The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot
Although the ambiguity of its disjunctive style promotes a multiplicity of reads, I interpret Thomas the Obscure as a tragedy that mirrors the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Like Orpheus, Thomas descends into the underworld after his lost love. And like Orpheus, who, as a result of his backward glance, lost Eurydice, Thomas casts the gaze that in effect sacrifices his beloved. Likewise, I regard Thomas the Obscure as a series of Orphic or limit-experiences, for Thomas's limit-experiences resemble the near death experience of Orpheus in Hades. Considering these similarities alongside the fact that The Space of Literature contains a discussion centered on the gaze of Orpheus, I believe Thomas the Obscure easily lends itself to an interpretation that frames it as a palimpsest of the Orphic story.
Nevertheless, how can one in good conscious reduce a text by Blanchot to a certain stable set of meaning when it is fundamentally inimical to the closure that the summary as a form seeks to achieve? How can one put forth an interpretation of Thomas the Obscure that avoids coming across as an exercise in taxonomy, an exercise that ultimately misses the point? Perhaps the only recourse is to reiterate that this interpretation pretends to no authority regarding the text it treats. In other words, this interpretation is of course by no means a 'definitive' read.
As alluded to above, the limit-experience plays an important role in the novel. One might even go so far as to propose that it is the limit-experience, in place of a traditional narrative, that unites and holds together the novel. It is therefore fitting that the first two chapters of the novel relate limit-experiences undergone by Thomas in the sea and in the wood. Briefly, the limit-experience is an extraordinary event that pushes one into unknown territories, beyond the store of knowledge accumulated from previous experiences. In Thomas's case, limit-experience takes place when he repeatedly encounters, while attempting to negate his awareness, the il y a as a limit he cannot surpass.
After surviving his unsettling experiences with the sea and the forest, Thomas returns to the hotel. This hotel essentially represents a certain sphere of social 'normality.' Because the intensity of the limit-experience often leaves one with a reconfigured sense of subjectivity, but because the limit-experience transcends or eludes the rational foundation of language, Thomas finds it difficult to relate with the hotel's patrons. Due to his experiences, which have left him disoriented and profoundly altered, Thomas's failure to understand the normal conversation of the patrons is perhaps to be expected. Nevertheless, despite this barrier, Thomas takes a seat at the main table, among the assembled diners. Here he finds himself seated next to a woman, the sight of which immediately casts upon him a spell of fascination.
When someone calls from outside the name 'Anne' and he notices the woman turn to leave, Thomas, in hopes of prolonging his fascination, cannot restrain himself from attempting to distract her with a sudden, almost violent movement. All the same, 'Anne' walks away and is lost. In keeping with the fact that I regard the novel as a palimpsest of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, I choose to trace a correspondence between Anne's departure from the hotel and the first death of Eurydice. For in both instances, when the loved one disappears or vanishes, the protagonist confronts feelings of loss and separation.
Alienated and disturbed by his loss of Anne, Thomas retreats to his room, where he attempts to take refuge in a book. However, this book provides him with little respite. In fact, after a few brief moments of elation, he finds himself suddenly in the midst of a third limit-experience. Here, Blanchot uses Thomas's limit-experience with the book to intimate at theories that later find expression in The Space of Literature about the experience of reading. Blanchot also embeds into this episode a subtle degree of self-referential awareness, for it is almost as if Thomas reads from Thomas the Obscure.
Having survived his experience with the book, Thomas, in a movement similar to the descent of Orpheus into the underworld after his lost Eurydice, sets out to recover Anne. After a good amount of wandering, Thomas eventually finds Anne in the underworld. Nevertheless, after the initial joy of their reunion, Thomas, without concern for possible repercussions, gazes at Anne as a shade. In keeping with the Orphic tragedy, this insouciance on Thomas's part in effect brings about Anne's second loss. According to Blanchot's interpretation of the Orphic myth, though, Thomas must cast the inordinate gaze, for this vision grants knowledge and illumination. In other words, Blanchot believes that Thomas must care more about vision than Anne's recovery. Like Orpheus, who disregarded the laws of the gods of the underworld, Thomas must cast the gaze that catches sight of Eurydice as a shade, for this gaze will bring him into contact with the edges of existence, that is to say, with the limit-experience.
