Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7243
SOURCE: “Maurice Blanchot,” in The Novelist as Philosopher, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 147-65.
[In the following essay, Hartman discusses Blanchot's fiction and critical writings, providing an overview of his literary associations and theoretical principles.]
The seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the Negative.
Blanchot’s work, says one of his few interpreters, offers no point of approach whatsoever. Today, twenty years after his first novel, he is still the most esoteric writer of contemporary France. There have appeared only three or four essays on his fiction; his novels remain untranslated. This is the more remarkable as Blanchot is also a prolific and well-known critic: besides his three novels, a number of récits, and a dyad of short stories, he has published five thick volumes of criticism. But then his criticism has its difficulties too.
One could draw on his criticism to illumine his novels. Such an inquiry, however, though helpful, would also be reductive. I will only use one clue provided by it: Blanchot, as critic, always goes from the work under discussion to the ‘problematic’ nature of literature. He illumines, therefore, the literary activity in general as well as this or that text. Literature, for him, is problematic in that it cannot be taken for granted: it is an activity hedged with contradictions, plagued by philosophic doubt, and shadowed by prophecies of obsolescence. This establishes a presumption that his novels will also deal with this area of concern, with the problematic status of literature.
They certainly tease us with the question of whether they are novels, or even literature. The difficulty is not in the prose, which is eloquent, or in the characters and world which are physically (if not entirely) ordinary. It is, as in Kafka, the atmosphere and action that puzzle, yet all charmy realism is absent. There is little plot, little characterization, and the ordinariness may be breached by the fantastic. If Blanchot must be attached to a tradition, it involves rather than derives from Kafka, and goes back to the rebirth of romance and the beginnings of surrealism in the Romantic period. Between Flaubert’s réel écrit and Blanchot’s irréel récit there is a distance as great as between Mlle de Scudéry and Flaubert. It has recently been argued that the change from the romance to the novel proper had a distinct philosophical cause; and I will eventually suggest that there is also a philosophical analogue to the apparent reversal of direction, the return of the novel to a romantic or surrealistic form. The German Romantics encouraged it by bringing the novel closer to fairy-tale and novella, and the reverse development passes via Novalis, Poe, Nerval, and Baudelaire, to Mallarmé’s Igitur, and the quasi-confessional literature of Gide, Breton, Leiris, and Bataille.
The ranging of Blanchot within a certain tradition is a comforting but hardly an illuminating state of affairs. For that tradition, and what it intends, are still somewhat obscure. It may be that Blanchot, understood, will focus it more sharply; but one cannot begin with it. A last extrinsic resort lies with the interpreters of Blanchot; and these also do not take us beyond our starting-point: that the novels somehow have themselves, or the activity of art, as their subject. Sartre, for example, calls Aminadab (1942) a new type of fantasy and secular ghost-story. He notes in it an evasive mood of finality, and identifies this as the ghost of transcendence floating loose in a world deprived of transcendence.1 What Sartre means by ‘evasive finality’ I can best show via a short passage from a later novel, Thomas l’obscur (‘nouvelle version’, 1950):
The book rotted on the table. Yet no one moved about the room. His solitude was complete. And yet, as surely as there was no one in the room and even in the world, so surely someone was there, who occupied his sleep, dealt intimately with him, was around him and in him. Naïvely, he sat up, and tried to eye the night … but nothing would let him catch this presence as a form or as an other. … It was a modulation in what did not exist, a different mode of being absent, another void in which he came alive. Now, for certain, someone was coming close, who stood not nowhere and everywhere, but a few feet away, invisible and sure. By a movement which nothing stopped yet which nothing hastened, a power was coming toward him whose contact he could not accept
I leave aside the question of whether an English or American mind can tolerate even Blanchot’s maturest prose. The French have a higher level of sympathy for experimental philosophical fiction: and I shudder to think what F. R. Leavis might say. But we can, on the basis of the later novels, move beyond Sartre’s rather professional insight. The subject here is clearly art, and its relation to consciousness. The dilemma rendered is the artist’s own, that of a mind that seeks to overcome itself from within, to pass into reality rather than into more and more consciousness; and it is through art that it intends to become real rather than more conscious. The evasive, ghostly finality Sartre has noted is projected by the mind while seeking to confront itself as a real body. Something of the agony of its quest to get out of itself without ceasing to be itself is given by this further passage from Thomas l’obscur, in which the hero
felt himself bitten or struck, he did not know which, by a thing that seemed to be a word, but resembled rather a gigantic rat, with piercing eyes, pure teeth, an all-powerful animal. In seeing it a few inches from his face, he succumbed to the wish to devour it, to make it the most intimate part of himself. He threw himself on it and, digging his nails into its entrails, tried to make it his own.
The melodious horror of this combat is sustained for another page, at the end of which we realize that Thomas is fighting, like the writer, with the nature of consciousness.
This quest, to make the mind real rather than more conscious, involves, as the above passage shows, an attempted self-estrangement. The old question, of whether the artist is more conscious or less conscious than the thinker, is resolved in an interesting manner. Art, Blanchot suggests, is consciousness in search of an unselfconscious form, consciousness estranging itself as in a dream, which is still a dream of itself. In a beautiful phrase he describes the movement of his characters, and perhaps of his novels as a whole, as that of a strange and burning wheel without a centre, ‘l’étrange roue ardente privée de centre’.
I need hardly add that this attempt to transmute consciousness always fails, that success is only its asymptote, and that, according to the image of the wheel, the effort is continually renewed. But there is an inner principle of progression. The writer’s failure increases, by a kind of peripety, his burden of consciousness, so that the ghost figure, or the mind thirsting for concreteness, exercises a constantly stronger allure. This ghost figure, just like its avatars, demands flesh and blood; yet being consciousness, being ‘ce refus d’être substance’, it cannot be incarnated, and therefore actually haunts some characters to their death. To die may become a ruse for giving a body to its void (see Thomas l’obscur, p. 130).
The most puzzling as well as the most imaginative features of Blanchot’s novels are linked to this dialectic of emanation, of strange intimacies and intimate estrangements. The distance between any two human beings in his novels is infinite and yet nothing. The magic of chance crystallizes and dissolves relationships. The shifts between familiarity and estrangement or, occasionally, life and death, are so quick and pervasive that they affect the very nature of the symbols used, and put the essence (the ontological status) of words in doubt. Blanchot is difficult to interpret because we can never say that here he reflects the world we know and here an imaginary world. He endows his symbols with a middle and unresolved quality, and he does this in part by a judicious use of the improbable, and an only exceptional use of the sheer fantastic. His latest récits, in fact, move purely in the realm of the improbable, and contain no fantastic incursions or overt breaches of the tenuous realism. The improbable, being a special case of chance, keeps the mind within the story, teasing it with the hope that all details together might solve the mystery, since no single event is quite absurd. But no resolution occurs, and the reader is obliged to take the mystery as an integral rather than resolved part of the whole; and since the whole is simply the novel, he thinks of the latter as the space in which a mystery is revealed, but as a mystery.
Sartre has interpreted the improbabilities to which we refer as depicting a revolt of means against ends, and so constantly inciting, yet denying, the idea of finality. There is a labyrinth of corridors, doors, staircases, and messages that lead to nothing. Locked doors open, a person summoned to appear is asked why he requested the interview, and characters or narrator find themselves returning to the point they started from. But if these and similar improbabilities keep us fascinated, it is because they point obliquely and inexhaustively to a specific mystery. They could be explained by positing an all-pervasive forgetfulness. And this seems to be a part of the general pattern of self-estrangement. Blanchot’s personae never walk the straight line between two points: they seem imbued, physically and mentally, with a spirit of oblivion, and his novels strike us as being the most un-Aristotelian ever written—they are all middle. To be in Blanchot’s world is to err: to follow something, to be involved in a maze of words or passageways, to encounter chance openings, to be attracted and distracted continually, to forget to remember, to remember to forget.
With this we come to our first substantive philosophical link. Blanchot’s emphasis on forgetfulness harmonizes with what Heidegger calls the mystery of oblivion. Heidegger himself has sources in Hegel and the Romantic period; and it is quite possible that Blanchot assimilates Heidegger through the perspective of a common literary tradition, reaching from the German Romantics to the French Symbolists and Rilke. The mystery of oblivion is described by Heidegger as follows.2 Historical existence, or man’s attempt to live fully in the here and now, would not be possible without an intrinsic oblivion on his part. He learns about the earth by being practical, by attending to each thing as it appears necessary or interesting to him. Yet to do this he must forget the possible wholeness of things, and rest content to substitute continually the part for the whole or being for Being. But how, asks Heidegger, can he forget the whole? There must be, first of all, a dissimulation in Being itself, one that offers him the possibility of mistaking the part for the whole. The part comes to be or appear only in so far as the whole sets it off, but invisibly, without overshadowing. Man’s turning towards the part or anything apparently ‘open’ to him (Heidegger plays on the Greek for ‘truth’, a word cognate with ‘unhidden’) means a turning away from the whole; yet he is attracted to the part precisely because it also promises a whole, albeit a different one: the earth in its fullness. Thus the direct search for wholeness (the metaphysical quest) is displaced by an historical appropriation of the earth (the existential quest), and by means of a movement which Heidegger calls error, because it is an erring, a wandering from part to part, and because it is erroneous, the mistaking of being for Being.
But besides this dissimulation of the whole there must also be a dissemblance of the dissimulation. A mere veiling of the essence of things would only spur us to pierce the veil, to become mystics rather than existentialists. To accept our human nature we must become freely blind, and dissemble the original dissimulation. And when our eyes are occasionally opened, it is to the existence of dissimulation rather than to Being itself. The mystery of oblivion is an oblivion of mystery, and this alone enables us to live humanly and dynamically and to keep making errors and so gradually to explore and possess the earth.
It will already be clear that Heidegger is giving a very subtle version of Plato’s mythically expressed theory of reminiscence, but shifting the emphasis to an involved process of discovery and forgetfulness. Plato’s myth is revived in all its potency in the Romantic period; there is hardly a great writer, from Novalis to De Quincey, who does not explore both the existential and metaphysical implications of—shall we say—sleep. I mention this because, though I think Blanchot is indebted to Heidegger, his understanding of the latter’s philosophy is likely to have been mediated by a larger and predominantly literary tradition. If there is any one trait that unifies literary movements since the Romantic period, it is their quest for an adequate theory of unconsciousness or creative self-oblivion.
Blanchot certainly gives Heidegger’s concepts a rather exact presence. The oblivion that besets his characters alienates them from various finalities, intensifies their erring motion, and brings them into a freer contact with life, a contact having the surprise, sharpness, and inconsequence of ‘chance’. Yet his novels’ endless estrangement of every final term raises a double nostalgia which Heidegger also describes: a nostalgia for the concrete, the here and now, and for something greater than every here and now. The first, a tenacious holding on to the part as if it were the whole, Heidegger names insistence (in contrast to existence); and the second is the revived metaphysical desire for the vision of the whole. Heidegger shows, however, that the latter cannot be attained except by first passing through and standing outside everything; or projecting, as he also expresses it, into Nothing. Human life in its freedom is a transcendence towards Being, but always as this Nothing, this eclipsed or veiled form. Certain passages in Blanchot seem to translate Heidegger’s dialectic of finitude almost word for word:
I saw immediately [says the narrator in Celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas] that I must stay in this place. Perhaps the insight did not teach me anything I had not known. Perhaps in showing me the only point by which I could hold to something real, it screwed the anxiety of the void tighter on me, as if, these words being the only ones I could live in, I had felt them slipping away, as if they were the last abode from which I could control this errant coming and going [‘le va-et-vient errant’]. I understood well enough, or seemed to understand, why I had to take root here. But, here, where was I? Why near him? Why behind everything I said and he said was there this word: ‘Surely everything, where we are, is dissembling?’ I heard and did not hear; it was beyond being understood.
If the realistic novel puts man wholly into his physical setting, then the ‘irrealistic’ novel may be said to put him wholly into Nothing. A good part of the action of the récit quoted above is the narrator’s attempt to describe his physical setting and the inability to do so. The narrator cannot embody himself. In Thomas l’obscur, similarly, Thomas seeks various embodiments, and in vain. The sea and earth reject him, and one is reminded of the Old Man in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ who knocks on the gate of his mother earth, seeking death, imploring her to let him in. Yet Blanchot’s value is not in the transcription, however imaginative, of a philosophy such as Heidegger’s. This would make his novels a kind of allegory, which they are not. What is perhaps hard to understand is that they participate in the dilemma they describe. They are a passion imitating an action. Blanchot does not merely represent ‘Nothing’, or the dissimulation of Being as dissimulation. He endures it, and fiction is his durance. In one of the récits this is given literal form by the author moving self-divided through his pages, seeking to attain unity of Being, yet questioning the symbols that promise it. But all his novels create a void rather than a world, an espace littéraire as ontologically equivocal as mind itself, and which neither reader, author, nor characters can cross to reach Being. What Ortega y Gasset said of Proust can be applied, with a slight though important change, to Blanchot: ‘He stands as the inventor of a new distance between symbols and ourselves.’
But how, exactly, do Blanchot’s novels participate in what he calls, in La Part du feu, ‘the realization by literature of its unreality’ (p. 306)? Let us consider shortly certain conventional carriers of meanings, such as book, genre, character, and plot. It will be seen that Blanchot uses these to criticize the very realism from which they spring, and which, as part of literature, they must retain.
A ‘book’ is a portable and condensed experience. For Blanchot it involves the questioning of the idea that portable and condensed experiences are possible: the œuvre of an artist is the path he takes to realize his désœuvrement (see Le Livre à venir, p. 253). It is true that Blanchot’s books are separate entities, individualized by title. Yet he has written two versions of Thomas l’obscur (1941 and 1950), and in a note prefacing the second version says that a work has an infinity of possible variants. This multiplication (by the modern painter also) of sketches and states, though perhaps linked to Balzac’s retake of characters, to the roman-fleuve and devices of perspective, may also have an opposite intent. The difference turns on whether the mimetic power of the artist is strengthened or questioned. Balzac’s novels add up, they increase the depth and ‘realness’ of his world, but Blanchot’s novels stand in an abstractive relation to one another. What the second Thomas l’obscur removes from the first is analogous though not identical to what Cézanne subtracts from Delacroix. Rather than a literary and exotic realism Blanchot purges a literary and exotic ‘irrealism’, or, to give it the more popular name, ‘surrealism’. He is concerned only with the unreality in reality itself.
That is also why Blanchot uses the récit, a form strongly associated with Gide. The récit is a first-person confessional narrative, a kind of dramatic monologue in prose, and through it Blanchot attacks the Achilles’ heel of realism, the notion of the sincere and even of the authorial ‘I’. Like the soul, the ‘I’ is not a simple substance. In the case of the alienated man, who suffers from the ‘disease of consciousness’ (Dostoievsky), the ‘I’ is one of many faces, and at most a dialectical component of the whole man. ‘The whole history of fiction since Arnim,’ writes Breton, pointing once more to the Romantic origins, ‘is that of liberties taken with the idea of “I am”.’ Blanchot, however, is less interested in personality as such than in the personality of words, their deceptive dual character of veil and revelation. His récits in their essence are simply (or not so simply) a critique of word-notions that at once motivate and seduce the artist: the je, the ici, the maintenant, the nous, the fin. To resist them is to restore the space (between the artist and words, between him and the world) which art seems expressly created to deny.
To illustrate this questioning and distancing power of Blanchot’s I choose a passage from Celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas (1953), similar in some respects to the one quoted previously from this book. The narrator is reflecting, as he does throughout, on the words of an interlocutor, who has no presence except through cryptic replies, echoing silences:
It is true that from his mysterious word of encouragement I could draw another more persuasive idea, namely, that I need not fear a false approach, the itineraries of error; I did not have one way, I had all, and this should have served to put me on my way with exceptional confidence. ‘All! but on condition that I have time enough, all the time I can bear.’ He did not demur, for of course the essence of a way is to furnish a short-cut across ‘time’; it was this short-cut I sought, with the unreasonable idea that I should find thereby not a continued length of wayfaring but the shortest interval, the soul of brevity, to the point that on taking the first steps, it seemed to me, refusing to go further, that I had the right to tell myself: ‘This is where I stand, this is what I’ll stick to’, and to him this is what I said with increased firmness: ‘This is where I stand, this is what I’ll stick to’, which he happened to answer with a kind of élan and without my being able to resent it: ‘But you have all the time you want!’
This is part of a development still hinging on the first line of the book, ‘I tried, this time, to approach him directly’; and practically everything in the sentence, the I, the him, the notions of time, way, and directness, are questioned by the récit, which moves forward by the force of its questions. The opening (we shall return to it later) expresses an attempt at immediacy, and, as in Kafka, the narrative ironically unfolds in the space that shows immediate contacts to be impossible, though the hope for them cannot die. But while Kafka draws us into his world, giving it circumstantial and symbolic flesh, Blanchot uses fictional counters as literal as words, and as abstract. Though we ask: who is the narrator? who is his companion? when does it happen? we never reach more than this conclusion: the narrator is the one who narrates, his companion someone inseparable from the act of narration, time and space simply that of narration itself. As such everything remains unreal or virtual, and the theme itself points to the perplexity of ‘living’ in such a condition, again called error. It is, in fact, a comedy of errors, but one that draws us into it insidiously. Though the novel, by its inherently negative progress, leaves us with as little at the end as we started with, it does make the void of thought visible as the space of art. A space, of course, anything but spacious; rather an effort of distance, as if the writer were constantly in danger of being tricked by the nature of words, or crushed by some endless automatic process of mind-murmur, of mental conjunction.
To suggest the unreality of his characters—who are like the space they inhabit—Blanchot sometimes uses a word with a strong neo-platonic flavour. They are said to lose resemblance: ‘He saw them lose under his eyes all resemblance, manifesting a small wound on their foreheads whence their faces escaped’ (Thomas l’obscur, p. 57). It is as if the Idea, whose image they are, suddenly disappears. The characters lose their transcendence, are unable to reach an au-delà, whether this is nature, supernature, or symbolic existence. Shades doomed not to rest, they wander through the author’s pages as if neither his nor any world would receive them. But they gain therefore a caricature of immortality. They cannot die. Thomas the Obscure digs his own grave and hangs a stone about his neck as if to drown himself in the earth. Yet he is forced to ‘exist’, to stand outside himself till the end of the novel.
It would be untrue, however, to say that Blanchot’s characters exist only in art; at least they do not ‘live’ in art any more than in reality. They have no inn to live in; they are literally outsiders. They are shown not as alive but rather as deathless, or as afraid of being deathless and so seeking death. I hope to find a fuller explanation for this later; here I can only say that art for Blanchot is intrinsically linked to the quest for and impossibility of realizing the self via symbols; and what does not have real body and yet is, must be a species of ghost. ‘The symbol’, he writes in La Part du feu, ‘has no meaning … it is not even the embodied meaning of a truth otherwise inaccessible, it surpasses every truth and meaning, and what it gives us is this very transcendence which it seizes and makes felt in a fictional work, whose theme is the impossibility of fiction to realize itself’ (p. 86).
In following through, finally, the plot or action of one of these ghostly novels, we come upon a second philosophical link, this time with Hegel, or primarily with him. If my description of Blanchot’s theme is correct, and he shows consciousness seeking to be real rather than more conscious (and failing in this), we already have a Hegelian donnée. For that the mind should need to realize itself shows it is estranged from reality, and this estrangement is then seen to be in its very mode of existence: it desires to have itself external or opposite or invested with ‘reality’. The starting-point, therefore, seems to be what Hegel calls the unhappy consciousness (which craves complete consciousness of reality and cannot attain it) or the self-estranged consciousness (whose true self seems split or estranged as if of necessity).3 Yet we have said that the novels are problematic, and have themselves or the activity of art as their subject, rather than consciousness per se. The distinction may seem slight but can now be explored further. It is of some importance to determine exactly what the relation of art to consciousness may be. For religion, according to Hegel, shows a higher state of consciousness than art, and philosophy the highest. The great challenge, in fact, to the autonomy of literature, and hence the real enemy to any rapprochement between philosophy and art, is Hegel’s prediction of the end of art. Only if the two activities are thought co-substantial is the true dignity of either assured. I will now seek to show that Blanchot wants to negate this prediction of obsolescence, that his récits are conceived as an answer to it.
Hegel, though he considers it necessary for the mind to suffer a long history of self-estrangement, yet insists that progress can be made which affects not only the quantity but also the quality of consciousness, and that the philosopher, coming towards the end of this history, will conceive the real as the rational, and so overcome the felt difference between the real world and the world of the mind. Art, however, is not a product of the philosophical but rather of the phenomenological imagination: it is an exile form of consciousness and cannot realize its truth. Blanchot, accepting this characterization of art, will argue that art must, if necessary, work against the grain of history. Even should the real approach the ideal, art must remain ‘unreal’. It is inherently a project of self-alienation.
With this in mind, let us trace the action of Celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas. Here, by a tour-de-force as amazing as it is profound, Blanchot exhibits the artist ‘projecting’ art in our presence. We actually see the narrative evolving as a debate, dialectical in form, between the narrator and his estranged self. The narrator tries to overcome the distance between them or to draw from it a third and impersonal person, the unselfconscious unity of both. But we soon learn that neither the self nor its need for an opposing self can be surpassed: that art remains an impossible project, aiming at the ‘concrete universal’, aiming at true unselfconsciousness, yet always preventing its own success.
How does Blanchot proceed? He enlists, first of all, the support of the greatest apostle against Hegel, Sören Kierkegaard. The unexplicit motive-power behind the narrator, as behind all of Blanchot’s characters, is despair in Kierkegaard’s definition: the uncertainty, increasing with every increase of consciousness, that one has a true self. ‘The despairing man’, says Kierkegaard (in The Sickness unto Death), ‘cannot die; no more than “the dagger can slay thoughts” can despair consume the eternal thing, the self, which is the ground of despair, whose worm dieth not, and whose fire is not quenched.’ Blanchot’s people are unable to die for this reason. And for the same reason they are unable to be born or reborn into life; they suffer an endless purgatorial state, a death-in-life identifiable with the alienated consciousness. Their quest for a true self must go through self-estrangement, and this increases their uncertainty in an inviolable self. Hegel’s Philosopher is anathema to Kierkegaard and a stumbling-block to Blanchot because he is inviolably self-assured. If, as Blanchot says, ‘the void is never void enough’ (Le dernier homme (1957) p. 164), who can plumb self-estrangement deeply enough to arrive either at pure reality or pure self? The Philosopher, were he possible, would be the last man.4
In Celui the desired self becomes, specifically, the self of the Writer. The latter does not wish to die, only to write. To be a Writer—to be that Self—is the impossibility he seeks to realize by means of the récit. Adopting, perhaps, another idea of Kierkegaard’s, that to break an enchantment (here of words) one has to retrace one’s path exactly, and at every error begin again, Blanchot undoes the spell of language in order to be able to write. With shuddering naïveté, with an eternal ressassement, he tries to step backwards from words to the reality of the word. But desiring to write, he is already writing, and falls under the spell he would escape from.
The récit begins with the narrator turning towards an unnamed ‘other’. He complains; says that he is at the end of his tether, that he wants to write and is afraid to write, that through writing he becomes so interested in the Other that he stands in danger of losing himself. … In short, he wants to resolve a situation in which he is neither himself nor not himself. But the Other, whom he wants to appeal to directly and who is very clearly a redeemer-figure, created to make word or thought flesh, obliges the narrator to linger in uncertainty, to stay in the equivocal space of fiction, and be (like his own characters) neither quite living nor quite dead.
Therefore, in one sense, art becomes the enemy of the artist and denies him the realization he desires. The Other, or Persona, is only negatively transcendent (‘celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas’). Though the writer wants to be led into an absolute, this other self shows a curious interest in real things, asking no more of the writer than to stay in his room and to describe it. But he feels this is impossible (he does not want to make the real Words but the Word real?); becomes curiously forgetful; moves nervously about (as in the earlier novels of mistaken rooms and identities, false entries, strange corridors); and also keeps glimpsing ‘someone’ in the room or just behind the window. This new ghostly Other is probably the fictional double on the point of passing from a state of negative to that of real transcendence, as the writer is tempted to pass from the first person (Je) to the third person (Il) form, and thus into full self-estrangement (‘l’alibi du Il indifférent’, Le Livre à venir, p. 199). This, of course, is a necessary movement, if he is to find that original impersonal Word he seeks. Yet, by various means, the double (the second person) prevents him from losing touch with himself and passing totally into a symbol. The tension of relationship, of what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou situation, is maintained. As the narrator is asked to describe the face of this third person, the very effort of visualization makes him aware how much the figure may still depend on him. He cannot, as a writer, attain Being, only being-for-another (himself); and this difficulty of visualizing a face which has no resemblance or a word which has no relation will haunt him even more in Le dernier homme: ‘Face of Nothingness, perhaps. That is why you [the Other?] must watch over this empty space to preserve it, as I must watch to alter it …’ (p. 115).
The récit, or art itself, is simply keeping this space open. It is using the act of writing to invent forms and situations that maintain the writer in the negative despite the strongest contrary pressure. For the récit is, at the same time, the writer’s movement towards the reality of the double, his desire to identify. And though the Other repeats, ‘I can’t do anything for you’, he does admit being linked to the writer through writing (‘par les écrits’). The essential, the inherent temptation is to desert the labour of the negative by going over into one’s symbols. The artist posits a transcendence (metamorphosis) of this kind, but his art exists in order to resist him.
Art, therefore, cannot succeed in making the mind real rather than more conscious. A tension in its very nature prevents this. But it discloses the strength of the desire for a reality beyond consciousness. And in Blanchot’s other novels the possibility of really transcending consciousness is expressed as follows. There is generally one character (a woman) who manages to die, while all others are deprived of death. The woman, by an act of will, by a metaphysical Liebestod, aims at a live transcendence: she seeks to pass whole from life to death, and there is, Blanchot suggests, one chance, only one, of doing so, Perhaps the artist in the space of his art also approaches that one chance of transcendence. Perhaps he can truly realize his other self and draw his mind from Consciousness into Being. It is this hope, however slender, however mystical, which moves him to write. If he fails, like Orpheus, it is because he does not dwell patiently enough in the space of alienation, and so cannot ‘convert the negative into Being’.5
But most of Blanchot’s characters, like Kierkegaard’s despairing men, are sick unto death yet deprived of the ability to die. Their sickness is consciousness. They suffer an alienation from life within life, and the milieu in which they look for death or else suffer their death-in-life is related to various ancient and modern hells, to Purgatory, the Waste Land, the T.B. Mountain and the House of the Dead. (The milieu of Le dernier homme is indubitably a Sanatorium.) It is not surprising, therefore, that Blanchot’s plots retain features of the prototype of the Quest, but how it begins and what it seeks are peculiar. The mind-errant, having sought life and found death-in-life, now desires an authentic death. The Faustian mind also begins with a perception of death-in-life (in Hegelian terms, with self-consciousness or thought) and proceeds ironically by a wager against life, although this wager dialectically affirms the thing it denies. Among similar ancestors of Blanchot’s characters are the many wandering Jews and Mariners of the nineteenth century, figures deathless (immortally mortal) like the Sybil of Cumae. Blanchot’s earliest complete story, ‘L’Idylle’, has as its central figure that étranger who is the modern equivalent of Mariner, Wanderer, or Faust—in short, a type of the alienated mind.6
Our study of Blanchot has led us to a concept of man and a concept of art. His novels evoke a curious middle-world, or rather middle-void. The noble assumption of the Renaissance, that man is a late creation, standing between heaven and earth and sharing the attributes of both orders, is held to but modified. Man is not a mixed mode, though having the seeds of all life in himself, but one who keeps the realms apart, who avoids the contamination of both earth and heaven. Art helps him to find a ‘between’ and to preserve it as the sphere of his liberty. This is a new and hard concept of mediation, which defines man purely by the quality of the void in him, and the artist by a resistance to symbols, human or divine, that would fill this void. Standing in the midst of things, and specifically in the midst of the treachery of words, the artist bears the curse of mediacy.7
Blanchot, moreover, relates art to the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote, evolved from within consciousness itself. And though this view has been gained by bringing to bear on Blanchot a particular philosophic tradition, the latter is only one of many having a common base in Romanticism. The nineteenth century yields a profusion of ‘anti-self-consciousness’ theories. But none, I think, has been quite so influential or provided a better foundation for understanding art generically. In England the nearest approach to a similarly adequate theory is Yeats’s concept of the mask, the persona theory of Pound, and the impersonality theory of Eliot. American criticism has added the idea of the poem as an ironic structure. These have some truth and belong to a distinctive branch of inquiry, call it problematics, which should be as important as thematics or the history of literary ideas and forms. To study the problematics of art would be to consider each work as standing in a dialectical relation to consciousness and a critical relation to the whole activity of art.8
Hegel’s prophecy of the end of art, like Plato’s older grouse, in no way originates these special relations. But it has made critic and artist more attentive to them, and above all in France where Marxism gives Hegel a redoubled voice. French critics tend to be over-philosophical: they have to fight Marxism on its own ground, to preserve art by a philosophy of art. In the meantime, of course, the cure being worse than the disease, literature may itself succumb to the philosophical habit. But perhaps it will suffer no more in this case than it did, for example, from neoplatonism. Blanchot’s own curious strength is that his récits are neither philosophy nor straight fiction but an autonomous middle-form. In a very tentative way his work is like the organon Schiller called for, one that would mediate between philosophy and art. He who knows fiction will be led by it to consider philosophy, and vice versa: and this suggests that there is a new genre, or even type of literature, in the making. Yet Blanchot, it must be admitted, is not uniformly successful as an artist; sometimes, in fact, I have a sinking feeling that a few verses from Rilke or from Valéry express all he has to say. But this feeling, in turn, may show that Blanchot has taught me to read more strongly and relevantly such lines as Rilke’s description of poetry: ‘Ein Hauch um nichts. Ein Wehn im Gott. Ein Wind’, or Valéry’s many beautiful renderings of the sense of self-estrangement: ‘Qui pleure là, sinon le vent simple, à cette heure / Seule avec diamants extrêmes? … Mais qui pleure, / Si proche de moi-même au moment de pleurer?’ Blanchot’s récits, and especially the latest ones, are sombre and bewitching works, not without tedium, but teasing us vigorously out of thought.
‘Aminadab or the Fantastic Considered as a Language’, Literary Essays (Wisdom Library, New York, 1957), pp. 56–72. Another interesting critic is Georges Bataille, ‘Ce monde où nous mourons’, Critique XIII (1957), pp. 675–84. On Blanchot and Kafka cf. M. Goth, Kafka et les lettres françaises (Paris, Corti, 1956), ch. iii.
My summary is drawn primarily from ‘On the Essence of Truth’ (1943), ‘What is Metaphysics’ (1929 and 1943), and the various essays on Hölderlin published between 1937 and 1943. I present Heidegger’s thought as homogeneous, but this is a simplification: the writings on which I draw post-date Sein und Zeit, and there is evidence that both in them and again in recent years Heidegger has modified certain of his views. Some concepts mentioned below, e.g. ‘error’, have an acknowledged source in Nietzsche and other Romantics and post-Romantics. For Blanchot’s own summary of Heidegger’s thought, and in relation to Hegel’s, see esp. L’Espace littéraire, pp. 263ff.
See Phenomenology of Mind, tr. J. B. Baillie (2nd ed., 1949), pp. 241ff. and 507ff.
See Le dernier homme (1957). The ‘last man’ is Hegel’s Philosopher. Blanchot conceives of him as having no ‘existence’, i.e. no Being-for-others, which makes him, paradoxically, the central enigma for the other two characters of the novel—the writer or narrator and a young woman. The latter moves from the sphere of the narrator towards the last man, perhaps because her naïve realism, her desire to die intact, at the strongest point, sorts better with the Philosopher (who seems to link the realms of death and life) than with the Artist (who tries to remain outside both). Cf. G. Bataille, L’Expérience intérieure, pp. 48ff.
Phenomenology, p. 93. For the inversion of the Orpheus myth, see esp. L’Arrêt de mort, pp. 40–60, and Thomas l’obscur, pp. 112ff.: ‘Anne thought of crossing over to death alive. …’.
‘L’Idylle’ bears direct traces, in the names of some of its characters, of Dostoievsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead. On death and deathlessness, see also ‘L' Œuvre et l'espace de la mort’ in L’Espace littéraire, esp. pp. 161ff. Blanchot is fully acquainted with Rilke, Broch, Beckett, and others.
For a complete exposition of the idea, see the commentary on Hölderlin (in L’Espace littéraire, pp. 283–92) which is deeply indebted to Heidegger. The latter has coined the term ‘Zwischenbereich’ (mesocosm rather than microcosm!) to indicate the ‘between’ status of man. I borrow the phrase ‘the curse of mediacy’ from Ernst Cassirer, who says that language ‘harbors the curse of mediacy and is bound to obscure what it seeks to reveal’ (Language and Myth, 1925; tr. 1946).
The only study of English poetry from a dialectical viewpoint that I know is by Harold Bloom, who approaches Shelley with Buber’s dialectic in mind: see Shelley’s Mythmaking (New Haven, 1959). Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago, 1953), was, I believe, the first to point out the distinctively problematic (‘not merely in the sense in which every literary symbol is indeterminate, but more specifically in the sense that its characteristic subject is its own equivocal method’) nature of a nineteenth-century American tradition, comparable in this to the French Symbolists. Other relevant studies are Erich Heller’s treatment of the ‘ontological mystery’ in The Disinherited Mind (American ed., New York, 1957), and Paul de Man’s questioning of the ‘incarnationist’ assumption in modern English and American criticism: ‘Impasse de la critique formaliste’, Critique, XII (1956), pp. 483–500.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3829
SOURCE: “A Mosaic View: The Poetics of Maurice Blanchot,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 21, 1978, pp. 425-38.
[In the following essay, Champagne discusses the influence of Judaic thought and biblical paradigms on Blanchot's philosophy of language. In particular, Champagne considers the poststructuralist literary theory with which Blanchot associates literary space with the Promised Land, literary text with scripture, and the writer-reader relationship with that of a sacred covenant.]
“For the writer, the genuine responsibility is to support literature as a commitment not yet realized, as a Mosaic view of the Promised Land of reality.”
—Roland Barthes, Tel Quel No. 5
Maurice Blanchot has been writing French philosophical and critical literary essays for some thirty years. Some would have him be “a hidden center of 20th century fiction and criticism.”1 Especially in the last decade, Blanchot has provided the philosophical bases for the creative work of the French “new novel” of the 1950s, the “new criticism” of Roland Barthes and his colleagues, and the philosophical positions now recognized as French structuralism.2 Blanchot has been “the hidden center” because he has not been translated into other languages as much as Robbe-Grillet, Barthes, or Lévi-Strauss. Nevertheless, these writers refer to the groundbreaking of Blanchot’s writing style and insights. His style is characterized by a philosophical sense of writing which Barthes has subsequently named “scripture” (écriture). Blanchot’s insights are gathered in essays which reveal the genius of known and unknown international literary figures in light of this “scripture”—a type of reflexive writing that is aware of its own limitations. Guided by the philosophical hand of Blanchot, “scripture” has become the basis for French literary theory in the last decade. This literary theory has given us the parameters by which to understand the “new novel,” “new realism,” and literary structuralism. It has been concerned with how a text produces a literary interaction between writer and reader. From the fragmentary nature of Blanchot’s essays containing his literary reflections, we can glean a proposal for the directions of “scripture” during the next decade.
Jacques Derrida (in his De la grammatologie, 1967) revealed that Western civilization has been perpetrating the myth of the supremacy of logos (i.e. the Word, Reason, and Logic) in its literature which conditioned the understanding of the literary text by its writers and readers. Maurice Blanchot had, however, already been practicing alternative methods of reading and writing before the appearance of Derrida’s work. Rather than a “logocentrism” (sic Derrida)—which subordinates discourses to the Greek model of the logos—Blanchot resurrects the Bible as a model for the encounter of writer and reader in the literary text. In her study of the works of Blanchot, Françoise Collin has noted that the majority of Blanchot’s images are Judaic.3 This pattern is consistent with Blanchot’s implied modelling of the literary artifact (l’écriture) on the Bible (les écritures). Some explorations into the possibilities of post-structuralist writing have similarly pointed to Blanchot’s precedent in establishing such a model. The Change Collectif—a Paris-based avant-garde group which since 1968 has published a quarterly journal, Change, and a series of books with the publishing house Seghers/Laffont—has featured the example of Blanchot’s Judaic writing for an issue of its journal (No. 22, Spring 1975) on “nomadic scripture.” The writings of Blanchot provide many such features which offer new possibilities for creative writing and reading but have not yet been fully developed because of the fragmentary nature of his essays. This mosaic of his proposal for a Judaic contract in literature, modelled upon the Bible, is only one of those possibilities.
Creating his own jargon for critical and fictional tasks, Blanchot actually practices his Biblical model as he employs Scriptural references to elucidate his insights. First of all, the Judaic cosmology of the Promised Land displaces attention away from literary “tradition” that accumulates a linear sequence of written artifacts located in time and place. The Promised Land is Blanchot’s metaphor for a distinctive literary space (espace littéraire) wherein creativity becomes the focus of attention in that it offers differentiation from literary tradition. Some forty years ago the Russian Formalist Tynianov, one of the forerunners of the French structuralists, indicated a need for such a notion in literary history: “The fundamental feature of literary evolution, that of the substitution of systems, and the problem of traditions must be reconsidered from another perspective.”4 Rather than the substitution or the replacement of one literary tradition for another, Blanchot posits the literary artifact as participant in the discontinuity of existential experience. Literary space, like the Promised Land, is not conditioned by time and place but creates absence by negating everything else. In its re-presentation (le retour) of problems, literary space precludes the Western fixation with linear temporal moments. Blanchot notes that “the necessity to re-present would therefore be a necessity for time without a present sense, a time which would also be the time of scripture—a future time and a past time, a radical disjunction (by the absence of any present sense) which would preclude any identification other than the difference implied by repetition.”5 Literary space is similar to the Promised Land in the hope of perfectibility which it offers to some. As hope, it is continually absent. The privation of perfection would seem to have a stunting effect on those who partake of the covenant of “scripture” with the hopes of achieving their deal. Yet those who believe in the realization of this covenant will continue to seek that perfection which always seems to be lacking either in the Promised Land or in literary space.
Blanchot tells us that the covenant between reader and writer in a literary artifact owes much to the Biblical model since “a text has its beginnings in the Bible where the logos is inscribed as law.”6 The logos is antedated by a more primitive inscription—that of the Law. For Blanchot, the Law which had governed the Judaic search for the Promised Land, still traces he condition of mankind in such texts as Kafka’s wherein “Kafka reminds us that human beings have no other choice but this one: either to search for the Promised Land from the side of Canaan or from that other world which is the desert.”7 On one side is the writer in Canaan who searches for the Promised Land by attempting to perfect the literary artifact. On the other side is the reader who combs the “deserts” of literary artifacts as he or she tries to perfect the art of reading. In effect, both writer and reader are searching for perfection in their Promised Land of the literary text. They are thus participating in the experience of “nomadic scripture” which Philippe Boyer of the Change Collectif describes thus: “Nomadic scripture follows a dubious thread in the desert of the blank page, in that uninhabitable non-place of the text.”8 The figure of the wandering Jew, so well incarnated by Blanchot’s hero in his fiction Thomas l’obscur, represents a whole array of distinguishing feature which specify the condition of perpetual exile (étrangeté) for the writer and reader of “nomadic scripture.” That exile continues even in Canaan since the Promised Land has yet to be perfected. The Biblical “voice crying in the desert” is perpetually renewed in literary artifacts, as Blanchot tells us: “It’s once again as if we were in the desert because discourse is like a desert in that a voice needs the desert in order to cry out and to re-awaken in us the fear, understanding, and memory of that open space.”9 Indeed, writing is very much the desert which reminds both writer and reader that there is no secure home or anchorage from which or to which they can base their activities. The tasks of reading and writing participate and continue the wandering, circuitous adventures of the Jewish condition—a history of “errance” according to Blanchot.
This “errance” is a displacing performance which “locates” the activity of a literary artifact in the ambient status between the alternatives of the desert and Canaan. Literary language is the object of perfection for both writer and reader. But their tasks are constantly ones of approximation—not exactly the aimless wandering in an awesome desert, nor the attainment of a perfect Promised Land. Displacement is the very nature of an activity that attempts to manipulate the literary artifact. The Law of the literary text remains that which cannot be duplicated, either through reading or writing. Blanchot tells us explicitly that “the Law is the summit which has no twin and scripture remains outside the arbitration between high and low.”10 If the literary artifact represents such an absence of place, how do a writer and reader confront such a phenomenon? Let us examine the covenant of writer and reader, according to Blanchot, in order to explain their perspectives on such a literary artifact or text.
The example of Orpheus-Eurydice is re-presented by Blanchot to explain the fascination achieved by a writer in “manipulating” the reader. Blanchot’s presentation of the writer is very similar to Father Walter Ong’s observation that “no one is listening. … He [the writer] has to make his readers up, fictionalize them.”11 Orpheus, who was instructed not to look back at Eurydice in Hades, is a mythical model for the writer whose lyrical talent consists of creating an ideal reader who can look at (“read”) the literary artifact from a vantage-point theorized by the writer. Like Orpheus, the writer cannot look back at the object of his lyrics (Eurydice). If the writer does glance at the text again, that object will not be the same. However, even the ideal reader’s vantage-point is never realized because, as Blanchot tells us: “a glance is very different from what we think because it has no light, expression, force nor movement; it is silent, but its silence traverses worlds from the heart of isolation, and anyone who hears it becomes someone else.”12
The intended reader of the literary artifact and the actual reader who confronts it are very distinct. However, there is a common fascination by both writer and the actual reader upon what is conceived by both to be the same literary artifact. This fascination is akin to the Jewish fascination with YAHWEH, the unpronounceable deity which defies articulation. The object of this fascination, whether it be a literary artifact or a godhead, is not a unifying force but rather a pluralizing phenomenon which Blanchot has called “the neutral” (le neutre), described thus by Philippe Boyer: “The Neutral according to Blanchot has nothing at all to do with neutrality but is to be understood with Judaic basis, in the paradoxical inscription of double articulation which cannot be understood except in the questioning practice which it initiates.”13 This “questioning practice” is one which reviews the myths of reading and writing as complementary activities which complete meaning, information, and sense within given literary artifacts. In the place of these myths Blanchot would have us substitute the working theory of the “neutral,” i.e. that which cannot be named: “The neutral is threat and a scandal for thinking. The neutral, if we think about it, would liberate our thinking from its fascination with unity (whether it be logical, dialectical, intuitive, or mystical) and deliver us from that very different requirement by its capability to check and to slip away from any type of unification.”14 Thus, the writer and the actual reader participate in a series of open-ended commentaries. Of course, such a view can be very unsettling to those of us accustomed to the promise of scientific verification in writing or to the exhaustion of a literary artifact through the systematic application of such methods as the classic “explication de texte.”
