Maurice Blanchot Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: One of the leading novelists and literary critics of the post-World War II generation in France, Blanchot decisively influenced the work of philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and is widely recognized as a forerunner of the school of literary theory known as deconstruction.

Early Life

Of Maurice Blanchot’s personal life, very little is known. Born of a wealthy family, he received a B.S. degree from the University of Strasbourg and a graduate degree from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. At Strasbourg in 1925, Blanchot met philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, a fellow undergraduate. Their friendship, which would endure, arose from shared literary and philosophical interests. Otherwise, the two young men were poles apart. Lévinas, a Jew, was a Lithuanian immigrant and politically a liberal; Blanchot was, in these early years, a monarchist. Through Lévinas, however, Blanchot was introduced to two philosophers whose work proved to be central to his intellectual development: Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

During the 1930’s, Blanchot was visibly active as a right-wing political journalist, and the extent of his involvement with the fascist movement in France has been a matter of some controversy. Like many young men of the period, Blanchot was deeply disturbed by the failure of parliamentary democracy to provide effective leadership for a France still debilitated by the economic and social chaos produced by World War I and threatened by the rising power of the Nazis in Germany. His first journalistic efforts were for the traditionalist Journal des débats, a prestigious mouthpiece for the French oligarchy, and within a short period, he had risen to become its editor in chief, a position he maintained until 1940, when France fell to the German invasion.

Although as leading editorialist for the Journal des débats, Blanchot was often highly critical of the centrist government of Leon Blum, his most vitriolic attacks upon the political establishment were published in the fascist journals Combat and L’Insurge. Appalled particularly by the government’s capitulation to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936, which allowed the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, and by the government’s policy of neutrality toward Spain, which was then involved in a civil war, Blanchot adopted an increasingly violent rhetorical stance that culminated in the late 1930’s in a number of articles that attempted to justify acts of revolutionary terrorism against the democratic regime. Most controversial, however, has been the suggestion that Blanchot’s involvement with Combat and L’Insurge somehow amounted to an endorsement of the distinctly anti-Semitic content of the two journals. If this were the case, then Blanchot’s post-World War II writings, deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, might be considered tainted or intended somehow to suppress his own complicity with the persecutions carried out under the German occupation. However, Blanchot’s own writings from the 1930’s present little evidence of anti-Semitic leanings.

Life’s Work

World War II seems to have marked a turning point in Blanchot’s career. During the war years, he began to move toward a more moderate French nationalism, as evidenced by his participation in the Resistance. In addition, the primacy of political involvement gave way to his literary interests. Before the end of the war, he published two novels, Thomas l’Obscur (1941; Thomas the Obscure, 1973) and Aminadab (1942), and two critical works, one of which, Faux Pas (1943), brought together a number of essays from the prewar period. In Faux Pas, Blanchot’s theoretical antecedents become apparent; the influence of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and that of the novelist/poet Le Comte de Lautréamont are also evident. Most important, though, is the philosophical influence of Martin Heidegger, whose radical phenomenology is evident in Blanchot’s claims for the quasi-mystical character of language as that which lies at the foundations of human existence. With Heidegger, Blanchot seeks to overturn the traditional view that ordinary, instrumental language precedes poetic language. Poetic discourse, rather, is the originary language out of which historical communities emerge.

The seminal theoretical statement from this period in Blanchot’s career appeared in a work entitled The Work of Fire. In this work, several other important influences are in evidence in addition to that of Heidegger. The first of these is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher, by way of Alexander Kojève, whose lectures on Hegel—first published in 1947—shaped the philosophical reception of Hegel in France for the entire post-World War II generation in France. At the core of Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel’s phenomenology is the claim that Hegel’s philosophy is one of death. Death is understood in this context as the power of negation—a central aspect of the Hegelian dialectic—or the possibility of nonbeing that dwells within being itself. According to Kojève, the pressure of nonbeing, or negation, in the midst of being (time) gives rise to creative activity—a philosophy of action understood as existential struggle. Such are the terms of authentic existence for the common lot of men and women; but for the literary artist or intellectual, work in the everyday sense of the term must fall short of authenticity. The intellectual or literary artist, Kojève argues, sets up an ideal universe, a fiction in opposition to the “real” world. The artist’s creativity is thus a deception, a fraud.

Blanchot, while accepting Kojève’s claim that literary production is not an authentic “work” in the Hegelian sense of the term, insists that literature nevertheless possesses its own proper negativity, a creative principle whose warrant lies not in producing meaning in and for the world but in abolishing the world, in substituting for the “real” an absolute imaginary world. In “Literature and the Right to Death,” the most important theoretical essay in The Work of Fire, Blanchot develops a philosophy of literature that is very close to that of Georges Bataille, with whom he had been closely associated since 1940. For both Blanchot and Bataille, the power of negation is not merely a moment in the movement of...

(The entire section is 2664 words.)