Key Theories of Maurice Blanchot

In the 1983 edition of the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers there are entries for Francois Mitterand and Michel Foucault (as well as for Marilyn Monroe), but no entry for Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003), one of France’s foremost post-war writers and critics, and a thinker who has exerted a powerful influence on Foucault and many others. From his critical writings we can deduce that this fact would not trouble Blanchot at all; in fact, because he sees writing as autonomous, and the outcome of a profound solitude, a biography, or a curriculum vitae, is of little relevance for assisting a reader in coming to grips with the enigmas of a truly literary work. In fact, Blanchot’s silence on matters biographical constitutes an important part of his literary project. For him the literary object is at one and the same time irreducible (to psychological or sociological explanations) and indeterminate (it is never possible to recover all of the meaning and significance of a literary text). Whether this amounts to a continuation of Romanticism is perhaps one of the key issues pertaining to an understanding of Blanchot’s oeuvre.

f157a47a8bc85813b30867722fa218bcEnigmatic Writing

Blanchot met Emmanuel Levinas (who died in 1995) in Strasbourg in the 1930s, and they became close friends. Despite some stiff competition, Blanchot – who was born in 1907 – acquired a reputation for writing some of the most enigmatic prose in modern French. Considering that he himself indirectly clarified some of the motivations for his literary work in his critical writings (most notably in Blanchot 1982, 1992 and 2003), this claim is no doubt extreme. On the other hand, as a certain force drives writing towards an unknowable centre of attraction – one that is only dimly perceptible to the one who is writing – a degree of obscurity seems to be built into Blanchot’s project. While there are good reasons for refusing the epithet of Romanticism in Blanchot’s case (Blanchot’s refusal of the notion of the author as origin being one of them), there is a much stronger case for saying that Blanchot is a lucid proponent of artistic modernism. This does not imply an acceptance of a particular version of the principle of original creativity. Blanchot has indeed heeded the warning represented by the Hegelian dialectic, where, in the end, everything will be recuperated within the framework of Absolute Knowledge. Eventually, Hegel argues, history will come to an end; the goal of the system will be united in the process of arriving at it. All of Blanchot’s oeuvre could be seen as a refusal to accept the basis of Hegel’s philosophy of the inevitability of the homogenity implied in the end of history.

Readable but Obscure

Unlike Joyce, Blanchot does not write ‘unreadable’ prose; neither does he compose explicitly musical texts, like Mallarme´ – although the author of Un Coup de de´s is an important point of reference for him. On the contrary, the immediate limpidity of Blanchot’s fictional writing leads the reader to expect that its meaning will be correspondingly accessible. The opening sentence of L’Arreˆt de mort (Death Sentence), is exemplary. ‘These things happened to me in 1938’ (Blanchot 1978: 1). Gradually this limpidity of style and meaning gives way to a profound obscurity. Names are erased a` la Kafka; the place where events occur seems to be Paris, but full addresses are never given; ‘J’ is a woman with a terminal illness who seems to die of her own accord, and who, later, seems to be helped to die by the narrator who administers a lethal cocktail of morphine and sedative. The events appear to take place at the time of the Munich crisis, but the narrator also gives the impression that the ‘events’ concerned are those pertaining to the writing as such of the story – a writing which the narrator continually refuses to assume. In effect, the time of writing is ambiguous. An initial draft of the narrative was destroyed, and this propels the writing into the distant past, while at the point after J’s death, the narrator says that the events being narrated have not yet happened. These kinds of features in Blanchot’s oeuvre have prompted the description of them as swirling in indeterminacy. And in fact Blanchot’s own literary theory offers some grounds for this.

Reading the Text’s Singularity

From his critical writings of the 1950s, it is clear that Blanchot is opposed to any easy appropriation of the authentically literary text. This frequently happens, however, with few critics actually reading what they claim to have read. Rather, they prefer to write their commentaries on the basis of readings which set new works in pre-existing categories; when the critic does happen to see that a work cannot be thus interpreted, it is too late for reading; for the critic is already an author and thus unable to become a reader. True reading, Blanchot implies, is one that respects the literary work’s singularity. True reading, in effect, is a crisis in reading. Such would be the modernist and avant-garde impetus in Blanchot’s approach in the 1950s. A number of other features that still figure largely in Blanchot’s later work accompany it. First of all, against any easy labelling of Blanchot as a Romantic, we note that any truly literary or artistic work is for him anonymous. This does not mean that the author is simply trying to hide in the work, but rather that the creative force of the work itself effaces the presence of the author. To be totally aware of the work is to be totally unaware of the author of it. Indeed while an author can be consciously linked to a book or to a painting, his or her true artistic merit is only perceptible at the level of a range of works – at level of the oeuvre, in short. Given changes in creative orientation over time, however, the exact nature of an oeuvre is never present to any author of it. To understand a work in its singularity it is necessary to grasp the movement that produced it. Thus, to understand writing, one must understand the conditions of possibility of writing. This means, almost inevitably, that the nature of the determination of any singular work is never immediately present.

