From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
His influence on later post-structuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida is difficult to overstate. It would be wrong to speak of Blanchot's work in terms of a coherent, all-encompassing 'theory', since it is a work founded on paradox and impossibility. If there is a thread running through all his writing, it is the constant engagement with the 'question of literature', a simultaneous enactment and interrogation of the profoundly strange experience of writing. For Blanchot, 'literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question' (Literature and the Right to Death).
Blanchot draws on the work of the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in formulating his conception of literary language as anti-realist and distinct from everyday experience. Literary language, as double negation, demands that we experience the absence masked by the word as absence; it exposes us to the exteriority of language, an experience akin to the impossibility of death. Blanchot engages with Heidegger on the question of the philosopher's death, showing how literature and death are both experienced as anonymous passivity. Unlike Heidegger, Blanchot rejects the possibility of an authentic response to death, because (to put it simply) he rejects the possibility of death, that is to say of the individual's experience of death, and thus rejects, in total, the possibility of understanding and "properly" engaging with it.
Blanchot also draws heavily from Franz Kafka, and his fictional work (like his theoretical work) is shot through by an engagement with Kafka's writing.
Blanchot's work was also strongly influenced by his friends Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Levinas. Blanchot's later work in particular is influenced by Levinasian ethics and the question of responsibility to the Other. On the other hand, Blanchot's own literary works, like the famous Thomas the Obscure, heavily influenced Levinas' and Bataille's ideas about the possibility that our vision of reality is blurred because of the use of words (thus making everything you perceive automatically as abstract as words are). This search for the 'real' reality is illustrated by the works of Paul Celan and Stéphane Mallarmé.
His best-known fictional works are Thomas the Obscure, an unsettlingly abstract novel about the experience of reading and loss; Death Sentence; Aminadab and The Most High about a bureaucrat in a totalitarian state.
His central theoretical works are "Literature and the Right to Death" (in The Work of Fire and The Gaze of Orpheus), The Space of Literature, The Infinite Conversation, and The Writing of the disaster.
It is difficult yet imperative to note the particular experience of reading Blanchot: his grip on the reader and his ability to mix anguish, philosophical thought, an imagination of death, and a narrative where everything seems to almost happen is often particularly discomforting.
The main intellectual biography of Blanchot is by Christophe Bident: Maurice Blanchot, partenaire invisible.
Little was known until recently about much of Blanchot's life, and he long remained one of the most mysterious figures of contemporary literature.
Blanchot studied philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where he became a close friend of the Lithuanian-born French phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas. Afterwards, he embarked on a career as a political journalist in Paris. From 1932 till 1940 he was editor of the mainstream, conservative daily Journal de débats. Early in the decade he contributed to a series of radical nationalist magazines, while also serving as editor of the fiercely anti-German daily "Le rempart" in 1933, as editor of Paul Lévy's anti-Nazi polemical weekly, "Aux écoutes", and as editor in chief of the conservative Paris evening daily, the "Journal des débats". In 1936 and 1937 he also contributed to the right-wing monthly "Combat" and to the nationalist-syndicalist daily "L'Insurgé", which ceased publication in the end, principally as a result of Blanchot's intervention, because of the anti-semitism of some of its collaborators. Charges that Blanchot himself was the author of anti-semitic texts in the 1930s have yet to be properly proven and rely for the most part on unfounded allegations. (On the contrary, Blanchot is the known author of a number of texts attacking anti-semitism). There is no dispute that Blanchot was nevertheless the author of a series of violently polemical articles attacking the government of the day and its confidence in the politics of the League of Nations, and warning against the threat to peace in Europe posed by Nazi Germany.
During the occupation of Paris, Blanchot worked in Paris. In order to support his family, he continued to work as a book reviewer for the Journal des débats from 1941 to 1944, writing for instance about such figures as Sartre and Camus, Bataille and Michaux, Mallarmé and Duras for a putatively Pétainist readership. In these reviews he laid the foundations for later French critical thinking, by examining the ambigious rhetorical nature of language, and the irreducibility of writing to notions of truth or falsity. He refused the editorship of the collaborationist Nouvelle Revue Française, which Jean Paulhan had feigned to offer him. He remained a bitter opponent of the fascist, anti-semitic novelist and journalist Robert Brasillach, who was the principal leader of the youth-oriented pro-Nazi cultural movement.
