The Thought of the Neuter: Literary and Philosophical Criticism—the Entretien and the Fragment (1959–1969)

The end of the 1950s—specifically, the final months of 1959—saw a new transformation in Blanchot’s critical writing. The political, editorial, and literary movement of his thinking is accompanied by the nominalization of the Neuter, articles written in the form of entretiens between two voices or in juxtaposed fragments, a large proportion of texts addressing those close to him, and the increasingly evident abandonment of interpretative criticism in favor of a discourse more closely resembling the philosophical essay (albeit one interrupting philosophy).1 Chronologically rereading the articles written by Blanchot between 1959 and 1969 collected in either The Infinite Conversation (1969) or in Friendship (1971) allows us to underscore how, perhaps more than in any other period, he emphasizes repetition and accentuation.2 These notions apply to a thinking constantly subjected to life’s trials by fire, the thinking of literature, of philosophy, of their communitarian possibilities, whether directly or indirectly political. From 1959 to 1962, the critical texts echo the repetitive, dislocated speech of Awaiting Oblivion; identical versions of the phrases themselves are found indiscriminately in the NRF columns and in the récit.3 Suddenly and irregularly, between April 1960 and July 1963, ten articles were written in entretien form. They open critical discourse to a double voice, holding the work discussed at a distance by attempting to use the to-and-fro of dialogue to listen to that work in a multiple fashion. The juxtaposition of the replies makes no attempts to interpret or make decisions about a work, instead giving shape to the murmur of the neutral voice that has given rise to it. During these years of endless encounters and entretiens, Blanchot thus offers this singular, experimental attempt at fragmentary writing, dislocated yet directed, as if it were an advance and openly deficient version of the collective speech of the Review. From 1961 to 1963, he frequently comments on the works of his closest friends, often those involved in the international project; almost one article in three is dedicated to them. Written at once in homage to their presence, in close relation with their thought, and against the backdrop of their shared despair of ever coming to anything (this “goal that they shared”), today these texts appear as the last moments of good fortune enjoyed by critical writing. From 1964 and 1965 on, with the Review’s failure now confirmed and Blanchot in a despondent state, the critical texts grow rarer and become fragmented. Blanchot seems able to carry on only by writing about his fatigue (a true exhaustion—it is the subject of a récit published in 1966 and which opens The Infinite Conversation). The return to fragmentation, a type of writing that had been proposed and justified as best suited to the Review’s central column, now speaks to the inevitability of thinking exhaustion, first of all in the shape of exhausted thinking. What Blanchot would later call “the writing of the disaster” now finds its necessity in fragmentation.

With his health in danger, visits to hospital, the deaths and suffering endured by his closest friends, the collective failure of the Review, the violence of a world that seemed ever closer to its end (the Cuban missile crisis then the Vietnam War marked these years), despondency might have set in like thought’s dramatic external destiny. Instead, it became above all the matter of the drama inherent to thought. For a thinking that had raised itself to the high level of indiscretion for the exhausted, nothing that happened—even what was most tragic personally—could be wholly foreign. But this thinking of exhaustion (both one’s own exhaustion and the exhaustion of possibilities) becomes, as René Char puts it, a thinking of courage, an exhausted thought, due to the way it forces itself to think misfortune, as well as the possibility of still speaking and acting, even in the depths of failure. The force of this demand is what so overwhelms the person who takes it on. He is an author defeated by his own thought and by a thought pushed to the breakdown to which the entretien and fragmentary writing now refer. This is where the movement of his research—critical, philosophical, political research, most of all research by writing—has led.

