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  • The Abortion of Literature
  • Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (bio)
    Translated by Donald Cross

In its concept—i am speaking neither of the word nor, even less, of the thing—literature a vu le jour1 in the brief (and fulgurant) years of Jena Romanticism: the Frühromantik. This is the thesis that Jean-Luc Nancy and I put forth a little over ten years ago in The Literary Absolute, and, not at all due to immodesty or vain insistence, I see no reason not to put it forth again today. The concept of literature a vu le jour between 1798 and 1800.

Jena Romanticism essentially but not exclusively means: Friedrich Schlegel’s theoretical and critical work.

Voir le jour means: to be born.

With respect to Friedrich Schlegel—but through the only novel that he wrote—I would like to speak here of the birth of literature. That is to say, of the moment in which, indeed, “woman, writing, society” were thought together.

To begin, the hypothesis is the following: the concept of literature is contemporary to—insofar as it presupposes and requires—the philosophical concept of birth. The philosophical concept of birth is neither the (Rousseauist) concept of origin—with which, terminologically and logically, it is [End Page 1] nevertheless often confused—nor the (Kantian) concept of the transcendental—even though Schlegel spoke, in full awareness, of “transcendental poetry” (Schlegel 1971a, fragment 238). The philosophical concept of birth is situated exactly where the two cross to incarnate, literally, the superposition (I am weighing all these words) of the chronological and the logical and to make possible an ontology other than causal ontology, that is, banal theology, whether materialist or spiritualist. Raising birth to the status of a concept—and this is an invention of German thought, which thus closes and sublates, in Europe, French thinking as it unfolded from Descartes to Rousseau to form a philosophical age—means that being should henceforth be conceived as history (I am weighing all my words, including “henceforth [désormais]”).2 To flesh out the thing—the cause—is the obsession that will dominate—and divide—Europe and, indeed, the world: it is, if you like, The Birth of Tragedy against Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. We have not settled up with this historicization, and one must not, above all, rush to believe that this “history” is over. The entire fate of reality or effectiveness (Wirklichkeit), whether the latter is thought as oeuvre (Werk) or as work (as Marx necessarily said in London), is still playing out in it.3

The novel to which I just alluded and that therefore (this is my hypothesis) expressly thematizes the birth of literature is Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde.It was published in 1799, in Berlin, with the note Erster Teil [First Part]. The second part will never be born [ne verra jamais le jour]: the novel is unfinished, like a victim of the fragmentation that Schlegel so laboriously theorized. Shortly after, Schlegel will try his hand at tragedy, a disastrous Alarcos, and, apart from a few poems disseminated here and there, he will never again risk that literature of whose conception he had dreamt, that literature concerning which he must have known very well that he did nothing other than, precisely, conceive. This is why, final element of the hypothesis, it is perhaps not aberrant to suppose that the birth of literature, according to its concept, went wrong (literature is, if you like, stillborn), and it went wrong precisely insofar as it sought to give birth to itself—to auto-engender and auto-conceive itself. I am speaking, then, of the abortion of literature.4

(I hurry to add that the abortion of literature does not in the least prevent literature from existing or from more or less getting along. At stake is the [End Page 2] concept of literature, at the philosophical moment in which the concept decided upon existence and in which, consequently, the necessity or the “objectivity” of literature was in question.

On the other hand, the fact that there have always been in literature, at least in what we call literature since that epoch, more or less obscure...


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