Instead, the discourse between writer and actual reader begins with an incantatory fascination with the powers of the literary artifact in a manner recalled by Sarah Lawall’s insight into the meeting of writer and reader in Blanchot’s art where “words as incantatory powers give rise to a new presence of objects.”15 Temporarily mesmerized by the presence of words giving the promise of formal control over “communication,” both writer and actual reader initially expect to exchange “information” through the objectified appearances of words. This phenomenon is similar to the effect of YAHWEH upon the tribes of Israel. They were fascinated by the promise given to them by the Covenant—that they were the Chosen People to whom YAHWEH communicated the Law. Similar to the literary artifact, YAHWEH communicated the Law. Like the literary artifact, YAHWEH required a response to his promise. A bilateral contract involved the Jewish tribes and YAHWEH as well as the writer and the actual reader. Another similarity is the concomitant relationship of written and oral expression. Emmanuel Levinas, much admired by Blanchot, has told us appropriately: “The spoken Law is eternally contemporaneous with the written law. There exists between them a primordial relationship whose intellectual realization is similar to the very atmosphere of Judaism.”16 Oral exegesis is an integral part of Judaic tradition. And the reader’s discourse is similarly a necessary reaction to the production of a writer. The Judaic problem whereby YAHWEH was soon transformed from a fascination to a forbidden entity for the tribes of Israel is an example for the actual reader’s own situation. The actual reader must reject Western civilization’s fascination with the “informative” and “communicative” powers of logos lest he or she also be victimized by the same phenomenon of linguistic mesmerization that haunted Judaic tradition and which is identified by Blanchot thus: “The idolatry of the name or just the reverence which makes it unpronounceable (sacred) is related to the disappearance of the name which the very name causes to appear and which requires that we rise above language where it is hidden in order to qualify it as a forbidden name.”17 Anaïs Nin has posed a similar alternative in her House of Incest for an actual reader who seeks to respond to the challenge of the literary artifact as she dared her reader to “step out of your role and rest yourself on the core of your true desires.”18
Blanchot’s literary criticism offers a model for the actual reader’s conformity to his or her own desires. His essays are often interrupted by tangential arguments, parenthetical comments, and fragmentary glimpses into an artist’s work. Yet there is a philosophical flavor to his critical and his creative writings that characterize them as Blanchot’s own productions. Perhaps there is no conscious attempt to create a style or a consistency in his writings and readings. Indeed, Blanchot notes that: “I must have recognized that I was not capable of forming a story with these events. I had lost the thread of the story: that happens in many sicknesses.”19 Nevertheless, the readings and writings produced by Blanchot are unmistakeably stamped by his choice of topics, themes, vocabulary, and organization. For example, his work is often characterized by the word “exactitude” (exigence). This may be linked to an obsession with literary analogies, often expressed with the term “as if” (comme si). Luzius Keller’s study of Blanchot’s Thomas l’obscur offers a pertinent comment which may elucidate Blanchot’s use of “exactitude” and the links of similitude (“as if”) in that “Blanchot only expresses the tragic as a linguistic reality, namely in metaphors.”20 Indeed, Blanchot’s own example as a writer and an actual reader demonstrates his initial fascination with language. However, he does move away from an absolute confidence in the forms of language. As he himself has just said, he “loses the thread of the story” in order to participate in the discontinuity of the writer, the actual reader, and the literary artifact. Blanchot has observed that the very nature of desire which binds those three together is also that which precludes their identity within the literary artifact: “Desire is the very separation which becomes attractive, the interval which becomes sensible, the absence which returns to presence, and the return whereby, when everything disappears in the middle of the night, the disappearance becomes the very thickness of the shadow …”21 This “thickness of the shadow” is the bond of desire between the writer and the actual reader: the text’s words as a covenant of communication.
Such a covenant in the texts has been assumed by others such as Father Ong who noticed that “a reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him, which seldom coincides with his role in the rest of actual life.”22 Such a role, however, reduces the actual reader to a mere pawn of the writer and the literary artifact. The actual reader is hereby stereotyped away into a static entity. Such is the continuing danger of the original fascination of the reader with the formal properties of the literary artifact. The writer would probably reiterate Blanchot’s narrator who insists upon the localization of his words: “It is at this very moment that I am speaking.”23 Yet the actual reader is almost never on the same temporal or spatial wavelength as the implied reader of a literary artifact. The actual reader may momentarily be aligned with the implied reader, but that role is an artificial and difficult one to maintain. The“implied reader” role, however, can be a starting point for the actual reader’s participation in a literary artifact.
An awareness of the need to depart from the “implied reader” role begins the assertion of the actual reader’s identity apart from a literary artifact. Sarah Lawall has well described the necessity for such an identity as part of Blanchot’s conception of the power of reading: “Reading, for Blanchot, is more than an acquiescence with the work. It is the creative faculty quickening a work from its inert materiality. The act of reading creates the final act of literature.”24 Thus, the actual reader becomes aware of the covenant offered by a literary artifact. The discourse of the actual reader is a very necessary function. Rather than a victim of the logocentric myth, the actual reader is challenged to become a producer, as Brice Parain predicted some thirty years ago: “Life is transformed into an exercise of literary criticism; … Man is only what he says; the rest is not important.”25 The literary artifact thus provides hope for the active participation of the human being threatened to be obliterated by media transformations, machine cultures, and the other instruments of mass change and consumerism. The actual reader can find the Messiah by fulfilling the covenant of the literary artifact and generating another discourse which continues the one the writer had initially proposed. But the actual reader must not limit the discourse to an isolated experience since Blanchot tells us that stories participate in the continuous reification of existence: “In Hasidism, wherein doctrine is almost nothing and the prestige of concrete action is practically everything, stories become part of the religious experience.”26 Hence, the actual reader’s consciousness of the need to respond is similar to the Hasidic respect for concrete action. Both are concerned with responsive action so that their respective covenants may be continuously renewed, thus reassuring their societies of the viability of individual response. The actual reader’s task is to continually produce his or her response to the literary artifact as an affirmation of the refusal to be overwhelmed by the words of literary artifacts. As Fredric Jameson has said,27 the ethnocentricity of our condition is blinding us from realizing our plight. The blinding speed of a cybernetic society has hypnotized us into ignoring the threat of passivity posed by logocentrism. Maurice Blanchot’s weaving of the Judaic condition of writing and reading into his own works provides us with a pertinent commentary on the need to break away from that hypnosis. The logos has taught us to respect our traditions and to trace the paths of “progress.” However, Blanchot’s arguments for the Judaic covenant of the literary artifact give us cause to wonder whether this “progress” has alienated the writer and reader from their primitive ties of simple communication. The vagabond in Blanchot’s “L’Idylle” echoes forth a plea for the return of alienated readers and writers to their indigenous state in this last quarter of the twentieth century: “Let me be permitted to return to my native land, and I will retain the highest regard for your welcome.”28
Thus Steven Ungar refers to Blanchot’s work in his introduction to his special issue of Sub-stance, No. 14 (1976) on Blanchot. All the essays therein are in English and represent a cross-section of appreciations of the style and thought of Blanchot. Ungar also provides a thorough bibliography of and about Blanchot’s works in that issue (pp. 142–159).
A working hypothesis of French literary structuralism has been isolated by Tzvetan Todorov in his The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 193: “The important thing, then, is not time or space but, as Khlebnikov puts it, ‘proportion, order, and harmony.’ His first goal is to denounce ‘so-called chance,’ to show that there is nothing fortuitous, that the arbitrary is merely a relationship not yet understood. A universal harmony prevails; man must honor it by a generalized calculus which will reveal its rules.”
Françoise Collin, Maurice Blanchot et la question de l’écriture (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p. 74.
“De l’évolution littéraire,” in Théorie de la littérature, Tzvetan Todorov, ed. (Paris: Le Seuil, 1965), p. 122. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Pas au delà (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), p. 27.
Maurice Blanchot, L’Entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 627.
Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), p. 81.
Philippe Boyer, “La Question interrogée,” Change, No. 22 (March 1975), p. 5.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à venir (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), p. 99.
L’Entretien infini, op. cit., p. 636.
Walter J. Ong, S.J., “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA, 90, 1 (January 1975), 11.
Maurice Blanchot, L’Arrêt de mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 125.
Philippe Boyer, “Le Point de la question,” Change, No. 22 (March 1975), p. 63.
Maurice Blanchot, L’Amitié (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 250–251.
Sarah Lawall, Critics of Consciousness (Cambridge [Mass.]: Harvard U.P., 1968), p. 232.
Emmanuel Levinas, Difficile Liberté (Paris: Albin Michel, 1963), p. 167.
Le Pas au delà, op. cit., p. 69.
Anaïs Nin, House of Incest (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1958), p. 27.
Maurice Blanchot, La Folie du jour (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973), p. 32.
Luzius Keller, “Maurice Blanchot: Thomas l’obscur” in Walter Pabst, ed., Der moderne französische roman (Berlin: Erich Smidt Verlag, 1968), p. 185.
L’Entretien infini, op. cit., p. 281.
“The Writer’s Audience,” op. cit., p. 12.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Très haut (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 243.
Critics of Consciousness, op. cit., p. 241.
Brice Parain, A Metaphysics of Language, trans. by Mary Mayer (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1971), p. 19.
L’Amitié, op. cit., p. 265.
Fredric Jameson, “The Poetics of Social Forms,” lecture given at The Ohio State University, 13 March 1975.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Ressassement éternel (Paris and London: Gordon and Breach reprint, 1970), p. 51.
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SOURCE: A review of L'Écriture du désastre, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, p. 642.
[In the following review, Morot-Sir outlines Blanchot's literary principles and theoretical perspectives in L'Écriture du désastre.]
Blanchot warns his eventual critics and, by the same token, himself that any commentary is an effort at “producing meaning” and thus of reconstructing a text; it is heavy prattling and gross distortion. Far from being the “ideal reader,” the critic destroys the pure quality of writing and brings writing back to an oral status; he forces it into the artificial world of Letters. Once and for all, Hegel gave the outrageous and inevitable model of this universal and rational garrulity behind which man hides his impotence. “Writing of disaster” [L'Écriture du désastre]—or disaster of Writing, as one could wish to put it—refuses the comments which would pretend to clarify it and are supposed to help a reader of good will. However, the true vocation of criticism is neither to wear away nor to find its own blank and transparent writing: it is to become the language which is at the same time production and consumption of meaning in an operation of “rupture” from the text. Far from converting the text and its personal disarrangement (in French, désarroi) into a sidereal and harmonious cosmos, the critic’s secret mission should be to prepare the reader for the experience of writing, i.e. the mirroring experience of disaster—a dis-aster of disaster. His review can be but a few more paragraphs added to the work, itself predestined to the fragmentary form.
Do not confuse—it is another of Blanchot’s warnings—the “fragmentary” and the fragment which is produced by the double art of aphorism and allusion. In breaking textual linearity, fragmentary writing is much more than a permanent protest against a literary Platonic cosmos of Ideas; it is the constant effort of language to go beyond itself. Is it then a disguised dialectical synthesis where yes and no would be reconciled? Far from it! It is a literary discontinuity referring to an unknown, unattainable, immemorial continuity, and that is the movement of and toward disaster. Blanchot likes to play with etymologies. Désastre breaks itself into the Latin words dis- and aster, and its true English translation could be “dis-staring.” Is it a rejection of all forms of dialectics, from Plato to Hegel, and beyond? In a way, yes, but with reservation. Blanchot does not follow Kierkegaard, because the negation of the System still belongs to it! Blanchot’s language is the heir of the Nietzschean tragedy. It is also in synchrony with the metaphysical attempt made by Georges Bataille, Emmanuel Levinas and, to a lesser degree, Jacques Derrida. Neither positive nor negative, the linguistic disaster is not pure empirical dispersion; it is the secret weapon of Skepticism in its search for the neutral discourse. Reading Blanchot, one is always driven back to Montaigne, the Great Master of fragmentary writing, especially when the Essais ultimately guide one toward Heraclitus the Obscure.
However, as a reader of bad will, the critic, tired of being submissive, dares to question: what is disaster? One already knows that affirmation, negation, question, answer, although they are inevitable, are prohibited. They have not to be converted, transposed, as Plato or Hegel did. They have to be diverted. In a play of words in French, as Blanchot enjoys, décrire is actually dé-crire. At this point the difficulty is to maintain the double meaning of décrire (to describe instead of to define) and dé-crire (to disrupt language). Thus Blanchot proceeds by affirmations and negations aptly diverted. The “fragmentary” style unfolds fascinating, staggering analyses of synonyms and antonyms, all of them experiencing language at its limits, i.e. at its illimitation.
If there is an ultimate purpose for this book, which is certainly the most important written by Blanchot and, very likely, for the present generation, the most illuminating among all those essays on the nature or denaturation of language, it relies upon the permanent mise en abyme of language in the act of writing, so that the semiotic movement-beyond is also a movement-within. Such an operation is made possible only when the writer understands that, as Blanchot, quoting Levinas, reminds us, “language is already skepticism,” and “already” means the “always already” of the experience of disaster.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947
SOURCE: “Pure Writing for Now People,” in Voice Literary Supplement, No. 7, May, 1982, p. 8.
[In the following essay, Kendrick discusses some of Blanchot's major themes and theoretical preoccupations in his fiction, the English translations of his writings, his association with other writers, and his critical reception in the United States.]
“A story? No. No stories, never again,” says the narrator of The Madness of the Day. Actually, he says it in French: “Un récit? Non, pas de récit, plus jamais.” This edition is bilingual, so you can compare the English with the French, a bold stroke for a translation. In a footnote to his note, “Thomas and the Possibility of Translation,” appended to Thomas the Obscure (Thomas l’Obscur), Robert Lamberton remarks that Blanchot wrote to Lydia Davis, in regard to her translation of L’Arrêt de Mort, that Death Sentence was really her (Davis’s) book. Who is speaking here?
Actually, no one is. The narrator of The Madness of the Day doesn’t say anything: he writes. And what he writes is that he will not (has not) write (written) anything—no récit, narration, narrative, account, recital, relation—no re-citation of what happened before and now will be re-collected. “The act of writing begins with Orpheus’ gaze,” says “The Gaze of Orpheus” (in The Gaze of Orpheus): “one can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing. In order to write one must already be writing.”
A writer, Blanchot writes. When he writes stories, as he sometimes seems to do in his fiction, he’s writing about writing. When he writes about writing, as he does in his literary essays, he’s writing. Like Orpheus’s gaze, his writing has no source, no origin; it doesn’t represent or re-count anything. Of all modern writers, Blanchot is the most scriptorial. No one knows much about him, even what he looks like, but we know that he’s been writing, at a steady rate, for almost 50 years.
Until recently, very little Blanchot was available in English, and what we have even now is just a tiny part of his large, scattered oeuvre. He did his best work in the '40s and '50s, when American readers were unlikely to have patience with his peculiar brand of opaque philosophical-literary discourse. In 1960, in one of the first American essays on Blanchot, Geoffrey Hartman called him “the most esoteric writer of contemporary France.” He still is that; but now, as Hartman hopefully remarks in his preface to The Gaze of Orpheus, the time may have come “when his sort of mind—and prose—can be appreciated.” Thomas was written between 1932 and 1940; Death Sentence was published in 1948, The Madness of the Day in 1949, and the earliest Orpheus essay in 1943. Maybe now we’re caught up with the French avant-grade of a generation ago.
There has been, in fact, a recent, mostly underground boom in Blanchot studies. Death Sentence and The Gaze of Orpheus have even made it to VLS’s list of intellectually respectable bestsellers. This may be due to the fondness of readers dwelling below 14th Street for books they can’t understand. But there might be another reason, one that Blanchot himself (if there is a him-self) would appreciate: primed by Blanchot’s successors, we might now be ready to read him—backwards, as it were.
Blanchot’s successors include all the pointmen in the continuing French invasion of American thought: Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida either follow in his footsteps or show distinct traces of his influence. Reading them, we’ve grown accustomed to a discourse that’s neither philosophical nor literary, critical nor creative, analytic nor representational, but occupies a special ground between all these poles, without mediating them. If we’ve learned to follow non-dialectical thinking, the play of negation without synthesis, then we’re ready for Blanchot.
Blanchot has written both fiction and literary essays, but, typically, his work refuses to observe the demarcation between these genres. Three of his translated works are récits (even The Madness of the Day, which says it isn’t), and Lydia Davis is at work on a fourth, Au Moment Voulu. The Gaze of Orpheus offers samples from five books of essays published between 1943 and 1969. But the récits are less like stories than dramatized philosophical meditations and the essays, though they mention other writers and other works, are too self-willed, too independent of their “subjects,” to qualify as criticism in the Anglo-American sense.
These transgressions don’t trouble French readers. Two years ago at NYU, Jacques Derrida delivered a lecture (entitled “La Loi du genre” (“The Law of Genre”), which he read in French while we Americans struggled to follow a xeroxed translation. His “subject” was The Madness of the Day, and his method was exactly appropriate. Taking hold of that text, he twisted, bent, and generally pretzelized it: “It is a récit,” he said (in French), “without a theme and without a cause entering from the outside, yet it is without interiority. It is the récit of an impossible récit whose ‘production’ makes happen what happens, or rather, what remains, but which does not relate it, nor relate to it, out of bounds.” Someday, maybe we’ll also learn to “read” that way.
The American reader (this one, at least) finds himself clinging rather pathetically to the “story-elements” in Blanchot’s récits, hoping to assemble from them some sort of plot which he can follow in a familiar way. In Thomas the Obscure, Thomas goes swimming (“As he swam, he pursued a sort of reverie in which he confused himself with the sea”), reads a book (“For hours he remained motionless, with, from time to time, the word ‘eyes’ in place of his eyes”), and meets a woman called Anne, who lies down on a park bench and dies: “Let us sleep.”
At one point, Thomas seems to turn into a cat, and later he addresses a chapter-length harangue to Anne’s corpse, but cataloguing these events, as if they were links in a customary narrative chain, is falsifying them. When Thomas was first published, in 1941, it was called a novel; in 1950, Blanchot cut a good deal out of his novel and republished it as a récit. I haven’t seen the novel version, but the things he cut out were probably just those an American reader hankers after, even demands as his reader’s rights: plot, character, point of view, all that traditional baggage. Traces of them remain in the revised Thomas, buried there like a pelvis in a whale, useless to the animal. “He came back to the hotel for dinner” is irrelevant.
It’s difficult to describe a piece of writing that isn’t about anything; we’re so accustomed to writing as conveyance that we have no words for naming writing that’s itself and nothing else. I’ve called Thomas a “dramatized philosophical meditation,” and that might not be unfair: several themes or obsessions appear in it that can also be found in Blanchot’s other récits and essays. Death first of all. Anne dies in Thomas; in Death Sentence, J. dies, comes back, and dies again; and the narrator of The Madness of the Day thinks cheerfully about death all the time: “When I die (perhaps any minute now), I will feel immense pleasure.”
Blanchot’s essays, too, are much obsessed with death—with the impossibility of knowing death, of experiencing it, unless one is Lazarus, to whom Christ said: Lazare, veni foras. The figure of Lazarus appears in Thomas, in “Literature and the Right to Death” (The Gaze of Orpheus), and several times elsewhere. Like Orpheus, Lazarus entered death and emerged; he might be a trope for the writer, for the reader, or for writing.
Blanchot sees the skull beneath the skin, but death for him is a philosophical, not an emotional matter. Writing itself (reading, too) is implicated in death, enacts it: “My speech is a warning that at this very moment death is loose in the world, that it has suddenly appeared between me, as I speak, and the being I address: it is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding. Death alone allows me to grasp what I want to attain; it exists in words as the only way they can have meaning.” Death as spacing, articulation, difference: Derrida and De Man have rehearsed this mystery, too, but Blanchot preceded them.
You can find themes in Blanchot; that’s one way of domesticating him. You can also place him in a literary-philosophical tradition. His work, both fictional and other, shows affinities with Kafka’s: they share a fascination with mysteries that refuse to unveil themselves, with approaches that increase distance, with paradoxes that brook no resolution. Blanchot often refers to Kafka, as well as to Sade, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry, all participants in the continental Romantic-Postromantic tradition to which Blanchot himself belongs.
Kafka’s lesson (though he never taught it as such) is especially important to Blanchot. Kafka shows that “storytelling brings the neuter into play”—that personless “he” which is “neither a third person, nor the simple cloak of impersonality.” “He” does away with all subjects and all transitive action; even Kafka’s characters, those who should say “I,” are deprived of this privilege by the neuter that speaks them. Thomas feels this when he reads—“perched upon his shoulders, the word He and the word I were beginning, their carnage”—and any reader of Blanchot’s serenely neuter texts must feel it, too.
Especially in his récits, however, Blanchot can be placed in a parallel, apparently antagonistic tradition—that of Balzac, Flaubert, Henry James, and Proust. To an American reader, the odd resemblance to James is particularly strong: if James had lived a generation longer, and had pruned his fiction yet more rigorously of the shreds of representation that clung to it even at the end, he might well have written something like Thomas the Obscure, in which there’s no world to speak of, only minds or a single mind. Alien and inscrutable as Blanchot often is, he’s also thoroughly traditional—a fact which might give comfort to an otherwise bewildered reader.
Bewilderment aside, however, I know of few books that exert the power of Blanchot’s, a power utterly independent of “understanding.” You can, of course, reject him outright as arcane, deliberately obscure, and therefore not worth the trouble. Most American readers (like most French ones) will no doubt treat him this way; he’ll always be caviar to the general. But if you once submit to him, you’ll find a force and a drive in his writing that carry you through fog banks and across abysses: it’s the force of pure writing, through whose painful clarity all representation, whether of scenes or events or emotions, shows itself for the ruse it has always been.
Robbe-Grillet has some of this power, but Blanchot seems to have taught him, too; surely none of our native avant-garde can come close. Turning to Blanchot from the derivative inanities of Barth, the muck of Sorrentino, even the pyrotechnics of Pynchon, is like trading in Taylor for Château d’Yquem. If you’re going to read at all, in a world where TV and film have mastered representation, you might as well read writing. And there is no purer writing than Blanchot’s.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
SOURCE: A review of La Communauté inavouable, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 566.
[In the following review, Roudiez discusses Blanchot's intellectual concerns in La Communauté inavouable.]
Georges Bataille had provided an intellectual backdrop for several of Maurice Blanchot’s recent texts; that is again the case for this brief, two-part essay [La Communauté inavouable]. Each part has its own pre-text, an essay by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (“La communauté désœuvrée”) and a narrative by Marguerite Duras (“La maladie de la mort”). Blanchot’s assumption, not an unusual one, is that human beings are affected by a forgotten or repressed desire for community even though a real sense of community has been lost; at the same time there is a lack of awareness of what has been lost. Hence the appeal of various forms of communism as providing a community responding to immanent needs: “C’est l’origine apparemment saine du totalitarisme le plus malsain.”
Politics, however, do not often come to the fore in this essay except for a significant reference to 1968, which had witnessed the short-lived creation of a spontaneous, explosive community that sought neither power or domination; what it manifested was “une possibilité d’être-ensemble qui rendait à tous le droit à l’égalité dans la fraternité par la liberté de parole qui soulevait chacun.” In related fashion, one might call Blanchot’s essay speculative rather than pragmatic; paradoxically, however, he gives us to understand that his speculations deal with the most important aspect of our lives. The community he has in mind is seen as useless—except for actualizing each member’s service to others, throughout their lives and at the time of death, preventing those others from going down alone, each thinking of his or her inevitable death.
The problem is that relationships do not involve same with same but rather same with other—hence the seeming futility of any search for community. Blanchot exemplifies this as he reviews Bataille’s experiences with surrealism, Contre-Attaque and Acéphale, which he places under the heading “Communautés négatives.” He then examines the “Communauté des amants,” for which Duras’s text serves as a point of departure, only to find that the gap between man and woman cannot be bridged, even in love. Thus the title: under present circumstances a community is not something that can be avowed. Blanchot proposes no solutions but suggests that keeping the problem in mind, worrying about it and discussing it could in time bring us closer to a solution.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
SOURCE: A review of The Writing of Disaster, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 264-5.
[In the following review, Caplan mentions the contributions of The Writing of Disaster to contemporary French thought.]
In the past few years, English translations of many Blanchot texts (both criticism and fictions) have finally become available. Ann Smock’s beautiful and moving translation of L’Ecriture du désastre will contribute, among other things, to the re-evaluation of Maurice Blanchot’s role in the definition of contemporary French thought. Blanchot’s relentless concern with death and foreboding has a troubling relevance today: not only to the unspeakable disasters which have marked the twentieth century, one of which may yet destroy all life on the planet, but also to the seemingly more gentle, if problematic act of writing. Writing “of” the disaster means writing both about disaster and writing by or from it. Hence the fragmentary form of this book. Disaster (Hiroshima, the camps, nuclear war), whose ineffable presence now inhabits all thought, also takes the form of fragments, what remains before or after the unimaginable.
The relationship between imagination and disaster is perhaps stated most clearly in Blanchot’s reading of the Narcissus myth (pp. 125 ff.). In Blanchot’s view, “Narcissus falls ‘in love’ with the image because the image as such—because every image—is attractive: the image exerts the attraction of the void, and of death in its falsity” (p. 125). What makes the image attractive as such would therefore not be its perfect resemblance to a model, but its utter lack of resemblance to any model, its uniqueness. The fatal seduction of the image would lie in the fact that nothing in the world resembles it. After all, Tiresias had predicted that Narcissus’ life would depend upon his never knowing himself, that is, upon his never acquiring that self-sameness or identity which is the basis (however illusory) of life. In this sense, what Narcissus sees is therefore not himself but the divine, incorruptible aspect of the image, that aspect which is also his, even though he does not have the right to see it (p. 128). In this paradoxical sense, The Writing of the Disaster is narcissistic writing. For “[t]he poet is Narcissus to the extent that Narcissus is an anti-Narcissus: he who, turned away from himself …, dying of not re-cognizing himself—leaves the trace of what has not occurred” (p. 135).
The “Translator’s Remarks” provide a helpful supplement to her brilliant general introduction to the earlier Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 1982). All writing is, as Blanchot wrote long before Derrida, already a form of translation.
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SOURCE: “Maurice Blanchot, the Story, and the Vicious Circle,” in New Orleans Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 35-40.
[In the following essay, Everman provides an analysis of The Madness of the Day, drawing attention to the paradoxical circularity of its premise and elaborations. According to Everman, “Blanchot's text establishes itself, repeats itself to infinity, and cancels itself at the same time by establishing its own impossibility.”]
The act of writing is interminable, incessant.
Like Finnegans Wake, Maurice Blanchot’s brief text La Folie du jour (The Madness of the Day) is a circle and, as such, the scene of its own infinite repetition. But it is an imperfect circle which turns in upon itself and yet transcends itself at the same time to question not only itself and its own possibility but also the very possibility of storiness and of all that storiness implies for our understanding of ourselves and our world.
George Bataille suggests that stories are central to what we are.
To a greater or lesser extent, everyone depends on stories, on novels, to discover the manifold truth of life. … This is why we must keep passionately striving after what constitutes a story. …1
But the infinite text of The Madness of the Day challenges the possibility of story, questions it in the effort to exhaust the question, to ground story and to silence it in the same endless movement. It is a text about stories, though it is not a story in itself and cannot be. It is, rather, an effort to be a story, an attempt to encase within the limits of stories that which cannot be a story, to recount that which could never be recounted. In its effort to document an unspeakable event, it becomes not that document, that story, but another unspeakable event.
The Madness of the Day is not a story. It is a first-person narrative that moves in an apparently haphazard path from event to event, from the narrator’s mind to the world beyond him, from logic to hallucination. What Blanchot offers here cannot be paraphrased or summarized. It can only be repeated. And this is precisely what happens, not from outside the text but from within.
As The Madness of the Day seems about to come to an end, the narrator finds himself being interrogated by the authorities.
I had been asked: Tell us “just exactly” what happened. A story? I began: I am not learned; I am not ignorant. I have known joys. That is saying too little. I told them the whole story and they listened, it seems to me, with interest, at least in the beginning. But the end was a surprise to all of us. “That was the beginning,” they said. “Now get down to the facts.” How so? The story was over!2
The narrator fails to offer the coherent, logical, meaningful story that his interrogators demand—“I had to acknowledge that I was not capable of forming a story out of these events. I had lost the sense of the story …” (17). What he offers instead is the narrative he has just written, the text the reader has just read. When he begins, here at the end of the text, to tell his “story,” what he tells, what he repeats, are the opening lines of The Madness of the Day.
I am not learned; I am not ignorant. I have known joys. That is saying too little: I am alive, and this life gives me the greatest pleasure. And what about death? When I die (perhaps any minute now), I will feel immense pleasure. I am not talking about the foretaste of death, which is stale and often disagreeable. Suffering dulls the senses. But this is the remarkable truth, and I am sure of it: I experience boundless pleasure in living, and I will take boundless satisfaction in dying.
The narrator’s story completes a circle which incorporates itself and its own telling and retelling endlessly. The story cannot be told to the interrogators because, in order for the narrator to begin, his account must have already begun, and any conceivable ending to the tale is infinitely distant, for every “ending” returns the narrative to its beginning—which, of course, is neither beginning nor end. Thus, as Jacques Derrida points out in his study of La Folie du jour, there can be no story:
For if “I” or “he” continued to tell what he has told, he would end up endlessly returning to this point and beginning again to begin, that is to say, to begin with an end that precedes the beginning.3
Blanchot’s text establishes itself, repeats itself to infinity, and cancels itself at the same time by establishing its own impossibility. The story is impossible because, though utterly self-contained and self-generating, though completely invaginated—in Derrida’s terminology—the text paradoxically escapes the boundaries within which a story must take shape in order to be a story. This simultaneous self-containment and escape from containment begins with the first line of the text—which, of course, has no first line.
Suddenly, this upper limit or initial boundary, which is commonly called the first line of a book, is forming a pocket inside the corpus. It is taking the form of an invagination through which the trait of the first line, the borderline, splits while remaining the same and traverses yet also bounds the corpus. The “account” which he claims is beginning at the end, and by legal requisition, is none other than the one that has begun from the beginning of La Folie du jour and in which, therefore, he gets around to saying that he begins, etc. And it is without beginning, or end, without content and without edge. There is only content without edge—without boundary or frame—and there is only edge without content.
The edge of the text—that edge which the text both constitutes and escapes—is the circle which grounds the work and establishes its impossibility. The Madness of the Day is, then, a vicious circle, of sorts. “It is an uninterrupted line that inscribes itself while interrupting itself.”4 It is a paradox.
The infinite text is in essence paradoxical—an impossibility that somehow is possible. Indeed there is an intimate connection between paradox and the infinite, as Patrick Hughes and George Brecht make clear in their anthology of paradoxes, Vicious Circles and Infinity. Hughes and Brecht list self-reference, contradiction and the vicious circle as the conditions of logical paradox, which, by generating an endless series of reversals, gives rise to the infinite.5 For example:
A book of one hundred pages, with just one sentence printed on each page.
On page 1 we read: “The sentence printed on page 2 of this book is true.”
On page 2 we read: “The sentence printed on page 3 of this book is true.”
And so it goes up to page 99. However, on page 100, the last page of the book, we find: “The sentence printed on page 1 of this book is false.”
This hypothetical book—suggested by Alfred Tarski—meets all the conditions of the logical paradox. The text refers to itself on each page, contradicts itself on page 100, and returns the reader to page 1 where he must begin again (and again), each time reading a text which is a reversal, a mirror image, of the (identical) text just read. Tarski’s book is vicious circle, an infinite text.
Blanchot’s infinite text is also a paradox—self-referring, contradictory, circular—though The Madness of the Day is both less vicious than Tarski’s text and more. Tarski’s circle is vicious precisely because it allows for no escape. It is utterly self-contained, carefully and completely bound by the conditions by which it came into being. As such, though the text is to be endlessly repeated, it points only to itself, confirms only itself and its own boundaries. It says nothing.
The Madness of the Day is also circular, but it is a circle that confirms itself and escapes itself at every point, and this continual making and breaking of the frame of the text turns on Blanchot’s overt challenge to the possibility of story. If Tarski’s paradox says nothing but itself to infinity, shifting back and forth between the two poles of truth and falsehood, Blanchot says both nothing and everything, repeating and never quite repeating itself in an endless circle/spiral of re-telling, the re-telling of the re-telling, the re-telling of the re-telling of the re-telling, etc., with each repetition repeating a text that is identical to every other repetition and yet always different, a text that is a continuing attempt to capture itself (as story) and to escape itself (as story). The Madness of the Day is an endless telling, beyond the point of weariness, beyond the point of exhaustion, which never manages to become a telling, a story, an account, a recit.
That this circle—the absence of a circle—be traced by writing or by weariness, weariness will not permit him to decide, even if it is only through writing that he discovers himself weary, entering the circle of weariness—entering, as in a circle, into weariness.
(Infinite Conversation 56)
The recit is the key to The Madness of the Day, to our understanding of the text and our failure to understand. The term “recit” poses problems for English readers. As Derrida’s translator Avital Ronell notes: “With the word recit, I have had to enter another area of linguistic turbulence, for English does not contain a term that would correspond exactly to the French, although ‘story,’ ‘narration,’ and ‘account’ all capture the basic drift of the word.”6 In translating Derrida’s citations from La Folie du jour, Ronell opts for “account.” Lydia Davis, translator of the Station Hill Press edition of The Madness of the Day, chooses “story.” For reasons that will become clear, “recit” has reverberations even in English that make it perhaps the best choice for a critical discussion of this particular Blanchot text. But regardless of the translation, “recit”—as “account,” “narrative,” “story”—implies a frame within which that which is told assumes recognizable, coherent form. Without such a frame, without those limits which demarcate a text and define it as a “story,” there is no recit, perhaps not even a text. There is only babble, white noise.
The reader recognizes a novel as a novel because it is staged within the familiar frame of the novel. It is a fictive discourse offering characters, stories, plots, and sub-plots which develop coherently, logically. It is divided into chapters, paragraphs, sentences. It comes in the form of a book which is to be handled and read in a certain way so as to allow the story of the novel to unfold in proper order. It is of a certain length (a thirty-page book is not a novel). It is to be found in bookstores, libraries, classrooms, and in private collections on shelves with volumes like it. In short, there are any number of rules, traits and characteristics which limit the possibilities of the novel and without which it could not be or be recognized as what it is.
The frame is the aesthetic, material, economic, even ontological boundary which sets the art work apart from the real. The conventional art work is conventional precisely because it accepts the frame as a given, a natural limitation, and such a work takes place within a given frame which, in essence, pre-exists any and every work which is created to fill it.
The conventional art work depends completely upon the frame for its existence, though it never acknowledges that frame or even seems to be aware of it, and such a work is most effective when its audience—the reader, the viewer, the listener—is also unaware of the set of framing conventions within which the art work is staged. This is why, in the conventional film, the actors never look into the camera, never address the audience, for to do so would be to acknowledge that they are only actors and that the audience is not watching an event in real life but a movie. To speak to the audience from the screen would be to violate the frame of the narrative, to betray the fictivity of the fiction.
Curiously, the unconventional art work is every bit as dependent upon the frame as the conventional work, and perhaps more so, because it purposely and consciously calls attention to those limits which define it as what it is. Unconventional works of art—particularly those we might call postmodern—are set within traditional frames, but, in the very process of establishing themselves within those limits, they seek to transcend the frames which give them their being. That is, such a work makes its frame and breaks it in an ongoing dialectic that calls not only the conventional limits of art but every art work—even itself—into question, thus continually blurring the distinction between art and not-art.
In 1915, Marcel Duchamp bought a snow shovel in a hardware store, inscribed it with the title “In Advance of a Broken Arm,” and declared it to be a work of art. Since then, the original Duchamp “readymade” and subsequent “remakes” have been displayed often in galleries and museums. “In Advance of a Broken Arm” has been discussed and analyzed in critical texts and has had a major influence on contemporary art. Obviously, Duchamp was correct in declaring the shovel to be an art work because it has been treated as a work of art for more than seventy years.
But, of course, it was Duchamp’s declaration itself which “transformed” the shovel into a work of art by framing it within the conventional limits of art, thus radically calling attention to those limits, to the frame that constitutes every work of art as art. Since Duchamp inscribed his shovel within those limits, “In Advance of a Broken Arm” has become a unique, irreplaceable cultural object—though it is obviously neither unique nor irreplaceable. It is, quite simply, a snow shovel.
The readymade fully depends upon the frame of art to be what it is, and yet, by calling attention to that frame, by making it transparent, it both confirms and transgresses its frame endlessly. The readymade insists on both the necessity and the impossibility of art. “In Advance of a Broken Arm” is a very disconcerting object in the art world, for it points up the arbitrariness, the utter conventionality, of those limits which define the art work and of the epistemological processes by which we recognize and know works of art.
George Heard Hamilton tells of a Duchamp retrospective that traveled to a museum in Minnesota in the 1940s.7 There, a janitor mistook “In Advance of a Broken Arm” for a snow shovel and used it to clear the walk—certainly a reasonable error, if we can call it an error at all. What we have here is a problem in epistemology, in the knowledge and recognition of limits, of frames. “In Advance of a Broken Arm” was included in the retrospective because Hamilton, as the curator who put the show together, recognized it as a work of art by Marcel Duchamp; he understood it within the frame in which Duchamp had inscribed it. On the other hand, the janitor—who certainly never would have shoveled the walk with a Picasso—understood “In Advance of a Broken Arm” within a different frame, its original frame in fact, as a tool. There is no question here of ignorance on the part of the janitor or of over-intellectualizing on Hamilton’s part. The discrepancy in their perceptions is grounded in the arbitrariness of frame, an arbitrariness that allows a snow shovel to be simultaneously itself and something else, or rather neither itself nor something else.
But if “In Advance of a Broken Arm” opens the frame of art (and the frame of hardware) to question, exposing it as a set of arbitrary limits that could have been otherwise, what of those other supposedly natural categories of the sciences and the humanities which play such a vital part in human thought? And what of that particular literary category, the account, the story, the recit, which, according to Bataille, provides the ordering principle for human experience and memory? This question brings us back to the endless narrative of The Madness of the Day.
In his essay “The Law of Genre,” Derrida analyzes The Madness of the Day, which “makes the recit and the impossibility of the recit its theme,” as a text which also addresses the question of the frame (210).
This text … seems to be made, among other things, to make light of all the tranquil categories of genre-theory and history in order to upset their taxonomic certainties, the distribution of their classes, and the presumed stability of the classical nomenclature.
As we have seen, The Madness of the Day clearly questions the possibility of storiness, but when Derrida says that the text makes light of the categories of genre-theory and history (which depend heavily on the possibility of stories), he means not only that Blanchot’s work takes such categories lightly (as arbitrary limits, as mere conventions) but also that it brings them to light—“donner le jour.” Like Duchamp’s readymade, Blanchot’s text grounds itself firmly in the frame of the recit and at the same time transgresses that frame to infinity.
The Madness of the Day brings the frame of the recit to light by trying and failing to stage itself within that frame. It makes the frame (“I told them the whole story …”) and breaks it by repeating itself, its “story,” endlessly, in the infinite attempt to capture itself as “story.” The Madness of the Day can fail as a story, can challenge the very possibility of story, only because it also calls attention to the frame of story and makes that frame transparent.
The text breaks the frame of the recit by infinite repetition, and yet it is this same repetition that calls attention to the frame again and again by trying and failing again and again to fill it. But in fact the text is not a simple self-contained repetition; it is a recitation, a re-citation, a quotation of itself and a quotation of that quotation. When, at the “end” of the text, the narrator “begins” to tell his story, he is speaking in quotation marks, quoting the text the reader has just read, and when the text comes 'round to the “end” once more, the narrator is quoting yet again, re-citing his re-citation. There is, however, no original text that is cited here. The Madness of the Day is always already a quotation, for it has always already begun and cannot end. In this endless process, of course, the frame of the recit upon which the text depends is also endlessly transgressed, endlessly betrayed as an impossibility. The Madness of the Day is a text which is utterly self-contained and circular and yet which transcends itself at every point. It is a text that is always equal to itself and yet other than itself, outside itself.
When a text quotes and requotes, with or without quotation marks, when it is written on the brink, you start, or indeed have already started, to lose your footing. You lose sight of any line of demarcation between a text and what is outside it.8
Unlike Finnegans Wake, which is always and endlessly itself, an infinite circle, The Madness of the Day points into the world beyond itself and compromises that world by compromising our notion of the recit, the story. Derrida argues that “the impossibility of the recit” is the theme of Blanchot's text, but in fact The Madness of the Day does not prove that the story is impossible. At the “close” of the text, the narrator resolves: “A story? No. No stories, never again” (Madness 18). It is the “again” that is interesting here, the suggestion that, far from being impossible, stories have always been with us, that the narrator himself has told them, though he will not do so “again.” There is nothing impossible about the story; in fact, the logical, coherent frame of the story is our primary means for understanding ourselves and our experiences, according to Bataille. The story is not only possible; it is commonplace.
The Madness of the Day fails as a story because, as an infinite text, it cannot be contained within the limits which define storiness. But Blanchot's failure does not question the actual possibility of stories. Rather, by calling attention to and betraying the arbitrariness of the frame of the story, Blanchot questions our assumption that a story can offer anything like an account of the world beyond itself.
This is the importance of the endless re-citation of The Madness of the Day, which challenges not the possibility of stories per se but the possibility of those disciplines that are rooted in the frame of the story—history, law, philosophy, psychology, every science that demands evidence, testimony, order, and classification and that offers accounts of the real in terms of such ordering, such classification.
Blanchot focuses in particular on a challenge to the law which depends on the possibility of testimony, of creating an orderly account of events that accurately represents what happened in the real world. It is important to remember that the narrator's “story,” that the text of The Madness of the Day, is the result of a demand made by representatives of legal authority—both scientists, as it turns out, a doctor and a psychologist. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Blanchot's many comments on the Law in The Madness of the Day as referring only to the Western system of jurisprudence. Rather, the text refers to Law itself, to the setting of limits, to the essential recognition of frames within which knowledge and judgement become possible and from which orderly, reasonable human action can proceed. Law, then, has its fundamental ground in stories, accounts which attempt to fit the real into familiar frames of order and classification, whether the particular “legal” province be history, medicine, psychology, literature, etc.
Any questioning of the relationship between stories and the reality beyond stories, any transgression of the limits of storiness, represents a challenge to the Law and to those who serve it. Thus, according to Derrida:
[The narrator] not only troubles the representatives of the law … who demand of him, but are unable to obtain, an organized account, a testimony oriented by a sense of history or his history, ordained and ordered by reason. … [H]e alarms thus the lawmen, he radically persecutes them, and, in his manner, he conceals from them without altercation the truth they demand and without which they are nothing.
(“Law of Genre” 225–26)
But it is not only the obvious representatives of the Law who are at risk here. It is, first and foremost, the narrator himself who loses himself with the loss of his story, for he is “author of the law to which he submits himself” (“Law of Genre” 227). That is, he is the author of the story that gives him himself, the one who knows, remembers and interprets his life according to the familiar frame of the story, his “life-story.” To open storiness to question, then, is to question the ground of self, to “rid myself of myself,” to risk the absolute freedom and infinite possibilities of being no one (Madness 14). “As nobody, I was sovereign” (9).
The Madness of the Day radically questions all authority based on the limits of storiness—the authority of science and the humanities, the authority of law, the authority of self, and the authority of the author. The infinite text transgresses the frame of the story and the authority of the author because it is a text that plays itself out beyond any individual author or reader. “And in this way,” Blanchot says, “language insists on playing its own game without men, who created it.”9
The Madness of the Day, as an infinite text, is an infinite questioning of itself, of literature, of all that story gives rise to. It is the effort to speak itself beyond the frame of storiness, beyond literature, “a search for this moment which precedes literature,” a search for the silence that stories cannot speak, an attempt to speak the unspeakable, to realize the paradoxical, the infinitely impossible (Gaze 46). According to Blanchot:
I seek, without getting there, to say that there is a speech where things, not showing themselves, do not hide themselves. Neither veiled nor unveiled: there is their non-truth.
(Infinite Conversation 49)
Georges Bataille, Blue of Noon, trans. Harry Mathews (New York: Urizen Books, 1978) 153.
Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1981) 17.
Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 217.
Maurice Blanchot, “From The Infinite Conversation,” trans. Christopher Fynsk, Enclitic 3 (Spring 1979): 56.
Patrick Hughes and George Brecht, Vicious Circles and Infinity (New York: Penguin Books, 1978) 1.
Avital Ronell, “Why I Write Such Good Translator’s Notes,” Glyph 7 (1980): 231.
George Heard Hamilton, “In Advance of Whose Broken Arm?” Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, ed. Joseph Masheck (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975) 74.
Jacques Derrida, in Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1979) 81–82.
Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1981) 47.
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SOURCE: A review of Thomas the Obscure, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 241-2.
