SEPTEMBER 14, 2019
“I REMEMBER A YOUNG MAN,” writes Maurice Blanchot at the start of his last book, The Instant of My Death (1994), transporting himself back to 1944. “I remember a young man — a man still young — prevented from dying by death itself — and perhaps the error of injustice.” In just a few hundred words, Blanchot recounts how a Nazi lieutenant knocked on the door of his family home, an old château located in the provincial region of Quain in eastern France. Although the Allies had already landed on French soil, the Germans continued to struggle in vain against them, the war already lost but not yet over. The lieutenant ordered everyone outside, commanding the young man, along with his mother, aunt, sister, and sister-in-law, to line up for the firing squad. Upon request, however, Blanchot’s family was allowed to go back inside. He would die alone. All of a sudden, the young man felt seized by the inevitable grip of death, carried outside himself, suspended in time. He felt an “extraordinary lightness” — not happiness but a “sort of beatitude,” or “sovereign elation.” Then the sounds of battle rung out from nearby, probably “comrades” in the Resistance, he thought. The lieutenant stepped aside, and the Nazis, who were actually members of a collaborationist Russian army, abruptly left to join the skirmish. Blanchot and his family, so it seemed, had been “saved.”
When the soldiers returned, they ransacked the château. They stole a manuscript presumed to be war documents but didn’t burn everything down. Maybe, Blanchot muses, they recognized the significance of the number “1807” inscribed on the entrance to the building, the year Hegel completed the Phenomenology just as Napoleon, “the spirit of the world,” passed under the philosopher’s window in Jena, Germany. Of course, Hegel’s home had been pillaged on that fateful day of Franco-Prussian conflict, when history supposedly ended. It’s more likely the soldiers assumed that the residents of the château were of a “noble class,” deeming them “Seigneurs” protected from assassination even in times of war, unlike the neighboring farmers whose bodies had been scattered among the ashes of what used to be their homes. This is “the error of injustice” that would haunt Blanchot and his writing for decades, spanning the 50 years between this event and his later attempts to remember what had happened, or what had failed to happen, or couldn’t stop not happening to him — who was already someone else.
Today we’re accustomed to the psychoanalytic vocabulary that would name this experience as trauma. Blanchot, trying to indicate the ordinary uneventfulness of trauma, preferred the word “disaster.” Disaster, he says elsewhere, “ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” In The Instant of My Death, his writing of disaster oscillates between testimony and fiction, as Jacques Derrida elaborates in a 100-page commentary accompanying the English-language edition. Blanchot’s narrative is in the first person, but it recalls the experience of another, a “man still young,” from an irremediable distance. The author would often have recourse to such an experience of narrative self-dispossession and depersonalization before death. He would argue that dying always eludes the grasp of comprehension by which the subject tries to put the totality of things at their disposal in the world. Dying leaves you passive and undone, exposed to the impropriety of your own death, as much as the death of the other. So how do you write about an experience of dying when you don’t really die but survive your own death and live on in its aftermath? How might that unbelievable, even impossible experience end up transforming you? How might it attune you to an entirely different sense of what it is to be alive and to die in an unjust world, where some lives are systemically rendered more disposable than others? “I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence,” Blanchot suggests in the concluding lines of the story. “As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. ‘I am alive. No, you are dead.’”
In the final chapter of his biography of Blanchot, Christophe Bident touches on the untimely status of The Instant of My Death. Even if this strange little text, Bident reminds us, reiterates much of Blanchot’s preoccupations as an author, punctuating his most incisive literary and philosophical themes relating to the temporality of disaster, it hardly puts anything to rest. At the end, we return to the beginning of a writer’s life marked by premature death and survival. We become caught in a loop that encourages us to go back to the texts themselves.
The Instant of My Death constitutes one of the few semi-autobiographical statements given by a French writer, one who, for most of the 20th century, had withdrawn from the public gaze, whether academic recognition or mass-media popularity, devoting his life instead to “the silence of literature.” At odds with the platform granted to the public intellectual in postwar France, Blanchot disappeared into writing. His research into the anonymity of language, above all literary language, sought to reassess the social role of the writer when divested of identity, authority, and subjectivity. Blanchot’s was a marginal intervention that would rival Jean-Paul Sartre’s vociferous appeal for a “committed literature” [littérature engagée] in response to the failure of the avant-garde to combat the rise of fascism and construct a viable alternative. Blanchot, by contrast, asked whether the most engaged form of literature might in fact be disengaged. And he considered whether the language of a modernist literature running through 1930s Surrealism up to the contemporary moment might safeguard an ethical-political refusal incompatible with the universal values of action, labor, meaning, and power to which Sartre’s doctrine of existential humanism still firmly subscribed.
