No one can make literary theory seem as dark and cool and sexy as the French and no one--with the possible exception of his pal Georges Bataille--is darker, cooler, and sexier at it than the great mystery man of 20th century French letters, Maurice Blanchot. This short but weighty collection of some of his characteristic essays is filled with intriguing, elusive, and suggestive observations on the art of literature and the practice of writing.
What was the song the Sirens sang--and what do we learn from the different responses taken to their singing by Odysseus and Ahab? Why did Orpheus look back at Eurydice even though he'd been warned he'd lose her if he did--and why, as a poet, was it his greatest moment and greatest failure?
Such are the questions that Blanchot asks and answers--sort of--in these densely allusive and ever elliptical pieces. For me, the experience of reading Blanchot is something like I'd imagine it might be riding a rodeo bull. You get accustomed to the idea that each sentence is going to eventually throw you with its powerful twists and unexpected involutions; victory is a matter of hanging on for as long as you can. Often I found that if only a passage had ended just a few words sooner I would have understood Blanchot's point perfect, but before the period came he'd throw in one last phrase that left me in the dust and dazed.
The Reign of Terror, Flaubert, cadavers, Lazarus, Lautreamont, the insanity of writing, the absence of the book--this isn't a text you read so much as re-read, a book it takes another thousand books to understand. Blanchot is "talking" not only to the reader, but across time and into the timeless region between texts to address other authors and other books. If you aren't familiar with Hegel, for instance, you apparently miss much of the subdued references Blanchot is citing, amplifying, distorting, modifying, refuting. If you don't know Mallarme, you may find yourself as mystified by some passage as you'd be if you were listening in on only one side of a conversation--because you are.
Still, there is much to be gleaned from *The Gaze of Orpheus* even if you glean only thirty percent of it. Indeed, it's consoling to learn that no one *completely* understands Blanchot--including the translator and the editor who wrote the book's afterward, as they readily--and admirably--admit. In fact, while I usually only read translator notes, introductions, and afterwards out of a sense of duty and a sort of obsessive compulsion, I found that in this case the translator's short preface and the aforementioned editorial afterward to be interesting and illuminating in their own right--well worth your time.
*The Gaze of Orpheus* and Maurice Blanchot are the quintessential example of the kind of book and author that you'll love if you love this sort of thing--and hate if you don't. For some, this collection will be fascinating, thought-provoking, inspiring, and beautiful. For others, it will be frustrating, hopelessly obscure, virtually unreadable. I found it all of this--I very much recommend it.