Invisible Partners: The Project for the International Review (1960–1965)

When in the fall of 1960 Blanchot, Mascolo, and Vittorini decided to launch the project for an International Review, they knew that it could gain broad and quick success only through Jean-Paul Sartre. A meeting took place at the end of November; the charges against them all still stood. A few days later, on December 2, Blanchot wrote to Sartre: “You have reminded me of what I must have said at times and what I have always thought privately: that the Declaration would find its true meaning only if it were the beginning of something.”1 At this time, everyone was thinking of a new review. Sartre was considering changing Les Temps Modernes, Nadeau thinking of transforming Les Lettres Nouvelles; but Blanchot was not satisfied with “a more literary TM, a more political LN.” “Experience shows that, not without risks, one can update a review, but one cannot make an old review a new one,” he wrote to Sartre. For a true beginning, a “new platform” was needed.2

Everyone agreed that the Manifesto affair and the trial had changed matters greatly. A larger number of intellectuals saw how necessary their involvement, as well as their political radicalization, had been, conceiving of them in terms of an almost immediate extension of their activity, beyond a simple feeling of responsibility. They saw how strong an impact their speech could have, a speech that was all the stronger because it defended itself collectively, anonymously. This change exalted Blanchot who saw in it, for the first time in his life, the possibility of using speech to respond to radically new events of history. This speech was meaningful only if it was now thought of as the interruption and the neutrality of speech; this response was only meaningful if it attempted to “represent as we should, unequivocally, the change that we are all sensing.”3 The political calling of the new review was therefore to represent change. It had to be public, to mobilize people; for that reason, it could not do without Jean-Paul Sartre. Blanchot told him this in a letter, without flattery, suddenly referring to him in the third person to underscore how his name was now able to represent change.4

If Sartre, and others among the 121 with him, are seen deciding to express themselves in this form deliberately chosen as new, everyone—and I am thinking not only of writers and the general public but also of the intellectual youth as a whole—will understand that we are entering into a new phase and that something decisive is taking place and trying to find expression.5

Sartre would not become involved in the project, and from the beginning the review’s survival was therefore threatened.

The first six months of the following year were spent putting together the project and looking for editors, correspondents, and publishers all over the world. British, Polish, American, Mexican, and Argentinian intellectuals were interested but unable or unwilling to participate in it fully.6 Three national committees were formed. In France, the committee consisted of Antelme, Blanchot, Butor, Des Forêts, Duras, Leiris, Mascolo, and Nadeau, with Julliard as the publisher (Barthes would join them actively later); in Italy, there were Calvino, Pasolini, Vittorini, with Einaudi as publisher; in Germany, Bachmann, Enzensberger, Grass, Johnson, Walser. Few of the names on this impressive list, however, contributed much real work. Those who did threw themselves into it with body and soul for more than three years.

Blanchot worked on it frenetically. He edited the best texts from all the committee meetings and during this period provided far fewer articles to the NRF. His energy stemmed both from conviction and despair. Sartre had refused to take part. Bataille was sinking into illness. Algeria was becoming a tragedy, between the generals’ coup and terror attacks by the OAS (Secret Army Organization); relations with Tunisia were broken off after the Bizerte crisis. The first delays with the Review, the fact that his closest friend was no longer near, French politics, and general indifference: All of these suffocated him with “personal misfortune” which he compared, in a letter to Dionys Mascolo, to the misfortune of a driver seeing a child throw itself beneath the wheels of his car.7 This an unbearable image reveals the pain Blanchot felt assailing him from all sides, like an impossible cry, a permanent nightmare, a disorientation of all projects. It was like an infinite, silent, absurd death that had raised its head in innocence and happy oblivion; it was like a lightning bolt of truth. “I believe that we are all living in fear,” he wrote to Bataille; “but that we cannot know it: only in certain moments—and then it is as if truth moves through us.”8 The image of the slaughter of an innocent child spoke to him as truth; it left him with the feeling of a “world falling apart.”9 The only thing at this time, as in the future, that gave him back his strength was Robert Antelme’s book. Again to Bataille, he wrote:

I can see nothing that would dissuade me from saying together with you that ultimately things lead nowhere; I would only add that this “nowhere” can only be affirmed in the necessity of always leading somewhere, doing so through the inexorable decision never to give up. In recent days I have been remembering Robert Antelme’s book (the narrative of his time in the camp), and I have been remembering, almost with horror, the type of hope that never abandoned him even when hope was absolutely absent and that made even the basest human needs sacred for him and his companions: this hope seems terrible to me, perhaps even awful; it is hope without hope.10

This thought was working away at him: the previous day, Blanchot had written the same letter (even with some of the same words) to Dionys Mascolo. It was working away at him because it set free a feeling of lightness even in the depths of despair. “An ‘absolute’ backdrop of hopelessness sits behind my readiness to affirm human truth and futurity.”11 Robert Antelme’s book and even his face were what brought Blanchot back to the Review, what made it possible to write the texts preparing the committee’s collective reflection in July 1961.

