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It wouldn’t be hard to say what literature knows. It knows the generic human subject. It knows its failings, its weaknesses and, on the basis of that knowledge, transforms the inevitability of resignation. Resignation to the fact that, as in one of the very ﬁrst examples of the Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the world never lives up to the Idea; or, as in the earliest naturalist novels, by Zola, resignation in the face of ignominious social conditions. In its lowest form, this is knowledge of a sort of dismal moderation of the real, compared with the wild assertions of theory — and of philosophy, in particular. Literature knows inside out the workings of deceit, ungratefulness, selﬁshness and stupidity. Literature serves as a ‘critique’; it is often praised for its aggressive or morose insights, or congratulated on its ‘lucidity’ when, like C´ eline, it aspires to make ‘little music’ of our wretchedness. Even Proust, as ﬁne a writer as he may be, spends a very long time, and a great many volumes, exploring the interminable web of degradation and vanity, cruelty and resentment, absurdity, smugness and murky, innermost sentiments, before ﬁnding salvation in the Second Coming of writing. Before discovering the only thing that matters — 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 The Ambassadors, Beckett’s ‘blessed times of blue’, in How It Is, the enchanted death of Prince 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 only mean that it opens up the realm of the particular: subtle psychological insights, social differences and cultural speciﬁcities, to the ﬁeld of knowledge. For that must mean, as we know from experience when a novel secures a victory in our own minds, that literature’s effect takes place 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
as well as the relation between story and History (le rapport de la petite histoire a erables. of that which has never taken place prior to this complicity (this work) and will never appear again. in contradicting it or pulling it to pieces. and at the peril of language. I borrowed the form and characters for the story ( fable). In any case. as Mallarm´ e preferred. last but not least. The maxim of art-thought is simple: to produce something ﬁnite (artiﬁcial) to rival the inﬁnite (natural). Les Mis´ But I pulled apart the building blocks of the narrative. in fact. unlikely production of the ﬁnite. There is the ‘unique language’ of the writer. Literature thinks insomuch as it brands a real pursued by ﬁction with the symbolic scar of the One. It accepts the story and settles down in the spaces it leaves. the work of art or literature is the difﬁcult. This gives rise to an essentially ﬁnite quality — common. to all artistic procedures — encapsulated in the word ‘work’ (of art) (oeuvre). rearranged the spaces. and. ` la grande Histoire). the binding of every work in the form of a Book. from Victor Hugo’s novel. . whether we like it or not. And it is precisely this production that constitutes thought.36 Paragraph ﬁctional world. which is its triumph. Beyond the ﬁctional world. A work of literature is such — must. the standard of perfection. indivisibly. literature that thinks emerges in the cracks in the story (la fable). and that which the literary enterprise is compelled to bring to any sequence. with the reader witnessing the birth of a unique language. it is in ‘several volumes’. and allowed my prose to explore areas outside its initial scope. I employed language in three distinct registers — narrative. the complicity of ﬁction and language aims to mark the real with the seal of the unique. In Calme bloc ici-bas (1998). Each and every word of its prose is irreplaceable. In the essay to which I referred earlier. even if. In stark contrast to the inﬁnite variety of experience (which is perfectly obvious). It has no interest in wrecking the story. Natacha Michel proposes another method: that of allowing an ‘other’ language to take root in the language itself. be such — that nothing in it can be changed. rhetoric and shorthand — in the hope that a few grains of real would emerge from this clash of styles. of the One. I will turn brieﬂy to my own work as a novelist. which is its Assumption. the double meaning of the word ‘end’: that signiﬁed by the word at the bottom of the last page.
more precisely. . in a book entitled. as compact and distinct as an Idea. if literature is a form of thought. leaving it to deploy the various facets of its self-reﬂection: ‘since the Master went to draw tears from the Styx’. require the Idea to be fully self-conscious? In other words. with contributions from Flaubert and Proust. the story or the essay. Writing is conferred absolute status by the exception. the author intended to exist in its own right. It comprises Flaubert’s prose. but neither is it restricted to the novel. from Baudelaire to Blanchot. mustn’t it be the thought of that thought? We know about Mallarm´ e’s revelation. but also to ensure. It refers to the development of a sort of literary exception in the ﬁeld of art. il a lieu tout seul). unlike poetry. with no imaginary referent in the world. tends not to appear in the ranking of ﬁne arts. which. which he described as ‘a fact. Not only does it fail to obtain the patronage of any of the Muses of classicism. but what does ‘literature’ actually mean? Literature is a singular conﬁguration which. thanks to its style (a crucial operator in literature). which not only raises it above classical genres. German romanticism. The concept of this exception gradually takes shape in France. obtained through stylistic density alone. the advent of literature also corresponds to the emergence of a literary conscience. Of course. The Literary Absolute. but it cuts across literary genres: clearly. It might equally be one of Mallarm´ e’s sonnets. since it relates not to rules of taste but to the conviction of the existence of an entirely separate phenomenon: literature (le fait litt´ eraire). since the author merely imagines the basic Idea. and I am but a corpse’. happening by itself ’ (fait. or conceiving perfectly of itself. e ´tant.Qu’est-ce que la litt´ erature pense? 37 I used the words ‘work of art or literature’. This means that the poem as absolute requires it to be the thought of the thought that it is and that the author should be excluded. although Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy. In his analysis of categories of nineteenth-century aesthetics. Thus. ‘literature’ cannot be conﬁned to poetry. Jacques Ranci` ere makes some striking observations on the genealogy of modern meanings of the word ‘literature’. a being. But doesn’t this Ideal separation. a conscience not exactly comparable to artistic judgement. the author’s task must not only be to marry his or her style with the initial production of the basic Idea. but puts it entirely beyond the scope of the empirical world. signiﬁcantly. a mark of its own self-sufﬁciency. have shown that it originated in Germany or. literature is an immanent reference to itself. But if literature’s role is to allow fulﬁlment of the Idea as thought of thought. or the crucial experience that inspires his poetry: ‘My thought has thought itself.
