The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot


Proem: Blanchot

The Question of Literature and Engagement

In his seminal work The Flowers of Tarbes, or Terror in Literature, Jean Paulhan asked, "What is literature?" In response to this question, Blanchot published late in 1941 the essay "How is Literature Possible?" (BR 49-60).[1] With this essay, Blanchot commenced upon an investigation into the ontology of literature that reached its apex within the pages of The Space of Literature. After the Liberation, Sartre likewise began to respond to the question of literature. He did this primarily through essays he authored and published in his new journal Les Temps modernes. In 1947, Sartre collected these essays, which espouse the necessity for politically committed literature (littérature engagée), into a volume entitled, What is Literature? In this work, Sartre writes:

The function of a writer is to call a cat a cat. If words are sick, it is up to us to cure them. Instead of that, many writers live off this sickness. In many cases modern literature is a cancer of words. It is perfectly all right to write 'horse of butter' but in a sense it amounts to doing the same thing as those who speak of a fascist United States or a Stalinist national socialism. There is nothing more deplorable than the literary practice which, I believe, is called poetic prose and which consists of using words for the obscure harmonics which resound about them and which are made up of vague meanings which are in contradiction with the clear meaning (228).

In this passage, Sartre takes a phase that Bataille used in the Inner Experience to champion Surrealism, "horse of butter," as the epitome of the poetic vagueness he despises. Invoking the call for referential directness Boileau made in his first Satire, "j'appelle un chat un chat et Rolet un fripon" (I call a cat a cat and Rolet a rascal), Sartre attacks the autotelic stance that informs Bataille's phrase.[2] Sartre attacks the autotelic or art for art's sake stance because poets of this school, such as Poe, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, largely approached literature as an autonomous space, one that remains exempt from the ethical considerations of the world. It is predictable that Sartre would attack such a stance, for literature or art created for its own sake more often than not resists committing itself in an overt manner to political action and engagement. Sartre also dismisses autotelic writing because he contends that its meaning relies largely upon private association. Finding it incapable of the direct and clear communication required by political writing, he regards Surrealism as representative of the frivolous nature of poetry in general. Believing that prose alone possesses the capacity to directly use the word for political causes, Sartre states, "the poet does not utilize the word, he does not choose between [its] different sense" (WL 31).

In opposition to the Sartrean program of littérature engagée, Blanchot published in the January 1948 issue of Bataille's Critique his important essay, "La Littérature et le droit à la mort" (Literature and the Right to Death (WF 300-344)). By polarizing or dichotomizing in this longish essay the space of literature and the political action of the world, Blanchot defends poetic ambiguity against Sartre's denunciation. Speaking of the equivocal nature of the written word, he responds to Sartre: "the cat is not a cat, and anyone who claims that it is has nothing in mind but this hypocritical violence: Rolet is a rascal" (WF 311). In this manner, rather than view the double meaning that coalesces around the written word as a sickness the writer must combat, Blanchot implies that ambiguity alone allows the reader to develop a sincere dialogue with the text, via interpretation. Standing Sartre's argument on its head, he states, "deceit and mystification not only are inevitable but constitute the writer's honesty" (WF 310).

Later in this essay, by arguing that literary language is incapable of the clear delineation that (according to Sartre) political writing requires, Blanchot proceeds to counter Sartre's call for politically committed literature. To justify his argument, Blanchot borrows from the distinction Mallarmé made between crude speech and literary language. Using this distinction, Blanchot contends that only the spoken (or crude) word possesses the capacity for referential directness. Alluding to its ability to transparently invoke objects, Blanchot writes, "Everyday language calls a cat a cat, as if the living cat and its name were identical...common language is probably right, this is the price we pay for our peace" (WF 325). On the other hand, Blanchot argues that because the literary word is an abstraction used to refer to objects no longer present, it cannot express itself in a manner free of all ambiguity and dissimulation.

Like many other French intellectuals, the lectures on Hegel that Alexandre Kojève gave at the École Pratique des Hautes Études between 1933 and 1939 influenced Blanchot. Indeed, the emphasis that Kojève placed upon the negation or death that propels the second movement of the Hegelian dialectic appears to have particularly affected Blanchot's ideas about the written word. Blanchot, for example, states that the literary "word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being" (WF 322). In other words, when the literary word represents an object, it presents to the reader a disembodied abstraction that, in truth, is an impoverished version of the actual object. Speaking to this issue, Blanchot, invoking Mallarmé's claim that the written word 'flower' fails to present the actual flower, writes:

I say a flower! But in the absence where I mention it, through the oblivion to which I relegate the image it gives me, in the depths of this heavy word, itself looming up like an unknown thing, I passionately summon the darkness of this flower, I summon this perfume that passes through me though I do not breathe it, this dust that impregnates me though I do not see it, this color which is a trace and not light (WF 327). [3]

Because the literary word cannot express itself without ambiguity, Blanchot regards all attempts aimed at narrowly circumscribing its meaning as futile. Rather, he believes that désoeuvrement or 'worklessness' invariably prevents the world from fixing the signification of the literary word in a manner that would enable it to enact the commerce of the day. Nevertheless, the politics of the day, Blanchot points out, attempt to codify the literary work by "the power to end--to limit, separate, and thus to grasp" (SL 241). When this happens, though, when the world uses the work of literary art as a model for its laws, Blanchot maintains that it only succeeds in establishing an enfeebled version of the realm described in the work. To avert such an outcome, Blanchot argues that the literary work should keep its distance from the world. He proposes that it should remain "an object of contemplation, not of use, which, moreover, will be sufficient to itself, will rest in itself, refer to nothing else, and be its own end (in the two senses of this term)" (SL 212).

