The Black Stain: Writing The Most High (1946–1947)

A thick novel—one that had been a work in progress for several years, and which can be read in political, theological, and psychological ways—was completed at the beginning of 1947. Through it we can glimpse Blanchot’s striking thinking of nudity, the body, illness, and death, which little by little would push him toward the récits that would follow. The Most High is his most openly political, realist, and familial novel. The twenty-four-year-old narrator, Henri Sorge, relates to his mother and his sister Louise in a way that seems to dictate his behavior toward other women, such as Marie the photographer and Jeanne the nurse. Sorge’s dedication to the law—his main topic of conversation—is dictated by his respect for his father, a “man of duty” who had died seventeen years previously, and by his hatred for his stepfather, an important and corrupt statesman. The novel plunges the reader into the unhealthy and hate-filled familial world that is ultimately foreign to the young man, before taking an interest in the parallel developments of an epidemic and an insurrection in the city (which, though unnamed, quite closely resembles Paris). The plague spreads and the security measures become more and more draconian and dictatorial: The police search passers-by, lock up the insubordinate, erect barriers, shoot into the crowd. Little by little, buildings are transformed into dispensaries. A group of insurgents led by Bouxx, the narrator’s former neighbor, profits from the epidemic and takes control of the health centers, which become more and more numerous. A willing hostage to Bouxx, Sorge remains in his building, which has also become a dispensary. Through the partition he communicates with Dorte, a friend of Bouxx who is badly affected by the illness. The epidemic gets worse; at night, insane and ill people rush through the streets in gangs, attacking houses, stealing food. The chaos is at its worst, the epidemic spreads to other quarters, the insurrection seems about to be successful, when the nurse Jeanna Galgat takes Sorge—in whom she has recognized “the Most High”—away to a building for isolated treatment where he seems to undergo once again fits of epilepsy, this “great evil” that has already been discussed in a scene with Marie.1

Such at least is the fantastic plot of an impossible récit which is narrated by a person who is in turn reasoned, unwell, mystical, “idiotic,” perhaps mad, and who is also confronted by other figures who are just as troubling, providing as they do multiple, contradictory versions of the events in their dialogues. Nothing in this novel, beyond the fantastic treatment of political subject matter, reminds one of the realist aesthetics and moralist ethics of The Plague, which was published as Blanchot was finishing his book. Any concern for reasoned commentary, whether universal or particular, small-scale or totalizing, is immediately limited, and often referred back to what gives the récit its force: its permanent ability to open new spaces of perception and dialogue, the speed with which the narration invents new forms of light, new boards to walk on, new steps to walk with, new objects, new debates, with infinitely minute attention to detail. Events happen as quickly as the fist that punches the narrator in the opening lines “with fascinating speed.”2 The progressive discovery of thoughts, characters, and places is led by the narrator’s vision, and by a writing that

[slows] down this flow of reflections passing through me with incredible speed: everything is going too fast, it is running, it is as if I always had to walk faster, and not only me but also other people, things, and even dust; everything is so clear; these are the thoughts that never get confused, thousands of infinitely small and distinct shocks. (77)

We have to be able to follow this flux of transformation of space and air, to abandon any desire for physical permanence and to follow the narrator’s consciousness according to the metamorphoses it undergoes. The more the novel advances, the more bodies become able to multiply, until the final chapter where the various states of immanence become unthinkable, impossible, so much so that only a brazen, blistered, and irritated perception at the edge of the limitless, granted by illness or by disgust, seems to have been driving this ever-changing description.

Much rather than in the plot, it is in these divagations, these glances, these rhythms that traces and echoes of Blanchot’s life can be found. For his only fiction that places its main protagonist in a family setting is also his least overtly biographical. There can be no direct transposition of Henri Sorge’s relationship with his family onto Blanchot’s. A certain number of differences rule this out (the father dying early, the mother remarrying, and so on); and despite some points of similarity (solitude, illness, writing, a certain “idiocy”—in the Dostoyevskian sense), the character is not a portrait of Blanchot.3 We have to accept that The Most High is neither an autobiographical novel nor a family romance.

