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  • (How) Leisure Works:Writing as an Ethical Practice in Pascal
  • Daniel Kazmaier (bio)


In the Trialogus de possest, a text written by the cardinal, philosopher, and theologian Nicolaus Cusanus around 1460 that stages negative theology as a dramatic conversation, Johannes, Bernhard, and a cardinal are having a conversation about the best way to conceive of God. Having exposed, exchanged, and pondered their arguments, Johannes makes an issue out of their specific situation. He apologizes to the cardinal who is the master and teacher of the other two: “I am afraid of appearing troublesome and wearisome. Otherwise, I would ask to be taught still further” (Cusanus 947). But the cardinal is keen to continue: “And so, if anything remains [to be asked], do not at all be indulgent [with me] now; for on another occasion I will perhaps have less leisure” (947), he declares, referring to the present happy interlude of thought and discussion afforded him in the midst of his duties. By qualifying this happy moment as “otium” (947) he makes a poetological assertion, positing that it is nothing other than leisure itself that makes possible the work of teaching the other two the via negativa. Taking into account the double signification of the Latin word otium—which besides leisure, refers to literary occupation and studies—the Trialogus de possest owes its own genesis to leisure time.

The short extract of Cusanus shows how literary texts in general tend to stylize “work and non-work as modes of their own production” [“Arbeit und Nichtarbeit … als Modi ihrer eigenen Hervorbringung” [End Page 791] (30)], as Martin Jörg Schäfer points out. In Cusanus, this fact operates as a narrative metalepsis between the cardinal as an intradiegetic character and the cardinal Cusanus as the writer of the text. Whereas in Cusanus the leisure of the cardinals guarantees the formation of a text, Blaise Pascal complicates the correlation between leisure and the fabrication of an intellectual work. The special case of the Pensées inextricably connects work and leisure precisely because the Pensées do not form a text or a work. They are unfinished textual business. With regard to the concrete literary labor on the manuscript, the act of writing steps into the focus of attention that is aware of the implications writing engenders. Thus, what follows is merely the exploitation of the logic of otium, which links leisure to the literary labor the writer performs on the text by taking into account the material basis of (re)writing. Writing, it seems, is a twofold act. It is a concrete literary labor to turn phrases and paragraphs and moreover the emerging text becomes the scene of a deep leisure that has roots in the vita contemplativa. “As the very medium of its own genesis, the better work or non-work organizes the framework against which literary texts present their semantic systems and narrative patterns.” [“Als Medium seiner Hervorbringung organisiert die bessere Arbeit bzw. Nichtarbeit den Sinnhorizont, in welchem der jeweilige Textkorpus seine semantischen Ordnungen und Erzählmuster präsentiert” (30)]. Schäfer’s statement applies to the Pensées in a special way. In Pascal, leisure produces a short circuit between the concrete work of writing and the ethical framing of thinking. I will develop this argument in three steps. First, I will retrace the anthropological point of view Pascal adopts. The concept of divertissement expresses the paradoxical situation that leisure is work within Pascal’s anthropological point of view. He expresses this paradox as a double impossibility: the impossibility both of complete knowledge and of being completely ignorant.1 Second, Pascal reenacts this paradoxical claim by taking into account the disproportion of man: his lack of a proper nature. Finally, this situation echoes in the materiality of the text insofar as Pascal’s very [End Page 792] process of writing takes that anthropological situation into account. His process of (re)writing and awareness of the anthropological situation together create a leisurely labor that shows its own genesis in the metaphors of flimsy appearance.

The Screen: Pascal’s Master Metaphor

As in Cusanus, the question of how to conceive of God is above all at stake in Pascal’s writing...


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