by Margaret Kolb
Published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2012 | 443 pages
It is not too surprising that of all the singular voices in modern French literature Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) is still relatively unknown to an English readership. Despite the indelible mark that he has left on the strand of 20th century French literary criticism and philosophy that continues to enjoy popularity in translation today—from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—we have only recently begun to learn how to read Blanchot. This is at least in part because the reclusive author has remained enigmatic, even in France. Blanchot never held a University position, nor did he give lectures or frequent the many literary cafes and salons in Paris. Instead, he retreated from the spectacle of public life and made a living strictly off his vocation as a writer.
From the late 1930s until his death, Blanchot tirelessly probed the question of literature. While many others joined Jean-Paul Sartre’s call for “committed literature” in the wake of World War II, Blanchot remained attentive to an altogether different responsibility imposed on the writer: that of disengagement. He sought in turn to articulate the space of literature itself, radically set apart from the ordinary concerns and exchanges of the world and removed from the real conditions of history. Writing, Blanchot would go on to say, traces the strangeness and estrangement of literary language, whose meaning cannot be circumscribed by the englobing concepts of philosophy. Rather, in numerous essays as well as original works of fiction, including a constellation of brilliant novels, shorter narrations, and other unclassifiable texts, Blanchot treads the amorphous limit between literature and philosophy. Foucault once expressed his wish that he could write like Blanchot, on the precipice of genres, gazing into the void that lies just beyond their boundaries. But Blanchot’s multivalent writing probably shares more in common with his contemporary and friend, Georges Bataille, the writer of erotic stories, base materialism, and excess, for whom Blanchot figured as “the most original mind of his age.”
Although Blanchot writes a masterful French prose, his syntactical clarity tends to make his sentences all the more opaque. There is always some enigmatic element in his work that summons the reader’s attention and fascinates without ever revealing itself. It is not enough to follow his arguments or even to brace yourself against the surging rhythms and counter-rhythms traversing his works of fiction. Blanchot’s writing resists our understanding and defies interpretation. The American writer and translator Lydia Davis has for example described her experience of translating Blanchot into English as one of the most challenging she has ever faced. Translating Blanchot’s short narration Death Sentence mutated into a delirious event resembling one of his novels. “The meaning of a difficult phrase or sentence would often become a physical entity that eluded me, my brain becoming both the pursuer and the arena in which the pursuit took place. Understanding became an intensely physical act,” she writes in Proust, Blanchot, and a Woman in Red. To engage with Blanchot is to undergo an experience that delivers you into the resounding demand of a language riddled with mystery.
Blanchot’s late work, in particular, became increasingly fragmented and scattered across genres after his pathbreaking The Space of Literature in the mid 1950s. Never again would he offer a systematic account of his thought, nor would his fiction mime once more the narrative structure of a novel, despite their displacements. At this turning point, Blanchot would approach a mode of writing fissured with exegetic asides, unstoppable conversations, philosophical detours, and bouts of silence. His fragmentary mode of expression does not even take on the form of the aphorism, but responds to an impossible yet necessary demand to break from all order, as though the trial of writing became the very event of fragmentation. It is here that Leslie Hill, a professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, identifies Blanchot’s “demand of the fragmentary.” In his recent book, Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing, Hill argues convincingly that the fragmentary indicates an ethico-political exigency in Blanchot’s writing that is all too often overlooked by his critics and neglected by historians of modern literature. Hill frames his readings of Blanchot around the view that the fragment does not simply designate a missing piece of the whole, which must be recovered or restored. On the contrary, it ruins the logic of completion that is elsewhere held to unify the work of literature (and, more broadly, metaphysics as well as ontology). Much like the enigma so prevalent in his earlier writings, the fragmentary bears a force of dispersion and uncertainty that leaves the work irremediably unfinished. “What if the abiding indeterminacy of the fragment,” Hill asks, “rather than indicating a duty to labor in vain towards the completion of the work, suggested instead an entirely different conception of literature” that “affirmed itself as the futural promise of a radical multiplication of writing?” Hence the demand of the fragmentary is two-fold. By interrupting the accomplishment of the work, it affirms the singular event of a plural writing.
