Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2664
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.
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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.
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 spirit toward synthesis, as in the Hegelian dialectic; rather, negation becomes for these thinkers a sufficient end unto itself. It follows that literary creation cannot be a matter of moral action or engagement with the world but must instead be a struggle against its own structures or conventions. Literature, in this quasi-gnostic sense, must take the form of the fragmentary rather than the whole; it must seek not a false synthesis but a creative disintegration.
To carry out this new conception of literary creation, Blanchot developed a fictive vehicle called the récit, essentially a highly fragmentary form of the novel. Among his first efforts in this direction was the 1950 revision of his earlier Thomas the Obscure. What had been in 1941 a conventional novel, albeit inspired by the subversive tradition of Lautréamont and Mallarmé, was transformed through a process of rigorous negation into something radically new on the literary horizon. What this process of negation entailed was a massive paring down of sentences, anticipating in certain respects the “minimalist” style of more recent fiction, followed by a wholesale elimination of characters, leaving only the antihero, Thomas, who is a writer, and a few others whose personae are so unstable, so evanescent that it is hard to call them characters. Lastly, related to this instability of character, Blanchot completely eliminated all psychological depth, abetted by an artfully contrived slippage of conventional pronouns, so that an “I” is confused with or replaced by, almost at random, a “he,” a “they,” or a “she.” In short, Blanchot continues the attempt already evident in James Joyce’s novels, to dissolve the very concept of identity.
Blanchot continued to produce a number of récits and collections of short fiction through 1973, pursuing relentlessly the literary program he had begun in the 1940’s. Perhaps most notable among these fictional experiments is The Madness of the Day, for it is here that Blanchot carries the dissolution of identity to the most extreme lengths. In The Madness of the Day, the “hero” is in fact nameless. His identity, such as it is, consists in an unfinished series of fragmented replies to a group of institutional authorities who have, by all appearances, imprisoned him and have insisted upon interrogating him in a manner that suggests their desire to transform him into a more conventional identity like themselves—a character with a history, a story with a beginning, middle, and end. In its inconclusiveness, its stubborn refusal of closure, The Madness of the Day invites its readers to complete or, rather, continue the process of creative negation which it has begun.
Alongside his experimental fiction, Blanchot produced a steady stream of critical essays. Until 1968, when editor Jean Paulhan died, most of these essays appeared in the prestigious French literary journal Nouvelle Revue française. They were subsequently collected into a series of volumes, several of which have been translated into English. Blanchot was given almost complete freedom by Paulhan to choose his subject matter, and his monthly contributions to the journal were diverse, ranging from occasional essays on specific authors such as Franz Kafka, Stéphane Mallarmé, Friedrich Hölderlin, Samuel Beckett, Herman Melville, Marguerite Duras, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust—just to name a few of the most prominent—to more explicitly theoretical essays in dialog with philosophers whose work, like that of Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, explores the problematics of writing and interpretation. One of the most important of these collections is The Space of Literature. In this work, Blanchot’s foremost concern is the self-reflexive or self-questioning mode that the act of writing in a posthumanist age must assume. Here again the influence of Heidegger is important, but primarily through the continuing reinterpretation of Heidegger provided by Lévinas. Whereas for Heidegger the originary “gift of Being” is represented as an act of generosity, for Lévinas the emergence of the existential subject into Being is associated with horror and anonymity. This condition of anonymity may even be said to be prior to all foundations: That is, it precedes the foundations of any world at all, real or imagined, fictional or nonfictional.
For both Lévinas and Blanchot, this anonymity at the very heart of Being negates the possibility of any traditional notion of self-presence or representation, for anonymity signifies a perpetual absence. In one of the most often cited essays in The Space of Literature, “The Gaze of Orpheus,” Blanchot reads the well-known myth of the origins of poetry in a manner that reflects his perception of the paradoxical impossibility that haunts the possibility of representation. Here Orpheus’s failure to heed the command of the god of the underworld, to refrain from gazing into the face of his beloved Eurydice, suggests the necessity for indirection and dissimulation in the creation of a work of art. If a work of art is to escape the darkness of original anonymity and obscurity and emerge into the light of creation, it must do so by way of a detour, through partial blindness.
