The Negative Eschatology of Maurice Blanchot

The Tragic Man

 IV. The Resolution of Igitur

Although he symbolizes the impossibility of death, Thomas, as he views the corpse of his double and feels obliterated as well, resolves to make the ultimate sacrifice. Feeling himself without any other means of recourse, he decides to descend, like Orpheus seeking Eurydice, into the chthonic abyss in search of Anne. Understanding from the ideal death of Anne that dying well can grant one immortality, Thomas, as he sets out, sees himself not as "Socrates dying but Socrates increasing himself through Plato" (TO 91). Thomas sees himself as one who, as he drinks the poisonous hemlock, as he suffers the blade of the guillotine, as he tosses himself into the void, will not experience utter defeat, but, through a noble sacrifice, will continue to live on in legend. Thomas thus utters, "I go down into the hard block of marble with the sensation of slipping into the sea. I drown myself in mute bronze" (TO 102).

Thomas, fascinated by the tranquil composure Anne displayed when faced with the scythe of Father Chronos, by the grace with which she surrendered the thread of her life to the scissors of Atropos, takes Anne's death as his model. Affected by her example, by the serenity with which Anne accepted her fate as preordained, by her steadfast observance of death according to human understanding, marveling that she should, while tottering on a precipitous void of uncertainty, remain in appearance so oblivious to her plight, Thomas begins to screw up his resolve. Thus, like Hamlet, who instead of morbidly deliberating "To be or not to be" (3.1.56), reconciled himself at the end of the play to his fortune through the ringing affirmation, "Let be" (5.2.235), Thomas, through his self-reflexive interrogation, begins to stoically resign himself to his fated end.

However, a part of Thomas, rather than follow Anne's example and convert death into a gift, wants, like the eponymous protagonist of Mallarmé's Igitur, to embrace death as an ultimate freedom, as a means to transcend all known boundaries and limitations (SP 93). Like Igitur, who attempted to control death by snuffing out the candle, this proud and selfish facet of Thomas begins to pursue death as if it were the work of the day, as if it were a reality that reason can bring about and control. Through his soliloquy, through language and its logic of the day, he approaches death as a realm that, like the day, conforms to set laws and permits accomplishment. This part of Thomas therefore finds himself attracted, like Igitur (who incidentally bears a remarkable resemblance to Goethe's Faust in that both seek to drink poison in the chamber at the stroke of Midnight), by the thought of a bloodless philosophical suicide. In other words, Thomas is attracted by the thought of a rational death, of a death that would offer itself as a controllable event. By adhering to the model Hamlet set forth of meeting death with a final dramatic monologue, Igitur sought to purify absence and transform death into a power. So too, Thomas, through the power of negation implicit in his monologue, seeks to convert death into life, "to make absence possibility and to gleam possibility from it" (SP 110)).

Continuing to follow the example of Igitur, who involved himself in a "lucid effort on the part of the mind to advance outside of itself, to see itself disappear and to appear to itself in the mirage of this disappearance," a part of Thomas envisions a realm constructed according to his own mental projections (SP 111). Like Igitur, whose name means 'therefore' in Latin and thus stands for reason, Thomas attempts to control death through the power of the mind. And like Igitur, who, through "a luminous break of the return of its waves," wished to elude the cyclical lapping of eternal return, Thomas regards the void as an escape route (SP 93). In other words, Thomas, as he premeditates in his monologue a Nekya or Orphic quest, views death as a portal that will deny transmigration and return him to Anne. Interestingly, Thomas's concept of death, which regards the end as possibility, as a beginning, bears a striking resemblance to the negation that propels the Hegelian dialectic.

