- Blanchot and Literary Criticism by Mark Hewson
Blanchot and Literary Criticism is a series of studies that offers erudite analyses of several texts in which Maurice Blanchot approaches works by “modern” writers. Hewson focuses primarily on Blanchot’s writings published in the collections Faux pas (1943), La Part du feu (The Work of Fire, 1949), L’Espace littéraire (The Space of Literature, 1955), and Le Livre à venir (The Book to Come, 1959), and in so doing he isolates the work that is most recognizably critical in its approach. During the period covered by Hewson, Blanchot was also writing “fictions,” and from the following collection of essays onwards (L’Entretien infini; The Infinite Conversation, 1969), it is even more difficult to categorize Blanchot’s writing as it integrates sections of dialogue and becomes increasingly concerned with its own fragmentation. After an initial chapter looking at Blanchot’s understanding of modern literature, the second and third chapters analyze his readings of Hölderlin and Mallarmé respectively, and the fourth and fifth chapters for the most part provide an account of Blanchot’s thought as a counterpoint to Martin Heidegger’s.
Taken individually, Hewson’s studies are models of good scholarship and often bring great insight, albeit to quite familiar terrain. The individual studies of Blanchot’s work on Hölderlin and Mallarmé are extremely welcome additions to the field and provide an excellent resource for scholars seeking to orient themselves in these complex areas. The fourth chapter is perhaps the high point of the work; Hewson ranges over a constellation of texts to present a supple analysis of what Blanchot saw as the fundamental ambiguity of the negating power of language. In this and the next chapter, Heidegger’s text is set beside Blanchot’s so that the two bodies of work illuminate each other, yet neither is reduced to the other. Despite many good reasons to read this book, however, there are still a couple of areas that I found problematic.
My major concern is the overall purpose of the book and the way its thesis is framed; it constantly risks slipping into incoherence. The book’s title certainly announces an enormous question: what relation does Blanchot’s work maintain with literary criticism? This is not, however, quite the question that Hewson’s pieces ask, and he somewhat sidesteps it by pursuing a derivative issue, asking why Blanchot’s work has not been more consistently taken up in “literary studies” (see introduction). In the introduction, which joins the conclusion as one of the least satisfying parts of the book, there is no indication of why he uses the term “literary criticism” in [End Page 163] his title. Where is this critical absence? In France, for example, it would be difficult to overstate the extent of Blanchot’s influence in thinking about literature in postwar scholarship. Blanchot’s supposed absence from the field of literary criticism has the feel of a false problem that has been constructed to give the volume the role of mediating his writings to a larger public, or perhaps, as I will suggest below (and the two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive), the title is a residue from earlier thinking about the work, thinking that became less and less tenable as the research progressed. The key issue, I would suggest, is not so much a simple absence in the field, but the infinitely complex relation between Blanchot’s work and the discipline of literary criticism.
The question of that relation is something that Blanchot reflects on. In the famous note at the beginning of L’Entretien infini, he speaks of the “Book” and of its supersession by a kind of “writing” for which the name Mallarmé stands as an index. The reader understands that Blanchot’s work is itself implied in this movement beyond the “Book,” a movement that, according to Hewson, “always indicates an order that submits to unity, a system of notions in which are affirmed the primacy of speech over writing, of thought over language, and the promise of a communication that...