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The Imperative to Write

Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett

Jeff Fort is Assistant Professor of French at the University of California, Davis. He has translated a number of books by authors including Maurice Blanchot, Jean Genet, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Roubaud.

Publication Year: 2014

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 it—and 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.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. v-vi

Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Works

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

The critical approach of this book, which sets out to reveal a number of the problematic aspects discernible in a certain extreme relation to writing, leads me to preface it, by way of counterbalance, with a clear if naive statement of admiration: I consider these writers to be literary heroes. If this study often shows them in a light that is less than flattering, if it is marked at times by a tone of skeptical irony regarding various moves ...

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Introduction “Why Do You Write?”—The Fault of Writing

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pp. 1-14

How is it that certain writers of the twentieth century were able to experience the liter-ary 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? Th is 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 ...

Part One Kafka

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Chapter 1 Kafka’s Teeth

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pp. 17-57

“God does not want me to write, but I, I must.” Th us writes a twenty-year-old Franz Kafka in a letter to a friend. Th is 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...

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Chapter 2 The Ecstasy of Judgment

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pp. 58-100

The judgment scene from the early Diaries, 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 ...

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Chapter 3 Embodied Violence and the Leap from the Law

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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...

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Chapter 4 Degradation of the Sublime

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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...

Part Two Blanchot

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Chapter 5 Pointed Instants

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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 writing have to do with it? Finally: is it possible to locate in it a problematic point where writing is impelled to begin?...

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Chapter 6 The Shell and the Mask

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pp. 213-247

The overview presented in the preceding chapter, on the “punctual” and “puncturing” events that structure the récits, 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. This other point moves...

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Chapter 7 The Dead Look

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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....

Part Three Beckett

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Chapter 8 Beckett’s Voices and the Paradox of Expression

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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)...

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Chapter 9 Company, But Not Enough

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pp. 330-346

In his essay “L’écriture du générique: Samuel Beckett,”1 Alain Badiou points to a “mutation majeure” in Beckett’s work occurring around 1960, after the trilogy and the Textes pour rien, and beginning especially with Comment c’est (1961). He claims that Beckett’s experiments work their way out of the solipsistic impasses of The Unnamable by opening themselves to the possibility of an encounter—an unexpected event or the disruptive...

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Conclusion Speech Unredeemed

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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. Th is 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 ...


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pp. 361-404


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pp. 405-412


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pp. 413-426

E-ISBN-13: 9780823254729
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823254699

Page Count: 496
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: Cloth

OCLC Number: 875725437
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Imperative to Write

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Subject Headings

  • Beckett, Samuel, -- 1906-1989 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Blanchot, Maurice -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Sublime, The, in literature.
  • Kafka, Franz, -- 1883-1924 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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