The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett

The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett

The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett

The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett

Synopsis

Is writing haunted by a categorical imperative? Does the Kantian sublime continue to shape the writer's vocation, even for twentieth-century authors? What precise shape, form, or figure does this residue of sublimity take in the fictions that follow from it Land that leave it in ruins? This book explores these questions through readings of three authors who bear witness to an ambiguous exigency: writing as a demanding and exclusive task, at odds with life, but also a mere compulsion, adrive without end or reason, even a kind of torture. If Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett mimic a sublime vocation in their extreme devotion to writing, they do so in full awareness that the trajectory it dictates leads not to metaphysical redemption but rather downward, into the uncanny element of fiction. As this book argues, the sublime has always been a deeply melancholy affair, even in its classical Kantian form, but it is in the attenuated speech of narrative voices progressively strippedof their resources and rewards that the true nature of this melancholy is revealed.

Excerpt

The critical approach of this book, which sets out to reveal a number of the problematic aspects discernible in a certain extreme relation to writing, leads me to preface it, by way of counterbalance, with a clear if naive statement of admiration: I consider these writers to be literary heroes. If this study often shows them in a light that is less than flattering, if it is marked at times by a tone of skeptical irony regarding various moves and strategies for exiting what one calls “the real world,” strategies that are deeply constitutive of their work, it is not out of a desire to topple these heroes, but rather as a recognition that, in multiple and complex ways, they topple themselves. Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett are driven in their writing to undermine and undo their own capabilities, along with a relation to life and the world that something like capability (and its roots in capture and captation) would secure. Heroes, then, in a drastically scaled back epic of unredeemable shortcoming.

This shortcoming, however, is shadowed by the specter of its own impossible ideals, by temptations of hyperbole and absoluteness, superlative projections, and the compulsive search for an ultimate instance never to be arrived at but without which no beginning can be rigorously thought through: these are the forms of a literary speech driven by the force of its own initiation, pressed on by that which sends it continually in search of its own grounds and conditions, giving writing the shape of a speech compelled to sound its emptiness, and to breach the ground of language’s enactment as a making of world. To fail at this, however inevitable such failure may be, is to fail at a project dictated by the grandiose dignities and delusions of an entire tradition (which in shorthand can be called metaphysical). What is fascinating, and “heroic,” in these failures is, ultimately, the confused and stubborn sobriety with which they divest its very ruins. But this treacherous adventure reveals some rather troubling tendencies.

One very attentive and generous reader of the manuscript of this book commented that it berates the writers it discusses; perhaps it would appear so at times. Yet this can also be seen as a recognition that they berate (belittle and lower, degrade and debase) themselves, to the extent that their writing has to do with residual forms of ideality, transcendence, and transgression. Each one knew, in his own way, that a certain “litera-

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