The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot

Proem: Blanchot

Who is Blanchot?

We know little about Blanchot's life.[1] According to Blanchot, though, it is ideal for the reader to know very little about the author of the text he approaches. He believes that when not much is known about the author, the reader is left with no other recourse but to approach the work as an entity unto itself. In other words, when the writer keeps the specifics of his or her biography private, he or she frees the reader from burdensome concerns with authorial intent and biography, which often prevent one from truly focusing on the work at hand. Blanchot also believes that the work approaches greatness only when it is able to stand alone, independent of the biographical facts of its creator. Considering this theoretical stance, should we not see our lack of biographical information about Blanchot as ideal?

In support of his belief that, by maintaining a low biographical profile, the author makes it easier for the work to stand alone and justify its own existence, Blanchot cites Homer and Shakespeare as examples. He intimates that our ignorance of the lives of these two writers helped prompt successive generations to identify with their work. Blanchot states, "When we know nothing at all about the circumstance that contributed to its production, about the history of its [the work's] creation--when we do not even know the name of the person who made it possible--it is then that the work comes closest to itself" (SL 221).

In light of his beliefs on the subject, one assumes that, by shrouding his personal life in mystery, Blanchot sought to hinder his reader from speculating about psychological or sociological intentions hidden within his work. However, one should not regard his biographical discretion as an attempt aimed at concealment for its own sake, but rather identify it as Blanchot's method for bringing into play the creative puissance of the work. In other words, Blanchot, by leaving the reader with no other choice but to focus exclusively on his work, irrespective of his role as its creator, seeks to make the reader regard his work as authorless and anonymous. Blanchot seeks in this manner to persuade the reader that his work sprung into being partially by its own accord, or, alternatively, that it always existed. For ultimately, Blanchot wants his work to become in the eyes of the reader a 'thing' in its own right: he wants an internal, organic integrity independent of his existence to justify its reality.

Despite the fact that Blanchot has authored over the span of his career some thirty works of fiction, literary criticism and philosophy, few of these works seem autobiographical in nature.[2] This appears to be in keeping with Blanchot's belief about the role of the author. As if speaking to this tendency in his work, Blanchot quotes in one of his essays Homer, who said, "To speak about everything, to say everything, is the act of the silent man" (WF 61). Although Blanchot is not referring explicitly to his own position here, one can of course extract threads of thought from each subject he treats. One may therefore argue that this quote from Homer sheds light upon the reasoning behind Blanchot's penchant for authorial silence. Indeed, in his writing, it is silence or mutism that grants the work a voice or existence of its own. Of course, this is not to say that artistic aloofness or exclusivity motives Blanchot's biographical silence, for Blanchot would certainty revile such misanthropy. Rather, Blanchot's silence is informed by his respect (a respect he shares with certain monastic orders) for both the limitations of language and the expressive nature of silence.

Considering the fact that Blanchot would prefer his work to be regarded in a vacuum separated from the life he led (and still leads as a nonagenarian), one must wonder why one who wishes to remain faithful to Blanchot's thought would begin their discussion with the question, 'Who is Blanchot?' Should I not pass over a discussion of Blanchot's life and proceed directly toward his work? Perhaps I should but I have not. Although this thesis, in the main, deals with Thomas the Obscure and aspects of Blanchot's oeuvre pertinent to this novel, I believe it remiss not to briefly gloss some of the debate currently attracted by his name. Although the purist would probably want to avoid this debate, I believe that, because Blanchot remains relatively unknown beyond certain literary and academic circles, a brief introductory preface is warranted.

True, it would be easy to stop here with the simple admonition that, beyond the date of his birth (September 22, 1907) and his devotion to literature and silence, we known little about Blanchot. I would not be alone in such an approach, for Blanchot and his publishers apparently agreed to restrict the biographical information in his folio editions to such mere allusions, which function not unlike a verbum sap. All too often, though, the romanticism of such an approach leads one into the misperception that Blanchot lacks a past. Moreover, because this approach draws from the archetypal image of the hermetic writer cooped up in his cork-lined garret, it leads one into the assumption that Blanchot lacked associates during his life. However, rather than contribute toward these myths and further the mystification of his life, I have chosen like many other recent critics to look (albeit briefly) at what we actual know about Blanchot's life.