No Institution Exists Prior to the Literary Work

With regard to the literary work in particular, the nature of determination takes another turn, one that seems to be an important element in Blanchot’s own writing practice. It is that, ‘the essence of literature is to escape any essential determination, or any affirmation which stabilises or even realises it: it is never already there; it is always to be found or to be reinvented’ (Blanchot 2003: 293–94). In other words, Blanchot’s modernist impulse entails that it is far from certain that there is any such thing as an art institution – a mechanism would be waiting to receive the new work within a framework which would pre-exist it. To give priority to the institution of art over the singularity of the work of art is, effectively, to efface that singularity by turning each work – however different from others it might be – into a repetition of the institution. This is why Blanchot argues that nothing exists prior to the work, every work being a reinvention of the practice of writing. From the point of view of the institution of literature, therefore, every singular work is characterised by its nonliterary quality.


Given the singularity of the literary work, we can see why, earlier in his career, Blanchot had spoken of the significance of the writer’s solitude. Solitude refers to the way a literary work and the process giving rise to it is cut off from all others – even if, as is often the case, it alludes to other works. Solitude means that whoever reads the work in question will experience its uniqueness. Solitude is the way in which the work speaks – a speaking which is also the form of the author’s silence. Playing on this, Blanchot speaks about the work as being the way that the writer’s silence takes shape. In accordance with Blanchot’s penchant for the rhetorical figure of the oxymoron, silence becomes the form of the author’s speaking. Because the writer is within an oeuvre, partially produced in light of his or her unconscious desire, the discovery of the form of the oeuvre is of interest to both writer and reader. The oeuvre is a source of the writer’s fascination precisely because it is not consciously determined. Only the specific work is. Fascination is the look of solitude in the oeuvre. The source of fascination par excellence is the image; and, interestingly, Blanchot does not automatically accept that the image is an unproblematic reflection of the object. The image, which is essentially visual, is in fact a way of grasping the object through distancing, or objectifying.

The Look and the Image

Many of Blanchot’s fictional works play on the paradoxical status of the image as it is conveyed by the look. The image is a closeness brought about by a distancing. Solitude, fascination, image and the look thus form a fundamental series of notions which inform Blanchot’s writing practice. This practice gives rise to indeterminacy. Whoever is fascinated does not see a real object or figure, ‘for what is seen does not belong to the world of reality, but to the indeterminant milieu of fascination’ (Blanchot 1982: 26, emphasis added). In a characteristically enigmatic move, Blanchot also separates the image from meaning, and relates it instead to ecstasy. Many would argue that such a notion hardly comes through in the somewhat melancholic event of Blanchot’s fiction.

Waiting, Death, Chance and Indeterminacy

While it is impossible to claim to be able to plumb all the depths of Blanchot’s modernist project, it is clear that death, forgetting, waiting and finality constitute another important series of concepts underpinning much of his writing. Death, Blanchot has famously said, cannot be experienced. Rather than attempting to make death the subject of an imaginary projection, or attempting a phenomenological reconstruction of dying, Blanchot writes the experience of the impossibility of the experience of death. No doubt this is the sense behind J’s coming back to life in L’Arreˆt de mort. L’Attente l’oubli (Waiting, Forgetting) and Au moment voulu (English translation When the Time Comes) as both explore the complexities of waiting and forgetting. Waiting is a kind of event that arrives, becomes impossible, while forgetting is caught between the given moment and the wanted moment; forgetting is always a kind of remembering in this sense. In view of Blanchot’s inclination for pointing out ways in which finality does not occur, or at least cannot be experienced, we note that the last man in the book of the same name is, in fact, like all other men; it is as though the last man – one who should be completely singular – is, in fact, everyman. Similarly, the ‘last word’ is a play on ‘there is’, which is not itself a word, but that which hints at the being of the word in general. The last word suggests what is given. The last word also calls for explanation, thus for more words. Around the time of Blanchot’s middle to late writings (1960s onwards), chance assumes a more obvious presence. Death only assumes its full significance in relation to chance. In Le Pas au-dela`, Blanchot refers to the unpredictability of death and of dying (Blanchot 1973: 133). But his most systematic elaboration of chance is found in an essay on Andre´ Breton and Surrealism (Blanchot 1967: 283–308). There, Blanchot proposes chance as a particular kind of experience, one in which the prevailing system of thought is given a shake. Chance is what existing thought leaves out of account; it is what passes it by, without, on that account, having any less of an effect. Death occurs, then, but exactly when it will occur is a matter of chance. To the extent that chance is not taken into account, therefore, death does not occur; rather, it floats in indeterminacy. In this very specific sense which interested the Surrealists, death escapes a cause and effect logic because causality is the mark of determinacy. Blanchot thus proceeds in his writing according to the principle that chance gives rise to uncertainty and indeterminacy. Implied here is a connection between determinacy, and the reversibility of time, and indeterminacy, which corresponds to irreversible time. Many of Blanchot’s fictional texts raise the question as to whether or not something has really taken place – the death of ‘J’ in L’Arreˆt de mort, for example. Or again, through chance, a moment comes to pass. At a certain moment in Au moment voulu, Claudia seems to stop and look at the narrator, as though invited ‘by chance’ to do so. A short time later, chance and the moment are once more at issue: ‘at such a moment’ the narrator sees Claudia’s face ‘by chance’. ‘At such a moment?’ the narrator asks, ‘and from when dated this moment?’ Doubt exists as to whether anything has really happened. The scene is one of indeterminacy. Chance cannot be seen simply as an isolated and discrete occurrence; rather, it spreads its mantle over the whole, like the ink of an octopus. If the true event is chance, writing the event, clearly, will be equivalent to exploring indeterminacy. Blanchot in fact raises the prospect that writing itself is an event and so is subject to indeterminacy. Already we have seen that this possibility was prepared by the idea of the oeuvre as a product of the writer’s unconscious desire. There is a sense in which the writer does not go where his writing is going. The writer writes into the void: the white page, in Mallarme´’s terms. Thus, largely in terms of an exploration of chance, Blanchot’s writing presupposes that nothing exists prior to it; this is the deepest sense of the notion of the solitude and the autonomy of writing.