[In the following review, Malin comments on the elusive text and obscurities in Thomas the Obscure.]
It is impossible to review briefly this subtle, haunting novel [Thomas the Obscure]—or meditation—because we must deal with deliberate evasions, absences, obscurities. The text, in effect, drowns us; it apparently refuses to permit breathing, rational discourse. Although it is divided into twelve short sections, we are unsure about the chronology. Should the sections be read consecutively? Does time advance? Are there two characters (Anne and Thomas or “un-Anne” or “un-Thomas”) or one character imagining other selves? These questions perplex us because of the “borderline” states—hallucination, dream, life itself—which slowly advance and retreat the movement of consciousness.
As we read the text we discover that almost every sentence is tentative. We are offered actions; the actions are then blurred or erased. One step ahead, one step backward; one obscurity, one clarification—we must circle or center perceptions and we are finally aware that there is a dark dance, a halting rhythm. We read on and yearn for clarification; we get, instead, the same kind of pattern—call it hide and/or seek or emptiness/fullness. There is paradox. We are told the day was about to end. (The beginning of the book underlines the end of things; again two opposites are obscurely linked.) We are told “scarcely any light remained”—obscurity will soon “triumph”—but “it is still possible to see certain details of the landscape fairly clearly.” We can see “fairly clearly.” How clearly? Is “fairly” obscure? Blanchot, I suggest, consciously tries to assert the dark (in)significance of all details, the forbidden turns and “counterturns” of life. He recognizes that the language itself is not direct, that it perverts, subverts the actualities (?) of existence.
Here are some examples of dialogue: “If ever I could be before you and completely absent from you, I would have the chance to meet you. Or rather I know that I would not meet you.” Meeting, not meeting, presence, absence, knowledge and ignorance, a definite “or.”
That’s it! Life, death, consciousness, language—offerings which are haunted by infinite possibilities. We are told that we are in some dreamland, that we must seek a certainty; yet we are somehow not allowed to find it. We must wait for sudden grace. Only then—when?—will we become complete. Only then will we know “joy.”
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SOURCE: A review of The Infinite Conversation, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 241-2.
[In the following review, Evenson describes the contents of The Infinite Conversation.]
Written during the struggle between Hegelianism and anti-Hegelianism in French thought preceding poststructuralism, Blanchot’s Infinite Conversation provides a crucial link for understanding the more immediate roots of poststructuralism. Though Blanchot did much of his major writing in the forties, fifties, and sixties, his work has received little attention in America until recently. He is especially important for those interested in contemporary French theory. Blanchot’s writings inform the thought of Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, and can provide contexts for some of the more difficult concepts of these other writers. Behind Foucault’s heterotopia and Deleuze’s disjunctive synthesis lurk Blanchot’s formulations on impossibility, interval, and the outside. Theoretically justifying Lacan’s purposeful inexpressiveness is Blanchot on obscurity.
The Infinite Conversation gathers together texts written for the most part between 1953 and 1965. Originally published in 1969, it can be read as a late, sustained argument with Hegel and Alexandre Kojève. In the place of the Hegelian synthesis, Blanchot suggests what he calls “the relation of the third kind”: a relation of two individuals in which speech “does not tend toward unity, it is not a relation from the perspective of unity or with unity in view, not a relation of unification.” A relationship founded on difference. A good Franco-Nietzschean, Blanchot explores that type of language that moves not towards unity, but outside of it—what he calls here plural speech.
The Infinite Conversation provides a mixture of rigorous theoretical thought and less formal conversations, both of which are intriguing. The first section of the book is philosophical, meditations on how language forms and informs different types of human relationships. The two remaining sections illustrate the first section’s ideas through an exploration of literary texts. Blanchot provides splendid readings of the way in which writers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Pascal, Kafka, Heraclitus, and Sade develop a writing that interrupts being and postulates dissymmetric relations. His readings of other writers are illuminating, and often quite surprising.
Susan Hanson’s translation is well-reasoned and loyal to Blanchot’s intention. Her introduction is adequate. The book is quite expensive, even in paper—those new to Blanchot would be well advised to begin with his less expensive theoretical works—but for libraries and for those with a more profound interest in French thought, The Infinite Conversation is a necessity.
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SOURCE: “Blanchot's Suicidal Artist: Writing and the (Im)Possibility of Death,” in Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 35-45.
[In the following essay, Gregg examines Blanchot's preoccupation with death, particularly as associated with suicide, literary creation, and the function of autobiography.]
Language and human beings share the same destiny of incompletion. Death as an approach, a passivity that cannot be rendered present or personal, worklessness and failure: these exigencies that Bataille posits as the basis of both sacrifice and his expérience are also categories that serve to organize Blanchot’s account of the experience of the writer’s approach to the space of literature. Literature’s involvement with death is central to Blanchot’s thinking, and it is a theme that I would like to explore in this chapter on three fronts: first, in connection with his comparison of writing and suicide; second, by examining a particular kind of writing, autobiography; and, finally, by reflecting on why literature is more concerned with the loss of our right to death than with its affirmation.
Kafka serves as the exemplary writer in the section of L’Espace littéraire entitled “La mort possible,” where Blanchot draws a parallel between suicide and artistic activity. There is a sentence from Kafka’s Diaries that he finds particularly intriguing: “Le meilleur de ce que j’ai écrit se fonde sur cette aptitude à pouvoir mourir content” (EL 107).1 Blanchot wonders what Kafka means by the expression “this capacity to die content,” and he offers this tentative response: “il faut être capable de se satisfaire de la mort” (EL 108).2 He then proceeds to question this answer: how is this possible?
The two cases that Blanchot analyzes in which one often associates satisfaction with death are stoicism and suicide. Of the first, Blanchot states that the stoic attitude of indifference in the face of death, although noble and impressive, is nothing more than an expression of the desire to die with grace and dignity out of respect for the living. For the stoic, Blanchot states, “Bien mourir signifie mourir dans la convenance … et cette bonne mort indique plus de politesse pour le monde que d’égards pour la profondeur de l’abîme” (EL 121).3 He then concludes that this tasteful death could not be what Kafka was referring to. Perhaps he who takes his own life has the aptitude to die content—provided that one considers self-destruction as supreme self-affirmation. Blanchot’s analysis of suicide revolves around the question of whether complete consciousness of death can be achieved. If it can, says Blanchot, the victim “aura été conscience de disparaître et non pas conscience disparaissante, il aura entiérement annexé à sa conscience la disparition de celle-ci, il sera done totalité réalisée, la réalisation du tout, l’absolu” (EL 119).4 Unfortunately it does not, for the victim is inevitably on the side of “conscience disparaissante.” The error to which suicide victims succumb is, as Blanchot says, like a bizarre play on words: they take one death for another. Their attempt to domesticate death by taking their own life constitutes an act of power. Constructive negativity, however, is a restricted instance of le mourir, which falls outside the aims of any project. All efforts to have mastery over le mourir, to personalize it and render it present are futile. Suicide is an
Acte inespéré (sans espoir) d’unifier la duplicité de la mort et de réunir en une seule fois, par une décision d’impatience, les répétitions éternelles de ce qui, mourant, ne meurt pas. Puis la tentation de nommer, c’est-à-dire de personnaliser, en se l’attribuant, l’anonymat, cela qui ne se dit qu’en troisième personne et au neutre. Ou encore le pouvoir d’élargir, comme à sa mesure, en le localisant et en le datant, l’infiniment petit, et qui toujours échappe, de la mort.
Writers fall into the same trap as do suicide victims except that instead of taking one death for another, “la mort contente” for “le mourir,” they mistake the book for the work, “le livre” for “l’oeuvre.”6 Both tend to a point by taking the initiative and exercising skill and know-how, but this point escapes any such determinations. The perpetrator of suicide sets out with great determination to conquer and possess death, to make it his or her own, but, suggests Blanchot, it is just the opposite that occurs: “Même là où je décide d’aller à elle [la mort], par une résolution virile et idéale, n’est-ce pas elle qui me saisit, qui me dessaisit, me livre à l’insaisissable?” (EL 118).7 In a similar way writers, although they may initially feel confident in their ability to have control over the raw materials of their craft, undergo the same kind of dispossession. The more they write and the farther they advance into the literary space, the less clear their original project becomes. Writing involves a pact made with the night and cannot be equated with any mundane task to be accomplished in the realm of the day. Writers are, therefore, not related to what they have written in the same way that they are to anything else they have done through an act of power. In the cases of both suicide and writing, what begins as a concerted act of the will is transformed into fascination, indecision, and passivity. The English phrase “suicide victim” aptly describes this transformation from active to passive: whoever resolves to kill him-or-herself ultimately becomes one who submits passively to death and awaits its approach.
The contradictory pair of terms, active and passive, organizes Blanchot’s interpretation of Kafka’s enigmatic statement that writing was somehow linked to the aptitude of knowing how to die. This is, however, only half the story, for Kafka completes this statement with its complementary other, which allows Blanchot to elaborate a theory that he calls the “exigence circulaire” and that he considers to be the essence of writing.8 The first statement, to die in order to be able to write, indicates that a close rapport with death is a prerequisite for writing and suggests the writer’s attitude of passive patience as he approaches the origin of the work.
The second statement, to write in order to be able to die, says that writing is a prerequisite for death and seems to treat death more in terms of negativity, active impatience which intervenes, the “healthy hand” that removes the pen from the “sick hand,” thereby putting an end to the interminable. The word “negativity” must, however, be used with caution. It would be incorrect to view patience engaged with impatience in a dialectical struggle in which mastery and power win out. There is no victory here; as Valéry said, no work of art is ever fully realized, and writing remains an incomplete, repetitive endeavor. Blanchot relegates the role of power to a status secondary in importance to that of worklessness. The fact that he considers the active impatience of beginnings as a limited rather than the determining factor is evident in this statement about short cuts: “Le raccourci ne permet pas de parvenir plus directement (plus vite) à un lieu, mais plutôt de perdre le chemin qui devrait y conduire” (ED 174).9 The suicide victim’s attempt to shortchange death and to experience it on his or her terms leads to failure and perpetual wandering. Yet if anything in Blanchot’s universe can be said to be authentic (a word that he mistrusts), it is errance. The only authority or source of authenticity in the writer’s experience is the experience itself as an approach.
The literary activity per se that Blanchot sees as the most telling demonstration of the metamorphosis from active initiative to passive indecision that the writer undergoes is autobiography. The motivations for autobiographical forms of writing are numerous. Writers might engage in this activity to justify publicly their actions, to explain why they lived their lives the way that they did. A more disinterested motive might be to offer themselves up as an example to others so that the latter might not make the same mistakes. Or perhaps the reasons might be of a more personal or intimate nature, such as indulging in the sheer pleasure of reminiscing, conferring a retrospective aesthetic unity on a chaotic life, or leaving behind a monumental image of oneself that will endure for posterity.
Blanchot does not deny that such considerations may induce writers to record their activities, memories, dreams, and reflections on a regular basis, as would be the case for a journal. But he does see something more ominous at work; the desire to know oneself by means of a recourse to writing is symptomatic of a deeper, less obvious malaise. If writing is, as Blanchot claims, to enter into a rapport with passivity, indecision, and the fascination of the image and the absence of time, the journal would seem to represent a safe form of writing with built-in defense mechanisms that hold the impending threat of the loss of personalized consciousness at bay. He designates the journal as “un garde-fou contre le danger de l’écriture” (LV 274)10 The danger that Blanchot is referring to is that
l’écrivain éprouve toujours davantage le besoin de garder un rapport avec soi. C’est qu’il éprouve une extrême répugnance à se dessaisir de lui-même au profit de cette puissance neutre, sans forme et sans destin, qui est derrière tout ce qui s’écrit.
The journal is perfectly suited to allow a writer to write without falling prey to the two principal menaces implicit as one approaches the literary space, the loss of both individual subjectivity and linear time. The presupposed identity of the writer of the journal and its subject seems to guarantee protection against the threat of the loss of individualized consciousness, and the danger of the absence of time is eliminated thanks to the assurance of the calendar: “Ici, qui parle garde un nom et parle en son nom, et la date qu’on inscrit est celle d’un temps commun où ce qui arrive arrive vraiment” (EL 21).12
The question remains, however, whether these two safeguards are foolproof. To what extent do the apparent laws of this genre enable the writer to approach the point at which the metamorphosis from the personal to the impersonal occurs without going beyond it? Blanchot often characterizes writing as “le passage du Je au Il,” another expression that he takes over from Kafka’s Diaries. Autobiographical writing would appear to enable the writer to make this transition while at the same time remaining I, that is, while retaining the powers of the individual subject to witness the transition objectively and impassively without being overcome by it. The subject’s desire to be itself and the Other simultaneously recalls the dilemma that sacrifice and suicide attempt to resolve: how to maintain consciousness during and after death. In a move analogous to his analysis of suicide as being powerless in its effort to have mastery over death, Blanchot exposes what he calls “le piège du journal” (LV 274): not surprisingly, the keeper of the journal falls into the trap of taking the happy, optative death for the incessant, noneventful mourir. The apparent laws that govern the journal, the calendar and the identity of the writer with the subject of the entries of the journal, would seem to ensure an economy grounded in power, initiative, and decision; but Blanchot asserts that there is a secret law that governs this kind of writing that, although usually overlooked, belongs to a general economy of powerlessness, passivity, and indecision. Both of these laws are in force, as we see once again with respect to Kafka’s Diaries, in which
Kafka a écrit tout ce qui lui importait, événements, descriptions des personnes et des lieux, descriptions de ses rêves, récits commencés, interrompus, recommencés. Ce n’est donc pas seulement un “Journal” comme on l’entend aujourd’hui, mais le mouvement même de l’expérience d’écrire, au plus proche de son commencement et au sens essentiel que Kafka a été amené à donner à ce mot. C’est sous cette perspective que le Journal doit être lu et interrogé.
(EL 59, my italics)13
The fundamental theme of modern art, according to Blanchot, is its preoccupation with itself, its Narcissistic search for its own origins. In the particular domain of literature, the texts that Blanchot examines in his critical writings are for the most part pretexts which serve as stepping-stones on the way to larger questions such as what it means to write and how literature is possible at all. The fact that he has a predilection for journals or other autobiographical writings that deal not only with the author’s life but also represent “le mouvement même de l’expérience d’écrire” is, therefore, consistent with his views on art.14 Kafka’s journal, with the fragmentary sketches of stories that never came to fruition, reveals something about the experience of writing and, more precisely, about beginnings, that is, how books come into being. It is not a journal of the work in progress; for Blanchot, who insists on the incapacity of the author to read his own works, such a book cannot exist, or if it does, it is not a journal in the usual sense of the word; it tends rather to the world of fiction: “ce journal ne peut s’écrire qu’en devenant imaginaire et en s’immergeant, comme celui qui l’écrit, dans l’irréalité de la fiction” (LV 277).15 Besides Kafka’s Diaries, Blanchot mentions some other examples of this “genre” which approach the unattainable limit of being histories of their own origins: Bataille’s L’Expérience intérieure and Le Coupable, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Joubert’s Carnets, and even Les Chants de Maldoror, which Blanchot reads as a mise en scéne of Isidore Ducasse’s transformation into le comte de Lautréamont, the metamorphosis from the personal Je to the impersonal Il of writing. This seemingly disparate collection of books finds its unity in that each adheres to the same “secret law”: “Une des lois secrétes de ces ouvrages, c’est que plus le mouvement s’approfondit, plus il tend à se rapprocher de l’impersonnalité de l’abstraction” (LV 278).16 The law that apparently governs autobiographical projects—that writing can lead to self-presence and self-knowledge—is eventually subverted by the “secret law,” that writing will lead to nothing else except more writing.
The tension between these two laws that Blanchot observes in many autobiographical writings has been examined systematically by Michel Beaujour in his admirable book Miroirs d’encre. Beaujour proposes two genres: autobiography, written in accordance with the apparent law, and autoportrait, which testifies to the subversion of the apparent law by the secret law. The task that autobiographers set out to accomplish is to answer the questions of what they have done and why, and they do so by setting down chronologically the facts of their lives. Self-portraitists, on the other hand, wish to arrive at the essence of their moi, to answer the question of who they are. Beaujour argues that this question is inevitably displaced and that problems concerning language and writing get the upper hand:
Il n’y a pas d’autoportrait qui ne soit celui d’un écrivain en tant qu’écrivain, et sa culpabilité est celle de l’écriture au sein d’une culture où la rhétorique ne tourne pas rond, où l’écriture utilitaire ou intransitive confère tour à tour pouvoir et impuissance, où le sujet se cherche des semblables tout en affirmant sa différence absolue. Voilà pourquoi l’autoportrait n’a pour vrais lecteurs que des écrivains en mal d’autoportrait.
The autoportrait is a genre practiced by the “writer’s writer,” for personal problems tend to be replaced by literary ones. The title of Beaujour’s book evokes the paradox that is responsible for this: writing is not a transparent medium that enables writers to attain a rapport of immediacy with their moi. On the contrary, it clouds the issue.
What is responsible for this undermining of the best autobiographical intentions? How is it that problems concerning writing supplant the writer’s quest for self-knowledge and come to occupy center stage? The answers to these questions are to be found in Blanchot’s reflections on the nature of language which, as we have seen, is composed of words, “two-faced monsters,” combinations of transparent ideas and obscure materiality. The major impropriety of language is that words can “changer indifféremment et de sens et de signe” (PF 329).18 That the valence of a word can change from positive to negative, as its binary nature causes it to oscillate incessantly between the clarity of an idea and the impenetrability of an object, indicates that the dual status of death dwells at the heart of language: language as a purveyor of ideas constitutes a form of constructive negativity, whereas the swinging of the pendulum back toward the materiality of language which obstructs them betrays the presence of an irreducible excess of negativity. Le mourir—this surplus of unemployable negativity—is responsible for the failure of suicide to have mastery over death, and in the same way, it is responsible for the subversion of the apparent law of autobiography by the secret law, or in Beaujour’s terminology, for the emergence of the autoportrait over (and sometimes in spite of) autobiographical intentions. The writer shares the same destiny of incompleteness that language does because “celui qui parle poétiquements' expose à cette sorte de mort qui est nécessairement à l’oeuvre dans la parole véritable” (LV 334).19 Literature is a privileged form of human endeavor because nowhere else is the duplicity of death more striking, and writing is the activity that best portrays the futile search for the “capacity to die content”:
La littérature est cette expérience par laquelle la conscience découvre son être dans son impuissance à perdre conscience, dans le mouvement où, disparaissant, s’arrachant à la ponctualité d’un moi, elle se reconstitute, par delà l’inconscience, en une spontanéité impersonnelle.
Writing as exposing oneself to the eternal torments of the mourir and as the transformation from “the well-delineated confines of a self” into “an impersonal spontaneity” recalls what Philippe Sollers says, in Writing and the Experience of Limits, about literature and suicide: “genuine suicide can only be literary. It implies the sacrifice of he who writes, a sacrifice ‘in relation to personality’ unique in its kind” (68). Michel Beaujour says much the same thing about the author of the autoportrait: “l’autoportraitiste est toujours déjà un Autre, ‘mort comme un tel’, ‘omission de soi’, selon les formules mallarméennes. Ce qui pourrait aussi s’écrire ‘mort comme Untel’, absent du texte, comme le corps du Christ ressuscité du tombeau” (276).21 The author ends up by being absent from his own portrait just as the resurrected Christ vacated his tomb. If Beaujour speaks of death and resurrection in connection with the autoportrait, it is because he considers them to be recurring structural and archetypal images: “les figures les plus fréquentes dans l’autoportrait sont … celles du Christ et de Socrate au moment de leur mort. L’autoportrait est hanté par la passion et le récit du Phédon” (26).22 Elsewhere he states that “L’autoportraitiste doit se faire l’artisan de sa propre résurrection” (348).23 Blanchot’s discussion of Michel Leiris’s L’Age d’homme dovetails nicely with the thesis proposed by Beaujour (for whom Leiris represents the major contemporary practitioner of the autoportrait). The passage from L’Age d’homme that Blanchot finds most interesting and that he quotes in his article “Regards d’outre-tombe” is the following:
Je ne puis dire à proprement parler que je meurs, puisque—mourant de mort violente ou non—je n’assiste qu’à une partie de l’événement. Et une grande partie de l’effroi que j’éprouve à l’idée de la mort tient peut-être à ceci: vertige de rester suspendu en plein milieu d’une crise dont ma disparition m’empêchera, au grand jamais, de connaître le dénouement. Cette espèce d’irréalité, d’absurdité de la mort est … son élément radicalement terrible.
Leiris casts the anguish that precedes and accompanies us in our confrontation with death in the same terms as do Bataille and Blanchot: the fear of being unable to die completely, of being a “disappearing consciousness” rather than “complete consciousness of disappearing.” As Blanchot states in his commentary of this passage, “nous voulons être sûrs de la mort comme achevée … nous désirons pouvoir nous regarder morts, nous assurer de notre mort en dirigeant sur notre néant, d’un point situé au-delà de la mort, un véritable regard d’outre-tombe” (PF 246).25 If, as Beaujour suggests, the autoportrait is animated by the desire to reenact the passion play, if the author is interested in fashioning his own resurrection, does that mean that autobiographical writing succeeds where suicide fails, that is, in providing a view into the grave from beyond it? That would mean that the literary suicide of the writer would have a reward: the resurrection, recuperation, and reincarnation of the self in the text. Beaujour tells us, however, that what survives is a text that is impersonal in nature. Once again the attempt of personalized consciousness to go through death and survive it is foiled:
Le mythe du ressuscité (Lazare, le Christ) souligne le paradoxe de l’autoportrait qui assure une survie à personne, de telle sorte que personne ne s’y représente jamais, du moins dans la particularité d’un corps unique, et irremplaçable. Et pourtant le corps propre cherche à y prendre sa revanche contre l’impersonnalité du logos philosophique.
The subject of the self-portrait cannot pronounce his own Lazare, veni foras; only a future reader can. And there are as many Lazaruses summoned up by reading as there are readers. The book is a monument, but an empty one. It is not a resting place from which surges forth an integral, inviolate self. This has been dispersed; no one in particular is there. Homo absconditus.
The other figure that haunts the writing of self-portraits, the episode of Socrates’ death, places the meditation on the question of death as a possibility within a philosophical rather than a theological framework. Although Mallarmé’s Igitur cannot properly be classified as an autobiographical piece of writing, Georges Poulet, in La Distance intérieure, equates it with an act of philosophical suicide. Blanchot agrees with this assessment up to a point—that the conte depends, for Mallarmé, on a profound rapport with death—but he disagrees with Poulet as to the nature of this rapport. The latter insists that this philosophical suicide is an act of power:
La mort est le seul acte possible. Pressés que nous sommes entre un monde matériel vrai dont les combinaisons fortuites se produisent en nous sans nous, et un monde idéal faux dont le mensonge nous paralyse et nous ensorcelle, nous n’avons qu’un moyen de ne plus être livrés ni au néant ni au hasard. Ce moyen unique, cet acte unique, c’est la mort. La mort volontaire. Par lui, nous nous abolissons, mais par lui aussi nous nous fondons … C’est cet acte de mort volontaire que Mallarmé a commis. Il l’a commis dans Igitur.
(Quoted in EL 41)27
We have already seen that Blanchot rejects the notion of suicide conceived in dialectical terms (“nous nous abolissons mais … nous nous fondons”), for to die, whether by one’s own hand or not, is inevitably to await death’s approach. According to Blanchot’s reading of the conte, Poulet also seems to fall into the trap of mistaking one death for another. The confrontation of la mort heureuse with le mourir is indeed the dilemma posed by Igitur:
Déjà Nietzsche s’était heurté à la même contradiction, lorsqu’il disait: “Meurs au moment juste.” Ce moment juste qui seul équilibrera notre vie par une mort souverainement équilibrée, nous ne pouvons le saisir que comme le secret inconnaissable, ce qui ne pourrait s’éclairer que si nous pouvions, déjà morts, nous regarder d’un point d’où il nous serait donné d’embrasser comme un tout et notre vie et notre mort, ce point qui est peutêtre la vérité de la nuit d’où Igitur voudrait précisément partir pour rendre son départ possible et juste, mais qu’il réduit à la pauvreté d’un reflet.
This vantage point from beyond the grave and from which death could be viewed in its entirety is not accessible by means of the thoughtfully committed suicidal act. It is an illusion that has been “reduced to the poverty of a reflection” in the course of the conte because, as Blanchot sees it, “Igitur ne cherche pas à se dépasser, ni à découvrir, par ce dépassement volontaire, un point de vue nouveau de l’autre côté de la vie” (EL 138).29 This point is a mirage. It ultimately eludes Igitur and everyone else because of the incessant pressure of the mourir, which allows for the possibility of the idea of a content death while at the same time canceling it out. There is no other side of life; there is only an encounter with the other night—not the restful dialectical opposite of the day—but the ontological domain characterized by loss of self, the abyss of the present, passivity, and worklessness.
The surplus of the mourir in relation to the negativity of power guarantees the failure of suicide and writing, even of the autobiographical sort, to have mastery over death. When Sollers states that true suicide could only be literary in nature, he does not mean that the writing and publishing of a book or journal will make death lose its sting by ensuring a miraculous afterlife for its author. Blanchot explains the paradoxical position of the writer caught in limbo between two negativities the only way he can: by evoking another paradox: “Ecrire son autobiographic soit pour s’avouer, soit pour s’analyser, soit pour s’exposer aux yeux de tous à la façon d’une oeuvre d’art, c’est peut-être chercher à survivre, mais par un suicide perpétuel—mort totale en tant que fragmentaire” (ED 105).30 Suicide is not the apotheosis of the instant during which the victim exists (however fleetingly) in a state of perfect equilibrium between life and death. Its essence is the patient waiting for a moment that never comes, and if writing can be compared to suicide at all, it is only in terms of the self-contradictory notion of a perpetual suicide, which leads to the equally contradictory notion of a death which is complete because fragmentary. To write is to enter into a rapport with the mourir, therefore, to produce fragments, because there is no “last word.” The literary history of Blanchot’s narrative works seems to confirm this on two points. He ironically entitled his first récit, written in 1935, “Le dernier mot,” thereby inaugurating his literary career by uttering the last word. And he subsequently abandoned the novel and the récit in favor of fragmentary works such as L’Attente l’oubli, Le Pas au-delà, and L’Ecriture du désastre.
Suicide and writing both have something in common: on the surface each of these activities purports to accomplish something, and yet each must ultimately be considered as failing to do so. Each activity represents an extreme situation, an experience of limits, the crossing of which implies entering a domain where power is not of prime importance. The subjects of these experiences, according to Blanchot, have traditionally overlooked or ignored this; each usually falls into the trap of taking one thing for another, in the case of suicide, “la mort heureuse” for “le mourir,” and in the case of writing, the book for the work. Each of these experiences exceeds an ontology based on power and is, therefore, considered by Blanchot to be a transgressive act. He defines transgression as “l’accomplishment inévitable de ce qu’il est impossible d’accomplir, et ce serait le mourir même” (PAD 147).31 Both actions are attempts to render death humanly possible, but the inescapable truth is its impossibility.“Mourir ne se décline pas” (PAD 147).32 It is a defective verb that cannot be conjugated, for it has no forms in the present tense, nor can any personal pronoun serve as its subject. Culture (in general) and suicide and writing (in particular) try unsuccessfully to force this impersonal infinitive into a personal paradigm.
It is on the question of survival that the destiny of language and that of the being endowed with language part company. The book is the survivor, on two different occasions. There is, first, the figurative death of the author, who is expelled from the work once it is written, and, second, the definitive disappearance of the deceased author. In both cases, the book exists all by itself: “il a lieu tout seul: fait, étant.” During their lifetimes, writers can, thanks to literature, perform continual acts of suicide by approaching and letting themselves be approached by the mourir in its impossibility. After their disappearance, however, the language of their books continues this experience all by itself. This is what separates people from literature. People do die—forcément—and in this sense the impossibility of death is inevitably accomplished. But books survive. They linger on to prolong indefinitely the irresolvable tension between la mort heureuse and le mourir. It is as if language were infinitely endowed with a capability that human beings possess only briefly: “Mais la parole moribonde (parole, non pas mourante, mais du mourir même) a peut-être toujours déjà passé la limite que la vie ne passe pas, passant à son insu par le chemin qu’a frayé l’écriture en le marquant comme infrayable” (PAD 128).33 The very condition of literary language is that it can do indefinitely what people can do only for a definite period of time. It always already has the capacity to go beyond the limit that the living cannot.
Language’s function resembles that of Charon. Whereas mortals are obliged to take one final trip across the Styx, Charon’s work is never done. Like the self-contestation that is present at the origin of language, Charon continually conveys passengers to the other side and returns alone. Like language, he can go to the other side of death and come back. Writers, by accepting the conditions of the approach of the literary space, participate for a time in this movement, but in the end, their books carry on without them.
“The best of what I have written is based on this capacity to die content” (SL 91).
“one must be capable of satisfaction in death” (SL 91).
“To die well means to die with propriety … and this good death shows more consideration for the world than regard for the depth of the abyss” (SL 100).
“will have been conscious of disappearing and not consciousness disappearing; he will have entirely annexed to his consciousness its own disappearance; he will be, thus, a realized totality, the realization of the whole, the absolute” (SL 99).
“An act in which one hopes against hope (without hope) to unify the duplicity of death and to bring together in one, single occurrence by a decision of impatience the eternal repetitions of that which, dying, does not die. Then the temptation to name, that is, to personalize, by attributing it to oneself, the anonymous, that which is spoken only in the third person and in the neuter. Or again the power to enlarge, as if in proportion to it, in localizing and dating it, the infinitely small and ever evasive dimension of death” (SNB 97–98).
The distinction between the book and the work will be explored more fully in the following chapter.
“Even when, with an ideal and heroic resolve, I decide to meet death, isn’t it death which possesses me, dispossesses me, hands me over to that which cannot be possessed?” (SL, 98)
For more on the circular exigency, see my discussion of the myth of Orpheus in the following chapter.
“The shortcut does not allow one to arrive someplace more directly (more quickly), but rather to lose the way that ought to lead there” (WD 113).
“a guardrail against the danger of writing.”
“the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself. His feeling is one of extreme repugnance at losing his grasp upon himself in the interests of that neutral force, formless and bereft of any destiny, which is behind everything that gets written” (SL 28).
“Here, whoever speaks retains his name and speaks in this name, and the dates he notes down belong in a shared time where what happens really happens” (SL 29).
“Kafka wrote everything that mattered to him: events in his personal life, meditations upon these events, descriptions of persons and places, descriptions of his dreams, narratives begun, interrupted, begun again. His is thus not only a ‘Journal’ as we understand this genre today, but the very movement of the experience of writing, very close to its beginning and in the essential sense which Kafka was led to give to this term. It is from this perspective that his diaries must be read and explored” (SL 57).
The same critical posture is expressed in L’Amitié: “Je reprends l’idée d’un récit qui va de livre en livre, où celui qui écrit se raconte afin de se chercher, puis de chercher le mouvement de la recherche, c’est-à-dire comment il est possible de raconter, done d’écrire” (174). [“I come back to the idea of a narrative that continues from book to book, in which the person writing tells his own story first in order to discover himself, then to look for the movement of this discovery, that is, how it is possible to tell a story at all and, therefore, to write.”] This is perhaps the first principle of Blanchot’s “method.”
“This diary can be written only by becoming imaginary and by being immersed, like the one who writes it, in the unreality of fiction.”
“One of the secret laws of these works is that the farther the movement advances, the closer it tends to approach the impersonality of abstraction.”
“There is no self-portrait which is not that of a writer as writer, and his or her guilt is the guilt of writing in the midst of a culture where rhetoric has broken down, where utilitarian or intransitive writing takes turns conferring power and powerlessness, where the subject seeks out kindred spirits, affirming his or her absolute difference all the while. This is why the only true readers of self-portraits are writers who are badly in need of them.”
“indiscriminately change both meaning and sign” (GO 60).
“one who speaks poetically is exposed to the kind of death that is necessarily at work in essential speech.”
“Literature is the experience by which consciousness discovers its being in its inability to lose consciousness, in the movement whereby it is transformed, as it disappears and is torn away from the well-delineated confines of a self, into an impersonal spontaneity beyond unconsciousness” (GO 50).
“The self-portraitist is always already an Other, ‘dead as so and so,’ ‘the omission of oneself,’ according to Mallarmé’s formulations, which could also be written as ‘dead as So and So,’ absent from the text just as Christ’s body was from the tomb.”
“The most frequent figures in the self-portrait are those of Christ and Socrates at the moment of their deaths. The self-portrait is haunted by the Passion and the story of the Phaedo.”
“The self-portraitist must become the artisan of his own resurrection.”
“I cannot say, strictly speaking, that I die, since—whether dying a violent death or not—I am present for only part of the event. And to a large extent, the terror I feel at the idea of death may be a result of this: the dizzying spectacle of being left hanging in the middle of a crisis from which my disappearance will forever prevent me from knowing the outcome. This kind of unreality, of absurdity of death is … its radically terrible element.”
“We want to be certain of death as being finished … we wish to be able to see ourselves dead, to assure ourselves of our death by casting upon our nothingness, from a point situated beyond death, a veritable gaze from beyond the grave.”
“The myth of the resurrected one (Lazarus, Christ) stresses the paradox of the self-portrait which assures an afterlife to no one, in such a way that no one is ever represented there, at least in the specificity of a unique, irreplaceable body. And yet in the self-portrait, this very body seeks its revenge against the impersonal logos of philosophy.”
“Death is the only act possible. Cornered as we are between a true material world whose chance combinations take place in us regardless of us, and a false ideal world whose lie paralyzes and bewitches us, we have only one means of no longer being at the mercy either of nothingness or of chance. This unique means, this unique act, is death. Voluntary death. Through it we abolish ourselves, but through it we also found ourselves … It is this act of voluntary death that Mallarmé committed. He committed it in Igitur” (SL 44).
“Nietzsche had already come up against the same contradiction when he said, ‘Die at the right time.’ That right moment which alone will balance our life by placing opposite it on the scales a sovereignly balanced death can be grasped only as the unknowable secret: only as that which could never be elucidated unless, already dead, we could look at ourselves from a point from which it would be granted us to embrace as a whole both our life and our death—the point which is perhaps the truth of the night from which Igiture would like, precisely, to take his leave, in order to render his leave-taking possible and correct, but which he reduces to the poverty of a reflection” (SL 116–17).
“Igitur does not seek to surpass itself or to discover, through this voluntary move, a new point of view on the other side of life” (SL 111).
“To write one’s autobiography, in order either to confess or to engage in self-analysis, or in order to expose oneself, like a work of art, to the gaze of all, is perhaps to seek to survive, but through a perpetual suicide—a death which is total inasmuch as fragmentary” (WD 64).
“the inevitable accomplishment of what is impossible to accomplish—and this would be dying itself” (SNB 107).
“To die has no inflected forms” (SNB 107).
“The moribund utterance (not a dying utterance but the utterance of dying itself) has perhaps always already passed the limit that life does not pass, obliviously following the path that writing traced out while marking it as untraceable” (SNB 93).
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SOURCE: A review of The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1994, p. 214.
[In the following review, Dickison comments on the themes of The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me.]
The mark of Lydia Davis’s translation can be cited right away in the American title for this most recent of Maurice Blanchot’s fictions to appear in English. Davis’s elegant variation of Blanchot’s French title (Celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas—a “straight” translation might be “The One (or He) Who Was Not Accompanying Me”) carries in the word apart the echo of Blanchot’s ambivalent terminal pas—both a “step” and a prohibition, an advancement and an interdictive “no.” This double movement, of uncertainty, paradox—something given and something taken away—works at the heart of Blanchot’s writing.
This particular recit—the word brings up its musical parallels, “recital” or “recitatif”—appears here a full forty years after it first came out in French. The work takes the form of a conversation, an interview. An obsessive questioning back and forth builds up Blanchot’s narrative, with its sense—shared with Kafka’s famous “doorkeeper” parable—that behind each question lies the spooky possibility of a further, more imposing, more insoluble question. Melville’s “Bartleby” is close to this work, in its spirit and potency—where, for example, he writes, “for it seemed to me that I belonged, not to the order of things that happen and that one remembers with joy or sadness, but to the element of hunger and emptiness where what does not take place, because of that, begins again and again without any beginning or any respite.”
Thematically, powerlessness, inertia, insufficient speech, weariness, falling, faltering—everything tied to a negative or nonexistent value in ordinary discourse is given here by its being articulated, moved into writing and thought. What’s insignificant or worthless gathers weight through its troubling persistence, its failure to disappear—and by Blanchot’s adherence to these barely audible voices.
The address to these “negatives,” these voids or hollow spaces is—another paradox—without cynicism. There’s none of the speed of fiction about Blanchot. Or rather, it disappears, breaks down. An initial openness decelerates, slows to an impacted pace. Careful attention seems too fast, to push you past the reading, to lose it. What keeps it compelling (keeps it happening) in its fragility. Enigmatically liberating and tied up around its knotted complex, the “endless” conversation of Blanchot’s writing turns “fiction” toward an experience of listening—a far cry from the storytelling most fiction (still) takes itself to be.
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SOURCE: “Precise, Lucid, and Quiet,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 27, 1995, p. 26.
[In the following review, Josipovici praises Blanchot's early works of literary criticism but finds shortcomings in the cryptic assertions of The Work of Fire and The Writing of Disaster.]
When, in the early 1970s, I was trying to persuade British publishers to bring out a selection of the essays of Maurice Blanchot, no one was interested. Now at last the bulk of his work is becoming available in English, thanks largely to the Anglo-American academic interest in his friends and contemporaries Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Edmond Jabès and Emmanuel Levinas. But this has led to a curious bias in our perception of Blanchot, since what has caught the attention has been that part of his work which was either specifically written in dialogue with these writers, or which seems closely related to their concerns. That bias is very perceptible in Michael Holland’s selection and admirably informative annotations in The Blanchot Reader; but the translation of Blanchot’s second book, La Part du feu (1949—“The Fire’s Share” rather than The Work of Fire), helps to redress the balance and allows us to discover a writer who is in many ways much closer to the central tradition of European literary criticism, at least as it has been practised by poets and novelists from Coleridge to Michel Butor, than the Hegelian and Heideggerian sage and Utopian political thinker who emerges from the later work.
What is immediately striking about the essays in La Part du feu is how precise, lucid and quiet they are. This does not mean that they are not original or profound, but rather that they never set out to impress. Blanchot’s eye is always on the object, the work or author he is considering, and his ear is always open to the movement and pace of both poetry and prose.
As with Proust’s essay on Flaubert and much of T. S. Eliot’s best criticism, Blanchot is moved to write by what he sees as the crass incomprehension of the ways of literature evinced by academics, philosophers and even well-meaning friends. Thus, in the essays on Mallarmé and Kafka, he gently questions whether the views of Henri Mondor and Max Brod do not help to hide rather than illuminate the work, and in the great essays on Hölderlin and Baudelaire he deftly dissociates himself from the powerful and persuasive readings of Heidegger and Sartre:
Sartre’s demonstration is very impressive and, as a whole, quite fair. It is true, then: Baudelaire had the life he deserved, a sordid life without refinement, conformist in his revolts … a life faked and failed; all these judgements demand few reservations. But if we accept them, as we must, we must accept another, which Sartre neglects: it is that Baudelaire also deserved Les Fleurs du Mal, that the life responsible for his “bad luck” is responsible for this signal good fortune, one of the greatest of the century.
Whether he is examining the role of Spanish words in Hemingway (via a comparison of Tolstoy’s use of French in War and Peace), contrasting Gide’s acceptance of contradiction with Valéry’s need to sort everything out, or patiently exploring the nature of Hölderlin’s language, Blanchot is never satisfied with an initial aperçu but always pressing forward against the difficult and the paradoxical (“He does not exist, but he has to be already what he will be later, in a ‘not yet’ that constitutes the essential part of his grief, his misery, and also his great wealth. Historically, this situation is one that Hölderlin experienced and sang of in the deepest grief. …”) until he has teased out not a solution—that would be absurd—but the full extent of the problem. That is why one wants to return to these essays again and again, and why they are as fresh now as when they were written.
The Work of Fire concludes with a long essay entitled “Literature and the Right to Death” in which Blanchot stands back from specific works and authors and tries to explore the themes touched on earlier, in a more extended manner. This seems to me a mistake. In the wonderful essay on Kafka’s diaries, he had focused on Kafka’s remark that it is possible, while in the deepest anguish, to write “I am unhappy”, and pointed out that “it is not enough for me to write ‘I am unhappy’. As long as I write nothing else, I am too close to myself, too close to my unhappiness, for this unhappiness to become really mine in the form of language. … It is only from the moment I arrive at this strange substitution, ‘He is unhappy’, that language begins to be formed into a language that is unhappy for me. …” In the same way, released from the obligation to listen to another, Blanchot gets too close to himself and so not close enough; instead of clarity and sweet precision, we have turgidity and portentousness.
Unfortunately, this has become the manner of his more recent excursions into print of which the best known is The Writing of the Disaster. There are still some marvellous paragraphs on individual works, notably Melville’s Bartleby (“‘I will not do it’ would still have signified an energetic determination, calling forth an equally energetic contradiction. ‘I would prefer not to’ … belongs to the infiniteness of patience; no dialectical intervention can take hold of such passivity”). But more frequently what we get is this kind of thing:
The disaster is not somber, it would liberate us from everything if it could just have a relation with someone; we would know it in light of language and at the twilight of a language with a gai savoir. But the disaster is unknown; it is the unknown name for that in thought itself which dissuades us from thinking of it, leaving us, but its proximity, alone.
Michael Holland and the new generation of Blanchot’s academic admirers obviously have no difficulty with this. They are adept at relating it to issues in Hegel, Heidegger and Levinas. Even in French, though, it seems to me that, by trying to say too much, it ends up not saying anything at all. The temptation to take on the role of the sage is obviously great, and who would be a mere literary critic if he could be a sage? Yet our century has spawned sages aplenty, but very few great literary critics. Blanchot’s early essays show him to be one of these, and it is high time, we started to listen to him.
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SOURCE: “Crossing the Threshold: On ‘Literature and the Right to Death,’” in Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing, edited by Carolyn Bailey Gill, Routledge, 1996, pp. 70-90.
[In the following essay, Fynsk examines the ambiguous nature of language, the function of literature, and the negative dialectic of death expressed in “Literature and the Right to Death.”]
Literature begins, Blanchot says, when it becomes a question, when the language of a work becomes literature in a question about language itself.1 This question concerns the source of literature’s ambiguity: its ‘origin’ in an irreducible ‘double meaning’ that is not a movement between irreconcilable meanings, but between meaning and a ‘meaning of meaning’ that is itself irreducibly ambiguous, material and ideal, neither material nor ideal: a ‘point of instability’, a ‘power of metamorphosis’, an ‘imminence of change’ (pp.61–2/330–1) that gives itself in language beyond either the meaning language takes on, or its ‘reality’.
The question, as Blanchot stages it in ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, opens in both a temptation and an obsession, a ‘torment’. Only the latter will provide my focus here, since my aim is to bring forth the way the ambiguity of literature constitutes an offering of the il y a, and to read the relation (the pas of relation) marked by this offering as the site of what Blanchot will later thematize as the encounter with autrui. But to approach this second dimension of the essay and the infinite movement on to which it opens, I shall start with a few notes on the first, and what Blanchot describes as the temptation of the negative.