Yet when one studies Blanchot's important work of literary theory, The Space of Literature, and notes the stress he places upon the solitude of the writer, it is no wonder that, although Blanchot maintained several life-long friendships, he should remind us of the solitary writer. Whether it is that solitude the writer must enter or the solitary nature of the text itself, it is certainly true that singularity marks much of Blanchot's literary space. Legend has it that he stayed in his room much of the time. For example, although Edmond Jabès and he both lived in Paris and maintained a correspondence, they supposedly never met. Neither did he attend (it is repudiated) the party held to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. If one considers these rumors alongside the fact that authorial selflessness blanches his writing, that he attempted to minimize and efface the presence of his ego in his work, one seems inclined to characterize both Blanchot's life and work as somewhat ascetic and hermitic. Insofar as it contains the French word for 'white' or 'blank,' even Blanchot's name speaks of self-effacement.

Although such an appraisal does possesses some merit, after noting the Nietzschean strain that courses throughout his work, one tends to remove Blanchot from the solitary desert of the anchorite to place him in a somewhat more modern and contemporary contextual setting. Quite interestingly, his name also embodies this tendency. When one pronounces it, a sound that corresponds to the French word 'chaud' phonetically follows the 'blanc' syllable. Because 'chaud' means 'heat' or 'warmth,' one can therefore arrive at any number of paradoxical epithets that evoke the fiery intensity of his quest for blankness. (The "cold fire" of Anne's eyes in Thomas the Obscure comes to mind.) True, Blanchot's writing does not exhibit as virulent a Nietzschean strain as Bataille's work. Likewise, one must acknowledge that Blanchot did leave the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris in 1947 for the provincial seclusion of the village Eze in the south of France, where he spent the next decade of his life. Nevertheless, his important and lifelong friendships with Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille make it tenuous at best to consider Blanchot a true recluse. Additionally, because the negative theology of the hidden God informs much of his work, it is difficult to consider his asceticism as religious in a strictly canonical sense. In the end, despite the baggage that accompanies adjectives used to characterize his approach to life and text, Blanchot should be considered, like Pascal, first and foremost a writer, not an eremitic or ascetic saint.

As alluded to earlier, one assumes that Blanchot, by reducing the appearance of his ego in his work, attempted to prevent the reader from placing a biographical spin upon his work. With this authorial selflessness in mind, one might associate his work with that of Mallarmé and Kafka. Certainly one should consider Mallarmé's Igitur and Un Coup de dés, which both display a heightened awareness of death, as important influences upon Blanchot's novels. One must likewise regard works by Kafka that deal with the impossibility of reaching the end (e.g. The Castle) as predecessors of Blanchot's fiction. Yet, because Blanchot wrote theoretical essays, his oeuvre broaches on more genres than the work of the aforementioned writers, who of course remain largely of the literary persuasion. One wants to point out that Blanchot, more often than not, wore the hat of the critic or essayist. Indeed, when he takes the intersection of literature and philosophy as his focus, Blanchot places himself in a continental tradition that includes Montaigne (the father of the modern essay), Schlegal, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Walter Benjamin.[3]

After studying his work, one discovers that when Blanchot donned the hat of the literary critic, he often covered the same ground his fiction explores. Such is the case with Thomas the Obscure and his theoretical work The Space of Literature (the two works at the center of this thesis), for I would argue that both take the impossibility of death as their primary subject. Due to this confluence, I would like to suggest that it is possible, even fruitful and wise, to approach Thomas the Obscure as a philosophical novel. In fact, taking The Space of Literature as a key, it soon becomes apparent that Thomas the Obscure manifests in fiction Blanchot's theory about the impossibility of death. Granted, the ambiguities contained within The Space of Literature make this mode of interpretation difficult and treacherous. Nevertheless, if one compares it to Thomas the Obscure, the literary theory developed in The Space of Literature expresses its ambiguities with a certain degree of clarity. That being said, I would emphasize that, considering the confluence of the two works around the subject of death, one is almost asked to approach Thomas the Obscure from a theoretical standpoint. And when one does so, it becomes possible to argue that Thomas the Obscure borders upon the realm of eschatology, for this branch of theology likewise claims death as the focus of its study.

