The Last Book: The Writing of the Disaster (1974–1980)

For many years, Blanchot had often thought that he would not finish the book that he believed, when it was finally published, to be his last. Although it could be argued that this was the case with many other books, his feeling was exceptionally strong with this one. From the depths of this silence, of this belief in disappearance come, exploding, jostling together and dispersed, sometimes as testaments and sometimes against autobiographical backdrops, the discreet revelations, the final words clawed back from illness, death, knowledge, dying: the fragments of the Disaster. “Public matters” proved more attractive to Blanchot than ever. But he was powerless to act on that realm, even to participate in it.

This infinite attention given to the other, to what is wholly other, to the self insofar as it is effaced by responsibility for the other (even in the case of its “murderous Will,” which does not meant that one cannot refuse, resist, combat it) guides the almost daily or weekly rhythm of these fragments.1 There are 403 of them, or a little more than one for each week of this period: we must remember this writerly rhythm, and compare it to the rhythm with which we read. How can we relate to these fragments without our attentiveness to the disaster of the other simply being the same on each occasion? How can we give ourselves over to reading them without being immediately and repeatedly placed at a distance, given our concern for the infinite responsibility to which each new possibility of thought constrains us? How can we read them without rereading them, how can they be torn away from the book that gathers them together in a linear space that is necessarily foreign to the other time that disperses them? The density, brevity, and completed nature of each forces upon us separations and returns, the rhythm of an insistent discontinuity beyond oblivion; they are a gift that does not belong to us, or no longer belongs to us, a time given over to the infinite so that we might suddenly come across the site of entry, the place for the body that thinks, writes, initiates some kind of reflection of language. This poetic writing of thought, which defies any presumption of language, overwhelms us, opening up, suggesting, laying out the terms available to it.2 Each fragment—as it were—disasters all notions, frees them from having to revolve around a central star (or aster), whether ontological or ethical, theological or metaphysical, whether a being (être) or a being (étant), whether a God or a subject. They do so in order to avoid any rootedness in the substantiality of language, to avoid stratifying this block carved from the intensity of pain, threaded through with many readings, experiences, and so much knowledge. Each fragment imposes its own code, its own origin, its own reversibility of notions; each therefore forces the reader to call into question her own interpretive knowledge, or better: her own way of questioning. How should we approach each fragment? By means of what palpable aspect, what salience of pain, of disaster, of weakness?3 In these fragments there is something solitary, something unable to express the unavowable, except by saying why it is also impossible to keep to a perfect silence. There is also something atemporally solitary: curiously, all these texts—sometimes written six or seven years apart—give the impression of synchronicity, of a stability that is both assured and tormented by the slow movement of patience.4 There is something solitary in refusing to take refuge, only being receptive to the disaster of thought. This disaster has a name, Blanchot would henceforth always repeat: Auschwitz. This is the name of anonymous monstrosity and senselessness, a site that struggles to find its place in memory, belonging as it does to a time that is separate to what it is normal to call—localizing and closing it in the process—“history.” “How is it possible to say: Auschwitz has happened?” (143). This shattering question undoes all the possible relations of memory and oblivion.