Blanchot was personally utterly convinced that an interruption of history had taken place, that one period had ended and another begun, and the Review had to respond to this new period: “We are approaching an extreme movement in time, what I could call a change of times. . . . It is therefore necessary that such a project be ceaselessly focused on its own gravity, which is the attempt to respond to the grave enigma that is the passage from one time to another.”12

This was why he could not stand any traditional form of commentary or review. “There is nothing more illegitimate [bâtard] than political commentary expressed by an individual who believes he has something to say and who wishes to say it,” he wrote to Mascolo.13 Political rupture and historical revolution brought the Review into being: they also forced it to adopt new forms. “This review will not be a review”: it would not review contemporary literary, cultural, or political activity (there would be no reviews, precisely). “This review will not be a review”: it would be collective, fragmentary writing, centered on a new column, the “Intellectual Course of Events.”14

Collective writing did not mean seeking out equally shared solutions. The “communism of thought” was also the interruption—the fragmentation—of such a communism of writing. On the contrary, by bringing together problems belonging to each language, to each nation, to each political situation, to each culture with its differing view of literary endeavors, the idea was to seek out the literature that was “more than literature.”15 In the same way that the international perspective acted upon national ones, so did poetics upon politics, fragments upon totality, community upon solitude. Collective writing had to allow one “to internally go beyond [one’s] own thoughts” and “to give rise to new ones.” Each writer was to be effaced by his own thinking and by that of others. Each was to share responsibility for affirmations whose author he became, without actually writing them; he was more than a cosignatory, even more than a coauthor: He was an author of excess, an interrupted author. “This is the sense of the review as a collective possibility. It is an intermediary status between author and reader.”16 Each was to write in the name of the other, each to become the other’s partner. This International Review was a review (a dance) of invisible partners.

Seven years earlier, at the beginning of his work with the NNRF, Blanchot had called for a light, innocent reader freed of all religious devotion and all cultish respect, capable of “dancing quickly round the text,” the best way of relocating the meaning of true gravity.17 The author-reader of the Review was just such a creature, freed of all political cults, of all literary schools, of all ideological “platforms”—of all nihilism. Instead, this author-reader was to use collective writing to “answer for a knowledge that he does not originally know himself.”18 Such at least was the dancer that Blanchot hoped for, since this review was to do more than simply juxtapose individual concerns, instead drawing on permanent exchange, adjustment, on constantly changing approaches and projects, on international and therefore collective standpoints; he wanted the dance to resemble a difficult accomplishment, a truncated, doctored relation with death, where the concern for visibility and the fetish for having a visible partner would not overwhelm the expectations of its too-numerous contributors.

The very first event it addressed—the construction of the Berlin wall on August 13, 1961—caused difficulties for the project. Beyond the clear dismay and the “impersonal misfortune” they once again shared, the German contributors—notably Enzensberger—would see their preoccupations shift. A month after the event, the latter wrote to Mascolo: “Berlin stinks of war and of fear: of the end of free alternatives, of rational analysis.” What appeared to the French group as another reason to continue and even to speed up the Review was seen by Enzensberger as a historical trap closing around him. He noted the political differences within the group, the fact that the majority wanted to disengage and abandon the project, and explicitly resigned. He emigrated to Norway. The only one in the German group who could draw on friendships with some of the Italians and French, Enzensberger left and was replaced by Uwe Johnson who, after waiting nearly a year to decide whether to become involved, proved to be extremely cold, attempting to base the relationship with the other groups on contractual terms.

Winter 1961 and spring 1962 were thus spent in despair over whether the Review would ever come to anything. The French and Italians both refused to contemplate a review that was exclusively Franco-Italian and waited for the Germans to decide; they were depressed and regularly discussed giving up. Louis-René des Forêts tried to reanimate the group by taking over the secretarial duties—“a guarantee of vigilance and reserve in relation to so many passions.”19 Although Gallimard eventually did offer to publish the review, even considering replacing the NRF with it, the discussions were long, painful, and bothersome, and Maurice Nadeau therefore offered to make his review available, “which is to say to replace it with the one we are imagining.”20 Blanchot was considerably moved by the offer.

