Maurice Blanchot Introduction - Essay


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 writer's failure to triumph over silence (death) through his work, and the perpetual isolation and self-annihilation that befalls such failure. Like Orpheus, who descended into Hades to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, and forever lost her when he prematurely turned to look at her, the writer loses the object of his or her desire the instant it is sought after. Thus, the creative project is a circular process of grasping after an unattainable meaning that vanishes before one can apprehend it. Blanchot's first three novels—Thomas the Obscure, Aminadab, and Le Très-Haut (1948; The Most High)—are unconventional in form and anticipate the near-total evaporation of plot and character in his later récits. Assuming a novelistic posture merely to unmask its artifice, these self-reflexive narratives take as their principal subject the act of writing and the protagonist's untenable position as observer and interlocutor in his own story. Notably influenced by the fiction of Franz Kafka, the tone of Blanchot's novels evokes entrapment, indeterminacy, and resignation, and Blanchot's austere prose and emphasis on mysterious circumstances, esoteric associations, and dualities reveals the absurdity of conventional plot and characterization. Thomas the Obscure consists of a hallucinatory series of episodes involving two characters, Thomas and Anne, whose actions and interactions are rendered ambiguous by Blanchot's ceaseless qualifications and evasions. In Aminadab, the protagonist, also named Thomas, is mistakenly drawn into a strange, labyrinthine boarding house in which he encounters various inhabitants while searching for the ominous “Law” that directs them from the upper floors. The insidious omnipresence and machinations of the “Law” are also central to The Most High, in which the bedridden protagonist and narrator, Henri Sorge, a character based upon the Greek Orestes, describes a surreal, postwar police state inhabited by bureaucrats and revolutionaries. After The Most High, Blanchot abandoned the novel form for the récit, a self-styled type of fragmentary philosophical-literary narrative that approximates the intersection of criticism and fiction, but is neither. The first of these, L'Arrêt de mort (1948; Death Sentence), introduces a dominant and recurring motif in Blanchot's subsequent work—the death of the “other” as a metaphor for the alienation of the writer from his own work. In this eighty-page narrative, an unnamed protagonist relates the circumstances surrounding a young woman's fatal illness many years ago and realizes with horror that his current lover may be a ghostly incarnation of the long-deceased woman. In 1950 Blanchot also published a récit adaptation of Thomas the Obscure . In subsequent récits, including Au moment voulu (1951; When the Time Comes), Celui qui ne m'accompagnait pas (1953; The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me), Le Dernier Homme (1957; The Last Man), L'Attente, l'oubli (1962; Awaiting Oblivion), and La Folie du jour (1973; The Madness of the Day), Blanchot further explored the limitations, paradoxes, and fallacies of fictional representation, as well as critical interpretation of such literary and philosophical writings. The possibility—or impossibility—of literature is also the principal subject of Blanchot's criticism, much of which evolved out of occasional writings and reviews, which typically serve as a starting point for Blanchot's philosophical departures. Le Part du fe (1948; The Work of Fire)—a collection of essays dealing with Kafka, René Char, Friedrich Hölderlin, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others—questions the purpose of the critic and challenges basic assumptions about the nature of authorship and text. This volume also includes the extended essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” in which Blanchot linked writing to a death-wish, whereby the writer—by the act of creation—follows language and its subject to total negation. Blanchot's apparent fascination with death, however, is not merely morbid or nihilistic, but embodies a dialectical aesthetic approach that locates artistic creation in annihilation. In The Space of Literature, another collection of essays, Blanchot elaborated upon the dilemma of Orpheus and the paradox of death as an affirmation of totality in negation. The “space of literature,” as Blanchot indicated, is the perpetual void in which, like Orpheus, the writer is simultaneously seeking and losing. This encounter with nonpresence and anonymity, endlessly repeated, characterizes the writer's striving to name what cannot be named. The Infinite Conversation, a collection of essays dating from 1953 to 1965, addresses the dialectical methods of G.W.F. Hegel and Alexandre Kojève, discusses language and its impact on relationships, and provides commentary on works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Bataille, Marquis de Sade, Blaise Pascal, and Kafka. L'Amitié (1971; Friendship), inspired largely by the 1962 death of Bataille, contains essays on Blanchot's close relationships with Bataille and Jean Paulhan, as well as discussion of André Malraux, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marxism, war, and contemporary culture. L'Écriture du désastre (1980; The Writing of Disaster), the title of which alludes to the great human catastrophes of twentieth-century history, examines the problematic epistemology of critical discourse and reaffirms his skepticism concerning the possibility of fixing meaning or interpretation in text. The myth of Narcissus is presented as another metaphor for the futility of the writer to view the nonexistent self beneath appearances. La Communauté inavouable (1983; The Unavowable Community), a two-part essay with contributions by philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and Marguerite Duras, considers the possibility of relationships with others, particularly the contradictory necessity and futility of such connections. Blanchot continued to publish short works of criticism during the 1990s, including Pour l'amitié (1996), which first appeared as the introduction to Dionys Mascolo's 1993 book A la recherche d'un communisme de pensée. Les Intellectuels en question (1996), which discusses the recent history and definition of the “intellectual,” begins with the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the nineteenth-century and focuses on figures such as Simone Weil, Levinas, and Char.

Critical Reception

Though slow to acknowledge his influence in the Anglo-American world, many scholars hail Blanchot as one of the preeminent French literary philosophers of the twentieth-century. Geoffrey Hartman, one of the first English-language commentators to discuss his work, ranked Blanchot with Sartre as a dominant force in the development of postwar French letters. Regarded by some as “the hidden center” of contemporary literature and criticism, Blanchot is regularly cited in the works of more famous French theorists such as Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, several of whom have paid homage to Blanchot in their lectures and writings. Blanchot's writings are also noted for precipitating the emergence of the French nouveau roman during the mid-1950s. During the late 1970s Blanchot's major texts, long unavailable in English, experienced a surge of interest as postmodern criticism infiltrated American universities. Death Sentence attracted a cult following among certain American intellectuals, and his critical writings, especially The Space of Literature, The Writing of Disaster, and his essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” gained scholarly appreciation. Blanchot's critical studies of other authors, particularly those for whom he expressed his deepest admiration—Kafka, Sade, and Lautremont—are considered exemplary. Critical evaluation of Blanchot's work is largely positive, especially among those eager to bring his underappreciated contributions to the attention of others. In recent years, however, Blanchot has come under new scrutiny for his early fascist associations, a problematic fact that has been forgiven by most critics in light of his subsequent writings and apparent pacifism. While interest in Blanchot's work has grown steadily since the 1980s, he has yet to achieve the widespread recognition that his admirers insist upon. Blanchot's particular genius lies in his uncanny ability to subtly deconstruct the problem of textual representation and the limitations of language. His daunting aesthetic approach, with its constant inversions, negations, and indeterminancies, also accounts for his rather limited audience of academic specialists. As many critics note, Blanchot's efforts to elucidate the deceptions of literary expression strangely seem to render his own work nearly uninterpretable, leaving critics to adopt an esoteric “Blanchovian” tone in their analyses of his work. Blanchot's refusal to write or speak about his own work further hinders interpretation of his elusive oeuvre. Yet, despite such difficulties, scholars continue to praise Blanchot's important contributions to modern literature and his role as a founding father of postwar French literary theory.