Stephen Mitchelmore on the writing of Maurice Blanchot
There are many remarkable facts about the long life of the French novelist and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. The strident – perhaps Fascist – nationalism of his pre-War journalism; his near-death at the hands of the Nazis during the war; his reclusive devotion to writing that is similar to, but more significant than, Pynchon’s and Salinger’s; his deep influence on more famous French thinkers (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze). And, finally, in this list, his return to public life to oppose French colonialism in Algeria and then to support the May 1968 student uprising, during which he drafted pamphlets released by those opposing General de Gaulle’s autocracy.
But to concentrate on these facts, relevant as they are, would be to ignore what Blanchot offers, which is a return to the fundamental mystery of literature. That is, why do written words have so much power over us, yet also seem completely estranged from the world they supposedly refers to? When we say that literature takes us to “another world”, we say more than we might imagine. It is an asymmetry that Blanchot presents to us relentlessly. “There is an a-cultural aspect to art and literature which it is hard to accept wholeheartedly” he says. In this age of shortcuts, in which the value of literature is judged by how well literature effaces itself, so that the asymmetry is denied, avoided, denounced even, Blanchot’s resistance makes him, in my opinion, one of the most important writers.
In my opinion. What is that worth? The question of authority – mine, Blanchot’s or anybody else’s – is the invisible centre of our cultural ideology. We all know that Liberal Democracy is based on choice; each individual is free to choose and each individual’s choice is as good as any other’s. So, when I write in my opinion, I remove all weight from the judgement. The complete opposite is equally valid. Despite this, we still make definite choices in what to read, watch or listen to, as if hoping, despite everything, for something more than nothing. The act of choice itself speaks of a need: for nourishment, entertainment or distraction, or all three combined. But we have little guidance on what and why to choose. Perhaps the recent proliferation of award ceremonies and prize competitions for each art form is no coincidence: the award-winning novel, the platinum-selling album, the blockbuster movie. We want a guarantee of value. Each offers a mitigation of one’s apparently random choice. At the same time, however, we know, like a General Election, it is meaningless. Nothing changes. Such is the totality of Liberal Democracy.
Worse still, the condition has a retrospective affect. Nothing escapes its scything action. History is flattened too, shorn of meaning. Even critiques of the condition become just an opinion under the smiling curve of the scythe. Blanchot does not propose an answer. Rather, he looks at how this condition might have arisen, offering in the process a startling revision of our understanding of what literature is. Might the asymmetry of art and world be what makes it vital and important? In a short essay from 1953, published in a new translation by the Oxford Literary Review, Blanchot goes back to the beginnings of modern thought to investigate this possibility, specifically to ancient Athens, and Socrates’ preference for speech over writing.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that speech has the guarantee of the living presence of the speaker. One can ask questions and receive answers; there is always the movement of dialogue with those involved always mindful of truth. In dialogue, progress is possible. On the other hand, written words can only maintain a solemn silence: “if you ask them what they mean by anything,” he says, “they simply return the same answer over and over again.” The philosopher links this to religious superstition, when Greeks listened to “the sacred voice” emerging from a stone or the stump of a tree. Blanchot compares this to the silent confrontation with written words:
“Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks.” (trans. Leslie Hill)
If, as Blanchot says, the voice of the divine and the voice of literature are comparable, they are effectively indistinguishable, thereby doubling the threat to the human project represented by Socrates. What can be done if the oracular voice develops an alternative outlet in literature, luring truth into “the abyss where there is neither truth nor meaning nor even error”? Blanchot reminds us what was done: “both Plato and Socrates are quick to declare writing, like art, a simple pastime which does not jeopardise seriousness and is reserved for moments of leisure”. Of course, Socrates went on to pay with his life for his commitment to the more serious matter of debate. And while his sacrifice remains emblematic of our notion of the freedom of speech, his dismissal of writing and art sounds very familiar, very now, particularly to anyone searching for truth in art. We can see the correlation between postmodernism (no truth, no meaning), popular culture (no error), and the ancient philosophers’ dismissal of art. It is attractive as there is another correlation, perhaps the most important: both are also liberations. In each case, freedom is granted to those previously enslaved to truth. Writers can let their imagination run wild; there is no comeback.
