Evelyne Grossman should be as widely read by American academics as by her colleagues in France. In Paris, there’s no shortage whatsoever of people skilled in the discussion of literary madnesses. This is an intensely fertile area that includes a breadth of subjects. Linguists, psychoanalysts, and dramatists have always given madness its due as a framework for literary studies. Americans content themselves with secondary sourcing, working up a froth of footnotes devoted to the intense minutiae afforded by the complexities of Derrida and company.
Among the pile of original works written in English—Judith Butler perhaps aside—the bulk of decent ones mainly wield rather narrow applications of Saussure, Lacan, et cetera to American works the French have no interest in. We American scholars have thought of nothing new, but have at least we’ve gotten adept at synthesizing these theorists together into a mishmash of reasons as to why the books that delight us, delight us.
But then along comes Grossman with The Anguish of Thought, finally translated into English (by Matthew Cripsey) a decade after its original publication, to do what we do infinitely better than we ever did it—and in really the most challenging way possible. Here we have Derrida, Levinas, Lacan and Foucault applied by this renowned scholar of Artaud to Beckett and Blanchot with such shocking clarity that probably two or three dozen Ph.D. candidates across America should just lay down their pencils now before they embarrass themselves.
Grossman’s voice is one belonging to a flesh and blood human, the waves of its joyful anxiety practically radiating off each page. The Anguish of Thought is not an introductory text, by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, I’ll extend to her the same praise I usual reserve for Barthes, another author whose main preoccupation was the nature of authorship: Grossman’s work should be read by the M.F.A. people, by the writers in need of its support, not just by the Ph.D. people who are mining for new language to use in their footnotes.
This short book’s eight chapters progress along a logical line of analysis for a study of madness. Chapter One acknowledges the obvious: that writers feel anguish. Grossman proceeds to define the symptoms—fatigue, ecstasy, passion of negativity, the dishuman, atomic or particulate ontology, and aspiration as inspiration. Yeah, these are actual “feels” all writers can identify. We sometimes feel we are going nuts—and that’s on a good day, when the words seem to be flowing.
Grossman’s poetic conclusion, that we are never alone in thinking, provides a great deal of comfort in its reframing of madness: “if the void is overpopulated, if the silence is filled with an incessant murmur, then […] I am made of this multitude of others, living and dead, present and resuscitated, real and imaginary, who continue to think and speak through me: recollections of ideas and texts, memory of language, reception of reminiscences or the persistence and perpetuation of things read within each of us” (26).
Chapter Two then expounds on Derrida’s notion of these archived voices as a phenomenon akin to Nietzsche’s eternal return. In the return, a voice’s effort to belong to its text and accompanying new context is both necessary and impossible. Authorship is a voice that sticks but also erases itself. Like the best theorists of madness, Grossman has a strong negative capability—so strong it finds joy thinking beside Derrida, rather than suffering within the knot of him, rather than trying to resolve him. She hilariously and repeatedly expresses annoyance as those academics looking for something to “do with” Derrida’s thinking (50). Her books makes evident that ways she has learned to live happily with her ghosts.
The third chapter moves to Levinas and his understanding that all thought borders on madness. That’s why he felt that philosophy ought to best speak in the language of poetics. A lot of modernist texts get slapped with the label of “unreadability” because in their successful efforts to approach madness they reach a state of poetry that is not accessible to a general audience trained to prefer logical constraints against that very madness. Writing on delirium does require a certain confounding of language, or as Levinas posited in Otherwise than Being (Springer, 1981) an ipseity—a plurality of selves that shift and contaminate each other as a source of selfhood that is usefully destabilized. Grossman mainly applies this to Artaud, an obvious case of language play and the dramatist with whom she is most familiar, before moving on to trickier examples from Beckett in Chapter Four.
If philosophy speaks in poetics, theory speaks in interdictions. Here she examines Lacan’s famous declaration that “there is no such thing as metalanguage” (72). This chapter offers a wonderful treatise of the nature of writerly denial and denigration. There’s a funny story in there about how she forced Derrida to concede a linguistics point to her in his footnotes for Paper Machine (Stanford University Press, 2005). Then she wriggles deeply into the atopia of Beckett. The fifth chapter continues with Beckett as a launchpad for getting at Foucault’s archaeology of discourse, including some beautiful descriptions of the challenge of intratextuality as a kind of Escherian form or a Mobius process.
The last three chapters seek to rehabilitate the reputation of Beckett and Blanchot. They are neither depressing nor nihilist. Reading their work is too often characterized as an ordeal, as a terrible and overly long slog. Grossman’s thoughts on death and the passage of time are quite moving in their joyous embrace of radical uncertainty. All writers wonder about their immortal connection to the art they make. Her understanding of these works of literature is that they are nothing short of a posteriori heroic, precisely in their way of giving voice to death. They provoke in us as well as in their creators a dizzying sense of the dishuman, of “the wonder of temporarily freeing ourselves from so-called human limits” (138).
Perhaps most delightfully, Grossman ends The Anguish of Thought by performing this same brave and crazy act against her own text, with keen self-awareness and none too much reverence for herself or her subjects by posing that eternal question of readership: “are we dealing here with the author’s creative intent or with textual productivity, the work of language?” (155). Alas, poor intentionality, I knew him well!
If you’re a writer of literature with a basic working understanding of French theory—like, you can put together three coherent sentences about the main arguments of Derrida and Lacan—then definitely read Evelyne Grossman’s The Anguish of Thought. After reading it, as a writer, I feel better about my work—and with the notion that I need not resolve the definition of any words in the sentence, “I feel better about my work.”