Because the gaze of Thomas seeks to grasp Anne as both an ideal and a human, she perishes. With this loss, his second, one begins to suspect that a tragic pattern of endless recovery and loss now holds sway over Thomas and Anne. However, there are redemptive qualities in Anne's death, for as she passes away, she dies in a manner that shows little fear at the approach of the unknown. By displaying a remarkable stoicism and reserve upon her deathbed, Anne dies in a manner that converts her end into a gift. By ignoring the fact that she approaches a realm that will render all human laws null and void, she in effect expresses more concern for humanity than for the terrifying uncertainty of the unknown. Effected by the noble selflessness of her gift, Thomas, as he maintains a vigil over her corpse, cannon help but begin an elegiac soliloquy, for even though he has remained until this point largely silent, her death brings about a sequence of philosophical realizations that Thomas cannot help but vocalize. Of course, Thomas's entire soliloquy could reside, like his previous limit-experiences, entirely within his mind. Yet, because Blanchot surrounds it with quotes, one is inclined to interpret Thomas's monologue as something akin to a spoken plaint.
As his monologue progresses, Thomas enters into the Orphic experience, into "some thing black" (to borrow the title of Jacques Roubaud's volume about the death of his wife). This experience brings him into tenuous contact with obscure Thomas, his ideal and invisible self or soul, who remains largely hidden or occluded. Nevertheless, even though he can only catch momentary glimpses of obscure Thomas, Thomas finds himself increasingly torn between 'Thomas' and 'obscure Thomas,' between life and death. Faced with his split identity or two natures, Thomas begins to view death as a means to make himself whole through a reunion with obscure Thomas. However, Thomas's plan for unifying himself with obscure Thomas only succeeds in acquainting him more intimately with the dilemma he encounters throughout the novel: the impossibility of death.
What is one to make of Blanchot's almost obsessive exploration in his work of death? Admittedly, Blanchot's focus on death might initially strike one as excessively moribund and dark. I believe, though, that Blanchot's theories should not be taken literally, but in a metaphorical sense, as analogies. I also believe that Blanchot invokes death in a hyperbolic manner in order to make his point more forcefully and with greater tragic drama.
In part, Blanchot uses the impossibility of death to refer in a metaphorical manner to endless circularity, an endlessness that resembles the absurd fate of Kafka's K in The Castle and Camus's Sisyphus in the Myth of Sisyphus. As the interpretation that follows this introduction demonstrates, however, Mallarmé's Igitur and Un Coup de dés also influenced Blanchot's novel. In both of these works, a protagonist, while attempting either suicide (Igitur) or loss of self in the void (Un Coup de dés), encounters an endlessness that prevents his death. We find a similar impossibility of death at play in Thomas the Obscure.
As with all his terms, Blanchot handles the phase, 'impossibility of death,' as might a poet. By using the phrase in several different contexts, he exhausts its range of possible meanings. Out of the various meanings of the phrase, two in particular stand out. One frames 'death' as synonymous with 'the end.' Thus, 'the impossibility of death' becomes the impossibility for reaching the end. Blanchot's other use of the phrase 'the impossibility of death' stresses the fact that humans ultimately do not know what lies on the other side of death. Death, according to this approach, makes experience impossible: when death ends consciousness, it likewise makes it impossible to know whether or not one has died. In other words, when death takes away one's humanity, leaving one 'inhuman,' it likewise makes it impossible to consciously experience death. Blanchot speaks to this when he states, "As long as I live, I am a mortal man, but when I die, by ceasing to be a man I also cease to be mortal, I am no longer capable of dying, and my impending death horrifies me because I see it as it is: no longer death but the impossibility of dying" (WF 337). It might be a somewhat tortured and technical point, but nonetheless, Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death hinges upon the fact that, when one dies and loses consciousness, one at the same time loses the possibility for experiencing death. As Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, "there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious" (12).
Because it is a French avant-garde novel of the Forties, one should consider Thomas the Obscure akin to its rough contemporary, Beckett's trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). One should also regard it as a peer of Sartre's Nausea and Camus's The Stranger. True, these latter two novels approach plot, narrative and character development in a more tradition manner than Thomas the Obscure, which, like Beckett's trilogy, largely eschews linearity. On the other hand, though, Blanchot, Sartre and Camus all attempt to proffer through these aforementioned works a 'novel of ideas.' Moreover, these works also jointly reflect the influence that Hemingway's impersonal or objective style and tone exerted upon the French novel, for each present in varying degrees a laconic male protagonist who regards the world and its activity at a distance. In addition, each of these three novels more or less avoid, by recourse to a spare style, the rhetorical flourish common to the French tradition of fiction.
However, the similitude of these three novels seems to end here, for in contrast to The Stranger, which builds to a pronounced denouement, Nausea and Thomas the Obscure lack decisive endings. I say this because, although Thomas the Obscure includes Anne's death, its finale is anything but a climax. Rather, because death remains impossible, the novel concludes, like Kafka's The Castle, in a tentative and unfinished manner, upon a wavering note, one that leaves the reader mired in the dread of suspense. Furthermore, Nausea and Thomas the Obscure rely more heavily upon interior or mental events than The Stranger.
