You are on page 1of 39


Abstract Jean-Luc Nancys provocative second chapter of The Inoperative Community, Myth Interrupted, sets to rede ne the relationship between myth and literature. This paper puts Nancys new perspective to test through juxtaposing Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayatis myth of Orpheus with Maurice Blanchots. The assumption is that when literature stages myth and presents it from various perspectives, it does so not to invoke or allegorize its content through the letter, but rather to interrupt it. This new discovery of the untraceability of myth leaves us with a different perspective of literature as that language which cuts across myth and exposes its limit and as a language that inhabits myth only to interrupt it. Blanchots interest in Orpheus, as it is articulated in his novel/story Thomas lobscur (the 1950 New Version) and in his chapter on Orpheuss Gaze in The Space of Literature, and al-Bayatis reference to Orpheus in his poetic collections He Who Comes and Does Not Come, Death in Life, and Writing on the Mud thematize this playful staging of the myth of Orpheus. Both seem to follow a different path with the same myth. Blanchot disregards the ending of the Orpheus story, and al-Bayati disregards the gaze. However, it is not just selection, but modification that is at work here: both shape their chosen materials in conformity to a specific need. The logic that binds the two writers together in relation to myth and literature expresses itself not only in the choice of the same myth, but they also have in common the shared debt to this classical material and more importantly in their (re)de nition of this material. The point of departure between the two of them in their treatment (reinterpretation) of Orpheus is that Blanchot is looking at the effect of death on writing, while al-Bayati is exploring the effect of writing on death.

Language is a perpetual Orphic song, Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were. (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, IV: 415-417)

It is not a mere coincidence that many 20th-century literary gures and philosophers resort to mythical models like Oedipus, Odysseus, and Orpheus at the most decisive moments of their thinking. They return to them as tropes or imaginary carriers of the ideas their invocation represents. This myth-based thought that characterizes modernism in general has perhaps
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2002 Also available online Journal of Arabic Literature, XXXIII, 3



taken place because it helps through the analogical use of myth to approximate the relationship between reason in its crude Kantian terms and experience in its unruly and imaginative sense. The psychical content of Freuds male abnormality and family romance is represented by Oedipus; the dialectic of enlightenment in Adorno and Horkheimer visits the Odyssey to stage its double thesis of enlightenment as nding its roots in mythology and of enlightenment as lapsing into mythology; the anthropological structuralism of L vi-Strauss invests in myth as containing the rst grains of human rationality that provide a systematic model of logic capable of overcoming contradictions; the literary theory of Eric Auerbachs Mimesis uses Homers Odyssey in the famous chapter of Odysseuss Scar and juxtaposes it to the ancient Hebrew stories in order to prove that none of those two stylistic conventions pre gures the representational politics of Western realism that Auerbach believes to have emerged with the Gospels. Myth has thus been used and given many de nitions by the psychoanalyst, the cultural theorist, the anthropologist, and the literary critic. Now, what questions will these representations impose upon us? It is obvious that myth has more or less been used as raw material to solidify ideas and attitudes in order to provide some sort of intellectual security. This in turn has affected the trajectory of literary theory in the rst half of the 20th-century. New approaches to the study of literature, pioneered by gures like C. G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and culminating in Northrop Frye, have offered an interpretation of literature that sees literary texts through the prism of myth, or vice versa. This treatment of literature and myth as coterminous has ignored their essential differences, and only recently has an interest in myth as myth and as different from literature started to develop among a group of writers like George Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Marcel Detienne. The assumption is that when literature stages myth and presents it from various perspectives, it does so not to invoke or allegorize its content through the letter, but rather to interrupt it. Myth may serve as a focus of an ethical idea of self-transcendence or self-sacri ce or of any other idea that needs to be justi ed. But when a literary text refers to myth, or rewrites myth, this does not mean that literature brings a dead myth back to life. For myth never dies, it rather dies down, like a communal valueconsensus, and the only thing that literature could do is stir and interrupt it, thus contributing to a better understanding of the variety of fundamental choices open to any given human community. That is why Nancys theory on myth is useful for any kind of study that compares myth and literature. But in order to understand how literature interrupts myth, it will be useful to offer a quick overview of the 20th-century literary criticism of myth that constitutes the background of Nancys theory of myth. Among the many theories that relate literature to myth, two approaches



stand out. The rst one is represented by a group of critics who insist on treating myth in literature as an archetype that has been established in the human heritage within which humanity seeks to nd an imaginative space of comprehension. 1 The second views myth as a mask or a fantastic element that writers use in order to re ect more eloquently and rhetorically on human reality. While these two critical presuppositions or expectations of myth are often substantial and well-founded, they both still establish a binding extrinsic pattern of thought that claims to address myth while in fact jumping over it for what lies beneath or outside it. These critical modes of externality derive mainly from a grandiose connotative envisioning of literature and myth as something that means, not as something that exists for its own sake.2 Nancy, on the other hand, claims that myth is origin, or is at least related to an unthinkable origin. Literature continues or discontinues myth but does not bind everything together the way myth does. According to Nancy, we live in what Bataille describes as the absence of myth, 3 or what Nancy himself chooses to call the interruption of myth, or the myth of myth.4 This logic, if traced backwards, would force us to consider a myth like Orpheus, whether in Virgils Georgics or Ovids Metamorphoses, as already an interruption of its own mythicity. This discovery of the untraceability of myth, to use Marcel Detiennes word, would thus leave us with a different perspective of literature as that language which cuts across myth and exposes its limit and as a language that inhabits myth only to interrupt it. Some critics even reconsider the relationship between myth

Joseph Campbell, for instance, makes a very brief reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and groups it in the box of the archetype of return, arguing that like hundreds of analogous tales throughout the world, the myth suggests that in spite of the failure recorded, a possibility exists of a return of the lover with his lost love from beyond the terrible threshold. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) 206. 2 Although it might be a tempting argument to claim that al-Bayati, for instance, used the myth of Orpheus or myth in general as a metaphor for a nationalistic project or as a call for revolution, or even as a re ection of the social and cultural malaise of his Iraqi community, one has to admit that this is just one possible reading among others. For allegorical treatment of myth in modern Arab poetry see for instance Rt Awa, Usrat al-Mawt wa al-Inbith f al-Shir al-Arab al-adth (Beirut: al-Muassasah al-Arabiyyah lil-Dirst wa al-Nashr, 1974); see also Aida Azouqa, Defamiliarization in the Poetry of Abd al-Wahhb al-Bayti and T. S. Eliot: A Comparative Study, Journal of Arabic Literature, 32 no. 2 (2001): 167-211. 3 George Bataille, The Absence of Myth Writings on Surrealism (London: Verso, 1994) 48. 4 Jean-Luc Nancy, Myth Interrupted in The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Conner; trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, Simona Sawhney (Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1991) 47.



and literature and see the former to be the invented by the latter, to the extent that myth has become the other of literature:5
Myth is interrupted by literature precisely to the extent that literature does not come to and end. It does not come to an end at the very place where the work passes from an author to a reader, and from this reader to another reader or to another author. It does not come to an end at the place where the work passes on to another work by the same author or at the place where it passes into other works of other authors. It does not come to an end where its narrative passes into other narratives, its poem into other poems, its thought into other thoughts, or into the inevitable suspension of the thought or the poem.6

Literature, like myth, does inscribe the way we are together, but because it does not do so and the same way myth does, it offers something that it does not hold as essence. In our case, when Blanchot and al-Bayati look back to the Orpheus story, as this study hopes to reveal, the myth is not held as essence. In fact, the story itself becomes their Eurydice, which means that in order for their literary texts to exist, part of the Orpheus myth, indeed part of all our past fountains of inspiration, our tradition, has to be lost like Eurydice herself. Literature therefore cannot do the job of myth by assuming the task of collective necessity. Literature designates what Nancy calls the singular ontological quality 7 that gives being an essence, except that literature does not hold it in reserve. Literature has nothing to say about the essence of myth, and therefore literature lacks being. Literature to Nancy is without thesis, and therefore, there cannot be any one single literary work that would establish our human essence. For unlike myth, literature does not come to an end. Having lost all transcendental signi ers literature cannot function in the age of technological reproducibility to establish a mythic project and to build a community of shared essences. Contrary to myth, literature cannot fuse individuals together, but can only cut across myth to expose its negativity. Literature comes in when we have the absence of something and the absence of myth becomes the necessary condition for literature to be. But literature too is caught in the technology of writing: it gestures towards transcendence, and even if it makes that gesture, it cannot achieve it, yet it always suspends it. Only myth as myth can do this because it has an ontological function that goes beyond any kind of critical language. In literature one has to have an inventor, an author. Myth does not

5 For more on how recent scholarship in mythology has become inventive and informed by ready-made ideologies, read Marcel Detienne, Linvention de la mythologie (Paris: Gallimard, 1981). 6 Nancy 64-65. 7 Nancy 64.



