There is an idea that the book is an immovable object, as if the book were a heavy stone. An idea that, aside from mistakes, a books as it is published & printed is finished, is complete―has gone through rounds of editing, has been carefully checked, and in terms of narrative has been considered and then reconsidered by its author to the point that such a text is, indeed, finished.
One must remember that, in the aforementioned metaphor―in many instances of French poetry from the 20th century, from Bataille to Bonnefoy to Estaban to Royet-Journoud―it is from a stone that god speaks.
When god speaks, there is a sense of perpetual (in)difference, an impossibility. The enigma of finitude, an idea as such.
So what does it mean to consider the book as an immovable stone from which god speaks the impossible? Instead of metaphor, what we’re considering here is a metonymic chain of associations, a movement to drive home a point that is not linear (a technique Edmond Jabés was quite fond of using throughout his incredible books).
So the question has presented itself: how can we encounter an object that is both a book and the enigma of god’s impossibility?
There are three French writers whom I hold in the highest esteem, close to my praxis, my ideas of literature, art & the world: Georges Bataile, Maurice Blanchot & Tony Duvert. What I am interested in, today, that bonds all three of these authors is a peculiar fact. All three men wrote a book, a récit perhaps, which then, many years later, they revised and republished in a nouvelle version.
In all included instances, the book has not been expanded (which often flags the marketing ploys of late-capitalism: the “revised & expanded” edition of a text), but rather reduced―perhaps re-written, but in all instances, the nouvelle versions sit as shorter texts than the originals. I think this move, taken by all three writers, warrants a number of questions, which it is my intention to investigate. However, before we launch into an interrogation, we should perhaps examine the case of each text.
Georges Bataille, The Story of the Eye, 1928 & 1940
Maurice Blachot, Death Sentence, 1948 & 1971
Tony Duvert, Récidive, 1967 & 1976
Bataille’s Story of the Eye was initially published, in an edition of 134 copies in 19281. This is the version translated by Joachim Neugroschel that is widely available (from Penguin, City Lights & Marion Boyers) and still in print. The nouvelle version was published first in 1940, in an edition of 199; in 1941, in an edition of 500; and finally, post-humously (and for the first time with Bataille’s name attached), in 1967. This edition was actually translated before the 1934 edition, in 1953 by Austrym Wainhouse for Olympia Press. First published in 1953 as A Tale of Satisfied Desire, and then again (coupled with Wainhouse’s translation of Madame Edwarda―still the most known translation of the short text) as Story of the Eye in 1968. Both of these editions are wildly out of print, and impossible to come by unless you want to clunk down $50 – $100 for a copy (I haven’t even had luck getting either edition of the translation through Inter-Library Loan!). Despite my Bataille obsession, I’ve heard that the Wainhouse translation is less than fidelious to the text, so I haven’t checked it out.
From what can be derived in Cullen, Wolf & Chassin’s study ‘Excavations’, which compares both original French versions & the two English translations, it would seem that Bataille tightened up his prose, cleaned up the text. However, one finds that in certain instances Bataille seems to have changed the text to carry less aggression. Instances can be found where, in the first text, “rape” is changed, in the nouvelle version, to more consensual (albeit still charged) sex. Also, multiple instances that echo an imperialist bent (a sense of explicitly ‘other-ing’ primitive cultures) have been excised.
Blanchot severely revised two of his early novels: Thomas the Obscure, published in 1941, with the nouvelle version arriving in 1950, and Death Sentence, originally published in 1948 and then, markedly, in 1971. In the former instance, only the nouvelle version is available in translation, the latter only the early version, both from Station Hill.
