The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Proem: Blanchot

The Poetics Thesis

I first encountered the work of Maurice Blanchot in the Gary Hill installation BEACON (Two Versions of the Imaginary) (1990).[1] Upon entering this installation, I was immediately struck by a voice-over that discussed fascination and the image in a manner that mingled poetic obscurity with philosophical lucidity. Interested in this voice, which seemed to approach theory in an utterly creative yet enigmatic manner, I consulted the catalogue accompanying the exhibit for a listing of credits. Here I discovered that the voice-over recited from a section of Blanchot's The Gaze of Orpheus. Soon thereafter, I found a chapter entitled "Orpheus's Gaze" in The Space of Literature. This looked like the place to begin my reading.

Later, during my first semester of graduate work, I began, while comparing and contrasting the Wordsworthian and Blanchotian notions of solitude, to sense the centrality of Blanchot's work to the topology of post-modern French theory. It soon became evident that his oeuvre presents the reader with a compendium that, while it operates within a French and Continental tradition, thoroughly updates and revises that tradition. Moreover, I sensed that although it seeks to interrupt all tradition, Blanchot's work grants the reader access in one fell swoop to a broad array of post-modern literary and philosophical theories and works.

As I delved deeper into Blanchot's work and the French tradition, I began to ask myself whether similarities in style exist between French Symbolism and Blanchot's writing. Eventually I came to see that, although the ambiguous and rhetorical tenor of French Symbolists like Mallarmé informs to a certain extent the spirit of some of Blanchot's work, particularly The Space of Literature, one finds in Blanchot's fiction, especially in Thomas the Obscure, an austerity or restraint that avoids the Byzantine polish and rhetorical flourish particular to Mallarmé.[2] Additionally, Blanchot's use of paradox further differentiates his work from French Symbolism, for rather than employing it solely as a stylistic and hyperbolic trope, he uses paradox as a vehicle for argumentation. In other word, Blanchot uses paradox in a precise manner, in a manner that, although it invests his work with pockets of ambiguity, delineates a certain (albeit loose) framework of meaning.

Although I focused during the inchoate stages of my speculative investigation primarily upon The Space of Literature, Blanchot's chef-d'oeuvre many would say, as my studies progressed, I increasingly devoted my attention to Thomas the Obscure. Gradually, after spending time with some of Blanchot's other works, I came to view Thomas the Obscure as crucial to any endeavor aimed at reaching an understanding of Blanchot's thought. In fact, I would contend that with this work, Blanchot laid out what was to become the foundation of his intellectual itinerary. For with this work, Blanchot initiated his forays into the nature of fascination, the Orphic gaze, the impossibility of death, the gift of the stoic death and the essential solitude of the night, all of which figure prominently in The Space of Literature. Moreover, Blanchot began by means of this novel to enunciate his concern for Heraclitean paradox, the limit-experience, the eternal return and the tragic man, all of which later resurfaced in The Infinite Conversation.

Reflecting the development of my interests, the body of this thesis performs a close reading of Thomas the Obscure. However, because two editions of this novel exist, I should specify which version I chose to treat. Although originally printed in 1941, Thomas the Obscure, after undergoing a significant revision (one that trimmed it to a third of its original length), was republished in 1950.[3] Because the original 1941 version remains virtually impossible to locate in French (never mind in English), I treat Robert Lamberton's translation of the 'new version' from 1950.

Before entering the body of the thesis, I should make an effort to outline briefly the focus of its sections. The initial section of this work, entitled "Thomas and the Abyss," is circumfluent like Thomas the Obscure itself; its first subsection corresponds to the first chapter of the novel, while its second subsection addresses the novel's final chapter (XII). It might be noted in passing that stylistically, this final chapter of the novel takes on an apocalyptic tone that distinguishing it from the rest of the novel. Next, the section entitled "Tragic Man" addresses in light of Hamlet and Mallarmé's Igitur the lengthy chapter XI of Thomas the Obscure. In particular, this section addresses Thomas's vacillation between life and death. However, it is not limited to this subject, for it also compares Thomas's notion of ideal death, which he assimilated from the gift of Anne's death, with the philosophical death enacted by the eponymous protagonist of Igitur. The subsequent section of this thesis, "The Orphic Experience," attempts to interpret the text as a palimpsest of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with attention paid especially toward Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure. This section of the thesis also approaches the text as a series of limit-experiences. I approach the novel in such a manner because it seems that, lacking a traditional plot, it is Thomas's recurrent limit-experiences that unify and hold together what would otherwise appear to be merely a set of random occurrences. Lastly, the appendix "Apparitions in the Night" meditates upon the Blanchotian night of essential solitude and fascination. This section specifically explores the limit-experience Thomas undergoes during the essential night of solitude. It also discusses the shadowy images that, like the absent presence of the corpse, subject Thomas to the hypnotic sway of fascination.

Rather than approach its subject matter in an exclusive manner, this thesis, by looking for places that evoke issues central to The Space of Literature and other appertaining texts, seeks to enact an inclusive read of Thomas the Obscure. Thus, I read Thomas the Obscure in light of other works by Blanchot, such as Death Sentence and The Infinite Conversation. Additionally, the close read makes use of texts such as Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés, Pascal Pensées, Sartre's Nausea, Camus's The Stranger, Poe's "A Descent into the Maelström" and Gary Hill's video "Incident of Catastrophe."

In place of thetically proving a central postulate, this work presents one possible interpretation of Blanchot's novel. This interpretation largely gravitates toward and revolves around Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death, which serves as the work's center. However, this center, because my close follows the novel from page to page, is more or less dispersed.

