an autibiographical story from blanchot on bearing witness

"The Instant of My Death"

By Maurice Blanchot

Maurice 

I remember a young man—a man still young—prevented from dying by death itself—and perhaps the error of injustice.


The Allies had succeeded in getting a foothold on French soil. The Germans, already vanquished, were struggling in vain with useless ferocity.

In a large house, (The Château, it was called) someone knocked at the door rather timidly. I know that the young man came to open the door to guests who were presumably asking for help.

This time, a howl: "Everyone outside"

A Nazi lieutenant, in shamefully normal French, made the oldest people exit first, and then two young women.

"Outside, outside." This time, he was howling. The young man, however, did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner. The lieutenant shook him, showed him the casings, bullets; there had obviously been fighting; the soil was a war soil.

The lieutenant choked in a bizarre language. And putting the casings, the bullets, a grenade under the nose of the man already less young (one ages quickly), he distinctly shouted: "This is what you have come to."

The Nazi placed his men in a row in order to hit, according to the rules, the human target. The young man said, "At least have my family go inside." So it was: the aunt (ninety-four years old); his mother, younger; his sister and his sister-in-law; a long, slow procession, silent, as if everything had already been done.

I know—do I know it—that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)—sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?

In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead—immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.

At that instant, an abrupt return to the world, the considerable noise of a nearby battle exploded. Comrades from the maquis wanted to bring help to one they knew would be in danger. The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation. The Germans stayed in order, prepared to remain thus in an immobility that arrested time.

Then one of them approached and said in a firm voice, "We’re not Germans, Russians," and, with a sort of laugh, "Vlassov army," and made a sign forhim to disappear.

I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the "Bois des bruyères," where he remained sheltered by trees he knew well. In the dense forest suddenly, after how much time, he rediscovered a sense of the real. Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers—truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth—had been slaughtered.


Even the bloated horses, on the road, in the fields, attested to a war that had gone on. In reality, how much time had elapsed? When the lieutenant returned and became aware the young chatelaine had disappeared, why did anger, rage, not prompt him to burn down the Château (immobile and majestic)? Because it was the Château. On the facade it was inscribed, like an indestructible reminder, the date 1807. Was he cultivated enough to know this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the "spirit of the world," as he wrote to a friend? Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential. In that year 1944, the Nazi lieutenant had for the Château a respect or consideration that the farms did not arouse. Everything was searched, however. Some money was taken; in a separate room, "the high chamber," the lieutenant found papers and a sort of thick manuscript—which perhaps contained war plans. Finally he left.
Everything was burning, except the Château. The Seigneurs had been spared.

No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.

This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I image that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive. No, you are dead."

Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who said that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process. “It was only reflections of art, easy to reconstitute, whereas a manuscript would not be.” With Paulhan, he made inquiries which could only remain in vain.

 

What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself, or to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.

 

—Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death. Originally published in French as L’instant de ma mort (1994).

a short, short story from joy williams

 

In awarding Joy Williams the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1999, the jurors — Robert Coover, Susan Dodd, and John Edgar Wideman — issued the following about her:

 The stories of Joy Williams dissolve the lines between chaos and certainty in our daily lives. A single word or sentence, heartbreakingly familiar yet utterly unexpected, ushers us abruptly out of bounds, off-limits. Because her prose is precise and unyielding, because the possibilities her stories imagine – funny, nasty, subversive, enlightening, scary – are compelling alternatives to the usual spin we put on things, we are seduced, freed to examine the arbitrariness of the particular peace or unpeace we’ve negotiated with the world. But even as it makes us uncomfortable, Joy Williams’ fiction renders more light, more life.

 Harmony

Joy Williams 

 

 June brought a friend when she went to visit her mother, who was dying. Her friend had never even met her mother, she just happened to be in town. June felt despicable, bur she was terrified. She and her friend sat meekly beside her mothers bed. June picked up a book in which her mother had written with a red pen untrue. June thought this was dear, even catastrophic, because it was just a book of poems. Finally her friend left. Go, go, thought June carelessly. Day surrendered to night as it does, and June had the odd thought that she had never been born. The thought appeared quite gracefully and didnt seem at all inappropriate. After some time, she was aware of a fly in the room, shuffling along the window sash. She remembered her mother once saying as she had put supper on the table when June was just a childa fresh, hot supper as was often the case —How did that fly get in here?It had been another fly surely, that one.

 —from Jerome Stern (ed.), Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories (1996)

 

 

primo levi on (anti)-happiness

 

happiness studies, circa 1943

 

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it; for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.

