The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot

The Tragic Man

I. Absent Presence

After Anne dies, her mother and the other mourners, detecting in his sorrow disturbing presentiments of the final tragedy he contemplates, leave Thomas alone with the dead body of his double, who lies amort. Once he is alone, Thomas, simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the absent presence he encounters in Anne's vacated form, haunted by the monumental gravity of the corpse in repose, begins what is to become an extended elegy. This elegiac soliloquy is essentially a profound meditation on the nature of the remains.

Thomas begins his soliloquy by pensively suspecting that Anne prepensed or "premeditated her death" (TO 89). Because Anne's composure on her deathbed suggests to him that she envisioned her death before she died, that she was fully expecting, even awaiting it, Thomas cannot help but consider the nature of her death. His suspicions eventually lead him to the conclusion that, by premeditating or thinking about her death before it transpired, Anne converted her death into a gift. It should therefore be noted that, in reference to Ann's death, Blanchot uses 'premeditation' in a manner than differs from the premeditated death of Mallarmé's Igitur. For rather have her own interests and pride in mind, Anne's premeditation represents an act of conscience and altruism, a mediation that takes the other into account.

Affected by the noble composure Anne displayed when she greeted her fated death, by the tranquil restraint she maintained even upon the brink of the unknown, Thomas remains close to Anne's body in repose. Moved by the thought of her somber mask of reserve and propriety, by her ideal death which "shows more consideration for the world than regard for the depth of the abyss," he takes her hand as if she were still alive (TO 100). Here, Thomas's admiration for Anne shares strong parallels with a passage in The Space of Literature, where Blanchot appreciates that Arria embraced death with "the indifferent sovereignty which Stoic serenity expresses" (100).

As Thomas watches over Anne's corpse, the absent or depleted presence of her corpse in repose increasingly fascinates him. Anne's corpse attracts and permits his lingering gaze, for unlike the living, who, becoming aware of someone's stare, might quickly turn the head to disrupt the reverie of the viewer, the corpse cannot deflect the gaze. Rather, the cadaver remains stationary and immobile in a manner that, like the human form represented in art, freely offers itself to the gaze. When one considers the fact that the inanimate body presents its attendant mourners with a form that once shared and participated in their life, but now rests immobile and placidly, it is no wonder that the corpse should fascinate Thomas. If one can recall the strangeness one felt upon seeing the corpse of a loved one in the funeral parlor during an open-casket viewing, one immediately knows what Thomas experiences.

Similar to the figures frozen within Keats's Grecian Urn, Anne's corpse comes to symbolize the beauty of life preserved in a state of immortal timelessness. Perhaps in a somewhat disturbing sense, insofar as the beauty of her poise resembles the marble sculpture of antiquity, her corpse becomes almost an object of contemplation. For like a statue, she presents a form that imitates life in a manner that captures and represents its essence. In other words, Anne's corpse, like classical art itself, presents an image that, rather than merely duplicating life, magnifies and distills the ideal characteristics of life's beauty. But even though Anne's corpse presents him with ideal beauty, its classical features produce in Thomas an overall impression that resists localization or reduction. Because he cannot pinpoint the source of the attraction, he must therefore continue to stare and study her corpse. With this in mind, he utters, "dying had been her ruse to deliver a body to...the immortality of nothingness" (TO 90-1).

However, despite the ideal reflection Anne's corpse presents to the world, Thomas recognizes that her corpse continues to possess features particular only to Anne. Discovering that she embodies the ideal within the particular, he notes that "she resembled only herself...entirely within herself: in death, abounding in life" (TO 89-90). In this manner, Anne's cadaver presents Thomas with what seems to be the true Anne, with a presence that remained obscured and hidden during her life. Drawn by the weight of this presence, Thomas thus begins to see in the death image a semblance that, although removed from the world of action, adheres more faithfully to the essence of that world. As a result of this doubling, Thomas finds himself placed in contact with the paradox of absent presence.

