|French literary history|
Maurice Blanchot (September 27, 1907 – February 20, 2003) was a French pre-war leader of the Young Right, philosopher, literary theorist and writer of fiction. Blanchot was a distinctly modern writer who broke down generic boundaries, particularly between literature and philosophy. He began his career on the political right, but the experience of fascism altered his thinking to the point that he supported the student protests of May 1968. Like so many members of his generation, Blanchot was influenced by Alexandre Kojeve's humanistic interpretation of Hegel and the rise of modern existentialism influenced by Heidegger and Sartre. His Literature and the Right to Death shows the influence that Heidegger had on a whole generation of French intellectuals.
Little was known until recently about much of Blanchot's life, and he long remained one of the most mysterious figures of contemporary literature.
Blanchot studied philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where he befriended the Lithuanian-born French phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas. Afterward, he embarked on an extensive and dedicated career as a far-right political journalist in Paris. He was a leading far-right intellectual in France until the early 1940s. Blanchot wrote extensively for nationalistic, non-conformist, and anti-semitic pro-fascist journals such as Le Rampart, Combat, L'Insurgent, and Reaction, and became an intellectual leader of the 'Jeune Droite' (Young Right) that argued for a distinctively French form of fascism. Blanchot did write texts in 1932 objecting very harshly to anti-semitism, but this was to distinguish a more subtle French anti-capitalist anti-semitism (since attacks on 'capitalism', used as a cover for attacking Jewish business, would not contravene the Marchandeau Law on religious hatred) from what the French far-right saw as the 'cruder' race-based Nazi version of anti-semitism. His most notorious article for Combat was titled "Terrorism as a Method of Public Safety" (June 1936) in which he attacks an alleged Jewish-Communist conspiracy and talked on the consequent need for "…a series of bloody shocks, a storm that will overwhelm...terrorism appears to us as a method of public salvation."
During the occupation of Paris, Blanchot worked in Paris. Contrary to myth, he continued to write and publish until late 1942; for the staunchly Petainist Journal des debates, writing political allegories and reviews. In these reviews he laid the foundations for later French poststructuralist thinking, by examining the ambiguous rhetorical nature of language, and the problematic nature of literary truth. He refused the editorship of the collaborationist Nouvelle Revue Française, which Andre Gide had offered him, in favor of a commission from the Vichy government to edit the journal of the new Jeune France—the national cultural organization of the Ministry of Youth—that was aimed at presenting the case for a fascist-oriented cultural revolution in France.
The historian Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle calls Blanchot a "principal collaborator" (Les Non-Conformistes des annes trentes, 2001) with the Vichy regime. Only in 1982 did scholars first begin to uncover evidence of his pre-1945 fascist and collaborationist activities.
Despite his tendency to maintain distance from avant-garde groups and movements, Blanchot, partially through his correspondence with René Char, skirted the perimeters of late Surrealism in Paris. In December 1940, he met the fascist sympathizer Georges Bataille, who would remain a close friend until his death in 1962.
In June 1944, Blanchot, together with much of his family, was allegedly almost executed at the whim of a Nazi captain and his men (this is recounted in his text The Instant of My Death). However, despite post-war claims that he was part of the resistance during the Nazi occupation, no recent biographer has found any evidence of such involvement, despite detailed searches and interviews.
After the war Blanchot renounced politics and he began working only as a novelist and literary critic. For a while after the war, he frequented the same circle as Marguerite Duras and Robert Antelme. In 1947, Blanchot left Paris for the secluded village of Éze in the south of France, where he spent the next decade of his life. Like Sartre and other French intellectuals of the era, Blanchot avoided the academy as a means of livelihood, instead relying on his pen. Importantly, from 1953 to 1968, he published regularly in Nouvelle Revue Française. At the same time, he began a lifestyle of almost complete isolation, often not seeing close friends (like Levinas) for years, while continuing to write lengthy letters to them. Part of the reason for his self-imposed isolation (and only, part of it, his isolation was closely connected to his writing and is often featured among his characters) was the fact that, for most of his life, Blanchot was often very sick from any of a series of ailments.