Attempting to wrestle the bestowal of death away from the aegis of chance, to circumvent the prophetic utterance of Qoheleth that "none has mastery of the day of death," a part of Thomas approaches death intent on mastering the unknown (Eccles. 8:8). Continuing to model himself upon Igitur, who believed it was his right to take a French leave, to drink poison without bidding adieu to the Host, this part of Thomas takes absence as his idée fixe or obsession. As he advances with a resolve that echoes the hasty steps of Prince Prospero toward Red Death in the final scene of Poe's tale, his measured steps begin to resemble a lustral ritual not unlike the Japanese seppuku. That part later identified as his imaginal men thus remains under the impression that although they near death, they will nevertheless remain in complete control. This multiplicity of selves, in other words, hold that despite the inevitable flow of consciousness, they will somehow avoid becoming another mere immaterial thought inevitably reunited with the vastness of the primordial void. Believing that they can control the occurrence of Midnight and become "the drop of nothingness lacking to the sea," they thus deny the kinship consciousness shares with the immateriality of its origins (SP 101).

Rather than let chance dictate the occurrence of death, the excessively proud part of Thomas seeks to convert his end into a decisive moment, into an accomplished task, into work that abides by the logic of the day. Wanting to avoid the anonymity of impersonal death, that is to say, the fact that no one naturally dies in a planned event, he attempts to distinguish himself as someone who knows when his own death will occur. This part of Thomas thereby seeks to seize death as a power, as a definition. Speaking to this impulse, Blanchot states in The Space of Literature, "By committing suicide I want to kill myself at a determined moment, I link death to now: yes, now, now" (SL 104). Moreover, in a desperate way, this part of Thomas wants to eliminate the futurity of death and convert it into an instantaneous event capable of solving the mystery of existence. He wants to circumvent the impartiality of Death, who does not bother to distinguish between the lives he takes.

However, as Blanchot points out, "To kill oneself is to mistake one death for the other" (SL 104). By attempting philosophical suicide, the proud part of Thomas mistakes the experience of witnessing the death of Anne, his other or auturi, with the experience of watching his own death. Thus when Thomas tries to enact the philosophical suicide, he encounters the fact that death, insofar as it removes one from everything that abides by human logic, remains fundamentally alien to all plans hatched using the logic of the day. He encounters the reality that, when death ends consciousness, it at the same time ends the possibility for the logic and understanding that accompany consciousness. Attesting to this, Blanchot states, "The most minute precautions, all the most carefully considered and precise arrangements have no power over this essential indeterminacy--the fact that death is never a relation to a determined moment any more than it bears any determined relation to myself. One cannot 'plan' to kill oneself." (SL 104).[1]

In contrast to his proud selves, Thomas mainly concerns himself with annulling the impossibility of death. In other words, Thomas, in hopes of rendering death a genuine occurrence, a messiah prophesied to come that truly arrives, attempts to make death coincide with itself. Wanting to make impossibility possible, he thus testifies to himself, "There is no longer anything of me which does not open itself to this future void as if to a frightful enjoyment" (TO 103). Moreover, unlike his imaginal men, who valiantly resist being subsumed by the abyss, Thomas divulges, "In contradiction of those who say that humanity does not die, I proved in every way that only humanity is capable of dying" (TO 93-4). Driven by the possibility of experiencing what Blanchot calls the "joy of union in death," Thomas, taking the void as his terminus ad quem, thereby displays, like Abraham or Agamemnon, no misgivings at sacrificing the life he holds most dear (WF 268).

Nonetheless, with his exodus toward death indefinitely prolonged, Thomas encounters the inaccessibility of death. As he encounters this inaccessibility, he begins to suspect that, although part of him paints the abyss with promise, death might mire him in the eternal return of the same. Moreover, Thomas question whether there is an existence after death. For although death offers the possibility of a joyous reunion with Anne, the ambiguity of the realm beyond death makes it impossible to know with any certainty what it contains. These doubts of his, as they lessen his hopes of recovering Anne, sink him further into the pitch-blackness of the night.

