The Far Side of Fear: Political Disillusionment (May 1968)

For Maurice Blanchot, the events of May 1968 unfolded against the backdrop of a profound disillusionment with politics matched only by that of the 1940s. Both he and Mascolo would state that they did not take part in setting up the movement and that their role in it remained negligible. However, far from being at a distance from the spirit of insubordination that was claiming and imposing its due, they kept in step with the événements, quickly undertaking the task of thinking them, and acting as chairs of a Committee. May ’68 would be something like the “other time” at the heart of time, the incarnation in bodies, cries, and writings—and in absence too—of a different form of community.

Since 1965, the failure of the International Review, his personal distress, and new health problems had left Blanchot sidelined from everything, or from almost everything—except from “community.” He traveled only at the suggestion of his brother René, following in the footsteps of friendship (Egypt in 1965, Greece in 1966, where he evoked memories of Elio Vittorini). Each time, he returned to find his disenchantment confirmed.1 He nonetheless signed the petition, begun by Robert Antelme in May 1967, in favor of an American defeat in Vietnam; on Mascolo’s demand, he wrote a manifesto for the boycott of the ORTF (Office for Radio and Television in France) after the elections of May 1967 (which gave the right a majority of only two seats in the Assembly); but at the end of the same year, his personal abandonment of any public profile seemed stronger than ever. He would therefore not go to Cuba in January 1968 alongside Mascolo, Des Forêts, or Leiris, not thinking that he had any authority to speak in a Congress of intellectuals, to abandon silence and produce culture as its own object. He did not see that he had any right to impose himself as a player in the liberation of Cuba (he did not believe that it had yet been “liberated”), nor did he have any desire to represent Western culture, which he saw as dead and as a bearer of death (alienating as it did its subjects, even the contestatory ones, right up till death). This refusal nonetheless caused him discomfort. Disillusioned with the possible and fixed on the impossible, he insisted that it was necessary to create swiftly and radically the new project for a bulletin alongside Duras, Mascolo, and Schuster. “It is not enough to stay on the sidelines.”2

On March 22, when students were occupying the administration tower at the University of Nanterre, Blanchot was living through the most decisive days of the Beaufret affair (sending his proofs to Fédier, setting out the conditions on which the text could be published). At the end of April or beginning of May, when the événements were gathering speed, he visited Emmanuel Levinas for the last time. His closest friend would have harsh words for the student revolt.

From May 5 onward, after the first demonstrations, occupations, expulsions and condemnations, Schuster and the surrealists made themselves “available to the students.” The same or the following day, using the text written by Blanchot in spring 1967, Mascolo and the group of the Rue Saint-Benoît reiterated the call for writers, artists, and scholars to boycott the ORTF. Intellectuals were organizing themselves, but being careful not to take over the movement; in any case, the students did not wish to have any figurehead or leader, and were prepared to say so if necessary. On May 8, thirty-five writers and philosophers made public a text in solidarity with the “student movement throughout the world,” “this movement that in a few explosive hours has shaken the so-called welfare society perfectly embodied in the French world.”3 They encouraged the students to refuse any concession to the press, to power and to the political parties who for months had been playing down or slandering their actions; they called for the rejection of “any premature affirmation”; for the students to “oppose and maintain a power of refusal that we believe is capable of opening up a future.” The text ended with these words, which provided the title when it was published in Le Monde. It had been written in secret by Blanchot. Among the signatories were those close to him (Antelme, Nadeau, Des Forêts, Duras, Schuster, Leiris, Roy, Mascolo) as well as Klossowski, Sarraute, Lacan, and Blin, and names better known to the wider public such as Sartre and Lefebvre, who gave the text a certain reverberation.

The declaration was published the day before the first night of the barricades, which took place on May 10–11: Blanchot took part in this event and said that it “shook” him. He was shaken, as was the entirety of public opinion, by the fierce violence of the police charge, which injured hundreds. He was shaken by how quickly the situation turned, meaning one could no longer look beyond the barricades and to the future, but had to fall back behind them. And he was shaken by how the “exit from the space of history” he had been speaking of for several years had suddenly come into play as something real.