have an author. Literature is thus impure and improper: impure because it lives on the absence of myth and improper because it is a process of deappropriation and can never be a process of becoming. So, if we are together in the absence of myth, then we are together in the non-mythic. After the writings of George Battaille, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Marcel Detienne, one has to admit that the relationship between literature and myth has become much more complicated than the mind-soothing individuation or repetitive archetypalism that informed the intellectual grounds of the rst half of 20th-century writings that psychoanalyze myths and regard them as universal metaphors or dreams of humanity that could explain for us the unconscious repressed by logos. By nally establishing the shift from myth as allegory, as allos- (something else) and agoreuein (to say publicly), to Schellings understanding of myth as tautegory,8 namely as saying something and meaning exactly that, a deconstructive approach to myth that also informs the present study challenges the psychoanalytical axiom that claims that myth is not what it is. As Battaille tersely puts it, we live in an immense void which makes myth no longer a closure. It is this absence of myth, this interruption that I wish to study in Blanchot and al-Bayati. The treatment of the myth of Orpheus in Blanchot or al-Bayati, indeed in any artistic work that considers myth a symbol that constitutes a language, might suffer from the lapse into arbitrary interpretation. Reference to mythology in literary texts differs from culture to culture and from generation to generation and in our case from one perspective on the same myth to another. Indeed modern literary theory will have taught us nothing if it has failed to convey to us the open-endedness of the process of signi cation. Therefore, any treatment of Blanchots or al-Bayatis Orpheus as a static and xed metaphor for X will eventually fail because it anchors thought and prevents critical diversity and poetic inventiveness. It was L vi-Strauss who rst told us in an anthropological spirit that mythology is static and that we nd the same mythical elements combined over and over again. 9 But this is not the case with literatures treatment of myth, which never remains

8 For more on Schelling and the description of myth as tauto-gorical, namely, standing on its own as a declaration of itself, see Jean-Pierre Vernant, Toward a Science of Mythology in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone Books, 1990) 226-60. 9 Claude L vi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture (New York: Schocken Books, 1995) 40. Although in L vi-Strauss myth has it own realm and does not stand for anything else outside itself, nor, unlike science, does it make us master nature, it is still viewed from a structuralist presupposition of meaning; to him myth gives us a total view of the world, and in life we need such a view in order to make sense of existence: it gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and that he does understand the universe, L vi-Strauss 17.



suspended in history, nor (as will be argued below) does literature repeat the same mythical pattern over and over again. Here lies the dangerous prospect of any criticism guided by the desire for a kind of a myth in the text that has to have unity and meaning. This type of criticism risks reinventing the intentionality of the author and thinking his/her text for him/her. Although it is not a remote possibility that a text would speak for many things, political, social, intellectual, one should not lose track of the fact that rst and foremost a text speaks for itself and for its very existence as text, as someone like Paul de Man would have it. Blanchots interest in Orpheus, as it is articulated in his novel/story Thomas lobscur (the 1950 New Version) and in his chapter on Orpheuss Gaze in The Space of Literature, and al-Bayatis evocation of Orpheus in his poetic collections He Who Comes and Does Not Come (Alladh Yat wa L Yat), Death in Life (Al-Mawt f al-ayt), and Writing on the Mud (AlKitbah al al-n) seem to thematize this playful staging of the myth of Orpheus. And if it were true that the zenith a critical reading should reach is, as Blanchot declares, not to designate a productive activity, nor to produce anything, nor again to add anything, the best that my reading of Blanchot and al-Bayati could aspire to achieve is freedom, a kind of liberty that, in Blanchots words, lets the works overwhelming decisiveness af rm itself, lets be its af rmation that is and nothing more.10 Both Blanchot and al-Bayati seem to follow a different path with the same myth. This seeming difference is not the result of cultural dissimilarity, since both writers stand out as different from their own peers who dwelt on the myth. But is it not also true that great writers do not dwell on myth without extending, appropriating, and sometimes even totally disrupting it? This is what Blanchot and al-Bayati do with Orpheus. Blanchot disregards the ending of the Orpheus story, and al-Bayati disregards the gaze. However, it is not just selection, but modi cation that is at work here: both shape their chosen materials in conformity to a speci c need. The logic that binds the two writers together in relation to myth and literature expresses itself not only in the choice of the same myth. They also have in common the shared debt to this classical material and more importantly in their (re)de nition of this material. The point of departure between the two of them in their treatment (reinterpretation) of Orpheus is that Blanchot is looking at the effect of death on writing, while al-Bayati is exploring the effect of writing on death.

Maurice Blanchot, Orpheus s Gaze in The Space of Literature , trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982) 194.



Although my argument depends on these structural and ideological differences, it is important to stress a line of parallelism at work in the two writers. Offering their accounts of Orpheuss art in their respective texts, both Blanchot and al-Bayati are caught in a kind of artfulness that will eventually lead to a total identi cation and the loss of distinction between Blanchot, al-Bayati and Orpheus himself. The Myth of Orpheus in Blanchot Virgils Orpheus sings of death and rebirth, and Ovids becomes an object of metamorphosis. Both poets speak of the dismemberment and death of Orpheus at the hands of the Bacchants of his native Thrace. With the passage of time, later writers embellished the Orphic myth with marvelous miracles and wonders: after being decapitated, Orpheuss head continued to sing, and his lyre never ceased to play. His head and lyre then oated with the tide down the stream and out to sea to the isles of Lesbos and were eventually transformed into celestial lights in the heavens while the Muses buried the other parts of his mutilated body in a tomb near Mount Olympus, where up to this day the nightingales sing more sweetly than they do in any other place on earth.11 But in generation after generation of poetic reworkings, Orpheus was associated with more than music. He was even made more mythical than he already is now. Because of his Katabasis eis Aidou (Descent to Hades) and because of getting to see what no mortal eye has ever seen, Orpheus acquired an aura of sacredness and was claimed to have had access to the secret of all knowledge. His name has been associated with special knowledge of the mysteries of life, death, reincarnation and rebirth into a world where he exercises a supreme charm over its natural inhabitants. Blanchots literary writing is so hermetic that scholars such as Paul de Man might warn us that reading Blanchot differs from all other reading experiences. 12 But the main difference, indeed the main dif culty lies not only in the seduction brought about by the limpidity of language that allows for no discontinuities or inconsistencies, 13 as de Man argues, but also in the fact that Blanchot has already fully accounted for the act of read-

11 For a modern poetic retelling of the myth of Orpheus, read Seamus Heaney Orpheus and Eurydice and Death of Orpheus in After Ovid: New Metamorphoses , eds. Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994) 222-29. 12 Paul de Man, Impersonality in the Criticism of Maurice Blanchot in Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1971) 62. 13 de Man 62.



ing in general, to the effect that any criticism of his criticism does not actually take us anywhere outside his critical sphere:
To read a poem is not to read not yet another poem; it is not even to enter, via this poem, into the essence of poetry. The reading of a poem is the poem itself, af rming itself in the reading as a work. It is the giving birth, in the space held open by the reader, to the reading that welcomes it; it is the poem becoming power to read, becoming communication opened between power and impossibility, between the power linked to the moment of reading and the impossibility linked to the moment of writing. 14

The act of writing, according to Blanchot, begins with the gaze of Orpheus, because he sees Orpheuss gaze as that which no longer unveils what it sees. Broadly speaking, the muths,15 i.e., the plot of the myth of Orpheus, is an intriguing one. Robert Graves lists at least fteen sources of the Orpheus myth in addition to Ovids,16 the most established line of which goes like this: Orpheus, a famous gifted singer capable of enchanting wild beasts and of taming nature with his music, falls in love with Eurydice, who dies on their wedding day of a snake-bite. Chagrined and distressed, Orpheus undertakes a suicidal journey to the Underworld to bring Eurydice back to life. He manages through the power of his art to persuade Persephone and Pluto to let him take Eurydice back to the upper world, provided that he guide her without looking back at her. When Orpheus violates this proviso and looks back, Eurydice, we are told, disappears, and Orpheus loses her for the second and last time. The tale, of course, does not end there, but Blanchot re-appropriates the myth and uses it as his vision of art. The act of writing, says Blanchot, begins with Orpheuss gaze,17 that is, writing is an act of dying, and this dying produces a form of the imaginary and which is more fascinating than the original/Eurydice because it achieves the original without achieving it. Herein lies the ambiguity of literature: it is the inspiration to achieve the unachievable through annihilation. In other words, death is the condition for literature to be, in fact for language in its entirety. In order for language to be possible at all, death/negation appears to be the premise. In Literature and the Right to Death Blanchot writes:

Blanchot, The Space of Literature 198. Muths etymologically was used synonymously with logos to refer to the spoken word, but eventually came to mean a story, a plot line or a structure of narrative. For an overview of the history of mythology and the opposition between logos and muths, see Vernant, The Reason of Myth in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece 186-207. See also Eric A. Havelocks Chapter Five Epic as Record versus Epic as Narrative in Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1936). 16 Robert Graves, The Greek Myths vol. I (New York: Penguin Books, 1955) 133. 17 Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature 176.
14 15



My language does not kill anyone. But if this woman were not really capable of dying, if she were not threatened by death at every moment of her life, bound and joined to death by an essential bond, I would not be able to carry out that ideal negation, that deferred assassination which is what my language is.18

The idea that language begins in death might be in con ict with Blanchots statement that literature begins where literature becomes a question. There appear to be two beginnings, but in fact death and the question mark are one, for death is itself the question mark that hardly promises an answer. To Blanchot, therefore, literature begins with Orpheuss gaze at Eurydice, and if literature is the life that endures death and maintains itself in it,19 it is because the dynamic reciprocity between language and death never dies. Death is not only the hope of writing, but its negativity is held out for language. To Blanchot, writing has to feed on death in order to survive it:
When we speak we are leaning on a tomb, and the void of that tomb is what makes language true, but at the same time this void is reality and death becomes being. There is being that is to say, a logical and expressible truth and there is a world, because we can destroy things and suspend existence. This is why we can say that there is being because there is nothingness: death is mans possibility, his chance, it is through death that the future of a furnished world is still there for us; death is mans greatest hope, his only hope of being man.20

If for Blanchot art neither dreams nor creates but simply demands, in Orpheuss case, art then would demand death and sacri ce in order for it to be. Eurydice, who stands for this ambiguity as both the work and the unwork of art, is the furthest that art can reach . . ., the profoundly obscure point toward which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend. She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as the other night. 21 Precisely that which has to be retrieved in the work of art has to be lost in the very process of (un)working it. Orpheus cannot tolerate not to gaze at Eurydice in the darkness of her non-formation. For Blanchot, then, it is not Eurydices beauty or person that instigates Orpheuss impatient gaze, it is rather the urge of art to catch Eurydice in her darkness, to see Eurydice as darkness, as the essence of the night in the night. This essence of the night is itself the same essence of art, of desire, and of death. In other words, what

18 Blanchot, Literature and the Right to Death in The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill Press, 1981) 43. 19 Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus 54. 20 Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus 55. 21 Blanchot, The Space of Literature 171.