Lacking both the futurity of a respite and the ability to make notable progress, a contingent flux of oneiric images, produced by his speculation about what lies beyond the doors of death, inundate Thomas. These mental images, due to the black backdrop of the night, distinguish themselves with particularly insistency; at turns, they take on the appearance of attenuated specters or eidolons spun of gossamer thread. Overwhelmed by their ambiguity and incessant transience, by the fact that they change and mutate constantly, Thomas once again enters that terrain frequented by Sisyphus. Here, giving voice to the pangs of meaninglessness that creep upon anyone who is exposed to an unremitting task, Thomas utters, "A feeling which has to be given a name and which I call anguish. Here is the night. The darkness hides nothing" (TO 104). Due to this anguish, Thomas again mirrors the plight of Igitur, for while confronting the two versions of the imaginary, that is to say, the ambiguity of images in the night, Igitur asked, "in this disturbing and beautiful symmetry of my dream's construction, which of the two openings to take...?" (SP 96).

Interred in the murky solitude of the interminable night, Thomas suffers himself from fascination. I here employ the verb 'suffer' because, haunted by the image recollected, by what Blanchot calls the 'cadaverous resemblance,' Thomas knows nothing of mental repose or peace. Enamoured by the ambiguity of the cadaverous resemblance, Thomas finds himself engaged in the interminable work of the night, in the endless work of interpretation, in work that ultimately revokes the possibility for lasting conclusions. He thus utters, "In this absolute repetition of the same is born true movement which cannot lead to rest" (TO 105).

Shuttled between opposites, experiencing what Jung, influenced by Heraclitus the Obscure, termed 'enantiodromia,' Thomas sinks deeper into the night of night, the night not of true sleep but of insomnia. Dismayed by the depreciating effect that contingency exerts on consciousness, by the manner in which chance seemingly reduces everything to superfluity, he finds "not the certainty of death achieved, but 'the eternal torment of Dying'" (SL 119). Suspended between life and death, Thomas finds himself distanced from all teleological conclusions. He thus comes to occupy a space not unlike the void of Pascal: "a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy" (Pascal 89).

Despite the impediments that stand in his way, a part of Thomas continually renews his quest to purify his dark night of the soul. Like Igitur, who attempted to negate chance through a ceremonious snuffing out of the candle, this part of Thomas continually looks forward to the final knell of Midnight, to death. For through death, Thomas wants to eliminate the absurdity of existing without existence and incite the coincidence of his disparate elements. Thomas wants death to bring about the reunification of his two selves, Thomas and obscure Thomas. Moreover, Thomas seeks to realize death as a terminus, as an event that will ensure the recovery of his Eurydicean bride. He hopes, in other words, to convert death into a site that will allow for rendezvous and convergence with Anne, his estranged double. Thomas, resolved to descend after Anne, thus states, "A sort of being, composed of all that which is excluded from being, presents itself as the goal of my undertaking" (TO 105).

However, as Thomas maintains his vigil over the corpse, the cadaverous resemblance continues to spook him. For similar to mental imagery experienced in the night, the cadaver resembles the world in a fascinating yet utterly deceptive manner, and thereby assumes, merely through the persuasive force of its semblance to reality, the status of an actuality. It is therefore to be expected that the charisma of the cadaver would cause Thomas to live vicariously within its hollow emptiness. Reflecting upon this vicarious existence he has assumed, Thomas, speaking of the cadaverous resemblance, states, "It is myself, I who do not exist for myself. In this instant, I have no existence except for it, which exists only for me" (TO 106). But even though this imagery and the "crowd of its apparitions...the stretch of layers of shadow" possess him, Thomas remains at an infinite remove (SP 95). Even though he coalesces with the absent presence of the corpse, with images truncated from the world, these shadowy images remain empty and transparent, like ghosts. Thomas thus acknowledges, "distance between us is suppressed, but suppressed in order that we may not come closer one to the other" (TO 106). Because these images remain empty yet consistent, he begins to believe that the cadaverous resemblance might serve as the basis of the il y a.

As Thomas leans over Anne's corpse, her image compels him, like the double that Narcissus encountered on the reflective surface of the lake, to embark upon a fatal quest for convergence and self-knowledge. Taking the emptiness of the corpse as his model, he begins to see himself reflected in the absent presence of the cadaverous resemblance. Hence he utters, "O night, now nothing will make me be, nothing will separate me from you...I lean over you, your equal, offering you a mirror for your perfect nothingness, for your shadows which are neither light nor absence of light, for this void which contemplates" (TO 107-8).