Instead of celebrating or lamenting this development, Blanchot considers the silence of the gods revealed in the written word. He wonders what it is that disarms Plato and Socrates so much that they deny it is even relevant, and compels us, their descendants, to fill the empty space with reductive theories: social, psychological, post-colonial. For a possible answer, he turns to Heraclitus, the first poet-philosopher, pre-dating Socrates, the first rationalist. In one of his enigmatic fragments, Heraclitus says the oracle “neither speaks out nor conceals, but points”. From this Blanchot deduces that the “language in which the origin speaks is essentially prophetic.” However, he clarifies the final word:
“This does not mean that it dictates future events, it means that it does not base itself on something which already is … It points toward the future, because it does not yet speak, and is language of the future to the extent that it is like a future language which is always ahead of itself, having its meaning and legitimacy only before it, which is to say that it is fundamentally without justification.” (trans. Leslie Hill)
It does not base itself on something which already is. This could be the cry of the opponents of the kind of literature that does not engage with current events or familiar social relations, and where the style, language and subject matter – or lack of it – resists the utility of common understanding. Is modern literature, then, prophetic?
The nature of the question means the answer cannot be stated as such, only experienced. The moment it is answered, the language of the future is negated and drawn into Socrates’ dialogue of utility. However, this is not to distinguish experience and literature. Contrary to popular opinion, literature is intimate with daily experience. Blanchot puts it this way:
“Upon the background noise constituted by our knowledge of the world’s daily course, which precedes, accompanies, and follows in us all knowledge, we cast forth, walking or sleeping, phrases that are punctuated by questions. Murmuring questions. What are they worth? What do they say? These are still more questions.” (trans. Susan Hanson)
We don’t experience the world without this murmuring, a kind of voice-under codifying and animating an otherwise uniform world. Yet we spend most of our lives avoiding or sedating it with entertainment-distraction, drugged socialising, or plausible theories of hominid brain development. It is Blanchot’s unique attunement to these murmuring questions – to what resists the Socratic demand – which distinguishes his work. When he reviews a book, rather than judging it within set external criteria, such as the persuasiveness of character or plot, or its relevance to the breaking news of the moment, he asks certain questions that emerge from the experience of reading the book itself.
This is clear in an exemplary essay on Samuel Beckett’s trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable [see note at bottom of page]. Here is a book that has no justification. It has no sensitive social analysis. It is scornful of polite taste and ridicules all notions of the redeeming power of art. It makes much fun of its struggle to efface the author with the usual means of the suspension of disbelief, before spiralling into a calamitous verbal free fall. Blanchot asks, “Who speaks in Samuel Beckett’s books? … Who is the tireless ‘I’ who seems always to say the same thing?” At first, the answer is clear: it is Samuel Beckett. But it by asking this deceptively simple question he opens us to the novel’s terrible dynamic.
Molloy is narrated by a man telling of a past full of cities, forests and seascapes, while stuck in his absent mother’s room. This is the usual displacement of the author’s own voice. Molloy could be Beckett writing in his own room. Eventually, Molloy invents another narrator, Moran, a police detective, who narrates his own story, in this case the pursuit of Molloy. Blanchot says this a “slightly disappointing” allegory of the author’s search for something more original than itself. Beckett is having fun with the conventions of the novel – which is why so many readers see only absurdity in his work. Yet at the same time Molloy and Moran offer a reassuring presence like normal characters in a novel speaking through their all-powerful master, and so protecting us from what Blanchot calls “a greater threat”.
That threat begins to appear in Malone Dies. Malone’s death would provoke the “ultimate disaster which is to have lost the right to say I”. Malone is bedridden, having only a pencil for company. Nonetheless, it enables him to turn his room into “the infinite space of words and stories.” He tells stories – a simple pastime – to fill the imminent vacuum of death. It is a recipe for farce, grotesque tragicomedy and outrageous lyricism; everything that makes Beckett great entertainment:
“All I want to do now is to make a last effort to understand, to begin to understand, how such creatures are possible. No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know. Here I go none the less, mistakenly. Night, storm and sorrow, and the catalepsies of the soul, this time I shall see that they are good. The last word is not yet said between me and – yes, the last word is said. Perhaps I simply want to hear it said again. Just once again. No, I want nothing.”
And so on, until Malone dies. Well, almost dies, we’re never quite sure, for how can death occur in a first-person narrative? The Unnameable begins without his support for the stories. So really, it cannot continue.
