Either in spite or because of its disasters, the twentieth century produced an abundance of great writers and intellectuals. Maurice Blanchot was among the major ones. Born into a well-off French Catholic family in 1907, he suffered serious health problems for most of his life—as early as the 1940s he would alert friends that he was writing his final book or letter—yet he died in 2003 at the age of ninety-five. His mauvaise santé de fer (a French expression meaning “poor health of iron”) was only one of the many paradoxes that dominated his life and thought.
If Dante were able to update his Divine Comedy today, he most likely would place Blanchot in the sphere of Saturn, the remote, cold, and silent seventh heaven reserved for the contemplatives. Here a golden ladder stretches up into the abyss of ultimate mystery. Blanchot was a mystic without God who climbed that ladder into the most rarefied regions of verbal and conceptual abstraction, yet like the cardinal and monk Peter Damian, who devotes most of his speech in Paradiso 21 to denouncing the world’s corruption, Blanchot maintained throughout his life a commitment to its history, as well as a militant attitude of refusal when it came to its political realities.
In one of his last books, The Writing of the Disaster (1980), Blanchot evokes, more than sixty years after the fact, a childhood incident that took place at his family home in Quain, a hamlet near Devrouze in the Burgundy region of France (Devrouze then had some eight hundred inhabitants; today it has around three hundred). The seven-year-old Blanchot looks out the window at “the garden, the wintry trees, the wall of a house.” Suddenly the sky turns
absolutely black and absolutely empty, revealing (as though the pane had been broken) such an absence that all has since always and forevermore been lost therein—so lost that therein is affirmed and dissolved the vertiginous knowledge that nothing is what there is, and first of all nothing beyond.
The child experiences a “ravaging joy” at this realization, and “will live henceforth in the secret.”
In Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, Christophe Bident hails this as the young Blanchot’s “primal scene.” It has all the flavor of Mallarmé’s mystical insight into le Néant, yet even if the episode did not take place exactly as Blanchot described it, there is no doubt that he went on to probe that black empty sky as deeply as thought and words could take him. In his best-known works he evokes its abyssal absence through a variety of suggestive terms: the outside, the night, the neuter, the space of literature, the Other. The only type of “knowledge” he pursued in earnest was precisely the “vertiginous knowledge that nothing is what there is.”
Later Blanchot would write, “In the night, everything has disappeared. This is the first night…. But when everything has disappeared in the night, ‘everything has disappeared’ appears. This is the other night.” The other night is where everything, including Blanchot’s prose, becomes elusive, paradoxical, and, yes, vertiginous: “What appears in the night is the night that appears…. Here the invisible is what one cannot cease to see; it is the incessant making itself seen.”
In words like these from The Space of Literature (1955), we hear the precursor of French poststructuralism, the weird interlocutor of Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille, and the vatic voice venerated by the likes of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (the latter delivered the eulogy at Blanchot’s funeral). Yet before he took refuge in the night beyond the night, turning his attention to “the death no one dies, the forgetfulness which gets forgotten,” Blanchot would venture headfirst into the glaring light of day when he moved to Paris in 1929 and became a political journalist during the most tumultuous decade in modern French politics.
He arrived by way of the University of Strasbourg, where he had gone to study German and philosophy some five years earlier. There, in 1925 or 1926, he met and began a lifelong friendship with Levinas—a “happy encounter that illuminates what is darkest in a life,” as Blanchot called their relationship. Levinas encouraged him to read Martin Heidegger, who would eventually become the most decisive influence on Blanchot’s thinking. In Strasbourg, Blanchot already had right-wing sympathies: Levinas recalled that “in political terms, he was very far away from me during that period, he was a monarchist, but very soon we had access to one another.” Yet their divergent views never got in the way of their friendship, which Derrida later described as “a blessing on our time.”
