The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot
 The Tragic Man

 III. Obscure Thomas

Rend in twain by an annihilation that can only continue to destroy, Thomas, as he endures the impossibility of death, embodies the paradoxical formulation "death exists" (TO 96). Reduced by Anne's death to a hollow form, Thomas becomes a member of the living dead, a member, to borrow a term from Jalal Toufic, of the "undead." Doomed to haunt the world of the living with his depleted and decimated form, he laments, "I am, while I am not," and, "I am not, while I am" (TO 96-97).

Similar to the scattering that Orpheus, after the fleeting and shadowy touch of spectral Eurydice left him 'undead,' suffered at the hands of the raving Maenads, the cadaverous absence leaves Thomas dispersed and torn. Thomas as a result realizes that, like Janus, he possesses two faces or natures, that he inhabits the liminal space between life and death. He discovers that, as Montaigne put it, "This very being of yours that you now enjoy is equally divided between life and death." Split between the immaterial and material worlds, Thomas comes to occupy an unhappy position not unlike the one held by Jude the Obscure, who uttered, "As Antigone said, I am neither a dweller among men nor ghosts" (Hardy 415). In other words, suspended between the corporeal and incorporeal, between earth and heaven, Thomas inhabits the vicissitudes that bound Plato's charioteer in a state of limbo. Drawn by two winged steeds in conflict, by one who soars upward while the other descends, he suffers the agony of incessant reversals. Torn by the incongruity of this position, by a fissure that leaves him in "absolute dispute," Thomas mutters, "whenever I cried out, that is where I was not...I found myself with two faces, glued one to the other. I was in constant contact with two shores" (TO 96-97).

As he becomes the "unique dead person," the one who mimics the cadaverous presence of his dead double, Thomas takes on the impersonal appearance of a mirror (TO 93). Assuming the inflated dimensions of an anonymous symbol, he becomes "someone who resembled no one, a faceless stranger, the very opposite of a being" (TO 93-94). "[H]alf-phantom half-man" and completely within himself, Thomas becomes an insular void, a "perfect nothingness" that, like classical art, dissembles through its semblance towards immortality (TO 96). Ironically, he now exhibits an absent presence whose depths, in a sense, replicate the abyss he constantly encounters in Anne's corpse.

Thomas begins to sense in his state of confusion the presence of obscure Thomas. He begins to sense within himself a hidden and invisible presence that associates more with the immaterial and ideal world than with the material and real world.[1] I say this because obscure Thomas haunts Thomas, much like Alastor plagued Shelley or Banquo's "horrible shadow" disturbed MacBeth, with concerns from another world (Mac. 3.4.106).

As Thomas becomes aware of obscure Thomas, however, he realizes that, because the presence of obscure Thomas lies submerged in the depths of the unknown, he will never truly known him. If one were to attempt to describe Thomas's relationship to obscure Thomas in psychological terms, Thomas would represent the waking self, while obscure Thomas would, in a sense, embody the unconscious. If one takes the iceberg as a conceptual model, Thomas would be the tip of the iceberg or the waking and rational self, while obscure Thomas would equate with the bulk of the iceberg, that part which lies hidden in the sea. However, perhaps obscure Thomas should be associated more with the Platonic soul than with consciousness or the psychological self. I say this because the composition of obscure Thomas seems more eternal than consciousness, which, as Alzheimer's disease proves, is temporal. Nonetheless, whether obscure Thomas resembles the subconscious or the Platonic soul, Thomas is aware that this obscure bulk exerts an immense amount of power over him. He states, "I had a part of myself submerged, and it was to this part, lost in a constant shipwreck, that I owed my direction, my face, my necessity" (TO 97).

Unable to regulate phenomenon to the definite, singular categories of the day, Thomas finds his vision marred by diplopia. Caught in the dispute that rages between the mind and body, between the spirit and flesh, he finds himself rend into discrete halves. On one hand, Thomas wants to extract himself from the material and physical reality of life to realize a spiritual state. Yet on the other hand, Thomas wants to make peace with his physical and material existence. Due to his state of inner division, Thomas in effect experiences what Hegel identified in The Phenomenology of Mind as "unhappy consciousness."

Torn between heaven and earth, surrounded by ambiguity, by presence and absence, clarity and obscurity, an ultimate passion consumes Thomas. Indeed, if one were to approach the passion of Christ depicted in gospel as the story of an everyman, one can trace similarities between the plight of Thomas and Christ. Such a parallel might not be altogether presumptuous when one considers that Thomas, like Christ, is divided between two natures: one spiritual, the other corporal. Moreover, Blanchot himself suggests a parallel between Thomas and Christ when, in the context of his essay on the tragic man, he mentions Christ. In this essay, Blanchot quotes Pascal, who wrote of "the union of two natures in Jesus Christ" (IC 444, Pascal 252).