The literature of refusal Blanchot examined is neither committed nor autonomous but inoperative. This English word approximates Blanchot’s untranslatable play on the concept “désœuvrement,” signifying at once “idleness” and “the undoing of the work” (œuvre), whether it be the individual work of art or the program of humanity itself. In recent years, the critical potentialities of this term have started to gain traction, picked up by thinkers as varied as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and Cuban-American queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, but Blanchot’s own usage pertains quite specifically to the “unworking” or “worklessness” of literature. Inoperative literature, according to Blanchot, neutralizes the labor of the negative by which Hegel’s entire dialectic of history unfolds. Its language is liable to ruin meaning, dismantle the work as a whole, contest the established social order, and suspend the course of history — that is, the progressive historical movement of humanity toward its full self-realization and achievement in the West. Yet refusal here is not only negative. It also affirms a sense of freedom no longer subordinate to the work of technical-scientific rationality, but characterized by an open responsiveness to the other, the unknown, the outside.
Ultimately, Blanchot’s approach to disengaged or inoperative literature was shaped by close friendships with two very different figures of postwar French thought, Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Levinas. He borrowed the notions of general economy and experience from Bataille and of infinite ethical responsibility from Levinas, whose wife and daughter he also helped to hide during the Occupation. And whereas Sartre may have enjoyed more name recognition than any of these thinkers after the war, especially among Anglophone readers across the Atlantic, Blanchot would nonetheless become a singular witness to the massive upheavals and crises of his time, all the while quietly reorienting the course that French literature and philosophy would take in the years to come.
One might venture to say, with only slight exaggeration, that this mysterious, withdrawn, yet extraordinarily influential figure is the secret vector animating 20th-century French thought. Sometimes cited, usually erased, his unclassifiable literary output across multiple genres — including novels, short stories, literary criticism, theory, tracts, fragments, and (we’ll get back to it soon) testimony or autobiography — would inspire philosophers from Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida to Hélène Cixous. At the same time, his literary research into the inertia of being would resonate with much more popular Francophone writers, ranging from Marguerite Duras to Samuel Beckett, not to mention the pathbreaking cineaste Jean-Luc Godard, whose films would embrace the limits of the disclosable.
Blanchot has likewise made an indelible mark in the United States. Over 40 years ago, Lydia Davis began to translate some of his most riveting stories, such as Death Sentence (1948), and provocative literary essays, such as those collected in The Gaze of Orpheus (1981). Another of his translators, Paul Auster, reoriented Blanchot’s exploration of the impossible within the obscure errancy of the detective novel. And, more recently, Claudia Rankine’s lyric poem Citizen (2014) cites a sequence of Blanchot’s pronouncements on literary space while laying bare the everydayness of racial violence. From various standpoints, these writers — experimental poets and novelists all — contribute to the ongoing malleability and dissemination of the proper name Blanchot.
One might suspect, then, that an English-language translation of Bident’s “critical biography” of Blanchot has been due for quite some time, given that it was published in France in 1998. And now we have John McKeane to thank for stepping up to the task, lucidly translating over 600 pages that pursue the intricate twists and turns of Blanchot’s long vocation as an author. The book tracks his metamorphosis from a far-right political journalist in the 1930s into a writer of literary-philosophical fiction and criticism positioned on the far left, all the way up to The Instant of My Death at the close of the millennium. Bident is especially attentive to Blanchot’s constant negotiations between literary and political engagements, or disengagements, depending on the material circumstances of the situation. His fictional and critical writings — from Thomas the Obscure (1941) to The Infinite Conversation (1969) and beyond — not only exploded narrative and generic conventions but also invented new literary forms of refusal with considerable political ramifications.