In January 1959, Blanchot writes, “The search for creative criticism is this same wandering movement, this same laborious process that opens up the darkness and is the progressive thrust of mediation, but which also risks being the endless recommencement that ruins all dialectics, procuring only failure and finding therein neither measure nor appeasement.” He adds: “Criticism is connected to the search for the possibility of literary experience, but this search is not only a theoretical pursuit, it is the very process constituting the literary experience.”4 Creative criticism would not have any theoretical meaning if it were not doubled, or much rather preceded, by literary experience: its attention to the movements of creation only repeats the creation within narrative—the lived experience of narration that takes itself for its own object. Thus the whole narrative research of the 1950s, which is turned into an attentiveness to the origin of thought in Awaiting Oblivion, finds echoes in the critical forms of the entretien and the fragment. This is not unimportant for the type of recognition that this work would gain for a long period during the 1960s. Blanchot’s extremely strong influence on writers, philosophers, and also artists, is to a large extent due to his writing and thought’s capacity endlessly to address what it had evoked in the figure of Eurydice: a venturing into what is darkest, most distant, most anguish-inducing, most overwhelming about the origin of creative power. Each article and each entretien is more or less marked by thought’s exhaustion as it confronts, beyond both the visible and the invisible, in withdrawn, faraway, and accursed areas of singular experience, what is most naked and most harrowing, what can still be clawed back from the impossible, so as to offer—whether exposed or not—the brutality of its beginning and the eternal return of its fire to the work and the anonymous part of the work that is its audience, its public element, its invisible neutrality. In this way Blanchot writes his thought, and does so beyond any expectation of salvation by means of catharsis, immanent effusion, or dialectical completion. In doing so he attracts, submits, and breaks those who, by pushing their own experience to the limit, suddenly read the clear return of the figure which Blanchot for a second time in his work names “the partner invisible” (l’invisible partenaire), and which here is the Neuter in him, and in itself, that which always “sounds strangely for me.”5

What attracts the reader here, certainly in order to more easily break him, beyond any notion of safe distance, is the same thing that Blanchot despairs of. It is not certain that he wants the Neuter to become a thought in its own right: in any case, this extremity of thought is not thinkable in itself, and Blanchot writes it more than he theorizes it. But writing this thought comes to replace the collective writing of the Review, the happiness of friendship, shared authority, and political ambition that that project might have provided. Readers would have to wait until 1994 for Blanchot’s next récit, The Instant of My Death, thirty-two years after Awaiting Oblivion. And yet the récits offer a happy, sometimes lyrical denouement, always opening onto thought. Their effacement in favor of the Review, which ultimately offered little to thought beyond the failure of the interruption it proposed, means that thought has to deal with a doubly unhappy experience. The exhausting movement of thought therefore repeats its capacity for exhaustive reflection. This dive into the depths of anguish once more returns Blanchot to the poverty and sadness of writing in the singular. In this (double) sense, The Infinite Conversation offers both the least unjust approach to, and the most desperately frustrating idea of, what the International Review could have been.6 Writing individual contributions to literary journals becomes a way of writing that Blanchot is no longer interested in, that he barely sees as legitimate.7 At the end of the 1960s, after the events of May 1968 and the death of Jean Paulhan, he would give up doing so. Having written, on average, almost ten articles a year, he would contribute only four pieces to the NRF in 1965, then two in 1966, four again in 1967, and only one in 1968 and in 1969. His regular production of authored articles was dead. The replacement of this activity by the enthusiasm with which Blanchot writes anonymous texts for the Student-Writer Committee of the revolution of May 1968 says much about what periodical writing now represents: the jouissance of writing is linked to its impact on the collective thinking of the rupture of history and of political revolution. Four years earlier, Blanchot had cited a few words by René Char—let us hear what the anonymous writer states: “An unknown being is an infinite being—one likely, in intervening, to change our anguish and our burden into arterial dawn.”8

Between the Manifesto and the Revolution, and still under De Gaulle, Blanchot’s thinking remained deeply political. A few passing references underscore his interest, for instance, in “a journal like Arguments, put together by political writers and by intellectuals who are ready for the future”; elsewhere, discreet allusions repeat his sarcastic condemnation of “the providential man” (261) who “monologues imperiously” (75);9 the criticism of “depoliticization” (240) persisted.10 These remarks decompartmentalize the literary genre of the article and the journal by opening them to a political dimension integrated within a wider reasoning. Little by little, even at the NRF, the stances Blanchot took were becoming clear. His interest in Marxism continued to grow, and through a reading of Henri Lefebvre’s development, he denounced the conditions imposed by the Communist Party on the philosopher (and on philosophy), namely that he be submissive and ultimately leave the party. Blanchot closely understood how an intellectual could make concessions, provisionally, despite and against himself, to the only organization that gave itself the task of making thought real.11 He was still tracking nihilism in all of its forms, as if this were at the secret heart of how all philosophy and all praxis could be articulated: It was the essential threat, what remained unthought in dialectical negativity, the enemy of the most equal thought and the most wary language. It was an insidious face that could appear unexpectedly behind anyone’s face, a radical, insurmountable impurity, whose major success in the twentieth century Blanchot denounced: Its destructive irruption onto the political stage “with what was called Nazism or fascism.” (402)

