The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Proem: Blanchot

Politics and the Other

Because his political writing during the 1930's appeared in nationalist reviews that sometimes carried articles containing overt anti-Semitic remarks, critic Jeffrey Mehlman began in the late 1970's to explore the possibility that, before the war, Blanchot was anti-Semitic. Mehlman, in agreement with critic Zeev Sternhell, has also identified Blanchot's political writing for these journals (namely as Le Rempart, Combat, and L'Insurgé) as fascist.[1] In one of the most recent updates of the debate, Mehlman explains:

In 1977, I discovered that the writer about whom I had written, and whose pronounced philo-Semitism I had been particularly sensitive to, had had a career before World War II as a political journalist writing for extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic journals. This was so much the case that Zeev Sternhell, a historian of fascism with little interest in Blanchot's post-war literary career, was able to quote texts of Blanchot from the 1930s as crystallizing fascism in its pure state (9).

However, critics Michael Holland and Leslie Hill have recently argued cases that attempt to exonerate Blanchot from all charges of fascism and understand his relationship with journals marred by anti-Semitism.[2] Leslie Hill in particular argues forcefully against interpreting Blanchot's political writing as fascist. After reprinting a section from Blanchot's farewell article to Combat ("On demand des dissidents"), he writes:

Sternhell significantly misconstrues Blanchot's portraying it as proposing a political synthesis between left and right, an interpretation he glosses by adducing a quotation from Drieu La Rochelle's Socialisme fasciste of 1934 to the effect that fascism is not a politics of equilibrium or oscillation between left and right, but of fusion. This notion of fusion is supplied here, however, entirely by Sternhell, and is not to be found at all in Blanchot's actual text. Indeed, the very point of Blanchot's article lies in its rejection of all political parties--of whatever political coloration--as vehicles for radical political change (EC 40-41).

Although a dimension of Blanchot's nationalism sought to rouse France to the defense, Hill contends that his pre-war political program was a form of revolutionary nationalism calling for the dissolution of all forms of political faction. In reference to the opinions Blanchot expressed in the 1933 article "La Revolution nécessaire," Hill writes, "In these circumstances, he argued, France had only one chance of salvation; no hope could be placed in a corrupt parliamentary democracy, nor in materialistic capitalism, nor in dictatorial socialism, nor in communism, but only in spiritual revolution, or national revolution" (EC 32).

Likewise, critic Gerald Bruns regards Blanchot's politics during the Thirties as an almost mystical or anarchical urge to transcend all political hierarchy and rational duality (xx-xxi). Indeed, throughout his career, Blanchot wrote at least theoretically about revolution in such a manner. Blanchot seems to have regarded revolution as a means to overcome the oppressive shackles of party and affiliation, as a means whereby society could wipe the slate clean and deliver itself unto a state of boundless freedom. For example, he writes in "Disorderly Words" (1968) that when the possibility for revolution becomes actual, "[a]t that moment, there is a stop, a suspension. In this stop, society falls apart completely. The law collapses: for an instant there is innocence; history is interrupted" (BR 205). In other words, Blanchot contends that, rather than merely reversing existing power structures, true revolution invites universal liberation from the confines of history and tainted political hierarchies.

Even though he had abandoned the rhetoric of nationalist revolution by 1938, Blanchot continued in his writing to invoke revolutionary terror in a metaphorical manner. He continued to regard revolution as an event of pure potentiality and fiery negation that grants society a glimpse at utopic freedom. This approach to revolution might remind one of the mystical or apocalyptic vision that William Blake, as he witnessed at a distance the upheavals in Paris, infused into works of his like "The French Revolution." Perhaps alluding to Blake and his apocalyptic interpretation of the French Revolution, Blanchot writes:

Everytime that a true revolution is carried out, a void is produced in which there shines for an instant, with the brilliance of the absolute that belongs to it and the terror that is in this brilliance, something like the pure presence of philosophy in person...The French Revolution is this appearance itself, even the most distant witness of which are subject to an attraction so strong it becomes vertiginous, a revulsion that becomes horror. This is because one cannot look the philosophical sun in the face. At this moment, each person is a philosopher (Friendship 87).