Blanchot’s disappearance into the silence of literature didn’t stop him from taking direct political initiatives either. He refused de Gaulle’s dictatorial rise to power in 1958, co-drafted “The Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War” (a.k.a. “The Manifesto of the 121”) in 1960, and immersed himself in the Worker-Student Action Committees during the events of May ’68. Even though most well-known French intellectuals disparaged the utopian promise of the late-’60s uprisings, Blanchot spontaneously joined writers like Duras in forging alliances of solidarity with students, workers, and international revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro and the Black Panthers. All along, his increasingly fragmentary writing would bear witness to the disaster of World War II and the extermination of the Jews in Europe; the oppression of colonialism, totalitarianism, and Stalinist communism; and the rising hegemony of liberal capitalism across the globe. For Blanchot, the domains of literature and politics would converge and modify one another, contesting everything and bringing to the fore an alternative mode of coexistence whose refusal of domination nearly always corresponded to the ordeal of writing.
Nevertheless, it might also be a somewhat controversial time to publish a translation of Blanchot’s biography, as numerous critics have become concerned, not for the first time, with his 1930s political journalism, much of which was reprinted in a heavy volume two years ago. For the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy — who once undertook friendly conversation with Blanchot around the question of an “inoperative community” detached from sovereign foundation and identity — those articles are damning. Nancy contends, in short, that they imbue Blanchot’s postwar writing with a dangerously nostalgic Christian metaphysics of communion and fusion inseparably linked to fascism. (For a comprehensive discussion of these debates, see Leslie Hill’s 2018 book Nancy, Blanchot: A Serious Controversy.)
Another line of criticism has invoked the specters of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man to argue that yet another prominent deconstructionist has been undermined by fascistic and antisemitic tendencies that their later work either concealed or passed over in silence. It’s evident that a handful of Blanchot’s early articles employ antisemitic stereotypes, associating Jewishness with capitalist conspiracy, international Soviet rule, and foreignness. One of his main targets was the prime minister of the socialist-leaning government of the Popular Front, Léon Blum, whose Jewish background incited slurs in the press, to say the least. Yet Blanchot also persistently challenged the racist and bellicose ideology of Hitlerism, setting him apart from both Heidegger and de Man. One could argue that his anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anticommunist political stance at the time didn’t support a fascistic worldview so much as a revolutionary nationalism that aspired to restore a weakened France to its spiritual destiny and grandeur. Blanchot wanted, in a certain way, to make France great again, at times going so far as to call for acts of terror against the state. As many scholars are now realizing, the wide array of “non-conformist” political positions in 1930s Europe, not all explicitly fascistic, can help to shed light on the spectrum of far-right populisms and ethno-nationalisms spreading around the globe today.
When asked to reflect on his early journalism many years later, Blanchot would assume responsibility for most if not all of its faults, but perhaps not clearly enough to satisfy many of his proponents and detractors. As Bident points out, “attempts to bring clarity to the past of the 1930s are part of Blanchot’s autobiographical unveiling in the 1980s.” “Nothing,” Bident continues, “can replace a clear-eyed reading of these old texts.” Blanchot undoubtedly should be held accountable for what he wrote and edited as a young man, in addition to affiliating with virulently fascistic and antisemitic papers, even if he didn’t endorse all of their views. But direct comparisons to either Heidegger or de Man don’t hold water. Blanchot, unlike de Man, didn’t actively support the collaborationist governments in France or Belgium (though the details are still under debate, such as his decisions to write literary reviews for the pro-Vichy Journal des débats and to become, however briefly, the literary director of the cultural association Jeune France, naïvely hoping, in his own words, “to use Vichy against Vichy.”). And, unlike Heidegger, Blanchot not only didn’t rationalize a commitment to National Socialism via a lofty philosophical discourse but sought to combat its entire program. Moreover, whereas Heidegger remained silent about the death camps after the war, Blanchot endeavored to commemorate the disaster and grapple with its devastating implications for the future of thought. “The wish of all, in the camps, the last wish,” he wrote, was to “know what has happened, do not forget, and at the same time never will you know.” In striving to reimagine the ethico-political stakes of literature after Auschwitz, Blanchot laid claim to vigilance rather than elision.
But only so much can be said in the constraints of this review. Blanchot’s journalism, in the final analysis, needs to be read in its entirety, while also being situated in the sociopolitical climate of the 1930s, in order to be persuasively understood and criticized. Perhaps the all too banal thoughtlessness of violent political invective in the name of nationalism, where fear and hatred of all kinds tend to flourish, is dangerous enough in itself to warrant our scrutiny.
