Context

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The Writing of the Disaster may best be understood within the context of Maurice Blanchot’s ongoing concern to create a fragmentary writing that explores the extremes of human experience. Such a mode of writing, or thinking (and for Blanchot these amount to much the same thing), seeks not to provide answers but to provoke questions about the fundamental problems of life and death, memory and forgetfulness, and culture and anarchy. Whereas earlier in his career as writer and critic, Blanchot had sought, in dialogue with French philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas and Georges Bataille, to explore the Hegelian mode of negation—the moment of antithesis in the dialectic—in The Writing of the Disaster, he seeks to go beyond negation, to explore the realm of the neutre, or the neutral. The concept of the neutral, as developed by Lévinas, denotes a passive position between being and nonbeing, a space that cannot be identified with the activity of the production of meaning or with productivity of any kind. Rather than the finished work or thought, Blanchot promotes the fragment, which is not to be mistaken for the aphorism—the latter being in some sense “finished,” or closed. Fragmentary writing, by its nature, seeks its own erasure; it is self-consuming and eludes the possibility of unity, totality, or continuity.

The Writing of the Disaster is not simply a meditation upon fragmentary writing but is itself composed in a highly fragmentary, elliptical style. Lacking chapter headings, subdivisions, or any of the usual markers of linear development, The Writing of the Disaster defies conventional summary in the most flagrant terms. However, it is possible to isolate the central thread of the argument while keeping in mind that any such attempt must betray the essence of the work.

For Blanchot, writing is not so much the concrete expression of ideas, of words on a page expressed in a particular style, as it is a mental process, a thinking that is already writing as well as a thinking that is pure anticipation. Authentic writing is writing that is forever seeking its own origins and questioning its own possibility. Following in the steps of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Blanchot conceives of poetic language as something extremely rare and elusive and yet omnipresent; it is everywhere and nowhere at once and is essentially authorless. People are not the speakers of language; they are the vessels through which language speaks to the world. However, the possibility of affirmation that Heidegger found in a language of negation is no longer a possibility in the modern world. Language has depleted or exhausted its powers of negation. All attempts at unitary meaning are now meaningless or absurd. This is one way of thinking about Blanchot’s use of the term “disaster,” though again it must be noted that the disaster is not, finally, situated within the historical process.

Fragmentary Writing

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Fragmentary writing is neither negation nor affirmation but is situated between the two, within the neutral. Fragmentary writing is outside conventionally understood language. It is writing at the margins or rather writing that has abdicated the quest for a center and is thus marginal only with respect to conventional notions of expression. Because fragmentary writing neither affirms nor denies, it is unnecessary and inherently implausible. It is not something that could be said to “occur,’ insofar as occurrence implies an end, a purpose. It is purposeless writing and seeks with infinite patience to dissolve the purposes of the instrumental world. A writing of the fragment must have some affinity with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal return,” for such a writing must “occur” always as if for the first time, without a past, without reference to any future that might be conceived as part of some progress toward an end, or telos, of history.

In fragmentary writing, no authorial “I” exists that might assume responsibility for the writing. Any such “I” is a mere fiction, for that which one calls the “I” is merely a vessel for the eruption of language into the world. Thus to write of the disaster is to speak the disaster, to abdicate the “I” that would impose its illusion of purpose upon the world. Having been deprived of its relation to an author, fragmentary writing confronts the world as the perfectly arbitrary, thus erasing any possibility of presence. Rather, writing of the disaster is the writing of absence, of death.

Fragmentary writing employs words to invoke silence, the silence that is the death of meaning. Through paradox, through dissimulation, through the suppression of all pretension to represent reality (as in a mirror), it seeks to evoke a certain undertone—the cry of the heart that is embedded in the silence that surrounds and underlies all language. To write in this manner, Blanchot asserts, is to write without desire, to cultivate an almost mystical renunciation of the desiring self. This condition of renunciation Blanchot frequently refers to as belonging to passivity, to patience.

Related to this act of self-erasure is the issue of seriousness. Fragmentary writing is writing that refuses the serious, refuses to take itself seriously. A model of such a posture, frequently mentioned by Blanchot, is the Marquis de Sade, whose apparent seriousness is, properly understood, a subtle mockery of seriousness. Rather, de Sade is a master of detachment, of neutrality.

An important aspect of the neutrality of fragmentary writing is that it does not pretend to change anything, least of all the world. The fragment comes into play where progress, or the faith in progress, has collapsed, where all systems of thought and action cease to compel allegiance. The fragment makes no effort to modify systems of thought; it cannot be taught. Its passivity functions as a corrosive element, revealing the futility of all dominant disciplines and ideas. The fragment can belong to no theoretical structure and exists only in the in-between realm, in the space of nonrelation between our ideals and our practice. The fragment conceptualizes nothing. Faced with an event such as the Holocaust, which defies all efforts at conceptualization, the fragment can function ethically to heighten our awareness of the horror that cannot be expressed and that must not be reduced to the level of the merely conceptual lest the actuality of the horror be forgotten. For Blanchot, the Holocaust represents that point in history at which meaning is swallowed up, consumed in an apocalyptic fire that makes nonsense of historical progress. What remains in the wake of the Holocaust is silence.