The holocaust: the absolute event of history” (47): These few words introduce a fragment of around ten lines, picking up an idea that had been stated multiple times since the beginning of the 1970s. The entirety of this fragment appeared, like a leitmotif, in two prepublications before being included in The Writing of the Disaster. It is separated, as if absolutely, from all others, and it seems that thought is powerless to say anything beyond this. Instead it is limited to emphasizing the detached nature of this fragment on its various occurrences: sometimes at the end of the published text (in the version published in 1975), sometimes by italicizing it, sometimes by placing absolute in roman script in an italicized setting. Thought is already powerless to retain the event, as is underscored by the only change made in the book version: “how can it be preserved, even by thought?” became “how can it be preserved, even in thought?” (47). Thought can neither be what carries out this preservation, nor its essence. It can only use its emptiness to ask why absolute knowledge is so powerless, and to call on the depths of this disaster, which it becomes.5 It is unable to develop it, and infinitely sets aside any messianic hope, any politics of the possible, any complete reflection on history. Henceforth it cannot be satisfied with any response limited to the category of presence. The event that had taken place without yet taking its place establishes the disaster as the ground of all thought; its absolute character means that thought can only be thought if it is a thought of disaster, of the disaster. “To think would be to name (to call) the disaster the way one reserves, in the back of one’s mind, an unspoken thought” (4). If the disaster is the thought in the back of the mind of all thinking, Blanchot is once again attempting to address—to enunciate, to name, to appeal to—the possibility of thought itself, and of contemporary thought. It is a question of seeking out what, through thought and writing, can provide an echo to this, can face up to it; a question of seeking out a place for thought, “where there is no room even to introduce a question” (31). A question of knowing what kind of book to add to all the others, and most of all to his own, in such a way as to face the unthinkable quality of this event.

Such is another point of view from which The Writing of the Disaster can be considered Blanchot’s last book. All the other books, smaller in volume, more uniform because they return to the continuity of discourse and the linearity of reason, would be nothing but detached fragments of this one; fragments always give over to a figure of friendship, always attempting to welcome the absolute in a new way by means of another, often close thinking (his friends were thoughts that took on the names of Bataille, Duras, Nancy, Foucault, Des Forêts, Mascolo). It is therefore this final book that engages writing’s responsibility in view of its other, namely the personal nature of history, which is wholly other and which writing can never reach or account for, but which it can accept in its distant nature and whose demand it can signal and repeat, a demand reinforced by the event that is absolved, detached, separated from it, a demand that this book forces one to recognize in the law of knowledge and of the book. Writing has discovered how to make possible such a welcome for the other: after critical language, after the récit and reflection on its various metamorphoses, it welcomes the other through the regime of the fragmentary. Having been in gestation since Awaiting Oblivion, the fragmentary does not impose itself as a genre, exactly, but as a subtitle or something with no title whatsoever, a necessity for a certain layout of words. Various eponymous titles were published by Blanchot at this time. “Fragmentary Pieces” (Fragmentaires) had already been the name of an ensemble of fragments published in 1970 and collected in The Step Not Beyond. The few lines published by Change in 1975 were entitled “Fragment”; and the text of the same year in a collective homage to Bram Van Velde was named “Fragmentary.” In 1976, “A Child is Being Killed” bore the subtitle “(fragmentary)”; it was something like an interruption of the realm of argumentation. More often in the singular than the plural, these titles refer to the absent reason governing the appearance of the text, rather than to what is written in it. Given that it follows explorations dating back more than twenty years and is made to chime in ever more personal ways with the impossibility that interruption (the absolute, that which is absolutely separate) brings to thinking, The Writing of the Disaster cannot be seen as surprising; instead, it confirms the firmness of the choice to write like this. And yet something is conspicuously absent, something has been boldly excluded: A major difference from The Step Not Beyond is that narrative fragments are now extremely rare. While the demand for the interruption of space remains, with the fragments once again divided between those in italics and those in roman type, now it simply serves to differentiate two distinct modes of abstraction. The roman fragments are more numerous and affirm both a proximity to non-systematic philosophies (whether the pre-Socratics or Nietzsche) and a distance from everything in those philosophies that can still lead one to establish a form of moralism, dogmatism, or nihilism. The constant nature of the fragmentary form immediately destroys any sense of a genre being achieved, and thus Blanchot would not need to later return to dismantle it. The texts in italics replace narrativity with a poetic or citational mode of language: a few paragraphs in prose, a few verses, a few isolated lines of free verse, which are often jarringly uneven—or a citation used to set in motion discourse, the moving-off of discourse, discourse as thought running away with itself (le discourir). In this sense, this last book also signals the distancing of speech: old now, Blanchot writes essays and even public letters that are shorter and shorter, filled with silences, but all the more dazzling for it. This is the distancing of a thinking that remains present by being said, present in the world, in publishing, in republishing, in the constant solidity of what the author still has to fill his solitude: the endless pursuit of reading.

