The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


The Orphic Experience

 VIII. Elegy and Return

After Anne perishes, Thomas testifies to the formulation "death exists" (TO 96). Through this hypostatic summation, Blanchot elaborates a notion of existence that borrows from Mallarmé, who linked the c'est (it is) with the mysterious nature of creation.[1] With this paradoxical notion of existence, Blanchot forwards a conception that, although it shares similarities with the il y a or 'there is' of Levinas, differentiates itself from the existential notions of Heidegger. For rather than identify the 'givenness' of existence as a gift, as Heidegger did when he approached the Husserlian 'es gibt' or 'there is,' Thomas's proclamation that 'death exists' takes existence as an infirmity, and views awareness as a living death, as the horror of the irrevocable.

Going a step beyond the anxiety of finite ontology, the dread of nothingness and the nausea of anonymous consciousness, Thomas comes to personify awareness fraught with the maddening "impossibility of death" (TO 92). In other words, beyond the meaninglessness that Sartre's Roquentin refers to when he stated flatly, "To exist is simply to be there," Thomas represents meaninglessness without end (N 131).

Deprived of all stability, Thomas encounters what Levinas speaks of as, "The horror and the confusion and the uncertainty of eternal repetition" (Levinas 238). Like Kafka's protagonist in The Castle, K, who, as he ceaselessly struggled to reach the castle, incessantly failed to make any progress, he enters the interminable night of the night. Captured within a cycle of meaningless toil, he becomes embroiled in the endlessness that Camus identified in The Myth of Sisyphus as the essential condition of humanity. Occupying the utter neutrality of the excluded middle, Thomas falls prey to the lapping of the eternal return, to "the necessity of absurd repetition" (Blanchot, Friendship 191).

Suffering from the anguish of internal separation, Thomas epitomizes the exile at the heart of the Orphic experience. For much like Orpheus, who, upon his return from Hades, the bacchantes tore and dispersed, the world and the idea of another world rend him in twain. Divided between his present existence and the thought of Anne's spirit, Thomas, left hollow and empty by his journey through the land of the dead, thus returns to the world a revenant.

Torn between the world and the abyss, between the il y a and the promise of a realm that holds both his true form and his double, Thomas inhabits the night of the nomadic viator. Held in suspense by inertial désoeuvrement, he realizes, "I am not and I endure," which sends him wandering east of Eden, into the land of Nod, the desert of nomads (TO 104).

Caught between embodiment and disembodiment, between Thomas and obscure Thomas, Thomas continually "lives the time of distress, and his time is always the empty time when what he must live is the double infidelity: that of men, that of the gods" (SL 247). Even though a "region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness" haunts Thomas, a region that Platonic anamnesis recollects, he cannot enter this realm (Plato 224). In other words, even though he hosts within his chest a Platonic soul, his worldly form prevents him from reuniting with the immateriality of the soul. Likewise, Thomas cannot locate the double from whom, according to the Platonic conception of the soul, he was separated at birth.

Above all, through the philosophic soliloquy that comprises the penultimate chapter of the novel, Blanchot uses the persona of Thomas to meditate upon the impossibility of death. Because Thomas, as if he were a noir character played by the actor Humphrey Bogart, has remained throughout the novel more or less laconic, his soliloquy might at first come as a surprise to the reader. Prior to this point in the novel, Thomas, like Camus's Meursault, who did not display any outward emotion when his mother died, has kept his feelings about Anne's death to himself. Although one knows, based upon his internal experiences before his soliloquy, that Thomas does not lack feeling, one might be inclined to fault him for his laconic approach to Anne. However, after listening to his soliloquy, it becomes difficult to postulate that Thomas did not care for Anne. It becomes difficult to identify his laconism as anything more than a by-product of the limitation all humans encounter when they attempt to communicate with another, when they attempt to transcend the limits of individualization.

As it depicts Thomas peregrinating toward the unknown, the final chapter of Thomas the Obscure mirrors to a certain extent the progressive descent described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.[2] For example, when Thomas attempts in a sense to transform his Orphic descent into a movement capable of liberating him from maya, from the endless cycle of samsara or rebirth, this reminds one The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Beyond this similarity, the resemblance of the Orphic limbo that Thomas skirts to the Tibetan pond of bardo suggests an additional correspondence between the two works, for, insofar as the bardo exists after death and before regeneration, it resembles the Platonic or Greek Hades.[3]

Like Hardy's Jude, who walked while ill through the rain to see his estranged double, Thomas, by entering the murky abyss after Anne, makes the supreme sacrifice. Exposing himself to the aleatory and renouncing "the decision which makes him an 'I,'" he takes the path that, like the martyrdom of the Thracian bard, affirms extreme experience (SL 55). This path subsequently leads to a subterranean void from which no one returns, to "a space where truth lacks, where limits have disappeared, where we are delivered to the immeasurable" (SL 184). Here Thomas mingles with absolute impersonality.