Other important critical works from the latter half of Blanchot’s career include The Infinite Conversation and The Writing of the Disaster. In the latter work, which is now regarded as the summation of his career-long preoccupations as a critic and theorist of writing, Blanchot abandons any attempt to present his thought in the traditional essay form. Indeed, it might be said that here his fictional techniques fuse with his theoretical presentation, resulting in a highly fragmentary meditation, not only on writing but also on the very conditions of Being. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot returns to his engagement with Hegelian dialectic; however, as his title indicates, this engagement is informed by an acute sense of historical disaster, or of the place of disaster in history. Here, more than in his earlier works, he attempts to locate the act of writing within an ethical dimension.
In seeking to recuperate the late Romantic preoccupation with self-consciousness in literature, or with literature understood as a vehicle for an escape from self-consciousness, Blanchot’s work—both fictive and critical—served as a powerful influence, first, in French literary and philosophical circles, and second, by way of his effect on Jacques Derrida, on Anglo-American criticism. The foremost school of poststructuralist literary theory in the Anglo-American sphere, decontruction, is largely the creation of the Yale critics Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, who were in turn deeply influenced by the work of both Derrida and Blanchot. Derrida has frequently voiced his debt to Blanchot, and Hartman has written at length of Blanchot’s relation to Mallarmé and Heidegger. In deconstruction, one can detect the clear presence of a number of ideas that were either pioneered by Blanchot or given impetus by his writings. Among these ideas are the post-Hegelian claims for the importance of negation as a feature of authentic writing: the noninstrumentality of literature, which places it at odds with production of meaning; the self-referentiality of language, which follows from its freedom from instrumentality; and the essential anonymity of language and writing, the notion that the author is but the vehicle for an autonomous writing that speaks through the individual.
Bruns, Gerald L. Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Bruns attempts to show that Maurice Blanchot’s literary theory and practice may be understood as a type of philosophical anarchism. This is most apparent in Blanchot’s fictive techniques, particularly his use of the fragmentary style. Bruns examines a number of important works, including The Writing of the Disaster, in some detail, and attempts to draw parallels between the literary and political concerns of the writer. Blanchot’s influence on poststructuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy is also discussed.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays, 1958-1970. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. In an essay entitled “Maurice Blanchot: Philosopher-Novelist,” first published in 1960, Hartman introduces Blanchot’s work to an English-speaking readership. Hartman has since become associated with the Yale school of deconstruction, and readers of a literary-critical bent will find this essay an interesting example of the manner in which Blanchot’s criticism was received by an American academic at a time when the New Criticism, or formalism, was still dominant.
Hill, Leslie. Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary. New York: Routledge, 1997. Hill’s study seeks to provide a comprehensive view of both the life and works of Blanchot and is especially strong in demonstrating his philosophical debt to Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Lévinas. While much of this study will be accessible only to those readers already well-versed in literary theory and philosophy, the first chapter, entitled “An Intellectual Itinerary,” will be of use to anyone seeking a detailed account of Blanchot’s political activities in the 1930’s, including his connections with the French fascists.
Mehlman, Jeffrey. Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. This highly controversial work includes a chapter entitled “Blanchot at Combat: Of Literature and Terror,” in which Mehlman attempts to establish ideological connections between Blanchot’s early political writings with rightist journals such as Combat in 1930’s France and his later fictional and especially theoretical works. Mehlman’s essential argument is that Blanchot’s early advocacy of terrorism against the prewar French regime is later transmuted into a kind of philosophical terrorism.
Murray, Kevin D. S., ed. The Judgment of Paris: Recent French Theory in a Local Context. North Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1992. This collection includes a highly accessible essay by David Odell entitled “An Introduction to Maurice Blanchot,” which provides a brief but insightful overview of Blanchot’s career as writer and theorist, focusing particularly upon the influences of Hegel and Bataille. His most interesting claim is that Blanchot’s work is best understood as a gnostic revision of Hegelian dialectic, especially the late theoretical meditation, The Writing of the Disaster.