“A gulp to stave off death”: Quick thoughts on Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows

This weekend I finished Pascal Quignard’s utterly bizarre, sui generis The Roving Shadows. It took a while to get into it, and suspect that a good many will not be willing to extend the patience, but believe all the more that those who do will be rewarded in ways they’d not expected.

Perhaps my affection for it stems for my search for a way to articulate a kind of contemporary, romanticism that is not sullied (justifiably, in many instances) by its 20th-century association with fascism and the like. Quignard never identifies as ‘romantic’ his aesthetic ruminations on life lived in the half-light of dusk & dawn, his preferred color of eroticism and creativity, so I don’t want to belabor the association; but his search for ways to evoke that which is unspoken (but not silent) in that which is spoken — or, the shadows that give color to the lighted, often quite horrific, world around us — taps into some of my previous thoughts on the importance of style.

To experience, through thinking, something that is striving for expression, before one even knows it — this is doubtless what the movement of writing is. To write, on the one hand, with this word that is forever on the tip of your tongue and, on the other, with the whole of language as it slips through your fingers. This is called burning, at the dawn of discovery.

I burn! I burn! To reignite all that follows with the intensity of things at their beginning. . . . To bring all things out of the anterior darkness. To set the lost afire with loss — this, properly speaking, is what it is to read. To procure its eleventh-hour colour for everything that is burning out.

Now, I should say, it is all very . . . ponderously French. And if that immediately turns you off, you will almost certainly dislike it. Indeed, that it even won the Goncourt is either a miracle or a travesty, depending on your perspective. (‘Too Parisian,’ sniffed one dissenting voter.) Neither a novel nor an essay, and not even all that aphoristic, Quignard has, though, created something new.

There is no moral progress. There has been no diminishment of misdeeds if we look at the years constituting the middle of the last century or examine those that closed and opened it. Or those that are opening the coming century. It is an unexampled abyss. It is perhaps the first abyss history has encountered on its path. Abyss is a Greek word meaning bottomless. It is the first abyss opened up by the times. There was a time before this abyss. There will perhaps be a post bellum, but its definition is the question which, henceforth, visits the time that human languages have constructed. The concept of the abyss, now unprecedented in its vertigiousness, relates not so much to irremissible sin as to endless fear. Given the possibility the earth has found destroying itself, dread devastates the very idea of that which is nascent within what is supposed to come unpredictably — and always radically — in the future. The natural beauty of the earth is being extinguished as an act of human will. Erotic desire has never known more abrupt retribution. Death, anxiety and lamentation are no longer daily blemishes, but monarchs the more omnipotent for having become pious. Water is given for money. We give a dead man to the earth for money. We give the sun for money. The seas are full of pirates and the skies have welcomed them too. Like the first heavenly bodies, they have becomes ts heroes. Each nation is chosen of the fathers and produces, as if merely by breathing, a column of refugees. The gods and their horrific retinue are back.

Like anything new, The Roving Shadows brings with it troubles and frustrations. But with it, the reward of an experiential/aesthetic horizon intensified. I write ‘intensified’ intentionally, for he neither dismisses nor privileges the notion of a horizon ‘expanded’: when one’s perspective is physically and temporally constrained, as ours surely is, might it not be all the better that we attend to that which is disruptively new within our respective constraints?

The individual is like the wave rising to the surface of the water. That wave cannot separate itself entirely and very quickly falls back into the interdependent mass that engulfs it. It always sinks back into the irresistible movement of the tide that bears it along. But why not rise up again and again and again?

And if none of that makes sense or fails to appeal to you, Quignard also writes beautiful lines that will remind you why you love to read:

That ocean knows no shores.
Everything is immersed in it.
Fish that still rise to the surface.  A gulp to stave off death.
That gulp: reading.

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