Nonetheless, we can note certain tendencies. Unlike the “man without qualities” who wanders alone in the strange world of Aminadab, “overcome by a feeling of solitude and by the anguish of his own destitution,” the first line of The Most High states: “I was not alone,” and it continues on the following page: “Having a family, I knew what that meant” (1, 2).4 This novel, which is so little centered on the family, opens with a definition of it: “That was what family was. The recollection of the time before the law, a cry, primitive words from the past” (3). For the family indeed seems only to survive in Blanchot via a “recollection”: the palpable political and intellectual distance established by adulthood allows the novel of childhood to resurface only in fragments, in certain scenes, in its happy lack of differentiation and its natural freedom. This is a love kept alive by what was obvious in the past, but that one or two scenes have been able to tear apart after a certain moment in childhood: the “primal scene” and the opening of the sky, perhaps also a forbidding of incest, which is a difficult and recurrent topic in The Most High, in which the figure of the sister plays a major role. The family is a reservoir of dark signs. The family in the novel, which is highly structured, ordered, run like a state due to the stepfather’s profession, is in fact undermined by the brutality that governs the relationships within it: the “common speech” (paroles brutes) that signals correspondences between the events of childhood and their resurgence and transposition in adulthood. We cannot fail to be alert to the fact that Blanchot’s only novel addressing family relationships, ancestors, and children, opens with such a view of the family. The Most High traces the contours of familial aridity.

The absence of father figures in all of Blanchot’s fiction appears, in a way, to be made up for and explicated here with Sorge’s father dying at an early stage in his life, and his mother then marrying a hated stepfather. Two of Henri Sorge’s childhood memories converge: his mother’s violence toward her daughter Louise (“a thin five-year-old ghost,” “my mother with her fist in the air, the majesty of my mother reduced to this threat,” 56–57); and the scene in which Louise is seduced, “kissed and caressed” by her stepfather (68). These scenes give Henri and his sister a predisposition for an Orestes complex, which is symbolically put into action by the solemn declaration that they will take vengeance, as well as by the fantasy of the axe, of injuring the stepfather, who by now has become ill (71, 68). The contrast with the dead father is clear, with him being idealized, referred to as “a true icon” and a “man of duty” who has been ousted by a man of hypocritical, blind power (52); this can only encourage brother and sister to come together. Incestuous love for the sister takes over from love for the mother, this “monumental person who could drag me into totally crazy things” (3). Louise will indeed be the one who is capable of provoking Henri into madness, as in the strongly erotic cemetery scene in which brother and sister come together in the father’s empty tomb, and in which words of resentment and vengeance are spoken by a face that “reveres, horrified and cursing, only the dark side of death” (70), “foaming on her mouth . . . becoming sweat and water” (71), “letting off with the flowers “a scent of earth and stagnant water” (72).5 The sister is the solitary, dirty, accursed, dominating being who carries out a burial. She hides in the darkness of the tomb like Madame Edwarda beneath a public arch, provoking desire in horror and fright (70–71), but while she eludes the sexual act, doing no more than miming it, she is not able to mime anguish: for she is anguish. Threatening her brother with scissors, she slaps him and makes his lip bleed, as a reminder of the time when they were children and she threw a brick at his temple. In this way she passes on her mother’s violent heritage. She will only ever look at Henri with “extremely old eyes,” intimidating him so much that he regularly sweats in her presence, this sweat that he perceives as “deathly water which had flowed and would flow from me, again and to the end” (51).

The incest is of course never consummated. But that is precisely its true state, according to Blanchot in an article on Musil: “Here appears the profound meaning of the incest that is fulfilled in the impossibility of its fulfillment.”6 Like death, incest signals “the definitive impossibility of having done with things” that condemns Henri Sorge to a series of transfer displacements and hallucinations as symptoms. The eau de mort associated with the sister proves an obsession for her brother. She is the seat of his gaze and of his desires. The black stain he sees, which grows larger and larger and is more hallucinated than real (“was it even visible? It did not exist under the wallpaper,” 43), on the walls of the apartment and of the hospital room, recalls a similar stain on the walls of his parents’ house; it is “water leakage,” “oozing humor,” “thick and invisible streaming” (43, 195). This fantastic growth is able to communicate the sick neighbor’s sweating through the wall. As “black water, stagnant with filth and poverty,” it starts to refer to the air being breathed, which becomes more and more unhealthy as the epidemic progresses (120). This “black tide against which authoritarian forces were now being established,” or “blind, black tide in which rottenness, hardship, and humiliation rolled” also refers to the ill, turned mad by their illness, who go out at night to attack houses, this “rabble of ruined people,” these “true beacons of death,” “men and women beside themselves with their own insanity” (180, 187). For the narrator, it will only ever come from a single source, Louise:

I watched her unremittingly, I stared at the fabric of her dress, a kind of black silk, shiny in some areas, dull in others; it was not a piece of clothing, but rather: a stain, something she had soaked up which was now seeping out, something that had neither form nor color, something that looked like that broad blot of mildew on the wall. And even thinking that it would go away gave me a feeling of wrongdoing, of guilt. (121)

