I wish it were Leo Bersani raising the first cheer to Denis on this festive afternoon.
Despite missing Leo, I’m happy that you thought to ask me to be part of the gala. I feel nonetheless that I’m in kind of a quandary, because I’d like to send a message which, since it’s meant just for Denis, ought, I expect, not to be for anyone. Possibly my message would do best to resemble—in its very pale, miniature way, of course—the pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, which Denis, at the end of his essay on Hegel, “in the Light of Mauss,” imagines deposited in some dim old library basement along with Queneau’s Encyclopedie des fous littéraires, “whence to radiate nevermore.” A monumental message, as it were, received by no one.
Pour qui écrit-on? Denis often returns to this question of Sartre’s, and suggests, here and there, different answers: if you are Kafka, for example, you write for the one person, your father, “who is certain never to acknowledge you,” or—another example—if you’re an écrivain engagé, then for all the people who are just as certain never to get your message, having neither the time nor the inclination to read. Here is one more formulation of the question, adapted this time for Roquentin, the loner: “pour qui écrit-on “‘je ne parle à personne’”?
It is just conceivable that total oblivion would have been a more “authentic” fate for Hegel’s Phenomenology than the one the great work actually had (on account, as Denis puts it, of Kojève’s coming along). I mean, given its content—its unacknowledgeable content—zero reception might possibly be imagined to be the right reception for it. For even though recognition is a major concept in the Phenomenology, and not too hard to grasp, what is actually recognized therein, in Bataille’s estimation anyway, as I learn from Denis—what Hegel recognized—negativity—is just about impossible to recognize. Hegel himself could barely bring himself to acknowledge it. Negativity at the very basis of human life—“the identity of self-conciousness and destructive action” is practically unavowable. Bataille says that Hegel thought it would drive him mad. His entire philosophical system might be thought to have been erected in order not to have to recognize “sacrificial experience.” At some level, though, this unacknowledgeable message may have been the one that Hegel wanted to convey. A person can at least imagine Hegel wishing to send a message no one could receive. Such a dispatch would not necessarily be the same as a letter, say, without an address. It might be comparable, rather, to a letter addressed to no one.
Unrecognizable negativity is akin, as I take it, to Bataille’s “expenditure” which, Denis says, “does not need to be recognized.” It is abandonment of everything including the prestige and power that can come of such abandon, at a potlatch ceremony for example. It wants nothing at all in return for the staggering loss it is; it forgoes recognition, it doesn’t need to be acknowledged, and thus it requires no ceremony, no public, no witness at all. It is not directed toward anyone, it has no target. No one need know anything about it. It isn’t for anyone.
Except that, after all, it can’t do without others and their recognition. Denis quotes Bataille: “authentic consumption ought to be solitary but then it would not have the completion that the action it has on others confers on it…” And Denis adds on his own account” “Loss and expenditure, against the grain of their own tendency, must finally, like the gift, be recognized.” Why? he asks: “Why is expenditure fatally condemned to inauthenticity? Why does it need an other in order to occur? Why must it occur in front of some other? Why must it occur in public? Why, in a word, must it occur?”
Similarly, he asks of literature, elsewhere and more than once, Must it be possible? Really? Does it have to be inauthentic?
At the end of the essay I began by quoting, Denis refers to Queneau’s novel Les Enfants du limon, where one of the characters, an obscure lycée principal called M. Chambernac, has, possibly at the instigation of a young demon, veered off his usual dull track to undertake (as Queneau did) a long project of archival research bearing on fous littéraires. The fous are writers no one ever read or learned anything from at all. To deserve inclusion in Chambernac’s Encyclopédie des fous, you have to be unrecognized. Your extravagant books must enjoy zero reception. It bothers Chambernac from time to time that his exhausting research project consists, for all intents and purposes, in bringing recognition to loons who matter to him precisely inasmuch as they remain unrecognized. It’s as if, proceeding at cross purposes (against the grain of his own tendency), he’d undertaken to make obscurity glorious after all, or show that absence is a stunning attribute. His ultimate decision to abandon his project is linked to his realization that he has himself become obsessed with his own gloire, like the fous themselves, none of whom, in the depths of their obscurity, ever had the slightest doubt about their own brilliance. Indeed, Chambernac’s harmless conceit as unknown author of a great work that brings to light the genius of unknown nobodies does bear some resemblance to the magnificent and at the same time ludicrous ego evoked by Denis in a different text where he writes: “Thinking expenditure for a subject means thinking of a scene from which he has been evacuated: the ego, having become expendable is endowed with the glory of not being there.”