One of the more astonishing things about Blanchot’s participation in these few weeks of “the May revolution” was that his health seemed to hold up, his energy levels maintained, despite his weakness and fatigue.4 His body and thought came together to allow him to be present for confrontations at night and demonstrations during the day, endless committee sessions and the massed crowds of public meetings. Rarely would he shout, and those close to him often had to support him physically and sometimes wait for him anxiously, with a police attack imminent. But he liked letting himself get carried away with the students, in the short bursts of running set off by the sound of “hup! hup! hup!” which would regularly increase the pace of the demonstrations. He spoke in assemblies, chaired committee sessions with the gentle authority of a slow, dry voice often short of breath but that, perhaps due to this very weakness, immediately captured listeners’ attention. He analyzed events, observed the movements of bodies and the growing body of graffiti, wrote treatises, addressed everyone as tu: everyone except his friends. Each day, he accompanied Dionys Mascolo, Robert and Monique Antelme, Louis-René des Forêts, Maurice Nadeau, Marguerite Duras, and often Jean Schuster and Michel Leiris too.5 He marched until near-exhaustion on May 13 from the Place de la République to Denfert, in the largest demonstration that Paris had seen since the one at the Charonne metro station in 1962, or even the Liberation. He was also at Charléty stadium on May 27, when in the late afternoon nearly thirty thousand people gathered in the stands in order to listen to student and trade-union leaders, as well as waiting to hear Pierre Mendès-France (who ultimately did not speak). He was at the Renault factories in Flins, where from June 6 onward it seemed conceivable that the students would rally to the workers’ cause (despite the prohibitions of the CGT), and where it seemed to him that the entire realm of the possible was coming together.6 He was at the Sorbonne where one day, in June or July, he thought he saw Foucault.7

On May 21, a group of writers in solidarity with the student movement gained control of the Massa building, the seat of the Société des Gens de Lettres. On May 23, the first general assembly of the new “writers’ union” took place, led by Michel Butor, Jacques Roubaud, and Jean-Pierre Faye. All three had been present for the creation of the “Student-Writer Action Committee” on May 20 at the Institut de Philosophie. Having founded Change in Cuba in January, Faye and his friends had joined together with Mascolo and his group: Antelme, Blanchot, Duras. Other members of the committee were Christiane Rochefort, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Schuster, Georges Sebag, Jacques Bellefroid, and Daniel Guérin; Maurice Nadeau and Claude Roy were less constant presences. The Committee’s adherents would immediately oppose the corporate nature of the Union, where “an a-communitarian specificity was reforming.” Mascolo would later reiterate that what was really at stake was calling into question the writer’s singularity, mastery and authority: “We wanted to write well, but without putting forward the specificity of writing, which is nothing but the poverty of the isolated mind.”8 And in Blanchot’s words, “each person recognized himself in the anonymous words inscribed on the walls and which, in the end, even when on occasion they were the result of a collective effort, never declared themselves the words of an author, being of all and for all, in their contradictory formulations.”9

Mascolo and Blanchot took on the roles of the main organizers of the Committee, falling into their usual pattern of working together, their shared authority, which by being shared was also abolished. The question therefore immediately arose of whether to write a treatise or declaration, in view of a fragmentary, public, and communitarian interruption of authority.10 Blanchot knew that the texts in question were “necessarily insufficient”: this is to say that he sometimes recognized what is paradoxical about such a division, burdened by its insufficiency and lightened by its necessity, made incomplete by its subjective element and pushed to insubordination by being shared publicly. (The ambiguity caused by these various elements not coinciding with one another saw Blanchot asking Derrida, during this period, whether he would agree to write political treatises.)11 But in this necessary insufficiency of the texts, Blanchot also saw something like a truth, one that had almost immediately appeared on the walls of the city, in the hands and the voices of the movement of abandon, of dispersion, of flight and of oblivion that writing is—“the becoming-other that it is.”12 Blanchot saw something here—as far as possible, because these texts were doomed to be disseminated and most often lost—of the death of the author being prefigured as truth, of the evolution of the oeuvre, the abolition of the name, the leveling of memory. These texts are something like the impersonal awareness of an exchange that could not be summarized in any slogan. They are something like the political awareness that disorder is necessary and that power is in vain, given that it appears to be durable but is in fact constantly ephemeral, inexistent. Blanchot sees power as having an existence shorter even than the words of treatises or graffiti. For this dispersal alone is able to guarantee that it might return, happen, become present, and then disappear again, and in this detour that always takes place it accomplishes its own kind of truth. It is movement as the truth of the political, the political embodied in detour. It is a conception of the political that tied the possibility of the political to the ethical possibility of praising dispersion, the crowd, and movement—a possibility that only arose in the crowd and the movement whipped up by an “insurrection of thought.”13 Thus the essence of the political is embodied in words, in the power of saying no, in refusal, the only power “irreducible to any power,” and “language . . . watches over it,” if language is indeed this possibility of welcome, the space opened to the wholly other.14 From this shared right to insubordination in the name of the other, of the wholly other, flows something like a foundation of all possible politics—as if here had been fixed the liberation not only of discourse on literature, but of all discourse on community (and in this sense Blanchot would be understood by Derrida and Nancy, above and beyond Foucault’s statement).