The Writing of the Disaster is one of the finest ever homages to reading: to what reading imposes on us, not as abandonment of origins, but as abandonment of the center, of power.6 It is a homage to the distances reading establishes, the better to return to itself and to the movement within it that opens onto what is wholly other; to reading’s ability to capture the knowledge of books and to use it to interrogate what is beyond knowledge; to what, in disaster, it allows to come to patience; to what it gives unknowingly to the writing of the reader—to the part of the reader that it “inflames” (44). The homage to reading is therefore also homage to its infidelity, its indiscretion, its dispropriation. More than sixty writers are cited by name in the book. They are not limited to canonical authors or to Blanchot’s friends in thought; many are highly contemporary writers or philosophers. This number and this diversity might conspire to make the reflections less weighty; but each time Blanchot seems to manage to welcome the thinking of the other, compressing it into a knotty question, transforming it into one of the folds of his own disaster. The citations given are often free or from memory, like faraway echoes which, even when they lack precision, ask precise questions of the established quality of the fragmentary work; they dispossess all thought in order to illuminate it anonymously. Unlike the articles of the past, which were always short essays that developed in the manner of the book and the possibility of the book, these fragments depart from a more unstable point in thought and aim at a point—a weak point, necessarily—of the thinking that they welcome. There is no direct refutation; even the most sovereign concepts are instead rendered fragile. There is no dialectical opposition, but a movement of distancing which reveals the disastrous reverse side of the notion discussed, the fear it draws on, its primal trembling which precedes all the feelings of safety provided by systematicity, catharsis, or sublimation (this is the case with “early Hegel,” in whose case Blanchot emphasizes an early conception of infinite, permanently destructive death, unsuited to sublimation, alien to the dialectical role that it would later hold in the historical construction of the knowledge of Spirit—68).7 Beyond the name and beyond citation, the fragment bears witness to the wholly other movement that all thinking could always have followed. Such is its weakness, which some would name its strength, for here weakness is an unlimited listening to the other, responding to the exhaustion that Blanchot was encountering in his life, when he was most attentive to his interlocutors. In his withdrawal, Blanchot makes each fragment into the site of an entretien, a repetition of weakness: “the extreme of discretion, offered to the point of effacement” (54).8 “Nothing extreme except through gentleness” (7). This is an offer or gift that draws on exhausted attentiveness, on a loss of limitation that the self does not suspect and that has neither the maneuvers of the desire to possess nor the calculation of generosity. It is an invisible gift, a “suspension of self” that is surprisingly incomplete and prone to confession, allowing the other to be seen as a beyond because it is anonymous, an anonymous disaster that is “unassignedly strange.” To say this is not to glorify the other nor to strip it of its own resources, but to imbue it with transparency though the discreet guarantee of presence alone; the absence of this presence speaks to the strength of thought, its pure temporality (purer even than dying itself), its exteriority to all duration, its blinding dazzlement, its sheer sensibility. This is time in its essence as separation and tearing, in its vertiginous absence, in its disastrous gaping, felt in the flesh, disobeying gravity, then falling.9 All fragments reproduce a falling movement, as Blanchot had already announced through the weakness of The Infinite Conversation. They also avoid closure, knowledge, anything based on oneness: the obscurity of which the fragments of The Writing of the Disaster are sometimes accused only signals that the accusing parties have carried out a reading that is hasty, consumerist, impatient to forget itself, and unwilling to search for any point of weakness. For Blanchot, to divide up the fragments, to order and reorder them is therefore also to search for what place should be given to the other, in order that it might be heard. This is how the variations of the book’s prepublications should be read: as so many inversions, separations, groupings, entanglements, changes of character.

