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Charlotte Mandell


An excerpt from "Joubert and Space,"
in The Book to Come by Maurice Blanchot



On his nights of insomnia, Joubert goes outside and contemplates the sky. "Insomni nocte [on a sleepless night]." "Insomnia, 5 o'clock in the morning." What do these nighttime thoughts bring him? The same thing that is inside him, but realized outwardly: the supreme book that it seems he will never write, and that he writes as if without knowing it, while thinking about writing it. Above there is space, and, further and further away, a condensation of space into light, a unified and ordered solitude of points in which each seems to be unaware of the others, although there is composed with some of them a representation of which one has a premonition, along with all the unrepresentable wholeness of their dispersion. The stars please Joubert, but more than the stars, which often sparkle too brilliantly, it is great shining space, the diffuse light that is slowly revealed in it, and there reveals that easy simultaneity of distinct perfections, synthesis of the vague with the precise. In a note from his early adulthood, we see him trying to compose a cosmology rather close to that of Cyrano de Bergerac and the ancient authors, in which the stars are only holes in the sky, voids by which the enigma of a hidden light is collected and poured: space hollows, space no longer condensed, but subtracted and diminished to the point of rupture, where it is made into clarity.

These metaphorical contemplations that send us back to nocturnal space as if to a great text of silences, and to the book as if to an immobile sky of stars in movement, may seem within reach of everyone, but, for Joubert, they open up as the demanding expression of what he must accomplish. An ambitious model, but one that does not crush this modest genius, for what is written on high guarantees him that he can represent it by means of art, if it is true that, withdrawn from ourselves, we can find in ourselves the same intimacy of space and light into which we must henceforth put all our cares so that our life will correspond to it, our thinking preserve it, and our works make it visible.

"...And all my stars in one sky.... All space is my canvas. II. It falls to me from the stars of the mind."

It would be tempting, and would glorify Joubert, for us to imagine in him an untranscribed first edition of [Mallarmé's] Un coup de dés [A throw of the dice] which, Valéry said the day he was introduced to the secret thoughts of Mallarmé, "finally [raised] a page to the power of the starry sky." And there is between Joubert's dreams and the work realized a century later the foreshadowing of related demands: with Joubert as with Mallarmé, the wish to replace ordinary reading (in which one must go from section to section) with the spectacle of simultaneous utterance in which everything would be said at once, without confusion, in a "total, peaceful, intimate and finally uniform splendor." This supposes both a way of thinking completely different from that of logicians who make their way from proof to proof, and also a language completely different from that of discourse (essential preoccupations with the author of the Carnets). Further, this more profoundly supposes the encounter with or creation of this space of vacancy where, no particular thing coming to break the infinite, everything is present there as in nullity, place where nothing will take place except place, the final goal of these two minds.

But there the community of intentions stops. Even if you look at it only from outside, the poem in the immobility of its assertion is given over to a prodigious movement that Joubert would do anything to avoid: movements of "retreats," "prolongations," "flights," movements that accelerate and slow down, divide and superimpose by a burgeoning animation all the more difficult to the mind since it does not unfold, does not develop, and, refusing the alleviation of succession, forces us to support all at once, in a massive though spaced effect, all the forms of the anxiety of this movement. Nothing could more undermine Joubert's spiritual design than this proliferation in the heart of absence, this infinitely undertaken going-and-coming that is the emptiness of indeterminate space.

Undoubtedly in Un coup de dés as in the sky there is a secret order that Joubert could welcome, but this order imitates chance, claims to enter into the intimacy of the game of chance, perhaps to penetrate its rules, perhaps to carry the rigor of words and the precision of thoughts to the point where the most determinate referent can integrate indeterminacy. No doubt, there is, in the sky that is the poem, the still future and always uncertain brilliance of the "Constellation" that perhaps the poem will also be, at the altitude of exception. But Joubert could never accept the preliminary shipwreck in which nothing must be given so that something could exist other and purer than that which is. He would never regard as the descent toward "the unchanged neutrality of the abyss" the movement of incompleteness by which, in all things, we seek a void to find light.

Even the word "chance" is foreign to him. And the dramatic conjunction of the throw of dice and of chance would seem to him incapable of representing thought at the level at which it meets poetry. That is the very point where his reflections are firmest. Joubert wants thought not to be determined, as reason can be. He wants it to rise above the constraint of reasoning and proof, he wants it to be finite thought starting from the infinite, just as he wants poetic language, in the perfection of its completion, to carry and support the vagueness, duplicity and ambiguity of several meanings, in order the better to represent the between-meaning and the beyond-meaning toward which it is always oriented. But this indeterminacy is not chance. Chance has to do with that part of reality, vain and obvious, that reason -- which is content only with proofs and wants to reduce everything to accounts -- seeks to master by calculation. The space in which Joubert ends is without chance and without determinacy, and literature, which is space turned into the ability to communicate, is this ordered sky of stars where the infinity of the sky is present in each star and where the infinity of stars does not hinder but makes perceptible the freedom of the infinitely empty expanse.

