Maurice Blanchot, 1902-2003


Anonymous Comrade writes:

Reclusive author and critic whose political and philosophical writing informed the work of Derrida, Foucault and Barthes

Maurice Blanchot was probably the least-read yet most influential French writer of the postwar era. Reclusive to a degree, shunning all public appearances, refusing even to be photographed (though once snapped unawares), he nevertheless played a decisive part in the transformation of the literary and philosophical landscape of France in the second half of the 20th century. He had no disciples, his readers were invited to act as if he did not exist, yet no writer can have devoted himself more selflessly to the simple intimacy of friendship, from which much of his influence stemmed.He was born in 1907 in Quain, a village in the département of Saône-et-Loire. Obtaining his baccalauréat at a precocious age, he went to Strasbourg to study German and philosophy, before completing a Diplôme d'Etudes Supérieures at the Sorbonne. He then studied medicine for a while. In Strasbourg he met the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and their friendship was to last until Levinas's death in 1995.

In 1930 Blanchot turned his back on the university and joined the foreign desk of the Journal des Débats, a once mighty conservative daily then in terminal decline. Simultaneously and more adventurously, he began to publish occasional pieces in a range of youthful and energetic nationalist journals, the organs of the Jeune Droite, which sprang up in reaction to the internal and external crises affecting France between the wars. He also wrote regularly for Le Rempart, a shortlived nationalist daily founded in 1933 by Paul Lévy in response to Hitler's rise to power, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Lévy's weekly Aux Ecoutes, a post he held until 1940.

With the arrival of the Front Populaire in 1936, the nationalist position hardened. First in Combat, then in L'Insurgé, Blanchot and his associates adopted an increasingly uncompromising anti-republican stance, with appeals to violent action against the Government and its representatives, Léon Blum in particular. The ideology of the Jeune Droite was informed by powerful xenophobia and, inevitably, the nationalism of some of its members was anti-Semitic in nature. Blanchot would moreover agree much later on that to share a forum and a language with racists is to be guilty by association.

Yet as his close association with Lévy from 1933 onwards attests, he distanced himself actively and ostentatiously from the anti-Semitic politics of the likes of Brasillach, with whose journal Je suis partout Lévy conducted a running polemic in the late Thirties. And this did not go unnoticed: when Blanchot's first novel, Thomas l'obscur, appeared in 1941, it was denounced in the collaborationist press for being as "Jewish" in inspiration as his political affiliations in the 1930s.

When France fell in 1940 Blanchot made an ill-fated attempt to defend the freedom of the press under the new regime in both the Débats and Aux Ecoutes. He then withdrew entirely from political journalism, and began to write a weekly literary column in the Débats, out of which emerged his first book of criticism, Faux pas (1943). During the Occupation he remained in Paris, becoming part of the intelligentsia who sought in those years, first with Vichy then against it, to preserve the cultural identity of France despite its political demise. With the publication of Thomas l'obscur, followed by a second novel, Aminadab, in 1942 and Faux pas a year later, he was becoming established as a new and challenging literary voice.

His encounter with Georges Bataille in 1941 was the beginning of a unique friendship that allowed him both to situate his emerging literary activity firmly within the avant-garde tradition, and to disengage the radicalism of his prewar politics from the doomed confines of nationalist ideology.

The Blanchot who emerged at the Liberation was thus a very different individual from the prewar figure. It was not simply that he had put politics behind him. Since the early Thirties he had been exploring, through the writing of fiction, the experience of what politics seemed inexorably to be turning into under the Republican regime -- namely the site of a disaster in which the social bond was disintegrating, leaving the individual exposed to absolute vulnerability and solitude. With the silencing of the increasingly strident voice of his political engagement in 1940, it was the tentative, intermittently silent voice of his literary writing which took up the search for that human relation which provides the reality of all communities, and which the now defunct Republic had failed to safeguard.

Consequently, though he was active on a number of fronts in the post-Liberation years (involved with Sartre and Les Temps Modernes, a co-founder with Bataille of Critique, associated with various projects designed to fill the gap left by the banned Nouvelle Revue Française), he never found a niche in the politically partisan world of postwar French culture, appearing then and since as an enigmatic outsider. As if to confirm this, in 1947 he moved to a tiny house in Eze-Village, high above the Côte d'Azur, which remained his base for the next ten years. He now embarked on what amounted to a literary double life.

In almost total isolation, he slowly and painstakingly wrote a series of narratives, from L'Arrêt de mort (1948) to Le Dernier homme (1957), in which fiction is refined and purified until story and character yield to what Roland Barthes called une écriture blanche, so that it is the very act of writing that is producing the narrative which forms the fictional subject of the narrative. These complex and ground-breaking texts placed Blanchot at the forefront of literary and philosophical experiment in the mid-century, and writers such as Beckett, the New Novelists and, in America, Paul Auster, found in Blanchot a kindred spirit.