We are not too far here from the world some writers that Denis has studied dreamed of—a world with no room for them. Where literature, stripped of its conditions of possibility, would be free, I should think, to not occur, en flagrant délit. To take place for no one, spectacularly.
Denis brings up the Gnostics’ idea of God, in connection with Bataille’s dualist materialism. The Gnostic God is the “Unknown” the “Abyss,” “Silence…”: in short, “the God who is not.” In Les Enfants du limon there is a character called Daniel who is at least as similar to Queneau himself as Chambernac is, or as is the character actually called Queneau who appears briefly at the end of the novel, to start writing it. This other very Queneau-like character discovers God, in the throes of his terrible asthma attacks. For many nights, gasping for breath, he pursues an awful contemplation of Evil in the world: it’s not so much his own excruciating disease that overwhelms him, but war, famine and especially torture. He is tormented by the thought of a God who abandons humans to appalling injustice and suffering. Eventually, though, he comes to scorn the God imagined by humans according to their own meager lights, the God whom they praise and implore as if he cared about their love or the problem of evil or owed them any answers—as if the divine bore any relation at all to them and their need. From the depths of his agonizing asthma attacks, Daniel approaches the God who owes no explanation for the torrents of blood flowing all over the world, from whom it is foolish to ask a justification for anything. He is the abyss, the God who is not. “Daniel s’abîmait d’épouvante.” “Il trébuchait devant le gouffre de la divinité… et bégayait devant Dieu comme un simple et comme un enfant.” Never having been especially ambitious, he drops everything to wander aimlessly around Paris, penniless, laughing quietly to himself at the vanity of religion: he is observed with pity by passers-by—a nut. He has passed from the profane world, where God’s presence is absent, into the sacred one, where His absence is present. The sacred, Denis says, reading Bataille, is not the opposite of the profane, so much as the reverse. Sacrifice is the passage from “obverse to reverse.”
The sacred is not the opposite of the profane so much as its mirror image. The semblance of its own pale semblance. As Denis has it, the sacred is not the opposite so much as the alteration, or contamination of the profane. For it confounds what the profane world keeps separate: to wit, the sacred and the profane. Possible impossibility, impossible possibleness—authentic, inauthentic, expenditure and spectacle—the world in which we live and the one where we die—each the other’s mirror image.
“A little as though I were going to die or live,” wrote a poet—Claude Royet-Journoud—at the bottom of a page bearing a sparse arrangement of other lines. As I’ll mention a little further on, I can barely make out anything Royet-Journoud writes. But sometimes I sense that the threatening shadow of what never happens hangs over his books. Something awful and decisive. “Ce qui n’arrive jamais.”
“Un peu comme si j’allais mourir ou vivre,” he wrote. “On se donne une histoire à répéter.”
Some time ago, I started to admire very much the poems of Emmanuel Hocquard. He liked to describe himself as a letter writer. It was one way of explaining literality (for he is said to be a literal poet). He addressed poems to particular individuals he knew (sometimes beginning them “Cher Pierre,” or “Chère Norma,” and ending “Emmanuel”). And each time, everything about the poem was determined by the direction it was sent in. By its destination, that is: its destinataire. At least so Hocquard quite often said, and I took him at his word. It seemed to me that each of his poems, instead of meaning anything, was meant for someone. I pictured him collecting some words, copying them out and arranging them on a page or two because, unexpectedly, they struck him as being just suited for someone he knew. “I wrote this for you,” he states, in his book of sonnets. His friend and ally Royet-Journoud wrote, however—in the middle of a poetry book that happens to be dedicated to Anne-Marie Albiach—“this is not a book for you.”
