of oneself (in the religious sense) is one of the means of
our condemnation: we raise ourselves up thanks only ro it, bur it
also is the only thing that prevents us from raising ourselves; before
being acquired, ir is the necessary path; afterward, it is che insur
mountable obstacle. This ancient idea from the Cabala, in which
our downfall seems our salvarion and vice versa, perhaps lees us
understand why art can succeed where knowledge fails: because ir
is and is not true enougb ro become the way, and coo unreal to

Kafka and Literature


change inro an obstacle. Art is an as if Everything happens as if we
were in rh,e presence of truth, bur ch.is presence is not one, char is
why it do,s not forbid us co go forward. Art claims knowledge
when knowledge is a seep leading co eternal life, and it claims non
k.nowledge: when knowledge is an obstacle drawn up in fronr of chis
life. Ir changes irs meaning and irs sign. Jr destroys itself while it
surviv es. That is its imposture, but thar is also its greatest dignity,
che same chat justifies the saying "Writing is a form of prayer."
Sometimes Kafka, struck, like so many ochers, by the mysterious
narure of rthis transformation, seems ready co recognize in ir che
proof of a.JI\ abnormal power. In the course of literary activity, he
cells of having experienced (sometimes) illuminating stares, "stares
during whiich I lived entirely in each idea, bur also realized each one
of rhem," great harrowing scares in which he believed himself
surpassing his limits and reaching universal limits; but, he adds, "Ir
was not in these srares that I wrore my best works." Ulwnination
might thus be linked to the exercise of this special activity of
language, without knowing if char presupposes it or provokes ic.
(The state of dissolution, associated with solitude, of which we
spoke earlier, is also ambiguous: there is dissolution from the
impossibib ty of speaking while still within sight of speech; silence
and the v,oid seem co exist only co be filled.) In any case, the
cxrraordin:ary is placed on the level of language, either by causing
che magnificence of life co rise up from the deep by the "magic"
power of cbe right word. "which does not create, buc invokes," or
by turning against the one who is writing, Like a dagger in the
hands of "spirits." The idea of spirits and magic explains nothing
by irsdf; i1: is a warning that says: There is something mysterious
here, you must be on your guard.
This is the mystery: I am unhappy, so I sic down at my cable and
write, "I a.m unhappy.'' How is chis possible? This possibility is
stra nge and scandalous co a degree. My scare of unhappiness sig
nifies an e:xhauscion of my forces; che expression of my unhappi
ness, an in,crease in my forces. From the side of sadness, there is the
impossibility of everything-living, existing, chinking; from the
side of writing, the possibility of everything-harmonious words,

Kafka and Literature

Kafka and Literature

accurate exposition, felicitous images. Moreover, by expressing my

sadness, I assert a negation and yet, by asserting it, 1 do nor
transform ir. T communicate by the greatest luck the most complete
disgrace, and the disgrace is not made lighter. The more luck I
have, that is ro say, the more gifred T am in making my unhappiness
felr by description, embellishments, and images, the more the bad
luck this misfortune reports is respected. Ir is as if the possibility
that my writing represents essentially exists to express its own
impossibility-the impossibility of writing chat constirutes my sad
ness. Not only can it not put it in parentheses, or accommodate ic
without destroying it or being destroyed by it, bur ic really is
possible only because of ics impossibili ty. If language and, in par
ticular, literary language did not constantly hurl itself eagerly at its
deach, it would not be possible. since it is chis movement coward its
impossibility chat is its nature and its foundation; it is this move
ment that, by anticipating its nothingness, determines its pocenrial
co be dus nochfogness without actualizing it. In other words,
language is real because ic can project itself coward non-language,
which it is and does nor acrualizc.
In the cext on which we have just commented, Kafka writes:
"Could never understand char it was possible, for almost anyone
who wanted co write, co objectify pain while in pain." The word
"objectify" attracts attention, because literature rends precisely co
construct an object. le objectifies pain by forming it inro an object.
le does not express ic, ic makes it ex.isr on another level, it gives it a
materiality which is no longer that of rhe body but the materiality
of words which represent the upheaval of the world chat suffering
claims co be. Such an object is not necessarily an imicacion of the
changes thac pain.makes us live through: it shapes itself to present
pain, nor represent it; first of all, this object must exist, chat is, ir
must be an always indecermioace conjunction of determined rela
tionships. There muse always be in it, as in everything chat exists, a
surplus that one cannot account for. "To write a story, I do nor have
che rime co extend myself in all directions, as I should.'' This regret
of Kafka indicates the nature of literary expression: it radiates in all
directions, and indicates che narure of movement inherent in all

literary creation: one makes ic genuine only by looking for it in

,ill direct:ions, pursued by ir bur outrunning it, pushed everywhere
by puJling it everywhere. The "l am unhappy" is unhappiness only
when ir becomes thicker in rhis new world of language, where it
1 akc form, sinks down, is lost, is darkened, and survives.
le seems striking co many commeocacors, in particular co Claude
Edmonde Magny, char Kafka grasped the fecundity of licerarure
(for himself, for his Life, and co go on living) from the moment chat
he felt literature was rhe passage from !ch ro Er, from I to He. That
is che grear discovery of che nrsc important scory he wrote, "The
Judgment," and we know chat he commenced on this evenr in cwo
ways: co bear witness co dus overwhelming encounter with the
possibilities of literature, and to make clear co himsdf che connec
tions chis work permined him to make clear. It is, Mme. Magny
says. borrrowing a phrase of T. S. Eliot, char he had succeeded in
constructing an "objective correlative" for his originally incom
municabe emotions; she adds char ir is a question of a kind of
an11ihilacion of the self, agreed co by che artist, nor for the sake of
inner progress bur co give birth co an independent and complete
work of arc. No doubt. And yet ic seems that something even more
curious is happening. For, from all che evidence, when Kafka wrote
"The Jud.gmenr" or The Trial or "The Metamorphosis," he was
wriling n:arracives about beings whose story belongs only to chem,
buc at the same ciroe about Kafka and his own story, which belongs
only co him. le seems the further he got from himself. the more
present h<: became. Fiction's narrative shapes a distance, a gap (itself
nccive) inside the one writing, without which he could not express
himself. This distance must become even deeper as the writer par
ticipates more in his narrative. He is implicated, in both senses of
rhc ambiguous term: he questions himself, and he is also in qut:S
Lion in the story-though almost effaced.
So it is not enough for me co write" I am unhappy. As long as I
write not.liing clse, I am coo dose to myself, roo close co my
unhappin,ess, for chis unhappiness co become really mine in the
form of language: I am not yet truly unhappy. le is only from the
moment I arrive ac rhis strange subsricurion, "He is unhappy:' chat



Kafka and Literature

Kafka and literature

language begins to be formed inro a language that is unhappy for

me, to sketch out and slowly project the world of unhappiness as it
occurs in him. So, perhaps, 1 will feel myself implicated, and my
unhappiness will be felt by this world from which it is absent, in
which l and it are both lose, where it cannot be consoled or
appeased or amused, where, foreign co irself, ic neither scays nor
disappears, and lasrs without possibility of lasting. Poetry is deliv
erance; bur this deliverance signifies char chere is nothing more co
deliver, chat f have become involved in another in whom, however,
I no longer find myself. (This partly explains why Kafka's stories are
myths, excraordinaryrales, beyond the plausible and the realistic: it
is because be expresses himself in them by this immeasurable
distance, by the impossibility of recognizing himself in them. Ir is
not possible that this vermin is himself: so it is he in his most
intimate and irreducible essence.)
Impersonal and mythic narrative, taken as faithful co the essence
of language. necessarily creates certain contradictions. We have
noted that language is real only from the perspective of a state of
non-language, which it cannot realize: it is striving coward .i dan
gerous horizon where ir seeks in vain to disappear. What is chis
non-language? We do nor have co clarify that here. Bue we should
remember that it constitutes a reminder to all forms of expression
of their inefficiency. Language is possible because it strives for the
impossible. Inherent in it, at all its levels, is a connection of struggle
and anxiety from which it cannot be freed. As soon as something is
said, something else needs co be said. Then something different
must again be said to resist the tendency of all that has just been
said to become definitive, co slip ioro the imperturbable world of
things. There is no rest, either ar the level of the sentence or at that
of the whole work. Nor is there any in regard to the srruggle that
cannot make any assertion without correcting irself-and none,
either. in silence. Language cannot be realized by being mure;
saying nothing is a manner of expressing oneself: the iJlegitimacy of
which throws us back into speech. Moreover, it is inside words char
the suicide of words muse be attempted, a suicide chat haunts them
but cannot be achieved, thac leads chem co the cemprarfon of the

white page or co rhc madness of a word lost in insignificance. All

rhese solucionis are illusory. The cruelty oflanguage comes from che
facr that it endlessly evokes irs dearh without ever being able to die.
The Great Wall of China was nor finished by irs builders. The
srory 'The Great WaU of China" was nor finished by Kafka. The
fact chat the work is connected with the theme offailure by its own
failure must boe regarded as the sign of uneasiness chat is at the root
of all literary designs. Kafka cannot prevenr himself from writing,
bur writing preveors him from writing: he interrupts himself, he
begins again. His effort is as endless as his passion is wicbouc
hope-only the absence of hope sometimes becomes che most
cenacious hop,e, whiJe the impossibility of ever being done with ic is
onJy the impo,ssibility of going on. What is most striking is chat chis
muggle (without which there is no language, or literature, or
authentic research, buc which is not enough to guarantee research,
or licerarure, or language; which does nor exist before ics object and
is as unforese1:!able in irs forms as the movement it reverses) shows
through in Kafka's very style, and char chis style is often the almost
naked manifestation of ir.
We know these developments that, particularly in rhe Diaries,
are built up in such a strange way. There is a primary assertion,
around whicht secondary assertions are arranged, char supporr it as
a whole. all the while initiating partial reservations. Each reserva
tion leads to another that completes ir and, linked co each ocher, all
of them together make up a negative structure, parallel co the
cemral one, rhat keeps going on and ending at the same time:
having reache d rhe end, cbe assertion is ar once completely devel
oped and completely withdrawn; we do not know if we are grasp
ing the ourside or the inside, whether we are in the presence of the
building or tbie hole imo which cbe building has disappeared. le is
impossible co find out what face the thought turns coward us, ir
lurns coward and away so much, as if, like a weight hanging by a
5rring, its only object were co reproduce its torsion. Kafka's words,
by the face that they arrempc a veritable regression co rhe inlinire,
give as much rhe impression of leaping beyond themselves in a
dizzying way as of pressing agajnsc the void. One believes in a



Kafka and Literature

Kafka and Literature

beyond of words, a beyond of fulure, in an impossibility that might

be more than an impossibility, and thus restore hope co us. ("The
Messiab will come only when he is no longer needed, he will come
only a day after his arrival, be will not come on the lase day, bur at
rhe- very lase." Or again: "Norhjng bur a word, nothing bur a
prayer, nothing but a breath of air, nothing bur a proof chat you are
still alive and waiting. No. no prayer, nothing but a breach, not
even a breath, nothing bur a presence. nor even a presence, nothing
but a thought, nor even a thought, nothing but the cairn of sleep.")
But when che words scop, we have hope neither for a realized
infinjty nor for the assurance of something finished; led toward the
limitless, we have renounced limics, and finally we must renounce
the unlimited as wdJ.
Often, Kafka's language tries to maintain an inrerrogarive mode,
as if, under cover of char which eludes yes and no, he hoped to trap
something. Bue the questions repeat themselves while limicing
themselves; more and more, they cast aside what they are crying to
find, ruining cheir possibility. They desperately cominue in the
single hope of an answer, and rhey can continue only by making
any answer impossible-and, even more, by invalidating the very
existence of the one who questions. ("What is chis? Who is going
away under the trees on the bank? Who is completely abandoned?
Who can no longer be saved? On whose grave is the grass grow
ing?" Or "What is troubling you? What moves you to the quick?
Who is fumbling at the larch of your door? Who is calling you from
the street without coming in through che open door? Ah! precisely.
it's che one you are troubling, the one you move co the quick, the
one at whose door you are fumbling, the one whom, without
wanting co come in through the open door, you are calling from the
street!") In truth. the language here seems to exhaust irs resources
and to have no other goal bur to go on at aJl coses. le seems confused
wich its empciest possibility, and chat is why it also seems co us co
have such a tragic fullness, for chis possibili ty is language, frustrated
by everything and realizing itself only by the movement of a
conflict that finds nothing more to onresc.
Literature is the place of contradicrions and disputations. The

wrirtr who is mosr connected to literature is also the one most led
to rusconnect himself from it. It is everything co him, yet he cannot
co ntent himsdf with it or be satisfied. Kafka, so certain of his
litt'rary vocatfon, felt guilty because of all he sacrificed co practice it.
He was supposed co conform to the norm (norably by marriage),
.1n<l instead he wrote. He was supposed co seek God by participat
ing in the relligious communi ty, and instead he made do with rnis
form of prny,er that is wricing. "For a long rime now nothing more
has been wrinen. God does not want me to write, but as for me, I
have co write. There are perpetually highs and lows, but when all is
told, God is stronger, and the unhappiness is greater than you can
imagine." What was the justification becomes sin and condemna
tion. He knows "we cannot write our redemprion. we can only live
ir." ln the smry "Josephine," be shows how futile it is for the artist
to chink he is the soul of his community, the chief resource of his
people in facing che sorrows char strike tbem; he will not be
exempted frnm his share of work and communal responsibility, his
an will suffe:r from it, even collapse, but whac does ic matter? His
decline "is only a lin:le episode in che eternal consciousness of our
pt'ople, and our people will soon overcome this loss." This apologia
signifies clearly chat, even at ics highest, arc has no rights against the
claims of action. It is powerless, but its awareness of chis illegiti
macy does not resolve the conflict. Witness the face char, ro cell us
about it, Kaltka has to write another piece of licerarure, and will
acrually die while correcting the proofs of one lase book. In chis
sense, whoev,er secs out to write is already lost. But he can no longer
inrerrupt his work without believing from then on chat it is by
incerrupriog it that he will be lost. He will try all the solutions. All,
even silence, even action, will be nothing more than more or less
inadeq uate kinds of arr from which he will free himself only at the
very command of arc: Racine's renunciation of tragedy forms a pare
<>f tragedy-likewise, Niensche's madness or KJcist's death. In
recent years we have witnessed how any writer who feels concern pr
tor literature pays for ir by multiplying his employmenr of literary
rnc1hocls. Presently we will observe that when literature cries to
forget irs gratuitous character by committing itself seriously to


Kafka and Litmttttre

political or social action, chis engagement turns out to be yet one
more disengagement. And it is the action that becomes literary.
Oucwardly and inwardly, literature is complicit with whar threat
ens ir, and this threat finally is also an accomplice of literature.
Literature can only challenge itself, bur chis challenge restores it to
irself It sacrifices itself, and rhis sacrifice, far from making it disap
pear, enriches it with new powers. How can one destroy, when
desrruction is the same as that which it destroys or even, like rhe
living magic of which Kafka speaks, when descruction does nor
desrroy, but constructs? T his conflict adds to all those we have
glimpsed in these pages. To write is to engage oneself; but to write is
also to disengage oneself, to commit oneself irresponsibly. To write
is to call into question one's existence, the world of values, and, to a
certaio extent, co condemn the good; bur to write is always co cry co
write well, to seek out the good. And then, to write is co rake on the
impossibility of writing, ir is, like the sky, to be silent, "ro be an echo
only for the mure"; but to write is ro name silence, it is to write
while preventing oneself from writing. Arr is like the remple of
which The Aphorisms speaks: never was an edifice built so easily, but
on each stone a sacrilegious inscription is found engraved, so deeply
engraved char the sacrilege wiJI last so long a time that it will
become even more sacred than the temple irself So is arr rhe place
of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security.le has a
name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration. And another name:
happiness, eternity.

The Myth of
Mallar me

Henri Mondor's books, the complete edirion of Mallarrne

(which will, however, remain incomplete, so long as the correspon
Jence ro which Mondor has rhe key is not gathered together) he
published with Jean Aub ry and the collection Proposals on Poetry
rhac be has just excerpted &om that correspondence-all these
srudies, so remarkable and so worthy of their subject, have certainly
brought Mallarme closer to us. We know him berter, and we also
know more precisely what we will never know about him. His fame
is now char ,of a classic author. ''Such as into himself at last ... "t
Perhaps, however, he is so present to us only because he has
Jistanced himself from us in many respects.Whatever daring there
was in his arr no longer surprises us. Whatever made his genius
rnysrerious, self-effacing, and profound has disappeared. EspeciaUy
Blanchot's complainr is not uncommon. For example. in Charles Mauron's
lnrrodiictio11 to the Psychoanalysis ofMallarml, (pp. 23-24) Mauron, speaking of
our knowledge of MaJlarmts life, says: "On this score, as everyone knows. we owe
Jlmost everything to Dr. Mondor. He has assembled the documcncs; he has
,trrangcd and published most of them in a series of works: L'Amitie de Verlaine tt
M11/lnnnl, Vie de Mallarml, Mallnnnl p/1;, intim,. and Propos mr /11 pfJitit.
J:ranl< ly, I rc:gn!t-and others will join me in this-chat the publication of the
do cuments has not been completed and that cbe lirrle game of releasing now a
letter, now the variant of a line, now a poem of bis youth. at intervals of several
vears or more. should be so long drawn ouc."-TRANS.
'The openiing words ofMallarme"s poem "The Tomb of&lgar Poc."-TRANS.

The Myth o Mallarme

The Myth ofMallorme

che crusr he placed in aesthetic values exclusively, ch.is faith he

placed in arr above everything, chis religion of rhe poet's solitude,
seem to us rhe signs of a passion char the movement of histo ry no
longer permits us to share. Only the pure violence of this passion
holds and continues to surprise us.
Vale ry never stopped honoring Mallarme and commenting on
his poetic attitude. He remained fa.ithfuJ co him up to his lase days,
as Plato was ro Socrates. But through his own fame; through his
infinitely developed researches; through a way of seeing, admiring,
and understanding in keeping with these researches, Valery, like
Plato, both Ht up and veiled his master's face. By throwing light on
him, he relegated him ro the shade; he gave him too much, and
borrowed too much from him. The cwo bodies of work are quite
distinct, but their ideas are less so; and the extreme singularity of
Mallarme's ideas has been as if erased by the importance they have
been accorded from ideas that are almost identical, bur that are
stronger and especially more strongly and more obstinately put
forth, ideas we find in the pages of Vale ry's Variety or in so many
other prose pieces.
Certainly, we know char Vale ry scorned Hreracure and that Mal
larme made it his reason to exist. We know that, in literature, the
former was mostly interested in the srudy of the mind's activity, and
the latter in the work alone; moreover, Valery pursued rhe perfec
tion of art, not for that perfection bur for the maste ry ic implies,
and the awareness of self ir develops. MaHarme, however, neither
less lucid nor less aware, always kept his concern for an, and even
for rhe book, in which this lucidity and this awareness seemed ro
him ro be fuJly developed. What is there co add? Both lived this
everyday paradox of changing their theories by their works. In vain
Mallarme valued the means only in view of the result: rhe prepara
tion absorbed him, che greatness of rhe goal turned him away from
it, and his last works. admirable and definitive as they are, seem to
be rhe lose moments of secret days, devoted co a more essential and
completely interior activity. Valery, on the ocher hand, who wrote
only to ex:perience the work of one who writes, produced a pro
digious body of work, so varied and aomplished rhat one cannor

imagine iir has a double even more profound and enclosed in the
single silence of the mind. Thus MalJarme's ideas found in Vale ry's
work che.ir most complete, if nor their mosr representative, fulfill
ment. Bur another result is chat Mallarme's influence, while in
creasing wic:h his illustrious disciple's, has become the influence of a
th eo ry a1d a method, and has thus lose whatever effectiveness the
mystery amd beauty of masterpieces adds co the ideas one claims to
draw from them.
ln a rexr from \ia,iery Ill, we read this remark: "With Mallarme,
rhe identification of 'poetic' medication with che possession of
language, and his minute study of their reciprocal relationships, led
ro a kind of doctrine about which we know, unfortunately, only the
leanings." Mallarme's theoretical writings are numerous bur not
well devdoped; they are assertions rather than proofs. What is
srriking is the importance of reflections on language. No poer felt
more srro,ngly that every poem, no matter how tenuous its pretext,
was necessarily engaged in the creation of poetic language, and
perhaps of all language. Vale ry demonsrrared and admired this
research, but he did little co make it known to us, and it is nor
certain rhat he hjmsdf continued it in exactly the same sense. The
lack of coherence of texts, an anxiety chat was not at all logical, the
brilliance of certain phrases thac do nor explain but do show, these
make Mallarme's meditations not easily reducible to the unity and
simplicity of a doctrine.
We woiuld like to recall some of these texts and the most constant
assertions rhey contain. Perhaps we will find some preoccupations
in chem, along with some prejudices rather close to our own. For
example, Mallarme believed in the existence of two languages, one
esseocial, the other crude and immediate. That is a certainty that
Valery will reassen and thac has since become ve ry familiar to us.
Why? That is less obvious. Mallarme compared the common word
co a currency of exchange, so much so thar "to rake or place a coin
in another's hand in silence" would most often suffice to make us
t1nderstaI11d. Bur does he mean, as Valery's commentary indicates,
thar this l.anguage is worthless because, by being in the service of
understarnding, ir disappears complerely in rhe idea it communi-



The Myth ofMallarme

cates or in the action it announces? Quite the contrary: ''What is

the use of the miracle," said Mallarme, "of transposing a fact of
nature into its vibratory near-disappearance according to the play
of speech, if it is not so chat a pure idea emanates from it, without
the annoyance of a near or concrete reminder?" We find, in this
response, a remarkable specification: the word has meaning only if
it rids us of the object it names; it must spare us irs presence or
"concrete reminder." ln authentic language, speech has a function
that is not only representative but also destructive. It causes to
vanish, it renders the object absent, it annihilates ic.
Up to this point, we can recognize the origin of such remarks.
Mallarme was muck by the characteristic of language to be both
meaningful and abstract. Every word, even a proper noun, even
Mallarme's name, designates not an individual event bur the gen
eral form of this evenr: whatever it may be, it remains an abstrac
tion. At least, that is what Plato taught us. Bur is it not remarkable
that poets and writers (since the classical era) have rarely been
satisfied with the law, have cried, rather, to reverse it? They claim to
connect the word to the thmg, to confuse it with wbacever unique
qualities it has-a name char is mine, not everyone's, char is what
they want. Mallarme's position is, therefore, exceptional. The one
who, more than anyone else, condemned discourse, which lacks
common qualicies-clariry, order, logic, that is co say, everything
that matters co the universal and abstract character of language-is
also the one who appreciates this characrer as its principal qualir y
and the very condition of poetic form. If poeuy ex.iscs, it is because
language is an instrument of comprehension. Here we are far from
Valery's remarks.
"I say: a Aower! and, outside of the oblivion where my voice
relegates no outline, as something other than known calyxes. musi
cally rises the idea itself, suave, the absent one of all che flowers."
We see chat all is not so simple. The word distances the object: "I
say: a flower!" and I have in from of my eyes neither a flower, nor an
image of a flower, nor a memory of a flower, bur an absence of
Aower. "Silenced object." Is tliis absence, howeer, the sign of
something else-of truth, for example, in the classic sense-having

The Myth ofMallarmt


v:uue for eve r yone and in eve ry age? Let us not hasten co conclude
chis; despite the use of absuact words, "known calyxes, idea." ic is to
be fdr that the poet is of an order that demands nothing of
learning. He does nor replace the real absence of an object with its
ideal presence. "Suave" and "musically" ar assuredly not inrdlec
rual concepts asserted by these paths. On the contrary; we note chat
here we are: once again in contact with realiry, bm a more evasive
realiry. one char presents itself and evaporates, that is understood
and vanish,es, one made of reminiscences, allusions, so that if in
one respect it is done away with, in another respect it reappears in
its mosr n1oticeable form, like a series of fugitive and unstable
nuances, in the very place of abstract meaning wbose emptiness it
drums co fill.
Ac first lance, language's interest is thus to destroy, through
its abstract power, the material reality of things and co desrroy.
through the power of sensible evocation of words, this abstract
value. Such an action must lead us rather far. When language
concenrs it.self with naming an object, it gives us the picture of it.
The thin crnating of everyday speech gives way to the pressure of the
thing it des;ignaces. Since it is ordinary, it vanishes as soon as it is
pronounced; it hands us over co the presence &om wbich it was
supposed co defend us. Further, "describing, reaching, relating" are
aces that reveal crude language. that function of easy and represen
tative medium of exchange. The commonplace, from whose usage
Mallarme dlesperacely fled, has precisely this defect of nor offering a
strong enough barrier againsr faces, things, what we see, what we
hear. Ir does nor distance us enough; ic does nor create real absence.
lflanguage's distinctive feature is to nullify the presence it signifies, r
the n transparency, clari ry, commonplaces are contrary to it, be
Lause they thwart its progress toward a signification free of any
<:oncrere reference. Thus we understand why essenrial language
grants so much room to what Vale ry calls the physique of language.
Sounds, rhythm, number, all chat doe.s not count in current speech,
now become most important. That is because words need to be
visible; rhey need rheir own realiry thar can intervene between what
i and what rhey express. Their dury is co cl.raw the gaze co chem-

The Myth o Mallarme

selves and tum it away from che thing ofwhich they speak. Yet their
presence is our gauge for the absence of all the rest.
Cliches annoyed Mallarme. not because he found only words
in them but because words, rather, have disappeared from chem.
He was hardly frightened of giving precedence to language over
thought: how could he fear ic? Whar he wished was ro make the
word exist, to give it back its marerial power, to yield the initiative
to it by making words shine with ''their reciprocal reflections"-all
in order to conserve their very worth of meaning. Thought, chat is
to say, rhe possibility of being presenr to things while infinirely
distancing oneself from them, is a function of the only reali ty
of words. Where words rule according ro the complex relation
ships they can entertain, thought is accompLished and meaning
In truth, none of that exists without contradictions. It is dear
that, if Mallarme gives language the mission of referring by absence
to what it signifies, it risks entering an impasse. Of what absence is
it a question? If ir is necessary not to name, bur only to qualify the
defined void the object creates by disappearing, we will begin co
glide toward che image. Allegory is this first step toward absence:
"Water cold from boredom in its iced container." But the eman
cipation is srill illusory: as soon as we understand che circwnlocu
cion, the object revives and imposes itself again. The fault of simple
metaphor is less in irs simplicity, which makes irs deciphering easy,
than in irs stabiliry, its plastic solidity ; it is as weighty and present as
what it represents. It is as if placed immutably in front of us, with
its meaning that nothing comes to change.That is why the world
of images that Mallarme seeks is a flight, a negation rather than an
affirmation of images. Noc only are the figures compressed, placed
at an angle, and diffuse, but rhey follow each ocher according co a
rather brisk rhythm so that none of them allows to che reality it
circumscribes any time to exist, rime to become present to us by its
inrermediation. Thar is the hard part.If I say, "the absent one of alJ
the flowers," undoubtedly I momentarily erase the flower that I
would otherwise have to see, but in order to direct my gaze and my
mind coward the presence of another thing, no less cumbersome,

The Myth ofMallanne


no Jess heavy; this muse vanish in ics turn, under pressure of a more
unstable image char will push ir away, and thus in succession from
figures to figures, anxious images, acts rather than forms, transi
tions of me:aning rather than expressions.
All Mallarme's researches tend to find a boundary where. by
rnea ns of terms nonetheless fixed and directed at facts and things, a
perspective ,of parentheses might be sketched out, each opening our _....
into each other to infini ty and endlessly escaping themselves.
''Allusion," he said, "suggestion." "Speaking has to do with the
reality of things only commercially: in literature, it contents itself
with making an allusion ro them or with abstracting their quali ty
rhac some idea will incorporate." Thence the impressionism be is
accused of, as if he had wanted ro portray nature. when he sought
only co make it disappear. "Done away with, that pretension
(aesrherically an error, although it governs masterpieces) to include
in the subtle paper of the volume something other chan, for
example, the horror of che forest, or the silent thunder scattered in
che foliage; not the intrinsic, dense wood of the trees." Mallarme is
not one of those who, co painr an object, incorporate it in their
painring. His goal is different: "I call it Transposition."
One also understands why the essential language tbar does not
exclude pmse ("In the so-called prose genre there is sometimes
some admirable verse, of every rhyt hm .... Every time there is an
effort in style, there is versification") is poetry, and implies verse.
Verse, substituting more subtle links for syntactic relationships,
turns langu:age to a sense of movement, a rhythmic trajectory, in
which only passage and modulation count, not rhe periods, the
nores by which one passes. That is what brings poetry and music
closer together. Nor "Poetry, Music par excellence'j -cerrainly not,
because poetry would make a kind of music ouc of language-but,
like ir, as an art of movement, it pulls the meaning and effects it
wants to atrain from duration alone. le is obvious char if verse
"makes a complete, new word out of many terms. a word foreign to
the languag,e and as if incanratory,'' it is at first because, in such an
ins-ranee, words have stopped being "terms" (at which one stops)
.ind have opened themselves- up co the intention that makes- ics way


The Myth ofMallarme

across chem, ourside any reali ry that might correspond to chem. So

ir happens that rhythm, enjambment. the special tension of verse
create such an eager connection that the word, called co complete
it, becomes superfluous, so present is it in rhe only expecration it
demands: by chis absence, it is spread out over the length of the
sencence as if it had the potential to come into being without an act
chat would come to exhaust it. "Words, by themselves, are exalted
with many a facer recognized as rarest or most valuable to the
mind, char center of vibracory suspense, which perceives rhem,
independent of their ordinary connectedness, projected on the
cave wall, just as long as their mobility or principle lasts. which
cannot be said of discourse: all of them, before extinction, quick co
answer signal fires from afar, or from an odd perspective, or angle of
In lgitur, Elbehnon says: "l pour out speech, to plunge it back
into its inanity." When one has discovered an exceptional ability in
language for absence and questioning, one has the temptation to
consider the very absence of language as surrounded by its essence,
and silence as the ultimate possibility of speech. Everyone knows
chat chis silence has haunted rhe poet. What we have sometimes
forgotten is that chis silence no more marks the failure of his
dreams than ic signifies an acquiescence ro the ineffable, a beuayal
of language, a "whac's the use" thrown to poetic resources coo
inferior ro the ideal. Silence is undoubtedly always present as the
one demand rhat really matters. But, far from seeming the opposite
of words, it is, rather, implied by words and is almosr their preju
dice, their secret intention, or, rather, the condition of speech, if
speaking is to replace a presence wirh an absence and ro pursue a
more and more sufficient absence through more and more fragile
presences. Silence has so much dignity only because it is the highest
degree of chis absence that is che whole virtue of speaking (which is
itself our ability co give meaning, ro separate ourselves from things
in order to signify them).
What is striking in Mallarme is the feeling that a certain arrange
,' mem of words might in no way be distinct from silence. "To evoke,
in a purposeful shadow, the silenced object, by allusive words,

The Myth ofMal!arme

rl'duciag th,emselves to equal silence, comprises an attempt close to
,rearing. ... So that an average suetch of words, beneath the
comprehending gaze. arranges itself in definitive lines, and silence
rhcrewich." Elsewhere, in a wirricism, he bolds as identical the deed
of saying no,thing and chat of talking about nothing: "Sociery, chat
hollowest te:rm, herirage of the philosophes, has this ar least in irs
favor, that since nothing really exists in facts similar to the injunc
tion that its august concept awakens, to discuss it is equivalent co
ralking abom nothing or talking co amuse oneself" With these
words, one can make silence. For the word can also make itself
empty and by its presence give rhe feeling of its own lack. "Virgin
scatrered absence in chis solitude,'' "exquisite vacation of the self,"
"hollow wbiiteness, container of nothing," all that is language, but a
language that, expressing emptiness, must finally again express the
emptiness of language.
When orne begins to take part in silence, it demands always a
greater part,. co the poinr of wanting ro push away, in the end, even
rhac which makes ir possible. Mallarme always claimed to bring
unrefined language closer to speech, essemial language closer ro the
written. This seems a surprising claim. Valery, on the other hand,
associated poetry with song, undersranding that a language co
which one restores its sonorous value requires an organ, ocher than
the eyes, th2lt explores it and shows its obvious power. Moreover, if
one wants only to retain the "mobility" of conversation, the essen
tial means of verse, how can one not summon the voice, which
alone is abl,e to carry rhis movement and to engage words in the
succession chat lightens and volatilizes them? Yer we understand
1hat langua;e, if its purpose is co distance all material presence from
us, returns its rights to "the written, rhe racir flight of absuact
ideas," "facing rhe fall of bare sounds." The written, by its typo
graphical coimposirion, can even imitate and represent movement,
as the prefac:e to A Throw ofDice indicates: ''The Literary .. . advan1age, from th.is copied disrance that mentally separates groups of
words or th,e words between them, seems sometimes to accelerate
a11d sometimes ro slow down its movemenr, studying its stresses,
even intimating it according ro a simultaneous vision of the Page:

The Myth ofMallarme

this is taken as a whole just as the Verse, or perfect line, is elsewhere.
Fiction will rise co che surface and melr away, quickly, according to
the mobiliry of the wriccen, around fragmentary scops of a main
sencence, starting from the introductory title and going on from
, there." The book is che way, par excellence, of language. because it
-.f retains of language only the abiliry co abscracr, isolate, transpose,
and because ir distances chance, the rest of the coociogency of
things, from it, and because it pushes away man himself from ir,
the one who speaks and the one who listens. "lmpersonified, a
volume, so long as one separates oneself from it as author, does not
ask the reader to approach. That is how it is, among its human
accessories it cakes place all alone: a deed, existing." And, we see,
this book of which one must dream, which is the Book, equivalent
of the world, orphic explanation of the Earth, is nor so much che
Great Work, destined to sum up the universe, a microcosm chat
4,, could hold everything, as the hollow of this roraliry, its other side,
its realized absence, chat is to say, the abiliry co express everything,
chus an abiliry chat is itself withdrawn from everything and ex
pressed by nothing, what must be cafled "le jeu par excellence."
(The book "replaces everything through lack of anything," he says,
implying again char everything musr first be missing.) When the
poet declares, "T figure, by an undoubtedly ineradicable wrjrer's
prejudice, char nothing will remain if it is not uttered," we could
judge this claim rather nruve. Bur to say everything is also ro reduce
everything co nothing, and thus, ar the intersection of existence
and nothingness, a kind of enigmatic force is asserted, capable,
while it summarizes everything "in a virgin scattered absence,'' of
still persisting to complete its cask, then of being resorbed into the
emptiness it called into being.
To utter everything is also ro utter silence. It is, thus, to prevenr
speech from ever becoming silent again. Mallarme never freed
himself from chis impossibility. In vain he asked the white of a
whlre page, the still intact margin, for a material representation of
"The inrellecrual framework of a poem," he wrote about Poe,
"hides itself and holds forth-rakes place-in the space that isolates

Tht! Myth ofMal'4rrne

1 he


sranz:as and in rhe midst of the white of the paper: meaningful

silence clat is nor less beautiful ro compose than it is verse."
Meaningful silence, but also meaningful abandon, for ar the very
instant language surrounds us with a universal absence and delivers
us from rhe obsession with the word's presence, it is here that
ilcnce, to express itself, calls on something material, makes itself
presenr in a manner that ruins rhe proud buililing constructed over
che void, and it, absence itself, has no other resource, to introduce
itself co rlhe world of sigrufied and abstract values, bur co be realized
as a chin;. "To my taste, I do prefer a white page, a spaced design of .,!
commas or periods and their secondary combinations, imitating,
bare, mellody-ro a re.x-r, even if ic were well-written, even sublime,
if it were: not puocruated." This "spaced design of commas and
periods ... bare melody," preferred over words with a light irony
that one iundoubtedly should nor misjudge, is perhaps the last trace
of a language that erases itself, the very movement of its disap
pearance, bur it again seems even more to be the material emblem
of a silence char, to lee itself be represented, must become a thing,
and that thus remains a scandal, its insurmouncable paradox.
We see: now around what dangerous point Mallarme's reflections
turn. Firi,r, language firs inco a contradiction: in a general way, it is
what des'tfoys the world to make it be reborn in a scare of meaning,
of signified values; bur, under its creative form, it fixes on the only
negative aspect of its task and becomes the pure power of question
ing and rransfiguration. That is possible insofar as, raking on a
tangible quality, it becomes a thing, a body, an incarnate power.
The real presence and material affirmation of language give ic the
ability ro suspend and dismiss the world. Density and sonorous
rhickness are necessary to it to extricate the silence that it encloses,
and that is the part of the void without which it could never cause a
new meaning ro be born. Ir goes on being like this infinitely, co
produce che feeling of an absence-and must become Jjke things in
order ro lbreak our natural relacionships with them. The conrradic
fion is rough, ir tortures all poetic language, as it tormented
Mallarme's speculations. Thar is what motivates the poet, recalling
Cratylus''s doctrine, to seek a direct correspondence between words

The Myth ofMallarme

and what they signify. to miss the clear color of the word "night"
[ nuitJ and the dark timbre of the word "day" I/our], as if words. far
from turning us away from things, had co be their material repro
duction: the sensuality of language here carries it away, and the
word dreams of uniting icself with the objects whose weighr, color,
and heavy, sleeping aspect it also possesses.
Likewise, if blanks, punctuation, typographical array, the archi
tecture of the page are all called to play such a large role, it is
because written work, roo, needs a material presence. Tc is a quali
fied space, a living region, a kind of sky chat materially represents
all events in rhe very act of understanding. "Everything becomes
suspense, fragmentary arrangement with rotation of mirrors, in
concord with coral rhythm, which would be the silenced poem,
with blanks; only translated. in a way, by each pendencive." Lan
guage, confused here with the book, raises all the material elements
that compose it to a higher existence, like the consciousness of
which it is not only the produce but also the symbol, and capable,
like it, of a mysterious silence, the obscure foundation on the basis
of which everything is declared.
We have cited only classic. very clear texts. In an extract from
Music and Literature, MaJlarme expressed, in a form tinged with
idealism, almost the same considerations:
Amre chose . .. ce semble que l'epars fremissemem d'une page ne
veuille sinoo surseoir ou palpire d'impatience, a la possibilite d'aucre
Nous savons, captifs d'une formule absolue que, cenes. n'esr que ce
qui est. Inconrinenr ecarrer cependam, sous un precexre, le leurre,
accuserair nacre inconsequence. niam le plaisir que nous voulons
prendre: car cet au-de/a en est !'agent, er le moteur dirais-je si je ne
repugnais a operer. en public, le demoncage impie de la fiction et
consequemmem du mecanisme lirreraire, pour ecaler la piece prin
cipale ou rien. Mais, je venere comment, par une supercherie, on
projerre. a quelque elevation defendue et de foudre! le conscien[
manque chez nous de ce qui la-ha.ur cclarc.
A quoi serr cela
A un jcu.

The Myth ofMallannt


En vue qu'une atrirance superieure comme d'un vide, nous avons

droit, le ciram de nous par de !'ennui a l'egard des choses si elles s'etab
lissem solid,es et preponderanres-eperdument les derache jusqu'a s'en
r<'mplir et a1ussi les douer de resplendissemenr, a cravers l'espace va
cm, en des: feces a volome er solira.ires.
Quant a moi, je oe demande pas mains a l'ecriture.
A11oth1r 1:hing .. it seems chat che scattered trembling of a page
wanes nochiing if nor co defer or throb wid1 impatience ar the pos
sibiliry of something else.
We know, captives of an absolute formula, that certainly is nor what
it is. Howev'er, co dismiss forthwith, under some precein, the delusion
would emphasize our inconsistency. negating rbe pleasure we wane co
cake: for chis beyond is its agent and, I would say:. its engine, if I were
nor loath m carry our, in public, the impious dismantling of fiction
and consequently of the literary mechanism, to Baune the chief com
ponent or nothing. But I admire how, by trickery, one cases up, ro
some forbidlden and lighming-srruck elevation, the knowing lack we
have of what shines forth up there.
What purpose does thar serve
A game.
In sight of a higher atrracrioo as of a void, we have the righc
diciting ir from ourselves by boredom with regard ro things if taken as
solid and dominant-desperately ro detach Lhem until they are filled
again with it, and also co endow them with radiance. across empty
space, in so.lirary celebrations at will.
As for m,e, I ask no less of writing.
What does writing care about? To free us from what is. And what
is, is everytbi ng, bur it is first the presence of "solid and dominant
things," all tlhat for us marks the domain of the objective world.
This liberation is accomplished by the mange possibility we bave
of creating emptiness around us, purring a djscance between us and
things. This possibili ty is genuine ("we have the right") because ir is
linked to the deepest feeling of our existence-anguish, say some,
horedom, says Mallarme. We have seen chat it corresponds exactly
LO the function of writing, whose role is to replace the thing with its
absence, the ,object wirh its "vibratory disappearance." Literacure's
law is this movement toward something else, coward a beyond that

The Myth ofMallarme

yet escapes us because it cannot be, and of it we grasp only "the
knowing lack" that "we have." Ir is chis lack, chis emptiness, this
vacant space that is the purpose and true creation of language.
(Surrealism, valuing the feeling of ocher presence, the primacy of
the surreal, follows rhe same tendency.) Undoubtedly. certain posi
tive values correspond to such a Lack, as frooc to back: in the course
of the work of the erosion it accomplishes. poetic language reaches
a point ac which things are transformed, transfigured, and, already
invaded by emptiness, radiant "in soli rary celebrations."
Ainsi, quand des raisins j'ai succ la darre,
Pour bannir un regret par ma feinre ecarte.
Rieur, j'eleve au ciel d'ete la grappc vide
Ee, soufflam clans ses peaux lumineuses, avide
D'ivresse, jusqu'au soir je regarde au rravers.
So, when from grapes l have sucked their clariry,
To banish by my sleight a distanced regret,
Laughing, I raise co the summer sky the empry dusrer
And, breaching into its luminous skins, greedy
From drunkenness, until evening I look through.
But chis movement is surpassed by the strictness of language, it is
coward absolute absence that it turns, it is silence chat it calls. It is
possible chat what is for us only lack and nothingness "shines forth
up there" or, as we read in "Little Air":
[ndomprablemenr a dQ
espoir s'y lance
t.clater la-haur perdu
Avec furie et silence.

Comme mon

UnconrroUahly had
As my hope throws itself there
To burst forth up there lose
With fury and silence.
But ''up there" does not concern us: it is, on the contrary, the
singularity and wonder of language to give creative value, a star
tling power ro nothingness, co pure emptiness, to the nothingness

The Myth ofMall.arme

ic .,pproaches, if it does not attain, as of its boundary and its
cond itions (''Equal to creating: the idea of an object, escaping, that
is lacking").
Lee us note chat poetry, i.n this enrecprise of detaching us from
t,eing, is c1rickery and play. It necessarily tricks us; bad faith and lies
are its vircues. Like che hero of fgitur, it says, "I cannot do this
serious! y. ,.
Irs fare is tied to imposcure. Why? Perhaps we would have an
intimaciot1 of this if we reread the first sentence of our text. What is
chis "scattered trembling of a page" rhat, as expectation, suspense,
or impari,ence, exists only in the future, always projecced coward
something else whose irnpossibitiry is ics entire being? No doubt it
is what Valery calls a feeli.ng, a thought of che dawning scace or.
more exac:rly, neither thought nor feeling but a birth, a hatching, an
imencion char seeks itself, a meaning char indicates itself, a stilJ
suspended meaning, of which we hold only rhe empry outline.
The poet marks thus the major privilege of language, which is
nor to express a meaning but co create it. Only this birch appears to
be Like a death and the approach of a final absence. From the fact
char man speaks and, ch.rough speech, gives a new meaning co the
world, one mighc say that man is already dead, or is, at least,
awaiting death, and, by the silence that allows him to speak,
tempted a1t each inseam to fail himself and all things. He must, ir is
true, conduce rhe game co che end: to utter everything is his task, to
utter everything and to reduce everything to silence, even silence.
Bue silenc:e, thanks co which we speak, leads us back to language, co
a new language that is never the lase. That is why che poet, like any
man who speaks and writes, always dies before he bas attained
ilence; and chac is why. always, his death seems premature to us,
rhc lie that crowns an edifice of lies.
Jc woulld be good to remember many striking points of these
rtmarks o,n language. Bue the most remarkable of alJ is the imper
,onal cha1racter oflanguage, the kind of independent and absolure J'.
c>:iscence that Mallarme lends it. We have seen that chis language
does noc imply anyone who expresses it, or anyone who hears it: it
speaks its1,:/fand writes it:self That is the condirion of its authority.

The Myth ufMallarml


The book is the symbol of chis autonomous subsistence; it sur

passes us, we can do notning beyond it, and we are nothing, almost
nothing, in what it is. If language isolates itself from man, as it
isolates man from everything, if it is never the act of someone who
is speaking in the presence of someone who hears him, we come to
understand that to one who contemplates ic in this state of solitude,
ic offers the spectacle of a singular and completely magical power. le
is a kind of awareness, without subject, that, separated from being,
is detachment, questioning, infinite ability to create emptiness and
co place itself within loss. But it is also an incarnate consciousness,
reduced to the material form of words, to their sonority, their life,
and giving us to believe char chis reality opens up who knows what
path to us into the obscure heart of things. Perhaps char is an
imposture. But perhaps chat trickery is the truth of every written

M:ystery in Literature

''We readily speak of the mystery in poetry and Literature." It is

curious chair the first sentence of The Flowers of Tarbes [by Jean
Paulhan] is iro remind us of this mystery. Then the second makes us
ashamed of it, and the third turns away &om ic: "To speak of the
ineffable is 1:0 say exactly nothing. To speak of secrets is co confess
nothing." "Those are nor the problems."
Let us acLmic it, such a dismissal leaves us mistrustful. Perhaps ic
is the custom, when beginning a book, to speak of questions of
which one does nor speak. "There are a thousand of them." Bue
when one is: resigned co not knowing 999 of them, ic is strange co
advance the only one that is "pretentious and vain" to know. One
would think it a marcer, rather, of a problem so delicate that one
could cake it into consideration only by ignoring ic, and could
approach it only by approaching another. Perhaps there exists a via
negntionis for criticism, if problems exist in literature char one
cannot evoke wirhour making rhem disappear, problems that de
mand an exJPlanation capable, by the very clar.ificacion it brings, of
affirming th1e possibility of escaping all explanation. The mystery
in literature is undoubtedly of such a nature that one degrades it if
on e respem; ic, and we drop it if we grasp ic. If we honor ic from
Jfar, calling ir secrer and ineffable, it makes irself an object of
digust, something perfecdy vulgar. And if we approach it co
txplain it, we encounter only mac which conceals itself and we

Mystery i11 Literature

Mystery in Litenuure

pursue only that which flees. The mystery might well be like those
kinds of questions that are found ro be solved when we decide not
to employ all che method and rigor one should apply to consider
chem carefully.
The Flowers of Tarbes speaks abom language. So do Jacob Cow,
Key ro Poetry, Conversation on Variota Subjects, and up ro, The Bridge
Crossed They speak about it in the most precise manner, trying to
see if language is subject to laws, and if these laws that concern
expression can be expressed. Thei.r starting point? An "obvious
face": language is made up of two distinct elements, one material
breath, sound, written or tactile i.mage; and the second im.mate
rial-thought, meanmg, emotion. Content and form: it no doubt
happens regularly in literature chat chis distinction is questioned,
but it also happens regularly that the questioning takes an exactly
opposite form. Some, who must be called Rhemrickers, reduce
content co form (Paul Valery : content is only impure form); while
ochers, who have received the name of Terrorists, give thought
precedence, and seek co reduce the word to it (Novalis: the letter is
really a letter onJy through poetry).
So this is what ensues: literature, by avoiding all those who
represent it, tends regularly to deny all division of language into
two elements of equal importance; but the manner in which chis
denial is produced, sometimes oppressing one, sometimes destroy
ing another, again regularly establishes the existence of these cwo
factors whose assertion seemed ac first, to some, purely academic
and even naive. Jc is obvious chat if half the writers acknowledge
literature as form and the ocher half as content, there is a very
troubling conflict there-very troubling, and very violen c. For on
tbe one hand, under the pretext of uni ty, ic ends up constanrly
giving rebirth to the double aspect oflanguage. which it would like
to reduce. On the orher hand, by its regulari ty, it seems co demon
strate something essential, a contradiction present in language itself
and of which the opposing biases of critics and wricers mighc only
be the necessary expression.
The naivete of Jean Paulhan, asserting that all language, all
poetry, must be investigated scarting from these two elements,

t:nse and sound, ideas and words, is thus the least unthinking there
is, if it is ihis naivete that, ics presence intact, is allowed co appear
against chem by all rhe theories of literature, themselves scarcely
naive. Is i:here a stranger or more unreasonable dialogue than one
in which we hear rigorously opposite assertions, which literature
needs consrandy to sustain against itself, answer each other? The
\\!Titer who is most aware, most attentive to his art, is as if forced to
h.tve rwo opposing views on this art. Mallarme: "The pure work
involves the elocutionary disappearance ofthe poet, who yields the
initia tive co words." But: "Poetry consists of creating; one must
rake into one's soul states, gleamings of an absolute purity."
Every language can offer at each instant two opposite aspeccs,
one verbal. one ideal. Every text can be appreciated from a double
point of view: either as purring into play material phenomena
breath, s,ound, rhythm, and by extension, word, image, genre,
form-or., according to meaning, emotions, ideas, the things it
reveals. Goethe once showed Eckermann a manuscript covered
with erasures. "So many words," said Eckermann. He was chinking
of che resources, the wealth ofspeech. Bur Goethe replied, "Words!
You do not see that there's not one left." And Berni, defending cbe
poems of Michelangelo: ''He says things, and you say words'' (Jean
Paulhan, The Spectator's Program). Yes, such an illusion is srrange,,
nor that i't occurs but that it cannot not occur. Sometimes the same
arrangement seems words, sometimes only thoughts, so that even
to the one who exerts himself to grasp how it rakes form, the
illusion Continues to impose itself, since in the Key. one can read
"When one expresses the mystery without thinking ic," which
rnighc lead one to suppose that there exists in the world oflanguage
:11 least Ol!le sentence chat does not have a counterpart of thought,
while the Key itself rries co reach us not onJy that there are no words
without thought and no thought without verbal existence, bur that
in poetry thoughc and word are identical.
The pirovoking character of these remarks comes from their
,irnpliciry and from the impossibility, nevertheless, of going be
vond them. Who will noc say co himself, AU right, that's under
stood, language is sign and sense, word and idea, we know rhar, we



Mystery in literature

Mystery in Literature

have always known it. But this is whac happens: one is forced ro
stop knowing it. At each insranr, it is natural for us co speak of the
"power of words," of chose words char are called great-liberty ,
justice, religion-because they are completely without thought,
and seem, co us to exercise a dangerous power "over the mind and
heart of men, apart from their meaning.'' Aparr from their mean
ing-what can be more singular? As if a word could lose its mean
ing, go outside of its meaning. all while remaining a word; as if it
did not act then according to another meaning, forming wich it a
new indissoluble arrangement, having a word side and an idea side,
When Laurreamont turns the proverbs upside down, "Lf Cleo
patra's morals had been less shore, the face of the earth would have
changed: her nose would be no longer than char." he shocks us,
because he upsets our belief that an order of words, ro which a
certain meaning corresponds, wiU nor, if one reverses it, necessarily
meet with another sensible meaning. But, for Lautreamont, ''chece
is nothing incomprehensible" and every succession of words signi
fies something, every verbal arrangement has an aspect of thought.
The first volume of The Flowers ofTarbes is a long chain of proofs
from which ir follows that such writers ace regularly mistaken on
the nature of various expressions, commonplaces, for example.
They see phrases in chem chat have lost their meaning, they find in
them a dangerous excess of words, while ochers recognize in them,
because of the banality chat makes them invisible, an exceprjonal
absence of phrases and a hypertrophy of thought. The Terrorist,
completely enchanted with a dream of innocence in which things
and emotions can appear to us in their original purity, without the
words that constrain chem and throw chem to the common world,
is obsessed by the linguistic aspect of language. One must wring the
neck of eloquence, push away technique, be miscruscful of words,
for words are only words. No ideal aspect for language the way
Terror sees fr: che star here ecernally shows the frozen landscape of
its ex:cinguished volcanoes and its lifeless mouncains.
Terror chases after the desperate dream of a language thac would
be nor.hing but meaning, and the fury with which it proscribes
signs is a testimony of its fate to destroy. along with what ir does not
like. wbat it does like, and what it plans to save. But there anorber

discovery occurs. The author who disdains words must still, how
ever. arrive at senrences. He must have rare forms, exceptional
figures of spe:ecb, words that, because of their newness, cease to be
word s for him. In the end it is a matter ofo language reduced to its
interior aspect, open to the inexpressible, new and almosc inno
cent. Bur wlhat an author has written, a reader reads. And this
reader not only does not undergo the illusion of the author who
chougbt he was dealing only with a thought without words, he
undergoes the opposite illusion of a language wich a superabun
dance of words, one almost without thougbc. He sees only unusual
words at which he is embarrassed and because of which he believes
che writer to be precious and strange, when that same author had
aimed for the most spontaneous emotion; he speaks of literature,
when literanire is banished. "Beautiful phrases, images,'' be thinks.
"The truest ,motion, rhe thing itself," the writer feds.
1f we lay aside the particular theories (whlcb form another
treatise) on Terror aod its drawbacks, if we do not search for
unchanging .relationships between the one who writes and the one
who reads, we see clearly chat these remarks answer to the simplest
and most mysterious experience. By analysis, we know to the point
of being tired of it that every spoken or written text is made of
words and ideas. We know it but we do not know it, and we
constantly b(!Come blind to one or the other of these aspects, eicher
to the word or to the meaning, until we deny the action and its
value. At rare moments, when it is a question of a piece of language
in transformation or in decay, with expressions that are at once
overused andl usual, such as we use mechanically bur that some stop
or snag makes suddenly visible co us, we come to discover at the
same time these cwo aspects of language: we perceive, in quick
succession or annoying simulraneiry, chis double face of the star, as
if. because of the disturbance, it had starred. to sway in front of us.
Or again, ir is from an angle that we seem to glimpse the heads and
rails together, or by a quick fanning our that suddenly throws into
nu r presenct, in a graspable display, the whole face of language,
whose two sides we otherwise see only as folded one over the other,
each hidden by the ocher.
1:veryday l.anguage is such char we cannot see it at the same time.


Mystery in Litetature

Mystery in Literatute

in its encire ty, in ics two aspecrs. If there (rightly) does nor ex.ist less
of ir, it is due ro the fact that it is essencially a dialogue: it belongs ro
a couple, che speaking and the speaker, che author and the reader.
The two relationships of language are displayed in their duplicity
by this other duplici ry, of the man who speaks and the man who
listens: idea aspect, on one side, most often the speaking side, and
word aspect, on the side of the spoken. uthor's thought, reader's
words," said Jean Paulhan; "author's words, reader's thoughc."
But how these two functions of author and reader, of mouth and
ear, are not assigned once for all, chat each person is at the same
time the two members of the couple, and writes sometimes as a
reader and listens (more rarely) as if he were speaking-this confu
sion of tasks contributes to making habitual language into a lan
guage with only one side. One speaks but no one Listens, one listens
to what has not been spoken, or even no one speaks, no one listens:
these situations are frequent.
Let us return to the writer. We can certainly claim chat "this
writer had certain things to say, certain feelings to express, that
common language seemed incapable co him of rendering; char by
dine of corrections. alterations, approximations, he finally suc
ceeded in forming words so faichful co his ideas that they vanish in
chefr presence and give him, when he uses chem, the single feeling
of a direct communion with his thought" ( The Spectator's Program).
We will say or think that his language is not phrases, ways of
speakin g, but the vision of things, meering of emotions, and that
the wricer did not look for words but for words that render a
thought. Bue let us see what happens. There is, if one realizes it, a
singulari ty and almost a conrradicrion in the success we ascribe co
chis wricer. Does he seek the phrase for its own sake? Yes; but rhe
phrase is necessary to him, he cannot do without it, he constructed
it in derail, giving it such a form, such a rhyt hm, such a color, ere.
But, we are rold, when be has it, it is so perfect that he believes he
no longer holds chis phrase buc the thing, not a way of speaking but
the emotion itself. le is possihle, the event is even well established,
bur at che price of what paradox? This thing, in fact, does not really
exisc for him; insofar as ic exists in reali ry, it ex.ists (far from existing,

iris abse nt, absence of itself. Mallarme cells us) scarring with words;
wo rds are what make us see it, whar make it visible, at the inscanr
the y chemselves vanish and are erased. They show it ro us and yec
thcv have disappeared; they no longer exisr, bur they always exist
behind che thing chat they make us see, and that is not the thing in
irse lf but only tbte thing arising from words. Vanished though they
may be, they still must remain very present, and we must feel them
continually as chat which disappears behind the thing, as chat
which makes it appear by disappearing. The writer's words have a
triple existence: 1rhey exist ro disappear, they exist to make the thing
appear, and, once vanished, they continue co be and co disappear in
order co maintain che thing as appearance and to prevenr every
thing from sinking into nothingness. (Lee us note char if we accept
che observations of Mallarme, for whom co write is not to evoke a
thing but an absence of thing, we find ourselves confronting this
situation: words vanish from the scene to make the thjng enter, bur
since chis thing is itself no more than an absence, chat which is
shown in rhe cheater, it is an absence of words and an absence of
thing, a simukaineous emptiness, nothing supported by nothing.)
Lt:c us go on, now, co the side of the reader. Concerning such
images as milky way, which we understa11d nor as image bur as the
thing it shows, and which foreigners, on the ocher hand, discover
and admire as picruresque words, the author of Jacob Cow writes:
"We do nor hear words directly, but following the meaning we
form in chem. The presence of the image in this sense reveals a
delay. a rupture of understanding-like a short circuit of language.
We judge writers in the same way." So it seems that the presence of
the word or the: image, under the reader's gaze, is illicit and rhe
rt"Sulr of an accident or a false maneuver. And yec, it is indeed true
that che word must be present in some way, if the meaning is also
there; and undoubtedly the word is understood with the meaning it
inuicares. nor is chis meaning separate from che expression that
,ights ir, as could happen if the meaning were, in itself: the entire
l,1ng uage. A sho.rr circuit occurs, we are cold, chat breaks the uniry
of ,peed, and makes the word appear more or less fugitively in the
rneaning and che image next to the thing. A shore circuit, bur one



Mystery in Literature

Mystery in Literature

with tbe most curious effects. For thanks to it, in language we see at
once the image, the verbal aspect, as the essential and thought, the
Ideal aspect, as the only important thing. We discover ac the same
time char the word in itself. and rhe meaning in icself, make the
language, and we see these rwo aspects as indispensable to each
other, although each asserts itself as the fullness of everything and
as disappearing so chat the other can appear, botb existing so chat
each can exist. Marvelous phenomenon, prodigious short circuit.
But in truth it is perhaps nor unknown co us; it is even familiar to
us, for it bears, as its commonest and rarest name, the name of
We are now in a position to read the last page of The Flowers of
Tarbes and to discover without surprise char it sends us back to the
tnystery. "Whoever directs his search in this sense (whoever applies
the same methods that have unmasked and set right the Terroc to
Rhetoric. by reversing chem) ... must finally recognize in this
metamorphosis and this reversal the exact face of the mystery,
which common opinions, myths. poets had vaguely announced co
him." Thus, at the last word there reappears what the first had
removed, and char can scarcely surprise us if, when we were talking
of language, we did nor stop catching sight of what we could not
speak of: this same mystery chat disappears when it is explained, is
degraded when it is venerated, and in which the division of all
1 iterarure into two irreconcilable and inseparable halves, the fare of
each of them to be correct only when seen from che other side,
from the poinc opposite it, have led us to recognize the paradox
inherent in language.
This paradox, coo, can cake different forms: that language is
made up of two elements and yet is such that one must endlessly
reduce these two elements to one alone, while continuing to reas
sert them both, is one of these forms. Thar the two sides of
language-that cannot be seen at the same time. that can only be
glimpsed together, from an angle and as in perspective, by the
movement of the dialogue-tend, however, to be placed together,
to unfurl gloriously in front of us, is another form of this paradoX,
Language wanes co fulfill itself. le demands to be completely visible.

wit ho m contenting itself with che subterfuge of perspective and the

srr,uag em of dialogue. 1r aspires to an actual absolute. It aspires co it
in ,he mosi: complete way, and not only for itself. in its enrirecy, but
for each of its parts, demanding ro be completely words, com
plet ely me;aning, and completely meaning and words, in a same
and constant affirmation chat cannot bear either that the pares that
conflict wi1rh each other agree, or chat the disagreement disturb the
understanding, or that the understanding be the harmony of a
conflict. This aspiration is the aspiration of poetry co existence.
When the Key offers us chis phrase, "It can happen chat words and
d1oughc are undifferentiated in poetry," we understand chat such a
lack of difference expresses the possibility for language co be en
rirely each one of its pares, ro be words and thought with the word,
chougbr and words with the thought, and co be realized in chis
exchange independently of rhe logical terms that make it up.
Such a demand is no doubt formidable. Bue it only half surprises
us if we rennind ourselves we have already met it, in almost the same
form, in Mallarme's remarks on language. Whar did poetry de
mand under Mallarme's name? Absolute being, one with a con
sciousness able ro exisc outside of any individual consciousness,
self-realized, and capable, while expressing everything, of posing as
rhe lack olf everything. Particularly, poetry rhought to be the act
neither of an author nor of a reader: "Impersonilied, che volume, so
long as on.e separates oneself from it as author, does not ask the
reader co approach. That is how it is; among its human accessories
it takes place all alone: a deed, existing." Yet, we see clearly, it is
exacrly in the same form that the poerry of the Key shows itself.
Between IMguage's two terms, it is in search of a relationship such
tlm it makes mystery and becomes unimaginable. This relation
ship, we h.ave seen, is thar rhe word becomes idea, the idea, word,
"in such a. way that each term of the relationship then loses the
panicular characteristics char define it." Bur how is this possible?
B} this sirnple acr, in poetry rhe relationship preexists the terms;
the terms exist only in this relationship, and what we know of
isolated terms, from orher experiences. has the same value only in
il-w relacio,nship chat, strictly speaking, grounds them. In other

Mystery in literan,re

Mystery in Literature

words, in poetry, only the tension chat unites the terms exists, and
these terms are distinct only in appearance and from a subsequent
po inc of view, from the point of view of ordinary language chat has
only formed itself starting from poetry.
Yee, if we remember well, of these two cerms, one-choughr
corresponds to the author, and the ocher-word-co the reader. To
be most completely realized, language aspires co the existence in
two parts offered it by the reunion of these two people, the con
frontation of these two functions. But what if there are no more
terms in poetry? lf there is no longer idea on one side, word on the
ocher, author here, reader there, but onJy a relationship? Doesn't
everything happen as if poetry demanded not, cerrainly, the rather
dubious mystical mingling of the one who writes and the one who
reads (since neither one nor the ocher exists yet) but a fundamental
unity, an awareness superior to the two poles, a kind of androgyny
of language, starting from which, by a split, actually less decisive
than the ocher, the two functions, originally united in one single
relationship, began co exist apart, li.ke two independent beings,
most of the time forever srrangers? We are cold chat everything
should happen between author and reader as if rhere had been no
language. Bur the face is chat, for original language, everything
should happen as if there had been no author or reader, hue one
single, same power of saying and reading being substituted for
sayer and listener. OnJy poetry exists ar first. After which, the
author and reader should indeed gee mixed up in being.
Between the mystery of language and the mystery of poecry,
there is thus similari ty and opposition. The most elementary lan
guage carries in itself a light movement coward irs complete realiza
tion, a minuscule need co make che two aspects that consricute it
appear ac the same time. In the Key. we see the mystery of language
increased in poetry by the effort used to free itself from it. If this
mystery is rhe metamorphosis of meaning in word and word in
meaning, the poem, by fixing the word in a stricter subsranrialicy
and meaning in a stronger awareness, seems in fact an attempt co
prevent the game of metamorphosis; it seems a challenge to the
mystery, bur one, produced as it is despite so many precaurions and

against the p,owerful machine made co annihilate it, that is only

ore striking and even more a mystery. Perhaps, in truth, the word
"metamorphosis" brings only coo close to us the strange anomaly
repreenced hy the claim of language co be complecdy achieved.
for rhere is mot only change, transformation of one element into
an other. but also the simultaneous maintaining of two opposite
persp ectives as if identical-as of an object char demands co be seen
from one single point in all the aspects it presents from all the
poiors from 1.vhich one can see it-when, moreover, each aspect
would be the entire object, and each aspect would assert itself in its
sufficiency and its opposition to all rhe ochers, and yet all the
aspects would have ro show themselves in such a unity that the
objecr appeared as stripped of aspects, without appearances.
When poetry seeks a more accomplished matter for itself and a
meaning chac is more sure, ir is undoubtedly co disturb the change
of one to the other, but it is also because the change can take place
only starting from elements made irreconcilable. Lee us not forget
rh:u each aspect asks ro be seen fully, each asks to be given meaning,
strengthened, made visible co the extreme, so that sound, rhythm,
words, rule.s are given precedence, but the most elusive feeling, the
thought chat is farthest away, the truth char is most lost are also
given precedence. At first only a conAicr can result from this: we
fed and sometimes regret that poetry, far from reconciling the
elements of l.anguage, puts infinity between rhem, to the point
where we have co believe char the words it uses have no meaning
whatsoever, and the meaning ir aims for remains beyond all words.
And yet everything happens as if, scarring with this dismember
ment, fusion became possible, the distance of this infinite dis
tance seemed nonexistent, and from this hostili ty the opposition
stretche d our in a simultaneous overlapping. Poetry, by the tearing
aparc it produces, by the unbearable tension it engenders, can only
wa ne rhe ruin of language: but chis ruin is the only chance it has co
be fulfilled, tc) become whole in broad daylight, in its two aspects,
mea ning and form, withour which it is never anything but distant
"riving for itself
One of the aims of the Key is co find a law whose legality is chat of


Mystery in Literature

Mystery in literature

rhe mystery, char is to say, char can be law applying even ro that
which escapes the law and expression. it is the beginning of The
Flowers of Trzrbes all over again. Bue chis cime, the problem is not
solved by silence; it is approached in the most open way. The
ciuescion is this: By definicion, one cannot render che mystery, Yet
there is no literature thar is nor accompanied by mysrery, so how
can one open up a path, by literature and language, coward whar
haunts language and lives in literature bur cannot be expressed by
either? The answer is a mathematical formula.
The answer is important, but rhe question is no less so. Let us
read ir: "1 seek a law of which mystery is a pact. To be more precise:
a law, such that this secret way of seeing, this kind of elusive but
easy thought, bur one that plays at the lightest provocation that we
have named mystery, is necessarily set in morion by ir and, forming
ics tacit undersrru1ding, floods it with the clarity char it radiates. A
law, finally, that only arrives at meru1ing in its entirety by following
mystery." The gravity and purity of this cexc challenge the mind
and make it understand more than it would like to anain. Can
there be present in the mind and beneath it, not to disturb it burro
shed light on it, something that might be irreducible, and whose
nature it could in no way penetrate or approach? Conversation on
rious Subjects speaks ofthe folly wirhouc which our best thoughts
risk becoming ineffective. The srudy on Sade alludes ro a mystery
wirhour which one would not know how to explain anything: ''.An d
as for me, I don'r mean to say thar a mystery can be an explanation.
I am only beginning to wonder if a valid explanation exists, one
char does not have co do with myscery. I simply see that, without
this connection with mystery (with mystery and with irs hidden
demand, its returns in force), Sade would remain perfectly obscure
ro us, vague, inconsistent." All the same, unreason, or a secret way
of seeing, or elusive thought, these terms are stiU uaps that reason
intends for rhe pacr of itself that escapes it, and where it cakes itself
at its uue beginnings. Mystery is nor non-meaning, since it is
foreign ro meaning; ir is nor illogical, iflogic has nochj ng to do wit h
it; ir is nor secret, for it is outside rhe genre of things that show
themselves or do not show themselves. What is it? Nothing. per
haps. Bur already such a question oversteps it in all respects.

My aim i:s strictly logical." We might be able co find a reader

who thinks che mystery here is gotten cheap. It is obvious, he would
sa)', char language is nor ofrhe domain ofpure thought, founded on
rr:idirional principles of similarity and non-contradiction. There is
a sense other than intelligible sense, there is a meaning char is nor
yet either clemr or disriocc, that is not expressly rhoughr, but that is,
as ir were, p.layed or mimed or lived by every being capable of
gra sping and communicating a meaning. Yet it is exactly such a
meaning chat one first meets in speech, with which it is in such a
close relacionship char it finds in it its realization rather than its
expression. To reserve the word "rhoughr" for the single mode of
conceptual thought and co throw ro folly, to mystery, all that is
outside of th,:: conceptual, is ro give more to mystery than ir asks,
and scarcely to undersrand ir.
The same reader, we imagine, would complain ar seeing lan
guage broken up into elements, separable in abstract analysis bur in
reality nor di:stincr. To seek a law for poetry in which the relation
ships of me:ming co sound could be reversed? That is to seek
nothing mysterious, though, for ir has always been w1derscood that
these elemenirs sustain relationships of which explicit analysis can
not give an account. And then (he would add), lee us pay attention
ro phrases liike "Words and choughc can be undi.fferenciaced in
poerry," and let us follow the work of analysis. The analysis begins
by <lisringuislhing material elements, like sound, breath, from ele
ments of a different order, like meaoing. These elements can be
conceived separately (we know whac a sound is, we have a vague
idea of c.he word "meaning"), but they cannot exisr apart (even
breach, which we would say exisrs quire well outside of language. is
not, like breathing, whar ir is as voicing of a letter), and their
associacion is indispensable ro the face of speech: there can be no
language in which sound is not unired to a meaning, in which
meaning does nor exist without sound.
All that is certain enough. However, let us return to our phrase:
tlitre, ir is no longer a question of sound or of meaning bur of
W<1rds and thought. This change is remarkable. The two elements
that w ere ac first only factors, isolated by analysis but noc existing
.ipan in reality, have now become auconotnous pares of language:



Mystery in literature

Mystery in Literature

breach is word, meaning is idea. In the form of real fragments of

speech has now been realized whar were hitherto only abstr act
constituents of chis speech. But, starting from the moment the
material side of language becomes an independent pan of lan
guage, as a word is, we see chat che passage from one side to the
other and, even more, its indifference in chis passage becom e a
scandal or at least somewhat mysterious-exaccly che mystery itse1
As if an object had to cake the place of another object and confuse
itself with it in a perfeccly inconceivable exchange. Bur suppose ic
were not a matter of an object, bur of molecules, of atoms? And i
instead of object, it were a maner of components that one isolates,
momentarily for the purposes of analytic exposition, bur that do
not exist isolated outside of this analysis and chat are thus justified
in making themselves distinct only within the confines of analysis!
Might che scandal acruaUy not come from analysis itself chat, on
the one hand, uses its divisions, irs method based on distinction
and clarity, and, on the other hand, glancing back at real things and
perceiving that what it has distinguished is still together, what it has
separated is inseparable, then attribures to reality even its own
impossibility? And, in che same way, does not rhe aurhor of the KL]
meet the mystery, because he tries ro express, in the language oE
grammatical legali ty and even of mathematical rigor, a relationship
rhar has nothing ro do with chis legality or wirh chis rigor, the
mystery being here only in rhe choice of method and in the
srrangeness there is in applying it to an object chat is nor appropri
ate for it?
"My aim is strictly logical." Bur perhaps, frightened by the:
nearness of the mystery, our reader now distances himself from it
coo quickly. Perhaps he forgers the essential. We are nor in search o
just any mystery, bur of the mystery in Literature, and not of any
description of language, but of the description chat lirerature im
plies. Literature is not solely language at rest, language definitively
made, immobilized, and dead; it is more than that, and yet it is al
soldy char, for ic aspires to the paradox of a language chat, in rhe
process of self-creation and as if being born, would prefer co be
definitively made: to be perfect. The language of literature does not

wa!H co be separate from che freedom of the one who speaks and, ar
rhe sa me rime, ir wants to have the strength of an impersonal
speech , rhe subsistence of a language that speaks iselfon its own. lt is
a thing, a aacure, and the awareness that rwns all char. One
un der srands why "the aim is strictly logical." It is easy ro conceal
descrip tions from precise demands, from the dearness of analysis
easy bm insufficient. For literature wanrs a language char also
accompJjshes: its logical function; it realizes itself and it is once and
for all realized; it is constantly in the process of making itself and
constantly perfect. By consequence the analysis chat applie. itself
only co what is unmoving and always subject to irs rules c,annot be
grasped, since it is not only at rest bur also the perfection of rest.
J n Conversation on Various Subjects, we learn ro mistrust chis
argument-" business is business"-and these insults-"and so are
you, you should look ar yourself.'' Singular phrases. Let us look at
the simplest: when a father cells his son who is spending too much
of his allowance, "A penny is a penny," he does not seem co be
persuading him of anything, yet he is coercing him with an annoy
ing and almost irrefutable expression. Bur it is a phrase without any
way around ic: What makes it effective? Is it irs obviousness, the
logical nacurce of its conrenr, a penny is a penny? Does it not have
an understoo,d parr, a silent double chat differs slighcly from it, for
example, something like ''A penny is a lot more than a penny"?
This second meaning is nor expressed, and ir comes to distort the
logical exacmess of the first meaning by forcing one ro infer
(without sayiing it) that a penny is not at all a penny.
Lee us nore chat we have here an image of this mystery of which
tht Key spok,e: ir is indeed a maner of a secret way of seeing, of an
unde rstood part, chat plays at the occasion of an expression and,
remai ning unformulated, gives ir ics meaning and its value. And,


l h3t, ar leasr, is what Nicole wrires in his Treatise on General Grace: "One
eilv consents 1:0 this cmhymemacic line in Ovid's Medea: 'I could keep you. so I

can 111\e you.' Many people, however, would have difficulty in linding rhc major
pr ,ml\e. The majority of proverbs or scnrcmious expressions ro which wit has
'''\U ur,c arc also based on confuseJ views and reasons chat one feels without
Wnk i11g diem our.... There is almost always a secret reason in these sentences.