Despite the fact that the text aligns itself with the tradition of the conte philosophique (philosophical novel), a tradition that dates back at least to Voltaire's Candide, Thomas the Obscure remains utterly modern. Like the anfractuous sculpture of Robert Smithson or the spiral gyre of Yeats, the novel's form possesses both circular and linear characteristics. Indeed, influenced by Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés, Blanchot's novel disperses its narrative in a manner that, as it staggers or telescopes events over several sections, whips all attempts at linear interpretation into a whirlpool. Moreover, similar to Blanchot's The Infinite Conversation, which begins and ends with explications addressing the Absence of the Book, Thomas the Obscure forwards a form that, like the rondel, traps the reader in the paradoxical insularity of infinitude, for it begins and concludes with Thomas encountering the briny abyss. This circular form, lacking both beginning and end, cannot help but shipwreck the reader accustomed to linear narratives in the spiraling perdition of the tourbillon.
As stated earlier, by illustrating the impossibility of death, Thomas the Obscure presents a negative eschatology, a work that regards the end as unreachable or unattainable. Rather than view death along with Martin Heidegger as the possibility of impossibility, as the possibility of entering a realm of infinite possibility, Blanchot associates death in the novel with the impossibility of possibility and with the eternal return. In "After the Fact" (1983), one of his most biographical essays, Blanchot comments that the novel depicts a series of experiences with vicious circularity. He states that Thomas encounters "in the search for annihilation (absence) the impossibility of escaping being (presence)...an endlessness that is unhappy even in dying" (Station Hill Reader 491).
Stricken with an anathema not unlike the plight suffered by Sisyphus, Thomas confronts throughout the novel the inescapable presence of the il y a, the 'there is' or 'there exists.' In correspondence with Franz Kafka's K., who struggled incessantly in The Castle to reach a destination that remained infinitely on the horizon, the il y a or anonymous awareness prevents Thomas from reaching the terminus or end signified metaphorically by death. Indeed, filled with shame by the premonition that he is ultimately doomed to fail, that he will not be able to locate an end, Thomas's plight reflects quite noticeably the influence Kafka exerted upon Blanchot. This influence is particularly evident when Blanchot, as if speaking about his own work, states:
Kafka, probably under the influence of Eastern traditions, seems to have recognized in the impossibility of dying the extreme curse of man. Man cannot escape unhappiness, because he cannot escape existence, and it is in vain that he heads towards death, that he confronts the anguish and the injustice of it; he dies only to survive. He leaves existence, but only to enter into the cycle of metamorphoses...There is no actual death in Kafka, or, more exactly, there is never an end. Most of his heroes are engaged in an intermediate moment between life and death (WF 81).
Although Thomas the Obscure approaches what Mallarmé called the "orphic explanation of the Earth, the sole duty of the poet and the literary game par excellence," its form suggests that Blanchot resigned himself to the fragment (BR 43). That is to say, failing, like Mallarmé, to make the work in its entirety, Blanchot settled upon depicting "a completed fragment of it" (BR 43). Certainly Blanchot's novel should be regarded as a Mallarméan novel that attests in form to what Blanchot alludes to when he speaks of "the Absence of the Book" (IC xii). Blanchot hopes to suggest by way of this concept that it has become impossible to assemble a work that adheres to a 19th century understanding of the 'Book.' In other words, Blanchot believes it no longer possible to capture between two covers a point of view uniformly informed by a stable, similar logic. However, due to the ambiguity and invisibility of its subject matter, perhaps one should also regard Thomas the Obscure as an example of Flaubert's 'book about nothing.'
In offering a work aimed at severing its reference to the literary tradition, Blanchot introduces into the trajectory of intellectual discourse an interruption that leads epistemological investigations of his work, such as mine, into an interminable confrontation with limitless space. Indeed, the ambiguity that surrounds Thomas the Obscure prevents one from explicating the work in any definitive manner. Admittedly, one might view the outcome of this close read or interpretative gloss as a narrative in its own right, as a reworking or even a 'translation' of the novel. Nonetheless, I have attempted to remain throughout this work as faithful as possible to what I believe to be the essence of Blanchot's thought. In other words, I have attempted to elicit meaning from Thomas the Obscure that resides within the array of its plausible interpretations. This approach, of course, does not preclude Blanchot's belief that, when approaching any text, one must dismiss its author as the sole arbitrator of its meaning. With this approach in mind, the so-called death of the author, I have attempted to claim Blanchot's text as my own.
 For another interpretive gloss of Thomas the Obscure, one that I discovered after having completed this thesis but with which my read shares some similarities, see Garin V. Dowd, "'Glisser dans le Vide' Blanchot, Thomas l'Obscur and the Space of Literature," Angelaki, 4:3 (London: Taylor and Francis Ltd., 1999), 153-168.