The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot
The Orphic Experience

I. Contesting the Limits

Although whirled about on the brink of the Cartesian vortex, Thomas nevertheless doubts his briny surroundings. Despite the fact that he is mettre en abîme (placed in the abyss) and consumed by its maw, he pursues by means of phenomenological reduction an epistemological study of the limits of the possible. In doing so, by placing himself in a situation where he may question his ontological being exactly when it shares close proximity to annihilation, Thomas prepares himself for what Blanchot calls the 'limit-experience' or 'original experience.'

According to Blanchot, the limit-experience seeks to contest and eventually transcend the boundaries accumulated during everyday experience. Blanchot states, "The limit-experience is the response that man encounters when he has decided to put himself radically in question" (IC 203). It should be noted that Blanchot's concept of the limit-experience resembles Bataille's notion of the inner or interior experience. According to Bataille, the inner experience, like Blanchot's limit-experience, seeks to transcend personal limitations by doubting the existence of those limits. Bataille wrote, "I call [inner] experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man" (7).

Spun round the bottomless wishing well, the roulette wheel that presages death with the impossibility of death, Thomas, mimicking the inactivity of Hamlet, commingles with the void of infinite deliberation and reversals. Dashed by violent eddies of brine, Thomas begins to gradually become one with the Mallarméan "identical neutrality of the abyss," with the desolate emptiness of primordial chaos (CP 140). Battered by turbid swells, he mingles with toho-bohu, the formless void that, prior to having its darkness divided by the genesis of day, cloaked all in bleakness. Fascinated by his rotating deluge of speculation, placed in stark relief by the murky sea of the night, Thomas pursues "a sort of reverie in which he confused himself with the sea...dispersing himself in the thought of the water" (TO 8). Here, in what is only to become the first of his limit-experiences, he attempts to negate the limits of his individuality.

However, although given over to dissolution, to "continuing his endless journey, with an absence of organism in an absence of sea," Thomas encounters the continuous flux of his imagination as an ineluctable limitation, as an entity that resists subsumption (TO 8). Faced with this continuous stream, Thomas, unable to find a means for interrupting it, asks, "What escape was there?" (TO 8). In this manner, he experiences, like Levinas, the il y a (there is) as perpetual neutrality, as the irreducible condition of existence, as an unsurpassable existential dilemma or boundary. Failing to lose himself in the abyss, Thomas therefore reenters the pain of haecceity or individuality. Having done so, he experiences, like Bataille, the nausea and suffering "which the astonishment at not being everything, at even having concise limits, gives us" (Bataille xxxii).

Once Thomas feels the anonymous weight of the il y a, though, it is not long before he again attempts to flee its burden, for in a sense, Thomas symbolizes the human for whom consciousness equals suffering. In other words, Thomas, having left behind the sea he encountered in chapter I, nevertheless encounters, as he does repeatedly through the novel, another void within which he contests his individuality. Chapter II of the novel thus finds Thomas once again contesting the boundaries of his existence and placing his limits in dispute. This chapter begins with Thomas, not unlike Odysseus, who, after suffering a shipwreck and narrowly escaping the Charybdis, found himself washed upon a foreign island (at the close of the bk. XII), embarking on a purely insular quest. However, whereas before he attempted to lose himself in the sea, Thomas now finds himself marooned upon the island of Sir Thomas More, lost in a forest that can best be described as nowhere, as utopia. Here, in solitude, images that, despite their apparent tangibility, remain shadowy and indistinct haunt Thomas.

Falling prey to the spectral images of the wood, Thomas enters the solitary and nocturnal glade of fascination. He becomes fascinated with the spectral aspects passing before his eyes. For placed in stark contrast by the prevailing darkness of the wood, the ghosted images, despite the fact that they remain mere shadows or wisps, assume before him an almost charismatic semblance to reality. Transfixed by these spectral reifications, Thomas discovers that, although darkness surrounds him, "it did not seem that he had given up seeing in the darkness, rather the contrary" (TO 13). As a result, it is as if, nearing the true rest of sleep, Thomas extinguishes the light only to discover that, by welcoming darkness to his room, he in fact welcomes a thousand trajectories of thought that in effect convert his mind into a private planetarium. His stream of consciousness thus comes to resemble a shower of wayward shooting stars that, as they eliminate all drowsiness and prevent the possibility of true sleep, plunge him into insomnia, into waking dream.

