Sunday, February 7, 2010


In a remarkably condensed early essay, How is Literature Possible? this movement is prefigured. In it, Blanchot reviews a critical work by Jean Paulhan about the opposition of what we might call traditional and rebellious literature. The idea of overthrowing cliché and the tired generic forms (that is, Tradition) has dominated our conception of literature for 150 years. Blanchot mentions Victor Hugo's rejection of rhetoric, Verlaine's denunciation of eloquence and Rimbaud's abandonment of "old-hat" poetry. Sixty years on, it hasn't changed that much. Think of Martin Amis' famous "war against cliché", JG Ballard's expressed distaste for literature and Steven Wells of ATTACK! Books thumping the table of the high-chair with his spoon. Indeed, Beckett's Trilogy could itself be called a work of terrorism against the citadel of tradition. Yet the rebels themselves are divided into two camps. Those, like Wells, who are keen to dispense with literature altogether in an amphetamine-fuelled auto-de-fe and so destroy the complacent world of bourgeois stolidity, and those, like Amis, who want to prune language of its deadwood so that a consciousness can be experienced in all its grotesque, singular richness. What Blanchot (and indeed Paulhan) does is to point out that in order to do either requires a scrupulous attention to language. "Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those wo most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism [i.e. using cliché] are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach."

Stephen Mitchelmore in Spike Magazine.

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