On the Verge of Collapse
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 4 No. 17 · 16 September 1982
SIR: A trawl through your pages seems to catch more cod than salmon these days. But if you are going to continue your series of spoof reviews may this reader say how very much he prefers the Borgesian Stern on ‘Marbot’ to the leaden Sturrock on ‘Blanchot’ (LRB, 5 August)?
Shepton Mallet, Somerset
The word from Shepton Mullet appears to be that we are getting worse, and that John Sturrock’s article was some sort of low. This is an error. We are getting better, and Sturrock’s piece was among the best we have been fortunate enough to land.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 4 No. 19 · 21 October 1982
SIR: How difficult it is to assume the magisterial tone of LRB contributors! Rereading John Sturrock on Blanchot (LRB, 19 August), it becomes all the more difficult to interpose the ‘Yes, but …’ that I felt on first reading the piece. And yet to read Blanchot – even the latest, L’Ecriture du Désastre – never seems to me the joyless experience that Sturrock describes. ‘Perhaps we are at fault for ignoring the philosophical questions about writing so dear to Blanchot’s heart, and for distrusting as we do critics who generalise without paying their dues to the texts they are supposedly writing about’ is too glib a way of sliding over, rendering quaint, an enormously suggestive and quietly powerful writer.
It is this last word – ‘writer’ – which Sturrock has evident difficulty with. Having doubts as to Blanchot’s credentials as ‘critic’, he allows him finally to be ‘a spoiled Poet’ (there is room there for a – Derridean? – analysis of the capital). Must we ignore Blanchot because he does not fit ‘our’ categories? I would agree in part with Gabriel Josipovici’s letter (Letters, 2 September) that introductions are no substitute: ‘our’ loss then, not Blanchot’s, if Sturrock succeeds in dissuading English readers from ‘the first chance [they] have had to experience Maurice Blanchot’.
On the subject of Josipovici’s letter, it needs to be said that many who are serious in their interest have neither the time nor the money nor the review copies nor the university libraries to aspire to ‘serious scholarship and learning’. For such people, ‘New Accents’ and the like provide a useful rung, if not ladder, to awareness of contemporary debates. It goes without saying that ladders may be dispensed with once they have served their purpose. While Josipovici’s views on such series prevail, it is hard not to feel that what is at stake in recent quarrels over, for example, Re-Reading English is not ‘Culture’ or ‘Humanity’ but the fishing rights to a particularly prestigious stream.
Vol. 4 No. 22 · 2 December 1982
SIR: I have only recently seen John Sturrock’s generous allusion to my work on Blanchot’s political writings of the 1930s (LRB, 19 August). Unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, his reference is to the regrettably inaccurate translation in Tel Quel (Summer 1982) of an essay originally published in MLN (May 1980). Lest this demurral appear arbitrary, allow me to evoke an exemplary error in the French version. Blanchot, in the late 1930s, was calling in print for acts of terrorism agains the regime. A few years later, however, in what is something of a centrepiece for the volume Faux Pas (1943), ‘terror’ functions as metaphor for a will to implement an originary language, a delusion, claims Blanchot, generated by an exacerbation of the very ill it pretends to militate against. ‘Terror’, that is, has become the target of his (literary) critique. The translation renders ‘target’ as French but (i.e. objective).
It will be agreed that a few strategic errors of this type would seriously jeopardise an understanding of my analysis. Mr Sturrock ends his discussion by rejecting my alleged interpretation of Blanchot in terms of ‘guilt’ and ‘expiation’. But those terms are his, not mine – although I am prepared to admit that they do salvage, on rather conventional terms, the confusions of the French text. I do not pretend that Mr Sturrock, given the limits of his sympathies for Blanchot’s criticism, would agree with my argument, but he and your readers should be aware that they will find it in MLN and not in Tel Quel.
SIR: I was very happy to see John Sturrock’s interesting comments on Jeffrey Mehlman’s essay on Blanchot in his recent review of the Harvester Blanchot miscellany. The University of Minnesota Press will publish next year Jeffrey Mehlman’s Legacies: Of Anti-Semitism in France, a book that includes the essay on Blanchot as well as discussions of Lacan, Giraudoux and Gide. Your readers should know, however, that Mr Sturrock is wrong in saying that the Josipovici selection is the first Blanchot miscellany in English. Station Hill Press in Barry-town, NY brought out in 1981 the well-received selection The Gaze of Orpheus, translated by Lydia Davis and with a preface by Geoffrey Hartman.