Blanchot sees sovereignty in this refusal of power, in the “abeyance of history,” the return of “the pure time of suspended history marking an epoch, this time of between-times when between the old laws and the new there reigns the silence of the absence of laws.”15 This revolutionary time he describes in 1965 as that of Sade is encountered anew in May 1968. This movement upsets the order of gravity, setting up a frenetic waltz of subjects (in their atomized state), a situation in which the crowd can shift with the suddenness of an earthquake, where between festival and sacrifice, between attempts at leveling-down and the besieging of key strongholds, in an emptiness of always differing density, certain words embody the community, against a backdrop of equality that is all the more desired because the repetitive nature of struggle forces one to forget it. The words being used are like the excessive and terrifying element of reason; they are limited only by the impossible, and create—in the bodies present, in turn tightly massed together and then suddenly dispersed—an absent, invisible community already of the future, a community of thought.16 This is the sharp edge of revolutionary desire, the still-rational reverse-side of the light of reason: such words have an always secret and necessarily invisible relation with history, proportionality, and the law. They allow one to cross over “to the far side of fear”:17 far from the fear caught up with all associative movements (which had helped to paralyze Blanchot’s imitative rhetoric of thirty or forty years earlier), far even from the “fear of fear itself” of the philosopher’s consciousness. These words, their language written on walls, drown fear because no prohibitions now rule the body, because consciousness is now flesh, because one can now immediately come to the aid of those who are wholly other—but still one’s equals.

“Whatever the detractors of May might say, it was a splendid moment, when anyone could speak to anyone else, anonymously, impersonally, welcomed with no other justification than that of being another person,” Blanchot would write at the beginning of Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him.18 By drawing attention to itself, such a hiatus draws attention to the justness and importance of its form: a parenthesis in law, a secret fold in language, a suspension of history.19 He also analyzes it as a parenthesis of communism even in the bosom of communism, or rather as a parenthesis of communism external to communism, for here the parenthesis is more an externality than an inclusion, an interruption rather than a subtraction; it is the parenthesis of a “communism of thought,” in Mascolo’s words, or of a “communism of writing,” in Blanchot’s—it is outside ideological communism.20 Of course, Blanchot is aware that “to believe that one is sheltered from ideology . . . is to give oneself over, without the possibility of choosing, to the worst ideological excesses.”21 What the parenthesis opposes is therefore not such a shelter, nor the body (of the phrase, of the text), but instrumentality, utilitarianism, submission. Blanchot would also see May as the parenthesis of the revolution and therefore as the truth of the movement, the repetition that drove it:

Contrary to “traditional revolutions,” it was not a question of simply taking power to replace it with some other power, nor of taking the Bastille or the Winter Palace, or the Elysée or the National Assembly, all objectives of no importance. It was not even a question of overthrowing an old world; what mattered was to let a possibility manifest itself, the possibility—beyond any utilitarian gain—of a being-together that gave back to all the right to equality in fraternity through a freedom of speech that elated everyone.22