It continues anyway. And according to current understanding, this is where “the real” author should reveal himself, the one “behind the scenes”. Again, it is no coincidence that when producers of “Reality TV” proclaim that nothing is hidden, they nonetheless rely on spin-off books and DVDs promising details of “what really went on” – endless promises of a definitive intimacy. The Trilogy, on the other hand, doesn’t. In The Unnameable phantoms and visions encircle a consciousness stuck in an ornamental jar at the entrance to a restaurant. Words circle on the page too, stumbling on without even the relief of punctuation. For Blanchot, this is the “malaise of one who has dropped out of reality and drifts forever in the gap between existence and nothingness, incapable of dying and incapable of being born.” As readers we undergo:
“[an] experience experienced under the threat of impersonality, undifferentiated speech speaking in a vacuum, passing through he who hears it, unfamiliar, excluding the familiar, and which cannot be silenced because it is what is unceasing and interminable.” (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch)
This is the language of the future. It is “a direct confrontation with the process from which all books derive”: language itself. By asking the simple question of who is speaking in the Trilogy, Blanchot reveals how Beckett reveals language as a form of death, a place where we meet the limits of subjectivity. In reading the Trilogy, we confront the anonymity at the heart of communication, and thereby the limits of our power in the world. Liberal culture sees this as good up to the point where we are taken to another world (“transported” as so many naïve readers put it, neglecting the recent history of the word). Beckett’s Trilogy exceeds this point. It exposes us to the infinite within the confines of novel. The author’s great achievement is to take us to the brink of complete breakdown and yet to stay this side. To declare his work ‘absurdist’ or that it ‘mirrors the breakdown of religious belief’, as might be heard wherever Beckett’s books are discussed, is unwittingly re-inhabiting what is the novel is always in the process of vacating. This suggests why the Trilogy has never been accepted into our culture in the same way as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses.
[Note: Blanchot’s essay on Beckett, “Where now? Who now?” can be found in The Sirens’ Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, edited by Gabriel Josipovici, translated by Sacha Rabinovitch, and in Samuel Beckett: the Critical Heritage in a translation by Richard Howard. However, both are long out of print. You could always try the Marketplace sections of Amazon.co.uk in the UK and Amazon.com in the US to find a used copy.]
Blanchot’s own novels, such as Thomas the Obscure, have a kinship with Beckett’s work; there is constant dissimulation and wandering. In many ways though, they are closer to Kafka’s; there are many mysterious landscapes, doors and rooms. Only they lack both these authors’ humour. His narratives are often insipid. However, in the late 1950s, the critical writing and the fiction began to merge, creating perhaps an entirely new genre. As the fiction clarified into analysis, the analysis developed the opacity of the fiction. In the massive essay collection The Infinite Conversation there are occasional dialogues between two friends (assumed to be Blanchot and Georges Bataille). Then in 1962, a novel appeared called L’attente l’oubli (Translated as Awaiting Oblivion). It is an almost eventless narrative of an unnamed man and a woman sharing a hotel room. Each fragment of text is denoted and separated from the rest by a printed diamond or star (like this: ). The spaces disrupt straightforward narrative progress.
She was present, already her own image, and her image, not the remembrance, the forgetting of herself. When seeing her, he saw her as she would be, forgotten.
Sometimes he forgot her, sometimes he remembered, sometimes remembering the forgetting and forgetting everything in this remembrance. (Trans. John Gregg)
In a recent interview, the novelist Ian McEwan says that novels “show the possibility of what it is like to be someone else”. Awaiting Oblivion faces a complication to this: narrative progress tends to look straight through that someone else. As we begin to understand the person in front of us, the understanding takes his or her place; it becomes only a means of furthering narrative. No wonder we love to be alone with a page-turner! Perhaps significantly, McEwan’s latest novel Atonement is about the guilt felt by a writer. The other person, like language, resists simple closure to one clear meaning. In the case of Awaiting Oblivion, however, it also resists compulsive interest.
Why did Blanchot go down this route rather than continuing to write novels and critical works? Perhaps he found that once defined, a genre of literature closes in on itself. When infected with another however, not only is the comfort of reader disturbed, but literature itself becomes a question. As Derrida later detailed in The Law of Genre – a close reading of Blanchot’s very short novel The Madness of the Day – this infection is necessary and happens to all genres; in fact, a genre is basically the effacement of that infection. As the dynamic of absence and presence that frequently drives Blanchot’s writing, the direction was necessary.