Although the question of whether Blanchot was fascist seems to be more or less a matter of interpretation, the charge of anti-Semitism, and the concrete evidence that supports this charge, seems to deserve more due consideration.[3] True, it would be easy to ignore this charge by pointing out that it is a contradiction, going against the fact that Blanchot is renown as the author of The Writing of the Disaster and other works that deal with Judaism and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, some critics, in an attempt to explain away this contradiction, have read Blanchot's work on Judaism as a penitential, backward gaze. But I would like to suggest that it seems more logical to assert that Blanchot's philo-Semitic writings (which began to appear in the Sixties) reflect the close, life-long friendship he maintained with Levinas, who was Jewish. Indeed, when testifying to the importance of this friendship, Blanchot seems to have reserved only the strongest terms. In a 1988 essay entitled "Do Not Forget," he writes, "The great debt I owe to Emmanuel Levinas is, I believe, well known. He is today my oldest friend, the only one I feel entitled to address in the tu form" (BR 244). Moreover, when Blanchot states, for example, about Auschwitz: "Know what happened, do not forget, and at the same time never will you know," he outlines a stance that, in its sensitivity, could only have originated from someone in complete sympathy with the Jewish people (The Writing of the Disaster 82). Therefore, rather than interpret his meditations from the Sixties onward upon the Autrui (Other) and Judaism as an attempt to subtly rectifying some supposed guilt, I would like to suggest that Blanchot's philo-Semitic writings must be respected as genuine. For example, when he faults Heidegger, who as is known briefly collaborated with the Nazis, for never apologizing to the Jews, one should avoid reading too much into this gesture (BR 244). To approach this essay as Blanchot's attempt to subtly rectify or alleviate his own guilt seems excessively dependent upon Freudian skepticism.

Nonetheless, because a few of his articles for Combat and L'Insurgé contain certain ambiguous references to Jewish people, one cannot admit with quick certitude Blanchot's inculpability. Moreover, when one considers the fact that these instances of ambiguity appeared in journals known to occasionally carry articles with anti-Semitic content, one must at least fault Blanchot for ignoring the possibility that, in such a context, his words would be misconstrued. However, perhaps the mounting threat of the Nazis and their appeasement by the French convinced Blanchot to publish his views wherever he could. With just such a theory in mind, Holland writes, "From 1933, events both abroad and at home rapidly appeared to him [Blanchot] to be obeying a logic which posed the direct threat to the nation. In response, his articles repeatedly and relentlessly denounced that logic and deduced from it, with increasing frenzy, the necessity for violent counteraction if France was to survive" (9). Although it does not render him blameless, one might be inclined to claim that the intense political climate of the Thirties led Blanchot into a situation that, in the end, compromised his name. As Leslie Hill points out, "The possible association of his name with some form of anti-Semitic discourse have been a price that, up to a certain point, in 1936 and 1937, Blanchot the journalist was prepared to pay; and if this was the case, it is likely that it was because other political issues at the time seemed urgent enough to warrant the compromise" (EC 38). Such a compromise helps to explain how a writer who maintained close proximity to Judaism throughout his life now finds himself under suspicion for anti-Semitism.

