The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett

The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett

JEFF FORT
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 496
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x07wd
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  • Book Info
    The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot and Beckett
    Book Description:

    Is writing haunted by a categorical imperative? Does the Kantian sublime continue to shape the writer's vocation, even for twentieth-century authors? What precise shape, form, or figure does this residue of sublimity take in the fictions that follow from itand that leave it in ruins? This book explores these questions through readings of three authors who bear witness to an ambiguous exigency: writing as a demanding and exclusive task, at odds with life, but also a mere compulsion, a drive without end or reason, even a kind of torture. If Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett mimic a sublime vocation in their extreme devotion to writing, they do so in full awareness that the trajectory it dictates leads not to metaphysical redemption but rather downward, into the uncanny element of fiction. As this book argues, the sublime has always been a deeply melancholy affair, even in its classical Kantian form, but it is in the attenuated speech of narrative voices progressively stripped of their resources and rewards that the true nature of this melancholy is revealed.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5472-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. ABBREVIATIONS OF FREQUENTLY CITED WORKS
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. IX-XIV)
  5. INTRODUCTION: “Why Do You Write?”—The Fault of Writing
    (pp. 1-14)

    How is it that certain writers of the twentieth century were able to experience the literary vocation as an all-consuming task, an exclusive and absolute necessity, a compulsion as demanding as it is ineluctable, and therefore even as a kind of categorical imperative? This study will seek to provide not so much an answer to this question as an analysis of the paradoxes that allow us to pose it, and of the conditions shaping the textual elaborations of such an imperative. One of the most important of these paradoxes, the one from which the readings in this book take their...

  6. PART ONE: KAFKA
    • CHAPTER 1 Kafka’s Teeth The Literary Gewissensbiss
      (pp. 17-57)

      “God does not want me to write, but I, I must.” Thus writes a twenty-year-old Franz Kafka in a letter to a friend. This is one of many astonishing pronouncements threaded through the Kafkan corpus, and it provides a striking formulation of the imperative to write, in the image of the overpowered writer struggling with the forces arrayed against him. It is well known that Kafka frequently evoked the extremity of his calling, in numerous emphatic statements whose terms are unmistakable, not to say strident and melodramatic. The letters and diaries are punctuated with extraordinary proclamations on his task as...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Ecstasy of Judgment
      (pp. 58-100)

      The judgment scene from the earlyDiaries, which in the last chapter I called the “uncle anecdote,” provides a remarkable relay point through which the scenic and metaphoric configurations elaborated in the letters and diaries are cast into Kafka’s first mature fictions, beginning with “The Judgment.” I will begin this chapter with a brief recapitulation of the former as a way to introduce a discussion of the latter, and to bring into relief, however schematically, the features by which they communicate.

      In his early letters, Kafka figures the task of writing as bringing up an inner richness, and manifesting a...

    • CHAPTER 3 Embodied Violence and the Leap from the Law: “In the Penal Colony” and The trial
      (pp. 101-143)

      In the preceding chapters, I have argued that the complex scenographies and economies of judgment mounted in Kafka’s “judgment stories” were derived in part from early and ongoing articulations of an imperative to write, in which exoneration and guilt exchange places in a tight circle of near-equivalence, centered on the demands of a disciplinary regime striving faultily for a sublimeappearance. In Kafka’s final judgment narratives, “In the Penal Colony” andThe Trial, the unviable contradictions of this regime are taken to, and beyond, the extremes of its logic, in ways that dismantle and distend its machinery, starkly revealing, but...

    • CHAPTER 4 Degradation of the Sublime: “A Hunger Artist”
      (pp. 144-160)

      “A Hunger Artist” was written in 1922, well after the transitional period (around 1917) mentioned in the previous chapter, and in many respects it clearly belongs among the later stories that can be described as “reports.” Narrated by an unidentified observer of the phenomenon in question, it sets out to comment on an important change in public tastes (or in the “mood of the times,” theZeitstimmung[CS 274; E 197]), and on the ever-declining fate of one hunger artist in particular.¹ One researcher has pointed out that Kafka likely drew on newspaper reports of historical hunger artists and derived...