Orpheus wants is not Eurydice, but perhaps Eurydice-as-lost. In this act of simultaneous appropriation and disappropriation, Blanchot rejects the straightforward interpretation of the myth that condemns Orpheus as guilty of impatience and forgetfulness: Immemor heu Victusque animi respexit22 Although Blanchot might seem to be so clear and simple here, his simplicity is itself the sign that something deep and subtle is at play. This paradox is indeed at the heart of Blanchots thought. De Man describes this form of deceptive clarity as a light of a very different nature, adding that nothing is more obscure than the nature of this light. 23 The paradox that seems to be at work here is that passivity/negation becomes a means of activity/ transcendence. According to Blanchot, art feeds on disobedience; in this very sense art becomes an outlaw, a de Sadian call for breaking the con nes of reason. Law, in a word, means limits. But desire in Blanchot forgets the law, or at least pretends to deny its existence, and Orpheuss destiny, says Blanchot, is not to submit to this ultimate law. 24 In fact, Blanchots interest in Orpheus as a transgressor goes way back to his rst publishe d work, Thomas lobscur, which he rewrote in 1950. Thomas lobscur is one of the most hermetic texts among 20th-century French novels, which led one major critic, Jean Starobinski, to end his criticism of the rst chapter with the avowal that Blanchot, au vrai, soffre une compr hension inachevable, non une explication. Je my suis donc pris obliquement. L chec dune explication, apr s tout, en dit long sur ce quune uvre a dirr ductible et dexceptionnel.25 [Blanchot, to be sure, gives himself over to an unachievable comprehensibility, not to an analysis. I thus went about things in a roundabout way. The failure of an analysis, after all, says much about the irreducible and exceptional qualities of a work.] Given Blanchots irreducibility to any critical exegesis, his unachievable comprehensibility, one has to learn Starobinskis lesson by trying to avoid de nitive answers and by looking instead to the images through which Blanchot delineates his unheroic hero.

Forgetful alas, and overcome by passion, he looked back (Virgil, Georgics 4.491) de Man 63. 24 Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature 172. 25 Jean Starobinski, Thomas lobscur, Chapitre Premier: Critique (juin 1966) 513. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the French are my own. For an English translation of Thomas lobscur see Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, trans. Robert Lamberton and David Lewis (New York: D. Lewis, 1973).
22 23



The relationship between the two major components in Thomass experience with the outside, his gaze and the night, makes the novel an early ctionalization of Blanchots Orphic theory of literature. The novel reiterates for us Blanchots obsession with vision, death and night as articulated in The Space of Literature. Generally, Thomas lobscur in its revised edition turns out to be, on close reading, a love story, and more speci cally, a story about what it is to experience the non-relation of two lovers. The principal event in the story is the death of Anne, or perhaps, Thomass experience of her death. But prior to this event, there is the strangeness of Annes experience, or non-experience, of Thomas. With respect to the love story, it is certain that Thomas and Anne keep company, and Anne, for her part, experiences quelques jours de grand bonheur.26 [a few days of great happiness.] Thomas seems to have completely and unconditionally abandoned himself to Anne, but his passivity turns out to be a radical impassivity that makes him inaccessible to her as well as to us as readers. Chapter II puts the stress on Thomass eyes and shows us how Thomas has been invaded by the other night and appears to have just returned from the dead:
A cet instant, Thomas commit limprudence de jeter un regard autour de lui. La nuit tait plus sombre et plus p nible quil ne pouvait sy attendre. Lobscurit submergeait tout, il ny avait aucun espoir den traverser les ombres, mais on en atteignait la r alit dans une relation dont lintimit tait bouleversante. 27 [At this instant, Thomas committed the imprudence of looking about himself. The night was darker and more terrible than he had expected. The obscurity submerged everything, there was no hope of traversing its shadows, yet one grasped its reality in a relationship whose intimacy was deeply moving.]

Right from the very beginning thus we nd ourselves not so much lost in darkness as dazzled by la nuit [qui] tait plus sombre et plus p nible [the night (that) was darker and more painful], one which Thomas ne pouvait sy attendre. [had not expected.] Limpidity, the medium which grants us unlimited vision has itself become the limit of vision, the most impassable of all routes (la plus infranchissable de traverses). In the blinding excess or the unde nable de ciency of the event, in the eruption of a light that is no longer simply transparent, and in the insinuation of a kind of darkness that is no longer simply the privation of a light, a new type of relation is at work. With his eyes shut, Thomas could see more plainly in the darkness. This (non)vision is itself a source of ocular fascination for him:

26 27

Maurice Blanchot, Thomas lobscur: Nouvelle Version (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) 62. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 19.



Comme la nuit tombait, il essaya de se redresser et, les deux mains appuy es sur le sol, il mit un genou terre, tandis que son autre jambe se balan ait; puis, il t un mouvement brusque et r ussit se tenir tout fait droit. Il tait donc debout. la v rit , il y avait dans sa fa on d tre une ind cision qui laissait un doute sur ce quil faisait. Ainsi, quoiquil e t renonc voir dans les t n bres, c tait plutt le contraire.28 [As the night was falling, he tried to stand up and, with his two hands pressed against the ground, rose up on one knee, while his other leg swung back and forth. Then he made a brusque movement and managed to get himself upright. He was now standing. In truth, there was an indecisiveness in his manner that gave a sense of uncertainty to what he was doing. Thus, although he had given up being able to see in the dark, it was rather the contrary.]

Vision no longer seizes and dominates the world, but it is also unable to extinguish itself; it continues to be sustained in and by its own impossibility. We see in Blanchots text that Thomass gaze is cast precisely on that which limits and abolishes it. What we have here is not only a question of losing sight of vision, but also of darkness itself as vision, thus the exteriority of the object of vision has never actually been separated from the interiority of its subject:
C tait la nuit m me. Des images qui faisaient son obscurit linondaient. Il ne voyait rien et, loin den tre accabl , il faisait de cette absence de vision le point culminant de son regard. Son il, inutile pour voir, prenait des proportions extraordinaires, se d veloppait dune mani re d mesur e et, s tendant sur lhorizon, laissait la nuit p n trer en son centre pour en recevoir le jour. Par ce vide, c tait donc le regard et lobjet du regard qui se m laient.29 [It was the night itself. He was ooded by the very images that constituted its obscurity. He saw nothing, and, far from being distraught by this, made this absence of vision the culminating point of his gaze. His eye, useless for seeing, took on extraordinary proportions, growing boundlessly and, extending itself over the horizon, let the night penetrate into its center in order to receive its day. It was through this void that the gaze and the object of the gaze blended together.]

This duplicity in Thomass vision blends the literal and the metaphorical nuance, and is reminiscent of the gaze of Orpheus that Blanchot describes later in The Space of Literature, a gaze which at the same time both wants to see and not to see that which lies behind the visible. Orpheuss gaze is both towards and away from Eurydice; it achieves visibility at the very moment it makes vision impossible, invisible. In the above-quoted passage the night becomes a point of articulation achieved by a kind of vision-shattering darkness, and like Orpheus, Thomas is no longer able to make out

28 29

Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 17. Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 20-21.



objects in the night; what he sees is the essence of the night as inessential. 30 In this sense, Orpheuss and Thomass gazes thus become a turning at the limits of possibilit ies, between day and night, and their turning becomes their tropes, since it is essential to Blanchot that art be de ned as a movement outside the true.31 Thomass essence appears to be found in his opacity, thus invoking the title, Thomas Lobscur, which describes him as obscure, but his obscurity also has a double entendre about it. Thomas is dark, impenetrable, and inessential, yet the reverse still holds: not that his essence remains dark, but that this darkness has always already been Thomass essence, that he exists as essentially dark and as essentially obscure. The title thus not only invaginates vision and obscurity inside one another, but it also makes the obscure an object of vision in and of itself. Perhaps that is why Thomass eye becomes capable of seeing the nonessence as essential: Non seulement cet il qui ne voyait rien appr hendait quelque chose, mais il appr hendait la cause de sa vision. Il voyait comme objet ce qui faisait quil ne voyait pas. 32 [Not only did this eye that saw nothing apprehend something, it apprehended the cause of its vision. It saw as an object (sees), which meant that it did not see at all. It saw as object that which prevented it from seeing.] Given the ambiguity of this last sentence, still the dilemma of a blindness that infects sight from within, one which cannot be gured as death or deprivation, is a blow to Western rationality. When Blanchot writes Bientt, la nuit lui parut plus sombre, plus terrible que nimporte quelle nuit, comme si elle tait r ellement sortie dune blessure de la pens e qui ne se pensait plus, de la pens e prise ironiquement comme objet par autre chose que la pens e.33 [Soon, the night appeared darker, more terrible than any other night, as if it had truly seeped from a wound of thought that no longer thought itself, of thought taken ironically as object by something other than thought.] Sartre attacks the passage from the Cartesian viewpoint that a thought which thinks that it does not know is still a thought. The premises of such an objection are evident; it takes for granted the very identity of vision with thought (the Cartesian, Kantian, or Husserlian constitutive identity of the subject).34 This Cartesian concept of

