Reader’s Diary: A Philosopher’s Fictions

It’s kind of wonderful when pure chance leads you to a book that unexpectedly illuminates another one you’ve just read.

It’s kind of wonderful when pure chance leads you to a book that unexpectedly illuminates another one you’ve just read. Last week, reading Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma, I was caught up in a narrative impetus that nonetheless seemed, as I said, “to envelop every detail in a nimbus of resonances.” Now, reading Jacques Rancière’s new book, The Lost Thread: The Democracy of Modern Fiction, I find that what I’d perceived in Kateb’s novel was something that Joseph Conrad — an author I’d never have imagined as one of Kateb’s precursors — had already articulated nearly sixty years before in Heart of Darkness: “To him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Rancière interprets this to mean that “it is not in the linkages of the story that the fictional content is to be sought” but rather in “the milieu of meanings, the milieu of actions. And, of course” — the philosopher goes on to specify — “the milieu of meaning is itself devoid of meaning, the centre of actions is itself inactive — not because nothing happens but because what happens in it is no longer conceptualizable or recountable as a succession of necessary or probable actions.” This seems to describe something that is true of Kateb’s book even more than of anything written by Conrad, where it was just a tendency or an intimation rather than a fully realized artistic paradigm, as it is in Kateb. It is truer of Nedjma, I think, than of Lord Jim, that “it is the decomposition of a situation and an action into the multiplicity of sensual events […] that prevents this set of sensible events from constituting the rationality of a situation and sufficient reason of an action.” Rancière’s greatness as a reader — not just of fiction, as his book’s subtitle would have it, but also poetry and drama — is that he discerns the seeds of future works in certain “classics.” Several years ago, reviewing Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, () I noted that, despite the author’s insistence that his concern was “not a matter of the ‘reception of works of art,” almost all of his examples were drawn from works “of what is normally understood as reception — Hegel on Murillo, Rilke on Rodin, Shklovsky on Chaplin — so that “it is only by the by, as it were, that Rancière engages directly with a statue, a painting, a film, a photograph.” In The Lost Thread, published in French in 2014 and in many ways a coda to Aisthesis, Rancière makes good on this lack, reading fiction by Flaubert and Woolf as well as Conrad and poetry by Keats and Baudelaire, recalling theatrical productions of works by Büchner and others. He doesn’t, as a philosopher, “use” them as sources for examples, but gives himself over to them with a passion for their embodiment of “how the personal and the impersonal encounter one another.” Though he does not emphasize it, there is something deeply melancholy in his vision of the “new poetic form” that “marks the punctual encounter between a subject, who is an infinite network of sensations, and a sensible world that exceeds all closure of the field of strategic action.” Insistently questioning the efficacy of knowledge and action: doesn’t this lead us to a hopeless quietism? Apparently Rancière thinks not, but he has yet to show why.

Jacques Rancière’s The Lost Thread: The Democracy of Modern Fiction, translated by Steven Corcoran (2017) is published by Bloomsbury and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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