The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot
The Orphic Experience

 VI. The Gaze

Although the ambiguity and disjunctive style of the novel promotes a multiplicity of reads, Thomas the Obscure essentially mirrors the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In keeping with this, Thomas, after the initial joy of his reunion with Anne, begins to escort her back to the world. However, like Orpheus, who, according to myth, turned around and looked at Eurydice before she had passed into the world, Thomas, without concern for possible repercussions, casts a backward gaze at Anne. As it is know, the gaze of Orpheus trespassed or transgressed the command of the underworld god, who stipulated that Eurydice could return to the surface only if Orpheus refrained from looking at his bride while she still inhabited the underworld. As a result of his gaze, Eurydice in effect dies a second time. In keeping with dénouement of this tragedy, the insouciance of Thomas's backward gaze at Anne brings about her second loss.

According to Blanchot's interpretation of the Orphic myth, though, Orpheus must cast the gaze that, in its disregard for the laws of the gods, renders Eurydice lost. Although such a view might strike one as counter-intuitive, Blanchot uses the Orphic gaze as an analogy whereby he stresses the importance of fearlessly pursuing vision and illumination. In other words, the gaze of Orpheus becomes under Blanchot's husbandry not merely an impatient look that unfortunately occurred too soon, but the willful, almost Promethean, attempt by Orpheus to see what the gods conceal and forbid humanity from laying eyes upon. In this manner, the Orphic 'transgression' resembles somewhat the transgression that took place in the Garden of Eden, for perhaps Thomas seeks, like Adam and Eve, divine knowledge that would make him a god.

Moreover, faced with the opportunity to see a shade, Thomas, according to Blanchot, must cast, even though it renders Anne lost, the Orphic gaze. For not unlike the classical understanding of Liberty personified, shadowy Eurydice symbolizes in Blanchot's analogy enlightenment, knowledge and ideal beauty. Indeed, differing from the common conception of the ghost, Blanchot regards Eurydice's shade as beauty par excellence, for she mingles presence and absence, the transparent with the apparent. Devoid of the sinister elements typically associated with the spectral, Eurydice, presenting a human form mingled with the eternal, extends the promise of otherworldly knowledge.

Like Eurydice, Anne in Thomas the Obscure represents ideal beauty and enlightenment. Similar to the mirror of art, she encapsulates the essential qualities of worldly beauty in a lifeless form. Entranced by her presence, it seems that Thomas has no choice but to turn and look "behind him" at Anne (TO 43).

However, by drinking from the sight of Anne as a shade, Thomas risks the backward gaze that, because it returned Eurydice to the vale of Tartarus, brought failure to Orpheus. By feasting his eyes upon the forbidden spectacle, Thomas commits the transgression that places Anne in jeopardy of being lost a second time. Nonetheless, propelled by methods that correspond to the practice of Valéry, who, rather than focus on the product of the work, concerned himself primarily with the epistemological search for knowledge, Thomas cannot help but seek the illumination granted by the sight of a shade. In doing so, he renounces his original task, which consisted of bringing Anne back into the light of the day. Blanchot here uses Thomas's renunciation as a means to elucidate the importance he places on the writer's need to pursue knowledge and inspiration without regard for the finish product or commodity.

Sacrificing his work, Thomas, in his Orphic guise, approaches Bataille's notion of the sacred.[1] According to Bataille, the realm of the sacred becomes accessible only after the expenditure of energy on interior experiences that do not lead to worldly gain. It is relatively easy to interpret Thomas's sacrifice as such an expenditure. However, Thomas does not seek to attest through his sacrifice to the meaninglessness of the world; he does not pursue the inordinate gaze knowing that it will embroil him in the interminable. He does not seek the failure Sartre spoke of when he wrote, "the genuine certain of the total defect of human enterprise and arranges to fail in his own life in order to bear witness, by his individual defeat, to human defeat in general" (Phil. of Sartre 370-1). Rather, Thomas hopes to emerge from the deep with a vision as immortal and impervious to death as a marble statue. In other words, Thomas does not sacrifice Anne in order to bring about a chain of events that the day might define as 'failure,' but out of devotion to the Orphic quest, which requires that he disregard or forget the laws of the day.

