The Insufficiency of Literature

Consciousness as given can never wholly constitute itself in art but must strain to transform its own boundaries and to alter the boundaries of art. Thus, any single “work” has a dual status. It is both a unique and specific and already enacted literary gesture, and a meta-literary declaration (often strident, sometimes ironic) about the insufficiency of literature with respect to an ideal condition of consciousness and art. Consciousness conceived of as a project creates a standard that inevitably condemns the “work” to be incomplete. On the model of heroic consciousness that aims at nothing less than total self-appropriation, literature will aim at the “total book.” Measured against the idea of the total book, all writing, in practise, consists of fragments.The standard of beginnings, middles, and ends no longer applies. Incompleteness becomes the reigning modality of art and thought, giving rise to anti-genres-work that is deliberately fragmentary or self-cancelling, thought that undoes itself. But the successful overthrow of old standards does not require denying the failure of such art. As Cocteau says, “the only work which succeeds is that which fails.”

Susan Sontag – Approaching Artaud (1972)

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