Reading Blanchot’s “Reading” as Reading Blanchot’s “Reading”

A report with interpolations.

Proun 1 C, El Lissitzky

Reading Maurice Blanchot induces a profound sense of unbecoming, of entering a state of being-in-language. I have been rereading his essay Reading in order to try to understand my reading of it. According to Gaston Bachelard, one should immediately reread a good work, for therein begins the creative act of reading. The very title of Blanchot’s essay suggests that all reading can be contained in these few scant pages.

“Pour écrire, il faut déja écrire.” (In order to write, one must already be writing). As I am sitting at my desk writing this report,1 I am thinking of this gnomic phrase by Maurice Blanchot (among others). I am trying to hear the faintest echo of what is not there, while being slowly enveloped by brumous mists of uncertainty; the signs seem to point everywhere. I am (again in the words of Blanchot), to be “condemned to wander around the topic ceaselessly, in the strangeness of what is hidden and does not want to be revealed.

The work of Maurice Blanchot has been described, justifiably, as recondite and difficult, requiring a determined engagement on the part of the reader. My memory trace of first encountering Blanchot is of entering a world of arcane knowledge that I believed would continue to elude me, in spite of my most sedulous efforts. This is still the case, even as I engage in this attempt to suggest otherwise.

After my initial reading of Reading, from Blanchot’s collection The Gaze of Orpheus,2 what resonated most was the passage where Blanchot describes a literary work as one where each time the first reading and each time the only one,” as opposed to a non-literary work, which “before it has been read by anyone, it has already been read by everyone.”

My commonplace book lies at arm’s length. It bespeaks my fondness for literary allusions when writing. “I began to understand that looking at line after line of text is only a small part of reading; that I might need to write about a text before I could say that I had fully read it.” The realization is dawning on me that I will never have fully read “Reading”, even after writing about it. I was inspired to write a poem about my reading experience with Blanchot. The following line of this describes the aforementioned state of unbecoming. “Outside of oneself inside this vast landscape, here and yet nowhere, negating the visible world, trying to attain the forever unattainable.”3

My second reading of “Reading” brought different ideas to the fore. A text can often be, as claims Blanchot, a gift that once received becomes lost; upon rereading, a necessarily altered version is regained. The reader causes the book to be “born all over again.” This rebirth “unburdens the book of its author.” Reading brings with it a liberation, as the reader inhabits the space of the text with the freedom to enter another world, no less real, in fact often seeming more real. Crucial to this freedom is the ceaseless wandering, which elicits the “light, innocent YES of reading.”

Blanchot uses the metaphor of the wind and the sea polishing a stone, with his final imagery that of resurrecting Lazarus from the tomb. I am imagining the disinterred text emerging from a dark cave from which there suddenly emanates a refulgent glister, the soul of the text, encouraging self-communion on part of the reader in stark contrast to the writer’s “dark struggle with chaos.”

What to make of the dark struggle of this report? It is encumbered by unexpected parentheses and interpolationsI realize that this report is likely to be nothing more than speculative and without resolution. Once completed, it will remain incomplete. Yet, I find comfort in the following: “The act of writing, for the writer, has little to do with the product that issues forth from it; for him the act is the product itself.”

I have come to think of the reading–writing dialectic as being on a Möbius band in the mind, where the two sides, seemingly separated, are in fact but one. Being-in-reading becomes being-in-writing, all part of being-in-language, all part of a search for what the poet Alejandra Pizarnik describes as “a phrase that is entirely yours.”4 The difficulty in reading Blanchot is that he succeeded in finding his own language.

Has my reading “Reading” become more creative, as Bachelard postulates? Proust said his writing should be a kind of optical instrument, allowing readers to be “the very readers of themselves.” I seem to recall a phrase, from some or other text, describing the effect of reading as vibrating in the imagination. I am beginning to sense Blanchot’s essay vibrating with a heretofore unimagined lightness; perhaps this is the lightness of the YES of reading.

“The truth of .. reading is …the self-evident fact that there is no reader nor subject-matter, only images and feelings in a sort of eternity.” In essays such as “The Essential Solitude” and “Literary Infinity: The Aleph”, Blanchot claims of writing that it is an attempt to encapsulate the infinite in the finite and thus it is doomed to failure, necessitating the incompleteness of any work. This awakening from the dead of the text, reading it as if for the first time, allows the finitary nature of the work to engage with the infinity of thought and mental imagery.