Mystery in Liter,uure

certainly, one will say rhac the myscery is weak and the silenc
slight, since the lease analysis discovers ic and gives ir its share of
words. Bur perhaps char is because one seeks the mystery where it is
not. What is troubling is nor so much the mechanism of expres
sion, and that ic carries with ic another expression, unveiled, as it is
the face char, even unmasked, it continues co act, ic still troubles. As
RM., the incerlocucor, says in Conversation, "Admit that there
remains some kind of grave, almost tragic allure in logical argu
ment, of which we have nor been aware. As if some oracle were
pronounced in ir, char agitates the entire world." Such is the game
of madness here: ir looks just like reason each time analysis demon
strates it, then remakes itself as unreason each time verbal expre$
sion rakes ir up again. So chat one yields co ir as if one were ignorant
of it. One restores it co silence , co ignorance, chat permit it to act
and destroy again. What momentarily chose idenriry as alibi as
sumes the role of contradiction again, and the role of negation that
needs evidence co assert irself and reach us. Thus, the clearest
language is often rhe most "mysterious."
Now it is possible that, all the while remaining troubled, we are
deceived. And ic would be surprising if we were not. Our deception
is the proof (pre1've) of the mystery, and our anxiety ics ordeal
(epreuve). In the law we are shown, it is mystery that makes us
understand the Jaw, bur the mystery itself is inferred. It is as
inferred, and as if behind the mind, chat ir accomplishes the
understanding and incites the mind co the light. Let the mystery
rum round, and assuredly ic discovers something, something that

Mystery in Literature


Jccives ir,

be1cause what ic sees is icself, yet something uneasy,

because. as soon as ic rums away, ir guesses again rhe presence and
rovucacion of a strength unknown to it. Further, it sometimes
ecides co explain ic by making it equivalent to what it knows of
itse lf; sometim1es ic resigns itself to distancing it by abandonjng to it
chc vaguest wo rds, unsayable. ineffable, secret. What else can it do?
Lea ve ir in silence? Bue ic is on the occasion of speech that the
n,yscery plays, :and ic is perhaps like a pare of non-language, like the
pr char in language itself would always be forei,gn co language; it is
its contradiction and its end, but it is also starting from this end
cl,ac language speaks best. The mystery is Jess in this non-language
rhan in its relationship with speech, an indeterminable relation
ship. for ir is in chis relationship that the word is accomplished, and
non-language, from its side, never appears except as a language
simply differenced. Words muse describe it to make us understand
it, but char cannot be, since chese very words need it to be founded
in che relacionsh.ip chat consciruces chem.
Cen:ainly, sillence is what we prefer for speaking of the mystery.
Denn Sterblichen geziemi::t <lie Schaam,
Mua zwischen Tag und Nachc
Einsmals cin Wahres erscbeinen.
Dreifuch umschreibe du es,
Doch ungesprochen auch, wie es da ist,
Unschuldige. muB es bleiben.
For mortals modesry is suitable

which causes cl1is consenting of mind: and iL is Lhe same for alm,m all advice: one
agrees nnly by vinue of chis secret, unexpressed reason."' Nicole adds chi.s remark:
"Books being onJy masses of moughcs, each book is in 5ome way dnuble, and
imprints rwo kinds of ideas in me mind. For there is a mass of formed though!S,
expressed and conceived distinccly, imprinted in it; besides mar, chc:re is another
compound imprinted in it. of indistinct views and though cs, that one feels but
would have difficul ry expressing, and it is ordinarily in rhesc views thus eiccired
chuugl1 unexpressed mar the beauty of books and written works consists. Th ose
that excite the most give more pleasure to rhc mind, because they are more livdy
and penecraring."

If, in the twilight,

Someday, a Truth should appear to you,
In a triple metamorphosis transcribe it
Although always unexpressed, as ic is,
O innocent, so it must remain.

And Goethe: "The fruits of the harvest must nor be passed

hcnc.:arh the m illscone. Words are good, bur chey are nor the best.
l'he bcs c is not made clear by words." And Schiller: "If rhe soul


Mystery in Literature

speaks, it is, alas, no longer the soul chat speaks." And the author of
The Flowers o/Tttrbes, after the mystery he has just defined: "Let us
add ... that I have said nothing." Strange privilege. a linlc
disconcerting, and one that seems naive, if this superiority of
silence is the superiority of one language over another, and th at
seems usurped, if this silent language is only an approximation of
the real language, and chat seems necessary, when one sees the word
send us endlessly back co an act of which it dreams as of the
moment when it could realize itself completely and at the same
time completely disappear. What is this ace? Must one place it on
the side of this precise silence of which Brice Parain speaks, or of
the demonic silence of Kierkegaard? Silence by lack or silence by
e.xcess? And why does the name of silence suit it better than the
name of language? The secret we seek is not one of chose secreu
that "even when public must be respected by veiling chem and
saying nothing." "I know," said MaUarme, "one wanes co limit the
mystery in music when the written aspires ro it." And lee us look at
these words of Paul Eluard: "Lighc and consciousness overwhelm
me with as many mysteries ... as night and dreams." And again
("Uninterrupted Poetry"):
Prendre forme clans l'informe
Prendre cmpreince clans le Bou
Prendre sens clans l'insense
Take form in the formless
Take an imprint in the blur
Take sense in the senseless
Is it not there, appointed in poetry itself, the form of the mystery
of poetry and of Literature, if, in whatever madness they claim, they
always make reason out of their madness and, to the utmost, lead
us in this transparent night where the dark is only inferred?

The Paradox of Ayue

William San:iyan is what one calls a spontaneous writer: he did

nor discover art through an, but "by hanging about in cities, eyes
wide open. " He thinks he draws his methods and ideas on licera
rure from himself. "A story," he says, "has norhing co do with
writing, ic is not good English or good Latin or good Greek. le is
rock, soUd like rock, a solid rock....A srory is speech articulated
from an anciem absence of speech. It is now, this speech, in this
language char is neither English, nor Latin, nor Greek, bur che
language of smne which is che language of man, and fundamencaUy
iris shaped and articulated silence." And again: "The best advice
one can give is co draw one's language not from language itself, bur
from silence and onesel le is the only possible advice.Do not write
with words, write without words, write with silence."
Tnis spontaneous writer takes back inro account one of the most
ancient wishes of literature: to write in order to reach silence.
Ccnatnly sudb a concern has, more chao any ocher, found its
theoreticians atnd its heroes since the nineteenth century.Everyone
knows chem. Bur it is Homer who said, "To speak about every
thing, co say everything, is the ace of che silent man"; and Apol
lodorus of Athens: "Silence honors the gods by imitating their
naw re, which is co escape meaning''; and A:.schylus: "The riddle is
rlVealed co the one who knows how ro keep si1ence in speech."
le is necessary, though, to see chat Saroyan's advice is far from

The Paradox ofAytd

being dear and that the taste or superstition of silence sw-rounds al l
kinds of equivocations. When in The Red and the Black, after
Mathilde's question about Mme. de Fervaques-"Has she made all
the sacrifices for you that this fatal love has led me ro make?"_
Stendhal writes, "A gloomy silence was Julien's only response," it
seems co us that this silence is only a hypocritical method of
expression. But if we recall Barcleby the scrivener's words, setting
against his master's every request this response, "I would prefer nor
ro," we feel that speech here has the privilege of silence. To be quiet
is not always the best way of being quiet. That is the reason that
Pascal asserted that silence, also, is impure.
Silence is part of language: if we are quiet, that is a way of
expressing ourselves. It has a meaning, like any gesrure, any facial
expression; and, moreover, it owes this meaning co the proximity of
language, whose absence it manifests. If we are quiet when some-
one is waiting for a word from us, it is just as much the word that
has not been said as our refusal to say it chat shapes the silence and
incorporates it in che dialogue that goes on. Everyone understands
that a being gifted with language does nor attain the same silence as
a being without language. If he is mute by accident, he substitutes
one language for another. If he is mute out of a refusal to speak, he:
can seem more silenr than a mollusk or a stone would ever seem.
But this excess of silence comes only from language. whose pos
sibility it defies.
Still, even this taciturn speech has a way of making itself under
stood chat is natural to it. My silence makes me take part entirely in
the meaning I give it. I penetrate what I do nor say, I weigh down
on what is alleged about my speech, I slip more completely into my
absence of response than inco my response. And rhac is nor only
because, without talking, I have to speak with my entire body, with
my presence asserted without phrases; for the silence of lips also
demands rhe silence of face and of body: a power more stretched
out than chat of my separate and distinct organism is pur into play
in the absence by which I express myself The entire universe that is
mine is engaged in it and compromised, because chis silence rend s
exactly ro preserve of me only the boundary of the world with
which I claim to merge.

The Pamdox ofllytre


In The Bridge Crossed, a dream is related co us in which the

dre,,iner senses s:ome flaw in his words that makes them transparent
co noise. The dreamer concludes from chis that it is nor enough to
inven t his word!;; they also need a kind of cone to be heard. It is this
cone rhar the 1timid lack: the orphan speaks in 'Vain, says rhe
prove rb. whoev,er is nearby hears nothing. Silence within language
is like an analogue of the word's power ro intimidate, without
which words arc: lost in noise. One could say rhar the word's accenr.
movement, arti1rude can separate themselves from the word and are
more necessary ro ir than the verbal material irself. The man who
keeps silent, ro say no or ro say yes. to promise or to threaten, is
very far from btolding on to a pure meaning still foreign to sen
rences; unlike rJhe dreamer who is unable ro communicate because
be has forgoctein to give a certain cone to his words, he can make
himself underst:ood by turning words away from their tone alone.
And ir is chis tone that he supports rnomenrarily with all his
existence and with that of the world to which he is linked.
"Language h;as only one opposite, which is silence," Brice Parain
says. If this asse:rrion were imperative. the writer's condition would
be simple: he would have ro give up seeking, through speech. the
end of speech. But liceracure claims to make an absolute our of
language and m recognize in this absolute the equivalent of silence.
If language cam become complete, as poetry asks it to., if ir can be
completely real:ized, either by becoming an ability to say and hear
previous ro an), sayer and any listener, or else by asserting itself as
paradoxical object, capable of showing irself in one single aspect
such as ir would be seen from all points at the.same time-that is, ro
appear in perspective in all its appearances and consequently as
deprived of appearances-it musr overtake language and, each
ins tant expresi;i.ng itself as corality, each instant be completely
ourside of lang;uage. Silence would then be anained starting from
wor<ls and as rbe essenrial sign of their accomplishment.
This myth, we have seen, is, above all others, the myth of
Mallarme. Bue recall how he arrived at ir. What is a word for him?
In .1uchentic language. a word is nor the expression of a thing but
the absence of this rhing. "I say. 'a flower!' and this is already no
ITlnre than 'the absent one of all flowers.''' The general quality

The Paradox ofAytre

there is in all speech is also what forms the basis for its poecic
future. Thar which is its power of representation and significatlon
creates a distance, an emptiness, berween things and their name,
and prepares the absence in which the creation takes shape. Natu
rally, the single word is nothing but the beginning of a shift, since,
by its meaning, ir makes present anew the signified object whose
material realiry ir had removed. So ir is necessary, if the absence is to
be maintained, char another word be subsrirured for the word, one
rhac distances ic, and another for chis word that flees from it, and
for this last one the very movement of Bight. Thar is how we enter
the realm of images, and they are not solid, stable images bur occur
in an order in which every fi gure is passage, anxiety, transition,
allusion, an act of an infinite rrajecrory. We are as if cracked down
by chis rule of absence chac cannot do without a support and yet
cannot tolerate the presence of what the support signifies; ir goes so
far char in the end we would no longer have co be in the presence of
things or forms or images, bur only of a poem, one char would rest
on words in succession, their rhythm, their liaison, but as a whole.
as totalfry, would nor rest on anything; it would be the reciprocal
suppression of every "term," of every point at which pure absence
could stop and be formed, and, consequently, it would be the very
absence of this language.
Ac first sight, such an arrempc appears co be concradicrory1
unrealizable, and, as Mallarme says, only a delusion. Bue ir must be
noted that real poetry is an effort toward this unrealizable, that
(according to poets) it has as its foundation this impossibility and
this contradiction that it tries vainly to realize. In short, it demands
char language be achieved and affirmed-by way of an aspiration
as a paradox, and ir gives us to understand char real language exiscs
only when chis paradox and, as they say. chis mystery are outlined
and stand our in current forms of speech. A gain according co
Mallarme, the main forms of such a demand are the following. lf
the nature of poetry is co substitute an absence for the reality of
"solid" and "preponderanc" things, an absence at firsc decermined
and defined, then, gradually, the very absence of this absence, a
movement toward "other thing," "a tacit flight of abstraction," " a

The Paradox ofAytr!

viroin scattered absence," then chere occurs a moment in which,
rv thing havi ing been uccered, poetry, being this everything, will
rl,self be no more than the absence of everything, the "e locucory
disappear ance" of the universe, the container of nothing, a strange
power balanced! between nothing and everything. This is exaccly
rhe book of which che poet spoke-the Book, equivalent of the
world. orphic explanation of the Earth-and which is nor ics sum01ary in che manner of ancient alchemical formulas but its realiza
tion in a vanishiing form, its gliding coward a mode of existence char
is unable to be grasped.
But whac happens? The closer poetry is to this boundary where
"lacking everyclliing, it replaces everything," che more the poem, to
be capable of chis operation of metamorphosis, must on its side
have reality: the more it calls on sounds, rhyrhm, number, on all
one calls the physics of language and chat, in current speech, one
ordinarily regrurds as useless. Thence the privilege granted co the
writren, to the book in its most material aspect: typographical
composition, mise en page, "spaced sketch of commas and periods."
Language muse, the insranr ir allies itself co the movement of
awareness. co ics ability to be present co things by holding them
infinitely at a distance, to its right co know by the nothingness of
what it knows, ally itself also most co the opposite of awareness, co a
thing, a solid, a pure and simple macerial presence. This is what
Saroyan, with 1the calm of a spontaneous writer, claims co be rock,
"solid rock,'' OJr something "like the sun," or simply "a thing." But
MaJlarme, on his pare, creates A Throw ofDice, which offers, in the
simultaneous yision of rhe Page and the spectacle of a new sky, the
movement and enigmatic scansion by which the word makes
things disappear and imposes on us the feeling of a universal lack
an<l even its own lack. Surely Mallarme's claim is more subtle chan
thac of the American writer, but it is only more contradictory than
ic, because what he wanes ro reveal co us as a thing-and a thing
freed from chance-is the tension from which absence is born, the
relentless pursuit by which words, chanks to their abstract value,
dc:moy the materiali ty of things, then, thanks co their evident
power of evocation, destroy their abstract value, and finally, by


The Paradox ofAytre

their mobility, their capaci ty for suspense, cry co vanish into thin
air, to extinguish themselves behind the reciprocity of their fires.
We now see why Mallarme can think both that "everything, in
the world, exists in order ro result in a book" and that "silence, only
luxury after rhymes," "is for the poet, roused by a challenge, to
translate it." This is because he finds chis silence scarring from the
simplest process of language: in this absence that every word
consists of. and that is linked to its ability co give a meaning, to
distance the thing in order ro signify ir ("so chat there emanates
from ir," as he says in his vocabulary, "pure idea, without the
annoyance of a near or concrete reminder"). In tbar way, silence is
far from being the opposite of language; on the contrary, there is
language only in silence, which is ar once the condition, the
intention, and the virtue of speech. I speak, but rhe moment chat
what l say creates around the thing I designate an emptiness that
makes it absent, I am quiet; I also designate the distant absence in
which everything will be submerged, even my speech. Thus are
formed the hope and illusion of making words from silence and, as
Mallanne says, of holding on to "allusive words, reduced to equal
silence" or even of arranging "under the understanding of the gaze
an average sering of words into definitive traits, with silence." It is a
hope that, by managing to make the cotalicy of language rise up,
one can also resrore co each of its pares the rotal absence it must
signify, then be itself. Bue it is also an illusion, for che poem does
not stop having an existence on two sides, of being a consciousness
that destroys the world but also a rhing that immobilizes it, a power
of annihilation and an indestructible presence, its own negation,
says Saroyan, and a reali ty of stone. And thus Mallarme, jusr as he
gives poetry a language of extreme physical density, sees himself
finally tempted co arcain silence by a simple material emblem, che
white page, che white of che margin, "the space that isolates the
Stanzas," .is if now silence were no longer in the power of poetry ro
deny the thing, bur in ics ambition to become thing itself, nor in its
dream of being completely unrealized by becoming completely
real. bur in its capaci ty of being a nature, and a nature withdrawn
from all thought and all speech.

The Paradox ofAy tre

The n what remains of Mallarme's attempt? First, that it is the
oern's essence to implicate ic, to begin it again, for the very reason
( rhc failiure and the impossibility it represents. Moreover, it
discovers a complicity between silence and language whose nature
ir illu minai:es by inviting us co seek it in rhe capacity for absence
and questioning chat consciruce any authentic speech. Writers and
psyc hologi:;cs rend, in the beginning of language and at its source,
10 place a silence that might be like Paradise lose and whose
nosc algia haunts our words. And it is useless to recall how many
arti sts are tempted by regret and the presentiment of a silent night
that rhey think is their mission to make visible co us. There again,
Saroyan is :a useful wimess for us: 'J\ny poem, story, novel or essay,
no more or less than any thought, is a word come from this
language chac we have not yet translated, from chis vase, mute
wisdom of the night, from this vocabulary, without grammar or
rules, ofercrnity." And lee us remember that was the meaning of his
first piece of advice: draw one's language from silence, write wich
our words, write with silence.
In truth, this silence is nor meant co surprise us. We read in
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception: "We are
losing awaieness of the contingency there is in expression and
communic ation, either with the child who is learning how to
speak, or ,vith the writer who says and thinks something for the
firsc time, or finally with all those who transform a certain silence
inro speech." A lirde further on we read: "Our view of man will
remain superficial so long as we do not return to chis origin, so long
as we do not find again, in the noise of words, primordial silence, so
long as we do not describe rhe deed chat breaks this silence." These
quocarions. make it quite dear that the description here goes as far
,ts the literary drean1, that silence receives the same privileged place
in ir. prime and superior, that of seeming co be the guaranree of
hU1g11age thac came from ir. We know, coo, that rhi.s silence is
poin ted out to us as che silence of awareness before ir is scared in
any explicit judgment and at the moment when the evidence of rhe
CogJto has not yet been resumed in the affirmation that prolongs it
and turns it away from its global meaning. Ir is chis silent evidence


The Paradox ofAytre

rhat surrealism, for example. tries ro carry fa i thfully inro language

through aucomatic writing. Ir is also what Pierre Emmanuel seek &
when he recognizes in the image, "such as the moderns created it, a
return to the original basis, to the primitive spontanei ty of being."
These problems are important ones. But there is another we
would now like to see betrer, for ir is at once very naive and Yet
curiously implied by all writers and crit ics. This problem i s: Where
does literature begin?
Ir sometime. happens to a man that he feels an empt iness ia
hi mself, a defect, a lack of someth i ng decisive, whose absence
becomes, little by little, unbearable. In a shore story, 'J\yrre Who
Loses the Habit," Je-.ui Paulhan teUs the rale of a soldier to whom
this happens. Aytre is a sergeant and, w ith an adjutant who reUs cbe
story of the expedition, he leads a column of 300 Senegalese, along
side men of the Fourth Colonial, across Madagascar. Through ch
adjutant's laziness, Ayrre is rhe one co whom rhe care of keeping the
log of the journey falls. There is nothing extraordinary in this log:
we arrive, we leave; chickens cost seven sous; we stock up on
medicine; our wives receive magazines, ere. As the adjutant says.
that smells of drudgery. Bur, starting from a certain day, after the
arrival at Ambosi tra, the writing changes, slightly, no doubt, in
appearance, bur, on careful reading, in a surprising and over
whelming way. The explanations rendered become longer. A
beg i ns to go inro his ideas on colonization; he describes the wom
en's hai rstyles, their locks joined together on each side of their ears
like a snail; he speaks of strange landscapes; he goes on ro the
character of the Malagaches; and so on. In shore, the log i s useless.
What has happened? Ayrre has obviously lost rhe habit. Ir is as if
the most natural th i ngs had suddenly begun co surprise him, as if a
lack had been broughr about in him char he soughr to answer by
unusual moves , an agi tation of thoughts, words, images. And the
adjuranr is aU the more ready co realize that he recognizes in his
own uneasiness the rrace of a si milar predicament. The key to the
enigma i s easy to grasp. In Ambositra, Aytre mer a Mme. Cha
linargues, whom he bad known some months earlier and whom
jealousy pushes him to kill; as for the adjutant, he prepares ro keep

The Paradox ofAytre

.P-um of money that the same person had handed over co him for
he r family. Jn both cases, for both men, something bas begun to
come undone; che events proceed i ng from the self have diminished
in numbe r: hair done up, judgments on colonization, strange
landscapes, all these literary developmenrs sign i fy the same lack;
because of it, now beings, behavior, even words can appear only in
rbeir insufficiency.
From chis li rde story, it does not foUow chat literature must
necessarily begin with crime or, failing that, with flight. Bur that it
does imply a caving in, a kind of init ial catastrophe, and the very
empriness tha.c anxie ty and care measure; yes, we can be tempted to
believe char. Bur lee us note that this catastrophe does nor faU only
on the world, the objects one handles, the things one sees; it
exrends also to language. That is the paradox of Ayrre. lo truth, it is
easy, or some1thing like easy, to imagine chat Ayrre, behind the act
to which he was driven, found himself lacking and began to
translate this .lack by an excess of language char would try to fill it.
Unril then, he: was enough for himself; now he is no longer enough,
and he speaks to reestablish, by words and by a cal1 co ochers,
the adequacy whose disappearance he feels. Unfortunately, much
worse must happen co h im. For language is also struck: aU the thick
layering of wc,rds, the sedimentation of comfortable meanings that
move off, detach themselves, become a slippery and dangerous
slope. The crureat spreads to anyone who allows himself to answer
it. The writer does nor always begin with the horror of a crime that
makes him fed his precariousness in the world, but he can hardly
think of beginning other than by a cercain inability ro speak and
write, by a los:s of words, by the very absence of the means of which
he has an overabundance. Thus it is indispensable for him to feel at
first thac he h.as nothing to say.
In an excerpt we have cited, Kafka is amazed that man, at the
httghr of unhappiness, can write, "I am unhappy." Where, he says,
does this exce!SS of strength come from, rhar allows me to commu
nic.:ace my exhaustion without making it false? Bue perhaps what
K,1fka calls overabundance or excess is really a reduction, a retreat
before my natural being, an empt i ness borh in regard to my

The Paradox ofAytrc

The Paradox ofAytre

sorrowful state and in regard to words. Kafka is surprised that l can

carry, by a brilliant devdopment of words chat signifies hope,
affirmation, infinite possibili ty, an extreme unhappiness that is
negation and impossibility. Bue Kafka's surprise is ambiguoUs:
basically, what seems surprising co him is that an extreme unhappi
ness can still be the unhappiness of someone who feels it, who
consequently remains capable of giving it a meaning and distanc
ing it from himself in order to grasp it-under whatever form he
likes. He seems co believe char chis awareness of unhappiness is,
with regard co unhappiness, a kind of increase, a surplus, a plus sign
that might be a challenge co the minus that unhappiness implies.
But why? How does the fact char rhe darkness torments me rise co a
kind of rransparency-could it be some kind of good, a remnant of
luck? I recognize even more in chat the first stirring of a fundamen
cal deprivation and this destiny of mine of being always separated
from myself, of nor being able co hold on to anything and of having
ro let slip, between myself and what happens ro me, the original
silence, this silence of awareness by which the sense that dis
possesses me of it falls at each of these moments. Thus, the "I am
unhappy" e.xplodes into a first emptiness char deprives me of it
without alleviating me of ic, emptiness that all language remembers
and char it strives to find again, starting from the fullness and
security of ordinary language.
What happens afcer that? The "I am unhappy" enters ioro
literature and develops. ro Kafka's surprise, with che flourishes and
ornaments of a fine style. Flourishes aside, what is striking at first is
that it occurs at all for whoever writes (and for whoever reads), like
an emptiness in the world of ordinary words, surely not a rocal
devastation but a threat rhac does make irs usage problematic,
difficuJt, and rare. For example, while a colloquial phrase can,
without inconvenience, be exchanged for a thousand others with
the same meaning, original language, on the contrary, ''poecry,''
does not allow exchange or change; this is so nor only because of
the necessity that the texr not suffer any alteration, but also because
of a kind of poverty rhac makes it untranslatable, intransmissible in
another form, as if the privation were such char, outside of the

words rouchcd by the poet, all had stopped being available, as if a

new world really were beginning, a new fidd of language in the
ruin forever used up by everyday language. One can certainly
w0n der at chis beginning, this intention in its dawning state, and
bdievc it possible only by an excess of strength, but this beginning
is fir st an end. From one of its sides, poetry makes sense, but from
ano rher ir unimakes it. It distances the word, and if ic does give us
cbc word. it is from a distance. Ir dangerously connects the pos
sibili ty of spc!a.king with an impossibility char becomes almost irs
condition. Ir allows us to write "I am unhappy,'' bur chis first
exp ression of unhappiness, by caking away from us thoughts al
ready formed[, frequented, and certain, exposes us co an experience
full of risk, a:nd more than that. co a silent faltering, a stammering
chat irs perfection does not prevent us from recognizing as a lack.
When Aye re writes, "The Malagaches who lead the canoes make
rhe sky vibra1ce wirh cheiI incomprehensible songs, whkh do, how
ever, have th1ir style. That makes life seem gay to us," who would
be surprised to discover the effects of a rerrible suffering in this
gaiety and cbie expression of this gaiety? One sees dearly how the
world that is opened and undone can become the world of a happy
life and how a language in the process of destruction expresses,
because of chat, unhappiness, but also happiness and beauty and
human gene:rosicy. lf one says, perhaps to reproach him, that
Aytre's words, far from threatening ruin, become, to tbe degree chat
he "loses the habic," more chosen, more thought out, more happy.
this would b,e only naivete, since, for this sergeant, recourse co rhe
most literary or beautiful language signifies only rhe irreparable loss
of rhc only l,wguage thar was certain for him, that in wnich ir was
m<>ugh for hJm to wrire, "We are doing twenty kilometers a day."
So instead of experiencing a feeling of satisfaction and creacion
when he fincils words like "The srrangeness of rhe things in Mada
gascar answers co that of the men. Ar every turn, there are land
capes of a lunacic originality," he feels, on the contrary, the embar
rasmenr and discracrion of someone who feds himself deprived of
words, for whom their handling becomes rhe most deceptive proof
and, as ir we,re, the explorarion of his own emptiness. That Valery




The Paradox ofAy tre

The Paradox ofAytre

reproached Pascal for this distress that writes so well remruns the sigas
of a very strange misunderstanding, as if Pascal had necessarily
the feeling of writing well, as if this admirable language we lend
him had noc been for him as dull, as stripped offurure, as stilling as
the misery whose extent it caused him co discover. What Valery
attributes to Pascal is his own reaction in the face of Pascal's styk;
but Pascal, when he was writing, did not feel himself the author o
Pascal's scyle and, quite the contrary, he saw in the PerJSees the w
elements of a forever absent book, a confusion that did not beco
ordered, and the very "shipwreck" of which Vale ry wanted t
recognize only the eternal debris, coo well made to be saved.
It is in Jacob Cow chat we read "The lot of poets is chat
simplest acts are difficult for them-for example: there is so
thing like a lack of spirit in chem that meraphors translate." lf a la
of chis kind is enough for names to become undone and ima
born, one can also, under the name of figure of speech, unders
why language is haunted by its own impossibility, if it is oecess
related co feelings of anxiety and absence in which the possibility o
language is almost nonexistent. Io Ayrre, speech comes co anS\
to a fundamental lack, but speech is itself attained by chis lack, sen
back to its beginning (or, just as well, condemned ro end) and rhUI
made possible by that which makes it impossible. In chis parado:J(,
the role of deception is obvious, and it is especially large because
the literary game, which, the instant language is closest to the blank
existence of consciousness, aims at a subsistence chat disengage,
from it, ar an autonomy that announces its future, its hiscorica.lly
enduring value of experience. From chat comes chis effort of poetry
ro become the realization of a complete unrealizacion, such chat
when achieved, the primal absence would be asserted in it (in rhe
manner of a thing, stone, block, sun, regarded as symbols of
anything deprived of meaning) on which all our deeds, our actS,
and the very possibifoy of our words rise up, the absence in which
poetry itself would disappear by the fact chat it achieved it. That is
why we can readily see in the search for silence one of poetry's most
obsessive concerns; yet it must be noted chat this name of silence is
scarcely suitable here: properly speaking, there is silence only- in



life. in what Merleau-Ponty calls the spoken word." when we

,re so im merse:d in words that words become useless. On the
onrrary. the sil,!nce of creative language, chis silence that makes us
speak, is not only an absence of speech but simply an absence, th.is
discance chat we pur between things and us, and in ourselves, and
in words, and that makes the fullest language also the most porous,
the most transparent, the most nonexistent, as if it wanted to let the
very hollow it encloses Bee infinitely away, a kind of small urn" of


Alcnrazas. an umglazed vase that keeps water cool by evaporation. -TRAN s.

The Language ofFiction

The Language of Fiction

It is generally acknowledged that the words of a poem do nor

play the same role or maintain the same relationships as those of
ordinary language. But a narrative written in the simplest prose
already suggests an imporrant change in the nature of language.
This change is implied in the smallest sentence. When I 6nd, at the
office where L work, these word.s, written by my secretary, in my
memo book, "The head clerk called," my relationship with the
words will be completely ocher than if I read dus same sentence in
The Castle. The words are the same, J give chem roughly the same
meaning. In both cases, I do not scop at che words. I pass over
them, and they open up to a knowledge linked with chem, so chat I
grasp from my book directly, instead of the words written there, Lbe
connection T muse make with the supervisor whose subordinate I
am, while in the novel, the srill obscllfe existence (we are in the fust
pages of the book) of a regional administration with which rela
tions seem uneasy.
And yet, from rhe reading of my memo book co char of the novel,
the difference is great. As an employee, [ know who my supervisor
is, I know his office, I know many things having to do wich who he
is, what he says, whac ochers say about him, whar he wants, che
difficult narure of our hierarchical relationships, rhe incolerable
sense of hierarchy for me, etc.; my knowledge is, in a way, infinire .
As new as I may be, l am pressed on all sides by reality, and I anain


ic and m eet it everywhere. On the ocher hand, as a reader of the first

pages of a swry. I am nor only infinitely ignorant of all chat is
h:ippening in the world being evoked, but chis ignorance is part of
rhc nature of char world, from the moment when, as an object of a
narrarive. it is presented as an unreal world, with which I come into
conract by rc:-ading, not by my ability co live. There is nothing
poorer than such a universe. What is chis head clerk? Even if he
were described to me in detai11 as he is lacer, even if I entered
perfectly inco che whole mechanism of che Castle's administration,
I would stiU be more or less aware of the little chat I know, for this
poverty is che essence of fiction, which is co make presenc to me
char which makes it unreal; ic is accessible to reading alone, inacces
sible co my exiscence. No richness of imagination, no preciseness of
observation could correct such destitution, if ic is always implied by
ficcion and always put down and taken up by it through rhe
thickest coment or che one closest co the real that it is willing to
To return to Ollf sencence. Although read from my own book
and articulated wich che mosc present reality, ir brings me to che
feeling of the event that it signifies and of the ace co be accom
plished chat will result from it, but without the knowledge it carries
in itself being; in any way expressed. This knowledge wiU normally
remain that of an empty awareness chat could be filled, buc is not
filled; as a reader aware of words chat mean something, I have
presenc in my mind neither rhe words that I read and that the
meaning makes disappear, nor chis meaning char no defined image
presents, but only an ensemble of connect.ions and intencions, an
opening onw a complex.icy yec co come. In daily life, co read and
hear implies that language, fur from giving us the fullness of things
in which we llive, is cur off from chem, for it is a language of signs,
whose nature is nor ro be filled with what ic aims for buc to be
c111pry of it. Ics narure is not to give us what it wanes to have us
accain, but co make it useless ro us by replacing ic, and thus co
cli\ tance things from us by raking their place, and taking rhe place
t,J L hings 001t by filling itself with them but by abstaining from
1 ht:111.
The vzJue and digni ty of everyday words is co be as close as

The Language ofFiction

The Language ofFiction

possible to nothing. Invisible, nor letting anything be seen, always

beyond themselves, always on this side of things, a pure awareness
crosses chem, so discreetly rhar ir itself can sometimes be lacking.
Everything then is nulli ty. And yet, understanding does not stop
occurring; it even seems that ir attains its point of perfection.
could be richer than this extreme destitution?
In the novel, the act of reading is nor changed, but the attitude oE
the one who reads makes it differenr. "The head clerk himself'
called," the janitor's son says in The Castle, "that is what is so:
annoying to me." UndoubredJy these words, coo, are signs and aq
as signs. Bur here, we do not depart from a reali ty given with O\a!
own. It is a question, on the one hand, of a word that has yet
wake up, and on the other hand, of an imagined ensemble
cannot stop being unreal. For this double reason, rhe meaning
words suffers a primordial lack and, instead of pushing away aU
concrete reference to what it designates, as in day-co-day reJacioa
ships, it tends to demand verification, to revive an object or
precise knowledge char confirms irs contents. It does not follow
that images necessarily play a large role in novel reading; we kno,r
quite well that imaginary narratives speak little ro the imagination.
and that the interest and value of a novel are nor a function of
abundance of images it produces. But a more subtle phenomena
occurs. To the extent that their meaning is less guaranteed, le,,
determined, that the unreality of fiction holds them apart fro111
things and places them at the border of a world forever separated.
words can no longer be content with their pure value as sign {as if
reality and the presence of objects and beings were all necessary QJ
authorize this wonder of abstract nullity that is everyday calk), and
at the same time take on importance like verbal gear and make
evident, materialize what they signify. The head clerk first of all
comes into existence from this name, a name that is not lost in the
meaning of a label chat evaporates as soon as ir is spoken; it exists il
a verbal entity, and all that I can know of it from now on will be
impregnated wirh the self-nature of these words, wiU show ir ro me
particularized, drawn by them. This does not mean that, in a novel,
the method of writing counts more than whar is described, but chat

ch e events , characters. acts, and dialogues of the unreal world that is

che novel tend to be evoked, grasped, and realized in words that, to
sig nify rbem, need ro represent them, to have them immediately
seen c1nd underst,.:>od in their own verbal reality.
The sentence in the story and the sentence in daily life both have
the role of a par:adox. To speak withour words, to make oneself
understood without saying anything, to reduce the heaviness of
thi ngs ro the agility of signs, the materiality of signs co the move
ment of rheir sig1ni6cation-it is chis ideal of a pure communica
tion rhar is at thelheart of universal ralk, of this way of speaking that
is so prodigious, in which, while people speak without knowing
whar tl1ey say and understand what they do not lisren to, words in
rheir anonymous usage are no more than ghosts, absences of words.
and by chat itself, in rhe midsr of the most deafening noise,
empower a silence that is probably the only one in which man can
rest, as long as he lives. The language of real existence wanrs ro
unite these two opposing characteristics: for as long as it is given us,
a real thing among things, which we arrange like an experience and
which we do not need to make ours in order to use, ir is also an act
rending to go into thin air before it is accomplished, supported
only by the emp1riness of a possible intention, as near as one can
imagine to non-existence. A sign of the superabundance of beings,
to be itself as a rrace and sediment of the world, of sociery, and of
culwre, it is pur e, only if it is nothing. On the other hand, the
sen tence in rhe smry purs us in contact with the unreality that is the
essence of fiction and, as such, it aspires to become more real, ro be
made up of a language that is physically and formally valid, not to
become the sign of beings and objects already absent (since imag
ined), hut rather ro present them ro us, to make us feel them and
live them rhrouglh rhe consistency of words, the luminous opacity
of things.
lt g oes withouir saying rhat these two languages have thousands
of intermediaries that bring chem closer and mix chem together. Tn
011r everyday sentences, the image can come to 611 up the gap char is
1 he
meaning of 1che word; knowledge can be actualized in it by
animating chis mieaning. Often, as beings capable of imagining and



The Language ofFiction

The Language ofFiction

producing fiction, we go toward things that are nor there and

whose evocation demands to be supported by the complicity of a
language less freed from itself. more realized. The example we have
used is only the example of an emb ryo of a story; thus we must
think of it with all ics appropriate breadth and complexity. We will
see chen chac, as prosaic as prose is and as close to banal life as the:
scory is, language undergoes in ir a radical uansformation, because
ir invites the reader to realize from the words themsdves the
understanding of wbat happens in the world offered him, and
whose entire reality is to be che object of a story. We like to say of a
reading thac it holds us; the expression answers to this transforma
tion: the reader is in fact held by the things of fiction char he grasps.
given by che words; like their own characrerisrics, he holds on t0
them, with the feding of being enclosed, captive, feverishly with
drawn from the world, co the point of experiencing language as the
key to a universe of bewitchment and fascination where nothing of
whac he lives is found.
Bue it happens chat in a story, language, instead of being the
abstract meaning that gives us concrete things (the aim of everyday
speech), seeks to revive a world of concrete things appropriate ro
represent a pure meaning. We arrive ar allegory, myth, and symbol.
Allegory introduces che ideal of daily prose into fiction: "the story'"
sends us back to an idea of which it is the sign, in the presence of
which it rends to disappear, and which, once set down, is enough'
express and affirm icself. Myrh, on the contrary, implies an acrual
presence between the beings of fiction and their meaning, nor the
relationships of sign to signified. By its involving us io mychic
story, we begin to live its meaning; we are impregnated with it, we
really "think" it, and in ics purity, for its pure rruch can be grasped
only in things in which it is realized as action and feeling. Myth,
behind the meaning it makes appear, endlessly reconstitutes itself.
le is like rhe manifestation of a primitive state in which man would
nor know of the abili ty to think aparr from things, would reflect
only by incarnating as objeccs che very movement of his thoughts
and thus, far from impoverishing what he thinks, would penetrate
into the richest, most important cl,ought, the one most worthy of

t,eing chou ghr. Thus literature can create an experience that, il

lusory or not, appears as a means of discovery and an effort not to
expr ess what on,e knows bur to experience what one does not know.
Ir is understood char symbol is nor allegory. Its task is not to
signify a particular idea by a determined fiction: the symbolic
meaning can ornly be a global meaning, which is not the meaning
of such an object or such an action taken in isolation but that of the
world in its entirety. and of human existence in its entirety.
Tt is in this movement chat imagination becomes symbolic. Tbe
image it seeks, t:he figure not of such-and-such a thought bur of the
rension of the entire being to which we carry each thought, is as if
immersed in che totality of the imaginary world: ic implies an
absolute abseno, a counterworld char would be like the realization,
in irs entirety, of the facr of being outside reality. There is no
symbol in such a demand, and this demand, operacive behind all
the movements of the story, prevents it, by its continuously active
negation, from receiving a determined meaning, from becoming
only significacive. The symbol signifies nothing, it is nor even the
imaged meaninig of a truth that would otherwise be inaccessible; it
always surpasses every truth and every meaning, and ir presents us
wich rhis very .surpassing that it grasps and makes evident in a
fiction whose theme is the impossible effort of fiction to be realized
as fictive.
The aim of t!Very symbol is always more or less irs own pos
sibilfry. Ir is a s1cory that is enough for itself and it is the lack that
makes this story insufficient; it makes out of the lack of its story the
subject of its story, it tries co realize in it chis lack chat always
infinicely surpasses it. The symbol is a narrative, the negation of
this narrative, 1tbe narrative of this negation; the negation itself
appea rs sometimes as the condition of all the acciviry of arr and of
fictio n and, cornsequenrly, as the condition of chis narrative, some
times as the se.ncence that pronounces its failure and its impos
ibiliry, for it does nor accept being realized in a particular act of
imagination, in che singular form of a finished narrative.
In the symbol is rhus manifested, at rhe highest point, the
rrcssure of a paradoxical demand chat is more or less evident in all



The Language ofFicti.on

its forms of language. On one hand, ir is made of events, details

gestures: it shows faces, the smiJes on faces, a hand that rakes
spoon and carries it to the mourh, crumbs of plaster rhat fall frorn
the waJJ when someone climbs ir. These are insignificant details,
and the reader does not have ro seek or receive meaning from then:,.
They are nothing but particularities, worthless momems, dusl o(
words. Bur on che orher hand, the symbol announces something.
something that surpasses all these derails taken one by one and all
these details taken together, something that surpasses itself, char
refuses what it claims to announce and discredits it and reduces ir
to nothing. Tr is its own emptiness, the infinite distance that ir
cannot incerpret or touch, a Jacunar immensi ty thar excludes the
boundaries from which the symbol endeavors to make this infini
distance appear. And yer, the symbol is not unformulated either,
and if it rids itself of concrete traits to end up at the formless, it ii
completely lost. It is nothing bur circumstances, circumstances
borrowed from ordinary life, only chose, inseparable from them.
yet it is out of reach. That is why one readily thinks it is outside.!
of rime, and tries to reduce it to the nonremporal language of
thought. But it is nor outside of cime, it is not abstract: ir is oursi
of reali ty, firsr in chis sense that it confuses itself with imagined
events, grasped in their absence as present, then in chis other sense
char it wanes to grasp again nor only such-and-such imagined event
but also the very possibili ty of the imaginary, the totality of the
imaginary, and, behind each unreal thing, the unreali ty that could
reveal itself in itself and for itself.
This attempt is rigorously contradictory. It cannot come abour.
And all the same, it is valuable only in its impossibility, it is possibl e
only as impossible effort. Hegel says of symbolic art that its princi
pal fault is Urzangemessenheit: the exteriority of the image and its
spiritual contenc do not succeed in coincidi_ng fully, the symbol
remains inadequate.* Undoubtedly, bur this fault is the essence of
the symbol, and its role is to send us endlessly back ro the lack char
is one ofthe ways by which it would like to make us e.xperience Jack
The symbol, ir is true, is only the: beginning of arr for Hegel.

The language ofFiction


.JO general, ennpciness in its encirety. The symbol is always an

e.xprience of nothingness, the search for a negative absolute, bur it
is a se:1rch chair does nor succeed, an experience that fails, without
chis failure being able co acquire a positive value. A writer who
expresses himself in symbol, whatever the theme of his medications
is, can finally express only the demand ofthe symbol, and measure
hiinsdfb y the _misfortune of a contradictory negation that seeks to
surpass all parricuJar negation and assert itself as universal nega
tion, nor as a:n abstract universal bur as a concrete emptiness, a
realized univeirsal emptiness. Likewise, every wrirer who grapples
with the experience ofdeath as transcendence can onJy fall into the
ordeal of the !iymbol, an ordeal he can neither master nor refuse.
Kafka's example is present in everyone's mind. Too many inter
preters cell us 1:00 clearly what Kafka wanted, what he was, what he
sought in his c:xistence and bis writings, so thar one does not wish
co rerurn to silence a work chat wished onJy for silence and with
which the commentary of fame, as profound and ingenious as it
may be, can only be in disagreement. This very disagreement, this
disturbance in the triumph that crowns an infinitely miserable life.
the almost unlimited survivaJ char posteri ty promises him, this
failure in succ,ess, this lie of misery that leads only to the brilliance
of fame-such an ironic contradiction is part of the sense of the
work and was felt beforehand in his search.
Kafka, prohably under the influence of Eastern cradicions, seems
to have recognized in the impossibility of dying the extreme curse
of man. Man cannot escape unhappiness, because be cannot escape
existence, andl it is in vain that he heads coward death, that he
confronts the :anguish and the injustice ofit; he dies only to survive.
Ht leaves e;,c,istence, but only ro enter into the cycle of meca
rnorpho ses, ro, accept the degradation of vermin, and ifhe dies like
ve rm in, his &sappearance becomes synonymous, according to oth
er. with renewal, with a call co Li_fe, an awakening of voluptuous
n<.'.\s. There is no actual death in Kafka, or, more exactly, there is
never an end. Mosr of his heroes are engaged in an intermediate
nr between Life and death, and what they seek is death, and
whaL che y miss is lif e, in such a way that one does not know how ro

The Language ofFiction

The language ofFiction

ch accerize their hopes, if they place their hope in the possibiLlty of

losing all hope, and how to appreciate their regrets, if these cegi:cq
ecernalize rhe condemnarion they undergo.
In "The Hwirer Gracchus" and in "The Guest from the Dead,..
Kafka expressed direcdy rhe strange condition of the dead who da
nor die. Bur these lirde stories are parables; they make us couch
what they mean co say, and since their meaning is connected ro the
undefined power of negation rhat reveals death, there is a contra
dicrion between the nature of the story chat is achieved and preci
and its conrenc thar demands rhe absolute ambiguity of negati01'.
On the other band, the story of The Castle is symbolic. One caQ.
certainly interpret rhe odyssey of K. One can recognize in him
being who left his homeland, as one leaves existence, and who, wi
the very means chat he used to live, tries to get himself accepted
death. K. was called, and ir is quite true rhac death seems a call; b
it is also true that to answer this call is co betray it, to m
something real and true of death. All his efforts to reach the Cas
are marked with this contradiction: if he strives, struggles, desi
he reveals always more existence; while if he remains passive,
misses whar he aims for, death being death only when one makes
one's own and ic stops being the death of no marcer whom, an
death whatsoever.
We also see K. uniting ignorance wid1 cunning, extreme aw
ness with extreme non-awareness, rejecting rhe help that is offered
him, for he knows that no one else can replace him in chis rask; he.
struggles ro obtain what this struggle prevents him from at[41cuu
for while struggling, he can do nothing else: aU that remains to him.
co save himself is to work endlessly at bis curse. Moreover, what is
the aim? Who can claim here to have touched it? The village? But
the village people represent the most miserable stage becwee n
existence and non-existence. Frieda floats between disappoint
ment, desire, and indifference; she does nor know what the assis
canes are; she undergoes their artracrion, she is ashamed of th at
artraction, she resists it, she succumbs to ir; pitiful failure, existence
of reflection, light of refusal. The functionaries? We suspect they
are more powerless rhan anyone: feeble, frightened, they are inca

Jablc of supporting the existence of below, and yet they haunt
hey desire ic, they call for it, they miss it. Where
Deacl1 . where is thy victory?
Kafka experienced very deeply the relationships of transcen
dence and dearb.. And char is why, in his work. sometimes ic is
dea th that appea.rs co beings as that which they cannot attain,
s ometimes it is that which surpasses beings that appears in the
unworking and misery of death. Sometimes death appears as tran
scendence. somei:.iroes transcendence appears dead. This reversal
already shows ho,w dangerous it is to claim to fix, in an explicit
form, che interpretation of a story in which negation is at work and
shows itself just as well as rhe nothing that prevents the absolute
from being accomplished except as nothingness that measures
absolure accomplishment. The passage from yes to no, from no to
yes, is the rule here, and all interpretation that avoids this (includ
ing that which hyposrasizes rhis alternation) contradicts che move
menr that makes it possible. To see in K.'s story rbe image of the
unhappi.nesses of existence chat cannot be grasped as existence
because it canno,r be found as the end of existence, remaining
unreal, self-negating, insofar as it is nor capable of being really non
ex.iscence, profundity of that which is beyond life, assertion of
nothingness wirb.our memory-it is clear that such an interpreta
tion vainly contains the ambiguity of a proposition in which
assertion and negation are in continuous threat of reciprocity. As
long as ir rests in the well-determined form of an abstract thought,
it escapes che verdict it renders and it fundamentally disobeys che
symbol, losing alll its meaning the moment it isolates this meaning
and makes it discernible.
o one must pl.unge the inrerpreracion back into the hearr of the
srnry, lose it there and lose ic from view, and grasp again the
movement of fiction whose derails assert only themselves. The inn,
the peasants witht their stubborn, frustrated faces, the iced light of
the snow, Klammi's pince-nez, the pools of beer in which Frieda and
I<. roll-chat is what matters, chat is whar one must experience co
entn into the life: of the symbol. There is nothing else to look for,
nothing more co understand. And yet, one cannot be content with

The Languag e ofFiction

that either. Bury oneself in the story? But the story itself rejects yo u,
Each episode contains a quescion about itself, and this question is
also the profound life of fiction; it is the story, it shows icself face to
face, it asserts itself, it converses. Where is the symbol? Where it
appears, where ir hides? Where there are only calm, firm ap.
pearances, where appearances grate and are rorn apart? Where
things are present with their natural obscurity, where behind thing,t
their emptiness emerges, behind the story the absence of stol')\
behind the profundity of symbol the impossibility that erodes
work and forbids its accomplishment? le is these very questions.
and it dies from these questions. In this sense, every symbol
does not ruin the work in which it develops is ruined in the com
mentaries it provokes, that ic cannot prevent itself from provoki
Tt muse, to subsist, be unaware of itself in fiction, and chose wh
make it known, make it sterile by declaring ic.
Such is its last ambiguity: ic vanishes if ic awakens; it perishes ifi
comes to light. Its condition is co be bttried alive, and in chat it '
indeed ics own symbol. symbolized by what it symbolizes: death:
chat is life, that is death as soon as it survives.

ReHections on Surrealism

In an article in Horizon, PhiJip Toynbee remarked, "le is striking

that we are always ready to be reminded of the number of French
writers who were surrealists or were under the influence of surreal
ism. In England, the influence was negligible, and perhaps ir was
nor necessary. :But it seems that nothing was more profitable than a
sojourn in this school." Perhaps surrealism's situation is ambiguous.
We readily recognize-even more readily than before the war-the
deciding role it played in French literature. Does char mean that
surrealism bas become historical? There is no longer a school, bur a
stare of mind s1urvives. No one belongs co this movement anymore,
and everyone feels he could have been pare of ir. In every person
who writes the.re is a surrealist calling that is admitted, that miscar
ries, seems sometimes usurped, but char, even when faJse, expresses
a sinc ere effort and need. Has surrealism vanjshed? Ir is no longer
here or there: i,r is everywhere. It is a ghosr, a brilliant obsession. In
ics rurn. as an 1!!arned metamorphosis, it has become surreal.
One can approach surrealism from many different ways. One
ca n look for wlhat ir was in itself and the dace its influence began.
One can cry w understand it in the ligbc of preoccupations that
have developed since. We may be wrong co neglect what was its
<.:tnrr:u djscovery, the auromacic message. It is true char on this
P0 inr the failur,e of the attempt seems sometimes irredeemable. But
th<: face that Breton always stayed with it, with an indefatigable

Reflections on Sttrrealism

Reflections on Surrealism

perseverance, char he sought to save it from all the shipwrecks and

even from his own doubts ("The history of aucomaric writing iJt
surrealism would be, I'm not afraid of saying it, that of a continued
misfortune"), is enough co show char this method was nor an
artificial invention and that ir fulfilled one of literature's principal
Automatic writing is a weapon against reflection and language. I
is supposed to humiliate human pride, particularly in the form that
traditional culture has given ir. Bur in reality, it is itself a pro
aspiration coward a way of knowledge, and opens a new unlimi
belief in words. Surrealism was haunted by the idea char there if,
there must be, in man's constitution a moment in which all diffi.
culties are removed, in which antinomies no longer have any mean
ing, in which knowledge completely takes hold of things, in whi
language is not speech bur reality itself. yet without ceasing to
the proper reality of language; in this moment, finally, man couc
the absolute. Surrealists seemed co their contemporaries to
destroyers.Dada's heritage is there for something.And the ch
ter of nonconformist violence was naturally the most scr
Today, what strikes us is how much surrealism affirms more than
denies.There is a wonderful strength in it, a drunken and powe
youthfulness.In a way, it needs to make a clean slate, bur above
it seeks its Cogito.
Bue what does it find? Curiously, ir finds char ir is an exact repli
of Cartesian experience. One can say that surrealism bad
presentiment of rediscoveries thac ac about the same rime and
many years were in the proce-Ss of turning German philoso phy
upside down.What Breton sought (or what he discovered in a lci
of nocturnal hallucination) is an immediate relationship with him"
self, "immediate life," forming a connection with his true existence,
without any intermediation.This relationship is nor to be sou gh t
in exceptional states, in unitary experiences of mystical form: it is at
hand, everyone is addicted to it all day and all night long. I think. I
suffer, I have the feeling of chinking, of suffering, chis feeling is rcil,
it is immediately linked to what I think, co what I suffer, it ls aa
"absolute." Bue, at this rime, Breron had a singular illusion (lit-

vorcJ, moreover, by contemporary scientific tendencies): it seemed

co him chat chis feeling could become an immediate language,
hecome language without any sore of words intervening between
him and chis feeling. 1f 1 say, or better if I write, "J suffer, these
words, provided they were written outside che control of my con
sciousness, not only express exactly my awareness of suffering bur
are ac heart this very awareness.The effectiveness and importance
of aucomatic writing is that it reveals the prodigious continuity
bcrween my suffering, my feeling of suffering, and the writing of
chc feeling of chis suffering.With it the opaqueness of words is
esrablished, rheir presence as things is lessened.They are all char I
am ac chis very instant. By raising the conscraints of reflection, I
allow my imJmediate consciousness to burst into language, I allow
mis emptinei;s co be filled and this silence co be expressed.
Neither Breton nor his friends worried about securing the foun
dacions of rheir method.There was quire a bit too much of the
casual in theiir procedures, they lacked enough seriousness (and this
lack of seriou,sness was itself something rather serious) to arrive at
accual juscifications.However, Breton, in the first manifesco, wrote
chis, which c:an only be an allusion to the Cogito: "I believe more
and more in the infallibility of my clunking about myself, and it's
too r ight. ...By definition, thought is strong, and incapable of
seci11g itself at faulr." And he added: "Al] che same, in chis writing
down of rhoiughr, where one is at the mercy of the first exterior
distraction, 'bubbHngs' can be produced....Ir is on account of
suggestions tlhar come co one from without that one muse make
these weaknesses evident." For a rigorous analysis, these remarks
arc perhaps a licrle confused, but at botcom nothing is dearer:
aw areness of my choughr "infullibly'' reflects my thought; the
writ ing dowrn of the thought also in fallibly reflects chis cho ught;
only suggesti<>ns &om wichour intervene and reestablish an interval
betwee n me amd me speaking.An exterior complication char does
no1 call inco quesrion either the face or the nature of language.
lillrre aliscs have exrracced the most brilliant literary consequences
frorn chis "di!;covery" and, for language, che most ambiguous and
Varied effects. In this domain, they still seem, above all, destroy-



Reflections on Sunealism

Reflections on Surrett/ism

ers. They loose their fury on discourse; they rake away from it an,
right usefully ro mean something; fiercely they break discourse as a.
means for social relationships, for precise designation. Language_
seems nor only sacrificed but humiliated. Yer it is a question of.
something else: language disappears as an insrrwnent, but only
because it has become subject. Thanks to automatic writing, i
benefits from the highest promotion. It is confused now with lllali
"thought," it is Linked co the only real spontaneity: ir is h
freedom acting and manifesting itself. That rational consrructio
are rejected, that unjversal significations vanish, is to say that Ian
guage does nor have ro be used, that it does not have co serve
express something, char it is free, freedom itself. When surrealilCI
speak of "freeing" words, of treating them ocher than as little
vanes, it is a veritable social revindication they have in view. Th
are men and a class of men char others think of as insrrun1ents
dements of exchange: in borh cases, freedom, the possibility
man to be the subject, is called directly into question.
But this emancipation of words can occur only in a double se
On one hand., in automatic writing, it is not, srricdy speaking,
word that becomes free; rather, the word and my freedom are n
no more than one. I slide into the word, ir keeps my imprint, and
is my imprinted reali ty; it adheres to my non-adherence. But
another side, mjs freedom of words means that words become
for themselves: they no longer depend exclusively on things
they express, they act on their own account, they play, and,
Breton says, "they make love." Surrealists became well aware-an
they made use of it admirably-of the srrange nature of words: ch
saw rhar words have their own spontanei ty. For a long ti
language had laid claim to a kind of particular existence: it refused
simple transparency, it was nor jusr a gaze. an empty means of
seeing; it existed, it was a concrete thing and even a colored thfo&,
Surreiliscs understand, moreover, chat language is not an inefC
rhing: it has a life of its own, and a larenr power chat escapes US.
Alain wrote chat one muse always verify where ideas are-they do
not stay in their place, rhat is why they cannot be on their guard. It
is the same for words: they move, they have their demand, chef

dc>rninare us. That is in part what Brice Parain called rhe transcen
dence of language. Breton contents himself with speaking "of crus
Jicrk uncompromising world over which we can sustain only a very
insufficient surveillance and in which. here and there, we rectify
sornc flagrant offenses." Language becomes a weird life, without in
noce nce, something lingering and sometimes tremendously quick,
like lightrung. We know rhac surrealism is very much attached to
the magical aspect of tbmgs; but ic had already observed crus
magical power in language, which embodies it and wonderfully
illusrraces ic.
Having Left this double mearung, it is quite dear chat Breton and
his friends are: exposed as conrradicring themselves in the strangest
and. probably, the most forrunace way. With automatic writing, it
is my freedom chat triumphs, it is the most immediate relationship,
che only authentic one, of man co himself, found and marufesced.
From this angle, one can say that the poetry of Eluard was essen
tially poetry <>f surrewsm, poetry of that immediate life char sur
realism felt and glorified, not transparent poetry but poetry of
transparency, as incomprehensible and obscure for the beings who
live in a conve:ntional world as the most absolute hermericism. This
poecry, which seems never to have been very much in line with
automatic writing, expressed, however, berter than any other the
moment, previous to language, chat automatic writing cries to
touc h, in wbjch I have the pure feeling of what I fed. Ir is a
veritable poetry of the Cogito. Bue surrealism is also the freedom of
words: Dada':s heritage. "words sec free," sentences decomposed,
rags of advertising te.xcs set end co end? Perhaps, or especially, the
succession of a long and immense poetic work whose causes are
spread out ov,er the course of centuries. The result is that these free
Words become centers of magicaJ activi ty and, more than char,
rhings as impenetrable and opaque as any human object with
drawn from utilitarian signification. We are far now from the
L"i\rtgory of ch1e immediate. Language no longer has anytbjng co do
\vi1 h the subject: it is an object chat leads us and can lose us; it has a
'1luc beyond our value. We can be taken in a scorm or in a swamp
c,f words. Ir is rhetoric become matter.


Reflections on Surrealism

Reflections on Surrealism

We see to what ambiguity, literall y. this double point of view

leads us. lf language is linked co the silence of my immediate
thought and is authentic only when it realizes it, we must say good
bye co literature.The furious thrusts against the ideas of work. art.
calenr come in part from rhe postulate of writing .from thought
"Surrealism 's characteristic is co have proclaimed the compkq,
equaliry ofall normal human beings [chis word 'normal' marks, it
true, a rather strange reserve) before the subliminal message, and
have constantly maintained rhac this message constitutes a cor.n
mon heritage; it tries to vindicate each one's righc co share in w
must at aJI coses soon stop being thought of as the exclusi:
privilege of the few." Outdated, then, the point of view of
originality of artistic talent, of verbal research for itself. Yet it u
fuct: surrealism appears co us as an aesthetic more than anythin
and seems co us occupied first with words.Is it an inconsistency,
shameful weakness of writers of literature co be what they
Rather, it is fidelity to their conception oflanguage. Words are
and perhaps cl1ey can free us; one has only co follow chem,
abandon oneselfto chem, co place all the resources ofinvention
memory ar their service. lf rhetoric consists, as Jean Paulban sa
of maintaining that thought comes from words, then ir is c
char surrealism is rhetoric. And Breton, rhe first, affirms it for
"StiJJ (after the attempts of Ducasse. of A Throw ofDice, of
ligrammes), we were nor sure that words already Lived their own
we did not dare see chem coo much as creators of energy. We h
emptied them of their thought and we waited without believ'
too much that they commanded thought. Today, it is an accO
plished thing: now they have what we expected of them." '1Vc
remember that the first journal ofthose who were going co becorGe
surrealists was called Literature. Nor was this ironic.
The characteristic of Breton is co have held irreconcilable cen
dencies firmly together. No more literarure, and yet an effort at
literary research, a care for figured alchemy, a consranr artencion.
given to procedures and images, co criticism and technique. Writ4
ing is not what counts ("I think that poetry ... emanates mo.re
from the life of men, writers or not, than from what they ba\fe

wrirren or from what we suppose they could have written.'' And we

rec..ill the famous literatt,re survey that asked, "Why do you write?"
and rhe only answers, gathered with a certain care, were char of
V.i lery: "I write out of weakness," and that of Knut Hamsun: "1
write to while away the time"). Still, writing counts; writing is a
means of aurhemic experience, an alcogether valid effort to give
man awareness of the meaning of his condition. The same Breton
reserved his most solemn and 1ofcy scatemems for such a subject,
and perhaps the most persuasive."Once again, all we know is char
we are gifted co a certain degree with speech and chat, through it,
something grand and obscure tends imperiously co express itsdf
through us.... le is an order that we have received once for all and
tha r we have nevcr had the leisure to discuss... . To write, and I
mean ro write so difficulcly, and not co seduce, and not, in the sense
one ordinarily understands it, co live, but, it seems, all the more to
be morally self-sufficient, and, shore ofbeing able co remain deafco
a singular and un 'tiring call, to write is thus not co play or cheat, so
rhar I might know."
This very beaut:iful "setting the record straight" forms part ofthe
rexr Legitimate Defense, one of the first published by Breton to
clarify his positi,:>n in the face of communism. Ir is common
pracricc ro treat this avarar of the surrealists lighcly. Their declara
rion of Marxist beliefs has not always seemed very serious. Jules
Monneror asserts that in any case Marxists could not cake them
seriously. "The right co be exceptional recognized in the poet," this
tendency to believe that "poetry communicates with revolution,"
that "revoluriona:ry grace could be obtained by poetry,'' the will to
pursue, cost what it may, the experiences of inner life, and that, of
course, withoitt outer control even Marxist-these ambitions could
only lead chem to throw themselves ac communism "like a college
dc:gree at a discipline" (Modern Poetry and the Sacred). That may
be:, buc the face r,emaios that che phase was neither fortuitous nor
arb itrary, and it remains very significant as an example of the
Profound engagements rhar literature cannot prevent itself from
lcirrning as soon as it becomes aware of its greatest freedom. Sur
n::llism did nor always push literature away, bur ic always pushed



Reflections on Surrealism

away literature that was taken as the art "of embellishing, even I
little, the leisure of others." If there were in this group, across all
metamorphoses and dissidences, a permanent conviction, it is th
poetry is related to the condition of man in his entirety, that it
not any activity whatsoever but an acciviry that concerns man as
whole. To that conviction this other one came to be added:
reali ty of man is nor of the nature of things that are. It is not giv
it must be conquered; it is always outside of itself. Poetry that is
once che awareness of chis endless surpassing, its means, and
smpassing itself, is never given: poetry bas nothing to do with
world in which we live, which is, at least in appearance, a worl d
things complecdy made. T hence the primacy of the imaginary,
call for the marvelous, the invocation of the surreal. Poetry and
are "elsewhere" (Monnerot indicates very well char, by i ts taste:
the unusual, the surrealist has particularly in view an experiment
search of the something else, a feeling of ocher-presence), b
"elsewhere'' does not designate a spiritual or temporal regi
elsewhere is nowhere; it is noc the beyond; ic signifies chat existen
is never where it is. Surrealism is one of those attempts by whi
man claims to discover himself as totality : incomplete totality, he
yet capable, ar a privileged instant (or by the single fact of seei
himself incomplete), of grasping himself as a whole. As it is at QO
an inspired movement and a critical one, it mixes all kinds of vi
postulates, aware and confused researches, but the main inreoti
is clear: surrealism is in search of a kind of existence thac is not
of the "given," of things as they are. (Ir does not know very well
chis ''ocher" existence can be attained by analysis, by invescigati
experiences, like that of the subconscious, of che dream, of abn
mal states, by a call to a secret knowledge fled away inco history,
if ir must be realized by a collective effort co change life and the
course of things.) And at the same time it is in search of an absol
event, in which man manifests himself with all his possibilities,
chat is to say, as the entirety that surpasses chem. Tr is an absolute
evenc, rhe revelation of che real functioning of thought by auco
matic writing. Ir is an absolute evenc in which everything is realiad.
the discovery of a "certain point of mind in which life and death.

Reflections on Surrealism


he real and the imaginary, past and furure, the communicable and
the in communicable, high and low, cease being percejved as con
:rad icrory." (Arnd Breton adds, in the Second Manifesto, "Yet one
ould seek in va.in in surrealist acrivicy for a motive ocher than the
ope co determine this point.'') :he signs are councl that this
supreme effort, by which man tnes co turn round on himself and
sei ze a gaze that is no longer his own, has always been the dream
and resource of surrealism. And what does Rene Char tell us?
''ln poetry, it is only starting from communication and the free
placement of the totality of things among che selves arss us
d1ar we find ourselves committed and defined, m a position to
obtain our orig;inal form and our preliminary properties." And
again: ''lmagin.arion consists in expelling from realiry many in
complete people, in order, by contributing the magical and subver
sive powers of desire, co obtain their return in the form of a
completely satisfactory presence. T har is, then, the inextinguish
able uncreated reality."
In what way, then, did the support of Breton and some of his
friends for Man<-ism make them believe that the realization of this
dream would be furthered? To assert that one writes not for amuse
ment or for love of arc but because the face of man is engaged in chis
activity in the end leaves us somewhat uneasy. Purely interior
engagement often seems illusory. One is never sure of not "playing''
an<l of not "ch,ting." The engagement wants to become more
serious, co conclude itself, co be a weigh ty thing, something that
musr be accept,:::d, which can be put out of one's mind only by
making it one's own at each instant. Breton said chis, with his
habitual sangfroid: he and his friends were ar first in search of
something to do in common. "One will search and I suppose one
will find vital reasons chat, initially, would have made some of us
pre;:fer ro act cog.ether rather rhan singly; yet that would have ended
Up wirh rhe crea1tion of various papers chat did not, in reali ty; have
the ap proval of :any of us. Something at leasr, I already chink 1 can
ay it, will thus have happened with a will chat might otherwise
hav1: remained indecisive. This minimum of dependence fredy
a1:ccpted will also have had the effect of relegating to the back-

Reflectiom on Surrealism

Reflections on Surrealism

ground of our preoccuparfons whar was nothing bur a brilliant

accessory, since it belonged more particularly only ro chis one or
chat one of us. For lack of che discipline of class, a disciplin"
( Communicating Vases). Perhaps it is a 'law that all art that disen
gages itself from the inner elements that enslave it (rejection o(
imiration, refusal of words as instruments of exchange, refusal O
art considered amusement), tends to be engaged in an exteri or
action that weighs it down. Tbe more useless it becomes, the more
it needs an end to make something useful out of chis uselessness. It
is its gratuitousness that makes irs placement "in the service of t
revolution'' inevirable.
Bur it is still clear that if Breron and flu.ard and Aragon met wi
Marxism rather than any other political activi ty, it is nor by chance.
lfRene Char wrote this admirable song of refusal, Benning of
Partisan, 'The poet has returned for long years to the nothingn
of the father. Do nor call him, all you who love him. If it seems
you that the swallow's wing no longer has a mirror on earth, for
this happiness. He who made bread from suffering is not visible in.
rus glowing lethargy. Ah! beau ty and truth make it so char you
present, numerous, in rhe volleys of release!" one muse imagine char
chis refusal was nor without reason or without value. In truth, it it
glaringly obvious char historical dialectic offers ro all those haunted
by rhe ideas of a perfected man, of a limit of the human condition,
a chance of the first order: complete man is not ro be sought, now.
in the rifts and disorders of capitalist society, ir is nor to be known.
ir is to be done. (Marx's famous sentence. "Men have, uncil now,
only interpreted the world in different ways; now it is a question of.
changing it," was turned and turned again in all irs angl es by the
surrealists.) When dialectic is ar its end, then consciousness will be
completely present to itse!F, with society classless, it will be realized
and seen in its totality. 'J\r the end of our phase of hisrory, Marxist$
see the compl.ete man, Spinoza's man, renewed and incomparably
more magnificent. Only materialises do nor believe that this end
wiU be attained because ir is conceived. They have an ideaJ without
idealism" (Guterman and Lefebvre, Comciousness Mystified). Un
doubtedly, Breron is nor alrogetber skeptical when he envisages

d, an ideal, bur he is aware enough that there is perhaps a play of

:vorJs in this use of the word "perfected," or in any case he speaks
of it wirh a certain indifference, as i in all ways, the absolure
realized by history could not change che actual srructure of aware
ness. and as if it always needed nonhisrorical problems co achieve
chis change. Thus he wrires, as early as 1926, "There are gaps in us
that all rhe hope we place in the triumph of Communism does nor
overco me; is 1not man implacably an enemy co man, will boredom
end only when the world does? Is not all assurance of life and honor
vain, ere.?" And in 1932, in an even firmer manner, "I will nor tire
of serring against rhe presenr imperious necessity, which is co
change the far too faltering and worm-eaten social foundations of
the old world, chis other necessity, no less imperious. which is nor
co see an end to the comingRevolution, which obviously would be
at che same time che end of history. The end would be for me only
rhe knowledge of rhe eternal destination of man, of man in general,
whose destiny could be fulfilled only by theRevolution" ( Commu
nicating WiseJ).
This last at,sertion shows the reasons for which the surrealists
turned co Marxism. In the present state of society, all problems are
disco reed, poe:tic problems along with che others, and poetic prob
lems before all the orhers, since poetry is knowledge and manifesta
tion of the fate of man in his encirety. By the fault of the capitalise
state, man is not only oppressed and limited, bur he sees himself as
other than he is, he rakes as essential questions problems created by
ocieral tensions: for example, he is aware of his anguish and his
tearing apart, but he does not realize char rearing apart and anguish
are disguised by the disarray proper to a socie ty that is collapsing.
likewise, as long as the problem of freedom for the collectivity of
rnen is not concretely settled, the metaphysical problem of freedom
cannot be legitimarely posed. Ir is when man's freedom has no
lo nc,ber to be made, when ir is Oiven in deeds, realized in all irs
cundirions, ic is chen rhat freedom will become aware of itself as
that w hich always transcends rhese conditions, that which is never
t<ali1.ed, neve1r given or done. Man will be free because, as Breton
Mty,, "rhe artificial precariousness of man's social condition will no





Reflections on Surrealism

Reflections on Surrealism

longer veil from him the real precariousness of his human coo di,.
rion," that is co say, because, in a free socie ty in which he ca q
choose ooJy to be free, he will still have co choose for hi.tnsefC
without being able co unload this care on anyone or ever to be
"freed" from it. Thus, the service that surrealism expects froll(
Marxism is to prepare for it a socie ty in which everyone could be
surrealist, but especially in which the aims of surrealism would
led to good, in all their purity, without misrepresentation or falsi.
fication. How could poetry cease being involved in social revolu
tion? It is this task of the revolution char, far from masking its own.
"hands over its perspective to poetry," for thanks to the revolutio llt'
poetry understands chat neither poetry nor poetic values really
except at the moment when man, having nothing more to do
because everythmg is done, discovers the meaning and value of
nothing, the proper object of poetry and freedom both. (Fran
Ponge notes, for example, that bis poems are written as if on
day after the revolution.)
Let us now see around what themes surrealism takes form.
Literarure is banished, bur language mixes with the pure moment
of awareness: words are ideas. Arr disappears as an end, nochmg b
life and the deepening of life matter; yer one gives the great
possible attention to technical researches, formal effects, arcis
falsehoods (the "attempts at simulation"). Finally, the poet d
mands an absolute freedom: he pushes away all control, he
master of his means, and just as free with respect to the literary'
cradicion as he is indifferent to the demands of moral standards.
reJigion, and even reading. Yet this freedom ends here: "Surrealism
in the service of the Revolution.'' If one unites two by two, by a
very significant bipolari ry, these themes that call to each ocher by
opposing each ocher, one will see that the writer for whom writing
has the meaning of an essential questioning does not lose incerest
for aU d1at in the efforc of technical invention and formal creation,
-and on the contrary endJessly associates his verbal research and his
inner research, as if the authentici ty of his experience were linked
to its literary value ("A perfect sentence is at the highest point of the
greatest life experience," wrote Leon-Paul Fargue). And we will also

see 1 hat the most uncomrnjtted literarure is at the same time the
,osr committed, because it knows char to claim to be free in a
"ocicty chat i:s nor free is to accept responsibiliry for the constraints
chat society and especially to accept the mystifications of the
wo r<l "freedc,m" by which socie ty hides irs inrencions.
Jn summattion, lirerarure must have an efficacy and meaning that
are exrralirerary, char is, it must not renounce ics literary means,
and lirerarur,e must be free. that is, committed. Perhaps. consider
ing the force of these paradoxes, we will understand why surrealism
is always of our time.



