Concrete Universality

I say that the literature of a given age is alienated when it
has not arrived at the explicit consciousness of its autonomy
and when it submits to temporal powers or to an ideology,
in short, when it considers itself as a means and not as an
unconditioned end. There is no doubt that literary works,
in their particularity, surpass this servitude and that each
one contains an unconditioned exigence, but only by
implication. I say that a literature is abstract when it has not
yet acquired the full view of its essence, when it has merely
set up the principle of its formal autonomy and when it
considers the subject of the work as indifferent. From this
point of view the twelfth century offers us the image of a
concrete and alienated literature. Concrete, because content
and form are blended; one learns to write only to write
about God; the book is the mirror of the world in so far as
the world is His work; it is an inessential creation on the
margin of a major Creation; it is praise, psalm, offering, a
pure reflection. By the same token literature falls into
alienation; that is, since it is, in any case, the reflectiveness
of the social body, since it remains in the state of nonreflective
reflectiveness, it mediates the Catholic universe;
but, for the clerk, it remains the immediate; it retrieves the
world, but by losing itself. But as the reflective idea must
necessarily reflect itself on pain of annihilating itself with the
whole reflected universe, the three examples which we have
For Whom Does One Write? \ 135
studied showed a movement of the retrieving of literature
by itself, that is, its transition from the state of unreflective
and immediate reflection to that of reflective mediation. At
first concrete and alienated, it liberates itself by negativity
and passes to abstraction; more exactly, it passes in the
eighteenth century to abstract negativity before becoming
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century absolute
negation. At the end of this evolution it has cut all its bonds
with society; it no longer even has a public. ‘Every one
knows’, writes Paulhan, ‘that there are two literatures in
our time, the bad, which is really unreadable (it is widely
read) and the good, which is not read.’
But even that is an advance; at the end of this lofty
isolation, at the end of this scornful rejection of all efficacity
there is the destruction of literature by itself; at first, the
terrible ‘it’s only literature’; then, that literary phenomenon
which the same Paulhan calls terrorism, which is born at
about the same time as the idea of parasitic gratuitousness,
and as its antithesis, and which runs all through the nineteenth
century, contracting as it goes a thousand irrational
marriages, and finally bursts forth shortly before the First
World War. Terrorism, or rather the terrorist complex, for
it is a tangle of vipers. One might distinguish, first, so deep
a disgust with the sign as such that it leads in all cases to
preferring the thing signified to the word, the act to the
statement, the word conceived as object to the word meaning,
that is, in the last analysis, poetry to prose, spontaneous
disorder to composition; second, an effort to make
literature one expression among others of life, instead of
sacrificing life to literature; and third, a crisis of the writer’s
moral conscience, that is, the sad collapse of parasitism.
Thus, without for a moment conceiving the idea of losing
its formal autonomy, literature makes itself a negation
of formalism and comes to raise the question of its essential
content. Today we are beyond terrorism and we
can make use of its experience and the preceding analyses
to set down the essential traits of a concrete and liberated
We have said that, as a rule, the writer addressed all men.
But immediately afterwards we noted that he was read only
by a few. As a result of the divergence between the real
public and the ideal public, there arose the idea of abstract
universality. That is, the author postulates the constant
repetition in an indefinite future of the handful of readers
which he has at present. Literary glory peculiarly resembles
Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence; it is a struggle against
history; here, as there, recourse to the infinity of time seeks
to compensate for the failure in space (for the author of the
seventeenth century, a recurrence ad infinitum of the gentleman;
for the one of the nineteenth century, an extension ad
infinitum of the club of writers and the public of specialists).
But as it is self-evident that the effect of the projection into
the future of the real and present public is to perpetuate, at
least in the representation of the writer, the exclusion of the
majority of men, as, in addition, this imagining of an
infinity of unborn readers is tantamount to extending the
actual public by a public made up of merely possible men,
the universality which glory aims at is partial and abstract.
And as the choice of the public conditions, to a certain
extent, the choice of subject, the literature which has set up
glory as its goal and its governing idea must also remain
The term ‘concrete universality’ must be understood, on
the contrary, as the sum total of men living in a given
society. If the writer’s public could ever be extended to the
point of embracing this total, the result would not be that he
would necessarily have to limit the reverberations of his
work to the present time, but rather he would oppose to the
abstract eternity of glory, which is an impossible and hollow
dream of the absolute, a concrete and finite duration which
he would determine by the very choice of his subjects, and
which, far from uprooting him from history, would define
his situation in social time.