With This Break in History Stuck in One’s Throat: The Unavowable Community (1982–1983)

Friendship, with the reading of inebriation, is the very form of the “inoperative community” Jean-Luc Nancy has asked us to reflect upon, though it is not granted to us to pause over it.1

One has to talk in order to remain silent. But with what kinds of words? That is one of the questions this little book [The Malady of Death] entrusts to others, not that they may answer it, rather that they may choose to carry it with them, and, perhaps, extend it. Thus one will discover that this question also carries an exacting political meaning and that it does not allow us to lose interest in the present time which, by opening unknown spaces of freedom, makes us responsible for new relationships, always threatened, always hoped for, between what we call work, oeuvre, and what we call unworking, désoeuvrement. (56)

Published in December 1983, The Unavowable Community takes the form of a diptych, an open response to two books of friendship, or rather an incitement to speak according to historical necessity and political responsibility. Between “ethics and love,” between ethics and violence, in the occasional violence of the ethical gesture, the impossibility of Blanchot remaining silent after the publication of such noteworthy texts bears witness to their roughness and their incompleteness. The new book, the third book (le tiers-livre), adds to the two others and provides them with their impossible echo, with an infinite distancing but also with agreement on what matters most, namely bringing together free transmission, and shared refusal. It provides a signature for the absence, for the wound represented by the two books, and for the links between them. It accomplishes what must be seen as the law of their worklessness, if by “worklessness” we mean the constant, indestructible movement toward the name of the other, a movement carried out in the name of the other. This movement can only be grasped—and even then, barely—by the repeated, replayed relation of writing, if by “law” we mean the obligation (Bataille would have said: the constraint) to expose the necessity of this community relation, of what within it is endlessly played out, presented as a gift.

This composite work consists of “The Negative Community,” the first section of The Unavowable Community, which responds to “The Inoperative Community” by Jean-Luc Nancy (a long article that had appeared in the journal Aléa in spring 1983), together with “The Community of Lovers,” the second part, written in homage to The Malady of Death by Marguerite Duras (published by Minuit the previous year). It is a composite work because it is composed of these two others, or rather of the movement whereby each composes the other, and Blanchot wanted to include many gestures of gratitude in it. Even in the early publication of a few fragments of the second part in Le Nouveau Commerce that spring, a final note refers to Nancy’s piece, “which should become a landmark among approaches to the thought of Georges Bataille, still so misapprehended, whether despite or due to his renown.”2 In the book, a quotation from Jean-Luc Nancy is symmetrically used as the epigraph opening the section on Marguerite Duras. To weave these threads together to create an encounter that might have appeared unlikely is to respond to a secret movement, extending and revealing the work that Blanchot had been undertaking. Having learned of a thesis on Bataille that in his view silenced what was essential about the latter’s view of community, he had returned to such reflections, as a letter to Bruno Roy which appeared in 1982 in a homage to Guy Lévis Mano had already suggested. Nancy’s reading therefore must have seemed all the more fortuitous and striking. It came several months after Blanchot’s agreement that Nancy could “translate” and publish “The Name: Berlin.” Splicing together the two homages therefore took on a political meaning: It meant the politics of thought and the politics of friendship, allowing a return to the two figures who are present (Nancy, Duras), but also going beyond them to what was made necessary by certain essential responses to the contemporary rupture of historical space. These responses were Contre-Attaque and Bataille’s thought, May ’68 and the presence of the people (after an introduction of a few lines, the section on Duras soon abandoned The Malady of Death to address, in a surprising way, marches and committees, as well as the protestors and deaths at Charonne).

It was not the first time that Blanchot had written on his friends’ books. But until this dedicated and quickly-produced publication he had never confronted them with one another like this. Something of the personal movement of history was at stake here. And above all, something of the movement of their personal history. Some passages extend the speech used in The Infinite Conversation and Friendship, in homage to this “shared agreement” between Bataille and Blanchot (“be it the momentary accord of two singular beings, breaking with few words the impossibility of Saying which the unique trait of experience seems to contain,” 18). Others seem to belong to the fiction of the amorous relation in The Malady of Death (“He does not answer,” Blanchot writes of the male character, adding “I will be careful not to answer in his stead, or else, coming back yet again to the Greeks, I would murmur: But I know who you are,” 45).3 These unshakable links also seem to retrace the sometimes-uneven history of political agreements and disagreements from Bataille to the friends of the Rue Saint-Benoît group, in order more strongly to tie together such displacements of thought as had been foundational for Blanchot’s persistent, continuous political presence since the 1940s.

