An eternal dilemma: too much or not enough?

By Jan Baetens

Judith Schlanger, a French writer and philosopher and professor emeritus at the University of Jerusalem, is best known for her research on the notion of “invention” (what does it mean to produce “new” knowledge, how can we recognize it, what is the relationship between the new and the old that does not necessarily disappear, etc.). But her work also encompasses a vital rhetorical strand, where she addresses similar questions in a more literary context. I can’t recommend enough the reading of books like La Mémoire des œuvres (2008, new edition), Présence des œuvres perdues (2010) or Le neuf, le different et le déjà là. Une exploration de l’influence (2014) – none of them translated into English, alas. This work is exactly what literary scholarship should be doing today: a fresh and thought-provoking reflection on the stakes of literature, and the forms it should take. In other words: the why and the how, but all in one. William Marx, Gilles Philippe, Pierre Bayard are other examples of what is not a “school” but a living set of (French) examples to follow (in my memoirs I will say more on the examples not to follow, but only retirement will set me free of certain institutional constraints).

61ASEGgGTJLSchlanger’s newest book, Trop dire ou trop peu. Essai sur la densité littéraire (Paris, Hermann, 2016) addresses a question that no one who takes writing seriously can ever avoid: Where do I stop? How can I be sure that I have said enough (for to say more would be a bore to the reader)? And how do I know that I have to say something more (for if I don’t my reader will discard my text as opaque or incomprehensible). Very simple questions, but real questions, which can never be fully answered.

Schlanger takes a double approach toward the “density problem”.  First of all, she reframes the old rhetorical question in modern media-theoretical ways. With the help of McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media (a hot medium being a medium that says “too much” and so for that reason “chills” the reader, making her passive and lazy; a cold medium being a medium that “doesn’t” say “enough” and therefore excites the reader, making her curious and challenging her wit and intelligence), she manages to discuss the complex and often very paradoxical relationships between a given form (ranging between too dense and not dense enough) and a given readerly reaction (ranging between excitement and boredom, which Schlanger acknowledges as an essential dimension of reading, just as forgetting is of culture). Second, she then examines the density problem from different point of views (for instance that of genre).

Trop dire ou trop peu is a book in which one learns on every page. Schlanger’s erudition is fabulous, but never heavy. She asks the right questions, problematizes the answers that we think are the good ones, and generously offers us wonderful quotations from very different literary and linguistic traditions. It is also a book that can be read as a user’s manual. One feels throughout that each word, each sentence, each paragraph has been written with the density question in mind. Yet this does not mean that Schlanger simply tries to shorten her text, in order to obtain maximum density. She knows when and where to repeat, and she also knows how do to it in a way that makes repetition and lack of density interesting and appealing (her mastery of the rhetorical figure of synonymic enumeration is breathtaking!).