My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance, of enduring thought….
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
—Lord Byron, Manfred
Maurice Blanchot’s book Lautréamont and Sade (Sade’s Reason followed by the much longer essay, The Experience of Lautréamont), first published in 1949, begins with a short preface entitled, What is the Purpose of Criticism? Here he defines criticism as that which
represent[s] and follow[s] outside what, internally, like a shredded affirmation, like infinite anxiousness, like conflict, does not cease to be present as a living reservoir of emptiness, of space, of error, or, better yet, as literature’s unique power to develop itself while remaining perpetually in default. [pp 4-5]
I have emphasized the word “outside” in following Foucault’s phrase about Blanchot: “thought of the outside.” It is outside simply because it is outside the work of literature it takes as its subject, yet it is an unusual kind of outside, since Blanchot insists that criticism is “nothing” in the sense that it disappears when it establishes its purpose, that it “drifts into transparency” in the face of the literary object, while at the same time maintaining that criticism enters the creative space of the object, mirroring the experience of its manifestation, how it became just as it is and not some other poem or novel.
Blanchot’s definition of criticism continues in the essay on Lautréamont, by becoming not only a critique of criticism (as commonly practiced at the time), but also by necessarily critiquing himself in producing an “outside” of the creative experience of Maldoror, a text that perpetually critiques itself. In doing so Blanchot has produced a phantom which is nevertheless real, a kind of ghost companion to Maldoror, reproducing the shapes and patterns of its maneuvers in numerous descriptions of Lautréamont’s language as intricate and beautiful, in their own way, as their subject. Here is one:
At this moment language also succumbs to a new anxiety, and the labyrinth that it seeks to be, the solemn and endless progression of words, images that, at the very moment when the syntax, continuously slower, seems to be lost in lassitude, follow, on the contrary, an ever more rapid rate, so that we no longer have the time to experience them completely and we leave them unfinished, acknowledging them less for what they signify than for their movement, the continual passing of one into another, a passage even more violent than the contrast of these images, though always linked together by the strong coherence of the discourse and by a secret connivance: such disorder, such order, such an effort to use logic to distract and in order to push speech a little outside of its meaning, implies the imminence of a transformation, after which language will itself have stepped into another existence…. And Maldoror, the poetry of Maldoror, takes itself as its object. While language seems to want to develop outside of clear consciousness, a consciousness extended further around the work recomposes itself. It is the work that contemplates itself…. [p 113]
Here and throughout the essay, in describing what Blanchot calls “the experience of Lautréamont”, his descriptions echo that experience. Lautréamont would seem to have provided the model itself for the type of criticism Blanchot would like to write: it is a vigilance that, with its eye ever on its subject (it does not give in to the temptation to say more than the subject says, to focus exclusively on one of its possibilities or to paste an exterior judgment on it from the outside), never loses sight of its own movement through its travels across the text. The experience of reading does something to the reader. He is not an impassive observer imparting a definitive statement after the fact. Certainly Maldoror “means” many things, but its ultimate meaning is this experience.
Blanchot describes the experience of Maldoror in many ways: as improvisation, as a particular kind of movement, as thought that creates itself as it goes, as an endeavor of the writer to sever himself from the thought of others and to surprise himself, and above all as lucidity, but a complete and double lucidity which is tied to the movement of the text (all elements that an attentive reader will see in the text of Maldoror). The essential movement of the text is Lautréamont’s spinning in and out of himself:
a tendency to return to the center—in other words, to be concentrated around the point where the passage from the most sweeping movement to a state of rest is about to take place—and a projective tendency, a result of the displacement from the center by the same forces that seek, that desire this center, and yet, almost at the limit, reject it ad infinitum…. a figure of cyclic obsession…. a general principle of explication, that of convergence-divergence…. where purely poetic lucidity is unified with purely rational lucidity. It is in fact at this moment that one feels bound to link reason and madness, clarity and opacity, within him. [p 90]
“Within him” Blanchot writes, and yet, in tracing the fierce lucidity of Lautréamont, pure as a flame, Blanchot too reaches points of opacity. At least I lose sight of him; he disappears. How is it that extreme lucidity becomes extreme opacity and then unbearable burden? Perhaps it’s because the mind can never be free, that the freedom of the mind “is itself only a prison” [p 115], that language by its very nature is connected to the speech of others (“If I utter a word, I bring into play the thought of other people.” —Georges Bataille, Guilty), and that at its most independent language becomes “a blade so sharp that, by whatever side one grasps it, it cuts, it cleaves” [p 85], and that, in the end, the adventurer, so far out, can only cry: Free me from the too long speech.*
*Maurice Blanchot, Le pas au-delà
drawing by Mark Kerstetter