Rene Char

Rene Char

We like Georges Mounin's book Have You Read Char?becausc it

approaches Rene Char wich che method and seriousness, che ardent
patience and spirit of measurement co which che university resoru:
when scudying the consecraced celebrities of poetry. The essence of
Char's celebrity cannoc but remain foreign co a consecration. But
why couldn't che traditional means of licerary history serve to speak
co us about texts for which every ocher manner of explanation
would be faulty? The need to underscand and interpret, the manJ':
that is to says char che reading of poems requires, according to thls.
surprising and almost far.al impulse that believes poetry is mon:<
accessible if analogous words are substituted that destroy it, chc:se
oaivetes, ofren corrected, moreover, by strong scruples, detraa
nothing from Mounin's admfrarion, itself admirable for his cer
tainty and penetration, and for the intimacy of his conneccions IO
the strongest poetic movement. His experience as a reader deserves
every respect, for it is chat of a man quice forcunate for having
known, chanks to an absoluce confidence, how to rea'd rhe poet
who could give che most sense and rhe most dignity co th.is reading.
The relationships between a poem and a reader are always of the
mosr complex kind. It is not crue that poetry can do wichout being
read, and char the poem muse haughtily ignore the reader; yet
previous co any reader, it is exactly che role of the poem ro prepare.
to put into the world the one who has co read it, co force him co


i:is r scarring from this still half-blind, half-composite char is rhe

scammering reader involved in habitual relationships or formed by
chc reading of 01cher poetic works. 1 t is the same forche reader as for
che poec. Boch poet and reader of this poem take cheir existence
from ic. and are strongly aware of depending, in their existence, on
rh i song co come, chis reader to become. That is one of che
mvscerious demands of poetry's power. The poet is born by the
pem he creates; he is second to what he makes; he is subsequent co
rhe world he hais brought co life and concerning which his ties of
dependency reproduce all che concradiccions expressed in chis para
dox.: the poem i.s his work, the truest impulse of his exiscence, but
rhe poem is what causes him to be, what must exist without him
and before him, in a superior consciousness wherein a.re united
borh the obscwricy of the depths of che earth and the clarity of a
wiiversal power co establish and justify.
Thence a.rise the debates about che inspiration and creative
activity of che poet. One of Georges Mounin's mistakes is to wasce
his rime reproducing chem through traditional analysis. "Inspira
tion" and "reflection'' are terms of an illegitimate analysis, stem
ming from one of the most unimaginative of all dichotomies. One
can put the most possible distance between chese two operations,
the most unequal sharing of privileges; one can see in them, on one
side, an excess of awareness, on che ocher, a fruit of unawareness,
the happiness o f passivity and che grace of work. But these differ
ences are only che awkward sketches of a difference of a kind
complecely oche:r than more or less aware activity measures . lnspira
rion means nothing ocher chan the anterioricy of che poem in
relacion co the poet, che face chat the poec feels himself, in his life
and his work, yet to come. still absent in face of the poetic work
char is itself all future and all absence. This dependence is irreduc
ible\ The poec existS only after che poem. Inspiration is nor the gift
of a secret or a word granted ro someone already present; it is the
gifc of existence co someone who does nor yet exist.
As for work, ic signifies, before che anceriority of poetry and ics
Llaim of formi1g an absolute awareness, the unrealizable and im
pcissible nature of this claim: the deception ch.is represents for all


Rene Char

Rene Char

chose who hold to the conditions of the face of the poem; th

necessity off leaving a language already given and a dominatin
existence infinitely present; finally, the preoccupation with repl
ing, by an increase of individual awareness, the impossible abRolu
awareness that should make up the poem in itself We have noc
seen clearly thac the primacy of conscious work in Vale ry is only
degraded rcrniniscence, an indirect and bitter homage ro the M
larmean concept of an absolute poetic awareness, superior co
author and any reader and alone capable of authorizing these
functions of art and language.
One of the greatnesses of Rene Char, one char is unequaled
our time, is that his poetry is a revelation of poetry, poetry
poetry, and, as Heidegger almost says of Holderlin, poem of
essence of poem. As much in the Marteau sans mawe (H am
without a master) as in Alone They Remain, poetic expression
poet ry faced with itself and made visible, in its essence, throu
words that seek it. Leaves ofHypnos, "these notes " of a "partisan,
thrown into the day-co-day difficulties of action and the obsessi
with events, contain the strongest and simplest poetic words
poetry has used co clarify and recognize itself. le is in these p
that che supremacy of the poem is best revealed, nor only over
poer bur over poetry itself. "The poem is furious ascension; poe
the game of arid riverbanks." ''I an1 a man of riverbanks-excava..
rion and inflammation-not always able to be torrent." But Thi
First Mill had already asserted ir:

surpass them iro explain and judge them. Bur the poem does not
lo ok co poetry as to a power char mighr be anterior co ir and from
which it shoul.d await its justification or its existence: it is nor the
re Hecrion lit up by a star; it is not even the momentary manifesta
rion of an ability always superior to its works. To w1derscand that
rJie poem is creator and prime is to understand chat it is always in
chis o rder: what is general depends on what is unique.
Bur it is also to understand why the poem is division, vexation,
rorment. It does not come from a higher reality, capable ofguaran
teeing it; it does not refer to a truth that would lase longer than ic; ic
is nor rest, for it does nor rest on anything, and the poet receives
only the anxiety of a movement without beginning or end from it.
"Magician of insecurity," says Char, "the poet has noching bur
adopted satisfactions. Ash always unfinished." A poem is


Aptitude: porreur d'aJJuvions en flam me.

Audace d'etre un insram soi-meme la forme accomplie du poeine.
Bien-ecre d'avoir entrevu scimiller la matiere-emotion insranranement
Aprirudc: carrier of alluvium in Bame.
Boldness of being for an inseam oneselfthe accomplished form of
the poem. Well-being of having glimpsed the sparkle of martef'"
emotion insramly queen.
Language speaks wrongly of poetry in general; chis word, "po
etry," refers poec:ic works co a form, ideal or abstract, char might

La rristesse des illecues clans Jes tenebres des boureilles

inquietude imperceptible des charrons
Les pieces de monnaie dans la vase profoode
Sadness ofthe illirerace in che darkness ofborclcs
lmperc:cpcible anx.iery of wheelwrights
Pieces 1of change in the deep mud
Sun singers:
Les disparicions inexpticables
Les acc:idencs imprevisibles ...
Les cerveaux inculces ...
La parietaire des prisons
Le figuier allaiteur de ruines
Inexplicable disappearances
Unforeseeable accidents ...
Unedu,cared brains ...
Wallflower of prisons
Suckling fig rree of ruins
"All char se:parates itself convulsively from the unity of the
Wurfd ... and lands on us at full speed," the "figures vanished as
Oon as compoised, "nonsubmissive inrelligence," the seismic crea0


Rene Char

Rene Char

sure of famines," che despair that "backs down .. .from the

question only in order ro adrnir despair," all char is refusal in U$,
questioning, disturbance, marks the provocation of poetry, rhe caJJ
addressed to the poet by the poem, chis fragile and anxious par t of
each of us that lives on poetry ("And as &agility and anxiety feed on
poetry").So one must understand chat poetry refuses to accept aJJ
the forces of submission and immobility, that it cannot content
itself with sleep whose ease is dangerous, char it seeks surreali ty
insofar as the domain is its irreconcilability. and char finally the
"honest, eager, impressionable, and bold poer will be careful not ro
sympathize with undertakings chat alienate the prodigy of freedom
in poetry, chat is, of intelligence in life."
This exalted meeting of opposites, this orgasm of "for and.
against animated by an equal and murderous Vlolence" (of which
Arcine speaks in le Marteau sans maitre)-what is the sense of it for
the poem? First, the poem does not belong to the easy world of
used things, of words already spoken. Ir is "inseparable from the
foreseeable, bur not yet formulated," it rouses the poet, causes him
co be born by making him contemporary with what is first ("The
poem is a moving assembly of original determining values in
contemporary relationships with someone whom this circumstantt'
makesfirst"). Everything carries us back co the sources, invites us to
join their retinue.We are as if called outside of ourselves to hear nor
speech, bur chat which is before speech, silence, "the speech of the
highest silence":

The on<: char is refused to you every day by beings and by

From which you obtain with difficulty here and there a
few bare fr-agmems
At the e,nd of merciless fights
Outside of ir all is but submissive agony crude end.


La vie inexprimable
La seule en fin de compte a laqudle cu -acceptes de t'w1ir
Celle qui c'esr refusee cbaque jour par !es erres et par les
Dom ru obtiens peniblemem de-ci de-la quelques
fragments decharnes
Au bout de combats sans mcrci
Hors d'elle com n'est qu'agonie soumise fin grossiere.
Inexpressible life
Tbe only one in the final analysis
unite yourself


wbich you consent co


The poem is never present. It is always just short of presence, or

just beyond.
le escapes ius because it is our absence rather than our presence
and because i1 c begins by making emptiness, and takes things from
thems elves, and subsrimres endlessly what cannot be shown for
what it shows, what cannot be said for what it says. Ir designates
either as "the:: great unformulated distance," or as "the fuscinating
impossible," or as the rule of the imaginary, that horizon ofobvious
faces. silence, and nothingness without which we could nor live,
speak, or be free. It is "rhe unfathomable chasm of darkness in
constant movement," it is "the Angel, our primordial care," it is
"rhe black co,lor that encloses the living impossible," "anguish ...
misrress of speech."
And similatrly, if Char's poet seems so often capable of the future,
and his poetry of surpassing rime, prophetic existence, it is because
the essence of the poem is to be in expectation of itself and to be
able, like "Love":

Le premier venu.
To be
T he first ro arrive.
Ir is, in a vvay. because the poem exiscs that the future is possible.
f'he poem is chis movement coward whar is not and, even more, rhe
l'nioymenr of what has nor been granted, the appropriation, in the
111ost substamial presence of This is not yer there, This wiJJ be there
only i.fl myself have disappeared. (''It happens char rhe poet in the
ourse of hi:s researches runs aground on a shore where he was
c:xpccced only much later, after his annihilation.") One feels that
the horizon of absence and unreality that surrounds the poem, and

Rene Char
che indulgence of the imaginary and che marvelous, signify only
one of the terms of fundamental poetic contradiction: the POel'Q
goes toward absence, bur it is co reconstruct roral reali ty with it; it is
striving toward the imaginary, but it aims for "the productive
knowledge of Reality." The search for totality, in all its forms, is the
poetic claim par excellence, a claim in which the impossibili ty of
being accomplished is included as its condition, so chat if it ever
happens co be accomplished, it is only as something not pos sible.
because the poem claims to include ics impossibili ty and its non-,
realization in its very existence.
When Char writes in The Formal Share (Alone Th ey Remain),
"Imagination consists of expelling from reali ty many incomplet e.
persons, making use of the magical and subversive powers of desirca.
to obtain their return in the form of a completely satisfying pl'Cl!
ence. This, then, is the inextinguishable, uncreated reali ty," we see
clearly how poetic imagination distances itself from reali ty in order
to join this very movement of self-distancing to chis realiry. to ma.a
inside of what is, char which is nor, and rake that as its principle, aa
absence char makes presence desirable, irreality that allows the pocc
to possess che real, co have a "productive knowledge" of it. Poetic
imagination does nor artach itself to things and people such as thq
are given, bur co their lack, to what chere is in chem of the other, to
the ignorance that makes them infinite (''A being whom one does
not know is an infinite being"): thus they are "expelled," th ey cease
co be what is present, what one has in order co become what on
would like to have, whar one desires. Bur having become desire.
imagination, in this absence it has brought to life, recognizes not
the absence of nothing bur the absence of something, rhe move
ment toward something whose realization it demands and who se
"return" it obtains without renouncing the distancing chis ret urn
permits. Now, it takes pleasure in things chat are, as if chey were nof
granted it; it receives from their presence the irreali ty that makes
this presence possible, and realizes the imaginary by rediscovering
the imaginary in the real. Such is the supreme paradox of the poem,
if it is "the realized love of desire chat has remained desire."
Every poem presents itself ro the poet as a whole in which he sees

Rme Char


he is
IlJ,nsdf involv,ed, an ensemble chat be dominates although
nh' a pan of it, a compound that defines and constitutes him
:l chougb he is the master of it. For some, like Mallarme, chis
cotality is chair of language, all of whose elements, excbangmg
chc: mselves fredy each for the ocher, realize the complete equiva
lence of speeclh and silence. For others, the poem Leads them to
assert the rotality of things and the free communication among
the m through che poet, and the possibility for rhe poet to ground
himself, to create himself starting from this totality that he himse.lf
creares. "In poetry," says Char, "ic is only starting from communi
cacio n and free placement of the totality of things among them
through us that we find ourselves engaged and defined, able co
ob ca.in our original form and our probative qualities." The ambigu
iry of dus reladonship explains chat the poem anticipates the poet
in whom it nonetheless has its origins, for it is in the poem that the
complete and completely free presence of beings and things is
realized, starting from which che poet manages co become what he
is. The poem its che rruth of the poet, the poec is the possibility of
the poem; and yet the poem stays unjusci6ed; even realized, it
remains impm:sible: ic is "the mystery that enthrones" (Alone They
Remain), "the meaning that does not question itself" (Leaves of
Hypnos). In ic are united, in an inexpressible and incomprehensible
connection, the obscure depths of being and rhe transparency of
awareness chat grounds, the "exquisite, horrible, moving earth" and
the "heterogeoeous human condition''; for chis exalted meeting, in
which each "grasps the other and qualifies the other,'' precedes all
qualication, 1!scapes all determination, and signifies only its own
impossibili ty.
In certain eras, "the poet will complete the meaning of his
message by the refusal of self, rhen will join the party of those who,
having stripped its mask of legitimacy from suffering, assure the
ete rnal return of the stubborn stevedore, ferryman of justice"
(Alone They Remain). The poem in which the totality of existing
and sensed things is brought cogecher, as their justifying principle,
{.annor be considered rid of words. le also puts us in conract wirh all
that is sovereign ty in the world, in opposition co all char is fair


Rene Char

accompli. weightiness of fare , fossilization of man. Thar Char's

poetry, the closest ro rhe essence of poetry, has led him to the
struggle of the partisan in the world, that ir has continued to
express itself in chis acrion, to be chjs very action without losing
anything of the purity of its essence, that is what "verifies" it as the
abili ty ro "overflow the economy of creation, ro enlarge rhe blood
of aces.'' What Georges Mounin writes about Char the parti san
seems strictly true ro us; and scill he has nor been able to speak of
Leaves ofHypnos, "these nores'' char, a shore preamble says, "were
written in tension, anger, fear, emulation, disgust, ruse, funivc
recollection, illusion of the future, friendship. love.'' Perhaps, as
Char says, they are affected by the event. Bue it is the ephemeni.L
nature of the evenc that finds what it can use in them co become
lasting; even were they co seem "nothingness" compared with such
pathetic circumstances, chey would seem impersonal, since they
express only general movements, the self-protective "mimicry" ofa
community, yet whatever quality of pathos and strength they h
kept increases by not being spent "in view of rorcured bloo d";
written by no one, they are such that they could be found only by
someone alone.
In Leaves ofHypnos. rhe few precise notes where we find certain
events of secret combat described are scattered among poems.
reflections without dates, images risen from the depths of thcr
timeless world; char these notes of derail and acruali ty seem each
time, in trus collection, necessary and as tf mevicable, shows better
than any ocher proof how, for a poetic existence, poerry is revealed
to icself, not only when it reflects itself bur also when it decidet
itself and can thus speak of everything, exactly because it is itself in
everything, che presence of everything, the search for totality, that
ic alone has the ability and right co speak of everythjng, co say
Such a language in whjch we feel ou.rselves completely involved
and whose fullness is so large chat it seems to demand our participa
tion, so chat we understand it mentally as far as we understand
physically, a language capable of expressing ourselves-char is what
Char proposes to che reader to urute him with the poem. This

Rene Char


language is the mosc presenr that can be. It is impossible co subtract

from ir. The sovereign ty of ics rone is extreme. It is like Heraclitus's

srvle, a sty le of aphorism m which the conciseness of the expres

sins and the aLUthority of images express che energy of an exrraor

din:ir y and evc:n oracular awareness. And ic is true in Char's work
that che apho,riscic form is frequent; starting with Alone They
Rem ain especially, language stays almost always grave, it asserts
icsdf slowly, with a certain solemnity, seeking in che weight of
absrracc terms a hammer's density. Bue what makes chis grave
slowness so powerful is char the most lively succession of figures
also presents i cself in it: che smallest possible unit of time con
tains the scron:gest reality of images, the most brilliant sparkling of
"matter-emotion instantly queen." Alliance of a lasting language,
wich a plenum of trungs felt, lived, possessed ''instantly," slowness
of a Aac rhythm and a stable syntax serving co transmit the most
distinct momencs. che mosr varied contacts, che greatest number of
presences, and, as it were, a simultaneous infini ty of successive
impressions, emblem of che totality of mecamorphoses-ic is from
chis conrradict.ion chat arises in part whatever power of enchant
ment and summation there is i_n such a form.
There is norhing more removed from speech. And yec it admits
ics resources, i1r coUeccs the articulacfons of the sencence, interroga
tion, apostrophe, invocation, by which d1e logical changes re
produce various motions of rhe hearr; but chese relationships with
the outside, e:(pressing the part of common language, are recon
quered by che relacionships of inside in which burns, in extreme
condensation, the experience of the least communicable intimacy,
or in any case: the one closest to che incommunicable. There is
nejcher disequilibrium in chat, nor disagreement, and solitude
becomes a spreading fire. branch of the first nm shining without
shade until evc:ning. "Under the harmonious authority of a wonder
co mmon co all., che particular destiny is accomplished all the way to
solicude. all the way to the oracle." (The oracle, solitude of the
Images in a poem are in no way a designation or illustration of
things or beings. Neither are they the expression of a completely

Rene Char

Rene Char

personal memory, of a completely subjective association of clc

enrs put cogecher. For example, seeing on tiles some rounds of
light resembling the ocelJi in birds' plumage, I say, "The sun is I
peacock on the roof"; but ic is a question only of a metaphor hcie,
an exterior indication, quite foreign co poetic values; it will be
possible for me, speaking of the sun, co speak of the peacock or of
the tile broken by the sun or of any other detail noticed in the
ourse ?f chis scene, and he obscurity of the allusion will not soop
mcreasmg, but as long as it depends on the single accidental natuat
of a memory, it will be linked co a language to which one can have;
the key; it wiU bring nothing more than a useless arbitrarincas.
without power and without justification.
The image in a poem is not the designation of a thing but die
way in which the possession of this thing, or its destruction, ir
accomplished, the means found by the poet co ljve with it, on ir,
and against ir, to come into substantial and material concacr with i(
and to touch ic in a uni ty of sympathy or a uruty of disgust.
image is first an image, for it is the absence of what it gives us and it
makes us attain it as the presence of an absence, calling, there inside
us, for the most animated movement to possess it (char is the desin:
of which Char speaks). Bur, at the same time, the poetic image, in
this very absence of thing, claims co restore the foundation of iu
presence co us, not its form (what one sees) but the underside (what
one penetrates), its reali ty of earth, its "matter-emotion.'' In chi,
new presence, the chlng loses its individuality of object dosed by
use, it suives to be metamorphosed into a completely ocher thing
and into all things, in such a way that the first image is also led tO
change and, carried away in the cycle of metamorphoses, becomes
endlessly stronger and more complex in its ability co transform du:
world into a whole by the appropriation of desire.
The images of the poem are thus infinitely various, and yet they
obey a fundamental tendency, they reproduce a call chat is the first
intention under which the poet feels himself drawn into the ioci
macy of things and their total presence. This obstinacy of a first
figure is the proof of the authenticity of all the others, while it is at
che same rime the source of their efficacy, the fountain that the poet

"torm ents with his unappraisable secrets." The conrortioo of im

ages is very great in Char's poems; Mounin bas marked those chat
cme from space, from light, and especially from this river that
hollows out i1:s mirror solitude in words. Bur more even than the
repetition of similar images, che identical material meaning of
im ages ostensibly different is striking. The river, "this giant river
rhac goes forth ... hollowing out its bed in its passage;" is not only
the infinite force of a movemenc without matter and reduced, as it
were, co its transparency: it has something solid, it has che hardness
of ice chac it ,can become "fluvial necropolis," "carnivorous land
scape," chac, in an instant, has the unbreakable force of crystal
planes. The river, "furious rising, torrent," is also "rhe arid play of
banks"; in th21t, we have seen, it is poem and poetry. And the first
works are First Aliiviums, and when the young Char, hiring into an
apple, puts a dead man's head in his teeth, it is "under the streaming
and equally a,mbiguous traits of the poem" that this first object
of cransmutai:ions appears. But another image, no less conscant,
makes out of the poem a hammer, the Marteau sans maztre, of the
poet, "the imperceptible anxiety of wheelwrights." the one who
lives "in the n:acelles of rhe anvil" or "on the anvil of the white fury"
of day, the one who "surrounds his head with a blacksmith's
apron," or ag:ain "the mice of the anvil." "This image," says Hyp
nos, "would have seemed charming ro me, at another cime. Ir
suggests a swarm of sparks decimated into a bole of lighcning (the
anvil is cold, the iron not red, the imagination devastated)." Thus
from che spurting hammer, ar the intersection of rhe double solid
ity of bronze, arises che most lively madness, the one most glowing
With movem1nt and with light, the very lighming of metamor
phoses, and chat is why "chis bard-co-see river, this radiant and
rnigmacic riv,er" where we recognize poerry can also be "baptized
Marreau sans mattr-e."
fhis image in which are united this undamageable narure of
M,lid things and the srream of becoming, the thickness of presence
and the scintillation of absence, expands in its turn in other forms,
hut without losing irs material ambivalence.The poet is "the great
wheelbarrow of marshes.'' "the ripcart of reeds char burn"; meralJic




Rene Char

names impose the presence of iron, of scone; he is "the gr as s of

lead," "the grass of cinder," "the red bird of metals," "brothct
faithful flinc," "the gold of wind," aU hard things. but chfogs
movement does not stop skimming. And when the univer se un.
covers itself, it opens onto the same admirable figure:

The "Sacred" Speech

of H[olderlin

Le silex frissonnaic sur Jes sarmencs de l'espace.

The llinr trembled on rhe nvining stems of space.
This badgering of rhe same images comes from an obsessio n
with their profound narure, and rhjs in its cum answers to tbt
essence of poetry, expresses the obsessive fear of its fundamental
contradiction: ''chis exact middle of rock and sand, of wacer and
fire, of cries and silence" that endlessly wants to reveal it ro us. lb
image is neither an ornament nor a detail of the poem, nor SOJIIO
produce of man's sensibility: it is the poem manifested starting with
things, che movement of things and beings trying to unite the
heaviness of the depths of the earth and dazzling transparency, cJtc.
line of Right and stabili ty of a stature immovably placed. It js the.
whole poem, just as the poem is the whole of chjngs, a struggle
toward this everything, as language, by the contrast we have found
between the gravity of the sentence and the flighr of images, is
another. form of the same movement co wake up-and to rc,,,
escablish antagonisms.
From the poem the poet is born. le is born before us and in fron1
of us. as our own future, as the unexpected that tormenrs and
fascinates us. At each instant, we owe it our life, and even more
than life, char which, in our life, buc unknown to it, holds couragt
and silence awakened. its truth.

Heidegger's important commentary on Holdrlin's hymn, "As

on a holiday . ,.. " poses a certain number of quesoons that concern
Heidegger himsdf. We will put those aside. There are others we
muse also nel'lecr-this, for instance: Heidegger's commentary
foUows the pc;em word by word. as careful and as detailed as a
commentary could be, conducted according to the methods of
didactic erudiition. Is such an explanation legitimate? In what way
is iL? That is what the commentator did nor care to let us know, less
uneasy in char than Gundolf, who, studying the great elegy "Archi
pelago," took ,care to ruin his srudy from the beginning by recalling
chat a poem is a whole and thac the contents of tought that we
impose on this whole have in themselves no reality whatsoevr.
Still, GundoUf contented himself with questioning the poem tn
irs entirety. Heidegger's questioning interrogates each word, each
comma and demands from all the isolated elements, taken one
after th; other, a full answer, itself isolable. The impression is olten
quite srrange. When all is said and done, howeve, the re '.s in it
more of appearance rhan of reali ty; for if the quesuon has indeed
the exorbicam aspect of a question that asks each fragment f the
poem its acco,unr of itself and forces it to justify itself analyncally,
Htidegger's aLnalysis, progressing according co the circular p ro
Lcdure char is so characteristic of him, finally ends up not by
II l


The "Sacred'' Speech ofHolderlin

piecing back together the general meaning, starring from aU the

parricufar meanings it specifies, bur by findin_g ainJQ_each instant
the passage of the poem's totality in the shape of which th
has momentarily settled and paused.
One could also wonder if a meeting is possible between the
vocabulary of an autonomous philosophic reflection and a poetk
language at cme into our world almost a century and a half ago.
But, on this point, the poem has answered: a poem is l_!_Ot without
dare, bur despite its date it is always yet to come, it speaks in .a.
"now" that does not answer to historical indicat:_2.!.. It is p..r..esenti
ment, and designates itself s that which does not yet exist, de
manding the same presentiment from the reader to make an
existence for it, one char has not yet come into being. lt is the same
for poems as for gods: a god, says Holderlin, is always greater than
his field of action:
Wenn aber die Stunde schlagr
Wie der Meister rritt er, aus der Wcrksratt,
Und ander Gewand niche, denn
Ein festliches zieher er an
Zum Zeichen, daB noch anderes auch
Im Werk ihm ilbrig gewesen.

the hour sounds,

As the master leaves the workhop

And the clothing he wears then

ls festive clothing,
As a sign of the work
Thar stilJ remains for rum co accomplish.
This clothing of celebration is the one the poem dons for the:
reader; ic is capable of seeing and being ahead of itself. and of
distinguishing, underneath the word char has worked, rhe word
that shines there, reserved for what has nor yet been expressed.
Ir is, moreover, very quickly apparent how much Heidegger's
commentary cries ro answer faithfully to the poem's iotentions,
:. Even the vocabulary he uses, although in appearance his own, i
also the vocabulary of the poet. The word "Open'' chat belongs t

The "Sacred" Speech of Holdt>rlin


chc terminolog y of his recent works and char serves him here to
sketch out an interpretation of Nature in Holderlin (nacure nor
being a particulu reality, or even only the whole of reality, but "the
Open," the movement of opening char allows all that appears to
appear) is a wmd that Holderli.n himself met and recognized
exactly in this seme: in rhe elegy "To Landauer," for instance, "Und
Jem offenen Bli,ck offen der Leuchtende sei" (And may the shining
light open to the opened glance").
The double repetition of the word offen, "open," answers exactly
co the double movement that "the Open" signifies: to open up to
that which ope111s up; der Leuchtende, the illuminating ability of
chat which illucni.nares, is given here clearly as subsequent to the
movement of lighting up and opening our (des Himmeis Bliite, the
preceding line says) that makes it possible. Das O.lfenererurns many
cimes in the poems, and it undoubtedly retains tbe meaning that
roughly answers to our expression "open air, to go out imo the
open air." Bur when we read dass wir das Offene schauen, the
meanjng turns imto this: the being who wants to see must first meet
d11s Offine. One can see only in the freedom of that which is open,
in this light chat is also opening, lighting up. "Your divine work,
Light, who make all things unfurl," Empedocles says in the first
version of The Death ofEmpedocles; this unfurling is divine work
because it is also the divine role of light, the divine movemenc by
which light cal'il illuminate, and which it receives with a clarity
previous to it, as it is previous to everything.
So we do not have to fear that the commentary adds to the text.
We can say tbat anything lent to it had been borrowed from it.
That is another remark we might be tempted to make, chinking of
rhe correspond,ences between language that interprets and lan
guage as object of interpretation: we know that the language of
Holderli.n is poor in appearance, poor in words, poor in themes,
monotonous, the humblest, yet the most exalted chat has ever been
written, for its :movement elevates it above all the ochers. Bue the
language of Heidegger is, on the contrary, of an incomparable
richn.ess and vi.Jrruosity (as Rovan's translation also attests). More
than ever, it seems, this is made possible by the resources with


The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

The '"Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

which the German language is infinitely rich, chis dangerous pow

that v:ords draw from the play oftheir strucrure, from inflection
s of
meaning provoked by the untiring dance of prefixes and suffix
arod an eryologically transparent verbal bod The confide
He'.degger has m the words of his language, the value he gives
theLr more or less secret interconnectedness, constitute a remark
able phenomenon. Words seem to carry in themselves a hidde
tru that a well-conducted interrogation can cause to appear. After
having analyzed etymologically the term physis, he adds: "Bur
Holderlin was unaware of the signifying force of this fundamental
and P;,imal wod that even today we are scarcely beginning tO
assess. So certain words have a meaning that goes p ast
us, one
mane only slowly to discover (and quite obviously it is not only a
uesuon of archaeological meaning, such as a scholarly investiga
uon could reveal). Heidegger's striking observation, once again,
reveals the vigilant presence of the pre-Socratics behind him. Ir is
true indeed that Holderlin was unaware of this interior play of
words, this brilliant virruosiry that is his commentator's, and that
so conrrasts with the modesty of his own language. Ler us add thac
the unparalleled soaring of this language, this rhythm chat is irs
superior truth, this surge upward are in their turn ignored by the
commentary that attends only co rhe developmenc and prosaic
composition of the poem.
Holderlin's themes are poor. But since the poem has no other
object than itself, poetry, more strongly than anywhere else, is real
and true there, with the truth that gives it the right to make use of
all the rest and, to begin with, of everything. When we want co find
?ur what. the fact char the poem, the song exists really signifies, and
if we drum to question this fact from without, chis questioning
must lead ro Holderlin, because, for him and from wichin' such a
quesaon made the poem be born. To question Holderlin is co
question a poetic existence so strong that, once its essence is
;:iled, it was able to make irself rhe proof that it was an impos
s1?1ltcy, and to extend icself our inro nothingness and emptiness,
without ceasing co accomplish icself.
The poer is the mediator; he connects the near to the far. The


crchanr who also brings close and unites, the river thac is nothing
bur movement and passage-one is considered the poet's equal
("The Archipelaio"), the ocher as language icself ("The lster"). But
it is again a quei;tion of an image that is completely exterior co the
poccic calling. lt'fot only is poetry supposed ro accomplish chis
mediation and, by accomplishing it, accomplish itself. but it muse
first make the mediation possible. lt is not simply the instrument
rhat elements ar1d men make use of to meet each other; Jr presses
and forms the very_psibiliry of chis meeting, and this meetin
rhe bas is and the cruch of what meets. Thus is sketched out the
theme that all poetry, whatever ics forms may be, always ends up
finding again: essentially, poecry relates to existence in its roaji!Y_;
wherever poetry asse itself, existence, considered as All, also
begins to as sert itself. The idea of All, we know, haunts Holderlin's
rheorecical reflections at the same time and jusr as deeply as those
of Hegel. That is why, among all the names the hymn gives to
Nature. Heideg;ger's commentary immediately gives precedence to
the word allgegenwiirtig; Nature is the all-present, is present as All.
What poetry hats con.nections with, what, undoubtedly, allows it to
be connection irself, is noc nature (as plant, people, or sky, or
narure as ensemble of real things) but what Empedocles calls
boundless totality: this means both a totality char neither the real
nor the unreal can limit, and also an All in which chis freedom of
not being bounded by anything is yet integrated and included.
"Ob sacred .All! You inner, living, complete whole!" says Pan
thea, conveyin1g Empedocles's message. Ir is toward chis All char
poetry beads, and it is by answering the call of this "complete
whole" char he "educated himself" (according ro the word in the
hymn) and cakes shape: "For full of a high meaning, I With a
silent strength, great Narure I Embraces the one I Who foresees, so
he can take shape.
Bue how can such a call be made? And how can this All of nature
surround, embrace ''the one who foresees"? ( Umfongen, ''embrace,''
is a term one finds frequently in the poems of Holderlin, who
seems to have borrowed it from the "A.rdinghello" of his friend
Hinze. In a g:eneral way, the same words tend to pass again and


The "Sacred" Speech ofHolderlin

again from one poem to another with Holderlin, and often with a
rather persistent meaning: rhus Umfangen always designates, it
I seems to us, rhe movement of confident and conciliatory approach
by which the sacred elements make felt whatever accessible qua li
ties rhey have, in opposition co the agitation and blazing char form
ocher ways of announcing themselves co the poet. Ir is this return
and this constancy of words and themes char make any commen
tary on rhe poet enticing, possible, and infinitely perilous.)
We see char this All in which poetr y now finds itselfinvolved also
involves it in an extreme intensi ty of mysteries, questionings, and
oppositions. In appearance, it seems simple for the poet to wake up
and open out into nature's embrace. Bur the question is this:
-where will he find chis oarure everywhere present, everywhere near
present? Where will he find ic as the presence ofAll, as movement
passing from ether co abyss, from gods ro chaos, &om height of day
co extreme night? le is ielf pre as A1J if the poet calls i
and alas! he cat call it, for to be capable of this calling, ro exist as
a poet! he 'l.eeds :l.ft!y chis miraculqus QI.!1!)iRfen!_ char he sa11
lacks. It is well known char Holderlin profoundly linked god and
man, each needing the other, wirh only poetic existence assuring
the rrurh of their union. Undoubtedly, the gods are not what is
highest in the world; and nature, as their mother, soars above chem.
But let the sacred Father himself, summit oflighc, be abandoned to
solitude, deprived of truth and life; let man on his side become a
mure, isolated shadow, without the hear of true existence which is
th.at of the heart: nature would lose its essence of all-presence and
the world would no longer be the Universe. And this is what would
happen if the world lacked the poem:
Denn weno er schoo der Zeichen genug
Und Fluthcn in seiner Macht und Wenerffammen
Wie Gedanken hat der hcilige Varer, unaussprechlich war
er wohl
Und nirgend fand er wahr sich umer den Lebendcn
Wenn zum Gesange niche hare ein Herz die Gemeinde.

The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

And deprived of words, solitary,
Vain e.x.iscence in his darkness, he that still
In his power, like so many thoughts,
Has enough signs, boles of lightning
And waves, he would noc be able to find his way
any whe'fe,
The sacred Father, true among the living
If song did noc rise up from the united heart of the


Bur, on bis sid,e, the poet, the one who gives voice co the song,
can come to the world only ifthe world is the Universe, reconciled
and pacified, cap:able of surrounding him, embracing him, "edu
cating" him poetically, th.at is to say, a universe in which the poet,
already present, accomplishes his work, in which men are a com
muni ty, in which the song of this communi ty is gathered into one
alone and in which the gods themselves find their truth and their
place among the living.
Naturally, chis is nor a logi. cal difficulty. This contradictioe
heart ofpoetic existence, it is its ence and its law_; there would be
no poet if be di nor have to live out cl:is vpossibili9r,,
endlessly present. But let us look moreclosely at what this impos
sibility means. This, it seems, is fundamental: that the eget must
exist as a presentiment ofhimselft- as the future of his existence. He
does not e.xisc, butt he bas to be already what be will be later, in a
"not yet" char constitutes the essential pare of his grief, his misery,
and also his great wealth. Historically, chis situation is one that
H olderlin experieneed and sang ofin the deepest grief: he had been
burn in a time when poetry was in a bad way, in durfiiger Zeit, in a
present that was null, confined in chis nullity by rhe double absence
of che gods, those who had vanished and those who had nor yet
appeared. Thus , companionless, having nothing co say and noth
ing to do except chis very nothing, he was deeply aware of isting
only in waiting_, in movement held above its nothingness: ich harre,
irh harrte, rhis word returns endlessly ro express the anguish and
Mt:rility of waiting, as the word ahnen indicates its value and


The "Sacred" Speech ofHoulerlin

The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

fertility, since ir is chis always-co-come existence of rhe poet that

makes all the future possible, and firmly maintains history
perspecrive of "tomorrow" chat is richer with meaning, deuttmi;
votler, and for which one must strive in the emptiness ofthe lived


Sie scheinen allein zu seyn. doch ahnen sie immer,

Denn ahnend ruher sie selbst auch.
They [poets] seem alone, but they always foresee,
For this foreseeing is also irs [nature's] rest.
These two lines from the hymn "As on a holiday . . ." mark the
parallel situation ofthe All, which the poet's existence lacks, and of
the poet, who, in his solirude, has not yet received rhe srrengdi
from the All co call it. Boch, in their reciprocal implicarl2.n
because of the reciprocity of their absence, are already carried
coward each other, and by this movement overtake their solirua;
and their slep. The poet's solirude is only apparent, for ir'i;
presentiment, presentiment ofsolirude, and already affirmation of
something that is beyond itself, ofa "lacer" char is enough co break
the boundary of isolation and to open up communication. In the
same way. nature's rest belongs in appearance only ro an empty
presence, empty of poetic existence, in which it rests; ir resu,
undoubtedly, because it scill lacks the movemenr of cornmunica
rions, uc by chi very resc1 by chis emptiness full .9 presentiment
char is, in ic, the actual form of the eoe!'s exiscc it alrea<li.
escapes resr and soars up. foreseeing its all-presence, its presence as
The poet exists only if he foresees the rime of the poem; he is
second ro the poem, of which he is nonetheless the creative power.
This, it seems, is the second meaning of the opposition and chc
impossibility chat are at the heart of poetry. W hy does the poet
foresee, why can he live in chis way offoreseeing? Ir is because rhe
poem is previous to the poet, and exactly this a/men is the way for
the poet to feel char he exists before himselfand, fee as he may be,
fee as the swa!Low, in the dependence on this very freedom, his


response may be free bur it is a response to this freedom. Holder

liJ1's entire work bears witness co the awareness ofan anterior power
surpassing the gods as well as men, the very one chat prepares the
universe to be ''completely whole." Heidegger, whose commentary
on chis point is particularly ahnend, calls it, along with Holderlin,
che Sacred, da.Ji Heilige.
Und was ich sah, das Heilige sei mein Wore.
And what 1 saw, may the Sacred be my speech.
If this term "che Sacred," designating gods, nature, the day. is
constant in the: poems, it remains very rare as a fundamental word,
condensed and collected into itself: Holderlin sometimes recog
nizes the Sacred in his work, not the realized and revealed work but
one that is clos,e to his heart, chat is the foundation ofhis heart, char
corresponds nearly co the eternal heart of the hymn "As on a
holiday ..." a ]phrase that designates not only the interiority ofthe
Sacred, as Heidegger interprets it, bur also the inceriority of the
Sacred inside cine interioricy ofthe poet, in his heart, his mediating
force insofar as it is love.
The Sacred is the shining power char opens to the sacred all that
its shining area.ins. One of its underground ways is made up of
nature's sleep and the poet's foreseeing.That nature, chis mother of
the gods, "divinely present," owes to the Sacred its most essential
qualities, its divine all-presence-chis is what the lines of "Ac the
Source of the Danube'' assert, lines chat, although subsequently
crossed our, w1!re nevertheless expressed by it:
Wir nennen dich, heiliggenorhigec, nennen,
Narur! dich wir ...
We name You, urged by the Sacred, name you
Nature, we you ...
The languag;e and rhythm ofthe Verse do not come through in
the verse lets us understand at once that _narure is
Narure only afrer the naming it receives from the poet, since, ifthe

t ranslacion. Bur

The "Sacred'' Speech ofHoUerlin


speech that establishes nature comes from him, he is only aneEng

fhe exigent ca!I of the Sacred. By answering it, he himself becom es
the sacred necessi ty be obeys, and finally, once named, natu re is
then intimately close to the poet; from then on, the "you" of Na-;
and the poetic "us" cease to be separated. What is the Sacred? It is
the immediate, Heidegger says, taking bis inspiration from a pr ose
fragment of Holderlin, the immediate that is never communicated
but is the principle of all possibility of communicating. A litdc
further on, Heidegger adds, "Chaos is the Sacred in rhe self."
On this point, ic seerns that the commentator was more sensitive
co tradition than to Holderlin's experience. Chaos, assuredly, opens
up in a profound way in the poems and hymns: it is given a very
strange name: das freudigschau.emdc Chaos, chaos in which crem
bling is made into joy. But to seek in this an experience of giaos a
such an experience of night might completely distort rhpggi
experience. Neither chaos nor night lees irself be felt in it in such an
absolute way. On the contrary, night and chaos always end up by
testifying co the law and form of light. Nothing could be further
from a Novalis, even though movement of certain themes come.I
close, there is nothing nocturnal in Holderlin's poems, nothing
funereal. Even in che elegy "Bread and Wine," whose words are
poured by the night, it is asserted of the poem chat
Weil den lrrenden sie geheiligec ist und den Todren,
Seiber aber besrehr, ewig, in frciestem Geise.
Consecrated as it is co the lost and rhe dead,
It itself remains eternally within the freest mind.
Further, we read
Fest bleibt Eios; es sei um Mirrag oder es gebe

Bis in die Micrernachc, immer bescehec ein Maas,

Allen gemeio

This firmly abides, whether ir is noon

Or nearing midnight, a measure always endures
Common to all

The "Sacred" Speech o/Hiiiderlin


The Sacred is che day: not che day as ic contrasts with the night,
or the light as it shines &om above, or che flame char Empedocies
goes to seek be:low. !t is the day, but anterior to che day, and always
:interior to itsdf; it is a before-day, a clarity before clarity co which
we are closest when we grasp the dawning, the distance infinitely
remote from dlaybreak, which is also what is the most incimate to
us, more inter.ior than all inceriority.
Gonlid1es Feuer auch ueibet, bei Tag und bei Nachr,
Aufz.ubre,chen. So komm! d:ill wir das Offene schaucn
The divine fire, by day and by night, pushes us
To break away and soar up. So come! Let us see rhe Open.

Das Offene, char which opens up, and by opening up is a call for
all rhe rest to 01pen up, to be lit up, to come to light. This feeling of
es tagt, "che day is breaking," that makes night possible as well as
day, chaos as well as the gods, this feeling itself shines mysteriously
across all Holdlerlin's work, drawing ir dizzily upward. Moreover, it
is explicitly recognized in many forms: not only by so many words
that in each thing associate the face of appearing, its appearance,
wich the light, but in a more secret way, by the strange condition of
the Immortal;;, who, closer than we are to the purity of pure
shjning, are, biecause of that, ac least the greatest, in a place beyond
light chat yet is clarity and nothing bur clarity.
Und noclh hoher hinauf wohnr Uber dem Lichte der reine
Seelige Goer vom Spiel heiliger Stralen erfreuc.
Sri.Ile wohnr er allein und hell erscheiner sein A.orliz.
And evern higher, above the light, the pure
Blessed God finds his joy in the play of sacred rays.
In silence he lives alone, and clarity is the appearance of
bis face.
Clarity that is original, unsurpas3able, and not born of the gods,
for in the innocent sleep that is the pure gaze of che gods eternally
\hines its cran:sparence:


The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

SchiksaalJos, wie der schlafende
Saugling, athmen die Himmlischen;
Keusch bewahrt
In bescbeidener Knospe,
Blilher ewig
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seeligen Augen
Bliken in sciUer
Ewiger Klarheir.
Wirhour desciny, like the infum
Who sieeps, brearhe Those of the sky;
Chastely enclosed
ln a flower's hope,
Blossoming for ererniry
Is their mind,
And their blessed eyes
Look into rhe peaceful
Eternal clarity.

Shining power whose outpouring is the law, principle of ap

pearance of what appears, origin of aU abili ty to communicate-if
such is the Sacred, we understand that by "foreseeing" it, che poet
already places himself in che bosom of che all-presence, and that the
approach of the Sacred is, for hjm, che approach of existence. But
now the enigma takes a different form. In the beginning, there was
no poet yet, because he needed the All to exist and the All needed
his mediation to be the All. Now, existing as "not yet," he has
grasped, foreseen the arrival of the Sacred, which is the principle of
this very arrival, which is arrival anterior to any "something is
coming" and by which "aU" comes, the All comes. Bur then the
question muse be posed: If there is a Universe in rychin&
communicates, what _good is the poet, whac remains for him ro
accomplish? And doesn'fthe diry of his essence escape him, the
digni ty of being the quintessential mediation and also the co-
present, contemporary of the All? Holdrlin experienced this ocher
form of the poetic impossibilfry: "Nature. divinely present, I Has
no need of speech,'' says Empedocles. And in one of the last hymns,

The "Sacred" Speech of Holder/in


''The OnJy One" in which poetic thought is concentrated in the

most dangerous way, it is said, "Always is this valid, that, at every
moment, the Universe is in its enrirery." At every moment, alltag: if
rhe law, anterior' to aU, assures the coming of the All co itself at ail
umes, this "at every moment" also makes it so chat there is no more
..moment" for JPOetic existence. However, what is the universe
always worth ks gilt) in ics entirety, when it exists by the pure
affirmation of the pure law? Two ocher excerpts from the same
hymn let us glimpse it. Fim this, which immediately follows the
cext ciced above::
Bleibc dies, daB imrnergekenec aUcag ganz isr
Die Welt. Oft aber scheinc
Ein grofkr niche zusammenzuraugen
Zu GroBem. Aile Tage scehn die aber, als an einem
Abgmnd einer
Neben dem andern.
Is this validl, rhac, at every moment, rhe universe is
Bur ofce1n
The Great do not assert themselves in union
With the Grear. Always, as on rhc edge of the aby, rhey
Side by sid,e
And a few lines before:
NamJich immer jauchzet die Welt
Hinweg von dieser Erde, daB sie die
EntbloBct; wo das Menschliche sie niche hale. Es bleibec
aber eine Spur
Doch eincs Worces; die eio Mann erhascher.
For always the exulcacion of the
Tends ro disrance it from earth and leave it


The "Sacred" Speech


The ''Sacred" Speech ofHolderliu

Bare; if the human does not hold ir back. Bur there

The trace of a word; chat a man can grasp.
We foresee that by such texts, rbe pure universe, formed by the
pure law of which Ottmar speaks in the song "To Mocher Earth,"
calls the human, that is to say, che poet; le calls him so that it will
not lose itself in the expansive infinity of its origins that it holds: aa
it is, it is indeed limitless corality, and must be, but this "limitless"
must also become its limit, be integrated in the totality-and that it
why the poem must come. One can say this again: the possibility
communicating, such as it emanates from the law, is too large to be
truly communication; ic is "absolute mediacedness," says Holder
lin; it needs co be mediated, so that the side by side is nor dosencsa
to the abyss but actual understanding, a real community of valuca
(Zusamme-ntattgen). Speech will devote itself to chat: speech whose.
essence is co remain, even as a trace, to be foundation of what
remains, co establish "between day and night something true." The
language of the gods is change and becoming ("Archipelago"), bur
mortal language is persistence, assertion of a duration that lasa,
unity of time torn apart. That is why the lmmorcals need mortals,
need finiteness: chat is what establishes them in the world and gives
chem being in the awareness of being. Their light, too dose to
original unfurling, needs to become cl1icker to light them up trul
to become clarity upon them. Before the poem, the day is the
darkest there is. Origin of transparency, pure beginning of whar is
going co pour forth, it is the most profound mystery-and also che
most frightening: it is the unjustified, starting from which it muse
cake its justification, the incommunicable and the undiscovered
chat is also what opens up and, by the solidness of poetic speech,
will again become what discovers itself in the end.
In the hymns, particularly those last poems in which Holderli.n
himself feels carried away by the Right, the jubilant expansion
coward the boundless, Holderlin endlessly repeats tragically: There
is still much left co say, to hold back, co contain, Vie/es aber ist Z1i
behalten. The poem is in fact that wbich holhiclL



gathers together into an unfounded unity the open unity of the

principle, that which in the fissure of illumination finds a firm
enough foundatiion so that something can manifest, and s2 chat
what does appear can maintain itself in a shaky bur lasting agree
ment. It is said again in "Patmos," a hymn uttered already under
the veil of madness:
der Yater aber liebc,
Der Uber alien walcec,
Am meisten, daR gepfiegec werde
Der ve:ste Buchscab, und bescehendes guc
Gedeu ter. Dem folgt deurscher Gesang.
The Father
Who reigns over every thing
Loves above all else that one mives
For che firm letter and chat the persistent
Be well signified. To chac answers German song.
The poem is not the simple abilfry to give a meaning, later, co
what, already saJid, might survive, might be something persistent
( Bestehendes); lt is the very abiljty, by the meaning ir gjves to lead to
persistence, thu;; to allow c;!,e scream of becoming to survive,
language of the gods, trembling of things in the beginning of the
day. Thar is wh}' the poet is weltlich, be is of the world, he must
keep to the world; and that is also why the line is true chat
Heidegger clarified so perfectly in his 1936 lecture:
Was b'.leibat aber, scifcen die Dichter.
But wlhac lasts, che poets establish.
Thus the possibility of poetic existence is restored. h is un
doubtedly restored, bur only to hurtle toward a greater impos
sibility that is i1ts fundamental trial. The poem must exist, be
cause without ir the day would be there but it would nor light
up; without it everything would communicate, but this com
munication would also be at every moment the destruction of
everything, lost into an always open infinity, refusing to return


to its infinity. The poem, through speech, makes what is un.

founded become foundation, makes the abyss of day become the
day that constructs and brings forth. Das Heilige sei mein Wort, it
makes it so that the Sacred is speech and speech is sacred. Bur how
can that be? How can the Sacred, which is "unexpressed," "un
known," which is what opens provided only that it is not dis
covered, which reveals because unrevealed-how can it fall into
speech, let itself be alienated into becoming, itself pure interiority,
the exteriority of song? In truth, that cannot really be, that is the
impossible. And the poet is nothing but the existence of thi$
impossibility, just as the language of the poem is nothin
retention, the transmission of its own im__ossibiliry. It is rhe...rc
rninfier that all worldly language, chis speech that rakes place and
on in the domain of radical ease, bas as its or' in an event that
cannot rake place; it is Unked co an 'I speak, but s eaking is n;
possible," from which nevertheless emerges the littl sense that
remains to words.
Heidegger, in his commentary, insists, in a mannernique to
him, on ,ajgice: it is silence that could lead the Sacred to speech
without rupture. The Sacred cannot be grasped rigbt away,_yg
,,less can it become speech yet by the silence of the _poet, Lean.kt
itself be pacified_, transformed, and finally !llJlSBQrted-1!!.!,o th
peech of the song. Silence is the only real commugjguon, it is the
authentic language: in such assertions one recognizes a well-known
theme of Hcideggerian thought. What has become of the problem?
Ir has taken another form, but it still remains a problem; or, rather,
there is now a double enigma: why and how can "the agitation of
chaos, which offers no resting place or stopping place, the terror of
che Immediate that foils every direct grasp, the Sacred" let itself be
transformed and joined with silence? And then, why and how can
silence let itself be joined with speech?
The theme of silence is not foreign to Holderlin: "I learned ro
worship the divine in silence," he says in a poem of the Diotima
I cycle, addressing the Sun that, "sacred,'' has risen "jn rest and in
silence above those who do not know rest." The word "still" is, with

The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

The ''Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in


one or cwo exceptions, the only word Holderlin uses to allude to

$omethiog that resembles silence. In reality, ir does not have to do
\vich language but designates a much larger sphere, all that words,
pacification, trarnquil profudity, calm iteriority, can su esr.
'Still' ' has, moreover, an ambiguous value m the poes: sottme
ir signifies
blessing, peace, and gencleness; someurnes It ts th
adversity of aridit:y, the cursed retreat of life and speech. In a poem'
to hope:
Wo bist du? wenig lebt'ich; doch atbmet kalr
Mein Abc:nd schon. Und scille, den Schanen gleich,
Bin ichi schon heir; uod schon gesanglos
Schlummerc das schaudernde Herz im Busen.
Where are you? 1 have lived lirde, and though already
frozen I breathe;
ln me evening, and silent [still], like the shadows,
Alreadv I am here, and already deprived of song
My heart, asleep, trembles.
"Still" is noJ 1e fullness wile,nc.buuhe.empess o
abscuc,e, of sh. che..d.u:kn.lnd coldoan..exlSC
wbic;luikrice n,Q Lon..gt..Ulakesn.sdfa.poem. That 1s because sLlence
is ma by the scontradiction and the same tearing apart as
la(!g if it is a way to approach the unapproachable, to belong
co what is nor sai,d, ir is "sacred" only insofar as it makes communi
cation of the incomunjcable possible and arrives at language. To
be quiet is norperiority. "May the Sacred be my speech," that is
the poet's call, and chose are words that are "sanctuaries," temples
of the Sacred, not silence. It is necessary to sak, that is the only
thing tha!_ro_e_ri. Andyet it is impossible to speak:
Und nenne, was vor Augen dir isr,
Nicbt liinger darf Geheimnig mehr
Das Ungesp,rochene bleiben,

As these lines from a poem co

the gods show: ''Peaceful erher (Stilkr Ae1Jur),

You wllo keep my soul beautiful in grief." Peace does noc pacify grief. but, uniting
11 10 its opposite, summons the momenr of reconciliation chat is beaucy.


Nachdem es lange verhi.iUt ist;

Denn Srerblichen geziemet die Schaarn,
Und so zu reden die meisce Zeit,
Isr weise auch von Gottern.
Wo aber i.iberffilssiger, deon laurcre QueUen
Das Gold und ernst geworden ist der Zorn an dem
MuB zwischen Tag und Nachc
Einsmals cin Wahres erscheincn.
Dreifach umschreibe du es,
Doch ungesprochen auch, wie es da ist,
Unschuldige, muB es bleiben.
Name what is in front of your eyes,
No longer need the unexpressed remain mystery,
That has been so long veiled;
For it behooves mortals
To speak with restraint of the gods,
This also is wisdom.
Bue if more abundantly than pure springs
Gold runs streaming and when co the sky anger mounts,
Between day and night
One rime a truth must appear.
ln a triple metamorphosis transcribe ic,
Though always unexpressed, as it is.
Innocent, so it must remain.
Into chis line a double contrary movement th.ruses itself in
extreme way, one char does not succeed either at concijjating
itself, or pushing itself back, or penetrating itself; it is a double
prohibition, a double demand rigorously concradictory. Tun
fxpressed must be unveiled-it must, that is a du ty-and yet it
)S an ace chat is not appro_priace. But despite the inappropriate
ness. and because of the very wrath of heaven, of the burning of the
day wn more severe. demanding ever more imperiously the
med1aaon of speech and of the true, the necessity co name and
transcribe now becomes absolute. Necessi ty that is of the law,


The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in

The "Sacred" Speech ofHolder/in


ecessiry that will obey all conciliatory precautions, chat will make
a call co all mediiacors: three times. the unsayable will be trans
posed before being said. And yet, despite deman d an d deseite
rnediacie ineffable remains always unex resse....fru _mat js_

also the law.

The poe;-muse speak. This speech is already implicit in the farchesc beginning o. f che point of day, ic is simultaneous with the ab
solute ancerioricy of the Sacred. Further, it is demanded by the
advent of the Universe as common mind. the common community
of values. )'._et hen_h e speaks, he SElks Q.!.!C does not s_peak he
leaves what he has to say unexpressed and lea unmanifested
what he sh._ows..And this is what happens to him-having spoken,
because the gods ask him co speak, now:
jedoch ihr Gericht
Ist, daB sein eigenes Haus
Zerbrc:che der und das Liebste
Wie den Feind schelc' und sich Yater und Kind
Begrabe umer den 'trilmmern
Their judgmenr
ls chat: his own house
He destroy and what is dearest co him,
He treat as an enemy and father and child,
He bury under rubble.
We feel it scrongly, chat chis judgment is not the simple punish
ment of lan guag;e's ex.cessiveness. !-,angt;tage and exeiation
same: che poet dlestroys himself, and he destroys his lan_guage char
he lives, and nolonger possessing a before or an after, he i___
uspe;;:!J:2riness itself. Ruin, dispute, pure division, really
jedem offen, he vvrires, open co all, because it is now no more than
absence and des truction; it is as such chat. he s12eaks, it is then chat
he is the day, cha.c he has thcransence of day, denkender Tag. the
day become thought.
Holderlin did not cake pleasure in celebrating suffering and
unhappiness. Jusc as he was called by che day an d not by the night,


The "Sacred'' Speech ofHolderlin

so it is harmony and joy he seeks, and ifhe happens to pray, it is to

obtam a moment, a short momenr ofrest, so li ght will not consurn
him coo soon, so i c will not shake him righr away down into it;
depths. Bur he could do nothing. He was not at liberty to reject his
freedom; nor only did he never shy away from this freedom of
poeric exisrence that condemns him at once co the distress of an
existence purely to come and co the terrible trial ofbeing rhe place
of extreme opposi tion, but he embodied ir as no ocher did. He
transfo rmed himself into it, he became ic and i t alone, and no one
has done so w i th such pure modesty, with such accomplished
g re atness. To support the fullness of the day. ro load th.is weight of
logs that is the sky onto his shoulder, he knew what it cost, and
wac ic cosr him, nor because sufferi ng is in itselfsacred, worthy of
bemg suffered, but because hever wanes to be a mediator must
st be torn apart. er wanes to take on the ability co commu
nicate must lose h imself in what he rra11smics, yet feel himself
incommunicable. Fi nally the one who, seized by the exultation of
!be mind (Begeisterung}, becomes the way of che mind, mu;;
sfange rously cake on himself the unjustifiable or i&in, the obscure
beg i !:!..n0gisal burgeoni11g, "When the gods truly show
themselves,'' says Hi:ilderlin, "when that which reveals itself re
ma ins unde r his gaze, man is thus made, he does nor recognize it or
see ir. To endure, co suffe r, that is what he musr do, and then a
name comes co him for what is dearest ro him, then words become
flowers in him." And in the "Grund zum Empedokles": in person
ality, in the midst ofthe greatest passion, the meeting ofextremes is
accompushed, bur this passion is only a moment chat disappears
along wi th the one who endures it. Thus, by d eath, extremes will be
Such is che other form of opposition rhac the poer meets, the speech of rhe
peo ple, song of the hearr unired with the communicy, whose voice rises co the
highest, to infinity, but char as collcccivity cannot sin g. For song, in order to
manifest what is comm<>n ro all, needs the voice of solitude chnc alone can open
up ro rhe secrcr ("Song of Ortmar and Hom"). Likewise, the pocr is love; iris his
love chat gradually makes rhe gods come down coward men, char gives everything
ro all, bur at the same time love makes all mediation impossible, for it atta(htJ
itselfonly w the Only On,: ("The Only One'').

71Je "Sacred" Speech of Holder/in


ent that has

n:conci led i n a higher way, and ''the passion ofthe mom
i ned, more
gone by finJly emerges more universal,
luc id, dearer."
rJjn, for
Death was rhe temptation ofEmpedocles. But for Hi:ilde
It is in the poem that he muse attain
1 he poet, dea1rh is the poem.
in which he is
1he extreme _moment gf oJm..osicion rhe moment
the hi ghest
carried away to d.isafil'ear and, disappearing, co carry ro
by th is disap
the meaning; of what can be accomplished only
w ith speech
pearance. Im possible, the reconcil iation of rhe Sacred
demanded char the poet's existence
That is whelfl, for one moment, it itself seeme
before foundering, it agreed to assert itselfin song, come
only hymn
already silent: body, uttered by a dead voice, so that the
worthy of the essence of day rose
day, so thac the mind also was glorified by
because the highest i s darkness, or because in the
language co
muse be tied ro i ts loss, but because the All made itself
look at
say it: whoev,r wanes r the dark must seek in the
ng of
che _b._ec. qm_uia)'._[m:J.limseJf: "En igma
g of
whar gushes ,out I Profundity that shakes everything,
the day."
Such is the "sac red" speech of Hi:ilderlin.

13 3

Baudelaire's Failure

In his long srudy published as a preface co the Personal Writings.

Sartre draws an unforgiving portrait of Baudelaire. Bauddaire once
evoked, speaking of Poe, an unfortunate whose forehead bore this
tattoo: No Luck. One could also say of Baudelaire char face struck
him with an unusual anathema. Bur Sartre shows that he deserved
his constant misfortune: from the shameful judicial verdict, the
torture of an unending affair, and the pain of being uruecogniud.,
up to his final decline, he is rhe one who made his misfortune; he
called it, he sought it, and he did not stop until he found it.
Sartre's demonstration is very impressive and, as a whole, quite
fair. It is true, then: Baudelaire had the life he deserved, a sordid life
without refinement, conformist in his revolts, liar in rhe frankness
that elevated him, a life faked and failed; all these judgments de
mand few reservations. Bue if we accept them, as we muse, we must
accept another, which Sartre neglects: it is char Baudelaire also
deserved Les Fleurs du Mal, that the life responsible for his "bad
luck" (guignon) is responsible for chis signal good fortune, one of
the greatest of the century.
This is certainly strange. And Sartre's gap underlines chis strange
ness. Baudelaire's life, as he proves, is nothing but the history of his
failure. Yee this life is also a complete success. Nor an accidenta l
success bur one premeditated, and one chat does not add to che
failure bur char finds its reason for being in chis failure; one char

glorifies chis failure, makes impotence incredibly fertile, draws out

che most shining truth from a fundamental imposture.
Why was !Baudelaire a great poet? How could poetic greacness,
which is perhaps the greatest of all, be made wich this lack of great
ness, of effecriveness. of cruch, and, an even more remarkable fact,
with chis abs,ence of creative intention char led the poet to so much
compromise and neglect? For it goes without saying char co explain
che fortunes of Baudelaire, one would no more invoke his genius
1 han Sartre would explain his miserable life by some fatal flaw in his
character. Arnd ic is again obvious chat the same choice chat explains
bis failed ex.is:cence explains his fulfilled existence, chat the same pre
meditation that drove him co be neither truly free nor truly rebel
lious drove him co enact one of the greatest gesrures of poetic libera
tion that has ever been seen, as if wherever man fails, literature takes
flight; wherever existence takes fright, poetry becomes fearless.
Lee us not,e ac the scare: in these judgments, it is not a question of
caking inco account values in the name of which we could define
whar was failed and what was nor, ignoring the ideal that Baude
laire gave himself. It was not only in relation to the pharisaical
wisdom of bis time chat chis marginal man failed and weakened.
Certainly, for Villernain, even for Sainte-Beuve, just as for AnceUe
or his mother, be was nothing bur a failure, a half-maniac, dishon
ored by his debaucheries and justly punished by bis horrible end.
Bue he failed! more profoundly, for he failed in front of himself His
existence was not unfortunate because ic featured a ridiculous
failure in fronr of the Academy, under the supervision of people
whom he despised, and poverty, indifference, and sterility, bur
much more for having desired academic fame, having drawn pride
from che false praises of a Saince-Beuve and having sought the
world's proc,ection, in face of which he claimed co assert himself in
che solitude of an uncompromising independence.
It was not the morality of "fortunate men'' char condemned him,
it was his effort to free himself from this morality, an effort char, far
from freeing him of it, made him parry co it, so that, by glorifying \
himself for noc having any part in rhis shameful happiness, he also
did all he could to accain it and to share the same without having


Baudelaire's Fai/u,-e

been appeased by it. Baudelaire's failure is that of a man who bad

the revelation of his freedom and whom this freedom frightene d.
That is why be is unfortunate, feeling as a disgrace failures that are
such only in the eyes of a narrow-minded world: he kept callin g
them, seeking them out at once to punish himself with them, defy
them, and succumb ro chem without even having bad the merit
always to suffer from them.
The Napoleonic code condemned Les Fleurs du Mal, but La
Fl.eim du Mal condemned Baudelaire, whom chis code impressed
and who, in his heart, accepted its principles. Even more: he acrcd
as if he should never have written them, bur, at the very most, h e
could have managed to keep the dream of them, to glimpse them,
in the half-torpor of his lazy life, as the lucid loss crowning the
dishonor of that life. Baudelaire's failure is final. He wanted to live
poetically, but he recoiled before the consequences of chat decision,
which would have deprived him of the daily comfort and support
of an unwavering morality. So he also accepted living outside of
poetry, living to succeed. But if he welcomed the hope of a social
success, he welcomed it only to have the possibility of losing ic. to
give himself a sure, precise ideal, which gave him the right to
apprehend and experience his powerlessness to attain it.
Half disloyal to poetry-co which there is no half-loyalty-half
enemy of the world that recognized enemies only in those who
exclude it completely, he gave to poetry a life already compromised
and co the world's success a mind in search of failure. On the side of
poetry, there was failure because there was acquiescence to a non
poetic certainty. And on the side of the world, the failure is called
misery, mistake, decline.
Baudelaire's poecic fortune had its origin in its loss, and not a loS$
with respect co the values that poetry questions but in a retreat
from poetry, in a lack of poetry. ls this not strange? And is it not
even stranger chat precisely with this Baudelaire whose life is so
seriously cainced with poetic infidelity, poetry is nor content with
asserting itself in written poems, work enclosed in the purity of a
book, but as experience and the very movemenc of life? In short,
everything happens as if poetry needed co faJI short and fall sho.lit of

Baudelaire's Failure


itself, as if it were pure and profound only by reason of its own

shortcoming, a shortcoming th_ar it encloses like the void char
deepens it, purifi1!S it, and endlessly prevencs it from being, saves ir
from being and, because of chat, unrealires it, and by unrealizing ir,
makes it at once both possible and impossible, possible because it
Joes not yet exist 11 if it realizes itself starring from what makes it fail,
and impossible hecause it is nor even capable of the complete ruin
rhar alone could support its reality.
This paradox demands to be srud.ied more closely. According to
Sartre, Baudelaire is the man who, being deeply aware of the
unmotivated, unjustified, unjustifiable nature of his existence, of
r.he abyss th_ar free existence represents, did nor agree co look
straight at this freedom. Instead, he sometimes limits it by estab
lishing it in an ordered and hierarchical universe, sometimes em
bodies ir in a dis:tinct object, valid for others and unquestionable
for himself (his poems, for example), sometimes cunningly uses ir,
vowing himself too Evil our of hare for Good, but, in the damnacion
on which he pridled himself. recognizing implicitly the sovereignty
of what damns him, and allowing himself the hope of a salvation
possible with the proud satisfaction of pushing away this salvation.
ln a word, Baudelaire retreats before what he calls the abyss and
what Sartre calls existence, and he seeks guarantees on the side of a
rruth or of an o>jective, moral, soci. or reig'.ous authority, what I
Sartre and Baudelaire both call being. This ts a debate that we
would nor dream of excusing, for he himself described ir in a poem
1hac anticipres Sartre's analyses in the most precise way. This poem
is "The Chasm":
Pascal avaic son gouffre, avec Jui se mouvanc,
-Helas! tour est ab1me,-acrion, d6ir, reve.
Parole! et Slllr mon poi! q ui com droit se releve
Maime fois de la Peur je sens passer le vent.
En hauc, en bas, partout, la profondeur, la greve.
Le silence, l'espace affteux et captivant ...
Sur le fond de mes nuits Oieu de son doigr savant
Oessine un, cauchemar muJciforme ec sans treve.

13 6

Bnudelaire's Failure
]'ai peur du sommeil comme on a peur d'un grand crou.
, Tour plein de vague horreur, menam on ne saic ou;
'-Je ne vois qu'infini par couces lcs fenecres,
Ee mon esprit, coujours du vertige hame,
Jalouse du neanr l'insensibilite.
-Ah! ne jamais sortir des Nombres er des cres!

Pascal had his chasm, moved with it.