Does it represent Louise’s black eyes, “which seemed to have always examined me with this expectant, disapproving and commanding air” (51), which Henri hallucinates seeing in the stains on the wall, all the more frequently given that he no longer sees his sister? Or does it represent the black material of her dress, “a dirty and faded black” (15), the abjection of her hateful virginity, “black thing,” “small, swarthy, ugly,” whose ideal state is to “feel bad and look like a slob” (86–87)? Or then again, it might be the dirtiness of the tapestry in the room, “chaos in rags,” a “bug nest,” from which Henri suddenly sees emerging “the image of an enormous horse that reared up toward the sky,” a vision whose meaning, overcome with hatred as he is, he locates in “something old, criminally old” (54). The black material itself will lead him to his neighbor, Marie Scadran, who wears clothing made from it when she gives herself to him. The erotic scene is described in a similar way to that in Aminadab, which insists on both the fusion and separation of bodies. “With a shattering suddenness this (shared) body broke in two, dissolved, and in its place a burning density formed, a moist and voracious strangeness that could see nothing and recognize nothing” (39). Ancestral eroticism therefore leads to black moistness via bodily smoothness and radical strangeness (“I swear, she became other,” “I swear, I had become a stranger”). The stain that is the sign of sickly distance (the malady of death?) forever separates the beings in question at the moment of excess (eroticism, ecstatic vision, movement toward death). It gives shape to the body of separation, which becomes available to touch and smell (“No one will believe me, but, at that moment, we had been separated, we felt and breathed this separation, we gave it a body,” 39).

At a late stage, Henri will state explicitly that Jeanne Galgat, the nurse, “resembled my sister” (242). In fact this comparison of the two is even greater and more shocking than it seems. The ensuing mad, erotic scene involving cries, phlegm, bodies hurled against the wall, is only an extension of the scene with Louise in the grave (238–240). This erotic body is a liquid body: “I felt her stuck against me, a foreign flesh, a dead, liquefying flesh” (239). The narrator has already seen this body half-naked: “that black and thick water was dripping down her body, water similar to what had once percolated through the walls” (225). This body, which it is impossible to feel, see, or breathe, this deathly body, is the one that obsesses Blanchot in The Most High, Thomas the Obscure, and Death Sentence.

But unlike in the latter two texts, the narrator of this novel is also a subject of the city. This aspect seems to be a little more overtly autobiographical. It recalls what the narrator of The Madness of the Day states:

As I walked along the pavements, plunged into the bright lights of the metro, turned down beautiful avenues where the city glowed superbly, I became extremely dull, modest, and tired. Gathering an excessive share of anonymous dilapidation, I then attracted all the more attention because it was not meant for me and was making of me something rather vague and formless.7

But the Parisian city in The Most High only retains its luminosity—its overwhelming luminosity—at the beginning of the novel. It quickly becomes unhealthy, and the narrator will no longer be simply “extremely dull and tired,” but concretely ill, worn out, exhausted (more, the architecture described will be an object of disdain: Blanchotian buildings are empty, as if they have been hollowed out). Sorge will only attract attention for a limited time, for he already bears this “care” inscribed in his surname, he is and shall remain the “Most High”: He who “gather[s] an excessive proportion of anonymous dilapidation.” Like Thomas, Sorge carries others’ deaths on his shoulders, the guilt of the world. When his concerned face attracts attention, he is met with affront and insult. In a palpably Christic episode at the start of the narrative, Sorge is punched by a man he has lightly bumped against. He remains peaceful and refuses to press charges when the two are taken to the police commissioner. He asks real ethical questions of his assailant and is taken to be “an oddball.” Ultimately he is the one thrown out of the police station: his account is no more acceptable to the police than the one Christ gave to Pontius Pilate or than the one the narrator of The Madness of the Day gives to his doctors. From the outset, the novel is taken into a space that cannot be assimilated into the moral consensus of the social order, into the way the interrogations seek to press guilt upon those being questioned. The difference introduced by this punch opens an ethical space which places the novel incredibly close to Robert Antelme’s contemporaneous (1947) reflections; for instance the recognition of similarity (“now you know that I am a man like you,” 1), which prevents the attacker from continuing to hit him (in this sense, the novel’s beginning prefigures its ending; as if Blanchot were saying: “No, no novels, never again”).8 It is only ever difference that is trampled and killed, Sorge continues. It is only ever this black stain, this vomiting, that makes the State’s reprisals possible. This rotten punch casts a dark light over the beginning of the tale, placing itself between Sorge and the State.