While it would be fitting to examine Thomas the Obscure more closely, as such would make the case that, for all three authors, it was each first book that has been revised, but I believe there is more of interest to be found in Death Sentence‘s new version. While in both instances Blanchot changed the narratives to fit more adequately into his development of the récit2, the reason I insist on considering Death Sentence over Thomas the Obscure comes mostly from my engagement with Roger Laporte’s essay, “White Night.” In this essay, Laporte examines another récit, Pierre Madaule’s Une Tâche sériuse, a book that deals exclusively with Madaule’s astonishment at discovering the 1971 edition of Blanchot’s great work had changed! The following passage, the last two paragraphs of the original edition, have been excised from the nouvelle version:
“These pages can here reach their term, and no sequel will have me add to or subtract from that which I have just written. That remains, that will remain to the very end. He who would efface that from me, in exchange against that ending for which I vainly search, would himself become the beginning of my own story, and he would be my prey. In the darkness, he would see me; my speech would be his silence, and he would believe to rule the world, but this sovereignty would again be mine, his nothingness mine, and he too would know that there is no end when starting with a man who wants to finish alone.
“May this be remembered then by him who would read these pages believing them crossed by the thought of misfortune. And more, that he try to imagine the hand writing them: were he to see it, perhaps reading would become for him a serious task.”3
Lydia Davis’s translation of Death Sentence is a translation of the original version, so I can offer no further feedback on what else has been excised.
Finally we turn to Tony Duvert’s Récidive, originally published in 1967, the nouvelle version published in 1976. Neither version has been translated4. However, Brian Gordon Kennelly’s essay, “Rewriting, Rereading Récidive” outlines some of the changes, and notes that the the text is 53 pages shorter. It should also be noted that the definition of “recidivism” is “repeated or habitual relapse, as into crime.” From Kennelly’s essay:
Whether desensitizing by “dilution” or not, Duvert appears at least to be discounting, deemphasizing, or downplaying the importance of the relationship between texts intensified in this case in the dramatic tension established between the paratext and the text it frames. Yet to perceive the Duvertian deemphasis of the relationship between texts this way would be to misperceive it. In his rewriting of Recidive, seems rather to broaden his novel’s intertextual stage, providing an additional layer, if not the penultimate dimension for the recidivism it rehearses. Whereas Phillips notes the numerous intertextual echoes of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Raymond Queneau, Marguerite Duras, and Robert Pinget within the 1976 version of Recidive, “ironic intertextuality” underlining the novel’s status as text a universe of texts and not as reality (161-2) most dramatically extends between of itself.
With consideration of all three books at hand, one might find it odd that I’m insisting upon looking at all three together, instead of each one individually. I would insist, however, that considering the re-writing of all three novels against the following questions shed light on the nature of the book, or perhaps the récit, in general.
So, to repeat the question stumbled upon in our introduction: how can we encounter an object that is both a book and the enigma of god’s impossibility? To address this, I’ve found it best to talk around the question, by considering the following:
- What does it mean to erase part of a book’s content, years after its initial publication?
- In revising the book in its total form, is an insistence upon the book in itself revealed?
- What is the use-value of the book beyond simply as vessel for language?
What does it mean to erase part of a book’s content years after its initial publication?
There are, one can presume, many specific reasons that each author had for removing, changing, or editing fragments of each text. I’m less interested in a textual based examination based on entire oeuvres in this instance, and more interested in answering the question by addressing a conceptual idea lensed through these works. As such, we can begin to address this question with this quote from Laporte’s “White Night,” discussing the excision of the final two pages between the first and second versions of Death Sentence:
“The post-scriptum to L’Entretien infini ends with this phrase: ‘… I believe that these texts, with an obstinacy that today astounds me, have not refrained from seeking to respond even to the book’s absence that they designate in vain.’ Would not deleting a few pages from a book, and capital ones at that, be a way of indicating to the reader that the ‘book’s absence’ is more important than any work? This cut, which fairly returns the book toward the impossible original silence, can be perceived only by the reader who already knows the first edition of L’Arret de mort, a work we would read better if the counter-proof of Une Tâche sérieuse? were available?”
