Dying to Write: Maurice Blanchot and Tennyson's "Tithonus"

Critical Inquiry 12 (4):672-687 (1986)

The customary assumption about dying is that one would rather not. The event of death itself should be postponed for as long as possible, and comfort may be gained from doctrines which promise a victory over it. We celebrate those who try to cheat it. The dying Henry James thought he was Napoleon, and there is something in that, over and above the pathos of a wandering mind, that exemplifies, however parodically, the mental set we expect to find and what we relish in those who attempt to press their own strong case against the disintegrative flow of time and change. We assume that one should struggle against death, setting such a stamp on life that even if the body must die, something the mind has done may not. Attitudes that run counter to this stubbornness are thought defeatist or unwholesome. In his own decline, Charles Baudelaire, catching sight of himself in a mirror, bowed, thinking himself a stranger. That confusion is more chilling than Jams’ because it undermines the treasured integrity of the self: it shows that death is not an invader attacking suddenly from outside. We are in one sense always in its keeping. In this essay I shall argue that whatever revolt against death may catalyse the act of writing poetry, poems are intimately tied to death in ways that complicate and even undermine that revolt. Indeed, since the inception of Romanticism , a poem in order to be a poem has had to engage not only with the fact that in the midst of life we are in its negation, but also with death’s analogues: madness, trance, divisions and questionings of the self. The relationship between poetry and the disruption of the customary self may even be celebratory.But before investigating the relationship between poetry and death, we had better be sure that one can indeed die:At first glance, the preoccupation of the writer who writes in order to be able to die is an affront to common sense. It would seem we can be sure of at least one event: it will come without any approach on our part, without our bestirring ourselves at all; yes, it will come. That is true, but at the same time it is not true, and indeed quite possibly it lacks truth altogether. At least it does not have the kind of truth which we feel in the world, which is the measure of our action and of our presence in the world. What makes me disappear from the world cannot finds its guarantee there; and thus, in a way, having no guarantee, it is not certain. This explains why no one is linked to death by real certitude. No one is sure of dying.1No one can think to cheat death, but to contemplate death is to introduce into thought the epitome of doubt. The one thing I can never know in advance or know demonstrably, by my very nature and by its, is the actual instant of my own death. Conventionally, “I will go when my time comes”: the phrase gestures toward the privacy of each human death, and the Protestant tone of “my time”—part predestination, part ownership—barely hides the inaccessibility of death inside that privacy. There are two certainties in life. One is that death will come. The other is that no one can be sure of this. Perhaps no one has truly died yet. 1. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock , p. 95; all further references to this work, abbreviated SL, will be included in the text. Geoffrey Ward is lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is at present completing his first critical book, The Poetry of Estrangement. His published articles include essays on symbolism in John Ashbery, Conrad’s English, metaphor in Shelley’s longer poems, the novels of Henry Green, and Wyndham Lewis. He has also published five volumes of poetry, mot recently Not the Hand Itself
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DOI 10.1086/448360
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