Absorbed and negated by the inertial désoeuvrement or worklessness of the night, Thomas, like Sartre's Roquentin, encounters a presence similar to the es gibt (there is) of Heidegger. This presence, seemingly one and the same with the impersonal awareness invoked by the il y a, subjects him to the "experience of non-experience" (IC 210). In other words, Thomas confronts fictive entities that, even though they are illusive and absent, deceptively feign to reality. However, Thomas discovers that he can neither impede nor stop this fictive stream of images, which in effect brings him face to face with an unsurpassable limit. For despite the exposure of this stream of images to something akin to the Hegelian Aufhebung, to "the movements, oppositions and reversals of dialectical reason," Thomas discovers that they remain the basis of a perpetual and constant 'there is' (IC 208-9).

Despite the consistency of the il y a, though, Thomas attempts to escape. To this end, Thomas, sharing correspondence with Descartes, who from a state "as solitary and retired as in deserts the most remote," willfully suspended all previously held truths, Thomas attempts to raze the architectonics of awareness (DM 127). Like Descartes, who reached the "simple resolve to strip oneself of all opinions and beliefs formerly received" (DM 116), Thomas employs "the power not to be" and throws into question the sum of his previous experiences (SL 252). Similar to Husserl in search of the transcendental ego, Thomas, in hopes of isolating what cannot die, employs a negativity or phenomenological bracketing. Hoping that this negativity will eliminate the superfluous to leave him with the essential, he thus negates or doubts the il y a.[1]

However, again like Descartes, who, as a result of his questioning, continually encountered "a thing which thinks" (M 174), Thomas, as he feels "out the limits of the vaulted pit," repeatedly encounters the il y a (TO 13). Because, in contrast to the body, he cannot will this il y a to obey him, Thomas encounters it as disembodied. Consequently, due to the disparate and untethered nature of the il y a, Thomas, lacking the fixed center of a cognito, loses the ability to assert, 'I am.' So although Thomas necessarily takes part in the awareness offered by the il y a, it remains on a plane fundamentally beyond him.

Like Descartes, who discovered that the ineluctable essence of existence resembles a flexible lump of wax, Thomas finds that the disembodied awareness of the il y a resembles "a nocturnal mass" or an amorphous and malleable dream in flux (TO 14).[2] However, sensing like Descartes that, despite his negations, "the same wax remains," he begins to see the futility of his doubt (M 176). For he finds that, despite all his effort at throwing everything into question, disembodied awareness somehow persists. Thomas thus realizes that, although the forest darkens around him, a consistent stream of spectral images will continue to prevent him from losing himself.

Thomas, discovering that negation and his "refusal to advance" merely propel the churning stream of his imagination, encounters awareness as a fundamental limitation (TO 13). Discovering that, as in chapter I, negation and doubt only bring him into closer contact with the ineluctable nature of the il y a, Thomas comes to tragically identify awareness as the "sovereignty of a being without being in the becoming without end of a death impossible to die" (IC 209).

Although Thomas uncovers that which resists negation, these findings in the end share greater affinity with Roquentin's pathetic realization than with Cartesian illumination. For rather than grant him, as the cognito supplied Descartes, the power of an unshakable beginning, a day founded upon 'clear and distinct' illatives, Thomas's interior experience delivers him unto the anguish of existential indecision. As a result, Thomas sinks into the reductio ad absurdum of the mise en abyme, into an absent presence consumed by absent beings. Here, he "becomes aware of himself as separate, absent from being" (SL 252).

In contrast to the errant travelers in Descartes, who, "finding themselves lost in a forest, know that they ought not to wander first to one side and then to the other...but understand that they should continue to walk as straight as they can in one direction," Thomas vacillates (DM 122). Lost in the nocturnal wilderness of fascination, immured by the muse Mnemosyne within the solitary cave of his own mind, Thomas finds himself overwhelmed by the interminable. Exiled from the productivity of the day, his progress begins to seem "more apparent than real, for this new spot was indistinguishable from the last, he encountered the same difficulties here, and it was in a sense the same place that he was moving away from out of terror of leaving it" (TO 14).

Infatuated by shadowy figments whose remove paradoxically increases the intimacy of their presence, Thomas enters a time that knows no bounds, the time of time's absence. Simultaneously vexed and captivated by chimeras of the mind, he falls prey to the trickery of a daemon or arch-deceiver, an evil genius not unlike the one that Descartes suspected of miring him in the illusory. Here, immersed in darkness and the inanition of the night, Thomas enters an "enclave, a preserve within space, airless and without light, where a part of himself, and, more that that, his truth, his solitary truth, suffocates in an incomprehensible separation" (SL 54).

