The Silence of the Work


The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another.

….although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit….

The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history.

The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book.

Mastery consists of the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written, giving its rights and its exclusive cutting edge back to the instant.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot stop talking….To this incessant speech I bring the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.

When we admire the tone of a work, responding to the tone [we respond to the work’s] silence….The tone is not the voice of the writer, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on speech….Tone makes the great writers, but perhaps the work is not concerned about what makes them great.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Essential Solitude


For what I was doing I was doing neither for Molloy, who mattered nothing to me, nor for myself, of whom I despaired, but on behalf of a cause which, while having need of us to be accomplished, was in its essence anonymous, and would subsist, haunting the minds of men, when its miserable artisans should be no more.

Shall I be able to speak of me and of this place without putting an end to us, shall I ever be able to go silent, is there any connexion between these two questions?
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy and The Unnamable


The work is what happens when one writes, but inasmuch as it is bound to the will to write it contains or at least alludes to the ungraspable kernel of will. But the work is bigger than the impossible since it contains the impossible as one of its possibilities. The impossible is a conscious attempt to do what can’t be done, a demonstration of limits, or an inadvertent failure, but the work is indifferent, is outside these concerns. The individual writer is but one vehicle for the work; it stretches in time. It encompasses tradition as well as the living will to participate, respond, interpret and innovate.

The book’s strength and weakness are interrelated. The more the author is aware of the false authority of the book (the more authoritative, and thus brittle and hard he makes it), the more fragile its beauty, so long as he is able to pinch off the ends of his declarations with finesse. The book is what is left over.

So much for the book. And yet maturity, health and happiness lie outside the work as well. Perhaps that is why Beckett seems to idealize silence. Through the discipline of the work it may be possible to find healing, but this is by no means an inevitable consequence of the work. The work is as empty as anything else; only one’s attitude toward it has meaning. To equate success, happiness or health with silence only perpetuates anguish, whether one continues to write or not. The work is interminable, and silence bears no relation to it beyond the tone that Blanchot speaks of. Maturity is not a condition but a process that knows no end. But the process only has significance providing one is acutely attentive to it, and this is what we find in Blanchot and Beckett. To be sure, this acute awareness does not place one outside the concerns of the work, but it’s important. It is one half of the essential prerequisite for any resolution or exit one may make outside of and completely apart from the work, the other half being attentiveness to one’s physical reality as a being in the world. Beyond the tools and systems of analysis, beyond the games of art, lies the unnamable.

A version of this piece was first published on The Bricoleur.

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5 Responses to The Silence of the Work

  1. angela says:

    Hello Mark, It was a pleasure to revisit blogland last night and read many of your posts I’ve since missed. Not to muddy all the comment fields, I shall just post here with one comment: you should be a professor. Thank you, as always, for the time and cerebral fortitude to compile these works of contemplation for us. I’ve lost my way both creatively and cerebrally – these posts made me wish to find a glinting end of the web and grab on! Gratitude. In close, here is something I read tonight that I think you might find of interest as I know you are a fan of his work – you may have an opinion on this translation Peace ~ Angela

    • Thanks for reading. I’ve always had trouble getting into Mallarme. Too French? Too hard to translate? Now, if I had been a professor and had studied French deeply…. Perhaps in an alternate universe there’s a version of me doing that.

      • angela says:

        My apologies, Mark, I just realized you’ve referenced Comte de Lautréamont (I believe) not Mallarme. Right language, way different poets. I’m certain you would’ve been a scholar if that had been your area of interest!

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    So interesting. Of course, I was attracted to the Eno part, but the post so interesting. I had a husband once who is really a wonderful artist who kept redoing everything and many times losing wonderful versions of a piece. I find that it can be so dangerous to re-work yet also necessary–for me the danger is patness and cuteness. Agh! k.

    • The miracle of the song “Julie With” (also “Spider and I”) is that they evoke silence in a song.

      In visual art I tend to overwork things, but fortunately I don’t struggle with that in writing. As for cuteness, I avoid it in my work but I have to say a sense of genuine cuteness–a work that is truly cute without being a put on–is a rare thing in this world.

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