since its ﬁrst. and the conditions governing the way that real is marked. Thus. The second axis is language. . Although it is left out of any ordinary story or prefabricated narrative. Writers are the torturers of language. as Blanchot sometimes suggests. neither of which is literary per se. by all means. under the ﬁnite sign of the One. this is the real of which literature must speak. and stage the coming-into-being of the Idea as thought. rather exploited mercilessly for what it has not yet said. that this is the original silence with which all language draws strength from the inﬁnite. not forgetting Breton’s prophecy (‘Beauty shall be convulsive or shall not be at all’)) and a preferred procedure (hermeticism.) which. contains the essence of the literary phenomenon. they extract confessions and even. as a ﬂexible resource with inﬁnite power. axis is the imperative to speak of the unspeakable of that-which-has-taken-place. There are two questions to be asked about literature: With regard to the real: what takes place. thereof one must be silent’). Literature is a direct contradiction of Wittgenstein’s axiom (‘Whereof one cannot speak. and which is worth organizing into thought so that it can be encountered beyond the ﬁctional world? With regard to language: what takes place in the language. I do not believe. . in this case. We can therefore make the following assertion: that what literature thinks is both a real marked in language with the seal of the One.38 Paragraph explain. self-reﬂexive writing. . or what it has always been reluctant or unable to say. perhaps — and therein comes the danger — lies. The point is to open up to the realm of thought the singularity of whatever takes place outside that realm. literature is always accompanied by successive Manifestos of its becoming-absolute. essentially non-literary. at any one time. The ﬁrst axis corresponds to the real as that-which-has-takenplace. The age of literature is also the age of literary manifestos. but not. or the non-empirical essence of all reality. which is not from the empirical world. which might be equivalent to the real that-which-has-taken-place? Literature can be represented as a graph with two axes. of the autonomous forces of language and the immanent occurrence of a real. metaphor. The thought process of writing is the conjunction. combining a diagnosis of the time (from Mallarm´ e’s ‘Crisis of Verse’ to Natacha Michel’s ‘second modernity’. employed for what it is capable of saying. which is ‘anywhere outside the world’.
can be called the ‘style’. The truly remarkable thing is that the graph of the literary act is always closed in places: a closed area (or areas) exist(s). Each sentence indexes a real to a break in language. which only become discernible afterwards. The laws that govern phrasing. It can be drawn as follows: Every point along the graph can be called a ‘sentence’ (phrase). because certain .Qu’est-ce que la litt´ erature pense? 39 The literary act — sometimes called ‘writing’ — is like plotting a graph along these two axes. The active movement that joins two sentences together (with other sentences) can be called ‘phrasing’ (phras´ e).
puts an end to that innocence. It fulﬁls the pre-Socratic maxim: ‘It is all one to me where I begin. making it impossible to discern from that point the beginning of the movement and the point that is ultimately reached. far beyond what we read there. the scar of its eternity. If no such points exist. The literary act commemorates its journey with a monument. becoming double points. at least in places. Like Proust’s madeleine. the real of the real. it shows the same real point twice. The double point means three things. It asserts that thought is also thought of thought. and submitted. Let’s say that it produces knowledge of its creative innocence and. It is. Lastly. at a particular point in its own expression. boring prose and conventional style. In fact. This double point is the symbolic seal of the One. and a glimpse of the gap between inside and outside. of names: the literary absolute. at least at some point. in so doing. in the literary work itself. to us (for in this case transmission and submission are one and the same). ‘the ﬁgure in the carpet’. which is also. and extravagant. ALAIN BADIOU (Translated by Alistair Clarke) . the real point becomes an absolute.40 Paragraph points are always drawn twice. It repeats language. the total absence of the real. It was to him that the Romantics gave the most appropriate. then the literary act constitutes a failure: the inﬁnite dissemination of its linear emptiness. in which it is impossible to distinguish origin from destination. this point is what we encounter in a work of literature. which belongs to all eternal writing. to use James’s lovely expression. For the perverse aspect of the double point is that literary desire is always. knowledge of its own form. turning its own thinking. It escapes situation in time. transmitted. for I will come back again there’. into a closed area. a kind of calculated self-interest inﬂicted upon innocence. It is the literary act itself.
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