The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot

The Orphic Experience

 III. Book of Shadows

Ignored by society, Thomas retreats to his room, where he ensconces himself within the covers of a book. Deep in concentration, he reads a single page of text with brows furrowed, "with unsurpassable meticulousness and attention" (TO 25). Fascinated by the immobility of the words on the page, which consentually sustain his gaze, Thomas experiences "the light, innocent yes of reading" (SL 196). Encountering a field of words that, due to the apparent transparency and limpidity of the style, seem to invite the hermeneutic act, he falls under a spell. Facing an eye that harbors on its glossy exterior the reciprocity of reflection, Thomas cannot help but enter the thralldom of fascination. Thus, like Proust's narrator, who missed the chime of the clock because "the fascination of my book, a magic as potent as the deepest slumber, had deceived my enchanted ears," momentary oblivion overcomes Thomas (94). Here, in succumbing to the magnetism of the text, by identifying with and reading himself into the narrative, Thomas undergoes a loss of self that resembles his earlier limit-experiences with the sea and forest. Consequently, he experiences the intoxication of mingling his ipseity with a vast reality not unlike the sea.

However, as with the old man in Poe's tale "A Descent into the Maelström," who, after a successful fishing expedition, suddenly discovered himself being swept by dark storm clouds towards the abyss, Thomas confronts in the next instance an unexpected maw. Encountering claws that, while praying to a god of revelry, dismember their prey, he quickly senses that, "In relation to every symbol, he was in the position of the male praying mantis about to be devoured by the female" (TO 25). Subject to the occupational hazards of the Orphic mantis, Thomas begins to experience "the adverse power which tears and divides Orpheus" (SL 226). But even though the text he conversed with mere moments ago now threatens him with a vortical maw, Thomas enters a state of denial. He refuses to believe that he faces a peculiarity as vicious as that of the female praying mantis (who drags carnal consummation into anticlimactic carnage). However, as he continues to sense that the words in the book appraise him with the truculent stares of a faceless Argus, with an "anonymous presence...[a] violent, impersonal affirmation," Thomas can only acknowledge with increasing horror the double agency of the text (SL 193).

Despite the fact that, as Blanchot points out, language is composed of "angels with intertwined wings," of seraphic guardians who, although symbiotic, nevertheless watch over a certain stable web of signification, the plurality of what Thomas reads overwhelms him (SL 195). In other words, he encounters to an interminable degree the purely abstract and symbolic capacities of signs. Soon the symbols arrange themselves before his eyes "like a procession of angels opening out into the infinite to the very eye of the absolute" (TO 25). In this manner, the textual beings, who, like the immortal angels in Wim Wenders' films, remain hidden from the world, embroil Thomas in the Orphic work. They push Thomas into work that, "through the experience of creation, touches upon absence, upon the torments of the infinite; it reaches the empty depths of that which never begins or ends--the movement which exposes the creator to the threat of the essential solitude and delivers him to the interminable" (SL 196-7).

Exposed to an excess of meaning, to an ambiguity that ultimately overflows the contrived efforts of the day to restrict its associative nature, Thomas suffers, like Sartre's Roquentin, from the anguish of superfluity, radical levity and exorbitant choice. Encountering a stream of equivocal words that disappoints the Husserlian imperative for univocality, he finds himself haunted by a meaning that appears beyond reach, that remains neither exhaustible nor penetrable. Fascinated by specters that surround him like a noxious smaze, cloaking him in the stale redolence of decay, Thomas encounters the tragic ambiguity of the night, a night that brings him into contact with the absorption of paradox, with the ambiguous presence of a simultaneous 'yes' and 'no.' He thus enters that deep Blanchot speaks of, "which is sometimes the absence of profundity, of the foundation, the pure void bereft of importance, and sometimes that upon which a foundation can be given, but it is also always at the same time one and the other, the intertwining of the Yes and of the No, the ebb and flow of the essential ambiguity" (SL 239).

Although ambushed by the text precisely when his defenses lay most relaxed in abeyance, Thomas nevertheless stubbornly resists the adumbrating tendencies of the words. Seeking to perform a thaumaturgical feat, he attempts to roll a stone away from the entrance of the tomb without it returning shortly thereafter. Blindly, he believes that he is a "profound reader, even when the words were already taking hold of him and beginning to read him" (TO 26). Wanting to utter "Lazare, veni foras" (Lazarus, come forth), Thomas attempts to resurrect the meaning embedded in the flesh-eating sarcophagus of the page. He thereby seeks to decipher the page and bring about "a helplessly joyful dance with the 'tomb'" (SL 197).