-Alas! all is abyss.-accion, desire, dream,
Language! and in my hair which stands straight up
So many rimes from Fear I feel the wind pass.
Above, below, everywhere, the deeps. the shore,
Silence, terrifying and capcivaring space ...
On the grund of my nights God with his knowing finger
Draws a nightmare of many shapes, unremircing.
I am afraid of sleep as one fears some great pit,
All full of vague horror, leading no one knows where;
I see nothing buc infinity from every window.
And my mind, haumed always by vertigo,
Numbness jealous of nothingness.
-Ah! never co go from Numbers and Beings!
W cite thjs weU-known text to show bow che philosophical
terminology of the commentary reveals nothing new about the
aritude it discusses, and consequently is not able co betray ir. In
th1 poem, we recognize most of the movements starting from
which che hle and work of Baudelaire can be understood. Feeling
of the abyss, awareness that the abyss is all, and exactly char all, the
All, is precisely the abyss-chis aH that poetry seeks and can assert
and find only in the abyss. Awareness char existence, made unbeat
able by che chasm, will noc fail to elude itself, chat it will find rwo
exits, one leading to che objective assurance of being, the other
ending up at nothingness and all ics substitutes, indifference of the
keptic, detachment of the dandy, all che forms of salvation by
Lmpotence and sterility.And even more obscure, awareness chat the
abyss cries to make itself visible by making itself pass for the

Baudelaire's Failure


knowing work of a God and the illusion of a bad dream. Awareness,

finally, of the a1mbiguity of the abyss, "terrifying and captivating":
''Alas! All is abyss-action, desire, dream, I Language!"
That language can be abyss, chat is what opens the way of poetic
cr eation co Baudelaire. To write poems answering ro an original
aesthetic ideal, to write stories, novels, plays, as is fitting for a true
man of letters--he wanted this, it was his goal. Bue in this same
Baudelaire, gra1tified if he reached the fame of a Gautier, lives also
cl1e revelation 1thac all is abyss and chat "all is abyss" is the founda
tion of speech,. the movement starting from which chis can truly
speak. How is that possible? What meaning can such a revelation
take with a man whose main activity was writing and who, despite
all the distinc1tion of his mind attentive to rare works, did not
pretend co wri re in vain?
We do not say that this question finds in Baudelaire a mind most
ape to clarify it, for chis mind is precisely too attached co the
aesthetic, too capable of clarifying art by deepening it theoretically
rather than in relation co it. Such a problem cannot lead in the
awareness of a creator to the aid of general answers. It can only be
temporarily and superficially the object of critical considerations. It
'.s this problem1 itself char is the critique, chat writes the critique of
its creator.
It is cercain 1that Baudelaire always had a high idea of arc, but he
also always cc,nsidered che exercise of art as a normal activity,
accomplished following the rules and not necessarily giving place
ro insurmountable debates. Gautier, perfect man of letters, master
in matters o{language and style, seemed to him the poet above all
others. For the same reason, he had confidence in rhetoric, in
which be saw not only arbitrary constraints but also providential
rules in agreement with profound poetic movement. "It is obvious
that rhetorics and prosodies are not tyranni.es invented arbitrarily,
but a collection of rules called for by the very organization of
spiritual being. And prosodies and rhetorics never prevented orig
inality from manifesting distinctly. T he opposite, to realize that
they helped ch1e hatching of originality, would be infinjtely truer"
(Salon ofr859). In such faich in rhetoric, Sartre would recognize the

Baudelaire's Failure

need for an authority disguised as reason. this same need that drove
Aupick's nephew to wish to Live as an eternaJ child under the care of
an unquestionable Father. Bur let us look more closely.
Baudelaire's poetics is well known. Ir rests on a certain idea of
imagination. Baudelairean imagination is a very complex power,
essenrially destined to surpass that which is, co begin an infinite
movement and, at the same time, one capable of returning to an
ordered reality, chat of language, in which it represents and em
bodies th.is movement. Following the customs of his century, Bau
delaire speaks of imagination as of a faculty, but this expression
does not mean that man finds in it an instrument already fashioned
chat it is enough for him to set in motion. When man imagines, he
is completely imagination. When be imagines, he is nor even
imagining, he is undergoing imagination, in the effort and tension
to imagine.
Imagination for Baudelaire is, in all its forms, equilibrium and
constant disequilibrium. Endless movement of surpassing, it is
aJways beyond what it indicates, daydream chat does not rest.
Moreover, if it always wanrs something else, if nothing chat is
nature can satisfy it, chat is because it is trying to attain nature in its
entirety, in which both the world foreign to the artist and the arcisr
who sees the world and sees himself through the world are found.
he who tries by a magical ace ro make arise, from himself and hjs
art, by imagination, the unsurpassable totali ty of the universe chat
contains him.
Baudelaire expressed this in the clearest way: "What i.s pure art
according to modern perception? Ir is to create a suggestive magic
containing object and subject at the same time, the world exterio r
to the artist and the artist himself" When he criticizes naturalism,
he criticizes it because chis theory claims to reduce arc to the
transcription of a natural face (''Poetry's destiny is great.... Ir
endlessly contradicts face, to the point of almost ceasing co be";
Pierre Dupont, in Romantic Art), but especially because it chinks it
attains nature. when one cruly actains it only if one accains ir in its
entire ty, if one "knows ail nacure."
Baudelaire, like all chose for whom the word "poetry" bas a

Baudelaire's Failure


meaning, knows that poetry is an experience lived by means of

existence and language, experience that tends co cause the meaning
0 fall things together co be born, so char starting from chis meaning,
each thing is changed, appears as it is, in its own reality and in the
reali ty of the whole. Speaking of Delacroix, he writes: ''Edgar Poe
said, I don't know where, that the result of opium for the senses is
co endow all of 1narure with a supernatural interest chat gives to each
object a more profound meaning, more willful, more despotic."
Poetry and arc want co realize th.is illusion of opium. Each word
attests this: it i.s all of nature chat is transformed and, because of
rhar, ic interests us. ic man:ers to us as no longer being nature, but
nature surpassed, realized in its surpassing, the supernatt,ral; this
interest, however, is not a movement inco emptiness, foreign to
reality. It sends us back, on the contrary, to each object chat appears
thus in the light of the movemenc chat surpasses ic and, far from
losing itselfin a dissolving subjectivity, asserts irself as it is, with the
despotic meanirng-srubborn, Sartre would say-of things char are
in themselves and do not change.
Such is the true meaning of the word ''supernaturalism" that
Baudelaire made his own and chat has been repeated haphazardly.
upernaruralismi does not aim for a region above reality, even less
for an actual world different from the world in which men exist,
but it concerns reality in ics entirety, the whole world. thac is to say,
che possibili ty for things co be completely present to each other,
each in its complete existence. It is a possibili ty that changes them
by showing them as they are, a presence that is imagination itself.
We know what role Baudelaire made the theory of correspon
dences, of universal analogy, play. We will not linger to show how
such a role is obviously implied in this idea of imagination. If
analogy and metaphors are the essentiaJ resources ofthe being who
imagines, it is because in metaphors and in1ages he finds at once
this movement of surpassing chat carries him coward something
else ("For chose privileged ones-artists and children-an image
:epresencs some1:hing else." iea,:r ir1 Brussels) and also che true meaning Gf each object as it sends back co him the experience of1
everything.Undoubtedly, BaudeJaire is strongly tempted to recog-

Baudelaire's Failrtre

nize in this theory of co..a:esporuien.ce a key to che world and i n

universal analogy e sign ?f a superior order, mysterious certainly,
but true and definmve. This temptation answers to his aeed "not to
go from Numbers and Beings"; it also answers co his taste for
general ideas and aesthetic problems, a tendency char expresses the
same care co argue the abyss, co make ic bearable by making it the
object of a problem. For Baudelaire, the image is perhaps an
explanatory theory, but first of all it is passion. The remark in My
Heart Laid Bare has an obvious trth: images are for him his gre41,
his only, his primitive passion. And he pursues chem, lives them aa
one lives a passion, because they represent co him the accessible
way to an inaccessible end.
Further, Baudelaire says of Delacroix: "He is the infinite in thct
finite." So there is not enough contradictory effort in which this
"sharp peak that is the infinite" pushes us. Carrying contradiction
to a higher point, we must, with this always unfinished movemenr.
excluding any limit, any rest, nevertheless realize a finite, finished.
perfect object. We know that for Baudelaire, irregularity is the
main part of beauty, but we also know that beauty cannot do
v withour
a harm niously ruled form. Beauty is the unexpected and
t is the expecrauon of rhythm; something vague, that can never be
grasped, something absent and as if deprived of itself-and also
something that is the most exact, the just agreement of a rigorously
accomplished project ("The poet's greatest happiness: co accom
plisb justly what he aimed to do"). To recall that Baudelaire made
of coldness, of the stone's dream, the ideal whose cult he proposed,
is only to recall one of the terms of the logic of opposites, wirh
which, he says about Poe, "creation is at work." Coldness buc in
passion, passion without limits but within the firmest boundaries,
the greatest madness of sensitivity asserting itself by lucidity, reflec
tion, criticism, irony. For imagination to announce icse1 the meet
ing of these two extreme signs "that mark the most solid geniuses"
/ ?ecessary; to be passionately in Love with passion, and coldly dettr
\ mmed to seek the means to express passion in the most visible way.
If poerry let the contradictions char it implies appear dearly, the
I experience of its impossibility could noc occur, and poetic torment

Baudelaire's Failure

would be wich,:lUt value. Bur ir is in ambiguity that poerry becomes ( +

creation. And when we see nothing m ,c bur destruction and
contradictory passion, at char instant, the instant of the greatest
difficulty, we also discover the ease char reconciles everything.
Thus, Baudelaure's finite, which is first the infinjte's principle of
questioning, C:be agonizing work by which dream must be sur
mounted, transformed, in order co become real yet without losing
irs spontaneity, the finite becomes the certainty of written Jan
guage, rhe miles that fix ic, the happiness of a rigorous order
traditionally accepted.
So the movement of endless tension coward a forever unachieved
totality seems like a tragic effort, thus also like the benevolence of
inspiration, the providence of sleep. And the infinite in the finite
undoubredly that is something easy; buc to hold these two mov
mencs together, co compose chem, co realize one by the ocher, if that
implies a great: effort, the work of art finds exactly there the most
precious resources, and one sees in the end chat the unexpected, far
from opposing the expectation of rhythm, is perceptible only in
chis expeccacicm, chat vagueness agrees with the most exact lan
guage, just as the obscurity of dream, to express itse1 finds all
rhat is necessary in language's transparency. Ir becomes natural to
Baudelaire ro jpraise the poetry of Poe in these terms: "It is some
thing profound and glittering like dream, mysterious and perfect
like crystal."
Language is cerrainly an abyss, but the abyss, in order co speak co
us, needs numbers. A rather remarkable ability and, for chat reason,
a litcle annoying. Bur did ir annoy Baudelaire? We can think, along
with Sartre, chat this way of feeling himself loyal to the abyss while
leaning on the solidity of the banks suited him very well, and chat,
if his choice atttached pim so purely to poetic creation, it is precisely
because poetic: creation is pure only in te equioca_l. Every . pot
has bad faith i. n bi.s game:
. he can do nothmg against 1t, bur with Jt l "
he can do eve,yching and even save his good faith, be lost and yet
But it still must be seen on what conditions.
Poetry is a means of putting oneself in danger without running

Baudelaire's Failure
any rjsk, a mode of suicide, destruction of self, that comfortabl
leaves space for the surest affirmation of sdf. Ir is righc to recall jty
because chis criticism is demanded by literature itself and becau ,
in rru this as meaning and value only as passion Jived by ti:
wrtter, an the imposture to which he feels himself an accompli.
Bue when we begin to underline the poet's ambiguity, we also l05e
the righ r to stop s movement, to stabiJize it in one of its poiora,
_ .
to q It, le 1 the nat re ?f biguity to escape arrest and
qual1ficac1on. While bad faidl 1s bemg accomplished, it is jusr as
muh the advance of a good faith, too good ever co accept itself, as
the mesponsible game of imposture th-at refuses to be engaged and
rake real risks.
In this sense, Baudelaire's bad faith, so well analyzed by Sartre, is
also the poet's superior morali ty, this morality rhac leads rum to
travesty, to the superficial fakery of dandyism.In this new sub rer
e'. he undoubtedly seeks another solution to poetic impos
s1b1Uty, but ar the same rime he uses it to denounce this ocher, too
sacisfying subterfuge chat is language.,Dandyism hardly counts in
his story, and no one judged better than he the w import of chis
cult in which he saw himself with too many of his contemporaries
to have really appreciated it, he who, when it came to social class,
would have liked only one in which he would have been -al6ne.
"What is chis, then. he said, "this passion ch-at, become doctrine,
has made ruling adep ts, this unwritten institution that has formed
such a high class? Ir is above all the ardent need co make an
for oneself, contained in the outer boundaries of prooriginaliry
priery" ( The Painter ofModenz Life). This judgment shows chat if
. his freedom, he had no
I he really counted on such a way to assert
illusion about the sinceriry of this little game of revolc.
The "gaps" of life bad for Baudelaire the importance of an
ordeal, trifling in ics nature but major in its effects, essential
especially because it helped him, indirectly and without hjs even
knowing it, to experience the value of work. Dandyism as a means
of emancipation is the poorest of alibis, and he was not fooled b y it.
No more was he fooled by his "free" life.We know char "the artist
commonplace in demeanor and conducr" always seemed despica-

Baudelaire's Fnilu.re

14 3

ble to bjm.'"I would like a neologism ro be created, a word made

destined co condemn chis kind of cliche.... Have you not often
noticed rhat: nothing is more like the perfect bourgeois than the
arcis c of co:ncentrated genius?'' ("Some Foreign Caricaturists").
Misconduct, laziness, the life of disorder that he led (or thought he
led) did not stop weighing on him, far from seeming an aesthetic
ideal or admirable moral to him.Because of his secret conformism?
Perhaps.Bur this is what actually happens: into this existence that
he dreads, he sinks down more and more, this life of lost time,
wasted work, fatal to his literary activiry; the more it overwhelms
him and holds him prisoner, the more it finds him compliant and
makes h.im feel the approach of the abyss in which he fears he will
be lost.
Jr is not because it shocks the edicors of the Siecle that this life,
from so many sides so contrary to itself. constitutes a major hard
ship. Ir is 1:hat it makes the consolation of artistic creation al
ways more difficult for him, a consolation that, because it suited
him perfectly, because he placed it above everything, involved him
in indulgernces dangerous co poetic ambiguity itself. It must be
pointed out that the dogma of sreriliry that the name of Baudelaire
attaches co 1:he ideal of art is imposed by Baudelaire's example after
his death, bur he himself wanced nothing so much as the great
fertile creators, the Balzacs, the Delacroix, the Gautiers.His dream
was not to write some deathless verses, but an infinitely varied body
of work, with many novels, plays, an immense body of work by a
man of lett:ers. There were so many unrealized projects that he
dragged afo::r him, images of tranquil hopes of long ago, char little
by licde hwnted him like the sign of distress from which he could
no longer escape.
If he had! liked nothing but dreaming, if, from the start, aware
that langua1ge is abyss, he had believed chat silence is closer to
authenticit;, than the most beautiful poems, he would have man
aged very well with his laziness. and his impotence. Bue-thanks
perhaps co his conformist weakness-it was precisely the finite he
could not dlo without.Poetic demand always remained for him the
demand for a ruled, ordered, studied, thought-out language, one


Baudelaire's Failure

that w as lucid as possible; pure dream never succeede d in

concealmg from l11s eyes the fault that made it possible or the
illusion it represenced.
Let us recall ''The Double Room": "A room thac resembles a
dayre , a truly spiritual o m." T is oom is poetic puci ty
realized: On the walls, no amsnc abommaaon.Compared to pun:
dream, to unanalyzed impression, definite, positive art is a blas
phemy. Here, everything has the sufficient clari ty and delicious
obscuri ty of harmony." Yes, it is the absolute, poetic sufficiency:
time is stopped, eterni ty reigns. Bur all of a sudden, there is a knock
on the door. "A terrible, heavy knock sounded . . . and, as in
infernal dreams, it seemed co me that I was being bit in the
stomach by a pickax." The Spiritual Room is then revealed as it is, a
dump, an ugly, narrow world, where eterni ty is now only time that
asserts, "I am Life, unbearable, implacable Life... . Live, then,
damned." So pure dream is noching bur impurity. Its cwin is
banali ty, always present, concealed only by illusion. What does it
matter, the compliant poerwill say, ifl delude mysdf with th.is false
eterni ty that is nothing bur the forgetting of rime? Yes, but poetic
condition wanes it: scarcely has satisfaction begun than che knock.
demanding awakening, is struck, and it is poetry itself that scrik:es
this heavy, terrible blow, which shows what dream is: hypocrisy,
We will not follow all the forms this debate rakes with Baude
laire: a very long srudy would be necessary.We would simply like co
note that questioning, if it goes from subterfuge co subterfuge with
him, from compromise to compromise, because it never scops, also
never allows us co denounce these compromises and these subter
fuges-and this movement, moreover, far from being a skillful way
of transforming disequilibrium into a resource of equilibrium,
prepares him for a fall whose seriousness he enters deeply withouc
enjoying it.
Ir is difficult co forger this: the writer who attributes a great deal
of poetic value co work is also the one who, not managing co work.
discovers a form of activity more profound than work. from which
his body of work came in pan, and co which ir bears witness. We

Baudelaire's Failure-


have che habit of seeing in Baudelaire only che theorise of the finite)
chat strangely limits cbe role of inspiration. And yet it is he who
dec lares, "In arr, ir is something noc noted enough, that the part
left ro man's will is quire a bit less great than we chink." It is again
Baudelaire who recommends writing without repenting, without
dderion, and is the first to seek automatism: "1 am not a partisan of
deletion, it croubles the mirror of thought .... If very clear execution is neces.sary, it is so that the language of dream is very clearly
cranslated; if it is very fast, it is so chat nothing will be lost of theM,..---''4...1.....
c.xcraordinary impression that accompanied its conception." And
undoubtedly, to the degree that the impossibility of working asserts
icself, he multiplies his calls ro work to find inspiration again. "The
more one works, the better one works, and the more one wanes ro
work .... Wiork six days without respite." Bur, standing before work
as before anoother abyss, one must return co one's "I am reasoning
coo much," "start writing right away," by which he cries to make
contact with immediate life and the revelations characteristic of
rhis life (see, for example, the letter co Asselineau, in which he so
admirably transcribes one of his dreams, one of the most "surrealist" experiemced before thac word was coined).
Thanks to the disquiet chat carried him co solutions that were
both imprac:cicable and fertile, routine work and absolute passivity,
he arrived at desperate moments whose poetic signification is great.
He discovered the mysterious, unknown impulses chat carry the
horror of a,crion over inro action. "le is a kind of energy char
sparkles with boredom and daydream," an energy by which, he says
again, man becomes capable of provoking, of tempting fare, experi
encing the extremity of life while risking it and playing with it. It is
experience i:n the most profound sense of the word, that, because of
its characte!r, not systematic but spontaneous, with a man little
capable of SIPontaneity, has perhaps as much value as all the experi
ences of Rimbaud's derangement (deregiement). "The Bad Glazier"
foretells the Notes from Underground.
When Baudelaire writes, "One muse always be drunk. Every
ihing is the:re: it is the only question," we should recognize the
literary nature of this recommendation: drunkenness is rhere for


Baudelaire's Fai/u,-e

Baudelaire's Failure

words' effects. "You have co gee drunk without respire ...on whar)
On wine, poetry or virrue, as you please." Bur chis drunkenness.
proposed with bad faith like a superior goal for poetry (with bad
Faith, since finally with chis get drunk he makes nothing more than
a poem), chis inerence in drunkenness, when taken to language,
makes the poeac drunkenness char leads to lucid works more and
more difficult. Ac rhac instant, disgrace can weU seem to be the
punishment he secretly wanted, wanted while hoping to extract
himselffrom it and pull out [of the game]; but, from the instant it
reaches him, comes near, becoming more menacing every day, it
also has chis remarkable double result: co reassert the value of the
poetry of speech, a consolation char is now no more than a pcr
perual torment; co discredit the poetry of silence, the poetry of
living with the flow, co which it would be coo easy for him to
abandon himself That is why "Rockets" (in which Sartre sees a
reassessment of thoughts without freshness and without profun
dity) rake on an incredible importance and become, for the poetry
of the furure, a tragic signal, on which many eyes will come co rest.
What does he write of it? "Morally as we" as physically, I have
always had the sensation of the abyss, not only of the abyss of sleep
bur of the abyss of action, dream memory, desire, regrc, remorse,
beauty, number, etc. 1 have culavaced my hyscena w1ch pleasure
/ and terror. Now I always have vertigo, and today, 23 January 1862, I
I (have undergone a singular warning: I have felt rhe wind of im
becility's wing pass through me."
We wiJJ note that Baudelaire no longer speaks here oflanguage as
the abyss. A dramatic omission. At the rime when language
comes for him the void that he first recognized in it, when,
experienced as a vertigo, it is lose in the absence it reveals, it is at
chis instant that he avoids denouncing it. Tr is as if be wanted co
keep chis refuge for himself, as if the poem, become impossible in
him, were waiting and demanding ro be created starting from the
impossibility in which he cornered ir. For, it must be made clear,
imbecili ty, this evil worse than Evil, in no way offers him the end
where it would be pleasant and commendable for him, after so
many annoyances, to find rest, no more than it shows itselfto him,


speak, at his mercy, as the

ow rhac ir is there, quire close and, so co
avatar of poetic intelligence. Ac many times in his life,
ation, a temptation t hat
death, suicide, nothingness were his tempt
played; we are righc co see
often lacked seriousness, with which he
ing his disgust with
in it a prudent way of symbolically
ate man, "What! you
living. If he can write to Jules Janin, thefortim
d1ange the view! I have very
have never wanted co get our, just to
death," then we must
serious reason co pity one who does nor love
desire char he never
pity him allso, for nor keeping
185 and 1cs
am tmmorral,
srra.nge confession: "I kill myself because I believe I
And what is
and I hope.. " Strange confession. What does he hope?
the sense of chis immortalit y cl1ac invites him to die?
undoubtedly, th.at resembles the immortality
emy, a
faith; nothing, either, chat can seem like an ultimate
challenge carried in the name of Evil, beyond death, against
one lase time offended.
Ir is striking chat Baudelaire never trusted nothingness. He
che very profound feeling char che horror of living
consoled by death, char it does not encounter an emptiness
as its
exhausts it,. that chis horror of existing chat is existence has
main signification chis feeling chat one
never leave:s existence, one exists and one always
revealed by chis very horror. What does "The Skeleton Work
teach him?



Voulez-vous (d'un descin crop dur

tpouvamable et dair embleme)
Moncrer que clans la fosse meme
Le sommeil promis n'esr pas sftr;

Qu'envers nous le NeanL est craitrc;

Que cout, merne la More, nous mem,
Et que sempiternellement,
Helasl ii nous faudra peur-erre
Dans quelque pays inconnu
Ecorcher la rem reveche

Baudelaire's Failure
Et pousser une lourde beche
Sous oorre pied sanglant et nu?
Do you want (terrible, clear
Emblem of a face too hard)
To show that even in the grave
T he promised sleep is far from certain;

T hat co us Nothingness is traicor;

That everything, even Death, lies co us,
And that eternally,
Alas! we will have perhaps
In some unknown country
To scrape the sour earth
And push a heavy spade
Beneath our bleeding, naked foor?

And in darkness what does he discover? Darkness? Emptiness?

Blakness? o, but the ternally recurrent sense, starting from the
van1Shed bemg, of a being ro whom disappearance itself restores
both meaning and existence.
Comme cu me plairais, o Nuic! sans ces ecoiles
Done la lumiere parle un langage connu!
Car je cherche le vide, et le noir, er le nu!
Mais les cenebres sonr elles-memes des roiles
Ou vivent, jaillissanr de mon reil par milliers,
Des erres disparus aux regards familiers!
How you please me, oh Night! without those scars
Whose light speaks a known language!
For f seek emptiness. and blackness, and nakedness!
Bur darkness icself is a canvas
Where live, spurting from my eye by the thousands,
Vanished beings with familiar looks!

So nothingness cannot be counted on co end anything, since,

when one has entered into existence, one has entered a situatibn
that has as its essential nature the fucr that one is never finished

Baudelaire's Failure

14 9

with ir. Heidegger's "being-for-death," far from characterizing au! \ chenr ic possibility, would thus represent for Baudelaire only one
n,ore imposture. We do not have death in fronr of us, but existence
d1at, as far :as l go forward, is always in front, and, as low as I sink, is
\always lower, and, as unreally as 1 assert myself (in arc, for exam
ple), infests this unreality with an absence of reaJjty char is still
-Mais pourquoi pleure-c-elle? Elle, beaute parfaire
Qui merrrait a ses pieds le genre humain vaincu.
Quel mal mysceriew: ronge son Rane d'arhlece?
-Elle pleure. insense, parce qu'elle a vecu!
Er parce qu'elle vit! Mais ce qu'elle deplore
Surrout, ce qui la fair fremir jusqu'aux genoux,
C'es t que demain, helas! il faudra vivre encore!
Demaio, apres-demain er roujours!-comme nous!
-But why is she weeping? She, perfect beaury
Who could put at ber feer conquered humankind.
What mysterious evil gnaws at her shapely side?
-She weeps, madman, because she has lived!
And because she lives! Bue what she is lamenting
Above all, what makes her tremble to her knees,
Is tbat tomorrow, alas! she will have to live again!
Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and forever!-like us!

Ct'./7 7)

Thus, art and the work of art {chat the statue of Christopher
represents in these verses) assert, behind the hope of surviving, the
despair of existing endlessly, in the dissolution of all form and alJ
existence, a dissolution that, by still being form and existence,
c:oncinues. beyond all life, che ambiguity and imposture char have
driven our life.
le is chjs experience that makes the word atrociotts aurhencic; ir is
a word with which Baudelaire qualified his poems, and it is chis
experience that gives all its importance to the image, banal as it is,
or the abyss. For, even more than the idea of freedom (from which
one can at: leasr draw the reassuring principle of a new ladder of


Baudelaire's Failure

Baudelaire's Failure

values) could have done, it involved him in an endless questioning

and did noc even leave him the hope of rest in dearl1 or nothing
ness. By the abyss, the horror of existing discovers in existence whar
is already below death, beyond its own end, and in "rhe numbness
of nothingness'' a pseudo idea and false hope. The I hope of
25 January 1845 answers ro rhis feeling char one does not leave
existence by death, bur [ hope answers always co that movement of
escape and flighr from which the dogma of immortalicy arose: by
this dogma, the horror oCa1ways.J::eing dissol"._ed in.!2_ existence has
become the hope of always being, and the beyond of life chat is life.
che being of the beyond.
Brnddaire did not kill himself on chat day that be hoped for
death. And he saw that death lied, that nothingness was a traito r.
He approached imbecilicy; though without recognizing in this
decline che victory of the infinite over rhe finite or a satisfying
means of surmounting calm, rational abilities. Soon he loses the
use of words. His disgrace is complete. Yer what happens to him?
One can easily assert wich Sartre char he merited chis end, and merit
clearly implies char che end is not meritorious, which accords with
Baudelaire's own viewpoint, as with rhat of Villemain, for whom
the spectacle of a silent, destroyed man on a hospiraJ bed could
appear sublime. But chen we must recognize this: if chis end judges
Baudelaire for establishing a catastrophe for which he is responsi
ble, it finds him not guilcy of having played without risk. of having
chosen ro faU without downfall, and even of having loved misfor
tune without being able ro suffer from ic. Ar least on chis point,
imposture stops being attributable co him. Mystification is in cruth
achieved, and the symbolic ruin that his poems depict becomes real
enough to impose its seriousness.
Naturally, one can claim that Baudelaire did not want that, that
he planned this shabby end only through aims of life that hid their
awful nature from him. Undoubtedly. But that hardly matters, and
from the instant one makes him responsible for chis disaster char he
did nor prepare, one muse also, in rhe thousand decisions of bad
faith that led him co pluck misfortune, find again che implacable
se.riousness of final tragedy. We know rhere is nothing fortuitous in

existence. If Baudelaire died in scandaJ and r.he destruction of

his dev ast:aced geoius, ic is because, in his life, he did nor content
himself with brushing against scandal and suffering in the course of ./
oraruitous or symbolic excesses; instead, he consented to involve
himself deeply in them, if only for a day, if only by a gesture.
Thus poetic truth decided it. Baudelaire's debacle, his struggle in
the lase months with words chat tricked him, aU the anguish that
thousands: of unknown sick people, afflicted wirh the same disease,
sh are with him without affecting literary history. seems the heroic
end of the questioning in which, for a few seconds, the all is abyss of
language and the sure, calm, and beautiful poems that carried it are
united; it is the final sacrifice by which the poet, who knows
nothing o,f it, is led to lose himself in order co realize and make
present poetry always ro come, always to do.
And che strangest thing happens then: it is chat the works written
in Ii.ill she.lter from this drama, chat participate neither in its gravicy
nor in its seriousness, char are striking by artifice or formal as
surance, aJI that he wroce, dreamed of writing, failed to write, all
that he did, his concessions to the world, his timid man's revolts,
his sad academic aims, all that is transformed by the tragedy of the
last mom,nt and accepts from it the meaning of an accomplished\
fate, because questioning the end did not fail him. Is this just? That
is not the ,question. Now that Baudelaire is dead in the glory of final
shame, hi.s least papers, the least acts of his life are lit up with a new
light that changes chem, and everyone learns co read chem back
ward, to decipher them behind the silence that Stretched upon/
them a definitive effacement.
Thus, the veritable failure of the last hour flows back on an entire
life that was perhaps false, transforming it into a life poetically true. /
It is rhro1Ugh chis failure that the ambiguicy of an existence chat
cotil<l have borne very bad names declares itself instead as a successfu l experiment because pushed to the extreme, where even failure ,1
have theiir value, where poetry profits from betrayals and infideli
tits. From then on, death will enchant Bauddaire. lt gives him
11\ore than he ever bad, more than his life: an interminable life. v
Having lost very much, he won everything. Licerarily, at least. For


Baudelaire's Failure

sorne?ne who, alJ the while loving art, saw a curse in the unreal
etem1ry the rk of art, those comings and goings of posterity,
those brilliant v1c1ss1rudes char mix him with our rimes, represent
perhaps a side of nightmare chat he glimpsed and feared. In this
sense, if he was responsible fo r the failure of his life, be is also
responsible fo.r the success of his survival. A man who would have
liked to be great only far himselfdoes not succeed in being great for
others without some grave defects. And when this fame has as
much brilliance as that of Baudelaire, one must indeed recognize
him as guilry of it, and discover in him all that be lacked ro remain

The Sleep of Rimbaud

The Complete Works of Rimbaud, published in the Pleiade series,

give us all the satisfactions one could expect from this kind of
edition. For a long time, these works, so slender, were not less
mistreated by the editors than by their author. Hypocrisy, excessive
zeal, facetiousness, all contributed to making them dubious. For
some years, however, particularly since the labors of Bouillane de
Lacoste, tlhe most beautiful texts have become definitive. Rolland
de Reneville-with Mouquet-conrinued this work of setting the
record straight. The Complete Works give us a better version of
the fflum1:nations. They consecrate the auchenriciry of The Zutiste
Album (enriched with rwo previously unpublished works, The
Drunken Coachman" and "The Wicked Little Angel") that had
long been considered doubtful. They also definitively attribute ro
Rimbaud "A Heart Beneath a Cassock," published tweory years ago
by Andre Breton and Louis Aragon. They make public rhe three
.sonnets of the "Srupra. '' Finally, they reunite for the fuse rime the
greater pan of the letters in a corrected and finished version. All
these rexes are clarified by philological annotations; only interpreta
tions and poetic commentaries are lacking. Bue this very gap
guarantees the quality of the edition.
In thei.J: shore preface, the edicors note that misunderstandings
wenc han,d in hand with the fame of Rimbaud. Or. Jean Fretet's
scudy, often well informed, often thoughtless, does not seem able co


The Sleep ofRimbaud

diminish these misunderstandings. There is certainly no harm in

giving a psychopathological interpretation co Rimbaud's story and
adventure. Bur Dr. Fretet does not content himself with interpret
ing; he wanes to explain-to explain all the aspecrs of an exisreace
by only one of its aspects, and one on which the information is
conjecrural and discovers its value only by undergoing all possible
interpretations. That is the fault of Freret's study, Poetic Alienation:
Rimbaud, Mallarme, Proust (and it is even more obvious when it
discusses Mallarme) .
Of Rimbaud, we surely know just about all we will ever know,
From cime co rime thousands of verses are sent co us from Abys
sinia, lines that vanished on the way. Even Reneville could not lay
hands on "The Spiritual Hunt,'' which he asserts was written in the
course of the first half of r872 and which he distinguishes from the
lll"minat:iom. We don't say What does it matter? But it is probable
that we know as much and more about Rimbaud than he knew
about himself.
We will not recall char his fame was divided between the poems
that he wroce and those that he did not deign to write, between
poetry that he affirmed and poetry that he rejected. Since the time
of his death, the sileace he kept for rwen ty years has seemed a
bewitching enigma: while still alive, be had poetry cut out of him,
said Mallarme with a dread in which there is some envy. Twenty
minds, and some of the greatest, have endeavored ro find the key ro
this enigma. Why? That is perhaps whar is strange. Why does ir
seem so surprising char a mind with a gift for letters all of a sudden
turns its back on Literature and completely loses interest in an
activi ty in which it excelled? That there is, in such a refusal, scandal
for everyone shows what immeasurable value everyone attaches co
the exercise of poetry.
Rimbaud's scandal cook many forms: fuse he writes master
pieces, then renounces writing ochers while he appears capable of
producing many. To renounce writing, when one has proven to be
a great writer, certainly does not occur without mystery. This
mystery increases when one discovers what Rimbaud asks of po
etry: not to produce beautiful works, or to answer co an aesthetic

The Sleep of Rimb4ud

,d c:il. bur to help man go somewhere, to be more than himself, co

sc more than he can see, co know what he cannor know-in a

word, co make of lirerarure an experience that concerns the whole
0 f life and the whole of being. From this point of view, the
.ibandonment becomes a greater scandal. The poet does not re
nounce juisr any activi ty, or even any privileged activi ty. but the
very possibility char, glimpsed and pursued, cannot be destroyed
wichouc a diminution in comparison with which suicide and mad
ness seem nothing. And so great is man's respect for the decision to
go to exrnemes, so great the certainty that one can only betray such
an effort by obeying ic, that Rimbaud's renunciation, far from
being held as an infidelity co the energy that inspired him, has
seemed co be its highest moment, one in which he truly touched
the summit and which, because of that, remains inexplicable to us.
With Rimbaud, not only does poetry surpass the domain of writ
ten works and things co become the fundamental experience of
existence, but it monopolizes its absence. it establishes icself on its
own refui;al.
Such a view has become common. Perhaps by being repeated so
111uch it hras lost its value. We have forgotten that it would be worth
nothing if ic were not understood in all its ambiguity, and that, chis
ambiguity safely aside, it can no longer keep much meaning. To say
that the experience Lived by Rimbaud at che time of rhe Jllznnina
ti,ms and of A Season in Hellled him ro the silence of Cyprus, to his
trafficking in the Harcar, ro his communications to the Geograph
ical Soci,ty. means that in his decision co break with poetry we
recogniz<! only the appearance of sinceri ty-since, as adventurer,
arms dealer, and novice explorer, he would only have been follow
ing, in another form and in a baser way. the same designs, the same
dissoluceness, cbe same search for the unknown as he had followed
in the rime of poetic splendors. On the other hand, if we admit that
by leaviJng poetry, he really and definitively left it, and if we
,lttribuce an absolute value to his "l have co bury my imagination
:m<l my memories" (as one muse for this face co have the meaning it
is accorded), then there is nothing more co say about his second
cxisrencc. AU of its mediocri ty is as much a sign of its authenticity

The Sleep ofRimbaud

as a proof of his failure; all its banali ty, sordid at times ' move usJ
a d seems extraordinary co us (and also allows Dr. Fretet to think
with some plausibility that Rimbaud abdicated only what he had
already lost).
We canot ay chac Ribad's silence adds to his poetry rhe plan
of surpassmg it by reJecttng 1t. If we say that, his silence seems a
miserable comedy, little by little taken at its word by a miserable
r licy. And if we avoid saying that, then Rimbaud's story no longer
stgrufies much. After all, if a man who could adventure further than
others one day decides to conduce himself like thousands of ot her
men, loving money. limiting his life ro the immediate care of life,
what can we conclude? That one fine day, he was afraid of the
unknown, char he ha.d enough of his "supernatural powers," that
he showed himself to be cowardly, weak, terrified before his formi
dable design, in front of this plan so great that no man could face it?
Noc even chat. Who will ever prove ro us rhat the letter of che Seer
was more than an adolescent dream? The Illuminations, rhe Season
in Hell can indeed let us glimpse that chis path was really followed:
exactly insofar as, by writing chem, Rimbaud couched rhe extreme,
he also surpassed the order of communicable things, and che
unknown did nor come closer to us. There is actually only one
certainty: chat these works are literary successes chat have shocked
men and inspired chem in turn; but, concerning rhe program of the
Seer, no one can decide if they represent a crick, a radical failure, a
trap full of magnificence, or a truly "legendary" attempt.
This uncertainty makes the power and enigma of Rimbaud. He
pushed ambiguity-the essential movement of poetic activity-to
rhe utmost. And chis ambiguity is such that che deepest knowledge
of his acts, all the new documencs rhar one can imagine discovering
one day, no more than "the fo rty thousand verses from Abyssinia."
will ever reduce ic. It has become fashionable, after the excessi ve
admiration that we had become accustomed ro reserve for b.is
career as adventurer, co portray the silent side of his Life in black.
We reproach him with his cowardliness because he feared prisooj
fled military obligations, and, even in the midst of revolc, rather
lamentably begged chis one and that one co save him from che

15 7

police. Pe1rhaps, in face, he was a coward. So? Order, ''eternal

wacch man," was repugnanc to him. Disorder did not enchant him.
}-le was nor an angel, despite some rather sad whiffs of innocence.
He was onJy a weak lover of adventure and a sometime hoodlum.
An d, save his literary triumphs. he left us noclung bur the cesci
mony of an emp ty, disconcenced, mediocre existence that attained
nothing and aimed for nothing. And yet no one as much as he ever
gave us th1 feeling of having forced "che impossible," as he calls it
in rhe Season in Heil.
Reading; the correspondence, facilitated by the Pleiade edition,
rends ro bring the two Rimbauds closer rogether, "the angel, the
magus" ailld the "peasant," the Rimbaud who knew hell and che
one who turned away from it, sciJl without clarifying the decision
that separated the cwo. But, co speak of only one matter, we are
struck by how litde change the death of the poet appeared ro bring
forth in thte one who underwent ic or provoked it. From without,
he remainied the same. Two of his characteristics, at lease, survived
the metamorphosis. All his life, Rimbaud expressed a horror of
work, an iinvincible need for rest and sleep. "The best thing is a
really drunken sleep," "sleep in a nest of flames," "the sleep of
virginity," "hearse of my sleep." Indeed, one could say chat, while
he was a writer, he sought, while wricing, to bring about an actual
breakthro1Ugh into the bean of sleep, to Bee away into a stupor nexc
to which death would have been nothing, into a nothingness that,
eve n more than death. would have assured the end of life. "Whac is
my nothingness, nexr co the stupor that awaits you?" And muse we
recall his "Nothingness Studies,'' the allusions to the "continuous
sleep of the legendary Mohammedans"? Later, condemned by his
choice co an "atrocious," "absurd,'' "mind-destroying" job. he has
only one t::>bsession: co rest, ''co scrape out, by dint of fatigue, the
means to rest.'' All his lerrers are torn apart by the expression of this
furio us need, which assuredly manifests itself without delicacy: ir is
no longer a question of subtlety or ruse. He comes co wish for rest
111 marriage, che happiness of one ''seared," a position. It is a
wea kness for which we reproach him. Bue it only serves co make
11\ore imp,orranc the desperate point ro which the need for sleep

The Sleep ofRimbaud

The Sleep of Rimbaud

drives him, the need for any kind of sleep, his ''I am extremely
tired"; "Don't tire yourself out, that is an unreasonable thing''; "I
bave to spend the rest of my days wandering in facigue and priva
tions, with the sole prospect of dying in sorrow."
Dr. Fretet holds against Rimbaud his many complaints, his tears
when his leg was amputated, all chose frightful cries of misery.
Why? Rimbaud made fun of stoicism, and-it must be said here
there was in him (and almost on the same subjects, poverty and
money) something howling and ferocious chat one finds
exactly in the Marquis de Sade. Rimbaud is one of the men who
most strongly asserted their boredom, "I am bored a lot, always; I
have actually never met anyone who was bored as much as 1." This
boredom. as lively in the mature man as in the adolescent, resem
bles in no way a literary disposition.As far as we can teU, from the
time of his first attempts ar poetry, chis feeling had for him the
value of experience; it was a methodical resource, a move similar co
sleep that be sought and chat, through this sleep, made him dream
of attaining a torpor beyond aU seeking. When he writes in the
Season in Hel4 "Boredom is no longer my love," he identifies it Yery
clearly with rages, debauches. madness, with aU the disturbance
char. for some time, was for him synonymous with poetry. Yet, on
boredom, in 1881, in the full misery of the Harrar, he writes these
strange Lines: "Alas! I'm nor at all attached co lite; and if [ live, I am
accustomed to living with fatigue, but if l am forced to conrinu_e to
tire myself out as now, and ro feed myself on sorrows as vehement
as they are absurd in these atrocious climates, I fear I will cut short
my existence.... Finally, let us be able to enjoy a few years of rea l
rest in this life; and forcunarely chis life is the only one, and that is
obvious, since one cannot imagine another life with a boredom
greater than this!" One should not ask coo much of a text, written
for "his own," and one char does nor claim to say anything singular.
Yet s.ingularicy is rhere. Rimbaud builds a strange reasoning ob
viously, he says, there cannot be another life, because there cannot
be a life with more boredom than chis one.As if life for him were
action, action were boredom, and as if no more life were always
linked to no more boredom, so that when one attains rhe extremity

of boredom, one bas always ex.hausred aU possibility of another life,

d chat one who has known the greatest possible boredom no
ngcr has to fear the boredom of an afterlife. 1t is the ontological
argumenr co,me back.Without loong too far, we can see at.such
thoughts imply a background of smgular ment reseaaons: to
know rhac d,eath is perhaps not death, chat to avoid the disgrace of a
beyond, one: must seek a real death, to know so chat boredo rn has
a double as1pecr, positive- and negative, a kind of horror ned to
acrivicy and perhaps with the property of coming to the end of
acrivicy by means of activity.
Reading this correspondence so fulJ of calls to rest, bow can we
not notice that in sum he was attached only ro himself: with bis
eight kilos of gold in his belt, which he watches over so grimly, how
did he expe:ct to live other chan in fatigue? Dr. Fretet speaks of
Rimbaud's thirst.Rimbaud. at every age, particularly in his youth,
was devoured by thirst: an acrid thirst that dried him out, to which
he gave water, alcohol, fire, in vain,


Et la soif malsaine
Obsc.urcic mes veines
And unwholesome thirst
Darkened my veins
"To say rhar I never had a concern for drink!" "It is such a crazy
thirst ... ," etc. The need for sleep is nor linked in him to some
fee ble expectation, co a nature already numbed, heavy and mall
able, bur to a bitterness that rises from fire, char calls the tomd
ele ments and that these elements make crazy. It is a dryness char. to
be saced, w:ants nothing but dryness, the aridity of stone and sand
in search of an aridity of Bame and poison. Such is Hell. On every
page of A Season, he "dies of thirst," he is "chirscy, thirsty,'' thirst of
hdJ, demanding hell, not the coolness of water but a liqueur of
gold char makes one swear. "I demand, l demand! a blow from a
pitchfork, a drop of fire."
On one side, chis sleep without boundaries, this absolute of
laziness and nothingness, rhat deems suspect aU the substitutes for

The Sleep ofRimbaud

The Sleep of Rimbaud

rest-suicide, madness, debauchery. On the other, this unparal

leled bitterness without example, this fire of metal chat, to refresh
itself, runs after the flame, first of drunkenness, of fever, then of
work, then the simple sordid fire of money. Thus so many images
speak to us, "sleep in a nest of flames ... really drunken sleep on the
shore ...sea mixed wich sun," as well as ''I was idle, prey to a heavy
fever." Rimbaud was thirsty for pebbles, rock, and charcoal, that is
to say, for what is most drying in the world. And starting &om this
absolute hardness, he wanted the absolute porosity of sleep, inno
cence of caterpillars, moles, limbs, toad idleness, infinite patience
capable of an infinite forgetfulness.
ln view of that, what are words worth, even the words of
Rimbaud? We would like, to finish, to make this remark again: the
silence does not date from 1873. Rimbaud, even when be wanted
"to find a language, " always spoke as little as possible. In the world,
he hardly opened his mouth. He was taciturn, sometimes threw out
an insult, offered blows. "I imagine myself meeting him one day in
the midst of the Sahara, after many years of separation," writes one
of his friends. "We are alone and we are heading in opposite
directions. He stops for an instanr. 'Hello, bow are you?' 'Good,
good-bye.' And he concinues on his way. Noc the least demonstra
tion of emotion. Not a word more." No more words. I no Longer
know how to speak. All his poems, the lease of his texts, signify the
same superior aridity, the need co say everything in the time of a
bolt of lightning, foreign to the facul ty of saying chat needs dura
tion. Enough seen. Enough had. Enough known. Such is the "depar
ture" that by writing he never did anything but begin again, a
departure that, one day, takes place and that, in the end, results in
these lines: "What do you wane one to write you ... ? That one is
bored, one is fed up, one is exhausted; that one has had enough, but
cannot finish with it, etc., ere.! That is all one can say; and, since
that no longer amuses others, one muse be quiet."
The correspondence, beginning from Cyprus, seems in generaJ
co lovers of good literature badly written, disappointing, unworthy
of such a great writer. Dr. Fretet sees in the "sloppy" and even
incorrect style the proof of a ruined intelligence. This proof is

scrange. Pirsr, we find chat this style without elegance, miserly and
flac, has cine same extraordinary dryness as the other, but on a level
of such banality chat one does not see why he might have distanced
himself from it by writing, since chat was his way of living &om
rhen on. Ir is in writing "to his own" in the form of the Illumina
tions that he showed himself incoherent, and it is chis incoherence
rha t could seem a sign of ruin. And then, why would language nor
have left Rimbaud, if writing was no longer anything to him? It is
nor the poor quality of his letters that surprises us buc, on the
contrary, the forever obstinate, furious tone, without deflection
and with our return, chat, through all the fatigue of work and aU
rhe deniaus, up co his deathbed, continued in him co perpetuate


From Lautre11.mo11t to Miller

From Lautreamont
to Miller

[r is a curio us coincid ence char H enry Miller's first books were

abl e to b re ad in French r rhe m om ent that the wo rk and mysrery
of 1:tutreamont were b emg ev ok ed as an anniversary. (G.L.M.
published a document some ti.m e ago that fixes the birch oflsidore
Ducasse as 4 April 1846.) These blocks of prose that the Tropic of
Cancer and Black Spring ar e, these fi eld s of words that must be
seized in all thei breadth and nor in pares, give us a way of r eading
and understanding char, m o ur mind, is linked ro Maldoror.
If work in prose could, in our rime, either by the novel or by the
essay, Jay claim ro a form reserved generaLly for the poem, if it
succeeded as weU as po etry, in imposing chis i"dea on us that

literature is an exp erie nc e and thac reading, writing, reveal an act
that not only extraccs meanings b ur also constitutes a movem ent of
di scovery, it is to the atrempcs and ro ch e "madness" of Laurrea
monc thac we owe this. The Songs ofMaldoror remains one of che
strangest wr of all Licerar ure, becau se the meaning, always dear,
of che eca1ls m no way ann ounc es the meaning of the whole.
There is nochng more intelligible than each sentence; n othing
more conformmg ro ou r current habits of understanding. Th ere is
o languag e, we kno , more classic, in which each proposition
lmks beccer to that which precedes ir, in which rhe rhetoric carries
us mo e s lidly to war d a d enoue mnt char cannot su rpri se us.
There i s neither derangement in the synrax nor rupture in the call

0( words. The impr ession that any first reader must have is neces
sarily char ,of a text in which the greatest clarity, the most rigorous
tooic would coincide with a complete confusion and the absolute
i;possibiliity of "finding oneself." What he reads is understood,
but what is understood is as if subtracted, by this very face, from the
possibility of being taken as a whole, of being welcomed and
experienced in the whole meaning that would justify it.
There are, certainly, texts by Lhe insane char, with a logical and
syntactical apparatus that is pretty mu ch intact, are able to carry a
chought capable at fir st of deluding. These cases are not as innocent
as one would like us to believe, for it remains remarkable that che
reader, when he notices that something has be en derailed, alm ost
always lag.s just behind the moment when the anomaly show s itself,
and is e ven uncertain of the point at which ir occurs, as if the
movement and arrangement of language carried a pre Liminary
meaning :solid enough to resi st any subseq uent breakdown. More
so. ir is as if the fact of putting words one after the other or of
provoking inconsistent series of sounds, as happ ens with children,
were acwrnpanied with a presumption of meaning char cbe seem
ing absurdity does not s ucce ed in destroying and thac is even the
clear background on which this absu rdity ends up emerging. That
is why th e attempts at simulating de lirium by Bret on and Eluard
do not ny tro uble us, because we feel language can never b e
completely aijenaced, becau se ic s most complete nuJliry, its most
radical ditscurbance still carry so much meaning thar it will alway s
he possible co bring it dose to the richest literary language . a
richness that this owes. moreover, co ics ability to locate icself very
close to \;rs beginning, which is indeed the greatest poverty.
Reading Maldoror is remarkable in that it gives rhe feeling of a
text that is nat only perfeccly clear in its parts but also p erfectly
compose:d in it s developmencs, in which the connections, far from
being implied, are very car e fully prepared, and e ven, at rimes ,
1:xaggerared.ly b.ighlighr ed, either by a mild mockery of school
customs or by a care for coherence that rums inco derision, in such
a way char the continuity is a s great as can be, that there is no hole
nor gap. chat the con e remains always unified, with a fullness that

From Lautreamont to Miller

From la.utreamont to Miller

nothing interrupts, that renews itself from within, without the least
alteration, by a veritable crystallization of sound.
One can scarcely imagine another book in which there is so litt le
emptiness. This absence of emptiness, this little rest spared to the
eye faced with a compact block in which the succession of lines
counts less than cl1eir simultaneous presence, can pass as a subter
fuge destined to produce a kind of fascination. That is what
Laurreamont calls "mechanically constructing the brain with a
sleep-inducing tale." Such a procedure explains the change of
attention that occurs in rhe course of certain readings, when, for
example, rhe interest accorded a book separates itself from the
attention one brings co it; is no longer ried co the clear or confused
meaning chat one finds in it, but is oriented on the side of
boredom, then embarrassment and annoyance, and finally corre
sponds to a real floundering to which one abandons oneself with
out sleep. This phenomenon is not e.xaccly the one encountered in
Maldoror. The work in itself is fascinating. Ir does not stop awaken
ing us, and its series of clear aces prepares the mind to understand it
wholly. Only th.is understanding is at once prepared and deferred,
hastened and always suspended. Let us examine what happens. In
an ordinary text, the general meaning is begun by a series of partial
meanings that, as the reading advances, are located in an ensembJc
sketched more and more clearly; even if rhe uni ty of comprehen.
sion is failed or hidden or voluntarily broken, it does not exist any
me less behind the work, and it is the search for chat unity which
puts our reading spontaneously in order. 1n Maldoror, there is no
unity, no luminous cencer whence light could shine on each part;
there is no actual progression scarring from partial unities presen t
ing themselves as momentary sketches of the whole. The reading
finds no point of support: no place co stop or rest. Any episode one
thinks one can hold onto as the link in a chain is broken inevitably
and has no more reali ty, as a landmark, than "the crystal waves of
the old ocean: scarcely has one diminished than another goes co
meet it, getting larger."
What is strange in chis absence of unity is, on the one hand, mac
it is realized by a logical discourse-that is co say, by a strongly

unified language-and, on the other hand, char it does not tend to

produce an aware, hapazard, d ragged work .bt, _on the
conrrary. a vemable monolith, a reali ty that does not divide itself or
decompose. Maldoror is certainly rhe most extraordinary effort co
make us believe chat a book can be an absolute, closed, and finished
even r. That is what makes reading it so singular and at rimes so
threatening. First, we feel ourselves enclosed in it: in chis sphere of
language, there is no crack, words have stopped up the exits, the
horizon is a horizon of words beyond which there are even more
wore.ls. At 1:he same time, chis language, perfectly significative,
coherent, and eloquent, that has thus nor abandoned any of its
logical traits, begins to exist as a thing: it tries to rake us inco a kind
of presence, to insert us into the body of a monumental object; it
even cries co make this global existence serve its ability of expression
and comprehension. It is as if we are co understand each sentence,
each page, ,ch episode, not starting &om the meaning of each
sentence or each episode, and even less starting from the general
meaning of the book, bur by penetrating its reality of thing and the
blind, smoo,th meaning chat it takes on.
Calme bloc ici-bas chu d'un dascre obscur,
Que ce granit du moins ...
Calm block fallen down here from an obscure disaster,
That this granite at lease . ..
We must undelstand this claim: it is nor a question of leading us
co read words by assimilating us wirh the paper on which they are
written, or to retain only the physical allure of language and the
material emblem of the book. But Ma/,doror, a work char the mind
pene trates li.ke a composite of expressions and significacive connec
tions, wants also to have a complete existence, without part and
without contents, so we know no better than co compare it to a
tl;ing, inasmuch as we understand by "thing" a rea1ity that is always
exterior co u1s, chat offers to our inspection only an outside deprived
or inside, h,nce always impenetrable because always full.
It would perhaps be easy co show by what ways Lautreamonc


From lar-ureamom to Miller

From lautreamont to Mill

inclines us ro a feeling of chis kind, a feeling chat, moreover, is never

entirely unaware of the final failure ir bears. But we would like to
note now chat as remote from Mt1Uoror as a work like Tropic of
Cancer can be, it is a similar ambition chat ir cries to find, th us
giving a new chance co an attempt mar, for eighty years, has been
made many rimes with an intrepidity never ruscouraged by failure.
Miller claims to write a book apart, not more original than the
others, or more true, or more beautiful, bur the book, as Mallarme
had said, "a single immense book," "a Bible," that is described ro us
as a geological ensemble, as a story drowned and lose in the very
reality it brings to life. "lt will be enormous, rhis book! there will be
vase spaces in ir like oceans to move in, to wander in, to sing in,
dance in, climb in, swim in, do somersaults in, to moan in, co break
the law in, to kill in...." "This must be the Last Book. We will
exhaust che century.After us, noc one single book." The very word
Cancer is striking: "1 am Cancer; the crab," Henry Miller said from
time to time. "My book is a cancer." That is because the work
believes it develops with che strengrh of furious cells, like rhat
proliferation of living substances chat, for che very reason of rhe
superabundance of life, is a sign of death."This world," he said, "is
a cancer that devours itself. ..." The ideal of his book is also to be
what is resorbed by being developed, a power than annihilates itself
by the very excess of its force.
We know that Lauueamont relished describing violent states, a
series of spasmoruc, sudden actions, that would give the impression
of ferocity, even if th ey did not explicitly have the force of an arrack.
of an aggressive spending of energy. "My poetry will consist only in
attacking, by all means, man, rhat wild animal, and the Cre
ator...." Why this choice, why chis resorr ro cruelty ? One could
argue abour it, but the effect is obvious enough: ic is precisely char
cruel ty is a resort, that it is a tension always in reserve and always
capable of thundering discharges, that ir is the only disposition by
which desrruction claims co endure, and yet ro accomplish acts of
instantaneous annihilation.Gaston Bachelard has shown us in the
mythology of Ducasse an entire bestiary of aggression, a dream of
breaking and crushing actions char claw and tooth come nacurally

co fie our. Perhaps chis is exaggerating the hurried, destructive

ch aracter of the action in Malaoror. If we recall the role that
animals wiith suckers and suction play in ir-octopus, louse, spider,
leech-we also see clearly char the attack must have something
numb, lingering, enveloping, that is perfectly symbolized by the
rnoveineni: of style in which brutality is slowness and the most
halring succession, infinite duration, calm, solemnity. What is
scriking in Maldoror is chat we are the prey of a devouring power
char carries us away into a staggering series of metamorphoses, into
a greedy and violent time that drunkenly destroys with a force
capable of creating-and, at the same time, we are as if immo
bilized in 1che midst of a reality chat does not advance. that is there
once and for all, pressing us and crushing us under an avalanche, a
caving in, that are forever suspended.
One fin,ds in Miller neither such a violence in the pursuit nor
such an immobility in the wait. But his work has the same ten
dency to cirganize itself like a monolith in front of us. all the while
carrying us off in a verbal torrent, following the fastest rhythm he
can use.The writer's tenses are excraorrunary. A good part of his
books is the narration of events that are supposed to have happened
to him-his life in Paris, for instance, the life of a foreigner who has
no money and who, from one day co the nex_c, stumbles against the
usual incidents of an ex_iscence that lacks everything. Bur these
narratives do not follow the duration they describe. They occur
almost always in the present, and chis present is a simultaneous
cross secci,on of,the most varied moments lived by the writer, not as
memory restores chem co him but in a strange superimposition. le
is as if the proliferation of his language could assure him a true
ubiquity in time, a presence in dimensions char are least reconcil
able, and., as he says, a crab's existence, "chat walks sideways.
forward 01r backward, as it likes." Language creates its duration, and
ii is chis t:xplosive unfolding, chis violent, untiring development,
this exalratcion, char cause to rise from rhe depths of a cext whose
derails are not exceptional, and whose ideas are not very important,
,, vexing, overwhelmjng meaning, an extreme tension that, as in
Lautream.ont, ends up in a frenzied passivity.


From Lautreamont to Mitler

From Lautreamont to Miller

Miller's motivation is neither cruel ty nor harred but insurrection

and defiance, a rebellion for ambiguous truth, because it asserts
itself against constraints of very differenr natures. in the name of an
instinct for freedom char does nor know exactly what it is or what
threatens it. When Miller writes, "I am a man of the oid world, a
seed carried by the wind, a seed that hasn't managed to flower in the
moldy oasis of America.I belong co the heavy tree of the past. Body
and soul, I am liegeman of the inhabitants of Europe, chose who
were once Franks, Gauls, Vikings, Huns, Tartars, what else! ... I
am proud of noc belonging to dus century," we see dearly that his
sedition here is mystified by a dream, fixed by who knows what
obsession of a lost good that must be found and that che rime showa
him. If one can say chat Laucreamonc's vision is made of a funda
mental conflict in which violence and slowness associate, accelera
tion of aces and unified control of rhythm, explosion of meta
morphoses and arrest of all duration, then one must notice that,
with Miller, on a less profound level, the same disagreement occurs,
if the extreme intrepidity of his movement, this rapidity of exis
rertce, this multiplicity of presents that the language expresses seem
like the returning shock of a consciousness that lacks a future and
that seeks only to live again in the past.
This ambiguity is o&en very dramatic in Miller's work. The:
pages be devotes to his walks in Paris, pages that in emotion are as
great as they are simple, have this ability o( freezing us by their heat
and making us feel the exhaustion of what is indefatigable. We
could compare chem to famous pieces by Rilke, on almost the same
theme, in which anguish comes from the life thar comes undone,
and from death that approad1es, and from horror chat makes itself
visible; bur here chis furious walk-raker, whose heart is on fire,
whose walk is endless, is petrified by his very movement, and if he
advances, it is in streets where every step is a seep backward, where
monuments and houses are saturated with dreams already lived out
and with sorrows already experienced, where what looks at him is
the cold, indifferenr cerrainry that, whatever he does, whatever his
rage of running toward the future, it is toward an inaccessible and
losr past, toward death already there, chat his very des ire forces hi.m

to turn back. "It is chat sore of cruelry which is embedded in the

srr eets; it is that which scares out from the walls and terrifies us
when suddenly we respond co a nameless fear, when suddenly our
soiJls are i1vaded by a sickening panic .... It is that which makes
certain boiuses appear like the guardians of secret crimes and their
blin d windows like the emp ty sockets of eyes chat have seen too
much.Ir is. char sort of thing, written inro the human physiognomy
of streets ... that ...makes me shudder when at the very entrance
to rhe Mosque I observe that it is written: 'Mondays and Thurs
days: tubem,losis; Wednesdays and Fridays: syphilis.' ... No maccer
where you go, no matter what you couch, there is cancer and
syphilis. It: is written in the sky; ic flames and dances like an evil
portent.It has eaten into our souls and we are nothing buc a dead
rhing like the moon."
Laucreamonr speaks of an "invincible and rectilinear pilgrim
age." Thair is what Miller calls his "grandiose obsessional walks
char go from one city to another, from one world co another, and
that have no object but an "I go on and on and on," without hope
and without fatigue. His very language is this inexhaustible flux,
this momentum forward, the most ardent, the most vertiginous.
and yet it evokes only an endless return to a life already past, a
monotonous standstill, an unrelenting search for the beginning. "I
love everything that flows," he repeats with Milton, "rivers, sewers,
lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences." Bue he adds: "I love
everything; that flows, everything that has rime in it and becoming,
char bring:S us back co the beginning where there is never end: the
violence of the prophets, the obsceniry chat is ecstasy, the wisdom
of the fanatics.'' The' word "ecstasy" plays a large role in the
creation, by language. of these new continents, these mountains of
cold and solitude that words, in the paroxysm of revolt, try to bring
to life in a world of fu ry, of passion, of action, of drama, of dream,
of madness, a world capable of producing "ecstasy." And thus he
comes to cast his universe "above human boundaries ...because co
be <ll1ly huunan seems co me so poor, so mediocre, such a wretched
husi ness, .limited by meaning, restrained by moral systems and
codes, defined by platitudes and isms." Language seeks thus to


From lautreamont to Miller

From Lautreamont to Mill.er

separate itself from man and even from language; it penetrates

underground, it becomes water, air, night. It enters into the way of
One chapter of Black Spring is tided "Into the Night Life."
Verbal virtuosity and delirium of images attain their greatest mo
mentum there. Everything follows everything else in it with an
ever-quickening rhythm, with the threat of a final outburst, a
definitive catastrophe, lightning that has already left the cloud but
remains suspended. But if we pursue our dialogue with Lautrea
mont, we feel how much here the metamorphosing, dehumanizing
power of Miller remains weak. In Ma/,dQror, something does not
stop slipping below the human horizon, and the most burlesque
transformarions-the eight-tentacled octopus, seraglio with fol,lf
hundred suckers that stick one fine day onto the rottenness of the
Creator, or the giant crab-turtle resuscitated from the sea and soon
mounted on a horse going co meet the All-powerful, himself
changed into a rhinoceros, and the louse mine, great blocks like
mountains that, when the time comes, dissolve, pierce the walls,
invade citi-aU these images express an irresistible movement
toward a different possibility, a physical adherence co something
completely strange. But wich Miller, the scenes show themselves in
vain in their nightmare strangeness; they do not make obvious to
us the closeness of a world where we would not be, and only che
annoyance of following them makes us glimpse the effort at rup
ture of the imagination that supports them.
What is characteristic of Lautreamonr is the triumphant thrust,
the ferocious running beyond human forms, that still succeeds in
arraining chis coagulation by the loss of life that metamorphosis
signifies. In this sense, Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is the quintessen
tial metamorphosis. As Bachelard has shown well, Gregor Samsa
lives more and more slowly; be buries himself in a world of scraps,
he is sticky and viscous, he drags along: one could say that, with
him, even after the metamorphosis, the metamorphosis continues,
that, having become a vermin, eve ry day he falls a little lower, chat
in the end he is nothing more than a breath taken in by a litcle de
composing matter; and it is this very progress inro the fall that ends

up assuring his deliverance. Bur, with Lautreamont, rhe scraoge

ching is clhat everything is ardor, power, exaltation, and chat this
numbness, chis sleep that is metamorphosis, srill occurs. "Meta
morphosis," he says, "never appeared to my eyes but as the high
and magnanimous repercussion of a perfect happiness, that I had
been awai1ting for a Jong time." The "failure" is here accomplished
as a deranged act; degradation expresses the movement in its
paroxysm. lf we look closely at the tendency that most of the
met amorphoses manifest in Ma/,dQror, we see that they result in
equivocal beings, half mollusks, half carnivores, at once capable of
very fast, d ry, heavy movements of a deceitful, dubious life, move
ments involved in a "flaccid substance" thac become unchained in a
srocm of fury and virulence. It is "the old spider of the great
species," whose immense suction has the slowness of an orgy; it is
the octopus with four hundred remades, which sometimes has
wings with which ir can glide above the clouds; it is the crab, by his
powerful pincers of pure aggression, bur, by his marine life, keep
ing the viscosity of that which slides along, the character of a wee,
oozing movement; it is che louse that scratches and sucks; and so
on. One could say that each of these new beings, although precipi
tated intoi the cycle of metamorphoses by drunkenness and exalta
tion, exp,eriences the need to be lost in some kind of stagnant
substance, and to become something that sticks and adheres, ro be
unjfied with a shapeless mass, without which there is no more
metamorphosis possible, if, under the prerext of a different form,
d1is is above all making contact with an absence of form, with the
density and opacity of pure matter.
That Miller's imagination lacks chis sleeping element is what so
many pages of his books show, whose coarseness has frightened
Anglo-Saxon readers (and, it is said: some French readers); in them,
rhey thought they saw the perfection of impropriety, while they
remain almosr invariably removed from the catego ry of the ob
scene, and even of che erotic. Certainly, the words are there and rhe
details are there, too. We know what is happening, and all that one
does not say does get said, all that one fears showing is seen in the
clearest manner. Bur the e.xtreme verbal quickness, the writer's time


From lautreamont to Miller

from Lautreamont to Miller

that is a relentless spontaneity, always in advance of the acrs it

causes co appear, does nor allow the metamorphosis there is in
eroticism, che slow changing of a mind into a body and from a
body into a ching. Eve1yching happens in it as in char story where
he describes himself in the ace of drawing a horse: che horse docs
noc have time co remain a horse, it becomes a sausage, a kangaroo, a
house, a cemetery, it jumps from one form co another, be cannot
find the substance char would immobilize it, and, in conclusion, an
angel appears, and remains, and cannot be erased, an angel in the
middle of a cold blue light. "I wear an angel as a watermark." Yes,
he wears an angel as a watermark as much in his apocalypse of
unbridled anecdotes as in his whirlwind of improper words, for
everything<here is blazing, flame, pursuit of scars, and, finall y, what
surrounds us is still the cold, calm blue light. Yer there are instanrs
that the atmosphere changes: chose in which we touch obsessions,
precisely those instants in which violence becomes fatigue, in
which the thrust forward is nothing more than repetition, mechan
ical wallowing. So extraordinary scenes result. The most violenc
humor seizes onco beings who go on advancing without perceiving
that they have neither feet nor legs, who couple in emptiness, with
the stubborn obstinacy of insects char will never reach each ocher
and, having lose the human signification of their aces, begin co live
without suspecting their cancerous existence.
Humor is one of che main enigmas in Maldoror. It is difficult,
even by obscuring it wich che adjective "black," co give any name
to chis movemenr of deterioration, of disintegration, by which
Laurreamont constantly comes co add a dangerous quali ty co chc
ordering of his rhetoric and to the certain ty of his excess. Ir has
often been said, for example by Jaloux, chat humor was his means
co reestablish the equilibrium of his long, emphatic cadences by
slipping in a critical element, a kind of denunciatory equilibrium.
But ic is rather che contrary. Lautreamont does not make fun of
what be writes co reassure us of the madness of his imaginings.
Sarcasm is nor used here as a counterbalance, as a stabilizing
medium: if it does add something co che reading, ic is a new threat,

by cakiing away from us rhe possibility of t ng what we r d

sriously. The serious is, in face, always reassunng, even when 1t ts a
uest ioin of a dramatic statement; it is the sign that there are stable
;alues, perhaps sadly misled in the situation described co us, but
such ch:ac chey always assure a satisfying dignity and security co our
sadness and our tears. Sarcasm in Maldoror takes away chis support
and certainty from us. It substitutes emptiness for them. It opens
ics language co a disconcerting spectacle chat takes our breach away,
rhac perhaps makes us laugh, as, when we scumble in a hole, we are
easily scized with a fit of laughter. But Laucream.ont cook care co
underline the equivocal nature of chis fit. "Often," be says, "ir will
occur co me co pronounce with solemnity che most ridiculous
propositions; I do noc find char chat becomes a peremptorily
sufficiem motive to enlarge che mouth! T cannot prevent myself
from laiugbing, you answer; I accept chis absurd explanation, buc lee
ic be a mdancholy laugh."
One must say, moreover, chat "humor" in Maldoror is marked
wich ch,e same ambiguous sign chat envdops all irs metamorphoses,
its paralyz ing ardor, and its language, so logical and so obscure. in a
concradliction. Of this language, we have seen how slow it was, how
patient, solemn (he says), wich an obvious search for all chat can
weigh it down, make ic substantial (for example, the constant
substimtion of the noun for che adjective), and also to give it the
solidity of rhetoric at every ordeal (che use of ready-made expres
sions, c!Xpressions made langu age). Humor, in chis implacable,
heavy sfowness, is che intervention of a different "rime": it is the
sudden apparition of a menacing rapidity; it comes like lightning,
ir rises from chis dazzling capaci ty for aggression we see shot
through his whole work. Ar char moment, rhe sentence is sim
plified, it reaches us wichout detour and couches us without warn
ing. It is the sudden, the instantaneous. "The elephant lets itself be
caressed. The louse, no." Yee, chis work of destruction and negation
rhar humor accomplishes is not only a temporary movement, a
kind of alarm bell chat, from time ro rime and suddenly, comes to
throw us into emptiness. while after chis upset we have the righr to


From Lautreamont to Miller

From Lautreamont to Miller

regain our feet in the gravi ty of a faultless rhetoric. Ir happens , on

the contrary, that the slowness, the patience, the solidity of logical
language are themselves as if surrounded by die possibili ty of a
rupture: these reasonable qualities endlessly threaten reason, for
they conceal, in the depths of their seriousness, a sarcasm that
destroys chis seriousness and, in the depths of their tranquillity, a
shanering irruption that makes tranquilli ty impossible.
Where does it come from? First, from chose propositions that arc.
too long, roo sinuous, and as if infinite, that go from one meaui
to another, conrradicc that meaning again, then, insofar as these
jumps ofmeaning are justified by well-reasoned digressions, re
ro the starting point and finally ler themselves glide inco emptiness
because of the very solidity of the logical apparatus involved in an.
absurd order in which this solidi ty seems a derisory anxiety. Over
this stretch of words, sarcasm does nor stop watching, it surroun
it, develops with ic, making constantly present to us, even if it docs
not occur, the possibility of a lightning intervention, so that slow
ness expresses lightning, a.'ld the silent functioning oflanguage, the
unbearable sound of machinery that derails and destroys itself in
the catastrophe. Humor here is the threat of a complete meta
morphosis of language that would change rhe meaning not inro an
absence of meaning bur into a thing, a mirage in face of which any
correct reading is soon transformed into stupor.
Miller chose the cirle Black Spring to express the element of
discord that bursts our in his work. On the level oflanguage, chi,
work also wants to be a cluster of nocturnal lightning bolts, a new
ore, a thing, a veritable story wirhouc words. And yet meramorpho-
sis does not occur, language is always there. ..yords keep their
meaning, images are beautiful images. That is because Miller's
world is a world rhac is too human, in which revolt has its limits. "It
is possible," he writes, "that we are condemned, that there is no
hope for us, for any ofus, bur ifthat is true, let us give voice ro a last
roar, a roar of horrible suffering, to freeze the blood, a shattering
cry of defiance, a war cry!" If he could make us hear chis cry, ic
would still be only a word, like rhe others: never, in his books, do
we approach the last word. Thus we see that a work char is as free as

his, aimed :as it is against what is "false, derived, that is to say

(jccrarure." ,could still not achieve the movement th t wor of
erfec t rhetoric like Maldoror does not stop accomphshmg. It 1s a
ovement that is certainly mysterious and difficult, if it is the
passage from metaphor to metamorphosis.

1 74

1 75

Translated From . .

Translated From ...

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, discovering the

importance of the instant he is in the process of living, repeats ro
himself the word "now" in many languages: now, maintenant.,
ahora, now, heute. Bur he is a little disappointed by the mediocrity
of this vocabulary. "Now," he says, "it has a funny sound co be a
whole world and your life." And he seeks other terms: Esta noche, ct
soir, tonight, heute Abend. He tried co find in these words what they
signify for him, his meeting with Maria, one char is also the
meeting of his last hour, a meeting with death. He then pronounces
the words dead, mort, muerro, and todt, then the words war, guerrr,
guerra, and Krieg. The word todt seems to him the deadest of all; the
word Krieg, what is most similar to war. "Or was it only that he
knew German the least well?''
This impression of Robert Jordan is one to reflect on. If it is rrue
that a language seems so much truer and "more expressive when we
know it less, if words need a certain ignorance to keep their power
of revelation, such a paradox is hardly likely ro surprise us, since
translators never stop experiencing it and since it represents one of
the main obstacles and the main resource of all translation. Jr is a
phenomenon co which the author of "The Girl with the Mirrors"
came back often and for which he has this definition: "The lan
guage to be translated seems at once more imagistic and more
concrete than the language into which we translate it."