‘Any writer who is not led by the very fact of writing to think: “I am the revolution, freedom alone makes me write”, in reality is not writing’ (p.40/311). Blanchot makes this statement categorically in the first moment of his movement through what we might call ‘the two versions of the imaginary’. The declaration introduces Sade, whom Blanchot identifies as ‘the writer par excellence’, and this by virtue of his identification with the French Revolution and the Terror—his engagement with the passion of death as a negativity that gives itself up to the jouissance of an ‘absolute sovereignty’ (p.41/311). Blanchot will lean to Mallarmé (and others: Flaubert, for example, or the surrealists) in subsequent references to literature’s drive to realize the negation inherent in language. Along this first slope of literature’s double movement (p.51/318), we find the prosaic search for a transparent meaning, and beyond this the tropological movements by which literature seeks the flower that is ‘absent from all bouquets’, or the ground of essence itself in the movement of thought (though when this movement reaches ‘Igitur’ we are clearly on the ‘second slope’, where we have in fact also already been with Flaubert). But in seeking to illustrate the irreducibly imaginary dimension of this negation (the ‘imaginary’ ground of its very opening), and its ‘irrational’, even ‘aberrant’ character as the passion of that ‘life that bears death and maintains itself in it’,2 Blanchot turns to Sade.
The reference is undoubtedly dictated in part by the subversion of the Hegelian dialectic to which Blanchot dedicates himself in the first half of the essay; to release a kind of excess in the negative, Blanchot writes Sade into a very particular moment offered by Hegel himself (one that communicates with moments signalled by Bataille in ‘Hegel, la mort et le sacrifice’3). The Terror, he suggests, represents for literature that specular, speculative moment where literature ‘contemplates itself’, ‘recognizes itself’, and ‘justifies itself’ (p.41/311) in the realization of absolute freedom. In the Terror, literature passes into the world. It becomes ‘real’, we might say, it embraces existence, but only inasmuch as existence has become fabulous in giving itself over to the absolute character of the word wherein all finite determinations dissolve.4 What is terrible about the Terror is its abstraction, the fact that its incarnation of absolute freedom, its synthesis of the universal and the singular, the ideal and the real, remains ‘ideal (literary)’ (p.40/310). The ‘life that bears death and maintains itself in it’ represents the sacrifice of ‘life’, if life names existence as it is given in the always singular experience of human finitude. To put it more succinctly, it is the sacrifice of ‘our’ dying.
Once again, Blanchot’s subversive aim is to write Sade into the dialectic at a moment indicated by Hegel himself, to draw forth the ‘imaginary’ character of the negation from which literature proceeds when it works to offer a presentation of the meaning of being in its totality, or the world as such; ‘the meaning and absence’ of the whole of what is (p.36/308). The finite, ‘imaginary’ character of the transcendence offered by language (and the possibility of its uncontrollable passage into the jouissance of ‘absolute sovereignty’: ‘life elevated to the point of passion, passion become cruelty and folly’ (p. 41/311)) haunts the negativity of meaning no less than the becoming-image of the word, as we shall see, haunts its material presence. Ultimately, Blanchot suggests (this is the conclusion of his essay and its challenge), the one veers into the other and is even indistinguishable from it; the ambiguity of literature lies in the communication of the image and the imaginary (the word, in its ‘reality’ and ‘significance’, doubly limiting this communication). Nevertheless, the foregrounding of the Sadean temptation is striking. ‘I am the revolution’—could this phrase also characterize Kafka and Ponge? (Kafka perhaps, but Ponge?) Or has Blanchot allowed himself to be carried into the movement he is describing when he claims that every writer knows such delirium? And could he be capturing something that not only haunts his own more literary writing, but also constitutes a temptation he has known in seeking to pass from literature to reality? Could he be thinking here of his own past political passions? This would be to point to something more than a ‘national aestheticism’, something far more profound (where identification or ‘mimesis’ is concerned) and more unsettling.
This last question is not without interest for Blanchot scholarship, but it certainly points beyond his person. Blanchot notes that in literature’s specular and speculative identification with that historical moment where ‘“life bears death and maintains itself in death itself” in order to obtain from it the possibility and the truth of speech’ (p.41/311), the question of literature itself opens. Without transition, Blanchot writes: ‘That is the question …’ (p.41/311). The question, we may presume, has to do with the abstract character of the negation to which literature commits itself, possibly even the delirious character of this engagement when it is undertaken without reserve, but equally with something that haunts its murderous power: something that haunts its movement of negation and becomes an obsession.
Blanchot returns to Hegel here, a young Hegel, ‘the friend and neighbour of Hölderlin’, who recognizes in the ‘right to death’ (p.39/309) afforded by the negation borne by language a ‘strange right’ (p.42/312) (they are ‘friend and neighbour’ more by this recognition than by their physical proximity at the Stift). Adam’s act of naming, Hegel wrote in a text prior to the Phenomenology, is an act of annihilation—an act, Blanchot adds, to which every instance of naming or designation alludes. ‘The meaning of speech requires … that before any word is spoken there be a sort of immense hecatomb: a prior deluge, plunging into a total sea all of creation’ (pp.42/312–13). All of being must be given over to death for speech to be possible. Language itself brings this death, and we speak only from it. Blanchot’s words are worth following closely here:
Of course, my language does not kill anyone. And yet: when I say ‘this woman’, real death is announced and already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is there right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence and plunged suddenly into a nothingness of existence and presence. My language essentially signifies the possibility of this destruction; it is, at every moment, a resolute allusion to such an event. My language does not kill anyone. But, if this woman were not really capable of dying, if she were not threatened by death at every moment of her life, bound and united to it by an essential bond, I would not be able to accomplish that ideal negation, that deferred assassination that is my language.
Most will be familiar now with the argument that says that for a word to be a sign, it must signify beyond any concrete context in which it might appear. Signification presupposes the possible absence of a referent and the absence of the speaker who might initially claim this language as their own. But Blanchot also appears to be saying something more that should be noted here, something in the order of an ontological claim. It is not only that language signifies in the possible absence of its speaker and its referent; it is that a ‘real death’ has occurred. The woman negated when I say ‘this woman’ must have been ‘really capable of dying’, bound essentially to death. Language is thus constantly referring back to its origin in the essential bond between the existent being and the possibility of the death that offers this being to language. How do we think this offering or opening—in what manner does the living being give itself to language? How does death mark itself? I shall not try as yet to answer this question, but I would note that this mark is what Blanchot names (in much of his earlier writing) ‘the image’.
Before any speech, there is the offering of a dying and the offering of my own dying. (‘I’ speak from my power to distance myself from myself, to be other than my being—in other words, from my death.) Might this help to explain why Blanchot figures the effort to return to what exists before language as the effort to recover a corpse? (As we shall see, Blanchot will argue in ‘Two versions of the imaginary’ that the becoming-image of the thing is best figured by the cadaver.) If what is ‘before’ language is not life, but life bound to death, life offering itself to language in the image (and in this, already language, at least as ‘the image of a sign’, to borrow Benjamin’s phrase5), is the before not already an ‘after’ (life)?
The question of the ‘before’ torments language. Were literature to cede to the temptation to gather to itself its very separation from existence, to attain and offer negation in itself and make the nothing (as the ground of meaning) everything, it would already have ‘a strange and awkward task’. But literature cannot forget the initial murder.
It recalls the first name that would have been the murder of which Hegel speaks. The ‘existent’ was called out of its existence by the word and it became being. The Lazare, veni foras made the obscure cadaverous reality leave its original depths and gave it, in exchange, only the life of the spirit. Language knows that its realm is the day and not the intimacy of the unrevealed; it knows that for the day to begin … something must be excluded. Negation realizes itself only from the basis of the reality it negates; language draws its value and its pride from being the accomplishment of this negation; but what was lost at the outset? The torment of language is what it lacks by the necessity that it be the lack of it. It cannot even name it.
Since the first ‘slope’ of language’s movement is the slope of negation and the assumption and accomplishment of the murder from which meaning proceeds, one would expect the ‘before’ to be figured under the names of life. And indeed much of Blanchot’s language in this passage points in that direction (everything surrounding the evocations, ‘this woman’, ‘a flower’, ‘the cat’). But the living reality evoked by these words is unavoidably idea—entirely a product of language; and how can one avoid thinking the before without reference to some Eden? Blanchot’s move is to substitute a figure of death where we expect life, and a figure of the ‘after’ for the before. Literature, seeking what it has lost, does not want the living Lazarus, but the dead Lazarus. The resurrected Lazarus is short-changed in the tropological movement of negation—he gets only the life of spirit, not the death of material existence. The (un) revealed Lazarus would be Lazarus in this death. In a ‘commensurate’ exchange, he would be brought forth as death; or, beyond metaphor (as we read in Thomas the Obscure), he would be death (an absolute aporia), the death that is the non-dialectical other of living existence.
The language of literature is the search for this moment that precedes it. Literature generally names it existence; it wants the cat as it exists, the pebble in its siding with things, not man, but this one here, and in this one here what man rejects to say it, the foundation of speech and what speech excludes in order to speak, the abyss, the Lazarus of the tomb and not the Lazarus brought into the day, the one who already smells bad, who is Evil, the lost Lazarus and not the Lazarus saved and resuscitated.
‘The foundation of speech’—could this be, once again, the ‘real death’ of the existent ‘really capable of dying’ and bound to death by an ‘essential bond’? And what abyss lies in this ‘real’? For Blanchot’s evocation of the corpse of Lazarus suggests, I believe, that literature’s torment drives it actually beyond the threshold that is the opening of language and towards what, for spirit, appears initially as a tomb (‘appears’ in the sense that spirit knows here a lure—as Blanchot consistently suggests, spirit sees its outside first as something tempting). For the cadaver presents a materiality that refuses itself to language and gives only its refusal. The cadaver, in effect, is ‘exemplary’ in this way; a strange ‘non-thing’, it is of the earth, as Heidegger might say, but in the extreme form of the ab-ject, a residue that has always fallen from signification as inassimilable (in cadaver we should hear the Latin cadere). What ‘object’ is more other, more unheimlich, more charged in its obtrusive but fleeting presence, and what leaves a more indelible image when we chance upon it? A material (non-) presence that is not quite of nature, no longer of the world and given in the absence of life, the corpse presents the inassimilable other of spirit and meaning that has in fact always been there.
That has also always been there in words. Literature’s chance for returning to what language has left behind lies in the materiality of language. Its way back lies in the abandonment of meaning and a flight into the physical character of the word: ‘rhythm, weight, mass, shape, and then the paper on which one writes, the trail of the ink, the book’ (pp.46/316–17). It finds there not only the thingly character of the word, but its primitive force:
The word acts not as an ideal force but as an obscure power, as an incantation that coerces things, makes them really present outside themselves. It is an element, a part barely detached from its subterranean surroundings: no longer a name, but a moment of the universal anonymity, a brute affirmation, the stupor of a confrontation in the depths of obscurity.
It is a thing and it draws forth the thing in its ‘hidden intimacy’ (p.41/312), leaving behind ideality and the consciousness of the writer in its negative force. It communicates the presence of things before consciousness:
It is not beyond the world, but neither is it the world: it is the presence of things before the world comes to be, their perseverance after the world has disappeared, the stubbornness of what subsists when everything is effaced and the dazedness of what appears when there is nothing. This is why it cannot be confused with the consciousness that illuminates and decides; it is my consciousness without me, the radiant passivity of mineral substances, lucidity in the depths of torpor. It is not the night, it is what haunts the night; not the night but the consciousness of the night that lies awake ceaselessly in order to catch itself and for this reason dissipates itself without respite. It is not the day, but the side of the day that the day rejected to become light. And it is not death either, for in it there shows existence without being, the existence that remains beneath existence like an inexorable affirmation, without beginning and without end, death as the impossibility of dying.
I cite at length for the beauty of this passage (this night that dissipates itself in a vain effort at self-reflection), but also because the movement of Blanchot’s argument as he follows literature’s way back must be followed with the greatest care. Sinking into its physicality, Blanchot suggests, literature communicates an uncommunicating presence that is not quite self-presence and never quite posits itself, but nevertheless stirs and persists (‘moment’, ‘affirmation’, ‘presence’, ‘perseverance’, ‘stubbornness’, ‘appearance’, ‘passivity’, ‘lucidity’). The ‘nature’ of words, ‘what is given to me and gives me more than I can grasp’ (p.46/316), thus communicates something of what Blanchot, following Levinas, terms the il y a: ‘The anonymous and impersonal current of being that precedes all being: being as the fatality of being’ (p.51/320). Given that Blanchot thinks the il y a as an abyssal opening, we could in fact have more grounds for comparison with Heidegger’s es gibt than one might at first assume (inasmuch as Hegel appears to be the determinant philosophical reference). One might in fact stage the confrontation between Heidegger and Blanchot around precisely these words of ‘thought’ that normally serve as translations for one another but also resist with the diversity of the idiom. For Blanchot as for Heidegger, il y a/es gibt names the opening of essence; but the pas of this opening in Blanchot (to which I shall return) also paralyses the setting underway and turns the way itself into an endless detour. The il y a is a name for what might be called the ‘underside’ of the hermeneutic circle, the abyssal opening from which Heidegger consistently turns away even as he remarks its presence. But rather than pursue Blanchot’s relation to Heidegger directly, let me continue to follow the movement of Blanchot’s meditation, for it is the ‘signifying’ structure of the communication we have seen that most interests me here (and precisely in its bearing on Heidegger’s reflections on language).
The paragraph following the one from which I have cited at length appears to take back what is given in the first: the effort to return to what is before revelation (which by all ‘appearances’ has been a success) is now labelled ‘tragic’. Literature may well have succeeded in abandoning a signified meaning, but it cannot avoid signifying this abandonment: its language continues to show its own intention and expose its pretence:
It says: ‘I no longer represent, I am; I do not signify, I present.’ But this will to be a thing, this refusal to mean that is immersed in words turned to salt, in short, this destiny that literature becomes as it becomes the language of no one, the written of no writer, the light of a consciousness deprived of self, this insane effort to bury itself in itself, to hide itself behind the fact that it appears—all this is what literature now manifests, what literature now shows. Should it become as mute as stone, as passive as the cadaver enclosed behind this stone, the decision to lose the capacity to speak would continue to be read on the stone and would be enough to awaken this false corpse.
The ‘death’ it thought it could find (and by all appearances it found: nothing of the preceding paragraph was qualified as illusory) turns out to be ‘false’. But then we recognize in retrospect that it wasn’t exactly the ‘death’ of the cadaver or the silence of the stone in which it is enclosed that was supposedly found. If literature set out to find the ‘real’ beyond language in the form of a materiality that gives itself only in refusal, it actually found something else: the obscure reflection without reflection of the il y a, that affirmation that is a failure of negation to negate itself, the fatality of the day. The turn in Blanchot’s argument from the first to the second paragraph remarks the traits of reflection (without reflection) in the preceding paragraph, but only then to recover them in the succeeding paragraph in a more affirmative manner. It is as though the ineradicable reflection of language’s intention and self-offering remarks the prior reflection in such a way as to offer its ‘truth’. For when Blanchot summarizes the movement that has just occurred in the preceding paragraphs, it changes sign once again. Literature knows that it cannot go beyond itself: ‘it is the movement by which what disappears appears’ (a statement that recalls the first slope but is also already ambiguous since what ‘disappears’ is also what refuses itself). He then goes on, summarizing the second movement:
When it refuses to name, when it makes of the name an obscure, insignificant thing, witness to the primordial obscurity, what has disappeared here—the meaning of the name—has indeed been destroyed, but in its place signification in general has come forth, the meaning of the insignificance encrusted in the word as an expression of the obscurity of existence. So that, if the precise meaning of the terms has been extinguished, the very possibility of signifying now affirms itself, the empty power to give a meaning, a strange impersonal light.
The inability to avoid signifying its intention (its vouloir dire) has become the presentation of signification in general, the very possibility of signifying. Words that would become things, that offer themselves as things, remain words that offer themselves in this way; but the persistence of the word as word (‘qu’il y a—ici—language’) becomes the indication or expression of the il y a itself. All of the ambiguity of this movement is expressed in the phrase, ‘in its place has arisen … the meaning of the insignificance encrusted in the word as an expression of the obscurity of existence’. ‘The meaning of the insignificance’ may be read, after the preceding paragraph, as referring to the marking of the fatal destiny of the word in its effort to be a thing (p.47/317), the ineradicable designation that this insignificant ‘thing’ is a word offering itself as insignificant. But ‘meaning’ here also takes on another meaning: for it is the obscurity of existence appearing as insignificance—the appearance of insignificance as such. The self-reflection or self-offering of language becomes the showing of the il y a. The tragic undermining of literature’s endeavour has become a discovery of the fatality of the day (tragedy itself changing meaning with a new sense of ‘fatality’):
Negating the day, literature reconstructs the day as fatality; affirming the night, it finds night as the impossibility of the night. That is its discovery. … If we call the day to account, if we reach the point of pushing it away in order to find what there is before the day, beneath the day, we then discover that it is already present, and that what there is before the day is still the day, but as a powerlessness to disappear and not as the power to make appear, an obscure necessity and not the light of freedom.
The inability to avoid signifying, become the ‘empty power to give a meaning’, is the expression of the ‘powerlessness to disappear’ of the being of what is before the day, the existence from which one must turn away to speak and to understand.
Has Blanchot worked a kind of dialectical sleight of hand here—have we read something more on the order of a slippage than an argumentation? It may well be a slippage, but Blanchot would suggest, I believe, that this is the ‘slippage’ that makes dialectic possible (and impossible). Blanchot will return to it once again after a summary of his two slopes in what seems an effort to catch more precisely the movement we have just followed. Summarizing the second slope, Blanchot affirms that literature’s effort to refuse to say is not in fact tragically undermined. The metamorphosis in itself has not failed, he says:
It is quite true that the words are transformed. They no longer signify shadow, earth, they no longer represent the absence of shadow and earth that is meaning, that is the shadow’s light, the transparency of the earth; opacity is their response; the rustle of closing wings is their speech; material weight presents itself in them with the stifling density of a syllabic accumulation that has lost all meaning. The metamorphosis has taken place.
But in this metamorphosis, he continues, and beyond the solidification of words, there reappears (like a ‘revenant’, a kind of spectral return) ‘the meaning of this metamorphosis which illuminates them and the meaning they draw from their appearance as things or even, if this should happen, as vague, indeterminate, ungraspable existence where nothing appears, the heart of depth without appearance’. The meaning of the metamorphosis refers us back once again to language’s inability not to present itself as language offering its abandonment of meaning, an inability not to show itself as language offering itself as thing. But the appearance of the meaning language draws from its appearance as a thing, or, ‘if it should happen’, as non-appearance, is also the appearance of meaning itself, or more precisely, ‘meaning in general’, the ‘empty power of signification’. The possibility of the ‘as such’ of meaning is given as the word gives itself as a word giving itself as a thing. Once again, these are words appearing as things appear, offering this as by which a thing may appear as a thing, or even by which insignificance may appear as insignificance, but doing so by their own self-giving, which is a giving as. This is a presentation of the possibility of the as such via a self-presentation that is irreducibly a marking of dissimulation. The word gives (itself) as, thereby giving ‘meaning’ as
detached from its conditions, separated from its moments, wandering like an empty power with which nothing can be done, a power without power, a simple powerlessness to cease to be, but which, because of this, appears as the proper determination of indeterminate and senseless existence.
The word showing itself offering itself as (existence in its refusal to signified meaning)—giving itself giving as—is the condition of signifying or offering to understanding (or better, thought) what escapes signification. ‘Qu’il y a langage’—a remarking of the fact of language, but in its irreducible figurality: this is what literature produces as a ‘question’ (or perhaps a stunned discovery: something related to Kafka’s joy when he writes, ‘He was looking out the window’ (p.26/298)) as it says the fact of Being—as it says ‘is’—in its fundamental dissimulation. Literature, on one of its slopes at least, is language remarking an irreducible figurality, its own, but as a saying of the dissimulation that belongs, as Blanchot asserts, to Being itself; ‘mimesis’, we might say, ‘figuring’ (itself) like a wandering corpse.
The image, once again, is from ‘Two versions of the imaginary’. Borrowing this title and summarizing the movement we have followed thus far, we might say that the two slopes of literature’s ambiguity are constituted by the movement between the ‘imaginary’ point of view literature adopts in seeking to give expression to the world that is the meaning of things in their totality (‘I am the revolution’) and the becoming-image of the word (‘I no longer represent, I am’). As Blanchot suggests in his concluding footnote to ‘The essential solitude’,6 the language of literature is language that has become entirely image. Not a language full of images, but a language that has become the image of language, figuring by this non-reflection the dissimulation of Being itself which is the condition of appearance in general and which appears when the thing is absorbed by its image. The damaged tool offers such an appearance, Blanchot remarks (recalling Heidegger):
The category of art is linked to this possibility that objects have of ‘appearing’, that is to say, of abandoning themselves to pure and simple resemblance behind which there is nothing—except being. Only what has surrendered itself to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.7
The corpse, again, is most ‘exemplary’ here, though it figures this time (on another ‘slope’) not only a materiality that offers its refusal to signification via the absence of life, but an ‘ideality’ that has grown thick with ‘the elemental strangeness and formless heaviness of being that is present in absence’8—it figures, in other words, the very possibility of appearing, vacillating between ideality and materiality and marking their point of confusion (which is also the ‘confusion’ of the idealism of classical art, as Blanchot notes with a certain perverse irony). As a cadaver falls from the hold of our affective interests and the world of names and identities, Blanchot writes, it will come to resemble itself and in this ‘self’-reflection that reflects no one and nothing (it is not ‘simply’ a corpse, nor is it a human being, for the being that appears is ‘impersonal’, a monumental double of the one we have known: ‘the apparition of the original—until then unknown—sentence of last Judgment inscribed in the depths of being and triumphantly expressing itself with the help of distance’9) it will offer resemblance itself, resemblance absorbing the thing:
The cadaver is its own image. It no longer has any relations with this world, in which it still appears, except those of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow present at all times behind the living form and that now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. The cadaver is the reflection becoming master of the reflected life, absorbing it, identifying itself substantially with it in making it pass from its use and truth value to something incredible—unusual and neutral. And if the cadaver is so resemblant, this is because it is, at a certain moment, resemblance par excellence, entirely resemblance, and also nothing more. It is the like, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what does it resemble? Nothing.10
Perhaps it would suffice to stop here with the observation that with his thought of the image, Blanchot has effectively generalized the Verstellung that Heidegger recognizes as belonging essentially to truth and that art offers in its own withdrawal and thingly quality. Heidegger’s ‘that’—what the work of art says as it offers the event of truth in a movement of simultaneous approach and withdrawal—has been rethought as the ‘that’ of language (which in fact it was for Heidegger inasmuch as the essence of art is said to reside in language). But here the ‘that’ marks an irreducible figurality that undermines any stability in the pose. The re-presentation of language is the remarking of the ‘imaginary’ dimension of truth—the remarking of the dissimulation of Being.
Could we go further? Is this not a limit for thought? It is a limit, but a limit of a very particular kind. For we might observe in each of Blanchot’s descriptions of the becoming-image of the word that it marks a ‘meaning of meaning’ (or perhaps better, a meaning without meaning) that is neither material nor ideal, but something prior to each of these categories that embraces both while inclining towards an ‘elementary depth’ in an infinite movement towards what Blanchot names the ‘neutral’.11 The image is a threshold—a limit, as Blanchot will emphasize in asserting that it has a protective function,12 but a limit that marks an infinite abyssal relation and that is therefore already a crossing towards what Blanchot calls in The Space of Literature the ‘other’ night. For the consciousness that undertakes this crossing (though initiative will reveal itself always to have been the fatality of desire), it will be a movement towards the other of consciousness—towards itself as other:
The other night is always the other, and he who hears it becomes the other, he who approaches it departs from himself, is no longer the one who approaches, but the one who turns aside, goes hither and yon. He who, having entered the first night, seeks intrepidly to go toward its profoundest intimacy, toward the essential, hears at a certain moment the other night—hears himself, hears the eternally reverberating echo of his own progress, a progress toward silence, but the echo sends it back to him as the whispering immensity, toward the void, and the void is now a presence that comes to his encounter.13
The noise at the threshold is the echo of approach, but an echo that reverberates with an otherness that itself becomes approach. What consciousness hears is its own absence, itself becoming other in opening to the other—something that can be ‘known’ only as a kind of madness. Or as a kind of exposure. Here is the same movement across the threshold I have just followed as it is described in ‘Literature and the right to death’:
In this effort, literature does not confine itself to rediscovering in the interior what it wanted to abandon on the threshold. For what it finds, as the interior, is the outside which, once an exit, has now changed into the impossibility of leaving—and what it finds as the obscurity of existence is the being of the day which has changed from an explicatory light, creative of meaning, into the harassment of what one cannot prevent oneself from understanding and the stifling haunting of a reason without principle and without beginning, which one cannot account for. Literature is that experience by which consciousness discovers its being in its powerlessness to lose consciousness, in the movement in which, disappearing, tearing itself from the punctuality of a self, it reconstitutes itself, past unconsciousness, in an impersonal spontaneity, the desperate eagerness of a haggard knowledge, that knows nothing, that no one knows, and that ignorance finds always behind itself as its own shadow changed into a gaze.
This is consciousness become the gaze of fascination, a blind seeing that is contact with the outside and the impossibility of not seeing what obtrudes with the collapse of the separation that is constitutive of consciousness. Consciousness become a passivity or an opening that proceeds from an effraction or a touch: thus it is the passion of the image when the thing becomes image in withdrawing from the world and the passion of writing when the word veers towards the image and opens on to the outside—the passion of the outside.
To write is to arrange language under fascination and, through language, in language, remain in contact with the absolute milieu, where the thing becomes an image again, where the image, once an allusion to a figure, becomes an allusion to what is without figure, and where, once a form sketched on absence, it becomes the formless presence of that absence, the opaque and empty opening on what is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.14
It is a seeing that is at once a suspended self-reflection (‘a lost neutral glimmer that does not go out, that does not illuminate, the circle, closed upon itself, of the gaze’15 and a being seen—once again, an exposure. In ‘solitude’, Blanchot writes, ‘I am not alone, but in this present I am already returning to myself under the form of Someone (Quelqu’un).’16 And then further on the same page:
Where I am alone, the day is no longer anything but the loss of an abode, intimacy with the outside that is placeless and without repose. The coming, here, makes it so that he who comes belongs to dispersion, to the fissure where the exterior is a stifling intrusion, the nakedness, the cold of that in which one remains discovered, where space is the vertigo of spacing.17
My consciousness without me, appearing as other in the form of an impersonal anonymity that is less a presence than the presence of an absence, the intrusion of the outside, relation with an irreducible alterity. Fascination is hetero-affection, ‘self’-affection that is an infinite becoming-other in a fundamental passivity. The coming of on, il or quelqu’un is an infinite opening to the outside, not a ‘human’ presence, but the presence of the other to a self that is no longer the ‘same’, no longer a ‘self’. Where Blanchot names the other—‘Eurydice’, for example—this name is a figure for a nameless other dissimulated by the night, the ‘other’ night or ‘dissimulation itself’, an infinite, abyssal movement.
Thus the image is not a limit, if by this we mean a point where reflection—or thought—must stop. Rather, it is a site of engagement and passage where reflection halts, but in becoming the approach to/of the outside. It is a threshold, in this sense, but a threshold already marked by a crossing, a passage, that Derrida has identified and engaged in exemplary fashion by tracking the pas (both adverb of negation and noun: ‘step’) that echoes throughout Blanchot’s text.18 I shall not try to subject this extraordinarily rich demonstration to summary, precisely because it works to demonstrate pas, describing the movement in question in both a thematic manner and in a trajectory (like the viens which it attempts to think while making it sound). But I should like to note the point of juncture with the current discussion by observing that in Derrida’s reading, pas names and ‘is’ what happens in the becoming-image of the word. Pas is what is marked (or marks itself) in the powerlessness of the word to efface its own re-presentation of its effacement of meaning, in this remarking of the very possibility of meaning that inhabits it as a wandering, empty power whose ‘ghostly’ presence Blanchot figures as a movement, ‘a walking staircase, a corridor that unfolds ahead’, as he describes it in ‘Literature and the right to death’ (p.54/323).19 Together with sans, as Blanchot uses this term almost formulaically to mark the same effacement of meaning and a passive opening to the other, it is the ‘re-trait’—at once remarking and withdrawal—of a movement of distancing that infinitely suspends the ‘as’ given in language’s re-presentation of its possibility, rendering this ‘giving as’ abyssal.20 If the ‘as’ I have isolated marks the very possibility of metaphor or figurality in general, the pas that marks it is the re-trait of metaphor, and, as set to work in the text, the marking of what exceeds the order of the signifiable—or the signifier—in a movement beyond meaning and beyond Being. The step (not) beyond that occurs in and with the opening to the il y a in the becoming-image of the word is the opening (and closing) of a thought of Being. Here is Derrida’s inscription of pas in this becoming-image that we have followed in ‘Literature and the right to death’:
To remain near oneself in one’s effacement [the movement from je to il we have seen], to sign it still, to remain in one’s absence as remainder, there is the impossible, death as the impossibility of dying on the basis of which death without death announces itself. The remainder without remainder of this effacement that no longer effaces itself, here is what there is perhaps (by chance) but that is (not) pas: here is pas under the name of forgetting as he uses it, as one can no longer think it, think it that is, starting from (à partir de) a thought-of-Being. If ‘Being is another name for forgetting’, it names a forgetting of forgetting (that it violently encrypts) and not a synonym of forgetting, exchanging itself with it as its equivalent, giving it to be thought. Or naming it, it unnames it, makes it disappear in its name. This thought which is no longer of Being or of the presence of the present, this thought of forgetting tells us perhaps what was to be heard under this name (thought), which named, as you remember, without declaring her name, she (elle: la pensée) to whom Death Sentence said ‘eternally: “Come”, and eternally, she is there’; or the unique word to which, in He who, ‘Come’ is said so that it (elle: la parole) should cry its name. ‘When I say “this woman. …” That’s you, that’s your name.’21
Derrida (or more precisely, one of the interlocutors in this dialogue—the ‘counterpart’ to the one marked as feminine: ‘Derrida’, as Blanchot might put it, only to the extent that he is not ‘himself’) goes on to say here that this forgetting that gives forgetting to be thought (pas d’oubli), this forgetting that gives (thought), is il y a. To which he adds: ‘this il y a enjoins viens’.
The becoming-image of the word is the opening to a call, Derrida suggests, that must have already occurred for the pas to have been engaged in the first place. Viens is the ‘invitation’ that provokes the pas of approach, but that this step provokes in its turn in such a way as to allow it to sound for a first time as the word of the other. Viens is the word of approach, the word that is written in approach (on the body) as the word of/to the other that comes to our encounter (never ‘our’ encounter). This other, once again, is not another human being. What approaches is the other night, an infinite alterity whose coming is the opening of what is named in Thomas the Obscure ‘the supreme relation which is sufficient unto itself’.22There is (il y a) joins in approach, en-joins itself in a giving prior to the law that is the birth of the law. The call is wholly anonymous, wholly other.
Blanchot will emphasize later that this joining of relation occurs only in engagement with the Other as autrui. As one of the voices from his own dialogue in The Infinite Conversation asserts, ‘All alterity presupposes man as autrui and not the inverse.’ This voice then continues:
Only it follows from this that, for me, the Other man who is ‘autrui’ also risks being always Other than man, close to what cannot be close to me: close to death, close to the night, and certainly as repulsive as anything that comes to me from these regions without horizon.
—We well know that when a man dies close to us, however indifferent his existence might be to us, in that instant and forever he is for us the Other.
—But remember: the Other speaks to me; the decisive interruption of relation speaks precisely as infinite relation in the speech of the Other. You are not claiming that when you speak to autrui, you are speaking to him as though to a kind of dead person, calling to him from the other side of the partition?
—When I speak to the Other, the speech that relates me to this other ‘accomplishes’ and ‘measures’ that inordinate distance (a distance beyond measure) that is the infinite movement of dying, where dying puts impossibility into play. And in speaking to him, I myself speak rather than die, which means also that I speak in the place where there is a place for dying.23
The address comes from the other (human being) as the address of the other. Viens marks an infinite relation to which the other (human beings) give themselves up in giving themselves to language. This is ‘real death’ as Blanchot emphasizes in ‘Literature and the right to death’—a ‘real’ dying into language that Blanchot defies us in The Writing of the Disaster to distinguish from a murder.24 But this death is infinite. The others, in their dying, ‘know’ the il y a, the absence of being (‘such an absence that everything has forever and for always been lost in it, to the point that the knowledge affirms and dissipates itself there that nothing is what there is, and first of all nothing beyond’).25 This is what they ‘give’ in their dying: ‘the absence of being through the mortifying gaze of Orpheus’.26 This is why Derrida can assert that behind the ‘thought’ to which Death Sentence addresses itself (or behind the ‘word’ addressed in Celui) there is the ‘thought’ of the il y a. The presence of the others in their infinite dying, in the ‘infinite’ of their dying (and which ‘I’ approach only in forgetting), is the presence of an infinite absence.
Literature happens, we noted at the outset, when its language becomes a question addressed to language itself. We may add now, perhaps, that literature becomes a question in response, in fascinated and repeated response, to the speaking that occurs as language remarks ‘that there is language’. That there is language is the opening of the question (in response)—the question of Being or difference, we might say now (recognizing how abyssal this question is for Blanchot), but also, and only, as it comes to us from a ‘real dying’ Blanchot persistently assigns to the self (prior to the self) and to another. Not the dying of ‘this woman’, but of ‘her’ whom this designation returned to the night. A distinction, I would have to add immediately, that is crucial but ultimately untenable, as Derrida suggests, I believe, when he takes up the question of citation and repetition in Blanchot’s narratives, arguing that writing introduces what he calls an irreducible contamination in the address of the other.27 The deconstructive move in literary criticism would be to stress the contamination to which Derrida refers. Such a move is in no way a falsification; indeed, it has been a necessary one both in the context of the politics of criticism and in relation to the matter at hand. But this emphasis on the ‘contamination’ of writing and its citationality has served to purify the recitation of contamination by what I am tempted to call a reference, i.e. a relation to the other that opens in the singular event of address.
When we figure this speaking in relation to ‘Literature and the right to death’, and give it a word (viens), we undoubtedly precipitate a movement that will only be made thematically by Blanchot in subsequent texts. But is not the condition of writing viens something like the haunting ‘real’ presence of an other? And can it be called a new ‘departure’ when Blanchot draws out the thematics of autrui in The Infinite Conversation, for example (disregarding for the moment what he offers in his fiction, where the question of autrui is almost always present)? Has he not drawn out something of the relation already marked in his text?
It is undeniable that a step is made when Blanchot takes up overtly the problematic of autrui in The Infinite Conversation. And though I am hesitant to use the same language in comparing narratives, I am tempted to say (and will have to demonstrate elsewhere) that a step has been made between texts such as Thomas the Obscure and Death Sentence with regard to the question that has furtively appeared here. But the insistence of what I am prompted to call the question of reference in Blanchot’s thought on literary language marks out the site of the problematic of autrui. Literature becomes a question, Blanchot seems to suggest, because a ‘touch’ of some kind has occurred. Literature’s origin is the ‘signifying’ of that touch: the writing of an infinite relation that opens there, the writing, for example, of viens. Here is one version of its structure (one that I find particularly useful for approaching Death Sentence):
In the room: When he turns back toward the time when he signalled to her, he senses clearly that he is signalling to her in turning back. And if she comes and if he grasps her, in an instant of freedom of which he has nothing to say and that for some time he has marvellously forgotten, he owes to the power of forgetting (and to the necessity of speech) that grants him this instant the initiative to which her presence responds.28
Here we have pas, ‘forgetting’ and ‘viens’ unfolding in the space of writing. It goes without saying that we must not reduce the touch to an empirical event. The event would only have happened in writing. But it would only have happened had it already happened in a past that is no less ‘real’ for being immemorial. There has been a touch. A text such as Death Sentence, I want to suggest, remarks it as the ‘real’ condition of the infinite relation in which it is given and lost. The step Blanchot makes (has always made) draws it out as the touch of autrui.
Maurice Blanchot, ‘Literature and the right to death’, in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, trans. Lydia Davis, ed. and with an Afterword by P. Adams Sitney (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 21. All quotations in the text refer to this edition. The additional page numbers immediately following these numbers refer to the French edition published in La Part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949). I have occasionally modified the English translations.
‘The life that endures death and maintains itself in it’ (Ibid., p. 54/224)—both ‘the life that brings death’ (as in a murder) and ‘the life that bears death’ (the death it can never murder or be done with, not even in suicide).
A translation of this essay is published in On Bataille, Yale French Studies 78, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Jonathan Strauss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 9–28.
‘At this moment, freedom pretends to realize itself in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done. A fabulous moment—and no one who has known it can completely recover from it, for he has known history as his own history and his own freedom as universal freedom. Fabulous moments indeed: in them, fable speaks, in them, the speech of fable becomes action.’ Blanchot, ‘Literature and the right to death’, p. 38/309.
See ‘On language as such and on the language of man’, in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978), p. 326.
Maurice Blanchot, ‘The essential solitude’, in The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 77.
Ibid., p. 84.
Ibid., p. 83.
See, for example, the opening paragraphs of ‘Two versions of the imaginary’, in The Space of Literature, trans. and with an Introduction by Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).
The point is suggested in ‘Literature and the right to death’, p. 60/328; for a reference to the image as a limit, see ‘Two versions of the imaginary’, in The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 79.
The Space of Literature, p. 16.
The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 77.
Ibid., p. 75.
Ibid., p. 74.
See ‘Pas (préambule)’, Gramma, 3/4 (1975), pp. 111–215. A slightly modified version of this essay appears in Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986), pp. 19–116. In this text I shall cite the original version. All translations mine.
These phrases mark what Derrida identifies as the labyrinthine topology—or tropology?—of pas: the vertiginous spacing of pas.
‘Il y va de l’autre’, Derrida writes, ‘qui ne peut s’approcher comme autre, dans son phénomène d’autre, qu’en s’en éloignant, et apparaître en son lointain d’alterité infini qu’à se rapprocher’ (approximately and reductively, starting with the first words: ‘It is a matter of the other: which can only approach as other, in its phenomenon as other, by distancing itself, and appear in its distance of infinite alterity by drawing nearer’ (‘Pas’, p. 130)). The engagement of/with/in that movement of Entfernung, é-loignement, is pas.
Ibid., ‘Pas’, pp. 196–7.
See Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, trans. Robert Lamberton (New York: David Lewis, 1988), p. 105.
Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. and Foreword by Susan Hanson (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 72.
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 65–71.
Ibid., p. 72 (translation modified).
Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, p. 38.
‘Between (her) who “is there” for (not only in order to but also by the fact of) responding to “Viens” and (her) who already will have given all her force and called “Viens”, there is no incompatibility, no contradiction, but also no synthesis or reconciliation, no dialectic. Hence the boundless affliction. And the impossibility of deciding between an eternal return of the affirmation in which the recited … is intact, good only once, the unique force of a “Viens” that never reproduces itself (saving “Viens”) and, on the other hand, but at the same time, a repetition of what has already been reissued in quotation marks, writing and citation in the everyday sense. Contamination by the everyday sense is not an accident but it belongs to the structure of affirmation; it is always risked inasmuch as it demands the narrative. Writing is also this irreducible contamination, the narrative the boundless affliction of which he can say, “I rejoice immeasurably”’ (Derrida, ‘Pas’, p. 117).
This passage from L’Attente L’Oubli is cited ibid., p. 128.
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SOURCE: “Blanchot and the New French Criticism,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIV, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. xxxvii-xxxix.
[In the following review, Fowlie comments on the literary and historical significance of the essays in The Work of Fire.]
The goals of the new French criticism, in which Maurice Blanchot holds his place beside Derrida, Foucault, Bachelard, Starobinski, and Jean-Pierre Richard, seem very complex. Such criticism may entail more than the analysis of a sonnet or even of a novel: it may be involved with the understanding of the entire experience of an author seen in the light of all his writing, and it may even attempt to illuminate the entire age in which the author lived. Blanchot’s study Lautréamont et Sade, like Sartre’s long analysis of Genet, is a work of criticism in which the critic’s aims are multiple.
Blanchot (born in 1907) was first read in France during the second quarter of this century. His answer to the question What is literature? has become clearer as each of his major works of criticism has appeared. La Part du Feu (The Work of Fire, as Charlotte Mandell has admirably translated the title—and these essays in general) was first published in 1949, the year that Lautréamont et Sade was also published. In these two works of criticism Blanchot expressed his conviction that an authentic essay in literary criticism is an experience by which a writer enters into an existence that he did not know before writing it. The critic moves from book to book, marveling at the endless variety of literature; and he uses comparisons in his art as critic as generously as a poet uses metaphors.
Quite early in his career Blanchot’s writing was called thematic criticism. Rather than analyzing a text, he asks why such a text came into being. Why is there literature? How can one explain the phenomenon of a book? Why is there an author of a book? Why is there a reader of a book? How is literature possible? Such questions are the leading points of departure in the essays collected in The Work of Fire. The books Blanchot needed in order to discuss such problems were contemporary, and among the best of his contemporaries were René Char, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henry Miller.
Blanchot is concerned with the initial movement that created the work, with the movement that literally formed the creator. He shows a marked predilection for Lautréamont, whose Chants de Maldoror are creations of the self. Lautréamont is one of a small group of writers to whom Blanchot returns over and again as authentic artists whose writing is a self-creation. Mallarmé occupies a high place in this group, as do Hölderlin, Kafka, and René Char. Blanchot hereby denies the familiar concept of criticism which claims that a book comes from other books.
Such a theory explains Blanchot’s deep sympathy with surrealism. As Oedipus once listened to the words of the oracle, so the modern surrealist learns to listen to the mysterious words of his subconscious.
The metamorphoses that twentieth-century literature has undergone have been more profoundly explored by Maurice Blanchot than by any other critic. These essays in The Work of Fire reflect symbolism, surrealism, psychoanalysis, abstract art, the movies, the theater of the absurd, pop art, happenings.
It has been said that all modern criticism is “structuralist.” By the word structure, as applied to criticism, is meant not only the visible organization of the work, but the invisible, the inner, and the psychological architecture of the human experience out of which the writing comes. It is criticism of the work’s totality, not one part of which can be understood without reference to the whole. In a complex reciprocal relationship, the part illuminates the whole, as each sentence bears the meaning of the work.
In a literary sense our age is characterized by the large number of books written about books. In dedicating his book to his wife, one of our best American critics wrote: “To the critic of a critic of critics.” Not merely a man of discernment and taste, the critic today is called upon to be an aesthetician, a psychologist, a sociologist, a historian. The critics of each generation pass and are interred as quickly as most of its novelists and playwrights and poets. Few survive for long the rapid turnover of each decade, with the constant shifting of interests, the political changes, the scientific discoveries. Very few critics survive by imposing their methods of criticism even on one decade—and by maintaining the originality of their work.
These articles by Maurice Blanchot, published during the 1940s after his earlier work as a journalist and devoted to such figures as Kafka, Mallarmé, Char, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Sartre, Malraux, Gide, Valéry, and Nietzsche, seem destined to last for some time. By the serious questions they raise concerning the basic assumptions of literature, concerning the very reasons for having books and having readers of those books, they will endure.
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SOURCE: A review of The Most High, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 185-5.
[In the following review, Lowenthal summarizes The Most High comparing its narrator to that of Kafka's The Trial.]
Despite the wealth of translation of Maurice Blanchot’s work available, the arrival of one of his novels in English tends to be not only welcome but needed: the profound depthlessness, the illuminating opacity of his essays and fiction continue to put the very possibility of literature at stake.
Written in the aftermath of World War II, The Most High depicts a society of vague familiarity, one made up of bureaucracy, an ominous police force, revolutionaries, decay, and a plague not dissimilar to the one described by Camus. If this environment feels more like science fiction than a historical narrative, though, there is good reason: history has ended, and the “Law” has infiltrated every aspect of life. Civil servants are indistinguishable in function from militant revolutionaries, and revolt against the State maintains the State. This homogenized, invaginating space of continual recuperation may indeed strike some resonance for the reader. Posthistoricity may prove to be one of this century’s more potent myths; whether one subscribes to the concept or not, its repercussions are discernible. Dialectics sometimes appears to have run its course, left-wing and right-wing politics too often blur into the defiantly apolitical realm of consumerism, and Alexandre Kojève, the end-of-history theorist at the heart of this novel, has left behind a partial legacy in his participation in the potential capitalist wrap-up of the GATT treaty.
