Blanchot, Maurice 1907-2003
BLANCHOT, Maurice 1907-2003
PERSONAL: Born September 22, 1907, in Quain, Saone-et-Loire, France; died, February 20, 2003, in Paris, France. Education: Strasbourg University, B.S.; diploma in higher education from the University of Paris, Sorbonne.
CAREER: Journalist, editor, essayist, and novelist. Cofounder of the journal Le Rempart.
Thomas l'Obscur (novel), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1941, revised edition, 1950, translation by Robert Lamberton published as Thomas the Obscure, D. Lewis, 1973.
Aminadab, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1942.
Comment la litterature est-elle possible? (title means "How Is Literature Possible?"), J. Corti, 1942.
Faux Pas, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1943.
L'Arret de mort, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1948, translation by Lydia Davis published as Death Sentence, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1978.
Le Tres-Haut (title means "The Almighty"), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1948, translation by Allan Stoekl published as The Most High, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1996.
La Part du feu, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949, translation by Charlotte Mandell published as The Work of Fire, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1995.
Sade et Restif de la Bretonne, Complexe, 1949.
Lautreamont et Sade avec le texte integral des chants de Maldoror, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1949.
Au moment voulu, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1951, translation by Lydia Davis published as When the Time Comes, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1985.
Apres coup precede par Le Ressassement eternal, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1952, translation by Paul Auster published as Vicious Circles: Two Fictions and "After the Fact," Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1983.
Celui qui ne m'accompagnait pas, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1953, translation by Lydia Davis published as The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1992.
L'Espace litteraire, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1955, translation by Ann Smock published as The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1982.
La Bete de Lascaux, GLM, 1958, enlarged edition, Fata Morgana, 1982.
Le Livre a venir, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1959, translation by Sacha Rabinovitch published as The Siren's Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1982.
L'Attente l'oubli, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1962, translation by John Gregg published as Awaiting Oblivion, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1997.
(With Brice Parain, Jean Grenier, and Emmanuel Robles) Hommage a Albert Camus, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1967.
L'Entretien infini, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1969, translation by Susan Hanson published as The Infinite Conversation, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1993.
Pour L'Amitie, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1971, reprinted, Farrago (Paris, France), 2001, translation by Elizabeth Rottenberg published as Friendship, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA) 1997.
La Pas au-dela, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1973, translation by Lycette Nelson published as The Step Not Beyond, State University of New York (Albany, NY), 1992.
La Folie du jour, Fata Morgana, 1973, translation by Lydia Davis published as The Madness of the Day, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1981.
(Editor, with Francois Larvelle) Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas, J. M. Place, 1980.
L'Ecriture du desastre, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1980, translation by Ann Smock published as The Writing of the Disaster, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1986.
The Gaze of Orpheus, and Other Literary Essays, translation by Lydia Davis, edited by P. Adams Sitney, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1981.
De Kafka a Kafka, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1981.
La Bete de Lascoux, Fata Morgana, 1982.
La Communaute inavouable, Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1983, translation by Pierre Joris published as The Unavowable Community, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1988.
(With Julien Gracq and J. M. G. Le Clezio) Sur Lautreamont, Editions Complexe, 1987.
Joe Bousquet, with an essay by J. Bousquet, illustrated by Pierre Tal Coat, Fata Morgana, 1987.
Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him (printed with Michel Foucault's Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside), translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, Zone Books, 1987.
Une voix venue d'ailleurs: sur les poemes de Louis-Rene des Forets, Ulysse, Fin de Siecle, 1992.
Les intellectuels en question: ébauche d'une réflexion, Fourbis (Paris, France), c. 1996.
The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays, translated by Lydia Davis, Paul Auster and Robert Lamberton, edited by George Quasha, Station Hill/Barrytown (Barrytown, NY), 1999.
Henri Michaux ou le refus de l'enfermement, Farrago (Tours, France), 1999.
The Instant of My Death = Instant de ma mort (printed with Jacques Derrida's Demeure: Fiction and Testimony), translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2000.