This pairadox cannot remain without literary consequences. If

we admit chat one of the objects of literature is co create a language
and a work in which the word "dead'' is really dead, and the word
'war" really war, then it seems that this new language should be, in
reladon co current language, what a text to be translated is ro cbe
language rlhar translates it: an ensemble of words or events that we
understand and grasp, no doubt, perfectly but that, in cheir very
familiariry,, give us the feeling of our ignorance, as if we were
dis covering that the simplest words and the most natural things
could sud1denly become unknown. That literary works want to
keep their distances, chat they seek ro distance themselves from the
whole interval that always makes translation the best and a foreign
work rhe best written, that is what explains (in part) the caste of
symbolism for rare words, the search for exoticism, the success of
"stories of the extraordinary," the vitali ty of all mannerist literature
and a good number of theories aiming co find recipes or formulas
to move away from us a language that seems sometimes so close to
us chat we no longer understand ic.
Ir is welll known that classic licerarure demanded from ancient
culcure an,d ancient languages this disorientation intended to raise
current language co the dignity of a translated language. To trans
pose a Gre:ek or Latin work inco French was enough ro accomplish
the essential pare of a creative acc. Racine, seeking to justify the too
close subject of Bajazet, speaks of ''the distancing of countries that
mends, in some way, the coo-great closeness of the times." ln the
preface to Oedipus, Corneille regrets having lose the advantage of
being only a translator. The moderns assuredly go further. Trans
lated.from Silence, that work by Joe Bousquet, is like the wish of an
entire literature chat would like to remain a translation in its pure
st are, an unburdened translation of something co be translated, an
eff orr to retain of language the only distance that language seeks ro
keep with regards co itself and that must, if pushed, result in its
The inflluence of foreign works on a literature that the richness of
it past, the maturity of its experiences, the certainty of its language
lllake linl1e prone co acts of dependence quickly seems rather


Translated From . .

dangerous. Many good critics complain of American literature:

they judge it nor very original, esteem ir of a mediocre inceresr for a
cukure char for more than halfa century has surpassed naturalism;
they make fun of young writers who think chey are modern by
imitating Faulkner, Dos Passos, or Steinbeck while. for Americans
themselves, chese novelises represent yesterday rarher than tomor
row. To these remarks ochers are added. The technique of chc
American novel is supposed to be in disagreement with our novelis
tic tradition; it implies the decline of arc; it makes useless the
varie ty ofworks and diversi ty ofartists chat it rumbles together in a
lifeless, brutal monotony.
These critics contradict each other curiously. For some, foreign
literature would have the faulr of being too foreign co us, of
distancing us from our arr and ics means. But, for ochers, it has the
inconvenience of bringing us what we already have: simplicity,
objectivity of language, which is the essential pare of classic art,
concerted, economic arr, in which expression attains, by accident
and almost while unaware of it, whar is to be expressed.
Perhaps such judgments oppose each ocher because they all
dem and co be corrected, but perhaps the part of contradictory
crurh char they enclose is also linked to rhe paradox of which we
have spoken. Simplicity and objective rigidity seem foreign ro U$,
an d we seem co have the attraction an d danger offoreign qualities,
as soon as they appear ro us, no longer coming from our language
but transported inro our language, translated, moved away from us,
and as tf fixed in the dist an ce by pressure ofthe translating force. It
is from such a change char so many works gain an originali ty char
surprises rhe lirerarure co which they belong and chat does not
recognize it in chem. Thus are we surprised at the influence ex
ercised by our realise writers (in particular by Maupassant) over
foreign writers who ro us seem hardly realist. Thus do we learn with
wonder thar Flaubert was Kafka's master. Bur, tfthere is something
mysterious rhere, chis mystery will help us perhaps co understand
why we do nor have ro search for rhe importance of these writers
who enjoy such a great renown in France, or for what they bring ro
original, new American literature. For what counts is the meta

Tran.slated From . . .


a new language. this

orphosis rhey undergo by encering inco
capable; their natural
:,a ngc of direction of which some become
strength of an incredible imagination,
JS Jl1 can be taken for the
ror a
their most literary researches c
heir chan:er for
rural sobriety chat distances us
ity as roo deganr and too careful ofits effects. .
The infiluence of what are called the masterpieces of umversa
what language, rbe
literature is pan of chis character: in no matter
translation adjusts
coefficient of deformacion or
they owe, in the
itself exacdy co the capacity of strangen
original language, to their creative ability. For some books,
cranslaror's work is added ro the inicial distancing, doubles it,
so char some of them gain provisionally from this supplemental
aberracion, but little by little rhe disagreement seems too little
grounded in relation co rhe contents, and in the end disappears like
an iUusion. On the contrary, for other works, the act of the
translator annuls all interval and all distancing: cransporred into a
foreign language, they are less foreign than they were before they
were translated; they are, so co speak, translated against the current.
against rranslacion proper ro rhe original arc, a translation that, we
know, mu.st make us discover the word "dearh" as the one best
adapted co death. hue equally strange as death, as a term put far
before us and that we have to recognize, co relearn, as if ic were
comp letely new and first, a word forever unknown, borrowed from
an inaccessible possibility oflanguage, although we felt the perfect
apt ness of ir, and because ofchat it rends endlessly co disappear like
a sign wiclhouc value. Those are works chat are called "umranslar
able," bur only because the translator translates chem necessarily
too much and reimegraces chem into everyday language, from
which ver:y little bad kept chem apace.
Imicacicm ofa work, no matter what the value ofthe imitations
mighr be, always ends up by seriously wounding it. For a short
while and sometimes in a lasting way, rhe work is as ifstricken wich
dc-arh. lf im rhe nineteenth century romanticism underestimated
the merits of Racinian tragedy co a point chat seems incomprehen
ihle co w,, it is because imitations had killed it. Racine, as if he

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were guilty of aU the mediocrities his perfection authorized,

punished by becoming invisible; he was read, his plays were
bur it was not Racine, it was Voltaire, ir was Soumet, who w
heard and watched. So the same erosion that one day red
Racine to the nothingness of an overlong posteri ty can
happen, without dishonor, to che American writers. We note
such an imitation tends to unmake the work of translation, in
as it acclimates it and thus takes away from ir the privilege of
ambiguity; of the instability char make so many great trans
works extraordinary, an instability chat makes these works,
adapted as they are in their new language, threaten at each ins
to return ro their language of origin and oscillate mysterio
between many forms whose perfect suitability is not enough
restrain them.
If we reckoned up the elements that the French novel is s
peered of having borrowed, with too much complacency, fro
foreign books, we would find only elementary technical p
dures: che technique of cl:e objective narrative, the simultaneity
different actions and stories, discontinuity of narrative movem
application of ellipse and litotes to the narrative., use of as im
sonal a language as possible, and of course interior monologue
abundant dialogue. Perhaps their systematic use would make
contemporary novel poorer than traditional rhetoric could. 0
can always wonder. But no serious reader wilJ presume to be able
form an idea of the richness of Faulkner or Joyce or Virginia Wi
to cite only the greatest names, merely from the procedures
more or less illustrared, if not invented. In these conditions,
supposing that the fashion for these tecnniques is due only to ch
influence, chis influence does nor measure whar they are worth
us, what their original works and their translated works are worth.
but measures only the necessity we have to return what we have:
borrowed from chem, chose veritable sepulchers.
Obviously, when we call into question the American novel, as'
chis vague enti ty designated one particular book, we are thinki ng
about only a certain number of formal qualities, isolated by
ysis, not ones we could find only in atl important foreign works bur

aio ones we have come to know through French books, not ve.ry
rnerous. char use the same means of expression. This confusion,
n rn ngly inevitable, is favored by che use of key words. The words
e i
bjertitir. impersonal, are words of chis kind chat one applies indif
;ere ndy co che most varied examples of the American novel. It is
eas y, no do1ubt, and useful, perhaps, to underline this predomi
ce of objective narrative and to draw general conclusions from
n an
it: co know chat if the heroes of these books can calk about chem
sd vcs in an impersonal way, even when the narrative is in the first
person, iris because they are deprie of atl ner eality, chat they
are nothing else r.ban rhe banal op101ons, soctaUy interchangeable,
char chey exjpress, nothing else than the empty actions they accom
plish under the pressure of instincts whose violence is without
mysrery, no,ching more than a kind of heavy inconsistency, of
powerful absence held in the fabric of a coUectivity and of a story
chat goes where it can. All chat has been said, analyze d, and studied
in thousands of ways. What we would like to note is that the
technique of the objective narrative is in no way linked to such a
view of the world. What is it, after atl? Simply that of the quintes
senrial novel and, to a certain extent, rhe fundamental demand of
every work of fiction and perhaps even of every literary expression,
if rhe effort to go from I to He {even naturally when the I remains
che apparent form), the effort to put distance between language
and us, to g,rasp us again by way of a reality that seems co slip away
even less when it finds, co incarnate itself, a collection of events and
Words more foreign to us-in a word, if this attempt at disposses
sio n boch of language and of ourselves is che essential pare of
Llrerary experience. When we speak of th.is objective narration as a
procedure bdonging to our rime, ic is probably true, but it is also
lrue cha r its masterpiece was written eigh years ago and is called
ir and Pe,ice. And one can certainly answer chat the impersonal
form goes much further in the works of today, chat it is so rigorous
that ir exdui des all intervention of che aurhor either to illuminate
the beings or co tell the story, for in truth, the story is no longer
told, ic happens, it is realized under our eyes by the acts of rhe
characte rs, :and we know of it only whar their actions teach us.




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These remarks are correct, but to how many works do they applyt
And yet the word "impersonal" continues co serve as a label for all
contemporary American literature, as if the impersonal form oF
Sanctuary were the same as The Big Money or The Grapes of Wrath.,
as if the language of a Faulkner in which images burst forth and
intermingle, in which the words, carried co a dangerous degree of
heat, seem to belong to a language in fusion, had nothing i"
common with the obstinate, furious ingenuity of a Wright or
grave detachment of a Steinbeck.
One significant example of the use of key words seems to us t
following: after having spoken about the impersonal form of
Passos in his trilogy, excellem critics speak in the same tone abo
the impersonal form of Hemingway in For Whom the Bell To
Hemingway seems to the French public ro be the representative
all American lirerarure. If one speaks of che novd from across t
Atlantic, it is of Hemingway chat one chinks. If one wanes to sh
that Camus's The Stranger uses American technique, one asse
following Sartre's remark: "It is Kafka written by Hemingway." Yi
it is somewhat remarkable that the most accomplished works
tlus novelist, those in which be truly showed what he was capab
of, escape the genre of which he is usually taken as the master. Tha
is because exactly this impersonal form (the category in which one
cries co grasp ir for convenience) resembles much more that
Tolstoy than that of The Stranger. A Farewell to Arms is a narrative
in the first person. This narrative is certainly remarkable for th
sobriety of expression, the discretion of feelings, the care of
hero co stay at a distance from the action in which he participates,
but this erasing of the character behii1d what he says and behind
what happens is not more complete or more systematic than in r
and Peace, and ir succeeds wonderfully in making us aware nor of
the crushing of an individual in the impersonal debacle that is war,
bur of rhe legitimacy of his refusal, his inclination co withdraw
from an absurd scory, his decision co give co his own face a conclu
sion thar does not concern him. And no doubt this decision irsdf
has a cenain fatal narure: it is born from che incoherence of war in
which the ace of desertion seems co be imposed by those who make

cnme qf it and. moreover, ir results in a failure, foe into the most

accornpHshed individual face the mosr impersonal of all forms
insinuare:s itself, that of death. Bur such a theme, it goes without
saying. does not belong to the philosophy of American technique.
So we, coo, can share in the pleasure of comparisons, ler us cite
rWO cexcs. The hero of A Farewell to Arms has just been wounded,
and is led to a field hospital: "They picked me up and rook me into
the dressing room. lnside they were operating on all the cables....
The major was unhooking che forceps now. dropping chem in a
basin. l followed his hands with my eyes. Now he was bandaging.
Then the screecher-bearers cook the man off the table. 'I'll take the
AmericaJn Tenence,' one of the captains said. They lifted me onto
che cable. Ir was hard and slippery. There were many strong smelJs,
chemicall smells and the sweet smell of blood." And here is a well
known passage from Wlr and Peace, when Prince Andrei has just
been wounded: "One of che medical office.r:s went out of the cent.
Between his thumb and little finger he delicately held a cigar that
he feared dirtying, for his little hands were, like his apron, covered
with blood. He raised his head and lee his gaze wander above the
wounded. He obviously wanted co cake a little air. After turning to
right and left, he sighed and brought his gaze back to che ground.
'Yes, right away,' he answered the nurse who was pointing out
Prince Andrei co him, and be gave the order to bring him into the
tent. A murmur rose among che wounded who were waiting.
'Seems rbac in che other world coo. there's room only for sirs!' said
one. They placed the prince on a table that was free and that a
nurse had just rinsed. Andrei could not make our in decail what
rhere was in the cent. The plainrive cries chat rose from everywhere,
the s harp pain he felt in his side, abdomen, and back absorbed him
completely.The spectacle chat was in front of his eyes was confused
in a sin1le impression of human flesh, naked and bleeding, chat
, l'.med co fill this low cent."
The nauative of For Whom the Bell Tolls is in the third person.
Bur the most casual reading shows how much ic remains foreign co
the rules of so-calJed objective narration.The narrative is not made
fron1 above, following che easy methods of whar we can call a false.

Translated From ..
bad objectivi ty; it unfolds almost exclusively from the point
view of Robert Jordan, reproducing, with few exceptions, what
knows of rhe story, whac he learns about it, what he does in ic,
whar he sees done. Bue this gaze by which things are illuminated
nor a simple light rhac would give chem the emptiness of j
transparency. Robert Jordan is uniced in the strongest way co
action that carries him along, be chose to participate in ic and,
his eyes, it is noc distinguished from chis free, personal choice.
would be easy to show that the progress from A Farewell to Arms
For Whom the Bell Tolls is at the expense of the impersonal fo
Having joined che r914 war, as Robert Jordan had joined
Spanish Civil War, che American lieutenant of the fuse
remains, however, on the surface of the conflict, of which
experiences neither the force nor the profundity, so that his in
vidualisc refusal of the end also has the nature of a game, of a Ii
couch, of fleeing from the surface of things, a.nd seems ro us exte
co icself, lightly impersonal, so that its description of war is affec
with chis same disinterestedness. On the contrary, the volunteer
the Spanish Civil War forms one body wirh rhe story, he
neither the will co cake himself away from ic nor the hope. co get
of it; this little collective episode, chis light burst in the Span'
conflict, itself like waves in che midst of a vaster conflict, in
days expresses and absorbs his enrire life. Bue co the very extent
his life has become rhar of the liccle group of partisans, with wb
he muse, behind the fascist lines, on the night before'an offuis'
blow up a bridge char commands the transport of enemy re.info
ments, to the extent that this Life can no longer separate itself
the common !or or evade the mortal' outcome char will also
common, he keeps his personal feeling, and the freedom of
gaze, and his search for a face thar will be unique ro him, in t1mosc startling way. From many sides, this witness is nor an excrao....
dinary type of man. Little developed policically, as he knows.
professor on vacation, whose vacat.ion deliberately rook che form o
a serious adventure that be decided co follow not our of dileuart..
rism, or our of a caste for violent actions, or even out of simpk
sympathy of Spain, bur out of a deep instinct of which his liberal

Tramlated From . . .
in Life" are only rather weak indicabis faith "in Freedom,
knows fear,
. ns ' he remains essenually a man like others, who


b, ';chout

drunkenn,ess anct perhaps with a certain heav1.nes , ?r s rranuiJlicy is not the ignorance of what threatens him, it 1s indifference
gr.1.fldiloquence, to theatrical gesticulation, outside of tragedy,
not inside.
Ir is gen erally accepted that the characters of the American novel
have rhe afr of robots, led by what they do rather than masters of
their acrs. Robert Jordan is a man who, at the grave moments of his
life. srruggles for lucidity and self-protect.ion. "It was the greatest
gift that h,! had, che talent chat fitted him for war ; chat ability not co
ignore but: to despise whatever bad ending there could be.'' Neither
is this lucidity an incomparable quality: it is hardly Like tbe ex
treme vivatdty of refleccion of a Julien Sorel that neither passion nor
madness l1essens; it is even more the expression of an inner solem
nicy, the result of a patience chat waits for the righr moment co
direct an exacc gaze on men and events. His gaze needs ro be
correct, our of a need for justice, and since this need is also che
pr ofound reason for his participation in the conflict and for the
conflict ir:;elf, we comprehend how, all the while playing his role in
ic, by approaching seep by seep the death that will be che dawn of
the foun:hi day, he can remain a witness capable of reflecting, ac
cord ing co their correct meaning, on the events and beings of a
grear rrag,edy.
Thar under chis gaze the other figures of the drama keep an
exrrn.ordinary power of expression and life is what all readers have
seen and admired. Ir is enough co recall the image of Pilar, char
woma n about whom there is something barbarous, as her compan
ions say, bur whose barbarism is a wonder of civilizacion. That is
bc:cause bi er fu ry, her ardor, and her coarse strength, though in
co nldct with an existence always open co rhe worse, do not stop
finding thie greatest freedom and a rigor of appreciation, a demand
for rrue things and feelings that do nor put up with, on her part or
anyone d.se's, the leasr averred gaze. One will notice chat almost atl
the memlbers of chis little band of gi,errilleros are capable, with
1 .


Translated From


Translated From


regard to themselves and others, of lucidi ry and sangfroid. And

is why the drama of the head of the partisans, this Pablo who was I
very good agitator, bur who now thwares Jordan's work out of fear
and fatigue, and who does nor stop, during the entire scory, being
on the edge of betrayal, is the drama of clairvoyance that secs
fatal outcome and, fascinated by ir, transforms through a crafty
change into this bizarre sadness that is the sign of decline.
Because each one has formed a pact with the pride of an impar
tial judgment, each one can also participate in the story he live,,
not as an amorphous spectator bur as a wicness who will be the
impetus and che hard, dispassionate necessiry of this story, if
could stop for an instant and turn back co see itself and speak it.sci
Thus che narratives of Pilar enlarge the episode to the level of
whole civil war, just as the narratives that Jordan makes for hi
put the events of these days oo the level of all char he lived in the
distant past and in the near past, as if through the swiftest actioa
these could open, for each of chem, the perspective of anothct
duration, of an already historical existence, able co be told and to
judged as definitive. Hemingway's novel unites the structure of the
tragic narrative co char of the epic narrative. He reconciles, in a vu,
simple composition, the violence of an action, as narrow as po
ble, and the scope of a story that is nor hurried by ics denouement.
For Jordan, it is a question in these four days oot only of preparing
and carrying our the operation assigned to him, of surmouncinf
unforeseen obstacles, of conquering Pablo's resiscan of triumph
ing over snow, and conquering the presentiment that this opera-
cion will be of no use. the Republicans' offensive being almos t
surely doomed to failure, but also of accomplishing his own per
sonal destiny by living with the young Spanish woman, the young
woman with the shore hair, whom he meets ar the very moment
when everything is ending for him. And of course the more the
action builds coward a climax and speeds up, the more the tragedy
profits from this tightening of duration to raise feelings and acts co
a tension such char we are rooted co the spot, and at the same cim e
hurled forward coward a conclusion that is so inevitable that it is
already lived through for everyone. There is no possibiliry of rest-


. in this drama whose law is to know resp ice no more. Yee it is also

story LS intro
t this moment thac the tranqu11 present of che
breathless present of tragedy,
:010 rhe
hat alread y consumes us the patience and rhe
which the narrative
denigration, as the
than the lightning
un moving foumdarion of
approach of the lase instant, which is coming.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is scarcely differeoc from classical com
positions. Ir is not innovative, aod if it does use cechniues
interior morwlogue, such
mono logues a.re often very forrunace, because they keep the silent
nacure of words that, although accomplished from the formal point
of view, do no c seem co be entirely said; they give the impression of
a used language, still to be made or co be remade because it has
been screeched coo chin. In French novels (except in Sartre), it
seems that chiis impression is not often met with: it muse be said
thac monologue turns sour in them, and seems either an exercise of
loud rhetoric or a commodiry that lers itself be coo much on
display; interior speech in them seems always more exterior than
interior. and its stammering, instead of lessening ir. gives ic a
paradoxical character. Why are translated monologues more likely
co seem to us i;ilent and turned within? For many reasons. but first,
because they are translated. Translation, if ic is good, brings with it,
without recourse to an artificial incoherence, the feeling of a light
space between the words and what they aim ac, of a possibility for
them to slip outside of this form they have been given to return co
che scarring point, that is here the original Language but char also
symbolizes che: original background on which words are imposed co
be born from a language that scarcely separaces itself from emp
ti ncs. Monologue in French novels is generally nor translated
enough. I c doc:s not send us back co another language and, coo sure
ofit sturrerings. ir succeeds only in drawing attention co the words
it finds, nor m the words it replaces, and for which ics only role
hould be co make their silent, ungraspable presence felt.
We could ponder dialogue in modern novels from a similar


Translated From . .

point of view. We know how it alway s takes up a larger space

them, but char at the same rime ir keeps even more ro the level III
narrative and action, either so char it allows the characters to assc
themselves without explaining themselves, or so char the quality
banality (with which they are reproached) serves to embody
evenrs and co coat them, to make of them no longer pure even
direct object of a narrative, but the events of the characters th
selves, as they experience them and live chem. The result is
dialogue is quite importanc, but also that it muse remain not
visible, char it can make itself understood only as the beginning
acts that it announces or as the means of a presence with which it
confused and from which ic borrows its taciturn narure. So
logue counts very much and is very silent. That is almost
the nature it has in Sanctuary or in Steinbeck. In ocher books
to stay with Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, dialogue does n
seek to anain silence by terseness bur by an excess of chatter, by
come-andgo of easy conversations beneath which the seriousn
of what musr be understood is revealed. Thus, in She Came to S.
the interminable dialogues in which some have seen, wrongly,
badly calculated move, are there to distract us from themselves
co make us aware, behind the brilliant ease of the words, of
obstinately silent voice of one who, even when she speaks, does
speak, a presence rhar is eager, free, and also absent, because forei
co words.
Let us admit it, these successes are rare. le is dangerous to ap
co the futility of rigor as image and co what is said too easily as
sign of what cannot be said. The greatt danger is not that
words are poor or nuU, but char chis nullity, far from making them
invisible, fixates us on chem. In rranslared novels, dialogue, often
long and dragged ouc, serves usuaUy as filler, buc less acruaUy co
mask holes in the continuity chan to make us see the emptiness that
ic cannot fill. Ir is nor the natural that helps them, or a special
aptitude to preserve, in the midst of verbiage, a minuscule zone
silence, bur even more (it seems to us) chis impression char che
language char is spoken in dialogue is a borrowed language, to
which che characters remain foreign., in which consequently there

Translated From .
re :ains more for them to say than they say, and in which
l ys m
words are not acruaUy words but a translation, a text for which
t e1r
n,ot responsible, and thr is only halfway their own.
rbeY are
they seem more distant to us bcause.they adhere
Because of chat,
words, they overfl w hem, they waJt b.ehmd, and the
l ess co lheir
icac 100 that every skill! anslator
feeling of imperfect commun
m restoring to them in silence aU
knows how ro handle involves us
co another has made them lose,
char the passage from one language
have aUowed them to express .
and all chat: no language would ever
Hemingway, writing a novel on Spain, throws Spanish words
convention, for
from rime 1ro time inco the dialogue. Rather a naive
ic has the air of wanting co remind us that
are nor so
know how co speak in Spanish. However, the effects
is it
simple. Tolstoy himsdf posed the question to himself: "Why
chat in my work not only
sometimes' in Russian, sometimes in French?" And Tolscoy justifies
himself in a curious way, by acknowledging the right co make dark
areas-shadows-and light alternate at his will. Well, it happens
that in Hemingway's work Spanish words play the role of shadow,
of a glirreri.ng, provoking shadow, and that they thus hollow out the
surface of language, introducing into it all kinds of differences of
level and rather neatly disorienting languages co make them aU
foreign (which is again che case in War and Peace, in which French
pbrases placed in the mouths of characters seem to us from a
langu age trhar is as different from our own as Russian can be,
glimpsed !behind the French of the translation). Bur nothing else
hap pens i1n no maccer what well-translated novel capable of wel
coming rhe rranslaror's work: there is no need of any Que va, guapa,
or nada, or of any cerm in italics, for the distancing of the text co
wo rk. The slight gap indicates that what we are reading is nor
exactly what we should be reading, and also the meramorphosis by
which we feel, aU through our usual language, interstices and
empcincss:es open up, when we are ac liberty to watch the extremely
ll\ystcrious approach of another language, completely unknown
to u..
11 is perhaps unsuitable to recognize in translated works, from

Tram/,ated From . . ,
the fact o: their translation, merits that might be lacking in sitnilar
works written in an originaJ language. But first, we do no r see
the ct f the translator should nor be appreciated as the quint
enaal literary ace, one which prop oses that the reader rem
1gorant f the text ir reveals to him, and from which his ignor
w1 nor distance him. T nstead, ic will bring him closer by beco
acnv by epreseating to him the great interval that separates
from u. le is true that these merits are perhaps only apparent;
have the vaJue of a mirage; they vanish if we are roo attentive
chem. Even ore, one can evaluate such dangerous qualities. li
good a bargain, a translated text mimics the effort of creation
starring from everyday language in which we live and are i
mersed, seeks to make another language be born, same in
parance and yer, with regard ro this language, like its absence,
difference perpetually acquired and constantly hidden. If forei
works encourage and stimulate imitation more than our
works, it is because imitatio n, in th.is case, seems ro reserve for us
greater personal role, especially because the imitator, fascinated,
tne translated teict, by the strangeness rhac the passage from O
langu g co another provokes, thinks chat it can cake the place
the ongmality he seeks. Unfortunately, even if he borrows from
odel only what he has the right ro borrow, he will forger to be
his turn a translator and he will renounce making his langu
undergo the tran smutatio n that from one single language ,m
dra out two, one thar is read and understood without deviation.
while rhe ocher remains ignored, silent, and inaccessible. Jes at,.
sence (the shadow of which Tolstoy speaks) \s all that we grasp ofit.


The Novels of Sartre

People wonder why the novel of ideas has a bad reputation. The
complaints arc many. The ''idea" itself complains of the excess of
truth char ir is supposed to acquire from the adventure. Alive in the
cheorecical millieu where it coo k shape, its transplanracion among
the reflectio ns of real things makes chem into dead thoughts. In
novels of this kind, the characters are reproached for being lifeless,
hue it is the id,a chat is lifeless: it no longer resembles anything buc
itself, ir has only its own meaning; the artificial world hides it roo
poorly, it is more visible there than in its original bareness, so
visible that it scarcely has any secrets to offer us. Of La Roche
foucauld and other moralists, we are cold: these are the novelists. So
be ic. But, if rheir maxims are living (sometimes), it is because they
make us think about novels chat would nor make us think about
th eir maxims.
On the side of the work, the objections are no less categorical.
Still. they are strong only from the point of view of a certain
conception of the work of arr, one from che end o f rhe nineteenth
century, accoi,ding co which art, being an absolute, does nor have co
have its go al outside of itself. Bur the novel has never wanted co
accommodate itself entirely co chis ambition. Willing to represent
imaginary liv(:s, a story or a society that it proposes co us as real, ir
dt'Pends on this reality of which it is the reproduction or equiv
alenc_ If it is a copy, it is a prisoner o f the things it describes; it does

The Novels ofSartre

not want; cercaily, co prove anything, yer ir is in collusion with the

w?rld, with the 1d at we form of it, with literary verisimili ru<fc.
with our own condmon, ere. Even the novel that is only a narrati
ae co ple ies in it all kinds of ideas, extremely consequcn.
ual ideas, since it ts the whole horizon of ideas and prejudices
reader requires if he is ro be capable of being amused. And w
about chis purest arr, which does nor know today that ir is them
impure, made guilry by its innocence, arr of propaganda beca
disinterested, an arc in which the sociecy, in the perfect world
culture, finds a warrant for its abuses?
So there is no literary art rh._at, directly or indirectly, does n
want ro assert or prove a truth. Then why do we tend to disc
the liceracure of ideas? Doesn'r such a condemnation amount
rejecting the writer who knows what he wan rs to say in favor of
writer who knows nothing of it and pushes the unconsciousness
the poim of thinking he has no ideas, while he is the servant
everyone's ideas-is that what is called impartial, objective,
Must a work necessarily mean something? Why should it signify
only by chance or by luck? And since, as readers, we are destined
be associated with some particular view of the world, shoul
honesry be rhere to present it to us clearly, without playing
underhand trick on us? Shouldn't it play candidly with us (
characteristic or defect of ideological works)?
Unforrunacely, fictional work has nothing to do with honesty:
cheats, and exists only by cheating. It is hand in glove, in ev
reader, with the lie, with the equivocal, an endless movement
trickery and hide-and-seek. Its reali cy is to glide between
which is and that which is not, its truth is a pact with illusion. le
shows and it rakes away; it goes somewhere and pretends nor tO
know it. Ir is in the mode of che imaginary that it meets the real, it
is by fiction that ic approaches the truth. Absence and constanr
disguise, it progresses by oblique ways, and the obviousness char is
its own has the duplicicy of lighr. The novel is a work of bad faith,
bad faith on the pare of the novelist who believes in his characters
and yet sees himself behind chem, who does not know chem,
realizes them as unknowns, and finds in the language of which he is

The Novels of Sartrt


am asrer the means of manipulating chem without ceasing co

believe:: chat they are escaping him. Bad th o'. the reader wh
la 5 wirh the imaginary, who plays at being thJs hero that he 1s
itsdf be taken
pno,ly at rakin,,u for real what is fiction and finally lees
at a d'.sfor char,
ancc::, finds again a possibilicy of living the mean mg of this ex1snce. There is no doubt char literature despises the philosophical
novel becaus,e of the good faith of this kind of novel, because it
makes obvio,us what it means, and because ic puts itself honestly.
entirely, in tl1e service of truth: it is not divided against itself, or
it would perish. (Gide's sentence "With beautiful emotions one
makes bad lirerarure" has perhaps no other meaning: good feelings
weigh heavily on this wickedness that art has in ic. lfLa Fontaine's
Fttbks often seem immoral, it is nor because of bad morals but
because of cbie indifference of the narrative to the moral that con
cludes it: too visibly, the work makes fun of the meaning it gives
itself. On the: contrary, the most immoral novel, if ic is a philosoph
ical novel, ends by giving an impression of crushing moralicy, as
with the first: Justine by Sade.)
Yet honesty is not the only fault of the philosophical novelise.
Suspect because of his good faith, he is also suspect on account of
the good faith that he cannot gee rid of. He remains, in fact, a
novelist: he :also makes use of fiction, he seeks out characters, he
wants co repiresenc reali cy-ir is a way open to abuses. ln vain does
he people his books with uncomplicated heroes, in vain does he
rigorously su.bmic his story to che test it proposes; nothing comes of
ic; or, rather. everything works, bur against him. Now his pro
paga ndise honescy seems dishonest co us; his characters without
dissimulation smell of hypocrisy. Whac has happened? This: for
good or for evil, he has embarked into fiction, that is co say, in the
mo sc banal caning of the word, into lie. His truth is now a lie. He
hai. ente red into the bad, and can save himself only by the worst.
Literary airt is ambiguous. Thar means that none of its demands
can exclude the opposing demand; on the contrary, the more they
oppr,se each other, the more they evoke each other. Thac is also
why no literary situation is definitively settled. Literature is made


The Novels ofSartre

of words, and these words work a continuous transmutation &o111

e real to the unreal and from the unreal to the real: they breathe
evnrs, real details, tangible things, and project them into aii
1mag,mary co struct and, ar rhe s:11:1e time, make this imagina
real and offer it as actual. This act1v1ty thar makes us live what wt
now as if it were unknown, and regard as true what we could nev
live ar all. must sometimes necessarily give the one who practices
the feeling of a remarkable power, such thac he can, thanks to i
make discoveries and learn more than he knows. When he wti
he comes to feel that he is either the agent of higher powers or
more modestly-to recognize the original experience in his activi
as a kind of way of knowledge and means of research.
No need to point our how current this idea is coday.
possibility of fiction becoming a revelarory experience haunts
our modern literature. Bur recognized as means of knowledge,
and even the novel are inevitably called co meet with other incellco,
rual disciplines. This meeting has nothing extraordinary aboudt; ft
was almost constant in the entire history of d1ought. From the p
Socratics to Dante, from Leonardo da Vinci co Goethe, fro
Cervantes to Kafka, history is marked by works of arr that not onl
expound ideas but also discover them, that are not content with,
illustrating a certain image of our condition bur deepen it and
make it change. Let us go further. Philosophy, giving up hope 0,.
getting it all sorted our b y means of systems, abandoning pr-eco n
ceived ideas and implicit constructions, turns back co things, to
world and men, and seeks co grasp them in their unobscured
significance, This philosophy describes what ppears, tbat is co say,
whar really shows itself gradually in what appears, it is interested in
real situations, ir immerses itself in rhem co find itself on the level of
profundity in which the drama of existence is played,
We might think thac if Jean-Paul Sartre, at the same rime as
important philosophical works, wrote novels, play-s, and critical
essays chat are no less imporcaoc, this capacity for such differenr
works is peculiar to him and expresses only che diversity of his gifts.
Jr is a fact, however, that union in one man of philosopher and
writer of equal excellence also comes from the possibility tbat

The Novels ofSartre


It is clear that
plI ilosophy and literature offered to combine in him.
1f we
he is only a sr riking
hink of Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Bataille, Albert Camus, Jean
rlnier. Gabriel Marcel, Brice Parain, Jean Wahl, we feel how
dis ranr the tione is when Bergson had recourse to Proust to comose novels, when Taine abandoned philosophy without doing
ercer cban Thomas Graindorge, when Voltaire could not manage to
be either a novelise or a philosopher. That is because in truth, works
of jjccion a.re more and more besieged by theoretical aims, and
because tbeor,etical works are more and more addressing problems
tbac demand concrete expression. Existentialists or not, poets,
novelists, and philosophers pursue similar experiences and re
searches, they are involved in a similar way in the same drama co
which they have to give an image or whose meaning they have to
seek. If rhey work our their salvation, it is by ways so little different
char one is tempted to take chem all together.
Narurally, these general remarks explain nothing. Even purely
literary questiions char are posed starting from such a phenomenon
arc just as difficult as problems we caU "fundamental," since from
then on, literature and, consequently, technique have a meaning
and value that are exrraliterary. For example, one could try co see
why Sartre's novels are viable, but chat would lead us to pose
questions of this kind: Why does Sartre need to seize certain
philosophical! problems by way of novelistic fiction? To what extent
is novelistic work for him noc a mode of exposition, or a means of
persuasion, but a field of experience, a possibility of discovery, etc.?
AH these questions still evade us for now. If we leave the books
themselves, iit is only to arrive at rather banal reflections. This :first:
chat Sartre, ilfl his literary works, is in the grip of questions char are
cencral for him-in Nausea, ic is rhe problem of existence, in Roads
to F1'l!edom , the problem of freedom. Each time, he puts into
qucsrion his vision of cbe world, he seems to take it up again &om
norhing, he exposes himself to ics risks and dangers, and the way
<)ln he heads coward (admitting there is a way out) remains as
unk nown to him as it is to us.
Thar, ar least, is che most remarkable trait of Nausea. Thar novel

The Novels ofSartre

is an experience and the narrative of an experience. Antoin
e Ro,.
quentin confro ts i pulse wich escapes him and from w

he feels, everything 1s going
to slip. T he approach of this impulse
as important as the revelation by which he grasps the meaning
or rather, it is pare of chis revelation, ic is this revelation: trial ,
error, blind progress, methodical obsession, presence of a radi
change chat is already there and chat yet conceals itself, mee
with what one has found and that one is unaware of, that
couches and chat Bees, in which one is constantly embedded
drowned, and that one loses and lacks constantly. When Roqu
tin is finally face to face with existence, when he sees it, un
stands it, and describes it, he actually has nothing more
nothing changes, the revelation does nor enlighten him, for it
not ceased being given co him, and it puts an end to nothing; it is
his fingers chat feel and in his eyes chat see, chat is to say, it
continuously absorbed by his being that lives it. If the criti
moment of every novel of ideas is the conclusion, when the thesis
unveiled and suppresses ambiguity, Nausea, which is a quint
rial novel of revelation, emerges intact from chis trial, insofar as
idea chat shows itself cannot be distanced from the character
sees ic, chat enters into him, takes him, and, as Sartre likes to sa
sticks co his consciousness, as it rends to stick in the reader's. T h
we always lack the word of the story, if chis word, as soon as w e h
it, fills our ears; as soon as we read it, becomes the murkiness
density of our gaze.
In Nausea we do not know where the experience is going, and
the experience does not know where it is going, and when we see
where it arrives, on the one hand, the anticipatd presence of chis
denouement chat was always there causes there not to be any
denouement, and on the other hand, the meaning of chis denoue
ment necessarily becomes what we are, throwing us l.>ack into the
experience and involving us in it more and more. Two of the
essential conditions of literature are safeguarded: the tendency
belonging to fiction and language to offer themselves as a means of
discovery and nor as a means of expressing what has already been
discovered; and the ambiguity of the message, an ambiguity that is

The Novels ofSartre


here at its height, since it confuses itself with the existences of che
aurh or, the character, and the reader.
In Roads to Freedom, it is certainly nor so easy to see where they
Iead since we do not know the destination. Enough to say chat,
de sp ite che two large volumes that have already appeared, the novl
doe s not exist, it is entirely yet to come. Naturally, we know that 1t
is a question of a novel on freedom, but when chat is understood,
we und erstand that we do not know anything. What will this
freedom mean? How will it reveal itself to itself? What ways will it
cake as goal without being exhausted in contradictions? Finally,
how will it involve itself in the world, since it will probably be real
only by becoming the freedom of the world? To ail these questions,
we have a premonition of an answer, but chis premonition is
theoretical and it is more of a threat (for this book that also has the
right co be free) than an aid to understand what we know of it. ln
The Age of Reason and The Reprieve, freedom is certainly always
present. One of the main characters, Mathieu, professor of philoso
phy, is openly in battle with it; with him it is at once an obsession
and a choice, a "vice" and a "bet." As an adolescent, he had one day
the full, abrupt, inexplicable sensation of his existence. On chis
impression the entire plan of his future has played: to be free, to
draw his entire life into the ease of this exceptional moment.
This plan, when the book begins, is at a standstill. It is July or
August of 1938. Mathieu is struggling with various personal trou
bles: his girlfriend cells him that she is pregnant, he has no money,
the only doctor he can find is coo expensive. One day, he becomes
aware chat his girlfriend would like to keep the child. What can he
do? He is ready to marry her, without enthusiasm he offers to do so,
she refuses, marries a friend, etc. One cannot say chat this little
scory of his during one fine summer is extraordinary; it is no more
so than his conduct, which seems to us that of jusc about everyone.
le is true thac at a certain moment he steals (he cakes some money
rhac he needs from a woman's house), and in this form it is an
Unusual action. (There is a lot of stealing in these novels: one of his
former students steals from shop windows out of methodical plea
sure, our of a caste for a well-devised act. In Simone de Beauvoir's


The Novels ofSnrm

The Novels ofSartre

The Bwod o Others. a young woman steals a bicycle she wan es. Ir

,.;e11e, in the course of that evening before Munich in which war

an innocent survival of the graruirous acc.) Bur, aside from

prank, Mathieu is rather scrupulous, excessively involved in mo
and, on the whole, good concerns. What happens co him is chac,
the smaUesc deeds of his current life, he cl ashes with his freedo
and feels only emptiness. He wants co "keep his freedom," as
say, he reserves himself, he conceals himself; and this is noc out
egotism, it is not even co obey his "plan," for this plan has nochi
deliberate or theoretical about it: he chose that his life be this
and he lives his choice poorly. "If I didn't rry co assume res
sibility for my existence," he says, "ic would seem absurd to me
ex.isc." So instinctively and desperately he cries co cake conuol
himself by refusing co be just anything. Ar eacb instant this ob
sive fear appears: Is che die cast? Am I noc a once-and-for-all se
being, a "lose" man? He needs co be unattached, and is, co
purpose. He is free, single, nothing ties him down, but his life
dead, he is fixed in place, everything is empty. That is how we arri
at the "age of reason," chis serious age chat rakes the side of fuil
and knows how co build a comfortable life on ic.
The difference between Antoine Roquencin's adventure and
of Mathieu is obvious. The former is involved, from che beginni
in an experience from which he wilJ noc emerge, whatever happ
he is taken, he has felt existence, existence will not let him go.
no doubt Mathieu has also felt freedom, and freedom will not
him go either: he is not free to srop being free; his freedom is ia.
him, his freedom is him, it shows icself in each one of his actions,
holds him. Still, both situations cannot buc evolve in diffc
ways. For Roquentin, it is such that revelation wiU not change him,
that it can in no way become new: when he comes ro understa.lld.
that his unease, this sly, deceitful, and capricious nausea, is only dllf
unveiling of things that exist, he will have reached che bottom of
his story, yer. in a certain way, he will not knbw anything more
about it; in any case, there is nothing more he can do. Mathieu' s


freedom, on the ocher hand, is nor just a situation char is experi

enced and elucidated. Marhieu certainly has his revelation, roo , his
"discoveries." The most important is described to us in The Rr

p ,n,s inevitable and in which the mobilization and fear disturb

:::rrrhing. Mathieu is on chc Ponc-Neuf: suddenly he discovers it,
his freedom he has sought in vain, chat he w-d.llted to meet in some
c ecial ace or in an exceptional moment. "I have been looking very
& (or this freedom; ir was so close that I couldn't see ic, I couldn't
rou ch it, ir was only me. I am my freedom.'' 1t is the imperceptible
distan ce chat separates him from alJ things, the inappreciable mar
gin srarcing om whicl ther show themselves and that can neve
be filled in. Freedom ts exile, and I am condemned to be free.
But this revelation must be a new starting point: it is a question
of knowing if Mathieu is going ro cake responsibility for it, if, now
thac he knows the meaning of bis freedom, inalienable, always
present, he is going co claim it, to cake charge of it completely and
assert it i.n the world, by acting in such a way that it can choose
itself and locate the situations thus produced as situations of free
dom. In other words, Mathieu first of aU experienced freedom as an
original deed, in tbe same way char Roquentin experienced exis
tence. Whac separates chem from each ocher is, 6rsc, chat Roquen
tin battles with an unknown phenomenon, about which, if be is
wrong, he still is not mistaken, while Mathieu seeks freedom more
or less deliberately, is mistaken about it, confuses ic sometimes with
an empty gratuitousness, sometim es with personal independence,
and, in a general way, with the need to be without chains, to be
finally led, lace, before the aucbentic awareness of that which is.
What also, and more profoundly, separates them is that this revela
rio n is nor a new beginning for Roquentin, but that ic must be one
for Mathieu. The latter, on his Ponr-Neuf, makes one think very
much of Orestes in The Flies at the moment when, before che
usdess miracle of che gods, Or estes, suddenly feeling che void, cold
night, becomes aware of his lightness and prepares co make himself
hcJvy by means of an appalling acc. We have the foreboding that
Mathieu is also on che threshold of a new day, and perhaps on the
thr c hold of a moral. Bue chat is the end of the book, and we know
nn1hi ng more.
It muse be acknowledged that rhe shadow of a moral always


The Novels ofSartre

weighs dangerously over a work of fiction.There is much to be

about that also. If we rake Simone de Beauvoir's two novels,we
a much clearer difference berween them chan between Nau.sea
Roads to Freedom (at least as we know them). She Came to StaJ
also the story of an experience: Franoise, one of the charac
goes to meet the other; chat is to say that Little by litcle she dis
in herself rhe fuct that someone exists in her presence, som co
who, like her, is awareness, pure presence, indestructible reali
someone who sees her from without, who judges her, against wh
she is powerless and without recourse. The heroine pulls herself
of chis experience as well as she can. It is a drama with mu1
facets, or more precisely a drama in which each movement goes
opposite directions. For example, Franoise, in fronr of her
friend, has the impression of being nothing more than a "w
mask," she floats, naked and empty, on the surface of che wo
Bur at the same time ir is with this meeting chat she begins to
the appearance ofXaviere is the rest chat makes her become a
of her freedom in the loss of which she sees herself threatened; it
by che ocher that she is returned to herself, and her unease is
anguish of an awareness chat discovers it is absolute,at the mo
when it is alienated and enslaved. Thus the novel does not
elude, it finishes neither by the crime that is only a meanin
measure nor by a development that goes somewhere: the ambi
remains complete.
Is the same the case in The B/,ood ofOthers? Thar is less certain.
the latter book, we are present at an evolution-more than chat, al
veritable overturning, a conversion: And everything makes us
lieve that this conversion will be definitive, it has "value," it des'
nates itself to us as a solution and an end, announcing the depl
able appearance of the Solien, of chat Solien for which H
condemned Fichte to philosophic cal a. mi ty.
From certain sides, Blomart in The Blood of Others has thl
opposite experience of Franoise in She Came to Stay. Frano
learned to know the threar that ocher people always are to the sci
Blomart has changed into this very threat, he is other to everyone,
his fault is being an other. Such is his ''plan," hjs choice: he haJ

The Novels ofSartre


decermjned to feel himself rp?nsible. "How can yo not find that

onizing? ... To think chat 1t IS you who shape the life of another,
picc him.,.. The object of e book. however, is not co descri?e
chis experience to us; rather, 1t shows us how one can surmount 1c,
hoW, starting from it, by following. a road chac leads _ somewh e, we
can. ro a certain extent, sort things out. That, tn fact, 1s very
triking. Blomarr's experience is, in appearance, without an ouc
:ome like char of She Came to Stay. Once involved in chis scory of
respo nsibiliry, he is caught. Whatever e dos, he sinks. f he aces,
he is responsible for the results of his acttons that, directly or
indireccly, arc: inevitably defeating; ifhe does not act,he is responsi
ble both for the meaning that others attribute co his refusal and for
rbe refusal that makes him complicit in the faults that he does not
prevent. His abstention is never an absence, it is a gap that for
ochers is always full. "Yes, it's very nice to leave people free ... it's all
in vain: one iis always responsible."
Bur then arise war and defeat and the necessity to choose anew:
co accept by doing nothing or not to accept by acting. Blomarc, this
time, chooses action, and he chooses it, in full lucidity, in a
wholehearted way: "Real aces, very visible aces," that is what he
prepares to carry our in the clandestine campaign,and he utters the
keynote of the book: "I learned from chis war char the blood one
spares is as inexpiable as the blood one causes co be shed." Un
doubcedly, tlhis decision does not settle anything. The death of
hostages, the death of his fighting companions, the death of chose
who consenred to die and of chose who were not consulted, this
entire tragic How of blood gives the path the feel of a quagmire. So
this is not an easy way, but it is the way. From then on, Blomart
forge. ahead, making himself responsible since he cannot renounce
being so, an,d finding his justification in this responsibility. once
accepted and assumed, in the face of the transgression it brings out.
Neirher in The Age ofReason nor in The Reprieve do we find any
sign of a comparable clari in the resolution. Thar is perhaps the
property of c he third book, rhe one we do not know. It is possible:
ls Wrnk i.n Progress. the novel actually has the advantage ofseeming
lo t::scape
us forever, Still, one of its most remarkable traits is that


The Novels ofSartre

even when it gves te hint of a movement roward someth ing,

rem:uns undecJded, 1t has no slope, or one that is so slight,
1.1.ncertain of itself, that ir inclines us without having us believe t
much that an author is there wbo is leading us. Let us admit
this is an effect of arr, bur art also has its reasons, which
content as well as form. On this subject, it will be necessary
develop the resources that this famous fashionable notion of
project-"an existential project"-offers ro the novel, to release
from the danger of "ideas." It is obvious that a philosophy p
fessor, with his theories-to be free, to seek conscientiously to
free-undergoes a terrible risk to play his drama out on the level
clear ideas, lucid arguments, and meditated resulcs. Yet he has n
of that. Naturally, he speaks, he philosophizes, he has a vocab
of technical words. Bur this is not the main thing. If he h
toward his story of freedom, it is nor as a man who goes towaid
goal already determined that he se es or glimpses. Here, the goal
linked not to a preexistent representation but co the orieotarion
all of life: it is Mathieu's life chat, in irs profundity, is polar
coward the need for freedom; it is this life chat, ro the extent it
directed toward it, causes this goal to exist; at each instant this
is there and ar each instant it conceals itself. it is constantly real
Even though this project is his own, and he has the ability
revoke it when he likes, it weighs terribly on him. that is why he
enclosed in it as in a cage, "a cage without bars." We are cold w
spineless person, how spiricless he is, ere. That may be so, bur
spinelessness is probably part of his project, ic feeds him
perhaps gives him a reality, a densi ty thanks co which his proj
wiU take on a new meaning and will transform even his cowardicie;
Mathieu is che first to feel that the freedom he gives himself doc:i
noc work: he would like ro be no longer in suspense, to have t
destiny, co accomplish an irremediable acc. "Everything that I do, I
do for nothing ; you could say the results of my acts are stolen frolll
me; everything happens as if I could always take back my actions."
Yer each time he has the chance, he does nor succeed at seriously
involving himself to his Communise comrade who asks him lO

The Novels ofSartre


, t e party, he answers no, and this no is despairing. Is it

enci:r h
of the heart? Ic lS alJ


of mmd,

all of char accompanies his profound
hat, no doubt, because
joins with it, this decision char perhaps
the lamencable dream of a reasonable
will be nothing
n buc char perhaps also is reserving him for the moment m
:i;h the deciision will become all that he is, and will give his
iovolvemenc chte very weight of existenc
. .
debates. Neither 1s 1c
The drama
express ed in a story char, as we have seen, is nonexi.sren.r. Bt it
comes co rest 010 things, it streams through the world, 1c mixes 1cself
with outer reality the way water and sand form cement. That is
Sar. tre's great gift, the one char best shows in him rhe perfecr
correspondence of the theoretician and the novelist. Mathieu's
unease and what can seem co be his (momentary) failure are legible,
perceptible in the very objects he couches, in the people he ap
proaches, in tbte voices he hears. They say of a candidate who is
embarrassed by his shyness and unable co handle a question, "He
is flow1dering." Thar has co be understood in the right sense.
Mathieu flounders, he wades through a waterlogged matter. Even
his gaze becomes thick, his thoughts are blurry. Everywhere mud,
turbid secretions: a universal stickiness, a vile mixture of matter
and awareness, a hell in which one does nor see, as in Dante, men
changed into irrees or, as in "The Metamorphosis," a salesman
transformed inro a cockroach, bur thought itself turned into thick
ness, viscosity, quicksand.
ln a certain way, Mathieu's world is almost identical ro that of
Roquencin. Roquentin sank even more complereJy into che picch,
into a shapeless reality that "rose co the sky," "went everywhere,"
"filled everythi.ng with its gelatinous collapse"; and certainly it
cannot be othe:rwise, since rhar is the general condition for man,
w hoi.e exiscenci is jusr this being stuck to the world. Yee more must
be \aid: if Maclhieu's "plan" is his own, ir is also his special nature,
hi failure chat chrow him back into a situation similar co that in
Na11rea. With what characteristics did Mathieu appear co us? As a
rnan for whom freedom is confused with empty possibilities, the


The Novels ofSartre

The Novels ofSartre

need to hold back, to conceal himself. rlis Communisr fri

describes him very well: ''You have put thirty-five years into cl
ing yourself and the result is emptiness. You are a funny body
you live in the air, you have cut your bourgeois artachmencs,
have no tie with the proletariat, you Roar, you are an abstract,
absentee." This exacdy defines the condition of the bourg
intellectual who, co be free, withdraws into an inner refuge,
refuge of his culture, his intellectual, aesthetic, or moral
At first sight, whar is there more distant from the drowning
Roquentin than chis high reserve, this retrenchment away
everything? Bue we are quite deluded. Mathieu chinks he
and guards himself while he accepts no matter what. He thinks
he breaks his chains, chat, having taken refoge in his freedom,
disengaged from everything, and he is already deeply engaged, I
in the universal swamp thac, as much as he climbs, climbs
faster and reaches over his head. For example, he escapes m
but only by sinking more deeply into "the misfortune of
single" of which Kafka speaks. And even more so, his availab"'
puts him at the mercy of things: he is free and captured by each
his glances, ready to do everything and immobilized by an
wadding chat absorbs his gestures, dissolves them in an invis
bath of lime. "No one hindered my freedom," he says on the
page of The Age ofReason, "it is my life chat drank ir." His fr
now wanders everywhere, it is left on the edge of cafe cab
coagulated with the light, caught in the mood of a look-a p
opaque, dead thing . Hence the murky impression the world
his world, this feeling of a spongy, soft reality, of a reali ty
"drinks" you, that dissolves into you and dilutes you in it. H
chis obsession with cowardice chat separates itself from aU conta
that makes the paper thick, the light "yellow, sad, and creamy,"
air sticky and muggy. Hence also the role that so many homo
uals play, avowed or ashamed, men who please themselves
men, women who attract women: it is a "mixed'' world
feminine, half masculine, in which softness is gluttonous, inertia
voracious, in which activity is not chat of an active decision but of:
passive invasion, a deceitful and gelatinous appropriation. 0


there, oe does not act: one Bo s and sticks. S ch is

does noL live
che ocher side of chis illusory absence by which one would like to
express one's freeom .
tn rhe first person. The Age of Reason 1s an
almost impersonal narrative, with some shreds of interior mono
logue, of sudden passages from le to /, but on the whole water
margin is left co other characters is composed from Mach1eus potnt
of vie w. Ir is in relation to his hidden J, diluted everywhere in
thi ngs and bdngs, char he unfolds his perspectives and reveals his
illu mfoacions. He is objective, in the sense that he sometimes skims
over rhe point of view of a single individual, but it is only to mesh
provisionally with another point of view, or to show the vague
reality behind which the same awareness stays lying in wait. The
Reprieve marks an important change in chis mode of expression:
char is even clhe principal meaning of the book. There is no more
intrigue. People continue, undoubtedly, co have chcir ways of doing
things and ch1eir individual situations, but their acts do not set time
in motion for them. What happens to them in particular is the
inner disintegration of a Something ls Happening, vague, giant, of
an Event chat: no one can embrace any longer because everyone is
caught up in iit. It is already chis feeling of extraindividual duration,
of variation in time, a change of scale, of measure, chat Malraux's
Man's Hope gave, in a very powerful way.
In The Reprieve, the narrative becomes a whirlwind, it is an
aberrant cydone, in this species of Pascalian universe, char has its
cemer everyvvhere and its circumference nowhere. Where it reigns,
it reflects andl radiates events and things from che center of aware
ness that it has momentarily chosen, but chis stability is fugitive; as
se nrc nces turn, it carries itself elsewhere and begins again to turn
Yeniginously around a new center char it obeys until it abandons it
because- of a veritable sudden shift of wind for a new fixed point
and uncil some new abandonment. Thus, during these days in
Mun ich, we are carried along ro the four corners of Europe, into
rhc: rhousandis of little individual eye.lanes that represent the slow
and fat al proigression of an immense common cataclysm. We go
Wichout resc from Berck to Paris, to Munich, to Prague, to Mo-

The Novel.s ofSartre

The Novels ofSartre

rocco. An action, begun in Marseilles, merges with another co

plecely different one a hundred leagues from there, where it is co
pieced. A riposte, snatched from its speaker, continues in ano
mouth that receivc::s it as if it belonged co it and that speaks, thus,
the language of another. AH images, alJ scenes follow each O
change, rake each other's place in an infinite diversity, and yet w
rakes shape is an identical fi1te: this will be, tomorrow, our des
Besides the mastery that such a mode of composition imp
many difficulties make its use dangerous. This narrative that is
thar of any single one risks resuscitating the poinr of view of
absolute speccaror, of seeming to represent the imperious, au
carian, and lifeless gaze that is always that of the author. Or, on
contrary, it will be everyone's narrative only in appearance,
each time it poses icself, it is on an individual awareness, it is
solitude of this awareness that it unites with: it will never be able
escape the fatality of a point of view.
The composition of The Reprieve is art's recompense. C
what happens in it at no time seems conremplaced from a
impersonal observation post of the hidden author, and on
contrary this will-o'-the-wisp narrative is illumined each time
litcle real light, that of a wavering awareness that, as much as it
project irself on greater spaces, always sees only itself We ha
however, the impression th.ar the narrative, during rhe very (
thar it arranges itself exclusively around such or such a character,
vaguely aware of arraying icself also around an immense co
tivity. Each individual in whom the narration incarnates feds
oscillate in him, feels it is almost somewhere else al.ready, air
someone else's narration, and this oscillation, chis movemenr
seasickness, is like the lost and uncertain call of a sick atom
wishes and fears to go out of itself to be no more than its enviro
menc. In a word, it is a question of a kind of narrative merempS)""
chosis, of a series of avatars into which narration plunges, dies, and
comes back to life in an endless transmigration, like a half-divin e
consciousness that can be true and real only in the rocality of itt
incarnations, and yet never presencs itself except in a ridiculously
fragmentary form.

In Mm.sea, Sartre asks lircle of technique. yet succeeds in pushing

all c h rear of abstract aims away from his work. In The Age ofReason
Re rieve, he pushes the concerns of arr even further but
and in The p
further away from c heoreaca1 preoccupacions, to
Jso da n
:he excent that the experience he describes is probably linked to a
n,o r:il, and the roads he has us follow head toward an end that he
may recommend to us or a certain goal tht he is poinc!ng ot, d
ris k n ot being able to be retraced from their end co che1r beginning
(bur that is the secret of the third book).
In sum, we see it bener now: the novel has nothing to fear from
an idea, providing that rhe idea is wiUing to be nothing without the
novel. For the novel has its own moral, which is ambiguity and
equivocation. It has irs own reality, which is the ability co discover
rbe world in the unreal and the imaginary. And, finalJy, it has its
truth, which forces it co assert nothing without seeking co counter
it, and co make nothing succeed without preparing its failure, so
char every argument that triumphs in a novel immediately scops
being true.



A Note on Malraux

A Note on Malraux

Malraux's work has certainly lost nothing in the silence to w

the critics have abandoned it for five years. And it is to be fi
that it meets today with more admiration and commentaries
ic would Like. So ic is fortunate chat the first comprehensive s
devoted to it is worthy of chis silence, and has all the secio
and the spirit of rigor and decision required for ic. Gaetan Pico
Jiccle book, Andre Malraux, while it is an effort to approach a
complex work, is also an absorbing account of che meaning that
generation to which he belongs finds in him.
Perhaps he hesitates co see it such as it was for the one who
ir: not only a means of personal assertion or an instnll]lent
metaphysical awareness, bur also an irreducible experience wh
results, as imporcanc as they are, are only forever imperfect p
ucts. The only reservation Picon expresses about a work that
understands and loves, and that is even his favorite, touches on
arc of the novel. Malraux's novels are nor novels: they are at on
coo close to their author and too close to the events, coo focused
one single being and coo much disp.ersed throughout the curre
events of the world. How strange this reservation is. For w
makes Malraux's case unusual, perhaps, is that he does nothing buf
look for himself, but meets himself in the most immediate and
general historic real.i cy; he sees and describes only it, and he de
scribes the most important events, those that reveal his own ritnC


e the future. Perhaps he creates nothing else but his

and. decid
che movement of this inner universe coincides with
universe ,
and, m chat way, he also creates history, chat 1s co say,
tha t of
meani ng of history.
cheGun dolf distinguishes, among creative minds, chose who, bring. he world t:o chem, give it the solidity and shining of their own
:rn d, like Dance. and those who express themselves by finding the
world, by re-creating it in its infinite richness and value, like
Sha kesp eare. He notes, moreover, that, in order for there to be a
Dante and a Shakespeare, there must be a stable world, a strong
unity, or a su..fficient historic profundity, or else the mind chat
brings the wo:rld co it finds no more than itself and loses itself in
funtasies, like Byron. and the one who seeks himself outside finds
no more than, social etiquettes, facts and not poetic values, like
Balzac and, co a certain extent, Goethe. Such distinctions leave us
rather mistrustful. But they at least make us aware of the originality
of those who, like Malraux or Kafka, indeed create, outside of
them, a world co meet themselves, bur an entirely imaginary world
chat has nothing in common with the real world except the pro
found meaninig that they lend co it. The originali ty of a Malraux, if
he seems co r:ake everything from current happenings and events
and srill expresses himself in them, continues through them as
profoundly as; if he invented them to his own measure, to find in
chem the sub:;tance of a unique experience.
le could wdl have been that The Conquerors, Man's Fate. and
Man's Hope were a fascinating expression of our epoch, bur a
per sonal one ,of inner adventure, irreducible as any image is. Why
do these books that investigate and trace an individual passion
nevertheless answer to collective reali ty? Why do they assert an
extreme bias , all the while representing the course of things not
subje ct ro bias? Why, faithful to the vigor of a solitary "I," are they
also faithful t:o the objectivity of a historic awareness that domi
a tt' all cboi.ces and, finally, co rhe choice peculiar to this story?
fhac ste ms from the very strength of experience, capable of re
creating, from within and in a perpetual reference to itself. the
tn1..-a11i ng and value of events from without, chat we observe, char


A Note on Malraux

we undergo and do nor create. In Malraux's case, novelistic CJC

ence, in battle with facrs char ir does nor invent, finds in them
chance to experience its rruth. These great faces, chis impo
reality consrirure che role of the irremediable, what the nov
would not know how ro change, and whose mastery he does
accept except by an art char makes him feel its domination m
strongly. By going co meet history, Malraux's novel goes b
what denies ir and perhaps whac crushes it, bur ic also weko
this rest as the supreme chance thac is given ro it co accomp
itself faced with what threatens it.
Picon insists on the dialogue, the constant tension we find
such a work. Thar is the character of all art born from an exper i
and tied co ic: ir is endless, without resc, it draws to a dose only
questioning itself. To say of Malraux's work that it chooses des
or death or solitude has, obviously, very little sense. To say c.ha
uses powerful political struggles to find in them the drunke.nru:u
strong actions does not have much more sense. To say, finally.
Picon doe-S, that it tends to surpass the fascination of death
hope, to reconcile the powers of day with those of night, is per
truer only in appearance. What is at the heart of these books, in
most varied forms, is an absolute demand, always ready co sac
all the rest, but one that at the same time is nor enough for i
and wants to preserve the values it sacrifices. Whoever recogn'
the necessity of the revolution, for example, cannot just do 1
share of ic; he must follow it co the end, accepting all its discipl'
loving all its constraints. But the more this demand seems like
order that frees man, the more mindfulness and the sense of val
whose sacrifice this freedom demands momentarily awaken.
must be free, but he must be oppressed co become free, he m
consent co this oppression and refuse ic, he must become aware
chis insurmountable debate and sount it, for he has co act, he
muse act without ever losing sight of what he is acting for, and he
muse act without caking that into account, for one must not ace b
succeed. Then where is hope? Perhaps in hiscory that saves us. And
despair? Perhaps in the man who is lost. Bur just as well, hope is in
the lucid awareness chat exalts itself by sacrificing itself, and de-Spair

A Note on Malraux


r c definitive arrival of a freedom with which everything will

in h
me ro :tn end.
e book, The Walnut Tt,es of
' Picon emphasizes thac Malraux's las
co life, and rnrks a stubborn
makes one hea a hymn
of the v1cconous role of man. Ir 1s crue. We can
as ertion in favor
:n find a miking symbol of it. ln Man's Fate, Chen, afrer his firsc
change, decompose beneath his
::urder, suddenly sees the world
"bas no po tance. But
eyes. "The killed _individual," he says,
, everything 1s changed,
afterward som1ethmg u11expected occurs
e, dogs." In The
even rhe simplest things, che streets, for instanc
rphosis; but it is
Wafmu Trees, there is indeed change.
that Berger is
nor from having caused death, but having escaped it,
presenc at rhe transformation of all that he sees, and meets purity,
innocence, joy of living. Chen and Berger thus face each ocher,
both carriers of a secret, both before a universe that they no longer
recognize; and for one, th.is secret is joy, while for the other it is the
impossibiliry of living. "This morning, l am nothing but birth."
And che ocher: "Bloodshed is strong enough to decompose the state
of distraction chat allows us co live."
Is chat the siign of an evolution, of a definitive preference? But
what would suc::h a choice signify? Malraux has always chosen hope;
bur he has also always chosen co go all che way to the end of hope.
Thar is why the terrorise who is obsessed with the idea of death
signifies the impossibility of living and signifies bope, since his
death will be rhe sign that he has fulfilled himself. And the wonder
before rhe refouod world signifies grace and happiness, but also
anguish and diisaess, for this happiness is already lose.