The itinerary taken by the narrative consists entirely in separating the State and Sorge, even though initially he breathes it “through [his] every fiber” and feels “its existence in everything [he does]” (19). He is excessively conscientious in his work (“I have to do my job,” 2; “work is the basis of existence,” 23; “a real veneration of the authorities,” 40); this “good citizen’s” conscientiousness leads him to make unbending, extreme statements (“it is a duty to raise young people who are strong,” the search for “good, clean fun,” 16). He takes infinite pleasure from the feeling that the law, different from but ultimately similar to Hegelian reason, finds ingenious solutions; each man works in his own way but all work for the law, even and especially when they transgress it: “If everyone was equally faithful to the law—ah, that idea intoxicated me” (18). This senseless love for the law paints Sorge as an infinite reasoner, an exhausting chatterbox, a naïve, intrusive clown, all the more tiresome for being so courteous. His behavior gives rise to some joking (identification itself is not without humor). But whether it is due to illness, love, his farewell to his family, or the mysticism that gradually takes him over, his character changes over the course of the narrative: He vomits on simply seeing his identity card (114–115), drafts a letter of resignation (126), sympathizes with the insurgents even though he thinks that their agitations are in vain. “The State is everywhere” (176), and even if it is wounded, it will end up trapping you. Blanchot’s bitterness and utter disillusionment for what he names here “political fatality” are palpable (179). There is no way of opposing the anonymous, impersonal power of the State, which in the end always swallows up figures such as Bouxx or the stepfather. When Sorge tells Bouxx, in a phrase used as the novel’s epigraph, “everything that you get from me is, for you, only a lie, because I am the truth” (176), we should understand that this superior truth (that of the Most High) does not belong to the same sphere as political untruth. It is the only possible site for difference.

The episode of the mugging in the metro recalls the opening scene of the punch (as well as that of bread being stolen in Robert Antelme’s work). “The man had stolen but was all the same still a man,” ponders the narrator; guilt does not exist, difference is only “a kind of game to keep the law moving along” (28). Justice creates differences but reveals beneath it a vast space that renders all equal. The movement of the law is an effacement (65–66): “its even, transparent, and absolute light illuminating everyone and everything in an always different and yet identical way” (29), giving rise only to the inebriation of the dead. Initially, Sorge is unable to create any difference between women and the law: when with Marie, he reflects that difference is no more forthcoming from hands and flesh than it is from the law. The world of the restaurant bathes in the lack of all concern, in the impersonality of the there is (such is what Sorge says, talking about himself and his name: “nobody looked at me or seemed to have noticed my presence, just as if no one had been there, as if around us there had only been a noisy void,” 29). Resemblances are everywhere: in illness, which is a great leveler (“What happens is strange . . . you no longer recognize people . . . everything is displayed in a peaceful and full light, the points of view of all people coincide, they have disappeared,” 30–31); in the hundreds of photographs examined, which all seem to be the same, and which are anything but identity photographs (“All these photos looked alike. . . . They were the same, but the same in an infinite number,” 37);9 in the silence, where even minimal forms of hatred brood (the narrator relates an anecdote where he has asked for a new role due to a colleague he cannot stand; but he then learns that the colleague has also asked for a new role: “I was the same as him,” 83). There are further resemblances with Bouxx (“You are like me,” Sorge tells him (44)—Bouxx does not accept this); with things (the world begins to resemble Sorge: “All these things! They are like you! It is as if they are satisfied because you look at them, because you look only at them. Ugh! What a world!” says Jeanne in a sickened manner, 237); and with Marie (“our faces look alike, our thoughts are the same,” he says to her; they look at their faces in a mirror: “Little by little the resemblance emerged in this world before us . . . with the serenity of an inaccessible presence,” 100). Yet it is also with Marie, following this accumulation of semblances, that difference will appear (38–39). Women are what are missing from, and are able to elude, the world of the law. A long dream by Sorge recalls Thomas’s itinerary in Aminadab and prefigures the passage in The Madness of the Day where the law finally submits to the guilty party: The judges “became my servants” (46); the law “declared herself perpetually on her knees before me. . . . She would say to me . . . ‘here I am, your servant forever.’ . . . In these surroundings, overpopulated by men, she was the only feminine element.”10 “I had been searching for days, with these judges, and what I could not find anywhere . . . was a woman. . . . There were none. Because of this the world of justice is oppressive” (46). Women cannot free one from guilt, but they can free one from semblances: They set difference free. Disentangling himself from all politics of brotherhood, sliding into a narrative space bordered by women (two women), the Blanchotian character will slowly return toward men, but this time they will be last men, friends, with friendship now opening up—differently—the space of the political.

The narrator was looking at Marie’s hand, and the feeling of otherness will appear in a similar moment, in proximity to Louise’s hand.