This book moves back and forth across the traces of past friendships and reveals those of his current friendships. It therefore contains many marks of incredible violence with which politics became personal for Blanchot. It condemns Heidegger’s political consent to and philosophical recognition of Nazism (13) and distances Bataille’s name from any suggestion that he can be seen as a mythological or immanentist thinker, as one concerned with a sacrificial, fusional imaginary. On the contrary, this book sees, in his work’s trajectory, an ever more radical claim that all relation is lacking (that myth, immanence, sacrifice were lacking), that community is interrupted by the infinite nonreciprocity of the relation to the Other as conceived by Levinas, the other friend.4 At the same time, it displaces Levinas’s thinking toward a political demand that remained alien to him, although it became the ethical foundation for an oppositional communism: that of Antelme, Duras, or Mascolo. Blanchot inscribes this thinking of community as a memory of the collapse of the communist model, in the legacy of the venture of Le 14 Juillet, of the Manifesto, of the International Review.

The Unavowable Community marks Blanchot’s return to Minuit, which published Bataille and Duras, and which nearly became his publisher too at the end of the 1940s; Minuit did indeed publish Lautréamont and Sade, which the structure of this book recalls. But it is above all Death Sentence that this structure evokes, both in the way it sets out—beyond the appearance of duality—multiple figures of thought (his characters, his friends), and in the secret, unavowed place occupied by a personal account of the relation to history. Blanchot describes the communitarian illusions in which he had once been able to place his trust. He demonstrates how at that time he gave himself over to the demand of literature alone, even if it was susceptible to orient and situate his return to a politics of the gap. The comparison of The Malady of Death, “a récit that also says in its own way: no more récits,” (42) with Madame Edwarda and The Madness of the Day is not an anodyne one: they similarly evoke an interruption of History, the opening of a new historical space.5 Perhaps this book also represents a personal malaise, insofar as it poses political questions, its questioning being carried out by way of friendship, and asking questions of a person who remains absent or delayed. This would explain why the work seems to have two beginnings, with its double avowal that something has been forgotten: “In the wake of an important text by Jean-Luc Nancy, I would like to take up again a reflection never in fact interrupted, although surfacing only intermittently, concerning the communist demand” (1); and in the first version of the text on The Malady of Death: “I had not read a book by Marguerite Duras for a long time: perhaps because I lacked the ability to read, or because I wanted to remain close to the books of hers that I loved so completely and therefore lacked the power to go beyond. For other reasons too: reasons are never lacking.”6

Indeed, reasons were hardly lacking for a return to the political discourse that had been somewhat effaced by notions of ethical necessity in the 1970s. In May 1981, the election of François Mitterrand and the formation of a left-unity government resurrected feelings of lightness and hope. New intellectual spaces were opening up too: Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy founded the Center for Philosophical Research on the Political in November 1980;7 at Cerisy in 1981, Derrida presented “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Adopted Long Ago in Philosophy,” a lecture published two years later (and to which The Unavowable Community was also a type of response).8 At the beginning of 1983, Hélène and Jean-Luc Nancy proposed a “reconstitution” of “The Name: Berlin,” which Blanchot immediately authorized. Blanchot would approach the question of intellectuals and politics in the 1980s and 1990s through such spaces of reflection on the possibility of a different thinking of community, of which he and Bataille were the founders but not the proprietors. This question would be passed back and forth between him, Derrida, and Nancy, in a play of gifts and exchanges. The latter’s article from Aléa would be published in book form by Christian Bourgois in 1986, expanded to include a series of lectures given in Berlin, “Myth Interrupted,” and a new text, “Literary Communism.” Four years later, a new edition would be further extended by two texts that had appeared in journals in the interim. These extensions of the work’s interrogations bring one back to worklessness, which comes and goes between the texts, whose movement never stops, and whose necessity for the community Nancy willingly agrees has been defined by Blanchot.9 These interrogations of the possibility of witnessing had grown more pronounced in Blanchot’s writing and even in his shorter interventions. They were accompanied by Parages by Derrida (1986), Smothered Words by Kofman (1987), Around an Attempt to Remember by Mascolo (1987), and Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Surya (1987), all books that bear witness in different ways to the very necessity of witnessing, in a period marked by the abandon of any hope based in community.

