What is the relationship, in the work of Blanchot and Derrida, between the limit of literature and the limit of death? By Beth Guilding, Goldsmiths College, University of London E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
Infinito silenzio a questa voce
Vo comparando: e mi sovvien l'eterno,
E le morte stagioni, e la presente
E viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
Immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
E il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.
On July the 20th, 1994, Jacques Derrida received a letter from Maurice Blanchot in which Blanchot declares, “Fifty years ago, I knew the happiness of nearly being shot to death.”2 A curious statement, begging the question: why would one feel happiness about almost being murdered? I will return to this letter later on in this essay, when I will discuss the problems concerning testimony and autobiography, but for now I will focus on this question of Blanchot’s “happiness,” which I believe we can begin to comprehend by referring to Leopardi’s poem, cited above, ‘L’Infinito’. Here the poet sees himself as sitting on the edge of his favourite hill-top, at a point where he cannot see the full horizon because the view is blocked by a hedge. The poet feels protected by this hedge, and describes how it allows him to imagine the infinite space which lies beyond the horizon, or, that is to say, beyond his comprehension. He compares the hedge that rustles in the wind (E come il vento Odo stormir tra queste piante), with the sound of the infinite silence (Infinito silenzio a questa voce Vo comparando), and feels both pleasure and fear from such an experience. With regards to this, one could draw a hedonistic parallel between this Blanchot’s “happiness,” and the sensation of vertigo that the poet in ‘L’Infinito’ implies. Death, Blanchot believes, is, “the richest moment of meaning,”3 which is perhaps because it provides the answer to the question that we can never know in life: what happens when we die?
In this essay, which will centre around the limit of literature and the limit of death, there is significantly more to be said for this fear and intrigue concerning the infinite; with regards to what the conceptof the infinite entails, and to the limit, or the boundary, that one must transcend in order to enter into the infinite; here, I am of course referring to the nature of death as the limit of life. I will focus on Blanchot’s The Instant of my Death and Derrida’s Demeure in order to demonstrate how death presents literature with the enigma of the schematically unrepresentable; the question that cannot be answered, what happens at the instant that one transcends the limit of life? For, as Wagner aptly phrases it, death “is a puzzle almost as incomprehensible today as it was when early man sat by the motionless body of his mate and gazed in perplexed bewilderment at the sky.”4
I began this essay with the above extract from Leopardi’s ‘L’Infinito’ because I wanted to stress from the outset the idea of the infinite possibilities surrounding the answer to this question of what lies beyond the limit of life. But what must also be stressed is that any such answer to this question can only belong to the make-believe fictional realm; as Paul De Man has termed it, a “prosopopoeia,” that is, “the fiction of the voice-from-beyond-the-grave.”5 The idea of this infinity is one that Blanchot also adopts in The Instant of my Death in which the narrator retrospectively describes his experience of the instant of his death as “freed from life? the infinite opening up?”6 But, and this is essential, what is so interesting about Blanchot’s text is that although the narrator encounters death, he does not actually experience physical death, and yet this encounter nonetheless presents him with the opportunity to articulate a vision of death from the position of life.
In Demeure, Derrida says of Blanchot’s chosen title, The Instant of My Death,that it “promises us a narrative or a testimony – signed by someone who tells us in many ways and according to every possible tense: I am dead, or I will be dead in an instant, or an instant ago I was going to be dead.”7 There are two keys points that we need to address here; firstly, is The Instant of My Death a narrative or a testimony? This is a question that is strictly not possible to answer. On the one hand, we have the evidence of the letter that Blanchot wrote to Derrida, which Derrida asserts, “does not belong to what we call literature. It testifies.”8 On the other hand, in The Instant of My Death we are presented with a narrator who sets out, from the title, to enunciate his death – which, as we have discussed above, is only possible in the realms of make-believe fiction. This brings us to the next question: how does one write of one’s own death if one survives it?
