The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot

Thomas and the Abyss

II. The Abyss

After delivering an extended soliloquy upon the ideal death of Anne, Thomas calmly enters the vegetative country of his own armageddon and ultimate apocalypse. Leading a cortège of selves on a death march, Thomas walks toward the perennial "black flower" or nocturnal amaranth at the core of an abysmal netherworld (TO 113). Rather than have, as in the first chapter, a sudden storm propel him into the void, he now proceeds by his own accord toward the absent presence of the sea. In this manner, Thomas, dreaming of drinking from the forbidden grail, from the sight of Anne as a shade, marshals his men or various selves on a return journey into the utopic void.[1]

Wandering as if he were Saint Thomas the apostle, Thomas enters a foreign land dominated by monsoons or "a disorder of splendor" (TO 113).[2] As he nears death, Thomas begins to idealize the end. He begins to speculate that the abyss contains pure generative possibility, that death frees one from the cell of individuality. As a result, Thomas approaches death with an ironic detachment that resembles his earlier oblivion to the threat posed by the sea. Thus, even though he faces the bleakness of death, Thomas muses, "Could the world be more beautiful?" (TO 113).

Permeated by "the glint of new flames," Thomas begins to resemble the Phoenix on its pyre of rejuvenation (TO 113). His last moments also bear a striking resemble to the final events described in The Apocalypse of Thomas, for this Gnostic gospel speaks of an eternal fire that, like the abyss Thomas soon encounters, devours "all the elements of the world" (Barnstone 552).

Envisioning a reunification with Anne in "an immense sea," Thomas presses onward (TO 113). However, as more time passes without an apparent progress, Thomas realizes that the night of the night is gradually burying him alive in its dark tomb. Entering the spectral milieu of fascination, Thomas soon begins to mingle with shadowy images and dreams. Here, in this nocturnal realm, the ambiguity and infinite metamorphoses of the images condemn Thomas to the interminable. He therefore perpetually engages mentally in the mental work of shoving a stone up a mount to its pinnacle, only to have it, due to the perfidious dictate of some vengeful god, tumble back down the hill. Nevertheless, even though he draws near the shoals of the abyss, Thomas, enthralled and spellbound by the shadowy images, cannot help but perambulate joyously forward, for "[t]he great misfortune that was to come seemed a gentle and tranquil event" (TO 114).

Thomas soon comes across a city which, as he discovers upon entering it, "spoke to itself in a dazzling monologue of a thousand voices rested in the debris of illuminated and transparent images" (TO 115). Thomas, in other words, encounters the babel of his mental projections or various selves, for though this babel attempts to converse, they can only, due to the difference of their tongues, utter individual monologues. Spooked by this nomadic retinue of emanations, Thomas, in hopes of staying his nerves, starts to search for the creator of this haunted metropolis. But rather than successfully locate the city's creator, Thomas discovers that he stands within the precincts of the Unreal or Phantom City "deprived of that primordial inhabitant who is the architect" (TO 115).[3] Thomas finds himself in a cityscape populated solely by the imaginal, in a cityscape not unlike the desolate and barren architecture painted by the proto-Surrealist de Chirico.

Unable to locate the city's creator, Thomas begins to occupy a situation not unlike that of Job. For it was Job who, lamenting the recondite state of God, uttered, "But if I go to the east, he is not there; or to the west, I cannot perceive him; where the north enfolds him, I behold him not; by the south he is veiled, and I see him not" (Job 23: 8-9). In other words, due to his inability to spot the architect of the city, Thomas encounters what Pascal called the "Deus absconditus: 'the presence of the God that hides'" (IC 99).[4]

Seeking to fathom the limitations of the city, Thomas begins in a manner that resonates with Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" to cement its imaginal citizenry behind a brick wall. Through this act of masonry, Thomas, believing that negating them might somehow bring him closer to Anne, subjects the reality of his selves to the test of doubt. As they approach death for a second time, though, Thomas's disembodied men, inspired by their close proximity to "the rough beginnings of creation," attempt to become creators in their own right (TO 115). Hoping to find a realm behind the cloak of death, they start to stack the bricks of their tombs into a ziggurat. Ignoring "the universal order," these men approach death under the delusion that it will conform to their iconographic projections (TO 115). With this in mind, they emit, while ascending the wedge-shaped steps of the tower, a polyphonic babel of cuneiform.