Blanchot, The Space of Literature 172. Blanchot, The Space of Literature 77. 32 Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 21. 33 Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 20. 34 Martin Jay traces the relationship between seeing and knowledge back to its etymological origins: The word theater, as has often been remarked, shares the same root as the word theory, theoria, which meant to look at attentively, to behold. So too does theorem, which has allowed some commentators to emphasize the privileging of vision in Greek mathematics, with its geometric emphasis. The importance of optics in Greek science has also
30 31



the thinking subject has brought about consciousness and perspectivalism, what in visual studies is referred to as the unilinear or geometral point of vision, 35 namely, the notion that everything exists only as de ned by the subject. This notion makes everything else other, or object, including language itself. For critics who like to work extrinsically with Blanchots text, it would not be dif cult to nd a political allegory, one in which Blanchot could be ridiculing Western philosophy for incarcerating itself in the haunting tradition of the transcendental subject, to borrow Foucaults term, a subject that is captive to a pre-given system of signication, which conveys a phony sense of mastery over a vision that it cannot see and a thought that it cannot even understand. If Thomass vision consists of his ability to see and perhaps even more of his greater inability to see, then we are driven towards a degree zero in which vision and non-vision, subject and object, are identical to one another. This negativity is a persistent theme in Blanchots uvre. Otherwise, what would be the implications of this internalization of vision in Thomas? Could Blanchot be arguing that perception itself, the way we see things is already structured by a kind of language that emanates from us and comes back to us and that our visions have never left our bodies? It has become evident that human vision is both physiologically and sociologically conditioned, and in most cases, we are trained to see things, and it turns out that we do not see things as they are, but rather we see what we think things are. Linguistically, this would imply that it is the signi er that shapes our perception of the signi ed, not vice versa. In short, the relationship between knowing, seeing, imagining, and writing, is in its entirety one of insecurity and has thus put the whole project of Western epistemology into question. What the mind recognizes is not always the same as what the eye sees. What this could mean is that dominant philosophies ignore the possibility of what exists outside of their discourse. While not trying to be so positive about it, Thomass inward vision might very well be an irony of the traditional ways of seeing. For while it is true that objects are seen,

been adduced to illustrate its partiality for sight. But nowhere has the visual seemed so dominant as in the remarkable Greek invention called philosophy. Here the contemplation of the visible was extended to become the philosophical wonder at all that was in view. Truth, it was assumed, could be as naked as the undraped body. Knowledge (eidenai) is the state of having seen, Bruno Snell notes of Greek epistemology, and the Nous is the mind in its capacity as an observer of images. Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993) 23. 35 See Peter de Bolla, The Visibility of Visuality in Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight, eds. Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay (New York: Routledge, 1996) 65-79.



these objects are described in terms of existing lexemes and a designated linguistic framework. The efforts to describe the unknown in terms of the known, to install ready-made signi eds on brand-new signi ers, have indeed created a rupture in the relationship between seeing and knowing, between observation and appropriation. Again, if there is any ulterior motive that this chapter offers, with its strong insistence on (non)vision, it would lie in Thomass rejection of this ideology of visual appropriation, an ideology against which he rebels in his desire to abandon himself, to give himself to himself, to be in contact with the nocturnal mass that is nothing but himself, and to bathe in his own vision:
Sa premi re observation fut quil pouvait encore se servir de son corps, en particulier ses yeux; ce n tait pas quil vt quelque chose, mais ce quil regardait, la longue le mettait en rapport avec une masse nocturne quil percevait vaguement comme tant lui-m me et dans laquelle il baignait. 36 [His rst observation was that he could still make use of his body, in particular his eyes. It wasnt that he saw something, but eventually, what he was gazing at put him in touch with a nocturnal mass that he perceived vaguely as being part of himself, and in which he bathed.]

Vision, therefore, in its ontological inessentiality, cannot be mastered by a concept or a desire. The predicament of Thomas for Blanchot, like that of Orpheus, is that he loses the object of his desire at the moment of turning toward it and simultaneously loses his own identity in the anonymity and non-presence of the object of his vision. To look is to submit to an inexhaustible exhaustion, an endless dissolution of the I that cannot even be known as such: Thomas betrays the visual experience in remaining true to it, producing a vision by remaining blind to its necessary failure. Later in Chapter VIII, Anne attributes Thomass obscurity to the fact that nothing could be discovered about his life and that in every circumstance he remained anonymous and without a history. It is evident, however, that what is secret about Thomas is not something that he keeps to himself; the secret is rather the distance, sometimes called indiff rence,37 that separates him from Anne, and as it so happens, separates him from himself as well. The only thing Anne needed in order to understand Thomas was another I like Thomass, one that would free her vision from its glassy solitude, an I that is also an eye, and a thought. Again, the relationship between being, vision, and thought is mirrored in Anne: il lui manquait un moi sans sa solitude de verre, sans cet il atteint depuis si longtemps de strabisme, l il dont la supr me beaut est de loucher le plus possible. L il

36 37

Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 19. Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 85.



dont de l il, la pens e de la pens e.38 [she needed an I without her glassy solitude, without this eye af icted for so long with strabism (without this eye which had squinted for so long), the eye whose supreme beauty is to squint as much as possible. The eye of the eye, the thought of the thought.] Shortly before she dies, Anne opens her eyes without the least sign of curiosity, and avec la lassitude de quelquun qui sait parfaitement lavance tout ce qui va soffrir sa vue.39 [with the lassitude of someone who knows perfectly well in advance everything that will greet her eyes.] Blanchot calls this moment one of supr me distraction, of supr me retour dEurydice, une derni re fois vers ce qui se voit.40 [supreme distraction, supreme return of Eurydice, one last time towards that which is visible.] Perhaps it is at this point of incommensurability and inexplicable separation that Thomas and Anne repeat for us the scenario of Orpheus and Eurydice, whose inevitable separation is also enacted through the impact of the other night and the (de)(con)structive gaze, when Orpheus looks at the center of the night in the night. 41 It is in fact this gaze that Blanchot dwells much on and that constitutes his artistic stand on the myth in the rst place:
When Orpheus descends to Eurydice, art is the power that causes the night to open. Because of the power of art, the night welcomes him; it becomes the welcoming intimacy, the understanding and harmony of the rst night. But Orpheus has gone down to Eurydice: for him, Eurydice is the limit of what art can attain; concealed behind a name and covered by a veil, she is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead. She is the instant in which the essence of the night approaches as the other night. 42

By breaching the contract, by violating the one and only condition for a secure ascent from Hades to Earth, Orpheus has lost Eurydice twice and forever. But this very loss, this defeat is at the same time the triumph of art. Orpheus succeeds in failing to bring the object of his desire to the light of day, or as Blanchot likes to put it, Orpheus manages to achieve his (un)work through necessary forgetting:
But Orpheus, in the movement of his migration, forgets the work he is to achieve, and he forgets it necessarily, for the ultimate demand which his movement makes is not that there be a work, but that someone face this

38 39 40 41 42

Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot,

Thomas lobscur 86. Thomas lobscur 124. Thomas lobscur 123. The Space of Literature 171. The Space of Literature 171.



point, grasp its essence, grasp it where it appears, where it is essential and essentially appearance: at the heart of night. 43

By looking at Eurydice, Orpheus has disobeyed the imperative for his song, but this betrayal simultaneously insures the perpetuation of the song, so that his gaze is [his] ultimate gift to the work. It is a gift whereby he refuses, whereby he sacri ces the work, bearing himself toward the origin according to desires measureless movement and whereby unknowingly he still moves toward the work, toward the origin of the work. 44 The work is thus founded on the error of Orpheuss gaze, the error of his desire against his artwork. The dilemma is that he has gazed into what he cannot absolutely behold. Contrary to Sophocless Oedipus or Shakespeares Lear, in Blanchots Orpheus there is no insight in blindness, no need to kill vision in order to see. Orpheuss gaze is only possible because he is already an artist: this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters against the songs destiny. But in order to descend toward this instant, Orpheus has to possess the power of art already.45 Like the loss of Eurydice, the death of Anne was inevitable to Thomas, for he too, like Orpheus is not after vision, but rather the idea of it, or vision which could only be obtained through its own negativity. The implication is that only through dis-appearing and nonvision could any vision be possible at all. What Thomas experiences here is what Blanchot refers to as an act of look[ing] in the night at what night hides, the other night, the dissimulation that appears. 46 But is not dissimulation what literature does in general? Could Orpheuss gaze thus be Blanchots myth of literature? But in order for dissimulation as such to appear, the dissimulation which destroys the possibility of any Kantian or analogical thinking of the as if structure, the image whose possibility is predicated upon nothingness, upon the groundless ground of hollowness, has to be visible. This demand for the visibility of the invisible makes Orpheuss desire a desire for the impossible, for seeing the presence of Eurydices in nite absence:
It is inevitable that Orpheus transgress the law which forbids him to turn back, for he already violated it with his rst steps toward the shades. This remark implies that Orpheus has in fact never ceased to be turned toward Eurydice: he saw her invisible, he touched her intact, in her shadowy absence, in that veiled presence which did hide her absence, which was the presence of her in nite absence.47

43 44 45 46 47

Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot,

The The The The The

Space Space Space Space Space

of of of of of

Literature Literature Literature Literature Literature

171. 174. 176. 172. 172.



