French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See
By Maria Popova
“The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid meditation on the magic of real human communication. But this transformation has a dual power of helping us see the world more clearly and creating the illusion of seeing when we are in fact misperceiving, as Nietzsche well knew in contemplating how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality: “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” he asked. Still, language is the mightiest tool we have for wresting meaning from reality. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
That implicit duality of our linguistic conscience and the delicate, beautiful, dangerous relationship between storytelling and seeing is what the reclusive French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot (September 22, 1907–February 20, 2003), whose ideas influenced such titanic thinkers as Foucault, Derrida, and Sontag, examined in his 1969 book The Infinite Conversation (public library), translated into English by Susan Hanson.
Blanchot considers what writing is and is not:
— To write is not to give speech to be seen. The game of common etymology makes of writing a cutting movement, a tear, a crisis.
— This is simply a reminder that the proper tool for writing was also proper for incising: the stylet.
— Yes, but this incisive reminder still evokes a cutting operation, if not a butchery: a kind of violence — the word flesh if found in the family, just as graphy is a scratch. Higher and further back, to write is to curve meet. Writing is the curve that the turn of seeking has already evoked for us and that we find in the bending of reflection.
Three decades after Virginia Woolf proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice that “words belong to each other,” Blanchot weighs the duality of language as a medium capable of both connection and separation:
— In each word, all words.
— Yet, speaking, like writing, engages us in a separating movement, an oscillating and vacillating departure.
In a sentiment of both complement and counterpoint to Le Guin’s incisive observation that “if you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful,” Blanchot writes:
— Seeing is also a movement.
— Seeing presupposes only a measure and a measurable separation: to see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us. Sight is invisibly active in a pause wherein everything holds itself back. We see only what first escapes us by virtue of an initial privation, not seeing things that are too present, and not seeing them if our presence to things is pressing.
In a caveat reminiscent of founding father Benjamin Rush’s insightful metaphor for our blindness to the truly visionary — Rush likened visionary people to “objects placed too near the eye,” whose genius is not properly apprehended by the age in which they live and is only appreciated with the distance of generations — Blanchot adds:
— But we do not see what is too distant, what escapes us through the separation of distance.
— There is a privation, an absence, precisely through which contact is achieved. Here the interval does not impede; on the contrary, it allows a direct relation. Every relation of light is an immediate relation.
— To see is thus to apprehend immediately from a distance.
— …immediately from a distance and through distance.
A century after the great naturalist John Muir insisted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Blanchot concludes:
To see is to make use of separation, not as mediating, but as a means of immediation, as immediating. In this sense too, to see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.
And yet, Blanchot reminds us, we never see everything — but perhaps that is a freedom rather than a limitation. He writes:
This is sight’s wisdom, though we never see only one thing, even two or several, but a whole: every view is a general view. It is still true that sight holds us within the limits of a horizon. Perception is a wisdom rooted in the ground and standing fixed in the direction of the opening; it is of the land, in the proper sense of the term: planted in the earth and forming a link between the immobile boundary and the apparently boundless horizon — a firm pact from which comes peace. For sight, speech is war and madness. The terrifying word passes over every limit and even the limitlessness of the whole: it seizes the thing from a direction from which it is not taken, not seen, and will never be seen; it transgresses laws, breaks away from orientation, it disorients.
— There is facility in this liberty. Language acts as though we were able to see the thing from all sides.
Couple this finite fragment of The Infinite Conversation with Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what a tree can teach us about seeing the world clearly, Thoreau on being unblinded by our preconceptions, Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on apprehending reality as it really is.
Published January 28, 2019