The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Proem: Blanchot

Influence and Translation

With the shift of his focus from political to literary writing, Blanchot began almost immediately to influence the topology of French theory and writing. Attesting to his influence, Geoffrey Hartman writes: "when we come to write the history of criticism for the 1940 to 1980 period, it will be found that Blanchot, together with Sartre, made French 'discourse' possible" (xi). Indeed, the reality that some of Roland Barthes's early work appears particularly influenced by Blanchot testifies to the pervasive reach of Blanchot's work. For example, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes, after his remarks on Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés, wrote "We all know that this hypothesis of Mallarmé as a murderer of language owes to Maurice Blanchot" (75-6).[1] Blanchot also affected the philosopher Michel Foucault. In the early Sixties, Foucault theorized about 'the death of the author,' a theory which largely derives from Blanchot's belief that, in relation to the work, the author, "does not hold its meaning, its privileged secret" (SL 227).

Later in the Sixties, with the commencement of the deconstruction movement, Jacques Derrida invoked Blanchot as a forefather of sorts. Speaking of Blanchot's fiction and récits, of the 'aporia' or paradoxical doubt that spirals these texts into a self-referential mise en abyme, Derrida writes that they have "the structure of a narrative in deconstruction" (Derrida Reader 267).[2] Speaking of the influence Blanchot exerted on Derrida, critic Timothy Clark writes, "most aspects of Derrida's work find what seem to be close analogues or precedents in Blanchot's work" (Clark 64). Significantly, Derrida's conception of the messianic, which remains incessantly to come, forever in the future, corresponds with Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death. In reference to a comment Derrida made about Blanchot during a roundtable discussion at Villanova University, John Caputo points out, "Indeed, Derrida tells us elsewhere that it was in Blanchot, not the Bible, that he first came upon the thematics of the 'come' (viens) that are so central to deconstruction" (Derrida, Deconstruction 179).

Although better known for his literary theory, Blanchot's fiction also influenced the landscape of the post-modern novel. In particular, one can regard Blanchot's novels and récits (first-person narratives) as antecedents to the French nouveau roman. I posit this because both eschew traditional notions of character development and employ experimental techniques and methods that distribute plot in a non-linear manner.

When one considers the effect of Blanchot's various novels individually, perhaps L'Attente l'oubli stands out as being particularly influential (BR 299). This novel (in which Beckett saw himself) presents a disjunctive form that, as it operates within the Nietzschean tradition of the fragment, seeks to supplant the traditional univocal 'Book' with multivocal "plural speech" (IC xi-xii). Although L'Attente l'oubli (1962) was by no means the only volume Blanchot published to combined fiction with theory, it was his first work of this sort. His other works in this vein include The Step Not Beyond and The Writing of the Disaster.

I believe it is relatively safe to assert that Blanchot's use of the fragment influenced, for example, Edmond Jabès's The Book of Questions. But one also finds in some of the fragmentary work by contemporary fiction writer Carole Maso resonance with Blanchot. However, it is probably more accurate to attribute Blanchot's influence on American fiction to the impact Blanchot's work exerted on the nouveau roman and French writers like Marguerite Duras. Nonetheless, there are similarities between the fragmentary style of works like Maso's Ava and some of Blanchot's fiction.

Apart from the effect Blanchot's work has had on fiction, I believe it is also possible to trace some correspondence between works like L'Attente l'oubli (Waiting Oblivion) and American Language Poetry. I posit this because both Blanchot and Language poets seek, by blending literary and theoretical writing, to subvert traditional boundaries of genre.[3] Of course, it is probably tenuous at best to claim that Blanchot directly affected this movement. Be that as it may, if one believes deconstruction or French post-Structuralism influenced Language poetry, then one should at least consider Blanchot, due to his impact upon post-war French theory, an important indirect influence.

Despite the fact that Blanchot's work operates more or less within a French or at least a Continental tradition, it has garnered a good amount of attention across the Atlantic. One might speculate that this is in keeping with the central importance of French theory to the West. One might want, on the other hand, to consider our interest in Blanchot as an outgrowth of the popularity of deconstruction. However, I would like to suggest that the broad scope and universality of Blanchot's subjects (literature and death) justify his work as a phenomenon in its own right.

Although Blanchot's articles began to appear in English-language journals as early as 1948, Thomas the Obscure did not appear in English translation until 1973.[4] Around this same time, Paul Auster, while living in Paris, started the avant-garde journal Living Hand. This journal published during its three-year history several works by Blanchot in translation (Clay 172). After its demise, Lydia Davis, one of its co-editors, continued to translate Blanchot. In 1978, she published her translation of L' Arrêt de mort as Death Sentence. Then, in 1981, her translation of "La Littérature et le droit à la mort" was published as "Literature and the Right to Death." This essay was included in the collection entitled The Gaze of Orpheus, a collection that, for the first time, presented an English-speaking audience with Blanchot's essays in translation. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Anne Smock published The Space of Literature, which provided this same English-speaking audience with its first opportunity to read a complete volume of Blanchot's theory.

Since publishing Davis's Death Sentence in 1978, Station Hill Press has continued to make translations of Blanchot's work, especially his fiction, available to an English-speaking audience. Station Hill recently collected most of its previously published Blanchot translations into a single volume entitled The Station Hill Blanchot Reader. Interestingly, in 1976, the editors of Station Hill, George Quasha and Charles Stein, introduced the artist Gary Hill to the work of Blanchot. Gary Hill subsequently incorporated Blanchot's work into several of his multi-media installations, one of which served as my introduction to Blanchot.


[1] Barthes's quote most likely refers to Blanchot's analysis of Mallarmé in "Literature and the Right to Death." It is interesting to note in passing that Barthes claimed in an interview that he did not read much Blanchot before Writing Degree Zero. See The Tel Quel Reader, ed. Patrick Ffrench and Roland-François Lack (NY: Routledge, 1998).

[2] "En abyme," Peggy Kamuf explains, "is the heraldic term for infinite reflection, e.g., the shield in the shield in the shield..." (Derrida Reader 566). Derrida also uses abyme in a manner that exploits its phonetic and visual proximity to abîme and abysse, both of which mean the 'abyss.' Additionally, because abyme occurs in a phrase patterned like the familiar mise en scéne, mise en abyme seems to suggest the staging of a tragedy within an abyss of infinite layers. Upon seeing the phrase, one might therefore imagine some luckless protagonist free falling in a black hole that reflects the horror and confusion of his situation (like a broken mirror) ad nauseum.

[3] On the subject of the blurring of traditional boundaries between genres, Blanchot writes, "The fact that literary forms, that genres no longer have any genuine significance---that, for example, it would be absurd to ask whether Finnegans Wake is a prose work or not, or whether it can be called a novel---indicates the profound labor of literature which seeks to affirm itself in its essence by ruining distinctions and limits" (SL 220).

 [4] See "Blanchot in English," prepared by Peter Hoy (BR 324-326). Among other various journals, The Evergreen Review, Yale French Series and Sulfur have all published work by Blanchot in translation.

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