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: My initial response to reading John Sturrock’s review of Blanchot (LRB, 19 August 1982) was to want to produce a point-by-point rebuttal of its rather distressing inaccuracies. Let me note one: the passage Sturrock quotes about Virginia Woolf is horrifying, not because of what Blanchot wrote, but because of the inadequacies of a translation which Sturrock finds to be ‘excellently’ done. Where Blanchot wrote, ‘Les lecteurs sans indulgence risquent d’être irrités en voyant cette Virginia qu’ils aiment si éprise du succès, si heureuse des louanges, si vaine d’être un instant reconnue, si blessée de ne l’être pas,’ Sturrock accepts: ‘The uncompromising reader cannot fail to be irritated … ’ Blanchot’s ventriloquism of an aesthete-ic narrow-mindedness becomes for the narrow-minded Sturrock his own position. But it is precisely this kind of aestheticism that Blanchot always writes against, as any reader of Blanchot in French can verify. Sturrock accuses Blanchot of a rather facile essentialism – words like ‘essential’, ‘pure’, ‘total’ are used to characterise his position – but Blanchot’s incessant concern has been to go beyond (not ‘transcend’) such a conception of the work as a ‘space magnificently free from chance’ to the apprehension of what always exceeds the essential, an apprehension of what he calls ‘the other night’, which is not a literary space that excludes the alien but the place of the alien itself – not as a kind of ‘home’ or resting-place, but as the proximity of what is always homeless, has no essence or ground. It seems right to see in this an anti-fascist political element, but it is important precisely to see it as a political position and not the repression of such a position. If Sturrock could bring himself to read Blanchot’s quasi-autobiographical political novel Le Très-Haut (does Sturrock read French?), he’d find Blanchot well aware of the political elements in his thought; for Blanchot, as for Benjamin, fascism is a violent reaction against a heterogeneous non-essentialism that always exceeds totalisation. The same thought that leads the young narrator of Le Très-Haut to fascism eventually leads him beyond it, and it seems safe to regard this as Blanchot’s itinerary also. Sturrock’s Blanchot is a narrow-minded construction founded upon a bad translation; I hope his sloppiness doesn’t turn readers away from the work of probably the most astonishing critic and writer of our times. Blanchot articulates ‘the absolute proximity of non presence’, as Joseph Libertson calls it, a proximity uncanny in its intimacy, which once felt can never be forgotten. His writing deserves better translators and less complacent reviewers.
Ithaca, New York
John Sturrock writes: I have much to learn, I can see, when it comes to turning readers away from the books of Maurice Blanchot. My own mildly apotropaic words are happily redundant now that William Flesch has trundled from its Ithacan silo his ultimate deterrent: to wit, his warning to approaching readers that ‘Blanchot articulates “the absolute proximity of non-presence”.’ Perhaps there are lonely persons to hand who pine for such proximity: I do not. Perhaps there are Blanchomanes about besides Mr Flesch and his friend Joseph Libertson who know what the phrase means: I do not. The fact that Flesch offers it by way of a straight-faced inducement to potential readers of Blanchot leads me to ask in my turn: does Flesch know English? But happy in my ignorance I shall, file the phrase away as an apt and sufficient vaccination against the many similarly dismal vapidities to be found in Blanchot’s own writings. Turning now to Virginia Woolf: I hear no ‘ventriloquism’ but rather Blanchot saying, in indicative mood, that it is possible to be irritated by Virginia Woolf’s crippling sensitivity concerning the reception of her books, and that indulgence is required if this is not to weaken our respect for her. I cannot imagine anyone’s respect for Virginia Woolf being weakened by learning from her Diaries the degree to which she suffered each time she published a book: one’s respect is much strengthened, by sympathy. Blanchot, it would seem, can imagine it weakening. His formulation is at best condescending and at worst priggish. Finally, Flesch manages to discern ‘an anti-fascist political element’ in Blanchot’s concern with ‘the other night’, or else ‘the place of the alien itself etc. It is not in such insultingly depopulated regions that I would look myself for anti-fascist political elements. If Blanchot wishes us to know that he has become an anti-fascist then he should tell us so openly, just as he told us of his distinctly fascist views in the 1930s. If political allegiances are to be buried as deep as, in Flesch’s reading, Blanchot buries them, they are meaningless. An arcane anti-fascism will not serve to exorcise the ugly and extremist views Blanchot held and publicised before the war.
In an earlier letter (Letters, 2 December 1982) Jeffrey Mehlman faulted me for not understanding just what he was getting at in his essay on Blanchot. I’m sorry if the mistranslations in the Tel Quel version of this misled me, but I’m nol convinced that they did. The ‘something of a centrepiece’ which Mehlman refers to in Blanchot’s collection, Fauxpas, is a chapter called ‘Comment la littérature estelle possible?’. It is by way of an extended review of Jean Paulhan’s luminously perverse little book Les Fleurs de Tarbes ou (subtitle) La Terreur dans les Lettres. The ‘terror’ for Paulhan is that ultra-Romantic attitude which asks that the true writer start from scratch, abjuring all literary precedent and re-creating his language as he goes. Against this Paulhan argues for the virtues of clichés, rules, conventions, as a way, precisely, of avoiding mere ‘verbalism’ and directing the reader’s mind to the underlying thoughts. The ‘terror’ functions in Les Fleurs de Tarbes, as Mehlman says it does, as a ‘metaphor for a will to implement an ordinary language’, but the metaphor is Paulhan’s, not Blanchot’s, as one might conclude from Mehlman’s letter. (Was it Paulhan’s even, or part of the critical parlance of the day, i.e. a cliché?) Nor, so far as I can see, is the ‘terror’ Blanchot’s ‘target’, which is what Mehlman should have been made to say in Tel Quel. In his commentary on Paulhan’s book, Blanchot parts company with its author by claiming that in a sense the terrorists are in the right, since it is the ambition of all literature to achieve an utter originality, that this is the illusion which sustains the writer, even if it can never be realised. Which leaves me more unclear still as to the logic of Mehlman’s account of Blanchot’s transition from pamphleteer to literary high priest.