Of the moment itself, he wrote admiringly to Derrida that sites overtaken by the “revolution” were not sites of power, but the sites of knowledge and of expenditure, demonstrating the essential nonutility of consciousness and of freedom. Blanchot’s reading of May ’68 is curiously prophetic, not coming at the time expected for looking back, as if he had known how the événements would pan out, as if he lived through them both as a stranger (only being present in the other time, though the speech and the poetry present in it and that according to him made its truth present), and as a convalescent (in the time of an upturn in his health, a parenthesis of illness allowing him to enjoy this parenthesis in history). In this prophecy of defeat announced before its time, according to his reading of prophecy as the withdrawal of the present, Blanchot downplays the stakes of the possible (the strike, the particular demands made, the struggle) in order to privilege something like the backdrop of the possible (the possibility of the political, of the outside, of parenthesis), the return of the “demand for the impossible.”23 The possible in its entirety is improbable, and the impossible in its entirety is both constantly at stake and constantly deferred. On May 19, 1968, Blanchot observed to Derrida that “the event at which we are present or think we were present is inscribed in at least two separate spaces”: the space of transgression, which clashed with the laws of the Republic as well (and most notably) with those of the Communist party; and the space of refusal, the background and the truth of transgression, the sometimes-suspended play of political decision. But if no event actually occurs in the space of transgression, it is because it is prevented from doing so by the confrontation of the two principles (or the secret discussion between them). And if no event occurs in the space of refusal, it is because in its very nature the notion of the event is foreign to it.24 “The event? And had it taken place?” Blanchot would ask in The Unavowable Community, again suggesting that the event lies elsewhere, precisely where no event seems to be occurring.25 The ground for this always silent crowd, in a place where no avowal is necessary or needs to be “suggested,” and in a place where everything is accountable to justice, eludes the justice of the powerful and all “suggestions” that avowals be made.

Between May ’68 and its later reverberations at a great distance, Blanchot’s thought is so persistent that it forces us to state that the revolution took place at once in the time of sameness and in a wholly other temporality, experienced as much as thought, not only in the way possible actions were carried out, but in the demand of what is necessary and impossible. If the first bulletin of Committee appeared only in October, it was because the events experienced and dreamed in May left no time or space for anything to take the form of a publication. Because writing, for its part, belongs to the temporality of the événements. “Tracts, posters, bulletins, words of the streets, infinite words . . . they belong to the decision of the instant. They appear, and they disappear. They do not say everything; on the contrary, they ruin everything; they are outside of everything,” wrote Blanchot, adding that “there is no difference between tracts, posters, books, bulletins, films, etcetera etcetera.”26 Thus, when he adds that “in May, there is no book on May,” it is because what is written is written in “the absence of book,” this absence that is announced a year later in the pages of The Infinite Conversation. May is the time of worklessness, of the abolition of culture; after all, “even an open book tends toward closure, a refined form of oppression.”27 May is the time when writing outside the Book is exalted, its essential fate being better served by the shared urgency to produce such writing and to make it disappear, as well as by the desire for it constantly to return, the desire for the refusal it embodies to be reiterated. May stands for the time where negativity is no longer made useful by the book; the absence of book stands for the time when the book vacates the sacred space in whose name its sovereignty is inscribed in forms subordinated to power, placing writing in a site now swept clear, and which can be either profane or sacred. Asked to define “the possible characteristics of the publication” for the Committee, Blanchot specifies that it would have to tend toward “bring[ing] about rupture,” and “bring[ing] it about in a mode of rupture.” “Hence the necessity of breaking with the traditional habits and privileges of writing”: this would be accomplished by the anonymity of the texts (for a “communism of writing”), by the fragmentation of speech (in order to “never arrest the process itself,” the better to explode meaning by way of “conjunction-disjunction,” “placing together,” “relations of difference”), by new and previously published texts sitting side-by-side, by commentary punctuated by the “brute force” of information, by the bulletin being “first and foremost” open to nonwriters. In short, it is a question of “maintain[ing] the incessant work of questioning.” Thus the bulletin has to respond to three criteria: “the movement as a demand for rupture”; “the possibilities of rupture in the workspace”; “the international demand.”28 And for this reason Blanchot proposes to the Committee the following series of titles: No, The Impossible, Rupture, Refusal, Commune, Prohibited, The Movement, Black Red, Disorder, including one that is not the least poetic nor the least immediately public: The Against One (Le contr’un).

