Expectation: Philosophy, Literature

Expectation: Philosophy, Literature

Expectation: Philosophy, Literature

Expectation: Philosophy, Literature


Expectation is a major volume of Jean-Luc Nancy’s writings on literature, written across three decades but, for the most part, previously unavailable in English. More substantial than literary criticism, these essays collectively negotiate literature’s relation to philosophy. Nancy pursues such questions as literature’s claims to truth, the status of narrative, the relation of poetry and prose, and the unity of a book or of a text, and he addresses a number of major European writers, including Dante, Sterne, Rousseau, Hölderlin, Proust, Joyce, and Blanchot. The final section offers a number of impressive pieces by Nancy that completely merge his concerns for philosophy and literature and philosophy-as-literature. These include a lengthy parody of Valéry’s “La Jeune Parque,” several original poems by Nancy, and a beautiful prose-poetic discourse on an installation by Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani that incorporates the Faust theme. Opening with a substantial Introduction by Jean-Michel Rabaté that elaborates Nancy’s importance as a literary thinker, this book constitutes the most substantial statement to date by one of today’s leading philosophers on a discipline that has been central to his work across his career.


As is often the case, my title is not easy to translate. Nothing is easy in any translation, and Robert Bononno knows very well the many and great difficulties he has encountered in this text—unexpected, of course, and unwanted (especially in some texts written in the 1970s with the wit and joking taste of the time). That is why I start this preface writing an English of my own in order to lighten his work and to help the reader laugh.

The French title is “Demande.” in English, “demand” resonates with much greater imperiousness or exigency than in French. a demande is a request and can even be a kind of prayer, supplication, or entreaty. Colored by psychoanalysis, it resonates like a “demand for love,” which is quite distinct from both need and desire. the demande waits, hopes, wishes. Desire advances, rises, and moves forward.

“Expectation” responds better to what “Demande” says to me in French. Philosophy and literature are in need of one another: not because they desire something of the other but as a “demand for love” or, at least, for encounter and sharing. Moreover, expectations are not symmetrical and in that sense I need to correct my introductory “Coda” somewhat. Philosophy expects more than literature because philosophy is experienced through suffering and is required to have a sense, whereas literature continues to defy sense. From this point of view, the “expectational” affect is much stronger in philosophy. On the other hand, literature expects to make sense while defying demonstrative and argumentative regimes. It doesn’t want to be merely decorative or entertaining.

Philosophy does indeed hope to achieve the freedom of the narrative or myth, which no concept can touch. Literature would like to elide or elude the concept so that sense might be more strongly felt. Their division is a division of sense itself. the division that forms what we call “sense”: from the outset, the word itself names its own division, its fissure, its opening.

But I have to stop here, for I’m beginning to rewrite the entire book … or a different one.

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