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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

what maurice blanchot never told you...

LI has been thinking about life and letters.

As we said in the last post, Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster both wrote about Joseph Joubert in terms of the solitary writer, the man who goes back to the beginning, over and over again: dreaming of the great book that never comes. What comes, instead, is fragments that point towards that book, fragments that may, in the end, actually be that book, or as much of that book as there can be, in the same way that the man who sits before the gate of the law in Kafka's story discovers, in the end, that the gate was just for him, which in a sense is a triumph of the man over law - or, perhaps, is another trick of the law, erecting an impenetrable portal. This is one of the heroic images of writing, with the heroism arising within the writing itself, rather than being impressed upon the writing from the outside – as, for instance, in the heroism of Byron or Shelley or Hugo. And, as we all know, Derrida pitched his tent there, on the notion of a marked and surveyed boundary between the life and the letter, to demonstrate the oddity of it, and its incapacity to account for itself.

Blanchot in particular is a partisan of the fragment, and enlisted on his side Joubert as the kind of self effacing figure for whom the fragment is both the torture and the goal of writing. In The Book to Come he writes:

“It seems that the real experience (l'expérience proper) of the work remain incommunicable, the vision by which it begins, the kind of off the pathness it provokes, and the queer relations it establishes between the man we can meet every day and who precisely writes a journal of himself and that other being we see lifting itself up behind every great work, of that work and for the writing of it.”

However, Joubert’s case is, if anything, I’d say, a countercase to that of Blanchot's ideal writer. For Joubert, as Blanchot and Auster inexplicably do not mention, saw himself pretty much depicted in a hastily written book by Restif de la Bretonne. The book, “The cheating wife”, was written and published while Joubert was having an affair with poor Agnes, Restif’s much abused wife. The book was so close to the man we can meet every day that it included fragments of letters from Joubert to Agnes (and vice versa) that Restif had procured, using his oldest daughter to steal them from his wife, who at that point had moved out of the menage. To these letters Restif added his own malicious comments and insertions. Not only that, but he gave the Agnes figure in the book another lover - making it seem that Agnes had not only cuckolded himself, but Joubert. The scarifying experience of seeing oneself denounced as a parasite, a libertine, a housebreaker and a cuckold, with one’s love letters flaunted about by an accusing husband, might just have something to do with Joubert’s notion of the power held by the written word.

So: to take up the threads of this thing, as they are recorded by the ever excellent André Beaunier in La Jeunesse de Joubert. It is 1785. Joubert and his best friend, Louis de Fontanes, are now members of the extended circle around Restif. One thing to note about Joubert – he easily makes friends with the powerful. For Matthew Arnold, in the 19th century, this is a mark of his essential soundness – for, of course, Arnold has a pretty benevolent view of the class of worthies. But it is not altogether clear how Joubert makes these connections. In any case, he has made a connection to one of the era’s leading eccentrics. As we have noted, Restif saw his existence as a vast occasion for confession. He had a genius for vulgarity, for every type of perversion – even though he often set himself up as the enemy of perversion. Hence, the quarrel with Sade. He was a famous walker – like Diderot, it was his habit, come rain or come shine, to see what was up in the cafes of Paris. Finally, he was what we would now call a graffiti artist. It was his pride to write upon the stones of the Ile de France. He would write slogans on those stones, commemorate the great events in his life. Mes Inscriptions – this is what he called them. They were talismanic parts of his life. Later, in breaking with Joubert, one of his angriest accusations is that Joubert went and erased some of the inscriptions. Beaunier considers the evidence, and thinks it may be plausible that Agnes sent her lover to erase certain of Restif’s inscriptions, specifically the ones that proclaimed her a whore.

Already I hope you are getting a sense that Joubert’s education in the writer’s life, here, is much different from that life that is in ascent behind the great work. It is hard to find a form of writing more mixing of the life and the work than graffiti, especially as it singles out a certain person for insult.

As you will remember, Restif – perhaps to impress his young companion, perhaps because, like Father Karamazov, Restif was so debauched that his speech became a delicious species of perversity – told Fontanes a story about his accidental incest. Coming to his senses, latter, Restif realized that this story could send him to the Bastille – Restif’s nightmare – if related to the authorities. Restif began to suspect that Fontanes was planning on doing just that. Certainly he thought Fontanes had communicated the story to Joubert, and Joubert to his wife, Agnes. Now, Agnes did have two daughters with Restif, and Beaunier speculates that Joubert might have decided, on the basis of Fontanes’ story, that Agnes should know the danger posed to them by Restif.

And so the story will rest until my next post…


roger said...

ps - you know, a major writer today who devoted part of his oeuvre to grafitti - wouldn't that just make the critics in the nyt art section and Artforum and elsewhere ooze on about that completely vacant word, post-modernism?

Amie said...

ce n'est qu'autant on aime à vivre seul qu'on est vraiment sociable.

- Rousseau, Art de Jouir, fragment 9

roger said...

Amie, you know, Rousseau looms over this whole story. It is rather extraordinary how Rousseau's status, in the 1780s, becomes larger and larger - until he becomes almost an official philosopher in the Revolution. The confessional mode that Restif specialized in, the love for the older woman that Joubert dabbled with both come out of Rousseau.

My point - which I dearly hope I get to, since so often these posts go sailing past the point - is that Joubert experienced a scary nakedness at the hands of Restif, felt the flame of literature not, as with mallarme, in terms internal to the enterprise, but its surprising publicness, its relation (as a sort of divine twin) to rumor and ruin. Reputation is a sort of literature too, after all.