Rend in half by the paradox of 'death exists,' Thomas comes to represent both a yes and a no. In a statement reflecting the thicket or double bind at the crux of his paradoxical existence, Thomas admits, "I discover my being in the vertiginous abyss where it is not, an absence, an absence where it sets itself like a god. I am not and I endure" (TO 104). Lost in the distress of this self-contradiction, Thomas can only fluctuate between extreme contraries, he can only exist in vicissitudes, in the interstitial gap between opposites. As Thomas draws ever nearer a void that remains infinitely in the distance, we find him quite predictably of two minds, cloaked by the darkness of uncertainty.

Pondering Anne's lifeless body, Thomas cannot help but continue to imagine that some immutable or ideal realm now holds the presence that vacated her form. However, by envisioning, like Plato and Augustine, the existence of a realm of perfection, Thomas makes a distinction that in effect renders the world fallen and imperfect. Such a distinction frustrations Thomas, for even though obscure Thomas haunts an immaterial and other world, Thomas finds himself physically bound to a fallen world, grieving beside the corpse of his beloved.

Similar to Roquentin, who as he studied the chestnut root in the park, suspected that consciousness, in contrast to the root's stability, floats in a relative disembodied state, Thomas encounters consciousness as an abstract entity, freed from physical existence. Like Sartre's Roquentin, who, due to his negative enlightenment in the park, stated "there is knowledge of the consciousness. It sees through itself, peaceful and empty between the walls, freed from the man who inhabited it, monstrous because empty," Thomas feels utterly separate from consciousness (N 171). He perceives that, "It is the property of my thought, not to assure me of existence (as all things do, as a stone does), but to assure me of being in nothingness itself, and to invite me not to be, in order to make me feel my marvelous absence" (TO 99-100). Sensing that, insofar as consciousness possesses no physical existence, it is more like a void or nothingness than anything else, Thomas experiences the absurd horror of existing without existence.

Based upon his roaming tendencies and ability to place himself in the stead of the other, Thomas eventually comes to regard obscure Thomas as an autonomous and independent entity quite capable of removing himself from the sphere of Thomas. For this reason, Thomas associates obscure Thomas with the anonymity of the il y a or 'there is.' In a statement that reflects his paradoxical existence, Thomas utters, "I think...and this invisible, inexpressible, nonexistent Thomas I became meant that henceforth I was never there where I was, and there was not even anything mysterious about it" (TO 100).

Even though he possesses the ability to catch a few momentary glimpses of a spirit not bound by the perpetuity of transmigration, obscure Thomas or "the strange face of him who I really was" eludes Thomas (TO 97). In reference to obscure Thomas, whose nature hypothetically resembles the obscure spirit that vacated Anne's corpse, Thomas wonders, "How could I reach him?" (TO 97). Unable to approach obscure Thomas yet consumed by the nothingness at his core, Thomas comes to recognize "the inaccessible proximity of that Thomas which was nothingness" as an inescapable condition of his existence (TO 98).

Realizing he unavoidably harbors at the core of consciousness an entity that remains hidden and ineffable, Thomas starts to suspect that, in essence, the stream of consciousness flows into the sea of nothingness. With the eventual outcome of this suspicion in mind, Thomas begins in a sense to accept his fate; he becomes "the willing host of this obscure Thomas" (TO 98). However, as Thomas becomes his willing host, he sense that obscure Thomas, insofar as he remains at an infinite remove, resembles consciousness. He thus utters, "O my consciousness...I felt this nothingness bound to your extreme existence as an unexceptionable condition" (TO 98).

As he senses that consciousness flutters beyond the boundaries of worldly form, Thomas, however, perceives certain advantages to its disembodiment. Here, as he watches over the incognito deprived of the certitude of a cognito, the thought of philosophical refusal or suicide attracts him. He begins to entertain the possibility of a mode of death that would remain wholly conceptual and bloodless. It is therefore with a certain sense of power that Thomas writes "on the wall these sweet words: 'I think, therefore I am not'" (TO 99).


[1] It is interesting to note in passing the similarities between obscure Thomas and the Christian concept of the soul. According to Christian theology, the soul cannot perish, for it is eternal. So too seems to be the status of obscure Thomas. Moreover, like the Christian soul, obscure Thomas shares more similarities with the immateriality of the afterworld than with the materiality of the world.

Forward to The Tragic Man: IV. The Resolution of Igitur

Back to The Tragic Man: II. Infinite Deliberations


Return to Title Page
Back to Contents
Return to Top