The Most High’s somewhat hallucinatory parables clearly have their precedent in Kafka. But if the novel bears a resemblance to The Trial, it portrays a trial whose stakes are reversed. As Henri Sorge, the novel’s bedridden civil servant/narrator, at one point writes: “there are none of those little secrets that were the petty privilege of the old administrations which trouble the supplicant and make him think that behind the façade there’s something essential going on to which he’ll never have access.”
But if Sorge, like Joseph K, fails to take things “seriously” (evidenced by his incomprehensible failure to get a plague vaccination), he lacks the humor of such a figure as K. Blanchot’s work is of a cold absurdity. If Sorge has any “significance,” it is that he is not even insignificant, not even the anti-hero of modernism, but rather an absolute nonhero—the only role possible in a post-historical society.
The book is ably translated by Allan Stoekl, a scholar of Blanchot’s partner in theory, Georges Bataille. His introduction to The Most High illuminates the essential issues of the novel and enriches the book as a whole.
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SOURCE: “The (Im)Possibility of Literature,” in Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary, Routledge, 1997, pp. 53-69.
[In the following excerpt, Hill provides an overview of the literary techniques and thematic preoccupations of Blanchot's Thomas the Obscure and Aminadab.]
Literature is perhaps essentially (but neither solely nor overtly) power of contestation: contestation of established authority, contestation of that which is (and the fact of being), contestation of language and the forms of literary language, lastly contestation of itself as power.
‘Les Grands Réducteurs’ (L'Amité, 80)
Blanchot’s two early novels—Thomas l’Obscur (1941) and Aminadab (1942)—are arguably among some of the most compelling yet obscure of all modern literary texts. More than fifty years after publication, their resistance to interpretation remains undiminished.1 This inscrutability, however, is not merely the product of unfamiliar contextual factors, nor does it derive simply from the systematic withholding of information by the author or narrator. Indeed, contrary to repute, these early novels of Blanchot are neither full of esoteric allusions nor obsessed with silence; they are, rather, outrageously garrulous and self-explanatory, and given to endless digressions designed to elucidate the import and purpose of the stories they tell. In that process, however, each of these texts persistently reveals itself to be more than the sum of its parts, with the result that what is most enigmatic of all is the extent to which, as one reads, the local and specific mysteries posed by Blanchot’s writing give way to the larger, more intractable puzzle of the nature of the discourse that has somehow engendered them.2 The only secret of such texts, one might say, is the secret of their own possibility; and the main question they raise, therefore, is the question of their foundation as works of literature.
Admittedly, one of the most obvious reasons for the obscurity of Blanchot’s fiction is the sceptical disdain the texts themselves adopt towards conventional norms of novelistic verisimilitude or narrative coherence. These are texts that, unlike others, make little attempt to conceal the violence with which they interrupt what the reader is enjoined to consider, at least implicitly, as a previously stable state of affairs. The technique is one already exploited to challenging effect in Blanchot’s two short stories ‘L’Idylle’ and ‘Le Dernier Mot’, written in 1936 and 1935 respectively. In the first of these, the tale begins with the sudden arrival of a foreigner within an (unnamed) city, without it ever being explained from where he has come or why, and what purpose his visit might have; yet this does not prevent the narrative from recounting his brief life in the city, oppressed by the terrible—and terribly ambiguous—spectacle of a sham life of happiness, until he is eventually punished for attempting to escape from the city and dies as a consequence, only then to enjoy the hollow privilege of a grand funeral, after which everything returns to the dubious normality of domestic routine. ‘Le Dernier Mot’, in turn, commences in a similarly abrupt way, with an unexplained exchange of conversation between anonymous interlocutors about some presumably metatextual password, or watchword, of indeterminate character (‘le mot d’ordre’, Après coup, précédé par Le Ressassement éternel, 57; 39) that is somehow no longer available; pursuing this half-hearted theme into something more akin to allegory or myth, the text keeps going up to the point where, like the Tower of Babel to which Blanchot’s text refers in conclusion, everything in the story collapses into ruins, bringing to an end, among other things, this particular story.
But the uncompromising anti-realism even of stories such as these appears tame and unexceptionable when set alongside the outlandishness of the first version of Thomas l’Obscur. Part philosophical inquiry, part Bildungsroman, part inner experience, part self-reflexive mise-en-abyme, part Pentecostal fable, part apocalyptic rhapsody, part ironic romance, part stylistic tour de force, this is a work that displays few, if any, of the standard features of conventional novels of the time. True, it retains a residual narrative structure that follows a vaguely circular pattern; and while at the outset the protagonist, Thomas, is found slipping into the sea, embarking, in the mist, on what is described, no doubt self-referentially, as a new and unfamiliar itinerary on his part, and which leaves him bereft of all previous points of orientation, so he is discovered at the end of the novel by the side of the sea once again, hurling himself, at least metaphorically, into what the book describes in closing as ‘a flood of crude images’ (T01 232; cf T02 137; 117). Between these two rhyming moments, each detailing the protagonist’s self-possessed immersion into the watery deep, little of consequence seems to have taken place, except for the dispatching of Thomas, this ‘keeper of the impossible’ (T01, 231; cf T02, 136; 116), along with the reader, on a bizarre sequence of fantastical textual experiences and encounters, involving love, death, destruction, and recreation, and which, while they may remind the reader of much that belongs to the literary past, endeavor nonetheless to affirm their absolute autonomy from conventional expectations and hold within themselves the irreducible mystery of their unfolding.
Published one year after Thomas l’Obscur, Aminadab presents what seems to be the next stage in Thomas’s story; it opens in the broad light of day with a scene in which the protagonist, after passing by an unassuming shop and resisting the invitation to go in, then, for no clear reason, responds more positively to an enigmatic gesture—invitation? sign of friendship? farewell? or warning?—from a woman waving from one of the windows of the building opposite, somewhat resembling a run-down boarding house. In a decision that is lightly taken but heavy with consequences, Thomas enters this second building. But by launching him—like the reader—on an endless journey through the various rooms and floors of this allegorical establishment, about which nothing seems certain, and on an ultimately fruitless quest for the woman who appeared to signal to him, Thomas’s initial resolve proves to be the source of all his subsequent misfortunes, misfortunes which are brought to an end—though not necessarily a conclusion—in the closing scene when Thomas at last submits to what is described as a necessary, if still enigmatic fate. All the while, in an explicit echo of the book’s opening, the light in the room is shown to be slowly fading, as though to suggest that Thomas’s life and the narrative have become synonymous and that the falling silent of the one serves to announce the extinction of the other.
Such textual moments of beginning and ending are evidently performative as well as descriptive; by invoking the fictional possibility of a particular finite world, they ground Blanchot’s own narratives within the space of that possibility. By asserting their own freedom, so to speak, Blanchot’s novels legislate for their own autonomy as literary artefacts. But in order to do so, and however strenuously they endeavour to carry out this project, they are necessarily faced with a fundamental paradox. Beginnings and endings can only be thought in their own absence. Any act of foundation, be it an act of aesthetic framing, of ontological grounding, or ethical injunction, has to confront the necessary circumstance of its own prior absence; indeed, for an act of foundation to be possible at all, it must first be preceded by an absence of foundation. Such prior absence is thereby a necessary condition of any possibility of foundation; however, to the extent that it insists, as it necessarily must, on the belatedness and fragility of any such moment of foundation, any such condition of possibility is also a condition of impossibility. The laying of foundations, as it were, is an activity that may take place only within a bottomless abyss; and it is the bottomless abyss that constitutes the only reliable foundation, albeit a foundation that is always already an absence of foundation. Such an absence of foundation is not just an ironic flourish: it is an essential condition that, to the extent that it enables the act of foundation, by that very token also disables it. The price of the possibility of foundation, one may say, is the impossibility of that foundation.
In this perspective, it is clear that none of Blanchot’s narrative beginnings or endings functions unproblematically. Without exception, all these moments of narrative inception or closure prove in fact to be remarkably indeterminate; and, throughout, the self-certainty of the initial founding moment is tempered—if not indeed radically challenged—by the awareness that the world founded in this way fails to embody itself as an inaugural, fully transparent presence. Instead, the act of foundation remains irreducibly opaque; and it is as though the fictional world Blanchot’s writing opens up already has its distant origin elsewhere, in an unspoken and largely irretrievable anteriority that resists narrative exposition and veils the clarity of the text in impenetrable but indeterminate obscurity. At times, as in the case of the perplexing sign from the third floor to which Thomas rashly responds in Aminadab, not knowing what it signifies, nor even if it signifies at all, the possibility of beginning, in the form of the presumed meaning of that gesture, becomes synonymous with the paradoxical impossibility of beginning that the gesture’s failure to communicate seems to imply. And as a result, like Blanchot’s other incipits, the opening of Aminadab remains suspended on the threshold of its own necessary violence, which the writer makes little attempt to mitigate or transform. The violence of the origin is never effaced; to the dismay, puzzlement, frustration, and ultimate fascination of the reader, the beginning of the text is displayed as pure interruption, as a hiatus in whatever is held to precede the beginning.
Much the same is true of Blanchot’s endings. In Thomas l’Obscur, by way of bringing to a close an extraordinary scene of burgeoning vernal creation, albeit one that by the end undergoes a catastrophic fall into solitude, darkness, and tawdry imagery, Blanchot has his own protagonist cast himself into the waves of these images ‘as if’, writes Blanchot, ‘shame had begun for him’ (T01, 232; cf T02, 137; 117). Put in these terms, the ending deceives as well as disappoints; Blanchot’s prose, like Thomas himself, seemingly lingers on, surveying everything that has just taken place, delaying the closure the narrative already seems to have reached, and thus outliving itself, so to speak, echoing what the 1950 version terms the ‘empty word of Thomas’ (T02, 135; 116). The reference to shame in this context, though, is revealing; what it recalls is Levinas’s early contention that ‘what manifests itself in shame is … precisely the fact of being chained to oneself, the radical impossibility of fleeing from oneself in order to hide from oneself, the irredeemable presence of the self to itself’.3 The ending of Thomas l’Obscur, then, is not the ending of Thomas; rather it is like an ultimate condemnation of both Thomas and the literary discourse that carries his name, the final proof, so to speak, that the only possible end to writing is in fact the interminable impossibility of such ending.
Such paradoxes are also much in evidence in Aminadab. There, at the very moment Thomas is busy receiving from Dom, his erstwhile and future companion, the news that it is time for them to leave, he hesitates, prolonging once again the questions that have never ceased to be asked in pages gone by, yet never answered; even at this late stage, as Thomas hovers between life and death, silence and speech, the threat of darkness and the yearning for light, he seems still to be hoping for a response to the question that will allow him to throw some illumination upon all that has occurred (AB [Aminadab] 227). Unabashed by the information (of indeterminable purport and unverifiable accuracy) given by the young woman Lucie, to the effect that he was not the one to whom the inaugural sign was intended in the first place (AB, 220), and told that at any event, as far as the boarding house was concerned, according to Dom (AB, 212), he would have been better advised going down to the basement rather than up to the floors, Thomas brings the novel to an end with an unanswered, still almost preliminary question, which he addresses to Lucie, unless it is to the light itself (assuming the two to be different): ‘Who are you?’ (AB, 227). The question is one Anne, in Thomas l’Obscur, had already asked of Thomas, only to regret having done so a moment later; and as the Thomas of Aminadab echoes it once again, it becomes evident that this novel too, like its predecessor, can only end on a sentence that is more a repetition than a resolution, more a rehearsal than a moment of closure. The failure to reach conclusion, in both texts, is a token of the extent to which both novels, as they seek to convert the violence of beginning or ending into the self-sufficient law of their own necessity, cannot escape the realisation of their own irredeemable excess; they remain traversed to the very end by the enigma of everything that, by necessity, cannot in fact be spoken and which yet seemingly constitutes the only reason for their existence.
Blanchot’s two novels, then, begin without beginning, and end without ending. Their possibility as autonomous, self-bound artefacts is traversed by the impossibility of such self-legislation; and what is at one moment a condition of possibility is at another a condition of impossibility. Beginnings are a function of the absence of beginnings, and endings an interval imposed on the endlessness of language; each and every point that claims self-presence is shown here to be already inhabited by the other from which it derives, on which it depends, and which therefore has the potential to disable its claim to be what it is. For all that, Blanchot’s novels do not lapse into anti-mimetic playfulness. Rather, a new kind of monstrous logic—an ante-logic as well as an anti-logic—takes over within Blanchot’s writing, one whose effects are signalled from the outset, in Thomas l’Obscur, by a series of strange and mind-numbing paradoxes and inversions by which clarity turns to obscurity, plenitude to void, presence to absence, decision to paralysis, and freedom to constraint. Standing for instance on the shore again, Thomas looks on intently, with increased acuity, at the distant sight of another swimmer—perhaps his own doppelgänger—appearing and disappearing off the horizon, and is filled with a feeling of boundless freedom, somewhat akin to the freedom of beginning itself. But already the euphoria of his telepathic intimacy with the far-off swimmer becomes mingled with discomfort and distress; and it is as though boundless freedom has suddenly turned into something more nearly resembling opaque compulsion, in much the same way that, in the pages that follow, it is by closing his eyes that Thomas sees more deeply into the darkness, and while refusing to walk that he finds himself imperiously being propelled along.
From this point on in Blanchot’s text, writing becomes inseparable from what might be described as an experience of nothingness. Necessarily, however, Thomas l’Obscur challenges the adequacy of such terms. Like the inner experience of Georges Bataille, Blanchot’s project can be described only in antithetical or paradoxical terms; and just as, like that of Bataille, Thomas’s experience is an experience that is not an experience, so nothing in Blanchot’s novel is not nothing. Or so it would seem from what is one of the novel’s most famous passages, Thomas’s encounter with the night. Blanchot writes:
The night soon appeared murkier and more terrible to him than any other night, as though it had really come forth from a wound in thought that could no longer be thought, thought treated ironically as an object by something other than thought. It was night itself. Images that made up its darkness flooded over him, and his body, changed into a demonic mind, sought to picture them to itself. He could see nothing, and, far from being overwhelmed by this, he made this absence of vision the culminating point of his gaze. Useless for seeing, his eye took on extraordinary proportions, grew beyond measure, and, stretching to the horizon, let the night penetrate to its centre in order to create for itself an iris. So it was, by virtue of this emptiness, that his gaze and the object of his gaze mingled together. Not only did the eye which could see nothing apprehend something, it apprehended the cause of its vision. It saw as an object that which prevented it from seeing.
(T01, 14–15; cf T02, 17–18; 14–15)
This night—night ‘as such’—is not the luminous night of the concept nor of dialectics, but the night before the concept and before dialectics; it is the night that precedes the night, the night that is itself impenetrable to the thought of night but which is the necessary prior condition of that thought. As such, its status is uncontrollably paradoxical. In so far as it is irreducible to dialectical reason and logical negation, Thomas’s night before night cannot be thought as night, nor can it be addressed as a prior cause of night; it remains foreign to all forms of identity as well as all narrative chronology. This night is not a night, therefore, nor does it occur before night; it is the night thinkable only as that which is external to the concept of night, and, to that extent, may be described only as a radical impossibility of night. And yet because this is the night which does precede the night, it is necessarily also that which enables the night—both word and thing—to appear as such; and to that degree it must logically already hold within itself the possibility of the appearance of night.
The night ‘itself’, then, in Blanchot’s description, features here as both possibility and impossibility; indeed possibility at one level is entirely dependent on impossibility at another. This explains the peculiar experience undergone by Thomas as he peers into the depths of night. For as he gazes on, in the darkness, with his unseeing eye, at his own inability to see, all he can make out, in the lack of any visible object, are the circumstances that might make vision possible. However, those circumstances do not themselves constitute an object of vision; what they do is rather to present Thomas with the spectacle of an absence of vision, with the result that Thomas, blinded by this absence of sight, is faced, so to speak, with the vision of the circumstances that prevent him from seeing anything at all. So as Thomas stares on, unseeing, into the night, what he finds himself looking at is not just the absence of a particular visible object, nor simply the absence of visibility as such, but, more radically, the presence of that darkest of other nights (as Blanchot terms it elsewhere) which is the only truly nocturnal night of all, the night that is impenetrable to all visibility and synonymous with an originary impossibility of vision which is nothing other than the prior condition of visibility as such.4
Throughout Thomas l’Obscur, possibility in general is retraced, as here, to the originary impossibility that must be excluded or negated in order for possibility to be constituted as such. Blanchot dramatises this here with regard to vision; elsewhere he does so in relation to language. The logic is much the same. For the night before night that confronts Thomas in the darkness is both irreducible to the word night and yet its necessary condition of possibility. The night ‘itself’ is both prior to the word night and the word’s most original inspiration; yet while the other, darker night, to which the word night pays silent homage, cannot itself be incorporated within language, the—impossible—attempt to name that night before night is nevertheless, in Blanchot’s account, what constitutes the purpose of literature as such. According to this Orphic logic, by which possibility is only ever a function of prior impossibility, and an object only ever grasped at the very moment of its ineradicable loss, the unnamable night before night constitutes the only (im)proper object (or absence of object) that literature may claim as its very own, even though for it to do so is for literature to be reminded all the while that what counts as its own is also that which is irrepressibly alien to it. The paradox is one that has radical implications for Blanchot’s fiction. On the one hand, the night ‘itself’, by tracing the limit that passes between language and that which is irreducible to it, is evidently—as mystery or enigma—what enables narrative to take place at all; on the other hand, however, in so far as it cannot be enclosed within the bounds of narrative, such a night necessarily also transgresses those bounds, disables narrative, and throws the very possibility of narrative into question. Narrative is no longer in control of itself, and is left instead, as in the case of Thomas l’Obscur, to grapple with the impossibility of naming that constitutes it as narrative. Such self-reflexive turns are crucial to Blanchot’s fiction, as the example of Thomas l’Obscur shows; and just as the impossibility of vision reveals what is arguably most extreme and fundamental about sight itself, so the most radical and far-reaching of novels for Blanchot are those that pursue narrative to their originating point, which is that of their own dissolution.
As all readers of Blanchot’s fiction know, the impact of this bizarre yet rigorous logic on Blanchot’s work is persistent and dramatic. What it does to Thomas l’Obscur, for instance, is to turn the novel into a monstrous and heterogeneous infusion of oxymoron, aporia, and paradox; and it is from this potent verbal brew—more central than one might think to mainstream literary thinking in the twentieth century—that flow the many baffling figures and tropes that litter Blanchot’s text. Witness, for instance, the eerie spectacle of Thomas, this very first of human beings (TO1, 133), who, in the depths of night, finds himself
grappling, in dreadful solitude, with something absolutely inaccessible, absolutely foreign to all being, absolutely inconceivable, something which he could say did not exist, yet which filled him with terror and which he could sense lurking within the space of his own solitude.
(TO1, 24; cf TO2, 30; 27)
Thomas, we read, is a character who, were he to be seen with his own eyes, ‘would have appeared in the form of an entity that existed only in so far as it did not exist entirely’ (TO1, 41); who is thus ‘really dead and yet at the same time excluded from the reality of death’ (TO1, 48; cf TO2, 40; 36), and is ‘in every circumstance anonymous and entirely without history’ (TO1, 64; cf TO2, 56; 55).
Thomas it is, the novel adds, who is ‘in each human act the dead person that simultaneously renders it possible and impossible’ (TO1, 212; cf TO2, 106; 93); who is at bottom a figure ‘whose true essence was not to be, on whom the fact of not being conferred neither a diminution nor an aspiration to being, who could not be considered as lacking but as superabundant’ (TO1, 216); and who, to close, avers: ‘I am indeed the origin of that which has no origin’ (TO1, 226; cf TO2, 129; 108). And all these attributes are not limited to Thomas; many of them are found, too, in the figure of Anne, the novel’s Eurydice, who, at the moment of her own death, is one of the few to realise to what extent ‘death, destroying everything, could also destroy the possibility of annihilation’ (TO1, 204; cf TO2, 96; 85). As she does so, she demonstrates clearly how the preoccupation with dying, throughout Blanchot’s work, is less in the service of negativity or nihilism than of radical passion, irreducible extremity, and boundless affirmation.
In the language of Heidegger, the nothing (‘das Nichts’) that Blanchot stages in this way in Thomas l’Obscur is of course not nothing, because the question it raises, as Heidegger maintains, is the question of Being itself.5 One is reminded here of Blanchot’s early review of La Nausée, in which he described Sartre’s novel as aspiring—with only partial success—to the status of ‘a kind of novel of Being’ (‘une sorte de roman de l’être’) and went on to recall the importance of Heidegger for a proper assessment of the challenges facing modern art. Texts such as the recently translated ‘What is Metaphysics?’ of 1929, claimed Blanchot, ‘allow one to gauge the force and creative will of [Heidegger’s] thinking which, in the infinite contest between laws, understanding and chance, offers art a new point of view from which to contemplate its necessity’.6 This endorsement of Heidegger in the review explains why Blanchot was somewhat critical of what he describes as Sartre’s undue concessions to traditional psychological analysis and conventional plotting. Blanchot was evidently both too much and too little of a philosopher to be tempted by the project for an existential anthropology implicit in La Nausée, and when Thomas l’Obscur appeared, three years after La Nausée, it accordingly made only minimal concessions to the demand for either character or plot. But despite the profound differences between them, La Nausée and Thomas l’Obscur share a similar objective, which is that of pursuing within fiction a project that has all the signs of a foundational philosophical enterprise. But where Sartre was ultimately to rely on the self-transparency and self-reflexive freedom of the narrating subject, Blanchot was to pursue some of the implications of the Heideggerian ‘nothing’ in a more radical way, one that, as we have seen, begins gravely to compromise the foundational possibilities of language and literature as such.
Blanchot’s first move in Thomas l’Obscur is in fact not to adhere to the economy of Heideggerian Being at all, but rather to transpose or translate the Heideggerian principle of the ‘nothing’ into the rather different language of Emmanuel Levinas, more particularly into the Levinasian topos of the il y a, that phrase signifying ‘there is’, which, for Levinas, replaces the originary generosity of the Heideggerian gift of Being (as expressed in the German phrase: es gibt) with the horror and anonymity of being.7 This use of the phrase il y a was not exclusive to Levinas, however, for it was cited in much the same way by Blanchot in his story ‘Le Dernier Mot’, where it is identified—by the story’s first-person narrator as constituting ‘no doubt’ the last word mentioned in the title (Après coup … 66; 45). But if for Blanchot’s story il y a is that last word, the narrator explains, it is because ‘the last word cannot be a word, nor the absence of a word, nor anything other than a word’ (Après coup … 77; 53). In this respect, the il y a is a strangely ambiguous moment of ontological foundation; on the one hand, since the il y a is logically prior to all propositions, including negative ones, and cannot itself be negated, it necessarily serves as a moment of foundation for being; but, on the other hand, as Levinas insists, if the il y a necessarily precedes the constitution of any world whatever, be it a fictional or non-fictional one, it follows that the il y a poses an implicit, ineliminable challenge to the autonomy and stability of that world. Considered from the point of view of the il y a, the world derives its possibility from prior impossibility. So if the il y a is a founding moment, what it founds is in fact an absence of world; what it inscribes is a series of always anterior repetitive traces whose origin is always lost. Accordingly, when the il y a does reveal itself, Levinas argues, it does so in the form of eternal wakefulness; and what it dramatises is not self-presence nor originary giving, but the necessary intrication of being and otherness and the irreducible dependence of all giving on what is a prior and thus infinitely irredeemable debt.
To the extent that it becomes synonymous with the necessary failure of all beginnings and endings, the il y a demonstrates what Levinas describes in De l’existence à l’existant as ‘the impossibility of death, the universality of existence even in its annihilation’.8 But if absence is always already a form of presence, presence itself must be at some risk of forfeiting the very proximity and nearness at hand that make it what it is. Presence is always already marked by its own alteration and by the inherent possibility of non-presence. Ineluctable alterity threatens from the outset; and being becomes inseparable here from its own boundless absence and impossibility of foundation. The implications of Thomas l’Obscur are much the same. What Blanchot’s novel suggests is that, if the attempt is made in the language of fiction to grasp being for itself, so to speak, then being turns out necessarily to be always already inhabited—and thereby dissolved—by alterity, loss of origin, infinite repetition, absence, nothingness, the impossibility both of beginning and of ending. By a dizzying and outrageous paradox, being comes to function like an instantiation of its own groundless absence. As far as Blanchot’s writing is concerned, the result is both poverty and plenitude, nothingness and infinity, a radical emptiness that, by interrupting the all, finds itself facing the fact of its own boundless exteriority. Literature, here, oscillates uncontrollably between that which is and that which refuses to be; what writing founds as possibility at one moment, it dismantles as impossibility at another.
If Thomas l’Obscur is a novel of the impenetrability of night ‘itself’, Aminadab, the second novel involving Blanchot’s Thomas, is a novel of unremitting daylight. This is what is stressed in the novel’s opening sentence, which reads: ‘It was broad daylight’ (‘Il faisait grand jour’, AB, 7). Compared to Thomas l’Obscur, Aminadab is a novel of mimetic representations and artefacts. But from the outset, this mimetic impetus in the novel is sharply and ironically curtailed. This becomes clear very soon after the beginning of the story, when Thomas, having boldly entered the boarding house, is invited to select a room for himself. Shortly after, in typically uncanny fashion, Thomas finds himself in a place containing a strange painting contraption, comprising, among other things, a complicated assemblage of pullies and ropes, several stools, an easel, a mirror, a spotlight, a sundial, and a collection of palettes dripping paint on to the floor. Thomas sits down on one of the stools, and, looking at the unfinished painting, realises that much of the detail of the room he is in has already been faithfully copied on to the canvas, including the very stool on which he is sitting. Eventually the painter completes Thomas’s portrait; and though the painter seems most satisfied with his work, Thomas for his part can find no resemblance at all between his own face and the portrait; and it is as though Thomas, his features aged and blurred by the painting, has been incorporated into the picture under false pretences, as an effaced simulacrum of himself.
In the course of this description, the narrator remarks: ‘It was difficult to tell what was there to do the painting and what was there to be painted’ (‘Il était difficile de savoir ce qui dans cet ensemble devait servir à être peint ou à peindre’) (AB, 19). A similar reversibility or indecision applies to Blanchot’s description as well; for over and above the story of Thomas, it is apparent that what is being depicted in this scene of mimetic reproduction is the process of mimetic reproduction as such. On Blanchot’s part, the description of the studio is plainly a novelistic mise-en-abyme, whose purpose is to dramatise and test out whatever claim might be made by this novel—and all other novels in general—to be adhering to some form of mimetic realism. But Blanchot’s text rapidly shows that the theory of mimesis, like much else in the novel, rests on a fundamental paradox. The only perfect imitation of an object would be in fact that object itself. Such redoubling would produce, however, not resemblance, but repetition. Before any object may be perceived as an exact, mimetic copy of another, a margin of alterity must first have differentiated object from copy in order that the relation of resemblance between the two may be instituted at all. But in so far as resemblance is founded in differentiation, mimesis in the true sense proves to be an impossibility. Mimesis, it transpires, only functions at all in so far as the imitation is an imperfect one. Indeed, it may be said that it is only because of the impossibility of mimetic identity in the true sense that mimesis is possible at all. But, by that token, the relationship between object and copy falls subject to a logic that necessarily escapes the concept of mimesis, with the consequence that any theory of mimesis is left with the insurmountable problem of accounting for the existence of the mimetic process itself, since that process, though it may produce objects that are judged to be mimetically accurate, is not itself an imitation. An ineliminable residue remains, which necessarily exceeds mimesis; like the question of the inaugural light that illuminates—without clarifying—the world depicted in Aminadab itself, something radically other than the fictional world itself continually survives, intelligible only as an obscure enigma defying translation into anything other than itself.
Throughout Aminadab, the reader is faced with ineluctable, aporetical impasses of this sort. The result, as far as the text is concerned, is radical uninterpretability. Moreover, Blanchot’s text is itself largely made up of conjecture, commentary, interpretation and gloss, attributed to a variety of characters, all claiming to make sense of the internal workings of the enigmatic world of the boarding house in which the novel is set. Paradoxically, the sheer number of these often contradictory internal commentaries makes interpretation not easier, but harder. Indeed, one of the ways in which the novel resists interpretation is by already incorporating within its textual fabric numerous other, already available mythological, philosophical, religious, literary, or rhetorical discourses. On one level, these serve to exacerbate the apparent interpretability of Blanchot’s narrative; at the same time, by overlaying the narrative with a palimpsest of rival interpretations or commentary, they also obliterate the narrative and leave the reader, as it were, with little hermeneutic business of his or her own. Yet these internal discourses, though they may exhaust the text, are themselves never exhausted by it, if only because, to a large degree, they are what constitute the text as such. The bizarre result is a writing in which everything already seems to possess somewhere in the novel its own implicit or explicit interpretation, except for the process of commentary itself, which remains uninterpreted and, one might add, boundlessly uninterpretable, with the result that what seems lucid at one stage becomes quite opaque at another. The inhabitants of this boarding house, Thomas reflects at one point, in free indirect speech, are many of them liars and rogues (AB, 33). What could be more lucid? We are reminded, however, elsewhere in the text, that this is only Thomas’s—negligent and entirely short-sighted?—interpretation of what is going on, in which case that thought too is just as likely to be completely false. So as far as the reader is concerned, all Thomas’s opinion might be held to show is how far Thomas, too, is nothing but a liar and a rogue.
But it would be wrong to conclude from this kind of hermeneutic paralysis that all in the novel is equally mendacious or arbitrary. To do so would be to ape Thomas’s own fondness for unreliable generalisation and fall, with the protagonist, into the trap of negligence and misrepresentation (assuming for a moment—concesso non dato!—that the house is not indeed full of liars and rogues). In place of this kind of lazy relativism, what Blanchot’s text suggests instead—and this is the particular inflection that Aminadab gives to the question of the il y a—is that when it comes to interpretation it is always already too late. Reading, writing, speaking are weighty obligations, from which it is impossible to withdraw, that remain incumbent on all of us, whether we wish it or not. Like Thomas during most of the early part of the novel, to go anywhere at all is always to be accompanied by the irksome, inevitable presence of that other who, in the form of the character Dom—whose name evokes the Lord to whom Thomas is forced continually to play the part of reluctant bondsman—is literally chained to him as his very own special, alien companion. Just as Thomas himself is a sometimes unwilling reader of the discourses he encounters on his journey through the house, which he cannot elude, so the reader, too, so long as he or she is a reader, cannot avoid becoming entangled in this text, enchained to a narrative and a controversy that may be without resolution but are not without making their own urgent, ineluctable appeal for the reader’s attention.
But within or beneath the text, disturbing its foundations, just as the basement—according to Dom—runs under the house, offering a possible space of freedom far from the light of day, there is always the lure of something else, an outside, which seems to offer hope of escape. To suggest this finally is perhaps the purpose of the title of Aminadab. The name, unexplained until some fourteen pages before the end, arrives suddenly, referring only to some perhaps legendary gatekeeper whose role it is to guard the great gate leading below the house to the basement. But the existence of such a figure, the reader is told, is probably a myth, and the great gate only a wooden fence; in any case, if Thomas were to leave by the basement, all he might find would be the impossibility of dying and the cruel torment of rebeginning. Better, says Dom, to stay inside the house. But to do so would of course be not to find rest, but to remain, like Aminadab the mythical gatekeeper, hovering between house and basement, inside and out, fiction and truth, legend and reality, always embarked, like at least one of his earlier, Biblical namesakes, on the endless journey out of Egypt, together with the other children of Israel, towards an ever distant promised land. This novel, like history, fails to conclude, and the light the novel throws on such events remains obstinately opaque.
Throughout the whole of both Aminadab and Thomas l’Obscur, the question arises of how these texts are to be read. Neither book allows one to entertain for long the possibility of reading them as conventional realist texts; and the reader is obviously tempted instead to attempt to decode, if not perhaps Thomas l’Obscur, then at least Aminadab, as Sartre was the first to propose, as an allegory. But if Aminadab is an allegory, it is not because—as Sartre contends—the novel is simply a coded, fantastical representation of the metaphysical dereliction of modern man. If Aminadab is readable at all as a second-degree, allegorical narrative, one that incorporates within itself, so to speak, the perpetual possibility of another, figurative layer of interpretation or legibility, it is because, by its very resistance to interpretation, the novel implicitly appeals at every turning to the possibility of there being another text, another interpretation, another commentary able to frame the text and somehow efface its startling indeterminacies.
However, nothing in Blanchot’s novel allows itself to be deciphered in this way. That other, parallel discourse into which the novel might be translated is nowhere accessible, and the logic of allegory, ironically conceding its own failure in the form of the novel’s refusal to be paraphrased or translated except into the text it always already is, serves here only to reaffirm the impenetrable clarity and radiant obscurity of Blanchot’s writing. In Paul de Man’s phrase, allegory supplies here only the story of an ‘impossibility of reading’;9 it operates not as a trope of self-reflexive interiorisation or self-representation but as a figure of exposure to what Foucault, glossing one of Blanchot’s later essays on Kafka, terms the outside, that alterity that can never be included within conceptual thought because, like the night before night of Thomas l’Obscur, it is what constitutes the unspeakable condition of thought itself. If it is an allegory, Aminadab is at best an ironic or impossible one, and the phantom, parallel, other reading that the novel may be thought to propose is in fact nothing other than the novel itself perpetually repeated and continually reread, with the result that the relationship between the text and its own reading is a relationship of radical strangeness, both infinite proximity and infinite distance.
As the story of Aminadab the gatekeeper serves to illustrate, there is in Blanchot’s novels no exit from the labyrinth of language and fiction. Reading here is possession of the reader by the text, not interiorisation of the text by the reader. Early in Thomas l’Obscur, Blanchot dramatises this strange reversal. As Thomas sits at his desk, reading, he is devoured by the text before him as though by a praying mantis; and in this singular sexual aggression, it is not just a case of Thomas reading the text, but rather of the text reading him. The Thomas of Aminadab, as his decisions too become the object of conjecture and interpretation by the other inhabitants of the boarding house, undergoes a similar mutation; and the effect, in both fictions, is not just, to portray Thomas as an obstinate reader, but to transform the reader into a double of Thomas, unable to withdraw from the strangely circular, empty obligation of always being a reader of words continually read by words. Reading here is a process of endless submission to language. Indeed, it transpires that even to interrupt reading is still to be caught in the act of reading words as well as being read by them. The only option that remains is to repeat, recite, reinvent words with a view not to reasserting the apparent presence of words to themselves, but by responding to their fundamental absence from themselves. Which is what Blanchot did in 1950 by signing a second version of Thomas l’Obscur, one that, by virtue of the many changes it makes to the 1941 text, itself has the status of a detailed reading or interpretation of the earlier work, but which, for all that, is also a restatement of the previous version in its fundamental difference from itself. In this rereading of Thomas l’Obscur by Blanchot there is thus no progress towards clarification, no lifting of ambiguity, no added profundity. All the new version of the novel does is to add further to the burden of reading. By so doing, what it shows is that works such as Thomas l’Obscur are always other than what they seem, and that if they seem to belong to impenetrable night, to the impossibility of beginning and the impossibility of ending, they respond to that condition with the unrelenting persistence of an act of limitless affirmation.
In this way, as they tirelessly endeavour to found their own possibility as fictions, Blanchot’s novels are impelled by the logic of that ambition to contest without end the possibility of all such acts of temporary foundation. Literature is not an entity coincident with itself and possessed of the purity of self-presence, as Blanchot’s pre-war or wartime criticism might lead one to believe; it is more like a constant movement of disappearance and effacement that is perpetually put into crisis by its own lack of stability, identity, or definition. In the end, what Blanchot’s novels demonstrate is the fundamental aporia and impossible possibility of literature ‘as such’. For literature founds itself only upon the abyss; and whatever literature founds, therefore, including literature itself, is necessarily without foundation. The implication, too, is that the proper name Thomas, that doubter and twin to his own other self, is only ever a mark of the writer’s anonymity, a lingering trace of the original namelessness that for Blanchot the novelist represents both the appeal and necessity of literature as such. …
This is not to say there are not a number of useful studies of these early novels available for consultation. See, in particular, Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Aminadab ou du fantastique considéré comme un langage’, in Situations, I (Paris, Gallimard, 1947), 148–73 (Literary and Philosophical Essays, translated by Annette Michelson (London, Hutchinson, 1955), 56–72); Jean Starobinski, ‘Thomas l’obscur: chapitre premier’, Critique, 229, June 1966, 498–513; Michel Foucault, ‘La Pensée du dehors’, Critique, 229, June 1965, 523–46 (‘The Thought from Outside’, translated by Brian Massumi in Foucault—Blanchot (New York, Zone Books, 1987), 9–58); Daniel Wilhem, Maurice Blanchot: la voix narrative (Paris, Union générale d’éditions, 1974); and Ann Smock, ‘“Où est la loi?”: Law and Sovereignty in Aminadab and Le Trés-Haut’, Sub-stance, 14, 1976, 99–116. In this section, I refer primarily to the 1941 version of Thomas l’Obscur, using the abbreviation T01; wherever possible, I have also indicated the corresponding passages in the far shorter 1950 text (T02) on which Robert Lamberton’s 1973 English translation is based. On the two versions of the novel, see Rainer Stillers, Maurice Blanchot: Thomas l’Obscur: Erst- und Zweitfassung als Paradigmen des Gesamtwerks (Frankfurt a. M., Peter Lang, 1979).
The paradox is one Blanchot himself formulates elsewhere. Witness for instance, in a review of Le Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the reference to the peculiarly uniform light characterising events in that novel, which Blanchot describes as: ‘a brightness that makes all clear, and since it reveals all, except for itself, is the most secret thing of all’ (IV, 195; SS, 207).
Emmanuel Levinas, De l’évasion (Montpellier, Fata morgana, 1982), 87. In the essay, first published in 1935, Levinas gives himself the task of drawing out the philosophical consequences of what he describes as contemporary literature’s radical condemnation of the philosophy of being (69–70). As Blanchot was to remark some forty years later, referring to the similarly abrupt invocation of shame that occurs at the end of Kafka’s Trial, ‘one might think the death scene represents forgiveness, the termination of the interminable; only there is no end, since Kafka makes it clear that shame survives, which is to say, infinity itself, the mockery of life as life’s beyond’ (ED, 89; 53).
On the compelling figure of the other night in Blanchot, see L’Espace littéraire (EL, 169–84; 163–76).
See Martin Heidegger, ‘Vom Wesen des Grundes’ (1929) in Wegmarken, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 9 (Frankfurt a. M., Klostermann, 1976), 123 75. As Heidegger explains in his 1949 preface to the paper, ‘The Nothing is the Not of that which is and is thus Being experienced from the standpoint of that which is’ (‘Das Nichts ist das Nicht des Seienden und so das vom Seienden her erfahrene Sein’) (123).
Maurice Blanchot, ‘L’Ébauche d’un roman’, Aux écoutes, 30 July 1938, 31 (BR, 33–4); the recently translated volume of texts by Heidegger to which Blanchot is referring was Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique?, translated by Henry Corbin (Paris, Gallimard, 1938). In addition to the title essay, the volume also contained complete versions of ‘Vom Wesen des Grundes’ and Heidegger’s 1936 Rome lecture, ‘Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung’, as well as §§ 46–3 and 72 6 of Sein und Zeit, and §§ 42 5 of Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik. See Tom Rockmore, Heidegger and French Philosophy: Humanism, antihumanism and being (London, Routledge, 1995), 217.
For Levinas’s own early thinking on the topic, see De l’évasion, 70; and De l’existence à l’existant (Paris, Vrin  1990), 83–105 (Existence and Existents, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1978), 52–64). Levinas refers explicitly to Thomas l’Obscur in the discussion (De l’existence à l’existant, 103; Existence and Existents, 63). On the relationship between es gibt and il y a, see Levinas’ preface to the second edition of the book, De l’existence à l’existant, 10–13; Heidegger himself comments on the difference in the ‘Brief über den Humanismus’ (1946), Wegmarken, 334–7 (Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell (ed.) (London, Routledge, 1993), 237–40).
Levinas, De l’existence à l’existant, 100; Existence and Existents, 61.
Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1979), 205.
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SOURCE: A review of Awaiting Oblivion, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 228-9.
[In the following review, Malin comments on the “terrible beauty” of Blanchot's prose in Awaiting Oblivion.]
Blanchot is a terrifying writer [in Awaiting Oblivion]. The action takes place in a hotel room; a man and woman make cryptic remarks about such subjects as waiting, writing, time, and death. But the man and woman seem to melt into other ghosts—these may or may not be another man and woman or their secretive doubles. “He” and “she”—and “I,” the author—become ambiguous pronouns so that identities remain obscure. And, to complicate matters, the author seems to intrude into the text—but isn’t the text his own creation?—and to offer circular aphorisms. Thus the text is, in effect, a philosophical inquiry “posing” as a fiction (or vice versa), a work which is more complex than Waiting for Godot or The Beast in the Jungle, James’s text about waiting for a finality, a revelation.
I want to quote one passage to indicate the terrible beauty of this shocking text: “No one likes to remain face to face with that which is hidden. ‘Face to face would be easy, but not in an oblique relation.’” Notice that the first statement is written by the author. “Face to face” seems to contradict hidden. How can I confront something (a state of mind) which is hidden? But how do I know what is hidden if I can see or think or write it? The second sentence is presumably spoken by the “he” of the story. It is comic and bleak because it counterpoints rational inquiry into the nature of things with “oblique relation.” The statement itself is an “oblique relation.” Blanchot’s text is full of turns and counterturns. And this strange linguistic strategy is perhaps at the heart of the text.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8959
SOURCE: “Blanchot's Mother,”1 in Yale French Studies, No. 93, 1998, pp. 175-95.
[In the following essay, Huffer examines the relationship between gender and nostalgia in the rhetorical strategies of The Space of Literature.]
The death of the other restores men to each other.
—Nancy K. Miller, “The Exquisite Cadavers: Women in Eighteenth-Century Fiction”
I have to admit, the first time I read Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature2 over a decade ago, there was much that I just didn’t get. Strangely, though, the book haunted me—not because I understood it, but because its pages were filled with the yearning of ghosts. Blanchot’s story of literary space responded to my own romantic sensibilities; and despite—or perhaps because of—its mysterious, elliptical language, I felt a shudder when I read it. Now, rereading Blanchot for the umpteenth time, I still shudder, but for different reasons. I haven’t completely escaped Blanchot’s spell, but as my own libidinal yearnings have changed over the course of time, I have learned to demystify the mythical romance that frames his tale of poetic communication.
That demystification began, for me, with the realization that much of Blanchot’s haunting power comes from his implicit appeal to nostalgia. Nostalgia, I thought, is inherently conservative: nostalgia wants us to retrieve the past, to return to the good old days when men were men and women knew their place. So if that’s the case, I mused, perhaps there’s a link between the romantic frame and the nostalgia that drives it. Blanchot’s appeal to the myth of Orpheus is certainly romantic, but there’s more to it than that. OK, I surmised, it all seems to come back to Blanchot’s mother. She’s the one he’s really writing about.
This essay gives some analytical shape to those musings from my days in graduate school. My purpose here is to explore the nostalgic structure underlying Blanchot’s concept of literary space. In so doing, I ask the following questions: To what extent is Blanchot’s nostalgic model necessarily founded in heterosexual desire? Is that model paradigmatic of literary communication, as Blanchot seems to claim? What is the role of the mother in that nostalgic structure? Finally, is Blanchot himself, like Orpheus, engaged in a heroic quest to bring his own work into being? Who, ultimately, is his Eurydice?