Ultimately, the bulletin would be called simply Committee. Only a single issue would appear (even if a second was prepared), and by no means all the demands formulated by Blanchot would be included. However, it does have something of this “movement as demand for rupture” and of these “possibilities of rupture in the workspace.” It retains the principle of anonymity, except for the dozen or so citations spread throughout the issue.29 The fragmentation of some texts and the dispersion of all of them do not prevent the inclusion of some more theoretical discourse. The thinking, occasionally incomplete, would move between the texts, and the same expressions were reiterated. We now know, Dionys Mascolo having cleared up the mystery of the texts’ attribution, that he and Blanchot wrote almost the whole issue.30 While Blanchot’s texts are mostly easily recognizable, the stump-speech tone he adopts explodes the cyclical or paradoxical prose of his writing of previous years. He is much more paratactic than usual, more lyrical and hot-tempered, even at the level of the typescripts where certain words—the ones set in bold type—are written in red ink (red and black: these loose sheets bear the colors of the flags of May); he tends toward exclamative phrasing. His writing sometimes borrows from the formulations of a certain activist language, then widespread but now ideologically and historically marked. It does not shrink from using virulent slogans, for instance casting De Gaulle as “a ghostly old man” whose only remaining good action could be to die. Enemies are therefore clearly indicated as such: again De Gaulle is called “a man politically dead,” “the delegate of our own political death,” an actor “believing that he is magnifying the present, whereas he is parodying the past,” the president of a Republic “to which he is just as foreign as he is to any living political future”: “a ghostly old man who always seems to be wondering whether he is in the Pantheon or not and whether his memory, which forgets nothing, has not simply forgotten the imperceptible event of his own demise, which is to say, the demise of a puppet.”31

Blanchot declares a state of “war” with liberalism, capitalism, and patriotism, a patriotism that he also sees in the perversion of communist revolution by the Stalinist system (“a repressive management apparatus and state superpower”).32 He denounces the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, and draws links between “the May of Prague and the May of Paris.”33 He even says that he believes in the Cuban revolution, but does note that Castro is “capable of speaking against [it].” He reproaches the latter with “allowing himself to be misled by a false conception of internationalism.”34 He finds the true, other, wholly other conception of internationalism in words from the street the day after the expulsion order aimed at Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the evening of May 22: “we are all German Jews.” This formula, slogan, cry, which has remained famous, would always find an echo in Blanchot’s thought, these words which give something like an advance commentary on the meaning of the fragmentary discourse on Jewishness that he would constantly repeat. Already he recognized that “never had this been said anywhere, never at any moment: inaugural speech, opening and overthrowing the frontiers, opening and disrupting the future.”35

The sessions of the Committee would continue all summer, but the group was veering toward breakup. Some of its members were unable to live with all of the consequences of the absence of the particular, with the shared impersonality of the desire for rupture, and this would lead to the failure of the Committee as it had already led to that of the International Review. As early as the beginning of August, Antelme, Mascolo, and Schuster were worried about this. Blanchot proposed that they continue but in a different format, arguing that an action committee could only have meaning in relation to a particular action and must therefore remain constantly mobile, in permanent evolution.36 He remarked that this already meant any publication of a bulletin was in vain, except if it was clear that the permanent nature of the group was necessarily a betrayal of the truth behind publishing its texts: A bulletin is no longer entirely the absence of book, in it, the treatise is no longer a treatise, no longer permits the same revolutionary reading. With the return of the book and the person as concerns, thought disappears. In order to reorganize the movement, Blanchot therefore proposed a solution, the same he had already proposed but which had not been acted upon, neither in May nor several years later: making the Committee international. He would never give up on internationalism as the only way of eradicating all forms of nationalism, of fragmenting language and knowledge.

The invasion of Prague by Soviet tanks on August 21, undertaken with Castro’s approval, played for the Committee a role that was slightly less clear but nonetheless parallel to the construction of the Berlin wall for the International Review: it reinforced internal divisions, so much so that all coexistence became impossible.37 It played an even more serious role for Blanchot, who in mid-August considered going to Prague with German friends: it put an end to any hope for communism, plunged him once more into sadness, brought back his health problems. When the issue of Committee appeared, despite and due to the energy he had expended in contributing to editing the publication, Blanchot could only see further forms of struggle against the backdrop of disillusionment. The ground of the impossible was falling away. Already, words were withdrawing.38 At the end of 1968, exhaustion struck again. November and December passed by: it seems that none of the authors of the collective volume for Beaufret received the letter signed by Blanchot and Derrida. On December 30, he wrote to his friend in the following, barely thinkable terms: “We are being dragged toward a realm so base that we can only refuse to remain there.” This refusal would last for many long years. In February, Blanchot decided to abandon any form of engagement with the Committee. But in the obscurity that was again troubling his health, in the misfortune that was again striking those close to him, an event on April 28, 1969, an event that came a year too late, would help to lighten his mood.39 “I admit that for a moment I found myself breathing more easily and, waking in the night, asking myself: ‘What is it? Why this lessening of a burden? Ah yes, De Gaulle.’ ”40

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