Even a Few Steps Take Time: Literature and Witnessing (1983–1997)

Then followed long years measured out in difficult days and nights of insomnia, lived out facing the near-total density of the void, spent no longer writing but still being there, now and again demonstrating his presence through a few public letters, fragments, small works, and numerous reprints. There were signatures, stands taken, refusals, periods of anger, periods of acquiescence. There was an absolute presence in the world, in the publishing world, in public matters, in questions of who was to govern, questions relating to what was still supposedly the Left.1 There were illnesses, falls, hospitalizations, returns to the isolation of his suburban house, the condemnation of solitude. Blanchot experienced this solitude as if it were his fate (how could the presence of such weakness be imposed on the other, on others?). There was the time of “disaster,” without distress but during which the demands made by distress were held in an intimacy that only very few friends would share, and even then only barely. “It is not permitted to be old” a Hassidic master once said in a phrase that Blanchot now liked to cite: this encouragement to write (even if to cast light on or to efface all secrets), this dogma of resistance—for a person whose health ultimately became a major worry—to defeat each illness that temporarily incapacitated him: these would lead to some of Blanchot’s sweetest smiles, some of his work’s finest pages.2 Only a few pages, or even a few lines, now appeared each year. They were sent as if from a great distance, from the ends of the earth and from outside time; they were sometimes prophetic and sometimes bore witness, but always related to an intense, febrile presence in the world. They had been—as it were—clawed back from the temporary ailments of the eyes, the voice, the hearing, from his trembling handwriting (writing became increasingly painful, and thus his ability to maintain relations with others diminished). His correspondence dropped away, he used the telephone less and less. But his tenacity remained, and he read endlessly. “The other, the Friend, always remained within reach of one’s voice,” wrote Roger Laporte. Yes, within reach, but silently; he was on the other end of the line, but said little, as in Mascolo’s dream; “in unison, but each on a different shore.” “Space brings us together, separates us forever.”3

The century was drawing to a close. Almost all its great writers were dying, homages were the order of the day (most often in the deflated form of commemorations), lived experiences were becoming historical (even with those who had resisted this for so long). In such a network of texts, amid such resonances in place of memories, how could he not feel increasingly isolated? The litany of deaths had already included Barthes, Sartre (1980), Lacan, (1981); now it was those who had once been so close who were suddenly distant: Foucault (1984), Michaux (1984), Char (1988), Beckett (1989), Dalms (1989), Leiris (1990), Jabès (1991), Deleuze (1995), and Claude Roy (1997). Blanchot’s generation was dying, but so too was a younger generation; so too were even his closest friends. In 1983, Robert Antelme had an operation on his carotid artery; a mistake in the surgery left him paralyzed on one side. He died seven years later, on October 26, 1990. Marguerite Duras died in 1996, Dionys Mascolo in 1997, Emmanuel Levinas on December 25, 1995. “I am sorry, but I must bury a few others before I bury myself”: even the prophetic words of The Madness of the Day were too soft for reality, and this infinitely cruel softness ultimately enclosed Blanchot in silence.4

These words would hold true even for his family. In 1984, Marguerite Blanchot was admitted to hospital with heart problems, in a clinic in Chalon. Unable to play her beloved pianos, she wrote notes on musicology, notably on Chopin. She had almost ten years to live, but they would be spent shuttling between hospitals and rest homes. Initially, her brother George wished to have her close; she thus left Chalon and moved to the hospice in Montmerle-sur-Saône in the Ain département; she was not happy there. In an irony of fate, it was George who died two years later, on October 9, 1986. Marguerite left for a home in Belleville in the Rhône département. She had one of her pianos transported there, but was unable to play in her final years. She died on February 23, 1993. Four days later she was discreetly buried in the cemetery in Devrouze. When her death was announced in Chalon, it only proved how rapid and strong oblivion was (public remorse and urbane compassion followed several days later, as it always does). One of Blanchot’s nephews, a son of George, died around this time.5 One of this nephew’s sons also died. Last, in December 1997, Anna—who had lived for nearly twenty years with Blanchot—also passed away.

And so these texts existed, which seemed to be sent out from time to time, these interfering voices, this shards of thought, this ethical absolute, that exist to one side of systematization or homage, beside oneself; these fragments that mime effacement, that impose a secret mode of commentary and of presence.