In further opposition to the Sartrean program and its claim that autotelic literature is ineffectual, Blanchot contends in his essay that the literary "writer's activity must be recognized as the highest form of work" (WF 313). Fiction that presents pure possibility or "the world turned upside down," he argues, is more apt than littérature engagée to transform the world (SL 216).[4] Yet, in the end, rather than attempt, like Sartre, to circumscribe the question with definitive imperatives, Blanchot, because he believes that the double meaning of the literary word ultimately prevents one from reaching any definite solutions, leaves the question of literature open. This tentative conclusion is later reinforced in The Space of Literature when Blanchot states, "A sound response puts down roots in the question...It can close in around the question, but it does so in order to preserve the question by keeping it open" (SL 211). Thus, we can say that, in contrast to Sartre, Blanchot wants the question of literature to remain unresolved. He wants answers addressing the subject of literature to remain infinitely in the future, incessantly to come.


[1] For a discussion of the early exchange between Paulhan and Blanchot, see Michael Syrontinski, "How is Literature Possible?", A New History of French Literature, ed. Denis Hollier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989), 954. An extended version of this essay appears in The Place of Maurice Blanchot, YFS 93, ed. Thomas Pepper (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998), 81-98. It is interesting to note in passing that Blanchot's question "How is literature possible?" resembles to a certain degree the question Kant posed within the tradition of metaphysics when he asked whether it is possible to have metaphysical knowledge. Like Kant, who used this question to launch his investigation into the possibility for pure reason or metaphysics, Blanchot poses his question so that he might place under suspicion and throw into doubt the tradition that precedes him.

 [2] When Sartre invoked Nicolas Boileau, the Seventeenth century French poet and critic, in promotion of referential directness and clarity, he fell victim to the limited view of Boileau in circulation during the middle of the Twentieth century. This view reduced Boileau's name to the level of a symbol or synonym for standard and clear versification or writing. As Julian White points out, "Boileau became a symbol of correctness, reason, regularity" (197). However, this view ignores the fact that Boileau introduced into the field of aesthetics the concepts of the sublime and je ne sais quoi. Both of these concepts subsequently proved central to the aesthetics of the Romantics, who in many ways should be considered ancestors of the Surrealists. White writes that many critics in the mid-Twentieth century, "ignored Boileau's insistence on inspiration, the natural, the simple, and his ideas on the sublime and je ne sais quoi" (195). We can be sure that Sartre fell into such a category when we read his condemnation of the je ne sais quoi or ineffable: "We would have to be quite vain to believe that we are concealing ineffable beauties which the word is unworthy of expressing. And then, I distrust the incommunicable; it is the source of all violence" (WL 228-9). Incidentally, it should be noted that, according to translator Lydia Davis, Rolet "was a notorious figure of [Boileau's] time" (WF 311).

 [3] In his work "Crisis in Poetry," Mallarmé famously wrote: "I say a flower! and outside the oblivion to which my voice relegates any shape, insofar as it is something other than the calyx, there arises musically, as the very idea and delicate, the one absent from every bouquet" (SP 76).

 [4] As an example of fiction that succeeds in suggesting pure possibility, Blanchot offers the work of Marquis de Sade. In fact, because Sade wrote fiction during a time of upheaval (the French Revolution), when fiction, according to Blanchot, stands the best chance of becoming one with reality, Blanchot deems Sade the writer par excellence. Admittedly, it is curious to find Blanchot speaking so highly of Sade. His opinion of Sade seems to contradict his belief that it is incumbent upon the writer to engage in the politics of the day during momentous times of upheaval. Perhaps it is due to the vogue Sade enjoyed among the Surrealists during the Forties. In any event, one should point out that by bestowing a laurel upon Sade, Blanchot in effect exposes his conception of solitude to a host of negative associations. I say this because, as it is known, Sade wrote most of his sexually charged fiction from the solitude of the Tower. With this in mind, critic Simon Critchley writes: "Literature here becomes...solitary masturbation that negates reality and posits a fantasized reality in its place" (51-2). To be fair though, The Space of Literature contains little reference to Sade. Rather, it places writers like Kafka and Mallarmé in the literary pantheon. This suggests that Blanchot locates at the heart of the writer's solitude not solipsistic narcissism or misanthropy, but renunciation and the effacement of the self.

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