Events were not helping: Algeria won independence against a backdrop of further atrocities: for instance, the massacre on February 8 at Charonne metro station in Paris during a demonstration against the OAS, for peace (a peace that the government would agree to a month later, in Evian), or that of partisans of French Algeria on March 26 in Algiers. The Charonne murderers were not sought by the police. Proclaimed on July 3, Algerian independence proved only a short-lived relief for Blanchot. Georges Bataille died five days later.21

In summer 1962, Blanchot was perhaps more depressed than ever. On July 18, Johnson sent Louis-René des Forêts an incredibly haughty, distant, indifferent letter, overturning many points originally agreed about the project. The crisis ran from July to the end of the year. In effect, Johnson demanded that texts be ready before the international meeting scheduled for mid-December in Zurich. “There is a great misunderstanding,” Blanchot wrote to Mascolo. Johnson wanted to remove the collective writing of “The Course of Things.” He explicitly told Louis-René des Forêts on October 6, adding in imperturbable fashion (and in the formal mode of address): “Dear Mr. Des Forêts, allow me to remark that we do not see as opportune an interview such as that given by Mr. Mascolo to the representative from The Observer which appeared on September 23 in that [British] newspaper.” Mascolo was asked to explain himself—to explain what was the responsibility of the publishers, who had contacted the press at the Frankfurt book fair.

Such failures of understanding and such complaints left Mascolo and Blanchot in despair. Moreover, at the end of the year they were forced to abandon the project of publishing with Gallimard. In this fall 1962 and winter 1963, the two friends were in turn fairly seriously ill. Then, at the beginning of January, Mascolo was laid low by the death of his niece, only a young girl.

The Zurich meeting finally took place in mid-January 1963. Meanwhile, having newly arrived as an Italian editor and taken charge of that committee, Francesco Leonetti had tried—with the agreement of Enzensberger and Vittorini—to mediate between the French and German groups. He criticized the utopian vision of one side and the traditionalist vision of the other. However much the Italians supported “The Course of Things,” and despite the friendship that still linked Vittorini to Mascolo and Blanchot (even when they disagreed), before the Zurich meeting the crisis came to a head rather than disappearing. The French only attended “unwillingly,” Mascolo wrote. The Review was at an impasse. The meeting was a disaster. Des Forêts would remember leaving it furious, sickened, outraged, then “sadder and more depressed than the others.”22 He recalled the Germans’ refusals, Johnson saying Nein repeatedly as each French text was discussed. Certain texts, for instance those by Char and Genet, were even censored rather than discussed, or criticized in the name of cultural values or ideological criteria, which were precisely what the French wanted to avoid. The Italians attacked the “ontologism” of Barthes, Blanchot, and Mascolo. A letter from Vittorini to Blanchot, dated March 1, 1963, explained the basis of these Italian objections fairly well. Beyond a disagreement on the definition of literature and the demand that it represented, the divergences grew out of the Italians’ inability to see notions such as silence or absence as anything but mystical. Calvino would admit a few years later how Vittorini “stiffened” as soon as he heard discussion of such notions, which he still saw as values, in a way that Blanchot condemned as nihilist.23

After Zurich, the crisis deepened and hastened the end of the Review. Des Forêts withdrew the texts of his that had been accepted. Blanchot blamed Johnson for having closed the meeting too early. Faced with German inflexibility, he could do little more than express simple moral truths, solicit the most elementary tolerance. Correspondence proliferated: Blanchot, Mascolo, Vittorini proclaimed how sincere their friendship was, which also enabled them to air their negative remarks. Viewpoints were becoming incompatible. In April 1963, after a meeting in Paris, an ensemble of texts formed a first issue; the publishers, Einaudi, Suhrkamp, and finally Julliard, were ready, but nothing appeared.

The Review ultimately failed on the question of its form. Was collective writing utopian, impossible? It did not seem so. This writing already existed: it was partly Blanchot’s own, that which he had often practiced, in the free indirect discourse of his “critical journal,” in the authority—shared in friendship—of Death Sentence, in the shared, repeated work of the political interventions made alongside Mascolo. It was no longer a question of condensing the text written with the other or in his or her name, of appropriating the creativity of the dance with an invisible partner. On the contrary, it was a question of freeing up this creativity, of returning it to the invisibility it had come from. This required attentiveness, multiple encounters, infinite mutual recognition. This attentiveness also had to be attentive to the constant movements of history as it was interrupted and disoriented; this recognition provided a maximal access to the most accursed and the most withdrawn share, to the most essential and the most personal solitudes. Enzensberger and Mascolo were able to put it in infinitely simple terms: “Absolutely in agreement: no ‘machine’ can replace immediate contact between friends who know each other well and who run no risk of their encounter becoming a quasi-diplomatic one.”