In the night of the night, with his vision rendered exorbitant by the stream of consciousness, by an excess of selves, Thomas loses the ability to assert the 'I am' that the world demands as a fixed center. In other words, Thomas's fascination causes him to identify with the cadaverous image to such a degree that he loses his individuality. With his identity overwhelmed by a contingent surfeit of imagery, Thomas begins to live vicariously. In this manner Thomas nears the only work both Blanchot and Bataille deems worthy of pursuance, for both believe that one nears the possibility of recomposing previous limitations only by submitting oneself to excess, to surfeit, to "what Georges Bataille names 'chance'" (IC 209).

Taking the apparent proximity and tangibility of the oneiric and shadowy as "the culmination of his sight," Thomas comes to resemble Hardy's Jude the Obscure (TO 14-15). One especially recognizes similarities between Jude and Thomas in Sue Bridehead's wistful description of Jude: "You are Joseph the dreamer of dreams, dear Jude. And a tragic Don Quixote. And sometimes you are St. Stephen, who, while they were stoning him, could see Heaven opened. Oh, my poor friend and comrade, you'll suffer yet!" (Hardy 216). Indeed, Thomas shares with Jude the Obscure similarities that go beyond the Heraclitean epithet they share as an appendage to their Christian name. Being from a Christian time and land, one assumes that Jude took his name from St. Jude, the martyr who is none other than 'the Saint of Impossible Cases.' Such a patron saint, while it is certainly apropos of Jude's attempts to gain admittance to the university, likewise of course pertains to Thomas's struggle against the impossibility of death.

Enthralled by the night afforested with imaginal semblance, by "the whole woods still quivering and full of life," Thomas enters the Blanchotian 'essential solitude,' an abysmal lack of being that paradoxically makes the essence of the world vividly appear (TO 15). Fascinated by images that vacantly double the world, by mere shades of former selves, by ephemeral vestiges of the light and truth of the world, Thomas loses himself to disembodied traces of what once enjoyed the truth of embodiment in the world. Unable to refuse these images, he thus continual faces the reality "that when everything has disappeared, there still is something" (SL 253). As a result, like the narrator of Proust's Swann's Way, who, after soaking the 'petites madeleines' crumbs in lime-flower tea, encountered the "abyss of uncertainty...the mind feels...when it, the seeker, is at same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing," Thomas enters a hyper-conscious state dominated by the ambiguity of recollection or the churning of a disembodied awareness (49).

Similar to smoke emitted by a pipe in dissipating rings of redolence, which unexpectedly imbued the persona of Mallarmé's prose-poem 'La Pipe' within the solitary "air of the previous winter," the hazy, transparent figments of recollection soon hover about Thomas, encompassing him like a cloud of smoke (CP 97). This stream of recollection both tantalizes and repulses him, for even though it streams in unending chains of association, the chains do not adhere to any sort of logical or linear pattern. Rather they entangle Thomas in the fragmented and nonlinear, in a flow seemingly generated by spontaneity and contingency.

Through a phenomenological negativity based upon the Berkeleian formula esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived), Thomas constructs metropolitan spaces of the mind or "cities made of emptiness" (TO 16). By continuing to doubt the il y a, he founds a citizenry that in effect remain as ambiguous and mutative as Fantômas and as mysterious as the Shadow, the American noir character.[3] Through this construction of idiosyncratic mental space, Thomas, as he perpetually confronts images generated by his own imagination, in effect engages in an insular quest not unlike the war Don Quixote waged against the Knight of the Mirrors.

Attempting to make and unmake himself through the decentralization of vision, Thomas employs a modus operandi similar to the mystical theology of Bataille. That is, by "wiping the slate clean" with a dose of negativity, Thomas approaches a realm not unlike the sacred of Bataille (Bataille 9). However, in keeping with most mystical theologies, Thomas's experience of the sacred eludes the rational base of language to remain essentially interior and subjective.