Gerald Murnane’s work has inspired much of my writing. Hence, I reread The History of Books,5 an unusual novella, which is more of a report on a lifetime of reading and its relation to writing than its title might suggest. Our reading memory forms a reliquary, possessing at times unusual relics and images. The thought occurs to me just now that perhaps a better image is that of a grimoire, containing spells and incantations that have taken hold over us. I hope to begin to understand my own history of books. The concluding vignette of A History of Books ends with reflections by Murnane on reading World Light by Halldor Laxness, perhaps more than thirty years earlier. He revisits the concluding paragraph of the book. Murnane’s last phrases form a perfect coda for this essay. The chief character passes from sight, entering an uncharted territory, where “the land seemed to meet, or even to merge, with the sky, the visible with the invisible, the writer even with the reader, and whatever had been written with whatever had been read.”

Interpolation 1: “Condemned to wander around the topic ceaselessly, in the strangeness of what is hidden and does not want to be revealed.”6

The genesis of this report began with encountering a very brief essay by Lydia Davis about a three-line poem translated by Anselm Hollo that she regularly rereads.7 According to Davis, a good work of writing should constantly be replete with surprises and revelations. “It is born and lives over and over….it defies assimilation.”

This idea of defying assimilation has always appealed to me. Writing should not overly explicate; the choice of elisions and omissions of content is as crucial as what remains. As Walter Benjamin so astutely said in The Arcades Project: “The lastingness of a literary work’s effect is inversely proportional to the obviousness of its material content.”8

Interpolation 2: “I began to understand that looking at line after line of text is only a small part of reading; that I might need to write about a text before I could say that I had fully read it.”9

The influence of “Reading” has also been manifest when I encounter works of art. To fully understand them I need to write about them. Upon reading René Magritte saying that “every one of us has our own moon,” describing his painting The Mysteries of the Horizon, of three of his bowler-hatted men, each underneath a different moon, I immediately thought of Blanchot’s “each reading the only reading” phrase, and was again inspired to write, relating the painting to literature.

Interpolation 3: “The act of writing, for the writer, has little to do with the product that issues forth from it; for him, the act is the product itself.”10

Writing is autotelic, for I am beginning to believe that its purpose need not exist apart from itself. It has taken me quite some time to discover this. The essay by Gilbert Sorrentino, from which the above quote is taken, serves as a companion piece to “Reading”. They form a writing/reading diptych providing me with a coign of vantage wherefrom I can begin to try to understand what until now has eluded me. I find my writing has been asymptotically converging to a limit point without my being aware of it.

Interpolation 4: “The truth of .. reading is …the self-evident fact that there is no reader nor subject-matter, only images and feelings in a sort of eternity.”11

This eternity is the invisible world of the mind. It is a place where something has suddenly opened up in the breach, a place where the poet Alejandra Pizarnik said “the impossible becomes possible.” For Murnane this invisible world is often more real than the so-called real world. I find myself often returning to the essays on reality and imagination written by the great American poet Wallace Stevens, reminding us that: “Imagination helps us live our lives. We have it because without it we do not have enough.”12

  1. The format of this report owes a debt to the writings of Jacques Roubaud in The Great Fire of London, Dalkey Archive (2nd Edition), 2016, and The Loop, Dalkey Archive, 2009.
  2. Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus (and Other Literary Essays), Station Hill Press, 1981
  3. Kimmo Rosenthal, The Gaze of Blanchot, The Fib Review, Vol. 30, September, 2018 / The Mysteries of the Horizon, After the Art, Issue 5, December, 2019
  4. Alejandra Pizarnik, A Tradition of Rupture, Ugly Duckling Presse (Lost Literature Series #26), 2019
  5. Gerald Murnane, A History of Books, Giramondo Publishing, 2012
  6. Maurice Blanchot, “Where Now? Who Now?” (essay) in The Book to Come, Stanford University Press, 2002
  7. Lydia Davis, Essays I, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019
  8. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap Press of Harvard University Pres, 1999
  9. Gerald Murnane, Barley Patch, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
  10. Gilbert Sorrentino, “The Act of Creation and its Artifact” (essay) in Something Said (Essays), Northpoint Press, 1989
  11. Gerald Murnane, “Green Shadows” (poem) in Green Shadows and Other Poems, Giramondo, 2019
  12. Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (Essays on Reality and the Imagination), Vintage Books 1951