Maurice Blanchot Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Maurice Blanchot 1907-

French critic, novelist, short fiction writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Blanchot's career through 1999.

Though unfamiliar to many English-language readers until recent decades, Maurice Blanchot is regarded as one of most significant French literary theorists of the twentieth century. As the intellectual progenitor of other renowned French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, and Jacques Derrida, Blanchot exerts a profound influence on contemporary thinking concerned with the nature of text and the process of creative writing itself, particularly among structuralist and postmodern writers. An enigmatic figure who refuses any literary affiliations, Blanchot attracts increasing acclaim for his challenging literary essays, several novels, and trademark récits, a hybrid of philosophical meditation and fragmented narrative that embody his view of literature as an intractable act of self-negation.

Biographical Information

Born in Quain, Saone-et-Loire, France, Blanchot studied philosophy at the University of Strasbourg from 1926 to 1930. There, he immersed himself in the writings of Martin Heidegger and befriended philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, with whom Blanchot maintained a lifelong association. During the 1930s, Blanchot worked as a political journalist for the nationalist daily Journal des débats and right-wing publications such as Combat and L'Insurgé, through which he espoused fascist and anti-Semitic views and incited acts of terrorism against the socialist Popular Front government of Leon Blum. In 1933 Blanchot co-founded and served as editor of his own journal, Le Rempart. He completed his first work of fiction, “L'Idylle” in 1936, later published in Le Ressassement éternel (1952; Vicious Circles). When the German army invaded and occupied France in 1940, Blanchot's fascist sympathies gave way to his greater nationalism, and he joined the French Resistance. During this time he entered into an important affiliation with writer Georges Bataille and published his first two novels—Thomas l'Obscur (1941; Thomas the Obscure) and Aminadab (1942). Shortly thereafter he published his first volume of criticism, Comment la littérature est-elle possible? (1942; How Is Literature Possible?), a study of Jean Paulhan's Les Fleurs de Tarbes, and his first collection of critical essays, Faux Pas (1943). After the war Blanchot abandoned his extreme right-wing positions for new leftist associations and withdrew from politics altogether, except to oppose French military action in Algeria during the 1960s. Over the next several decades Blanchot continued to publish récits and volumes of criticism, notably L'Espace littéraire (1955; The Space of Literature) and L'Entretien infini (1969; The Infinite Conversation). He also regularly contributed to periodicals such as Nouvelle Revue francaise and Critique. Though his writings continued to exert an important influence on postwar French literature, Blanchot himself virtually disappeared. Almost nothing is known of his later life, since he has retreated so completely from the public eye and declines to be interviewed or photographed. In 1996 Blanchot (then in his late-eighties) resurfaced in a flurry of published letters concerning his decision to abandon long-time publisher Fata Morgana, whose publication of a work by right-wing ideologue Alain de Benoist prompted Blanchot to demand the withdraw of his own books from Fata Morgana's catalog.

Major Works

Blanchot's works of fiction and criticism—often indistinguishable as separate genres—consistently explore the problematic nature of language and the fate of the creative writer, whose task of transforming experience into text merely reveals the inherent futility of such an endeavor. As Blanchot repeatedly demonstrated, the artist's effort to speak the truth necessarily devolves into silence and extreme passivity—exemplified by death. The Greek myth of Orpheus is central to Blanchot's work, representing the...

(The entire section is 1,911 words.)