His works saw numerous reprintings: as early as 1981, a request from Gallimard led to the collection of texts on Kafka, preceded by “Literature and the Right to Death,” in a low-cost edition called From Kafka to Kafka, which quickly gained an international audience. In 1982, in The Beast of Lascaux, Blanchot evoked the “fleeting memory” of René Char and of Guy Lévis Mano, who was the first to turn this short essay into a book. Bruno Roy, who took on this publication the same year that he produced a homage to Mano, also reissued two other articles by Blanchot: one in 1984 on Paul Celan (The Last to Speak), which had been written after the death of the poet, and one in 1987 on Joë Bousquet’s Translated from Silence. This was followed by Bousquet’s essay on Aminadab, thus creating a two-headed book with two texts of similar length, both written at the beginning of the 1940s.6 For around twenty years, Bruno Roy became Blanchot’s third publisher. He looked after shorter works, which were published in limited runs in a long, thin format and on tinted laid paper; sometimes they were illustrated (by Bram Van Velde, Pierre Tal Coat, and Jean Ipoustéguy).7

In 1986 and 1987 the Brussels publisher Complexe reissued texts by Blanchot on Sade, Restif, and Lautréamont in their new collection “The Literary Gaze.” We can imagine why the author must have agreed to these publications, again in a low-cost format, which formed part of a book series that was more literary than critical, consisting of readings of writers by other writers (indeed, the text on Lautréamont features alongside two others, by Gracq and Le Clézio). A few critical texts written for defunct journals were sometimes reprinted by new ones. “The Paradox of Aytré” was taken from The Work of Fire to form part of a new, 1988 edition by Spectres Familiers of Paulhan’s narrative Aytré Losing the Habit. In English, Michael Holland published a volume comprising many texts that Blanchot had not collected in his volumes.8 And last, all of the récits were reissued in Gallimard’s “The Imaginary” series.

The most striking republication of all these years would be one of the earliest: that of Vicious Circles by Minuit, followed by an afterword that gave its name to the work, After the Fact (1983). The two novellas had become almost impossible to find. Preceding The Unavowable Community by a few months and appearing the same year under the same imprint, their publication was not without major political significance. These récits written before but published after Auschwitz once more raised the question, forcefully: How can we not write, after Auschwitz? “There can be no fiction-story about Auschwitz,” Blanchot says, but also: “no matter when it is written, every story from now on will be from before Auschwitz.” And yet, “perhaps life goes on.”9 He notes that toward the end of The Metamorphosis when Gregor Samsa dies, his young sister becomes newly alive. This example casts its light far. The absolute event of History confronts us, tragically, with the task of thinking its withdrawal. Expressing this withdrawal is perhaps all that remains for literature: it is precisely its curious “idyll” and therefore its “last word,” its “very last word.” In the 1980s, when political, civil, legal, historical, and artistic life began to question this barely speakable past more than ever, it was necessary to reaffirm the radical impossibility and yet the infinite responsibility of all the avowals and trials, of all the necessary and possible revelations. Something like the perforated site of literature opens up to Blanchot through the occurrence of an event that, after the fact, becomes charged with the unsustainable weight of the disaster and the writing of the disaster. And this site opens up to him in the face of the blinding, always deferred perspicacity of narration and in the face of the infinite exhaustion of thought (of the entretien) that is foundational for it. This is a space offered to witnessing, the vigilant speech of memory, the demand for truth and fidelity, the practice of a consenting to weakness (nonetheless always placed under the double demand: naming the possible, responding to the impossible). Phrases such as “I remember,” “I recall,” “I was a stranger [étranger],” “I was writing,” “we were [étions]” authenticate autobiographical memory, and a slippage into the imperfect tense now makes such statements possible. Of course, not a great number of past events would be recounted; but this rare quality made them all the more astonishing and precious. Blanchot had this tendency for many years: we can date it to 1965 when in an article on “The Great Reducers,” he mentioned an encounter with one of his friends (“I remember, around 1946, a conversation [entretien] with Merleau-Ponty”).10 From then on such references became more frequent. Most of the texts of the 1980s and 1990s appeared under the sign of shattered memories, of fragments of memories. Even his critical essays would begin by evoking recollections, as if to avow that they had always drawn the unfolding of their speech from the memory of events and of experiences. There was a weakness inherent in all commentary and even in all narrative: The latter could only ever be a commentary after the fact, except in the event-status of a rare type of literature where it is the event itself (itself: in its separated relationship with the event whose equivalent in language it cannot avoid being). And this double weakness is avowed by Blanchot in an afterword written in proximity to the greatest writers, those closest to him, who shared—he recalls—the same weakness: Mallarmé, Kafka, Bataille. To comment on, to provide a reading of or a follow-up to the work is necessarily to adjourn it in the name of the false transparency of “life.” And yet Blanchot now believed that his task was to bring about a witnessing, through a concern with “(indirectly) taking on responsibility” for presence, for writing or action as work.

