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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 128-130
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Ann Smock. What Is There to Say? Blanchot, Melville, des Forêts, Beckett. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. x + 192 pp.
Speech is Ann Smock's subject in this book. She addresses the manner in which that notion is constructed in the constellation of writers announced in her subtitle (with incursions upon occasion into the work of others such as Jean Paulhan, Marguerite Duras, and Simone Weil), following the meanders of those constructions with perspicacity, tact, and a very considerable intrepidity. For these are writers who choose—but is it properly speaking a matter of choice?—to problematize speech, offering it in the most extreme instances as an impossible thing, even as they engage in it. Among those writers, Maurice Blanchot occupies the center of the stage, as Smock reads him through the others and the others through him. It is the Blanchot-Melville pairing that [End Page 128] she returns to most frequently, casting it as a dialogue, or more precisely perhaps as a kind of entretien in Blanchot's sense of the word, that is, as an "interrupted" conversation whose intervals of silence speak as eloquently as the speech they interrupt.
Smock insists upon the extreme precariousness of speech when that phenomenon is considered in a context where the human subject is always plural, a vexed site of forbearance, inhibition, restraint, discrepancy, and equivocation (1-2). How can one speak, she asks, when "What is called for is different from anything you can do" (5)? The writers she deals with, and the characters they create, experience speech as an ordeal, whether it be the case of a famous mute (Billy Budd) or a man who just cannot shut up (Louis-René des Forêts's Bavard). If Blanchot is correct in his assertion that speech is always transgressive, and the only real alternative is to speak or to kill, that would seem to leave the human subject with very little room for maneuver. And in point of fact, there are some alternatives where both terms are impossible ones, or rather, where one term is only slightly less impossible than the other: "At the terrible encounter where the sole choice is speak or kill, speech means choosing the inability to speak at all or to speak" (48). In that sense, speech doesn't serve to answer questions; on the contrary, it raises them. One need only reflect upon Bartleby, the very incarnation of the interrogative. Moreover, in that same perspective, the putative "power of speech" is not available to these figures. Should they choose to speak, they must do so without recourse to power. For them, speech is a waiting, a longing, a testimony to its own inadequacy with regard to expressive need: "Speech is akin to this residual insufficiency, this want left wanting" (149).
Clearly, the kinds of things these writers have to say about speech condition very deeply what Ann Smock herself says—and more particularly still, how she says it. The tone of her book is calmly but unwaveringly interrogative in character, rather than declarative. She uses that tone strategically, drawing her reader in with questions and with a judicious use of the second person. Smock is closely attentive to her reader, and indeed this is a most generous, hospitable book. Yet she also demands that her reader grapple with the problems she raises on their own necessarily difficult terms, refusing to simplify them through easy critical legerdemain. She is sensitive to the ambiguities in these tortured texts, describing aporistic moments and textual tangles through [End Page 129] the very terms upon which they are founded. As she adduces those problems, Smock does not try to camouflage her own readerly hesitations and uncertainties, choosing instead to share them with her reader. On rare occasions, her doubts concerning her own project and the methods subtending it seem to brim over and jeopardize the project itself. "Perhaps nothing can attest to the indefensible thing I have tried to say in this book—nothing but a denunciation of it...