Although he does not possess the key to the citadel of his own consciousness (as evinced by the disorder of his citizenry of selves), Thomas nevertheless attempts to lead the ranks of his "infinite procession of imaginary corpses" toward the chthonic void (TO 116). Even though his men throw die and wager speculations, he endeavors to direct this rebellious cortege or constellation toward the genuine slumber of what Blanchot refers to as 'the first night.' Believing that the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom will ensure his recovery of Anne, Thomas therefore attempts to escort his men toward the abyss.

However, as they approach the void, Thomas's titan followers demand to know "but toward what end, and in what form?" (TO 115). These men thereby echo Melville's Ahab who muttered on the brink of the abyss, "But where? Will I have eyes at the bottom of the sea, supposing I descend those endless stairs?" (Melville 512). Rather than attempt to answer his men, though, Thomas remains silent. This silence of Thomas's in effect sends his men the message that the absence of God makes it impossible to know what lies in the abyss. Thomas thereby acknowledges and respects, like Nietzsche's prophet of negation, Zarathustra, the mystery that hides the presence of God. Moreover, Thomas's silence in the face of his men's questions reflects his skepticism. Throughout the novel, Thomas, like the incredulous apostle of his own namesake, refuses to believe in anything without first acquiring experiential knowledge of that object.[5] Thus, when his men speculate about what happens after death, Thomas, in a characteristic move, does not take part. After all, Thomas, perhaps because, like St. Thomas, he shares close proximity with a mysterious and otherworldly twin or double, knows that the void will remain a mystery at least until death.[6] In this manner Thomas mirrors Saint Thomas, who stated, "those who speak about things that are invisible and difficult to explain are like those who shoot arrows at a target at night" (Barnstone, Book of Thomas the Contender 584).

Despite Thomas's silence, though, some of his men continue to speculate about the nature of the void. These men, in their want for a void that preserves individual identity, ignore the fated flow of consciousness. Rather than recognize that they gradually and inevitably near Lethean waters, these men, defending the sandy perimeters of their ziggurat against the eternal tide of the abyss, cling "with determination to their name" (TO 116). "[T]rying to build out of the absence of thought a stronger thought which would devour laws, theorems, wisdom," Thomas's men thereby persist in their attempts to deny that consciousness is a tributary that invariably empties into an immense void not unlike the sea (TO 116). For like Thomas, who once thought he could remain "an absence of organism in an absence of sea," these men suffer from the delusion that pure consciousness survives disembodiment, that memory transcends death (TO 8). Needless to say, it comes as no surprise when the men's tower proves, like the ziggurat that Jacob dreamed stretched into empyreal reaches, mere illusion (Gen. 28: 10-11).

Ironically, it is when the men believe most firmly that their ivory Bastille will withstand the terrors of Death that "the guardian of the impossible" issues his lightning decree, which, as in the Tarot, topples their tower (TO 116).[7] In other words, precisely when the titans believe their fortress will grant them a realm constructed according to their abstract, Chronos or Father Time shipwrecks their vessel of babel, like the errant Pequod, within the abyss. Chronos, by sending Thomas's men spiraling, like Icarus, into the sea, thereby ensures that all consciousness continue to empty into the sea of forgetfulness, where all memory is lost.

As the shroud of death descends, Thomas's men begin, like Anne on her deathbed at the conclusion of chapter X, to view the world as insignificant. Sinking into a utopic 'nowhere' so fundamentally alien to the world that it remains unfathomable, many of these men begin to regard with passive indifference the leviathans prophesied by different cosmologies to inhabit the abyss. Merging with the void, the men, because one cannot utter 'I die,' resign themselves to a wait for "the tongue whose birth every prophet has felt deep in his throat to come forth from the sea and force the impossible words into their mouth" (TO 116-7).

Some of the Thomas's men, however, those particularly stubborn in their human pride, continue to ignore the fact that they broach upon a passage leading beyond the boundaries of the world. These men cling to the wreckage of consciousness and human laws, for they hope to encounter death at least under the auspices of some negative logos. They hope to experience death without dying, to pass through death without losing consciousness, to die without leaving human laws and the logic of language.