However, given his aforementioned literary and philosophical influences, it is predictable that Blanchot's eschatology would avoid putting forth a science of 'last things' (which is what the word 'eschatology' signifies etymologically). Rather, as in epic poetry, the eschatological concerns present in Thomas the Obscure tend toward the cosmological. Running along the same lines, The Space of Literature approaches its terms in a poetic rather than scientific manner. For instead of codifying its terms, this work exploits the associative resonance of its terms to the point of exhaustion. This theoretical work also employs a dense and abstract style noted for its circuity, repetition and ambiguity. In other words, neither of these works present the linear, logical arguments and coherent definitions that works of science and theology traditionally require; for that matter neither do they achieve in terms of form the closure signified by the word 'Book.' Rather, as this thesis attempts to elucidate, both of these works depict or discuss just how impossible it is to reach closure or the end. In this manner, Blanchot essential flouts the aims of a traditional eschatology, which would typically address our relationship with death. And by focusing on the eschatological or last things in such a manner, in a manner that presents death as unreachable and thus impossible, Blanchot illustrates what I would like to term a 'negative eschatology.'

By maintaining distance from the world, Blanchot has attempted to enter the often perilous night or 'space' of literature. As Ann Smock points out in her introduction to The Space of Literature, in this context the word 'space' points toward that space literature puts between itself and the world (11). It might be helpful for one to think here of the contemporary vernacular phrase: 'I need my space.'

Although Blanchot's title might call to mind Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, Blanchot's space shares more similarities with the autotelic or art for art's sake tradition than with the psychology of architecture. While it is true that Blanchot's literary space remains, in unison with the autotelic tradition, largely apolitical, it is, however, far from being a playground for the 'decadent' exercise of the imagination. In fact, quite different from the mindless and unchallenging activity of the world or day, his space (which he calls 'the night') threatens all those who enter its murkiness with insomnia, even madness. Therefore, although he values the power of purely fictional work to the highest degree, Blanchot, because he regards the space of literature as perilous, cannot be considered a true adherent to the art for art's sake tradition.

Like the Surrealist painter René Magritte, who, after his brief association with André Breton and the Parisian Surrealists, returned to the anonymity of Belgium, Blanchot appears to have avoided party and fame on purpose. This approach provides one with an important contrast to writers who seemed to court during their careers publicity and notoriety, such as Breton or Jean-Paul Sartre. Running along these same lines, Blanchot, largely in keeping with the adversarial stance his work manifests toward the cult of the author, has attempted to prevent his life from becoming a fetish.[4] Through his reserve and withdrawal, he has sought to oppose the traditional notion that, regarding the meaning of the work, the author occupies a privileged position of authority. This perhaps explains why there are so few public photographs of Blanchot.[5] However, despite Blanchot's attempts to keep his personal life private, many people cannot help but speculate about the character of his life. Perhaps the mystery and obscurity that cloaks his past attracts these spectators, for this biographical void ostensibly offers one the rare opportunity of ascribing onto a subject what one wants to see. In the end, whatever the cause of his reticence may be, it is an oddity that, in an age where notoriety usually requires publicity campaigns, Blanchot has gained such renown. As Denis Hollier puts it, "The biographical void that Blanchot has been able to maintain around himself makes him one of the rare literary figures of this century to have acquired a truly legendary stature" (100-1).

Despite his attempts to limit interest in his autobiography, Blanchot's name has nonetheless become embroiled over the last two decades in controversy. This debate mainly concerns the ethical characteristics of his pre-World War II political writing. Some critics find these writings tinged with anti-Semitism and charged with fascist overtones. In opposition to these claims, other critics maintain that Blanchot's political articles from the Thirties express a form of revolutionary nationalism devoid of overt anti-Semitism. However, it seems safe to assert that Blanchot would oppose all this biographical conjecture. In fact, he has been reluctant to address the controversy directly. One might be inclined to offer the constraints of ailment and old age as an explanation for his reluctance. Others may not be so generous and place his silence under suspicion. Whatever the actual cause of his silence in these matters may be, I suspect that Blanchot chooses to speak rarely in his own defense simply because he fails to see how this sort of conversation contributes toward that quest for knowledge he values, in the mode of Valéry, over all else.