Transfixed by opaque effigies, by oblique nocturnes, by the progeny of Mnemosyne, the "daughters of Night," Thomas, as he reads, progressively enters a realm draped in stratums of shadow (SL 168). Thomas, bemused by the mental pictures and associations that words evoke, enters the night of the night. Beguiled by the initial limpidity of a text that, like Blanchot's own work, allows for "no discontinuities or inconsistencies," he gradually sinks into the ambiguous mire of self-referential layers (de Man 62). As this pellucid stream of capacious signifiers continues to allure him, Thomas stages, in a manner that corresponds to the frame-within-a-frame of the mise en abyme, the experience of reading Thomas the Obscure. Apropos of this state of affairs, Hans-Jost Frey elucidates, "What Blanchot describes as the reader is the experience of Blanchot's reader" (268).

By having him read a book that resembles Thomas the Obscure, Blanchot essentially transforms Thomas into the archetypal reader of the Blanchotian text. Through this link, Blanchot infuses Thomas with an apperception or consciousness of consciousness that leads Thomas into the vertigo of encountering the night of the night of the night, ad infinitum. In other words, hyperconsciousness directs Thomas into a corridor of reflections or hall of mirrors, one that resembles the layered, play-within-the-play of Elizabethan drama (e.g. Ham. 2.2 and 3.2). For in opening the cover of his book, Thomas finds himself staring into a surface akin to a mirror. Because it contains within its frame yet another mirror, this surface reduplicates his image stooped over the text in a maddening declension of layers. Unable to avert his gaze from the text, which reflects his own image, Thomas therefore comes into self-awareness not unlike the one that proved fatal to Narcissus.

After spending a certain amount of time with the page, Thomas starts to realize that, despite his initial assumptions, which linked streamlined sentences with accessible meaning, the text he reads cannot be gleamed or understood. Moreover, because he feels that the text in front of him approaches him in a manner that mirrors his approach to it, Thomas senses that he has become at once both protagonist and reader. In this respect, Thomas becomes indistinguishable from a reader of Blanchot, a reader that Gary Hill depicts in his video Incidence of Catastrophe (1987-8). Hill's video depicts a reader whose expression, much like Thomas's in chapter IV, alters as he recognizes himself in the text from that of pleasure to bewilderment and horror. He states that his video, "came about from having a unique and powerful experience while reading [Thomas the Obscure]. As you read this book, it reads you" (122). According to Hill, once he discovered that, rather than offer him a distinct meaning, the grammatically clear but ambiguous sentences of Thomas the Obscure mirrored whatever was on his mind, he encountered a storm of self-reflexivity, a storm that his video depicts. Although Hill's protagonist is not overwhelmed by a video of his own image, which would increase the level of correspondence the video shares with Blanchot's novel, based on his protagonist's reaction, one can only assume that it was Hill intention that this protagonist resemble Thomas.

Like Hill's reader, Thomas, caught between reality and the reality of the page, offers "his being to the word 'be'" (TO 26). Here, in this hall of mirrors, an excess of self-consciousness overwhelms and negates Thomas. Both fascinated and annihilated by the levels of meaning he encounters in the book, he experiences the loss of self that Blanchot speaks of when he writes, "every strong work abducts us from ourselves, from our accustomed strength, makes us weak and as if annihilated" (SL 223).

"[L]ocked in combat with something inaccessible, foreign, something of which he could say: That doesn't exist...and which nevertheless filled him with terror as he sensed it wandering about in the region of his solitude," Thomas struggles against the specters of the text (TO 27). Although invisible, these ghosts ominously fill his room absent presence. Similar to the narrator of "Tell-Tale Heart," who imagined the pulsation of the old man's heart, Thomas imagines that terror crouches in a dark recess just outside his hovel. Consumed by dread and anxiety, Thomas attempts, like Poe's Prince Prosper, to seal his doors and thereby avoid the Red Death of stifling self-awareness that supposedly looms in the hallway. Nevertheless, Thomas discovers that, as Blanchot states, "To flee it is to be pursued by it," that the definite, eidolonclastic read he seeks, one that would fix the ghosts of the text in place, remains forever elusive (SL 168). In other words, Thomas discovers in the book an absence that mutates to reflect the moment of his approach, which means that he must ceaselessly reread the contents of the book. Sensing that reading thus entangles him in the interminable, Thomas comes to resemble Blanchot's Orphic poet, a poet who remains "still to come, still absent when faced with the work which is itself altogether future" (SL 227).