Indeed, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a good place to start. In The Space of Literature, Blanchot retells the story of Orpheus, the tragic poet engaged in a heroic quest for his lost lover, Eurydice. Using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to describe the concept of literary space, Blanchot draws on the conventional frame of a heterosexual plot to give his theory of poetic communication the shape and movement of a romantic narrative. Here’s a reminder of the story:
Orpheus, a brilliant musician who sings and plays the lyre, becomes listless and silent with inconsolable grief at the death of his wife, Eurydice. Eventually, wandering into the Underworld where Eurydice has come to dwell, Orpheus once again begins to play. Enchanted by his music, the guardians of the Underworld grant him the favor of retrieving Eurydice under one condition: that he lead the way up to the light of day without looking back at his beloved wife. But just as Orpheus approaches the end of his journey, he is overcome with desire for Eurydice and, turning to gaze at her face, loses her forever.
The Orpheus myth is central to Blanchot’s concept of literary space. As he states in the epigraph to The Space of Literature, every book has a “center” that, like Eurydice, is harder to reach the more closely it is approached. In The Space of Literature, Blanchot explicitly tells us that the book’s center—the point toward which “the book is headed”—is the section entitled “The Gaze of Orpheus.” There Blanchot links the moment of Eurydice’s disappearance to the movement of limitless desire that brings a literary work into being. This moment in the Orpheus myth thematizes Blanchot’s project in The Space of Literature: to describe the operation through which the negativity of loss opens toward a promise of poetic communication. Eurydice’s disappearance symbolizes a loss that is recuperated by the compensatory gift of Orpheus’s song. “Orpheus’s error,” Blanchot writes, “seems to lie in the desire which moves him to see and to possess Eurydice, he whose destiny is only to sing of her. He is Orpheus only in the song” (172).
“He is Orpheus only in the song. …” Blanchot uses Orpheus to describe the coming into being of the literary work as an infinite movement between terms. Just as Orpheus approaches Eurydice only to lose her, so too artistic communication is the movement of one term in relation to another. Simultaneously, one term appears as the other disappears. The first, disappearing term is the object that inspires the artistic expression, while the second is the artistic representation of that object in the form of an image. Described in the vocabulary of the myth, Eurydice is the object or source of inspiration, and Orpheus’s song is the image that represents her. Thus his song comes into being at her expense: the more he is heard, the more absolutely she is lost. In fact, in order for the image to appear, the real object that it names must disappear. To state the same process in semiotic terms, Eurydice is the referent that disappears behind the sign—Orpheus-as-song—which comes to name the referent, to give it “form, shape, and reality in the day” (171). Such is the price of representation, the abyssal loss at the heart of writing.
To speak of the abyss at the heart of writing is, admittedly, to engage in a discourse of which many of us have long grown weary. When Foucault wrote, in a 1966 essay on Blanchot, that “we are standing on the edge of an abyss that had long been invisible,” he was, in fact, saying something new.3 That “something new” was the decentering of the subject of thinking and writing, Barthes’s “death of the author”4 or, as Foucault put it in the Blanchot essay, the recognition that “the being of language only appears for itself with the disappearance of the subject” (15). We’ve heard about this, ad nauseam. We’ve also heard, since the early 1980s, about the feminist response to the celebration of the decentered subject.5 As feminist critics have noted, theories that decenter the (masculine) subject paradoxically privilege the feminine by turning her into a seductive figure of absence. To put it simply, they celebrate woman by effectively making her disappear.6
Curiously, in that unfolding drama about the gendered articulation of a decentered subject, Blanchot’s voice is scarcely heard. And yet, most critics agree that Blanchot’s work is crucial to the theoretical developments that have come to be known as “French discourse,” a rubric that generally describes thinkers as divergent as Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida. P. Adams Sitney points out that in the late forties, Yale French Studies described Blanchot as “the most important critic in France.”7 And Geoffrey Hartman asserts: “When we write the history of criticism for the 1940 to 1980 period, it will be found that Blanchot, together with Sartre, made French ‘discourse’ possible.”8 Similarly, Timothy Clark professes that Blanchot’s 1949 essay on Mallarmé in La part du feu is “a kind of crude harbinger of deconstruction.”9 Indeed, Blanchot’s influence on twentieth-century French thought can hardly be overstated, and yet, as Sitney makes clear, Blanchot has been relatively neglected by the American intellectual establishment when compared with Barthes, Foucault, or Derrida. It is not so surprising, then, that while certain feminist critiques of “French theory” are by now well known, very little critical work has engaged Blanchot from a feminist theoretical perspective.10
So despite my reluctance to gaze yet again into Blanchot’s abyss of writing, that is precisely what I’m doing here—not simply because few have done so through a feminist lens, but also because engaging Blanchot opens up new insights into the history of modern French thought. Indeed, the concepts developed in The Space of Literature—as well as in Faux pas (1943), La part du feu (1949), Le livre à venir (1959), and L’entretien infini (1969)—are fundamental to the destabilization of discourse and subjectivity that marks much late twentieth-century theoretical discourse. Most crucially, Blanchot links the production of a decentered subject to the production of a literary work. Unlike later theorists influenced by his ideas, and most notably Derrida, Blanchot theorizes the specificity of literary space by distinguishing between poetic and other forms of communication.11 In so doing, he pushes to the extreme a form of thought that insists on the radical breach between the world of things and the world of representation. In Blanchot’s work, this breach is epitomized by the coming to being of the literary work; according to him, in poetic communication the divorce between word and thing is absolute. And with the unmooring of the sign from its referent comes the epistemological crisis of what Lyotard calls our “postmodern condition”: a loss of the belief in absolute truth.12
This loss of truth, then, is a corollary to the postulation of the decentered subject. Further, the radical skepticism underlying that philosophical stance has also led to a collapsing of the boundaries that distinguish literary from nonliterary discourses, epitomized, again, by the work of Derrida.13 Given this context, my interest in Blanchot lies in the connection between gender and a distinct literary space. The gendered structure of literary space is also, and at the same time, a nostalgic structure: nostalgia is characterized by the loss of a feminine object of desire. And it is precisely that gendered form of nostalgia that distinguishes literary from nonliterary communication in Blanchot. Blanchot’s nostalgia, therefore, constitutes a conceptual map to be traced and eventually reconfigured with feminist theoretical tools. Thus, this essay challenges Blanchot by interrogating the boundaries of sexual difference within which he postulates the breach between sign and referent: the gap that separates Orpheus from Eurydice.
While the Orpheus story is indeed essential to Blanchot’s description of poetic communication, there is another story at work in The Space of Literature as well. This second story both reinforces and complicates the first one, and its structure repeats the movement between appearance and disappearance sketched out in the story of Orpheus. The second myth is the psychoanalytic drama of the son and his mother. In Freud’s Oedipal version of the story, the son must move beyond the incestuous desire he feels for his mother by leaving her behind in the world of childhood, thereby entering adulthood and the world of men. Like the Orpheus myth, this story is played out as a heroic quest involving love and irrecuperable loss. Also, like the Orpheus story, the Oedipal story is inscribed in the frame of a romantic plot driven by heterosexual desire. Just as Orpheus must lose Eurydice in order to appear as a tragically poetic hero, so too the son must lose his mother in order to attain a similarly heroic status.
In The Space of Literature, the psychoanalytic story of Oedipus appears only implicitly through its structural parallels to the Orpheus story.14 Blanchot never names the Oedipal son, except as “the fascinated child” (33), consumed by his deadly attraction to the maternal face. Unlike the Orpheus story, which Blanchot explicitly locates at the book’s center, at first glance the Oedipal story would seem to play a marginal role in Blanchot’s theory of literary space. The mother and son appear only once in the main body of the text, in the section entitled “The Essential Solitude,” and once again in an appendix entitled “The Two Versions of the Imaginary.” Nonetheless, like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the romantic narrative of the son and his mother is crucial to Blanchot’s concept of poetic communication.
Both the Orpheus and Oedipus myths describe a movement of separation and return that forms the skeletal structure of nostalgia. Moreover, in both myths the point of loss is a feminine object of masculine desire: in the Orpheus story, this object is Eurydice; in the story of the Oedipal son, it is the mother. This parallel points to the gendered articulation of the nostalgic structure underlying Blanchot’s model of literary communication. Correspondingly, Blanchot’s two stories of nostalgic longing not only explain the specificity of literary communication as a structure of loss; they also, significantly, reveal a collapse of the figure of feminine absence into Eurydice and the mother. This collapse, symbolized by the moment of Orpheus’s gaze, forms the center of Blanchot’s theory of poetic communication.
ORPHEUS: TAKE TWO
One of the difficulties of Blanchot’s use of the Orpheus myth is its deceptively straightforward plot. Superficially, the movement of literary communication would appear, like the Orpheus myth, to follow a simple story line from separation to return, from loss to recuperation. However, a closer look both at the myth and at Blanchot’s appropriation of it suggests that the story is more complex than this. Crucial here is the distinction Blanchot makes between everyday and poetic communication. While both everyday and poetic communication involve a moment of loss, only poetic communication becomes a self-perpetuating process where, like a whirling dog chasing its own tail, loss pursues itself. It is precisely this infinite structure of loss that links Blanchot’s concept of poetic communication to the problem of nostalgia with which I am concerned here. More specifically, the continual movement between infinite loss and the infinite promise of restitution defines both the subjective experience of nostalgia and the rhetorical structure of trope.
In the Orpheus story, as Blanchot retells it, everything begins with Eurydice. As the initial loss that Orpheus must grieve, Eurydice is the origin of Orpheus’s song, his source of inspiration. In that sense, Eurydice’s death marks both an absence and the birth of desire provoked by that absence. Orpheus is the poetic subject whose task it is to bring absence into light as representation. The figure par excellence of the poet’s muse, Eurydice thus produces the movement of poetic expression: “For him [Orpheus] Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach. Under a name that hides her and a veil that covers her, she is the profoundly obscure point toward which art and desire, death and night, seem to tend” (171). As an abyssal absence, Eurydice thus simultaneously reveals and hides herself. Coming to the fore through the artifice of appearance (“sous un nom qui la dissimule”15), Eurydice shows herself in Orpheus’s song. At the same time, retreating into her disappearance behind the curtain that screens her (“sous un voile qui la couvre” ), Eurydice vanishes behind the song. Thus Blanchot describes the lost object’s self-disclosure in poetic communication: its appearance as disappearance is the paradoxical coming to being of the literary work.
The paradox of Blanchotian writing lies precisely in the imperative to transform absence into its substitute as figure; in order for Orpheus to find Eurydice again he must replace her absence with its figural representation: the sign replaces the referent it names. However, this process of figuration, through which Orpheus would find Eurydice, also guarantees that he will never find her again; he will only see her as she disappears behind the figure that will replace her. Following the constraints imposed by the guardians of the Underworld, Orpheus can only see Eurydice again by not seeing her, by turning away. He cannot face Eurydice in her absence, but rather must give that absence a false face through the gesture of turning away, or of troping her.
At this point in the process Blanchot has simply described the movement of figuration that defines any linguistic act: when we utter a word to describe a thing, we no longer see the thing. Like Orpheus, we turn away from the Eurydice-thing and, in so doing, replace her with a linguistic utterance. We know she is still there behind us, so to speak; but the rules of semiotics can’t allow us to see her and speak her at the same time. To speak means necessarily to turn the thing into a trope or figure. Thus Eurydice, the referent, becomes an utterance with a meaning (signifier/signified): the sign that is her replacement.
While this gesture of replacement is fundamental to the linguistic act, it is not the nostalgic center toward which The Space of Literature is headed. Rather, the book’s center—“The Gaze of Orpheus”—focuses on the moment of Orpheus’s transgression of the rules of semiotics described above. Having turned away from, and thus troped Eurydice, Orpheus does the one thing he is forbidden to do: he turns toward her to face the loss itself (“looking this point in the face” ), and, in that second turning, loses her forever. So it is not in Eurydice’s death, but in Orpheus’s attempt both to retrieve and see her as figure—in her disappearance a second time—that Eurydice is lost forever.
For Blanchot, then, poetic communication is a transgressive linguistic act that involves an extra turn of the tropological screw. In describing Orpheus’s extra turn, Blanchot points to what is commonly characterized as the heightened metaphoricity of poetic language, a language that removes itself from the world of things so as to create a suspended world of its own. Paradoxically, what is already a figure becomes even more of a figure; in turning toward Eurydice—the poetic thing—Orpheus forces her into a shape that is even further removed from the thing itself than before. Thus, with that moment of secondary loss, Blanchot marks the suspended time and space of poetic appearance: the “death sentence” that is also a “suspended sentence” condemning the literary work to the continual but impossible pursuit of itself through the figural replacement of absence.16
It is precisely this concept of secondary loss that constitutes literature’s nostalgic structure. Most crucially, just as the heightened metaphoricity of poetic language requires an extra turn of the trope, so too the specifically nostalgic desire that produces literature requires an extra turn. In terms of nostalgia, this second turning produces memory. Without the detour of memory—Orpheus’s second turn—a structure of loss cannot be nostalgic. Nostalgia requires memory, just as poetic language requires the troping of trope that is the extra turn.
Thus this secondary movement introduces memory into the nostalgic structure underlying literary communication in Blanchot. Orpheus’s second look reveals that the work, chasing its own tail, can only ever retrieve itself. Eurydice—the beginning, or origin of the work—is only there as a distant memory, a linguistic construct, a figure. When Orpheus turns toward her, she is already dead, replaced as a trope: “for is there ever a work? Before the most convincing masterpiece, where the brilliance and resolution of the beginning shine, it can also happen that we confront something extinguished: a work suddenly become invisible again, which is no longer there, has never been there. This sudden eclipse is the distant memory of Orpheus’s gaze; it is the nostalgic return to the uncertainty of the origin” (174, emphasis added).
Orpheus’s second look is a nostalgic look toward the work’s origin, precisely because that origin is long gone, or rather, was never really there. Paradoxically, in this nostalgic turn toward the origin, Orpheus guarantees that he will fail to see it. He can only ever see it as a memory, a fiction of his own making. Thus Orpheus’s memory is an eclipse: a recalling that blinds itself in the very gesture of looking back, a nostalgic return to an inaccessible origin. Eurydice, whose replacement as memory stands in for the origin, was never really there to begin with. For Blanchot, her interest lies only in her death and disappearance. And it is precisely in that guise of absence—as death and disappearance—that Eurydice remains the imperious and forever unattainable source of the literary work.
Thus literature records the memory of Eurydice: in other words, literature remembers that which is merely a product of its own desire, which is to be itself, as literature. Again, Orpheus is Orpheus only in song (172). This point is crucial in Blanchot’s construction of literature’s self-removal from any contextual reality: according to him, the secondary communication of literary language makes none of the truth-telling claims of mimetic representation.17 Literature does not contain images that reproduce reality as its figural copy, nor does it mimetically reflect empirical experience—giving life to that which is dead—by recalling it and filling it with poetic form. Blanchot’s conception of poetic communication emphasizes the gap between the world and literary representation, where poetic language merely gives a false appearance to the disappearance of reality, or death of the object. Consequently, according to Blanchot, poetic language makes no claims to being an accurate or truthful imitation of the world. Rather, in poetic communication language reproduces itself in its own image, in a self-reflective system of mediation. As Blanchot puts it:
Doesn’t language itself become altogether image? We do not mean a language containing images or one that casts reality in figures, but one which is its own image, an image of language.
[34, n. 3]
Literature is the space where language becomes an image of itself, where language speaks as an image of words.
Thus, unlike the objective, concept-building discourses of philosophy, history, or the sciences, the literary work constitutes itself in a negative relation to meaning, value, and truth. Its structure is circular: initiated by a loss requiring a replacement, literary fiction-making at the same time creates the absence requiring a replacement, that is, its own origin as loss. Orpheus loses Eurydice because he turns to face her; at the same time, he must turn to face her in order to lose her. Eurydice is that loss, and without the secondary turning that causes her to disappear forever, there would be no work to speak her as loss. Correspondingly, Orpheus exists only as the song that speaks this loss. As such, he is no more than the dispersed subject of a movement that both produces and requires its own inaccessible origin in loss. And this origin can only exist as the fictional construct, or memory, of an origin.18 Thus the necessary but illusory source of the literary work was, from the start, a figural replacement: a woman who, in appearing, must disappear.
So for Blanchot, the gaze of Orpheus lays bare the illusion of the origin of the literary work, highlighting literature’s self-removal from truth in the very gesture of seeking it. In other words, in both producing and laying bare the illusion of the origin, literature brings itself forth as deception, as fiction, as “untruth.” Correspondingly, the nostalgic longing for an origin that drives that process is itself both the product and cause of an illusion whose ground is nothing but itself. In the moment of the gaze back toward Eurydice, Orpheus perceives no real object or figure because all he sees is the reflection of his own looking as movement. What Orpheus perceives, then, is a reality that is rendered poetic because it is twice mediated, twice deferred, twice removed from itself as truth. Further, because it is illusory, this poetic space is also duplicitous: it is both the depth behind every poetic image, and thus a limitless source from which to draw inspiration and, at the same time, nothing but the image itself, a reflection of itself as mere words. The look thus creates its own origin, the fascinating depth of memory. Like an image ricocheting in a hall of mirrors, literature remembers and longs for itself.
Blanchot’s concept of literary space could thus be described, in philosophical terms, as the appearance of truth in its veiling; to look at truth in order to face it means, at the same time, to lose the possibility of seeing it. Philosophically, at least since Plato, truth is linked with seeing: the more we see, the closer we get to truth. For Blanchot, however, truth is always the reserve of the visible, the dark edge of the knowable, the thing we can’t see. Thus the conditions of possibility of poetic communication and the conditions of possibility of seeing the truth are linked—through the structure of Orpheus’s gaze—by the conditions of possibility of vision. To look at the visible—Eurydice-as-figure—means, at the same time, to look at the possibility of visibility itself. And to look at that possibility means to be blinded, for one cannot see oneself looking, except in a mirror, and then one is no longer seeing the looking itself.19 To look at visibility—the possibility of vision—means, paradoxically, to look at the impossibility of seeing. Literature thus exposes the trap of truth: the closer we get to it, the more we lose it, because the only way we can say it is by holding up the reflective screen of language, the mirror in which all we see is ourselves.
Thus literature is the space where speaking is only the image of speaking and where seeing is only the look in the mirror. So when Orpheus tries to bring Eurydice into the light of day, he must do so, in turning away, through the metaphorical operation of not-seeing, that is, through the detour of figuration. And when he transgresses the law in order to turn to face her, he can only see through memory, which is necessarily self-reflective, a mirroring of his own gesture of looking. His song, then, is the look in the mirror, language reflecting itself as image. Thus in the very gesture of looking at Eurydice-as-truth, at the very possibility of his own seeing, Orpheus loses her (that truth, that possibility of seeing) forever. This explains even further why Blanchot emphasizes the gap between literature and truth, the necessity in literature to “belong to the shadow of events, not their reality, to the image, not the object, to what allows words themselves to become images, appearances—not signs, values, the power of truth” (24). For Blanchot, literary language does not signify or carry meaning, does not refer, and does not function within a system of values where it would make claims as truth. In other words, the loss that constitutes literature’s nostalgic structure—the loss of Eurydice, the loss of the origin—means not only that literature cannot tell the truth (i.e., fiction as the opposite of veracity), but, most crucially, that literature is literature because it lays bare its self-recognition as untruth.
OEDIPUS: TAKE TWO
Literature’s self-recognition as untruth brings us back to the realm of self-reflective illusion dramatized by the Orpheus myth. This realm of illusion is also the space where the drama of the mother and son unfolds. Just as the Orpheus story occurs in a shadow-world, so too the equally romantic story of the Oedipal son takes place in a space of self-mirroring images. This space—the space of literature—is what Blanchot calls the milieu of fascination: “where what one sees seizes sight and renders it interminable, where the gaze coagulates into light, where light is the absolute gleam of an eye one doesn’t see but which one doesn’t cease to see since it is the mirror image of one’s own look” (32–33). Fascination names the in-between space of the second look, a self-blinding, self-mirroring turning to see: “the gaze turned back upon itself and closed in a circle” (32).
Most crucially for Blanchot’s Oedipus, this fascinating “limitless depth behind the image” (32) is described as the realm of childhood, the maternal place to which the son—like Orpheus to Eurydice—nostalgically returns:
If our childhood fascinates us, this happens because childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated. And this golden age seems bathed in a light which is splendid because unrevealed. But it is only that this light is foreign to revelation, has nothing to reveal, is pure reflection, a ray which is still only the gleam of an image. Perhaps the force of the maternal figure receives its intensity from the very force of fascination, and one might say then, that if the mother exerts this fascinating attraction it is because, appearing when the child lives altogether in fascination’s gaze, she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment. It is because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating, and that is also why all the impressions of early childhood have a kind of fixity which comes from fascination.
Here again, as in the Orpheus myth, Blanchot’s theory of literary space turns on the fulcrum of the disappearing appearance of a feminine figure, this time in the guise of the mother. In this way Blanchot sets up a parallel between Eurydice and the mother as the figures of loss and illumination that constitute the “elemental deep” (34, n. 3) through which the literary work comes into being. In this context, both Eurydice and the mother are examples of the feminine figuration of the fiction of truth:20 the far edge of the sayable, “the furthest that art can reach” (171). Like Eurydice, or like truth, the mother appears, but only as dissimulation: “under a name that hides her and a veil that covers her” (171). Once again, literature is literature because it lays bare its “feminine” other, its self-recognition as untruth.
Why should we care about Blanchot’s mother in her role as feminine other? Indeed, most readers of Blanchot have focused on Eurydice’s role in Blanchot’s theory of literary communication. But the link between Eurydice and the mother is crucial; by focusing not only on Eurydice, but also on the mother, we can unmask the collapse of the feminine at the heart of nostalgia. It is precisely this collapse that allows us to interrogate the theoretical and political implications of Blanchot’s aesthetic theory. In other words, Blanchot’s collapse of woman into mother allows for an interrogation of the ways in which gender and nostalgia are linked in literary communication.
The unmasking of the link between gender and nostalgia puts into question Blanchot’s well-known concept of neutrality. Blanchot uses the term “neutrality” to describe the self-reflective realm of poetic communication that displays its own removal from a world of meanings and relative values. Further, he specifically uses the figure of the mother to mark the “neutral” (33) space of pure reflection in which that poetic communication occurs. However, the mother reveals that there is more to Blanchot’s neutrality than meets the eye.
On the one hand, the mother is the “neutral” marker of a space of pure reflection in which poetic production occurs, the absence that constitutes the irreducible ground of figuration as movement. As such, she marks meaninglessness itself, “a bit of non-sense, an X,”21 the interruption or suspension of signification that constitutes the Blanchotian literary space. To put it in terms used earlier to describe Orpheus and Eurydice: the mother marks literature as the tropological movement that recognizes itself as mere self-reflection and, therefore, is itself pure mediation, or language as a mere mirroring of itself. A deceptive place-holder22 that signifies nothing but the illusion of mediation as a referential mirror, the mother is the self-reflective realm of fascination that displays its own removal from a semiotic grid of relational values. Thus Blanchot describes the mother in terms of neutrality: “neutral, impersonal presence … the immense, faceless Someone” (33) of fascination.
However, that apparently neutral, nonfigural maternal absence is at the same time described by Blanchot as a figure: “Perhaps the force of the maternal figure (la figure maternelle) receives its intensity from the very force of fascination. … [S]he [the mother] concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment” (33, emphasis added). Thus the mother is both a figure and a nonfigure. On the one hand, she carries the force of meaning within a semiotic system of values constituted, at least in part, through a family structure in which gender functions as the binary opposition between paternal and maternal poles. At the same time, she is removed into a ghost-world of nonsignifying relationality. She is both the lost object with a face toward which the child nostalgically longs to return, and the nonhuman loss itself, the irreducible blank that, like Eurydice, was already lost from the start.
In this way, the woman-as-mother of Blanchot’s literary space remains, simultaneously, superficial and deep, the disappearing point that is both the acme of light and the vortex of darkness: “light which is also the abyss, a light one sinks into, both terrifying and tantalizing” (33). She is both the marked “thing” that must be there for anything to happen at all, and the neutral “nothing” whose existence is an illusion. As Derrida puts it in a different context: “The mother is the faceless figure of a figurant, an extra. She gives rise to all the figures by losing herself in the background of the scene like an anonymous persona. Everything comes back to her, beginning with life; everything addresses and destines itself to her. She survives on the condition of remaining at bottom [au fond].”23 That foundational but empty condition of language as mediation, its inaccessible but necessary ground, is the “anonymous, impersonal being” (Blanchot, 31) who can only appear in her feminine transformation as Eurydice or the mother. She is the paradoxical reminder of both survival and death, the sur-vie of surfaces that allows existence and creativity to continue, and the infinite depth of disappearance that swallows life and force behind an inescapable deception of appearances.
The key to understanding this maternal contradiction between figure and nonfigure, signification and non-sense, lies in its implications for Blanchot’s central concept of the operation of writing itself. As the space of pure relationality, the mother is the condition of possibility of language, the structure of the between that both allows a tropological system to keep turning and, at the same time, reveals the illusory apparatus undergirding that system. As “the relation the gaze entertains” (33), the maternal image is that formless, indifferent space of suspension, the gap of the interval that underlies the very possibility of figuration. Blanchot’s mother—“the fascinating … mother … of early childhood (du premier âge)” (33)—is neither an original space nor an originary time, but rather the continual movement of a relation between terms: the gap of the hyphen, of the inter-dit. However, in Blanchot, her appearance as a figure vested with meaning marks the inevitable humanization of the movement of loss that is itself the condition of the possibility of writing. As Blanchot puts it: “In this way the image fulfills one of its functions, which is to quiet, to humanize the formless nothingness pressed upon us by the indelible residue of being” (255).
Like Eurydice, the mother is the appearance of disappearance itself; as such, she constitutes the fulcrum around which the structures of nostalgia and trope are linked in Blanchot’s delimitation of literary space. It is important to remember here that the coupled figures of Eurydice and Orpheus, the mother and the son, are ways of naming the process through which literary communication happens. More precisely, that mythic structure of loss and figuration could most accurately be described as the movement of a relation. In that movement, something withdraws and, in that withdrawal, allows something else to come to the fore. Eurydice withdraws and, in that withdrawal, allows Orpheus to come to the fore. Similarly, the mother withdraws and, in that withdrawal, allows the son to come to the fore. That relation of disappearance and appearance constitutes the movement of figuration. In The Space of Literature, the heterosexual couplings of Eurydice-Orpheus and mother-son thus function—in the terms of a binary logic of complementary halves—as the internally divisible but inseparable markers of a nonhuman relational movement. The feminine half of these couplings—Eurydice or the mother—names the void or lack—the loss—at the center of the relation through which these apparently symmetrical opposites are produced.
The workings of the relational structure described above govern the mutually reinforcing structures of trope and nostalgia. In both the workings of trope and the thematics of nostalgia, the unattainable center of those movements of turning and return remains an irrecuperable void or point of loss. The result is a “poetics of pure figure”24 where language is completely self-reflective and removed from meaning or truth.
However, even Paul de Man would admit that this notion of a purely poetic language completely severed from its referential ground is “properly inconceivable” (de Man, 49). Yet it is precisely such a reference-free notion of language that emerges in Blanchot’s theory of literary communication. Blanchot explicitly links the paired stories of Eurydice and the mother to an “elemental deep” (34) that has nothing to do with signs that signify in the world. However, in order to appear, this limitless, formless, feminine, and maternal ground of babble—“the giant murmuring” (27)—must construct its own limits by opening into the form of an image—“language opens and thus becomes image” (27). That image both speaks and makes meaning. The illusion of a poetics of pure figure reveals itself as a rhetoric of value and meaning. Blanchot’s space of literature is not in the uncharted void of outer space; it is always and necessarily tied to its referent: a space on a map of the world.
THE POLITICS OF SEXUAL DIFFERENCE
If it is true, then, that a reference-free language is “properly inconceivable” (de Man, 49), there is much that could be said about the politics of Blanchot’s aesthetic theory. Despite Blanchot’s repeated insistence on the specificity of literary space as removed from a referential system of truthful correspondence between word and thing, meaning must and does occur. One such meaning is the transformation of the void at the center of figuration into the voice of a speaking subject. As we have seen, that void is feminine—Eurydice, the mother—and that voice is masculine—Orpheus, the son. The purportedly neutral workings of figural language rely on an ideologically-charged, value-laden structure of meaning embedded in the politics of sexual difference. These politics, to put it simply, erase the feminine so that the masculine may speak.
So, despite Blanchot’s removal of literature from the realm of truth, the workings of language have everything to do with truth and meaning. Moreover, because this meaning occurs in a context of relative value, the truth it tells is never ideologically neutral. Blanchot exposes this valuation in the stories he chooses to tell: the story of Eurydice and the story of the mother. Both of these stories thematize the movements of nostalgia, a nostalgia whose heterosexual, binary structure functions as a model for understanding Blanchot’s central concept of figuration. The disappearing appearance of object-into-image that, for Blanchot, characterizes poetic communication requires the collapse of woman-into-mother as blank or void at the point of that disappearance. Correspondingly, the speaking that remains takes the form of a presence and a voice that articulates a meaning. That voice describes the contours of literary space. It may speak in the name of silence, but it is not silent.25 The ones in whose name the voice speaks are the ones who are silent: Eurydice, the mother.
In thinking about Blanchot’s text as itself a gendered fiction of literary communication, it is imperative, then, to interrogate his concept of neutrality as it relates to the nostalgic structure of trope. Further, such an interrogation not only opens up the question of value and meaning from which Blanchot attempts to remove the concept of literary space, it also points to the necessary but unacknowledged masculinization of the Blanchotian poetic subject. The valorization of that masculine subject has implications for the purportedly decentered subject of a theoretical text—the one by Blanchot—that is generally regarded as a paradigmatic twentieth-century model of literary authority. However decentered, disappearing, and dispersed he might be, Blanchot’s “celui qui écrit”—“he who writes” (21)—nonetheless requires a structure of sexual difference anchored in meaning, value, and truth in order to exist at all. Thus Eurydice and the mother reveal, through the necessity of their own disappearance, the invisible logic of the subjective masculinization of Orpheus or the son, the “silent” discursive subject who, despite that silence, ends up speaking, signing his name, and thus authorizing a text with the power to communicate in a world of signs.
It is true that Blanchot himself accounts for the way literature ultimately comes to communicate in the world. But for Blanchot, it is precisely the purported neutrality of the structure of the “neutral, directionless gleam (lueur neutre égarée)” (32) that makes possible the transformation of hovering suspension into the promise of the communication of meaning. Blanchot describes that transformation as the filling up, through reading, of the radical opening of the origin with the life of the world and history: “filled with the world’s life and with history’s” (205). Thus the in-between space of pure reflection—“that which, in the work, was communication of the work to itself, the origin blossoming into a beginning” (205)—becomes anchored in the world of mimetic representation: “in the image of this world of stable things and in imitation of this subsisting reality” (205). In this way the in-between of pure relation is stabilized into the containment of meaning—“the ‘empty’ movement takes on content” (205)—and, as a result, “becomes the communication of a something [de quelque chose]” (205, translation modified).
This is how Blanchot accounts for the fact of reading and interpretation. It is through reading that the literary space disconnected from meaning becomes a movement toward signification, value, and truth. Most important, in that process the poetic subject disappears, swallowed, like Eurydice, into the violent opening of neutrality. And in that neutrality, according to Blanchot, the world settles into its place of endless interpretation, like a package wrapped in an anonymous reading. No longer a subject, the Orphic voice becomes the pure opening of song: “he is Orpheus only in the song” (172).
However, Blanchot’s description of a fragmented and dispersed Orphic voice in fact hides its own foundation in the binary and gendered structure of the origin and its loss. That structure is the structure of nostalgia. The lost origin—Eurydice, the mother—is recuperated, as loss, into a form that is not only thoroughly human but, like humanism itself, decidedly masculine as well. Moreover, that trembling neutrality describes a logic that attempts to go beyond dialectical thinking toward the pure neutrality of a poetic economy. Still, the seeming invincibility of the system’s purportedly neutral logic is also the mask marking the system’s failure. Blanchot’s neutral system of literary communication uses a structure of sexual difference in order to describe itself as neutral. In other words, it uses a value-laden discourse to describe the absence of value or truth. The neutral poetics of figure that, for Blanchot, is the outcome of loss, nostalgic longing, and the impossible return is not at all neutral. Released from the irrecuperable void of Eurydice’s fall, this Orphic neutrality comes to speak as a voice in which “we,” the reader, see “ourselves” reflected.
That “we,” to be sure, is a masculine one. Correspondingly, the fall of Eurydice is a feminine condition from which “we,” after all, must be delivered. It is precisely the production of the “we”—the “celui qui écrit”—that reveals the binary, gendered logic underlying what appears to be a space of neutrality.
So again, why should we care about Blanchot’s mother? Despite the radical opening that, through reading, releases literature from the self-reflective circle in which it is trapped, the gendered structure Blanchot’s theory requires produces an equally radical containment of meaning. That containment is the homogenization of the feminine as origin, disappearance, and elusive silence. From a feminist perspective, then, the opening of reading is already constrained by an always prior closing of the feminine at the moment of enunciation. The world that fills Blanchot’s “neutral” literary space is already dualized, binaristic, gendered. And in that gendered constraint, interpretive possibilities—other possibilities of speaking—are lost, so to speak, from the start.
I’m not sure what it would look like to do things differently, but surely we can start thinking in other, nonnostalgic directions. Let’s begin with the assumption that Eurydice and the mother aren’t lost at all; they’ve just been lost to “us” because “we” can’t hear them. Let’s assume they’re present. I imagine they’re pissed off. I imagine them resisting, refusing their collapse as well as their effacement. So what would happen if we took them seriously? What would happen—to Blanchot, to literature, to theory—if the feminine opened up, if the feminine became feminist, if Eurydice and the mother began speaking to each other?
Adapted in part from Chapter One in Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures: Nostalgia, Ethics, and the Question of Difference, forthcoming from Stanford University Press. Used with the permission of the publishers. Rights in the Stanford version are held by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).
Michel Foucault, “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside,” trans. Brian Massumi, in Foucault/Blanchot (New York: Zone Books, 1987), 15.
See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1977), 142–48. Also see Foucault, “What Is An Author?” in Textual Strategies, ed. Josué Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141–60.
For example, see the early debate (1982) between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy K. Miller, and its more recent epistolary sequel (1990) on the question of killing the female author, in Peggy Kamuf, “Replacing Feminist Criticism,” Diacritics 12 (1982): 42–47; Nancy K. Miller, “The Text’s Heroine: A Feminist Critic and Her Fictions,” Diacritics 12 (1982): 48–53; and Kamuf and Miller, “Parisian Letters: Between Feminism and Deconstruction,” in Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990), 121–33. See also Naomi Schor, “Dreaming Dissymmetry: Barthes, Foucault, and Sexual Difference,” in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987), 98–110.
The work of Luce Irigaray remains, in my opinion, the most clear and rigorous articulation of this phenomenon. See especially Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). For an early feminist overview of the celebration of the feminine in French modernity see Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). Also see Linda Nicholson’s introduction to Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990), 1–16.
P. Adams Sitney, “Afterword,” in Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, trans. Lydia Davis, ed. P. Adams Sitney (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981), 166.
Geoffrey Hartman, “Preface,” in Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, xi.
Timothy Clark, Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot: Sources of Derrida’s Notion and Practice of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 78.
This said, I am extremely indebted to the work that has been done on Blanchot from a feminist perspective. See Ann Smock, “Où est la loi?”: Law and Sovereignty in Aminadab and Le trés-haut,” Sub-stance 14 (1976): 99–116; Larysa Mykata, “Vanishing Point: The Question of the Woman in the Works of Maurice Blanchot,” Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1980, and Jane Gallop, “Friends/Corpses/Turds/Whores: Blanchot on Sade,” in Intersections: A Reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 35–66. The work of Mykata, although it focuses on Blanchot’s fiction, resonates with my work, as is evidenced by her incisive question, “Even if women cannot be treated as subjects or themes because they represent the void, if they are nonetheless pervasive in Blanchot’s fiction and necessary for the elaboration of his theoretical positions, why has no effort been made to relate their negative identity to the fundamental questions?” (8).
Of course, Blanchot is not alone in theorizing the specificity of literary discourse. See the work of structuralists, especially Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), 350–58. See also Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Ontology, Logic and Theory of Literature, trans. George Grabowicz (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973); Karl Bühler, Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language, trans. Donald Fraser Goodwin (Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1990); and René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).
See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
See especially Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology,” New Literary History 6 (1974): 5–74; and “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 202–32. Significantly, “The Law of Genre” is built around a reading of Blanchot’s La folie du jour (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973). For a critique of this slippage in Derrida, see especially Jürgen Habermas, “Excursus on Leveling the Genre Distinction between Philosophy and Literature,” in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 185–210.
For a more explicit engagement with the Oedipus myth, see the third section of “The Most Profound Question” in Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation (L’entretien infini ), trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1993), 17–24.
Blanchot, L’espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 225.
Derrida, for example, in Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986), describes the Blanchotian “death sentence” as “death and survival” (208, translation mine). Similarly, Geoffrey Hartman describes Blanchot’s characters as “despairing men [who] are sick unto death yet deprived of the ability to die” (107). See Hartman, “Maurice Blanchot: Philosopher-Novelist,” in Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958–1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 93–110. Blanchot’s Death Sentence (trans. Lydia Davis [Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1978]), exemplifies the contradictory imperative of figuration and disappearance that characterizes the literary work: “When someone who has disappeared completely is suddenly there, in front of you, behind a pane of glass, that person becomes the most powerful sort of figure [une figure souveraine]” (43).
Here Blanchot follows the structuralists, and in particular Jakobson, who distinguished between the poetic function and the functions of everyday speech. As Habermas puts it in his critique of Derrida’s denial of this distinction: “when language fulfills a poetic function, it does so in virtue of a reflexive relation of the linguistic expression to itself. Consequently, reference to an object, informational content, and truth-value—conditions of validity in general—are extrinsic to poetic speech” (“Excursus …,” 200).
Mary Jacobus’s reading of Freud’s “Childhood Memories and Screen Memories” in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) is pertinent here. Jacobus demonstrates that with Freud’s concept of screen memories “the status of memory is put in question. Instead of being a recovery of the past in the present, it always involves a revision, reinscription, or representation of an ultimately irretrievable past” (118). See Mary Jacobus, “Freud’s Mnemonic: Women, Screen Memories, and Feminist Nostalgia,” in Women and Memory, ed. Margaret A. Lourie, Domna C. Stanton, and Martha Vicinus, special issue of Michigan Quarterly Review 26/1 (1987): 117–39.
See Jacques Lacan on the structure of the look and the deception of philosophical contemplation: “That in which the consciousness may turn back upon itself—grasp itself, like Valéry’s Young Parque, as seeing oneself seeing oneself—represents mere sleight of hand. An avoidance of the function of the gaze is at work here” (Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1981]). Also see Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986).
For a similar formulation, see Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles/Eperons: Les styles de Nietzsche, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
See Andrzej Warminski, Readings in Interpretation: Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), xlix.
This idea of the “mother” as a “place-holder” assumes a context in which language is understood as pure iterability, and where the word “mother” is the “differential, nonsignifying, syntactical marker put in the place of that which was not there in the first place” (Warminski, xxxiv).
Derrida, “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name,” trans. Avital Ronell, in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, ed. Christie McDonald (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 38.
See Paul de Man’s reading of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus in “Tropes (Rilke),” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 48.
Characteristically, the biographical blurb for L’espace littéraire describes Blanchot as “silent”: “Maurice Blanchot, novelist and critic, was born in 1907. His life is entirely devoted to literature and to the silence that is particular to him/it [qui lui est propre]” (translation mine). Along the same lines, French journalist Jean-Marc Parisis gives Blanchot “a perfect score [noté vingt sur vingt] for the effectiveness of his self-effacement” (cited in Steven Ungar, Scandal and Aftereffect: Blanchot and France since 1930 [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995], 5). Of course, many have wondered about specific silences during Blanchot’s career as a writer and, in particular, his silence regarding the articles he published during the thirties for the collaborationist newspapers Combat and L’insurgé. As Blanchot himself puts it in regard to Heidegger’s notorious refusal to address his ties to the Nazi party during the war: “Allow me after what I have to say next to leave you, as a means to emphasize that Heidegger’s irreparable fault lies in his silence concerning the Final Solution” (Ungar, 63, my emphasis). See also Mehlman, “Blanchot at Combat: Of Literature and Terror,” in Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 6–22.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
SOURCE: A review of Pour l'amitié and Les Intellectuels en question, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 101-2.
[In the following review, Jaron discusses the intersections between literature, politics, and morality in Pour l'amitié and Les Intellectuels en question.]
Like Paul Valéry before him, Maurice Blanchot explains of himself that he has very little “historical” memory, which is to say, he knows that he lived during a dark age and in some measure participated in it, but he is unable to reconstitute it in his current writings. The recent release of two short books by him therefore gives us pause for reflection on the relation of literature and philosophy to political action and the moral conscience.
Pour l’amitié was first published as the preface to Dionys Mascolo’s 1993 A la recherche d’un communisme de pensée. It is less an introduction to Mascolo’s book than it is a discussion of their friendship, which began approximately when Mascolo supported the publication of Blanchot’s first book of critical essays, Faux pas (1943), as it was being rejected for publication not by Gaston Gallimard but by wartime censors. Pour l’amitié, like Les intellectuels en question, bears reading for the light it sheds on the author’s early years, when the political ambiguities of his fiction and critical writings caused him to be perceived as “Blanchot, cet inconnu.”
Les intellectuels en question is Blanchot’s contribution to a 1984 issue of Le Débat. Blanchot sketches a history of the meaning and application of the term intellectuel, whose beginnings he dates to the Dreyfus affair. This is well known, and readers will do well to turn to other discussions of the intellectual, should they seek greater historical depth. The immediate interest of this pamphlet lies in Blanchot’s self-positioning vis-à-vis intellectual figures such as Simone Weil, Léon Brunschvicg, Drieu La Rochelle, René Char, Levinas, and still others, and in his three summary conclusions. First, “Depuis qu’ils portent ce nom, les intellectuels n’ont rien fait d’autre que de cesser momentanément d’être ce qu’ils étaient (écrivain, savant, artiste) pour répondre à des exigences morales, à la fois obscures et impérieuses, puisqu’elles étaient de justice et de liberté.” Second, “Les intellectuels, attachés en général à l’exigence de liberté, n’ont pas pris garde que le bien (la libération des peuples) allait s’altérer d’une manière grave s’il demandait ou seulement acceptait que le mal (la guerre) hâte ou assure sa venue.” A third difficulty they confront (and have confronted since Dreyfus) in virtue of being intellectuals is that they “détournent l’influence qu’ils ont acquise, l’autorité qu’ils doivent à leur activité propre pour les faire servir à des choix politiques, à des options morales.”
The surest indication of Blanchot’s assertion that literature and politics are ultimately joined in public debate and action is reflected in his recent refusal to publish these small books with Fata Morgana, with whom he has long published his shorter essays. When Fata Morgana’s director Bruno Roy released neoconservative ideologue Alain de Benoist’s Empire intérieur (1995) under his imprint, Blanchot asked Quinzaine littéraire editor Maurice Nadeau to print a letter, dated September 1996, in which he stated his wish that his name be deleted from all of the publishing house’s catalogues, at least until Bruno Roy has removed the accursed book from sale. Here, then, are a few lines of the letter: “Le seul fait que Benoist a collaboré à ces revues antisémites naturellement camouflées [Blanchot’s emphasis], puisque la loi les interdit, si elles sont trop déclarées, l’en rend complice. II est antisémite par le lieu où il a écrit et édité. Enfin, il a fondé le GRECE, dont Le Pen a été président” (La Quinzaine littéraire of 1–15 November 1996). To balance the accusation, Nadeau points out that while Alain de Benoist has written supportively of the National Front, Le Pen himself was never president of GRECE (la Groupement de Recherche et d’Étude pour la Civilisation Européenne), an extreme right-wing cultural organization. But the charge remains.