Such a demand transforms the event of reading as much as writing. Blanchot as it were frequently characterizes reading as an experience of extreme attentiveness in which we attend to what escapes our attention. The patience of reading resembles the deferred experience of waiting for someone who never arrives or something that never happens, much like the interminable waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy. That we read, while waiting in suspense, may even carry us away, for it withholds the possibility that the future might be otherwise than expected. Consider for instance the following passage that Hill takes as the epithet for his second chapter on waiting and futurity, extracted from Blanchot’s contribution to a volume celebrating the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 70th birthday. “Waiting is always a waiting for waiting, withdrawing the beginning, suspending the ending, and within this interval, opening the interval of another waiting. The night in which one waits for nothing represents this movement of waiting. The impossibility of waiting is an essential part of waiting.” These sentences, like so many others of Blanchot, are decidedly frustrating. And yet, it is precisely in this frustration that we glimpse the irresolvable ambiguities of language. Such a paradox at the heart of literature exposes us to the absence of foundation from which language is drawn and exhausted, as well as the unknowing direction of its course.In other words, the fragmentary indicates to the inexhaustible origin and destiny of a language that cannot be programmed or fixed in advance.
By putting itself into jeopardy, fragmentary writing at once generates and thwarts itself. Language pours out of this gap that interrupts any definitive beginning or end, without itself coming to an end. A revealing passage from The Writing of Disaster, cited by Hill, helpfully illustrates this remarkable power of contestation. Blanchot declares that “fragmentary writing might well be the greatest risk. It does not refer to any theory, and does not give rise to any practice definable by interruption. Even when it is interrupted, it carries on. Putting itself in question, it does not take control of the question but suspends it (without maintaining it) as a non-response.” Blanchot’s texts are certainly destructive, but they simultaneously appeal to a principle of freedom at the origin of all literature—that is, a principle that lets us say and contest everything. And yet, in characteristically Blanchotian fashion, this freedom must call itself into question, for the fragmentary disrupts all claims to authority, including its own. It threatens to undermine any form of authorization that could be attributed to the subject, whether of the author, reader, or language.
Hill calls this questioning “sovereign disobedience,” and he helpfully links it to Blanchot’s crucial notion of the neuter (le neutre). The neuter refers to the grammar of the impersonal but more importantly evacuates language of subjectivity. Blanchot says that an altogether other voice than the “I” speaks in literature. Whether in the give and take of speech between multiple interlocutors, or the counterproductive movement of waiting, the impersonal language of the neuter suspends oppositional forces in the text without resolving them. Unlike dialectical thought, as elaborated by Hegel, the neuter neither affirms nor negates being. Literary language resides in a space of the excluded middle (neither something nor nothing). It retracts what it says while crossing out the steps of erasure. And through this movement, the neuter interrupts the mediating power of dialectics, which Blanchot and others in France at the time associated with the violence of totality and appropriation. Whereas the labor of the negative always reduces the other to the order of the same, the neuter welcomes the irreducibility of the other. It gradually undoes the work of literature whose organizing principle synthesizes contradictory positions into an integrated whole. Whereas dialectics gathers everything into unity (such as the state, national language, and a work of art), the neuter restlessly disperses identity and affirms in turn the multiplicity of difference.
There were (and still are) decisive political consequences at stake in Blanchot’s encounter with the demand of the fragmentary. Indeed, Blanchot held that the neuter contests the totalizing project mobilized by fascism and National Socialism, as well as the communist alternative. But Blanchot’s critique of dialectical logic extends, as he well emphasized, beyond the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to the hegemonic form of liberalism ascendant today. While the unlimited accumulation and expansion of capital continues to transform the world, conforming it ever more so to the pressures of standardizing practices and the rule of global uniformity; and while technological progress continues to systematically govern the domination of nature and exploit those who have been marginalized by it, turning to Blanchot may be more urgent now than ever before. In my view, one of the most important demands of the fragmentary, touched on by Hill, is that it introduces another task at odds with our ordinary conception of work, literary and otherwise. What would it take to articulate an experience of work that is no longer subordinate to the rational calculations of autonomy? To elaborate a receptive mode of working that sets aside power by answering to the pressing demands of alterity? Moreover, as Blanchot persistently asks in his later work, how does the responsibility of writing bear on what we might still call community? After all, if the fragment could disable the dialectical engine that fuels the unrelenting progress of history, it would also indicate the mere chance of a “change in epoch.” Blanchot reminds us again and again that an upheaval in the present may always irrupt. Perhaps Derrida’s first extended commentary on Blanchotthen may still sound out prophetically for us. “I would say that never as much as today have I imagined him to be so far ahead of us. He waits for us, still to come […].”
Michael Krimper is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at New York University.