Gide and the Literature ofExperience

Gide and the Literature

of Experience

Anyone who tries to look fairly at the work and person of

Gide must be struck by this trait fuse off: one can hardly speak
the work except in an unfair way. If one sees one aspect of
strongly, one neglects the important characteristic of that as
not to be alone, and to admit the truth of its opposing aspect. If
stresses this assertion of contraries, one forgers che tendency
equilibrium, to harmony and order that has not stopped anima
rhe work. Work of excess, work of extreme measure, comp
given over to art and yer given a design co influence that is
aesthetic but moral, a work char counts more than the man
that for the man who shaped it was only a means of hap
himself, seeking himself, finally an immense work of an extrao
nary variety, bur also scattered and narrow and monotonous, o
to the richest culrure, turned coward the least bookish spontan
naive in its taste for effort, free through care for constraint, di
in its frankness, sincere to the point of affectation and as if push
by anxiety coward the repose and serenity of a form in whi
nothing could be changed.
We recognize that the work that best represents him is in c
journals. Bur why? For we also recognize that his most successful
works are The lmmoralist, Strait Is the Gate, and Pastoral Symphofl},
novellas wonderfully composed and completely foreign co rhe
unlimited movement that carries the Journals co a forrunarely


e end. These stories are faultless. Lafcadio's Adventures

un foreseeabl
books considered failures, but the inAu
d The
:ce of these imperfect works has been considerable, even too
orrant, to rthe point char their ability to shine has been momen
caril y ex hausted-they seem old _roday because of all the new thigs
the y authorize:d and made possible. On the contrary, the treatISes
thar s uccess has never entirely recognized-with the exception
of Fruits of the Earth-and that perhaps desired only this semi
celeb rity, continue co exercise a profound influence and, in the
same way as the strongest works of Rimbaud, Lautreamont, and
che surr ealists, are responsible for the need contemporary literature
feels ro be more than literature: a vital experience, an instrument of
discovery, a m.eans for man to test himself, co cry himself, and, in
chis attempt, t:o seek to surpass his boundaries.
Gide, by his work and the way in which he linked it co his life,
gave a new meaning co the word essay. One can find his precursors
through our e:ntire literature.What does tha.c matter, if ir is pre
cisely he who illuminates this kinship by giving che writers with
whom he is likened the new meaning chat justifies such a filiation?
One can say chat he created those from whom he came, and char
they owe to him all that he himself owes them. Such is the value of
what we call culture. ln 1893, about The Amorous Endeavor, he
wrote in the j.oumals: "I wan red to point out, in The Amorous En
deavor. the influence of the book on the one who writes it, and
during the w:riting itself. For going our of us, it changes us, it
modifies the c:urrent of our life.... So it is a method of action on
itse lf. indirect, that I have given there; and it is also, quite simply. a
srory." ls this 1che preoccupation of extreme youth? But thirty years
later, looking at the totality of his work, Gide writes again: "It
seems to me that each of my books has not so much been the
produce of a new inner disposition as its completely opposing
ausc.and the first provocation of this disposition of soul and mind
in which I ha .cl to maintain myself in order to lead its successful
elaboration. I would like to express in the simplest way that the
b,,ok, as soon as it is conceived, completely has me at its disposal,
and that, for ii:, everything in me, down to the deepest part of me, is

Gide and the literature ofExperience

Gide and the Literature ofExperience

orchestraced. l have no other personali ty than char which is app

priate co tliis-objeccive? subjective?-work. Those words lose
their meaning here; for if ic happens that I portray things drawj
from my experience (and somerjmes it seems co me chat rhere cq
be no other exact portrayal), it is because I began fuse by beco
the very person I wanted to portray" (journals, 1922).
This last remark aims at the arc of che novel. It is often as scrtcif
thac the novelise wants co be a writer capable of making dis
beings come co life, whose freedom would claim him. But w
one aruibutes to literature the ability co create a life different
the one who creates it, it is co admire the power of fiction's fr
and not co recognize in chis freedom the means, searched out by
author, co put into play the meaning of his own freedom. We
been shown che author in battle with his heroes, given over to
and possessed by chem: Jarry becoming Ubu. These "dram
cases remain of little inreresc because of che simpliscic notion o.
character, understood as a qualicy, a temperament chat is pee
and assimilated with a thing. Complecdy different is the ability
challenge oneself, co risk oneself in this vicaUy dangerus ex
ence char art must be for the arrjst, rhe novel for the novelist,
in a more general way, the fact of writing for one who writes.
When Gide noces in his Jounza/s, "For a long rime, too lo
time (yes, until these pasc years), I scrove co beljeve chat I
mistaken, I was wrong; co accuse myself, co conrradio: myself.
bend my way of seeing, feeling, and thinking co char of ochers.
One could have said chac my own chinking made me afraid, he
the need chat I had co bestow it on the heroes of my books, in o
to distance it more from me. Certain people, who refuse to sec
as a novelise, are perhaps righr, since char is what inspires me co cM
novel, rather than the wish to tell stories," we recognize io these:
remarks the care to make literarure serve an actual experience=

ce of his thoughts and not chat of his existence icself,

he experien
t nd that is; why he comes co be unfaithful co the movement that
1 spires hiim, for experience occurs only starting from the moment
ac. as he says more or less, everything and everything of oneself is
cur in doubt. Bue insofar as he followed chis impulse, and despite
his very sc1ruples chat make him accept the objections according to
w hich the only real novelise is a storyteller and a creator of charac
cers. he was not only a great writer of novels but he contributed to
giving che contemporary literature of che novel its essential nature,
char which allows one co say chat MaUoror is a novel, Nadja an
admirable novel, on the same level as the works of Malraux, who
was a lso a great creator of novels of "experience."
le is easy co assert that literature is an activity in which whoever
exercs himself tends not only co produce beautiful, interesting.
instructive works but also co experience himself completely, nor to
rell about himself, express himself, or even discover himself, but co
prnsue an experience in which the meaning of the human c-0ndi
rion in its entirety will be uncovered, in connection wich bim and
with d1e world char is his. le is simple to repeat: writing has a
fundameniral value of experience for the one who wcices; we say it,
we repeat ir; but we wind up repeating only a formula without
conrenc, illlusory, one chat resists examination only by escaping the
criticism whose integral value it nevertheless asserts. One of the
characteristics of Gide's work is rhar it helps us understand these
difficulcies, since it was itself made starting from these difficulcies,
in che debate they provoked in him. and without surpassing chem.
bur by welcoming chem, by experiencing chem with an indulgence
at once urneasy and jealous, in rhe very real suffering of nor being
able ro surmount chem and the sacisfaccion, finding rhem insur
rnouncable. of drawing from chem the chance co delight an infinite
CUriosicy and spirit of seeking.
hom che instant the writer writes with the ulterior mocive char
what he writes "rakes over" him "entirely," the terrible question of
rr's proper demands begins co be posed. Gide's situation en
lightens this debate. Coming from symbolism, he does not re
nounce bi .s faich in the idea of perfection, in the virrues of a

experience of oneself, experience of one's thoughts. noc co keep

chem and confirm them, even less to persuade others of chem, b&lt
ro distance rhem, to hold them at a distance, to "cry" chem by
trusting tbem to another existence, char is to say, to alter thein.
make chem wrong. Undoubtedly, Gide's experience was coo of'reO



Gide and the literature ofExperience

perfected form and a fine style. His writer's existence is domina

by rhe desire co be in conformi ty with the ideal of a harmonio
true art. To be faithful to the act of writing well is for hi m to
unfaithful to nothing, to betray nothing; ir is to follow the
that leads the farthest, rhac allows the most important and d
adventure. Why? Ir is an act of faith, based on the cult of centu
and the example of masterpieces. The mature Gide, instructed
experience, can still write, "Ir is quite difficult co me co believe
the healthiest, wisest, and most sensible thinking is nor jusr the
that, projected into writing, gives the most harmonious and b
fuJ lines" (}ottrnafs, 1928). The degance and harmony of a beau
form are not, then, simple aesthetic sacisfacrions that the w
grants himself out of indulgence for his gifts. The hope is deeper.
is the certainty that, when everything has been questioned, at
the form of the sentence subsists as a measure and safeguard of
value. "I wanted to make an instrument of my sentence so sensi
char the simple misplacing of a comma suffices to ruin its
mony" (Journals, 1923). Wanting ro be sincere, questioning
on the meaning of artistic sincerity, the very young Gide cfincd
in these terms: "f find chis, provisionally: chat the word n
precedes the idea. Or even: chat the word is always necessitated
it; it must be irresistible, unsuppressable; che same is true for
sentence, for the entire work." Between these two assertions.
of the sincerity of youth, char of the "write well" of nrure
there is no disagreement, but profound harmony. To be p
sincere, asks the Gide of 1892, and the other Gides answer
faith: so, write in conformity with the harmony of the language
so chat once the sentence is traced, once the work completed,
resources oflan guage do nor allow an ything in chem to be cban
Often bolder but, in all, less skeptical than Vale ry, Gide
infinitely less so on the point of the: truth of art and rhetoric. Valer,
sees only arbitrariness and conventions in the means and effects of
arc, and that is because he denies the real value of the form that be
asserts and whose demands he observes: he is a perfect writer only'
because perfection has no truth for him. Bue Gide is not SO
impious. Art, in his eyes, means something. To write a work is not a

Gide and the literature ofExperience


exe rdse; to write weU is also co give the greatest chan ces to
s1111P le
co b e uccerIy
a: to remain
true w1"thour ceasmg

rnJrh co che
d tlng. If oine comes from char co question the power of language
d che valiue of rules and form-whether they are uaditional or
a: does not matter-if one writes: "I believe thac everything must
e calle d in1:o question" (Journals, 1931) and ifone does not keep an
nrnost confidence in the words char introduce chis complete call
g inr o quiesrion, one has only the choice between becoming the
:Urhor of masterpieces in which one claims not co believe, and
losing onesclf in the repecition of a silent chatter. Valery cook the
side of masterpieces, and in the end masterpieces triumphed over
his skepcici:sm, reducing it to a state of mind, lighc, brilliant, and
cacher vain.
Gide's possibility of negation, less radical and because of char
more profound, less easy to appease, had extraordinary faith in the
resources of culture and literary arc. Too much, perhaps. For we do
not see rhat the desire to write in order co head mward che
unknown o,r to fight against oneself, as he says in a letter to Francis
Janunes in May 1902 ("Don't you understand, then, char I hare my
thinking? I use myself co fight against it; bur I can deny ir only
through ir, the way one chases a demon through Beelzebub, the
prince of demons. What else did I cry to show in Marsh/,ands?"),
ever led him co abandon the ideal of writing well, or even clashed in
him with the demands of the work co make, to compose, co create
something worchy ofthe test of time. While it is quire possible that
writing well is, for the one who writes, the best means co venture
and q uesrion oneself, the opposite is also possible. When Valery
rep roaches Pascal for his too beautiful sentences on man's misery,
he daims that Pascal's misery, if it had been more real, could not
have been ccperienced in such beaucifuJ language. Why? That is
noc clear, for where Valery recognizes a beautiful style, coo sure of
its effects, anxious to attain them, Pascal perhaps saw only the
expression of che decay chat he had to find in him.self wirh such
anxit:ty. Yer the doubt remains. We have seen, in fact, great writers
StClp writing, we have seen others discover their poverty thanks co
he ric hest language, or torment themsdves by the consolations of


Gide and the literature ofExperience

superb images, but we have never seen any, in rhe movement of

real experience, continue co write and strive co write mediocrcly,
ask of their gifts che means of ruining their gifts. And yet,
knows? By becoming Frans;ois Coppee rather than a merch ant
the Harrar, would Rimbaud nor have become a visionary, would
nor have spent his real season in hell? And if "with beau
emotions one makes bad literature," by condescending to
literature, the one who is capable of the best Literature wo
perhaps rise more truly above himself, would better surp35$
boundaries than by following his benc, which is to produce
works that will endure through the centuries.
Good literature often worried Gide; we cannot fo rger that.
seemed suspicious to him, and he, who served it with so m
faith, also regarded it with mistrust. The sincerity about wh"
from youth, he questions himself, enters into disagreement
the necessities of writing. "The desire to write these journal
well takes away from them all merit, even of sincerity. They
longer mean anything, never being well enough written co have
literary merit; finally, they all rely on a fame, a future celeqrlty
will give them some interest. That is profoundly contemptib
(Journals, 1893). And twenty years later: "Perhaps, after all,
belief in the work of arc and this cult that I dedicate to it p
chis perfect sinceri ty that I would like from now on to obtain
myself. What do I have to do with a lucidi ty char is only...a qu
of style?" Sincerity is an excellent siege engine against the right1
fine language and even of all language. Sometimes it suspects _it

saying coo much, of saying more than there is ("This ampJifi

of emotion, of thought, of which writin g well, in French licera
sometimes consists" Journals, 1931). Sometimes sincerity finds
guage lacking: to s-ay is always co say coo little ("Ifl have, for a lo
time now, stopped writing [the journals], it is because my emo cionl
were becoming coo complicated; it would have taken me coo much
time co wrte chem; the work of a necessary simplificarion m ade

them less sincere then; it was already a Literary fine-tuning" (Jou,.

nals, 1893). Or again, as we have just seen, ir reproaches him for his
lucidity, blaming him for being coo pure, with a transparency char

Gide and the Literature ofExperience


. coo pe rfoct-a very grave objection and, fur classic art, com
\rely ruinous, since ir implies that blurred feelings aUow as
p rrect expnessions only those that betray rhem. that express them
c c.hout clarity, without decency, without tbac minimum of order
;a t chere is in something real. Then the temptation co write
!'!a-inst styk appears, or to wrire against oneself, co ask from
:onra neicy rhe hope of a more sincere expression, as if swiftness.
offer greater
rhe absence of reflection, the narural could here
the result of

Sincerity is an admirable principle of questioning. Nothing
contents it, :neither the natural, which is the lie of the first impulse,
nor arci.fice, which is a satisfied awareness of the lie, nor banality,
which is a consent to common bad faith, nor the cult of differences,
which want:s co save the imposture by considering it-untruth
fully-unique. Silence itself is false, for it is only a language that
does not know itself and that, moreover, by its renunciation of
language makes itself very weU understood. "I am stirred by this
dilemma," wrote the young Gide, "to be moral; co be sincere.
Morality consists of supplanting the natural being (the old man)
wirh a preferred faccirious being. But then one is no longer sincere.
The old main is the sincere man. I find this: the old man is the poer.
The new man, that we prefer, is the artist. The artist musr supplant
the poet. From the struggle between the rwo is born the work of
arc" (joum.t.tls, 1892). Bur why would the new preference be less
sincere than the former scare? Ir has the truth of desire, the richness
of rh at which comes; it is promise, it is life; factitious perhaps, since
it concerns che being who makes himself: bur because of that it is
less falsified by usage. Lacer. however, Gide, reversing these asser
tions, will find rhe naive beneath the natural, like rhe reward for the
effor t, sinceTity obtained, conquered, and no longer inherited.
Art is a trap, Mallarme has said, and that is why sincerity is such
a precious enemy co him; nothing is lacking for it to be the supreme
rule. if sincerity itself were not imposture. Hence the uneasiness
ihat accompanies all his judgments; hence, coo, the face that he
muSl succumb co the condemnarion that it utters. ''The word


Gide and the Literature ofExperience

sincerity is one ofthose that is becoming the most uneasy for tnc
understand .... In general every young man of conviction
inapable of criticism b:lieves himself sincere" Uoumals, i9og
Gide, before Freud, considered the defects and vices-in the no
moral sense ofthis word-ofsincerity-and, before making his
ro Marx, he held as insufficient its cunning authority, compl
rere by the bl inding ofan inner gaze char lays claim to purity
1gnonng both history
and rhe world. It is, however, at the mom
when social problems present themselves to his mind chat he
categorically dismisses art, and seems to advocate its disappea
"Thar arc and literature have only to deal with social questio
yet, if they venture into it, cannot help but lose their way, I
main pretty much convinced. And chat indeed is also why I
silent since these questions have occupied the foreground of
mind ....I would rather write nothing more, than bend my art
utilitarian ends.To persuade roe. chat these must today take
foreground, is at the same suoke to condemn me co sile
(Journals, 1932). And chis in July 1934: "For a long rime, it can
longer be a question ofa work of arr."
This questioning ofart in view ofobjective freedom is one of
mosr important char can be imposed on an artist. Gide's de
with communism is the pathetic moment of chis existence,
supreme moment and one char musr be regarded with the m
seriousness.Such a meeting pur him in the presence of a wall
he could neither climb nor stop seeing, in front of which he co
tented himselfwith stepping back, while feeling chat rhis shrin
away did not satisfy him. Lee us nore char political men can
Communise and then stop being it; for chem, chis stage does
always have much importance.. Ir is not the same for rhe wri
From such a confronration, ifhe withdraws, albeit for the suon
reasons, he does nor withdraw intact. In his vocation someth'
was couched by death.What once questioned him, even iflater o
he comes to regard ic as questionable, continues ro make hllll
suspicious of an activity when he sees all that ir costs him by
satisfactions it brings him.
Bue in Gide, we cannot help nocicing with what precautions, or

Gide and the literature ofExperience


reticences, the "le can no longer be a question ofa

. tlic r with what
rork of arc" is accompanied, from the moment ic is uttered. Art
"enou nces itself because it does not want "to bend itself to util
ca.rian ends:"; it sacrifices itself, but it also keeps itselfpure.There
ay be in i:he world a task for the writer chat is more important
han ch ar of writing, and Gide recognizes it wid1 a gravity from
hich he is ready to draw all the consequences; he hears "moans"
that are too pressing for him ro have any desire to make himself
beard. So he is going to condemn himself co silence. Excreme
sacrifice, not only the sacrifice of literature to the world's distress
bur ju st as much the sacrifice ofart co itself, ofart chat, in the order
it has givern itself, does not tolerate purposes that dominate it or
foreign lawi; that can corrupt it.Art's failure is also a victory ofart; it
closes up again in silence and rests for che future.
The questioning was not then complete: not ro write anymore,
yes, if rhe biesc interests ofhumanity require chat; but so long as you
do write, write well, write in accord with the obligations ofwriting
well, considered apart, in themselves, as you can recognize chem in
the closed s;phere oflicerarure, because they are the lease deceiving,
the most fi1rting to help whoever expresses himself co express more
than himself, more than he knows, to help him, in a word, to
creare. Th(: Journals are from one end co the ocher shot through
with the torments ofstyle: "1 no longer like things chat are slowly
wriccen. The purpose of chis notebook, like chat of all the other
'journals' I have kept, is to teach me to write quickly.... These
pages have seemed to me overwritten and la.eking spontaneity.... I
have just reread the last written chapter of my Memoirs, char I
promised myself I would write without lifting the pen, and over
which l have already labored so much. Nothing of what 1 would
have liked to put there is there; everything seems ro me devised,
subtle, dry, elegant, faded." Just as ''vice" was virtue for Gide, co the
ex-cenc that virtue was natural co him and getting away from it
<:ncailed cbe difficult conquest of effort, even so, too narura11y
ttrnpc ed by elegance and the precautions of language, giving way
too williug;ly to the research of mmzber, to the point ofasking the
truth and meaning of the measure of sentences, he would like ro


Gide and the Literature ofExperience

refrain from this inclination, co l et impropriety rule the choi

wrds, icorrecmess the syntax (Jurnals, 1914), and especially
wnre qwckly, to wme ahead of hunself. preceding himself. by
vernable movement of anticipation and discovery. In this,
scruples a.re not only those of a writer whose caste would beco
ever more classic and who would learn to prefer cleanness,
rude, dry ness over the music of the sentence. Anxiety with
co form is an anxi ety couching the value of the writing experien
If Gide so often repeacs to himself the sentence from Amzantt;
have spoken much better since I began my sentences with
knowing how I would finish them," it is because ir represents
him this mysterious, dangerous movement of the act of writi ng
which the one who writes, beginning a sentence without kno
where it is leading him, undertaking a work in the ignorance of
end, feels hims elf tied to the unknown, involved in the myst ery
progress that surpasses him and by means of which he surp
himself, a progress in which he risks losing himself, losing eve
thing, and also finding more than he seeks.
But at the same time such a preoccupation, far from weaken
the righcs of style, reinforces them and takes place in the midn
fine language. "I have spoken much better. . . . " It is -at,
speaking weU that is the question, writing well thought of as
law; and finally Gide admires in Stendhal "this quality of aler
and impulsiveness, of improprie ty, of suddenness and bareness
ravishes us always ane w in bis style ." He admires that style. But,
as long as it is a matter of sryl e and not of a way of seeking or
means of discover y, he does not stop preferring his own. Th.is sl
insinuating form that he chose, with its seemingly interior IIlO
ment, its indecisive and firm progress, retic ent and enveloping,
sympathy for the sensuous qualities of words and their cadence
is corrected by the exceeding ly super:vised and thought-out
ganc e of syntax, this mixture of study and abandon, exactitude
caU to indecision, of natural rigor and contrived tremblings, of h
and ice-h e knows well how it corresponds to the being that he it.
and that he never wanted to reject entirely, he knows how much
this way that is so common and so rare of writing well is like hidl.

G'ide and the literature ofExperimce


tenr tha1r distancing himself from himself-but only up co

co the c)(
embling himself, is part of his resemblance, it
.... poinr-diss
O cert,in
e asserts hjroself and assures himself
. die
the trajectory of my mind; ics curve will
'.\ou will not easily find
f only in my style and will escape more than one ."
reveal itsel
eristic of
Th-is "only up co a certain point" is rhe secret charact
n in him of the artist, of the
Andre Gide . Wlilether it is a questio
own life, of the one who,
creator of formi: or die creator
disposition of the experience to
Livi ng. lives in desire, entirely at the
far enough to make any
which he gives himself, yet never pushing it
at the moment of
ocher impossible, he always ends up by meeting,
to i:1self, at e
forgetting himself, the mome
nal rule , m
cxueme point of innovation, the guarantees
ny. The
che greatest da.rit ng a regret, a yen for measure and harmo
times are such t:hac, during one pa.rt of bis life, Gide saw himse
rejecced because of his audaci
of his lack of audacity. That is because the times wel comed this
inuepid curiosiity of extremes from rum, bur did not accept either
his patience, or his honesty, or his faith in works, or his spirit of
prudence and, atS he calls it, of parsimony. And in that, his example
remains ambiguous and mysterious. Some disapprovingly see him
as a writer who is coo much master of himself, who, aU the while
wriring because:: he "calls everything inro question," writes also to
"shelter something from death" Uournals, 1922), who wants very
much ro be unbelieving but without consenting ro impiety, and, as
soon as he rouches the extremity of experience. is afraid of losing
hi mself comple'tely and hurries co get hold of himself again, to cake
himself in han d ("Necessity of connecting the frontier co the
center. It is time ro return''). We can answer chat he is daring in
proporrion co bis caution, that bis restlessness has aU the more
meaning becaULse he wishes for repose, and his struggle for eman
cipation all the more value because ir is the deed of a mind
incapable of the disrespectful and the irreligious. But, at the same
tirne, if Gide's characteristic is patience in impatience, reserve in
uct:s. honesty in error (the move that breaks the rules), one can
tell oneself tha.t true reserve would have been to abandon himself

Gide and the literature ofExperience

Gide and the Literature ofExperience

completely, and the absolute honesty to be completely disordc

without hope, and the most fertile patience co live without wai
far from the spirit of fame and the subtle design of influence chat
loved and served wich a great disinreredness, and that today reco
penses him by the most widespread and honorable renown.
When we see Theseus come out of the labyrinth, glorious
queror in a baccle at which no one was present, we rightly sus
him of trickery or illusion. For there is no labyrinth except for
one who tests it, and the test is real only for che one who really
lose in it, and the one who gees lose in it is no longer there to
witness co his loss-and co tell us, "Entering the labyrincb is
There is nothing more difficult than to get out of it. No one
his way there who has not first gotten lost there." Gide's Th
because he knows how to retrace his steps, wonderfully quick
ttansforming Ariadne's burning feelings into an attachment
which he remains che master, will always expose himself co
suspicions: chat he never entered the labyrinth, since he came
of it, and never met the Minotaur, since ir did nor devour
That is an insolvable dilemma. Theseus finds his way beusc
stays attached co something certain, but, not having broken
thread, he remains one who has never really known the labyrin
To which he can answer that whoever does not return was
farcber away, and chat getting lose is possible only for one
preserves the meanfog, knowledge, and love of the right way.
Literature is a dishonest and confused experience in which
succeeds only by failing, in which failing means nothing, in whi
the greatest scruples are suspect, in which sincerity becomes
edy. It is an experience that is essentially deceiving, and rhat is
creates all its value, for anyone who writes enters into the illusi o
bur this illusion, deceiving him, carries him away and, carryi
him away by the most ambiguous movement, gives him, as
chooses, a chance either to lose what he had already thought
found, or co discover what he can no longer lose. Gide is
meeting place of rwo conceptions of literature, that of tradicio
art which places the good fortune of producing masterpieces a
everything, and literature as experience, which makes fun of world

is ready co ruin itself to attain che inaccessible. Hence his

of art and
y. As a model o literary honesty, he passs for a long
double destin
al and as the demon itself. Then
. e as r.he prince of the equivoc

ers him. He becomes the greatest li'
tassic im mortality discov
him co being no more
rench writer. And fame lowers




Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

Adolphe, or the Misfortune

of True Feelings

Benjamin Constant's Adolphe counts for much in the concep

we have of the French novel. To what extent does this notion o
novdisric tradition influence even che writers who most dist
themselves from it? And what does this tradition represent? A s
number of judgmems that epiromize it, rules that we elicit from i
Would it not fim be rhe feeling of a mysterious reality, represen
by che abili ty ro endure that some works have shown, to re
stubbornly in che background of our literary experience and of o
language? When a literature becomes classic, it is this temp cation
conquer rime char its influence brings co all those who feel th
selves charged with continuing it. The temptation may be a wo
while one, bur it is also full of dangers. It is che temptation of
timeless. It is the hope of existing beyond history. and of acting
being admired independently of historic condirions of success. It
e thought that literature offers us the chance of climbing back
mro the Platonic sky and imposes on us the du ty of finding ag '
the purity of its essences, which are eternal. From this come aD
kinds of constraints, claims, calculations-. Whatever we may ch.ink
?f the idea of involvernent, it at least has the merit of being only aJI
involvement with a time limit, limited to our own brief lifetime.
and not this hypocritical, vague. but endless involvement, for all
times and even for beyond time, that the little hell of arcisci,
immortality signifies.

2 27

As soon as we wonder by what traits che works that la.st succeed

. \n" ting, we enter che classic influence game. Yer, the answer
Ill ,..,
changes with che times themselves. Sometimes Adolphe triumphs
and simplicity: it is a book "without a date," says one, a
by irs purity

a country, says a.norh er. S omeurnes
we I ove .1r
book "w1c
because ir nepresencs che passions of its time, thanks co an arr that
remains foreign to it, a ninereenrh-century hero who uses che
langua ge of che eighreench century. a modern hero in a form that
eludes fashion. Or we may even admfre the spirit of analysis of this
lirrle n ovel, che violent, dry, and impersonal lucidity chat seems one
of the constant qualities of our tradition and makes a.II that is
connected with it lasting. But later we begin ro love Adalphe
because it lb.as something unique and even suspect about it, be
cause, far lFrom being the result of a pure art, it expresses che
singular experience and the seeming madness of a man who is diffi
culr ro understand, in many ways one of che strangest chat we
know. And at this instant it suddenly seems to us chat chis novelistic
tradition whose main characteristic seemed co be rhe search for
universal values is manifested essentially by works in which the
author looks only to himself, expresses only his secret, encloses
the most surprising and scandalous things: The Princess of Cleves,
Manon Le.rcaut, The New Heloise, Les Liaisons dangerettscs, Jus
tine, Rene, Adaiphe, The Charterhouse ofParma, Au,relia. Ma/aoror,
unique works, for what is expressed in them indeed adds to the
heritage, but like something chat is not inherited and so, remaining
whole, is transmitted without being lose.
From this double appearance of being a work chat is suitable for
all rimes a.ind for everyone, yet that is suitable only for one alone
and closes back on itself, Adolphe, like all classic arc, has kept its
righr to survive. But the contradiction here is particularly strong,
and all rhe simplicity, the rigor, the purity that we see in the book
make the :singularity of the movement that emerges in ir all the
rnore unusual. Undoubtedly, Adolphe's mood can be reduced to
sin1p le fee lings: Adolphe or the helplessness of loving, says Jean
ist ler; Adolphe or che greatness of severity toward oneself, says
Charles du Bos, while many ochers say indecision, weakness, the


Adolphe, or the Misfortune ofTme Feelings

mania of remorse, Adolphe's cruel ty. You will note char

epithets contradict each ocher.According co Delecluze and acco
ing co Martineau, who cites him, Stendhal complained by turns
the affectation of the book and loved its extreme truth of fe
he thought ic well expressed what ic expressed, buc chat it featured
kind of tragic banter [marivaudage]: affectation in truth,
and game, a just language, buc nothing bur a language, B
uncertainty about Adolphe is noc less than that of Adolphe h'
It is coo crue that the stylization of this character, the
paring-down of anecdote, the ordinary nature of che passion
illuscraces are paired wich some indescribable quality char we
not come co understand and that lends the work its secret. le is
same mystery, che same strange necessity chat Constant discovca
himself, that he sees and penetrates lucidly without ever being
co accept or reject ic.
Charles du Bos, in lectures that have been published ( Gra
and Misery ofBenjamin Constant), has cried co be no less fiut
Benjamin Constant than Constant wanted co be co eve
Constant to whom his friends were so unfair. His extreme
ligence has been acknowledged, but in order co make him rspo
ble for the mediocre use that he managed co make of it. He
accused of being weak because, beginning many affairs, he s
himself incapable of ending chem, cruel because he destroys
self in the ties he cannot break, insensitive if he confesses..co
cold and scarcely more interested in himself than in others, inc
scant finally (so/,a incomtantia comtans, he says), for he beco
attached only co detach himself. And, moreover, cowardly eno
co condemn Napoleon when the Empire collapses and co rally
his cause ac the moment of the Hundred Days, servile enough ID!
ask of power the material advantages that he pays for by the loss
his independence. Th ese judgments are nearly those of Sain
Beuve, who felt coo dose co him to understand him, and coo far
beneath him not co envy or condemn him. It is against these injut
cices that du Bos, by an analysis in which his delicacy of mind
patiently examines the texts, has undertaken a work of rescoratioP
from which Benjamin Constant emerges as a hero of lucid mind
and a mar tyr to picy.

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

The se conclusions of du Bos are rarely arguable. Constant's
Working through him, it is incomparable:
-, is e>meme.
h es1rac
. . oo as w1.thouc van1ty,
grea enough
pomrs it meets.
;do lphe andl hi creator ave cradicionally bee made int .e
tirns of excessive analysis. Constant accused himself of this: I
. I
hare chis faruity of a mind that chinks it excuses wh at it expIams;
cha t inte nds l:O get itself picied by describing itself, and thac, gliding
ind estructible in the midst of ruins, analyus itself instead of re
penting.'' But this mind, so guilty in appearing to abuse its inti
ma cy with ic:self, by leaving us a personal diary, leaves us the surest
docu.ment. tlhe least complacent, one perfectly foreign co the spirit
of analysis. lrhey are almost always short notes, in which he does
not seek co r,elive what he bas lived, or to take his revenge on whac
he was nor able co .live, or to say "I alone, " or to "I ay his h earr b are, "
or to give hi1 mself the cemptacion or the excuse of an impossible
sinceriry. He succeeds at that rare effect of being more natural than
Stendhal, because he is more indifferent to not seeming natural,
and even simpler, for he does not always cry co be simple: "To
occupy my evening I reread my Diary; it amused me passably
well. ... Wh en l began I promised myself to speak only for myself,
and yet such is the influence of the habit of speaking co che gallery
that somecimes I forgot myself.''
This demon of analysis who writes a diary in which analysis is
almosr absem is also a mind char is most closed on itself, and yet
mosc capable of justly appreciating others.Twenty-four hours after
having met Mme. de Scad, he judges her with this spirit of truth: "I
think her activity is a need, as much as, or more than, it is a merit;
but s he uses it co do good....What you say of her jibes is true: she
cite s the gre:at like an arrivisce from yesterday.... Bur I do not chink
Lhac she prides herself on her wit; she just feels that she has a lot of
it, she has a great need to speak, co give herself over, ro know
neither limi cs nor caution ....She praises people too mucb because
sh e wants i:o please them in order co give herself over to them
wirhout res:erve. When they are no longer there, she naturally
retrace s her steps: one cannot call that posirively bad faith." Lacer,


Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

he will speak of her less honestly: she will be a "torrent," "

disturbance of the universe and the movemenc of chaos,b
blazing of a volcano, "the most egotistical, the most frenzi
the most ungraceful, the vainest, and the most vindictive of
women," bur chat is what she will be then with him, what her
madness will force her to become, when he will write in the hei
of rhe storm: "Dreadful scene, horrible, demented; auocious
pressions. She is mad or f am mad."
We see now ch at Consrant's lucidity is not chat of indifterencc.
is a neutrality that passion overexcites. At the moment when
fedings for Mme. Recamier reach paroxysm and ought to
made him blind, he writes of her: 'She loses herself in the Ii
Airrations she makes her trade of: and pleases or pains herself
rurns by the pain she causes to b.er three or four wooers, of whom
am one; then she does a little good, when thac does not disturb
and puts the Mass above everything else, and sighs that she thi
come from her soul and that come only from her boredo
Which does not prevent him from writing, on che same
"Juliette must love me .. . or kill me. Vowed ro give
thousand francs co the poor if she loves me.The death 1
chosen is not painful; despondency deadens the physical and
ta! pain; let us not shrink back. " These rexes would be enough
dissipate the myth of an insensitive Constant.That he was sensi
only prompted by a certain impulse, we will see. Bur Co
himself, all the while noting his reserve, his coldness, his
curiosity, did not stop pushing back this suspicion of insensiti
" l prefer the madness of enthusiasm ...," he writes to his a
And in his Diary: "They quarrel with me over my scant sensitivilt=
No, f do not have scant sensitivi ty; bur it is susceptible and char
ochers is never perfectly suitable for it ....I see in it only a means
getting rid of the pain that seems ignoble to me.In a word , rny
sensitivity is always wounded by the demonstrations of th ac of
ochers." And even more than these absrracc judgmenrs, the remark$
of his Diary on the events that couch him show the violeocC,
pushed to madness, of what he feels and what he suffers. On MJJlC.
Recam.ier: 'J\girared and frightful day . .. horrible awakening1

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feeli ngs


r,r hr ,wd morning delirious. I cry continuously, ere., etc." On the

ig of is father: "My father is dead! my head is clouded and my
Ma rh h ,..
we: "No one suspects rh e ki nd o f"
en. 0 n h.1s own ,,c
b IOod froz
and devastates tt, and agam (chi s m a
dnes s char inundates
le rrer): "I am a smcken creature.
Consra nt's drama is quire banal in appearance, and what 1s more,
it is banal. Bue what makes it unique is chat ar the same
1 real icy
he u:nderwent it, he gave us the means of understanding
rune r
revealed to us its true meaning and reaJ breadth. His passions
we re among tbe strongest.Mme. de Stael made a fuss about 1ovmg
him, he rook poison, and there he was, dying. Mme.de Stael gave
in finally, she stopped "being a goal and became a bond": then
more love, eve:n more attachment, no doubt. bur especially our of
the boredom ,of feeling himself attached; the pleasure of what he
obtained made him regret the freedom he no longer had, and since
Mme. de Stac:1 was obsessed with involvement, because she did
not suffer anyiOne co escape her and demanded a constant, assidu
ous presence, and one not exclusive of many others, she quickly
enough transformed this connection into a crushing burden that
cut her off from life and made her crazy.Well, why didn't he break
this tie? But chat is the ocher movement of the drama, he could not
break it. and he could nor break it nor out of weakness or irresolu
tion, but becaiuse he could not bear the suffering it caused.Both the
spectacle and feeling of suffering represented a torment and an
enigma that overwhelmed him. He knew how co perceive the
subject clearly; he made of it a fatality of the human condition:
"The great question of life is the pain we cause .... All that I respect
on the earth is pain and l wane to die without having to reproach.
myself for having held our against it." He sees in it a trait of his
nature: "I know only that I am one who is always carried away to
fed for others more than for myself. because pity pursues me " It is
such .t carrying away that filled h.is existence with dismay.When he
no longer hadl passion, he had the passion of breaking off. But if he
Wanrcd to break off, he destroyed the one from whom he was
ieparacing, and this pain made him beside himself ("She uttered
frightful cries of pain and desolation. A heart of iron would not

23 2.

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

have been able to resist it." And about his wife, whom he does
love, whom he deceives and ridicules: ''The idea of what she
suffering and will suffer ...poisons the feeling of my freedom.")
he resigns himself nor to breaking off, be must feign feelings that
no longer has, for a lack of feelings would be as painful to the O
as a breaking off would be.And if he dissimulates, this dissitn
tion ends by sc.i1ling him until he explodes and puts all his s
into breaking off. which provokes a thousand sorrows, provolas
many char he cannot go on with it; then he becomes resigned,
dissimulates again, until the next vain attempt to free himself,
himself to pieces, and fall back imo his bonds.
Constant is a gripping example of che paradox there is at
borcom of all human relationships, when they give themselve,
their purpose the lack char makes chem up. He often calls out
solitude, but as we shall see, and shall see why, solitude resem:.
much torment for him as communal existence. He cannot
without another; his entire conduct proves it: be marries twice,
weightier affairs than twen ty marriages, lives in the world and
the world, a world in which his wit is brilliant. Bur he can no lo
suffer another as soon as he no longer conceives of existence as
be lacks, but as something he holds. The principle of all
movements is the feeling of distance that separates him from
others. He knows and he feels that this distance is at once
condition and the object of his relationships with the,wodd.
must be distanced from the world if he wants to get closer to ir
he can communicate with it only if he becomes master of
emptiness.So it is nor Mme. de Stael whom he wants co attain,
che very distance chat will push him away from her, the abs
rhar, in the rruest sense, is the only way for men to make rhemsel
present. Ten cexrs would furnish the demonstration of chis.
emptiness is often perceptible to him only in boredom, be
satisfied with it, he lives in apathy and laziness, lives confron
his own emptiness. Bur ler someone transform this interval, let
hollow ic out even more, make a burning, brillic1nr, unscalabl6
emptiness of it, lee obstacles be mulriplied, let the chasm s
cllways vaster and deeper: then Constant's desire blazes up, sprea

Adolphe. or the Misfortune ofTnte Feelings


s irritated, madness, desire for death, and does nor rest

out, become
the oth er whose possession suspend s h"1s d es1re,

. .
be oneself. So
O that makes others, as he wnres, never

c is no t bfica se he is fulfiJled that be stops desmng. He LS not
Hilled; what he wants, what such or such be:m appearance
reveals ro him, is noc only the absence of her to htm but also the
bsence cha.t is the ground of all his relationships with ochers, and
:bat he tri,:s in vain to live and to appropriate. Loving Mme.
Recamie r, amd loving her even more madly when he cannot obtain
her, he begins to suffer from all that he is missing and even from
rhe coldn e!;s of his wife, who is so unimportant. ("Without this
wretched need for loving char Juliette has given me, I could console
"Vexation makes me crazy." "My heart wears itself out with all it
has and regrets all ir does not have... IfJuliette loved me, 1 would
cire of her. ... I love only in absence, with gratefulness and pity."
The rnomc:nc does not come when, less ouc of weariness than to
resrore the possibility of human relationships, he is going co try to
break off, 1to substitute an absence for che presence chat offends
him. Then rhe ambiguity of ceariogs-apart and the contradiction
that, each rime he wanes to distance himself, arises with the pain he
causes co make the distancing impossible. We cannot say char chis
suffering is a pleasure to him; it is a suffering, but he experiences it
only throu;gh ochers and in orhers, in the loss that it brings chem
and thereby, because of chis mutilation, makes them present in a
murkier w11y. He has told us his personal pains are almost nothing
ro him, while che pains of ochers weigh infinitely on him. He cells
Us again: '''My affection has increased with the pain char I have
cause d her." Someone who suffers puts him in an inexpressibly
feverish scare. "When Mme. de Stael loses her father whom she
loved so much, the thought that he is going to see her in this
cxrre m iry inspires feelings in him of an extraordinary violence:
'There is in my situation something like waiting for an execution
Whose rime is fixed." Even the pain of unimportant people ex
ercises a fascinating power on his imagination. He speaks of a


Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

twen ty-three-year-old woman who was hanged in England

counterfeiting. Caught in che act, dragged before the tribunal,
young woman does nothing to defend herself, she goes from sw
to swoon.Condemned and brought into prison, she remains in
same lace, immobile, without caking any food. On the day
execunon, she lees herself be carried without resisting and witho
seeming to see what is happening around her. At the Jase mo
when she feels the board giving way beneath her feet, at chis
instant, uttering a great cry, she finally gives a sign of existence,
first and the last. Before chis solitary suffering, despised by all w
go by without seeing it, Constant is "gripped and frozen." And it
nor only the profundi ty of chis misery that touches him, the
itself moves him; this young woman whose suffering is mute
whose life is nothing bur fainting, is for him the incarnation of
absence in which he finds die existence of the other, and of w
he makes the place of his desires and the object of his imposs
"For more than a year, l sighed after complete independence;
has come and l tremble. I am as if appalled with the sotude
surrounds me. I am frightened at not holding onto anything, I
have moaned so much co hold onto something." There he- is alo
he no longer has anything; he no longer holds onto an
under the form of his freedom, he enjoys the emptiness that he
sought and chat he meets in himself. And yet this solirudtt frigh
him, he "trembles" from it. What is he lacking, then? Wh
separated from others, he meets love that illuminates chis se
tion, he can dream of reconquering it by conquering the one who
he loves. When, bound to another, he suffers from no Ion
communicating with another because he is no longer separarei
from her, he can again live this absence in the presence chat is ill
obstacle, struggling co distance it. Bur if he wins chat very absenct.
if it stops being a lack and becomes what he has, he has more than
he can live, he falls into a state of satiety, he is more dead than al ive;
his illness can be expre.ssed in this form: when he has nothing, he
has coo much.
Much more could be said.The main pare of Constanc's drama is
that he Jives, in ics pure state, in the vivacity of a singular sensicivicy,

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

2 35

if we are not
. pa' radox: we have relationships with another only
with another.We communicate
11 fused
posse ssing not whar he is bur whar separates us from him, his
sence rather than his presence, and, even better, the infinite
a ovemenc tO
surpass and cause chis absence to be reborn. It is clear
ac Constant associates with this emptiness that obsesses him all
that the idea of
:he scares that can become ics symbol. We know
end there, it is
death hardly left him. "I am all dust.Since we muse
be, cannot be
jusc as
more remark
happy.... Ac the end of
able is chc strange need to begin his passions by making himself die,
either serio,usly or through an uncertain comedy in which he
bone scly divides his chances. One could say that by seeking rhe real
emptiness of death, he looks for a.magic way to trap this emptiness,
more difficuJt to grasp, that is the condlcion of all attachment and
the object olf all desire. Even faced with Mlle. Pourras, who is only a
passing fancy while he plays om alone a romance in which he
scarcely bel.ieves, he h as to drink his lircle vial of opium. With
Mme. de Stnel, he secs himself to death, and we learn that Constant
always had with him what he needed co kill himself, and to prevent
himself from dying. Finally, when he meets Mme. Recamier, death
is at each sr,ep.
We have 1noted char Constant's lucidity went hand in hand with
his sensicivi1ry, and chac, far from harming chem, his reflection gave
Strength ro lfiis passions."His sensitivity increased by the reflection
thar dimini .shes it in others," said his cousin Rosalie. But that is
because his lucidi ty expresses the same impulse as his desire. He
judges and looks deeply because he remains at a distance from what
he secs; he knows himself better than anyone else because what he
fee ls is felt as the absence of what he would like to feel, thus this
pure margin endlessly authorizes the neutrality of his gaze.So the
excrtme vivaciry of his consciousness finds more resources than
s in his desire. if consciousness is so much more lively when
it lends less to confuse itself with its object but separates itself from
It, ihar is, if ic seeks to know by the absence of what it knows, as
desire want:s to realize itself by the lack of what it desires.
le is an exuaordinary adventure, because it is complete and

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

because it illustrates the motives of human actions when
devote themselves co achieving their own possibility. We- can
cern their originality by comparing it with Proust's. Proust,
comes near only co what be distances himself from. W hat
possesses is too much co him, what he knows is nothing to
The reply to "My heart wears itself our with all it has and regreq.
it does nor have" is the remark in The Captive: "Every being who
loved, even a little, every being is for us like Janus, presenting
pleasing face to us if this being is leaving us, a sad face if we
be is at our constant disposition." If Proust loves Albertine
when she begins co go away, U: when she is there, he loves anly
being in her who escapes him because she coorains "so many
slipped away," a time forever unknown and forever lose, if
anaches himself so desperately ro her each time he feels that s
living elsewhere, that she belongs to another life and other
it is indeed undoubtedly, under the most diverse forms, an ab
that he seeks and that is the object of his love. A necessary ab
since he can enjoy reali ty only in imagination. ("My imagina
which was my only organ to enjoy beauty, could not apply itSCIE
it [reality] by virtue of the inevitable law chat wants us co be able
imagine only what is absent." Even more strongly, Conscanc sayr
Mme. Recamier: "In her absence, one remakes her for oneself
one's liking, and the obstacle, along with the material difficulty
seeing her, get one excited.") Ic is an absence char, representing
does rime chat is irremediably lost, the time of a being whose past:
doubly inaccessible, gives the most burning desire to find it
finally an absence, always threatened, that measures the im
sibili ty of making itself master of another and preventing it fi
belonging to another.
We are thus very close co Benjamin's sentiments. Proust,
Adolphe, experiences the paradox of all communication (a para
that is also one of language), according co which what establish
relationships is their impossibility, while what unites beings is w
separates chem, and what makes them foreign co each other is wblC
brings them closer together. Boch men become weary of presen
because it is only a contact, not an authentic relationship. Only O



the Misfortune of Tnte Feelings

23 7

ust does nor desire this absence as the motive of all

seems) . Pro
. .
m the way that Constant does: he does not desire
,,I( bu c it is absence chat makes someone desirable co him,
ir ar .,_ ,
while making him suffer from nor bemg able to accam .th.e perso.
Suffering and desire come in Proust from the part tht 1s maccess1ble ro him, inaJienable co everyone, that he finds m the one he
1 ves; in Constant, suffering comes from finding too great access co
;e pers on, an access chat makes everyone else inaccessible to him,
cornes, roo, from the necessi ty to lose in one single person alone the
pos sibility of communicating with everyone, d us of comu
nica cing with even chat one person. Proust destres m rhe Capnve
whac he canno1c capture, his freedom. Constant desires in a being
the freedom of desiring in general. That is why in Proust love is
suffering, he loves only in jealousy, and he suffers not because he
has lost his frecidom to love others besides Albertine, bur because
AJbertine still rc:mains free for ochers besides him. Constant, on the
contrary, is hardly jealous. Adolphe is satisfied enough to see the
friends with whtom Ellenore surrounds herself and who threaten to
detach her from him. If he suffers, it is because of what he has,
rather than bec:ause of whac is taken from him; and if he suffers, it is
co give birch, at the moment of separation, by means of the
sufforing char breakup causes, co the reasons for not breaking up.
These differ,ences are delicate. They are nor essential. Proust
loves because he suffers, and he suffers from feeling all the absence
there is in a forever fleeing presence; but ic is also because of this
abse nce chat chis presence can found real relationships. Constant
beg ins co love when a particular being appears, magnetizing the
whole void chair separates him from others, and whose possession is
far from restoring ro him the embodiment of the unknown. As
so on as this too-demanding involvement exhausts the possibili of
bis rtlacionships with all, which he wanted to experience with one
ingle pers on, be is sti.Bed, he succumbs. He needs to be free, buc he
15 always tied down. This is so because his freedom is not for
imsdf, it is the freedom of belonging to ochers. Without succeed
ing in breaking off with Mme. de Stael, he secretly marries Char
lotte, with who,m he is no doubt in love, whom he found again with

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

surprise, with delight, twelve years after a first affair, but of wh
he wrires on the day after their delicious reunion: "Evening wi
Charlotte.WW the fever pass, and will boredom begin again? J
hellishly afraid of it." The secrer marriage with Charlotte re p
sents an attempt at restoring, by means of the ambiguity of
double presence, the absence that alone makes him master of
affairs with everyone. Finally, if he considers grave and culpab le
suffering of which he is the cause, it is because this suffering
in another person the same mutilation thar the loss of his fre
represents for him.A being whom he causes to suffer is one ..
whom he unites himself by destroying. Hence the tangled
equivocal nature of his feelings after each appalling scene: when
sees Mme.de Stael ar his feet, twisting and screaming with pain,
feels strongly how much he bas acquired rights over her, and
excess of power is the sign of the excessive conneccions that
rhem, of the distance that bas been erased between them, of
double lost freedom, and he develops as much shame as disgust
ir. At the same ti.me, this suffering he inflicts is a way of dimi
ing che ocher. of destroying him, of sending him back beyond
self And he feels a Lightening of spirits from it, and perhaps
renewal of desire, so much so that after each mention of "frigh
scene, convulsive night," he muse also write, "Everything is
versed, a magical power dominates me, attachmenr rakes b
again," for the rearings-apart that are the sign of their mutual
moyed freedom are also like the cloudy dawn of a newly gli
Two characteriscics are striking in this Proust-Constant co
niry. W ith both, lucidity accompanies the violence of feelings: th
way of coming near others ro love them is their very way of co
near rhem ro know chem well.Moreover, ic is remarkable that
symbolic images Prousr uses ro describe Albertine's love are just
sketched our in Constant. Ir is when Albertine is asleep
Proust's strange love for her arises: her absence is as if present, sleep
realizes the unknown that is in her without dissipating ir, ic handl
over chis stranger who cannot be surprised, this freedom cbal
cannot be confined; the young woman is finally complerdy ber se

Adolphe, or the Misfortune

of True Feelings


id aU chat she is, is revealed, avowed, and given."Her self did not
reep escaping all the time, as when we chatted, through the exits of
un:ivowed thought, or through her gaze.She had called back to her
all cha r used to be outside of her; she had taken refuge, enclosed,
res um ed in her body.Holding her in my gaze, in my hands, I had
chis impression of possessing her entirely chat I did not have when
she was awake....My jealousy calmed, for I felt Albertine had
beco me a being who breathes, who is nor something else, as chis
r egular breath signified by which this pure physiological function
expresses itself, that, completely fluid, has neither thickness nor
speech nor silence; and in her ignorance of all evil her breath,
drawn rather from a hollowed-out reed than from a human being,
was uuly parad:isiacal. was the pure song of angels for me who, in
chose moment;, felt Albenine removed from everything, not only
materially but morally."
Prousr indicates in a famous passage char the true meaning of a
novel is found in images and sentence types that reveal its haunting
secret.Albertine's sleeping is one of rhese images.And one of these
same images, tine young Englishwoman of whom Constant spoke
co us wich so much agitation, this living-dead woman who pro
gresses by swoon to swoon from mistake to death.And another of
rhese images, che sleep to which he compares the attachment of
certain women in his Diary, a comparison that, by a strange
coincidence, Julie Talma takes up to define "the eternal loves" of
Constanr that he enters the way some men enter sleep. This
metaphor canrnot be without importance.If sleep shows us Alber
t ine's life removed from everyrhing and made perceptible in this
universal distancing, it is because it represents ro us not so much
beings as their place between parentheses, their suspended relacion
hips, incarnatd in their pure state, the profound drowsiness char
only awakenin g makes known co desire.
Adolphe is a calm, discreet novel, says Albert Thibaudet. Dis
creec, yes, calm, perhaps. if calmness is what nides violence and
conceals beneath its surface the most considerable tragedy. We see
dt:irly, now, chat the work's interest is nor found in the single
naruralness of the passions, nor in che subtlery and strength of


Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

analysis. Feelings and analysis are here nothing bur a way

lighting up a faral parh, one of the thousands of detours that
make us perceive the circle of human relationships whose ourco
whatever the roure followed, is universal misfortune. There is
mistaking it, and Constant writes: "Some people have asked
what Adolphe should have done ro experience less pain and
less pain. His position and Ellenore's were without resources,
that is precisely what l wanted. f showed him tormented because
loved Ellenore only weakly; but be would not have been
tormented if he had loved her more. He suffered because of
because of a lack of feeling: with a more passionate feeli ng.
would have suffered for her.... When one has entered on this
one has only a choice of evils." Could this warning be clearer? So
us stop seeing in Adolphe the tragedy of a particular feeling,
particular nature, since it is a drama inherent in our cond.i
wherein all feeling and all personalitie. whatsoever are doomed
the same fate.
This drama comes from the madness in the sphere of h
relationships when those who live them choose to live them
resting their potential, that is co say. their truth, One wh ch
to seize again in the other the impulse that carries him toward
other will only be able to repeat with melancholy Benjamin's
conclusion: "With true feelings, I made nothing bur misfortune
myself and others''; for it is truth that makes this misfortWJe, jUSC
it is lucidity chat precipitates it. Once the point of departure
established, once the need bas been accepted as necessary co gee'
touch with the impulse in the other by which one contacts
other and to live that impulse, and, living it, preserve, save
possibility of this impulse, then neither rhe strength of feelings, n
the nobility of one's character, nor the strangeness of circumsran
will change anything in it. If Adolphe had loved Ellenore more,
would have experienced even more acutely the need to break
with her, for her passion would have contradicted even more
truth of his passion; but he would also have been all the mo
strongly prevented from breaking off, and more incapable of b
ing the suffering that this rupture couJd not help bur enrrain. As

Adolphe, or the Misfarttme of True Feelings

attached to Adolphe, she would have consented co set
f:Jlenore, less
to the extent that he would have refused this freefre
h 111, e
suffered from it, and, throu.g h his suffering,
dorn, would
would have o bliged him to take her back.What is more, this very
ovemenr is that of the book, since this peripeteia marks its lase
m isode. When Ellenore is dead, by an ironic revelation the letter is
tu lged in which she finally consents to separation: 'Through
wbar bizarre pity do you not dare break a tie that burdens you, and
destroy the unfortunate being at whose side your pity keeps you?
Why do you deny yourself the gloomy pleasure of at least believing
your self generous? Why do you show yourself furious and weak?
The idea of 1my pain follows you, and the spectacle of this pain
cannot stop you. What is it that you want?'' Thus at the death that
has untied the ties and has just given him the freedom of feelings
that he is no longer capable of experiencing, Adolphe receives,
from che same woman who always held him back, and as a last
reproach, the permission to make himself free. The permission
comes too late, bur it could only come too late, and seems now to
be given only co corrupt d1e enjoyment of a freedom that now
burdens him more than all his connections.
On almos1r every page in Adolphe we find the description of
feelings whose causes keep vainly switching back and forth; every
thing sends them back to themselves, everything confirms their
inescapabiliry. That is because the point is reached in which the
dive rsiry of events and the whole infiniteness of the world tirelessly
repeat che circular movement in which the heart that is greedy for
the rrurh is enclosed. When Adolphe writes, "When she appeared,
I was grieved by doubting a love rhat was so necessary to her; I did
nor griev e ai:1y less when she seemed to believe in it," or again,
"When Ellenore found me somber or depressed, she grieved first,
wounde d heirself afterward, and core from me by her reproaches the
avowal of rhc fatigue that I would have preferred ro conceal; on my
side.:, when Ellenore seemed content, I was irritated at seeing her
<.:njoy a siru a 1tion that cost me my happiness. and I vexed her in her
horc enjoyment by insinuations that enlightened her about what I
Was fcding inside," we feel that the balance of clauses, their sym-

Adolphe, or the Misfortune of True Feelings

metrical opposition, only translare inro form the demand of
situation in which one goes from one extreme ro its opJ><>si
without change and without rest. All che book's rigor comes &o
the inescapabiliry of this movement. All its tragic power co
from this repetition, which does not stop making the feelings
exasperates ever more violent, or, owing co chis violence, m
the rerum of these feelings ever more inescapable. The repeti
thus makes monotony the principle of an extraordinary m
toward catastrophe.
Constant, in his Dairy, on rhe subject ofsuffering, observed h
passions become destiny. If one betakes oneself to pain, one
suffer it in order to distract onesdf from it. If you flee it, you s
even more (for it always reaches you) from che weakness of
fled it. "Pain is a snake that glides through all barriers and al
finds you. The very action of fleeing gives you a feeling of w
that makes you more incapable of mastering it when it r,
you." It has often been thought of as an irony due to chance
che two symmetrical adventures ofhis life should have shown
in che first one, incapable ofloving and, in the second, powerless
make himselfloved. Bue the symmetry is even more profound,
it is not che work of capricious fortune. He did not love Mme.
Stael less than he had Mme. Recamier: lercers, his conduct,
madness, everything demonstrates it. Bue once he had chosen
feelings, he could only choose the inextricable, and h!>'i cwo
passions exposed him to the same disaster, by putting him in
presence of the two opposite sides of his sentimental destiny.
loves and we love him strongly; char is the first good luck. But
one whom be chose to love, who is neither intolerant nor exclus
("Many people must love me," she said; "as soon as there are cwo
us, there must be many more"), and who consequencly offers
the rare chance of freedom, has as her main crait a "quasi sacred
(Charles du Bos) horror of separation-she cannot bear the idc:a,,
she needs paces and engagements, the very things most likely'
exhaust the feelings char she wants to bind. And Benjamin gdl
caught up with exhilaration, because he himself always hopes tO
find in marriage or an enactment ofmarriage the means ofholdinJ

Adolphe, or the Misformne ofTme Feelings


as he is
ion chat presence causes ro Aee. But as soon
. .
baCk a pass
assion becomes 1mposs1"ble, and what remains of 1t in
. volvcd. p,
JTI pushe:; him to break off precisely with the single person for
off is worse than death. What more can he arwhom breaking
cernp[1 To love in freedom, to love without che servitude ofa shared
love? So he meets Mme. Reier, he meets the perso wo h:15 e
arearesr im puissance of feelmg, the mosr exneme naivete of indif
fer ence and coldness coward him and coward everyone, the one
who, according co Sainte-Beuve, would like everything to stop in
April. Truly she is the one who is best made to goad passion co
dementia , 1to make him madly desire all the satisfactions of sum
mer, and w drag him along to lose himself in pacts and slavery.
Such is tlbe rigor of the code. Assuredly, situations sometimes get
untangled, bur chis resolution is only appearance. Although Con
stant can indeed leave Mme. de Scad and can resign himself co the
sballowoes:; of Mme. Recamier, whatever truth there is in his
feelings reruros endlessly ro the fuse one ("Mme. de Stael is quite
lose co me. I will not recover from her") and burns forever in che
coldness of the second. Thus, this indifferent man, model of the
eanui'd heart, finds, to express the meaning of his life, the very
words char Nietzsche's burning solitude will meet half a century
Ungesacrigc gleich dei Flamme
Glilhe uod verzehr' ich mich.
Lichc wird alles, was ich fasse,
Kohle alles, was ich lasse,
Flamme bin ich sicherl.ich!
Unsaced as che flame
I bw-n in order co be consumed.
Light is what I couch,
Ash all that I leave:
AssuredJy, I am flame.
And Constant co Juliette Recamier: "I am destined ro illuminate
You hy burning myself up."

Gazes .from Beyond the Grave

Gazes from Beyond

the Grave

Michel Leiris prefaces the new edition of The Age ofManwirh

essay that makes che most accurate commentary on it and makes
the ochers useless.In this essay, entitled "On Literature as B
fighting," he clarifies completely the intentions to which we
chis book, one of the central works of so-called "modern" lirera
'What did he want in wanting co wrice it? First, co escape
gratuitousness of literary works and to accomplish a real d
threatening for its author and capable of implying rhe same
for him that "the bull's sharp horn" represenrs in other spo
Further, co achieve a work that could enlighten him about
and enlighten others abour him, and at the same time <ft:ljver
from certain obsessions and alJow him to attain a veritable ..
fullness." Finally, to write a book that would be dangerous both
his ocher books and for literature in general, by revealing "in
information," by making us see ''tn all their unexciting nakedn
the realities that formed rhe framework more or less disguised
brilliant exteriors" of his ocher written works.
All these intentions answer co problems from which liceracure
not remote.Writing is nothing if it does not involve the writer il1 I
movement full of risks that will change him in one way or another.
Writing is only a worrhless game if this game does not become all
adventurous experience, in which the one who pursues ic, invol9"
ing himself in a path whose outcome escapes him, can learn whtf

24 5

he does not know and lose what prevents him from knowing.Then
\vr ire by all means, bur only if writing always makes the ace of
\vriring mon:: efforcful, if it rends ro cake away from him the facility
char words do not scop receiving from the most skillful hands.
The Age ofMan is not an autobiography or simple confessions; it
is eve n less a matter of memoirs.Autobiogr. aphy is the work of a
Living, vir al memory char wanes to, and can, grasp time again in its
very movement.Autobiography, outside of its content, depends on
irs rhythm, lits pouring forth, which is not here synonymous with
confid en ce but evokes the power of the stream, the truth of some
thing chat 8,ows, stretches out, and assumes form only in the flux.
Henri Brula:rd, Memoirs of an Egotist, sometimes De Quincey and
the second IPart of It Die are examp les of this history chat is
discovered, not a history chat is already made and congealed, but an
existence mrned coward the future and that, at the moment it is
mid, seems .alway s in the process of happening, unknown to the
very one who is telling it in the past. As for memoirs, we know what
they are: ddiberate, methodical reconstitutions, works of reflec
tion, sometimes of art and science. Existence here (even if it is a
question of a private existence) is history because it is historic. lr is
presented as having always been, with that dignity and solemnity
chat it owes ro the monumental presence of a past over which the
author himsdf no longer has any right. The Memoirs .from Beyond
the Gm11e have this exemplary virtue: they rise up from the grave,
says Maurice Levaillant, and Chateaubriand, with this incompara
ble sense of the past, confirms it in words at which we dare not
srnile: "I bave been urged to lee some excerpts of these Memoirs
appear durin.g my lifetime; I prefer to speak from the bottom of my
coffin; my narration will always then be accompanied by those
Voices that have something sacred about chem, since they come our
of the sepulc:her." But, to tell the truth, in these Memoirs, it is not
death that speaks, but existence as if dead, as if an existence that has
al:'ays been, always past, immobilized in a life char is dauntingly
alien co any future, even to the future of death.
f'he Age ofMan come,<; close to confessions.As in confessions, its
author wani:s co "expose himself ... ublicly confess cerrajn


Gazes from Beyond the Grave

Gazes from Beyond the Grave

deficiencies or weaknesses char make him the mosr ashame d." 1'he
purpose of confessions is co make public what is only private, arid
co do so with a moral, or at least practical, intencjon. One C00,.:
fesses, first of all, co place what is hidden into rhe light of day, thCQ
co make the day judge rhese hidden depths, and finally to dis.
burden oneself of chis secret life onto the day. Michel Leiris told Ill,
in his preface: "By means of an autobiography having co do with
domrun for which, ordinarily, reserve is required ... I thought
rid myself of certain tiresome representations at the same time
sercing free my characreriscics with a maximum of puri ty, as m
for my own use as to dissipate any erroneous view of me that .....911:l..
take hold of another." And he then speaks of catharsi$, deliv
of a discipline coming to complete the first resu.lts of a psych
lyric cure. Perhaps this is a somewhat obscure intention of
book.One mighr say char this intention contradicts all the o
thar if the author writes to free himself of dangerous obsessi
chis "good'' that he expects from his book greatly diminishes '
menacing nature. Thar by runt of sincerity he thmks he can
cured of "cerrrun deficiencies and weaknesses," yet cou.ld even.
the same rime, experience all rhe dangers chis sinceri ty holds
him, by making the relationships with some of those close to
more problematic for him, but char finally will be on.ly a wrong
the sake of a right, a momentary inconvenience rhar he accepts
get rid of much more serious disadvantages, an effort gsked co '
ever after sheltered from che risks char obsessions and deficicn
We could nore again chat confession implies a strange enran
menr of motives and results.It is certainly nor easy co confess one it
cowardly. Yet precisely that cannor happen without courage, aad
the witness ro the confession risks perceiving behind rhe defecrthe-\.
courageous firmness that confesses ir, and he will see ic even betief
when rhe avowal is frank, harsh, accurate. And if rhe one who
confesses his defects counts on this avowal to deliver himself &odl
chem, if, confessing himself deficient, he finds, afret th .is co ftP
fession, that he is the most courageous of men, we see how che

procedur e is revealed as a winning strategy, one suitable for reward

ror 1rs
on1 who attempced tt
10 che
does nor ignore these
he denounces others
chat are cheir eqwvalencs. First of all, that the danger ro which one
eXpo ses 0111eself by writing is rarely mortal. The bull's horn that
dueacens be writer is only a shadow of a horn. The scandal can be
rear, bur I irerature is that sword chat cures the one it wounds: the
!eschecic va.lue of scandal, its beauty. soon transform it, and the
book for which one has risked scorn brings in the end admiration
and fame. So trickery is the point of departure of any literary
und ercakinig like tragedy. But there is something more serious:
"Whar I rnusunderstood is char at the bottom of any introspection
is che caste for concemplating oneself, and that at the root of any
confession is the desire ro be absolved." In truth, this taste and this
pleasure are the only immediate "benefits" that confession has in
score for whoever abandons himself to ir; the ocher advantages that
we have pe>inced out remain very ambiguous: ro portray oneself as
one is, chat: is, as more mediocre than one would like to appear and
than as others see you; chis avowal prorojses us in vrun imporcanr
consolario111s later on, at the moment it is made, on.ly the an
noyance and difficul ry of making it count; whoever confesses his
defecr perceives the defect be confesses and not the courage of his
confession, and the book in which this confession is written is still
only a srucrering oudine that is completely unaware of its coming
destiny as a successful, praised, and admired book. So the con
fession is indeed a risk; a remedy, too, but perhaps an iUusory one
th ar, far from making obscure things disappear, will make them
'.11ore obscure, more haunting, and will precipitate the failure that
It w as supposed co prevent.
''To lo ok at myself with complacency was still co look at myself,
to ke ep my eyes fixed on myself instead of directing them b ond,
to pass OV(:r me toward somethlng more broadly human-" On this
t:vc l, co nfossion is in fact secretly undermined by the satisfactions
1t b
rings. Some peopJe draw pride from their humiJiacions and


2 47

Gazes from Beyond thtt Grave

pleasure from their humiliating confessions-rhar is sometimes
case wirh Rousseau.Bur the pleasure can be of a more subtl
formidable kind. Thus we take satisfaction in looking at oursel
without satisfaction, we find a confused sensual delight in putti.
everything out inco the open, and rigor becomes weakness,
more sincere we are, the more sincerity satisfies the duplicity at
heart's core. The more exacting we are with ourselves, the more
exactness will be a source of dangerous divergences. There is a
in confession chat no confession can acone for, since it is commi
by being avowed and is aggravated as soon as it is absolved:
offense here is Jjnked to justification, innocence. Yet wanting
innocence is necessary, we cannot do without it, so chat eve
is an offense, both the avowal and refusal of the avowal. Such
pretty much the category of the demoruc of which Kier
Leiris chose the sin of confession, and thjs sin is probably a
culpa since co it we owe a book that is a classic from now on. B
must again be noted char satisfaction is here the opposite of
faction, that it noc only signifies an excessive inclination to s
but has ics origin in the refusal co speak, in an "I cannot speak"
by its excesses ends up operung the mouth."All my friends kno
I am a specialise, a maniac for confession; yet wbar pushes
especially with women-to confide is timidity. When I am
with a being whom sex suffices co make so different from me.
feelings of isolarion and misery become such chat, despairing
finding anything co say to my interlocutor that could be rhe
for a conversation, incapable, coo, of courting her if I happen
desire her, l begin, for lack of another subject, to talk about m
as my sentences flow on, the tension mounts, and eventually
begin to institute a surprising current of drama between my in
locucor and me, for, the more my present situation distresses me.
the more I speak of myself in an anguished way, relying for a lo
time oa this sensation of solitude, of separation from the oud
world, and ending by nor knowing if this tragedy described by
corresponds co the permanent reality of what I am, or is only
imagisric expression of chis momentary anguish that I undergo al

Gazes from Beyond the Grave


enrer inco contact with a human being and am placed, in

so011 as [
50rne way. in ch e pos1t1on of speaki"
We see how che most profound speech is born from che vertigo
har rises from che impossibility of speaking, and we also see that
Lhe mo tive and single theme of chis speech is its own impossibility:
c is spoken as if it were not speaking, and, because of that, ir is
li mitless. nc:>rhing can imerrupt it since it has no contents to
e,xhausr-nothing, if it is only ac a certain moment chat it discovers
its elf spt aking, speaking endlessly and rhus, aware of its trickery,
se nds itself back co silence, in shame and hatred of this vain speech.
Fro m oral secrets to the book, che distance is great. To speak, the
aurhor here deliberately, and wirh a concern for mastery, willed a
severity of ,examination that does nor authorize rhe excess of an
unreined language. In speaking, however, its aim is still to give
speech co what does nor speak in him, to violate the silence of that
which wanes to be quier. The Age ofMan is exactly chis moment of
maruriry ini which che reign of silent intimacy, of muteness in
oneself and about oneself char belongs ro childhood and adoles
cence, is brutally brought ro an end by a demanrung, analytic, and
denunciamry speech. For the complacency of silence chat is the
offense of rhe first three monchs. an offense of innocence that wants
ro say noch.ing and has nothing co say, manhood substitutes the
complacency of language, the offense that wants co be recognized
as an offense and thus find innocence again, the innocence of che
Michel Leiris's book is no sort of vertigo, ic refuses the spon
tan eity of o,pen-mourhed secrets whose depth is revealed with the
incoercible strength of moods clearing a path to the outside. To
write chis life "seen from the angle of eroticism,'' he cells us, he
imposed rules on himself. He did not mm himself to the surge of
memorie s or ro simple chronological order. Like any author of an
aLstohiography, he wants co rake hold oflife again. "ro gather it into
orw si ngle solid block,'' bur he does ir by means of an ordering
viio n, a preliminary clairvoyance char arranges chis existence ac
:?rding to the profound chemes char it has perceived wirhin ir.
I hcse strict rules, chis discipline that he observes both in self-


Gazes from Beyond the Grave

expression and in self-interpretation, are what seem to assure the,

greatest chance of truth in his undertaking, and also to make .
most like bullfighrs, where the combat compels a danger risen fro
instinct co take the form of a ceremony in which nothing can :
change. The paradox of these confes.sions, if i r is one, comes then
from this: rhe author feels chem dangerous to him, not becaUSc: of
their liberties and their turbulent movemenrs bur because of
severi ty of the rules that he imposes on himself in order tow
chem, and because of the lucid objectivi ty char he wants co attain
writing them. And chis other paradox follows: char che rone of
confidences is almost always reserved, reticenc, and yet chis r
and this reticence, far from diminishing the frankness that seems
great as possible, on the contrary guarantee it and give it the
of necessity. Frankness rhat says everything says only itself, and
says it perhaps by accident. Bue frankness that holds itself in r
co say everything also says the reserve from which it speaks,
forces ic co speak, makes a duty of it by forbidding it all denial,
retraction, and all excuse. The "objective" tone of The Age of
the vigilant, sometimes almost formal coldness char emerges in
are promoted by the underground "I do noc want to speak,"
are like the echo of timidi ty that he told of, of chis fundamen
reticence chat first prevents, then deranges, all communication.
here the dizziness has become lucidi ty, and the anguish is col
The Age ofMan is an attempt at interpreting oneself, in which
the derail of tastes, the chance of one's actions, all d1e anecdo
dust of life, generally thought co be insigni.ficanc, are related
themes around which the profound meaning of existence is orga
nized. le is quire a differenr attempt from char of an ordinart
autobiography, and all the more meaningful in chat it escapd die
trap of causal explanations and systematic views, such as that of
psychoanalysis or even of interpretation. of understanding at any
price. In ic are rare measure and mastery: a concern co see onesdfin
a way that does not change what is seen, an abili ty to understand
oneself chat makes order out of impulses nor easily underscood, a
tragic feeling of the human condition glimpsed through its own

Gazes from Beyond the Grave

either exalted or lowered by ir. ln his
difliculcies, without being
Archur Adamov also attempted
1. de book
tr nfossion whose pathos and
ty do nor conflict wich each
3 co
he tried as well co link obsessions char are his to the
orher and
sicuacto n of che world in general, as it is today. But he could not
fully pursue either of his aims char endlessly_ interrupt _ and re
confused with each ocher. The very pathos of his story obliges him
ro keep to ch,= single pathos which he cannot master and of which
he gives us only brief images; and the feeling that his pain is also the
world 's pain places in his hand the oversimplified possibilities of
explanation and justification iliac rum him away from himself and
from che rigorous, demanding scrutiny wirnouc which "confession"
perhaps remauns a temptation.
The very "form" of The Age ofMan, rhe stiffness of expression,
the ordered constraint char alJows unleashing, the reticence chat is
frankness, all rnese characteristics are not simple writing pro
cedures but are part of the existence chat they help ro bring into che
open. Leiris ,explains co us iliac, starting when be was fi&een, he
sought io his dress as well as in his manners "the English look...
the sober. correct style-or rather a lirtle stiff and funereal." And he
adds. "Thar corresponded to a symbolic attempt at mineralization,
a defensive l'leaccion against my incernal weakness and the disin
tegr ation I felt threatened wirn; I would have liked co make myself
a kind of breastplate, producing the same ideal of stiffness in my
exterior char I pursued poetically." However, chis "icy coldness,"
this affectation of impassiveness, this plaster-case mask were them
selves chosern only through c-he most profound care and urgency.
The "coldnes:s" and rhe face of stone are used as a means of defense,
buc rhac is because "coldness" is also desired for itself, and moves of
the liveliest :sensitivity are associated with dreams of marble. In
Aumm, a lice.rary work seemingly entirely gracuicous, wich no ocher
purpos e than, che work of words. bur in which one finds, embedded
aniong the images and symbols, alJ rhe chemes whose vital signi6c:ance Th,, A e ofMan shows us. one of che characters declares, "l
'll\1111 say c
hair from time immemorial life has been confused for me
wi th tha t which is soft. warm and measureless. Loving only rhe

Gazes from Beyond the Grave

Gazes from Beyond the Grave

intangible, chat which is outside of life, I identified arbitrarily all

chat is hard, cold, or even geomecric with rhis invariant." And th is
Damocles Siriel says lacer, "Night and day death hung over me
a dismal threat. Perhaps I forced myself co think chat I could elude
it by chis minerality char would constitute an armor for me, and
also a hiding place (like the kind insects make of their own bo cfr
when they feign death to resist danger) against irs moving but
unerring attacks. Fearing death, I hared life (since death is the
surest crowning of it)."
We do not want co go into the movement of themes, into tbij
intermingJjng chat joins what is corn apart and what is loved, what
wounds and what reassures, what one loves as an image of deadt
and what one loves as a chance of not dying. All rhar is part ol,
the book. But we would like to show how far the ambiguity of tfier
motives deepens their meaning. Damocles Siriel talks co us of the
chreac of death chat hangs over rum night and day. This duat
hangs constantly over The Age ofMan, coo. But it is not some v-......threat, ignorant of what it represents and foreign co rhat natllft\
One of the most important passages of the book seems to us to
crus one: "I cannot rightly say chat I die, since-dying a viol
death or not-I am only partly present at the event. And a
part of the dread I feel at the idea of death is due perhaps co this:
bewilderment of remaining suspended right in the midst of a crisis
whose outcome my disappearance will prevent me, for the great
forever, &om knowing. This kind of irreali cy, of absu,dity of dear.It
is ... its radically terrible element." We see by rhese utterly dear
words char the fear of death is also the fear of not being able co di
The fact char we cannot experience the reality of death to the end
makes death unreal, and chis irreali cy condemns us co fear dyi ng
only unreally. not really co die, co remain as if we are held, forever,
between life and death, in a state of non-existence and non-death,
from which our whole life perhaps cakes its meaning and ir.s reali()'
We do ooc know chat we die. We do not know either that others
die, for the death of another remains foreign to us and always
incomplete, since we who know it, we are alive. We certainly do
not think of ourselves as immortal, bur we see ourselves, rather, as

c,Jnde mncd, in death itslf.. to the inpossibilicy of dying, to the

. possibil.ity of accomplishing, graspmg the fact of our dear.h by
abandoning ourselves to it in a decerm1 ed and d.ec1s1ve
accordmg co
Mic hel
death, cam sometimes reassure us against death and help u fa:e tt.
''If we think oflove as a means of escaping death-of denying 1c or,
pracrically, forgetting it-it is perhaps because obscurely e feel
thar ic is clhe only way chat we have to make so much or so Lmle of
our experience, for, in mating, we know at least what happens after,
and can b,e the wimess-and a bitter one-to the ensuing disaster."
Bur what is at stake is not "the need ro know," and -as co what
happens ,fter, we only indirectly have the desire co know: w_e want
co be certain of death as completed, as a real and crue totality, and
rhac is why after interests us, because "after deach'' would be the
proof rhat death is, if not gone beyond, at least really and cruly pasc.
finished. 'We do not want something beyond death for its own sake,
buc craftily, we desire co be able to see ourselves dead, to assure
ourselves ,of our death by directing a veritable gaze from bey ond the
grave cow:ard our nothingness. from a point situated beyond death.
According to Michel Leiris and traditional myths, love is each
lived in advance and known co the end, so love is always afra.1d of
che next clay, ir.s future, because it fears becornmg ir.s own awaken
ing, che profoundly miserable momenr in which it finds itself not
ended bu't, in this very ending, finds it is unfinished, having never
be en, only the vain and interminable duration of what, after all, it
never was. And chat is why love sometimes calls on death to
complete it, as if death, itself unfinished and always incomplete
when ic is che death of a man alone, could truly be completed by
becoming che single death of cwo beings already dead co them
selves, so that "love stronger than death" would have crus mythic
meaning: love triumphs over death by putting an end co death, by
inak ing a real end of ic.
"For a long time, I have conferred upon whatever is ancient a
frankly voluptuous nature. Structures draw me by their icy tem
perature :and their rigidity. I sometimes imagine myself screrched



Gazes ftom Beyond the Grave

ouc on flagstones (whose coldness I feel on my skin) or standin

against a column co which my torso is stuck." And in Aurora, wbc!
Damocles Siriel makes love with alabaster fi gures with bare skull s
like scones, we read: "Love for me was always linked co chis idea of
hardness; my teeth, cold loose stones in my mouth, seeming co Ille
from chat rime on the organ that, more than all the others, was
destined to love." Thus we undei:stand that "coldness" is not a.
simple defense mechanism co preserve a threatened incim,acy fro111
another person and from death, but char it is also what opens this
intimacy to another, because the coldness of marble and the intan,.
gibility of scone are privileged images by which death and the oth
are confused, and by which, coo, death is anticipated in order ro
impose itself from this world omo the monumenca1 plenitude
withdrawn from the disintegration of time. The subterfuges
sensibility, we see, are infinite.What is shown co us as an attempt to
outwit death is already the presence of death, and introduces it int0
the heart of the being, causes it co love and desire, and entertain,
fear of ic only to make ic better recognized as a full, substantial fo
that makes it remote from the incompleteness of life and
irreality of "I am dying."
In Aurora, we read these sentences: "le is always more difficult for
me than for someone else co express myself in any way other lllli111411
with the pronoun !; this is noc some particular sign of my pride.
but because the word I sums up for me the structure of the wodd.11
Bur a licrle further on, we read: "Here I am ac the Death Cathedral.
ac this third-person singular that just now I crossed out with J
stroke of che pen, death, grammatical pitchfork chat subjugates the
world and myself to its ineluctable syntax, rule chat makes all
discourse only a paltry mirage covering the nothingness of objecr:s.
no matter what words I utter and no matter what I I puc forward.
Aurora is the tale of metamorphoses by which che I is changed int O
He and the He tries in vain, by transformations that are more and
more extenuating, to fall below That co attain a true nothing.But
The Age ofMan has already shown us how at the bottom of th e I
and joining endlessly with it, in the very fear that it inspires and the
anguish ic causes to be born, the He of death offers itself with itS

Gazes ftom Beyond the Crave


cerniry of marble and its cold impassivity. In the collection of

reams encirled Nights Withottt Nights, the following dream is told,
che dace 12-14 July 1940: "Awoke (with a cry chat Z ...
11 n der
revents me from uttering), having dreamed this: 1 place my head,
s if co look around, into an orifice somewhat like a bulls-ye
windo w giving onto a closed, somber place that resembles a cyhn
drica l clay-plastered garret .... My anguish is due to the fact chat,
bending over the cramped space that I surprise in ics inner dark0e.-;s. it is myself that I am looking into." The Age ofMan is chis
lt1c id gaze by which the /, penetrating this "inner darkness," dis
covers chat what is looking in it is no longer the I, "structure of the
world," b 1.c1c already the monumental, gazeless, faceless, nameless
-Scarue: the He of Sovereign Death.