These readings of the century’s most widespread ideologies also intersected with questions he was asking himself: How to find the site of a praxis that would be critically faithful to Marxism (“communism being still always beyond communism”; xii)? How to analyze his own mistakes, what he had agreed to in the past? Blanchot states that nihilism increases its destructive force not by declaring itself explicitly, but by giving its energy to the affirmation of “positive values it advances and that rouse other opposing but related values (the values of race, nationalism, force, the value of humanism and, on both sides, the value of the West)” (402). In doing so, he bears witness to his own former, unknown nihilism, as well as to the inevitably alienated struggle he had waged against it and against Hitler in the name of these “positive values” into which a force that truly assisted nihilism had crept. This had been a way of supporting the ideology that he condemned, whose most visible acts of destruction he condemned, and now he wanted to lay the blame—in a repeated, now-lucid movement of thought and in a mixture of necessary calm and past passion—the blindness that consisted in “playing into the hands of nihilism and its most vulgar replacement, anti-Semitism?” “Why . . . are we so uneasy as we reflect upon it?” he asks, thus underscoring the contemporary malaise whereby any defense of Jewish identity first had to pass through a condemnation of anti-Semitism, thus obscuring the very essence of this identity.12 This is what he criticizes Sartre for, who “aims to recognize Jewish difference, but only as the inverse of anti-Semitism”;13 and it is also the point upon which he criticizes the writers of the previous century who were fascinated with Hebraic mysticism without trying to understand it (this “frightened admiration” was nothing but “the counterpart to anti-Semitism”).14 Nothing now would shift him from this position: no thinking of misfortune—which is to say no interruption of thought—could go without reflecting on both Judaism and anti-Semitism.

In Blanchot’s reflections, this new imperative imposed on thought dates from the period of 1959 to 1963. His anti-Heideggerian position grows more radical toward the end of this period. This can be seen in his sarcastic remarks about legitimizing a sedentary truth, as he denounces the ontological positing of being’s luminosity, or as he destroys the eternally new myth of what is initial or original (“to which we remain unreflectively subject”), or reassesses inauthentic speech and anonymous rustling (against “the willing and eager approbation that has been universally given to Heidegger”).15 These criticisms, which he broadly shares with Emmanuel Levinas, most greatly discredit not only on the political attitude of the 1930s university rector, but also the philosopher who was “responsible for a writing that was compromised,” and what in philosophy is vulnerable to such compromises—on the nihilist power of this philosophy.16 Remaining faithful to the thought of the Neuter, that impossible object of knowledge is only ever present through withdrawal, and thus is alone in escaping nihilism’s traps. This demands that one radically extricate oneself from the “completion of metaphysics” which, like all philosophy, remains a way of domesticating and refusing the neuter.17

The discovery of (or attentiveness to) the Neuter forces Blanchot to situate his discourse, if not in relation to the history of philosophy, then at least in relation to philosophical possibility itself. This is why he is constantly discussing its margins (Antelme, Bataille, Foucault, Klossowski, Levinas, Sade), its origin (Heraclitus, Plato, Socrates), and its end (Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger). This is why he opposes all forms of conceptual stabilization representing “the great refusal” (that of death as death, of nothingness as nothingness, of the neuter as the neuter: this refusal is “all that leads men to prepare a space of permanence where truth, even if it should perish, may be restored to life” (33), or “the great reducers” (in all its instrumentalizing guises, this gigantic “work of inclusion,” culture).18 Interpretation itself is a form of negation; “the critic is a man of power” (327);19 and the philosopher, Blanchot says after Bataille, a fearful man (49–50).

Perhaps things had come to what Hegel theorized as the end of history; perhaps they were already beyond that end and in the fourth period, outside the dialectic, of “negativity without use” the suggestion of which on the face of the philosopher had marked Bataille so strongly. The “departure from historical space” indicated, minimally, by our “material power to put an end to this history and to the world,” to put an end to all debates on the end (in the absolute necessity of putting an end to all debates on the end of values), the “change of epoch” that according to Blanchot uncovered a radical ethical demand (269). Blanchot would not discover the naked place to give to the Other, and ultimately to give to the Wholly Other, without the experience of these exits from history, with the experience of his closest friends Levinas, Bataille, Antelme. The “great refusal” could not be broken without marching before and beyond fear, without paying attention to the possibility of violence—less the violence the thinker might suffer than that which he might inflict. Here, in this site of thought without any stakes except its direct realization, the foundation of all historical responsibility (“anything that resembles, even vaguely, what we saw there literally destroys us”) legitimized critical interruption—philosophical interruption.