The Book To Come, translated by Charlotte Mandel, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2002.
Also author of La Solitude Essentielle; coauthor of Misere de la Litterature, C. Bourgois, 1978. Contributor to periodicals, including Combat and L'Insurge.
SIDELIGHTS: A profoundly influential figure in contemporary French literature, Maurice Blanchot was self-effacing almost to the point of invisibility. He did not make public appearances or comment on the political issues of the day. In 1982 John Sturrock, appraising a translation of Le Livre a venir, titled The Siren's Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, for the London Review of Books, noted that "Blanchot is a name in France, but not a face or a living presence. . . . I do not recall ever having seen a photograph of him, nor—is it possible?—having read an interview with him.... Blanchot has an intellectual authority which he forbears conspicuously to use."
He was not always so reticent. Prior to World War II, Blanchot was an outspoken supporter of the right-wing Fascist movement and wrote anti-Semitic articles for such journals as Combat and L'Insurge, urging revolution against the Popular Front government of Leon Blum. Sturrock quoted an article by Blanchot where he clearly touts terrorism as the route to public salvation. Historical circumstances forced him to reconsider. Germany attacked France in 1940, and Blanchot's Fascism gave way to French nationalism. During the war he actively worked with the French Resistance, switching from the pro-German revolutionary right to the Communist-tinged left he had so recently excoriated. One novel of that era, however, reveals the author's moral ambivalence: Aminadab, published in 1942, presents a nightmarish, Kafkaesque society, a "totalitarian universe characterized by estrangement and the absurd," as a contributor to Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Culture noted. "He subsequently called the story 'unfortunate' in its apparent foreshadowings of concentration camps, but his political positions remained ambiguous."
By the end of the war, having published two novels (Thomas l'Obscur and Aminadab) and two critical works (Comment la litterature est-elle possible? and Faux Pas), Blanchot seemed to have abandoned politics entirely for a life of letters. For the next half century, he remained personally inconspicuous while building an ever increasing literary reputation, first in France and later abroad. L'Arret de mort, the first of Blanchot's works to be widely available in English, is a recit (short narrative). This work is an eighty-one-page dramatized philosophical meditation that was published in 1948 and translated three decades later as Death Sentence. Reviewing Blanchot's work in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jeffrey Mehlman called Death Sentence "a metaphysical ghost story," in which the narrator concentrates not on the traditional elements of plot, setting, and characterization but rather on the difficulty of the act of writing, on the problems inherent in language as it attempts to convey meaning. Assessing the book in New Yorker, John Updike classified it as a "very short novel" and noted the writer's "tortuous, glimmering style," which he found "graceful and maddening, a cascade of mystification bejewelled with melodramatic glances and gothic gewgaws." Sturrock maintained that there are no tricks of syntax in Blanchot, and yet the reader, like the protagonist, is mystified and troubled amidst the nearly imageless, antirealistic verbal universe created by Blanchot.
Mehlman viewed Blanchot's literary ideas as an outgrowth, at least in part, of his wartime renunciation of Fascism that coincided with his conversion from journalism to literature and a subsequent retreat from public stances into philosophical contemplation. Yet Sturrock felt that Blanchot, an atheist existentialist, had clearly been influenced by certain authors and philosophers. The critic commented that an understanding of the writings of the French poet Stephen Mallarme will make the ideological origins of Blanchot's poetry clearer to the reader. Mallarme's attempt to separate the music of poetry from the conventional meanings of its words bears a resemblance to Blanchot's aim in his literary art, which Sturrock explained thus: "It is creation, not representation, a perpetual enigma. The precedence of life over language is reversed." Antoine Compagnon described the writer's ideology further when she wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Blanchot views "literary creation as an experience of limits." She also points out that for Blanchot writing is not a certainty but a necessity.