Perhaps such thinking sets out to speak the possibility of others by interrogating its own possibility. It is in The Writing of the Disaster that Blanchot chooses, not without hesitation (for there is something testamentary about addressing one’s childhood, addressing the possibility of retaining childhood), to narrate and to comment on in three sections the “primal scene” of the opening of the sky. The possibility of an infinite attentiveness to the other opens up when one places oneself at a distance, already in childhood, through this absolute availability recognized in the disaster, distributed across one’s gaze and one’s flesh and then forgotten, tormented, defied, little by little opened to the possibilities of narration, put into the form of the essay or of the fragment’s unworked work, in any case never killed off. The pages that take Serge Leclaire as their starting point (A Child Is Being Killed) seem offered to this personal disaster, which has already responded to the impossible (not claiming any knowledge of it, but simply a listening), has already responded to the attempt to sustain a death that is originary, repeated, and always-already past.10 These pages were published as an article in Le Nouveau Commerce in 1976, then included in the book in the form of three long fragments preceding the récit of the “primal scene?” whose devastating, deracinating strength they do more than suggest, designating an initial experience of dying, even if its initial status is only a screen effect. For while the movement of writing is recognized in the recognition of this immemorial death (the original and repeated dying, the attractive and obliging void, the invisible in the depths of the sky), in the traces that “call upon one to exclude oneself from the cosmic order” (66), this recognition contains no therapeutic element, no sublimation, no transference or even work of mourning. To kill the child, but also to kill childhood within one, in the double impersonality of the act of killing (“A child is being killed” [On tue un enfant]: Blanchot accepted this double neutrality, insisting on its “indecisive force,” 71), is to agree to be accompanied by a “companion, but of no one, whom we seek to particularize as an absence” (72), in a “primal scene” of writing.11 The disaster lies and comes about in discovering this murder and its constant repetition, in the face of which all knowledge of the origin disappears. To write is to continue to open up the sky, to move from the blue sky to the void of the sky: “the disaster as withdrawal outside the sidereal abode, and as refusal of nature’s sacredness” (133). This is a sunless blue, a blue of disaster, a blue in which disaster has replaced the sun, signaling both dazzlement and lack of origin, signaling that all coordinates have been lost. Not least among the virtues of the disaster is that it annexes, in its obscure poetic luminosity, the sun—as appears in the various versions of the book’s final fragment, “shining solitude, the void in the sky, a deferred death: sun” becoming “shining solitude, the void of the sky, a deferred death: disaster.”12

In any case, a striking new confidence in the autobiographical transparency of writing—even if in the neuter, in the name of the other or of the anonymous—is apparent in what is most personal, most secret, most childish experience being confided in this way. Such is the case even if this is an experience of the impersonal, of the other, of the infinite reserves of weakness that channel writing’s evolution toward an impossible response to an original “ravaging joy” that poses questions and opens to the disaster.13 In the following years, Blanchot would never renew this confidence without sideways glances and suspicion. And yet he would do so, more and more freely and not without pleasure, with no other protection for his own weakness than the concern to manifest the truth regarding the unsayable: the concern that makes life possible.

To hold, to hold on: to hold insofar as one has held on so far: this is what is now required. To hold on to fear beyond any catharsis, beyond any blinding by knowledge, to hold strong in the face of apathy, to undergo the greatest pain (this “saturation by impropriety” that Blanchot even discusses in terms of Sade [45]); such imperatives are only meaningful if one thinks through Levinas’s view that “others [Autrui] are always closer to God than I,” if one holds on to the demand it makes, “whatever might be meant,” Blanchot adds, “by the unnamed name of God.” The neutral welcome given to the broader responsibility for others comes down to holding on to the thought of what Levinas, similarly, names “indiscretion with respect to the ineffable,” which he makes into a task for philosophy (114). Blanchot recalls this in an article dedicated to him for a collection of homages in 1980, which he closes in these terms:

How can one philosophize, how can one write in memory of Auschwitz, of those who told us, sometimes in notes buried near to the crematories: know what happened here, do not forget, and at the same time you will never know. This is the thought that traverses, and bears, all of Levinas’s philosophy and that he proposes to us without saying it, beyond and before every obligation.14