“Listen,” I said looking at the hand that she had rested on my arm, which I feebly brushed aside, “I have just had a strange feeling. Your hand, I had the impression that it belonged to another world, that it was something that I did not know, something completely other. Yes, it is strange.” (118–119)

The other body, the deathly body, gives rise to strange perceptions. To perceive the deathly body in fact demands that one perceive the incredible, the impossible, the imperceptible, the indescribable, it demands a state in one’s own body that is deferred (différé), permanently shifted, visionary, ecstatic—and yet also conscious and extremely lucid. Like a body in the theater, occupying the whole stage, this body no longer knows the limits of flesh: It is addressed by the stain and by what lies behind it. The narrator sees “behind him,” over his shoulders, and always beyond the other. This is an exhausting ability. Perception spreads not transparent light, the light of day which illuminates objects, but “a penetrating and suspicious light that I also saw, which disclosed itself,” for it illuminates itself ‘at work’ before it does objects (75). It could be said to be the light of darkness, that which allows us to see differently. That which beats down upon the skull, makes it numb from glimpsing another world in its weightiness, its thickness, its fugitive nature. Another character also has this ability:

Dorte looked at me crazily, a look full of pleading and horror. Fixed on me, his eyes did not seem to see me where I was, but further away, on the other side of the wall, against the door, then further, beyond this room and this house; they found me everywhere and they kept going further to find me again. (187)

Thus he and Sorge are able to look at each other, over and against their faces, without actually looking at each other: a mystical, blind, enhanced perception. To do so is to reach the broadest serenity: “We kept looking at each other, and there was nothing calmer than the two of us, nothing more peaceful than the room and the house” (194). Space is pacified. Through this mystical force, this ability to penetrate matter, the exchange of gazes allows Dorte to pierce the wall, to shake the world and to impress her almost monstrous mark, the black stain: “coming from the bowels of the wall like an oozing humor, resembling neither a thing nor the shadow of a thing, flowing and extending, forming neither head nor hand nor thing, nothing but a thick and invisible streaming” (195). This stain is nonetheless seen, experienced, and perceived so strongly by the narrator that he suffocates, his eyes boggling. A senseless vision closes one of the final chapters, one that Sorge seems to be able to tolerate but that strikes Dorte like an arrow, a flame, a vision of a condemned man:

he was on his feet in one terrible bound and, letting out a piercing scream, like the cry of a woman, he started howling, “I am not dead, I am not dead,” and even when my hand covered his mouth, pressing against it and crushing it down to make him be quiet, my fingers kept on grasping the same cry, and nothing could silence it. (195)

If he is able to bear this death of the other to the point of suffocating, to the point where being able to see behind him is no longer of use, the narrator is indeed the Most High. Toward the end we read, “I was covered with an earthy, almost cold, slobber, which flowed in and out through my nose and mouth; it filled me and smothered me; I was already suffocating” (243). This “slobber” enters him and withdraws again on several occasions. Ultimately it is seen as

an extremely slow panting, as if someone were there, breathing, stopping himself from breathing, hidden right next to me. I wanted to open my eyes and get away, but then, horrified, I realized that my eyes were already open and were already looking at and touching and seeing what no gaze should ever have fallen upon, could ever have endured. I had to scream, I howled, I tore at myself with the feeling of howling in another world. (243)

Another world that adheres, sticks to one’s gaze, to one’s eyes, skin, suffocating one infinitely, contracts one, forces one to cry, spasm, scream. Such is the striking autobiographical perception of the novel.

This is the role of the Most High’s narrator:

And I too had a role. My role was to intervene in the story as a perpetually absent but always implied listener. I said nothing, but everything had to be said before me. Throughout the solemn chanting, as the memories of the days of anguish were repeated, as if present-day suffering were at stake, everyone was no doubt listening, but someone most high listened as well, someone who, through his attentiveness, gave these appalling ruminations a hopeful and beautiful character. (190–191)

This deportation into the externality of death, of women, of friendship, grasps the time of distress in which the novel masks its biographical side, and reveals how historical it is. As the narrator had said, all the events return, “everything is appearing, everything is being revealed clearly and truthfully” (88), this “extraordinary clarity, terrible clarity, without a single shadow,” which is a call for responsibility and makes him believe he is suffocating (“it was as if all of history in every sense had passed through me,” 107; “all the events of history are there around us, just like the dead,” 88). This impossible return is given unto reading, unto suffocation (for how would one not be suffocated by the end of history, when one thinks of how one has contributed to it). It cannot be said in any other way: not in celebration, or in commemoration, or in recognition.

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