Struck by the layers of existence Anne's vacated form evokes, Thomas, similar to Aristotle, who found in the vacated corpse suggestion of the existence of the soul, begins to consider that perhaps Anne's presence has gone elsewhere, to inhabit another world. In other words, Anne's corpse suggests to Thomas the possibility of a link between this world and a realm that remains concealed. About this link, Blanchot writes in The Space of Literature that the corpse "affirms, from here, the possibility of a world behind the world, of a regression, an infinite subsistence, undetermined and indifferent, about which we only know that human reality, upon finishing, reconstitutes its presence and its proximity" (SL 257). But just as Anne's absence suggests to Thomas the existence of another world, it also confronts him with the possibility that the spirit of Anne merely vanished.

As he watches over Anne's corpse, the fact that she presents him with an image possessing the mysterious potential to both reveal and conceal, with a surface that remains as ambiguous and enigmatic as his own reflection in the mirror, increasingly entraps Thomas in the sway of fascination. Here, in the night of the night, Thomas finds all but his memory to be held in abeyance. He begins as a result to recall an episode mentioned earlier in the novel, when Anne, after experiencing an unusually extreme sense of familiarity around him, attempted, as if he were "her personal abyss," to disappear into him (TO 102). When he recalls this episode, Thomas, based on the fact that he now feels himself bound in a similar relationship with Anne's corpse, assumes that Anne must have detected in his presence an absence that sustained her reflection.

Continuing to reminiscence about the episode with Anne, Thomas, based upon his experience with the corpse, reaches the conclusion that, upon encountered the vertiginous possibility his image evoked, Anne must have experienced, as he does now when he looks at her, the distress of excess and infinitude. However, in imagining abstractly how she must have lost her look within the intimate vastness of reciprocity, Thomas only succeeds in heightening his fascination with her corpse. In other words, all his attempts to free himself from the magnetism of the corpse merely increase its charismatic sway.

As he reflects on her absence, Thomas realizes that Anne's death has left an immense void in his life. He suspects that her absence now takes from him in direct proportion to the degree he cared for her, leaving him profoundly altered. Realizing this loss, Thomas laments, "Absent from Anne, absent from my love for Anne to the extent that I loved Anne" (TO 103). In this manner, Thomas resembles the speaker in John Donne's poem, "A Nocturnal on St. Lucy's Day," who, as a result of his love's death, is recast "of absence, darkness, death: things which are not" (18). Thomas thus joins the ranks of those for whom it is "as if death had taken not their friend but their feelings, and now they were the ones, they, the living, who were changing so profoundly that it might have been called a death" (TO 94-5). Moreover, Thomas, unable to experience death, due to its impossibility, but in others, experiences Anne's death as if it were his own. However, by identifying with the dead while he still lives and breathes, Thomas in effect renounces life for an existence without existence, and perishes while remaining at the same time within his corporeal form. Thomas thereby mingles life with death. In words that reflect this plight, he states, "Under the name Thomas, in this chosen state in which I might be named and described, I had the appearance of any living person, but since I was real only under the name of death, I let the baneful spirit of the shadows show through, blood mixed with my blood, and the mirror of each of my days reflected the confused images of death and life" (TO 92-3).

Sharing degrees of correspondence with Hamlet, who, although he wished to leave the world, found himself bound to it by the duty his father's ghost placed upon him, Thomas begins to vacillate between the realms of the living and the dead. Discovering himself mysteriously 'undead' (to borrow a term from Jalal Toulfic), he becomes simultaneously alienated from and confined within his worldly form. Hence, Thomas utters, "At the highest point of contradiction, I was this illegitimate dead person" (TO 93).

Continuing to meditate upon the disappearance of the spirit that previously animated Anne, Thomas finds himself increasingly stranded somewhere between life and death. Left by his experience of the absent presence of the corpse, of a being who has gone elsewhere but left her form behind, painfully aware of a concealed and remote world, he discovers that two spheres of existence split his allegiance. This split in turn places him on intimate terms with the torn fabric of suffering.

Forward to The Tragic Man: II. Infinite Deliberations

Back to Thomas and the Abyss: II. The Abyss


Return to Title Page
Back to Contents
Return to Top