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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 73-89
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Conversations Across the Abyss (Hugo, Blanchot)
—"The writer must save the world and be the abyss, justify existence and give speech to what does not exist. . . ."1
—Who is speaking?
—But this was already revealed to me by the Tables. How are what you call the "two sides [deux versants]" of literature to be distinguished from the "double ray [double rayon]" or the "double face" of the work of art, revealed to me by the voice of Death through the table—through the Winds of the Tomb—and which I recognized as the double furrow of the real and the ideal I had always inscribed through my writing?
—What is in question at this point is not merely approaches to literature, or the mechanisms of what you call "genius," but literature itself, and with it, the very operations of the human mind. I asked the question "how is literature possible?" in response to Paulhan in 1942.2 A few years later the question returned differently: is literature possible . . . after Auschwitz?I have responded to the discourse of the death of art with a notion of writing as an art of death. Is this somehow the same as what the Winds of the Tomb revealed to you? Who knows? You have been dead for more than a century, I have been dying for what seems like ages.
"I wrote a book . . . of the cut off head . . . I stopped at the point where only you can continue."3 Victor Hugo is speaking, alluding to Le dernier jour d'un condamné, a novel written in a first-person voice which cuts off just before the guillotine drops. His remark acknowledges the commonplace that one cannot speak one's own death, not only because one does not live to tell it, but because one never really experiences it. Another literary figure to have given this matter a lot of thought (along with his friend Georges Bataille) is Maurice Blanchot, whose meditations on writing insist on questions of death and voice.
In Hugo's remark, however, it is above all the address that arrests our attention and tempts us to engage Hugo in conversation with Blanchot. Hugo is speaking to André [End Page 73] Chénier, or rather to the spirit of Chénier, which ostensibly communicates to participants in séances conducted in Jersey in 1853-54 under the guidance of the celebrated psychic Mme. de Girardin. He addresses the voice of a dead poet, an absent voice that can only speak through a peculiar form of writing that spells out letters one by one through the tappings of a table. It is a voice that writes since it can no longer speak, having lost its head to the guillotine during the French Revolution. During the séances, Hugo asks Chénier to recount the experience of his death. Is it because Chénier is in the unusual position of speaking from beyond the grave that Hugo expects him to do the impossible, to go beyond the silenced voice of the condemned man, that is, beyond the reach of fiction? How are we to read this writing of the Tables, and what does it have to do with "literature"?
The transcript dramatizes fundamental notions concerning writing, death, and relations between the two that Blanchot will theorize a century later in his critical writings. Here, Hugo demands Chénier's impossible account of his own death specifically in response to a demand of writing. What is at stake is not only the continuation of the narrative necessarily aborted in Hugo's novel —"I stopped at the point where only you can continue"—but also the continuation of the poetry of Chénier, interrupted by the poet's untimely death. Responding to Chénier's expressed concern, Hugo and his companions offer to assist Chénier in the completion of his poems. "André," Hugo begins:
You desire, and we also desire, to see your oeuvre completed. We will gather piously, and with the respect due your...