Like Igitur, the plural 'they' of Thomas persistently approaches death as liberation. Despite the reality that consciousness and its alluvion streams into the absent presence of the sea, 'they' view death as an opportunity for attaining the impossible or the ideal. Wanting to escape the dehumanizing aspects of death, 'they' take it as their prerogative to embrace Death, for rather than await Death to embrace them with his fatal grip, they seek to escape the fact that Death's touch reduces everyone to a similar impersonality. In other words, they want to escape Death's clutches by grasping Death before he can touch them. They therefore approach death as a route to freedom, as a method to avoid transmigration and transcend the constricting boundaries of the self, as a means to steal their fated end from chance. They approach death "[s]o that death may ensue, so that death may for an instant let itself be grasped, identified--in order that death might become the death of an identity which has decided it and willed it" (SL 114-5). In other words, confident that the active method they have chosen will enable them to escape the forgetfulness of the Lethean deluge, they' approach death as an event through which they will renew "the crude undertaking of Noah" (TO 107). Believing that they, through the act of pure negation, will clear a space for the new, they associate death with creation. Because of they make such an association, this excessively proud part of Thomas observes, "Myself, working against the act of creating, I have made myself the creator" (TO 108).

However, irrespective of Thomas's proud 'they,' the night of the night increasingly immures Thomas. In fact, as he remains vigilant in his obsequies over the corpse, the night of the night consigns him to the impossibility of death, to the impossibility of reaching the pure end his 'they' imagines possible. As a result, rather than grasp Death before Death can seize him, Thomas encounters an apocalypse lying forever beyond the horizon. Therefore, despite the fact that Thomas identifies with the nothingness of the night, and despite his attempts to associate his 'drop of nothingness' or consciousness with the abyss, Thomas, rather than accomplish death, only succeeds in encountering the persistence of the il y a, of anonymous awareness. Thomas in this respect resembles Igitur, who, instead of attaining his intended mastery over death, merely encountered the maddening inertia of the impossibility of death.

So rather than approach the abyss with words of parting that echo Hamlet's last exhalation, "O, I die," Thomas laments the impossibility of death (5.2.362). Instead of concluding his requiem, his office for the dead, with a tragic climax, Thomas reflects, "O night, I am itself" (TO 108). With these words, which strike one as more of a tragic resignation to endlessness than a conclusion, Thomas in effect voices his shame, for it has become clear to him that the impossibility of death dooms his resolve to recover "the prodigious one who is absent" (TO 107). Bound by the impossibility of death, Thomas thus goes tragically beyond the plight of Hamlet, who at least eventually escaped 'the pale cast of thought' in death. Unable to rid himself of the interminable suffering that accompanies the night of the night, Thomas therefore experiences the plight of the tragic man ad nauseum.


[1] In a passage of The Logic of Sense, Deleuze comments, "When Blanchot thinks of suicide as the wish to bring about the coincidence of the two faces of death---of prolonging impersonal death by means of the most personal act---he clearly shows the inevitability of...this attempt at coupling. But he tries also to define the illusion" (156). Here, when Deleuze speaks of 'the two faces of death,' he refers to a dilemma common to Thomas, for a part of Thomas also wishes to bring about the coincidence of his experience of death, which he assimilated from Anne's death, with his desire to somehow elude (or forever 'prolong') the fact that Death reduces everyone to a state of anonymity. He too wants to die in a manner that unites the personal act of mastery with the impersonal death of the other. In other words, Thomas hopes to die watching himself die. On one level, this part of Thomas illustrates the attraction or 'inevitability' of the desire for coincidence in death. Although he appears in the above citation to associate suicide with 'illusion,' perhaps Deleuze likewise testified to the seduction of approaching suicide as a means for power, for one could contend that the same sort of strident humanism compelled his suicide.

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