Blanchot, Maurice (1907–2003)
Maurice Blanchot was first and foremost a literary theorist, and his work included a number of essay collections, among them The Space of Literature (1982), The Book to Come (2003), and Friendship (1997). He also wrote powerful but rather hermetic novels such as Thomas the Obscure (1973), Death Sentence (1978), Aminadab (2002), and The Most High (1996), in addition to aphoristic works such as The Writing of the Disaster (1986). Blanchot's work has profound implications for the practice of philosophy. His influence therefore stretches from practitioners of the New Novel to philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Blanchot's strategy, which is meant to reconceive literature and to carry out a thoroughgoing critique of the possibility of language, is in major part derived from a critique of the Hegelian notion of the sign, by way of Martin Heidegger. In Blanchot's version of Hegel—as seen in his essays "The Experience of Mallarmé" and "Literature and the Right to Death"—the word, by isolating things and representing them in their absence, "gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being"; or, put another way, the word makes the world appear and disappear in a moment (Blanchot, 1995, p. 322). The givenness of the thing (or person) in and through the word is also its radical removal, its distance from simple subjectivity or objectivity, its mortality. That one's words represent a thing that—or person who is—absent means that it or she or he can be absent (can be removed, destroyed, can be dead). The word thus represents things or persons in the act of constituting them and indicating their disappearance, their death. This is a negation that has nothing to do with the patient work of the dialectic; it is of the instant, an instant that cannot be recaptured in any constructive movement. Named things—people—are always already dead, and their life is an infinitely repetitious death. "Pure language," as Blanchot calls it, entails a nomination where this "neutral" action of language is recognized; this (impossible) recognition in turn characterizes true literature (Blanchot, 1995). Put another way, the world of work recognizes and uses the negating power of the word; true literature, however, recognizes this negation as so thorough that it penetrates and radically negates beings and things—including, of course, literature itself—in the moment of their constitution. Blanchot in fact compares literature to the Terror, where beings are called forth in a repetitious movement that both constitutes them as revolutionary subjects and kills them. Thus Blanchot can write, as he did in "The Experience of Mallarmé," that "the fulfillment [accomplissement ] of language coincides with its disappearance" (1982). This fulfillment is literature.
This "neuter" (le neutre ) of Blanchot bears an obvious connection with the Heideggerian Dasein or the Levinasian Il y a. But there are crucial differences. The work of death is so thorough for Blanchot that it is hard to see how any notion of authenticity or foundational ethics could be carried out through it. This incessant, unproductive constituting and destroying death erodes all philosophical systems, all coherent models of subjectivity (Descartes), all constructive movements of negation in time, and all doctrines based on force and power. As Gerald Bruns puts it, "The 'nocturnal' experience of words, in which the cognitive or speaking subjectivity is deprived of its sovereignty and its power, reduced to the passivity of its fascination, is one of the most important events in Blanchot's thinking" (1997, p. 77). One could add that the sovereignty of space and time are emptied out as well, because the subject moving in them and making the world is not making a coherent entity but rather is caught up in the emptying out of the possibility of all relation, all mediation between (dead) self and (dead) world.
Blanchot narrativizes this nocturnal relation in myths and fictions. "The Gaze of Orpheus" provides an excellent example: Orpheus would bring Eurydice from death to a realm of the disclosure of truth and beauty. But halfway through the journey he must see her as she is, as death, as radical concealment. This demand, to see and to speak "the most certain masterpiece," is inevitably fatal to Orpheus's aesthetic and philosophical hopes. Seeing constitutes, but it is also inseparable from, radical loss, "the movement of writing" (1982, pp. 103–104). Truth and beauty can be grasped, but only in the night in which such certainties are immediately and incessantly lost. The strangeness of the Heideggerian "thing" is rewritten as an impossible interpersonal relation, between man and woman, that is also an allegory of the necessity and impossibility of language at its limit (literature).
Many of Blanchot's fictions work out this interpersonal relation between man and woman, or self and other, in the mode of the radical death of both the subject and signification. The Blanchotian hero is thus a figure obsessed with a negativity that pervades all things, a personage for whom the only relation is a repetitive recognition of the impossibility of the recognition of a stable relation, as in Death Sentence and The Most High.
