Part iv: The infinite text


[Rappoport via Green Chair Press]
I'm not quite done with this one essay -- again, Marina Warner on Roger Caillois in Cabinet. She has also recalled the concept of the infinite text, something which has surfaced in many of my recent readings. She says:

Materialist mystics, among whom I count Caillois, do not search for self-knowledge, nor for foreknowledge of their destiny, the sirens' secret; but they emphatically investigate hidden meanings and scan the deepest horizons of time into infinity: the world turns into an inexhaustible book written in hieroglyphs.

This of course recalls Valéry, Blanchot, Barthes, etc -- basically everyone I've been reading these past few weeks -- it also recalls Levinas and another article by another Marina in this same issue of Cabinet [the tyranny of connections!]


To begin again [continually], I'll go back to Stephen Mitchelmore's piece on Blanchot's The Absent Voice from Spike magazine, diverging from there as needed.

Blanchot is quoted:

Upon the background noise constituted by our knowledge of the world’s daily course, which precedes, accompanies, and follows in us all knowledge, we cast forth, walking or sleeping, phrases that are punctuated by questions. Murmuring questions. What are they worth? What do they say? These are still more questions. (trans. Susan Hanson)
These murmuring questions are hardly unfamiliar, though I agree with Mitchelmore when he says that we spend much of our lives 'avoiding or sedating' them. After all, doesn't it require a great effort to seek out questions? To place pressure on those points -- seeing if they will yield up their secrets. And the murmuring can be tyrannical -- the questions mount up, threaten to cover and crush the unadulterated experience of the thing.

I was reading an article from the first edition of CONTEXT-- a piece by R.M. Berry called 'Reading Beckett's Fiction.' He says of Beckett's fictional works:
Their challenges are such that I can rise to them only at my most energetic and alert moments, in times or moods where my engagement with my world is at its peak.

I agree with this, especially about Beckett, but it also makes sense when one considers reading in general. It's so difficult to listen. It's so difficult to rise to the experience of reading -- when I'm not up to the task I do something a bit dangerous -- to borrow a phrase from Paul Chan, the artist who was recently featured in the New Yorker, I indulge in 'reckless reading.' Like drawing a net through the text, sifting through the ideas, the phrases, and capturing quickly those bright gems in the effluvium. I say it's dangerous because it's selfish and it's untethered. This sort of reading also quickly degenerates into artificial synthesis -- I determine what I find because I've asked only one question of what I am reading -- what will you say that will remind me of myself?

What's the alternative? I like what Mitchelmore says of Blanchot:

When he reviews a book, rather than judging it within a set external criteria, such as the persuasiveness of character or plot, or its relevance to the breaking news of the moment, he asks certain questions that emerge from the experience of reading the book itself.
This seems to me like good reading -- innocent but not naive -- energetic but not reckless.

So there are questions embedded within texts -- different for each reader? I suppose so. There are questions which seem especially personal -- questions which seem individually significant. There are questions posed by the context of reading or inherent in the chronology of reading [The questions I asked of Man Without Qualities were largely informed by the questions which seemed important in reading Magic Mountain; or, the questions I found in The Four Quartets were informed by To the Lighthouse, Process & Reality, La Recherche]. It's easy to feel numbed by this multitude -- overwhelmed -- not equal to the task.

I suppose that I long thought of reading as a largely passive experience. I selected a story, read it, often too quickly, often relying on a semi-photographic memory to recall huge chunks of text that had been swallowed whole. I escaped into reading, or let myself be moved or transported or whatehaveyou. Even when I acquired The Toolbox Necessary To Success in Reading English Literature I failed horribly in formal, systematic readings. Just as I failed to grasp the point of art history -- I far preferred the experience itself, though not realizing that at the time.

Reading became a way of understanding -- it became an adventure in ideas and creativity and human perception. I remember thinking years ago that I had hit upon something so wonderful -- reading was about bringing the infinite into the finite -- it was about translating a big, clumsy, difficult idea into particulars -- I eventually settled into thinking that reading was about exploring the instances of ideas and experience. A synthesis which resulted in a beautiful, separate creation -- equally difficult, equally challenging.


And all of that is a long way of saying that I understand, now, this desire for the infinite artwork -- for Pierre Menard's perpetual Quixote -- Beckett's untethered, unexemplary prose -- the artwork which is not an object to be walked around in a museum but rather an action in itself.
Beckett's first-person novels, those with dramatized narrators are not so much representations of actions as they are themselves actions. Perhaps we could call them enactments, or even performances ... [Berry's 'Reading Beckett's Fiction']
This seems like a start -- it explains the challenge posed by certain texts -- accomplished with varying degrees of success [for example, Cortazar's Hopscotch seems to try too hard to challenge the reader -- the scaffolding is too much in evidence]. Certain texts invite 'reckless reading' too -- Beckett is again a good example. His prose is so unremarkable at times -- Berry points to phrases in Molloy like: 'in the dark,' 'left cold,' 'no matter,' -- and sentences which rely upon their unremarkable points to insinuate a greater obscurity -- sentences like:

But that she should associate the four knocks with anything but money was something to be avoided at all costs.

I say that now, but after all what do I know now about then.

And my favorite:
But from time to time. From time to time. What tenderness in these little words, what savagery.

That's exactly what we find in Beckett's prose -- tenderness of comfort and familiarity, savagery of meaninglessness, of annihilation. Sentences spill into sentences, tenses don't add up, it's like the literary form of an optical illusion -- the one where the simple frame turns into a never-ending Möbius strip.


I've gone on too long -- overwhelmed by connections which have perplexed my mind -- I try to dig myself out by writing little essays -- trying to make sense, to reveal something -- structure, connections, convergences. I still have more to say--