Perhaps such a necessity to bear witness, to bear witness to one’s own witnessing, is what makes Blanchot cite himself frequently for the first time.10 Perhaps too the pressure exerted by this possibility of bearing witness is what allows the influence of fragmentary writing to diminish. From this fragmentary writing, this new work retains only the brief nature of its twenty-six chapters (something like long fragments with titles) and its discontinuous structure, its workless movement that halts, fractures, or overspills any accumulative, linear exposition—“with this break in history stuck in [one’s] throat,” as Jean-Luc Nancy would later put it.11 This break is transmitted from one text to another, this commonly felt need to avoid any model of immanence (any communitarian or totalitarian model: the total presence of the community to itself) or any model of transcendence (any individualist or liberal model: the individual as “the absolutely detached for-itself, taken as origin and certainty”).12 The necessity of relation is to be found first of all in its interruption. Rather than any direct link, which he sees as part of a social order, Nancy proposes a conception of coappearance (la comparution) (even if it takes place from a basis of separation, of breach, of love, of death): he proposes that we conceive “the passage of one through the exposed limit of the other.”13 More than love or death themselves, it is the ethical impossibility of making love or death into a work that founds the demand of community. The resulting notion of community is thus founded not on mourning or on death, but on its self-mourning and self-death: on its own impossibility. This impossibility, this mourning, this death are improper in a proper way, and this is what makes this foundation possible. Community is only community if it is an impossible community. Such are the relations that Blanchot and Bataille, or Blanchot and Mascolo, named friendship. Although it is absent in Nancy’s book, the term reappears several times in Blanchot’s, who adds: “friendship . . . is the very form of the ‘inoperative community’ Jean-Luc Nancy has asked us to reflect upon, though it is not granted to us to pause over it” (23). Friendship is thus the equivalent of grace, a way of sustaining absence that has always been deferred and inverted since it became clear that death is impossible; it is fidelity to the unknown, the only certainty held in language to the point of all uncertainty, thus remaining what bears witness to the impossibility of witnessing. It also confronts the absolute of history: “against a backdrop of disaster,” Blanchot repeats here (1). It is what leads to the “presence of the people,” (31) what links without linking the demonstrators of 1968 or Charonne: the exception that makes for “one of those moments when communism and community meet up and ignore that they have been realized by being lost immediately,” (32) Blanchot writes in a political paraphrase of the final words of The Malady of Death (“live that love in the only way possible for you. Losing it before it happened”).14 All forms and conceptions of community henceforth have to face “the malady of death.” Ethical witnessing has to make its refusal clear, a refusal based on impossible community. “It is because no community is possible with the SS that there is also the strongest community, the community (of those) without community,” Sarah Kofman would write.15 A community that continues to weave together modes of speech that bear witness both to the impossibility of community and to the absolute uniqueness of humankind. A community to which the literary community bears witness when it agrees to recognize ambiguity between the work and worklessness, between experience and infidelity, between memory and effacement: when there is an opening of “the groundless ground of communication.” (17) With such “literary impropriety,” (20) Blanchot insists that the only fitting impropriety is Bataille’s, to whom a debt is owed (we can recall that a related formulation saw Blanchot attributing to Sade “the major impropriety”). Literature is neither suitable nor does it bring people together. It calls on the unavowable to appear, doing so via “nocturnal communication . . . that which is not avowed” (20). This communication is what the narrative by Marguerite Duras remains faithful to, what it attempts to give voice to.

Concerning death, this narrative establishes that one can only ever be ill, something that explains both its sly, sovereign interiority and its radical exteriority, its total lack of relation. For the woman in the narrative tells the man that he is stricken with illness, and that she is unable to cure him: His illness stems from what he does not possess, but she remains unable to give him what she possesses. There is no way that what she possesses could be any foretaste of death (any collection of relatable experiences) which she could somehow access; she just might, however, be linked to the appearance of dying. Anything that is avowed is avowed by death; it cannot be avowed by any subject.

Blanchot’s relation to Duras is surprising—as is the solidarity with which he speaks of her, the backdrop of silence against which she appears, and his avowal of this solidarity and this silence at the beginning of the version published in Le Nouveau Commerce. Also surprising is his analysis that the text in question is a declaration: “it is a declarative text and not a récit, even though it appears as such” (35), when conversely everything seems to point to the text as a narrative playing fictionally with its mode of address. This seems to be confirmed by the Freudian slip Blanchot makes in removing the conditional tense from a citation he gives (“you shouldn’t have known her [vous devriez ne pas la connaître],” the opening phrase of The Malady of Death, becoming “you won’t have known her [vous ne devez pas la connaître],” 35).16 No more expected is his silence over the strange enunciative setup of the text, which creates an unequal relation between the two characters, the man cited by the text as “you,” the woman more conventionally as “she”; or the remarks attributed to the (neutral or neuter) narrative voice, “a voice whose origin escapes us,” (59) and which is sometimes reduced to a divine metaphor, that of “the supreme Director: the biblical ‘You’ ” (35), but at other times is merged with the female character.