Blanchot's conception of language is literary in that its radicality is seen to characterize literature at the highest level. Blanchot, however, does not limit its implications exclusively to what is conventionally conceived as the literary realm. Language as understood by Blanchot invests philosophy, making its movement possible and at the same time undermining every one of its certainties. In this way Blanchot's version of literary language and of language in general clearly anticipates Jacques Derrida's analyses of writing. But language also conditions Blanchot's version of the community.
The problem of the enthusiastic community, so central to French social thought since (at least) the Revolution, is rewritten by Blanchot in The Unavowable Community as the fundamental relation of those who have "nothing in common," an inescapable and unmediated relation of reading in which nothing is knowable, nothing endures, a moment that constitutes nothing in a coherent movement of time. Similarly, in The Writing of the Disaster, the Holocaust is seen as a "disaster" in the Blanchotian sense. Not a "word, not the name of anything … but always an entire complex or simple sentence, where the infinitude of language … seeks … to fall outside language—without, however, ceasing to belong to it" (1986, p. 84). From writing on literature and literary language, then, Blanchot has moved to a larger conception of the word, and language. Essential language leads nowhere, guarantees nothing, and only has "its end in itself" ("The Experience of Mallarmé" 1982), yet its negativity is fundamental to an understanding of society and its limit term, the moment in which it grasps itself as the radically ungraspable: the Holocaust. "Literature," in Blanchot's sense, therefore resists any easy containment.
works by blanchot
The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Includes the essays "The Gaze of Orpheus" and "The Experience of Mallarmé."
The Writing of the Disaster. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
The Unavowable Community. Translated by Pierre Joris. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1988.
The Step Not Beyond. Translated by Lynette Nelson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
The Work of Fire. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995. Includes the essay "Literature and the Right to Death."
Friendship. Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
The Instant of My Death. With Jacques Derrida as Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Faux pas. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.
The Book to Come. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Thomas the Obscure. Translated by Robert Lamberton. New York: D. Lewis, 1973.
Death Sentence. Translated by Lydia Davis. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1978.
The Most High. Translated by Allan Stoekl. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Aminadab. Translated by Jeff Fort. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
works about blanchot
Haase, Ullrich, and William Large. Maurice Blanchot. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Herr, Deborah. Politics and Literature: The Case of Maurice Blanchot. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
Allan Stoekl (2005)
BLANCHOT, MAURICE (1907–2003), French writer, novelist, essayist, and literary critic, Blanchot began his career as a young monarchist and right-wing journalist in the Journal des Debats. While studying German literature and philosophy in Strasbourg, he became a close friend of Emmanuel *Levinas, who introduced him to Heidegger's thought. During the 1930s, despite this friendship, Blanchot wrote in various right-wing newspapers, most of them related to Maurras' Action Francaise, which he admired, and his articles were occasionally antisemitic in tone, describing for example Leon Blum in 1937 as "a wog"; but Blanchot was critical of the persecution of the Jews as early as 1933. He also wrote in Thierry Maulnier's Combat review, which was anti-Hitlerian but favored a "rational antisemitism." In 1940, he joined the Jeune France movement, a cultural association set up by the Vichy regime. In 1942 he published his novel Aminadab, named for a brother of Levinas murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania.
After the war, Blanchot began a journey towards Jewish philosophy and literature, following in the footsteps of Levinas, whose concepts and philosophical language impregnated Blanchot's literary criticism. This turn towards Judaism, clearly perceptible in L'Entretien infini, to the point that Philippe Mesnard wrote that Blanchot "tries to think Jewish like Holderlin tried to think Greek," may be seen as an endeavor to cope with the horrors of genocide. Blanchot commented on Kafka, Edmond Jabes, and Martin Buber. In the wake of the May '68 movement, Blanchot joined the extreme left wing, but ultimately left it when French left-wingers became increasingly anti-Israel.
F. Collins, Maurice Blanchot et la question de l'écriture (1986); E. Levinas, Sur Maurice Blanchot (1975); A. Toumayan, Encountering the Other: the Artwork and the Problem of Difference in Blanchot and Levinas (2004).
[Dror Franck Sullaper (2nd ed.)]