Although tragedy plays a central role, this work of poetics, instead of being Aristotelian, attempts, in partial accord with the critical approach of Geoffrey Hartman, to "sing along" with Thomas the Obscure (Gras 281). Of course, one could also posit that this work harks back to the medieval tradition of the gloss. Be that as it may, the aim of this work, in short, has been philology: it is an attempt to outline a possible way to read and understand Thomas the Obscure.

In order to regard Thomas the Obscure (1941, revised 1950) as an example of Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death, it is first probably necessary to legitimate approaching Blanchot's novel in such a manner. I posit this because several critics have cautioned against interpreting Blanchot's fiction. For example, in reference to another novel by Blanchot, Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man), Hans-Jost Frey flatly states, "The text is not interpretable" (263). Likewise, Gerald Bruns writes that after delivering a paper on Blanchot, Herman Rapaport warned him "against trying to extract theories, concepts, or positions of any sort from Blanchot's writings" (xxiv). One must also point out that some critics fault Sartre for interpreting Blanchot's novel Aminadab as an allegory. Although we commonly view Sartre's Nausea and Camus's The Stranger as novels that put flesh on a skeletal set of philosophical ideas, considering the above cautionary notes from Frey and Rapaport, perhaps Thomas the Obscure should be approached differently?

Rather than view Blanchot's fiction as impenetrable and beyond all interpretation, though, I would argue that it is possible, even fruitful and necessary, to approach Thomas the Obscure as a philosophical novel, as a work to be interpreted. Despite the mystique that hangs heavily around Blanchot's novels, a mystique that his theories had no small part in forming, I would contend that the act of reading these novels asks one at a fundamental level to make sense of them, to interpret them.

Blanchot has written that literary and theoretical works need to elude the tradition's tendency to define and categorize works. Many critics have taken this critique by Blanchot of codification and categorization to mean that his writing defies interpretation. However, I would posit that Blanchot wanted his works to be read and interpreted, but of course not reduced to a stable web of meaning. Which brings us to the next question: is it possible to read and interpret Thomas the Obscure without reducing the text to a stable set of meaning? I believe the reader has several options. Because Blanchot's text invites and entertains a multitude of interpretive angles, one could highlight those passages in the text that remain ambiguous and even sketch a number of the interpretative choices. Alternatively, one could hinge every statement on tentative verbs like 'seems' and 'appears.' One could also attempt, after making it clear at the onset that his or her read should not be regarded as definitive, a relatively straightforward interpretation of the text. I have opted for the latter of these options.

Of course, the ambiguous and experimental nature of Thomas the Obscure, its double meaning and circular form, make it difficult to bestow even a provisional meaning upon the text. But let us recall that we often approach the fiction of Sartre and Camus in light of the respective theoretical work each has done. If one uses Blanchot's theoretical work in a similar manner, that is, as an interpretative key, it becomes significantly easier to approach Thomas the Obscure. Out of the many works Blanchot put out during the early years of his literary career, The Space of Literature (1955) and "Literature and the Right to Death" (1948) particularly pertain to our read, for both of these works address the impossibility of death. For that reason, I have used these two works as interpretive keys. Of course, this is not to say that one can suddenly remove the veil that enshrouds Blanchot's text with the help of these two works, for the ambiguities contained within The Space of Literature and "Literature and the Right to Death" make such an approach problematic. Nevertheless, these texts do shed some light on the obscurity that cloaks Blanchot's novel.


[1] This work was exhibited spring of 1994 at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art in Washington DC. For more elaboration on the subject of Gary Hill's BEACON... installation, see the appendix entitled "Apparitions in the Night."

[2] Despite the fact that he later authored the garrulous Infinite Conversation, perhaps it is not altogether inaccurate to compare the austere impersonality of Blanchot's early literary style with the cinematic technique of the French auteur Robert Bresson. I say this because, in their work, what expresses itself often seems composed of the stuff that somehow permeated and escaped the gauzy membrane of silence. Indeed, both exhibit a remarkably degree of economy in style; their work is pared down to its essential elements. In Bresson, this means that he avoided establishing shots and conventional transitions. One likewise finds a disjointed narrative at play in Thomas the Obscure, for the novel abruptly shifts between different points of view. For example, it is very difficult to identify the speaker in the beginning of chapter V, who may or may not be a personified cat. One might want to consider the possibility that, if any true similarity exists between Blanchot and Bresson, it is due to the influence of Pascal. As it is known, Pascal was a convert to Jansenism, which was an ascetic and unorthodox sect of Catholicism that exaggerated Augustine's concept of grace. Before becoming a filmmaker, Bresson studied Jansenism, a fact which perhaps explains why several of his films, such as The Diary of a Country Priest and The Trial of Joan of Arc, treat religious themes. Although Blanchot operates (like Nietzsche) largely in a classical rather than Christian cosmology, one occasionally suspects that his concept of inspiration, despite its Surrealist tenor, possesses below its surface some resemblance to the Jansenist concept of grace, for the Jansenists approached grace as something akin to divine compulsion. In other words, one does not walk away from The Space of Literature with the sense that free will or the mere technique of automatic writing can access the incessant murmur of inspiration. Rather inspiration appears as light at the end of an endless tunnel, always in the distance and to come.

[3] For a brief account of the difference between the 1941 and 1950 editions of Thomas the Obscure, see Leon S. Roudiez, French Fiction Revisited (Elmwood, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1991), 53-56. In this gloss, Roudiez points out that Blanchot cut the novel by two-thirds, from more than 100,000 words to less than 30,000. According to Roudiez, this massive revision significantly diminished the role of setting and plot, reducing both to indistinct generalities that operate largely on a symbolic level. Roudiez also makes reference to the paring down of style that took place during the revision, which supposedly eliminated some of the more "precious" or beaux-arts elements of the original text.

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