Not to be left in silence, Bruno Roy wrote to Nadeau, whose letter was placed beside Blanchot’s, explaining that he himself has never written an anti-Semitic text. “J’en serais triste,” he added, finger pointed at Blanchot, “et je n’aimerais pas me voir dans l’obligation de rappeler des textes qu’il est préférable d’oublier.” Blanchot’s response? Bruno Roy’s letter left him “totalement indifférent” (an extraordinary oxymoron, it must be admitted), because by now the cat’s been let out of the bag: after much sleuthing by the prosecution and clever rationalizing by the defense, the political import of Blanchot’s youthful writings on his mature work continues to be debated. The proceedings will no doubt take some time before a verdict is reached. But even then, whom will the intellectuals believe?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965
SOURCE: “A Sort of Defeated Tenderness,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1998, p. 6.
[In the following review, Pindar offers a positive assessment of Awaiting Oblivion and evaluates the critical studies of Blanchot by critics Leslie Hill and Gerald Bruns.]
The lengthy trial and recent conviction of Maurice Papon marked a turning-point in France’s gradual acceptance of the Vichy regime’s complicity in the Holocaust. As one of the lawyers in the case argued, Papon did not have blood on his hands, but blood on his pen. After the verdict was announced, a representative of the Jewish deportees’ families said: “France now knows that the soulless pen-pushers, too, will be held to account.” In the 1930s, while Maurice Papon served in the Foreign Ministry, another Maurice, Maurice Blanchot, was an unlikely pen-pusher of a different sort; he was a political journalist. In recent years, he too has not escaped the charge of being a fascist sympathizer. As a young man, he regularly contributed to the right-wing nationalist Journal des débats and even became its rédacteur-en-chef. The Journal, as Leslie Hill explains in her excellent Blanchot: Extreme contemporary, was “a traditionalist, staunchly conservative evening daily”, in favour of “strong national government, economic stability, the free market, and law and order”. It does not sound like the sort of publication the Blanchot we have come to admire—the philosopher of refusal, of a transgressive limitlessness, of Otherness, the Outside and the neuter—would have been attracted to. But Blanchot the journalist is not, as Hill takes pains to point out, Blanchot the philosopher. Or is he?
It gets worse. Blanchot also wrote articles for a number of other publications, “on the further fringes of mainstream right-wing politics”, associated with the Jeune Droite, a loosely defined movement characterized by “virulent nationalism, hatred of Marxism, and contempt for parliamentary democracy”. In 1936, his name appeared on the front cover of an extremist nationalist monthly, Combat, co-founded by Thierry Maulnier. Maulnier has been described by one commentator, Zeev Sternhell, as belonging to a group of “fascistically-inclined intellectuals”, who nevertheless remained aloof from any party. It is the Combat texts that get Blanchot into the most trouble, and, by his own admission, deservedly so. In one he takes to task “unbridled Jews” who want to declare war on Hitler, and in another he refers to a prominent Jew as representing “a backward ideology, a decrepit mentality, a foreign breed”. According to Sternhell, Blanchot’s very last article for Combat, “On demande des dissidents”, is “a perfect definition of fascist thinking”. Tzvetan Todorov has tentatively called Blanchot a “spokesman for a certain [sic] anti-Semitism”, and Jeffrey Mehlman has called him a “propagandist for terrorism”. Hill disagrees. While she detects “a deep and worrying instability” in Blanchot’s anarchic journalism, she remains level-headed. Sternhell, she persuasively argues, has misrepresented Blanchot’s “radical dissidence”. He was not a fascist, not even a “nonaligned” one. In his vitriolic appeals for violent action and for some sort of revolutionary overthrow of everything, he is in fact calling into question “the whole principle of political representation”. Having drawn a line between the hot-headed hack and the philosopher, she cannot quite resist intellectualizing Blanchot’s early rebarbative articles as proto-philosophical statements. Perhaps they are.
Gerald L. Bruns, in his Maurice Blanchot: The refusal of philosophy, has less trouble accepting Sternhell’s thesis. An irresponsible, intellectual fascism was in the air in Paris during these difficult times; and Blanchot quite probably inhaled. It is a “fascism of the cafés and reviews”, a sort of fascism-Lite. Nevertheless, as Hill demonstrates, the argument for Blanchot the pro-fascist unravels as we reach 1940 and the Occupation, which affected him deeply. In his early nationalist articles, he was unequivocal in regarding Germany as a foe to France and indeed the rest of Europe. He despised Hitler, and dismissed National Socialism as “perverted”. During the Occupation, the Journal des débats continued under the auspices of the Vichy government. Blanchot withdrew his support. He only returned to it in 1944, eight days before the Liberation, largely for financial reasons, and then he would contribute nothing but book reviews. He had already retreated into literature. At this point, it is Bruns who most convincingly reconciles the journalist with the philosopher. “It is not difficult to see”, he writes, “that all that Blanchot henceforth has to say about language and writing presupposes the structure of Occupation—including the dialectical opposition of Collaboration and Resistance.”
Blanchot’s first collection of essays, Faux pas (1943), could not be more different in tone from his clamorous political journalism. Under the shadow of Occupation, nothing is possible: “the writer finds himself in this more and more comical condition—of having nothing to write, of having no means of writing it, and of being forced by an extreme necessity to keep writing it.” It is classic Blanchot (and, indeed, Bruns points out, classic Beckett, who was to say much the same thing almost word for word in conversation with Georges Duthuit six years later). We may never know what happened to Blanchot during the years of Occupation, but whatever it was, it was formative. Suddenly he appears, the familiar Blanchot, whom Bruns describes as “the disengaged, supposedly invisible post-Liberation literary man”. His post-war writing is characterized by disengagement, the politics of “refusal”, especially the refusal to speak; the lineaments of which might conceivably be traced back to the disappointed revolutionary, determined, as he was from the outset, to oppose or confound the regime, any regime. (His favourite moment during les événements of May 1968 was when the demonstrators shouted: “Nous sommes tous les juifs allemands!”) He does not deserve to join the ranks of those thinkers we read with suspicion, such as de Man or Heidegger or even the unwitting Nietzsche.
Hill and Bruns approach their quarry in a similar fashion: close textual analysis (especially Hill) and a broad, erudite knowledge of the many literary and intellectual lines of force which criss-cross Blanchot’s substantial oeuvre. He was, after all, a very close friend of Emmanuel Levinas (Blanchot helped to find a safe haven for Levinas’s wife and daughter during the Occupation), Georges Bataille and René Char (an active member of the Resistance); he has also influenced and, in turn, been influenced by a younger generation of thinkers: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, the list is long (and appears in Hill’s book). Hill has compiled what must be the closest thing to a comprehensive bibliography, but both books are insightful companion-pieces; although the Blanchot who emerges from them remains an enigma. As Bruns admits, “we know less about him than we would like”. In her conclusion, Hill begins to sound rather Blanchovian: “The more you try to reach the end, the more the end becomes impossible to reach.” But Blanchot is out there, somewhere. Born in 1907, he is still our extreme contemporary. Like the male protagonist in Awaiting Oblivion (L’Attente l’oubli). Blanchot appears to have “lost the idea of dying”. The title of his best-known fiction is a telling pun: L’Arrêt de mort—both a death sentence and the suspension of death.
Awaiting Oblivion is a sort of Waiting for Godot without the action. Beckett may well have drawn heavily on his claustrophobic, domestic banter with Suzanne for his dialogue, but at least he brought on Pozzo and Lucky. Blanchot offers us just a woman in a sparsely furnished hotel room and a man, “confined with her, in the great shifting circle of waiting”. John Gregg, who has provided a masterful translation, is perhaps a little too close to Blanchot’s language in his introduction to state an obvious point: Awaiting Oblivion is about relationships, specifically the heterosexual couple.
Many theorists, with more than a nod to the Marquis de Sade, have attempted to persuade us that homosexual desire is transgressively postmodern and that heterosexuality is best left to people who haven’t read any theory. Pierre Klossowski, for instance, has argued that (homosexual) sodomy is “the supreme form of the transgression of norms”, because it places the subject “outside of himself”. But, perhaps unfashionably (it was written in 1962), Blanchot in Awaiting Oblivion seems to be saying that heterosexuality is far more threatening to subjectivity. The dualism of man and woman (what Klossowski would dismiss as an institutional norm) remains rich territory for Blanchot. His paradox is that it is precisely this culturally condoned sexuality that threatens to destroy the male by casting him outside himself—and Blanchot’s female protagonist, as Gregg points out, is very much “the mysterious, unknowable, unseizable figure of the dehors, the outside”. Telling, in an earlier novel, Thomas l’obscur (the revised 1950 text), the protagonist, reading a book, suddenly finds himself “in the position of the male praying mantis about to be devoured by the female”. Homosexuality from this perspective looks rather tame, more like an attempt to avoid encountering a subject-splitting alterity. It is those aroused by difference who court destruction.
That said, there isn’t any sex in Awaiting Oblivion. It is about discourse rather than intercourse. What binds together and separates this man and this woman is a simultaneous dependency on, and distrust of, language itself. They can’t decide whether to collaborate or resist. She urges him to master language in order to make her real. He can’t. She attributes this to “an incomprehensible negligence”, and, indeed, the majority of their exchanges are incomprehensible; the reasoning is fallacious, paradoxical, oxymoronic, exactly as in real-life relationships. Like most couples, they bicker, but this is philosophical bickering:
“Why don’t you do everything that you could?”—“But what more could I do?”—“More than you are doing.”—“Yes, probably more, a little more”, he added lightheartedly. “I have often had this impression since I have known you.”—“Be sincere: why don’t you make use of this power that you know you have?”—“What kind of power? Why are you telling me this?” But she persisted with her calm obstinacy: “Acknowledge this power that belongs to you.”—“I do not know it, and it does not belong to me.”—“That proves that this power is part of you.”
Something is always already missing from their union, something irresolvable because they are man and woman and because language always leaves something unsaid. The unsayable is perhaps the fact that there is nothing keeping them together—or apart. They desperately search for a reason other than chance for being in that sparsely furnished hotel room. The room, of course is the relationship. They will always be in the room, whether they stay or go. “He would leave, but he would, nevertheless, stay. This was the truth around which she, too, was circling stealthily.” She is predatory but also strangely conventional. She wants her story told (“Story—what does she mean by that?”), she wants a detailed description of the room, and he, like some writerly Midas, is expected to touch everything with the power of words and make it real. He constantly sidesteps her desire for narrative development. He is a philosophical reworking of the man who can’t commit. What is a relationship, after all, if it isn’t in some sense a narrative that must be sustained?
They wait for love, but it never comes; there is only a sort of defeated tenderness. There is no way out once they have crossed the threshold and begun to speak and this explains their lugubrious, love-defeating hesitancy. “If something happened to you—even if it happens long after my disappearance—how can it not be unbearable as of now?” It is the alternative love of the always already rejected; not love at all, perhaps, but still there, a secret pain, unbearably borne before they have even parted. “How they suffocated together.”
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SOURCE: A review of Friendship, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 113, No. 5, December, 1998, pp. 1180-82.
[In the following review, Conley discusses the main themes of Friendship.]
In an August 1997 review of Maurice Blanchot’s Friendship in Library Journal (122.13, p. 90), Robert T. Ivey expressed his perplexity at the regard with which Blanchot is increasingly held among literary theorists and philosophers. Giving Blanchot’s text a grade of “C,” he wrote that those seeking commentaries on friendship such as Montaigne offered readers will be disappointed by these “rambling, disjointed essays …” I agree. Without reservation. It is true that such expectations would only be disappointed by these pages. But perhaps such a reader should be first referred to Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, which carefully elaborates a shared mourning for the friend that characterizes both Blanchot and Montaigne. The contemporary political stakes that Derrida unravels in his extended engagements with classical texts on friendship are illuminated in lightning flashes of brilliance in the literary, cultural, and philosophical essays gathered together in Blanchot’s Friendship. Many of the essays are immediate responses to other texts, although several, less identifiably related to other writings, examine, among other subjects, translation, war, literature and transgression. While these writings testify to an amazing erudition, what consistently brings them together is the generosity of Blanchot’s thought and the elegance of his expression. I will not try to speak directly of each essay from this book—an attempt that would greatly exceed the limitations of a book review—but rather will focus on a few that punctuate the currents of thought that run throughout the various pieces.
The text opens with lines borrowed from Georges Bataille: “my complicitous friendship …” he writes. Amicable collusion marks each of these essays. The writings gathered together here, ranging from responses to Lascaux, the atomic bomb, Kafka, Leiris, Lévi-Strauss, and Bataille (to name only a few), are loosely tied together. Perhaps more accurately I should write they are brought into a common space by the dispersal of Blanchot’s thought into complicitous relation with these other writers, these other texts. It is the rhythm and cadence of Blanchot’s generous language offered in response to other texts that performs a community of friendship in the twenty-nine essays that compose the book. This collection is neither Blanchot’s confessions or meditations, nor is it his examined presentation of a theme. It is, as he writes, a record of exposure that cannot be addressed with the razor precision of calculated relations:
And to speak coolly of the works of friends, ignoring the shadow that has withdrawn into them and that they throw on us, would be a movement without truth, and moreover beyond our power … it is the manner in which they are close to us, the pain that proximity introduces in our thought every time that, in turning toward them, we come up against the presence of resistance that is proper to a work already closing itself up, and we cannot help it to close itself up (or to undo itself) by valuing it or by putting it in the service of an intellectual strategy.
Georges Bataille, his death, writings, and friendship, haunt this text. From the opening pages to one of the most beautiful essays in the middle, to final thoughts that achingly confess their own poverty of expression, Blanchot’s book most poignantly responds to the thought of friendship in relation to his contemporary. In the short opening paragraph of “Idle Speech,” Blanchot writes of a conversation he and Bataille were having shortly before Bataille’s death. The discussion addressed their common sense of being overwhelmed by Louis René des Forêts’ Le Bavard. Bataille, we are told, having lost his desire to write, asks Blanchot if he would speak of this text some day. The essay opens with Blanchot’s acceptance of this task: “I kept the silence. It is to this silence, common to us today, but that I alone remember, that I must try to respond by giving as it were, a continuation to this conversation” (117).
Understanding friendship as relation, not as an object to be analyzed, Blanchot writes within the silence that ties him to even as it separates him from a community of friends (we could call this a community of thinkers, writers, thoughts, language) in the language of a conversation continued. The act of writing therefore becomes a discussion or a response that survives those who might be identified as friends. The “life” of this book is a curious parallel to the thought of friendship as mourning and of writing as survival, in that the text predates several of Blanchot’s texts that have previously been translated, among them Writing of the Disaster and the now sadly out of print The Unavowable Community. In fact, this text was originally published in France in 1971, a date that leaves its mark on several of the essays. The quality of being slightly out of their time only adds to the essays’ strengths. A conversation continued and the survival of a friendship beyond friends serve as lessons in reading for those would turn to this book (which is late in being translated into English, albeit with Elizabeth Rottenberg’s admirable skill).
Addressing fears of a world seemingly past, Blanchot writes in “The apocalypse is disappointing” on the Karl Jaspers’ text, La Bombe Atomique et L’avenir de l’homme: conscience politique de notre temps. Jaspers argued for a necessary shift in human conscience in the face of potential nuclear holocaust, to which Blanchot offers a timely response. He questions the very human conscience that Jaspers assumes: “we are not in control of ourselves because this humanity, capable of being totally destroyed, does not yet exist as a whole” (106). While the giddy end to the Cold War seems to have moved the nuclear threat off the front page of historical anxieties, Blanchot’s criticism remains timely in that what has replaced bipolar geopolitics is the smiling humanitarianism of UN-helmeted interventions. Again, or perhaps still and always, something like humanity seems to be assumed even as it is at stake.
Like the atomic bomb, communism has faced a hasty dismissal in popular speech since the advent of the “New World Order.” However, when Blanchot addresses Dionys Mascolo’s work (reminiscent of other attempts at reconfiguring and re-engaging the meaning of communism), “communism”—that recently disparaged and recently invigorated term—enters a kaleidoscope and shifts brilliantly before one’s eyes, dancing into new formations and unexpected constellations. This spectacle continues in an essay responding to Henri Lefebvre, and later in “Marx’s Three Voices,” with a quiet and concise exploration of multiple forms.
Some of his most biting critique concerns the idols of culture: art, museum, literature. It is in “The Great Reducers,” however, that Blanchot treats his readers to a piercing analysis of the role of culture and cultural critics as the guards dogs to a system that neutralizes literature. “We understand everything,” Blanchot asserts, but the task of literature and poetry is to forge a space and time beyond reductionist comprehension for “an experience such that we are put to the test of the absolutely other, of that which escapes unity” (63). Literature offers an experience that resists this understanding of everything, resists the reduction to unity and identity, but what he terms the “consciousness industry” (an ambiguous term that apparently includes the majority of literary critics, publishers and readers), demonstrates a remarkable ability to tame texts by welcoming their unruliness. “By disseminating texts that are aesthetically rebellious, one gives oneself the appearance of being without prejudice, as is proper for the important patrons of culture; one secures oneself the collaboration of the intellectuals of the opposition whose untimely political declarations one would refuse, but whose literary cooperation is always harmless” (66). Culture, as that everything which delineates what will be excluded and what included, is poetry’s enabling and vanquishing border. Embracing everything within the arms of unification and identification, culture neutralizes through acceptance. Only a midnight glimmer flashes outside this embrace; a poetic refusal that disregards even its own victory. Blanchot’s text is such a critical ember. It is a writing that writes away from itself, whose force of expression survives in these conversations continued. This is the generosity of thought that carries through Blanchot’s essays and brings these works and these writers of whom he speaks to their borders.
Blanchot’s ability to tiptoe into the depths of philosophical questioning allows him to present thought gently, without either crushing it or forcing it to conform to popular modes of expression. Blanchot reminds us that if we can refer to something as “cultural criticism” or engaged thinking—refer to our work or the work of our colleagues as such—then this work should understand its risks as located in a fundamental questioning that approaches the fixed borders of expression. And this task, when undertaken in the complicity of friendship that elicits its response, unbalances the ease of thinking. Following in a line of truly remarkable, although singularly male-authored, texts published under Stanford’s Meridian Crossings Aesthetics series, Blanchot’s Friendship is a welcome addition for any readers who also consider themselves thinkers: both those who have long followed his writings, as well as those for whom he lingers in obscurity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6110
SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Politics and Literature: The Case of Maurice Blanchot, Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 1-15.
[In the following essay, Hess provides an overview of Blanchot's literary career and political involvements, noting the critical obstacles of Blanchot's writings and political commitments due to his private nature and reticence concerning his own work.]
A great deal has been written on the subject of Maurice Blanchot: on his criticism, on his view of literature, on the difficulty of interpreting his fictional works, on his politics. Because there have been many widely divergent theories advanced, and very little dialogue between the different points of view, it is essential to explain and if possible reconcile them. My thesis is that Blanchot has stimulated an intense discussion around his critical and fictional work for varying reasons, but primarily because of the highly symbolic role he accords the literary text, a symbolic role open to a number of different readings and misreadings. Blanchot has resolutely refused to comment on an interpretive stance on his work. Because he rejects the romantic equation between the life and work of the writer,1 he has refused to divulge new information about his personal life.2 He has not commented on an avenue of interpretation for most of his works. Because of his lack of commentary and the high esteem granted him by other well-known writers, the overwhelming critical stance has been one of refusal to comment on his work.3 Some writers have offered a deconstructive approach. This did not seem unwarranted, especially as Jacques Derrida has commented at length on Blanchot’s work.4 A deconstructive approach was favored by a number of theses which focused on a logical fault in his works and on which they based generative analyses.5 Like traditional criticism of so-called anti-novels, such analyses tended to say what Blanchot’s works were not, rather than what they were. A number of other studies have focused on philosophical themes. This approach is certainly valid; Blanchot was strongly influenced by Heidegger, has been associated with a phenomenological approach, and studied philosophy in his university career. This was the avenue favored by the first full-length study by Françoise Collin6 and a recent collection of essays based on a colloquium.7 However such an approach tends to reduce creative works to abstract themes; it obviously fails to explain the concrete originality of his fiction. A number of thematic studies have either recaptured his major themes or repeated his turns of phrases. Because of a fear of extrapolating a few elements from an extremely rich critical approach and a structurally complicated body of artistic works, they offered microcosmic tableaux of Blanchot’s work, as he himself has often done.8 Some studies have focused on his early journalistic career in the 1930s, basing their conclusions on analyses by Loubet del Bayle in a work published in 1969, Les nonconformistes des années trente, an analysis of the political right.9 It is very interesting that during this entire discussion, Blanchot has said virtually nothing. This has frustrated some, such as Roger Laporte, who is upset because he does not better understand his work after years of study. No effort to use calm, moderate, objective language has been made on the part of some of Blanchot’s critics, despite the extremely measured tone of his criticism and fictional texts. I suspect the true reason for Blanchot’s critics’ frustration is because it is so difficult to put forth a thesis explaining his work, and because he himself has offered so little help. Critics have often focused on one of the few tangible pieces of interpretive evidence: articles written during Maurice Blanchot’s journalistic career during a period of political crisis in France in the 1930s.
The author finds the critical episode thought-provoking. It raises a number of questions: Does the artist have the responsibility to make herself readily understood? To explain one’s works to the general public if it fails to understand? That is, to give “explications de textes” either in person or in print if large numbers of readers miss the author’s intended point or fail to understand significant aspects of the work? Another question raised is the following: Does the reader/critic (since we are now accustomed to a much more subjective view of the reader and of her active role) have the right to repudiate the writer who fails to live up to her moral judgments as she perceives the writer’s work? Are any extenuating circumstances granted for the reader/critic’s lack of comprehension of the work? In this case, the matters under judgment concern not the work, but peripheral matter. Is the artist held responsible for all written or recorded documents in her life, including pamphlets, letters, taped interviews, reviews, and lectures? Other related questions arise: is the writer’s creative work to be judged on the basis of one’s actions, statements, or life style? Since we know so little of Maurice Blanchot’s life style, since he has not allowed a picture of himself to be published, and since he has written at such great length about many other writers, artists, and thinkers, the outcry has focused not on a significant body of critical essays, not on Blanchot’s many literary works, not on Blanchot’s political statements from the fifties and sixties challenging policies of centrist or rightist parties in power, but against his early journalistic writings in the thirties.
I would like to advance the following conclusions: (1) Maurice Blanchot or any other creative writer should be evaluated in terms of critical modesty and discretion. That is, if the writer does not fit into a given school (neo-Aristotelian, structuralist, semiotic, deconstructionist, postmodern, radical feminist, Judeo-Christian, Marxist, for example) it is probably not helpful for us as critics to make our case by pointing it out and judging the author for failing to conform to our moral or aesthetic standard. The author might have another message not fitting into any accepted school or socially recognizable point of view. (2) If the history of philosophy is a long commentary on the insufficiencies of previous points of view, if the history of scientific explanation is one of progressively more complete correspondence between theory, mathematical analysis, and reality, it is possible that future critical explanations will discover aspects previously hidden. It is also possible that our interpretation of perceived historical facts may be inaccurate. (3) Perhaps a return to a more balanced style of criticism taking into account as many factors as possible, including historical, political, social, and cultural phenomena, along with the entire body of all documents relating to the work as is the case for genetic criticism, would produce a more enlightened, more open, more effective critical discussion.
In the case of Blanchot, a misreading of his fictional works from the same period (1936 to 1949) has led to interpretive difficulties and questionable conclusions drawn from his early journalistic career. The works I am considering are: “L’idylle” (1936), Aminadab (1942), Le Très-Haut (1948), L’arrêt de mort (1948), La folie du jour (1949).10 I would like to advance the thesis that Blanchot’s literary work leads not to a conclusion of “anti-Semitism,” as some have concluded, but to an overwhelming reaction to the events surrounding World War II and to a profound empathy for victims of the Holocaust. The immediate intellectual and cultural reaction to World War II in France was to try to forget the traumatic events. Just before and after Liberation, when according to estimates, from ten thousand to a hundred thousand collaborators were shot,11 French society then began dealing legally with the consequences of Collaboration.12 Many former collaborators were brought to trial; of these, a number were exonerated. Some were forced to relinquish their civil rights for a time; some were sent to prison or sentenced to forced labor; a few were sentenced to death.13 Trials went on for several years; French presidents pardoned some of those sentenced to prison or death.14 In December, 1948, 69٪ of the condemned persons had been freed. A law of amnesty was voted in August, 1953; at that time less than 1٪ of those sentenced to prison or hard labor were still being held.
Existentialism arose in the context of the war. Sartre’s notion of absolute freedom, of being judged on our actions, not our intentions, and of the present as the only real time frame, represented the attempt to dissociate from the past and act in the present—hence to turn a page on the war and the past.15 Albert Camus formulated a similar philosophical stance: death creates the challenge for life; death’s finality forces us to define the significance of life. In Le mythe de Sisyphe, Camus argues for an attitude of constant struggle in the face of repeated and crushing defeats, metaphysical as well as moral.
On a compris déjà que Sisyphe est le héros absurde. Il l’est autant par ses passions que par son tourment. Son mépris des dieux, sa haine de la mort et sa passion pour la vie, lui ont valu ce supplice indicible où tout l’être s’emploie à ne rien achever. Pour celui-ci on voit seulement tout l’effort d’un corps tendu pour soulever l’énorme pierre, la rouler et l’aider à gravir une pente cent fois recommencée; on voit le visage crispé, la joue collée contre la pierre, le secours d’une épaule qui reçoit la masse couverte de glaise, d’un pied qui la cale, la reprise à bout de bras, la sûreté tout humaine de deux mains pleines de terre. … Si ce mythe est tragique, c’est que son héros est conscient. Où serait en effet sa peine, si à chaque pas l’espoir de réussir le soutenait? L’ouvrier d’aujourd’hui travaille, tous les jours de sa vie, aux mêmes tâches et ce destin n’est pas moins absurde. Mais il n’est tragique qu’aux rares moments où il devient conscient. Sisyphe, prolétaire des dieux, impuissant et révolté, connaît toute l’étendue de sa misérable condition: c’est à elle qu’il pense pendant sa descente.
(Le mythe de Sisyphe 163–64).
In L’homme révolté, Camus underscores the necessity for a moderate position between extremes, but defined by revolt. Maurice Blanchot’s postwar intellectual position resembles that of Albert Camus’s second period of revolt.16
In Blanchot’s fictional works of this period, Blanchot analyzes an attitude of struggle or concession: from “L’idylle” to La folie du jour, from 1936 until 1949, a stance of revolt is unsuccessful. Revolt appears at the end of Le Très-Haut (“‘Maintenant, c’est maintenant que je parle’”) and at the end of L’arrêt de mort (a life force wins out). In Blanchot’s récits he analyzes the struggle between activity and passivity when confronted with oppression, a struggle symbolizing that of France, including that of the Jewish people. In this period France’s tragedy was the lack of forceful self-definition or identity.17 For fictional works in this period, death is equated politically with the loss of national identity. In L’arrêt de mort Blanchot symbolically portrays the prolonged death agony of the French nation: hence the significance of the dates (1938, 1940, 1947), the discussion of events about which for nine years he was unable to speak, his writing down an account of the events in 1940, then tearing up this account. A … represents the French nation, the doctor, a political consensus. Similar themes occur in fictional works of this period: the inversion of justice and the corruption of authority, unmerited punishment, political chaos and oppression represented by death images: a prison camp, dirt, disorder, confined spaces, wounds, illness, an epidemic, random violence. Other themes are the ineffectual nature of social (or personal) protest, and a closed society functioning according to totally unexpected laws and norms. The Law is presented as alien or other: as a foreign city one enters (“L’idylle”), a building with its own physical and social rules (Aminadab), as a bureaucracy equated with disorder rather than order (Le Très-Haut). No escape is possible. The society of “L’idylle” punishes with fatal flogging those who attempt to escape; that of La folie du jour grinds glass in its members’ eyes. In Aminadab, the message and signs are so poorly indicated, the path so obstructed, that Thomas does not discover in time that the true way led underground, an obvious metaphor for the Resistance. Escape from the anarchistic society of Le Très-Haut is in speaking out in the face of death: Henri Sorge does so in the last sentences of the novel. In L’arrêt de mort a cyclic recurrence of death images translated as wounds, scars, illness, claustrophobic rooms, and violent impulses makes escape psychologically impossible. In L’instant de ma mort Blanchot recalls themes of L’arrêt de mort in an episode that occurred at the end of the war. The narrator is set before a firing line of Nazi soldiers; action is interrupted by a skirmish provoked by members of the Resistance. During the interruption a Nazi soldier conscripted in Eastern Europe helps the narrator escape.
For a dozen years Blanchot wrote about the impact of death upon the living in order to rid himself of the overwhelming effect caused by events leading up to World War II and those of the Occupation and Holocaust. His works reflect the trauma felt from the war and the Holocaust, an understandable reaction.18 The events surrounding the war and the plight of French Jews are as visible as in the works of Camus and Sartre: due to censorship, successful wartime protest was symbolically transposed. The difference in Blanchot’s case stems from two facts: before the war he was on the right, and, above all, he has made few explicit oral or written commentaries on the pre-war or post-war events (both Camus and Sartre were excellent publicists: in cafés, in conferences, in literary and cultural gatherings, on the radio, or on videotape). Blanchot has kept a much lower profile.
I am arguing that as complete an account as possible be taken of metaphorical, narrative, logical, and aesthetic points of view as well as of the surrounding cultural milieu. I call such an approach a poetics of complexity.19 It prevents compounding interpretive errors. The basis for my interpretation is the symbolic portrayal of contemporary political events in Blanchot’s narrative works from the period 1936 through 1949. Other literary works written during the same period also present symbolic statements of the political situation: Huis clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944) and La peste by Albert Camus (1947). Huis clos describes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Occupation in moral terms; La peste symbolizes political oppression through the plague. Blanchot presents metaphoric transpositions of political oppression in “L’idylle,” L’arrêt de mort, Aminadab, Le Très-Haut, and La folie du jour. I interpret these works politically for the following reasons: Blanchot sets the first of these in a context of protest against Death Camps, both Nazi and Soviet, and his journalistic career was an expression of this political commitment.20 The primary reading of “L’idylle” (1936) is political: it refers to a political utopia which those in power see one way, members of the society another. Although Blanchot refers explicitly to Auschwitz in his essay in Après coup (99–100), his setting was most probably symbolic: any political utopia—socialist, communist, Nazi—inverts the accepted order. Because of this inversion, those in power are obliged to impose their will through extraordinary means: through incarceration of dissidents, through violence, through the elimination of differences resulting from alternate points of view and ethnic origins. L’arrêt de mort may be read as a commentary on the events in France from 1938 until sometime during the occupation. At the start of the récit Blanchot situates events very precisely: in 1938 and in the context of Munich, in the framework of concessions made to the Nazis before World War II. His primary political orientation of this period rejects political concessions; historically, his attitude was seen as more effective against the growing imperialistic threat of Hitler. The récit may be read as a mythical statement about the tragic destiny of the French nation.21Aminadab (1942) results metaphorically from a transposed point of view. Outside the house appearances seem unchanged; inside, physical perspectives, words, rules, and the law follow an unknown order impossible to figure out. Le Très-Haut (1948) describes a state under siege subject to growing violence and sabotage, a bureaucracy struggling to keep order as the plague develops into an epidemic. It represents a rule against the governed, as for the other fictional works of this period. “Un récit?” (1949), later reprinted as La folie du jour, recalls “L’idylle”: both are set in a society governed by a totalitarian power that has imposed laws contrary to the best interest of its members. “Un récit?” can be understood as a loss of epistemological certainty; it can also be read as a loss of belief in authority. From occupying a position of authority, the narrator falls to one of total powerlessness: he represents the catastrophic plight of French Jews from 1938 to the date of its writing, 1949.
A great deal of recent discussion has centered on Blanchot’s political allegiance and commitment. Politically very outspoken in the 1930s, he was less outspoken during World War II, but acted on his political beliefs: Blanchot was part of the Resistance.22 However, he has not commented on his role in the Resistance, and thus has given rise to speculation about the nature of his political stance. Since World War II, Blanchot’s political statements have been on the left or the extreme left. This has created problems for some of Blanchot’s readers, especially contemporary ones in a politically aware society in which we are intolerant of intolerance, tolerant of extremists on the left, intolerant of extremists on the right. If one changes political beliefs from the right to the left, does that indicate a lack of sincerity? Is any political ‘sin’ allowed in one’s political expression? From discussion by some readers of Blanchot, it is clear that none is allowed on Blanchot’s part; a great margin of error is allowed on the part of his severest critics. What the extremely interesting history of events indicates, a history which for Steven Ungar symbolically represents France as a whole, is that Blanchot has followed most political trends since the early thirties: he was against the democratic chaos of the Third Republic when governments changed almost yearly, sometimes after six months.
In the early years of the Third Republic a pattern of great instability was set up. After the Commune, a monarchist majority was elected to the Assemblée Nationale, with Adolphe Thiers as majority leader then President from 1871–73. In 1873 he was forced to resign, replaced by Maréchal MacMahon. The monarchists were defeated and a constitution was drafted providing for a president elected for seven years by two houses, a prime minister, a Senate elected for nine years, and a Chambre des Députés elected for four. The strength of the parliamentary branches of government created great instability and difficulties in governance. This constitution was gradually interpreted more democratically, with the elimination of life term senators in 1884. The Assemblée Nationale was dissolved in 1875, and reconstituted on May 8, 1876 with a republican majority in the Chambre des Députés, the conservatives having a slight majority. Worried about the shift to the left, MacMahon disbanded the cabinet headed by Jules Simon (1877) and constituted a cabinet of “moral order” presided by the Duc de Broglie. This government lost the majority in the Chambre des Députés, and the head of state dissolved the Chambre (with the agreement of the Senate) on June 25, 1877. Elections were held in October, a republican majority was elected, and Dufaure recalled. In 1879 Jules Grévy headed the republican government, with the majority divided between opportunists and radicals. Gambetta briefly headed a leftist government (from November 1881 until January 1882), then was upset. Ministerial instability became the rule in the Third Republic. Jules Ferry was briefly able to hang on to a majority for most of the period from 1880 to 1885, but even his term was not continuous. He served as Président du Conseil from September 1880 to November 1881, and from February 1883 until March 1885. The ministerial instability characterizing the entire Third Republic increased after 1932. In 1928 France had already devalued the franc to 20٪ of its pre-war value; the world economic crisis reached France in 1931–32, resulting in a drop in industrial production, bankruptcies, and unprecedented unemployment, accompanied by a social and political crisis. Ministerial instability worsened. In the 1932 elections, the right lost the majority to the radicals and socialists. Herriot formed a government from June to December 1932, which was quickly attacked by the right and the extreme right. His government collapsed, unable to respond to the increased problems caused by the recession. Its difficulties were obvious: weakness of the executive branch, totally dependent on the legislative; fragile and changing parliamentary majorities. The radical party, necessary for a majority, played an ambiguous role between the right and the left, thus paralyzing the government. These weaknesses contributed toward a strong antiparliamentary movement in France, translated by the development of movements of the extreme right: the Jeunesse Patriote, the Croix-de-Feu, the Redressement Français, and l’Action Française.
Instability has characterized French politics since 1789, thus differentiating it from the British, Swiss, American, or Scandinavian traditions.23 Since 1791, it has had fifteen different constitutions or equivalent documents—four since the end of the Second Empire. “Pourtant, ce ralentissement dans la succession des régimes politiques ne saurait dissimuler la fragilité durable des modes français de gouvernement, non plus que la précarité de l’équilibre institutionnel” (Winock 10). The explanation for the polarizing of political life in France is the lack of consensus: “La cause est entendue: le consensus n’est pas un mot français. S’il tend à le devenir, c’est depuis peu. Quel que fût le régime, de 1791 aux années 1970 la discorde a prévalu: aux trois droites répertoriées par René Rémond (Les droites en France) s’opposaient au moins trois gauches, qui, toutes, avaient leur solution. Cette rivalité passionnée entre les multiples familles de la nation a imprimé à notre histoire contemporaine un caractère dramatique” (Winock 10). The 1930s were marked by a succession of crises: the gravity of the economic situation led to the Stavisky scandal (1933), producing protests by the right as well as the left. Agitation led to a demonstration on February 6, 1934, organized by the extreme right, and followed by a counter demonstration by the left on February 9. After the resignation of Daladier, Doumergue formed a national union cabinet made up of Herriot, Tardieu, Barthou, and Pétain. This government lasted from February-November 1934. The succeeding rightist governments faced rising pressures from Hitler’s presence in Germany after 1933. Diplomatic failures to contain Hitler along with the failure to respond to the economic crisis resulted in the defeat of the right by the socialists in the elections of 1936. Léon Blum became Président du Conseil, with the support, but not the participation of the communists. An enormous wave of spontaneous strikes broke out after the elections. Due to a flight of capital, the Front Populaire was violently attacked by the extreme right as well as by business interests. To deal with the financial crisis, Léon Blum asked the Senate for extraordinary powers, a request they refused. In June 1937 he was forced to resign and the radicals took over and formed a government which lasted for nine months.
As a member of the right, Blanchot was violently against the socialist government of the Front Populaire. I will argue that Blanchot was guilty of sins of rhetoric, but not of fascism nor or anti-Semitism. His example represented an interesting case of events in France during the critical period from 1936 to 1949. Violent attacks directed at Blanchot show how little France as a whole has forgiven and forgotten the events leading up to and including the Occupation along with a few years after the war: France’s collaboration during the Occupation was a taboo subject until the 1960s. An intolerant attitude toward the right and extreme right has characterized most intellectuals since World War II, perhaps due to a rejection of the Pétain government which became associated with all political positions on the right. But a political affiliation with the French right just before the war had nothing to do with Hitlerism, Nazi Germany, or necessarily the Vichy government. A major socialist political figure has been found to have played a significant role in the collaborationist Vichy government and was clearly associated with French politicians responsible for ordering deportation of Jews. More than sixty years after the appearance of Blanchot’s political articles on the extreme right, it seems that his example offers us an interesting case to examine issues of tolerance, openness, and political commitment. He is a major literary figure of the twentieth century: political questions may enlighten our understanding of his fictional texts of that period.
This equation was first advanced by Sainte-Beuve in Causeries du lundi, a collection of literary essays appearing weekly in the Constitutionnel beginning in October 1849. Unlike the neoclassical approach which focused on the structure of a work or genre, the romantic approach believed the work an outgrowth of the writer’s life; the subjective element needed to be integrated. Sainte-Beuve remarks: “La littérature, la production littéraire, n’est point pour moi distincte ou du moins séparée du reste de l’homme et de l’organisation; je puis goûter une oeuvre, mais il m’est difficile de la juger indépendamment de la connaissance de l’homme même, et je dirais volontiers: tel arbre, tel fruit. L’étude littéraire me mène ainsi tout naturellement à l’étude morale” (Sainte-Beuve, quoted in Molho 98). This stimulated an immense body of criticism entitled X, Sa vie et son oeuvre. Blanchot rejects this equivalence.
In this regard, Christophe Bident’s forthcoming biographical work on Blanchot is eagerly awaited for new information (Paris: Champ Vallon).
This includes Emmanuel Levinas (Sur Maurice Blanchot, 1975); Georges Préli (La force du dehors, 1977); Roger Laporte, Maurice Blanchot: L’ancien, l’effroyablement ancien (1987). See chapter three, “Interpreting Blanchot.”
In Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986), Derrida discussed the following fictional works at length: L’arrêt de mort, L’attente l’oubli, Thomas l’obscur, Le pas au-delà, Celui qui ne m’accompagnait pas, Le Très-Haut, “Un récit”/La folie du jour. Concerning the multiplicity of voices interwoven in a literary text and the difficulty of determining its boundaries, he concludes: “Parages: à ce seul mot confions ce qui situe, tout près ou de loin, le double mouvement d’approche et d’éloignement, souvent le même pas, singulièrement divisé, plus vieux et plus jeune que lui-même, autre toujours, au bord de l’événement, quand il arrive et n’arrive pas, infiniment distant à l’approche de l’autre rive” (15).
See Donald G. Marshall, “History, Theory, and Influence: Yale Critics as Readers of Maurice Blanchot,” The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America, ed. Jonathan Arac et al. 135–55.
Maurice Blanchot et la question de l’écriture. Collin approaches Blanchot’s fictional and critical work philosophically and thematically. She focuses her discussion on the question of literature—its definition and limits—through the following themes: experience and language, the subject and the other, the body, the imaginary, the negative.
Carolyn Bailey Gill, ed., Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing (New York: Routledge, 1996).
Blanchot has excerpted and published separately a number of short fictional pieces from a longer work already completed. See chapter seven, “Recursion,” in Complexity in Maurice Blanchot’s Fiction pages 179–81.
As have Steven Ungar, Scandal and Aftereffect: Blanchot and France since 1930 (1995), and Jeffrey Mehlman, Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France (1983).
La folie du jour was first published as “Un récit?” in Empédocle 2 (1949): 13–22.
“Dans les chiffres proposés comme total des exécutions sommaires de collaborateurs en France avant et après la Libération, on distingue trois ordres de grandeur. Il y a les évaluations ‘maximalistes’ qui dépassent les 100 000, les évaluations officielles gouvernementales qui tournent autour de 10 000 et les estimations toutes récentes de Robert Aron qui pense qu’il y en cut entre 30 000 et 40 000. Les chiffres de 100 000 et plus émanent de milieux revanchistes et antirésistants, ainsi que des apologistes de Vichy. D’une façon caractéristique, ceux-ci les accompagne d’allégations selon lesquelles la France était sous l’emprise de la terreur en 1944–45 et les exécutions étaient le signe d’une tentative de prise du pouvoir de la part des communistes. On donne trois sources différentes à l’appui du chiffre de plus de 100 000 pour le total des exécutions” (Novick 317). Novick believes that there is not enough evidence to not support the government figures of approximately 10 000. These figures are substantiated by Jean Rioux: “Aujourd’hui, une enquête, menée par le Comité d’histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, permet de poser un chiffre total sans graves risques d’erreurs: à quelques unités près, 9 000 exécutions sommaires, auxquelles il conviendra d’ajouter les 767 exécutions après verdict des cours de justice. Il est done acquis que 10 000 Français environ furent victimes du châtiment suprême. Le chiffre est douloureux, mais il est sans rapport avec ceux d’Aron ou les exagérations largement diffusées à l’époque. Pour 75٪, ces exécutions interviennent avant le 6 juin ou pendant la période des combats, et 25٪ en protestation contre les lenteurs de la justice légale. Elles frappent plus durement les ouvriers agricoles, les petits cultivateurs, les artisans que les ouvriers d’industrie et les cadres; elles sont plus fréquentes en milieu rural, l’anonymat des grandes villes rendant la poursuite et la dénonciation plus difficiles” (Rioux 54). These figures agree with those cited in 1959 by de Gaulle in his Mémoires de guerre.
Political authorities intervened to halt the executions. The “commissaires de la République,” who were granted police powers on February 29, 1944, arrested and interned persons suspected of having collaborated with the enemy. Commissions were appointed examining each case, either freeing or bringing to trial suspected collaborators. The tactic worked: summary executions ended. Conditions in the camps were not always ideal, but were far from those in concentration camps under Nazi Germany. Rioux notes: “Au total 126 020 personnes ont été internées de septembre 1944 à avril 1945. 36 377 sont libérées dans les premières semaines et, à la fin d’avril 1945, 24 383 dossiers restent encore à examiner. 86 589 dossiers ont été transmis à la justice qui, à son tour, a pu remettre en liberté ou condamner. L’efficacité de l’internement paraît done indiscutable, puisque, au bilan final, 55٪ des internés sont libérés et 45٪ livrés à la justice” (55).
Rioux cites the following figures. Out of 160 287 cases examined by commissions and courts of law as of the end of 1948, 45٪ of all cases were acquitted (73 501), 25٪ suffered the loss of civil rights (“dégradation nationale”—40 249), 16٪ were sentenced to exile or prison (26 289), 8٪ to forced labor for a time (13 211) and 4٪ to death (7 037) (Rioux 56).
