French writer, essayist and novelist, Maurice Blanchot died on Thursday February 20 at the age of 95. In a fantasy world his death would have gone almost unnoticed. Only in a fantasy, nonetheless. For Blanchot was the most enigmatic writer of 20th century France. And, in an untypical sense, he was one of its greatest.
After frenetic activity as a rightwing political journalist in his youth, Blanchot leaned toward the novel and nationalist revolution, only to join the French Resistance during WWII. In the ensuing decades, his galvanizing communism led him away from fiction and toward the essay idiom to forge one of the most profound oeuvres in French literature. He published little since the nineteen-eighties. Yet his literary presence draped an unfathomed cape of darkness over the course of what we call here: ‘French poststructural thought’; and there: philosophy tout court.
Next to Jean-Paul Sartre, Blanchot’s incarnation as a writer turned an entire generation of philosophers and intellectuals toward musings on literature. Alain Badiou unequivocally labeled his effect on philosophy as one of literary fetishism. His work shrunk philosophy into the meandering lines of ambiguity in which truth is less determined as a value than as descriptive energy. Its consequence was to make the ‘void’ into an ever-evolving concept, regardless of its perpetual withdrawal.
To be sure, the metaphysical extremism characteristic of Blanchot’s deepest essays is a Western study in philosophical fanaticism. From the care with which his circle kept him screened from media exposure, to his elation for political extremism first of the Right, then of the Left, Blanchot’s truth has lain in the shelter that a shadow affords. But it also made analysis succumb to the confusion of a place from which there is barely a return.
In the heat of the events of May-June 1968 in Paris, the author described his silhouette venturing into the assemblies of a student occupied Sorbonne. At a moments’ resolve, Michel Foucault had hoisted a black flag in celebration of the fall of classical France. A passing non-encounter with Foucault embodied the terms according to which Blanchot struck his key concept of the dehors, the outside, into the nature of friendship itself. Yet only in writing did the silhouette he carry for his readers in real life end up endowed with a body. Writing for him was a spiritual, radical act of creation. As the author’s self vanished in the text, events arose into the obscure presence of the type of act from which consecration is unleashed.
In the 1960s, Blanchot’s written art was primarily one in search of spatial limits. His individualistic and uncompromising undertaking into the drift lines of Holderlin’s poetry and Kafka’s world on a pinhead best embodied the approach and immersion he sought of the infinite. This was no mathematical journey, regardless of how ‘Platonic’ a mathematician is willing to be. Blanchot’s infinite was the lived experience of death in L’Espace literaire (translated by Ann Shmock in 1989 as The Space of Literature). It swung stoically to and fro on a painful line by which the utterly outside was made accessible. That this was no unreachable absolute was underscored by the openness of his prose to any reader. Its experience was nonetheless reserved for the slow tempo of reading, and for readers alone.
To say that you are confronted to your own death in reading Blanchot is merely to proclaim the desirable. A pattern of thought emptied to the extreme of categories and models is a desert landscape where only scorpions thrive. Yet even their contours fail to resist the kind of depletion the mind performs at its limits.
Nor was there perhaps an essayist as sadistic with the “infinite interview” compelled onto a writer in his relationship with the tools of art. Beneath the frustration with the timeless inertia of Blanchot’s death concept, largely emanating from the misleading pressures of daily life, lies a reading experience unrivalled in its proximity to the reader’s own dissolution. In it converge the desires of an atheist meditation.
Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Blanchot’s rejection of God appears to bear out all margins of faith. His literary extremism stretched between a step and a breath. But the political extremism of his youth often moved closer to a strike and a bomb. It is what one gets when depriving analysis from the realities of class and sectorial struggle, technocratic interest, the lies of international finance, emphatic corporatism and religious tows and trends, not to mention consumerist delusions and free market folly.
Strikingly, when some of these points of attack were part of Blanchot’s politics, he remained on the far-right. When his writing conjured them away as profoundly corrupted thought, his projection of egalitarian community grew ever more concrete.
None of this belies the fact that the beauty of Blanchot’s prose was obtained only at the cost of having embraced political extremism. Beauty’s sustenance prevails in writing after writing primarily in the wake of the memory and strength of radical collective invention. For Blanchot truth circulates within a compass, but the geography it measures only ends up in terror when the writer fails art by forcing it to coexist with politics.
This is how and why his question remains ours as well. Is the bridge between poles and extremes the primary access to deepest knowledge? And doesn’t such knowledge compel us as political and moral beings to have to seek social justice and de-concentration of wealth by means that keep adjourning the need to finally utter: let’s get the deed done by any means necessary?
Surely Blanchot’s profoundly unwavering friendship with philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is testimony to the depths to which brotherly love prevails, unmoved by offence and innovated upon the tensions relationships instigate. To Levinas’ ethical disposition, Blanchot offered radical subversion. To Levinas’ Talmudic dissolution of European Christian philosophy, Blanchot, for a time, embraced anti-Semitism as the nihilistic end of Western thought-at least in the representation it expressed up to the Shoah. In the concept each thinker held of ‘ends’ lay renewal in resistance, thought and the written form. And each struggled consciously with the “errors” that extremism seems often to bring out of necessity-to which neither were immune.
Blanchot’s political resistance to modern capitalism took hold at the moment when thought and art reach their breaking point in the rule of mediocrity. The preeminence of death as a motive for truth seemed to consciously reject the idea of any commitment that sought to avoid confrontation as a means to gain knowledge. This tension is what keeps shaping our struggles today.
Devotion and loyalty, intrigue and death, Blanchot’s literature was ultimately a fanatical commitment to breaking down politics as the destiny of humankind as so many splintered groupings. Thrown into collectives and manifolds, the outside is a moment reached only when the individual effects self-dissolution. Yet, no matter how the ontological rigor of his prose may have transformed many of his readers, it has also left us deprived of the tie to political innovation. Or, at least, did his logic entail that such innovation lay outside of what can be imagined within the framework of contemporary democracies.
So is it that in his extremism Blanchot’s politics were beyond all else a devotion to liberty and difference. He rejected the politics of victimization issuing from the privatized, corporate collectivities fostered by management theory in the latter’s lofty attempts at coining the limits of efficient group dynamics. And he showed not only little contempt for all the privatized pseudo-scientific self-help therapies born in its wake.
This is how the knowledge of the outside to where Blanchot has brought us may ultimately be one from which the rule of political moderation over extremism wields a most subtle sword. Far from betraying his faith in extremism, this conclusion only underscores how it is through a lack of compromise in relation to truth that the manipulation the country now faces must be dealt with. Radical collective innovation based on structurally egalitarian models in art as in politics summons the truth like no other stance.
In the end, Blanchot’s lesson is that one has to choose, and that one has no choice but to choose. A new breed of necessity is what others misrepresent as destiny. Few choices lead to effect. The greatness of Blanchot’s work is that effects made choice itself a radical necessity for art. Far from the atheist saint his literary silhouette projects, Blanchot’s memory prevails in its most accomplished form as a philosophical demon altering the terms on which communities may match the expectations and demands of crowds.
NORMAN MADARASZ, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, lives in Brazil. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org