Pascal's Hand

Pascal's Hand

ln his beautiful essay on Pascal, Marcel Arland wonders

gives the Apology such a powerful, heartrending resonance. It
because "the man of the Pensees is always presenr to our eyes.
"Pascal, uneasy, burning, greedy for the absolute...." "We arc
the cell where Pascal is looking at the crucifix, prays, suffers, dra
a line, throws an accusation at human nature, with the
passion with which he drives the nails of a belc inro his back.Is
night? The sound of drops of blood that fall from the cross p
him from sleeping. Jesus is in agony unril the end of the world.
can see nothing bur this cross, we hear nothing but th.is blood all
these sighs." Pathetic expression of the pathos characteristic
Pascal, that of a man who impassions us, since he himself ii
Albert Seguin, however, in a srudy enrided Pascal's Q;,iettlfl4
shows that the Penseesare indeed supposed to move us, bur that thil.
disrurbance is prepared, methodically provoked by a mind char is
masrer of itself, a thoroughly assured soul, .firm and commanding.
Jouban had already written, as Beguin quotes: "Behind Pascall
thought, we see the attitude of a firm mind, free from passion.It is
char more than anything that makes him very important."
This is not a paradox. Need we recall chat the Pensees are the
debris of a methodical discourse and the moments of a demonstta..
tion, char Pascal's aim is to lead an indifferent reader away frorn


.Ill d'i fference coward a concern for religious things, to take repose
\ ay from him :so that, out of aruciety, he can be led from the false
:uranc e of knowledge and the vain rranquilli of mind to the
real certainty of faith? The Pemeesare only groan10gs, calls, threats,
raye rs, Arland tells us. Bue the man to whom they are addressed
oes noc know c.armenrs, for he is satisfied with his reason if he is an
iorellccrual, andl satisfied with worldly life if he is a libertine. And
the man who writes does nor know them either, for if he has been
''dul led," he is now awake, and co feel anxiety, fear before the empty
universe would represent in him only a lingering impiety and a
forgecfulness of God's presence.
''The Pensees," says Seguin, "are by no means composed to
answer a fear, as we too often imagine, but rather to disturb a peace
thar is dangerous to the soul. ... Above all, Pascal will devore
himself co reviving new fears in his interlocutor by showing him
that, if one holds on to the claims of intelligence, everything is
absurd, incomprehensible, grotesque., or rather that everything is
terrifying, heavy with menace. 'I will not suffer him to rest.' It is at
this precise moment that he composes, with all the care of a writer
weighing his words and calculating the effect of his rhythms, the
famous Pensees through which the shiver of anguish passes: eternal
silence, realms 1that are unaware of us, the last bleeding act, we run
into a chasm.... These are in no way, as it seems so often to be
acknowledged, notes made in a personal diary, still palpitating with
the memory of frightened instants.They are for th.e use of other
people, they ar,: calls to order that are to be meticulously placed in
co nversation at: rhe precise second most favorable to disturb false
cerrainties. A fine fight is begun, in which Pascal, who has exercised
his weapons in the fencing of the Provincial Letters, handles his
feints and his points."
So it follows that the anguish and trembling that make of the
Pel/Sees a book that is almost nor a book. these cries, these terrors,
these terrible images are the work of a writer who is neither
frightened nor lost nor stammering but, on the contrary, admirably
tt'Aective and capable of language, perfectly aware of the words char
are best suited to produce feelings that he wants to provoke, a man

PIISca/'s Hand

Pascal's Hand
who has meditated on these words, on their order, who chose the
ddiberarely for their effects and knows how ro overwhelm otbC:
because he is supremely master of himself. Pascal's anguish is the
resuk of a calculation. The calculation was accurate: his anguildJ
has tormented cenruries.
Thar is nor a paradox. Yee this view that is so probabl e, so
reasonable, so in tune with the spirit of the time and the spiril of
Pascal, whose imperious nature is the most visible of all, co1lidcs in
us with a reticence that does nor give way. Is it the persistence of the
romantic image. the authority of a tradjcioo? Surely it comes frona
something quite different: it seems that we feel we are deceived if a.
book moves us chat wanrs ro move us; our feelings seem to us to
lose all truth if the words that arouse them were chosen with these
feelings in mind and not under their constraint, to make them be
felt, not starting from feeling them. For the language of the P
to be read as the language of uneasiness and anxiety, the Pm.sit,
must be born from an anxious heart that anxiety alone has causecl
to speak.
That is, to a certain extent, a surprising demand, yet an all,.
powerful one even in those who challenge it. We have recalled
many times the judgments of Vale ry on Pascal, whom he ,e,
proaches for being too perfectly despafring and for expressing thJt.
despair roo perfectly. Strange reproaches, and incomprehensib
coming from Valery; moreover, they are contradictory. For if Pascal
is indeed that writer who makes use of "his great resources," hii
"powers of logic," the "admirable virtues of his language" co gjvc
men the feeling of an absolute distress, to frighten them with I
nothingness in which neither logic, nor language, nor resources of
any kind support them, if only Pascal's art is responsible for such an
effect, the greatest, the most constant that our lirerarure bas pre,.
duced, it is almost inconceivable that Valery did nor make a hero of
him to set beside Poe, Mallarme. and Leonardo. He reproaches hitn
for the freedom of his mind, his art, his indust ry, the sureness of bis
hand-that is to say, everything chat makes rhe author of T/,t
Raven, the author of A Throw ofDice, and perhaps the author of


{ht Yo ung Fate seem admirable to him. Pascal is the writer who
frorn lucidity drew bewilderment, who made use of a language
erfecdy govern,ed and controlled to make men feel their condition
s random and aimless beings, who knew how to make them
despair as he wished, knew how co frighten chem, abase them, then
raise them above themselves, who opened an abyss beneath their
feet and made from this abyss a throne for their glo ry-and all
using only the resources of an art we all know is capable of
cveJything, and fuse of all of making itself absent, so that everyone
forgets it and y ields to the movement that impels ic, without ever
recognizing its nature.
Pascal is che model chat Vale ry should have held as exemplary.
And yet he bolds against him the hand chat guides him, that he
sees, chat he is alone in seeing, as if for this Pascal, Valery would
have preferred unawareness and blindness. And, after having be
grudged him his mastery, he shames him for his servility of a
hunted man-and, thus, reproaching sometimes his shipwreck,
sometimes his i:nabili ry to founder, sometimes the baseness of his
cries, somecime:s their too-pure harmony, be himself is carried
along in all the ,contradictions into which his author knew how to
divide men so a:; to make them regret more acutely their lost unity.
Yale ry's attitude is instructive. Jr teaches us that in arc, effects
seek co return (o their causes, and demand co form only totality
with chem, a single world with two poles. Valery, opening the book
of che Pemees, is not unaware of their demonstrative purposes. He
kno ws that they must disturb, cause despair, in order co give souls
the feeling of their emptiness, and through that lack teach chem to
know fullness. This aim, which also shocks him, assures him thus
that Pascal does not write to express himself or ro confess, buc to
convince, chat chis groarung, shivering book is thus one whose
groans are planned and whose emotion is calculated. Yer Valery,
who claims co reduce all arc to a calculation and all poetry to a long
teAeccion on its. means, here sees only lies and impropriety in chis
lhoug hr-ouc use of an to persuade. And even more: he cannot
Valery himself-TRAN.


Pascal's Hand

bdieve chat the writer can be safe from the anguish he delib eratdy
intends to arouse. Pascal must have trembled before the empti neaa
of the sky, because he wanted co make us tremble before the einpq,
sky, even if for Pascal che heavens are full of God and do not stop
speaking of his glory.
Does the form of the Pensees lend itself co such a confusion?
an author who writes, "The eternal silence of these infinite s
terrifies me," place himself side by side with those to whom
communicates chis fear? Perhaps. Bur, without even seeing in
form a fiction of art meant co please, everything suggests char this
is the impersonal /, the same one that discusses itself in them
abscract way-''Why is my knowledge limited? my size? my
span one hundred years instead of a thousand?" -and whose
and surprise immediately enter into the most general reasoning,
a discourse whose pathos relies visibly on eloquence: "When
consider the shore length of my life, absorbed into the pre
and following eternity, the little space that J fill, or even char I
sunk in the infinite immensity of spaces chat I am unaware of
that are unaware of me, I am frightened and surprised at s
myself here rather than rhere, for there is no reason wha
why." Who does not feel aU the authori ty of this fear and
powerful voice of this surprise, whose entiie reason for being is
assert icsdf in conjunction with its consequences, and to aspire
some conclusion? We can certainly be moved by the aus
summoned by a thought of this order: "It is unjust chat p
become attached to me, even though they do it voluntarily
with pleasure. I would be deceiving chose in whom I might ca
desire to be born." Bur lee us read further. This pathetic refusal ot
soul that does not accept feelings, neither those that come to ir
chose chat come from it, is only the beginning of a formal argume
chat ends with "Thus" and in which confession is changed inro 311
abstract instance of a completely general proof.
There is in the Pemt!esaU chat is necessary co dismiss the image of
a Pascal who found in his human condition che means co los e hil
footing and lose heart. We are in the presence of reasons, images,

Pascal's Hand

2.6 r

words, impulses:, whose effects on us depend only on these reasons

anJ chese worcL; and not on the particular state of che one who
wrires them. The book exists, and it is intended co produce a
feeling and co es1tablish a situation, not on the basis. of authori ty bur
the basis of our consenting to ourselves. Let us go further.
Ir may be that Pascal was foreign both in mind and in faith to the
work he propos,es co us. It may be that this was the pure master
piece of a man who writes on com.man , as Valery sd, a d who no
more believes in what he asks us co believe than he 1s afraid because
of the reasons for fear with which he misleads us. How should this
work couch us l,ess, convince us less, if this were so? Ir is the same
work, not a line! is changed, just as unfinished as the other-for
wrjcers of pure rJhecoric die, too. It is the same, yer, quire obviously,
it is its opposite.
Why would the "l enter into fear" and the fear into which he
leads us both stop being true if, beyond the motives and che
language of this fear, both more than sufficient co impress us, we
were co discover an impassive mind, a soul chac has freed itself from
fear? It is because in truth, in a work made of words, language, to
fulfill itself even imperfectly, needs existence to lend it support, to
come raise ic up from a kind of downfall, and co cry to warrant its
invincible bad faith. In one of his essays, Brice Parain recaUs that
the rruth of art iis lie, and he tells us, too, that arr seems like death
itself, whose image it places among us.* These are assertions about
whose meaning it would be hard co reflect too much, even if we
agree with them only out of misunderstanding. Language at one
and the same t.ime entertains the most extreme dreams of the
absolute and co1nstancly rejects its claims. More exactly: it exists
o nly by che very abrogation of the conditions chat make it possible.
Poetry is this double impulse. We have seen, for instance, in poets
like MaUarme :and Holderlin, how language is not the simple
abili ty co utter words in someone gifted with this ability, but asserts
icsdf previous both to the one who names and to what he names,
Critique ofDit.rlectic, and likewise Languag e and Existence and the older essay
l:vc ryrhin g Works Out. in The Confo;ion of Choice.

Pa.seal's Hand

Pascal's Hand

claiming moreover that the one wbo speaks, che one who listen..
and ta which is spoken ail cake meanin ai:'d exisc:nce only fr<>IQ'
the ongmal deed of language. Language, m its poenc claim, ass
itself as an absolure: ir speaks itself without someone who speaks it
or at least without depending on the one who speaks. On
contrary, the speaker, rhe listener, rhe thing spoken-ail three ha
reali ty and value only because of the language chat contains thear.
It is under these conditions chat language ex-istS. Bue tltis
guage as such is impossible. It realizes itself only by renoun
itself In this renunciation, we see the three manifestarions
language regain their independence and exist for themselves,
ifestacions chat really have meaning and reali ty only together:
see a man who writes, a man who reads, we see what is written
what is signified by the writing. The primordial book that
everything is reduced co a few loose leaves, things among h,,..--
whose apparent independence is only an illusory reminder of
original independence of language chat depended on nothing
cause ic embraced everything. That is why the attitude according
which the work should be sufficient unto itself (a view that Vi
shares) has rhe truth of an idolatry: it applies to a derisory obj
what can have meaning only for absolute language. The w
remembers this absolute, and the memory deceives it. Some '
torments ir.
The more language renounces its claims, rhe more easily is ic
realized. Bur having become completely real, this very facility,
daily chatter by which we are scandalized as easily as we participate.:
in it, speech has also lost the whole quali ty of language, for it ao
longer speaks, it no longer listens to itself, it no longer names , it
only an emptiness and a profound silence that across a deafenin g
and yet scarcely heard rumbling cannot make itself heard. From
chis everyday language-an extraordinary work of art rhanks to ics
double perfection of nu!Jity and efficacy-from this language war
is entirely possible and no longer real, licerarure in all its forms cries
co gee back to the language of origin, which is ail impossibility and
all reali ty. Ir returns there by the most varied ways, by the most
unexpected subterfuges: that is the secret of genres and of creacor$

J3ut w hatever the resources might be and whatever the artifices, the
language of art cannot be realized, and can have a share in the claim
ro complete reali ty only if it has a share in the impossibility. Thar is
wh y rhere i:s no crue language without a rejection of language by
icself. without a torment of non-language, an obsession with the
absence of :a language in which every man who speaks knows that
he holds the meaning of what he says. Langu age as totali ty is
language re:placing everything, posing the absence of everything,
and at che same time the absence of language. Tc is in chis fuse sense
char language is dead, presence in us of a death that no individual
death satisfies.
One of che gravest problems that chis return to the possibility of
speaking through the search for impossibility poses is the problem
of the relatilonships of the author co his work, the relationships of
the reader t:o the author. The more char what he writes matters to
rhe writer, helps him to fulfill and test himself, in a word, the closer
his language is ro his existence, the more he also feels how much, on
the single level of language, his existence is a lie and how much, on
the level of existence, language is always possibility and capability.
What happ,ens to the one who trusts himself ro the spirit of absolute
death chat Jives at the depths of speech? Immorcality: And what
happens to the one who devotes his existence to language so as co
give rhe much of existence to his language? The lie of a paper
existence, che bad faith of a life chat just represents life. that is expe
rienced in tts of words and avoids existing by dint of miming what
it is nor. The purer the success, the greater the faiJure. Poetry in chis
sense is the realm of disaster. At the instant in which language is
most incenr on wanting everything for itself, and closest to shroud
ing everything in its unreali , we see poets throw themselves body,
life, and soul into the words that they bri_ng co life. at once to win
fr om these words their existence as a poet and to precipitate, by chis
Ve ritable de:ath. the annihilation of which an is the supreme hori
zon in the world. But we also see ocher poers exclude themselves as
n1t..1ch as po,ssible from che poem of which they are the origin, not
1)11ly to keep from mixing their life with their song but, in face of
this .oug, he to nothing but a perpetual absence, a forgorcen non-

Pascal's Hand

Pascal's Hand

existence such chat it pretends never ro have existed, so that the

work can believe itself alone. Rimbaud (to a certain extent) is such 1
poet, and (to a certain extent) so is MaUarme.
Like no other work, a poem needs the presence of a p oet, and.
like no ocher work, it does without it. AJJ the different fllani.
festations of language demand, according to infinitely va riabht
relationships, the participation of existence in language, Th
relationships, it goes without saying, are nor fixed according tot
preestablished schedule, and it is just such a particular work (ot, ii\
ocher words, the degree of language chat it fulfills) that, in
genre, changes the demands of the genre. Ac the other ex
daily language is in the same situation-but in an opposite dirco,,
tion-as poetic language; for, to be spoken, it is so close to the V0(.
chat the intervention of an individual voice is indispensable t0 '
but it needs this voice so little chat any voice at aU conrenrs it:
really wanes the voice of no one.
The language of the Pensees, to be true, must be a Jan
overwhelmed by existence. Brice Parain often uses this srr'
expression: "Ir is always the individual who scops up the gapi
hole around words, between each word and the ochers and be
chem and the object: he closes ic up by stuffing his body into iL
We have seen chat in chis gaping hole the poet would scuffhis boCIIWIII
nor to stop ic up bur co become a gap himself, sometimes to
point of actually disappearing, like Empedocles, in order to IDaJ..,.IJ
chis hole real, to realize chis void. Existence can do no more, wbco
ic has to do with a region where language is too close co its original
contradictions. And chat is also the case in che Pensees, since thq
call into question not the ordinary regions of faith but the very.
possibility of religious experience. le must be understood chat, od
the level at which language disturbs everything (even if it be onlt
for a shore moment), the level of "I enter into fear," Pascal',
sincerity is not enough for us and even does not matter to us. No
more would his good faith be enough for us: that, for example , ofI
Christian who, sure of the truth that he wanes ro prove or ha'\IC
recognized, uses ways chat he himself has nor experienced and chat
he knows only through his language. The Apology does nor ask

pascal co assur,e his words by a conviccion or his demonstrations by

his f;uth. Or if it does ask him char, it asks something else first.
Whether to every instant of this immense discourse ch_e mo
men ts of experience unique to Pascal correspond or not, whether
here he speaks only as a man who speaks, there like someone who
bas lived what he says, there like a sufferer who suffers to say it,
there again like a believer who prays by saying it, these differences
are ans werable only to an analysis chat distinguishes in the whole
cha t w hich is foreign to analysis. In reality, what the Pensees postu
late or demand are not the details of his life or the details of bjs
sincerity, but existence in its entirety, which naturally does not
signify his whole existence, the entire history of chis existence, but
existence as such. There is no need to resorr to technical exegesis to
understand what such a word implies. Everyday meaning recog
nizes very well that we can begin co speak of existence only with
cercain critical! moments, stares of excess in which the violence of
the face of living submerges life and seems no longer co depend on
ic, but on the! contrary threatens it and is ready to sacrifice it.
Existence begiins thus co reveal itself when it calls itself into ques
tion. In one form or another, this revelation of existence is exis
tence itself when it tends to experience itself as impossible, either
because it comes to exist outside of its conditions ot because in this
trial it discovers its truth, which is impossibility. In one form or
anorher, this revelation is in proportion to this impossibility.
Beguin recalls justly that "Pascal's joy, which is hardly ever
spoken of, illuminates his austere apology." That cannot be forgot
ten, if rhe only written piece that gives testimony about Pascal also
bears witness 1ro chat joy, to a joy pushed to rears, pushed to a point
where feelings lose their meaning and their own expression and,
threby, lose themselves, and the being himself is lose and undone.
Thi joy can i,ndeed be called joy and certainty and peace. Bue it is
also Fire, limi red, moreover, to two hours of life, "from about ren
thirry in the c:!Vening to about twelve-thirty," and only reflection
could seek to contrast ic with completely opposite states chat are
Lal led "l enreir into fear."
lf Pascal had become aware of humanity's distress only through


Pascal's Hand

Pascal's Hand


his rwo hours of joy, no one would have had more authority
he co frighcen us about it-and chat not as a man who se ont,
knowledge of the abyss is the joy of nor having fallen into it, bur II
one who in this very joy has known and lived this fall inro the
abyss, has gorren lose chere, and has not found his way out.We Cill
call che Apology che effort of Pascal's all-powerful reason to gee bole[
of itself, to give itself che reason for an experience chat goes COQl
plecely beyond it and chat ic can account for only by a more intcruc
feeling of man's tribulations and a more distinct vision of tbe
incessantly traversed movement between nothingness and in
nothing and everything.That Pascal's joy made him experience
existence as infinitely close to nothing and infinitely close ro evcrM
thing, infinitely above and infinitely below existence, that it
infinite distress and measureless exaltation, feeling of the void '
its fullness, firm assurance in irs instability, and in the very mom
ic couched chese extremes, that it was the feeling of agre
between these extremes and their "peace " in the midst of d-......
tion-there is really nothing here that goes beyond ordinary
scriptions of analogous stares, nothing, moreover, thac is not
ten all through the entire movement of the Pensees. The Ap"'
consisted of unfolding in che abstract time of discourse and
ulacing in a dialectical way, confronting with the themes of
chat experience of an instant by which Pascal's existence b..,, ._..._..
"I do not at all admire the excess of a virrue, like merit, if! do
see at the same time che excess of the opposite virtue....
otherwise, this is nor a rising, it is a falling.One does not show
one's greatness by being at one extreme, but rather by touchiaf.
both at once, by filling up the entire space between.Bur perha
this is only a sudden movement of the soul from one extreme co tbs
other, and it is never in effect except in a point, Like the flame ofa
torch? Perhaps; bur ac lease that marks the agility of the soul, if ic
does not mark its breadth."
le is because of Pascal's agili ty of soul chat, behind the opposing
feelings where his language leads us, we find his own as guarantoll
and models for ours; in this agility we do not find the vivacity of

n,ind simply intent on living everything "aesthetically," bur rhe

:iuchoriry of :rn experience char is perhaps unique, in which ex
rrernes have been known together and in which anguish was peace
and peace was raprure.After rhat, it does not matter much that the
language of the Pensees is a planned discourse in which a coo-
b eautiful form commands the reader. First, because this language,
coo, wanes to lbe everything and nothing.Everything-for it has the
priJc and che imperious power of the first word chat in itself alone
cakes the plac1! of everything: without any other reference except to
words, it convinces, it surprises, it lowers, and it raises up, it has the
reader at its diisposal as if the reader were part of itself. And it wants
ro be nothing-and already it rejects itself, it finds itself in the
midsc of che misery that it shows: "Those who write against want
che glory of having wrirren well, and I who write this...."
Undoubcedly he draws language and argument from it, but chis
new speech a.lso signifies its lie, and if this lie is in rurn the
beginning of a proof, the proof will serve only to make vain the
language chat poses it.It must also come to humiliate itself before
the reader, of whom it first wanted to be master: "By no means ler
hearing a thing said be the rule of your credence." And finally he no
longer has any other hope bur silence, yet silence is still coo
talkative, too much language, too distanced from this nothing that
could perhaps be everything: "It is better not to say anything; and
then he judge:s according co what he is, char is, according to what he
is then, and according to what has been placed there by other
circumstances, of which the author is not one.Bur at least he will
nor ha ve put anything there; if it is only this silence chat is active
there. He Judges according co the rum and interpretation that he
wilJ be in the mood co give it, or according co what he will
co njecture from the movements and look of a fuce, or from the tone
of a voice."
In chis eve1:yching and this nothing, despite the seriousness of
qucsfio nings and the force of contradictions, language, if it is
educed to its bare resources, risks at every instant either asserting
,L,c: lt too much or asserting itself coo little and, in both cases,
\howing the treader what the reader must not see in it: a simple


Pascal's Hand

language, instead of the everything and nothing char is its truth,

is then that existence comes to fill in the voids, existence that
nothing else than everything and nothing. And it fills by deepeni
chem. It does not stop giving value to the fictive deficiency of wo
by the reality of its deficiencies. And now chis deficiency
better to us, having to do not only with man's anguish before
misery of his condition, but also with chis movement in w
existence cLscovers itself by purring itself in play, in which it
itself justified only as far as ir feels itself impossible, impossihiliiy
w.hich irs self-sacrifice, its death, are feeble images.
In his Overvieu; ofFrench Philosophy, a little book of few
and many ideas, Jean Wahl recalls the Pascalian litany: Jesus
is dead and hidden in the sepulcher. He has not performed
miracles in the sepulcher. That is where he cakes a new life, not
the cross. He has had no place co rest on earth except in
sepulcher. His enemies have not stopped affiiccing him except
the sepulcher. And Wahl remarks, "We understand how P
apologetic supposes Pascal existing, Pascal believing." If the
of Christ supposes him dead and hidden, if he cakes form and
only in the darkness, abandon, and peace of the sepulcher, all
more reason for it co be likewise for the one who "holds out
arms" co him. His peace is peace only in the comb, his recon
tion can happen only in the abandonment of the tomb, and
march toward the light brings him closer only to the darkness
the tomb. Assuredly, it would be absurd to give chis tomb that is
truth of the language in the Pensles a cempesruous appearance,
make a theatrical mausoleum of ic near which would be shown
kind of French Jansenist Hamlet feeling the weight of his
skull, the skull of a great geometer." For chis comb is itself hi
and as Hegel says in another sense of the Holy Sepulcher, of
comb we see only the emptiness, and chis absence of the comb is the comb proves the resurrection as well as deach, shows dlG
anguish in the solitude of death and the joy of union in death, 90
rhac someone who perceives only the tomb commits the sad
mistake as the one who does nor see ir at all. So Beguin is justified
in remarking, "It is wrong-as the interpretation of a musical work

Pascal's Hand
can be: wrong-to utter in a pathetic tone the Pascalian passages
char express despair or anxiety."
We might ad,d chat the Pensees, this language leaning against a
rornb, were not written by Pascal as we have read chem for three
cen ruries, for he wrote from the perspective of a perfectly ordered,
com pleted, acrual work, a work intended co serve faith, so much so
char by writing them he made himself guilty of a double fault, chat
of giving too much co art by consecrating a great pan of his
exisrence co ic, amd that of giving too little to arc by putting it in the
service of a truth foreign co arc and to language. Too much art, coo
little art, coo much language, and yet a language chat deceives and
is deceived-thi:; is the mixture of true and false thac bothers Valery.
True. Yee there is nothing less true. In it, in fact, the role chat
existence plays in speech besc shows itself Yes, the aims of Pascal
the writer, the designs of Pascal the apologist lead him toward a
perfect masterp: iece, worthy of his century, in which the zeal for
language and the zeal for faith would triumph, in which everyone
would win: Boileau, Arnauld, Louis XI\!, and God himsel But
against these aims dark existence works, in accordance with its
rrurh that is the comb, and ic compensates for the emptiness that it
sees in all this ti.illness of language by its own emptiness, which is
rhe approach and presence of death. Lircle by little it ruins the work
char is made, engulling it with its own future, which is existence
always more suffering and more threatened; from this book chat is
too sure of surviving it takes away its own fumre, to make of it a
mass of little pie:ces of paper, more destroyed than written. Bur it is
als o then char language finds its truth again, which is the impene
trable spirit of death-and it listens to it, follows it, until eloquence
is no longer doquence but absolute distress, and terror deprived of
pecch continues to be terror until rhe surest and most admirable
speech .
No one can say chat the dearh that transforms the Apology into
the f>ensees is an accident char has nothing co do with the text as ic
a hrougbt to light. The opposite sparkles with evidence. It is a
liv111g Pascal who projects and arranges the work, bur it is a Pascal
;il ready dead who writes ir. This hand of Pascal char Valery chinks

Pascal's Hand

he sees at work is so linle visible, so distanced from the work , th at it

is dead; and whac ic traces is the sign of its own disappearance, r.hc
proof of its incognito, this absence by presence in which "'the
strange secret" of God would also be revealed. And undoubtcdJt
even chis rrace is coo much. Detestable residue, forever ineducibJe.
wich regard co a truth char is without sign and without trace (jus raa
chose who come to convince and who need wisdom and signs
nothing in comparison with chose who, coming to convert, h
neicher sign nor wisdom, only madness and the cross). Bu, du;,
fault is inscribed in language, and co seek to surmount ic, even '
vain, chat alone justifies language. Pascal is more guil ty of that,
more justified, than anyone else. To him also we could, ch
chem a little. apply the words oflsaiah in which he tried to decip
the curse and the greamess of the Jewish people: ''A book is given
someone who knows how to read, and he will say, I cannot rea
In every book, written and read by someone worthy of writing
and worthy of reading it, there is this "I cannot write I can
read" char is at the hea.rc of language. Bur the more the bo0k
results from chis Non possum legere is worrhy of being read
written, the more this glory turns to its confusion and becomes
lie, which nullifies this glory and chis book.

Vallery and Faust

Valery, so distanced from the novelistic genre, although Mon

sieur Terte is nothing buc a novel, was always tempted by theater
sketches. They are not even absenr from his poems. The Young Fate
is a drama i.n which from one single character arise many who meet
each ocher a.nd speak secretly. His chinking aspires co dialogue
though scarcely dialogue, more a conversation in which the diver
siry of speeches is born from the echo of one single voice. The Fixed
Idea is a conversation of men of the world; Eupalinos, a shadow of
dialogue pwrsued among the shades; My Faust, the closest to the
ater, makes real replicas of comedy from these intersections of
''Wh at a playwright you would make!" someone says co Mon
sieur Tesce. Thar is because the metaphors chat he uses ro represent
his mind change it into a spectacle, as subtle as one could wish, bur
a spectacle vvith the resources, rhe peripeteias, and conflicts of the
dramatic geme. T he division of the theater into an audience and a
stage is ah,.ays more or less present in the embarrassments and
privileges th.at he recognizes in consciousness. This consciousness,
he says, "makes one chink naively of an audience living in the
darkness of a theater." Naively, undoubtedly. But this naivete is
cccpced wi1th all the i.mages char follow from it. The mind in us is
like a charac:rer who might be inside us, "rhe being of the mind: the
little man who is in man." These exchanges are exchanges between

Valery and Faust

Valery and Faust

actors and matter less because of what they are than becauao
f their movement. (n the theater, neither ideas nor words colll1t
m themselves, buc in che relacionsrups that they maintain, the
passages that they assure, e general arion whose momenr-1,p..
moment supporcs they provide. There 1s no genre m which Ian,.
guage is closer to being thought of in the way that terms f/1,
marhemacical analysis are. That is why Mallarme loved the th
and Valery constantly returns to a certain form of intellectuat
comedy whose heroes he dreams or imagines: by rum Leon
Teste, Faust.
Why Faust? What undoubtedly interests him is the chacaaer
the cliche that he finds in him. We cannot seriously cry to -....... ,
Faust's character even more profound; he is already the image
profundity and seriousness, so much so, which is rather
that he has become the superficial symbol of profundity. But we
how an author, singularly mistruscfuJ with regard to all profo
thought (yer who, because of his problems, is always preoccup'
with whatever is most profound in the world), can be d rawn by
subject of Faust, not chat Faust embodies the serious but that
discredits it by the excess with which he represents it, being
longer able &om then on to express anything essential ex
beneath the veil of a shallow irony, offering the perfect form
discrecion in bis symbolic banality so excessively indiscreet
My Faust is rather a little Faust. But that does nor mean char it
an entertainment without ambition. Ir means chat all the val
which in his youth Valery came to invest in Tesre or Leon
ambitious characters if there ever we.re any, could no longer m
themselves on him except indirectly, by the detour of an ambqr,
uous composition that perhaps smiles at itself, smiles at those who
read it, and smiles no less at those who chink only of smiling ar it.
Never have the enthusiasm and the kind of haughtiness that guided
the rwenty-yeac-old Valery in wricing lntroduction to the MethoJ
joined again in his work. The vigor chat carries him roward Leo-
nardo, the intimacy of sympathy chat makes him infinitely dose ro
the hero that he imagines or discovers, are impulses that he

rejecr. Even Monsieur Tesre is pale, distant, and cold compared

with <la Vinci. This end1usiasm for an individual whose superiori ty
is ro cake away all value from enthusiasm, this naive pride in favor
of a n artist whom he places above all the others because naivete is
foreign co him, mark a period of excess and vertigo, a weak and
au da cious hour char will be renewed no more.
Leonardo da Vinci, a great artist whose- works we know, who
lived and cre:aced., is cornplecely different from Faust, an obscure
character from a very obscure rime, whose actual existence matters
infinitely less than the imaginary existence that ir has been given by
fictio n. Yet both are ve ry similar. The real man in da Vinci applies
his Llfe co conquest and ro the exercise of all his abilities: being
demands that he possess all the means to create, the real is all char
he can do. Le,onardo is a symbol because he represents a man whose
enrire reality iis dedicated to the possible, who transforms all that he
is into realiz:able and verifiable operations, and thus has at his
disposal, in the form of an infinite capacity for acts, his entire story
and char of humanity. But Fausr, Vale ry's Faust, is scarcely more.
The soul of this character is that ic has irs own myth as ics existence,
that it lives consciously, as a real individual, all the imaginary lives
, char he has been given, adding to his histo ry noc only the events
chat we have made him live but, above all, the fact that these evencs
were Jene to him. This Faust makes from che unreality of his
numerous liv,es the eest and truth of his actual life. This amounts to
saying he is everything he could have been; in him possibility,
fiction, reality, are all indiscernible.
rs chae a ve1ry incellecrual, refined arrangement, one bordering on
a jest? PerhalPs But in this ironic game lee us acknowledge the
mo ve by whi,ch Valery discovers himself. One could say that after
having been t:he Leonardo da Vinci of histo ry, after having become
the key figure in lntroduction to the Method, chis mythical da Vinci
wanes. in a lase episode. to cry to live our life with all his load of
rnyth and symbol. Bue didn't chis second Leonardo really exist?
Did n't he acrually exist knowing very well chat be could only be
Vale ry himself? So that the Faust of My Faust, with che alibi of a
\mile, is also the portrait of that twenty-year-old Vale ry choosing




Valery and Faust

actually co live the myth of the possibili ty of Leonardo, a life that

of course, could only give rise to a "comedy."

Jc might be vain to seek in such a work the expression of iia
author's real feelings.But it is nevertheless true that all the glory he
attributes co Faust is ve ry close co his own, so close that when F auac
answers a disciple who says callowly to hjm, "There is no doubt
about it, you are the guiding light of our rime," "Of our time?
hen : it is possble, for ou. time is_ wth noing, and its guiding
light 1s the one 1r deserves, or agam, My friend, I do not think I
am being modest, and I hope I am not bemg simple.... But 1 1111
tired of everything that prevents me from being it. It is annoying
and tiresome to be thought of as the great man," we muse recognile
in this annoyance with his celebrity and in this weariness at seeing
himself admired the feelings of one who, writing close to death and
at the edge of the ruin of the world, could only have his eyes
wounded by the brilliance of his twilight.
All Vale ry's heroes resemble each other in this sense that, mastm
of the possible, they no longer have anything co do. Their wock: it
to.remain without work, beyond chefr own story.That is one of the
singularities of Monsieur Teste. We know chat he represencs da:
highest abili ty to act, linked to the most complete mastery of;
himself: he is capable of as much as he wants, and bis power is nor
vague capacity but a vircuality of defined, determinable, and me .,.
surable abilities, like those of a machine whose output is subject to
exact calculations. We are cold abour such a man that if he had
turned the regular power of bis mind against the world, "notbiAg
could have resisted him." But his superiori ty is not only in hil
mastery, it is in bis indifference ro his superiority, in the anonym.it)'
char he preserves. Monsieur Tesre muse remain unknown, or else be
is lose, he would lower himself co become Caesar or God ("Divin.it)'
is easy," he says with a magnificent contempt). He also docs
nothing. He pl ays at the Srock Exchange, goes often ro cafes, lives,
null and superb, in a sad room. But, doing nothing, condemned co
doing nothing, since the smallest acrion would disclose him, wb af
does his power amount co, if, conforming co the severi ty chat is its
rule, it has reality and value only insofu as it is exercised an d

Valiry and Faust


verified? He is Monsieur Teste only as the place of realizable

actions. and he can remain Monsieur Tesce only if he refuses to acc.
If he were r,o seek to complete himself in rhe perfection of the
banality of his Life, even in this absolutely ordinary Life that would
be his own, he could nor prevent being revealed, that is, to have
hirnse lf reco,goized as superior and thus be destroyed as such.
Monsieur Teste is nor impossible because he comprises more abil
ities than is possible for a man, bur because these abilities suppose
the reali ty of the world where they are realized with all their
consequence:s, and the distancing of the world co which they wane
to remain foreign. Pure abilities, vain abilities; real abilities, but
"eacen by the others," the whole contradiction chat animates Valery
is there, and in sum expresses itself in this little fact: Edmond Teste
does nor succeed ar preserving his incognito, and finally has a
friend and even a wife who admire him; recognized by chem, he
falls low encmgh to become one of the most famous characters of
chis rime.
Monsieur Tesre does nothing; anything he might do would be
coo much. Faust can no longer do anything, for he has exhausted
and lived all things."It is my fare to tread rhe full round of possible
opinions on all points, co know successively all castes and all
distastes, an.cl to make and unmake and remake all the knots that
are che evem:s of a life ....I no longer have an age." It is the reversal
of the cicanism symbolized by the Goechean Faust, who strives
toward the A.I], aspires co the infinite, and no bounded moment,
beautiful as it may be, can offer him resr: if he stops, he feels he is
unfaithful ro his need co be everything, and if he distances himself
from it, he suffers being unfaithful ro whatever eterni ty there also is
in whar doe:1 not last, and whatever infinite richness there is in that
which is done with. Everywhere the Universe calls him, and every
where he betrays ir; whether he renounces ir or seeks it, he finds ir
only as the boundary 01 what he cannot find. But for Valery's fa use
it 1 almost the opposite. He has had the All, infinity has been given
to him. N01: only is all that is present, present to him, bur all that
,ou ld be abi;ent. He lives, says nis young secretary, "in the intimacy
at once of tlhe nothingness and the totality of things." Ticanism is

lr l


1 11) ,,



I r

' Ii




I 1l,1

















Valery and Faust

Valery and Faust

thus behind him, and the only problem that remains co him, if it ia
one, is not to come forth from the finite co go coward che infinite,
but, having everything, also to have something, and while being
man ofthe Universe, still to remain someone. Vale.ry's Fausc secJq
to assure himselfofhis existence starting from the greatest richnCII
of possibilities that can be conceived.Like Saint Anselm's God, be
has, in the way ofperfections, all that it is possible co have, but he is
not sure of existing. ''That question is his soul."
In truth, ifchis uncertainty about his Life is what remains co hina
of Life, if he can live without knowing if he is still living, tbia
indecision only parcly affects him, and worries him hardly at all; he
even willingly accommodates himself co it, finally finding in his
power co be everything some compensation for the existence abow:
which he sometimes regrets being less than sure.There is regarding
chis a passage in "Comedie de Lust"* that pushes very far the
optimism of che incelleccual construction and in which we see tm
man ofjust what is possible become the man ofjust what is present,
che one who, being everything but alive, is no longer, because of.
chat, anything bur life, breathing, immediate sensation: "Might I
be at the height ofmy art?I live.And I do nothing but live.That is
a work .... Finally what l was has ended up constructing what I
am....Here I am, the present itself. My person marries exactly rn,
presence, in a perfect exchange with whatever comes.Nothing et.
There is no more profundity.... I am who I am.I am at the heigM
ofmy arc, at the classic period ofthe arc ofliving.That is my work:
li:ving. Is chat not everything? Bue I must know.. . . It is not a
question of finding oneself on rhis high plateau of existence wi
out knowing it. How many adventures, reasons, dreams, and mif.
takes co win the freedom of being what one is, nothing bur whac
one is! What is perfection, ifnot the suppression ofall chat we !add
What is lacking is always too much ....Bue, now, the least look, the
lease sensation, the lease acts and functions oflife become for me of
the same dignity as the designs and inner voices ofmy thought.

lei a supreme stare in which everything is summed up in living,

ind, with a smile chat comes co me, refuses all questions and all
nwers, .. LlVJNG . . I feel, I breathe my masterpiece."
Yruly a srrange text. Conrradicrions are at their ease in it.The
w s move: around in it outside of their meaning. ls it possible
char Valery holds as legitimate the illusion into which he plunges
Fa ust, whom he crowns at the decline of his life with a proud
cha lle nge, which his youth had regarded only as unrealizable au
dac ity? How can Faust, a man ofpure mind, believe chat this purity
of mind suffices to give him things, or even better, to make him
coincide exactly with whatever there is that is immecliace and
present in chem?A man ofthe mind. he is nothing else, since he is,
as he announces, "in perfect exchange with whatever happens."
Thac is precisely this indefinite refitSai to be anything at all in which
the study on Leonardo saw the definition ofconsciousness, "inex
haustible act, independent of the quality as of the quantity of
apparent things." For Faust, ic is his privilege, being capable of
pursuing indefinitely the substirution of all things, co hold them as
equal and to attribute the same value to the least sensation as to the
supreme dei,igns of thought. This is identical in all respects co the
remark in 1:he 1919 srudy (Note and Digressions: introduction to
the Method ofLeonardo): You muse understand chat nothing es
capes Lhe severity of this exhausrion; bur that it is enough for our
arce nrioo co put our most intimate movements on rhe level of
exte rior events and objects: from che instant char rhey can be
observed, they are joined with all observed things.-Color and
sorrow; memories, expectation, and surprises; chat tree .... ft is all
thesttme..... All rhings substitute for each other.-Wouldn't that be
a definition of things?"
We see char ic is the same remark, because ic is also the opposite
remark. The Vale of 1919, from thjs equivalence ofthings to the
tnind's eye. draws nor their consecration bur their condemnation.
and concludes thar they do not count. (''.All phenomena, stricken
'.hl're wirh a kind of equal repulsion and as if rejected by ao
1 dcnri
cal gesture, appear in a cerrain equivalence. Feelings and
thoughcs are enveloped in this uniform condemnation, screeching

The first pan of My Faust, translated as ''Luste, or rht: Crystal Girl."




Valery and Faust

Valery and Faust


out to all chac is perceptible.") It is the ''Take away all things so

I can see" of Monsieur Tesre. Bur Faust, on rhe other hand, in
refusal of the mind co srop at any thing, recognizes his ability to
answer to all things, to achieve the totality of things. and also to Ii
this totality in each one. ''What I see blinds me," said Teste. Wh.t
Faust sees makes him percepcive of everything. "To SEE, is jusr as
much co see something else; to see chat which is possible is co SCt
that which is.'' And this universal vision, this gaze of the in6ni1'.
which is at the same time a gaze at one's gaze, in no way dista nces it
from the vision of the presen r thing that ic sees, from the clari ty of
forms, from their admirable singularity. He dares co say, .,,_
infinite is definite." Thus the artist and the man of the Universcaie
Faust's character sketd1es thus a certain answer of Valery
Ticanism. If Titanism is a suffering, a suffering before the com.
diction that consciousness and existence bring to us-our COl>
sciousness, by ics infinite need to detach itself without rest from tdl
that appears to it, no matter what appears, and our existence, by
desire co find itself in a determined presence, co enjoy itself in a.
definite, beautiful form-this contradiction does nor stop being
present in Valery's thinking and work, but if ir often disguises itsd4.
if it sometimes defers appearing until Faust, in the subtlety ofa,
skepticism char conceals irself, ir never lays claim to an actual
reconciliation. Faust is chat Goethean hour in which tragic rensiol
becomes harmony, chat Hegelian time in which from the excess ol
opposition an agreement is born, in which the individual triumphs
along with the universali cy of the mind, and pure possibility :.S
exchanged with unique reality. There are, in truth, many common
points in Faust's situation with the moment rhat for Hegel marks
the end of history. Faust is not only the man for whom the rime of
the finished world began; he is che one for whom this very time ii
finished. His entire existence is to have finished with exisrenc e.
And char is how he comes co add co what he knows the ignor ance of
whar he knows, without disturbing his knowing, or can give hitn
self for one sdf-sarne single ace the fact of being empry of ever/'
thing and of experiencing the fullness of each thing. His succes s, tD

2 79

rhe excenr that it takes place when everything is over. dons a

crepusc ular appearance, a compensatory meaning of the end of rhe
v.iorld chat ; nor ac all foreign to the Hegelian impulse. Faust has
r his iro nic nrieaning: everything has ended, there is nothing now,
but cha r is when the man of spirit begins to breathe, to see, to
touch .
Valery's e1ncire work is drawn coward a contradiction berween
v.ihose word:s it is loath to choose. loath even to recognize precisely
as a contradiction. Having accepted as a method an analysis con
ceived by analogy with mathematic analysis, it arrives at a definite
ide a of rhe perfeccion of mental activity that ir isolates co make
pure, regardii.ng ir as a principle of transformation and subscitution,
separate from the contingency of things or notions char substitute
for them. From this point of view, the puricy and excellence of the
mind are pC'oportional co its ability to put itself to one side. "Its
chief and hidden work" is to define itself, against everything, by a
pure, unbiased, and unchanging relacionship among all things, and
co locate itself thus quire dose to nothing. But at the same time. we
have seen, clh.is pure abili ty has value only if it exercises itself and
acts in the world. Valery, after having borrowed the ideal of the
mind as a principle of substitution from mathematics, borrows the
notion of pragmatic truth from the natural sciences: chat which is
prove d is tme, "knowing everything is valuable only as the descrip
tion or formula of a verifiable abili cy.'' The great mind is thus at
once uniquely in irself and uniquely outside of itself. absolutely
separated from the world and absolutely presenr ro the world. ''It is
a manner of luminous torture to feel that one sees everything,
wit hout ceasing to feel that one is still visible and the conceivable
object of an alien arrencion." And Valery adds: Durus est hie senno."'
Bu t ir is rhe contradiction char is hard.
It is marlked again in another way. A system of substitution
forever in movement, rigorous abiliry of things to exchange and
cancel our, .:;,f thoughts co dissolve, exterior and interior events to
be p ut back into play, rhe mind recognizes itself as master of forms
rhis is 11 hard saying:-TRANS.


Valery and Faust

Valiry and Faust

to rhe exrenc that the form is a rule, law, unity of the plurality
symbols, order of che undefined. For Vale ry, "the most beauf;
thing would be to think in a form rhar one has invented," for
discove ry, equivalent to the creation of the mind by itself, wou14t
also be che creation by the mind of everything, creation of
universal law suppressing all things by accounting for them.
care about form is rigorously associated, thus, with che idea of
mind disengaging itself from everything and always returning II
itself, in an incessant, closed, and empty movemenr. Only chi
notion of form is ambiguous, and chis ambigui ty makes a do
contradicto ry movement possible: what is formal is that which
beyond the diversity of contents, that which is superior and fo ,
ro the varie ty and singularity of all modes, pure relationship .
chat which is form is also defi.nice form, exact contours, a
given in the richness of nuances, the certainty of perspectives,
inexchangeable value of material modes. Form gives us an inc
in materials, a concern for objects. if only ro reconstruct chem;
throws us back into the world, it reestablishes, as a new ideal,
alliance of the mind and rhe body, and exalts one ac the expense
the other. le comes to recognize the source of wisdom and
power co know and to do (sometimes superior to che former)
uochinking instinct and the confused sleep of the flesh. We kn
that no writer has spoken berter of the body and of rhe privil
reserved ro the artist, of being a scienrisc by his body alone.
does not remember Eupalinos's prayer? "O my body, which n,,.1minds me eve ry instant of chis temperament of my tendencies,
equilibrium of your organs, these just proportions of your
which make you exist and establish you in the heart of roovi ffl'
things: take care of my work; silently reach me chc demands of.
nature, and communicate co me chis great arr with which you art'
gifted, since you are made of it, of surviving the seasons and of
withdrawing yourself from chance," unparalleled prayer. addressed
co what the soul cannot lose without losing itself. yer a pra yd'
coming from che same pen char writes: "1 confess chat l have made
an idol of my mind, but I have not found any other." To make tht
ambigui ty more complete, ir is a perfect praise of che value and



,ruch of our body, but symbolically expressed, in a place fuJI of

srnoke. by shadows.
The commentators have shown how poetic themes in Valery
oscill ate berween what Eupalinos calls creative absence and invinci
bly accual presence, between the desire of rhe mind co be separate
Uld ics need to ask rhe body for proof of its abilities, between the
;1 orhi ngness chat is che I ife of consciousness and the nothingness of
consciousness that is living. Bue is this only an oscillation, a coming
and going between contra ry tendencies? For cbe one wh? as
accepted rhe ideal of analysis, isn't there a paradoxical contrad1cuon
,hat he cannor claim ro surmount and chat divides him? T he
pathos of Valery's work is char its recoure ro analysis, a ethod
chat imposes on him an extreme care of mtellecrual and rigorous
honesty, leads him to contradictions, equivocations, to a constant
indecision, ro the point chat he must always be on appeal against
himself, and that all he does, all that he creates, all chat he chinks,
however great the work may be, however strong the reflection, only
makes work, theory, thought untenable, abusive, and superficial.
That is why it is finally so moving ro see this mind, careful above all
not co be d:uped. seek in a compromise (sometimes denounced in
an undertone, often passed in silence and as if ignored) the pos
sibility of enduring, and of going ro the fulfillment of its gifts. lr is
iu rhese nuances chat his exquisite arr triumphs, not skillfuJ but
unsrable, and at each instant on the point of falling and holding
itse lf back Jfrom the fall. A nothing separates him from silence, a
nothing dis:tinguishes the man laden with che glory of what he is
becoming from che obscure secretary of Andre Lebey that he could
have gone 010 being. le is likewise a nothing that gives movement ro
his dialogues, char makes the two opposing interlocurors rise up in
him, irreconcilable. complementary, and confused: in Eupalinos
Sncrates and Phaedra, rhe man who has no passion except for rhe
mind of ma.n, and the one who does not deny appearances; in "The
Di,dogue of the Tree," Lucretius and Tityrus; in My Faust, Faust
.ind Lust.
Luse is F:aust's secretary. She is ar cbe dawn of a feeling for him,
she is at rha.c momenr in whjch what stirs in the heart does not alter

Valery and Faust

Valiry and Faust

its transparency, Crystal lady, unaware of what she is cxperie ncir,

because she is still only the future and imminence of her feelin
The episode is full of charm.Luse belongs co chose ravishing 6
of Valery whose secret the Young Fate [in The Young Fate] hersdj'
has carried. Lust is che Young Face before the Serpent, "myseJr
harmonious ...forehead clear ... rhe equal and wife of the day,"
Eve before rhe Tree, "superb simplicity, transparency of gazes.
srupidi ry pride bliss" and also Emilie Tesce before marriage,
her, destined co make shine, between two thoughts, the soft brib
liance of a rather pure shoulder, to cause co appear. beneath
distracted hand, a trinket, a familiar ivory. The same thoughts arrd
almost the same words serve co describe the two couples, b
something soft and tender remains in the young Luse chat is ab
from the one whom Monsieur Teste has "classed" under the rath
hard names of Being and Thing. Luse, in herself, keeps an infinit
mal enigma, at least in the eyes of rhe devil whom chis h
embarrasses, as Faust's mind embarrasses him, and perhaps even ill!
Valery's eyes, co the excent chat, representing the jmmediate side
the mind before the increase of knowledge, the youth of conscio
ness involved purely in the world before all deaJjngs with the self:
rep,esencs the hope chat che poet seeks despite the severities of
analysis char deprive him of it.
If My Faust had wanted to become an acrual play, one of its gr
difficulties would have been to make che movement of m
protagonists possible.Faust, we have seen, is already beyond eve
thing; he has everything and, moreover, this nothing that is a
ness of everything; he has been young, he bas been old, and then
has been young again.In his myrhlc past, he has criumphed o
the devil, surmounted Ticanism: what is left for him co do? What'
he still capable of? Existing? He reUs us somecimes that he wanes ''to.
assure himself of his existence," and he is like some homunculUSt
like the little man of glass born from coo-alone intelligence an
aspiring co be more than a pure possibility. Bue if his truth is tO
reconcile til.is too-much chat is existence and this not-enough ch,C
is the mind, if his uruverse is so full that lack itself is present in it 3J
that which completes it, then chis lase task muse also leave him, and
the only thing left ro him will be co survive-chat is. in an ironic:

form, ro w1rite his memoirs indefinitely, that book wruch evokes

Ma1l arme's bur which also evokes che twilight song of Minerva's
bird. Hegel''s owl. when, night having taken the place of day, tbjs
ow l can do nothing bur rel!, in eternity, the events of time, can be
00 d,ing but: chis very rale, richer and more important than all that
has been liV'ed.
Undoubtedly, Lust is going to love him. But, as he says, what's
che use! The devil cannot hope co starr anocher "Marguerite affair."
Tempracion is no longer possible, effort is suspended, action scops.
Since, how,er, the work goes on, the subterfuge will consist of
pursuing Fa.usc's story by beginning it again on a lower level, among
beings, no rnacrer who.Ir is the disciple who becomes, in long, coo
long peripe:ceias. the new hero, the one at the sight of whom
Mepruscopheles finds again, at the same time as existence, the
fullness of his means as tempter; in his rum the disciple, -at Lust's
side. will rry co be what Faust was formerly at Marguerite's side; but
Lust aims higher, at a death, at a higher fault, and she can only
abandon him, "quite gently" annul him.
In Faery, which follows this fuse oucline of che play, we see Faust
trying rachtr dramatically to go beyond himself. Rising co "essen
tial solicudc," co the edge of the void, he meets a Solitary there,
''worse than the devil," who represents the temptation above aU
others of th.e man of mind.Th.is shouting Solitary. the extreme of
Monsieur Tesce, keeps himself well away from the naivete of ador
ing the idol Mind: he has thrown hls mind co the pigs, having un
derstood pe:rfeccly rhat che perfection of pure inteUigence, accord
ing co rhe rules of analysis, muse also end up by dismissing itself.
There is nothing cruder than his speech, nothing more absolute
than his ne:gacion: masterpieces, songs, ouch, even machemarics,
eve rything iis mocked, erased, everything "goes back to che sewers."
Thus rhe demand of puri ty demands both rigorous will and the
elfon co pu1t an end co illusion.And these demands are vain. for chis
terrible indlividual, strong enough co denounce whatever is an
error, gets himself involved in a supreme error when, after having
discredfred speech, he grovels finally to invoke "voiceless Speech,
spc:cchless Voice, formless Forces, faceless smiles." From chis myth
ical poinc. the lase lie of ice, Faust can only fall: he falls.... WiJJ he


Valery and Faust

Valery and Faust

e finished? Forgetting what he was, introducing into his myth the

forgetting of his myth, will he find in this subterfuge the means lQ:
go on being, he whose entire existence is without end, only to eadl
continually and know itself ended? Or again, free of angels,
queror of demons, will he be tempted by the image of his abilitica,
by the des ire ro develop again outreach and surprise, will he gi
wy co the il lusion of becoming a child again to know again
miracle of being a man? Bue how will he undergo rhe remptatfon
remake for himself, across the forgetting and ignorance of yout h.a

My Faust is called an "outljne." Bur, as an oucJine, it is complete;

u nfinished, it is accomplished. Irs unsettling nature is co find its
per fection in a state thac visibly lacks all char makes a work of art. It
has no end, bur that is because it could nor have one. le says
everything, in each scene, in each line, in such a way char it can stop
ac any Jjne, any scene, having said everything definitively. We
sometimes begin ro doubt that such a work could have begun: it
begins when everything is already finjshed, its beginning is the end
of aU the ochers, and, far &om wanting co prolong them, ir has as its
suhject only the impossibility of being more than they are. In chat
consists its richnes s, for all is found in it, even that which may come
after all; bur b,::cause of that it also leaves the impression of pushing
ics self-mockery far: descirute by dine of fullness, frivolous insofar as
profundity seems inconsequential in ir. And certainly this ap
pearance of being almost nothing, which the intellectual pastimes
of the Evil Spirit confirm, the confessed intention of presenting
itself like a form of joke, are part of the meaning of the work that
would be infilllitely less without this mystifying fringe. But that a
work carries iu itself, as its main design, the seed of its nothingness,
rhat ir recognizes this demon that denies it in the person of che one
, who creates it, this very claim can finally appear excessive, overly
ambitious, and of the same nature as the road humilities of the
Solitary repeating vainly: Nothing, nothing, nothing.
What is a man capable of? asks Monsieur Tesre. W hat is a work
of arr capable of? Incorporating this lase doubt:, ch rusting away by
greater reserve even the comforts of modesty and the alibi of
nullity? Going from the sublime to the mediocre, from poet ry to
rhe lase resort chat is prose, from the brilliant mind chat shows itself
co the true mind char hjdes itself. from studied negligence to the
composition <>f incoherence, from rhe disorder of ideas co the order
of one and the same idea indefinitely asserted? All these perfec
tio ns, all thes e imperfections are in Faust, and these, no less than
thos e. make the work perfect, make of it Valery's most exempla ry
work, into whkh be pur himself completely, into wruch he put
l.'Veryth.ing, a:nd everything of him, even though we admjc with
laust, "there is enormously nocrung in the All." And that is why

life that he already has at his disposal, as he wishes, in rhe do

fullness of that which is and of chat which is not?
Such is the paradox of Faust. Devil, angel, fai ry, he leaves
chance and no existence for any Mind, good and bad, other
his own. He is not only Faust, he is Faust plus Mephisrophel
which limits the role of the latter ro a perpetual record of i
quacy, to a bitter and comic disillusion in which, feeling that he
no longer Evil but only his mind, he sees himself fallen a little
much below nothing. This situation gives rise to scenes of pe
comedy whose dialogue is among the liveliest and most pleasant
Valery's writings. le is in these scenes that the devil. suddenly a
of his disgrace, comes to sign a pace with Faust ro obrain from
what Faust earJjer wanted co obtain from che devil, the hope
renouncing his routine and renewing his ancient rebellion. In
scenes appear again wonders of the squalid little devils who purs
like a minor pleasantry, the criticism of their own conditi
criticism of the pure mind, coo pure in its complete impurity, tOO
dear in ics darkness, and having as a fault only an excess of chc
absolute. These devils do nor have the profound irony of the
reasoning Serpent of "Outline of che Serpent." Thar serpent bad

made God his servant, and despised in him the Being guilty of
having become aware of icsdf by creating, guil ty of adding to
Nothingness the "exploding fault" of the sun. Bue God was only
God. Before Faust, the non-being has no more profundity, noch
ingness no more seduction, and the devil, condemned ro remain
superficial, sees himself reduced to the danger-free buffoonery of
character in comic opera.


Valery and Faust

this book that "illuminates all that we love with a strange, c.old
light" is one of the most moving that has been written. What is
more full of pathos than those last words, "No, no," chat F ausi
addresses to Life, rejecting all that it could scill offer that is adnij.
cable and glorious and happy?
Je ne ha.is pas en moi cetce immense amcnwnc
De n'avoir pu trouver le feu qui me consume,
Et de cous !es espoirs jc me sens delie
Comme de cc passe done j'ai tout oublie,
Mes crimes, mes ferveurs, mes verrus ecouffees,
Mes triomphes de chair ec tant de vils rrophees
Que le monde a Livres a mes demons divers ...
Non, non ... N'egarez point vos complaisances, Fees ...
Si grands soienc !es pouvoirs que l'on m'a decouvem,
Us ne me rendronr pas le gout de l'Univers.
Le souci ne m'est point de quelque autre avemure,
Moi qui sus l'ange vaincre cc le demon trahir,
J'en sais trop pour aimer, j'en sais crop pour hai'r,
Ee je suis excede d'eue une creature.
I do nor hate this immense bitterness in me
Of not having been able co 6nd the fire that consumes me,
And from all hopes 1 feel I am unbound
As of this past of which 1 have forgotten everything,
My crimes, my passions, my sriAed virtues,
My triumphs of 8esb and so many vile trophies
That the world has yielded to my various demons ..
No. no ... Do noc waste your kindnesses, Fairies ...
As great as the powers are chat have been found in me,
They will give me no caste for the Universe.
My care is not ac all for any other adventure,
1 who knew the conquering angel and the betraying demon,
I know too much co love, I know coo much co hate,
And I have gone beyond being a crearure.
Thus speaks the last Faust, who has no end and does nor die. Bue
Valery will die, and this death of which he is aware, death thar he
anticipates by taking leave of a too-glorious life, roo satisfying and
yet as if null, brings the single true conclusion to his work.

On Nietzsche's Side

Henri de Lubac's book The Drama of Atheistic Humanism is

addressed undoubtedly only to Christians, and it has meaning only
for chem. But it also offers a more general interest in showing how
honest, pene:trating thinking can come close co another's thought
or, more e.xalctly, co a world chat is radically hostile co it. It is a
problem with very diverse aspects. ls ir possible for a religious
existence co enter into a situation in which, to come to actual
understanding, it must lose itself as religious existence? Is the
problem ide:ntical when someone who is unaware of the religious
wants co know and express the religious? These questions send us
back ro another, that of the disinterested spectator: I live in a room,
I cannot go our of ic, and yet l speak of whar happens in ic as if I
were looking ac it from without, through the keyhole. The gaze
through the keyhole has r.he most varied names. The Eye of God,
the gaze of nothingness, of death (death with eyes awake, says
Niet:1.Sche); inon-meaning, non-knowledge , phenomenological re
duction. The quibbling is endless.
Father de Lubac states tl1at the Christian world is undergoing a
crisis.Instead of representing, as it did in the early centuries, a hope
of liberation, Christianity's ideal signifies for many men an aliena
tion and a y,oke.This is a new and dramatic situation."Drama" is
:verywhere. le is in the Church threatened by chis crisis. It is in the
world thac, by losing all relarionship ro something beyond the

On Nietzsche's Side

On Nietzsche's Side

orld, can only be losr itself. It is in atheism, which destroys i tself

in endless problems. We must find out why we are in such
position, and question those who have led us there: Feuerbacha
Nietzsche, Auguste Comte, all three prophets, initiators, or orga:
nizers of a Godless world.
To confine ourselves to the pages on Nieruche, we do noc sec
that the author has acknowledged rhe difficulties chat the problcin
reserves for a religious interpreter. Or, at least, he has decided not to
t: chem to account. Perhaps it seemed ro him chat ordinary
crrncal probuy would suffice. Perhaps he thought that, while study.
ing the influence exercised by Nietzsche, as descroyer of the Chris
tian world, over Christian consciousness, a Christian writer did not
have to go beyond himself to appreciate and understand this
influence. Bue even from that point of view, it is not certain chat the
method works. Nieczsche's influence is not limited to the out.CC'
forms that it has assumed; it is probably, on the contrary, the part of'
Nierucbe that has wielded no obvious influence, that part of him.
foreign to direct transmission that has exercised the most profound
effects. As a Christian, the commentator can see what Nietzsche ii
to a Christian, the danger that he represents. But this danger is not
the actual danger, for Nierucbe's real threat can be measured only
from the point of view of Nieasche himself, outside of all dirccc
reference to the world of faith that be is at once both radically
excluded from and extremely close to. The Christian perceives the:
Nietzsche who has an effect on him, but Nietzsche has perhaps bad
mosr effect where his influence was nor perceived.
Father de Lubac's analysis returns to chis: Nierucbe's atheism is
not an ordinary atheism; it is not co be confused with the atheism
of those for whom the negation of God has never been a problenl
or is a resolved problem; he does not assen the absence of God but
chooses chis absence; he rakes sides, he decides co make God die.
God is dead because we have killed Him. This revolt is necessary
for the affirmation of man. For as long as man regards rhe scars as
placed above him, one can say that he lacks the gaze; and these scars
are not only God, they are all that accompanies God: rruch,
morality, reason. The death of God allows man to know himself in

his real limits, to leave his refuge and experience his unique possi
bilit ies, to become fully responsible for himself. that is, to become a
creator. A short crirical conclusion, somewhat superficial in the use
ic makes of t,exts by Heidegger and Sartre, recalls that atheist
huma nism earn only end in failure, since, as Nicolas Berdyayev says,
Where there is no God, there is no man either."
After having read these pages, one will feel how difficult it is to
approach Nietzsche. There is nothing to be said against the anal
ysis; it goes maight to the essential assertion. which is that of the
death of God, which it describes in dramatic form inseparable from
chc analysis. AJl char is Nietzsche is the replica of Nietzsche, yet it
makes rhe breadth and profundity of his influence incomprehensi
ble. Ir is nor enough to add remarks on the lyricism of the writer or
che nobility of his attitude. One could push such praises to e.'<alta
tion without advancing the problem. Nietzsche's case gains noth
ing from the confusion of literary evocations. It demands, on the
contrary; the seriousness and patience of an infinite reflection, one
rbat never sco,ps working while it recognizes the movement that
escapes it. father de Lubac has written an excellent study on
Nietzsche's atheism with a view ro clarifying the role chat he played
in the formation of a world from which God is absent, yet, despite
his exactitude, chis attempt lets Nietzsche's presence, and perhaps
rhe meaning of his deed, escape, a deed exceptional from all points
of view, since it was the deed of an exceptional being who neverthe
less had an effect on many other beings who were not exceptional.
uch is the pr,oblem; it calls into question nor the individual merits
of the commentator bur the possibiliry of any commentary on a
passionate rhiinker, written from outside.
Perhaps Niierzsche's atheism is parricularly difficult to circum
scr ibe because in appearance it isolates itself rather easily. The
death of Godl seems co dominate Nieruche's existence and work,
and if there are fundamemal thoughts in this philosophy, this death
\eems co envelop chem all. Moreover, such an assenion, in a work
in which everything is moving, has a relative fuiry; it clarifies itself
,omccimes in. a different way, bur it never cums against itself, and
keeps co the i!nd this sense chac God, legislator and foundation of


On Nietzsche's Side
the world, is dead. This advantage, though, is not an advaorag
The theme of the death ofGod can be considered apart, insofar c.
t!1e whole movement of Nietzsche's thinking and existence is to=
found in it: it is enough because it absorbs the whole. Hence the
gravity of such a theme, its force that never srops provoking
uneasrness. 1t owes Its power to the catastrophe chat ir announces
and that tears history apart, bur even more co the fact chat, expre ss
ing the impossibility of any repose, it becomes the place of such I
violent, srormy movement that the very contradiction that could
ease it is excluded.
Jaspers has shown, as no commentator has before him, that all
interpretation of Nietzsche is faul ty if it does nor seek our the
contradictions.The essential impulse of such a way of thinking i,
to contradict itself. It is a movement that is all the more important
since, unusually methodical, it is not the play of a capricious or
confused mind, and is Jinked co rhe passion for truth.This impulse
is an impulse ofexistence as well as ofthought.Life and knowledge
are one. Knowledge, says Jaspers, wants to commit itself co all its
possibilities, to go beyond each one ofthem, and cannot I inger over
them.First ir seems to couch, seize something, as ifit were absolute;
it seems to find this the unique truth; ics affirmations raise it to the
highest level, going beyond che relative and embracing che whole.
Then, by a reversal ro the opposite, it rejects what ic bas just
affirmed, does so with the same passion and the same force. This.
calling into question in its turn goes beyond that which it deni es.
destroys yet maintains what ic destroys, ruins the movement yet in
the end leaves it possible.There is no reconciliation of opposites:
oppositions. contradictions do not get to rest in some higher
synrhesis, but hold themselves together by an increasing tension,
by a choice char is at once an exclusive choice and a choice of
contradiction. This questioning is not only an inrellecrual acc.
Even in Nie.r:zsche's life, attempted negation is constantly fulfilled,
and that which is denied, instead of being rejected as an empt}',
dead possibility that would be of no concern co him, is on the
contrary experienced and lived as real. Thus he was all that he
fought against: 'i\Jchough I can create and love. l muse soon

On Nietzsche's Side
become its adversary, rebel against my love.... To travel the entire
cir cle of the modern soul, to have sat in all its innermost recesses
th:H is my ambition. my torture and my happiness." And elms he
comes co recommend patience against oneself as a technique, the
,ill co "take sides against one's inclinations," the search in oneself
for what is dangerously opposed to oneself. "There is in Nietz
sche," writes, Charles du Bos, "a courage of logic as fertile as such
courage is ellsewhere sterile most of the time. This movement is
properly callled 'thinking against oneself,' and nothing !ndicares
more the strength and validity of the Nietz.schean orgarusm than
t:he fu.ct char it could become itself starting from such an act."
In no way can the idea ofthe Death ofGod be the expression ofa
definitive lmowledge, or the outline of a stable proposition. Any
one who wams to draw certainty from it, some "There is no God''
in the dogmatic sense of banal atheism, it cunningly deflects away
from complacency and calm. "God is dead" is an enigma, an
assertion ambiguous because of its religious origin, its dramatic
form, the literary myths it follows upon Oean-Paul's, for example,
or Holderliin's). The parodic parable chat Nietz.sche once used
proclaims chis ambiguous quality. In the parable, men are pris
oners. Jesus is the son of their warden. Yee this warden dies just at
che instant when his son announces to the men: "I will make aU
those who believe in me free, as sUiely as my father lives." We see
the entangled nature of the situation: co be free, one must have
faith in the warden's son and chat this warden is alive; but if he is
dead. the men are not freed, Christ's promise is no longer worth
anything; without a warden, the prison becomes eternal.Naturally.
the parable :also has this ocher meaning: that men cannot win their
freedom fro,m a strange phrase, but from the awareness chat rhe
warden is dead. It is again through symbols that Nietzsche ani.wers
rhe question, Why is God dead? "God died from his picy for
mc:n. . . . 'When the Gods die, they always die of all kinds of
deat hs. . . . God saw man's depths, all his hidden shame and
ugliness. Man does nor permit such a witness to live." We also
know chat chis "God is dead," while it marks a historic break, the
arrival ofa phase ofthe world in which solirude and wilderness will

On Nietzsche's Side

On Nietzsche's Side

be for everyone tasks ro survive and surmount, does nor signify that
humani ty has once and for aU gone beyond its fundamentaJ lllo
menr. Fi.rst, there is the eternal Return. Then, "humani ty in its
entire ty has no destinadon," which means that, not being able to
fly above the total course of human affairs, we can only figurativel y
suppose chere to be a Great Noon or a Great Midnight ro man's
day.But above all, this Death of God is mfinire: the madman who
cries, "We have killed him," must in che end necessarily chrow hia
lamp on rhe ground ro break it and extinguish it, he must necea,.
sarily say, "I come too soon ...I did not come when I should ha
This monstrous evenr is always on che way ...it goes forward, and,.
it has nor yet reached anyone's ears." In a way, the madman wilt
never come at che right time, he will always be ahead of the evem;
questioned and driven out, he can be only che mad witness of an.
action chat will always seem more discanr than che farthest stars and
that nevertheless is present, complete. That is why "God is dead"
cannot live in Nierz.scbe as knowledge bringing an answer, but at
the refusal of an answer, the negation of a salvation, the "no"
utters co chis grandiose permission co resr, co unload oneself onlO'.
an eternal truth, which is God for him. "God is dead" is a wJc.
and a task chat has no end.History carries with it che moment th.at
it goes beyond. "God is dead, but men are such that chere will
still, perhaps for mWennia, be caves in which one will show h it
shadow.... And we ... we still must conquer his shadow." Thee
Death of God keeps the sacred, enigmatic quali ty of the sacrifi
that its name evokes: after the rime when man offered himself as a
sacrifice co God, after chat other time when we sacrificed our
strongest instincts co God. now God himself is the victim of the
sacrilice, he is sacrificed, and to whom? "To nothing"-"Thar is the
paradoxical mystery of supreme cruel ty, reserved for the generation
char is coming now." A very equivocal expression, for if it means
chat the sacrifice of God is necessacy so chat man can become aware
of this noching that invests him and is the foundation of hls
&eedom, if ir means again that instead of God comes che reign of
Nothing {which is the temptation of nihilism in irs dogmatic
form). it also suggests that God is complicit with the sacrificial act,

chat ii is accomplished in agreement with him, and that, included

in che nothingness in view of which it is realized, ir is in some way
inrercepced by chis nothingness and itself reduced co nochmg.God
is not only sacrificed to nothing, bur che sacrifice is involved in this
uoching and, consequently, is nothing, is not, does not rake place
(similarly, the: pope says to Zarachustra, "It must be some god chat
converted you to your atheism").
Father de Lubac notes that atheism has a positive sense. Nietz
sche wants to leave che field clear to affirm man and, even more, to
affirm in mani this more-than-man chat until now was alienated by
God.That is what the expression of current Nierucheanism crans
laces: God is dead, long Live the Superman.The positive quality of
the Death of God is hardly arguable: one can even believe chat
negation, to be possible, must be not only the negation of god but
also che affirmation of something. Still, the meaning of chis affir
mation remains to be sorted our.It is not actually certain, as Jaspers
believes, chat the negation of transcendence must be enclosed in a
dogmatic affirmation of immanence. He himself shows chat all of
Nietzsche's positive philosophy, chat of che Will to power as well as
char of che Superman, without speaking of the eternal Return,
remains cons1ra.ncly suspended, and serves to maintain moment by
moment, with historic examples and realities, a position char, once
sure of a point of stabili ty, reverses itself and succumbs co its own
equilibrium. lln principle, che Superman replaces God. But, finally,
what does Ni,=ruche say about the Superman? Exactly what he says
about the godls: 'J\lways, we are lured higher, up to the realm of the
clouds: there we put our motley empty theories, and now they take
on the name of Gods and Supermen-are they not pleasurably
light, just what is right for such thrones, all these gods and super
men? Ah, how rired I am of all chat is insufficient!" And of the
eternal Return? "Perhaps there is nothing true in that-lee ochers
fight about it." And of the Will to power? "Power makes one
lupid....Po,wer is tiresome.... Would we want a world in which
the action of the weak, cheir freedom, their reserve, their spir
ituality, their adaptability would be lacking?" And of the possibility
of renouncmg God? "You would never pray again.... Never again

2 93

On Niemche's Side

On Nietzsche's Side

would you rest in an infinite confidence, you renounce abiding

with a last wisdom, a Last goodness, a last power, and unharnessing
your thought..,;. Man of renouncing, are you ready to renounc.e
everything? Who will give you the strength? No one has yet had
this strength." And finally of the collection of his "truths "? "My life
is now all in this wish char things be very much ocher than the way I
conceive them, and that someone would make me disbelieve my
There is nevertheless in this negation of God an affirmation, and
precisely the affirmation that runs through all Nierzsche's existence
and thought, that which God makes impossible and questions
in.finitely, and that for this reason is never completely finished with
God.This affirmation is that of man as infinite power of negation ,
ability ro be always equal to what surpasses him, other than he is,
dilferenr from himself; it is the measureless, limitless dissatisfac
tion, questioning become passion and will to sacrifice; it is, against
all the forms of being, revolt, united ro the search for a form ro be
capable of putting this revolt in danger and scarring it again.Thus
che negation of God is indeed linked to something positive, but
this positive is man as negativity without rest, power to deny God
without end: freedom.And we see why the negation of God never
arrives at its end. ft is because all chat is question in God, exhaust
ing enigma, interrogation, remains valid for Nierzsche, who adopts
it as his own, under ocher names and often under the name of God.
(Thus he writes, "The refucacion of God: in sum, it is only the
moral God chat is refuted.") On the contrary, all chat is answer in
God, solution to his enigma, cure for his wound, is pushed away as
a cowardly; deceiving subterfuge, an illusory base thrown into the
abyss.On che ocher hand, as God is never an answer separated &om
the question, affirmation without negation, the movemenc of sur
passing endlessly finds obliquely what it rejects, by its ambiguous
tendency ro give itself and experience itself as absolute. Jaspers
wonders if the negation of God, in Nieczsche, is not tl1e restless
ness, always in movement, of a search for God that no longer
understands itself. And it is che same movement chat Georges
BataiUe rranslates in terms where the determined plays with the

indeterminate, in which the universal rakes che form of the particu

lar, in which a perpetual equjvocarion, an osciUacion between
inunanence and transcendence endlessly open and close words ro
rhe absolute: "If the whole of mankind, chat is, their integral
existence, i.ncamaced in one single being, obviously as solitary and
abandoned! as the ensemble, the head of the incarnated being
would be che scene of an irreconcilable battle, so violent that
sooner or later it would fly into fragments. For it is difficult co
conceive w what tempestuous extremes the visions of this incarnate
being would reach, a being who would see God but at the same
instant kiUl him, then become God himself, only co hurl himself
immediately into nothingness: then he would find chat he was a
man stripped of meaning as the first passerby who happens along,
but deprived of all possibility of rest" ("Nietzsche's Madness, in
Nietzsche, hardly sensitive ro the plastic arts, always expressed
his predilection for the Diirer engraving The Knight, Death, and the
Devil: "Th.is image is close co me, I cannot say how close.'' In such
a liking;, we recognize his original choice, the one by which he links
himself co the courageous, inflexible "Even so ... , '' co the bravery
rhac pushes away all guarantees, and of which the Death of God is
the rouch5:tone. It is the "Do you have courage?-Nor courage
before witnesses but the cow-age of che solitary, of the eagle upon
whom no god looks any more." Such courage cannot be an in
verted Faidh or a simple will to deny, in risk, the affirmations of
belie Ic must be real faith, having a dogmatic, rational content
(rhe eternatl Rerurn, Dionysios, ere.); this courage would be cow
ardliness a.r bottom, a dramatic leap-as is aU faith-toward a
refuge and coward rest.And empty Faith, pure and simple choice of
risk in che face of God representing the certainty of being, courage
would sriU be only the affirmation of courage as a value, heroic
<lacing, "the good will co lose oneself"; and undoubtedly Nietzsche
placed henoic greatness very high, but questioned it like- the rest.
''As for the hero," he writes co Heinrich von Stein, "I do nor think
as well of him as you. 1'11 go chis Far: it is the most acceptable form
of human ,existence, especially when one has no ocher choice." Yee

2 94

On Nietzsche's Side
we are thrown back co such interpretations when we content
ourselves with recognizing in rhe Nietzschean negation of God
either a pure heroic negation (che opposite of Pascal's wager) or "the
field left clear" for subsequent affirmations of a dogmatic or mysti
cal nature. In the first case, we see in the revolt against God only the
negation of God (without a compensatory positive view). In the
second case, we base the negation on affirmations of immanence
chat are necessarily debatable.
The Death of God is less a negation aiming at the infinite than
an affirmation of che infinite power ro deny and co live co the end of
chis power. ln the Death of God, it is not atheism char counts
(whether positive or not) but the experience of man as freedom or,
more exactly. the fact that in one and cbe same experience. is
disclosed the absence of all recourse co an unconditioned being.
along with the structure of human freedom as unconditioned
ability co separate oneself &om oneself, co escape oneself, to &cc
oneself by means of an infinite questioning. The mutual confronta
rion of God who disappears and of man who is responsible for this
disappearance is necessary for Nietzsche co live this abili ty in a pure
way, in anguish and in risk, and also in the full, actual situation of
the historical world co which he is confined. The infinite collapse of
God allows freedom to become aware of the nothing char is its
foundation, without making an absolute of this nothing (for norh
ingness is only rhe nothingness of God, rejection of the absolute).
And the infinite abili ty co deny remains an ability co deny the
infinite, and escapes the temptation co place oneself outside of
questioning, to turn petrified by choosing oneself as the inarguable
value. Such is certainly one of Nietzsche's dramas: he feels he is
God's accomplice, nor because he seeks God without knowing ir, as
Jaspers tends to say, or because he cannot do without rhe affirma
rion of God, but because he cannot do without the negation of
God. Transcendence obsesses him, as that which he must endlessly
surmount to be free. Freedom is ro God what Ariadne is co Theseus
and Dionysios: fusr, it annihilates him, as Ariadne annihilares
Theseus: ''That is the sign of my supreme love, co reduce him co
nothing." Bur then, Ariadne needs Oionysios, rhe god corn apart,

On Nietzsche's Side

2 97

who tells her, "I am your labyrinth." She needs ro rear God apart;
for against God who is the end, the outcome above all others, she
asserts herself as refusal, refusal ever to accept an alien end. And she
needs the mm-apart God who is the labyrinth, and against the
labyrinth she affirms her free movement, her ability ro separate
hersel( Under the veil of enigmas, we are led to think that, in
Nietzsche, freedom and the final cruth are linked co death. Thus he
becomes, in rhe end, Dionysios and the Crucified One, not God
bur his doulble, Death of God.
Every ass,errion of Nieusche or about Nierzsche must be bal
anced with its opposite assertion. It is quite true rhat, in another
movement of his thought, Nietzsche definitively dismisses God or
cakes the Death ofGod as a historic event that will one day be gone
beyond, burr starting from which we must cake responsibility for
this world. l(For Nieczsche, the beyond cancels responsibility.) His
interpretation of the world, his preference for becoming, his con
cern with a full life. removed from the vicious glance of morality,
are Jinked c,o this inflexible conviction. On chis level of his think
ing, all char we have said is overturned: here, he discredits anguish
as only the sign of a tired existence; he cakes away from death its
. privilege: "Thete is no greater banality in mankind than death."
And he asserts the radical immanence of man (notably by an
immoderate use of scientific explanations). Th.is entire perspective
everywhere causes certainties to arise such chat Nieczsche seems
really co bdieve chat he couches the heart of things, and that there is
nothing more ro be said. Then th.is perspective disappears in its
rum. The notions that he uses are undermined by rhe worst
equivocations. W'hat is life? What is power? A more than life? A
Will to become more, that is, co have, as we choose, a purer value or
a greater strength? Even ar the instant that he condemns anguish
before deaclh, he rehabilitates it in an_ even more ambiguous form,
that of joy and drunkenness: "We must make a celebration of our
death." And we know his "Die at the righr rime,"* which is on one
side a simple Stoic apology for voluntary dearh, but which also
"Au mQment voulu," licerally "ar the willed moment." -TRAN s.



