Blog Post

Literary Need, IV: Love's Characters

The topic of our attachment to words is allegorical of our attachments to ourselves and to other persons.
--Stanley Cavell

The idea behind these series of posts was an idea about what it meant to love, not literature, but certain works - not even perhaps certain works but moments in those works. As I mentioned before Blanchot writes, in his essay on inspiration, that it's wrong to see inspiration as the pathway to the work. Rather the work charts the attempt to return to the moment of its inspiration.

Well, I can imagine that this is true of writing, but there's no question that it's true (for me) of reading certain works. There are moments in those works that are so haunting, so close to disclosing some other way to be, that I feel almost able to go there, to live there, to live in that other world glimpsed through a sentence or phrase or image in that work. I imagine everyone has felt this way, about some fictional world - some Garden of Adonis. And of course there are many such fabulous lands: the Secret Garden; the Child's Garden of Verses; the universe next door in a Jack Finney story that I read in an Alfred Hitchcock collection of fantasy when I was a child; the planet Tormance in David Lindsay's great fantasy novel A Voyage to Arcturus; Resnais's Marienbad; the Sologne in Le Grand Meualnes; Combray; Arcadia; Ilyria; the narrow road to the Anderson valley.

But what is it that draws one to those other worlds? This is what K. wonders in Das Schloβ: "Was hätte mich denn in dieses öde Land locken können, als das Verlangen hierzubleiben?“ - "What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?" To stay where? Isn't that desolate place one of the "fleeting gifts of the road" as Nabokov describes vistas seen from the window of a train, from which you can see and be captivated by "the anonymity of all the parts of a landscape, so dangerous for the soul, the impossibility of ever finding out where that path you see leads"? It's what his younger son, "Doctor Isaac," offers Mason at the end of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon:

"Since I was ten," said Doc, "I wanted you to take me and Willy to America. I kept hoping, every Birthday, this would be the year. I knew next time you'd take us."
"We can get jobs," said William, "save enough to go out where you were,--"
"Marry and go out where you were," said Doc.
"The Stars are so close you won't need a Telescope."
"The Fish jump into you Arms. The Indians know Magick."
"We'll go there. We'll live there."
"We'll fish there. And you too."

Where you were. Where we were, reading the book.

The other world that a literary work offers is a world that comes to you in language. So it's a spoken world, an uttered world, what Kafka means by the "sagenhaftes Drüben," the "verbal elsewhere" to which the sage points us in parable.

Because it is spoken, it is a world that exists not in the mind of another but as another. It is another person, manifest as a world, a place to be, a place to love. Space (says Simmel) is both the symbol and the condition of our relation to each other, and the literary spaces I am trying to evoke are spaces that have become nothing other than that. They are not empirical spaces at all but spaces of human relation - our relation to the human language of the work.

Nabokov again: "A memory of love, disguised as a meadow." Perhaps some real meadows are disguised memories of love, but only when the two, the love and the meadow, are put together in a memory which expresses one by the other, makes the meadow into the human language expressing the human love now lost.

I think this is the point - or perhaps the converse of the point - that Empson makes in my favorite passage in 7 Types of Ambiguity, where the ambivalence of his irony expresses the point he is ambivalent about and resolves it:

you remember how Proust, at the end of that great novel, having convinced the reader with the full sophistication of his genius that he is going to produce an apocalypse, brings out with pathetic faith, as a fact of absolute value, that sometimes when you are living in one place you are reminded of living in another place, and this, since you are now apparently living in two places, means that you are outside time, in the only state of beatitude he can imagine. In any one place (atmosphere, mental climate) life is intolerable; in any two it is an ecstasy. Is it the number two, one is forced to speculate, which is of this encouraging character?

And Empson's answer to this question is: yes. Proustian ambiguity is the proof that the limit case of ambiguity, which is usually so pointlessly empty and ornamental if not fully in the service of some thought or idea, turns out, when entirely removed from such servive, to be the heart and soul of literary value. Rarely, rarely, but in Proust always.

Again I would add that the other place you lived in, "nôtre vie d'autrefois," is a place evoked through words. The very fact that ambiguity is the right name for the form of Proustian memory underscores how much this memory is expressive, how much recapturing it required an act of intense, meditative recovery to get its description right, to preserve it in its description, to see how what it is just is its description, its expression.

That's why Proust is so evocative. What his writing evokes is love. The literature of those lost times and places is the literature of personification, of love personified. Nothing could be clearer in Proust: what's lost are the people of his childhood. His father is dead and the house in Combray is gone, and the two are correlated: gone is the time when his father could stand in the stairway and say "Va avec le petit" because both father and stairway are gone.

