- Restless NegativityBlanchot’s Hegelianism
There is a night in the night.—Joë Bousquet, Traduit du silence (1968, 12)
Let us begin by recalling a series of dates. The first one is 1962, when Derrida’s translation of Husserl’s Origin of Geometry first appeared. What will attract our attention is a footnote in the long introduction written by Derrida; more precisely, the one stating that the “linguistic neutralization of existence” is a point of “profound convergence of Hegelian and Husserlian thought” (1989, 67 n. 62). To show us more clearly this convergence point, Derrida quotes Hegel’s System of 1803–1804, which may not be a surprise. Nevertheless, and this what we would like to retain, Derrida does not quote Hegel directly but through someone else: “cited by Maurice Blanchot in La Part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), p. 325” [End Page 141] (Derrida 1989, 67 n. 62). Now, if we pay attention to the page number, we will realize that the text referred to by Derrida is none but “Literature and the Right to Death,” the last article from Blanchot’s 1949 compilation. A second date that we would like to recall is 2003: in a colloquium in homage to Blanchot, who had just passed away, Derrida reads a text entitled “Maurice Blanchot Is Dead.” The presentation, as published in the collected papers of the colloquium, contains two parts; the first one is completely dedicated, once again, to “Literature and the Right to Death.” There are other dates, like 1978–79, when Derrida directed a seminar entitled “Of the Right to Literature/From the Right to Literature” that, according to him, “passed in particular through an interpretation of ‘Literature and the Right to Death’” (2011, 5). We recall particularly those two dates—1962 and 2003—to show that Derrida had in mind Blanchot’s article his entire career, or at least from one of his very first texts to one of his final public presentations. We will just announce, for now, that what links both of Derrida’s texts is the question of death, or negativity. If in the introduction to Origin of Geometry Blanchot’s quote is related to the possibility of annihilation operated by the simple act of naming (which is, for Blanchot, a “deferred assassination” [Blanchot 1995a, 323]), “Maurice Blanchot Is Dead” deals with the death penalty. When someone talks about the death penalty in Blanchot’s article, he or she is engaged in a political reading: the death of which he or she is talking about is the revolutionary one, the one executed on the guillotine. Political death, in short. Derrida writes in 2003: “Even if it is abusive to conclude that Maurice Blanchot is for a literature solidary with death penalty, the tenor and the movement of his text bans an opposite conclusion. They exclude that Blanchot were against death penalty at that time” (301). Is it fair to say so? Fair or not, it is certainly Blanchot who allows that approach, as he writes, for example: “Every citizen has a right to death so to speak: death is not a sentence passed on him, it is his most essential right; he is not suppressed as a guilty person—he needs death so that he can proclaim himself a citizen” (1995a, 319).
We can indeed understand these statements, as they coincide with a certain Hegelianism, as a declaration “for” the death penalty. However, at this point the question of dates reappears: Derrida shows that the publication of “Literature and the Right to Death” coincides with two major dates: “1948, year [End Page 142] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which at least begin to disqualify the principle of death penalty, even if the Declaration did not proscribe it. That was exactly a century after Hugo’s abolitionist vote” (Derrida 2003, 318). Following these indications, Vanghélis Bitsoris opposes Derrida and Blanchot. The text we are thinking of is in fact entitled “Blanchot, Derrida: From the Right to Death to the Right to Life.” Derrida would thus support life while Blanchot would support death. Even if this reading is at first glance quite simplistic, Bitsoris give...