‘Why write?’, or Blanchot’s double paradox of writing, through Hegel’s paradox of action

Will Large, Maurice Blanchot

‘Why write?’ or Balnchot’s double paradox of writing, through Hegel’s paradox of action

Hegel’s paradox of action

The paradox of action for Hegel is that I can only discover who I am by acting, but acting already presupposes that I know who I am: ‘an individual cannot know what he really is until he has made himself a reality through action’. [The Spiritual Animal Kingdom, in Hegel’s [amazon asin=0198245971&text=Phenomenology of the Spirit]]. This means that he already has to determine the end of his action [that is, the end in the Aristotelian sense of telos, as the final aim; but he has to do this] before he has acted, even though it is only the action itself that will prove that he has made the right decision.
[What is more fundamental, is not the ‘rightfulness’ of the decision, but in fact the very possibility of action – what Hegel aims at, it seems to me, is the very possibility of action without knowledge of self. Any knowledge of self must come through action, but the paradox is exactly in the possibility of action without knowledge of oneself – Arendt calls this the only possibility to disclose oneself to others, and therefore also the only form of politics. In other words, it seems that Hegel aims to point out that action must first presume an actor, but the actor is not simply a physical force with chain reactions, as would be ticking a domino; the actor must have a sense of knowledge of themselves in order to act outside this deterministic sense].

This seems to be a vicious circle in which there is no way to get out. This means that he just has to begin, for this will be the only proof that his action was the right one or not.

[It is exactly because of the impossibility of action prior to actor, that there is a necessity for acting as a beginning. Here too we can make use of Arendt, but in this case with her notion of natality – by virtue of birth alone, human beings bring something new into the world; this miracle, she claims, is not simply a biological one, but especially a political one. If we are to follow this through onto a metaphysical sense, however, one could say that birth itself is the initiating action, the cause of all causes, or the ‘unmoved mover’ to go back to Aristotelian terminology].

Blanchot’s first paradox of writing

Blanchot transforms this dilemma into the impasse of writing. He asks whether it was at all possible to be a writer, for to write implies that one has talent to write; that is to say, that one is a writer before one writes. And yet one only becomes a writer through writing itself. To write one needs to write, or as Blanchot describes it ‘he has no talent until he has written, but he needs talent in order to write’ [361]. This paradox demonstrates that the writer is dependent on his work, rather than his work just being dependent on him. It is not enough that he contemplates his work in his imagination. He actually has to get down and do the writing for himself. Without the work he is nothing, but likewise without him, the work is also nothing. Is this the nothing that Blanchot says is at the heart of literature? There isn’t a solution to this problem; rather the writer simply has to write. He has to throw himself into the projects as though he were launching himself into the unknown. When he does that he realises that the work he is writing is himself, and he only needs to recognise himself in it. The work then seems to be a project of the writer who finds himself confirmed in it, if the starting point is arbitrary and random. The book confirms the existence of the writer. Thus, when Kafka writes the sentence, Blanchot imagines, ‘he was looking out of the window’, he becomes an author through it, and was not an author before it: ‘it is the source of his existence, he has made it and it makes him, it is himself and he is completely what it is’ [363]. This is the wonderful thing about writing, and it doesn’t matter whether it is bad or good, that it is a perfect translation from what is inside to an outside, since what is outside is what creates the inside.
[Here, one has to remember that according to Foucault, and I agree with him to greater extent than to Blanchot, ‘one writes in order to forget’ – what Foucault means, to some degree at least, is that one cannot will to write without the urge to leave the problem behind him. In this, then, one does not only write as a beginning, but already as a continuation of something else within the writer. So we can easily imagine here that the writer is indeed born, albeit not in that specific sense of a great writer, or even a mediocre one – any writer who picks up the medium of writing from whichever cause, must find that medium his or her medium; and of course, it could be any other medium than writing].

Blanchot’s second paradox of writing

I confirm myself in what I have written. But we might add, ‘so what?’. Having written the sentence, what other meaning has it except for the writer? What relation does it have to the world? The sentence, if it is written down, really does have another relation, and that is to the reader.
[This move seems quite obvious, but it need not be. There is a lot of writing, if not the majority, that is not intended to any reader; and I do not mean this in any particular sense – to any reader in sight, etc. Quite the opposite, if one writes in order to forget, or from whichever position that one wishes to escape, his or her writing is not intended to be read, not even by the writer – at least not initially].

In this relation it becomes ‘a universal sentence’. This would undo everything Blanchot adds. Others are interested in his work, which means that it no longer just has the meaning that it had for him and which confirmed his existence. Now the book only has a meaning in relation to other books, and seems to have banished him [the writer] altogether. This is the paradox that he only exists in the work, but the work only really exists when it exists for a public. It is ridiculous to talk about a book that has never been read.
[Here too one can add the same critique – a book that I have written may indeed be intended to nobody. Recall here one of the famous paradoxical titles in Nietzsche’s oeuvre: A book for all and none (the subtitle of [amazon asin=0521602610&text=Thus Spoke Zarathustra] – which requires an article of its own and will probably get one in the future) – what we have is not simply a book intended for nobody and everybody at the same time, and not even some stylistic device known to Nietzsche very well. Quite the contrary, once again, Zarathustra is meant for nobody but a select few that Nietzsche sent the manuscripts to – and in that sense ‘none’, only few could understand his urgency; but it was written in sight of ‘all’, everyone was its audience, even if they could not understand. Or so Nietzsche thought. In the same manner, Zarathustra speaks to all and to nobody in particular: it is for this reason that he ‘goes over’ and ‘comes under’, that his ‘time is not yet’, that he ‘returns’ to humanity, etc. When approaching others, this is what Zarathustra realises, despite his addresses to others, that he is his own writer, his own sufferer, and no amount of beauty (‘girls with beautiful ankles’) that he discovers on the way can help him. On the other hand, one can also add the point that the process of writing itself is never directly connected to the external world. Here we can criticise Arendt for whom work (a category where writing falls under in Arendt’s phenomenology) is external, it makes the ‘objective world’. What Arendt misses is that process itself is not external – one may think of the external before the initiation, but the initiation itself is already a retreat into the inner self; the process of writing only seldomly looks outward, and I would claim that even that outward gaze is still dominated by the inner thought. Not ‘what will the world think of this work?’, but ‘what is this that I am doing?’ and how do I overcome it].

Yet when the work is complete in the public it now no longer exists for him. Well how can the writer solve this puzzle? He might be tempted by the fantasy that the real work is not the one that is being sold in the market place, which is only a simulacrum of the real work that he had written; even though it is word for word the same as the first unpublished work, it’s his relation to the work that is the only real one. But if that is so, why let it be read, why sell it, why even write, since the words that you will use will be the same words that are spoken by everyone else. Wouldn’t it better not to produce anything at all, and disappear into one’s mind? Or the writer goes the other way, and says that his relation to the work is not important at all. All that matters is the reader, and she is the real author of the work. The real goal is then to write for the reader and to become one with them. But this is also useless, for the reader does not want a work that has been written for them. What she wants is something other to herself, something that will make her think and look at the world differently: ‘An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing; it is the public that is writing, and for this reason the public can no longer be a reader’ [365].


This text is adapted from an extract of Dr. William Large’s short essay: Why Write? I’m not sure where it comes from, as I only found a printed version on my desk one day, without any further references on which book it’s from. My adaptations are in brackets.

The references in brackets seem to be to the [amazon asin=1886449171&text=Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays].

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