The (sometimes ill-informed) historian Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle mentions Blanchot's associations (which he finally abandoned, despairing of the idea of using Vichy as a weapon against the collaborationist regime itself) with collaborators with the Vichy regime(Les Non-Conformistes des annes trentes, 2001). Only in the mid-1970s did scholars first begin to pay attention to his pre-1945 nationalist activities. Some interpreters of his work (Gerald L. Bruns, in Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy; Allan Stoekl, in the preface to The Most High and others) make strong arguments in support of the claim that Blanchot's thinking, and his politics from at least 1942 onward) was fundamentally anarchistic.
Despite his tendency to maintain distance from avant-garde groups and movements, Blanchot, partially through his relationship with René Char, who was an active member of the Resistance, skirted the perimeters of late Surrealism in Paris. In December 1940, he met Georges Bataille, who had written strong anti-fascist articles in the thirties, and who would remain a close friend until his death in 1962.
In June 1944, Blanchot was almost executed at the whim of a Nazi captain and his men (as is recounted in his text The Instant of My Death).
After the war Blanchot began working only as a novelist and literary critic. In 1947, Blanchot left Paris for the secluded village of Eze in the south of France, where he spent the next decade of his life. Like Sartre and other French intellectuals of the era, Blanchot avoided the academy as a means of livelihood, instead relying on his pen. Importantly, from 1953 to 1968, he published regularly in Nouvelle Revue Française. At the same time, he began a lifestyle of relative isolation, often not seeing close friends (like Levinas) for years, while continuing to write lengthy letters to them. Part of the reason for his self-imposed isolation (and only, part of it, his isolation was closely connected to his writing and is often featured among his characters) was the fact that, for most of his life, Blanchot suffered from poor health.
Blanchot's political activities after the war shifted to the left. He is widely credited with being one of main authors of the important "Manifesto of the 121", named out of its signatories which included Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Antelme, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, René Char, Henri Lefebvre, Alain Resnais, Simone Signoret, and others, supported the rights of conscripts to refuse the draft in Algeria. The manifesto was crucial to the intellectual response to the war.
In May 1968, Blanchot once again came out of personal obscurity, in favor of the student protests. His sole public appearance since the war was in support of the young Left during the events of May 1968. Yet for fifty years he remained a consistent champion of modern literature and its tradition in French letters. During the later years of his life, he repeatedly wrote against the intellectual attraction to fascism, and notably against Heidegger's post-war silence over the Holocaust.
Blanchot authored over the course of his career more than thirty works of fiction, literary criticism, and philosophy. Toward the 1970s, he worked continually to break the barriers between these (generally perceived as) different "genres" or "inclinations" of his writing, and much of his later work moves freely between narration and philosophical investigation.
In 1983, Blanchot published La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community) in response to, and as a critical engagement with, The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy's attempt to approach community in a non-religious, non-utilitarian and un-political exegesis.
He died on February 20, 2003 in Yvelines.
Principally Fiction or Narrations (récits):
- Thomas l'Obscur, 1941 (Thomas the Obscure)
- L'Arrêt de mort, 1948 (Death Sentence)
- Le Très-Haut, 1949 (The Most High)
- Le Pas au-delà, 1973 (The Step Not Beyond)
- L'Instant de ma mort, 1994 (The Instant of My Death)
Principally Theoretical or Philosophical Works:
- La Part du feu, 1949 (The Work of Fire)
- L'Espace littéraire, 1955 (The Space of Literature - main theoretical work)
- L'Entretien infini, 1969 (The Infinite Conversation)
- L'Ecriture du désastre, 1980 (The Writing of the Disaster)
- Le Livre à venir, 1959 (The Book to Come)
- Une voix venue d'ailleurs, 2002 (A Voice from Elsewhere)
- Lautréamont and Sade
Many of Blanchot's translators into English have established their own reputations as prose stylists and poets in their own right; some of the better known include Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Pierre Joris.
- Michael Holland (ed.), The Blanchot Reader (Blackwell, 1995)
- George Quasha (ed.), The Station Hill Blanchot Reader (Station Hill, 1998)
- Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside (Zone, 1989)
- Jacques Derrida, Demeure: Fiction and Testimony (Stanford, 2000)
- Emmanuel Levinas, On Maurice Blanchot in Proper Names (Stanford, 1996)
- Leslie Hill, Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary (Routledge, 1997)
- Gerald Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001)
- Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot, partenaire invisible(Paris: Champ Vallon, 1998) [ISBN 978-2-87673-253-7]