Thus can be heard the appeal made by dialogue, by the infinite dialogue of thinkers who had been put to the test, to the “relation of the third kind,” beyond any sham transcendence and any misplaced immanence. This appeal alone is “not a relation from the perspective of unity, not one of unification” (67); it alone gives the other as other, in the relation of infinite distance or separation, outside any horizon, in language as the measure of separation. Transcendence has to be allowed to accomplish its work, and immanence to win its followers. But only this sovereign relation has their measure, it alone can recognize the equality of one and the effusion of the other, retaining for its part “the absence of any common measure that is my relation to others” (64) as well as the “relation with the unknown that is the unique gift of speech”20 (212). For Blanchot, this ethical principle regulates the law of all relation, beginning with the relation to the figure of the Jew who, precisely because he carries the burden of such rejections, reductions, domestications, and criticisms, is all the more subjected to them.21 This is a communitarian principle that regulates the law of the work and worklessness, of political law and poetic law, and to which Blanchot often refers in these terms: naming the possible, responding to the impossible. And it is a principle of writing that demands that searching obeys “the demand for discontinuity,” which since Awaiting Oblivion at least has been regulating—and would regulate for a long time—the form of Blanchot’s thought, whether entretien or fragment, whether “interruption as meaning” or “rupture as form” (8).

For Blanchot, the exit from history imposes an exit from ontology that alone might be able to found a relation to the other based on what separates us (54).22 This relation is a real “interruption of being—an alterity whereby for me there is no other me, nor another existence, nor any modality or mode of universal existence, nor any superexistence, god or nongod, but only the unknown in its infinite distance.” This would be a relation to “an alterity that stands in the name of the neuter” (77). Here the strong influence of Levinas’s thinking is clear, the Levinas of Totality and Infinity, a 1961 thesis whose defense at the Sorbonne Blanchot attended before commenting on the published version (and notably on what it says about the radical exteriority and interruption of ontology that are prerequisites for any ethical position). But equally clear is what goes beyond Levinas: radical atheology, the interruption of all subjective thought. Blanchot believes that he is able to take further, and on his own account, the workless nudity of all human relation, the asymmetry of all language. Nominalizing the Neuter stems from this need as it is revealed through the exit from history. The Neuter resides—faraway, errantly, nowhere—in this workless nakedness and in this linguistic asymmetry: points reached in what Blanchot names after, with, but also at some distance from Robert Antelme, as “the indestructible” (130–135). The thought of misfortune—the interruption of thought—touches on the Neuter, which immediately escapes: on the Neuter or on the indestructible that can be destroyed, on what remains unknown about humankind, the far point of sovereignty that escapes, even and especially when it is most naked, from power. This sovereignty is affirmed only in communitarian consciousness, which, beyond any restoration of the subject for another subject, welcomes the other in the name of the other, as all symbolic links are interrupted.23

The Neuter for Blanchot is an unfinished response to the impossible, a definitive response to the traps laid by nihilism. At the limits of possible witnessing, it therefore avoids both “the great refusal” and “the great reducers,” both philology and theology, both culture and—therefore—the book. The perspective of the book to come is now replaced by the invisibility of the absence of the book. The absence of the book steps away from an authority of knowledge based in oneness; it opens radically onto “the exteriority of inter-saying [l’entre-dire].” (431) While in spite of everything the absence of book can only be expressed though the book, or can only be—as it were—inter-said by “fragmentary plurality,” it is always-already to the book what worklessness is to the work. This is to say that it is a “movement of detour,” an active and senseless ruse of writing, a violent entry into the book, into the order of phrasing and of discourse, into the way a signature is endowed with authority; it performs these actions in the name of a wholly other authority, in the name of infinite responsibility, in the name of the other. It is the part of the book that escapes being burned, because it has always-already created a community of readers brought together by what escapes them and separates them: the indestructible which cannot be destroyed. In addition to not having any center, even a displaced one, there are no poles in the space of literature. The book’s materiality becomes its own interruption. It is remarkable, from this point of view, that the article named “The Absence of Book” that closes The Infinite Conversation should have interrupted the business of publishing the work: it was given to Louis-René des Forêts for the journal L’Ephémère, and also given to Gallimard at the same time, after the rest of the manuscript. It closes the work at the last moment.