There exist a number of facts, however, that make it difficult, despite the above mentioned instances of ambiguity, to believe that Blanchot was anti-Semitism during the Thirties. At first glance, both his working relationship with Jewish editor Paul Lévy and his close friendship with Levinas present one with concrete evidence again his guilt. Beyond this evidence, the fact that Levinas's daughter (Simone Hansel) recently confirmed that Blanchot, as rumored, assisted her family escape the threat of the Nazis likewise points toward Blanchot's inculpability. Simone Hansel wrote in Le Monde (1-2 Dec. 1996) that, when her father became a prisoner of war in Germany, Blanchot took her, her mother and her grandmother into his own flat. Blanchot then proceeded to locate a more permanent refuge, which came in the form of a convent in the Loiret. At minimum, this evidence demonstrates that what we known from the Thirties about Blanchot's behavior does not correspond to the few instances of ambiguous rhetoric that appeared next to his name. These facts also present an inconsistency that differentiates the question of his politics from those of Pound and Heidegger, for it is clearly known that Pound was anti-Semitic, just as it is clear that Heidegger collaborated briefly in the early Thirties with the Nazis. In contrast, the nature of Blanchot's pre-war politics remains an unresolved question.

As a source that sheds further light on the question of Blanchot's Semitism, Leslie Hill cites the letter Blanchot wrote on December 9, 1984 to Roger Laporte. In this letter, Blanchot seems to confess that, although he used the dubious vehicle of somewhat anti-Semitic rhetoric, he was trying to alert the Jewish emigrant community about the threat of Hitler. He writes, "to warn the Jews against themselves. This is how those texts came about which I am reproached today, and rightly so" (EC 234 or Gill 10). Through this gesture, Blanchot appears to admit some culpability in the matter. Yet, this letter later alludes that the articles responsible for arousing suspicion were subject to editorial review. This seems to open the door to the possibility that editors inserted anti-Semitic rhetoric into Blanchot's articles. When one takes into account this implication alongside the fact that, in a 1933 article for Le Rempart entitled "Des violences antisemites a l'apotheoise du travail," Blanchot wrote against "les persecutions barbares contre les juifs" (the barbarous persecution of the Jews), one might be more willing to blame the editors (EC 32). However, in the end, the contradictions and ambiguities of the Laporte letter make it difficult to extract the sort of factual evidence one needs in order to argue decisively in favor of Blanchot's inculpability.

I should also mention that some critics have attempted to put forth the notion that Blanchot, due to the inability of his political program to prevent the fall of France, renounced in the late Thirties all political writing. True, Blanchot did shift the focus of his writing around this time from political journalism to fiction and literary theory. But in tandem with his shift came the articulation that certain events require the writer to leave the apolitical space of literature and engage in the politics of the world. Perhaps in allusion to his pre-War political activity, Blanchot writes in The Space of Literature, "Sometimes, in revolution, in war, under the pressure of history's development he [the writer] risks his world, but he always does so in the name of a greater possibility, in order to reduce what exceeds his grasp, protect what he is, ensure the values to which his power is attached" (237). He later reiterated this message in the essay "Intellectuals under Scrutiny: An Outline of Thought" by stating, "There is the obligation to come to the assistance of others which...takes precedence over everything to do with one's own work" (BR 217). In the end, Blanchot's continued belief in the need for action during crucial political events makes it difficult to characterize his life as an attempt to avoid politics.

In light of the above views, one might be inclined to identify Blanchot's pre-war political journalism as an understandable, although somewhat tainted, response to the extreme political threats of the Thirties. One might go so far as to reevaluate the terminology that commonly describes this period of Blanchot's writing. Rather than seeing it as a 'career,' one might come to regard his political journalism as a duty his time placed upon him, a responsibility he sought to fulfill. If we continue to flesh out this line of reasoning, his pre-war 'career' becomes nothing more than a violent exigency that interrupted his natural propensities. Hence, one arrives at the supposition that Blanchot, in essence, was always a literary writer. On the other hand, perhaps his writing, as Bruns suggests, should be regarded as "a form of philosophical anarchism that embraces both poetry and politics" (xxi). According to this view, which, like the preceding interpretation, attempts to account for the redirection of his writing, Blanchot was always an anarchist in spirit. In other words, whether he concerned himself with politics or intellectual and literary pursuits, he always opposed the strict codification and definition of terms. For this reason, Bruns characterizes the Blanchotian project as a "refusal of philosophy" (xxi).