This is a particularly Blachot-charged reading of the change, and as such I think it’s safe to assume relevance to Death Sentence, but how does this address Story of the Eye and Récidive? We can begin if the idea of the book, as Blanchot sees it, is related to the neutral. This term, used by Blanchot throughout his career, is tricky to pin down and acquires a range of meaning across different contexts, but for brevity and exegesis we will here link the idea of the ‘neutral’ to that of morality: if the impossible (a term used over and over again by both Blanchot &, especially, Bataille―and, in other works of Duvert, a communication of violence often entertained) is death5, then the absence of the book becomes an echo of this impossibility: something neither here nor there. An insistent approach to the literality of the book would say that this is not possible: the book cannot be dead inasmuch as the book, as it sits in front of a reader, cannot be absent. But is not the act of removal a violation, a wounding of the page? If the text is taken as récit, that is to say, an event in itself instead of a representation of an event, then wouldn’t the violence enacted by a removal insist upon the book’s mortality?
The violence of the white page: this insistence, preached by a generation of French poets (poets who don’t produce poems, but rather writing), comes, as Anne-Marie Albiach says, from Bataille. This is present mostly in the body of works that makes up the Somme Atheologique―a body that began 8 years after the initial publication of The Story of the Eye, but carried itself through Bataille’s life, loosely & heterogeneously as Bataille added and subtracted texts, never quite bringing the specific project to a close before his death in 1962.
If the author is his book, then the book can indeed face mortality. Georges Bataille died on the morning of July 8th, 1962. His work, at the time, was still mostly unknown. Maurice Blanchot lived in isolation for the latter-half of his existence, living to the surprising age of 95, dying in 2003. To imagine Blanchot alive in the 21st century is almost beyond my comprehension. Tony Duvert lived until 2008, when he was discovered dead in his home, his body in such a state of decay that he was assumed to have died a month beforehand.
To remove part of a book’s content, to rebirth the work to the world in a different form, is a necessary violence when one considers the larger oeuvres of each three men. This violence belies an insistence on the work of the book, the book standing alone against the face of death: if a book can be changed, wounded, it implies something necessary―it implies that the book is, indeed, alive.
This article will be concluded next week, in THE HAUNTED HOUSE: WEEK TWO
1I am indebted to the following articles which detail the changes that I am addressing throughout this essay:
- “Excavations: Mining the Language of Story of the Eye” by Deborah Cullen, Mary Ellen Wolf, and Noah Chasin
- “The Wandering Eye: Tracing the Publication of Story of the Eye” by Deborah Cullen
- “White Night” by Roger Laporte, translated by Marshall Olds
- “Rewriting, Rereading Récidive” by Brian G Kennelley
2 For a very quick & easy (albeit, perhaps limiting, though adequate) explanation of Blanchot’s idea of a récit, consider Blanchot’s definition offered in “The Song of the Sirens”: “[récit] is not the narration of an event, but that event itself, the approach to that event, the place where that event is made to happen”
3 Translation taken from Marshall Olds’ translation of Laporte’s essay, not Lydia Davis’s translation of the text
4 Often warranted as a brilliantly important writer by critics in France, very little of Duvert’s work has been translated, and of those translations, two of the three novels once available are now long out of print. Strange Landscape and When Jonathan Died, both absolute masterpieces, can’t be found without clunking down upwards of $200, but both can be read via Inter Library Loan. Semiotext(e) has, thanks to the ever-important efforts of Hedi El Kholti & Bruce Benderson, released two of Duvert’s books plus a handful of essays: the theoretical text Good Sex Illustrated & the novel Diary of an Innocent. They remain, blissfully, in print. The issue of Duvert’s absence is, I believe, three-fold: for one, he writes what one would call very challenging books, both in form (early on in his career) and in content. Strange Landscape eschews punctuation altogether, allowing, instead, space & diction to demonstrate textual rhetoric. Secondly, Duvert is an avowed homosexual, and despite changes in English speaking countries in the time since Duvert was writing, Gay Male Fiction isn’t exactly popular or marketable. Thirdly, Duvert was an avowed pederast and deals with such issues in his texts, which means many publishers & readers won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, which seems unfortunate as both Good Sex Illustrated and When Jonathan Died provide a context for Duvert’s sexual ‘deviancy’ that is far from exploitative.
5 For Georges Bataille the impossible is not exclusively death, but Blanchot’s conception of the term (with the idea that death is impossible because we as individuals can never experience death while alive) does interact with Bataille’s more loose idea, which can more easily be understood as a sort of ecstatic beyond.