The interruption of thought: During these years, Blanchot therefore ultimately looked for a form to give to this interruption. The first article written as an entretien dates from April 1960. It retains the traditional entretien’s distinction between a questioning voice and one responding, immediately placing the latter in the position of authority.24 Not without some awkwardness or naivety in the commentaries on how the speech is divided up, the entretien gradually moves away from this professorial model. With the third article written in this genre, a year later, the exchange is made equal and little by little would leave space for the most neutral (the most narrative) element within each voice in the discussion: “if there is this back-and-forth of words between us—we who are ourselves nothing but the necessity of this back and forth—perhaps it is to avoid the sentence [l’arrêt] of a last word”25 (326). Later, when the texts were republished and when new pages were added to some of them, Blanchot would admit that he heard these two voices as being as distant from one another as they were from his own, his own which is never his own, if not to the extent that this engagement with dialogue dispossesses him of any ownership of words, replies, questions (72–73).26 Authority resides in this neutral movement, which moves from one voice to the other and back again, indeed perhaps between multiple voices, and is only meaningful if seen in the light of collective authority, in the sense that the authority of the Review might have had. Little by little, fragmentary form is thus grafted on to the entretien’s lack of horizon. The four lozenges fitting into the absent frame of an interrupted lozenge (Image), used in Awaiting Oblivion, are replaced by these pairs: ±±, as if each algebraic sign suspends and makes neutral what is proposed, under the sign of separation, of the two juxtaposed, anonymous voices. These suspensions (more or less) and neutralities (neither more nor less) are conjugated by the spacing made available by punctuation and which, by being ignored, would cause speech to fail by condemning it to indecisive relativity (more or less) or to be misled by what seems obvious (neither more nor less). The movement whereby any individual authority is interrupted thus leads Blanchot not only to adopt the form of the entretien, not only that of the fragment, but to use each to disconcert the other.27 If “fragmentary speech knows no contradiction, even when it contradicts itself” (153), it never accomplishes this lack of knowledge better than in interruption’s infinite creation of gaps. It is also responsible for the erosion of authority by a wholly other syntax of phrase and utterance. A wholly other authority is what gives the poet over to the distant speech that translates experience. Blanchot, as we know, reserves a special category for René Char’s language as capable of this.28 In Char’s poetry, not only does the neuter give its form to a number of substantivizations, which are so important that they take from it something like the strength of verbs, but it also represents the power of a “fictitious” root” that spreads and disseminates through language. Blanchot describes this syntax of the relation without relation as precisely as he would the syntax that starts to be imposed at the end of The Last Man and that neutralizes Awaiting Oblivion: for Char and Blanchot, the same “islands of meaning” “posed next to one another,” “of an extreme compactness and yet capable of an infinite drift.” This “arrangement that does not compose but juxtaposes, that is to say, leaves each of the terms that come into relation outside one another”; this “arrangement at the level of disarray,” this “immobile becoming,” is a “pure detour in its strangeness.”29 They are so much the same that they share—albeit at a distance—the authority of the same phrases. For if Blanchot says that this “pure detour . . . allows one to go from one disappointment to another,” it also leads “from one courage to another,” Char happens to give a parallel formulation the neutral authority of the poet in a poem dating from the same year (1964) and dedicated to his friend: “Politically, Maurice Blanchot can only move from one disappointment to another, which is to say from one courage to another.”30

This is an infinite authority, going beyond the name of the author and above all beyond the contingency of the book and the independence of the work: Blanchot places his last two major critical books under the sign of a friendship that responds to the impossible chasm left by the vanishing points of the infinite conversation. The friendship of all the partners is authoritative in itself; even if it means always returning to itself, this movement of negation is not without the beauty, strength, and withdrawal of utopia. Neither is it without weakness. In this way of engaging with exhaustion, there is an avowal of powerlessness that opens up in Blanchot a period that we may term the recognition of the biographical. Biography: Blanchot has managed to unavow in a thousand ways quite how far his critical and narrative work was spent addressing his absence, how far it permanently challenged the unaddressable elements it contained, and thus how far it left traces in writing without ever emphasizing them or recognizing them as such. If he now recognizes this movement, as one would one’s childhood, he does so from the depths of extreme weakness. This recognition can only come about by way of Kafka. The infinite passion that brings Blanchot back to Kafka had no equivalent in his critical texts; from the “last word’ to the “very last word,” from Kafka to Kafka, it is constantly found in the most personal parts of the work, with an ever more marked biographical indiscretion: the indiscretion of friendship, the indiscretion for the exhausted. In May 1968 Blanchot wrote that possessing many documents and hundreds of pages of letters means that “we are closer, but also almost deflected from asking the true questions, because we no longer have the strength to let them come to us in their innocence, to hold them away from the biographical reports that attract and engulf them by giving them fuel.”31