Like Job, who uttered "when man expires, where then is he?" (14:10), and Qoheleth, who stated "it is a great affliction for man that he is ignorant of what is to come" (Eccles. 8:6-7), Thomas, as he regards the bottomless pit, experiences the bardo of the moment before death. He experiences the pangs of anxiety that accompany our incapability of knowing when approaching death "whether one is actually going to die, in the sense of losing contact with the solid world, or whether one could continue to go on living" (Tibetan 6). In other words, Thomas worries that his passage might lath him in the oblivion of complete forgetfulness or expose him to an infinite regression not unlike the Pythagorean transmigration or metempsychosis of the soul.

Nevertheless, Thomas tosses himself toward the continuous whirl of the void, toward the watery roulette wheel. As he does so, Thomas, differing from his vain selves, who wish to refuse death, renounces his previous attempts at mastering death and comes to accept death as unknowable. In so doing, by recognizing that death remains beyond all approach, that death does not adhere to the logic of the day, Thomas differs from Dostoevski's Kirilov. For rather than attempt, like Kirilov, to place himself in the stead of God, Thomas, as he descends in hopes of recovering and freeing from the underworld both his double and obscure self, sacrifices himself altruistically for the other. Through his sacrifice, Thomas in effect avoids the downfall of Kirilov, who, through his violent dismissal of the mystery to come, suffocated "his companion and double" (SL 101).

However, even though Thomas embraces the leap that is "inspiration's form or movement," he nevertheless encounters a dénouement that, as it incessantly reverses the end into the agony of a beginning, revokes its own finality (SL 177). In other words, Thomas, caught in the tide of Heraclitean becoming, encounters "Being which does not lose itself in Nothing," which is none other than the il y a or obscure Thomas (Hegel 132). In repeatedly facing the endlessness of the il y a, Thomas embodies what Socrates alluded to when he uttered at death's gate, "the true philosophers...are always occupied in the practice of dying" (Plato 205). In a sense, the impossibility of death turns Thomas's attempts at swimming across the Hellspont (the dire strait that separates lovers) into an endless series of practice exercises. Similar to Mallarmé's Igitur, who was confounded by the paradoxical dilemma that "Midnight falls when the dice are cast, but they cannot be cast till Midnight," Thomas encounters death as unending (SL 169). Death becomes a futurity that, although it begs him to prepare for its arrival, remains forever to come. Nevertheless, despite the impossibility of death, Thomas strides toward the void, for if it contains both Anne and obscure Thomas, it could very well be his terminus ad quem or final resting-place. Thomas therefore strides toward "death as toward possibility par excellence" (SL 240).


[1] Blanchot quotes Mallarmé's letter, dated August 8, 1891, to Vielé-Griffin in the following manner: "those very words: it is...[t]here lies all the mystery" (SL 43).

[2] Interestingly, translator Chögyam Trungpa, in his introduction to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, calls it the "Book of Space" (1).

[3] Overall, I would characterize Blanchot's concept of the realm after death as similar to the Hades of the ancient Greeks. I say this because, like the void of Thomas, which might liberate him or entangle him in the return of the same, the Greek underworld contains both Elysium and Hades. Blanchot's cosmology is not purely Grecian, of course, for there are elements that might also remind one of Buddhist and Judeo-Christian cosmology. However, in the end, Blanchot's cosmology operates beyond the confines of all other cosmologies; it ultimately remains his own unique vision. As a result, it is difficult to use modern Western words, each of which carry their own specific theological baggage, to describe dimensions of Blanchot's cosmology. For example, to call the realm after death 'the void' might invoke too strongly Buddhism. Likewise, to refer to Blanchot's world after death as an 'afterworld' perhaps links Blanchot's cosmology to a Christian afterworld more than seems fitting. Faced with this difficulty in discussing Blanchot's cosmology, I have opted to use a mix of signifiers, such as 'the void,' 'the primordial sea,' 'the abyss,' 'the Lethean waters,' et cetera. It is hoped that the overall impression of these words might at least roughly limn some of the cosmological dimensions of Blanchot's 'other world.'

Forward to Appendix: Apparitions in the Night

Back to The Orphic Experience: VII. Anne's Second Death


Return to Title Page
Back to Contents
Return to Top