Ori Nietzsche's Side

On Niet?,Sche's Side

conceals an agonizing temptation, since it recommends the impo s

sible to me, by Linking my decision to a moment that no one can
recognize, the best moment, the deliberate moment, one that I
could perceive only after I am dead, by going back over the whole
of my complete existence, so char finally the choice of the moment
of death implies that I leap above death and from there look ac my
whole life, implies that I am already dead.
Father de Lubac, in the most remarkable study in his book, th
one devoted to Dostoyevsky, notes that the entire work of the nov
eljst is filled with doublings and enigmas: the characters are always
different from what they are, and when they are relatively simple,
they share with each other and receive from other characters reffec
tions char make them invisible.Thus Smerdyakov is the vile double
of Ivan Karamazov; thus Verkhovensky is "the ape" of Stavrogin;
and Shatov and Kirilov live, in our mind, separate and confused, as
they lived themselves, side by side, dying of hunger, in a hare born
from their closeness. And this is why so many of these characters
seem to us an expression of anguish-thei_r ambiguity, an ambigu
ity that is noc only for us buc also for themselves: Raskolnikov,
Kirilov, Stavrogin, Prince Myshkin answer, in the dramatic rich
ness of their story, to an emptiness without history, ro something
&ozeo chat the burning of their passions makes unbearable. "Dos
toyevsky did not hand over his thinking aU at once," Father de
Lubac says. (He believes perhaps coo wiUingly that what Dostoyev
sky thought-for insrance, his faith in the resurrection of Chrisc
gives us the meaning of his work. But the meaning the work has for
us is nor linked co whac Dostoyevsky thought.) For the strongest
reason, that must be said of Nietzsche, who also, moreover, used
noc only masks co express rumself but also characters, figures, either
historical or ficrional-Heraclirus, Socrates, Napoleon, Wagner,
che Superman, Zarathusrra-whom he always ends up rejecting.
(''Above all do nor believe," he writes ro his sister, "that my son
Zarachustra expresses what I think. He is one of my prologues and
one of my interludes.") There again, we must listen to Jaspers:
when we chink we see Nietzsche, he says, he is not this but
something else. And, ac the same time, this Other seems each time

10 escape us. The fundamental characteristic of Nietzsche's truth is

thac ic can onJy be misunderstood, can only be the object of an
endless misunderstanding. "Above aU," says Nietzsche, "do not
rake me fo1r another. ...People have the habit, I confess, of raking
me for someone else. It would render me a greac service to defend
rne against such misunderstandings." Bue it is not enough co see
rhis confw;ion to clarify it: infuuce confusion is pare of his ex.is
cence. Without it, without che ambiguity that constantly make.
unknown t'O us what we chink we know, there would remain of this
grosse Zwei"deutige, this great figure with a double meaning, only
what he wanted to avoid being.

Literature and the Right to Death

Literature and the

Right to Death

One can certainly write without asking why one writes. As a

writer....watches his pen form che letters, does he even have a right to
lift it and say co it: "Stop! What do you know about yourself? Why
are you moving forward? Why can't you see chat your ink isn't
making any marks, thar although you may be moving ahead fredy,
you're moving through a void, char the reason you never encounter
any obstacles is char you never lefi: your scarring place? And yet you
write-you write on and on, disclosing to me what l dictate to you,
revealing to me what I know; as ochers read, they enrich you with
what chey cake from you and give you what you reach chem. Now
you have done what you did not do; what you did not write has
been written: you are condemned to be indelible."
Let us suppose that literature.begins.at the moment.when irera,
becomes a.question. This question is not the same as a writer's
doubts or scruples. If he happens to ask himself questions as he
writes, chat is his concern; if he is absorbed by what he is writing
and indifferent to the possibilicy of writing it, if he is not even
thinking about anything, chat is his right and his good luck. Bue
one rhing is scill true: as soon as the page has been written, the
question which kept interrogating che writer while he was writ
ing-though he may not have been aware of ic-is now present on
the page; and now the same question lies silent within che work,
waiting for a reader to approach-any kind of reader, shallow or




profound.; cbiuieS,cion is add.ressecl coJangua,g!!, behind the per

son who is writing and the person who is reading, by language
which has become literature.
This concern char literature has with itself may be condemned as
an infatuation. It is useless for this concern to speak co literature
about its nothingness, its lack of seriousness, its bad faith; this is the
very abuse of which it is accused. Llt:e.rarw:e..p.cofesses t.Q.be impor
cant whik ar the same time.consid.ecingitsdf.an..object_Q[doubt. It
confirms iitself as it disparages itself le seeks itself: this is more than
it has a right to do, because literature may be one of those things
which deserve co be found bur not to be sought.
Perhapi, literature has no right co consider itself illegitimate. But
che question ic contains has, properly speaking, nothing co do with
irs value or its rights. The reason the meaning of this question is so
difficult t:o discover is that the question rends co rum into a
prosecution. of arr and art's capacities and goals. Literature is built
on cop of its own ruins: rhis paradox has become a cliche co us. But
we must still ask whether the challenge brought against art by the
most illustrious works of art in the last thirty years is nor based on
che redirection, the displacement, of a force laboring in the secrecy
of works and loath ro emerge into broad daylight, a force the thrust
of which was originally quire distinct from any deprecation of
literary activity or the literary Thing.
We should point out that as its own negation, literature has(
never signified rhe simple denunciation of art or the artist as, ...
mysti6cacioo or deception. Yes, li.ruature is unquestionablyjllegiti.-
mate, there is an underlying deceitfulness in it. 8.ll_t certain people
have discovered something beyond this: 1w:raoueJs t.@Jy H:
legirimace.lt. is also null, and as long as chis nullity is isolated in a
scare of purity, it may constitute an extraordinary force, a..l!E,
velQUSfo.ri:e. To make literature become the exposure of chis empti
ness inside, co make it open up completely to its nothingness,
realize its own unreality-this is one of the tasks undertaken by
sualism. Thus we are correct when we recognize surrealism as a
powerful negative movement, but no less correct when we attribute
ro it the g;reatest creative. ambition, because ifJicerature coincides


Literature and the Right to Death

)rich nothin1; for iust gn .in.scant, it is iromed.iatcly _e.vc ryching, and

this everything begins ro exist: what a miracle!
Ir is not a question of abusing literature, but rather of trying to
understand it and ro see why we can only understand it by &s
paraging it. le has been noted with amazement that the question
"What is literature?" has received only meaningless answers. But
what is even stranger is chat something about the very form of such
a quescion rakes away all its seriousness. People can and do ask,
"What is poetry?" "What is art?" and even "What is the novd?"
But tcaJllJ.'c:....whiclLis.both ..p0eB1.-ancLnovtl seems ro be the
lllemem of emptiness presenr-.-in..-all..mese...serious things, ll!ld.Jo.
W...te.flsoion, .ow:n.gr!1,v.icy, c;annoc direct irsdf wu:fl.,2ut
losing its seri.ousness. If reflection, imposing as it is, approaches
literature, literature becomes a caustic force, capable of destroying
the very capacity in itself and in reflection to be imposing. If
reflecrion withdraws. chen literature once again becomes some
thing important, essential, more important than the philosophy,
the religion, or the Life of the world which it embraces. Bur if
reflection, shocked by this vast power, returns to chis force and asks
it wbac it is, it is immec:Liatdy penetrated by a corrosive, volatile
element and can only scorn a Thing so vain, so vague, and so
impure, and in this scorn and this vanjty be consumed in turn, as
the story of Monsieur Teste has so clearly shown us.
Ir would be a mistake to say chat the powerful negative contem
porary movements are responsible for this volatizing and volatile
force which literature seems to have become. About one hundred
fifty years ago, a man who had the highest idea of art that anyone
ean have-because he saw how arc can become reugion and reli
gion, arr-this man (called Hegel) described all the ways in which
someone who has chosen to be a man of lerters condemns himself
ro belong ro the "animal kingdom of the mind."*' &amJiis..very
In this argument, Hegel is considering human work in gent'ral. It should be
undemood chat the remarks which follow are quite remote fi-om the text of the
PhmommoLogy and make no attempt to illuminate it. The rexr can be read in Jean
Hippolyte's cranslacion and pursued further through his important book, Origin
nnd Sm,cwrt ofHegel's 'Phenomenology ofthe Spirit.'

Literature and the Right to Death

6rst ste_p, Hegd virm_ally say.s, .;Lperson who wishes to write...is'

stopped by a comraruccion: i.n orcie.L to_write, he musr have che r1
t.alent.csuvri re. Bue. gif in themselves, are nothing. As long as he
has not yet s:ar down at his table and written a work, the writer is
not a writer and does not know if he has the capacity to become
one. He has no taleQ.Utruil.lu:..has written, but he needs talent in
order ro wril:e.
This difficul ty illuminates, from the outset, the anomaly which
is the essence of literary activity and which the writer both must
and must n(>r overcome. A-wcita is not an idealistic dreamer, he7
does noc coD1Cemplace himself in the intimacy of rus beautiful soul,
he does not submerse himself in the inner certainty of his talents.
He urs.his.J;almrs.._to...work; that is, he.needs the work_Qe produces
in order to be conscious of his talents and ohimse1f. The writer
only finds hiimself, only realizes himself, through his work; before
his-work exisrs, not only does he not know who he is, but he is
n.2,thing. l:ie .ex.isrs..only as a function o(ch.e..wcu:k; buc then how can
the work exist? inc:Lividual," says Hegel, "cannot know what he'
[really] is until he has made himself a realjty through action.
However, this seems to imply that he cannot determine rhe Endo
his action until he has carried it out; but at the same time, since h
is a conscious inc:Lividual, he must have the action in front of him
beforehand as entirely his own, i.e., as an End.""" Now, the same is
uue for each new work, because everything begins again from
nothing. And the same is also true when he creates a work part by
pare: if he does not see his work before him as a project already,
completely formed, how can he make it the conscious end of his
conscious aces? But if the work is already present in its entirety in
his mind and if this presence is the essence of the work (cakjng the
words, for th,e time being, to be inessential), why would he realize it
any further? Either as an interior project it is everything ic ever will
be, and from char momem che writer knows everything about it
chat he can learn, and so will leave it to lie there in its twilight,

Hegel. Ph,momenology ofSpint. trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press,

1977, p. 140); 1:hap. V, sec. ta, "The spirirual animal kingdom and dcceir or tht'
'matter in hand' icself."-TRANS.

literature and the Right to Death

wichouc translating it into words, wichouc writing it-but chen he

won't ever write; and he won't be a writer. Or, realizing chat the
work cannot be planned, but only carried ouc, that ic has value,
truth, and reality only through che words whicb unfold it in time
and inscribe it in space, he will begin to write, bur scarring from
nothing and wich nothing in mind-like a nothjngness working in
nothingness, co borrow an expression of Hegel's.
In face, this problem could never be overcome if che person
writing expected irs solution to give him the right to begin writing.
"For char very reason," Hegd remarks, "he has ro scarr imme
diatdy, and, whatever the circumstances, without further scruples
about beginning, means, or End, proceed to action."* This way, he
can break the circle, because in his eyes the circumstances under
which he begins co write become che same thing as his talent, and
the interest he takes in writing, and che movement which carries
him forward, induce him to recognize these circumstances as his
own, to see his own goal in chem. Valery often reminded us that his
)best works were created for a chance com.mission and were not
born of personal necessity. Bue what did be find so remarkable
about chat? If he had sec to work on Eupalinos of his own accord,
what reasons would he have had for doing ic? Thar he had held a
piece of shell in his hand? Or that operung a dictiona ry one
morning, he happened to read the name Eupalinos in la GranM
Encyclopedie? Or that he wanted to t ry dialogue as a form and
happened co bave on hand a piece of paper char lenr itself co char
form? Qne.can imagine me mosc uivial circumstance as the start
l)'l_g point oa great work; nothing is compromised by chat tciv
i: the act by which che author makes it into a crucial circum
stance is enough co incorporate it into his genius and his work. In
chis sense, the publication Architectures, which commissioned Eu
palinos from Valery, was really the form in which he originally had
the ralent to write it: chac commission was the beginning of char
talent, was char calenr itself, bur we must also add chat chat comrrus
sion only became real, only became a rrue project through Valery's

Literature and the Right to Death


existence, his talent, his conversations in the world, and che interest
he had already shown in chis sore of subject. fury work is an
<;>fional work: chis simply means chat ch work.hau beginni_ng,
chat it begins at a certain moment in time and char chat moment in
cime is part()[ rhe work, since wicbouc it rhc work would have beeq
only an insurmountable problem, nothing .mor:e than the impos- '
sihilicy of weiring it.
Lee us suppose char the work has been written: with ir the writer
is born. Before, there was no one co write it; starring from che book,
an author exists and merges wirh his book. When Kafka chances ro
write che sentence "He was looking out the window," he is-as he
says-in a state of inspiration such that che sentence is already
perfect. Tht point is chat he is che author of ir-or rather that,
because of it:, be is an author: it is che source of his existence, he has
made ir and ic makes him, it is himself and he is completely what it
is. This is ch.e reason for his joy, his pure and perfect joy. Whatever
be might write, "the sentence is already perfect." This is che reason
for his joy, his pure and perfect joy. This is the strange and
profound certainty which art makes inco a goal for itself. Wbar is
wrincn is neither well nor badly written, neither important nor
frivolous, memorable nor forgettable: it is the perfect act through
which what: was nothing when it was inside emerges inro the
monumental reality of the outside as something which _is neces
sarily cruer ;aslcl_tion which is necessarily faichful, since che 1
pson it crnnslares exists only through it and in it. One could say
char chis cem1in ty is in some sense che writer's inner paradise and
chat az,tomatic writing has been only one way of making this golden
age real-what Hegel calls the pure joy of passing from che night of
possibility into the daytime of presence-or again, the certainty
char what burscs inco the light is none ocher than what was sleeping
i.A.the nigh.t. But what is the result of this? The writer who is
completely gathered up and enclosed in che sencence "He was
looking out the window' apparendy cannot be asked co justify chis
sentence, since for him nothing else exists. Bur ac lease the sentence
c::xisrs, and if it really exists to the point of making che person who
wrote it a vvrirer, chis is because i_t is nor just his s<!_nrenc h_uc a


literature and the Right to Death

Sg!at b_clongs.,to..Qth._e.c.people, people who can read ic-ic is

At this point, a disconcerting o_rdeal begins. The author sees
9cher j>eople taking an interest in his work, but the interest they
take in it is different from the interest chat made ir a pure expres
sion of himself, and chat different interest changes the worl.<,
\ransforms ic into something different, something in which he does
not recognize the original perfection. For him the work has disap
peared, it has become a work belonging to ocher people, a work
which includes them and does not include him. a book which
derives its value from other books, which is original if it does not
resemble them, which is understood because it is a reflection of
them. Now ch.writer cannot disregard this new stage. As we have
seen, he exists only in his work, buuhe.workexises,only. when ic h
become this public, alien realiry, m.ade,-and unmade by colliding
!with other realities. So he really is inside che work, but the work
itself is disappearing. This is a particularly critical moment in the
experiment. All sorts of interpretations come into play in getting
beyond ic. The writer, for example, would like to protect the
perfection of the written Thing by keeping it as far away from life
outside as possible. The work is what he created, not the book that
is being bought, read, ground up, and praised or demolished in the
marketplace of the world. Bue then where does the work begin,
where does it end? Ac what moment does ir come inco existence?
Why make it public if the splendor of the pure self muse be
preserved in the work, why take it outside, why realize it in words
which belong co everyone? Why not withdraw into an enclosed
and secret intimacy without producing anything bur an empty
object and a dying echo? Another solution-the writer himself
lam_to do away with himself: the_ooly one who macrers in_the
l.work is- cbe person who_r_ead...i! der makes the work; as he
reads it, he creates it; he iutsJeal,Jtuthor, he is the consciousness
and the Living substance of the written thing; and so the author
now has only one goal, co write for thar reader and to merge with
him. A hopeless endeavor. Because the reader has no use for a work
written for him, whar e wants is precisely an alien WOk in which

literature and the Right to Death


he can discover something unknown, a different reali ry. a separate

mind capable of transforming him and which he can transform
into himsdf. An author who is w;iting..specifically for a public is
no..r.really writing: it is the public chat is writing, and for this reason
the public can no longer be a reader; reading only appears to exist,
actually it is nothing. This is why works created co be read are
meaningbs: no one-reads. chem. This is why ic is dangerous co
write for ocher people, in order to evoke the speed, of ochers and
reveal them co themselves: the face is char o.!h.er...people do nor wane
co hear th,eir own voices; they wa tn to hear someone else's voife, aJ
voice that is real, profound, troubling like the truth.
A writer cannot withdraw into himself, for he would then have
to give up writing. he ices, b.e.cannoc.sacr.ific:e..the pe.nigh
of his own, possibilities., Qcau
work is alive only if chat.,nigbt-if'
and no oclner-becomes day, if whar is most singular about him and:
farthest removed from existence as already revealed now reveals
itself within shared existence. Tr is true char the writer can try to
justify himself by setting himself the task of writing-the simple
operation of writing, made conscious of itself quite independently
of its results. As we know, this was Valery's way of saving himself.
Ler us accept this. Ler us accept that a writer may concern himself
with arc as pure technique, with technique as nothing more than
the search for the means by which what was previously not written
comes to be written. Bue if che experiment is to be a valid one, ic
cannot sejparate the operation from its results, and the results are
never scab,le or definitive, bur infinitely varied and meshed with a
future which cannot be grasped. A writer who claims he is con
cerned only with how the work comes into being sees his concern I
get sucke.d inco the world, lose itself in the whole of history;
because che work is also made outside of him, and all the rigor he'
put into the consciousness of his deliberate actions, his careful
rhetoric, is soon absorbed into the workings of a vital conringency
which he cannot control or even observe. Yee his experimen1, is not
worthless: in..wxi cing._h h_as puclum.sci.uoJAt'--teSno c l\iE.gness
at wirk. Uld after having written, .he puts -.his wotk U> the.. _res c as
SQJ;Uetb.int; in.the act odisap p.eacing. The work disappears, but the




Literature and the Right to Death

4 \fact of disa earing rains and apJ;?rs as the essential thing, the
movement which -the work co be realized as it enters the
stream of history, to buealizoo.as.us.fil)p.ar'illn this experiment,
the writer's real goal is no longer the epnemeral work but sotne
tb.ing beyond that work: die,.tc.uth of the work, wher.e the ind.ividual who writes-a force of creative negation-see.ms co join wicli
r.he work in motion ilirough which chis force. of negation an d
This new notion, which Hegel calls r.bt!-'!',h.i.ngJrsel plays a vital
role in the literary undertaking. No marter that it has so many
different meanings: it is th.c.att.which is-abovf! t:.b.e..wOJ:k, cbe ideal
ar the wotlc.$d<s co Iepr.esenc, the.Woi:la-as it is sk.etchecloutjn
the,,,,wruk, rhe values ac stake in the creative efforr. the auchenricicy
f this effort; it is everything which, above the work that is con
stantly being dissolved in things, maintains the model, the essence,
and the spiritual truth of chat work just as the writer's freedom
wanted co manifest it and can recognize it as its own The goal is
no._ what the writer makes but the truth of what he maret;As far as
this goes, he deserves to be called an honest, disinterested con
science- the honest man. 8.ur here we run into trouble: as soon as
honesty comes into play in lirerarure, imposture is already present.
Here bad faith is truth, and the greater rhe pretension co morali ty
and seriousness, the more surely will mystification and deceit
rriumph. Yes, literature is undoubtedly the world of values, since
above the mediocrity of the finished works everything they lack
keeps appearing as their own truch. Bur what is the resul r of this? A
perpetual enticement, an extraordinary game of hide-and-seek in
]which the writer claims as an excuse that what he has in mind is nor
--:-- the ephemeral work but the spirit of chat work and of every workno matter whac he does, no matter what he has nor been able co do,
he adapts himself to ic, and his honest conscience derives knowl
edge and glory from ic. Lee us listen ro chat honest conscience; we
are familiar with fr because it is working in all of us. When the work
has failed, this conscience is nor troubled: it says co itself, "Now it
has been fully completed, for faiJme is its essence; its disappearance
constitutes its realization," and the conscience is happy with chis;


of \

literature and the Right to Death

lack of success ddighcs it. Bur what if the book does not even
manage co boe born, what if it remains a pure nothing? Well, this is\
still better: silence and nothingness are the essence of literature,
"the Thing ]Itself." It is true: the writer is willing ro put the highest
value on the meaning his work has for him alone. Then it does not
matter whether the work is good or bad, famous or forgotten. If
circumstances neglect it, he congratulates himself, since he wrote it
onJy to negate cfrcumstances. Bur when a book that comes into
being by ch:ance, produced in a moment of idleness and lassitude,
without value or significance, is suddenly made into a masterpiece
by circumstantial events, what author is not going co take credit for
the glory himself, in bis heart of hearts, what author is nor going to
see his own worth in chat glory, and bis own work in char gin: of
forrune, the working of bis mind in providential harmony with bis
A writer in his own first dupe, and at the very moment he fools
ocher peopk:: he is also fooling himself. Listen to him again: now he
states chat his function is co write for others, that as he writes he bas
nothing in mind but the reader's interest. He says this and he
believes it. Bue ic is not true at all. Because if he were not attentive
fuse and foiremost co whar he is doing, if be were nor concerned
with literature as his own action, he could not even write: he would
not be the one who was writing-the one writing would be no one.
This is why .it.is futile.for him to cake the seriousness of an ideal as
lus ,.guaranc,;e, futile for him to claim co have scable values: this 1 -J
seriousness is not his own seriousness and can never settle defini
tively when! be chinks he is. For example: he writes novels, and
these novels imply certain pol.itical statements, so char he seems to
side with a1 -;rrain Cjluse. Other people, people who direccly
support the: Cause, are then inclined co recognize him as one of
themselves, co see his work as proof that the Cause is really his
cause, but as soon as they make this claim. as soon as they cry co
become involved in this activity and rake it over, they realize chat
cpe_wcicer is noc on their side, that he is only on his own side, char
what inrere:sts hlm about the Cause js the operation he himself has\
carried ouc,-and chey are puzzled. Ir is easy co understand why



literature and the Right to Death

men who have committed themselves to a party, who have made a

decision, distrust writers who share their views; because these
writers have also committed themselves to literature, and in the
final analysis !icerature. b very: accivi, denies the substance of
hat it represents. This is its law tlf it rnounces this
in order to attach itself permanently co a truth outside icself, it
J I ceases to be a literature and the writer who still claims he is a writer
enters into another aspect of bad faith. Then must a writer refuse to
take an interest in anything, muse he turn his face ro the wall? The
problem is that if he does chis, his equivocation is just as great. First
of all, looking at the wall is also turning toward the world; one is
making the wall into the world. When a writer sinks into the pure
intimacy of a work which is no one's business but his own, it may
seem to ocher people-other writers and people involved in ocher
activities-chat at leasr they have been left at peace in their Thing
and their own work. But not at all. The work created by this
soltary prson d enclosed in solitude contis wichin itself a
cl /
po111t of view which concerns everyone, 1mplic1cly passing judg
ment on ocher works, on the problems of the rimes, becoming the
accomplice of whatever it neglecrs. the enemy of whatever it aban
dons, and its indifference mingles hypocricically with everyone's
What is striking is that in literature, dece_jJ and mystification not
are inevitable but constitute the writer's hones!}'., whatever
hope and truth are in him. Nowadays people often calk about the
sickness of words, and we even become irsitaced wich chose who
talk about it, and suspect chem of making words sick so they can
talk about ic. This could be che case. The trouble is that this
sickness is also the words' health. They may l1e corn apart by
equivocation, bur chis equivocation is a good thing-without it
there would be no dialogue. They may be falsified by misunder
standing-bur this misunderstanding is the possibili ty of our un
derstanding. They may be imbued with emptiness-bur chis emp
tiness is tht:ir very meaning. Narurally. a wrirer can always make it
h.is ideal to call a car a cat. But what he cannot manage rn do is then
believe thar he is on the way ro health and sincerity. On the

Literature and the Right to Death

31 1

contrary, he is causing more mystification than ever, because rhe cat (

is not a cat, and anyone who claims chat ic is has nothing in mind
but rhis hypocritical violence: Roler is a rascal.
There are many reasons for chis imposture. We have just been
discussmg the first reason: literature is made up of different stages
which aire distinct from one anocher and in opposition to one
another. Honescy. wanalim:al because it rries t<> see clearly.
separate.'i: these stages. Under rhe eyes of honesty pass in succession
the author, the work, and the reader; in succession the art of
writing, the thing written, and the truth of chat thing or rhe Thing
Itself; srUI in succession, che writer without a name, pure absence of
himself, pure idleness, rhen the writer who is work, who is the
action of a creation indifferent to what ic is creating, then che writer
who is cibe result of this work and is worth something because of
rhis resullt and nor because of the work, as real as the created thing is
real, the:n the writer who is no longer affirmed by chis result but
denied hy it, who saves the ephemeral work by saving its ideal, rhe
crurh of the work, ere. Tru: wricetjs nor simply one of these stages
co rhdusioD o the. ochers, !lQ.t is he even all of them put
tqgther in their unimportant succession. b.u.Lthe action which
bgh<:m_ together and unifies them. As a result, when the
honest oonscience judges the writer by immobilizing him in one of
these forms, when, for instance, ir attempts to condemn the work
because it is a failure, the writer's other honesty protests in the
name of the ocher stages. in the name of the purity of art, which
sees ics ,own triumph in the failure-and likewise, every time a
writer is challenged under one of his aspects, he has no choice but
to present himself as someone else. and when addressed as the
author of a beautiful work. disown chat work, and when admired as
an inspiration and a genius, see in himself only application and
hard work. and when read by everyone. say: ''Who can read me? T
haven't written anything." fti_ng_on the narc of the writer
makes him into someone who is perpetually absent. an irresponsi Blanchot is referring ro a remark made by Nicolas Boileau (1637-1711) in his
first S11tir1: ''J'appclle un char un chat ec Roler un fripon" ("I call a car a Cit and
Rolcc a rascal"). Rolec was a nororious figure of die rime.-TRANS.

I -



Literature and the Right to Death

ble character without a conscience, but this shifting also forms the
exrenr of his presence, of his risks and responsibility.
The trouble is chat the writer is not only several people in one,
bur gu;cage._of.himse1<le.wes.all.rhe. others, demands everything
for itself alone, and does not tolerate any conciliation or compro
mise. The writer muse respond to several absolute and absolutely
differeat commands at once, and his morality is made up of the
confrontation and opposition of implacably hostile rules.
One rule says to him: "You will not write, you will remain
nothingness, you will keep silent, you will not know words."
The other rule says: "Know nothing but words.''
"Write to say nothing."
"Write to say something."
"No works; rather, the experience of yourself, the knowledge of
whar is unknown to you."
"A work! A real work, recognized by other people and important
co other people."
"Obliterate the reader."
"Obliterate yourself before the reader."
"Write in order to be crue."
"Write for the sake of truth."
"Then be a lie, because ro write with truth in mind is ro write
what is not yet true and perhaps never will be true."
''Ir doesn't matter, write in order to act."
"Write-you who are afraid to act."
''Let freedom speak in you."
"Oh! do not lee freedom become a word in you."
W hich law should be obeyed? Which voice should be listened
to? But iJg must...lisren. to chem. aU! What confusion! Isn't
clarity his law? Yes, clarity, too. must therefore oppose himself,
qgiy himself even_as.heaffums himself, l@k for the deepness of Y}S
Aigb.t io..rhe..facili tf of the day, look in the shadows which never
begin, to find the sure light which cannot end. HeJ11st save the
Id an4J>th. abysjustify exisence and allow what does n;;
P,ist speak; he must be at the end of all eras in the universal
plenitude, and he is the origin, the birth of what does nothing but

Literature and the Right to Death


come into being. ls he all that? Literarure is all thac, in him. But
isn't all char what lirerarure would like to be, what in reality it is
nor? 1n rha.r case, literature is nothing. But is it nothing?
Literature is not nothing. People who are conrempruous of
literature aLCe mistaken in chinking they are condemning it by >
saying it is nothing. "All that is only literature." Thi.sis how peopl

create an Q.pposicion berweeo. action, which is a concrete initiative ,, ,

in the world, and the written word, which is supposed. co be

passive expression on the surface of the world; people who are in
favor of action reject literature, which does nor ace, and chose in
search of passion become writers so as nor to act. But chis is co
condemn :md to love in an abusive way..!.we see work as the forc(1
ai.histocy, the force that transforms man while ir transforms thJ t
world, t(Ul... w.riter's_acti.vicy must be recognized as the highesD1
fo(m of w.i:u:k. When a man works, what does he do? He produces
an object. That object is the realization of a plan which was unreal
before the10: it is the affirmation of a reality different from the
elements which constitute it and it is the future of new objects, co
the extent that it becomes a tool capable of creating ocher objects.
For example, my project might be co get warm. As long as chis
project is only a desire, I can turn it over every possible way and still
it will not make me warm. But now I build a stove: the stove transforms the empty ideal which was my desire into something real; it
affirms the presence in the world of something which was nor there
before, and in so doing, denies something which was there before;
before, I had in front of me stones and cast iron; now I no longer
have either scones or cast iron, but instead tb.e..product of the
q_ansform2tri.on o(th.ese elements-that is, their denial and destruc
tion-by work. B_ecause of this object, the world is now different.
All the moe different because chis stove will allow me co make
ocher objetts. which will in rum deny the former condition of the
world and prepare its future. These objects, which I have produced
by changing che states of things, will in turn change me. The idea
of heat is n.oching, but actual hear will make my life a different kind
of life, and every new thing Tam able to do from now on because of
chis heat will also make me someone different. Thus is history

Literature and the Right to Death

1 }formed, say Hegel and Marx-by work which real izes being in
denying it, and reveals it at the end of the negat ion.*
But what is a writer doing when he writes? Everything a man
does when he works, but to an outstanding degree. The writer, too,
produces something-a work in the highest sense of the word. He
produces this work by transforming natural and human realicies.
When he writes, bis starting point is a certain state of language, a
certain form of culture, certain books. and also certain objective
elements-ink, paper, printing presses. In orJer..to wtite.-he must
j Qg_C!.QX, laug.uage_in its present form and create it in another form,
denying books aru:fo.cms a book our of what ocher books are not.
This new book is certainly a reality: it can be seen, touched, even
read. In any case, it is nor nothing. Before I wrote it, I had an idea
of it, at least I had the project of wri ting it, but I belie'ie there..i.u:he
differenc_e.. hecwee.n_ thac;... i<:iea and the volume in whieh it is
ree<i as...b1:cween Jh.e de$ire.IQL. heac and the stove wbiclunakes
I me warm. For me, the written volume is an extraordinary, unfore
Iseable innovation-such that it is impossible for me to conceive
what it is capable of being without writ ing it. This is why it seems
w me to be an experiment whose effects I cannot grasp, no matter
how consciously they were produced, and in the face of which I
shall be unable co remain the same, for chis reason: jn the presence
f something other, 1 bece other: But there is an even more
clecisive reason: this other thing-the book-of which I had only
an idea and which I could not possibly have known in advance, is
T.he booI: the written thing, enters che world and carries our its
work of transformation and negation. It, too, is the future of many
other things, and not only books: by the projects which it can give
rise to. by the undertakings it encourages, by the totality of rhe
world of which it is a modified reflection, nfinite so
_uewalitie!,_and \3._ecause 0 thes new realities existence will be
samerhing it was !!-Ot fore,
Alexandre Kojhc offers this inrerprccacion of Hegel in his lnrroductio11 to the
Reading o Heg el (Readings on The Phenommolugy of the Spirit, selecred and
published by Ra ymond Queneau).

Literature and the Right to Death


So is the: book nothing? Then why should the act of building a

stove pass :for che sort of work which forms and produces hisrory.
and whilclllld ch aqpt;,,.wriring,seem Like e pass.iyicy which
remains in the:: margins of history and which history produces in
spite of itself? The question seems unreasonable, and yet ir weighs
on the writer and ics weight is crushing. At first sight one has the
impression1 that the formative power of written works is incom
parably gr,at; one has the impression that the writer is endowed
with more: power to act than anyone else since bis actions are
immeasurable. limitless: we know (or we like to believe) that one
single work can change rbe coLuse of the world. But this is precisely
what mak,es us think twice. The influence authors exert is veryf
great, it goes infinitely far beyond their actions. to such an exrenl
that what is real in their actions does nor carry over into their
influence :and that tiny bit of reality does not contain the real
substance 'mat the extent of their inAuence would require. What is
an author capable of? Everything-first of all, everycbing: he is
fettered, h,e is enslaved, bur as long as he can find a few moments of
freedom un which co write, he is free to create a world withou
slaves, a world in which the slaves become the masters and formu-t
lace a new law; chus, by writing, the chained man immediate!
obtains freedom for himself and for the world; he denies everything
he is, in o,rder to become everything he is not. In this sense, his
work is a prodigious act, rhe greatest and most important there is.
Bur let us 1::_xamine this more closely. f11so.far..a...ht..i11m1edilgiv
himself te freedom he de!r oc hav he is necting the ac.tu ' J..
conditions for his emanc.ipauon, l:u:.Js.Jleglecung to do the r
thac,.musc.be done so that che absrract idea of freedom can b
rc:.alized. His negation is global Ir not only negates his situation as
man who has been walled into prison but byp asses time char wiU
open holes in these walls; it.. m:gaces the negatiQ_n o.fcinie, it negates\
the.negariion oflimits. This is why chis negaJion negates nothing,
the end, why the work.in wluch it is_cealiz.ed..is.net-a u:uly.. uegative,
descructiv,e act of transformation, buc rather the reli1..acion of tle
i.ability c,o negate anything, d1e refusal co take part ln the world; l!
cr.ansfonned the freedom which would have co be embodied in




Literature and the Right to Death

\rJiings in the p;-ocess of time into an ideal above time, empty and
A writer's influence is linked w ch.is privilege of being master of
\everything. Bur he is only master of everything, he possesses only
the infinite; he lacks the finite, limit escapes him. Now, one cannot
act in the infinite, one cannot accomplish anything in the un
limited, so that if a writer acts in quite a real way as he produces this
real thing which is called a book, he is also discrediting all action by
\this action, because he iuubstituting..for the world odecermined
1.r_hlngs and defined work a world in which everything is instantly
given and there is nothing lefr co do bur read .it and enjoy it.
In general, the writer seems to be subjected co a state of inactivity
because he is the master of the imaginary, and those who follow
him into the realm of the imaginary lose sight of the problems of
their true lives. Bur the danger he represents is much more.serious.
The truth is that-he tns action, not because he deals with what is
unreal bur b,cause l}e makes alt of reality available to us., Unreali ty
begins with the who! T realm of the imaginary is not a strange
) region situated beyond the world, it is the world itself, bu1; the
( world as entire, manifold, the world as a whole. That is why it is
'nor in the world, because it is the world, grasped and realized in its
entirety by rhe global negation of all the individuealities con
tained in it, by their dialificacion, their absenc the realiza
tion of char absence itsehich is how literary creation begins, for
when literary creation goes back over each thing and each being, it
cherishes rhe illusion chat it is creating them, because no,w it is seeliod.nami.ng-:, th.staniqgR2mt of everythi;zg, from
lche starting poinc of the absence of everything, rha,c is, frnm nothing.
Certainly chat licerarure whid1 is said w be "purdy imaginative"
has irs dangers. First of all, ure imagination. Ic believes
chat ir srands apart from everyday realicind acrual events, but
the truth is chat ic has stepped aside from them; it is char distance,
rhat remove from the everyday which necessarily rakes the everyday
linto consideration and describes it as separateness, as pure strange
ness. What is more, it makes chis distance into an absolute value,
and rhen this separateness seems to be a source of general under-


Literature and rhe Right to Death


standing, che capacity to grasp everything and attain everything

immediately, for those who submit to its enchantment enough co I
emerge from both their life, which is nothing but limited under
standing, and time, which is nothing but a narrow perspective. All
chis is the lie of a fiction. But this kind of lirerarure has on its side
the fact that it is not rrying to deceive us: it presents itself as
imaginary; ir puts to sleep only chose who want to go co sleep.
WhLis_f.r more dec.citfu.l .is..the literarure.of.-actio.p. Jc calls on
po s.,omechlng. Bue if it wants to remain authentic\
literature, it must base its representation of this "something to do,"
th.is predetermined and specific goal, on a world where such an
action rums back into the unreal.i cy of an abstract and absolute \
value. "Something to do," as it may be expressed in a work ofl
licerarure, is never more than "everything remains to be done,",
whether it presents itself as chis "everything," d1ac is, as an absolute
value, or whc:ther it needs ch.is ''everything," inco which it vanishes,
co justify itself and prove chat it has merit. llic:.language..of a writer,
elle.o if.he js a revoluciooacy, is not the langwigc.Qf.CQJIU!l@d. It
does nor command, iLpceseots; and ic does not present by causing
whatever it IPOrtrays to De present, but by poruay_wg it behind
aerp.b.ing, <1.uhuneaning,aod,.the,abseoi..g(this eryching. The
result is eithc:r that the appeal of the author co the reader is only an
empty appeaJ, and expresses only the effort which a man cut off
from the wo:rld makes to reenter the world, as he stands discreetly
at its periphery-or chat the "something to do," which can be
recovered only by starting from absolute values, appears to the
reader precis:ely as chat which cannot be done or as chat which
requires neither work nor action in order co be done.
As we kn,ow, a writer's main temptations are called St<lll:ism,
1 '1,...
ske.pucism, md the unb.ap_py. consciousness. Ut:.te ace a.LI ways of
dtinking-d1au w.ricer adoptsfor reasons he believes he has thought\ --11
OJJ.Lc;.a.refully, bur which only lirerarure has thought ouc in him. A
stoic: be is the man of the universe, which itself exists only on
paper, and, :a prisoner or a poor man, he endures his condition
sc-0ically because he can write and because the one minute of
freedom in vvhich be writes is enough to make him powerful and



free, is enougb to give him not his own freedom, which he derides,
but universal freedom. A.. nihilist. because he does not simply
negate this and that by methodical work which slowly transforms
each thing: gates eyer,yching at O!!f.e, and be is obliged to
negate everything, since.lie d,eals..onlit wih ag. The Wl.
happ&Giousae8S! It is only too evident that this unhappiness is
rus..wg.s.t,..pmfo since Jker._2,n lycwo.his
nted COJllcio u
. srttSs_dividcd .inro irreroncil.ahk._momen1s
cp.lled inspira.cion-wall wort work-which negates
the nothingness of genius; the ephemeral work-in which he cre
ates himself by negating himself; the work as everything-in which
he takes back from himself and from other people everything
which he seems co give to himself and to chem. But there is one
other temptation.
Lee us acknowledge that ere...is.-a movr which
jproceeds withouc.2aue, and al !!losr wi_tb.._oucnansition. from.noth
(i.og co everythi,ng. Let us see in him that negation chat is not
sarisfied with the unreality in which it exists, because it wishes to
realize itself and can do so only by negating something real, more
real than words, more true than the isolated individual in control:
it therefore keeps wging him toward a worldly life and a public
existence in order to induce him co conceive how, even as he writes,
he can become chat very existence. le is at this point that be
encounters those decisive moments in history when everything
keems put in question, when law, faith, the Scace, the world above,
fhe world of the past-everything sinks effortlessly, without work,
l rnto nothingness. The man knows he bas not stepped our of
history, bur h.isrocy is.now-che void, rhe void in the process of
realization;.icis.ab.ra/utefreedom which has becomean.eyent. Such
periods are given the name ftevo!!m2n. At this momen;,-fre..edom
spires to be realized l!ultc.imnua'iat.<!.focm o[e.verytbing ps.ible,
W}'thing..cao be dQ.ue. A fabulous moment-and no one who has
experienced it can completely recover from it, since hex.peci
nced hi.it!>cy..as.hi.s.ow.o.h.isEhis-own fre.ed.om..a.s.universal
. These moments are, in facr, fa.bJWl.US.DWJilCnts: in them,
fab.k peak s; in chem, the.,Spec:c.b,.Qffa.bk..becomes action. That the


Litmuure and the Right to Death

literature and the Right to Death


writer should be tempred by them is completely appropriate. Revo

uti?nllr)' action is in every respect analogous to action as embodied
111 lnerarwe: the passage from nothing to everything, the affir_ma- )
of.the absolute as evem and of every even as absolute.
Revoluti,onary acrion explodes with the same force and the same
facility a:s the writer who bas only to ser downa few words side by
side n order to change the world. Revolutionary action also has the
same demand for puri ty, and the certainty that everyr.hing it does
has absolute value, chat it is not just any action performed to bring
about some desirable and respectable goal, but char it is itself the
ulcimate goal, t Act. This lasct is freedom, an the onl
_choi :ft is between free and nothing. This is why, at tha! e/t
poine_ O!tlJ:'. tolerable slogan is Thus ch
Reign ef Terror comes into being. People cease co be individuals
working at specific tasks, acting here and only now: cb..person is
l!JllVersal. freedom, and universal freedom knows nothing about
elsewher,e or tomorrow, or work or a work accomplished. At such
times tru!tci.s..Aorhi.ng.kfr y,o ne.w..do, because everything-has
llee..o....dcwe. No one has a right co a private life any longer, every
thing is public, and the most guil ty person is the suspect-the
pe,rson who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy co
himself. .And the end n.9 on has !...[i his life any longer !:Ol ..:.:,.
his acruat.lly separate an9 p_hysically distinct existence. This is the
meaning of the Reign of Terror. E'.(er.y-ciciz.e.n.h..a rj.ghc to death ,,.
so co spc:ak: deach is not a sentence passed on him, it 1s his mosr
essential right; he is not suppressed as a guilty person-he needs
death so chac he can .!:oh.iroself a citizen, andn ..!h.e \
disappearance of death char freedom causes him to be born. Where
tlus is concerned, the French Revolution has a dearer meaning
than any ocher revolution. D.a_ch in che Reign of Terror is not
simply a way of punishing seditionaries; rather, since it becomes
the unavoidable, in some sense the desired lor of everyone, it
appears as the very operation of freedom in free meJ\.. When the
blade talls on Saint-] and Robespierre, in a sense ic executes
no one. Robespierre's virrue, Saint-J't's rdenrlessness, are simply
their existences already suppressed, the anticipated presence of



literattire 11.nd rhe Right to Death

their deaths, the decision ro allow freedom to assert itself com

pletely in them and through its universality co negate the particular
reality of their lives. Granted, perhaps they caused the Reign of
Terror to take place. Bur r,b.illtcOLth.eJ_personify does._net come
death th ey inflict on othc,s but .&om the deacluhey lnRict
\ elves. They bear its features, they do their chinking and
ake their decisions with death sitting on their shoulders, and this
is why thei.r..rhin.king is cold, implacable; it hc!S the freedom of a
eJ;agitated heasf.._The Terrorists are those who desire absolute
freedom and are fully conscious d1ar chis constitutes a desire for
meir own death, they are conscious of rhe freedom they affirm, as
they are conscious of their death, which rhey realize, and conse
quently they behave during their lifetimes not like people living
among other living people but like deprived of beil_!g, li.ke
luniversal thoughts, pure abstractions beyQnd history, judgipg and.
!deciding in the name of all of history.
Death as an event no longer has any importance. During the
Reign of Terror individuals die and ic means noming. In the
famous words of 1!<"el, "Ir is chus the coldest and meanest of all
'deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of
cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water."* Why? Isn't ch the
achievement of freedom-that is, the richest moment of meaning?
But it is also only mpty poincln that freedom, a manifestation
Gf the fact that such a freedom is still abstract, ideal (licerary), rhar it
is only poverty and platitude. Each person dies, but everyone is
alive, and chat really also means everyone is dead. Bur "is dead" is
I the positive side of freedom which has become the world: here,
\being is revealed as absolute. "D__yjog::on d1e ocher hand, is..p.uLe
o.signi.fi.c.mce, ap Y-enuvichouc.conc.rece..c.eality, one which has losr
all value as a personal and interior drama bs there is no longc;r
in...u:cior..lt is the moment when 1 die signifies to me as I die-a
banality which there is no way to cake into consideration: in d1e
liberated world and in these moments when freedom is an absolute
apparition, dying is uniroporcam and death has no depth. The
8-eign of Terror and revolution-not war-have caught us this.
Hegel. Plm1om,molbgy tif thr Spirit, p.




literamre and the Right to Death


T he w1riter sees himself in the Rqlti.on. le attracts him because

it is the time during which literanu:e. becomes history. lt..itlus trucb.
Any writ,er who is nor induced by the very fact of writing to think.
"[ am the: revolution, only freedom allows me to write," is not really
writing. Ln IZ9) there is a man who identifies himself completely
with revo,lucion and the Reign of Terror. He is an aristocrat clinging
to the ba1rdemencs of his medieval casde, a tolerant roan. rather shy
and obsequiously police: bur he writes, all he does is write, and it
does not matter that freedom puts hi.m back into the Bastille after
having brought him out, he.is the.one who UJ1derstands freedom
.the st, becay_se he undrstands chat it is a rimeen the_ most
insane passions can rurn.into political realities, a time when they
have a right to be seen, and are the law. He is also the man for
whom death is che greatest passion and the ultimate platitude, who
cues off people's heads the way you cue a head of cabbage, with such
great indlifference that nothing is more unreal than the death he
inflicts, amd yet Wl..One has.b..een.m--9re acutely awace that death is
scweign, char freedom is death. Sade is che writer par excellence,
he combines all me writer's contradicrions. Alone: of all men he is
the most: alone, and yet at the same rime a public figure and an
importam political personage; forever locked up and yet absolutely
free, theoretician and symbol of absolute freedom. He writes a vase
body of work, and that work exists for no one. Unknown: but what
he portrays has an immediate significance for everyone. He is
nothing more than a writer, and bdepicts life raised co me leve.l of
a passion, a passion which has become cruelty and madness. He
rums the most bizarre, the most hidden. the most unreasonable
kind of feeling into a universal affir:rnation, the reality of a public
sracemem which is consigned to history to become a legitimate
explanation of man's general condition. l:le is, finally. oegacim,
if:jiis oeuvre is nothing but the woEk of negation, his expexienc
the actiot0 of.a ful'.ious negation, driven co blood. denying othe
people, denying God, denying nature, and, within rhis circle i
which ic runs endlessly, r in itself as absolute sovereignty.
Liceramre contemplates itself in revolution . it finds its justi.fica
tion in n!volution, and if ir has been called rhe Reign of Terror, this
is becaus:e irs ideal is indeed that moment in hi.story, that moment

wh en


"life endures deat h and maintains itself in it'' J order co gain

&om death th e ossibiliry of speaking and the truth of speech. This
is the "question" thar seeks to pose itself in literature, the "question"
ch at is its essence. Llre@tu.ce....is...bound co language. Lang.uage. is
:eassuring and disquieting_ at tbe same UJlle. we..sp we
.nrrol ove( things with satisfying ease. I say, "This woman,"
'f,d she is im.mediacdy available co me, I push her away, I bring h er
lose, sh e is everything I wane her co be, she becomes th e place in
wh ich th e most surprising sorts of transformations occur and
actions unfold: s?"chJsJ.ife's ease and secw:iry. We cannot do
,anything wit h an obje.ct that has no name. iPrirnitive roan knows
ch at th e possession of words gives him mastery over things, but for
him the relations h ip .between words and the world is so close chat
the manipulation oflanguagejs as difficult and as fraugh t with peril
as contact with. living beings: the. name has not emerged frolll the
chiog, it is the insicie oLth thing which has been dangerously
brought out intotlieopen and yet ic is still th e h idden depth s of the
thing; che....chin_g Jias therefore not yet been named. The mote
closely man becomes attach ed ro a civilization, th e more he can
manipulate words with innocence and composure. Is ic that words
h ave lose aU relation co what they designate? Bue ch.is absence of
relation is nor a defect, and if ir is a defect, chis defect is the qnly
thing ch at gives language its full value, so ch at of all languages the
niost perfect is th e language of machemacics, which is spoken in a
rigorous way and to which no entity corresponds.
I say, "This woman." Holderlin, Mallarme, and poets.whose
Y!e,me..is.. the essence of poetry h ave felc chat the act.eoLnamlng is
duietigg and marvelous. J,. word may give me irs meaning, but
Jesses ir. Foi.me...to..be.. abJe to sa.y,,:';h is woman," r must
OfilmIDV ..t,tke her Besh and-blood rea.licy_away..from..her, cause her
\12,. be absent, anni h ilate her. Th e word gives me the 1.:!_cing, but
g_jves it to me deprived of being. The ord is th e absenco
( being, its noth ingness, wh at is left. of it wh en ic has lost being-th e
very face that it does not exist. Considered in chis ligh t, sp.eaking is
a.a.u:iAus rig h t. In a text dating from before The Phenomenology.
Hegel, here the friend and kindred spirit of Holderlin, writes:

Literature and the Right to Death

Literature and the Right to Death

"Adam's first act, wh ich made him master of the animals , was co -JL..
give chem names. chat is. be annih ilated them io their existence (as 1\
existing creatures)."* Hegel means that from that moment on, che I
Qlt ceased to be.a Wliquely real car.and became an idea as well. The
meaning ,of speech, then, requires chat before any word is spoken, '
there must be a sort of immense mb, a preliminary Hood
plunging all of creation int total sea. God.ha.i:
thingS;-b1.1_t._man.had ro-anmhtlar.e them. Not unul then did the}*
cake on meaning for him, and }tln turn created chem_Q!Jt of the
death iJJ,.c o ,JVh ich they had disa_epeared; only instead of bei
(etretll'1!_We say, existants (exist.ants), c here remained only
being (/e.tre), and man was codemned not co be able co aproacl1 ,\.'.
anything or experience anything except through the mng h\
h ad co cn:ace. He saw ch at h e w as enclosed in daylight, and he knew
ch is day could not end, because the end itself was light, since it was
from ch...
of beings..that..their meaniEg-whic h is being-had
-Of course gdo.esno.r..kill.1,0yop_e. And wh.en lszyf
"1J:!js w9man," ..!:.._eal death has been announced and.. is alread>\
prnc h1 Jll)'. language; m.y language.means ch at this person,.who
is here right now, can be decached from herself. r.emoved.li:om be
xistence and her presenc.e, and suddenly plunged inro a not h ing ]
ness in which th ere is no existence. or presence; my languag
essentially signifies the possibility of chis descruccion; it is a con
SWlt....b.old allusion ro such an event. My language does not kill
anyone. Bur if this woman were nor really ca_pable of dy,ing, if she
were not threatened by death at every moment of her life. bound
and joined co death by an essential bond, .ould oot be able tol
carry out; chat ideal negation, m.aJ..dsferred assassination wh ic h is
what mx,language is.
Therefore ir is accurate to say ch at whaB.ki,>eak, dea.ch spaks an
me. My .s:peec h is a warning that ac chis very mornentdeath is loose



From a colleccion of essays titled Systnn of 1803-,804. A. Kojeve. in liis

lntroductio>tl to the Reading ofHegel, incerprcring a passage from the Phenomenol
ogy, demonsrrares in a remarkable way bow for Hegel comprehension was
equivalent co murder.

Literature and the Right to Death

arIEI, mat-ithas suddenly: appeared between me, as I speak,

v being l address: l!js..tbeJ:e.between.u s-as the distance chat
!eparares_us, bur this distance is also whar prvents us from being
separated, because its contains the condition for all understanding.
Cleath alone-allows me to grasp whacl wane to attain; it ex.iscs in
words as the only way they can have meaning. put._.death,
..llh.ing would sink into absrndiry and nothingness.
This situation has various consequences. Clearly, in me, the
12ower to speak is :bo linked to my absence fro.m b..eiJlg. I say my
name. and it is as thougchanting_ruy own dirg_e: 1 separate
myself from myself, I am no longer either my presence or my
reali ry. bur ohje.cci.ve. impersonal presence, rhe presence of my
name. which goes beond me and whose stonelike immobili ty
performs exactly the same fuoccion for me s a tombstone weighing
on rhe void. When I speak, I deny the existence of what l am
saying, but T also deny the existence of the person who is saying it:.
if my speech reveals being in its nonexistence, it also affirms thar
chis revelation is made on the basis of the nonexistence of the
person making it, out of his power co remove himself from himself,
to be ocher than his being. This is wby, if true language is to begin,
the life chat will carry this language muse have experienced ics
nothingness, muse have "trembled in the depths; and everything in
ic that was fixed and scab le must have been shaken." Language can
begin only with the void; no fullness, no cercainry can ever speak;
something essential is lacking in anyone who expresses himself
Negation is tied to language. When I first begin, I do not speak in
order to say something; rather, a nothing dands to speak, noth speaks, nothing_findLill.-being jn. speech, and the being of
,,L spee.93 This formulation explains why literature's ideal
has been the following: to say noin_g, toak iru,rder co sa}'.
nothing. Thac is nor the musing of a high-class kind of nihilism.
J Language erceives chat its meaning derives not from what exists
but from its own recreac before existence, and it is rempced to
proceed no further d1an this rerreat, co try to attain negation in
itself and to make everything of nothing. If one is noc to ralk about


Literature and the Right to Death

things except to say what makes them nothing, then to say nothing
is really the only hope of saying everything about them.
A hope which is naturally problematic. Everyday language calls a
cat a cat, as if the living cat and irs name were identical, as if it were
not rrue chac when we name the cat, we retain nothing of it bur it, d,,il
absence, what ic is nor. Yet for a moment everyday language is
right, in that eyen if t w0_rd excludes the existence of what.i
qesignact;._it- still refers to it through the thing's nonexistence,
which hi becoJne :t5
' essence. To name the cat is, if you like, to
make it U!l to a non-cat, a cat that has ceased to exist, has ceased to
be a liviflj g cat, but this does nor mean one is making it into a dog,
or even a. non-dog. That is the primary difference between com
mon lang;uage an d literary language. The first accepts chat once the
nonexim:nce of the cat has passed into the word, the cat itself
comes co life again fully and certainly in the form of its idea (its
being) and ics meaning: on the level of being (idea), rhe word
restoreu9 the cat all tb_e certainty i th!Jevel of existence.
And in face that certainty is even much &.:eater: things can change if
they have to, sometimes they stop being wbac they are-they
remain hostile, unavailable, inaccessible; but the being of these
things, their idea, does not change: che idea is definitive, it is sure,
we even call it eternaJ. Ler us hold on to words, then, and not revert/ '1
back co chings, let us not let go of words, noc believe they are sick.{
Then we shall be at peace.
Common language is probably right, this is the price we pay for
our peac:e. Bue literary language is made of uneasiness; it is also
made of contradictions. !cs position is not very stable or secure. On
che one lliand, its only interest in a thing is in the meaning of the\
thing, ic:s absence, and it would like t at in s absenc abo-\'
lurely in itself and for itself, co grasp in 1cs enarery che mfin1te
movement of comprehension. What is more, ic observes thac te
word "cm" is .!!2!...QW Y.E'l ..n
. ex.istence of the cat but a noneX11, I
cence rrua.si.e uJor-4._giat is, a completely determined and objecti
realiry. 1'r sees that therculcy and even a lie in this. How I
can it hope to have achieved what ic set ouc m do, since it has


Literature and the Right to Death





transposed the unreality of rbe thing inro the reali ty of language?

How could the infinite absence of comprehension consent to be
confused with the limited, resrricred presence ofa single word? And
isn't everyday language miscaken when it cries co persuade us of
this? In fact, iris deceiving itselfand it is deceiving us, coo. e_eech
is not sufficient for d1e truth it contains. Take the trouble co listen
a gle word: in chat wothing-;;-ess is struggling and coili
way, it rugs cirelessly, doing its utmost to find a w out, nullifying
hat em;:loses it-it is infinite disquiet, formless and nameless
vigilance. Already rbe t,J,l which held chis nothingness within the
limits of the word and within the guise of its meaning has been
broken; now mere is e.5s..t.o-Ol:h.ec.oa.cnes, aaroes Ylhicb :u:
d...ttillv..agu.e. mm:e gpab,k.of ada.1?.tind0,m..0.
. s
e-negatilll'lre-mey are unstabk... gr.g.u, .n.a,j_cw.get-te.rm
me.n.c.af..te.cms.-an...c:nciless sliding.of "cw:n.,s_of ehrase."
which do not lead anywhere. Ihus,,is..b,orn me image ilia qi .nw:
direct! desi nate the thin but rawer wha rhe .rbg.k.,1!.9c; it
speaks of a dog instead of a car. This is how the pursuit begins in
which all oflanguage, in morion , is asked to give in co the uneasy
demands of one single ching char has been deprived of being and
that, after having wavered between each word, cries co lay hold of
them all again in order co negate mem all ac once, so chac chey will
designate che void as they sink down into it-chis void which they
can neither 1iU nor represent.
Even if lire stopped here, it would have a strange and
embarrassing job co do. Bur ic does not stop here. It r<:s:allLchsiiw
JW11e which would beP).e murde.c..I:legcl speaks of Jhe "ex:isran_L
.!"as calJd our of ics existence by the word, and it became being.
This Lazare, veniforas summoned the dark, cadaverous reali ty from
its primordial depths and in exchange gave it only che life of the
mind. Lanwge knowthk.ingdocn is Y and not-the iori
alitknowuhac in order.for the day co begin,
for the day co be that Orient which Holderlin glimpsed-not light
chat has become che repose ofnoon buc theJen:ible.orc<;_chaLdraw$
2_eing.s iuto the world.and illum.inaces chem-something muse be
yefu:tuc. Negation cannot be created ouc ofanything but the reality

Litera ture and the Right to Death


ofwhac it is n:gting; language derives its ;alue an its priq Jrom

the fact that It IS the achievement of cius negaaon; but(in the
beginning, whac was lost?/f he cormenc oflanguage is what it lacks
because of necessithar it be the lackof_12rely this.
gonoc even..na!llc.it.
"'wbQever sees G;d rues. In speech what rues is what gives life to r:J!
speech; speech is me Life of mat dearh, ic is "the life that endures
death and maintains itself in ir." What wonderful power. But
somedung was there and is no longer there. met.b.ing,bisap.
ed. How can I recover it, how can I turn around and look at
what e:x:ists lzgpre, if all my power consists of making it into what
exists ,ifter? The lofliterature is a search for this momenclql
which precedes Literature. Literature usually calls it existence; it
;ants the cat as it exists. the pebble taking the side ofthings, not man
but the pebble, and in this pebble what man rejects by saying it, f>t.
whac it s me foundation of speech and what speech excludes in
speaking, the abyss, Lazarus in the tomb and nor Lazarus brought
back imo the daylight, the one who already smells bad, who is Evil,
lose and nusanclbrought.hack to life I sa y a
flower! But in the absence where I mencion it, through the oblivion
co which I relegate me image ic gives me, in me depths ofchis heavy
word, itself looming up like an unknown thing, I passionately
summon me darkn(;.Ss of chi flower, I summon this perfume that
passes through me though I do noc breathe it, this dust iliac
impregnates me though I do not see it, this color which is a trace
and nm lighc. Then what hope do I have of attainin[E}e thing_!_
eush awzy? M ho e lies in the' materiali
an e1 in d1e face \
cJ:!at words are things, too, are a-kind ofnature- Tsis given to me
and gi:ves me more than I can understand. Just now the reality of
words was an obstacle. Now. it is my only chance. A name ceases c -.------- ,
be the: ephemeral passing ofnonexistence and becoes a concrete
ball, 1 solid mass of existence; language. abandon.mg the sense,
the mning which was all it wanced co be, cries co become senseless. Everything phytakrecedence: rhythmeighc, mass,
sh. d then the p'!f)er on which oices, the crailof the ink,
the book. Yes, happily language is a thing: it is a written thing, a bit


Literatttl'e and the Right to Death

of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clar._ which the rea. lity2f
che earth continues to exist. The word..a.c.tS Cl.Qt: .aii.i_deal force but
as an obscure.pQ:wer. as an incantation that coerces things, makes
I\ hem req!/J_p...resC!J.t outside of chemsl is an element, a piece
barely detached from its subterianean surroundings: it is no loo
, \.a name, but rather one m m_!:nJ_in the unisal anonymi!}'., a bald
\ statement, the srupor of a confrontation in the depths of obscurity.
And .in this way lang_ggimg irs own game wlroouL
.!!!.an, who created it. Literamce o.ow..dispenses with the...wrirer: it is
no longer this inspiration ac work, chis negation asserting itself, chis

idea inscribed in the world as though it were the absolute perspec

tive of the world in its totali ty. le is not beyond the world, but
\neither is it uvorld itself:_it is the presence of things before the
w orid ex! sts, their rseverance after the world has disappeared,

t h e SE!-b 0...!!!!1ess o what remains when everything vanishes and
J the dumbfoundedness of whac appears when nothing exists.. That
is why it cannot be confused with consciousness, which illuminates
things and makes decisions;
J radiant gassi:t,il}'..ofmineral.su.bsCJ,i the lucidi ty of the depths of
torpor. iul2.Ltb night, it is th<;.ftbses.sioDpof the n.ir is noc
the night but the consciousness of the night, which Lies awake
watching for a chance to surprise irself and because of char is
conscandy being dissipated. Lt is n,ot..r, he de\, it is the side of the
.Y that dcledcJ:..m_b.s,9,2me light. And it is not
death either, because it manifests existence without being, ex.is
s_nce wich rem s ? elwste like an ineorable rma
aon, without begmnmg or end-cl.each as_th.c JmpoSS1bility of...
_ din,g.
By turning itself into an inabili ty co reveal anything, Jiterrur
ro become the revelaciq_n o[ whac revelation destroys.
This is a tragic endeavor. Literature says, "I no longer represent
am; l do not signify, 1 present." But this wish co be a ching, th.is
refusal ro mean anything, a refusal immersed in words turned ro
salt; in short, this destiny which literature becomes as it becomes
the language of no one, the writing of no writer, the light of a
consciousness deprived of self, chis insane effort to b ury itself in


Literature ,ind the Right to Death

icself, co hide itself behind che face chat it is visible-all chis is what
licerarure now manifests, wbar liceracu re now shows. lf ic were to
become as mute as a scone, as passive as the corpse enclosed behind
chat stone, its decision ro lose che capacity for speech would still be
legible on the stone and would be enough ro wake that bogus
1::_jteracurc learns that it capf1Qtgo beyond itself coward its 1
e it hides, it does not give itself away. Ir knows it is the 1
movement through which whatever dipears keeps apPearin_&
When it nrumes something, whatever it designates is abolished; but
whatever is abolished is also sustained, and the thing has found a
refuge (in the being which is the word) rather than a threat. When
Literature r(:fuses to name anything, when it rurns a name into
something obscure and meaningless, witness to the primordial
obscurity, what has disappeared in this case-che meaning of the
name-is really destroyed, buc signification in general has appeare
in its place, the meaning of che !!laningles_sn embedded in
WQ! pression of the obscuricy of existence, so thac alchough
the precise meaning of the terms has faded, what assercs itself now ,
is E!ie veryJ>OssibiliU'...Q(signifying, the empo:_p_ower of bestowing
!!leaning a strange impersooal ligbt.
By negating the day, literature re-creates day in che form of
fatality; by affirming che night, it finds the night as the impos
sibility of the night. This is its discovery. When day is the light of
the world, it illuminates wbar it lets us see: it is the capacity to
grasp, ro Live, it is the answer "understood" in every question. But if
we call the day ro account, if we reach a point where we push it
away in order to find out what is prior to the day, under ic we
discover chm che day is already present, and chat 'Yhac is prior ro che
ar is still clhe day, bur in the form of an inabiliry_co disappea:" , nor a I
cap'!,ci_ty to mak.e something appear: the darkness of nec1ty, nor
f.Wigm_o(freed_gm. The nature, then, of what is prior to che day.
of prediumal existence, is the dark side of the day, and that dar
side is not 1he undisclosed mysce.-y of its beginning but its inevica
ble presenc,e-the statement "There is no day," wbich merges wichl
"There is allready day.'' its appearance coinciding with the moment

3 30

Literature and the Right to Death

when it has not yet appeared. ln the course of the day, the day
allows us co escape from things. it lets us comprehend them. and as
it lets us comprehend rhem, it makes them transparent and as if
null-but whac we cannor escape from is the day: within it we are
free, but it, itself. is facalicy, and day in the form of fatali ty is the
ing of whar_is prio!..!.Q_r]le day, the exist<:._must rum away
from in order to speak and comprehend.
If one looks at it in a certain way, literature has two slopes. One
side of literature is turned toward the movement of negation by
which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order
to be known, subjugated, communicared. Literature is not content
to accept only the fragmentary, successive results of chis movement
Iof negation: it wants to grasp the movement itself and it wants to
comprehend the results in their totali ty. If negation is assumed to
have gotten control of everything, then real things, taken one by
one, all refer back co that unreal whole which they form toged1er, to
the world which is their meaning as a group, and this is the point of
view that literature has adopted-it looks at things from the point
\of view of chis still imaginary whole which they would really
constitute if negation. could be achieved. Hence its non-realism
the shadow which is its prey. Hence its distrust of words, its need to
apply rhe movement of negation to language itself and to exhaust it
by realizing it as char totality on the basis of which each term would
be nothing.
Bue there is wgther side to literature. Liceratw;,e is a ncern for
the reali of thins, for their unknown, free, and silence e..'Cisrence;
lirerarure is their innocence and their forbidden presence, it is me
being which protests against revelation, it is the defiance of what
snot want ro take place outside. In this way. it sympathizes wim
kness, with aimless passion, wich lawless violence, with every('p,
g in cbe world that seems to perpetuate the refusal to come into
rhe world. J.n...this w_ay,