The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot
The Orphic Experience
II. Rencontre: Hotel
Rather than trail, like the infants in Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," cumuli, Thomas, as he returns to the social sphere of the hotel, drags dark and tenebrous storm clouds. These clouds, eidetic afterimages of the fata morgana that he encountered during his limit-experience in the sea and forest, obfuscate Thomas's brow. As a result, the normal and mundane conversation exchanged between the guests at the main table assails his ears as a muffled, indistinct babble.
Having failed to attain the pinnacle of himself, that pure peak Shelley equated with the summit of Mont Blanc, Thomas in a sense returns to the hotel suffering dejection. Divided by a dual awareness somewhat similar to what W. E. B. DuBois referred to as 'double consciousness,' Thomas finds himself cast in a tragedy. Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, who encountered a society that refused to recognize his existence, Thomas enters a realm that ignores obscure Thomas, his ideal self. Instead, this society judges him based upon his haggard appearance and demeanor. As a result, Thomas, like Camus's étranger Meursault, who observed the boulevard from his balcony with the impersonal gaze of a perched gargoyle, surveys with reserve and circumspection the mechanisms and conventions of the milieu that populates the hotel.
Irrevocably altered by his limit-experience, unable to receive his surroundings with any degree of familiarity, Thomas chooses to assume the defensive cordon of laconism, that is, "a less frank attitude" (TO 19). So that he may gauge the strangeness of the room, Thomas, ignoring an invitation to join the table, avoids taking "his usual place at the main table" (TO 19). As he hovers near the table, though, an elderly lady attempts to initiate a conversation with him. However, Thomas's taciturn demeanor soon dissuades her, for he greets her casual inquiry as to whether he went for a swim with a minimal 'yes.' This reply of course masks the piquant irony he must privately feel at feigning to answer a question that, despite its innocent intention, asks him to speak the unspeakable. Incapable of invoking the ineffable, of placing a limit upon the infinitude of his inner experience, of linguistically identifying what transcends the logical base of language, Thomas predictably remains quiet. When the lady, perhaps offended by this silence on his part, leaves the room, Thomas, seemingly without a thought, strangely takes her empty seat.
Although he detects an "underhanded" element hovering silently amidst the members of the table, Thomas, once seated, turns to find himself seated next to "a tall, blonde girl whose beauty awoke as he looked at her" (TO 20). At the sight of her beauty, Thomas immediately falls under a spell of fascination. In this state, even though the blonde remains aloof and reserved, Thomas continues "to stare at her, for, bathed in a superb light, her entire person drew him" (TO 20). As he watches her, Thomas cannot help but recall the warmth he felt in her gaze moments ago, when he approached the vacated chair. It soon becomes apparent that, in the heightened moment of that gaze, Thomas caught a glimpse of reciprocity similar to the one shared between Jude the Obscure and Sue Bridehead. It becomes apparent that they caught a glimpse similar to "[t]hat complete mutual understanding, in which every glance and movement was as effectual as speech for conveying intelligence between them, made them almost the two parts of a single whole" (Hardy 306). It is as if, in that brief gaze, each envisioned the other, according to the Platonic understanding of the soul, as the half lost at birth.
However, when someone calls out the name 'Anne' and the blonde turns as if to answer, this abruptly interrupts Thomas's reverie. Acting without thought, hoping to distract her, he quickly strikes the table. But rather than divert her attention, the inexplicable violence of his act only succeeds in alienating the assembled hotel patrons, who consequently begin to ignore Thomas. Nevertheless, although embroiled in proceedings bent upon assigning causality to his actions, Thomas, like Meursault, observes his 'trial' from a point of existential detachment, for he soon returns to his point of remove.
While the others prepare to leave the room and thereby enact their verdict, Thomas notices emanating from Anne a "diffuse phosphorescence" (TO 21). Indeed, Anne begins to exude an aura not unlike the one Jude the Obscure alluded to when he confessed to Sue Bridehead, "you spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet, tantalizing phantom--hardly flesh at all; so that when I put my arms round you I almost expect them to pass through you as through air!" (Hardy 258). But when Anne leaves with the others, Thomas, similar to Orpheus watching Eurydice's attenuated shade recede back into the darkness of Hades, can only numbly watch as Anne fades into the shadows. This loss brings him face to face with the possibility that Anne is the lover he is doomed to sempiternally lose, the mate fated, like Eurydice, to die all over again, the one his impatient gaze will forever reduced to a pillar of salt. With this unwelcome realization, Thomas enters the solitary depths of the Orphic experience and descends, "deeper and deeper into a feeling of loneliness" (TO 21).
Suddenly though, Thomas thinks he hears the voice of Anne call him from outside. Resisting his first instinct, which tells him to rush impulsively toward the door, he listens for an iteration of the call. However, rather than hear the call repeated, Thomas is greeted only by silence, a silence that plunges him further into a state of despair and dejection. Concluding that his ears must have deceived him, he reprimands himself by saying, "It was sheer childishness to hope to see all these distances suppressed by a single call" (TO 22). As Thomas faces, finally, the truth that he is utterly alone, the reader senses that Thomas now fully occupies a position similar to the one Orpheus inhabited after he lost Eurydice to the fatal bite of the serpent. In other words, Thomas suffers from an inexorable sense of loss.