Rather than experience death in a comprehensible manner, though, the men hear an extended cry that transcends language. Arising "from the deepest of the shadows," this cry, as it announces liberation from the principium individuationis, leaves the men in a state that surpasses the awe Thomas felt earlier, when engulfed by the immensity of the maelström (TO 117). Heeding the call, the men quickly shed their fleshy garments and dissolve in the oblivion of the formless abyss, in the infinite impersonality of primordial chaos. In this manner, through their demise, the men display that "never do I die, but rather 'they die.' Men die always other than themselves, at the level of the neutrality and the impersonality of the eternal They" (SL 241). In other words, death reduces Thomas and his selves to a state of anonymity, for they become just another being taken from the world by the ultimate impartiality of death.

Through death, Thomas's men essentially prepare the stage for a scene not unlike the conclusion of the Valéry poem "Disaster," where the ship goes down with all hands on board and the tragic man bound to the mast (Valéry 287). This is the case because, after witnessing the subsumption of his men or phantasmagoric reflections by the primordial deluge or "flood of crude image," Thomas likewise plunges into the sea (TO 117). However, differing from his shadowy men, who, having previously experienced the annihilation of abstraction, embraced death with a ghastly familiarity, immolation fills Thomas with shame. Thomas is ashamed because death, although it offers the possibility of a reunion with Anne, threatens to mire him in the anguish that accompanies the transmigratory repetition of the same. Nevertheless, by falling prey to the lapping tide of eternal return, by drowning himself tragically in the Red Death of the Abyss, Thomas returns consciousness to its origins, to the infinite reversals of the void.

________________________________________________________________________________ Notes

[1] Although he goes by one name, Thomas contains a multiplicity of selves in constant conflict. Indeed, Thomas symbolizes the divided subject or personality. One can see in Thomas's multiplicity the influence Bergson exerted upon the intellectual landscape of Twentieth century France. The pervasive reach of this influence is reflected in Proust's narrator, who, as if he were Thomas, reflected, "I was not one man only but the steady advance hour after hour of an army in close formation, in which there appeared, according to the moment, impassioned men, indifferent men, jealous men...In a composite mass, these elements may, one by one, without our noticing it, be replaced by others, which others again eliminate or reinforce, until in the end a change has been brought about which it would be impossible to conceive if we were a single person" (The Sweet Cheat Gone, tr. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (NY: Vintage, 1970), 54).

[2] According to legend and certain apocryphal texts, like The Acts of Thomas, St. Thomas traveled after Pentecost to India on an evangelical mission. After spending a number of years there, he suffered martyrdom. See Barnstone 465.

[3] The Phantom City in chapter 7 of The Lotus Sutra is a mirage that nonetheless grants momentary relief to the spiritual seeker. See The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson (NY: Columbia UP, 1993). However, like T.S. Eliot's "Unreal City" in The Waste Land, the Phantom City grants Thomas no respite.

[4] Pascal interpreted Isa. 45:15 something to the effect: "Verily thou are a God that hidest thyself" (103).

[5] As is widely known, St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, refused at first to believe in Jesus's resurrection. St. Thomas famously stated, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 11:25).

[6] According to the Gospel of John, St. Thomas was called 'Didymus,' which in Greek means 'twin' (cf. John 21:24). However, John does not identify Thomas's twin; he instead simply states, "Thomas, called Didymus." For this reason some writers have assumed that, because Jesus operates as the tacit point of reference in the gospels, by default Thomas must be Jesus's twin. According to the view, Thomas's close kinship with Jesus endowed him with divine insight.

[7] The Tower card typically depicts a bolt of lightning demolishing a castellated tower. (On the Tower card, see Alfred Douglas, The Tarot (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 93-5.) When Thomas's imaginal men attempt to construct a fortress capable of withstanding the flux of the abyss, perhaps they merely give voice to the survival instinct of self-preservation at the heart of the human condition. Nonetheless, despite this instinct, Thomas's men cannot resist the flux of the void. As if speaking to the experience of these men, Pascal wrote: "We are floating in a medium of vast extant, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and make fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us. Nothing stands still for us...We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks and the earth opens up into the depth of the abyss...[Yet] nothing can fix the finite between the two infinites which enclose and evade it" (92-3).

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