By Jérémie Bennequin
Translated by Sabine Schlüter
A book is a huge cemetery
in which on the majority of the tombs
the names are effaced
and can no longer be read.
For a long time I erased the work of Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. I literally rubbed out the book with an ink eraser, ruining this literary monument one page per day over ten years. A long-term undertaking, rigorous work, an absurd obsession, a complete loss of time.
It all began on a trip to India after an initiatory reading of this masterwork. Under the Goan sun, in the shadow of an enormous palm tree on a heavenly beach, I reached the end of Time Regained, the last of the novel’s seven volumes. I felt dizzy from the endless abyss of introspection that characterises Proust’s conclusion to the end of his epic. The text reflects experience. That day, on a whim and with an eraser, I made the last sentence disappear. A pathetic act, a senseless impulse – an unconscious desire to postpone the Fall ? – ; my erasure of Proust started instinctively, indifferent to art, with little understanding of why or how the work had to disappear. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that a conceptual artistic approach of this kind would emerge from the ruin of Proust’s “great cemetery” through my daily ritual of erasure, but the maiden act had just occurred, unexpectedly, in my little paperback, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Could I have been guided by the Hindu divinity that is worshipped for its powers of creative destruction ? Who knows, perhaps Shiva had influenced me.
After returning to France as a student of visual arts at the Palais Universitaire in Strasbourg, I wanted to resume my strange act right where I had left off, with the mad ambition of erasing the work entirely… I tried out different types of ink erasers in order to find a product of high quality, the flexible substance of which was supposed to remove indelible impressions and would crumble into a fine greyish-blue powder on contact with the text. I also bought another copy of Proust’s book, this time from the “White Collection” (Collection Blanche) by Gallimard, whose editions don’t include paratextual and peritextual notes by the author and come on printing paper of just the right thickness for a sanding on both sides. Over months I scratched, scrubbed and abraded the printed surface of the pages, starting with the end of the seventh volume, gradually working my way backwards though the history, eraser in hand, carving out the inverted sense of Time Regained. The first sessions were strenuous and psychologically tiring. This could be seen in the crumpled paper, cracked and torn from the first pages that were ravaged by clumsy erasure, brutal, a crime compounded by the incomprehension of the act. Sometimes I slaved away for hours destroying the text before I stopped, physically exhausted, worn out by the absurdity of such a project, mentally discouraged by making such an unreasonable effort to reach my goal. Mind you, three thousand pages are no joking matter… Days would pass, weeks even, without erasing, but with a lurking sense of failure ; then, in Proust’s own words, “an urgent meeting with myself” would force me to take up the task again, newly motivated by an intuition that was both restless and intense, driven by an inner urge. This alternation of phases of enthusiasm and profound desperation characterised the first period of a process that was still anarchic and sporadic. I was in dire need of a method.
After moving back from Strasbourg to my native city of Paris, I gradually developed a set of rules in order to define my art and render my approach meaningful. Strict observance proved essential to progress from the darkness of a somewhat pathological obsession to the light of a thought-through activity, based on the assumed principles of an ironic and untroubled approach. A chaotic act soon transformed into a system of more and more controlled erasure. From that moment on, suitably invigorated, I decided to take up my erasure from the beginning of the first volume of Proust’s Search, Du côté de chez Swann, and to work through the novel following its pages according to a henceforth defined rhythm. I determined that Proust’s work had to disappear by a page per day from then on, no more, no less, thus scrupulously abiding by a law of daily activity perfectly exemplified since 1966 by On Kawara’s Date Paintings. My approach even stipulated that, on days without erasure, justly punishing my absence, the page that should have been erased on that particular day would be spared from the regular erosion of the book. This device became more and more defined, for example, from the beginning of the second volume of the Search, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, onwards, I decided that my erasure would be subject to a special treatment, namely their deletion in a second round of erasure identical to the first.
But, I only did this when I, myself was travelling. They thus became like travel books where the erased pages would be systematically detached and put in envelopes at the end of the stay, to be sent from the resort to some collector or my own home as authentic spatio-temporal fragments that would inscribe themselves into the logic of the process as a whole. Each recipient would then be free to open the envelope and discover its message or keep it sealed to preserve its mystery.
The task had become everyday erasure – my morning asceticism – and it arose from an iconoclastic or, to be more precise, scriptoclastic ritual. Ideally, only the actual print should be removed under the crude pressure applied by the blue eraser. But in its role as a pumice stone, the utensil inevitably weakened the paper which, according to its texture, more or less resisted the singular strokes, but the incessant back-and-forth movements of which would, despite my experience and mode of application, sometimes damage the page. However, the result which at the beginning had revealed the nervousness of a tormented artist, inexperienced in his craft, over time became the expression of a delicate brushing that exhibited greater and greater tenderness towards the skimmed page. During the polishing of the text, its inscription became paler, similar to an evanescent buried body whose picture is slowly dimmed like a memory. “Dimming” means softening, veiling, melting a form in the wave of a soft shadow. It’s a term draughtsmen know well from the charcoal technique that is used for attenuating the contours of a figure that nonetheless continues to shine through, albeit somewhat nebulous and imprecise. In this case, the “dimming” of a book demands care and, paradoxically, respect for the damaged text. This is the fundamental ambiguity of a sacrilegious cult which, like the dialectical idea of constructive demolition, renders an author’s work sacred by profaning it. The ambivalence of a tribute paid by erasure. This is where the generic title of my adventure, ommage , comes from.