In a remarkably condensed early essay, How is Literature Possible? this movement is prefigured. In it, Blanchot reviews a critical work by Jean Paulhan about the opposition of what we might call traditional and rebellious literature. The idea of overthrowing cliché and the tired generic forms (that is, Tradition) has dominated our conception of literature for 150 years. Blanchot mentions Victor Hugo’s rejection of rhetoric, Verlaine’s denunciation of eloquence and Rimbaud’s abandonment of “old-hat” poetry. Sixty years on, it hasn’t changed that much. Think of Martin Amis’ famous “war against cliché”, JG Ballard’s expressed distaste for literature and Steven Wells of ATTACK! Books thumping the table of the high-chair with his spoon. Indeed, Beckett’s Trilogy could itself be called a work of terrorism against the citadel of tradition. Yet the rebels themselves are divided into two camps. Those, like Wells, who are keen to dispense with literature altogether in an amphetamine-fuelled auto-de-fe and so destroy the complacent world of bourgeois stolidity, and those, like Amis, who want to prune language of its deadwood so that a consciousness can be experienced in all its grotesque, singular richness. What Blanchot (and indeed Paulhan) does is to point out that in order to do either requires a scrupulous attention to language. “Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those wo most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism [i.e. using cliché] are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach.” Does this, then, destroy all hope of what literature might offer us? Yes, according to those who do not consider themselves writers, because writing is a work of distance from the “ecstasies” of the human condition. Not so fast, says Blanchot:
“It is the same for those who through the marvels of asceticism have had the illusion of distancing themselves from all literature. For having wanted to rid themselves of conventions and of forms, in order to touch directly the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they meant to reveal, they finally contented themselves with using this world, this secret, this metaphysics as they would conventions and forms that they complacently exhibited and that constituted at once the visible framework and the foundation of their works. […] In other words, for this kind of writer metaphysics, religion, and emotions take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre – in a word, literature.” (trans.Charlotte Mandell)
The experience of these systems of expression, however, allow a chink in the armour of literature. For readers, the opposition of cliché and a virgin phrase is perhaps more troublesome; all phrases become “monsters of ambiguity” when we read. How are we, as readers, meant to know what an author intended? It is precisely this ambiguity, the unremitting silence of the oracle, Blanchot argues, that gives literature the tense dynamic demanded by the rebels. In effect, literature is a vampire rising in the dark to suck the blood of life to continue while the victims are all dependent on the vampire myth for their living. And the other way around. Blanchot takes us a long way in this short essay, yet leaves us more or less stranded as before: authenticity and originality are present, it seems, only in the inscrutibility of their presence.
If literature relies on comforting demarcations of genre to procede, yet demands a naked openness to the world for the sake of authenticity, then the apparence of the printed star in Blanchot’s work is perhaps not just a typographical convenience. It is used again in Blanchot’s famous late work, The Writing of the Disaster, a book made up of fiction and philosophical fragments designated by the same symbol. An appropriately obsolete definition of the word disaster is “an unfavourable aspect of a star”. The star helps us to grasp the possibility of meaning, which we return to at the end of each section, while at the same time threatening break down. The book is in part about how one deals with disaster, the trauma of past disasters and the knowledge of the disaster to come, specifically our own death, where the very concept of ownership is meaningless. It is also about the disaster of language itself:
The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience – it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual. (trans. Ann Smock)
That is, the disaster itself writes. To write is to partake of the disaster, no matter how much one asserts oneself through opinion or style. Blanchot’s impersonal voice, so cold and yet so seductive, abides in the disaster.
To write (of) oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest – the other, the reader – entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your inexistence.
We are absent from one another as the disaster writes through communication. We are absent even from ourselves as the I belongs not to itself but the disaster. We saw this emerge in Beckett’s Trilogy. Yet it is precisely this absence that Blanchot says can bring us together. The paradox is essential: language gives voice to this absence. And art, where the play of the paradox is central, remains the only medium for the possibility of a community, even if it is a community of those who have no community. The growth in sales of intimate self-portraits and revelatory biographies of public figures, and the pathological obsession with personalities and gossip, masquerading as debate, betrays how liberal democracy functions by removing an effective public life. As in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother, or at least one’s biographer, is always watching. It is a political environment that has redefined politics into a means of how best to smooth the way for corporate oligarchies to manage capital. We need art to raise the absent voice of a community denied by a misreading of absence. It requires the reader to trust, despite the apparent emptiness of art:
Reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it maybe .. is empty – at bottom it doesn’t exist; you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend. (trans. Ann Smock)
The artist faces a similar challenge. Blanchot says at the end of his essay on Beckett:
“Art requires that he who practices it should be immolated to art, should become other, not another, not transformed from the human being he was into an artist with artistic duties, satisfactions and interests, but into nobody, the empty, animated space where art’s summons is heard.” (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch)
But how is this done? The fragmentary work, perhaps the apogee of 20th Century Modernist literature and philosophy, is Blanchot’s approach. Its refusal to insist on narrative or theoretical completion, as well as, in the process, weakening the voice of authority, means both reader and writer are constantly moving toward understanding, toward what is absent, yet never assuming the nihilism of no truth, no meaning even as it encroaches on each clearing. Blanchot calls it, speaking of Kafka but also of himself, “a combat of passivity – combat that reduces itself to naught”. Some might see this as needlessly equivocal or pretentious, preferring, instead, the apparent clarity of rational progress, even if this, in the end, leads to the bland relativism of modern culture. Yet in his essay from 1953 with which we began, Blanchot says that art’s summons might not have been lost on Socrates – the great emblematic thinker of positivistic Western culture. He might also have sensed the empty, animated space pulling like a black hole at the Light of Reason. While he accepted the only guarantee for speech was the living presence of a human being, he also “went as far as to die in order to keep his word.”