The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Proem: Blanchot

Work and Friendship

Although the scope and sheer enormity of his oeuvre suggests that he devoted his time to the solitude required by writing, Blanchot nevertheless enjoyed several important intellectual friendships.[1] And despite his tendency to maintain his distance from avant-garde groups and movements, he skirted through his journal activity and his friendships the perimeters of many important mid-century Parisian intellectual developments.

The manner in which Levinas interpreted the existential and phenomenological work of Husserl and Heidegger left a strong impression upon the thought of many French intellectuals of the Thirties, especially that of Sartre and Blanchot. However, unlike Sartre, Blanchot shared a close friendship with Levinas. This friendship began in the mid-Twenties when they both attended the University of Strasbourg as students. When one learns that Blanchot, while at Strasbourg, introduced Levinas to Proust and Valéry, it becomes evident, considering the influence Levinas's work had on Blanchot, that they shared from early on the reciprocity and mutual influence of friendship. This exchange of ideas and information continued until Levinas passed away and in effect gives their work a similar tenor. Indeed, when one examines their work from the Forties that deals with the il y a (there is) and the impossibility of death, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish on a conceptual level between Levinas and Blanchot. For example, both thinkers describe the il y a as an impersonal and anonymous awareness or presence that precedes individual existence and somehow eludes all attempts aimed at negating its existence. Considering the fact that they refer to one another in works dating from this time, one can only assume that these two thinkers formulated the concept of the il y a while in conversation.[2]

However, unlike Levinas, who was affiliated with the Sorbonne, Blanchot, like Sartre and other French intellectuals of the era, avoided the academy as a means for livelihood. After his 'career' as a political journalist in the Thirties, Blanchot began in the late Thirties and early Forties to draw his sustenance solely from literary articles. Despite the fact that, from the perspective of our current economic climate, this means of livelihood is nearly unimaginable, earlier in the century it was still possible. After a few years of writing literary reviews and essays for various journals (especially Le Journal des débats), Blanchot published in 1943 his first collection of literary essays, Faux Pas. This publication presented slightly revised versions of essays he had written for journal publication. It was upon this form that Blanchot modeled his subsequent works of literary theory (with the exception of Lautréamont et Sade). Although compilation played a significant role in the composition of these collections of literary theory, their fragmentary origin did not prevent them from presenting certain coherent themes. In reference to this, Blanchot writes in the unpaginated introduction of The Space of Literature (which is perhaps his most unified work) that "[a] book, even a fragmentary one, has a center which attracts it."

After the Liberation, new journals such as Georges Bataille's Critique (which Blanchot informally helped establish), Sartre's Les Temps modernes and Jean Paulhan's Cahiers de la pléiade began to carry Blanchot's critical and theoretical work. Importantly, from 1953 to 1968, while Paulhan served as its editor, Blanchot published essays regularly in the revitalized Nouvelle nouvelle revue française (N.N.R.F.). From these essays came some of Blanchot's most important works: The Space of Literature (1955), The Book to Come (1959), The Infinite Conversation (1969) and Friendship (1971).

In 1940, Blanchot met Georges Bataille, which initiated what was to become his other great intellectual friendship. It is of particular interest to note that Bataille was an excommunicated Surrealist. Considering the fact that Blanchot wrote several essays during the Forties and early Fifties that speak very highly about the Surrealist technique of automatic writing, one could speculate that Blanchot's friendship with Bataille (along with Blanchot's correspondence with Rene Char) played no small part in inspiring these essays. In some of these essays, Blanchot identifies automatic writing as a means to hear instantly the inexhaustible murmur of inspiration.[3] Surprisingly, perhaps due to the enthusiasm of Blanchot's position, even Surrealist leader André Breton, who is remembered for being very scrupulous when it came to allegiances, quoted Blanchot in a 1945 interview. Breton stated, "'Thanks to automatic writing,' Maurice Blanchot recently said, referring to its use in surrealism, 'language has benefited by the highest promotion. Language is not merged with thought; it is bound to the only true spontaneity, human freedom in action and manifest'" (257).

In settings that prolonged, albeit at a less formal level, the collective discourse fostered in the late Thirties by the Collège de Sociologie (a colloquium series Bataille helped establish), Blanchot and Bataille met with other intellectuals and writers to discuss their theories. In particular, they theorized about the relationship of interior experience to society. The incompatibility of his inner experience with what society recognizes as valid experience seems to have especially afflicted Bataille. In Inner Experience (1943), Bataille admits that this incompatibility or gap soon plunged him into a crisis of meaninglessness. Bataille goes on to recount how Blanchot, by asserting the primacy and inculpability of interior experience, helped him to resolve his crisis. Its resolution appears to have transpired suddenly when Blanchot offered the proposition that inner "experience itself is authority (but that authority expiates itself)" (8).

Bataille's thoughts likewise influenced Blanchot; for example, Blanchot's notion of the sacred and sacrifice largely correspond with Bataille's ideas on that subject. According to Bataille, the realm of the sacred becomes accessible only after one expends all energy on interior experiences that do not lead to worldly gain. It is relatively easy to interpret Thomas the Obscure as a series of such expenditures. Attesting to the correspondence of their ideas, Bataille writes in The Inner Experience: "Outside of the notes in this volume, I only know of Thomas the Obscure where the questions of the new theology (which has only the unknown as object) are pressing, although they remain hidden" (102). Based upon Bataille's comments, and the similarity of their concepts about the interior or limit-experience (a similarity I touch upon again in "The Orphic Experience"), it seems apparent that these two thinkers truly engaged within the reciprocal conversation of friendship. In addition, contrary to popular myth, it makes evident, as does his friendship with Levinas, that Blanchot did not become asocial or a recluse with the onset of the war.


[1] For a bibliography of Blanchot's works, see EC 274-298, or "The Resource Page for Readers of Maurice Blanchot," ed. Reginald Lilly, 2 Jan. 2000, U. Of Virginia, 5 Jan. 2000 <>.

 [2] Blanchot's refers in "Literature and the Right to Death" (1948) to Levinas's book Existence and Existents (1947), which in turn refers to the 1941 edition of Thomas the Obscure (WF 332).

[3] See "Reflections on Surrealism" (WF 85-97) and "Inspiration, Lack of Inspiration" (SL 177-187).

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