To hold on to philosophy while thinking Auschwitz, philosophy which Blanchot names a “clandestine companion” in a gesture toward his friend: this is the demand with which Blanchot constantly aligns himself henceforth. It is a movement that imposes itself on the development of his thought: the infinite attentiveness, the nonreciprocity of the relation to others (the subject’s responsibility even for the violence of the other), the coming-together of the movements represented by Levinas (Judaism as a humanism) and by Mascolo (Judaization through the experience of war), the conviction that history is being left behind, and the political engagements: All of these make it necessary to place this absolute at the heart of interrogating the end of historical dialectics. But his growing and sometimes seemingly exclusive interest for Judaic culture would have greater surprises in store. To find them surprising, however, is to forget that this interest is continuous with the rest of his thinking. Blanchot reproached others many times for only thinking Judaism in terms of anti-Semitism; he had intensely, and as it were blindly, experienced a thinking of Judaism as a culture of refusal of all mythical thought; in the 1930s he had touched on it through his writing accompanying Levinas and at Le Rempart. Judaism as a thinking of errancy, of the demand to constantly relate to the Wholly Other: that much can be traced back to the articles of the 1960s. But what now makes itself felt, under the pressure of the memory of the political experience associated with them and in the state of division that allows this experience to be thought through all the more—faced with the course of history that saw the Middle East in flames and the appearance of the first accounts of French anti-Semitism—is the strong necessity of uprooting events from the realm of the possible with its causes and effects and evaluating them according to a wholly other type of duration.15 From this point of view, Judaism for Blanchot represents a culture of resistance capable of envisaging, beyond the dialectical oeuvre of death, infinity without anguish—or more precisely, an infinity able to hold on to anguish given the lack of any site, of any end.16 In this framework, the State of Israel would often be trivialized and yet at the same time over-estimated: it would be seen as the return of events immemorial, as the simple reflection of the West’s inability to sustain the existence of a culture that refuses all historical closure. Paradoxically, Israel and its limitations are recognized in the name of the impossible without limits.17

He who had never tried to be present in representation (through the reproduction of his voice or image), who had tried to remain absent to the point of effacement in order to guarantee his long-term, even infinite capacity to listen to the other-the wholly other—and who henceforth in his retirement could only be present through text and letters (“absence in its vivacity,” 51): This man would leave the struggle for the possible to others, a struggle that he thought as necessary as ever (72–74). On the question of anti-Semitism itself, this was palpable in 1976 with the Boutang affair. Blanchot discreetly but firmly, with the entire weight of his friendship, supported Jacques Derrida.

On March 17, 1976, the board of the University of Strasbourg had elected Pierre Boutang to a post as maître de conférences in philosophy, against the wishes of the specialist advisory committee. He was a fiery polemicist who had been a Maurrassian journalist before the war and responsible for various nationalist mouthpieces since; he had been barred from teaching after the Liberation and reinstated in 1967 after rallying to Gaullism, something that did not exclude a long-standing sympathy for Nouvelle Action Française. A petition signed by around one hundred academics denounced the procedure used by the university management, the criteria used, and the choice of Boutang, which it linked to the nonrenewal of Heinz Wismann’s contract the same month and in the same department. On June 15, 1976, Le Monde published this petition and a response by Boutang. On July 1, Derrida published in the same newspaper a text named “Where Are the Witch-Hunters?” in which he expressed some reservations about secondary aspects of the declaration that he had nonetheless signed, and whose principles he defended, even as he called for Boutang’s work to be read in the first instance. The accusation of “witch-hunting” was aimed not at the declaration but at Boutang’s actions under Vichy, and Derrida denounced this figure’s persistent anti-Semitism and “overt racism,” with citations as evidence. The same evening, Blanchot wrote to Derrida after having read the article, expressing his unreserved support. He did so with the same suddenness, the same decisive mindset with which he expressed his “agreement” to Dionys Mascolo in 1958.

In this way, at a moment when he was gaining immense recognition, Blanchot let it be known that the weight of his oeuvre concerned him less than ever.

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