So the Review could exist, it just could not be “international.” But that was the condition that everyone had agreed on: even a Franco-Italian review would have been meaningless, as Blanchot would say one day. This is what Nietzsche had written: “For the hermit the friend is always the third person: the third person is the cork that prevents the conversation of the other two from sinking to the depths.”24 The community of writing could only exist if it allowed each participant to do more than meet only one partner at a time. Even the infinite meetings and letters between Bataille and Blanchot, or between Blanchot and Mascolo, took place through the presence of a third party: this was language, whose invisible presence we are, happily, sometimes indiscreetly, but in the certainty that we cannot give up on this interruption of community relation (if we still want our own interruption to exist, if we still want to think it).

The historical and political factors that caused collective writing to emerge provided a reason why it could only begin in relation to a third party. After Auschwitz, and as the Berlin wall was being constructed, the presence of a German group was a necessity. It would have made palpable the “Course of Things,” which according to Blanchot was destined to become “the central column, around which the rest of the review should be organized’ and which “must run throughout the issue.”25 It was to be an exploded and yet coherent chronicle, infinitely readapted, readjusted, a fragmentary writing open to discontinuity, citations, information, aphorisms; it was to be open to a thinking of the relationship between authors and between ideas accumulating, being denounced and contested, working and unworking each dialectical reduction, making all totalities impossible, suspending meaning, a movement of passage, relaunch and relay, a nomadic production of truth.26 It was to be a column in which approaches to political events or reviews of books would bring each fact and each work out of their solitary context, whether national or ideological (whence the rule that books should be analyzed by someone from a different national tradition), placing them in the movement of reading, of alteration, of community, of languages, and of history.27

The “fragment” is linked to the necessity of giving expression to numerous different reflections, that is to say, to connecting the plural multiplicity of objects and possibilities of the world through this diverse plurality, without threatening the review with formlessness, which would happen if the diversity of these multiple texts could not be composed and articulated into an overall project.28

Blanchot’s description of fragmentary and collective writing sometimes sketches out what a postsurrealist adaptation of the reflection on the imaginary undertaken by Documents might have looked like. It might have introduced a type of formal dissemblance into the heart of continuity and the semblance of thought, a dissemblance excluded from any type of “formless resemblance.” Or it could even have been a way of opening up Critique’s synthetic approach to both personal and collective writing, to the predominance of short over long forms, to the endless interruptions of commentary—involving a risk for this journal “which would live or die by its seriousness.” For Blanchot, the Review could therefore have been something like an opening of Bataille’s thought, and more particularly a transformation of the review that they created together and that he had so often blamed himself for no longer supporting, a prolonged homage to the friend who had recently died. A few years later, this homage would become “only” a book, Friendship.

The International Review could also have been responsible, as an open response or infinite renewal, for the movement of Blanchot’s work and for its worklessness, for the transformation of convictions and for the insistency of thought expended. It could have been—after the “death of the last writer” or of the last solitary writer—this work’s “infinite conversation,” or its book always to come, a book ever more distant as speech was multiplied, repeated, interrupted. It would have offered to this work the unfolding of paradox, anonymous expiation, the interruption of thought. In its unrealized state, the project instead collapsed, made the foundations of the book collapse; it fragmented its own thinking with a fragmentation that was suffocated, melancholic, and meditative rather than selfless, plentiful, or political. Only the movement of May ’68 could attract Blanchot once again toward this fragmentary, collective, anonymous writing; he threw himself into it heedlessly, but was already torn apart. In other words, this new failure made room for a definitive withdrawal that was sometimes tempered by the mysterious grace of return to the past, both his past and that of friendship (such returns would explain the books written for Bataille, Duras, Des Forêts, Mascolo).

Despite its failure, the Review project was therefore continued in Blanchot’s work. No one was ready to abandon it altogether: three years would be spent trying to “save something of our project,” as Mascolo put it to Leonetti. Various solutions were proposed without success, Blanchot and Mascolo refusing any publication that did not retain a collective and impersonal character. The only concrete object to appear was in April 1964, under the title Gulliver, upon which everyone had eventually agreed, a number zero in Italian that took the place of the seventh issue of Il Menabò, the review founded five years earlier by Vittorini and Calvino. It included texts by the editors but also by Jean Genet, Kateb Yacine, Jean-Louis Schefer, and Claude Ollier. Even in 1965 the Italians were proposing to “keep the project alive” by suggesting that collective books be edited; this was not especially meaningful for the French. Antelme, Barthes, Blanchot, Des Forêts, and Mascolo met to study the proposal. But Mascolo soon wrote back to Vittorini to let him know that they had rejected the idea: “We all agree that it would be possible, but that it would be a completely different project. A book, even a collective one, has a definitive, closed, solemn character and needs a different reader than a review does. . . . In short, it could no longer be a ‘movement.’ ”