In accordance with romantic ideals, Blanchot, like Bataille, believes that the sacred can only be reached after an expenditure of energy on 'unworldly' activities, on activities that do not lead to material gain. For that reason, Blanchot views the road to the sacred as an ordeal. As Bruns points out, here the sacred is seen as "a trial, transformation, or adventure, or, at the outer limit, as suffering, sacrifice, torture, tragedy, or in short experience as the expenditure of subjectivity" (137). Therefore, Thomas's steps toward the sacred expose him to an extreme trial.

Coalescing with the night, Thomas submits himself to the trial of solitude, to a test that has the potential to ruin most Kings. As Pascal stated, "Put it to the test; leave a king entirely alone, with nothing to satisfy his sense, no care to occupy his mind, with no one to keep him company and no diversion, with complete leisure to think about himself, and you will see that a king without diversion is a very wretched man" (71). Yet according to Blanchot, Thomas must encounter the inertial worklessness of essential solitude, for "those who care only for brilliant success are nevertheless in search of this point where nothing can succeed" (SL 55). He must enter the night of the night, for according to Blanchot, it is only by subjecting oneself to the Orphic quest, by plunging into the blackest of springs, that one may reconfigure the limitation of existence; it is only by entering the uncertain depths of the lacuna that one may transform the diluvian excesses of consciousness into a purifying ablution.

At the extreme moment of his "monstrous union" with the exorbitant night, though, Thomas, in a manner that resonates with his actions at the end of chapter I, turns his back on the spectral forest (TO 16). Extracting and tearing himself away from solitude and its glades of fascination, he makes an effort to return to the society of the hotel. Residue from his limit-experience nonetheless continues to haunt him, for as he reaches the hotel, he still exchanges "contact with the void" (TO 16).


[1] Perhaps more should be said specifically about the negativity or expenditure by which Thomas contests his limits and enters the limit-experience. When one encounters in a philosophical context the concept of negativity, one might initially think of the negativity that propels the Hegelian dialectic. One thinks of the antithesis that negates the thesis. However, Blanchot's negativity shares more similarities with the 'négativité sans emploi' of Bataille, for unlike Hegel's negativity, it resists incorporation into a system. In other words, unlike Hegel's negativity, which the logic of the day conscripts into service, Blanchot's negativity brings about an expenditure that, because it surpasses all systems and logic, cannot be used as a basis for rational processes. For that reason Blanchot's negativity remains a work of the night and worklessness; it remains a work that, in contrast to Hegel's negativity, does not attempt to incorporate each and every negation back into the dialectical process, but instead recognizes and accepts the existence of excess and dead ends. Blanchot's negativity thus avoids the blindness Derrida speaks of when he writes, "The blind spot of Hegelianism---is the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity---here we would have to say an expenditure and a negativity without reserve--that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or a system" (Writing and Difference 259). In recognizing what Hegel failed to take into account, namely the sort of negativity that "has no reserve underside, because it can no longer permit itself to be converted into positivity," Blanchot's negativity surpasses the framework of a Hegelian paradigm (Derrida Writing and Difference 259). As Leslie Hill states, "the effect [of Blanchot's thought] is to delimit the Hegelian dialectic and open it up to what---Blanchot calls the outside, and which has to be understood as that which precedes or exceeds the limits of the dialectic, yet which does not belong to the dialectic as a moment of necessary transgression" (EC 110-111). Beyond its connection to Hegel, though, one wants to consider the relationship between Blanchot's negativity and phenomenological negativity. In fact, after some thought, one wants to characterize Blanchot's negativity, or at least the negativity of Thomas, as phenomenological in character. I say this because Thomas, in an attempt to better understanding the limits of his existence, negates and throws into question, as might a bracketing phenomenologist, all his previous experience. As a result of his existential doubt, Thomas broaches upon limit-experience. As stated earlier, the limit-experience pushes one beyond the sum total of one's experiential knowledge to leave one with a reconfigured set of limits. Neither systematic nor rigid, these limits are soon surpassed by the next set of limit-experiences. But when Blanchot's negativity leaves one with a new set of at least temporary limits, does it not contribute to the positivity that Derrida says it cannot promote?

[2] Sartre's Roquentin also characterizes the pith of existence as waxy. He states, "existence had suddenly unveiled was the very paste of things...[the] veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses" (N 127).

 [3] Fantômas is essentially a popularized version of Lautrémont's elusive Maldoror. See Suzi Gablik, Magritte (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 42-54.

Forward to The Orphic Experience: II. Rencontre: Hotel

Back to The Tragic Man: IV. The Resolution of Igitur


Return to Title Page
Back to Contents
Return to Top