The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Thomas and the Abyss

I. The Sea

Tossed back and forth by currents growing more violent by the minute, Thomas, like the old man in Poe's "A Descent into the Maelström," discovers himself suddenly in the presence of a surging abyss. Unable to see the shore through the thick fog that surrounds him, he treads waters darkened by the sudden accumulation of ominous storm clouds and disrupted by swirling eddies. Blinded by a stinging spray swept into his eyes by ocean gales, Thomas suffers in this void the distress of having "nothing to cling to" (TO 7). Consequently, despair increasingly renders his actions superfluous. However, as he falls captive to the tourbillon of the trough, Thomas convinces himself that the writhing watery well does not exist. He somehow ignores the fact that pitch-black contingency now conceals the gods and order, that a gyrating funnel suddenly threatens to shipwreck him in the hollow nothingness of vertiginous chance.

Intent on finding stable ground to base his decisions upon, Thomas throws the die that tests the limits of existence. Like the protagonist of Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés, who kept the "vigil/ doubting/ rolling [dice]/ shining and meditating," Thomas throws the die that places all in doubt (CP 144). In other words, Thomas conducts phenomenological investigations involving methodological doubt and trial and error aimed at returning him to the stability of the shore. By casting negations and wagers in bronze, Thomas in effect attempts to overcome the futility of indeterminacy and thereby dispel the Mallarméan prophecy, "A THROW OF THE DICE WILL NEVER ABOLISH CHANCE."

Nevertheless, as Thomas struggles in the darkening waters, the cold furnace of the abyss liquidates, as if they were molded in wax, Thomas's speculative sortileges. Falling into the vacuous maw of perdition, he begins to flail about aimlessly on the precipitous threshold of a bottomless gullet "in which all reality dissolves" (CP 142). As he encounters the swirling tempest, though, Thomas continues to regard its churning grasp of ineluctable fate from a reflective distance. Despite the fact that the waters threaten him with annihilation, Thomas, as if he were Hamlet calmly viewing his impending death, soliloquizes, "Is it actually water?" (TO 7).

With a passivity that resembles the renunciation of Poe's aforementioned old man, Thomas sacrifices his will to the powerful currents and careening undertow of the murky void. Like Poe's old man, who, as he encountered the expansive Maelström, felt his own relative insignificance, Thomas imagines the grandeur of subsumption by a larger entity, by a vast infinity. Abnegating his assertive impulse, he allows himself to become one with the flux of the brine, with its indeterminate drift. In doing so, Thomas metamorphoses in a manner similar to another old man of the sea, Proteus, when he attempted in The Odyssey to escape the nets that fettered him (bk. 4.454-49). In other words, Thomas becomes a malleable entity whose form depends on the currents of the sea. Transcending the environs of individuality through self-oblivion, a self-oblivion not unlike the Dionysian trance of Nietzsche, Thomas experiences the intoxication of drowning his ipseity or self in the cleansing, primordial waters of the utopic deluge. Liberated from the solitary prison of worldly identity and selfhood, freed from the painful isolation the 'I' suffers as its essence, Thomas thus merges with the mutability of the eternal, preternatural flood or "the ideal sea" (TO 8).

Although he soon begins to suspect that he is "virtually drowned," Thomas nevertheless continues to allow the currents of the abyss to shape and mold his form (TO 8). Believing that he has discovered in his euphoria "the key" to existence, he imagines that he now mingles with an absent presence, that he is becoming "an absence of organism in an absence of sea" (TO 8). But fatigue soon brings Thomas face to face with the horror that, although his 'I' or ego coalesces with the sea, an anonymous awareness yet remains. In other words, despite his attempts to shed or lose his individuality in the nothingness of the void, Thomas discovers the persistence of an irreducible and impersonal awareness. Blanchot refers in his theoretical writing to this presence as the 'il y a' or 'there is.' Faced with the persistence of the il y a, Thomas asks, "What escape was there? To struggle in order not to be carried away by the wave which was his arm? To go under? To drown himself bitterly in himself?" (TO 8). He thus faces the reality that his attempts to leave the horror of existence in the sea only return him to himself.

Due to the persistence of the il y a, but also in light of "a hope," a hope that beacons through the torrents, that intimates at the later entrance of Anne, Thomas turns his back on the abyss and begins to swim (TO 8). Thomas thereby resists in the last possible moment complete subsumption by the sea. Quickly returning to the temple of individual consciousness, entering that holy place "which no one else could penetrate," Thomas, having overcome his fatigue, soon reaches the sandy shore (TO 8). Here, like Dante in the first Canto of the Inferno, Thomas turns to survey the night he has narrowly escaped (21-26).

However, once on the shore, Thomas, when he tries to piece together the events of his struggle with the sea, cannot remember them. For rather than present him a coherent and linear narration of what transpired mere moments ago, his recollection exposes him to an overwhelming deluge of fragmented images. Thomas as a result loses the ability to understand the past with any definite resolve.

Thomas's inability to understand the past forces him to reflect on the nature of recollection. Apprehensively, he begins to sense that no matter how he might frame and fit the memory image into a narrative, its meaning remains essentially ambiguous and unrevealed, always open to interpretation. In other words, Thomas realizes that the ambiguity of the memory image allows him to construct narratives from the raw material of recollection according to subjective whims, so that he may pick out "absolutely anything in this murky void which his gaze penetrated feverishly" (TO 9). Thomas begins with this realization to suffer from the anguish of excessive freedom or rootlessness.

While despairing over the ambiguity of memory, Thomas visualizes far off in the distance a swimmer.[1] This swimmer, as if her were a memory bobbing like the tip of an iceberg in the sea of consciousness, disappears at times from Thomas's sight, below, in a sense, the liminal horizon of consciousness. Although this double remains at an infinite distance, often submerged in hidden depths of sea, as Thomas patiently contemplates the reflection, he comes to believe that he perceives and understands its dimensions.

However, as he continues to meditate on this reflection, Thomas begins to experience "something painful which resembled the manifestation of an excessive freedom, a freedom obtained by breaking every bond" (TO 9). In other words, he undergoes an experience not unlike the "pathetic illumination" or "negative enlightenment" of Sartre's protagonist Roquentin.[2] Thomas, realizing that recollection on the whole remains impervious to reason, that the formless ambiguity of memory drowns him in the nauseating revolutions and infinite reversals of an abyss, reaches the painful conclusion that, rather than furnish him with the cornerstone of an epistemology, memory engages him in the interminable work of Sisyphus. He realizes that the overabundant nature of recollection, rather than deliver him to the shore of a prime mover or first cause, sentences him to the absurd. Thomas also recognizes as a result of his negative enlightenment that consciousness inevitably empties into a sea of contingency, that incessant sea change dooms all interpretations to the superfluity of provisional statehood. Predictably, due to these negative realizations, Thomas cannot prevent his visage from slipping into darkness.


[1] Perhaps, as Leslie Hill suggests, the swimmer Thomas spots in the sea is "his own doppelgänger" (EC 58).

[2] Roquetin's pathetic experience began when he uttered, "And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen" (N 126). Blanchot refers to this experience of Roquentin as a "pathetic illumination" (BR 34). In similar fashion, Gabriel Marcel characterized Roquentin's experience as a "negative enlightenment." See Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. Manya Harari (New York: Carol, 1956), 56.

Forward to Thomas and the Abyss: II. The Abyss

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