The Fragment and Community

In his later work, the elementary and fragmentary form of narrative (re´cit) gives way to a series of marked fragments, as though the order could be reconstituted if the reader so desired. Here, Blanchot is effectively writing in order to give as great a reign as possible to indeterminacy. From the reader’s point of view this implies giving reign to the greatest range of meaning possible. It would be out of keeping with the logic of Blanchot’s enterprise to claim to be able to explain its innermost workings. Instead it is preferable to remain circumspect, and in so doing perhaps move closer to genuine insight. Briefly, and to conclude, reference should be made to Blanchot’s interest in the notion of community. His views here can be compared to those of his friend, Georges Bataille. The point, then, that Blanchot wants to make is that a true community has no other end than its own existence. To this extent, it is indeterminate – impossible to represent or to symbolise. The nature of the community is thus incommunicable. For the writer, this community is the audience of unknown readers with no definable identity without whom the writer could not exist. For Blanchot, then – as for Bataille – the indeterminate, unknown reader constitutes the void into which every writer must venture.


Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Blanchot, Maurice (1967), ‘Le demain joueur (sur l’avenir du surre´alisme)’ in La Nouvelle Revue Franc¸aise, 172 (April).
—— (1973), Le Pas au-dela`, Paris: Gallimard.
—— (1978), L’Arreˆt de mort/Death Sentence, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill.
—— (1982), The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
—— (1992), The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
—— (2003), The Book to Come, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Blanchot’s Major Writings
(2007 [1992]) Voice from Elsewhere, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Albany: State University of New York Press.
(2004 [1963]) Lautreamont and Sade, trans. Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(2003 [1959]) The Book to Come, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1997) Awaiting Oblivion (L’attente l’oubli), trans. John Gregg, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
(1997) Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1996) The Most High (translation of Le tre`s-haut), trans. Allan Stoekl, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
(1995a) The Blanchot Reader, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
(1995b [1949]) Work of Fire, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
(1992a [1973]) The Step Not Beyond, trans. Lycette Nelson, Albany: State University of New York.
(1992b [1969]) The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(1989 [1953]) The One Who was Standing Apart from Me, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill.
(1988a [1983]) The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris, New York: Station Hill.
(1988b [1950]) Thomas the Obscure (new version), trans. Robert Lemerton, New York: Station Hill.
(1987 [1957]) The Last Man, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Columbia University
(1986 [1980]) The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln, University of Nebraska.
(1985a) Vicious Circles, trans. Paul Auster, New York: Station Hill.
(1985b [1951]) When the Time Comes (translation of Au moment voulu), trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill.
(1982a) The Sirens’ Song: Selected Essays, ed. Gabriel Josipovici, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch, Bloomington: Indiana University Press and Brighton: Harvester Press.
(1982b [1955]) The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
(1981a) The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill.
(1981b [1973]) The Madness of the Day (translation of La folie du Jour), trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill,.
(1978 [1948]) L’Arreˆt de mort/Death Sentence, trans. Lydia Davis, New York: Station Hill.
(1962) L’Attente l’oubli (translation of Waiting, Forgetting), Paris: Gallimard.
(1942) Aminadab, Paris: Gallimard.
(1941) Thomas l’Obscur, Paris: Gallimard.

Further Reading
Gill, Carolyn Bailey (1996), Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing, London and New York: Routledge.
Hart, Kevin (2004), The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Hart, Kevin and Hartman, Geoffrey (2004), The Power of Contestation: Perspectives on Maurice Blanchot, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hill, Leslie (1997), Blanchot, Extreme Contemporary, London and New York: Routledge.
Hill, Leslie, Nelson, Brian and Vardoulakis, Dimitri, eds (2006), After Blanchot: Literature, Criticism, Philosophy, Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press.



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism

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