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Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression (review)
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Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression, by John Gregg; 241 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, $29.95.

In the preface to The Gaze of Orpheus (1981), the first book in English to present a collection of Maurice Blanchot’s critical essays, Geoffrey Hartman recalls his excitement on discovering this philosopher-novelist in the fifties. As for Hélène Cixous, she speaks of “Blanchot’s terrifying but admirable art.” Blanchot indeed holds a paradoxical place in French literature and criticism. His books constitute a fundamental work of our time, yet his reflection developed in total independence of the noisiest intellectual debates of his times. A contemporary of Sartre, a friend of Georges Bataille and of Emmanuel Levinas, Blanchot began his career as a literary chronicler before World War II, even collaborating for a few years in rightist publications. But he generally remained at a forbidding distance from the media and the public, revealing [End Page 160] himself only through his writings: three novels, a number of terse short stories or récits, and an abundant critical corpus evolving toward fragmentary meditations on the conditions of literature’s possibility and on the experience of writing. He was the first, in the midst of the existentialist wave following the war, to pay close attention to the poetics of Mallarmé and Rilke, the art of Flaubert or Kafka, and the ethical provocations of Nietzsche, all of which were to become trademarks of postmodernist thinkers. Yet our present familiarity with these motifs does not make Blanchot less difficult and even less esoteric.

With Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression, John Gregg now gives us the first English book-length study devoted exclusively to Blanchot, organized around solid analyses of several difficult texts—more extensively of the novel Le Très-Haut and the fragmentary narrative L’Attente l’oubli. There is unfortunately very little excitement or terror in the way Gregg presents his work, which bears traces of the doctoral thesis it evidently once was. Whereas the choice of transgression, as the focus of the study is quite appropriate, the title suggests, somewhat misleadingly, that transgression will be treated as a theme common to a group of authors including Blanchot. The “Introduction,” barely more than an extended table of contents, fails to prepare the reader for the provocative notion of transgression illustrated and theorized in Blanchot’s writing, a notion inherited from psychoanalysis and ethnology via Bataille, and which has to do with the law, Eros, and negativity. In his opening pages, moreover, we are confronted with concepts that Gregg takes for granted. A neologism such as “worklessness” (p. 8), for instance, does not make sense without a minimal gloss relating it to Blanchot’s pair of opposites, œuvre/désœuvrement. Similarly, the opposition between “regional economy” and “general economy,” which is Gregg’s constant point of reference, needs to be anchored historically and philosophically in order to accomplish its function.

To nuance the preceding criticism, it should be stressed that Blanchot’s thought defies summary, linear exposition, and dialectical closure, just as his fiction illustrates the impossibility of narration. His work draws on multiple influences and at the same time is fiercely original. His reflection proceeds through two apparently contradictory processes, dispersion and repetition, the function of the latter being more to situate what is said in its difference from itself than to convince others. Gregg’s first chapter (poorly titled “Literature and transgression”) rightly indicates the ambivalent Hegelian heritage found in Blanchot as well as in Bataille. For if Hegel is a great inspiration to them, he is also a constant foil, in that he ignores the surplus of negativity that no dialectic can absorb through the historical or artistic process. Gregg’s method, that of tracing a pattern of nondialectical play of opposites in Blanchot’s writing, takes on its full effectiveness in the following chapters, in which he shows the circular relation (or exigence circulaire) that Blanchot establishes repeatedly between death and writing in his definition of the “suicidal artist.” The study of Orpheus as a mythical portrayal of writing and reading equates [End Page 161] transgression with impatience, with Orpheus’ leap...