"Terrifying" is the word used by Irving Malin to describe Blanchot's work in Awaiting Oblivion. In a Review of Contemporary Fiction piece, Malin assessed the skeletal plot—that of a man and a woman in a hotel-room discussion—and said that the characters "seem to melt into other ghosts," perhaps of themselves, perhaps of others. Then "the author seems to intrude into the text—but isn't the text his own creation?"
Blanchot's other English translated recits include a revised version of Thomas the Obscure, When the Time Comes, The Madness of the Day, and The Last Man. A reader looking for a coherent story in Blanchot's recits, which are generally regarded as his most mature works, will be disappointed. There is a recurring theme of death, but it poses a dilemma for a writer who regards dying as final and salvation as myth. As Updike pointed out, "though . . . [death] is immense in duration and penetration, because it is nothingness [in Blanchot's view] there is not much to say about it." Nevertheless, death is at the core of Blanchot's fiction. As Francois Collin observed in Maurice Blanchot et la question de l'ecriture, "there is no story by Blanchot in which people are not dying, not through a violent accident, but peacefully, through repetition."
The Last Man is set in a hospital or sanitarium where the narrator and a young woman observe an older man, "the professor," who is on the verge of dying. Steven Ungar, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that here, as in many of Blanchot's texts, "the standard critical approaches do not fully apply; his kind of writing eludes fixed genres and techniques." That statement applies equally well to Thomas the Obscure (the recit), When the Time Comes, and The Madness of the Day.
Blanchot's own critical judgments on literature, which gained him a considerable reputation in France, began to appear in English translation in the 1980s. The Gaze of Orpheus, and Other Literary Essays came out in 1981. The title essay, like the myth of Orpheus, suggests, according to Gaetan Picon in Contemporary French Literature, that "we cannot look night in the face, that profundity is revealed only if it is concealed." The publication of The Siren' Song and The Space of Literature introduced Blanchot to a wider English-speaking audience. The critical essays in these collections pose such questions as "What is literature?" and "How is literature possible?" Critics fell that Blanchot seemed more interested in probing the complexities of the questions than in providing answers, and Sturrock noted, "Nothing is to be predicated of the true work of literary art; it simply is, as Blanchot likes to repeat." Blanchot "is not generally interested in the content, form, or style of a writer's work," stated Larysa Mykyta in an essay for Encyclopedia of World Literature, "but in the paradoxes and ironies of the practice of literature, in the dilemmas and agonies of modern literature that the writer faces."
How, then, does writing get written? Gilbert Sorrentino, writing in the New York Times Book Review, quoted Blanchot on the language of literature as "a search for [the] moment which precedes literature." "For Mr. Blanchot," Sorrentino added, "the literature that says 'nothing' permits actuality its hegemony, its existence, its avoidance of the abyss into which a referential language seems to cast it. For him literary language strives to achieve Flaubert's desire, 'a book about nothing.'"
Blanchot assessed one of his contemporaries with Henri Michaux ou le refuse de l'enfermement. Michaux, as reclusive and respected as Blanchot himself, died in 1984 having created a literary scandal in the 1950s by subjecting himself to drug-induced hallucinations to inspire his prose. Blanchot appeared to disapprove of such actions—he "analyses the bad infinity to which Michaux has fallen prey in his mescaline writings," noted Times Literary Supplement contributor Richard Sieburth. The reviewer pointed out Blanchot's "flinching at Michaux's latent religiosity," but said that at the same time such critiques "belie his fundamental traditionalism, for at base he is accusing Michaux of betraying the disinterested sphere of the aesthetic . . . by his unholy alliance with religion on the one hand and science on the other."
Reviewing Aminadab and Le Tres-Haut in The French New Novel in 1962, Laurent LeSage pointed out that the novel, "as Blanchot makes use of it, is . . . primarily an investigation of the language phenomenon—its form becomes its content, so to speak." More than a decade later, Picon, assessing Blanchot's writing in a broader context of recits and critical essays, noted that "the attempt to give a precise explanation of Blanchot's thought makes us run the risk of misinterpreting it . . . it eludes expression in words."
