The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


This thesis performs a close read of Maurice Blanchot's novel Thomas the Obscure (1950). However, its experimental style and ambiguity make it difficult to interpret this novel without recourse to Blanchot's literary theory, which, although also somewhat ambiguous, tends, by comparison, to address its subject matter more directly. Despite its ambiguity, though, it is relatively apparent that a significant amount of Thomas the Obscure illustrates Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death. This theme is likewise addressed in his essay "Literature and the Right to Death" and his work The Space of Literature. In light of this convergence, I have chosen these two theoretical works as keys, whereby I unlock a series of possible meanings from Thomas the Obscure.

This work is predicated on the belief that, if one approaches Thomas the Obscure as a depiction of Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death, it is possible, in so far as 'eschatology' deals with death and the end, to consider this novel a negative eschatology. In this novel, Thomas, the protagonist, repeatedly fails to reach the terminus or end that death signifies. He thereby remains consigned to an interminable state of indeterminacy and vacillation. Due to the fact that Thomas encounters the impossibility of the end while undergoing the limit-experience, I also approach the novel as a series of limit-experiences. By questioning and negating the limits of his individuality, he undergoes these limit-experiences, which ultimately reveal the irreducible nature of awareness, or the perpetuity of anonymous and impersonal consciousness. It is the incessant nature of this awareness, which Blanchot refers to as the il y a (there is), that leads Thomas into confrontations with the impossibility of death.

As he engages in the limit-experience, Thomas occupies a position not unlike the one held in myth by Orpheus. Like Orpheus, he casts the transgressive gaze that loses the heroine, who in this case is Anne. Moreover, during the limit-experience, Thomas, like Orpheus, descends into the darkness of the Abyss. Considering these similarities alongside the fact that a significant portion of The Space of Literature is devoted to the gaze of Orpheus, I also interpret Thomas the Obscure as a palimpsest of the Orphic story. Additionally, as I enact my close read, I approach several sections of the novel as limit-experiences in the essential night of solitude. This night, which Blanchot discusses in The Space of Literature, haunts Thomas with a stream of ghastly images or utopic ideals that, like the absent presence of the corpse, subjects him to the hypnotic sway of fascination, and ultimately divide him tragically between life and death.

In an attempt to enact an inclusive read, this thesis makes use of several other works by Blanchot, as well as appertaining texts from other writers. I therefore compare Thomas's notion of the ideal death, which he assimilated from Anne's death, which she presented to him as a gift, with Mallarmé's Igitur, who enacted the philosophical suicide. Moreover, as I attempt to place Blanchot, who was born in 1907, within his time, I do so in reference to works by other writers and thinkers.

The preface, which broaches upon some of the debate and discussion currently associate with his name, organizes itself around several themes. On the other hand, the body of this thesis, as it performs its close read, largely relies upon Thomas the Obscure for its structure. Such is the general gravitation of the close, line-by-line interpretation. However, despite its iteration of the novel's form, one might, due to the ambiguity of the novel, which lends itself to a multitude of reads, come to regard the body of this thesis as a narrative in its own right. The aim, though, has been to remain as faithful as possible to the essence of Blanchot's thought. For example, I have not attempted to reduce his cyclic thought and writing to a strictly linear form. Of course, Blanchot's thought subtly hails the death of the author, which, by encouraging the reader to ignore the author's interpretation of his own work, grants one a significant amount of interpretive levity. Nonetheless, it has been my intention while writing this thesis to elicit meaning from Thomas the Obscure that resides within the array of plausible interpretations.


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