A book obviously could not address what Blanchot, in one of the four articles he gave to the Menabò issue, names “the problem of division.”29 It probably fell to Blanchot to write a text reflecting on the Review’s failure, tracing the movement back to its origins, grasping it as an event (as paradox, incongruence, interruption) and spinning out its future, like that of a symbol, developed, dramatized, and confronted with the pitfalls of time across a narrative. That was part of his method. Blanchot therefore returned to the first serious obstacle the review had faced, the building of the Berlin Wall. When he begins with the words: “For everyone, Berlin is the problem of division,” we must take them to refer to this community as well as to Berliners and the whole world, insofar as the division of each reflected the division of the others too. This was a division that the raising of a wall, in its abstract force, only confirmed as intensely real. Berlin spoke to “the necessity and the impossibility of unity,” the permanent equivalence between “a dwelling place” and “the absence of dwelling”; most of all,

Berlin poses the problem of two opposing cultures within the same cultural whole, of two unrelated languages within an identical language, unusually, and therefore calls into question the intellectual serenity or the possibility of communication that one imagines is available to men who have the same language and the same historical past.30

To write this was to repeat that the obstacle of the wall ought to have called for rather than hindered the Review, ought to have made necessary an inflexible and apparently heterogeneous coherence, reflected the fracture of bodies, words, and thoughts, imposed the fragmentation of languages, styles, and modes of knowledge: not in isolated despair but in direct confrontation of the wounds between them. To write this was to establish a still-uncertain future meaning, in the thinking worklessness of a community where the sublime could not reappear without all authority being atoned for, all property effaced, all unquestioned unity renounced.31

The Review would take a long time to die; its contributors’ writing would obey what Blanchot conceived of as the law of the work. In the same letter to Vittorini cite above, Mascolo wrote:

You can be sure that as far as I am concerned (and as far as Maurice is concerned—as well as Robert, in his own way) I shall never definitively give up on the project. Writing on one’s own is necessary, inevitable. It is also sad and perhaps frivolous (but no less necessary) when one has thought of realizing something of the communist idea, at least in the form of a “communism of writing.” Therefore I shall never give up on the hope of one day escaping this sadness.

The “considerable, almost terrible” amount of work that Blanchot had done over these years was disappearing into the disaster of his life and the frivolous sadness of his books, and with it disappeared the proximity of friendship, which had never previously led to such long, frequent, and personal encounters. This was a dark moment. Indeed, Blanchot did not recover from it; the failure of the Review left him exhausted, at death’s door. He was only kept going by the demands of politics, of friendship, of the politics of friendship. Antelme, Mascolo, and Des Forêts were now infinitely dear to him, infinitely close. “To speak is our peril and our necessity,” he wrote the same words to both Vittorini and to Johnson in February 1963. “Friendship is the truth of disaster,” he had already written to Bataille in January 1962. It was friendship, to which Antelme’s book would constantly return him, that continued to allow for hope. Perhaps this supplement which meant that “literature is always more than literature” was friendship; perhaps it was the third party, this invisible share that does not accompany one and that his narrative had sketched out; perhaps it was the unthinkable distancing that henceforth fragmented his writing, indifferent to which particular genre it belonged to; perhaps it was the silent possibility of personal death (disparition). In whichever case, Blanchot cared resolutely about these matters, and although none of the Review projects said so explicitly, this demand lay on the far side of collective writing: the fragment had to be anonymous, had to be the site where death was accomplished. Again to Vittorini, he wrote: “It is as if my entire life has almost disappeared in a searching movement which is perhaps the experience of writing, the responsibility for which I am trying to bear, poorly but absolutely.” This responsibility would also be that of a few books; but the disgust he shared with Mascolo for individual writing explained why his articles now grew rarer, why collections were published only to get them out of his mind, and why his writing now opened to fragmentation. For Blanchot this was no complacency or wallowing in pain, but a demand for faithfulness. Quite simply, this force of refusal no longer seemed to be able to give rise to the sovereignty or the extravagance of a beginning.

“He held the rose at the summit until the protestations had ceased”: Perhaps this phrase by René Char, written in October 1965, refers to the importance Blanchot placed on the political and passionate demand of collective writing.32

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