Such is the firm contradiction he sees harmoniously resolved up above, which he keeps coming up against and which, without reducing him to silence, will hold him back from any completed work. It is his merit to have recognized first in art and poetry a way of affirmation that neither an over-mediate reason nor too-immediate sensibility can vindicate. Poetry and art give him a presentiment of an entirely different possibility that he will seek all his life to clarify: a necessity of relationships even more rigorous than those of reason but pure, light and free; a contact with profound intimacy more acute than that of sensibility, and yet distanced, for that which is intimately touched by this unique point is distance itself experienced as our intimacy, and the distant in us as our center. Relationships, then, that escape whatever temporal regularity there might be in the logical relations of reason, but that nonetheless do not escape the instantaneous shocks of perceptible presence: communication, at a distance and through distance, of the immediate; the finite, almost localized, affirmation of infinite immensity.

But how can one pass from the sky to the star, from the poem, unlimited fabric of space, to the pure and unique word where it must be assembled? Or from the beautiful, which is indeterminate, to the rigor of the perfection of the beautiful? More than the solutions that Joubert sometimes proposes, it is the care he always kept not to step aside from the opposing necessity of these two movements, even if it was at his own expense, that makes him important and sometimes exemplary. He seems to have been a failure. But he preferred this failure to the compromise of success. Outside of any aim of completion, he certainly suffered considerably because of his devotion to the intermittency which he makes the continuous basis of the soul, but that he must experience, in him, as a cessation of mind, a painful interruption of all ability, a fall into nothingness and no longer into the beautiful silent void. The confidences he shared are rare, but there to be known (especially in letters: to Molé, to Fontanes, to Mme. de Vintimille). And the Carnets gathered together the images under which he tried to approach his difficulties: "I am, I will admit, like an Aeolian harp, which makes some beautiful sounds, but does not play any tune." "I am an Aeolian harp. No wind has breathed on me." The Aeolian harp: we understand that he welcomes this symbol derived from the Ossian craze, for it is like space itself, turned into both instrument and music, an instrument that has all the expanse and continuity of great space, but a music made of always discontinuous, disparate and divided sounds. Moreover, it explains the breaks of his meditation and the blanks that interrupt his sentences by the tension he must maintain in his strings so that they resonate as they should, by the easing that results from this harmony, and by the long time which he needs to "wind up and retune."

This collaboration of time, this encounter (necessary for him to be able to write) of inner space with outer space, is what led him to think only in the framework of a journal, relying on the movement of the days and requiring of this movement the passage from himself to himself -- to the expression of himself -- of which he is the patient, often disappointed, expectation, just as the harp is the silent expectation of the wind. Responding, once again, to the impatience of his friends, he finds this new reason for his delay: "...And, moreover, my clouds must be allowed to amass and condense." That is indeed the problem of the sky and the star, the great enigma of Un coup de dés that must be at once the identical neutrality of the abyss, the high vacancy of the sky and the constellation that, at the altitude of a perhaps, is projected there. And in order for clouds to amass and condense, there must be time, there must be a double labor of transformation by time: first that time transmute events and impressions into the distance of memory (and Joubert says: "One must not express oneself as one feels, but as one remembers"), then that it concentrate the vague distance of memory into the starry essence of a pure moment, which is no longer real and which is not fictive (and Joubert says: "My memory now preserves only the essence of what I read, of what I see and even of what I think"). This is a metamorphosis that he cannot hurry by the force of his will, for it does not depend on this imperious "I" that it must precisely lighten and hollow out so that the intimacy of the outside and the space of the inside can meet there in a unique contact. Joubert thus lies in wait, expecting from time the passage to space, and also expecting from time the concentration of space into pure essential moment, into that drop of light that will become word and that, in the sealed transparency of the word, will collect in one unique saying the entire expanse of all language. It is an expectation in which, at the same time, he must not lose interest, in which he must cooperate by an interior labor in which his whole life participates and, even more, by a great intimacy with words, since it is perhaps in them -- limit of time and space -- that we can most truly act, there where, he says profoundly, "there is... at once potency and impossibility."


Translation copyright Charlotte Mandell