At minimum, though, his political writing of 1958 and 1960 discredit the claim that Blanchot, due to the failure of his pre-war political program, renounced at the onset of the war all politics and lapsed into a state of lethargy and disillusionment.[4] This writing, which opposed the seizure of power by de Gaul and the conservatives, and spoke out against the Algerian War, illustrates that Blanchot continued to have political views. His writing in support of the events of May 1968 likewise testifies to his lifelong political nature. Indeed, these aforementioned articles manifest his belief that, when confronted by extreme situations, the writer must engage in politics. It is therefore quite conceivable that, although he rarely published them, Blanchot never cease to have strong political opinions.

Finally, there has been some debate as to whether Blanchot tacitly supported the Vichy regime of Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis during the war. This question arose partially from the fact that Blanchot, during the Occupation, contributed literary articles to Le Journal des débats and the Nouvelle revue française (N.R.F.), both of which were pro-Pétain vehicles of Collaboration. At present, though, this question seems to have lost its currency, for even Mehlman dismisses the possibility. For example, speaking of the 1993 paper he presented at a Blanchot colloquium in London, Mehlman writes, "I argued, on the basis of Paulhan's correspondence, that Blanchot had been placed at the N.R.F. by Paulhan--essentially as the Resistance's ambassador to the Collaboration" (11).[5]

Admittedly, even with some of the debate now sketched, one might still wonder how to approach the question (or problem) of Blanchot's political writing. Faced with the inconclusive nature of the facts, one might feel compelled to focus their argumentation on a subject that offers more sure footing. As Bruns writes, although he does not feel inclined to join Mehlman in viewing young Blanchot as anti-Semitic, "Blanchot's recourse to anti-Semitic rhetoric in attacking Léon Blum and the Popular Front makes it hard to defend him" (xx).

In light of the contradicting opinions and lack of evidence regarding the question of Blanchot's politics, one seems led into an impasse. If it is indeed impossible to resolve, should we not simply ignore the question of his pre-war politics? In answer to this question, I believe the answer must be 'No,' especially when one considers the fact that some of Blanchot's later writings explore ethical issues relating to the community and the 'Other.' Although the case could probably be made that one does not need to be ethical to write a sound treatise on ethics, nevertheless, the question of character seems more relevant to this sort of writing than to any other genre. On the other hand, I believe it would be unfair to dismiss the importance of Blanchot's literary and theoretical work based upon ethical qualms. I believe that one must separate his life from his work; although one should consider the question of his moral or ethical character, one must also be willing to evaluate his corpus from a perspective that does not take into account this question. In other words, one should approach his work from a position that neither pardons him for any contributions he might of made toward political movements that harmed others, nor judges him outright as a guilty man.


[1] See Jeffrey Mehlman, "Blanchot at Combat: Of Literature and Terror," Modern Language Notes, French Issue, 95 (1980), 808-29. Alternatively, see "Blanchot at Combat: Of Literature and Terror," in Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983), 6-22. One should mention that a footnote of the latter work excerpts a letter Blanchot wrote to voice disagreement (albeit in his elusive manner) with the conclusions Mehlman reached in his work.

[2] See especially EC 36-44 and BR 1-15.

[3] For example, in an essay ironically entitled "Blum, notre chance du salut," Blanchot refers to Blum as representing "A backward ideology, a decrepit mentality, a foreign breed" (EC 37). Blum was Jewish. Leslie Hill, though, argues that Blanchot's use of the word "foreign" in this context refers to Blum's support of Russian communism and internationalism, and therefore should not be seen as an instance of anti-Semitism (EC 37).

[4] See the commentary of Holland in BR 107-8 and 187-191 for more discussion of Blanchot's post-war political writing.

[5] For a copy of the conference paper, see Jeffrey Mehlman, "Pour Saint-Beuve: Maurice Blanchot, 10 March 1942," Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing. ed. Carolyn Bailey Gill (London and NY: Routledge, 1996), 212-231.

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