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Alain Badiou - Qu Est-ce Que La Litterature Pense

Alain Badiou - Qu Est-ce Que La Litterature Pense

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Published by: Daniel White on Aug 02, 2012
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Qu'est-ce que la litterature pense?(Literary Thinking)
It wouldn't be hard to say what literature knows. It knows thegeneric human subject. It knows its tailings, its weaknesses and, onthe basis of that knowledge, transfonns the inevitability of resignation.Resignation to the fact that, as in one of
the
vei-y first examples of the
Bildun-^sromau,
IVilhelm Meister's
Apprenticeship,
the world never lives up
to the Idea; or, as in the earhest naturahst novels, by Zola, resignation
111
the face ot ignominious social conditions. In its lowest form, thisis knowledge of
a
sort of dismal moderation of the real, comparedwith the wild assertions of theoiy—-and of philosophy, in particular.Literature knows inside out the workings of deceit, ungratefulness,selfishness and stupidity. Literature serves as a 'critique'; it is oftenpraised for its aggressive or morose insights, or congratulated on its'lucidity' when, like Celine, it aspires to make 'httle music' of ourwretchedness.Even I-'roust, as hne a writer as he may be, spends a very long
time,
and a great many volumes, exploring the interminable web ofdegradation and vanity, cruelty and resentment, absurdity, smugnessand murky, innermost sentiments, before finding salvation in theSecond Coming of writing. Before discovering the only thing thatmatters-—and which marks the transition from knowledge to thought:the victories of which humanity is capable. The 'supra-sensual hour'that James describes in connexion with the hero of
Tlje
Ambassadors,
Beckett's 'blessed times of
blue',
in
How It Is,
the enchanted death ofPrince Andrew in
War and
Peace,
Julie's testament in
The New
Eloise,
the peasants' procession around the wounded airmen in Malraux's
Days
of Hope.. .
or Conrad's novel, entitled simply
Victory.
The idea that literature thinks, and that writers might be thinkers,as Natacha Michel argues in an essay on contemporary prose, can onlymean that it opens up the realm of
the
particular: subde psychologicalinsights, social differences and cultural specificities, to the field ofknowledge. For that must mean, as we know from experience when anovel secures a victory in our own minds, that literature's effect takesplace at the level of thought.What should the word 'thought' be taken to mean in this instance?First of all, that there is an encounter with a real, beyond the
 
36
Parai^raph
fictional world, which is its triumph, and at the peril ot language,which is its Assumption.Beyond the fictional world, literature that thinks emerges in thecracks in the story
{hifable).
It has no interest in wrecking the story, incontradicting it or puUing it to pieces. It accepts the story and settlesdown in the spaces it leaves.I will turn briefly to my own work as a novelist. In
Cahne
bhc
ici-bas
(1998), I borrowed the form and characters for the story
[fable),
aswell as the relation between story and History
[le rapport
de
la petite
histoire
a
la grande
Histoire),
from Victor Hugo's novel,
Les Miseraldes.
But I pulled apart the building blocks ofthe narrative, rearranged thespaces, and allowed my prose to explore areas outside its initial scope.I employed language in three distinct registers narrative, rhetoricand shorthand —
in
the hope that a few grains of real would emergefrom this clash of styles.In the essay to which I referred earlier, Natacha Michel proposesanother method: that of allowing an 'other' language to take rootin the language
itself,
with the reader witnessing the birth of aunique language.In any case, the complicity of fiction and language aims to markthe real with the seal of the unique, of the One, of that which hasnever taken place prior to this complicity (this work) and will neverappear again.Literature thinks insomuch as it brands a real pursued by fictionwith the symbolic scar ot the One.This gives nse to an essentially fmite quality common, in fact,to all artistic procedures encapsulated in the word \vork' (of art)
{oeuvre).
There is the 'unique language' ofthe writer; the binding ofevery work in the form of
a
Book, even if, as Mallamie preferred, itis in 'several volumes'; the double meaning ofthe word 'end': thatsignified by the word at the bottom ofthe last page, and that whichthe hterary enterprise is compelled to bring to any sequence, whetherwe like it or not, aiici, last but not least, the standard of perfection. Awork ofliterature is such — must, inchvisibly, be such — that nothingin it can be changed. Each and every word of its prose is irreplaceable.In stark contrast to the infinite variety of experience (which isperfectly obvious), the work ot art or hterature is the difficult,unlikely production ofthe fmite. And it is precisely this productionthat constitutes thought.The maxim of art-thought is simple: to produce something finite(artificial) to rival the infinite (natural).
 
Qu'est-cc que la littcraturc pciiH'?
37
I used
the
words 'work of art
or
literature',
but
what does 'literature'actually mean? Literature
is a
singular cotifiguration which, unlikepoetry, tends
not to
appear
in the
ranking of fine arts.
In his
analysis
of
categories
of
nineteenth-century aesthetics, Jacques Ranciere makessome striking observations
on the
genealogy
of
modern meanings
of
the word 'literature'.
Not
only does
it
fail
to
obtain
the
patronage
of
any ofthe Muses of classicism,
but it
cuts across literary genres: clearly,'literature' cannot
be
confined
to
poetry,
but
neither
is it
restrictedto
the
novel,
the
story
or the
essay.
It
refers
to the
developmentof
a
sort
of
literary exception
in the
field
of art. The
concept
of
this exception gradually takes shape
in
Franco, from Baudelaire
to
Blanchot, with contributions from Flaubert
and
Proust, althoughLacoue-Labarthe
and
Nancy,
in a
book entitled, significantly,
The
Literary
Absohitc,
have shown that
it
origmated
in
Germany
or,
moreprecisely, Clennan romanticism. Writing
is
conferred absolute status
by
the exception, which
not
only raises
it
above classical genres,
but
putsit entirely beyond
the
scope ofthe empirical world. Thus, literatureis
an
immanent reference
to itself, a
mark
of
its
own
self-sufficiency.It comprises Flaubert's prose, which, thanks
to its
style
(a
crucialoperator
in
literature),
the
author intended
to
exist
in its own
right,with
no
imaginary referent
in the
world.
It
might equally
be one of
Mallarmc's sonnets, which
he
described
as 'a
fact,
a
being, happeningby itself
[fdit, ctaut,
il
a
lieu tout
scuf),
or
conceiving perfectly
of
itselfOf course,
the
advent of literature also corresponds
to the
emergenceof a hterary conscience,
a
conscience
not
exactly comparable
to
artisticjudgement, since
it
relates
not to
rules
of
taste
but to the
convictionofthe existence ofan entirely separate phenomenon: literature
{Ic
fait
litterciire),
as
compact
and
distinct
as an
Idea.But doesn't this Ideal separation, obtained through stylistic densityalone, require
the
Idea
to be
fully self-conscious?
In
other words,if literature
is a
form
of
thought, mustn't
it be the
thought
of
that thought?
We
know about Mallarme's revelation,
or the
crucialexperience that inspires
his
poetr}':
'My
thought
has
thought
itself,
and
I am but a
corpse'. This means that
the
poem
as
absolute requiresIt
to be the
thought ofthe thought that
it is
and
that
the
author shouldbe excluded, since
the
author merely imagines
the
basic Idea, leavingit
to
deploy
the
various facets
of
its self-reflection: 'since
the
Masterwent
to
draw tears from
the
Styx'.But
if
hterature's role
is to
allow fulfilment ofthe Idea
as
thoughtof thought,
the
author's task must
not
only
be to
marry
his or her
style with
the
initial production ofthe basic Idea,
but
also
to
ensure.

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