“Ceci n’est pas un livre pour vous.” Elsewhere, in a similar vein, he wrote—and placed in quotation marks:
“aujourd’hui je ne parle à personne”
I don’t really mean to oppose Royet-Journoud and Hocquard to each other—Royet-Journoud addressing no one, and Hocquard sending each poem straight off to someone. After all, Hocquard wrote “I’m writing this book for you” in a sonnet book called Un test de solitude. And the other poems that he addresses to specific friends and acquaintances are, he explains elsewhere, records of his aloneness. I dare say they document his solitude. “Indices de ma solitude,” he writes. They aren’t about anything or anyone; rather they are from someplace. From Emmanuel. They are signs, I mean, or symptoms (indices), of one specific look-out on the world—the Emmanuel vantage point.
Sometimes the poems are lists of things scattered around in his particular field of vision at a particular time--at the time the list is getting drawn up (“Si je vous écrivais au passé j'aurais l'impression de mentir”). “La table d'écriture. La table de lecture sous la fenêtre. Deux table. Lampe sept....”
Le retour des rouges-gorges. Ce que j'ai
sous les yeux.
Writing table, lamps, returning robins are clues about one particular gaze upon a world, one outlook by definition singular, impossible to communicate or share. Insular. Poems by Hocquard document his island.
He addresses each one to some other island. Each is just meant for one other specific outlook, for the other isolated gaze singularly apt to read the symptom, as it were, to get the hint, and sense the character, or the color or tone or tone color peculiar to the Emmanuel solitude. The addressee is obvious: “seule et évidente.” It’s a someone who, from the Emmanuel outlook, is so blatantly themself they are no one. They’re so unmistakably present that all the features and attributes distinguishing them and making them recognizable and impossible to confuse with anyone else have disappeared in the radiance of their sheer évidence. It leaves them without distinction. Faceless. Like the girl Maylisse in a little poem by Hocquard—a girl who turns the line “Maylisse is lovely” into a tautology.
Nothing leads up to a tautology and from one, nothing follows. It doesn’t communicate. It just interrupts.
“Viviane est Viviane,” we read, many times in Un test de solitude. “Viviane est Viviane. Seule, évidente.” Lovely or not, who knows, whatever. If there’s a point, it’s that she goes without saying. Too clear for words. The impossible, Denis says somewhere in Les dépossédés, can be an everyday thing, too. Hocquard’s aim must have been to write lines that turn into tautologies right before your eyes—white themselves out, I suppose. Efface themselves by proving to be lines that nothing calls for. They’re just meant for no one.
One of Hocquard’s favorite tautologies is “a secret is a secret.” A secret, which he considers always to be someone in particular’s private secret—a secret, then, is what’s secret from the person whose it is. It’s them! A secret is always someone’s particular distinction, I would say, someone’s incommunicable being herself, seule, évidente—and it consists in getting away from her, from her alone; or better, it consists in being for each, their very own, inimitable dispossession. Each time the unique distinction of no one. I think that for Hocquard the point of writing is to be this secret’s secret communication.
“I’m not speaking to anyone today,” Royet-Journoud wrote, and sure enough for months and months now, even years, none of Royet-Journoud’s books has spoken to me at all—oh, maybe a line or two here and there, if some unexpected context for it happens to come up. But mainly, if any of his books says anything to me, it’s “This one is not for you.” All the laborious ways of reading that I’ve tried out in my life have proved quite useless. So I was happy and interested to encounter an essay written in honor of Royet-Journoud, in which the author says he doesn’t actually read Royet-Journoud’s books either. This non-reader has a name that’s really a mouthful—a misfortune for me since I admire him and often wish to quote him. It’s Siegfried Plümper-Hüttenbrink.