Writing, Death, and the Child

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Central also to Blanchot’s concerns in The Writing of the Disaster is the relation between writing and death, or dying. To write the disaster is to think endlessly, just as to become aware of one’s mortality is to know that one is endlessly dying. The disaster is thus always, like death, at the threshold of consciousness, of thought. To write of the disaster is to write (or to think) in the manner of one’s dying. Just as death is the eclipse of purpose, of living to secure some purchase in the world for the self, so writing-as-dying is to abandon both purpose and power—the power to effect an alteration in the reality that impinges upon the self or ego. To write, Blanchot argues, is no longer to think of death as something awaiting us in the future but to think of it as that which has always already happened. This, too, is another way to understand the disaster, as the knowledge that death has already taken place, that it exists within people as a past—a past that people may recognize by the traces that it deposits, moments of forgetfulness. This awareness of death as prior to all experience is the realization that death is not personal—for individuality requires the projection of a future death, a unique lifeline. However, death is that which has always already happened; thus, death is profoundly impersonal and anonymous and so must the act of writing-as-dying be an anonymous writing.

Closely related to the theme of death is the figure of the infans, or child. One may begin to write or to speak authentically only when one has put to death the infans within oneself. The infans stands for that in each person which has not yet begun to speak; it is the child, that each individual has been in the eyes and expectations of others—parents and society. That child is, in psychoanalytic terms, the narcissistic image or representation of the self that each person harbors. To remain a prisoner of this representation is to exist in a kind of limbo, from which the effort to escape can lead to madness. Yet to attempt to kill the infans is a glorious risk, even if in fact the infans cannot be killed.

Blanchot’s Impact on Literature, Philosophy

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In France, Blanchot’s reputation as both a novelist and a literary theorist was established as early as the 1940’s and has continued to grow over subsequent decades. Within a small but prestigious circle of literary artists and philosophers, Blanchot’s influence in France has been direct and substantial. In the English-speaking world, his influence has been for the most part more indirect (and somewhat belated) but no less substantial.

As a forerunner of the nouveau roman, or New Novel, of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Blanchot’s impact has been decisive. At least a decade before the appearance of the controversial novels of such practitioners and theorists of the New Novel as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, Blanchot’s récits pioneered many of the techniques they employed. Among the techniques that the New Novel inherited by way of Blanchot (and, to some degree, Bataille) were the use of the fragment to undercut linear closure; the cultivation of an anonymous or impersonal narrative voice; the de-emphasizing of metaphor and figurative language generally; the radical questioning of identity and reduction of character; and the abandonment of any attempt at social relevance. In the English-speaking world, these techniques became widely dispersed but are especially evident in the works of such experimental novelists as Donald Barthleme and, more recently, Paul Auster (who translated some of Blanchot’s writings).

In addition, Blanchot’s influence as a literary theorist and philosopher can be discerned in the poststructuralist language theory of deconstruction, especially as practiced by Jacques Derrida and his disciples. Blanchot was among the first group of theorists to assimilate Alexandre Kojève’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic and was also steeped in the works of late Romanticism, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the European avant-garde, so he was in a unique position to draw together the various strands of what is now termed the poststructuralist critique of reason, or logocentrism, a critique shared by most poststructuralists. For Derrida and his many Anglo-American deconstructionist followers, logocentrism is evident everywhere in the great tradition of Western philosophical discourse but especially in the traditional view of language, which presumes a real rather than a merely conventional relation between a signifier and that which it signifies. In opposition to this view, the deconstructionists establish a claim, already implicit in much of Blanchot’s view of language, that any relation between language and the reality it describes is purely conventional and thus arbitrary. If this is true, then it follows that all interpretation of a signifying chain (a text) is equally arbitrary, itself a fiction. More radically, every sign is always already an interpretation of other signs, and there can be no escape from this play of signifiers. The result will be a criticism, much like Blanchot’s, that regards any attempt to impose a unitary meaning upon a text as misguided and will celebrate those works of literary art that, like Blanchot’s récits, seek to implode and dissolve the traditional conventions of representation.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Bruns, Gerald L. Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Bruns attempts to show that Maurice Blanchot’s literary theory and practice may be understood as a type of philosophical anarchism. This is most apparent in Blanchot’s fictive techniques, particularly his use of the fragmentary style. Bruns examines a number of important works, including The Writing of the Disaster, in some detail, and attempts to draw parallels between the literary and political concerns of the writer. Blanchot’s influence on poststructuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy is also discussed.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays, 1958-1970. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. In an essay entitled “Maurice Blanchot: Philosopher-Novelist,” first published in 1960, Hartman introduces Blanchot’s work to an English-speaking readership. Hartman has since become associated with the Yale school of deconstruction, and readers of a literary-critical bent will find this essay an interesting example of the manner in which Blanchot’s criticism was received by an American academic at a time when the New Criticism, or formalism, was still dominant.

Hill, Leslie. Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary. New York: Routledge, 1997. Hill’s study seeks to provide a comprehensive view of both the life and works of Blanchot and is especially strong in demonstrating his philosophical debt to Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Lévinas. While much of this study will be accessible only to those readers already well-versed in literary theory and philosophy, the first chapter, entitled “An Intellectual Itinerary,” will be of use to anyone seeking a detailed account of Blanchot’s political activities in the 1930’s, including his connections with the French fascists.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. This highly controversial work includes a chapter entitled “Blanchot at Combat: Of Literature and Terror,” in which Mehlman attempts to establish ideological connections between Blanchot’s early political writings with rightist journals such as Combat in 1930’s France and his later fictional and especially theoretical works. Mehlman’s essential argument is that Blanchot’s early advocacy of terrorism against the prewar French regime is later transmuted into a kind of philosophical terrorism.

Murray, Kevin D. S., ed. The Judgment of Paris: Recent French Theory in a Local Context. North Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1992. This collection includes a highly accessible essay by David Odell entitled “An Introduction to Maurice Blanchot,” which provides a brief but insightful overview of Blanchot’s career as writer and theorist, focusing particularly upon the influences of Hegel and Bataille. His most interesting claim is that Blanchot’s work is best understood as a gnostic revision of Hegelian dialectic, especially the late theoretical meditation, The Writing of the Disaster.