This recasting of the Orpheus myth, its parallels in Thomas and Anne, puts us face to face with the question of the work of art, its need, as Roger Laporte puts it, to uncover the unknown whilst leaving it unknown, and to captivate us with its obscurity, a transparent Night in which the transparency is at heart more opaque than opacity itself.48 But if true vision begins with Orpheuss gaze at Eurydice, the death of Eurydice would then become the hope of vision without which no vision is possible, and vision itself becomes an epitome of forsakenness. Thomas as an Orphic gure epitomizes this relationship. The double color (white/black) and the opposition day/night are effaced without confusion in the night. All that which Anne still loved was called the night; all that which Anne hated was also called the night: an absolute night where there were no longer contradictory terms, where those who suffered were happy, where white found a common substance with black, a night without confusion. If we relate this to the opening of Thomas lobscur, to the very rst words in Chapter I Thomas sassit et regarde la mer [Thomas sat down and looked at the sea] as a genesis of color, from the absolute night, where white found a common substance with black, we can see how Thomas seems to welcome this strange sightlessness, this apprehension of no vision. The question of vision in both Orpheus and Thomas is dictated by the eye, namely, the outside, which of course raises the question of writing. What, then, is the relationship of the language network to the eye? If the possibility of seeing is at stake, could we still see even when there are no words that signify sight? It is of course obvious that the relationship of Thomas and Orpheus with the outside may be indicated visually. This raises the problem of transcendence, empty or full, and perhaps in this way the eye offers the possibility of us to speak about things. Writing too is read under the essence of this relation to things. But what does the eye see or not see in Thomas lobscur? Again, in The Space of Literature Blanchot calls Orpheuss gaze the beginning of writing. The book contains something like a preface in which Blanchot calls the the pages entitled Orpheuss Gaze the center, albeit an un nished center, displaced by the pressure of the book [but] also a xed center which . . . displaces itself while remaining the same and becoming always more central, more hidden, more uncertain and more imperious.49 Blanchot directs the center of the book to Orpheuss gaze the moment of expropriation that inaugurates writing. Likewise, the text of the new version of Thomas lobscur opens with a similar preface. The new text is in a sense a subtraction, which opens up new possibilities.
48 Roger Laporte, Maurice Blanchot Today in Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing, ed. Carolyn Bailey Gill (New York: Routledge, 1996) 33. 49 Blanchot, The Space of Literature 3.



Il y a, pour tout ouvrage, une in nit de variantes possibles. Aux pages intitul es Thomas lObscur, crites partir de 1932, remises l diteur en mai 1940, publi es en 1941, la pr sente version najoute rien, mais comme elle leur te beaucoup, on peut la dire autre et m me toute nouvelle, mais aussi toute pareille, si, entre la gure et ce qui en est ou sen croit le centre, lon a raison de ne pas distinguer, chaque fois que la gure compl te nexprime elle-m me que la recherche dun centre imaginaire.50 [There is, for any work, an in nity of possible variants. To the pages entitled Thomas the Obscure, written from 1932 onwards, turned in to the editor in May, 1940, published in 1941, the present version adds nothing. But as it takes much from these pages, one could call it different and even completely new, but also completely the same, if one is not right to distinguish between the gure and what is or is believed to be its center, each time that the complete gure only expresses the search for an imaginary center itself.]

Hence the center is always imagined but is also constituted by the act of reading, as if something were lurking there. Thus we can see the novel itself as Blanchots Orphic act of looking back at Blanchots own work, and in the context of his own criticism we are made to think that Blanchots gaze is his ultimate gift to Thomas lobscur. It is a gift whereby Blanchot himself, like Orpheus, rejects and sacri ces his own work, bearing himself toward the origin according to desires measureless movement and whereby unknowingly he still moves toward the work, toward the origin of the work,51 con rming the works uncertainty, for is there ever a work? Blanchots gaze becomes the extreme moment of liberty, the moment when he frees himself from himself and, still more important, frees the work [Thomas lobscur] from his concern, frees the sacred contained in the work, gives the sacred to itself, to the freedom of its essence, to its essence which is freedom.52 Only then does inspiration become the gift of art par excellence. In this decision to look back at his own work and destroy it, Blanchot risks everything, and achieves the leap that he speaks about towards the end on Orpheuss Gaze, that is, to write, one has to write already. 53 Blanchots second Thomas lobscur is in every way already written, it is his gaze at his own Eurydice. (See Appendix I) In Blanchots version of the Orphic myth, Eurydice, like Thomass night, is the perfectly obscure point towards which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend. She is the instant when the essence of night approaches as OTHER NIGHT;54 she lies at the absolute asymptote of Orpheuss task

50 51 52 53 54

Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot,

Thomas lobscur 8. The Space of Literature The Space of Literature The Space of Literature The Space of Literature

174. 175. 176. 171.



and abilities. When Orpheus is permitted to retrieve her from the heart of obscure darkness of the night within the night, he cannot look at this darkness. Like Thomas, he can only approach it with his gaze [eyes, sight, vision] turned away: this is what concealment means when it reveals itself in the night. 55 He too must turn away to conceal his gaze from the night, i.e., from that which by de nition conceals. Orpheus fails to do this, and instead, he opts to look down into the night, abandoning Eurydice as well as the work he was embarking on. A grave mistake. But Blanchot tells us that Orpheuss task is not the restitution of Eurydice into the daylight world. Rather his task is to face the night, just as Thomass task in Chapter II is to face the overpowering appearance of darkness. But the gaze gazes back at its gazer, and the loss of their objects, Eurydice or vision, is also the loss of the looking subjects, Orpheus and Thomas. When Orpheus looks back at Eurydice, Blanchot tells us, he is not there either: Had he not looked at her, he would not have drawn her toward him; and doubtless she is not there, but in this glance back he himself is absent. He is no less dead than she dead, not of that tranquil worldly death which is rest, silence, and end, but of that other death without end, the ordeal of the ends absence. 56 It is this very absence that marks the beginning of Thomas lobscur. Disoriented and paralyzed by the absence of water, Thomas decides to let himself swim with rather than swim against the current. He abandons himself to water or perhaps to chance. He tries to lose himself in immersion, he desires a monstrous unity:
Il nageait, monstre priv de nageoires. Sous le microscope g ant, il se faisait amas entreprenant de cils et de vibrations . . . il chercha se glisser dans une r gion vague et pourtant in niment pr cise, quelque chose comme un lieu sacr , lui-m me si bien appropri quil suf sait d tre l pour tre; c tait comme un creux imaginaire o il senfon ait parce quavant quil y f t, son empreinte y tait d j marqu e.57 [He swam, a monster deprived of ns. Under the giant microscope, he was making an enterprising pile of eyelashes and vibrations . . . he tried to slip himself into an area that is vague and yet in nitely de ned, something like a sacred place, so appropriate to himself that it was enough to be there in order to be; it was like an imaginary hole into which he used to squeeze himself because even before he was inside, his imprint was already marked there.]

Thomas has abandoned himself to the water and to the night. It is his trace that has been found. And like Orpheus, he too must come back: Finalement il dut revenir.58 [Finally, he had to return.] He too must make an approach.
55 56 57 58

Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot,

The Space of Literature 171. The Space of Literature 172. Thomas lobscur 13. Thomas lobscur 13.



Like Orpheuss, Thomass path is asymptotic: he too is lost to never being able to completely lose himself. Blanchots reference to vision in Thomas lobscur creates a form of the imaginary that is more fascinating than the original because it achieves the original without achieving it; herein lies the ambiguity of literature, which becomes, then, the inspiration to achieve the unachievable through annihilation. In other words, death becomes the condition for literature to be, in fact, for language in its entirety. In order for language to be possible at all, Blanchot regards death/negation as a must. The Myth of Orpheus in al-Bayati59 It could be argued that al-Bayatis persistent dwelling on the myth of Orpheus in his poetry is different from Blanchots. After all, al-Bayati ignores the gaze completely and preoccupies himself with the question of Orpheuss expulsion and dismemberment. Despite their divergent angles of vision, both Blanchot and al-Bayati share the same telos: both view themselves as artists exploring the possibilities of inventive expression through their embrace of a form of darkness. Moreover, to risk stripping them down to their bare bones, or at least to try nding a gravity that holds both of them together, it could still be argued that in their treatments of Orpheus, Blanchot and alBayati are equally governed by one structural logic of binary oppositions: of presence versus absence, and of subject versus object. It is a logic that tells exactly the same concept of the duplicity of vision. In general terms, al-Bayatis poetry achieves its tension through an interplay between what seems to be two opposing worlds. Al-Bayati is in a sense wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born, to quote Matthew Arnold. 60 It is this tension between the living and the dead that the myth of Orpheus clearly articulates. For al-Bayati there appear to be no articulated borders that can markedly separate the worlds of Orpheus and Eurydice, Isis and Osiris, or Khayyam and Aishah. Their tendency to shift and to invade each others space accounts for al-Bayatis despondent and, at times, reconciliatory tone. But whether it be Orpheus or Khayyam, Osiris or Buddha, Prometheus or Jonah, al-Bayatis persona bears

For other approaches to the use of myth in the poetry of al-Bayati, see Isn Abbs, Ittijht al-Shir al-Muir (Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-Waan lil-Thaqfah wa al-Funn wa aldb, 1978); ub Muy al-Dn, Al-Ruy f Shir al-Bayt (Baghdad: Wizrat al-Thaqfah, 1988); Rt Awa, Abd al-Wahhb al-Bayt in Usrat al-Mawt 154-69; arrd al-Kubays, Maqlah f al-Asr f Shir Abd al-Wahhb al-Bayt (Damascus: Wizrat al-Thaqfah waal-Irshd al-Qawm, 1974); Aida Azouqa, Al-Bayyt and W. B. Yeats as Mythmakers: a Comparative Study, Journal of Arabic Literature 30 no. 3 (1999), pp. 258-90. 60 Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, in The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (London: The Macmillan Co., 1913) 321.



