- “The Authenticity of Exile” between Blanchot and Levinas
If there is, among all words, one that is inauthentic, then surely it is the word “authentic.”(Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster 60)
In 1956, Emmanuel Levinas devoted a provocative essay to the writing of his friend and companion in thought, Maurice Blanchot, entitled “The Poet’s Vision.” Therein, Levinas closely examines Blanchot’s meditations on the origin and essence of the literary work, focusing in particular on the collection of essays assembled together in the book The Space of Literature, which appeared one year beforehand in 1955. His contention, broadly speaking, is that Blanchot’s literary criticism and fiction does not reduce “the limit of the human” to the domain of possibility (“Vision” 127). Instead, it places into question the definition of human being in terms of the “I can,” whereby the subject exercises power over the object, gaining mastery over things, words, and others in the world. One could say that Blanchot thus contests the dialectical view, as received at least in part from Alexandre Kojève’s famous lectures on Hegel in the 1930s, according to which humanity gradually produces and realizes itself by means of undertaking an enormous effort to negate nature, comprehend the other, and transform the entirety of the given in the course of Western history.1
At odds with this dialectical account of the human as possibility, Blanchot interrogates the impossibility underlying a certain strand of modern art and literature. His writing, Levinas tells us, tends to delve into an experience of a singular artwork or literary work in which the search for the absolute (the total work) inevitably encounters the impossible and ungraspable source of its existence. That source defies all powers of negativity, every disclosure of meaning, frustrating the limits of the work as a whole. This is because the work’s “way of being,” Levinas specifies, “consists in being present without being given, in not delivering itself up to the powers, since negation has been the ultimate human power, in being the domain of the impossible, on which power can get no purchase, in [End Page 105] being a perpetual dismissal of the one who discloses it” (131). Blanchot, for his part, occasionally puts the non-dialectical movement whereby the work disrupts the labor of the negative and comes undone under the sign of désoeuvrement—an untranslatable concept rendered approximately into English as “unworking” or “worklessness,” along with other terms that loosely designate “inoperativity.” By enacting the inoperative operation of désoeuvrement, the work brings about its own absolute dissolution and fragmentation. That is, the work lays bare nothing but the non-foundation or “error” out of which it unfurls and into which it collapses. And though Levinas does not deploy the term désoeuvrement in this regard, he similarly demonstrates how the work under question for Blanchot draws from a measureless reserve of inaction and passivity whose impossibility refuses the mastery of the human subject. According to Levinas, this procedure would introduce another “category” for philosophy, along with a new “way of knowing” (133).2
Apart from dialectics, Levinas considers, moreover, whether Blanchot’s literary research of the error might consist in undermining the enclosure of Heidegger’s ontology in its widest sense. Levinas raises this question at multiple junctures in his essay, “Does Blanchot not attribute to art the function of uprooting the Heideggerian universe?” “Does not the poet,” he asks again, “hear the voices that call away from the Heideggerian world?” (127). As far as Levinas is concerned, Heidegger’s view of authenticity in particular implies how his thought remains caught within the same totalizing logic that reduces the limit of the human to possibility (capacity, power, and mastery). Blanchot, by contrast, signals another source for authenticity, no longer within the possibility of appropriating one’s own death, but its impossibility; no longer within the founding act of disclosing the truth of being in the world, but within the foundering act of error; no longer within the enrootedness of poetic dwelling either, but within the uprootedness of poetic exile. “And yet it is in this nontrue to which literature leads,” Levinas asserts, “and not in...