 

—from Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

 

 

 

the devastating ending of gilbert sorrentino’s red the fiend


Гилберт Соррентино Изверг Род Red the Fiend
 

Cover of Russian edition of Red the Fiend (2003)

After 200-plus pages of abuse from his Grandmother and neglect from his Mother, the transformation of Red the boy into Red the Fiend is finally complete:

 

Red is plunged into misery when it occurs to him that photographs of Grandma, taken when she was young, show clearly that she looked then almost exactly the way Mother looks now.

 

The corpse of a rabid dog, shot by a cop on the corner of the Cities Service station, looks to Red so remarkably peaceful that even the shining flies clustered and buzzing on his bloody head cannot dispel the sense of calm surrounding him, the stillness, the repose, the hush.

On a photograph of Grandma standing beneath a tree, smiling yet severe in a fur coat and cloche, red, in careful letters, writes DIRTY OLD CUNT. He props the photograph against the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, and goes in to sit on the couch, to wait quietly for Grandma and Mother. Ecstatic, he feels the world on the edge of obliteration.

 

“through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality”—iris murdoch

All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop that end  all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

—Iris Murdoch, Under The Net. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954, p. 275

another diary from roland barthes . . .

“They say . . . that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.”

The Private Barthes

Posthumous publication of the theorist’s journals draws disapproval

 

By Benjamin Ivry

 

Nearly three decades after he was hit and fatally injured by a laundry van in a Paris street, the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes still enjoys rare prestige in his native land as well as in the English-speaking world. Generally considered the most readable of his generation of theoreticians, which also includes Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). To this rich legacy may be added two titles that appeared in France last month, amid some controversy: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook).

 

Journal de deuil, out from Barthes’s longtime publisher Éditions du Seuil, consists of private notes he made after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, at age 84. While neither text radically alters our understanding of Barthes, the Journal de deuil does add documentation about the writer’s deep attachment to his mother, from whose death, he told friends, he was never able to recover. Carnets du voyage en Chine, made also of impromptu jottings rather than the carefully worked out prose that readers of Barthes are accustomed to, is another unusually intimate glimpse into the writer’s daily life, even when bored and out of sorts.

 

Comparisons are inevitable between the Journal de deuil and La Chambre claire, Barthes’s 1980 book on photography, written as he mourned his mother and focusing on a childhood photo of the beloved Henriette. For almost two years, Barthes jotted down observations about his emotional distress, which, as he explains in the diary, he refuses to call bereavement because "that’s too psychoanalytical. I am not bereaved. I am in pain." As weeks go by, Barthes’s feelings remain as intense as ever, as these brief excerpts prove:

 

November 5th

 

Sad afternoon. Quick shopping. At the pastry shop (pointlessness) I buy an almond cake. Serving a customer, the little female employee says, "Voilà." That’s the word which I would say when I brought Mom something when I looked after her. Once, near the end, she half-unconsciously echoed, "Voilà" (I’m here, an expression which we used mutually during a whole lifetime). This employee’s remark brought tears to my eyes. I wept for a long time (after returning to the silent apartment).

 

November 19th

 

(Overturning of status) For months, I have been her mother. It’s as if I had lost my daughter (any greater suffering than that? I had never conceived it).

 

March 20th

 

They say (so Mrs. Panzera informs me) that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.

 

July 29

 

(Saw the Hitchcock film Under Capricorn) Ingrid Bergman (it was made around 1946). I don’t know why, and don’t know how to express it, but this actress, the body of this actress, moved me, has just touched something in me which reminds me of Mam. Her carnation, her lovely, utterly natural hands, an impression of freshness, a non-Narcissistic femininity.

 

Those intimate recollections, as well as others, were not only published last month but also read onstage during a special event at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon by that theater’s director, the actor Olivier Py. This exposure of personal grief angered Barthes’s longtime friend and former editor at Seuil, the philosopher François Wahl, who told Le Monde: "The publication of Journal de deuil would have positively revolted [Barthes] insofar as it violates his privacy." Wahl is no more enthused by the appearance of Carnets du voyage en Chine (published by Éditions Christian Bourgois), which he describes as "the epitome of an unwritten text, which in [Barthes’s] eyes was a veritable taboo. He possessed absolute respect for writing and its innate logic.". . .

 

—excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 20, 2009

The entire article is available here:
http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=q3nn8qtbvfjpcjpf8j2zvzmjphvbssmj

 

“i don’t think i’d like it if people liked me. i’d think that something had gone wrong.”

 

three obituaries of James Purdy, dead at age 94: explorer of once-taboo topics — "including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality"

 
              
James Purdy in 2005

             

 


James Purdy, Darkly Comic Writer, Dies at 94

By William Grimes 

 

James Purdy, whose dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation, died Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 94 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.

