Sunday, October 03, 2004

Annie Dillard, Maurice Blanchot, and me

Were you ever jacked by a book? Have you ever read and reread a book that had layer upon layer of meaning, that forced you to work for every crumb?

I once read a book by Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (L'Ecriture Du Desastre,) that I thought was the most difficult book I ever read (in college anyway,) but I was wrong. To put this in context try and imagine a book composed of bullet statement commentary on everything from silence to the nature of complicity, and write it in French with untranslatable notions and a shy English translator, and just put it out there. Make it utterly obscure in the English translation and even denser in the French original. This was one of the texts I used for an honors project for my English degree. I was examining the role and nature of silence in works by Holocaust survivors, using a semiotic and metalanguage approach.

I remember countless frustrated hours, sitting in a Michigan library, trying to make sense of both the English and French editions. If you want to learn anything at all from Maurice Blanchot you have to suffer for it. He yielded no secret or context easily. Want an example?

"Effacé avant d'être écrit. Si le mot trace peut être accueilli, c'est comme l'index qui indiquerait comme raturé ce qui ne fut pourtant jamais tracé. Toute notre écriture — à tous et si elle est jamais écriture de tous — serait ainsi:le souci de ce qui ne fut jamais écrit au présent, mais dans un passé à venir."

I'm not much of a translator but here is how this passage speaks to me:


"Erased before the word can be understood, it's the indicator of that which would show erasure that can never erase what was never noted (or written.) All our writing -- with all that was never written at all -- would be as follows: the concern of what was never written at the present, but in a past that has yet to come."



That was simply one of thousands of typically cryptic bullet statements. Everything in the book related to everything and related to nothing at all. Within the dust jacket of that book was the meaning of silence, suffering, and the price of survival.

Fast Forward to Annie Dillard's For The Time Being. I have been reading and rereading this book for three years. When I travel it goes in a daypack with me, and a soft-covered Moleskine notebook with crabbed printing. The book goes fishing with me, tucked away in a Ziploc bag, I pull it out when sitting under a tree watching for a hatch. My copy of the book is underscored and marked up, crowded with notes in the margins, arguments continue on from the end papers to a moleskine notebook. And each time I pull it out and start at a random page, it feels rather like picking up a cherished arguement with an old friend. It all has great meaning together, but each morsel alone is a feast that could fill the world with meaning... if only I could break through the text.

The book has five central elements: meaning of numbers, a manual of birth defects, religion and faith (Judaism) throughout time, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's remarkable life's work and exile, numbers with and without meaning, personal meaning. The text seems to jump randomly from one topic to the next. There are no topical transitions. If you can't follow along tough noogies. This book is nothing like Dillard's previous work. I have read her since I was in my early twenties. The connection I shared with her was being around ten years and two miles apart. I grew up two miles from where she did, so her work has always been appealing to me.

The first few readings drove me crazy. I am a rather pedestrian linear thinker that wants books to move from left to right in an orderly fashion. After the second reading I was convinced she had just read Blanchot before she wrote the book. Each time I read the book, a secret part of me was certain I would suddenly transcend the text, that all meaning would suddenly connect for me. I still think that and it still hasn't happened. I was raised to believe tenacity is it's own reward.

I plan to keep returning to this entry as I find what is next around the corner.

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