A double sacrifice took place that was both symbolic and tangible. On the one hand, despite the sacrificial dimension of lost time, of all those hours spent erasing, my long-winded work represented a gift in itself which, like the radical work in progress by the late Roman Opalka, serves as a chronic recording designed to “sculpt time”. But, unlike the great work called 1965 - ∞, the completion of which fatally coincided with the death of the French-Polish artist, the end state of my programme could be exactly dated from the start. Without representing the work of a lifetime, my ommage was still carried out over a considerable time span – about ten years – and as such it constitutes a transitional experience, a long period of time, like a slow initiation, an ambiguous way of being close to Proust [very close] : by detaching myself I stayed in contact with the author. Because, on the other hand, through this particular way of “killing time” it was probably a case of “killing the father”, sacrificing the work of the master whose Search was consciously reduced to nothing. This was ownership of the tabula rasa, just as Robert Rauchenberg erased a drawing by Willem De-Kooning in 1953 (Erased De-Kooning drawing), with the crucial difference that the American artist erased a unique work, while the erased Proust writing concerns a single copy of the book and certainly not an authentic manuscript, the Proustian “paperole” ; it does not even concern a specific edition. Thanks to their ubiquity, the existence of texts is not limited to the physical integrity of the amount of material in which the author’s thoughts are embodied. Love of books aside, each copy of a new publication contains the essential substance of the work. Putting a series of works at risk, without considering their uniqueness or rarity, might annihilate the spiritual content of the literature, but the erasure of the text violates the entire work.
In the way of Duchampian readymade where “the copy precedes the original”, it can be said in this case that the relic proceeds from the replica. The unique emerges from the multiple since the manual technique of erasing transforms a banal industrial reproduction into an original work of art. The volume so meticulously damaged, the erased amount, the “book as an object” from which a series of “artists’ books” will result in a more or less limited edition. The fact that, chapter by chapter, Proust’s work has been re-edited in Ommage à la Recherche du temps perdu in its “dimmed” version really has made it possible to present my personal research to a potential audience and to grant, little by little, a mostly secretive and lonely act the existence as an artistic practice, acknowledged in terms of aesthetic, intellectual, and critical reception through what Walter Benjamin calls in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction “the value of exhibition”. Besides, the erased editions of the novel offer, from a visual perspective, another possible reading of my unique erasure because, remarkably, on the pages of the “dimmed” book, some fragments of text have resisted. Not all is lost. Here and there, survivors of the damage have remained, spared in the ruins of an abolished literature, some letters, syllables, scattered words, fragments of sentences, shreds of writing, and together they all constitute literary remnants of a pulverised architecture.
The reprographies of the erased pages are not diaphanous like the original faded script which possesses the depth of a palimpsest with a tactile and sculptural dimension that escapes reproducibility. Superimposed on the original images, the contrasting appearance of typographic fragments evokes the metaphor of a vast field of ruins. The mise-en-abîme of the Proustian monument, a universally intimate memory site, where each memory, emerging from a forgotten world, suggests the existence of a phantom universe. Freed from the chains of syntax, those linguistic signs that remain readable among the merely visible graphic specks gain resonance, a bit like a phenomenon in Mallarmé’s writing, in the midst of their empty surroundings. In view of the gaps, which are even more obvious because of the absence of the rest, it becomes evident that these few miraculous words gain or, more precisely, find on the erased page a physical reality that the usual reading retracts in order to automatically emphasise the virtuality of meaning. In a dialectical encounter of language and image that reveals the material and plastic character of the writing, the sensitive body of the text that paradoxically appears by disappearing serves as a picture of the letters which becomes visible in the backwash of the scriptoclastic eraser. Even as I worked, I discovered that erasure is a unique form of writing, while, as Gilles Deleuze expressed it very clearly in 1981, writing in the sense of Proust, Mallarmé and so many others fundamentally recurs to deleting, removing – erasing itself.
Besides, I never tried to consciously recreate an “intentional” poem on the field of ruins on the Proustian page : I believe this would have been a grave error. But, without being predefined, the permanence of the remaining words could not be random, so choosing them “unintentionally” depended on spontaneous choices. During erasure, words are subject to accidental encounters and their way of resonating hic et nunc , here and now, at the hands of the erasing artist determines their degree of resistance or annihilation : a mixture of coincidence and subjectivity for which the concept of “automatic un-writing” serves very well. Contrary to the principle of poetic-pictorial composition, which characterises Tom Philips’s famous approach to the artistic repossession of a literary work (A Humument, 1966) and rather like the telegrams on which On Kawara would simply write “I am Still Alive”, a proof of life, my impulsive writing through deletion represents a footprint reiterated by an act of presence. In my case, in view of the lexical field in which each detail is individualised this act of presence is characterised by a circumstantial and provisional reflection of certain states of the soul. And yet, in the course of time and throughout the book, the meaning of the surviving words clearly tends to distance itself from the mould of Proustian narration, mirroring the process of self-deletion.
The art of scriptoclastic erasure becomes visible in the traces the act leaves behind. Out of a minimal habitual act that emerges in turn from the obscurity of an absurd impulse, an entire approach has developed that is at the same time sensual and conceptual and has drawn its privileged material from a book. As a result, an extensive production has developed, consisting of editions of artistic books, literary essays and photographic images… In connection with different publications of the text in its ruined version, there is also an acoustic recording of the erasure process that allows the listener to get an impression of the amount of time lost by erasing, and an illustrated manual for those who wish to learn the correct way of using an ink eraser to erase the pages of a book. In addition there are a few letters containing erased pages from elsewhere, and the same number of little vials, rigorously labelled and containing a mysterious blue powder. Finally there is a series of seven melancholic “Tombs” and some “Mountains” of dust, carefully preserved, silent and indifferent like sacred relics of a funeral cult.
While I was at work, I went methodically through all of Proust’s Search up to the exact point where I had suspended the first period of obsessive erasing, which had started with the end of the last volume and was later picked up again from the beginning of the work. My ommage now concludes, having rediscovered lost time in the eternal return of a present that merges with the past.