witness to the suffering of the poet, so that only the idea and not the word remains as a kind of musical hope to haunt his lines. What exactly is the nature of the connection between the Orphic myth and the night? How does al-Bayati use or treat Orpheus? Is myth treated as a myth and therefore tautegorical, namely, meaning what it says, as someone like Schelling might see it, or is it ontological, as Nancy would call it? Does he treat it as a metaphor or perhaps even as an allegory that might be incorporated in his poetic imagery to make it connote something else outside its denotative function? In other words, how far does al-Bayatis treatment of Orpheus differ from that of Blanchot, or even from the Ovidian text? In many of al-Bayatis poems, the personal, mythical, historical, and social intermingle, providing the in nite possibilities of his poetry. Among these in nities Orpheus seems to surface, whether explicitly or implicitly, nourishing his poetic vision, leading him to states of poetic enlightenment, regardless of whether the Orphic gure oats up from Greek mythology or from Mesopotamian or Egyptian counterparts. The interplay in Orpheus between Katabasis and Anabasis is not a new one, and one might easily dismiss alBayati for presenting a world too simplistically irreconcilable, too strictly divided between the appearance of reality and the desire to change this reality. Unlike so many contemporary poets, al-Bayati is not content with allowing the invisible to remain private and concealed. What gives his poetry weight is its tendency to move in one single poem from the social in the caf shops of the worlds cities I beg for postcards, 61 to the mythic and the prophetic: And why, my Lord, have the words abandoned us / When the miracle of the priest and the moans of the witches were of no avail? 62 But most of all it is in this tension between the world of the living and the realm of the dead that al-Bayati plays on the rami cations of Orpheus, on the variations of a seemingly disparate image, conveyed by a voice modulating between irony, despair, hope, and sympathy in order to capture the fragmentation and dismemberment of contemporary experience. But what does the eye see or not see in al-Bayatis version of Orpheus? Al-Bayatis poem The Prophecy in his collection al-Kitbah al al-n [Writing on the Mud] introduces a persona trying to write on the water what the singer, presumably Orpheus, has just said to the night. Now, if the singer is Orpheus, and the poetic persona is writing what Orpheus the singer

61 Abd al-Wahhb al-Bayt, Al-Mujizah The Miracle: Dwn Abd al-Wahhb alBayt, vol. 2 (Beirut: Dr al-Awdah, 1971) 274. Henceforth referred to as Dwn. All Arabic translations from al-Bayt are mine. For a full translation of the poems, please see The Mise-en-Sc ne of Writing in al-Bayts Al-Kitbah al al-n, Journal of Arabic Literature, 32 no. 2 (2001), 159-66. 62 al-Bayt, The Miracle, Dwn 274.



has said his music, his poetry then the act of writing will come to represent a kind of poetry that personi es the night as an attentive listener and makes of him/it Orpheuss sole companion:
A free woman would eat her breasts if she were hungry in the land of poor kings A Daphla ower on a stream Stripping herself naked in shyness While I am writing / And I write on the mud what the singer said to the night I denude the words And the incantations of the unchaste fortunetellers. 63

As in Blanchot, the night becomes the Orphic trope par excellence. In a sense, the poet is writing Orpheus, and writing itself becomes Orpheus because, like Orpheus, it dies and disappears on the surface of the mud. In this act of dying, writing too, like Orpheuss gaze that makes him no more existent than the Eurydice he looks at, becomes invisible in itself and invisible to itself. Later in The Prophecy, al-Bayatis persona becomes a scripture of mud and a thread of smoke / on which are written the spells and prayers, 64 thus giving a new dimension to the relationship between myth and the body as a scene of writing, especially when his reference to the Orphic myth is tinged with themes from the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. This peculiar mixture of East and West intensi es the universal need for resurrection and rebirth. Isis, goddess of curing and of spinning and weaving, and Osiris, god of reincarnation and, later, of death, were the primal couple, children of Earth and Sky. Sept, or Typhoeus, Osiriss jealous brother, murders him, places his body in a sealed cof n and casts it into the Nile, displaced as the Euphrates in the poem. His faithful wife Isis recovers the body and hides it in a marshland, only to be found again by Sept while hunting, who mutilates the corpse and cuts it into fourteen pieces, scattering it all over the country. Isis manages to recover all of Osiriss dismembered corpse except for the penis, which is said to have been eaten by sh. Osiris then retires to the Underworld and becomes the King of the Dead. The IsisOsiris theme of death and resurrection, the water motif, magic, the presence of ritual and ceremony, are all recognizable elements in al-Bayatis text. More signi cantly, the reference to dismemberment and fragmentation in the Osiris myth falls back upon the text and embodies it in several ways. Like Osiris, al-Bayatis poetic persona is dismembered, and the fragmentation of Osiriss body is reenacted in the personas poetic vision. Part of him is engaged in the process of writing; another part can see a ower on a water

63 64

al-Bayt, Al-Nubah The Prophecy, Dwn 245. See Appendix II. al-Bayt, The Prophecy, Dwn 246.



stream; still a third part can envision a river of blood on the face of queens, a fourth is observing carts departing; however, he still lies silent and powerless like a mummy in the river bed waiting for resurrection:
And I see a river of blood dying the faces of queens And the departure of the carts In the valleys of the Orient, re, and the silence of creatures.65

This partition decentralizes vision and shatters the geometricality of the subject position of al-Bayatis persona. Dismemberment thus becomes a mortal punishment and creates the desire for reintegration through myth. This interweaving of body and text in a single poetic utterance: I am a scripture the bringing together of the I as a physical entity, of Being as a state of consciousness, and of scripture as writing offers the possibility of identi cation and con rms the perpetual gap between dismemberment and wholeness, exclusion and inclusion, separation and indivisibility:
Oh, the nakedness of the sky of words Under which I lie like hay, a mummy Silently awaiting resurrection for thousands of years Carrying my own death within me, a traveler, a passerby, without food or water. Every time the Euphrates changes course, My soul lies helpless beneath its bed, with mud and weeds Oh, who could reassemble my internal organs scattered by the priest over time and place?66

The con ict between speech and silence is a major one here. The persona is forced to remain silent, to wait helplessly, though he is full of the desire to speak. But in order to make his voice heard, he has no other recourse than to keep the words inside his naked body or his body inside the naked words, or to make his naked body become his naked words. But here it is the words, and not Sept, their very nakedness, their hollowness and emptiness, that cause the dismemberment of the textual body from the inside. The strain of silence accumulates until the whole body bursts, and myth itself becomes the only hope to re-member the schism between voice and silence in the body of the persona as text. This peculiar use of the Osiris/Orpheus myth as a metaphor for language thus hints at the idea that myth can resolve the dichotomy between silence and speech. Like Osiris and Orpheus, language suffers from sheer mutilation, and the human body that dies under the inef cacy of speech could only be resurrected in myth and as myth.

65 66

al-Bayt, The Prophecy, Dwn 245. al-Bayt, The Prophecy, Dwn 245-46.



Al-Bayatis poetics of death seems to sustain itself in only one form: selfreferentiality. This path could serve very well as a trajectory for the criticism mapped out both by Freudian as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis. Freuds Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Lacans de nition of the relationship between death and language disclose to us how literature can only posit as its goal the confrontation of its voice with its own death, which might eventually lead to a kind of poetics constantly threatened with silence. Here al-Bayati seems to be saying that poetry has no voice, thus echoing Blanchots de nition of the poem:
The poem literature seems to be linked to a spoken word that cannot be interrupted because it does not speak; it is. The poem is not the word itself, for the poem is a beginning, whereas this word never begins, but always speaks anew, and is always starting over. However, the poet is the one who has heard this word, who has made himself into an ear attuned to it, its mediator, who has silenced it by pronouncing it.67

The question of voice appears once again later in the text:

Oh, what do I say to the singer? When at night the horses sigh under the fence And the magi of the coming time play their drums From one exile to another they come back defeated When Ashtarout rises from her underworld crying In her sacerdotal attire, When the horn is blown yet no dead are awakened or any light shines The cock crows on the ruins of Ur Oh, what should I say to the singer, While I collect the remains of my body mutilated by the priest in all times, And my votive offerings, and the seeds?68

But this time the poets death wish becomes a life wish, a wish for remembering his body and restoring his life back together. But if he wishes to be alive, does this mean that he is now dead? In whose voice then is the poem spoken? What we nd ourselves listening to is an impossible voice: the voice of a dead persona, one that resembles in its nihilism the voice of Louis MacNieces not-yet-born fetus in his poem Prayer Before Birth.69 In both poems, the personaes absent voices have actually said nothing: they are already nothing. One is dead, the other unborn. In death, al-Bayatis persona is no longer able to express his own difference from himself: there is no voice for the disappearance of voice.