In a long footnote on The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, Blanchot had previously reproached Duras for choosing to attribute “the narrative voice” of the récit (that which at the time he called “the it [il], the neuter”) to a character, a man, Jacques Hold—and had done so in the sentiment of indecisiveness that seemed so decisively to be his when he spoke of a book by Duras (“perhaps rashly, perhaps rightly,” he wrote).17 Over and against this “slightly shameful” attribution, it had seemed better to him to have a female character speak in that voice, a female character of which he stated only that,

the one [a woman or a thought? Lol or Duras?] who cannot recount because she bears—this is her wisdom, her madness—the torment of impossible narration, knowing (by a closed knowledge anterior to the scission of reason-unreason) that she is the measure of this outside where, as we accede to it, we risk falling under the attraction of a speech that is entirely exterior: pure extravagance.18

Blanchot was always interested by the third-party element in Duras, stemming from:

the need (the eternal human vow) to place in another’s charge, to experience once again through another, third party, the dual relation, the fascinated, indifferent relation that is irreducible to any mediation, a relation that is neutral, even if it implies the infinite void of desire.19

These words could also apply to the young woman in Destroy, She Said, a narrative that Blanchot would also pause over, or to the lack of inhibition of Madame Edwarda’s taxi driver, to whom Blanchot refers twice in The Unavowable Community (41, 48).20 In The Malady of Death, these words can only be understood to refer to an invisible form, the “You” of the voice.

In this nonreading to which he sometimes consents, everything is connected.21 Everything seems to make this text appear or reappear in the form of true speech, imitating what the interruption of the book would be for community, and everything seems to flow from a dialogue between Blanchot and Duras. Strangely, Blanchot hesitates over reading in “this récit devoid of anecdote” (43) what is most “Blanchotian” about it (what makes it the most “Blanchotian” of Duras’s récits: therefore also the most communitarian, and perhaps the most unavowable).22 The misunderstandings suggested by Duras’s public—even violent—refusal to accept elements of his interpretation would only superficially concern questions of the male figure’s homosexuality and the sexual encounter between the two characters.23 Perhaps with the woman there remains something of a belief in the ability to “impose death” which suspends her sovereign indifference to her own ability to be summoned before death. At the same time and in the same site, Blanchot is fascinated by the torment undergone by the sovereign voice which is embodied then immediately set aside, made absent in this feminine third party: It is a torment of recognition offering the space of fiction to community.

What Duras herself attempts to do for (and with) Blanchot in her fiction should be studied with precision, given that she, more than any other, occupies the neutral place made possible by community (Mascolo liked to recount how she withdrew in order not to impinge on friendships with Antelme).24 Duras turns all those close to her into fictional characters, for instance with the name of the character Andesmas, which brings together the first letters of the names of Antelme, Des Forêts, and Mascolo. Abahn Sabana David (1970) was dedicated to Antelme and Blanchot. Certain depictions in this narrative and in Destroy, She Said (1969) are not alien to the extreme closeness that—as Mascolo confirms—Duras felt for Blanchot (we think especially of the mysterious, imposing figure of Stein, the Jewish insomniac writer haunted by the end of history, and of the use made of the picture windows of the hotel, a site of convalescence away from the world).25 In Blanchot’s original article on it, “Destroy,” which uses the same title but minus the attribution of this word to a woman, he distances himself from any possibility of narrative appropriation. He only remarks on the elements of the récit that are close to his own:

Characters? Yes, they are in the position of characters—men, women, shadows—and yet they are immobile points of singularity, although the path movement takes through a rarefied space—in the sense that almost nothing can take place in it—can be traced from one to the other, a multiple path, along which, fixed, they constantly change.

Or again: This place “is there, it seems, before the action of the book begins, the questioning of the film, that death—a certain way of dying—has done its work, introducing fatal worklessness into it.”26

This is not to say that Blanchot is not fascinated, worried, troubled by the figure of the young woman Alissa who disturbs the characters’ conjugal relationship, as a new figure of the third person. In the récit Stein loves her, as does Thor. Blanchot concludes his article with her, as if in homage: “the innocent young companion henceforth with us at our side, she who gives and receives death, as it were, eternally.”27 The same figure attracts him thirteen years later in The Malady of Death, proving decisive for the movement of writing: this eroticism of “this young woman, so mysterious, so obvious, but whose obviousness—the ultimate reality—is never better stated than when she is about to die”; she whom he identifies quickly, “somewhat offhandedly,” he admits, “with pagan Aphrodite or with Eve or Lilith” (53–54). This harmful, young innocence, which here has no name and no face, is the invisible, fleeting knot at the heart of community, even as the fiction recounts its disappearance.

The Malady of Death stages an exhibition of singularities in which—with their respective finitudes appearing alongside one another, all finitude disappears as soon as it has appeared—the “with” of this coappearance is a confrontation of flesh with flesh; it exhibits the dislocation whereby they form a community, a being-in-common, what is precisely not a common being, and is the inaccessibility of communion for them. Here love is recognized as that which opens onto an abyss where love has no object—where there is no love.

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