 

His death was confirmed by John Uecker, a friend and assistant. Wayward and unclassifiable, Mr. Purdy, the author of the novels “Malcolm” and “The Nephew,” labored at the margins of the literary mainstream, inspiring veneration or disdain. His nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.

 

“I can describe my books as I see them as American, imaginative, symbolic,” he told an interviewer for the reference work World Authors. “ My literary ancestors are two other Calvinists, Hawthorne and Melville.” He also stated, in another interview, that he was attracted only to stories that “bristled with impossibilities.”

 

If Mr. Purdy made limited headway against what he called, in an autobiographical sketch, “the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment,” he was proclaimed “an authentic American genius” by Gore Vidal and admired extravagantly by writers like Angus Wilson, John Cowper Powys and Edith Sitwell, who, reviewing the stories and short plays collected in “Children Is All” (1962), wrote that Mr. Purdy would “come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language.

 

James Otis Purdy was born in Ohio near the Indiana border but remained vague about where. Because of his father’s financial woes, he was reared, he said, “in a troubled atmosphere” and left home at an early age for Chicago, unprepared, he later admitted, for the big city. “It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life,” he said.

 

After serving in the Army, he attended the University of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, the University of Chicago and the University of Madrid. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wis.

 

Mr. Purdy had little luck placing his short stories in magazines. Supporters of his work arranged for the private publication of his stories and the novella “63: Dream Palace,” about two orphaned brothers who leave West Virginia for Chicago, where they fall prey to a series of exploiters.

 

On a hunch, Mr. Purdy sent the books to Sitwell, who was impressed. The novella, she wrote to Mr. Purdy, was “a masterpiece from every point of view.” At her urging, Victor Gollancz published the stories and the novella in one volume, and British critical response encouraged New Directions Press to bring out the Gollancz volume as “Color of Darkness” in 1957.

 

Mr. Purdy’s early work met with critical enthusiasm, and in 1960 he moved to New York, where the photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to a circle of friends that included Paul Bowles and Dorothy Parker.

 

“Malcolm” (1959), Mr. Purdy’s first full-scale novel, further explored one of his cherished themes, innocence on the loose, this time in a picaresque tale whose Candide-like hero trips lightly from absurdity to perversity. The novel, lavishly praised by Dorothy Parker in a career-making review in Esquire, was adapted for the stage by Edward Albee.

 

In “The Nephew” (1961), Mr. Purdy slyly intimated the elusiveness of human character in the story of a Korean War soldier missing in action whose aunt tries to research his life for a memorial book. She discovers that the boy she thought she knew was a stranger not only to her but to the rest of the family and was quite possibly gay.

 

Mr. Purdy, nothing if not fearless, led his readers into more forbidding terrain with novels like the farcical “Cabot Wright Begins” (1964), about a Wall Street heir who turns into a rapist after psychoanalysis frees his libido, and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” (1967), which ends in a grisly sadomasochistic murder.

 

Decades of critical neglect followed, punctuated by brief spurts of interest when devotees like Mr. Vidal made the case for Mr. Purdy as a major artist. Though his plays were praised by Tennessee Williams, only a few were produced, at small theaters like the Theater for the New City in Manhattan. At his death, “James Purdy: Selected Plays” (Ivan R. Dee) was being prepared for publication in June.

 

Mr. Purdy, whose view of American culture was not optimistic, seemed to regard rejection as a badge of honor. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he told one interviewer. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.”

 

By and large, reviewers resisted, or neglected, the four dystopian family novels set in the South and Midwest that Mr. Purdy grouped under the running title “Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.” These were “Jeremy’s Version” (1970), “The House of the Solitary Maggot” (1974), “Mourners Below” (1981) and “On Glory’s Course (1984).

 

Nor did he win converts with two later novels about gay life, one dealing with the AIDS epidemic (“Garments the Living Wear,” 1989), the other set in the New York of the mid-1960s (“Out With the Stars,” 1992).

 

Mr. Purdy might have countered that it was not the critics who spurned him, but he them.

“Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability,” he once said. “The worse the author, the more he is known.”

 

—March 14, 2009, The New York Times

 

 

Controversial author James Purdy dies

 

Cult author, poet and playwright James Purdy, whose fans ranged from Dorothy Parker to Gore Vidal but who was little known to the general public, died Friday morning in New Jersey.

 

Reports vary about his age, but according to his literary agency Harold Ober Associates, Purdy was 94 and had been in poor health. He died at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.

