- IntroductionReading After Blanchot
"Blanchot is an even greater waste of time than Proust" (qtd. in Smock 3). George Poulet's judgment, in Ann Smock's wry translation, gives pause to anyone who might claim contemporary literary or political relevance for the French writer, critic, and journalist. Poulet writes, "Thus, much more radically even than Proust, Maurice Blanchot appears a man of 'lost time'" (qtd. in Smock 4).1 How does relegating him to such a forgotten past, only accessed involuntarily through missteps, square with his enduring influence over post-war French thought and narrative? Blanchot seems to reject the redemptive abilities attributed to writing from the Phaedrus to Proust. In his thinking, "all anamnesis is radically impossible," all writing instead turns towards "a time below time" (Laporte 28). The disaster has always already occurred in some frightfully ancient past—more as a scene than an originary event—even as it remains bound up with a process of perpetual repetition. So how, if at all, does Blanchot speak to the present? Responses to this question are quickly complicated by the rich and varied reception of his work. A lifelong friend of Levinas, he had a considerable influence on Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Kofman, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy, and many others. Both his fiction and criticism played a determining role in how postwar French philosophy was written, especially in its intense concern with the question of writing as such. Never an academic, he published most of his critical writing in periodicals and led a highly private life.
Yet, beginning with his controversial pre-war journalism, his writing included an often underestimated public and political dimension. When Blanchot was considered as a potential editor of the Nouvelle revue française during the occupation, Paul Claudel exclaimed, "Who is this unknown Blanchot?" (Bident 173). While the obscurity around his name has been dispelled by decades of commentary, what his signature evokes still remains narrowly circumscribed for many readers: beginning with the extremeright journalism and literary chronicles of the interwar years, Blanchot becomes the author of a trilogy of early novels, followed by increasingly [End Page 3] formless narratives staging scenes of absence, dying and impossible dialogue; searching critical essays exploring the space of literature; and the related effects of writing, disaster, exile, and an ethical attunement to the foreign and the other. Yet this very sequence of associations often limits the appeal, or indeed the legibility, of Blanchot beyond a world of experts familiar with his references from Heraclites, Hölderlin, and Nietzsche to Mallarmé, Bataille, and Duras. For many readers, Claudel's exasperation continues to echo.
Whether this obscurity can be entirely dispelled is another matter.2 From De Man onwards, readers have noted both the clarity of Blanchot's style and the obscurity his readings cast on texts (de Man 63). Lydia Davis characterizes the challenge for his translators as finding "an equivalent of Blanchot's limpid obscurity" (504). Fredric Jameson remarks that "the luminous and light-filled clearing promised by Heideggerian ontology and poetics has here become as dark and ominous as a black hole" (72). The entirety of literature and philosophy risks disappearing into this black hole, whose singularity promises a new concept of literature. Jameson's retelling of Blanchot's "long and complicated career" as a distinctly French "ideology of modernism" or "ideology of aesthetic autonomy" is worth recalling here. Blanchot moves from being a right-wing ideologist in the 1930s to a novelist whose Kafkaesque forms exhaust themselves into reflections on the "pure act of writing" in order to emerge as the "quintessential literary theorist of poststructuralist textuality." This metamorphosis occurs in what Jameson calls the "fallow period"—which he polemically dubs the end of Blanchot's "fascist commitment and the onset of the great wars of national independence" (184). By simultaneously expanding the classically French canon of texts he previously read and reviewed to include the "foreign"—whether newly translated American and English writers, or revalorized German language figures—and reducing this heterogenous body of work to the "paradox of literary writing" or the autonomy of art, Blanchot replaces the language of schools and movements proper to French criticism with the modernist ideology of aesthetic...