Derrida notes how it is “an essential kind of generality” that “[o]ne testifies only when one has lived longer than what has come to pass,” and with regards to The Instant of My Death, “[w]hat runs through this testimony of fiction is thus the singular concept of an ‘unexperienced experience.’”9 Death is the experience that every living, mortal being will undergo, but as one cannot testify to one’s own death because it transcends the limit of one’s life, it thus becomes the universally “unexperienced experience.” So we can understand why it is that Blanchot believed death to be “the richest moment of meaning” – because death is the epitome of opacity. One cannot know what happens when one dies because when one dies one passes out of life, and thus cannot communicate to the living the true state of being dead. And so we find ourselves at a limit that literature can only combat through the powers of the imagination, by imagining the infinity that lies beyond our comprehension – as is exemplified in Leopardi’s poem. Thus death remains unreachable by any text that claims to be a source of the truth, such as autobiography, or that is, testimony, for, as Derrida points out, “[i]n essence a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unshareable secret of what happened to me, to me, to me alone.”10 But it can never be a case of what happens to “me alone” when discussing one’s own death. In Demeure Derrida comments how “dying means: you are dead already, in an immemorial past, of a death that was not yours.”11 Death can only be discussed in terms of the paradox that it is at once the most universal of experiences, we all die, and at the same time, the most utterly personal of experiences because it is our own death, the moment that we can never translate. We can witness another’s death, but to say “I am dead” is impossible.
The death that the narrator experiences in The Instant of My Death is not a physical death, but an internal division from life: “As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him.”12 It is as if, Derrida says, “the death that came at him […] waits for Blanchot […] What remains for him of existence […] is this race for death in view of death in order not to see death coming.”13 It is difficult to comprehend the meaning of this division and Derrida’s comment on it, because common sense tells us that our existence is also founded on this race for death, that is, a journey towards death as the intrinsic part of human life. But what is so interesting about the narrator’s experience with death in Blanchot’s story is the death that he feels from within, which we could perhaps draw a parallel to here in order to further comprehend such a feeling; in his book, What Happens When You Die? Wagner has compiled a wide range of twentieth-century critics’ opinions concerning the subject of death. In it, Hereward Carrington comments how “when a man is shot through the head, we say that he is ‘dead.’ If on the other hand we pick a rose, we do not say that the rose is ‘dead’ until it fades and withers.”14 In The Instant of my Death we could say that this inner death experience is a metaphoric ‘picking of the rose’; the narrator describes the immediate feeling of his encounter with death as one of “extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude […] Dead – immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal.”15 But this immortality, Derrida says, “[does] not in the least signify eternity […] At this instant there can be elation, lightness in the immortality of death, happiness in compassion, a sharing of finititude, a friendship with finite beings, in the happiness of not being immortal – or eternal.”16 Through his encounter with death, Blanchot’s narrator understands the inevitability of death as a part of the human experience, and although death is interior to the self, “the darkness is in man”17 as Tennyson said, it is exterior because it is universal to mankind.
Combined with this limit of representing one’s own death is also the limit of language to express extreme human emotion. In the introduction to The Limits of Autobiography, Leigh Gilmore asserts how “language fails in the face of trauma […] trauma mocks language and confronts it with its insufficiency.”18 And in The Instant of My Death the narrator describes how,
There remained, […] the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond.19
Here we are presented with a multitude of mixed feelings; lightness, freedom, happiness, fear, absence of fear. It appears that the narrator, being unable to translate in clear-cut terms the exactness of emotion that he is experiencing, is echoing something similar to the statement that Blanchot makes in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, that “if literature coincides with nothing for just an instant, it is immediately everything, and this everything begins to exist.”20 But - and herein lies the problem - once this everything begins to exist, we must find a way to represent it, to understand it, to capture it in language (hence literature also, which is rooted in language). But as it is inherent in the nature of language to undermine fixed meanings, and the human mind cannot conceive the infinite, which is at once everything and nothing, the impossibility of representing death or an encounter with death as a monolithic construct or moment defines the limit of literature as one which can never grasp the opaque nature of life. Consider Dante, who, despite having used, as Lucia Boldrini asserts, “nearly 28,000 words” of the Italian vernacular, still concludes The Divine Comedy by commenting “How weak are words and how unfit to frame my concept.”21 Dante’s “programme” was “to go beyond the immediate perceptual reality in order to say what had never been said before – in order, that is, to express the novum, the divine, the ineffable.”22 And in The Instant of my Death the narrator also strives to say what has autobiographically never been said before, the feeling of death. The lightness of almost experiencing physical death but being turned back to life at the last minute, “At that instant, an abrupt return to the world […] The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation.”23