Blanchot was one of many great voices of modern French letters. He had, in Mehlman's words, "made of his writing a meditation on the problematic being—or nonbeing—of language, its ultimate incompatibility with self-consciousness, the exhilarating havoc it wreaks on any claim to either objective or subjective identity." In 1999 a collection titled The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays paid homage to the author by including several of his best-known writings. Review of Contemporary Fiction writer Jeffrey DeShell hailed the volume's release as no less than an event; "this is a magnificent work of writing, translating, and publishing," DeShell stated. "As a fiction writer," summed up a Publishers Weekly contributor, "Blanchot is, above all, a great philosopher."
Blanchot died February 20, 2003, in Paris, France.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bruns, Gerald, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.
Collin, Francoise, Maurice Blanchot et la question de l'ecriture, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1971.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 72: French Novelists, 1930-1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Dictionary of Twentieth Century Culture, Volume 2: French Culture 1900-1975, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
LeSage, Laurent, The French New Novel, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.
Picon, Gaetan, Contemporary French Literature, Ungar, 1974.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Literary and Philosophical Essays, Criterion, 1955.
Choice, October, 1995, N. Lukacher, review of The Work of Fire, p. 298; October, 2000, N. Lukacher, review of The Instant of My Death, p. 323; May, 2003, N. Luckacher, review of The Book to Come, pp. 1545-1546.
French Review, December, 1994, review of Une voix venue d'ailleurs: sur les poemes de Louis-Rene des Forets, p. 349.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1997, review of Awaiting Oblivion, p. 679.
Library Journal, August, 1997, Robert Ivey, review of Friendship, p. 90; March 1, 1999, Ali Houissa, review of The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays, p. 84.
London Review of Books, August 19, 1982, John Sturrock, review of The Siren's Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, p. 8.
MLN, December, 1998, Bridget Conley, review of Friendship, p. 1180.
New Statesman & Society, July 7, 1995, review of The Writing of the Disaster, p. 37.
New Yorker, January 11, 1982, John Updike, review of Death Sentence, pp. 93-95.
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1986, p. 23; October 11, 1987, p. 56; March 26, 1989, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, March 8, 1999, review of The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, p. 58.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, Steve Dickson, review of The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, p. 214; fall, 1996, Marc Lowenthal, review of The Most High, p. 184; fall, 1997, Irving Malin, review of Awaiting Oblivion, p. 228; fall, 1999, Jeffrey DeShell, review of The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, p. 159.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1996, Wallace Fowlie, review of The Work of Fire.
Small Press Review, February, 1984, p. 8.
Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 1974, p. 389; March 6, 1981, p. 260; December 31, 1982; October 27, 1995, Gabriel Josipovici, review of The Work of Fire and The Writing of the Disaster, p. 26; May 1, 1998, Leslie Pindar, review of Awaiting Oblivion, p. 6; August 13, 1999, Leslie Hill, review of The Station Hill Blanchot Reader and Friendship, p. 24; February 8, 2002, Richard Steburth, "Technician of the Sacred," p. 4.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1982, p. 8.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1981, p. 642; winter, 1983, p. 103; winter, 1998, Steven Jaron, review of Pour l'amitie and Les intellectuels en question: Ebauche d'une reflexion, p. 101.
Yale French Studies, January, 1998, James Swenson, "Revolutionary Sentences," p. 11, Hent De Vries, "'Lapsus Absolu,'" p. 30, Ann Banfield, "The Name of the Subject: The 'Il,'" p. 133, Hans-Jost Frey, "The Last Man and the Reader," p. 252.
Art and Culture, http://www.artandculture.com/ (June 11, 2002).
Maurice Blanchot Resource,http://lists.village.virginia.edu/ (June 11, 2002).
Art in America, April, 2003, Stephanie Cash, David Ebony, "Obituaries."
New York Times, March 2, 2003, "Maurice Blanchot, 95, Novelist and Essayist," p. 27.*