 

In his dark writing, Purdy often explored controversial topics — including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality — at the edge of mainstream discussion, hence the shock and outrage he inspired from many critics.

 

‘When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone.’—James Purdy

 

Purdy also garnered high praise from a raft of acclaimed writers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Susan Sontag, Angus Wilson and Edith Sitwell.

 

"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," Purdy told the Associated Press in 2005.

 

More recently, praise from authors like Vidal rekindled interest in Purdy’s writing.

Born in Ohio, Purdy said he was "exposed to everything" as a child, when his parents split and he lived alternately with his mother, father and grandmother.

 

A writer from early on, he began submitting short stories to New York magazines, which rejected him. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s when he began to make a name for himself.

After his story collection Don’t Call Me By My Right Name was published privately, he made his official debut with the release of 63: Dream Palace in 1956.

 

Though best known for novels like Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961), Purdy’s credits include Cabot Wright Begins, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, as well as numerous short stories, plays, poems and drawings created over the past half-century.

 

A final volume — James Purdy: Selected Plays — is slated for publication in June.

—Friday, March 13, CBC News

 

 

Author James Purdy dies

By Hillel Italie

 

NEW YORK – Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as "Cabot Wright Begins" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.

 

Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan Dee Publishers said Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed but, according to his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, he was 94.

 

Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays "Children Is All" and "Enduring Zeal," the novels "Mourners Below" and "Narrow Rooms," and the collection "Moe’s Villa and Other Stories." Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.

 

Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans but Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent most of his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn walk-up apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment."

 

He was attacked for his "adolescent and distraught mind," accused of writing "fifth-rate, avant-garde soap opera" and left out of the country’s official literary establishment – the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also called a comic genius worthy of Voltaire and an outlaw, in the best sense, among his compromised peers.

 

Interviewed by The Associated Press in 2005, Purdy recalled being "exposed to everything" as a child, and his books revealed the most detailed awareness of sex, violence, race, class, familial cruelty and romantic longing. His work was labelled "gothic" for its extremes of emotion and physicality, but in his own mind, there was no sensationalism, just the impulse to write what he knew. 

 

"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," he said.

 

Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio. His parents split up when he was young, forcing Purdy to alternate among the homes of his mother, father and grandmother. His formal education was essentially a waste, although Sunday school did impart an appreciation of the King James Bible. An early muse was a landlady to whom he wrote hate letters.

 

"My mother was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people," he said, adding with a laugh, "We never showed them to the landlady. She might have had a stroke."

 

He wrote stories from an early age and in his 20s submitted some to what he called "the New York slick magazines," which duly rejected them in "rage." A break came in his early 30s when through a mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Chicago businessman and literary critic, Osborn Andreas, who agreed to privately publish a story collection, "Don’t Call Me by My Right Name."

 

Others soon learned about him, including British writers Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson, and his official debut, "63: Dream Palace," came out in 1956. He followed with such novels as "The Nephew," "Malcolm" and "Cabot Wright Begins," stories of innocent young men, needy older women and, in the case of "Cabot Wright," literary elitism, sexual violence and indiscreet bodily noises.

 

Rarely were reviewers so divided. Orville Prescott, book critic for The New York Times, labelled "Cabot Wright" the "sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent and distraught mind" and complained of Purdy’s "obsessive concentration on perverted and criminal sexual activities."

 

But Susan Sontag, writing in the Times six days later, likened "Cabot Wright" to Voltaire’s "Candide" and praised it as a "fluid, immensely readable, personal and strong work by a writer from whom everyone who cares about literature has expected, and will continue to expect, a great deal."

 

His most influential novel, "Eustace Chisholm and the Works," was published in 1967 to knee-jerk repulsion and eventual acclaim as a landmark of gay fiction. Set in Depression-era Chicago, "Chisholm" is a 20th-century "Satyricon," an explicit, matter-of-fact portrait of abortion, disembowelment and "diurnal coitus." But it’s also, through the passion of two men, a quest for "that rare thing: the authentic, naked, unconcealed voice of love."

 

Reviewing the book in 1967 for The New York Times, Wilfrid Sheed called "Eustace Chisholm" a "form of charade or peepshow" and placed it in "that line of homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone." By 2005, the novel was respected, and respectable enough to receive the Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, presented to an ailing Purdy by "The Corrections" novelist Jonathan Franzen.

 

"The extreme margins of the stable, familiar world of Saul Bellow – and of most novelists, including me – are at the extreme normal end of Mr. Purdy’s world," Franzen said during a formal ceremony in Manhattan. "He takes up where the rest of us leave off."

 

—March 13, 2009, The Associated Press