Blanchot moved from Strasbourg to Paris to study medicine at Sainte-Anne hospital, where he specialized in neurology and psychiatry. He eventually abandoned his medical studies to become a full-time political journalist and editor, writing many signed and unsigned columns during the 1930s in various far-right journals (Le Journal des Débats, La Revue Française, Le Rempart, Aux Écoutes, Réaction, La Revue du Vingtième Siècle, Combat, and L’Insurgé). Many of Blanchot’s articles in the 1930s are hot to the touch, politically speaking, and before delving into them, Bident remarks about that decade in France:
This was a period that allowed both ill-tempered splits and the compatibility of opposites, both heated invectives and compromising personal allegiances…. It was possible to shout anti-Semitic slogans before going to dinner with Jewish acquaintances…. [Léon] Blum recognized his anti-Semitic friend [Jean] Jaurès as a “guide” and a “teacher.” Like many others, Blanchot found himself in this situation. He was close to Levinas [who was Jewish] and close to [Thierry] Maulnier [a member of the nationalistic anti-Semitic movement Action Française]. These were the contradictions of the times, borne lightly and irresponsibly.
It is easier to identify what Blanchot railed against than what he advocated for in this period. He did not believe in democracy. He associated the French Third Republic with moral and political disorder (“Disorder lies not only in the immorality of the men who lead us…but in the madness of institutions”). He championed “the true traditions of la France profonde” and scorned “the inhuman Declaration of the Rights of Man” for the way it defined the freedom of the citizen negatively, as merely being “freed of historical antecedents, liberated from his natural bonds.” He lashed out frequently at the League of Nations, which he felt was dictating—and paralyzing—French policy toward German expansionism.
In these years Blanchot was one of the “non-conformistes des années trente,” as the historian Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle later dubbed the conservative French agitators who sought a “third alternative” between socialism and capitalism. He was also a Germanophobe and French nationalist. He detested Hitler and considered Nazism an existential threat to France. His denunciations of the French government’s reluctance to respond to Germany’s military buildup became ever more shrill and vehement as the decade progressed (“France, silenced by a government that is not worthy of it and that is betraying it…only seems able to submit and to capitulate”). Blanchot was also a revolutionary who called for insurrection against the French state. “The adventures of Italy and Germany are full of promise,” he wrote in Le Rempart. “While they do not show us the kind of revolution that we should hope and prepare for, they do show us that we can hope for a revolution that will save us.”
The kind of “revolution that will save us” would consist first and foremost of a spiritual cleansing of society. Blanchot believed that only a moral revolution could clear the way for the right kind of political revolution. In a piece he wrote for a Catholic student paper in 1931, he rejected Mahatma Gandhi’s Ahimsa, or nonviolence, for its nonrevolutionary spiritual quietism: “We wish to kill the modern world through the spiritual violence of sacrifice. We wish to be the anarchists of love.” For Gandhi, God was nothing but a “sort of emblem of moral conscience whose every element is psychological: it does not introduce him into another universe.” A true revolution would do precisely that—open onto another universe and, in so doing, transfigure this world. Christianity, Blanchot argued, had lost its mysticism and needed to reclaim it: “We do not suffer from a lack of faith; we suffer because so many impure elements, so many false values have appeared at the very heart of our faith.” Bident summarizes such views well: “Revolution is the sustained refusal, in all its demands and excesses, of any form of spiritual disorder.”
Blanchot saw such disorder everywhere he looked: in capitalism, parliamentarianism, Communism, and Nazism. Nazism “is trying to base itself on mysticism,” yet it was a “false” mysticism of race. He repudiated Marxism for the same reason he repudiated capitalism: both promoted a dehumanizing materialism. He objected to Communism’s opportunistic attempts to benefit from anti-Hitler sentiment. Given the persecution of intellectuals in Russia, “Communists and Marxists have lost any right to speak in the name of free thought and true culture.”
Fifty years later, long after his “transformation of convictions,” as Levinas called it, Blanchot would avow that his more extremist texts of the 1930s were “detestable and inexcusable.” One of the articles “for which I am reproached today, and rightly so,” was “Terrorism as a Method of Public Safety,” published in Combat in 1936. There he took aim at Léon Blum and his left-wing Popular Front government that came to power in 1936. While Blanchot never embraced the visceral anti-Semitism of the French far right, he deployed some of its stereotypes in his attacks on the Popular Front. For example: “A fine union, a holy alliance, is what this conglomeration of Soviet, Jewish, capitalist interests represents,” he wrote. In the Jewish socialist Blum, he saw someone who symbolically united those who appropriated capital (Jews) and those who appropriated and denatured revolution (Communists). Convinced that “legal, traditional opposition” would get nowhere with “this nothing government that the Blum government is,” Blanchot called for a “bloody upheaval” that would take it down, with “a few bullets” aimed at its “limited, weak, puny” leaders. “At the present time,” he declared, “terrorism appears to us as a method of public safety [salut public].”
By 1936, Blanchot’s dislike of anti-Semitism, fascism, and Nazism ceded precedence to anti-Communism, while his nationalism exasperated itself in paradoxes. He went so far as to argue that France should support Franco in the Spanish civil war in order to make his victory France’s victory rather than Germany’s. Perhaps Blanchot was recalling this paroxysm of logic when, in 1991, he wrote, “There is no such thing as good nationalism. Nationalism tends always to integrate everything, all values, that is how it ends up being integral, i.e., the sole value.”
As in the rest of his exhaustive biography, Bident’s chapters on Blanchot’s writings of the 1930s are thorough, probing, and nuanced. Neither whitewashing nor condemning the more controversial passages, Bident clarifies the interconnected political and editorial settings in which they were written. Bident’s prose is often opaque and unfriendly—John McKeane does an admirable job of translating it into accessible English—yet Bident serves Blanchot well in his rigorous, historically informed analyses of the political writings, both of the 1930s as well as the late 1950s and 1960s, when he briefly came out of his self-imposed seclusion to take a public stand against de Gaulle’s prosecution of the war in Algeria, and then a few years later to support the student uprisings of 1968.
Biography is by definition an indiscreet, even obscene genre. Navigating his way through the private life of a man who, more than any other writer of his era, shunned publicity and erected a protective wall around himself, Bident attempts to respect that fiercely guarded privacy while at the same time including all the detailed information about Blanchot’s austere personal life that he was able to gather over years of intensive research. In the end—as in any biography—one can’t help feeling that a certain degree of violation has taken place.
Bident’s book originally appeared in France in 1998, while Blanchot was still alive. It followed two important books about him. The British scholar Leslie Hill published in 1997 an excellent intellectual biography titled Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary (a more lucid and readable book than Bident’s). The same year, the American scholar Gerald Bruns also published a probing study called Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy. Between Bident, Hill, Bruns, and Bident’s translator McKeane—who contributes a fine essay on Blanchot’s thought, life, and politics at the end of Bident’s book—one can say that Blanchot is now very well served when it comes to biographies and commentaries in English.
The year 1937 marked a turning point in Blanchot’s life. Increasingly concerned that his own positions would be conflated with those of fascism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism, he ended his collaborations with the most active circles of the far right. He continued to write for Le Journal des Débats during the war, yet his contributions dealt more and more with literary rather than political topics. He devoted much of his energy from 1938 to 1940 to finishing his first novel, Thomas the Obscure, which was published in 1941. Written in an impersonal proto-new-novel style, this highly original work of fiction explores thoughts of fear, absence, and death. It bears Blanchot’s distinctive signature of abstraction and refusal—in this case “the refusal of psychology, the cancer of the French novel,” as he put it.1
At the end of 1940 Blanchot met Bataille, “he who was, with Emmanuel Levinas, my closest friend.” It was one of the most important encounters of his life. Their friendship would flourish far from the gaze of others, in the shadows of deeply shared sensibilities and intellectual interests: incommunicability, sickness, excess, nothingness, and, most crucially, death. Both had near-death experiences (Blanchot and his family were mock-executed by German soldiers in 1944, an experience he recounted fifty years later in his short book The Instant of My Death). Both believed that death extends far beyond the biological end of life; that its uncertain certainty and impossible possibility haunt human life from the start; and that mortality remains the ground (or nonground) of authentic selfhood and relations with others. In addition to this Heideggerian idea of the “world-disclosive” power of death, Blanchot and Bataille shared in common the Levinasian notion that the “abyss” (the Abgrund, or nonground) reveals itself above all in my relation to the other, indeed, that it makes possible my meaningful encounter with others.
Blanchot and Bataille were in many respects markedly different from each other. Their friendship flourished not only because of what they had in common but because they turned their “otherness” into a form of intimacy. In his late book The Unavowable Community (1983), Blanchot was thinking most likely of Bataille, then deceased, when he wrote:
Now, “the basis of communication” is not necessarily speech, or even the silence that is its foundation and punctuation, but exposure to death, no longer my own exposure, but someone else’s, whose living and closest presence is already eternal and unbearable absence, an absence that the work of deepest mourning does not diminish. And it is in life itself that the absence of someone else has to be met: it is with that absence…that friendship is brought into play and lost at each moment, a relation without relation or without relation other than the incommensurable.
Here Blanchot is in his proper nocturnal element, far from the journalism of the day and deep into the paradoxes of “the neuter,” an obscure term that takes on a central importance in his later writings. The philosopher Joseph Kuzma aptly defines it as “a lexical placeholder for the trace of what remains outside of being and nonbeing.”2 Within the force field of the neuter, friendship draws life from exposure to death; distance makes possible intimacy; and communication arises from incommensurability.
Friendship was sacred for Blanchot. It was perhaps the only constant of his life, during which he changed his political views significantly, yet without ever giving them priority over friendship. One could say that he loved his friends to death. He met them in the realm of estrangement—call it the space of literature—where the human condition reveals its existential forsakenness. There is an ever-receding absence in the friend, an intangibility or untenability, precisely in the moment when he or she is most present to me.
Blanchot did not have a well-articulated theory of friendship—his book Friendship (1971) certainly does not offer one—yet his life and thought, I think, revolved around his friends. Referring to Martin Buber, he wrote that “the great feat of Israel is…to have founded history upon a dialogue between divinity and humanity, this concern for reciprocal speech, in which the I and the You meet without erasing one another.” He then adds, “Speech alone can cross the abyss…the mystery and friendship of speech, its justice and reciprocity, the call it conveys and the response it awaits.”
By invoking a friendship between God and humanity, Blanchot muddies the waters. I would claim that God does not befriend us, and that friendship is what we have in lieu of God. If pushed, Blanchot would probably agree, given that he contradicts himself regarding the “reciprocity” of speech when he goes on to write, “The voice of God alone, God as voice, as power that addresses without letting itself be addressed in turn, makes this separation [between God and humanity] the locus of understanding.” This is the Deus absconditus who plays hide-and-seek with us in a way that we—and Blanchot—would find unworthy of a true friend.
Blanchot, who almost never allowed himself to be photographed, who never married, who had only one serious liaison—with Denise Rollin, a woman who, like him, insisted on living alone (with her child)—was blessed with many meaningful friendships: in addition to Levinas and Bataille there was Rollin, René Char, Robert Antelme, Dionys Mascolo, and Marguerite Duras, to mention only a few. Shortly after the war, Blanchot spent a decade in almost complete isolation in the south of France—he was seriously ill and exhausted much of the time—yet he never communed more intensely with his friends, exchanging countless letters with them. Solitude for this most reclusive of writers consisted of what he called, in the title of a major book published in 1969, “L’Entretien infini,” an infinite conversation, not only with his living friends but also with the dead, i.e., those writers and thinkers with whom he conversed through reading and writing.
Blanchot thought with and through his friends. Since most of them were writers in their own right, “reciprocal speech” mostly took the form of the written word. Indistinguishable from his love of thought, Blanchot’s love of friends turned distance into closeness and solitude into fellowship, rendering his solitude “essential.” (“The Essential Solitude” is the lead essay of The Space of Literature, perhaps his best-known book, written during his years in southern France.)
As the decades wore on, Blanchot saw most of his friends, new and old, disappear. The first wave of deaths came in the 1960s: Albert Camus in 1960, Bataille in 1962, Elio Vittorini and André Breton in 1966, Jean Paulhan in 1968, Paul Celan in 1970. (Blanchot wrote Friendship in this period.) In 1978 he lost his brother René, who had protected and cared for him his whole life. Rollin died two weeks after his brother. In the 1980s and 1990s an entire generation of titans, variously close to Blanchot, also died: Roland Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre (1980), Jacques Lacan (1981), Foucault and Henri Michaux (1984), Char (1988), Samuel Beckett (1989), Gilles Deleuze and Levinas (1995), Duras (1996), and Mascolo (1997).
Blanchot had what I would call a “disastric” rather than tragic conception of death, the latter understanding disaster as misfortune, the former as intrinsic to life in its everyday realities. Death not only terminates life, it ages life out of existence and ruins all that comes into being, from individuals to civilizations to planetary bodies. Blanchot understood life in its essence as a silent, ongoing, unending disaster. If death’s “impossibility” did not turn us inside out, if it did not separate me from myself as well as others, we could not form friendships. In the final chapter of Friendship, Blanchot writes about the death of his friend Bataille:
There was already, from the time in which we were in the presence of one another, this imminent presence, though tacit, of the final discretion, and it is on the basis of this discretion that the precaution of friendly words calmly affirmed itself. Words from one shore to the other shore, speech responding to someone who speaks from the other shore and where, even in our life, the measurelessness of the movement of dying would like to complete itself…. With death all that separates, disappears…. This is thought’s profound grief. It must accompany friendship into oblivion.
In the end Blanchot believed that only by acknowledging the disaster that always already lurks in everyday human existence—disaster understood as the “necessary death” that precedes and awaits us in life, or as the endless movement of time that dissolves identity into difference—will we be able to found what he called an “unavowable community” whose members would relate to one another not as empowered citizens or egoic subjects but as fellow witnesses of a human condition predicated on disaster and impossibility. To bring some clarity to Blanchot on this crucial matter—I appreciate his reasons for wanting to resist such elucidations—I would say that only if and when human beings “reappropriate” their own mortality will they resolutely refuse to walk over the bodies of others to reach their own graves.
In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot declared, “The holocaust: the absolute event of history.” The “unavowable community” of the future would come into being only through an absolute break with—and refusal of—the political history of the past. Blanchot adopted as his categorical imperative: “Think and act in such a way that Auschwitz may never be repeated.” Perhaps the most important word in that formulation is “think.” It is primarily in thought that we acknowledge the disaster inherent in our common, shared mortality. If Freudian terms are applicable here, the disasters of history “play out” rather than “work through” the death and loss of what we hold most dear, above all our friends. Murder plays out our inner mortality, while the unavowable community works through it.
When Saint Benedict allegorized Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10–19) as a set of rules for how to approach God, he identified two rungs with seriousness and the “mortification of laughter.” Blanchot was no Benedictine monk, yet he could easily climb those first steps. There is a serious intent in every word he wrote, and without the slightest trace of laughter. This distinguishes him from the likes of Beckett, who had a genius for injecting humor into tragedy. Blanchot had little to say about the natural world, so I’m not sure how much his philosophy of refusal can help guide us today, when history is on a collision course with nature, yet he bore witness to the disasters of his own era with a seriousness few of his contemporaries have matched.