Biographical rumor, neutrally, attracts the work toward it as anonymously and fascinatingly as does the Mother, as does “the immense, faceless Someone.”32

A final stirring of indifference, a final attempt at rigor in exhaustion leads the work to try to retain its force of insubordination and nonreference to rumor. However, opening oneself up to the shared authority of friendship demands too much energy not to create some visible signs. The récit that opens The Infinite Conversation perhaps demands to be read for what it points to rather than for what it says directly, as a mask worn by two voices exhausted by the demand to share their murmuring. First published in March 1966 by the NRF in isolation from the other texts of that decade (nothing else by Blanchot was published in the four preceding months, nor in the eight subsequent ones), it had already appeared as if from weakness. It came out of this period when illness was again troubling its author and forcing him to withdraw. This sketch of powerlessness, however exaggerated it might appear, still allows for the description of the lessening of strength, the extension of fatigue: “The forces of life suffice only up to a certain point . . . the experience of fatigue that constantly makes us feel that our life is limited; you take a few steps in the street, eight or nine, then you fall.” Blanchot clarifies that in saying as much, he is “thinking of something very simple”33 (379). The allusion is becoming transparent, such ultimately is the weakness—now laid bare—of the narrative voice.

The liminal text of The Infinite Conversation (xi–xxiii) seems to be directed by an absolute contraction that kills being—perhaps a being that in the bosom of fatigue had still been able to believe that it was possible for the subject to be indefatigable (even if this possibility was a sacred one). “Only a being whose solitude has contracted through suffering, and in relation with death, takes its place on a ground where the relationship with the other becomes possible.”34 This phrase from Emmanuel Levinas nicely states the movement of truth that legitimizes, at this narrative threshold, the step toward the other that each critical article would repeat.35 Perhaps it also suggests how real this movement is. The encounter between these two exhausted beings, whose exhaustion nonetheless finds a final strength consisting of placing them in relation to one another, imposes the greatest respect. The two beings (they could be Blanchot and Antelme, or Bataille, or Levinas) whose weakness has laid bare—via a cadaverous thinking—the indestructible, and has allowed it to speak. This is speech clawed back from the impossible and therefore one that is often interrupted and always without external references, which comments only on its own movement, its own capacity to still push its thinking forward. It also speaks to what a gift it is to be able to work within such a rhythm of exposition. It speaks to what remains of the récit, of the entretien, of friendship; that only the ending of all these, their most essential part, remains, and that it remains on the cusp of an old age that can see their sovereignty moving off into the distance. It speaks to the even more intense solitude that marks those who have been exhausted by returning, and it also tells us how far companionship, though cooled, can survive between solitudes distanced from one another (and between whom the entretien has always begun). This speech rejects all forms of consolation and complacency, keeping its eyes exclusively on the site where the sky appeared. It seeks neither causation nor periodization and, even when it “doesn’t know what is to become of it” (ne sait que devenir, xvi), it puts a stop to the tragedy it went into exile in order to forget, it confronts the weight of significant silence. Its situation is one of gallows humor (how can the truth of fatigue be grasped when one is fatigued?), except that it can tell, recount, continue to speak for the third party, the one who brings them together without being there, the condemned man, the deserter, the insubordinate.

They take seats, separated by a table, turned not toward one another, but opening up, around the table that separates them, an interval large enough that another person could be thought to be their true interlocutor, the one for whom they would be speaking, if they addressed him. (viii–ix)

This community refers to no one. It exists, it is conjugated in the neuter. The Neuter is the depths, the name, the alterity of the invisible partner, of the “fictitious partner” (311) who takes on authority where fiction had done so previously. Its beauty (has the beauty of the Neuter ever been mentioned?) lies in the smile of this partner, this memory of vertiginous speed, of unheard-of mobility, of a “light dance” (which any playfulness now deserts). Its beauty is in this brief slowness of the fiction; it is like a piece of news clawed back from creative vigilance, more disposed to write but less capable of doing so than ever. The past speaks for the two men present.

He moves toward the shelves where—it is now noticed—a great number of books are arranged. . . . He does not touch a single volume, he stays there with his back turned and utters in a quiet but clear voice: “How will we manage to disappear?” (xiv)36

The past speaks for them and in their name. But the biography of the work they tease out speaks for the movement that their death, their gift, represents: it speaks for the effacement that presides over the community that little by little, now and then, invalidating the nihilism that reigns elsewhere, they assemble through the meaning of, and in order to protect, their worklessness.

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