Literature and Negation

Maire Jaanus Kurrik

Preface vii
Chapter 1 The Genealogy of Negation  1

Genesis, 2; Ficino, 5; St. John of the Cross, 7; Milton's Paradise Regained, 11; Spenser, Marlowe, 14; Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, 15; Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, 20; Interim Summary, Pico, Erasmus, 23; Bacon, 26; Montaigne, 29; Descartes, 32; Pascal, 36; Racine's Phaedra, 39; Vico, 44; Kant, 48; Goethe's Faust, 54; Hegel, 59

Chapter 2 The Novel and the Self's Negativity  82

Austen's Emma, 82; Georg Lukács' The Theory of the Novel, 96; Eliot's Middlemarch, 108; Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, 119; Excursus on Nietzsche, 133; Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, 140; Dickens, 162; Excursus on Bachelard's The Philosophy of No, 183 [excerpt]; Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, 197

Chapter 3 Modernism: Deletion versus Negation       206

Chomsky, 206; Freud, 207; Hegel, 208; The Classical Novel, 209; Mann's Doctor Faustus, 210; Nietzsche, 213; Adorno, 218; Beckett's The Unnamable, 224 [excerpt]; Barthelme, Robbe-Grillet, 231

Chapter 4 Negation and the Tragic 237

Freud, 237; Nietzsche and Lacan, 240; Hegel and Lukács, 249 [excerpt: conclusion]

Notes 261
Index  267

What is common to Nietzsche, Adorno, and Beckett is the search for the new—a new yes, a new no, a metalanguage—transcending the old negation-affirmation polarity we have known. Nietzsche wants a purer affirmation beyond the divided negations and affirmations of consciousness and the unconscious that have produced such distortion; Adorno, a more negative negation that might make contact with the object, the nonconceptual, with something beyond our subjectivity; Beckett, a new language that would allow other possibilities than those now permitted by our sentences, with their adjacency of clauses and phrases, their subordinations, coordinations, modifications, declarations, and negations. They are all aware and tired of the limitation and tyranny of the old polarity and its dialectical processes.

Each of these texts begins with negation, not with affirmations that have first of all to be eliminated or criticized. The negative is no longer a shock or a discovery; it is there before the text begins. Above all, these texts no longer wish to preserve what they have cancelled. The pluralizing, productive activity of negation is preserved neither in a new synthesis, nor a structure of subordinations, nor in a layered irony. Negation renounces the hoarding of contradictions that is characteristic of irony. The goal of this negation is deletion, the forgetting of what has been. Negation seeks to counteract the operation of addition that is part of its process and to become an operation of subtraction. Like the child, as Piaget has found, who learns reversibility only belatedly and who understands only after knowing addition and subtraction that subtraction reverses the process of addition, so negation comes belatedly to seek its possibility of reversing the operation of addition into subtraction, deletion. [10] Then, by the deletion born out of negation, it seeks to transcend the very condition of exclusion and inclusion, of negation and affirmation in which it perceives itself to have been bound. Negation has in this sense become not only more self-concerned or self-centered, more content to abide by itself and less afraid of itself, but also more practical or revolutionary in Marx's sense. It is this revolutionary element of deletion and destruction that stands behind Nietzsche's no, making possible the very idea of a new yes. It is the new will to subtraction and deletion that purges Beckett's text so that we may hear only this clear voided voice or apprehend what such a voided voice may be. It is by this same commitment to the reversibility of the operation of negation that Adorno seeks to decenter the very idea of an autonomous centered subject to which we have clung.

In all these texts negation's relationship to an unknown, a new, is far more clearly delineated and more consequently explored. Negation, by stressing its subtracting power, refuses to return to a single, immobile center from which all its activity will appear as but the distortion or repression of some primal truth. Negation now shifts, unfixes, and decenters the very idea of such a center while aiming to become deletion, which would make the center disappear altogether.