Blanchot, The Space of Literature 37. al-Bayt, Dwn 247. 69 Louis MacNiece, The Collected Poems of Louis MacNiece, ed. E. R. Dodds (New York: Oxford UP, 1967) 193.
67 68



But if there is a sense of ontology to al-Bayatis poem, it has to emerge from some kind of affect. This affect is itself the result of the undoing of the poetry; [it] ruins it, says Blanchot, and in it restores the unending lack of work. 70 The sacri ce of the poetic word and of the one who writes it appears again in al-Bayatis The Blind Sorcerer, with the magician of the tribes dead people 71 who wishes to be burned. This particular poem problematizes silence by making it speak itself and by doing away with the voice and with all its possible forms, the active, the passive, the middle, indeed with the entire notion of agency, so that the poets own questions that desperately seek an agent are vainly looking for answers that are no answers. Still, somebody has to be this magician, this priest. The implication could be that poetry goes back to some place before language, perhaps to nothingness, to silence, or to death. Maybe it is this voiceless voice that makes literature possible in the rst place, that enables it, yet disables it at the same time, that allows writing while stepping beyond it, and that positions itself as a wedge between literature and myth. This absent voice in alBayati could quite likely be the myth of literature. In Mitologiae, Fulgentius refers to the etymology of the name of Orpheus, which according to him, comes from oria phone, namely, best voice. In a chapter entitled Une criture inventive, la voix dOrph e, les jeux de Palam de, [An Inventive Writing, the Voice of Orpheus, the Games of Palamedes], Marcel Detienne de nes Orpheuss voice as ant rieure la parole articul e, [anterior to the articulated word] essentially because it has an exceptional quality of assigning Orpheus to a world of music prior to verse, au monde de la musique avant le vers, la musique sans parole, un domaine o il nimite personne, o il est le commencement et lorigine. [to the world of music before verse, music without words, a domain where he imitates no one, where he is the beginning and the origin.] His lyre is not merely a technical object, and his song jaillit comme une incantation originelle.72 [springs forth like an original incantation.] If this argument holds, alBayatis Orpheus, who is constantly blow[ing] the pipe of existence, 73 could then be a combination of art and music, of poetry incarnate, a sufferer in the presence of words who is still capable of singing the magic words of the witches, the rosy and romantic songs of the young princesses, and the dirges that celebrate the death of sparrows:

70 71 72 73

Blanchot, The Space of Literature 37. al-Bayt, Dwn 250. Marcel Detienne, L criture dOrph e, (LIn ni, Gallimard, 1989) 112. al-Bayt, Dwn 253.



So burn me, For I am the magician of the tribes dead people In the caf shops of the world cities I lived, and on the wet sidewalks of the dawn Carrying a scripture of mud and the re of resurrection running through the veins of the mummy Filled with esh, the leaves of the evening are blooming on the walls. Who would call upon me? Who would carry the warnings of heaven? Who would suffer, in the presence of words, From earths return to the Ice Age and to the caveman? Who would sing to the witches, To the young princesses, and to the death of sparrows? 74

This con rms the idea that al-Bayati regards myth as an eternal fountain of inspiration, both the means and the end at the same time. To al-Bayati, it is the Orphic vision that matters and not merely the myth of Orpheus. As a gure of the Greek singer, Orpheus consolidates al-Bayatis own myth of the Orpheus myth and gives it some sort of poetic foundation. Orpheus is mentioned only in the title, but the whole poem is so impregnated with the spirit of Orpheuss song that the title Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld is absolutely relevant. There is a curious surface similarity between Blanchots image of an almost blind cat in Thomas lobscur and al-Bayatis reference to the eyes of the dying cats. Near the middle of night two, Thomas is found digging a hole near an almost blind cat. Suddenly, we are made to observe the feelings of the cat. It feels separated from familiar sensations. There is a void that rejects Thomas and that he cannot bridge. The almost blind cat has been absorbed by the darkness of night and is now la nuit de la nuit. This night of night marks the disappearance of space where appearance vanishes, a moment when darkness itself has been covered in darkness and disappearance disappears, so that the cat has lost itself in its own gaze, in the space of disappearance. The cat, described by Thomas as chat sup rieur,75 enjoys the privilege of disappearing from the text, but not Thomas. AlBayatis cats, on the other hand, appear in his poem The Nightmare of Day and Night in the same collection Al-Kitbah al al-n [Writing on the Mud] wherein his persona witness[es] the birth of the day / In the eyes of the dying cats.76 The persona searches feverishly for his beloved, until they

al-Bayt, Dwn 250-51. Blanchot, Thomas lobscur 46. 76 al-Bayt, Kbs al-Layl wa al-Nahr The Nightmare of Night and Day, Dwn 290-91. See Appendix II.
74 75



nally meet after the day had died. But the revolution of the sun that allows their rendezvous in the rst place is also the one that separates them again, and so on:
Why do you cry? You legendary river sucking the breasts of the city Carrying its dirt to the seas, The dead horses And the wreck of carts While I witness the birth of the day In the eyes of the dying cats After the sound of the skylark was copied, And the singer singing to the sun on a record The corpse was crying While I was looking for you on the streets Finally we met after the day had died Then came the night after the day And after the day another day And so revolves the disc And the years-broken voice of its singer Is breathlessly chasing the darkness.77

There is in this poem a sense of doom amidst pleasure and the connection of the dying cats to the night results in a cogent metaphor. Cats eyes usually shine at night, and the death of this light in their eyes is signi cant of the birth of the morning, so that the death of the cats could be the death of the sparkling light that shines through their eyes during the night. The eyes of the cats act like a harbinger of the day. In his sense the cats function as a metonymic indicator (their eyes) of hope, signaling not just the end of the night, but also the birth of daylight. Unlike Blanchots Orpheus or Thomas, al-Bayatis Orpheus is not in quest of the work of art per se, nor is he even sacri cing Eurydice for the inspiration of the night as night; Orpheus in al-Bayati is rather seeking the daylight. Al-Bayatis singer is tired of the longevity of the night; he does not want to see the essence of its inessentiality or its nothingness. As stated earlier, Orpheus in the two writers is appropriated as a myth, but this is not all. By taking one aspect of this myth (the gaze in Blanchot and expulsion in al-Bayati) and by analyzing it, Blanchot and al-Bayati put myth itself to question. The gaze and the expulsion are dangerous because Blanchot and al-Bayati make a gift of them; the gaze becomes the desire of art and the desire for art, and expulsion becomes the desire for Utopia through art. This designi cation of the myth is reminiscent of the Derridean


al-Bayt, The Nightmare of Night and Day, Dwn 290-91.



idea of language as emerging from play, or free play ( jeu) of signi ers, which takes place in a eld of language that is limited and marked by the lack of a center. In the same manner, the myth of Orpheus here could be said to have taken on this new quality of in nity, since the center of the original relationship between the myth as signi er and Blanchots or al-Bayatis appropriation of it as a signi ed can no longer hold or retain a xed sign in an ongoing process of historical accumulation. Like language, or perhaps because it has always already been in language, myth has no center, rather, it lies within the structure and outside it:
The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a free play based on a fundamental ground, a free play which is constituted on fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of free play. If this is so, the whole history of the concept of structure must be thought of as a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively, and in a formulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names.78

In Blanchot and al-Bayati, the myth of Orpheus itself seems to undo its own mythicness. The gaze and the poets fruitless search for the needle in a haystack 79 shatter the possibility that anything could be realized from their acts. If Orpheuss gaze in Blanchot tries to see something at night, Orpheuss gaze in al-Bayati works to dissipate that very night. Both desire to see what cannot be seen and to achieve the unachievable. In both writers there seems to be a strong cathexis between literature and the night. Could literature thus be to them that night, the essence of the night in the night, the urge that makes us want to see that which is not materialized? Like Blanchots, al-Bayatis Orpheus is gazing at the impossible, but his gaze extends far beyond any existing or present object of vision; his gaze is an escape from vision into shores of epochs where / when man is born anew.80 In both writers the absolute seems always to be that night. The only difference between them is that in Blanchot the complex allegory of the night derives mainly from the authority of the negative, and focuses on the necessary failure of art, whereas in al-Bayati the only illumination that characterizes the fate of his persona is the desperate and futile search for a gleam of light amidst an enveloping darkness. He even gives one of his

78 Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign, and Play in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1972) 24765. 79 al-Bayt, Hub r ys il al-lam al-Su Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld, Dwn 255. See Appendix II. 80 al-Bayt, Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld, Dwn 253.



poems the title The Night is Everywhere. 81 The frequently recurring words in al-Bayati I search, the underworld, the night, death graves, the singer, words, are all signs of a constant preoccupation with a certain loss that has its counterpart in the absoluteness of the night. Nor is the night itself a new theme to either al-Bayati or Blanchot. Both were born into a heritage of writers who were preoccupied with the same theme.82 In alBayati the night becomes a source of anxiety in the literal as well in the Bloomian sense of the word, and his Orpheus is always waiting for a glimpse of light that would declare the advent of the dawn. His feelings about the world take the night as a microcosm of that world; the night becomes to al-Bayati a perception of the world. In this world the very darkness of the night is itself the threat, the danger that the poet needs to overcome, a peril through which he has to thread his way out. But something has happened to the night itself. There are two kinds of night in al-Bayati, a night that collapses, and the desolate nights on the gates of Ashour:
So why are you in expulsion with death and the leaves of the fall? Wearing their rags, resurrected in all ages Seeking the needle in a haystack, feverish, expelled? Your crown: thorn, and your heels: ice Vainly you cry because the night is long And the steps of its hours in the cities of ant is re ............................... Vainly you hang on to the thread of light in all ages Seeking the needle in the haystack, feverish, expelled.83