Presidents de Gaulle, Gouin, Bidault, and Auriol used their executive power to either reduce prison terms or pardon prisoners, including some of those condemned to death. According to Novick: “Sur presque 40 000 personnes emprisonnées pour collaboration, 13 000 seulement restaient en prison au mois de décembre 1948, 8 000 en octobre 1949 et moins de 4 000 au début de 1951, à la veille de la première loi d’amnistie importante. La très grande majorité de ceux qui furent libérés n’avaient accompli qu’une fraction de la condamnation initiale. Au milieu de 1948, plus d’un tiers des condamnations à la dégradation nationale avaient été suspendues par décision du Président” (297).
This is the case for La nausée, Huis clos, Les mains sales, Les chemins de la liberté, L’être et le néant, among other works.
“Si la limite découverte par la révolte transfigure tout; si toute pensée, toute action qui dépasse un certain point se nie elle-même, il y a en effet une mesure des choses et de l’homme. En histoire, comme en psychologie, la révolte est un pendule déréglé qui court aux amplitudes les plus folles parce qu’il cherche son rythme profond. Mais ce dérèglement n’est pas complet. Il s’accomplit autour d’un pivot. Et même qu’elle suggère une nature commune des hommes, la révolte porte au jour la mesure et la limite qui sont au principe de cette nature” (L’homme révolté 367–68). In Camus’s first period, including Le mythe de Sisyphe and L’étranger, when he formulated his notion of the absurd against a universe insensitive to human feelings, he proposed a stance of revolt, a conscious, passionate, hence fully human response. His second period, that of L’homme révolté and La peste, emphasized the solidarity resulting from an attitude of revolt (“Je me révolte, done nous sommes”). Intellectually, the notion of “le ressassement éternel” resembles the attitude of both Sisyphus and the Rebel: both express an attitude of continuous revolt.
Blanchot was politicized; he was nationalistic. The destiny of France was not an indifferent matter: the successive defeats in the 1930s—parliamentary, economic, diplomatic, national, and civic—were matters of profound concern.
Although Blanchot was not anti-Semitic, in some articles written in the 1930s he was guilty of inflammatory rhetoric cast in an ironic mode liable to misinterpretation. He profoundly regretted having resorted to it. Blanchot saved his friend Levinas’s wife, who was Jewish; many other personal episodes demonstrate that Blanchot was not anti-Semitic.
See Complexity in Maurice Blanchot’s Fiction.
The primary context of “L’idylle” was the Soviet gulags of the thirties; Blanchot later extended this to the Nazi Death Camps “après coup.” He continually maintained a firm rejection of communism; in an interview with the author in 1971, Robert Antelme remarked that Blanchot was the only writer of importance to remain resolutely apart from a communist political commitment during this period.
During the 1930s Blanchot was a member of the extreme right who tried to impose his own political utopia, a traditionalist one, and failed, writing no more political articles after 1938. He was never a supporter of Nazism, nor of the Soviet system under communism. Always extremely critical of ineffective political governments, such as those under the Third Republic, Blanchot intends L’arrêt de mort as a political commentary on the French nation.
Note Patrick Kéchichian’s review of a recent work of Blanchot’s, L’instant de ma mort (Gallimard, 1994), describing a personal incident that occurred in 1944. “Cet épisode est implicitement daté: ‘Peu après’ le déchaînement de ‘la folie du monde,’ c’est-à-dire, dans le langage de l’écrivain, pendant la guerre, durant l’occupation allemande, époque où Blanchot renversa ses engagements des années 30 dans ce qui était la droite la plus extrême, s’engagea dans la Résistance, cessa ‘d’être insensé’” (Patrick Kéchichian III). In his memoirs, Maurice Nadeau remarks that Blanchot is revolted by Hitler’s and Vichy’s treatment of Jews: “Durant la guerre, le révoltent les ignominies d’Hitler d’abord, de Vichy ensuite, contre les juifs” (71).
“Pour un citoyen des îles Britanniques, de la Suisse, des Etats-Unis ou des pays scandinaves, le comportement politique des Français peut paraître frappé d’une inquiétante singularité. Même si l’on replace la France dans les zones plus tempétueuses du continent européen, les grands rythmes de son histoire gardent une forte originalité. Depuis un siècle environ, on constate, en effet, que bon nombre des pays de l’Europe du Centre et du Sud ont connu une évolution en trois temps: 1. abolition ou transformation libérale de l’ancien régime; 2. contre-révolution dictatoriale; 3. instauration de la démocratie libérale. Ainsi de l’Allemagne, de l’Italie, de l’Autriche, de l’Espagne, du Portugal, de la Grèce. La France, quant à elle, a suivi un autre cours. L’absolutisme renversé, elle a instauré un régime républicain et établi le suffrage universel avant les autres nations européennes. Précocité douloureuse et Révolution longtemps inachevée: les réactions césariennes et monarchiques, entrecoupées de nouveaux jaillissements démocratiques, ont pressé la cadence du XIXe jusqu’à l’effondrement de Sedan, le second Empire a reçu son coup de grâce le 2 septembre 1870” (Winock 9).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7419
SOURCE: “Publishing Blanchot in America: A Metapoetic View,” in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, Station Hill, 1999, pp. 511-27.
[In the following essay, Quasha and Stein consider Blanchot's writings in an American context and discuss the difficulty of translating, reading, and interpreting his texts, particularly in light of their poetic openness and prophetic quality.]
After two decades of publishing the writing of Maurice Blanchot, we find ourselves still standing at the threshold. Slowly—very slowly—we may be learning the meanings of our own commitments. The decision to publish Blanchot has seemed at times fully conscious, perhaps willful, and yet curiously receptive, something unforeseeable, indeed inseparable from (our sense of) the nature of the work itself, its precarious adventure on the edge. In many ways publishing this most mysterious of writers is hardly different from reading him: one is always at the beginning of knowing what it is one is doing. This is not a matter of doubting the importance—the “literary value”—of the work; quite the contrary, we only grow more certain that this is work of the first order. To read it is to be changed by it—each time one reads it. It makes little difference in this regard whether one is reading the same book over again or an entirely new work—“this unique reading, each time the first reading and each time the only reading” (to quote Blanchot’s “Reading”). This work challenges, alters, opens the meaning of reading itself, and therefore of publishing, proclaiming, defining. … In this way it stands with the great transformative works of any tradition—we might choose the “Prophetic Books” of William Blake as our exemplar here—which are also beyond tradition, indeed, subversive of traditional force itself while carrying forward its vital current.
To see ourselves thus at the threshold—the limen—has encouraged us these twenty years to discover a certain humility before a grand task, the presentation of work that chastens the very thinking it inspires, and indeed frustrates any form of aggrandizement. It has, frankly, taken us these two decades to discover how to read it—a confession we may have to make yearly, and each decade, such is the textual vista one enjoys at its threshold. In short, to know this work as publisher/reader is to wish to serve it, appropriately. To perform the function of Guardians of the Portal of an authentic Mystery translates more simply as custodians of the door—at a minimum, offering unfettered access, keeping the door swinging open (it closes automatically and too easily). Our position at the limen earns us no special rights; and we are not specialists or advocates, certainly not scholars or critics, but, frankly, poets, readers, accepting the responsibility to maintain access. So we may be forgiven for advancing the prejudice of our perspective—a penchant for reporting the liminal. In celebrating two decades of publishing Blanchot with this combined edition, we wish to suggest that our angle of viewing may have a truth in it that coincides with something true about the work of Maurice Blanchot—its threshold nature, its liminality. And this “truth” leaves us—publishers and readers alike—standing on the same verge, book in hand.
And a very large book it is.1 Of Station Hill’s eight Blanchot books, it contains six complete and most of a seventh, in English translations here by Lydia Davis, Paul Auster and Robert Lamberton, all extraordinary writers in their own right. When we published the first book, Death Sentence, no one at the trade book level was publishing him and very few Americans were reading him in any depth.2 Although occasionally bookstores reported strong interest—the St. Marks Bookstore exulted over an avid “cult following” of Death Sentence on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—a Blanchot readership took its own time in developing. No small number have wondered with Geoffrey Hartman “why it took so long to introduce him to the English-speaking world,” particularly given Blanchot’s enormous influence on the Continent, expressed in Hartman’s “extravagant claim” in the 1981 Preface to The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays:
When we come to write the history of criticism for the 1940 to 1980 period, it will be found that Blanchot, together with Sartre, made French “discourse” possible, both in its relentlessness and its acuity. That “discourse,” like many French things, is not to everyone’s taste, yet it could prove more powerful and persistent than the notion of taste itself.
Certainly getting beyond limitations of “taste,” as well as many species of “interpretation” and “deconstruction,” is fundamental to an appropriately open reading of Blanchot. The more one reads him, the more evident is his impact on European writing and on the relatively small number of American writers sensitive to European discourse. Many wonder if such a writer could ever truly take root, so to speak, in the American literary terrain. Blanchot’s work seems a far cry from concerns “in the American grain” (to borrow William Carlos Williams’ defining phrase)—and yet, the issue is by no means either simple or clear. No doubt his fortunes in American readership owe a lot to certain waves of current interest in the thought of Heidegger, Lévinas, Bataille, Derrida and a complex and elusive range of writers in one way or another sympathetic to the project of Deconstruction. In general Blanchot’s readers owe an undeniable debt to this rich and endlessly problematic lineage, which is (necessarily) so uneasy with itself. It is of course mind-bendingly difficult to say anything in this matter that is neither simplistic nor reductive. Yet we are here writing from a viewpoint of American readership, itself unsettled, often at odds within its numerous and nuanced crosscurrents, and ever in the midst of a struggle between one or another brand of Protectionism and Free Trade advocacy. The question we wish to pose is, literary/philosophical politics aside, can we move toward a radically new view of a “possible Blanchot” specific to America—a practice of writing/reading somehow in the American grain? Such a question might well be most useful left as a question—i.e., an invitation.
This is, after all, an American book. And that declaration is meant as an act of clearing in the spirit of generosity Blanchot indeed has urged us toward. More than one of his translators has gotten the message that the work they do in the name of translation is now their work. This freeing message also has a bite: the translator’s responsibility to American reading. This is hardly a matter of trying to please anyone or meet a standard. What it has been a matter of—for which we are grateful—is the exercise of “native” powers belonging to these particular writers, mysteriously appropriate to Blanchot’s work, now somehow also their work, which has stood the test of time. For all the difficulties of meeting the astonishing range of resonance in the French text—notorious instances include reverberations of a word over many pages, such as oeuvre, unfolding its nuances and nuanced contrary, désoeuvrement—the simple truth is Blanchot reads in English.
Translated text of this order takes root in another native ground in many ways—adoption into curricula, acceptance as “literary classic” by educated readers generally, influence on writers and artists. … Perhaps the most elusive—yet deepest—kind of “rooting” is the further life a work receives through the work of other writers and artists. This is hard to track, but when a work comes to further life by showing up inside a new work, its own direct power can be illuminated. For instance, a text like Thomas the Obscure freshly reappears, revealing certain uncharted dimensions, in the work of artist Gary Hill, particularly his veritable invocation of the récit (including the physical pages of the book) in the single-channel video Incidence of Catastrophe as well as in multimedia installations like Beacon (Two Versions of the Imaginary). This sui generis “reading” of Blanchot is but one instance of his incursion into North American arts, and certainly there is a complex trail to follow through poetry, fiction and a range of discursive modalities.
Yet there are deeper issues not fully embraced in thinking about transplantation of a work or the related matter of its influence. Amongst the many ports of entry into Blanchot’s work, perhaps most important for us, from an American perspective, has been a gradually emerging sense of his contribution to what one might call the possibility of writing beyond—that is, writing that goes beyond models, genres, contexts, and any limiting concept of what writing is. It is not entirely satisfying to assign such an issue to a conventional intellectual domain, although the closest is perhaps poetics in the broadest sense; yet, in the interest of granting inquiry a further scope and scale, we resort to a notional innovation under the name metapoetics, the principles by which writing is beyond itself, the practice of the unknown, the poetics of (im)possibility. (We retain in meta- the double root of “beyond” and “middle,” the poetics of what goes beyond and yet is always in the very middle.)3 We are thinking here of a characteristic operative principle in the innermost workings of the Blanchot text that bears a deep (but not necessarily a surface) kinship with innovative American writing—especially poetry and especially of the second half of this century. This is a matter of the greatest importance and difficulty, concerning the very transformative force at the center of writing itself. Blanchot’s own invocation of this transformative force is embedded in specific contexts and subtle processes of distinction. To attempt here to characterize (and inevitably simplify) this “operative principle” is of course to risk reducing it to literary method, procedure, technique, or style or to overstate one aspect of this complex writer, when what one wishes is to attend the imageless vision at the heart of an infinite conversation.
Our experience of American poetry over the past few decades—the necessary context of our observations here—has pointed us toward a metapoetic possibility in the limitless ways that poetry redefines itself—redefines, that is, language, the very possibility of language, and everything that we reflexively know and are through language, with the implication that being itself is at stake. Within this metapoetic view, poetry’s tendency toward radical self-redefinition can be tracked in any number of ways, yet in some essential sense these ways lead back to something like a root poetic impulse, showing up in the way a poem turns upon its occasion. This meaning of “verse” says that in its specific turning a poem performs most essentially what it is.
Among the many sources of inspiration for this view is the poet Charles Olson,4 not only his famous poetic principle of “projective verse” or “composition by field,” with its call for energetic integrity in writing,5 but his special use of the eighth century Chinese alchemical text translated as The Secret of the Golden Flower: “That which exists through itself is what is called Meaning.” For Olson this is a fundamental principle of poetics. Accordingly, we might say that a poem is a “meaningful” projection of a certain force turning upon its occasion, wherein it exists through itself. The emphasis is on an always immediate/mediate self-defining torsion, a middle zone that is instantly yet radically (in-standingly yet rootedly) open, the instance of itself beyond any particular definition of itself. It is as though a vertical axis moves within any “point instance” of the text and any moment of true reading. The turning upon the occasion—a self-composing field linked, for Olson, with a projection through and to an actual environment, moving energetically toward the reader—is a turning upon an invisible axis in the poem, in language at its most intensely alive.6
This sense of axiality, as the principle of certain texts that remain radically open, can be illuminating to consider in relation to the works of a range of American poets7 and, to an impressive degree, to Blanchot’s work from Thomas the Obscure on. Axiality, in our view, is at work in the unfolding of texts that might not otherwise seem related—at work, that is, from the perspective of the text’s emergence, the experience of its reader, or the internal dynamics of the text itself. Metapoetically, the axial implicitly involves the granting of a certain permission and the acceptance of a certain responsibility to allow each event of language or step in thought to reconfigure the work at large, even as it takes its place within it. The thinker/poet/writer allows himself to be startled, pause, and respond to the not yet drawn-out significance of the very thought he has just articulated. Axiality is metapoetically instrumental in transgressing established, time-honored boundaries, including not only the boundaries of poetic conventions, genres (poetry, fiction, philosophical discourse) or even the concrete poetics of a specific work, but the very distinction between writer and reader. In a work of high axial intensity, reader, in some measure, metamorphoses into poet, faced with orientational choice at any moment, required to define and declare the very context of choice. The identities of writer/reader/text have become liminal to each other. The poet/reader’s journey is direct but never straight, called again and again to turn on a dime as a condition of moving “forward.”
The force of the axial is to drive reading into the open center of attention, into the intensive “presentness” of itself, as if the text, through being read, were present to itself, facing (into, back around to) itself, in touch with something as enigmatic and as raw as its own source.8 The axial destabilizes thinking, disorients it, but in such a way as to bring attention to thinking as the process of orientation itself, which allows it to become self-orienting. One reads it with the whole of one’s living awareness, including the body, as if what one sees is on a verge, precarious, never separate from its own falling, one’s own falling. The axial embodies the instant reversibility of anything thinkable, and when a space of stillness awakens in the axial moment like the eye of the storm, it is the storm that sees, as a reader, the possibility of reading, the space of liminality. This seeing is reorienting—a radial orientation, extending in all textual directions at once, so that through the axial the text, possible language, is continually revisioned. In an intensely axial moment—of proprioceptive disorientation—the whole of a text undergoes reorientation, as does the body of the writer’s work at large and, indeed, the entire scope of its intentionality.
In one of the episodes of Thomas the Obscure, the relationship of reader to text literally inverts: text reads reader. Under the pressure of a liminality that binds reader to what he reads, Thomas’ reading psyche mutates until it begins to manifest the enigmatic properties that it finds in the book he is reading—like a language with no bottom, rooted in the absolute, a spontaneous cabala opening in the words on the page intensively read. The strange reciprocity brought on by entrainment to the Other—something like Blake’s principle that we become what we behold—is carried in Thomas to a transmogrifying extreme worthy of Blake himself. Thomas lost in the outside void that is infinitely deep inside the word, a kind of demonic encounter, is also like Blake’s evocation of self-loss in non-entity (“There is a Void, outside of existence, which if entered into / Englobes itself & becomes a Womb, such was Albion’s Couch …”).9 Thomas the reader, on the verge and beyond, is one possible result of an encounter with the liminal.
So an axial art is an art of torsion and pause, of self-interruption, a site of catastrophe. In the space of pause there is turbulence at the center of which is attentive stillness, an axis of attention, evoked by T. S. Eliot as “the still point of the turning world” (Four Quartets). When reading/awareness turning upon that center (the experience may be turmoil or dizzying momentum or something quite unknown) turns back to itself, it may induce a still point within reading in which the nature of reading is radically available to itself, open beyond characterization. Here is Blanchot’s sense of the axial in “Literature and the Right to Death,” a defining moment for his own work and for that of a great many others. Blanchot refers to
an ultimate ambiguity whose strange effect is to attract literature to an unstable point where it can indiscriminately change both its meaning and its sign.
This ultimate vicissitude keeps the work in suspense in such a way that it can choose whether to take on a positive or a negative value and, as though it were pivoting invisibly around an invisible axis, enter the daylight of affirmations or the back-light of negations, without its style, genre, or subject being accountable for the radical transformation. Neither the content of the words nor their form is involved here. Whether the work is obscure or clear, poetry or prose, insignificant, important, whether it speaks of a pebble or of God, there is something in it that does not depend on its qualities and that deep within itself is always in the process of changing the work from the ground up. It is as though in the very heart of literature and language, beyond the visible movements that transform them, a point of instability were reserved, a power to work substantial metamorphoses, a power capable of changing everything about it without changing anything. [Emphasis added.]
The sense of “ultimate vicissitude [that] keeps the work in suspense” could point to Keats’ “Negative Capability” or the terrifying openness wrought by “poetic torsion” in Blake’s “prophetic” books.10 Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” and his own Maximus Poems or Robert Duncan’s Passages display this axial turning, this pivoting about in place, where the force of one’s own emergent utterance strikes one as it appears. And for the reader of Blanchot, the expression of the movement of thought itself—one’s own thought, or the text’s—often shimmers with an energy born of the mind’s alertness and capacity to be conditioned by its own act. Blanchot speculates on the sources of this energy as perhaps deriving from a deeply situated property of language itself:
Could it be that the meaning of a word introduces something else into the word along with it, something which, although it protects the precise signification of the word and does not threaten that signification, is capable of completely modifying the meaning and modifying the material value of the word? Could there be a force at once friendly and hostile hidden in the intimacy of speech, a weapon intended to build and to destroy, which would act behind signification rather than upon signification? Do we have to suppose a meaning for the meaning of words that, while determining that meaning, also surrounds this determination with an ambiguous indeterminacy that wavers between yes and no? [Emphasis added.]
What is the nature of the (re)orientation the axial makes possible? This all-important question is also ultimately difficult, and we must stretch our language to account for it. The potential for axial reorientation is intrinsic to any given text, as it particularly “exists through itself,” and thus the sense of reorientation is unique to each instance. Its realization, furthermore, is “animated” (Blanchot’s word) through an actual reading. Orientation—in the axial sense always reorientation—implies a certain way of reading, a reading open to the axial, and, speculatively, we would need a “poetics of reading” that might then define something like “reading by field.”11 For orienting does occur in an activated field, larger than the text, and so it is also, and simultaneously, somehow outside the text. Yet this outside remains within the context that is the text in its virtual field, its power to reverberate outward. It is as though the torsional force draws its orientational power up from an “undertime,” a time that is always already not time, a still point waiting to (not) happen.
A poetics of reading would help us inquire into the consequences of axiality, including how it initiates us into “other” ways of reading, how, indeed, Blanchot changes reading. The way Blanchot’s text instructs in reading is quite different from the way Robert Duncan’s or John Cage’s instructs, yet the transformations of any one of them may initiate us into the transformational reading that goes beyond all models. At the heart of such reading is always somehow the issue of orientation. In passing through a certain passage we may feel we see anew, as if reading refocuses us, like opening eyes in the back of our head or in our ears. John Cage has spoken of a necessary “unfocus.” Axial orientation awakens a state of liminal attention or awareness in liminality—“an ambiguous indeterminacy that wavers between yes and no.” Another name for the “space of literature”—l’espace littéraire—may indeed be liminality, a space that calls a reader beyond ordinary orientation—the bilateral, the binary, the dual—and towards radical orientation—the radial, the plural, the mediate. Does liminal orientation—wherein the identity of what is being oriented is, through reading, brought into question—imply another thinking peculiar to liminal space? An awkward question gesturing towards a poetics of thinking.
The “standing” of Blanchot’s work is liminal to all the likely categories. Obviously he has all along favored writers whose works challenge inherited domains—Lautréamont, Sade, Artaud, Kafka, Bataille. And for the most part his lineage of thinkers consists preeminently of those for whom poetics is somehow at the heart of thinking—Nietzsche, Heidegger. He shares with the latter a discovery of thinking through the reading of poets whose work embodies ontological orientation—Hölderlin, Rilke. Blanchot’s reading of these poets displays a transformation within reading. This reading is not other than his thinking. At its most relentlessly rigorous this thinking eludes paraphrase and summation, as though serious engagement with thinking recalls one all the way to the torsional matrix of its questions. To say to oneself what it is Blanchot thinks on a certain point, one must always return to a site in language and work one’s way outward. Recalling a certain thought calls up the trace of something as particular as the climate of a place, the weather of a particular day, an element of the time of the saying, as though thought turned upon its occasion.12 To think the thought one has to get situated in it.
In Blanchot the poetics overtakes the thinking. This is not the same thing as taking it over, which would imply that somehow thinking is given up in favor of poetry. Obviously this is not so. Rather, an essential poetics, an axiality, may be said to wed thinking so as to carry it beyond itself.13 Among the permissions of the axial are the disjunctive, the paratactic and the fragmentary, which allow a complete movement of thought, small or large, to stand both alone and beside a next thought, each freely turning upon its occasion and at its own non-cumulative rate. There is a silence, a zero point in the voice of thought, on either side. And in place of a totalizing progression, there is a frequent return to beginnings and endings, a rhythm of gaps, silences, spaces, and still points, each moment a withdrawal from time and a return to “undertime.” A pulsation of emptiness/emergence—of begin here, begin now—replaces both rhythmic and logical expectation. The impulse toward totalization and system-building is frustrated by the sheer freshness of discursive arising. In the history of the intentional fragmentary, power is reabsorbed in the originarity of utterance. Pascal, Nietzsche, Blanchot.
In the mysterious dialogue of the ontological recital, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, the axial shows up not only in the fragmentary narrative—the identities of the speaker and his “companion,” including the latter’s “reality status,” are richly and ambiguously woven in the telling—but also in the musical force of thinking that manifests in its verbal reverberations. Key words (“companion,” “writing,” “work,” etc.) and phrases (“reflect on it”) appear, mutate and thread through fields of thought—thinking fields, as it were, in which the thinking is twistingly ambi-valent as to its agency and location and seems to embody a radial process of orientation. Questions, speculations, and a range of tentative verbal gestures spread out in radiant ecologies of attention and thoughtful definition. As in Blake’s later “Prophetic” books, the text is relentless—no rest, no resolution, no reduction to subjectivity, and no transcendence in any repeatable or referentially constant sense. Holes in the historical, the social, and the psychological are mirrored in time-warps in the syntactical. Here as elsewhere in both the “fiction” and “discourse,” it is the field that thinks and speaks. Reading entrains to the state of the field, as if “meaning” is what rises up from beneath the text and between the words, sentences and thoughts that hold attention. This attention is provisional, only held until the axial moment cuts it loose and returns it to the field in another state of receptivity. In these ontological “tellings,” the poetics of reading and of thinking become a single discipline.
When the field of reading is thus aroused, it becomes a very particular “energy construct”14 at work “behind signification,” overriding genre and other categorical distinctions. For instance, Blanchot’s way of axially/musically reverberating key words in the récit, mentioned above, is linked to a processual opening of, as it were, concept words employed in rigorous thinking. For the most part these are really ordinary words seeming to do the big work of philosophical terminology by slowly, continuously gathering (working) and dispelling (unworking) a charge. The word becomes a torsional matrix of meanings that unfold from the incessant, recurrent (un)work. The integrity of the continuous opening of the word inside writing retains it outside the language-space wherein affirmation and negation reside. These—what to call them?—“dissipative” words, “mind-degradable” terms?—include, for example, “death,” “space,” and “literature” in the works presented here and in, especially, The Space of Literature,15 but also“patience,” “waiting,” “attention,” “passivity,” and others that become fully thematical in works such as The Writing of Disaster.16 In each case a signifier puts before us a signification that stands outside the ordinary meaning paired with a contrary; thus, “death” as organic termination of life becomes an impossibility, while death as dying characterizes all life; “literature” no longer contrasts with mere writing and arches beyond any valorized sense of cultural production; “patience” is not exclusive of impatience; “passivity” may be operative within both passivity and action; “waiting” is not waiting for anything; and “attention” exceeds what attention pays attention to. These “transcendent” terms recall, in their relationless relation to the ordinary words that they both “ruin” and extend, expressions from negative theologies and mystical or esoteric studies that similarly attempt to express what the oppositions of ordinary language render ineffable: the “Unground” of Meister Eckhart, the “Gateless Gate” of Zen Buddhism, the “rootless root” of Dzogchen,17 and so forth.
Blanchot has devoted many careful studies to writers on mystical, theological, and theophanic topics, and a fair reading of them will show him by no means unsympathetic and, even, as he says in relation to Simone Weil, a “friend” of the work. Beyond this direct interest, the récits sometimes deliver dramatic and phenomenologically vivid narrations of initiatic journeys (the first two chapters of Thomas the Obscure), epiphanies of timeless states (When the Time Comes), returns from the dead (Death Sentence), and reports of detachment and ecstasy (The Madness of the Day). It would be strange not to inquire into the relation between these persistent, explicit concerns and the esoteric teachings which they so strikingly parallel, indeed offering so many astonishing insights.
An “occult reading” of Blanchot is undeniably possible, even impossible to deny, and, indeed, despite the probability that it would not be taken seriously by most current students of Blanchot, it is probably inevitable, given the sense of Mystery that pervades the récits. Yet to see Blanchot in such texts as liminal to the esoteric in fact deepens the free space of the work and allows it what is certainly one of its unexplored truths—that it is more mysterious than the Occult, because it remains free of that defining context while retaining the spirit of inquiry of serious esoteric writing.
Of course much of Blanchot’s writing takes pains to distance itself from any suggestion of affinity with practices of, say, “mystical fusion,” favoring, in this regard, the thought of Emmanuel Lévinas and Franz Rosenzweig, which sees in the difficult distance of prosaic conversation (as opposed to poetic rapture or any form of communion) the possibility of ethical life. Yet often Blanchot’s writing is uncommonly sensitive to the nuances of awareness and “altered states”18 and seems to articulate, with a precision rarely equaled by mystical thinkers themselves, the very heart of the mystical. Consider this passage from Blanchot’s piece on Simone Weil:
Attention is waiting: not the effort, the tension, or the mobilization of knowledge around something with which one might concern oneself. Attention waits. It waits without precipitation, leaving empty what is empty and keeping our haste, our impatient desire, and, even more, our horror of emptiness from prematurely filling it up. Attention is the emptiness of thought oriented by a gentle force and maintained in an accord with the empty intimacy of time.
Attention is impersonal. It is not the self that is attentive in attention; rather, with an extreme delicacy and through insensible, constant contacts, attention has always already detached me from myself, freeing me for the attention that I for an instant become.19
Attention, emptiness, and detachment—familiar concerns, of course, in the nuanced philosophical texts of Mahayana Buddhism, and it might not be difficult to convince even the most sophisticated practitioner of Buddhist meditation that the above text offered commentary on the Teachings.20 It renders articulate the most intimate reaches of both compassional and contemplative experience, territories that Blanchot knows must be shielded, through a kind of reserve, from the necessary violence of speech, and yet, because the emptiness here is precisely that of a thinking, there is a demand that language, also with “gentle force” and “in accord with the empty intimacy of time,” not abandon its role.
Whether in the literature of esotericism or in the work of Blanchot, what stands outside the totality of speech still submits to a kind of unknowing knowing—as if mind and language were destined to provide an intimacy with their own outside. It’s an uncanny intimacy without fusion, enigmatically made possible by the very distance that keeps that outside apart. This same enigma, Blanchot will tell us, resides at the origin of language itself.
In the West, the Gnostic writings of the early Christian centuries, quickly declared heretical for (we conjecture) little more than the radical independence and pluck of their textuality, offers a body of thought that curiously “twins” that of Blanchot—an intimacy with the most distant, bearing witness to a knowing that destroys the knowledge sustaining all worldly power. We have found no discussion of Gnosticism in Blanchot, but Thomas the Obscure has long seemed to us to echo in some impossible way The Gospel of Thomas: “These are the obscure words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Jude Thomas wrote down.”21 Is there a secret affinity held in reserve? A source of secret wonder and ecstasy under the mad transformations of Thomas the Obscure, an undisclosed concern belonging to “the hand that does not write,” whose “right to intervene” governs not the content and not the style but the very tonality and resonance, the rhythmus and the undertime of the writing? Is it neurosis, psychosis, or something between unknown and profoundly known, a “lognosis”? Can we not say of Blanchot’s work what he writes of Heraclitus’, that it delivers
a language that speaks through enigma, the enigmatic Difference, but without complacency and without appeasing it: on the contrary, making it speak, and, even before it be word, already declaring it as logos, that highly singular name in which is reserved the nonspeaking origin of that which summons to speech and at its highest level, there where everything is silence, “neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign.”22
The title, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, replaces our original projected title, A Blanchot Reader, mainly for three reasons. First, Michael Holland’s excellent and essential The Blanchot Reader (Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.: Oxford, 1995) was published in the meantime, offering a sense of “reader” that is at the other end of a spectrum from the present volume. He presents a “Blanchot” in the perspective of history, politics, and the writer’s development over time, through a poignant choice of texts—many in English for the first time—and rich, informative and careful commentary indicating four stages of an evolving body of work. It is a book with a thesis that will always remain a part of how we read Blanchot.
Second, Christopher Fynsk helped us see that our book has no comparable organizing principle, certainly no thesis, but only the fact that Station Hill published these particular books, mostly “fiction”—the récits—and a relatively small collection of “essays” originally intended to be representative, in an introductory way (1981), of Blanchot’s discourse. The texts are divided into two major sections represented by the inadequate (but perhaps not significantly misleading) names, “fiction” and “essays.” But, although organized chronologically, in neither case is development or evolution emphasized. There is no claim that these works are Blanchot’s most important or representative, only that they are, in and of themselves, of great value. Our concern is to allow them their own nature, their difference, their particular power. This “reader” standing as it does in such sharp contrast to Michael Holland’s “reader” says that there in no “Reader” but only “readers”; given that the two neutralize each other, there is a potentially unlimited number, embodying any number of principles. A single reader could only distort the very possibility of knowing Blanchot’s work “for oneself.” Not one, not two, but plural: the open reader.
Third, the name Station Hill bespeaks a complex context of publishing literary and non-literary works from an underlying perspective of metapoetics in an even broader sense than the one discussed here. The title, then, marks the site of the distinction “publisher” in order to ensure that Blanchot’s work, which has inspired no small part of our “publishing program,” remain free of any confusion with that program.
Note that not everyone has reacted favorably to our title: indeed, Robert Kelly made the interesting suggestion that we name this book, The American Blanchot Reader.
Writers such as Susan Sontag tried for years without success to interest American publishers in Blanchot. The critic P. Adams Sitney was instrumental in our first Blanchot publications. In 1977 at the Arnolfini Arts Center which we (Susan Quasha and George Quasha) had recently founded in conjunction with Station Hill Press in Rhinebeck, New York, Sitney suggested Blanchot as a high priority among major unpublished writers. The poet Robert Kelly directed us to two writers, living locally, who had a connection to Blanchot’s work: Lydia Davis, who had published sections of her translation of Death Sentence in literary magazines, and Paul Auster, who subsequently worked as managing editor of Station Hill Press and later translated Blanchot’s Le Ressassement éternal (published as Vicious Circles). Lydia Davis would go on to translate other books by Blanchot, including the essays contained in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays, selected by P. Adams Sitney, who himself contributed an important critical statement as Afterword. Stan Lewis, who happened to run the Parnassus Bookstore across the street from Station Hill Press in Rhinebeck, had already in 1973 (under the name David Lewis, Inc.) published Thomas the Obscure in a beautifully designed hardback edition of Robert Lamberton’s translation. Later, Station Hill would issue the first trade paperback edition. Stan Lewis thus had made the first serious attempt to bring Blanchot to the trade book world in America, although his publication, extraordinary in every way, received little distribution and attention.
The range of meanings of Greek “meta-” includes “between, with, beside, after,” in Pokorny 2, me- 702: The American Heritage Dictionary.
Charles Olson, along with certain others who taught at the innovative and influential Black Mountain College in the late 1940s and early 1950s (notably John Cage and Robert Duncan), may be seen as part of the same historical “axis” as Blanchot in a redefining period for writing on both sides of the Atlantic. Olson’s most influential statement, though only one of many important efforts to define a new poetics, is “Projective Verse,” in Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, Introduction by Robert Creeley, University of California Press: Berkeley, 1997. Station Hill is currently publishing Olson’s The Special View of History (ed. Ann Charters), which bears upon the questions we are raising here.
In Olson’s definition of a poem as “composition by field,” “the poem must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” (Collected Prose, p.240.) Blanchot, speaking of energy in “The Limit-Experience,” says: “Let us not immediately evoke Nietzsche, but Blake: ‘Energy is the only life. Energy is Eternal delight” and even Van Gogh: ‘There is good in every energetic movement,’ for energy is thought (intensity, density, the sweetness of thought pushed to the limit.)” (The Infinite Conversation, translated by Susan Hanson, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1993, p.453, n.7.)
Blanchot himself sometimes comes close to stating a metapoetic principle of axiality:
“The image is the duplicity of revelation. The image is what veils by revealing; it is the veil that reveals by reveiling in all the ambiguous indecision of the word reveal. The image is image by means of this duplicity, being not the object’s double, but the initial division that then permits the thing to be figured; still further back than this doubling it is a folding, a turn of the turning, the ‘version’ that is always in the process of inverting itself and that in itself bears the back and forth of a divergence. The speech of which we are trying to speak is a return to this first turning—a noun that must be heard as a verb, as the movement of a turning, a vertigo wherein rest the whirlwind, the leap and the fall. Note that the names chosen for the two directions of our literary language accept the idea of this turning; poetry, rightly enough alludes to it most directly with the word ‘verse,’ while ‘prose’ goes right along its path by way of a detour that continually straightens itself out … but the turning must already be given for speech to turn about in the torsion of verse. The first turn, the original structure of turning (which later slackens in a back and forth linear movement) is poetry.” (The Infinite Conversation, p. 30.)
Such a list would be long, but it’s worth pointing to a few of the many works that we think embody the “axial” at various levels of working poetics: Louis Zukofsky’s A and 80 Flowers, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, Robert Duncan’s Passages, Jack Spicer’s Language, Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest, Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger, John Cage’s Empty Words, Robert Creeley’s Pieces, Jackson Mac Low’s Bloomsday, Robert Kelly’s Axon Dendron Tree or Sentence, David Antin’s Talking, Kenneth Irby’s Orexis, Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, John Clark’s The End of This Side, Nathaniel Mackey’s Lute of Gassire, Clark Coolidge’s The Crystal Text, Franz Kamin’s Scribble Death, Chris Mann’s Working Hypothesis, Susan Howe’s Pythagorean Silence, Larry Eigner’s Waters/Places/A Time, Anne Lauterbach’s On a Stair. … We hasten to note that there are many apparent differences in thinking among these poets and between any one of them and Blanchot, but this would be a study in itself and hardly within our scope here. We are simply entertaining the notion of a linking principle.
In anticipation of a well-intentioned retreat to Blanchot’s inevitable contrary of “presence,” avoiding reification, we acknowledge the difficulty and point the reader to Blanchot’s meditation on reading in the essay of that name below (from The Space of Literature), particularly the last two pages, “The light, innocent Yes of reading.”
From the opening of Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804).
Keats’ Negative Capability has defined the center for apparently opposing poetics, that of T. S. Eliot and Charles Olson. Blake is probably the first to realize the transformative power of torsional/axial poetics in virtually all of the senses intended here. See “Orc as a Fiery Paradigm of Poetic Torsion,” George Quasha, in Blake’s Visionary Forms Dramatic, ed. David V. Erdman and John E. Grant, Princeton: 1970.
“Reading by field” would seem to be the discipline implied by what Olson has called “composition by field.” See above, “Projective Verse.”
The poetic principle we are applying here to thinking in language—that at every point it has a certain “torque”—is expressed in Olson’s “thinking poem”: “whatever is born or done this moment of time, has / the qualities of / this moment of / time.” (“Against Wisdom as Such,” Collected Prose, p. 263.) “An American,” says Olson, “is a complex of occasions.” (“Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld],” The Maximus Poems, ed. George F. Butterick, University of California Press: Berkeley, 1983, p. 185.) In other words, for an American, according to Olson, order, identity, and meaning itself are rooted in locality and occasion, not traditional categories. For Blanchot, whose thinking might seem to be without location (except, for instance, in specific political writing) and where the effacement of optical presence is a matter of principle, the axial renders thinking itself concrete and actual, immediate and even “site-specific” within the text, within reading. Paradoxically, in both Olson and Blanchot, axial is actual. Here, for us, is where reading “in the American grain” opens to Blanchot’s writing beyond.
For this to be so, could it be that, at the deepest level, the poetic is a possibility within the very nature of thinking, the realization of which carries thinking beyond limitation? If the axial as the root of both poetry and thinking would disclose their common subversive nature, what do we make of thought’s wish to stand apart from the poetic, from Plato to Lévinas?
Perhaps seeing Blanchot’s thinking as axial also attends its intrinsic response to Heidegger’s “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”
See note 5 above.
Translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1982.
Translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1986, 1995.
See Herbert Guenther, The Matrix of Mystery: Scientific and Humanistic Aspects of rDzogschen Thought (Shambhala Publications: Boulder, 1984): “Experience-as-such, having no root, / Is the root of all that is. / Experience-as-such is gnosemic language; / Gnosemic language is the Wish-Fulfilling Gem Cloud.”
An unfortunate term, of course, which The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me would be enough to annihilate. This récit is a sort of Klein Bottle of “consciousness”—what alters? And toward what? Or is there only the ever-altering, and affliction is the fantasy of a normal?
“Affirmation (desire, affliction),” The Infinite Conversation, p. 121.
To be sure, serious Western students and practitioners of Eastern religions, concerned to bring to their experience of non-Western possibilities the finest instruments of Western thought, can do no better than study Maurice Blanchot.
In “Didymos Jude (or Judas)”—meaning “Jude the Twin” (taken in the Syrian church as the twin of Jesus)—perhaps we hear a twinning principle by which Thomas the Obscure twins Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy) as well as the words obscure of the Gospel, the one Gospel that is not a narrative but a récit of the often enigmatic sayings of Jesus (by way of his Twin); a principle, too, that matures in the mysterious dialogical twin of The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me.
“Heraclitus,” The Infinite Conversation, p. 92.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
SOURCE: “Cardiac Arrest,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 13, 1999, p. 24.
[In the following review, Hill comments on the historical significance of Blanchot's oeuvre in general, highlighting the implications of the death theme in The Station Hill Blanchot Readerand Friendship.]
Maurice Blanchot, novelist, critic, philosopher, now in his ninety-second year, is at last receiving the sustained critical attention his work deserves. These two volumes of translations explain why. The Station Hill Blanchot Reader brings together in one compendium edition previously out-of-print English versions of the author’s shorter fiction or récits, including Vicious Circles, the second version of Thomas the Obscure, Death Sentence, The Madness of the Day, When the Time Comes and The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me; also included is a selection of critical essays from each of the three postwar decades. On rereading these texts, what is perhaps most striking is the peculiar bilingualism of Blanchot’s writing, the ease with which it passes from essay to narrative and back again. In the process, story and essay assume a particular responsiveness to that which exceeds them. Blanchot’s récits, for instance, do not recount historical events, even when those events correspond to crucial turning points in modern history, like the ill-fated signature of the Munich accords that forms the political backdrop to Death Sentence, or the bombing of the synagogue in the rue de la Victoire in Paris in October 1941, recalled almost exactly halfway through When the Time Comes. Such events are nevertheless present in the margins of Blanchot’s texts, but not as episodes in a completed narrative sequence. Events like these are not just crises in history, Blanchot suggests; they are crises of history, and they challenge the possibility of narrative itself. This is why the real events in Blanchot’s narratives, one might say, are the narratives themselves, which thereby turn into reflections on the possibility or impossibility of narrating events at all. Narrative itself is thus an event that both takes place and yet does not take place; it is a form of writing that meditates on its own limits, its perpetual incompletion, and its necessary withdrawal from itself. Readers of Blanchot will remember here how a story like The Madness of the Day (as Derrida has shown with exemplary rigour) ends on its own beginning, and begins with its own ending, while yet surviving itself as an affirmation of the end and of the endlessness of the end. The paradox which is the crux of this analysis is encountered on numerous occasions in Blanchot’s fiction; what it indicates is that, in order for the end to be spoken, the end in fact must forever be postponed. So when does the time come? When does the death sentence fall, that arrêt de mort that, as it draws up (“arrêter”) the verdict, also suspends (“arrêter”) it?
These questions are not just literary ones. For they are also at the centre of Friendship, first published in French in 1971, and dedicated in the first instance to the death of Georges Bataille, one of Blanchot’s closest friends, in July 1962. The volume has a powerful double focus. It endeavours to address the exemplary singularity of the death of Bataille, while being aware of the paradox that to do so at all is inevitably to fail, and that to speak of the exemplarity of a death is to compromise its singularity, and vice versa. As Blanchot points out in an obituary essay on Jean Paulhan, the death of a friend is a supreme occasion, yet it is an occasion that gives rise only to a poverty of discourse. But how else to remember? Blanchot confronts this aporia with extreme patience. For while it is true that the singularity of a death cannot be spoken of except improperly, it has to be acknowledged too that death is what makes language possible. Friendship is aware of this, and explores various possibilities of death: of art (Malraux), of man (Lévi-Strauss), of Marxism (Lefebvre, Mascolo, Marx), of the gods (Pierre Klossowski), and much else besides. But while it meditates on the possibility of death, Blanchot’s prose exposes itself to the impossibility of speaking death. The equanimity of discourse is soon undermined. In these essays (many of them revised since their first appearance in journals), this is reflected in the discreet variations in tone and structure Blanchot employs. “Discretion—reserve—is the place of literature”, he suggests, and the phrase may serve as an epigraph for Blanchot’s entire work. If literature is a response to the solitude of death, and death the final ordeal to which writing, like friendship, must subject itself, this does not mean Blanchot is a melancholy writer. On the contrary, what Blanchot’s stories and essays affirm, beyond finality, is the infinity of the entretien: of the holding-between, the maintaining of relation in the absence of relation. This is one of the things Blanchot understands by friendship, and it is one of the reasons why, for many readers today, Maurice Blanchot’s writing is at the centre of thinking about literature.
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