In resemblance to the evil eye in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," who tormented the narrator throughout the night, the book exposes Thomas to an incessant stream of reified images. Thomas thus becomes in a sense "[t]hat ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (Joyce 120). In a manner similar to the monks of the Paul Bowles short story "The Circular Valley," who, possessed by the spirit Atlájala, experience self-revulsion, Thomas senses that "obscure words, disembodied souls and angels of words" haunt him (TO 26). Due to the "impalpable and unreal," that is to say, the ambiguous insubstantiality of these phantoms, Thomas's grasp, as it tries to gain hold of the words, incessantly passes through thin air, through attenuated shadows (TO 27).

Like the reader in Incidence of Catastrophe, who, after being attacked by a text that strikes like a sexual predator, collapses in a fetal heap, denuded and covered with filth, Thomas, as a result of his struggle with the text, feels himself stripped and "covered with impurities" (TO 28). Unable to enter the ideal realm evoked by the words of the text, he feels revulsion at his fallen state. Prodded like Hill's protagonist (in the last frame of the video) into the maw of the text, Thomas begins to writhe about on the floor. Here, he becomes "hardly different from the serpent he would have wished to become in order to believe in the venom he felt in his mouth" (TO 28). Mouthing an innocence foreign to human experience, so foreign that it at first tastes like poison, Thomas imbibes a language that, although once spoken, now lies frozen, like the Mallarméan Swan, in the snowy preserve of the page.[1] As he silently babbles these angelic words, he is struck by an echolalia that causes him to constantly strive for a state of mimesis all but attainable.

Thomas, endeavoring to leap into an invisible realm, into that realm of Platonic eidos or immutable forms evoked by the book's symbols, comes to occupy the great aperture that divides the mind from the body. Seeking a space that, although it lies infinitely beyond his sense perception, remains perceptible to common sense (sensus comminus), he approaches a time that dissolves duration into time's absence. Split in two, between an obscure Thomas, who gravitates toward the purely abstract realm of disembodied shadows, and an embodied Thomas, who remains of this world, Thomas continually undergoes the separation at the heart of the Orphic experience. As a result, Thomas remains, despite the utopian reaches of his obscure self, steadfastly bound to the world.

Estranged from the world, Thomas encounters a realm generated through techniques that share many similarities with Sklovskij's ostranenie (estrangement). He enters a space of autotelic literature that, by 'defamiliarizing' what passes into its domain, attempts to "open onto life eyes already closed" (SL 195). Here a facet of Thomas watches himself undergo a type of Kafkaesque or Ovidian metamorphosis, one that transforms him without depriving him of human consciousness into an animal. With this change, it is as if Thomas has entered a grotesque nightmare impervious to the logic and light of the day.

Transformed into a serpent locked in combat with a giant rat, Thomas comes to symbolize a reader engaged in a profound struggle with the text and its author. He comes to symbolically enact the role of the reader, who in order to claim ownership over a text, must first brutishly deprive it of its author. In such a capacity, Thomas serves as an example to all readers, especially Blanchot's, of how the reader must struggle to digest the foreign and imaginal words of the text.

However, even though Thomas attempts "to bring it [the text] into the deepest possible intimacy with himself," he merely succeeds in widening the fissure that separates consciousness from corporeal existence (TO 28). Although propelled by the literary word to leap into the angelic world of the imagination, into the sea of the text, Thomas discovers that the world prevents his dissolution in the sea of the text. He discovers that, as he throws himself at the cold surface of the text, rather than engage him in reality, it faces him the maddening suspense Levinas alluded to when he stated in reference to Blanchot's work, "Death is not the end, it is the never-ending ending. As in certain Edgar Allan Poe's tales, in which the threat gets closer and closer and the helpless gaze measures that ever still distant approach" (Levinas 132).

[1] Regarding the Mallarméan Swan, see "The virginal, vibrant, and beautiful dawn" (CP 67).

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