The personifications of love are always memories of places, because what makes places memorable are those we loved there. Stevens's great line "The windows will be lighted, not the rooms" ("The Auroras of Autumn") is a line about the truth that the place of love is gone forever, just as lost as the narrator's house in Combray. But it's also found, or to be found, in the literary space that memorializes it: "That meeting at the edge of a field" seventy years ago, as he says in another poem ("The Rock"). That meeting does not exist, was not and is not, as he says. And yet the poem marks its absence, its want in the sense of lack, desire, and need. It's in the poem that the meeting can still be longed for, can still be imagined. "She must come now. The grass is in seed and high. Come now."

To allude to Lacan's rebarbative language for a moment, that meeting at the edge of the field is one forever missed. But because it is forever missed, it is forever to be found in the fiction which laments it. Lacan formulates that concept in his great response to Freud's great reading of the dream of the burning child. Martin Browning suggests that Bishop was thinking of Freud's analysis of this dream in "Casabianca," her poem about Love as the burning boy. The child returns in a dream to wake the father up: he dreams (like Milton in Sonnet 23) that he will wake up to the child's presence but he wakes up to his absence. And yet that absence called to him, and called him to come to it, as Milton's late-espouséd Saint calls him to her. Bishop was also probably thinking of Wordsworth's great poem "Surprised by Joy" recollecting the death of his two-year-old daughter Catherine:

Surprised by joy -- impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport -- Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind -
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? -That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Love recalls her to his mind, but that recollection is a recollection that she is dead. Love is the thought that returns, the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, or almost the worst. Love materializes in the scene, as the absence of the beloved. It personifies that absence. The fictional scene, the memory or the unreal landscape is one where love is the personification of the absence of the person loved. The love still remains, and so the person remains, personifying love and personified by love. Those are the personifications of space as well: a memory of love disguised as a meadow, or a meeting at the edge of a field. Those are the places we need to be, but they are places only to be found in literature: in speaking which evokes another world, the world of another, only in words, the words of another.

I think this is what is deepest in Blanchot (a writer I regard as indispensable, a writer who changed everything for me). In his greatest fictional work, L'attente l'oubli, he or his male character describes a version of his most paradigmatic fictional scene, the narrator and a woman talking in a hotel room. At one point he writes:

Il n’est pas vrai que tu sois enfermée avec moi et que tout ce que tu ne m’as pas encore dit te sépare du dehors. Ni l’un ni l’autre, nous ne sommes ici. Seuls quelques-uns de tes mots y ont pénétré, et de loin nous les écoutons.

Vous voulez vous séparer de moi? Mais comment vous y prendrez-vous? Où irez-vous? Quel est le lieu où vous n’êtes pas séparée de moi?

[It is not true that you are shut in with me and that all that you haven't yet said separates you from the outside. You nor I - neither one of us is here. Some of your words only have penetrated here, and we listen from afar.

Do you wish to separate yourself from me? But how will you do that? Where will you go? Where is the place where you are not separated from me?]

The space is fictional. It is where he needs to be in writing. The empty room in Blanchot is literary space. It is empty because of who is found there: it is the place where lost love is personified, the strange impersonal sadness the narrator of L'arrêt de mort hears weeping in the next room. (Ashbery, in his poem "Fragment": "The words sung in the next room are unavoidable. / But their passionate intelligence will be studied in you.")

Personified how? I think the amazing thing that Blanchot does -- bringing us to one extreme of literary love and literary need -- is to personify literary love, love of the kind of book or the kind of moment in a book that I started this post, and this series of posts, by describing. It's not just that literary spaces turn out to be the environments entirely created by their lost inhabitants (Jacob in Jacob's Room; "the lost adventurers, my peers" in "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"). Blanchot knows those spaces are words, and as words they are persons, perhaps ghosts, certainly objects of love. He loves poems as he loves persons, and persons as he loves poems: this is the opposite of reductiveness. It's how you should always strive to love.

So I think the clue to his narrative fiction is that he personifies literature. The figures his narrators love are personifications of those moments that all at once fulfill and awaken and intensify literary need. That's what it means to make reading "une tâche serieuse" as he puts it in the first version of L'arrêt de mort, a serious task. Judith, Claudia, Natalie, others still: all are names for the thought (la pensée, elle) who lives with him and whom he loves. The thought of another, her thought and the thought of her. What he owes to that, to her, even in absence, evanescence, fragility, is fidelity to the truth of his need for it, for her.

Fidelity to the truth then, the truth registered in literary need which is the need for love which expresses itself as love, offers itself as love, as fidelity to love ("Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind"), both now and later, both now and then. Blanchot shows what it means to love a work, and so what it means to love a person, and so what it means to love a work.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).