His own book, which I hastened to get, is dedicated “to the more than improbable reader.” He is modest! And kind of a wit: for example, I was cheered up when, feeling dejected over my unsuccessful attempts to read Royet-Journoud, I learned that he—Plümper-Hüttenbrink—has never known how to read Wittgenstein: “Assis?” he wonders. “Debout? Couché? Ou encore en prenant un bain?” One of the reasons I enjoyed this passage so much is it reminded me of Denis wondering, in La Politique de la prose, how to write: standing up, sitting down, with your right hand, your left hand, before or after washing your hands, with your mouth full… And also how to read: probably best not curled up in a cozy armchair—out in the street might be preferable, with a big crowd, a groupe en fusion. Would everybody have their own copy of the same text, would they all read silently, or aloud, led by a sort of choral conductor…
I wasn’t exactly right when I thought at first that Plümper-Hüttenbrink, dedicating his book “au plus qu’improbable lecteur,” meant to indicate, in a breezily modest manner, that he’d written a book unlikely to be much of a success. If you go ahead and read the book (called Jeux de lecture, published in 2020), you learn that he considers readers in general, or as you might say, he considers the reader, to be about as likely to exist as a flying saucer. It’s not that readers are rare these days, but that, however many or few in any era they may be or have been, the reader is not of this world.
It’s not that she resides, reading, in some other world. It’s rather that her location can’t be found on any map. For she reads somewhere in the world that’s nonetheless out of it. There can be no witness to her inside-out or outside-in existence, any more than the cat in Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment can be observed living and dead at the same time. It’s an unrecognizable situation—this superposition of one condition and its reverse. The reader, inhabiting a sort of uncontainable enclave, and indeed apparently being this insular exile (for to read she retreats way inside herself, thereby emptying completely out), is nowhere herself so much, Plümper-Hüttenbrink says, aping Lacan, as where she is not, but is rather the other, the actor playing the one she is.
Instead of belaboring these conundrums any further, let me ask, Why should they clump up around the reader? Perhaps because it’s pour lui qu’on écrit. Maybe being on the receiving end of a message sent straight out to no one in particular just disappears the addressee, by landing them in one of the reversible locations that are nowhere to be found. But the fact that the language the reader encounters is a written, not a spoken one, has a bearing too. It’s a question of printed matter for the reader; of letters, then—of characters which, when Hocquard and Royet-Journoud were running a press, called Orange Import Ltd, back in the 1970’s, used to get laid out backwards on the printing press in order to come out frontwards when printed. In short, reading, from the perspective I’m adopting now, is a literal affair. Books—or at least books like Royet-Journoud’s—appear to be in Sanskrit or ancient Greek, or morse code: a language the reader doesn’t speak, though she may be able to decipher it. Reading is closer to decoding than one might usually think. Or, it’s a kind of scrutiny similar to that employed when one tries to read the expression on a person’s face. Or when one examines a body for symptoms, or, I dare say, inspects a document.
Plümper-Hüttenbrink, who doesn’t actually read Royet-Journoud, says that he “consults” his books, the way you might consult a fortune teller or an oracle. Indeed, the way he did, apparently, as a child, slip into his grandmother’s bed very early in the mornings, so she could read to him. For him, it seems, these early morning forays were like visits to the booth of a tarot card reader. And he recalls Sartre’s description, in Les mots, of being read aloud to by his mother. She would go all still for the occasion, lower her eyes, and speak, in a strange voice hardly her own—“une voix de plâtre.” Why not say d’oracle? Plûmper-Hüttenbrink wonders, especially since Poulou concluded that the scarcely human voice reaching his ears during these reading sessions issued from the book itself.