The narrator of The Instant of My Death describes how he remembers “a young man […] prevented from dying by death itself.”24 The meaning of this can be applied to Roland Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the author’. In their introduction to Blanchot, Haase and Large comment on how “we write so that our words outlive us, so that in the eternal presence of a work we might be granted immortality. But this ‘outliving us’ has a more sinister and dark meaning. The words outlive me, because in a certain sense my existence is irrelevant to them.”25 In this sense then, by the very act of writing an author is sentencing himself to a certain kind of death. This relates to the idea that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,”26 because the meaning of literary text is unified only by the individual reader’s interpretation and understanding of it. It is a limit of writing that Blanchot comments on in The Writing of the Disaster, “To write (of) oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest – the other, the reader – entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your inexistence.”27 But this passing over from author to reader also highlights the inexhaustible quality that literature has; as John Barth points out, “literature can never be exhausted if only because no single text can ever be exhausted – it’s 'meaning' residing as it does in its transaction with individual readers.”28 But this inexhaustibility is not synonymous with limitlessness – because we, the reader, are still limited by our own understanding of the text, and, as Barthes says, “did [the author] wish to express himself, he ought to at least know that the ‘inner’ thing he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely…” One could argue then, that in literature what one actually finds is a denial of death as the final end, but the appropriation of death as a transition to a new level of understanding. As Derrida asserts in Aporias, “The crossing of borders always announces itself according to the movement of a certain step […] – and of the step that crosses a line.”29 That is, a step that crosses the line and remains in existence, although changed, on the other side of this line. This is exemplified in Blanchot’s story in which the narrator also comments “Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence.”30
Perhaps this notion of the stepping across the limit, the transcendence of the boundary of both life and of literature defines the absolute limit of death. Humanity cannot comprehend that after life there is absolutely nothing – because even by writing nothing one will still imagine nothing as a state of being, as a flatness, an emptiness. Black, grey, white. The sound of the infinite silence the Leopardi imagines. Death’s limit is that it is the cessation from life, and dying is “this movement where I can no longer push death away from me by attributing it to ‘everyone’. Rather here I become ‘everyone’ that is, I lose myself and experience how ‘one dies’.”31 Just as in producing a literary work, Blanchot asserts, “I renounce the idea of producing and formulating myself; I fulfil myself in something exterior and inscribe myself in the anonymous continuity of humanity.”32 Death is the limit of humanity of which writing can transcend but only through losing the ability to say ‘I’, that is to pass the work to the gamut of the reader – who is at once singular and universal. One could say then, that the limit of literature and the limit of death is one of the unobtainable secrets of being: singularity. In literature we are provided with a means of overcoming the absence of the self in life, literature allows “a relation to the enigma of our singular existence.”33 But, as soon as this enigma becomes ‘published’ in language, either speech or writing, it is lost; this is what Blanchot means when he comments how “when I speak, death speaks in me. [Speech] is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding.”34As an individual, I can experience interior emotions and feelings about an event or a piece of literature, but as soon as these experiences are articulated, named, they lose their individual quality and enter into the realm of a ready-made gamut of words, and words about words, about feelings of experiences that are at once singular and universal.
What we encounter, in The Instant of my Death, in the narrator’s experience with death as producing a feeling of “lightness,” is the self as separated from humanity for an instant, as one almost encounters one’s own death, but, through trying to articulate this instant the narrator approaches the limit, the perilous threshold, where he says, “I am alive. No, you are dead.”35 Dead both because he has passed up his singularity through articulation (i.e., the death of the author), and dead because at the point of almost being shot to death, the narrator declares that he is already “Dead – immortal.” Derrida comments how because of this “[the narrator] is already dead, since there has been a verdict […] When one is dead, it does not happen twice, there are not two deaths even if two die […] I am not dead and I am dead. At that instant I am immortal because I am dead: death can no longer happen to me.”36 Therefore, from the instant of the narrator’s death he perceives death’s imminence, and recognises ““the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.”37 Bringing us back to the image of the rose being picked that I have discussed above (see page 5); what the narrator awaits now is the withering of life from his being.
The limit of literature can therefore be seen as the limit to express absolute singularity of either experience or meaning. The limit of death is that it is the termination of life which also negates a singular experience. And the limit of literature and death combined is that death can never be accounted for in the realms of testimony or autobiographical fiction. What is so fascinating about The Instant of my Death is how this encounter with the limit, the perilous threshold of life, and the turn around back into life, allows the narrator a perception of death which can be articulated in life.
“Life is a secret; death is the key that opens it; but he who turns the key disappears forever into the secret.”38
Maurice Maeterlink, Before the Great Silence
Alighieri, Dante, The Divine Comedy: III Paradise, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara