The Nothing Beyond Nothing

Songs of the Sky, 1924, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource
Alfred Stieglitz: Songs of the Sky, 1924

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…

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