Irrespective of Blanchot's theoretical aversion for biography, though, I believe (as stated earlier) that I should attempt to summarize some of the recent discourse about his role in intellectual history. Therefore, the following subsection, which is entitled "Politics and the Other," briefly gleans the aforementioned debate over Blanchot's pre-World War II political writing. After sketching some of that debate, I then turn in the subsection entitled "Work and Friendship" to glance at his literary friendships with the French writers Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille. Compared with the other sections, these two subsections are particularly concerned with penetrating and exploding the myth that, after the start of the war, Blanchot became an apolitical hermit. My introduction then shifts its focus to look in the subsection "The Question of Literature and Engagement" at the intellectual conflict during the Forties between Sartre and Blanchot. Next, in "Influence and Translation," I trace some of the effects Blanchot has had upon the topology of post-modern thought, with particular attention paid toward the development of his audience in America. Then, before launching into the body of the thesis, the subsection entitled "The Poetics Thesis" seeks to explain the structure and style of that body. This subsection begins with cursory remarks on how I first became interested in Blanchot. Finally, with a sort of exordial commencement, the proem concludes by offering in "An Obscure Novel" a brief preliminary overview ("An Obscure Novel") of Thomas the Obscure.

On the whole, this preface, in attempting to present in a clear and concise manner some of the notions that appear in the body of the thesis, hopes to provide a brief contextual note that will make the rest of the work more understandable. Largely because the body of the thesis contains dense and often difficult writing, I believe these explanatory notes to be necessary. Although the summary as a style presents both the reader and writer with many pitfalls and inadequacies, for the sake of clarity (a clarity that is difficult but necessary when approaching Blanchot critically), the tenor of the following introductory remarks nonetheless tend toward such a form.



[1] Although Christoph Bident recently published a biography that adds to our information about Blanchot's life, much of Blanchot's life remains hidden. See Christoph Bident, Partenaire Invisible (Paris: Editions Champ Vallon), 1998.

[2] One notable exception would be Blanchot's recent work, The Instant of My Death. This work deals with a man who, after being sentenced to die before a Nazi firing squad for resistance activity, suddenly receives a reprieve and release. Although written in the third person, it is purported that Blanchot experienced a nearly identical series of (non-)events. Some now speculate in an etiologic manner that trauma from this near-death experience caused his obsession with death, or more specifically, with the impossibility of death. However, in the end, we do not know for certain whether this narrative describes events that happened to Blanchot. See Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death/ Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford UP), 1999.

[3] Like Montaigne's essays, one does not find the technical jargon of the academy in Blanchot's work. (For the Montaigne essay that arguably shares the most resonance with Blanchot, see "That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die.") Rather, much of Blanchot's theoretical work, although it reflects broad learning, puts forth its notions and ideas in an accessible manner. This is probably due to the fact that, like an Eighteenth Century French philosophe, Blanchot wrote mainly for journals. With this in mind, some critics have characterized his style as 'journalistic.' Although I would tend, given its pejorative sense, to avoid this adjective, it is true that the prose style of The Work of Fire, The Infinite Conversation and Friendship remains for the most part limpid and accessible. Yet, when one considers The Work of Fire with more probity, it becomes apparent that its last essay, "Literature and the Right to Death," makes use of a dense and abstract style that one cannot easily regard as 'accessible.' The Space of Literature likewise employs a relatively recondite style. One is therefore inclined to admit that it is difficult to classify Blanchot's writing style. In fact, one cannot help but reach such a conclusion upon noting that, although he wrote in prose, some critics refer to him as a poet. (It is interesting to observe that some critics regard the author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in a similar vein.) Of course, there is a good amount of validity in the claim, for Blanchot more often than not uses his terms in a poetic manner. For example, the phrase 'the space of literature' can refer to both the tradition of literature and to the solitary night of the work's generation. But if one is to lend credence to what Mallarmé had to say about poetry, namely that it is not made with ideas but with words, it becomes somewhat difficult to view Blanchot's writing exclusively as poetry.

[4] Considering his stance against the cult of the author, Blanchot would no doubt identify with the following sentiments offered by one of James Joyce's characters: "when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived?...We have King Lear: and it is immortal." See Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1961), 189.

[5] I have reproduced on the title page of the World Wide Web version of this thesis one of the few known images of Blanchot. See title page. Because Blanchot appears in this image near a car, it might remind one of an unauthorized photograph of the reclusive American writer J. D. Salinger. The photograph supposedly captured Blanchot in 1985 as he walked through the parking lot of a supermarket near his apartment outside Paris. As one might expect, it was taken and published without his consent. Hence, my apologies to Maurice Blanchot.

Forward to Proem: Politics and the Other


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