Tyrannical Prehension

Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Half-preparing a class for my MA module ‘The Creative Process’, but actually taking time to enjoy the material – something that happens far too infrequently these days, especially in busy October – I stumble across a strange passage in Blanchot, on something referred to, perplexingly, as Tyrannical Prehension. It sounds like a stomach disorder, but is, in fact, far more sinister:

‘Sometimes, when a man is holding a pencil, his hand won’t release it no matter how badly he wants to let it go. Instead, the hand tightens rather than open. The other hand intervenes more successfully, but then the hand which one might call sick makes a slow, tentative movement and tries to catch the departing object. The strange thing is the slowness of this movement. The hand moves in a tempo which is scarcely human: not that of a viable action, not that of a hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward and object that has become its own shadow. This hand experiences, at certain moments, a very great need to seize: it must grasp the pencil, it has to. It receives an order, an imperious command. This phenomenon is known as “tyrannical prehension.”’

The urgency of writing, the need to write right now, becomes pathologised. But we write, according to Blanchot, only when we have already begun to write:

‘Writing begins with Orpheus’ gaze. And this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters the song’s destiny, that disrupts concern for it, and in this inspired and careless decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song. But in order to descend towards this instant, Orpheus has to possess the power of art already. This is to say: one writes only if one reaches that instant which nevertheless one can only approach in the space opened by the movement of writing. To write one has to write already. In this contradiction are situated the essence of writing, the snag in the experience, and inspiration’s leap.’

I find among my papers some notes I took from a lecture given by Hélène Cixous at Cardiff University ten years ago. The talk was called ‘The Unforeseeable’, and I remember enjoying it a lot. Ms Cixous was extremely elegant and spoke manicured English. She said that the title of her lecture referred to the unexpectedness of what one writes, which is unforeseeable, even to oneself.

You reach the point where the book, not the author, is writing the book.

With writing you go in one direction and find yourself forced in another direction.

But paradoxically, the strength of the writer lies in his or her helplessness. Why might this be?

She cited her friend Derrida as saying: ‘The work starts by itself.’ He used to say: ‘It’s started,’ when asked about a new piece of writing (rather than ‘I have started it’).

The book is unexpected, unforeseeable.

I’m not sure what to make of all this.

In another class this week, an undergraduate nonfiction class – not the MA class in which I discuss Blanchot – a student turns in a piece about trying to hold onto a pencil, against the odds, while a force beyond her control seizes control of the hand with which she tries to hold the pencil. This is very strange. Unaccountable coincidence or tyrannical prehension? Synchronicity? Unforeseeable, certainly.







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