On the Verge of Collapse

John Sturrock

The Siren’s Song is the first chance English readers have had to experience Maurice Blanchot. If it is the case, as Gabriel Josipovici pre-emptively asserts in his introduction, that Blanchot ‘is, with Walter Benjamin, the finest literary critic of the century’, then we have been grievously remiss in leaving him for so long untranslated. For Blanchot isn’t new: he is in his mid-seventies, he has been writing criticism for forty years, he has published 15 books and he is, in France, an undoubted star. Even there, however, I suspect that few people would feel as generous towards him as Josipovici does, because Blanchot is a writer whom many French readers, trained though they be in the rigours of the higher abstraction, find too much for them. He was never exactly a simple writer and with the years he has become tiresomely opaque. His most recent book, of fragments pessimistically titled L’Ecriture du Désastre, is so cryptic as to border on the repellent. Blanchot is too hermetic a thinker to rank with those contemporary French theorists who are difficult but interestingly difficult – with Lacan or Derrida. He is awfully serious about literature, and awfully hard to enjoy.

He must be conceded one great virtue, on the other hand: utterly unlike such bravura performers as Lacan and Derrida, he is magisterially self-effacing. Blanchot is a name in France, but not a face or a living presence. He is not seen in public and he does not pronounce on the issues of the day, nor put his signature to those spectacular round-robins by which intellectuals manifest their allegiances. I do not recall ever having seen a photograph of him, nor – is it possible? – having read an interview with him. His social and political opinions are either not sought or else steadfastly refused. Blanchot has an intellectual authority which he forbears conspicuously to use; he has become identical with his quite prolific writings, many of which began as piecemeal contributions to the Nouvelle Revue Française.

In an essay included in The Siren’s Song, on the 19th-century aphorist Joubert, Blanchot has this to say:

A living writer, however detached and uncaring, always fights for his books. Simply by being alive he supports them with that life which he has dedicated to them. But his death, even when unnoticed, revives the mystery and closes the circuit of thought. Will this thought, now isolated, expand or shrink? And is it truly isolated? For oblivion does not always reward those whose exquisite reticence seems to have deserved it most.

Joubert managed to be even more unobtrusive than Blanchot, publishing nothing while he was alive and leaving it to his friend Chateaubriand to make his writings known posthumously. Reticence as exquisite as that has not been Blanchot’s, but he salutes in Joubert a fellow-spirit. His reflection that oblivion may be denied to those who seek it, self-defeatingly, by bequeathing written memorials of themselves, is duplicitous to say the least. There is no obvious modesty in Blanchot’s withholding of himself from the world, but rather censure of our ingrained triviality in wanting authors also to walk among us as persons. In his own terms Blanchot has been shamming dead all this while, proudly if not exquisitely reticent, a seductive vacancy behind his writings.

He was not always so withdrawn, however. There was a time in his life when Blanchot was far from detached, and far from playing the sulky aristocrat of letters. In the 1930s he was political and his writings of those years are peculiarly ignominious. I am sorry that Josipovici, as sponsor of the present selection of Blanchot’s literary essays, rather pretends that these earlier pieces don’t exist. He follows Blanchot’s own lead and promises us that ‘there are no intriguing biographical details to arouse our interest or sympathy, nor ... espousing of popular causes such as Marxism or Mysticism.’ But there are intriguing details and an espousing of causes to be reckoned with, because for two or three years before the war Blanchot was a zealous adherent of the nationalist Right, and contributed some offensively reckless journalism to its periodical, Combat. This extreme right-wing association of Blanchot’s has faded with time to not much more than a discreditable rumour, perhaps because no one had bothered to go to the files and see what he actually wrote in those febrile days. But now someone has bothered: and in the latest (Summer 1982) number of Tel Quel, an American professor, Jeffrey Mehlman, gives an extremely revealing analysis of Blanchot’s ideology and its sources, derived from his forgotten articles in Combat.

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