(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Fragmentary Writing

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Writing, Death, and the Child

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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).


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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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