If we look back from Adorno, Nietzsche, and Beckett to Montaigne, for example, and recall his complaint about the lack of a language of negation, we can see that these authors have established modes of radical negation and, in Beckett, a language of negation that no doubt far exceeds Montaigne's desire for a more definite way of expressing skepticism, hesitation, and doubt. They have created a serious language of negation which not only doubts but tries to sweep away a tradition that it believes to be at root inadequate. Negation tries to negate what negation has produced. Subtraction vies with division, addition, and multiplication.

In these texts negation faces its own exigency and crisis, but it is this very exigency of negation's desire to become deletion that prevents it from being deletion, and it is also the very exigency of these negations that keeps them bound to the possibilities of an affirmation. These are therefore transitional texts, still yoked in divergent ways to the past they resist. In a sense they are kept from the new that would erupt with deletion by negation. This is most obviously true of Adorno for whom the present is historical and always will be though history is no longer analyzable by traditional historical approaches, by concepts such as causality, or indeed by any concept that has not revitalized and revolutionized itself by the category of nonconceptuality. This is also true of Nietzsche, who feels the need to sum up the past in a negation and by a negation before he can begin again and forget. And this is also true of Beckett, at least up to the time of The Unnamable, whose very need to ascertain absence is so provocative and tantalizing. All these works still stand under the shadow of the symbol of negation, although they are not primarily concerned with revealing the concealed, but with forgetting what is not worth remembering. As such they are still subject to interpretation and the procedure of' hermeneutics. In various ways, they still evoke, its did Doctor Faustus, the Biblical affirmative form which may be literature's “deep” structure, or deep form, and the basis of all form. Unlike Doctor Faustus, however, they evoke this form without regret at its absence, in order to negate, to disperse, and, if possible, to delete it.

[10] H. Ginsburg and S. Opper, Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 151-52.

The myth behind Greek theater is one of gods and heroes. Against the heroic myth, the Greek theater stresses the psychological and human. The myth behind Shakespearean theater is Christianity, particularly as an ethical model, an ideal of interrelationship and love as exemplified in the New Testament by Jesus. The pretragic of avoidance here is centuries of sermons and devotional admonitions which this "brave new world" of men everywhere breaks, betrays, and outrages. The cosmos of intersubjectivity is full of deceit, mistrust, and treachery: the father may not trust his son, or the king his subjects, or the lover the beloved. Instead of obeying the great tribal "thou shalt nots," men live to watch each other die. They live under conditions where there is constant pressure on them not to be, not from fate, but from others.

The myth behind the modem theater is that of man's symbolically creative autonomy. Against this myth the tragic theater stresses the bankruptcy of art and language and of man's self-consciousness and will. The characters in Beckett and Pinter, for example, have only an indistinct memory of the pleasures and pains of that dialogue which was so central in Shakespeare. They are so close to death and silence that only will-lessness and empty time appear to keep them from crossing the boundary. Volition even in evil had a grandeur, a telos, a demonic setting all its own, the hell of the past or the repressed. It signified lovelessness and automation, but it had a destructive energy or, at least, as in Ibsen, the memory of a destruction. Nolition, "the inability to wish or want anything," is by contrast powerlessness. It is a disease of the will: one cannot do what one wants to. "In the stage between thought and expression an inhibition, a contrary impulse, or a cross impulse can make the action impossible." [18] Without language and will man is a nonentity, an example of negation in empty, actionless purity. Man can no longer say "no" to either life or death. Negation has lost its function and direction, both its tragic and pretragic energy and power. The three great polarities of life—subject/object, active/passive, pleasure/pain—are extinguished. In this state, man is incapable of knowing or asserting that he is tragic, and in that indefinable feeling, if in anything, consists his tragedy.

[18] E. Bleuler, The Theory of Schizophrenic Negativism, trans. William A. White (1912; rpt. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970), p. 4.

SOURCE: Kurrik, Maire Jaanus. Literature and Negation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. v, 229-231, 260, 265, 266.

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by Maire Jaanus Kurrik

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