It is hard to know what this thread is, as it weaves through my recent travels. The only way to understand it more is to start about here.
Because, Blanchot says, in order to write, one must be already writing. “One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing.” He writes this in reference to Orpheus, and that Orpheus needed music to descend to the underworld to rescue his love, a precise metaphorical homage to artistic creation. As it happens in tragedy, the moment he gazes at his beloved, he loses her, but experiences perhaps a moment of freedom: “[He] frees the work of his concern, frees the sacred contained in the work, gives the sacred to itself, to the freedom of its essence, to its essence which is freedom (for this reason, inspiration is the greatest gift).”
That is why a particularly masterful work of art recalls the fact that it could not have been — if we are vulnerable enough to let our art be art, let our hearts be touched, and to sense the present moment. Steiner is particularly fascinated with art’s ability to give presence to that which is absent and profoundly otherwise: “The arts, and music above all, give to man the freedom from his otherwise mortal city.” It is where humans can “surpass their condition.”
Blanchot, as with Paul Celan, knew Orpheus’ gaze in his own life, and both had stood within the “breath-turn” between absence and presence. Towards the end of his life, Blanchot wrote this letter to Derrida, who deeply understood occupied France:
“July 20. Fifty years ago, I knew the happiness of nearly being shot to death.”
As Blanchot was removed from his home by soldiers and placed in front of a firing squad, he experienced a “feeling of extraordinary lightness.”
Blanchot writes of the man who experienced this moment, “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.”
Blanchot, a stand-in for Orpheus, penned this “Instant of My Death” from the stance of a young man’s testimony, a fiction that is the leap of literature, one step removed from his own life. Perhaps he did so because it had been posited since classical Greece that the image of the thing is more beautiful than the thing it represents. But likely more so because he used his art to go to the depths of this underworld experience, the shadow-side of being human. So at the moment of writing his death — as if Orpheus might describe it in 3rd person narration — at the moment he gazes back at Eurydice, he is free.
Tonight, I sit in my midnight bed, reading-lamp dim, and I hear the the approach of husky breathing that is my son, who turns his inhalations to exhalations without self-consciousness yet, who has ambled out of his bed and his room, guided by slivered lines drawn through sleep-puffed eyes, one hand viced to his blanket. He is just awake enough to know the path to my bed, and he is asleep before I have finished picking his warm, softly surrendered body up into the bed next to me. His breathing returns to the quieter rhythms of sleep and I wonder what impulse wakes him and directs him to my company. Years ago, during a particular grueling time (though there would be worse yet), I woke myself yelling for my mom. Calling for her as if she was down the hallway, like a child needing rescue from a bad dream. The impulse for words that call out for salvation is deep, even as I know that my faith in words, in salvation also, is constantly asunder.
“(At every turn, language traps us within the labyrinth which we are calling on language to elucidate).” George Steiner, Grammars of Creation.