Exposed by his backward gaze to the edges of experience, Thomas enters what Blanchot terms the 'limit-experience.' In his writing, Blanchot refers to the limit-experience as an event that occurs when one contests or transcends the boundaries and limitations accumulated during everyday or normal experience. Needless to say, it is an experience that leaves one with a reconfigured understanding of the world. Considered in isolation, the limit-experience appears to be an act of self-transformation, a profound means for growth. When one looks at the limit-experience within the context of Blanchot's understanding of the Orphic gaze, though, one might want to question its motives. Although the Orphic gaze brings about a moment that, in a sense, pushes one beyond oneself, does it not do so at the expense of another, namely Eurydice? Does it not smack of selfishness?

The answer I believe is that, on a strictly literal level, Blanchot's Orpheus, because he sacrificed Eurydice for his own gain, should raise eyebrows among ethicists. Nonetheless, Blanchot does not concern himself with this ethical dilemma, for he wishes to merely say that one must be willing to sacrifice what one holds most dear for the limit-experience. In other words, Blanchot uses the gaze of Orpheus as a hyperbolic trope to emphasize that one must be willing to disregard the set of laws whereby one understands the world and one's position in that world. One must be willing to turn away from the material world to focus on illumination and the immaterial. Through the Orphic gaze, Blanchot stresses the need for surpassing boundaries of the self, which often become as calcified as laws writ in stone, so that one may gain a deeper understanding of existence.

To a certain extent, the gaze of Orpheus also serves as the vehicle by which Blanchot expresses his ideas about the writer's relationship to inspiration. Blanchot seems to suggest that the writer enters the field of inspiration only by surpassing former limitations. Blanchot's idea of inspiration therefore entails some work: it is not the easy illumination of the Romantic genius or Surrealist automatic writer. Indeed, according to Blanchot, it is neither a chance breeze through the Aeolian harp nor a mysterious dictation that brings about inspiration, but an odyssey of the mind aimed at hearing an inexhaustible murmur.[2]

Thomas, although he finds himself delivered unto the night of the night, transforms, like Blanchot's Orphic poet, his limitless task into a work of fire. Similar to Paul Valéry, who took the interminable nature of the work as an opportunity to exercise his mind ad infinitum, Thomas makes his endless journey into a search for true knowledge. When presented with the opportunity to gaze upon a human shape mingled with transparent shadows, with the opportunity to gain illumination from an encounter with the limitless limits of an ideal form, Thomas must look. Not to be construe as the leer of objectification, this gaze, despite the fact that it is disturbingly single-minded, remains his true work. Exposing himself, like Blanchot's Orpheus, to this "extreme moment of liberty, the moment when he frees himself from himself and, still more important...frees the sacred contained in the work," Thomas thus casts the coup d'oeil (SL 175). In doing so, his eyes drink, as she gracefully floats, from the intoxicating sight of Anne as a spirit.


[1] As critic John Gregg comments, "Blanchot's affinity with Bataille reaches its highest degree of intensity when he equates Orpheus's transgression with an act of sacrifice" (53).

[2] It is interesting to note within the context of inspiration and Surrealism that Blanchot seems to place the inexhaustible murmur of inspiration at the heart of the il y a. This link appears to suggest that, insofar as all humans have an internal voice of inspiration, that is, a chain or stream of images that serve as the basis of consciousness, we all possess the potential to become inspired artists. In keeping with Blanchot's aversion for the cult of the author, this egalitarian theory goes against the Romantic notion of privileged genius. It also corresponds with the Surrealist belief that every individual has the capacity to become an artist.

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

Back to The Orphic Experience: V. Reunion


Return to Title Page
Back to Contents
Return to Top