Blanchot's political activities after the war shifted to the left (he later, on being exposed after 40 years of silence, wrote repeatedly and with much regret about his early, fascist political writings). He is widely credited with being one of three authors of the important "Manifesto of the 121," named out of its signatories which included Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Antelme, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, René Char, Henri Lefebvre, Alain Resnais, Simone Signoret, and others, rejected de Gaulle's imposition of the continuing war on Algeria and the government's demand of service to the nation through participation in the war. The manifesto was crucial to the intellectual response to the war.
In May 1968, Blanchot once again came out of personal obscurity, in favor of the student protests. His sole public appearance since the war was in support of the young Left during the events of May 1968. Yet for fifty years he remained a consistent champion of modern literature and its tradition in French letters. During the later years of his life, he repeatedly wrote against the intellectual attraction to fascism, and notably against Heidegger's post-war silence over the Holocaust.
Blanchot authored over the course of his career more than thirty works of fiction, literary criticism, and philosophy. Toward the 1970s, he worked continually to break the barriers between these (generally perceived as) different "genres" or "inclinations" of his writing, and much of his later work moves freely between narration and philosophical investigation.
In 1983, Blanchot published La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community) in response to, and as a critical engagement with, The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy's attempt to approach community in a non-religious, non-utilitarian and un-political exegesis.
He died on February 20, 2003, in Yvelines.
Blanchot draws on the work of the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in formulating his conception of literary language as anti-realist and distinct from everyday experience. Literary language, as double negation, demands that we experience the absence masked by the word as absence; it exposes us to the exteriority of language, an experience akin to the impossibility of death. Blanchot engages with Heidegger on the question of the philosopher's death, showing how literature and death are both experienced as anonymous passivity. Unlike Heidegger, Blanchot rejects the possibility of an authentic response to death, because (to put it simply) he rejects the possibility of death, that is to say of the individual's experience of death, and thus rejects, in total, the possibility of understanding and "properly" engaging with it.
Blanchot also draws heavily from Franz Kafka, and his fictional work (like his theoretical work) is shot through and through by an engagement with Kafka's writing.
Blanchot's work was also strongly influenced by his friends Georges Bataille and the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Blanchot's later work in particular is influenced by Levinasian ethics and the question of responsibility to the Other. On the other hand, Blanchot's own literary works, like the famous Thomas the Obscure, heavily influenced Levinas' and Bataille's ideas about the possibility that our vision of reality is blurred because of the use of words (thus making everything you perceive automatically as abstract as words are. This search for the 'real' reality is illustrated by the works of Paul Celan and Stéphane Mallarmé.
His best-known fictional works are Thomas the Obscure, an unsettlingly abstract novel about the experience of reading and loss; Death Sentence; Aminadab and The Most High about a bureaucrat in a totalitarian state. His central theoretical works are "Literature and the Right to Death" (in The Work of Fire and The Gaze of Orpheus), The Space of Literature, The Infinite Conversation, and The Writing of Disaster.
The main intellectual biography of Blanchot is by Christophe Bident, entitled Maurice Blanchot, partenaire invisible.
His influence on later post-structuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida is difficult to overstate. It would be wrong to speak of Blanchot's work in terms of a coherent, all-encompassing 'theory', since it is a work founded on paradox and impossibility. If there is a thread running through all his writing, it is the constant engagement with the 'question of literature', a simultaneous enactment and interrogation of the profoundly strange experience of writing. For Blanchot, 'literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question' (Literature and the Right to Death).
It is difficult yet imperative to note the particular experience of reading Blanchot: his grip on the reader and his ability to mix anguish, philosophical thought, an imagination of death, and a narrative where everything seems to almost happen is often particularly discomforting. This approach to writing would come to characterize much of the post-modern sensibility.
Principally Fiction or Narrations (récits):
Principally Theoretical or Philosophical Works:
Many of Blanchot's translators into English have established their own reputations as prose stylists and poets in their own right; some of the better known include Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Pierre Joris.
All links retrieved February 11, 2013.
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