  7. PART TWO: BLANCHOT
    • CHAPTER 5 Pointed Instants: Blanchot’s Exigencies
      (pp. 163-212)

      What is the relation between writing and life? In what sense does a writer have, or not have, a past? And this past, which the writer may or may not have: what does writinghave to dowith it? Finally: is it possible to locate in it a problematic point where writing is impelled to begin?

      These questions are doubtless naive, particularly with regard to a writer such as Maurice Blanchot, who continually engages them but in terms so radical and extreme as to render them nearly unrecognizable, or impossible. Blanchot’s work seems to deny writing a past (in every...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Shell and the Mask: L’arrêt de mort
      (pp. 213-247)

      The overview presented in the preceding chapter, on the “punctual” and “puncturing” events that structure therécits, indicates that somewhere beyond or before the more dramatically violent points figured within these narratives lies a point of another order, one that puts loss and mourning more directly into play. Thisotherpoint moves in a direction that I would like to follow here, on the way into a reading ofL’arrêt de mort. Elusive and obliquely approached, this is apoint de fuite—a vanishing point that “flees” when approached—in at least two senses: the point in question continually recedes...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Dead Look: The Death Mask, the Corpse Image, and the Haunting of Fiction
      (pp. 248-290)

      The thesis guiding this chapter can be formulated in the following terms (here stated in a condensed form that I will explicate in what follows): in Blanchot the feminine death mask is the transcendental schema of the literary-fictive work, the emblem and empty core of its most originary imperative—but as such it also marks for Blanchot the necessity, for writing, of an erotic renunciation, the sacrifice of a beloved woman.

      There is something extremely odd in the emphasis, toward the end ofL’arrêt de mort, on the wordprojet, its slippery elision and anxious, dramatic (but after all, nonrevelatory)...

  8. PART THREE: BECKETT
    • CHAPTER 8 Beckett’s Voices and the Paradox of Expression
      (pp. 293-329)

      The readings of Blanchot’s narrative texts presented in the preceding chapters pointed to a fundamental duality structuring the literary experience: on one hand, the attempt to approach a strange and “extravagant” point that calls for the most intimate narration even as it leads into an anonymous, impersonal space severed from the (autobiographical) particularities of the path that has lead there; and, on the other hand, the persistent return of these particularities, both as compulsive figurations of the voice’s inaugural moments (“primal scenes” exerting a fascination), and as the stubborn residue that haunts a narration even as it leaves behind all...

    • CHAPTER 9 Company, But Not Enough
      (pp. 330-346)

      In his essay “Lécriture du générique: Samuel Beckett,”¹ Alain Badiou points to a “mutation majeure” in Beckett’s work occurring around 1960, after the trilogy and theTextes pour rien, and beginning especially withComment c’est(1961). He claims that Beckett’s experiments work their way out of the solipsistic impasses ofThe Unnamableby opening themselves to the possibility of an encounter—an unexpected event or the disruptive presence of an other (the relation of “the Two” or “the couple,” as Badiou puts it). In many respects, it cannot be denied that such a “mutation” occurs in Beckett’s work, and that...

  9. CONCLUSION: Speech Unredeemed: From the Call of Conscience to the Torture of Language
    (pp. 347-360)

    This study began with the figure, the generative topos, of a conscience that forms the writer, structures the law of writing, and even, in Kafka’s case, gives scenographic shape to the fictions demanded by this law, in a process whose violence quickly comes into the foreground. This violence permeates the fictive worlds constructed from this scheme. In Kafka’s search for the writer that he must become, and for the proper “space” in which to become it—cold and unlivable, or fired beyond mere living—the bite of conscience loops back onto itself in complex and paradoxical figures. But this loop...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 361-404)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 405-412)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 413-426)