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.

Forty-five years ago, Blanchot was capable of writing with a crudeness and topicality it would now pain him excessively to admit to, as he taunted his country and its Popular Front government for their feebleness and decadence: ‘It is necessary for there to be a revolution, because you don’t modify a regime which holds everything, which has its roots everywhere, you suppress it, you chop it down. It is necessary for this revolution to be violent, because from a people that has sunk as low as ours you can’t draw the strength and the passion for a renewal by decent means, but by bloody shocks, by a storm that will overturn in order to arouse ... That is why terrorism now seems to us a method of public salvation.’

So Blanchot isn’t the ideological virgin his post-war writings would give one to suppose. The mystery is to know how he could pass so suddenly from nasty claptrap of this sort to the fearsomely chaste literary speculations of which The Siren’s Song is full. Like other unstable elements on the revolutionary right in France, he seems to have switched comprehensively to the left during the war, drawing close to the Marxists even if he never quite joined them. (The writer Claude Roy, who himself went from membership of the Action Française to fervent Stalinism in no time at all, testifies to this reversal of alliances on Blanchot’s part in his memoirs.) By 1945, so far as one can see, Blanchot was altogether out of politics and into the sanctuary of literature. At much the same time as Sartre was asking the question ‘Qu’est-ce que la littérature?’ and answering it from somewhere way out on the marxisant Left, Blanchot was asking the more philosophical and timeless question, ‘Comment la littérature est-elle possible?’ and failing to answer it at all.

In his Tel Quel article Mehlman takes the line that Blanchot’s renunciation of his quasi-fascist views was a guilty act, and that his subsequent ideas about literature have been determined by his private need to make a clean break with his past. The argument is ingenious but thin, and it would be misleading to adopt it. Blanchot’s literary ideas are more profitably taken as literary ideas and not as the outcome of some presumed political cover-up. To treat them as a voluntary sublimation of Blanchot’s guilt feelings would be to rob them of objective significance, as if he could never have come to the conclusions he has come to about the nature of literature if he hadn’t previously called for a violent revolution in the pages of Combat.

If one is to make sense of Blanchot, and that isn’t so easy, it has to be as the follower of Mallarmé. Unlike that other prominent Mallarméen, Jacques Lacan, Blanchot does not follow the master by tying monstrous knots in the syntax of French, but by absorbing and trying to extend Mallarmé’s thought. He has written a number of essays on Mallarmé, and they are among the most usefully explicit of all his writings. Two of them are translated in The Siren’s Song, as ‘Mallarmé and Literary Space’ and ‘The Book to Come’, and anyone wanting a fairly coherent, I don’t say simple way-in to Blanchot/Mallarmé would do well to start with these. I introduce the ungainly compound Blanchot/Mallarmé because, when Blanchot is writing about Mallarmé, there is no telling where one begins and the other ends. Indeed, this applies to Blanchot throughout. His is a very French kind of criticism. He is never looking to quarrel with the writers he is writing about but to insinuate his own thoughts in amongst theirs, in sociable corroboration of them. It is never clear, nor meant to be clear, who is shaping whom, whether it is Blanchot who is taking the lead, or Mallarmé, or Kafka, or Rilke. The critic finds himself in deep agreement with them all. Blanchot expands on, more than he expounds, his favourite writers.

With Mallarmé, he believes that literature has an essence and that it is the most important thing that there is. The true writer – and Blanchot can’t find room for very many of these – is one who is knowingly and unswervingly in pursuit of this essence. He is the Poet, the Mallarméan Poet to be precise, aspiring to cleanse language of those mundane responsibilities it acquires in the daily conduct of our business in the world, which keep it earth-bound. The Poet will make out of natural language, so called, something perfectly artificial: an object of immaculate, autonomous, inexpressive beauty. Nothing is to be predicated of the true work of literary art: it simply is, as Blanchot likes to repeat. It is creation, not representation, a perpetual enigma. The precedence of life over language is reversed.

In redeeming the world by words, the Poet fulfils the highest potentiality of the species. Blanchot would have it that this is the Poet’s ‘vocation’. The Poet can’t help writing even though to do so is, as we shall see, a sort of suicide mission. The Poet is the victim of a compulsion and a contradiction: ‘It is a mission. My nature is such that I cannot do otherwise than undertake a mission on which no one has sent me. It is in this contradiction, and only ever in a contradiction that I can survive.’ That is the Poet’s assessment of his lot, as imagined by Blanchot. To prove himself he has to suffer, like Kafka, or go mad, like Hölderlin, or else fail, as Mallarmé himself so reverberatingly and mysteriously failed, his oeuvre having to be seen as pointing beyond itself to the works he was unable to write. One could say that in Blanchot the absent is more present than the present, and there are many occasions in reading him when he stands out as a Derridan avant la lettre.

Dwelling at the altitude he does, Blanchot is wonderfully impatient towards the practicalities of the literary life, such as afflict those writers who will never rise to poethood. It is hard to imagine him sitting in a meeting of the French Society of Authors, listening to degrading talk of royalties and rights. The Siren’s Song contains a slight but relatively accessible essay on Virginia Woolf, a welcome recruit so far as Blanchot is concerned because of the ordeals of premeditation which are recorded in her diaries. She was a sufferer, one of the neurasthenic élite, whose suicide, he chillingly maintains, ‘vindicated her vocation’. Yet even the unhappy Mrs Woolf isn’t enough of a purist for Blanchot: ‘The uncompromising reader cannot fail to be irritated by the sight of his beloved Virginia so intent on success, so flattered by praise, so happy to be acknowledged and so deeply wounded when she is not. Indeed all this is surprising, painful and almost incomprehensible. That a writer of such extreme refinement should be susceptible to trivialities of this kind is most puzzling.’ Blanchot is being quite serious here, not ironic. Virginia Woolf let the literary side down by caring as she did about the reception her books met with. She was unfaithful in this to the self-denying pursuit of literature’s essence and to the concomitant religion of failure. She was not enough of a solipsist to meet Blanchot’s specification.

