Aesthetics of Blankness: Political Imagination in Marguerite Duras's Hybrid Narratives

By Just, Daniel | The Romanic Review, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Aesthetics of Blankness: Political Imagination in Marguerite Duras's Hybrid Narratives


Just, Daniel, The Romanic Review


Il y aurait une ecriture du non-ecrit. Un jour ca arrivera. Une ecriture breve, sans grammaire, une ecriture de mots seuls. Des mots sans grammaire de soutien. Egare. La, ecrits. Et quittes aussitot.

Marguerite Duras, Ecrire

In an interview with Jacques Rivette and Jean Narboni from November 1969, Marguerite Duras attributed the peculiar style of her new book Detruire, dit-elle to her distaste for novels. It was because of the way novels construct sentences, she argued--"a cause de phrases"--that she tried to destroy all conventional grammar and create a narrative that would be as free of style as possible ("Destruction" 45). This new anti-novelistic mode of writing that offered a more succinct and less stylistically indulgent storytelling, however, was not driven by personal aesthetic preferences. For Duras, the issue at stake was political. Suggesting that brevity was the only possible reaction to the demands raised by the changing role of art in society, Duras insisted that the fragmented and austere style of her new book, in its refusal to conform to the hectic pace of contemporary life and to the lack of time and patience of present-day readers, was a response to the political need for action. Considering Duras's involvement in the events of May 68, it is not hard to guess the origin of this idea. But the action she had in mind was quite unusual. It had little to do with providing people with shorter books and inspiring them to spend more time on political activities. Ir was much more a matter of an active role she wanted her readers to assume while reading her stories.

Duras's vision of a new type of ascetic literature does not immediately strike one as a politically charged form of art. Duras neither argues for a shift of emphasis from literature to politics (from reading to action), nor pleads that literature has a duty to communicate a clear message in an unequivocal language. Instead, she asks literature to turn against itself as a means of communicating meaning. Her argument proposes that the way we tell stories is never without political implications. Even when literature turns against itself--or precisely when it does--it remains committed because, by questioning the way we understand ourselves, it helps in shaping the future. In this unorthodox version of litterature engagee, Duras posits aphoristic writing as an artistic instrument that connects the realm of the aesthetic with that of the public and the political.

The question of whether literature should convey a clear meaning was nothing new at the time of Duras's interview for Les Cahiers du cinema in 1969. It was widely discussed in French literary circles after Jean-Paul Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la litterature? (1947) and strongly influencing theories of literature in the fifties. Perhaps most importantly, Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot returned to Sartre's claims about committed literature, Barthes in Le Degre zero de l'ecriture (1953), and Blanchot in various texts starting with the 1948 anti-Sartrean rebuttal "La litterature et le droit a la mort" and continuing with articles published in the early fifties and collected in 1955 in L'Espace litteraire. What for Sartre represented the strength of all prose literature, namely its power to convey meaning and thus its obligation to be "engaged," became for both Barthes and Blanchot--although in different ways--an obstacle with which literature is destined to constantly struggle. But the concreteness of meaning was not the only target of Barthes's and Blanchot's arguments. It was also the genre of the novel, and especially its way of depicting personhood as a self-enclosed, monadic type of subjectivity that Barthes and Blanchot contested. Not without resonances in Duras's own later statements about the social role of art, Blanchot presented a very anti-Sartrean definition of literature: the essence of literature is its disappearance and the nature of literary language its tendency toward its own destruction (265). …

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