restricted access Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression (review)
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John Gregg. Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994. 241 pp. $29.95 cloth.

John Gregg’s Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression provides a scholarly introduction to Blanchot for readers needing an overview of major works and concepts. I think readers will appreciate Gregg’s informative opening on the Blanchot/Bataille connection and will like Gregg’s helpful explanations of Blanchot’s meditations on literature and death and his treatment of the Orpheus myth in L’Espace Littéraire. Readers familiar with Blanchot will appreciate the extensive analysis of the little known novel Le Très-Haut and the extended reading of Blanchot’s L’Attente l’oubli. At the end of the book, Gregg contextualizes Blanchot by comparing him to a number of post-structuralist thinkers, Jean-François Lyotard among them.

Conspicuously absent in Gregg’s book is an account of Blanchot’s political writings during the 1930s and how those right wing pieces relate within the corpus. Given the controversy surrounding these articles, specialists will be disappointed that Gregg doesn’t discuss them. There is also no extended comparative analysis between the long and short versions of the very important novel, Thomas l’obscur. Close examination of these two published versions would have been especially useful in establishing Blanchot’s innovations and techniques as a novelist. Detailed close readings of seminal late texts like Le pas au-delà and L’écriture du désastre are also not undertaken, though these books are often mentioned. Gregg also does not dwell very much on the essential work of assessing the various essay collections Blanchot published and how those reflect intellectual developments in Blanchot’s thought. In short, the selectivity of Gregg’s study immediately raises questions about coverage.

Gregg’s thesis is that Blanchot was inspired by Georges Bataille’s rejection of “Hegel’s version of history as a dialectical process of becoming that would culminate in totalization.” In place of totalization, Bataille and Blanchot “propose an open-ended, repetitive, circular model of history whose movement they describe in terms of the institution and transgression of limits.” Bataille’s anthropological writings consider a surplus negativity (the accursed share) not conserved or transformed within dialectical process; rather, surplus negativity violates the instituting of limits and negates the difference between law and its transgression, victimizers and victims. “To transgress is to lose death as negativity, [End Page 932] the source of power and mastery, and to encounter it as an impossibility.” Blanchot becomes readable once we understand he transposed this idea from anthropology over into literature. “The work is never that in anticipation of which one is able to write in anticipation of which one would relate to writing as to the exercise of some power.” Blanchot thinks therefore that reading is not an act of mastery or power. Gregg reformulates: “What literature [for Blanchot] and sacrifice [for Bataille] have in common is that they are both fictive approaches to death, and the drama that they reenact is an encounter with death whose primary exigency is not mastery but rather passive indecision.” Literature is the writing of a text that is unemployable and negative, keeping us from a content that encourages readerly mastery over the text. Gregg situates this view in an avant-gardist context by pointing out that for Blanchot the object of representation always exceeds its own closure.

Later, Gregg suggests that Blanchot gravitates towards Kafka, Rilke, and Lautréamont because they equate writing not only with self-presence but with “more writing”: the sacrifice of the writer. Moreover, the subversion, transgression, or failure that is “more writing” is reflected in the production of notes, diaries, or fragments. This is reprised in Le Trés-Haut where the protagonist, Henri Sorge, keeps a journal that “constitutes an embryonic stage in the development of the fragmentary. The new form of writing that Sorge advocates and with which he experiments in his diary is none other than an early moment of Blanchot’s own literary history which will project him toward the writing of fragmentary books. Put another way, Sorge’s book about a disaster is an early form of what...