In any case, reading, from this perspective, is something like reading the stars: it’s looking for signs, omens, inspecting marks and traces—finger prints, say. In some of his prose notes, Royet-Journoud mentions animal tracks and fossils. Indices, he calls them (opposing them rather vehemently to metaphors). Written language, I gather—the language encountered by readers, is a scattering of clues. It’s evidence. Examine the evidence.
Plümper-Hüttenbrink has little taste for poetry. It’s embarrassing, what with all its imagery, “incurable verbiage fantasmagorique.” It just can’t help calling up what isn’t there—l’absente de tous bouquets. Bataille’s “haine de la poésie” is preferable. Poetry emerges from L’Archangélique as rubble: “gravats et indices d’un naufrage. Débris de vocables jetés à l’abandon, et qui persistent à nous faire obscurément signe.” Written language signals; it’s a jumble of clues; documents, I think one might say. Anyway, it’s evidence, but of what?
A reader, faced with scrambled shards on the pages of a book—leftovers from a disaster (or disparate objects strewn around a crime scene)—must start in all over again with language, practically from zero, like some Robinson Crusoe, or like a child, infans, who laboriously deciphers the little phrases in his books word by word and murmurs each term almost inaudibly to himself—figuring out, Plümper-Hüttenbrink suggests, what there is to say (the names of things, I suppose, and of their colors and shapes, their movements and so on). The child consults his books to see what there is to say, so he can have himself say it—thus feeding himself his character’s lines. Like Poulou. I wouldn’t have remembered, if Denis had not quoted them, the lines from Les mots, where Sartre recalls “un bavardage anonyme dans ma tête:” someone murmuring to him in his head when he was small: I’m having a drink of water, I’m sitting down, I’m walking, I’m eating a cookie, and he himself, mouthing this perpetual account: “Je marche, maman, je bois un verre d’eau…” “I thought I had two voices,” Sartre writes, “of which one, which scarcely belonged to me, dictated to the other its remarks. “La voix propre,” Denis observes, “est celle qui répète.”
But with practice, with age or just with luck, a reader may, as it were, regress, to a still earlier stage of development and see all of a sudden not what there is to say, but what there isn’t. He may see, as Plümper-Hüttenbrink puts it, that he sees nothing to say.
He sees signals, but of what? Signs that indicate, but not anything. He sees the clues, the evidence, the sheer evidence. It’s by no means a vision of what isn’t there that he’s favored with; he sees what is there, too obvious for words. Thus a really small child, still barely at an age to talk, who hasn’t yet learned much of what there is to say, gets taken out in his stroller, and sees trees and cars, dogs and so on—being there minus all their distinctions: their names, their greenness or furriness. He sees them being there without being anything. Anything to recognize, anything to speak of. Sometimes he’ll shout, That! It’s that.
The reader—the more than improbable reader—is, I’m guessing, the receiver of such a message. The reader is the very person, I mean, for whom nothing is meant. Pour qui écrit-on? Maybe for someone, peculiarly apt to hear nothing; or maybe for no one, apt to hear anything. Just anything, without distinction. Probably you couldn’t locate this destinataire on any mailing list. But there’s this to take into account as well: It’s not in just anyone that evidence of no one in particular can be read—at least not by the nobody now speaking. I mean, it’s certainly not just anyone who could have inspired in some pensioner from California the wish to offer them so clumsy a greeting—so forgettable, but also so dubious—and on top of it all, so very warm a salute.
Professor Emerita of French
University of California, Berkeley
 Denis Hollier, ‘For Prestige: Hegel in the Light of Mauss’, trans. Nicholas Huckle October, 146 (2013), 19–30.
 Claude Royet-Journoud, Les objets contiennent l’infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).
 Claude Royet-Journoud, Les natures indivisibles (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).
 Emmanuel Hocquard, Un test de solitude (Paris: P.O.L., 1998).
 Emmanuel Hocquard, L’invention du verre (Paris: P.O.L., 2003).
 Georges Bataille, L’Archangélique et autres poèmes (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), 60.