Despite the delay in its English-language translation, Bident’s biography still provides much of the context necessary to read Blanchot’s far-right journalism and trace the gradual process of transformation he would undergo just before and after the war — due, as it were, to an experience of literature. Blanchot’s writing of fiction and literary criticism, from the late ’30s onward, entailed a practice of risk-taking that would put the self under erasure. Writing was “my true life,” he later claimed; it “estranged me from every other exigency, all the while changing my identity and orienting it towards an ungraspable and anguishing unknown.” It was writing that detached Blanchot from any former adherence to French nationalism, turning him, at least to some extent, into an internally displaced exile. Writing made him responsive to a demand for justice resounding within a plural, multilinguistic, and transnational confluence of literature. During the 1960s, Blanchot conceived the improbable coincidence between the exigencies of literature and politics as a form of “friendship” or even a “communism of writing.” Alongside this heterodox communism, he followed Levinas by way of the Jewish tradition in asserting the ethical demands of exodus — of reaching out toward the other.
To chart the life of a writer who devoted most of his own writing to casting his life into doubt, Bident draws from interviews, letters, archival sources, and an abundance of material from 70 years of his subject’s work. The classical form of the biography, however, wouldn’t be adequate to the task. Nor could semi-autobiographical testaments like The Instant of My Death settle anything either. And Blanchot himself opted not to interfere because he claimed to have no authority over his own life narrative anyway. After all, many years earlier he had already elucidated the predicament of writing in terms of self-effacement and exile, anticipating by nearly two decades Barthes’s far less radical view of the death of the author.
Rather than reducing the meaning of a text to the author’s intentions, historical circumstances, or, well, biography, Blanchot delves first and foremost into the experience of writing. What matters for him is how this experience induces the self to become other than itself, all the while communicating to the reader, in and through language, that ordeal of self-othering. The writing process thereby implicates the author within the work, although only in the sense that they have been excluded from without. The author, in other words, is intimately tied to the work by a process of separation and abandonment. One of the chief virtues of Bident’s biography is that he integrates this dynamic of literary space and experience into his own approach, so as to outline the trajectory of an author’s living, dying, and writing. The result resembles Michel Surya’s 2002 biography of Bataille in avoiding reductionist pitfalls by focusing on the lived experience of writing itself. (Incidentally, Surya has since emerged as one of Blanchot’s most vehement critics, siding with Bataille’s unconditional political defiance during the postwar period.)
Most of Blanchot’s literary criticism likewise focuses on the “experience” of writers, from Mallarmé to Proust, from Woolf to Kafka. His method involves reading the ways in which the language of a particular literary work searches for the essence and origin of literature in general. And yet the work tends to encounter nothing but the unjustifiable baselessness of literature. Literature has no substance, no stable essence, no foundation; it could say anything and everything or nothing at all. That fact, however, does not relieve the writer of the responsibility to contend with the work’s conditions of generation, the impossibility that consigns it to the fragmentary breakdown and dissolution of désœuvrement. The source of the work — that is, writing — therefore doesn’t stem from the heroic mastery and power of the author, but from extreme passivity, powerlessness, destitution. It involves an act of relinquishing the “I” elsewhere held to secure the self-unifying authorship and accomplishment of the work. It displaces the author/reader within another configuration of literary space to which no one belongs, over which no one has ownership, and out of which flows an impersonal and neutral language without subject. The writer’s inscribed experience doesn’t thereby cover up the historical conditions of their life, but exceeds and disrupts those conditions, giving rise to unforeseen departures outside. So even if Blanchot was incapable of thoroughly parsing out the experience of his so-called metamorphosis, as well as the continuities or discontinuities thereof, his life writing gives us the occasion to do so despite him.
Blanchot recalls us to this literary experience of self-disidentification in The Instant of My Death, along with most of his writing published after the war. Again and again he evokes moments of suspension in the face of death where you, as the reader, are called to vigilance, to listen to an exorbitant appeal for friendship and justice in the wake of disaster. You might feel in the process not only “sovereign elation” but also “compassion for suffering humanity,” if not suffering at large. “He was perhaps suddenly invincible,” Blanchot says, reiterating that instant before the firing squad. “Dead — immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.”
What Blanchot alerts us to here, and elsewhere, is the finitude that we share in common and that refuses total domination. He awakens us to the ways that life and death, self and other, word and thing co-inhabit one another in the expanse of a cosmos no longer centered on the workings of human beings. His gamble is that literature — whether fiction, poetry, testimony, letters, declarations, graffiti, criticism, everyday speech, and more — articulates such an anonymous and collective space of struggle. That’s what remains in and through writing, what dies and what lives on.