When the NRF was finally authorised to reappear in 1953, Blanchot became a regular contributor, and the monthly chronicle he wrote, virtually without interruption, between then and 1968, became indispensable reading for a rising generation of writers and thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, as well as being the place where the most original new writing -- that of Robbe-Grillet, that of Beckett -- was sympathetically and intelligently reviewed. By now, his name was made. Though present on the Paris scene as little more than a signature, he became probably the most influential literary figure of the period. In 1955 his position as the most original critical voice of the time was confirmed by his third book of critical essays L'Espace littéraire (La Part du feu had appeared in 1949).

In 1958 he made a sudden and decisive return to the public sphere, joining the growing opposition among intellectuals to the activities of the French Army in Algeria. In 1960 he and others published a tract which called on all French soldiers to desert rather than use torture. This document -- the uncompromising final version of which was the work of Blanchot alone -- became known as the Manifeste des 121. All of its signatories, Blanchot included, were hounded mercilessly by the authorities. Many lost their jobs or their livelihoods whenever these depended on the state, though the judge who interrogated Blanchot met with such stubborn resistance that he was granted sick leave on grounds of "moral exhaustion".

The Manifeste marked a profound change in the role of the intellectual in France, and in Blanchot's case sealed a return to active politics. When De Gaulle took power in 1958, Blanchot worked intensively with friends such as Dionys Mascolo, Robert Antelme and Marguerite Duras both to oppose De Gaulle the man (in whom he saw a throwback to the dictatorships of the Thirties and Forties), and to forge new modes of political action.

The abortive but nonetheless highly original culmination of this was a project for an international review, entitled Gulliver, linking writers in France, Germany, Italy and even England (Iris Murdoch was briefly a correspondent), with the aim of turning journalism into an international political force. Ultimately it proved impossible, in Europe as it then was, to bring this off, and in the mid-Sixties the project petered out.

In May 1968 the final revolt against De Gaulle and the anachronism of the France he sought to preserve found Blanchot and his friends and allies in the thick of the action. Near incredible accounts of Blanchot marching arm-in-arm with Marguerite Duras on demonstrations and being pursued by baton-wielding riot police overshadow intense journalistic activity, with the founding of the Comité d'Action Etudiants-Ecrivains, the sole number of whose organ, Comité, Blanchot wrote almost singlehanded.

As suddenly as he had returned to politics, Blanchot retreated from the position of influence he had acquired in intellectual circles by the time De Gaulle finally relinquished power. This was because, although Blanchot was as close as Sartre to the gauchistes of May 1968, his private bond with Judaism (sealed through his lifelong friendship with Levinas) would not allow him to accept their support for the Palestinian cause, and their consequent anti-Zionism. So while Sartre went on to pursue a radical political project in the 1970s, Blanchot virtually disappeared from the scene. In 1969 the publication of his first book of essays for ten years, L'Entretien infini, was presented by him as in effect a posthumous work. His health, which had always been fragile, had begun to suffer. He believed he was dying, sending what amounted to letters of farewell to his friends, almost all of whom never saw him again.

Now that he was effectively dead to the world, his writing found a new lease of life, espousing the fragmentary form which he had begun to define at the time of Gulliver. In 1972 he published Le pas au-delà, setting in train a reflection on the Holocaust which he would pursue throughout the following decades. But just as he seemed to have closed the book on his personal existence, a new interest in the Occupation and the Vichy years caught him in the glare of its often hostile and censorious scrutiny. Scholars in America, abetted by intellectuals with a sometimes opportunistic stake in the genuine unease about the wartime years which was spreading in post-'68 France, began to ask some awkward questions. By the early Eighties, what amounted to a modern Inquisition had attached itself to Blanchot's name.

Amid the scandal, however, groups and individuals conscious of the gravity of the issues, but mindful too of the high opinion in which Blanchot stood in Jewish circles, resolved to look at the facts. As early as 1975, the revue Gramma had published a comprehensive bibliography of all of Blanchot?s prewar writings, and reproduced some of the more extreme pieces. This made it possible to establish that although he had been prepared to advocate violence against the state, Blanchot was never an anti-Semite, and that his hostility to Germany included the most uncompromising denunciation of the racist policies of the Nazis. Mud was nevertheless slung, and some of it has tenaciously stuck. But Blanchot emerged from this febrile period with his honour intact.

At the beginning of the 1980s he published his second book of fragments, L'Ecriture du désastre, which quickly became a major reference source for writers on Judaism and the Holocaust. Its appearance coincided with a resurgence of philosophical activity in France, and though he maintained his distance, Blanchot became actively involved, publishing reviews and books, intervening in the so-called Heidegger affair, even offering to mediate between Salman Rushdie and the representatives of Islam. As the Eighties became the Nineties, his activity and his publications diminished. Though he remained in correspondence with friends, he again withdrew into the solitude of a life increasingly plagued by illness.

In 1994 he published a brief text, L'Instant de ma mort, about an episode during the German retreat of 1944 when he was taken hostage and almost shot. He escaped as if by a miracle, and since that day, it recounts, having effectively died, he had lived his life as if permanently on the verge of death. In 1997 a huge audience gathered in Paris to hear a host of friends and readers celebrate his 90th birthday. He was not present. He could have died without anyone noticing it. That would probably be the way he would have wished to be remembered.

Maurice Blanchot, writer and critic, was born in Quain, Saône-et-Loire, on September 27, 1907. He died on February 20, 2003, aged 95.