In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its oeconomy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.from Samuel Johnson’s Preface to the Dictionary, London, 1755
Wait a moment, here I have it. This: ‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is not that witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they won’t think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.Herman Hesse, from Steppenwolfe
Many a work moves us because we still see in it the imprint left by the author who has departed from it too hastily, impatient to finish with it, fearful that if he didn’t have done with it, he would never be able to return to the light of day. In these works, which are too great, greater than those who bear them, the supreme moment — the nearly central point at which we know that if the author remains there, he will die in the undertaking — is always perceptible. It is from this mortal point that we see the great, heroic creators depart — but slowly, almost peacefully — and come back with an even step toward the surface which the firm, regular stroke of the radius permits to curve according to the perfections of the sphere. But how many others are there who can only tear themselves from the irresistible attraction of the center with an inharmonious violence, leaving behind them, like scars of badly knit wounds, the traces of their successive flights, their inconsolable returns, their aberrant comings and goings? The most sincere openly leave to abandon what they have themselves abandoned. Others hide the ruins, and this concealment becomes the only truth of their books.
Blanchot, from The Space of Literature
It’s an awesome and terrible thing to read a necessarily, heroically unfinished text. A text left open and hanging. Bolaño discusses the difference between the hermetic, “perfect” text and the bloody, torrential, “imperfect” work here.
It is regularly said of the artist that he finds in his work a convenient way of living while withdrawing from life’s responsibilities. He is said to protect himself from the world where action is difficult by establishing himself in an unreal world over which he reigns supreme. This is, in fact, one of the risks of artistic activity: to exile oneself from the difficulties of time and of active pursuits in time without, however, renouncing the comfort of the world or the apparent easiness of pursuits outside time. The artist often seems a weak being who cringes within the closed sphere of his work where, speaking as master and acting without any obstacles, he can take revenge for his failures in society. Even Stendhal, even Balzac inspire this suspicion; Kafka, Hölderlin certainly do — and Homer is blind. But this perspective only expresses one side of the situation. The other side is that the artist who willingly exposes himself to the risks of the experience which is his does not feel free of the world, but, rather, deprived of it; he does not feel that he is master of himself, but rather that he is absent from himself and exposed to demands which, casting him out of life and out of living, open him to that moment at which he cannot do anything and is no longer himself. It is then that Rimbaud flees into the desert from the responsibilities of the poetic decision. He buries his imagination and his glory. He says “adieu” to “the impossible” in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci does and almost in the same terms. He does not come back to the world; he takes refuge in it; and bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgiveness. If it is true, as doubtful sources have it, that in his last years he would not stand for any mention of his work or that he repeatedly said of himself, “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting,” the violence of his disavowal, the refusal to remember himself shows the terror which he still felt and the force of the upheaval which he could not undergo to the limit. He is reproached with having sold out and deserted, but the reproach is easy for those who have not run the risk.Blanchot, from The Space of Literature