The plural of the second night has unbundled this apparently omnipresent, non-spatial Night into many nights. The hope of Ishtar/Eurydice extending her hands to guide the poet through the night reverses the gender roles of the Orphic myth. Ishtar/Eurydice here becomes the hope of reemergence after Orpheuss tragic loss of her. With her appearance in the middle of the night, the ice will melt, and things will cease to be cold or swallowed up

al-Bayt, Dwn 118. Among French writers who dwelt on the night are Nerval, Balzac, Goya, Mallarm , and especially Baudelaire, whose Les eurs du mal is basically staged in darkness with a particular reference to the symbolic choreographic nature of the night. Al-Bayatis re ection on the night is also in perfect harmony with and a continuation of a long established tradition. Many Arab poets have dwelt more or less on the same image of the night as bleak, endless and cruel Imru al-Qays, a famous pre-Islamic Arab poet, is perhaps the rst to take up this image of the night as a metaphor of chagrin and hopelessness. His long poem Muallaqah begins with what is considered to be the most rhetorical and eloquent description of the night in Classical Arab Poetry: A night like the waves of the sea lowered its veil / On me with various kinds of grief to af ict me. 83 al-Bayt, Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld, Dwn 253-55.
81 82



and dissolved in that night as in real darkness; all the obstacles, the dams of the night and the dams which constitute the night will tumble down. Time also becomes a major instrument at the disposal of the poet; if the night is everywhere the persona is waiting for the signal. 84 Time is no longer in control of the content of the text, no more beyond all the incessant changes of detail that make it up; time with all its ages will be folded like a sheet. Thus it is as if in a moment, brief as it may be, a moment which itself is a moment of time yet a moment that does stand outside time, time loses its transcendental nature, becomes contained and turns into content of its own. In this moment the structure of the human being, of alBayatis persona as a sufferer of time, as a transient being, suddenly reveals unexpected power: the past is no longer irredeemable. This dissolution of the past into the present is not a change from an old situation to a new one. It is rather an awakening that asserts the presence of the present without having to worry about the following pastness of that present. It is a moment that materializes hope and asserts the present for its own sake, a moment in which the poet knows, yet still denies, the impossibility of living wholly in the present. It is a moment that celebrates a special event, freezes it, and that becomes itself that very event. Here time has become not a way in which events are related to each other and succeed each other, but the subject matter of one particular event. This moment in al-Bayati is the moment of the act of writing, which becomes for him the paradoxical effect of a piece of paper, of wet mud, of the surface of the water, of a human corpse on time itself. And now that time has lent itself to this stillness, it has become caught up in this rare moment of objecti cation, and ends up becoming a mere thing, a tool constructed within the world of the poem:
Every time Ishtaar calls you from the grave and extends her hand, The ice melts. And in a moment, all ages are folded The night collapses and so do the dams And the dead in his winding sheet cries like a lonesome baby After the priest had blessed him with bread and pure water.85

But this signi cant moment also has to discontinue at a certain point of time, and al-Bayatis persona does know that time cannot simply be reduced to mere stillness and that its uidity is uncontrollable. It is because there is a sheer difference between the time of Hades and Orpheuss real time, because time is not a mere thing, and because it is impossible to imagine time as something possessed, this image of capturing time is a striking one,

84 85

al-Bayt, The Night is Everywhere, Dwn 120. al-Bayt, Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld, Dwn 253.



albeit a tragic one. Eventually al-Bayatis persona has to give in to the sweeping force of time:
Oh, how desolate are my nights on the gates of Ashour, With death and the leaves of the fall While I am ascending from the underworld towards the light and the distant dawn I am a dead man resurrected in iron armor.86

In al-Bayati as well as in Blanchot, Orpheus dies; he is not a constant God. He dies twice, rst in his descent, and a second time in his dismemberment. Like Eurydice, Orpheus witnesses a double death. But more in Blanchot than al-Bayati, it is Orpheuss gaze, not the night, that becomes this trope, and his turning becomes a turning at the limits of possibilities, between day and night, entre espace as well as entre temps. By Way of Conclusion In the end, it really makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether great gures ever actually existed in human bodies. Suf ce it to say that a gure like Orpheus has been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. The Orphic reality, if there ever was such a thing, would be the reality of an idea, and the best that one knows about him is what men like Virgil, Ovid, Sartre, Blanchot, al-Bayati, Detienne, Cocteau, Seamus Heaney and many others have thought about him. To Blanchot and to al-Bayati the myth of Orpheus could be an allegory for the de nition of art, or it might simply exist as a myth, but to us it is a fertile ground for various possibilities of critical re ection, or perhaps the space of literature where literature becomes that which encounters the impossibility of its origin in the absence of any present. One cannot help recalling Blanchots de nition of writing as
effaced before it is written. If the word trace can be admitted, it is as the mark that would indicate as erased what was, however, never traced. All our writing for everyone and if it were ever writing of everyone would be this: the anxious search for what was never written in the present, but in a past to come.87

Likewise, in both writers the myth of Orpheus has to be effaced before it is written, or even effaced in order to be written at all, existing as the effacement of its own writing and the writing of its own effacement. This act of
al-Bayt, Orpheuss Descent to the Underworld, Dwn 245. Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson (Albany: State U of New York P, 1982) 17.
86 87



absence brings us back to the original argument outlined in the paper. To push this logic of absence one step further, it would become impossible to know for sure whether Ovids or even Virgils text is ontological, literary, allegorical, or religious. Aristotle tells us that poetry is an action in language as compared to theology. Therefore, if we treated Blanchots or al-Bayatis texts as literary, Orpheus would be nothing but ction, and according to Aristotles theory of mimesis, if there is any truth in poetry, it has to be on the allegorical level alone. The only problem is that we can never know. To Nancy, this could only mean that it would be impossible to read literature deconstructively, since literature already deconstructs itself. Even if a literary text is a singular experiment, its structure belongs to a groundless signi ed. Neither Blanchot nor al-Bayati could capture the universal myth of Orpheus. Literature and myth belong to different terrains. If Blanchots and al-Bayatis texts exemplify the myth of Orpheus, they could only exemplify it negatively, in absentia. Literature can only represent myth in interruption and as interruption. Myth has the language that has no self, a language empty of subjectivity. It speaks itself and speaks what is in speaking itself. Myth is the speech of the many. It is able to distribute being and does not let anything be out of place. Everything gets structured in myth, the word myth is simply declarative speech. It declares the way things are. Finally, this brings us back to the original point we started from. If myth is untraceable, then myth remains a myth: this is the best de nition one could reach. Perhaps one can no longer say what myth is, since we cannot have the experience of the truth of ancient times, nor can we pretend to reproduce the truth of past happenings. What we can do is try to give myth a form, and literature exposes this form. Literature lives on the death of myth and inhabits that death. Literary language is self-referential, incomplete and can communicate only itself. As opposed to myth, literature therefore cannot offer anything (collectivity, closure, transcendence, revolution). The Keatsian formula of literature as sooth[ing] the cares / and lift[ing] the thoughts of man is of no avail here. Contrary to myth, in literature we cannot be together as single essence. Literature does not have this totality of myth. Yet literature is still privileged because, as we can see in Blanchot and al-Bayati, it reveals to us a sharing of the limits of Orpheus as myth, not the essence of the myth of Orpheus. Where we share limits is where we are with others, where Iraq is with France, and Egypt with Greece. This sharing is not a communion but rather a sharing on the level of intellectuality. This sharing offers the possibility not just of reconciling cultural differences, but of transcending them as well. In the nal analysis, if there is such a thing as nal analysis, literature becomes a privileged place because as literature it can say everything and anything, and becomes the site of speaking with or being with, as



Nancy puts it. This is something that myth cannot do, because myth never has being with. Myth is ontological: it has what is and speaks the presence of all that is for a given people, whereas the literary language of Blanchot and al-Bayati is not a language of presence, rather it is a language of offering presence, or one that proposes to offer presence. In other words, myth distributes being, but literature collects it. Writing about myth in the absence of myth is indeed a challenging project, one in which both Blanchot and al-Bayati put us face to face with the genuine expression of the human community. In the absence of myth, one might think that literature is a lonely art and a personal experience, as singular and as silent as a supplication. Untrue. In singularity, argues Nancy, takes place the literary experience of community that is to say, the communist experience of writing, of the voice, of a speech given, sworn, offered, shared, abandoned. 88 In the absence of myth, it is literature that becomes the most telling expression of the world, the inscription of our communal presence:
And why, my Lord, have the words abandoned us, When the miracle of the priest and the moans of the witches were of no avail? 89

University of Wisconsin-Madison


Appendix I
Comparing the beginning of Chapter II in both versions gives us an idea of Blanchots destructive Orphic gaze back at his original text, his own Eurydice: Il se d cida pourtant tourner le dos la mer et il sengagea dans un petit bois o il s tendit apr s avoir fait quelques pas. La journ e allait, et ce quil ny avait presque plus de lumi re, et ce quil en restait semblait effrayer les oiseaux dont les cris eveillaient des chos d sagr ables. Cependant en d pit de lobscurit on pouvait continuer voir assez distinctement certains d tails du paysage et, en particulier, la colline qui bornait lhorizon et qui brillait, comme si le cr puseule le t laiss e insouciante et libre. Malheureusement les arbres taient galement tr s clair s, et limpression dun spectacle commun et p nible dont on avait hte de voir la n. Lex arbres navaient plus lair d tre des arbres, il se d tachaient en vain dans lair lumineux, il semblait que le feuillage, frapp par les rayons tincelants, devnt terme et f t soumis l clairage dun triste jour. Ce qui inqui tait Thomas, cest quil tait couch l dans lherbe, avec le d sir de ne pas se relever avant longtemps, bien que cette position lui f t fermellement interdite. 90

88 89 90

Nancy 70. al-Bayati, Dwn 274. Blanchot, Thomas lobscur (Paris: Gallimard, 1941) 12.



Il se d cida pourtant tourner le dos la mer et il sengagea dans un petit bois o il s tendit apr s avoir fait quelques pas. La journ e allait, et ce quil ny avait presque plus de lumi re, mais on continuait voir assez distinctement certains d tails du paysage et, en particulier, la colline qui bornait lhorizon et qui brillait, insouciante et libre. Ce qui inqui tait Thomas, cest quil tait couch l dans lherbe, avec le d sir dy demeurer longtemps, bien que cette position lui f t interdite.91


Blanchot, Thomas lobscur: Nouvelle Version (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) 16-17.



Appendix II