The vocation of the Poet is to de-realise, to negate matter, for such is the unique faculty of words. Thus Blanchot is the most fanatical of anti-realists. For him the function of the word – this, again, is Mallarmé – is to sanctify the absence of the thing for which the word stands. Literature is beautifully negative. On the other hand, it is also evocative, hence another of the paradoxes in which Blanchot is indigestibly rich: in the mind of the reader the word makes way once more for (the idea of) the thing and so, in a manner of speaking, effects its own destruction. The instrumentality of language is not so easily circumvented. But Blanchot, true to form, does not tarry at the point of consumption where the reader meets the text: he reverts to what he insists is the true source of language, to the moment when it ‘is still a powerless exchange, the language of naked correlation, foreign to mastership and servitude, a language, too, that speaks only to those who do not speak to acquire power, to know and to possess ...’ When he writes like this, and pretends to an impossible abstention from all desire for authority in the Poet, Blanchot almost bears out Jeffrey Mehlman’s case against him.

If he is not master of those who may read him, the Poet is master of his creation, of the ‘literary space’ he has made. That space is magnificently free from chance: it has been totally organised by the deliberations of the writer. Blanchot’s complaint against realism is that the realist writer is unable to achieve this indispensable freedom from accident because in varying degrees he has allowed the design of his work to be given from outside, determined by the way things actually are in the world, or by the generic laws of vraisemblance.

It would, I think, have been good if The Siren’s Song had included more of what Blanchot wrote about fiction in the late Forties and Fifties. The great question to which he addressed himself was the one to which other like-minded theorists – Paul Valéry most acutely of all – had addressed themselves: how can the novelist justify what he puts into his novels. ‘How to save from contingency a work whose sentences follow one another without rigour, in which almost all the words could be replaced by others without any harm, which is no more than a combination of details and episodes fortuitously assembled?’ This extreme fastidiousness towards the unavoidably arbitrary and hence anti-poetic character of fiction made Blanchot an understanding and benevolent critic of the Nouveau Roman when that came along. The novels of Michel Butor and Robbe-Grillet do aspire to the condition of poetry in their planned exclusion of the basely fortuitous. Blanchot’s own short novels, or récits, of which he has written several, are no doubt equally true to his stringent doctrine, but they are also bloodless and démeublé to the point of inanition. He only proves that a genuinely ‘poetic’ narrative is out of the question, that a literary ‘space’ without alien invaders is a dull game.

‘Diaphanous and fragile’ were Claude Roy’s words for Blanchot in wartime, and this is a description he has lived up to. Blanchot is the enemy of whatever or whoever in literature is facile or robust, the advocate of those writers who are constantly on the verge of falling silent. His sense of terminal fatigue, which pervades the delphic pages of L’Ecriture du Désastre, is at times so morbid as to be funny. An essay in The Siren’s Voice on ‘The Narrative Voice of the Impersonal He’ begins: ‘I write – or say – the sentence: “Life energy is not inexhaustible.” In doing so I am thinking of something quite simple, of the feeling of exhaustion which constantly reminds us of the fact that life is limited: we walk a few steps down the road, eight, nine and we collapse ...’ Diaphanous and fragile he must be, if such is the term of Blanchot’s modest ambulations. We must hope that the eight or nine steps are those he imagines and not those he takes in the body. For the writers who are his exemplars are those who dwell close to the point of collapse. Cessation preoccupies Blanchot: the silence of Rimbaud, who gave up literature so completely and fell back into the dreadful banality of trade; or the silence of Mallarmé, whose Great Book could never be written, but remained a prodigious future to which his writings can only point. For Blanchot silence is more golden than speech: it is the ineffably subjective horizon of all that we objectively say or write, indeterminate because it is unsaid.

It is perhaps unwise of Gabriel Josipovici to imply that there is no mysticism about Blanchot: it looks as if mysticism were indeed his destination. Blanchot upholds the impersonality of writing because writing entails the sacrifice of the writer’s empirical and ‘complacent’ I: it is essentially anonymous. It is not, as with Proust, that the I which writes is another, profounder self than the I which only lives, but that the writer somehow transcends or eludes selfhood by yielding up his poor Ego to language in its pure state. Language is the one form of transcendence open to us, and the chosen few, the Poets, can show us the way to dissolve our identities in it:

The language of poetry distances reality and puts an end to purpose: it silences reality – it does not express human preoccupations, aims or activities, but expresses human silence. But how does it do so? When beings are silent being becomes speech and speech strives to be. The language of poetry is not one person’s idiom; nobody speaks it and nobody is what speaks it but it is as if speech talked to itself.

There we can leave Maurice Blanchot, winging off towards some incomprehensible landfall in the Absolute. These few lines are a fair example of the nebulous and unfamiliar language in which he does his criticism – a language that has been excellently caught by his translator in the present volume. 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. Yet many pages of Blanchot seem strangely empty when one reads them, as if nothing of what he has to say mattered to anyone but himself. More than a critic, he is a spoiled Poet.