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On the unworldliness of language

Defending the arts as ‘useful’ may have the inadvertent effect of undermining their value.

In response to the attack against the arts, which takes the local form of the Liberal National Party’s irrationally applied fee hikes but is a more global phenomenon under capitalism, defending the arts as ‘useful’ may have the inadvertent effect of undermining its value. For disciplines like English, Film Studies and Art History, moving to outwardly proclaim their ‘usefulness’ risks the possibility of accepting the terms of a discussion which should be refused. In light of this danger, I will look to two writers, the literary critic and author Maurice Blanchot and the poet Paul Celan, who attend to this anxiety about the unworldliness of language in art. It is this anxiety that may be exploited to argue for the expendability of art, but in the hands of Blanchot and Celan, language as an autonomous realm comes to form the very basis of art and literature’s importance, as well as how it may have an effect on the world. 

This problem of the arts defending themselves in terms of their usefulness is the situation that Blanchot responded to in mid-twentieth century France. In the political turmoil of those years, after the occupation and through the Algerian War of Independence to the student riots of 1968, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre articulated the nature of literary engagement as a “quest for truth that utilizes language”. This meant that language was used to serve as a worldly force, with an emphasis on clarity and realism that worked towards the inducement of direct action. This view was attractive because it suggested that literature could have a direct political impact. For Blanchot however, this was a mistaken collapse of the irreducible difference between political action and literature, one which ellided language’s distinct and elusive nature. 

In The Space of Literature, Blanchot describes the fundamental experience of literature’s language in terms of “the outside”. This is a space which is utterly non-relational; home to an imagined language which, because it is prior to, or absolutely other from, the language which we all share that is soaked with history and culture, it cannot really be said to be experienced. This seems paradoxical, but it is the paradox that Blanchot finds fascinating. The success of such a work is measured by its saying “exclusively this: that it is — and nothing more”, by which Blanchot means that it uncannily makes itself present despite its impossibility. This paradox is one he finds revealed to him by a canon of modernist art including Kafka, Mallarmé, and Rilke, obsessed with dissolving the supposed laws of literature and poetry which they saw around them.

While the artwork resists rational explanation, our relationship to it can be understood in terms of an inevitable failure to approach this indefinable space. The failure is remarkable, because at this very point, where all seems lost and thus the work must be let go, the “outside” may be experienced. It is this realisation of the impossibility of mastering art or bringing it about by way of one’s will, and the strange fact that still it appears, which prepares the way for an acceptance of a passivity, in service of language, of the “outside.” I find Blanchot compelling for the suggestion that a commitment to literature, which would be the commitment to something exterior to the simply human, would dissolve the self as an active agent. While Sartre calls for a literature that fits language to the world, Blanchot argues for one which undoes the world by a faith that lets language play, and so constantly defers the closure of any worldly circumstance, political or otherwise.

To conclude I turn to the poetry of Paul Celan, a Romanian born, German speaking poet whose work was deeply affected by the Holocaust. His work shares with Blanchot a rigorous sense of what is inexpressible in the poem, but he also suggests a few more bridges to the world. There are two major ways his poetry is bound up with the world. Firstly, the language of the poem responds to the movement of language as a whole, a language that after the Holocaust has passed “through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.” Secondly, the poem is dated, which is to say always tied up with human finitude.

The poem is the point where the tension between broad historical time and disappearing personal time goes slack, where they interpenetrate in mutual silence, as an interruption or inflexion in the world. At one point, Celan calls the poem a message in a bottle tossed into the sea in the hope that it will reach another’s heartland. The following poem is about a letter which hasn’t yet arrived – representing the poem itself. The wax is just being sealed after the writer has toiled away at it by candlelight deep into the night, and now rests in the pleasant afterglow of the promise of communication, embraced by a swimming light. He rests in the interplay of light’s presence and dark’s absence, which is the poem’s true domain – is an ever-open and indeterminate way for us.

With Letter and Clock
Paul Celan

to seal the unwritten
that guessed
your name,
that enciphers
your name.

Swimming light, will you come now?

Fingers, waxen too, 
through strange, painful rings.
The tips melted away.

Swimming light, will you come?

Empty of time the honeycomb cells of the clock,
bridal the thousand of bees,
ready to leave.

Swimming light, come. 

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