This responsibility was also imposed on him by the deaths of those close to him, of those who had themselves taken it on. The prologue written by Boris Souvarine for a new edition of Social Criticism in 1983 was full of attacks on Georges Bataille, and as such forced Blanchot to respond. He did so in these terms: “As, with the passing years, witnesses to the period are becoming fewer, I cannot remain silent while there is still time, and allow credence to be attached to claims which I know to be incontrovertibly untrue.”11 In 1993 his “pre-text” for Dionys Mascolo’s book Searching for a Communism of Thought, named “For Friendship,” is—a first in his writing—rich with brief, laconic but precise memories. It concludes as follows:

Friendship, comradeship, I would have liked, dear Dionys, to wonder from afar with you who are so present, as with those who are even more present, because having disappeared, they can respond to us only through their disappearance.12

This same principle would guide him for many years, as it had from at least 1983 or 1984 with his first autobiographical sketch, consisting in a few lines named “Encounters” given to Le Nouvel Observateur for an issue celebrating the magazine’s twentieth anniversary.13 While Blanchot would only rarely agree to reveal anything personal, whether relating to himself or to those close to him, he did engage in an indirect mode of witnessing in the name of the unavowable. His agreement that his article on Bousquet be published in a work setting two voices in such symmetry contains some highly personal descriptions of illness, solitude, and the experience of these in and through language. “We understand from various notes that long ago this man travelled far in absence and in silence.”14 But the necessity of witnessing would overwhelmingly be felt in relation to political matters, on multiple occasions in relation to May ’68, and—always—to Auschwitz.

One such occasion was a work on political consciousness and intellectual ethics, published following Jean-Denis Bredin’s book on the Dreyfus affair, described as “the sketch of a reflection” and yet an extension of the work that for some time Blanchot had been doing on the 1930s and the thinking of Georges Bataille: “Intellectuals under Scrutiny.”15 This is a long article that appeared alongside a previously unpublished text by Sartre in the journal Le Débat; “notes” given to Pierre Nora in an uneven, unordered state, and sometimes taking the form of an autobiographical narrative (albeit still under the sign of secrecy). Blanchot would not hesitate to publish this text in book form with Fourbis twelve years later (his request was behind its appearance alongside the new, 1996 edition of For Friendship). This shows how much he cared about this text, which provided another form of political testament, in a more or less veiled fashion. “I am not one of those who are content to seal up the tomb of the intellectual,” he declares early on, immediately adding: “first and foremost because I don’t know what is meant by the term.”16 Blanchot refuses the self-deprecation of the intellectual who, under the pressure of a certain understanding of history and of the breakdown of grand ideologies, abandons the object of his existence: the search for universal justice in the name of reason. Such an attitude belongs too closely to the “air of the time” that he denounces.17 But this does not mean that the intellectual is “the man of commitment,” nor, according to the terms of Foucault’s call to vigilance, “the representative of the universal” or “the conscience of all.”18 Unlike Sartre, Blanchot does not give the intellectual any permanent status; ultimately, the intellectual does not exist, intellectuals are always “under scrutiny” and, as he writes in conclusion, “being questioned.” Writers, artists, or scholars can only be intellectuals provisionally: “The intellectual is a portion of ourselves, which not only distracts us momentarily from our task, but returns us to what is going on in the world, in order to judge or appreciate what is going on there.”19 At the same time, the writer, artist, or scholar can never avoid this engagement. It is an ethical demand that constantly places them in relation with the domain of the possible. They have this duty but receive no rights in exchange, except perhaps the right of remaining insubordinate, in order better to become anonymous. Their sole concern is to lay claim to a “universal idea of what is just and unjust”; it is even their existence as artists, not intellectuals, that places this straightforward stubbornness within them (they defend “in the same impulse the demands of right and of justice and the demands of writing, considered as that which must submit to nothing but itself”).20 Therefore intellectuals do not take their authority from knowledge; Blanchot even takes care to show how many mistakes they made in the specific case of the Dreyfus affair, when the category of the intellectual was born. Péguy, Guesde, Blum, Jaurès: All of them, at one time or another, made mistakes. Like Valéry, their mistakes led them to follow a path extremely close to the one taken decades earlier by Blanchot himself. That intellectuals often make mistakes; and sometimes even take a long time to reestablish themselves after these mistakes, that despite their intellectual nature they lack thought and submit to the unsuspected power of their prejudices, or ultimately that they are unable to explain themselves—this is what this article, become a short work, would attempt to demonstrate. It immediately adds that the issue of anti-Semitism is often what ends up reestablishing the link to universal justice, the intellectual’s “simple idea.” “From the Dreyfus affair to Hitler and Auschwitz, the proof is there that it was anti-Semitism (along with racism and xenophobia) which revealed the intellectual most powerfully to himself.”21 From his alignment with Rempart to the time at Combat, from his wartime attitude to his meditations on the camps, it was indeed anti-Semitism that—not without provoking vexation—had revealed Blanchot to himself, in the infinite demand for the coming of the Other, the Wholly Other. “There would thus seem to be a moment, in every life, when the unjustifiable prevails and the incomprehensible is given its due,” Blanchot writes, and we must also relate this to his life. In this, more than in the citation of René Char on which he ends, is to be found what he names “my personal confession.”22 This is the confession that no confession can be sustained except by constantly reflecting on the unjustifiable. That was what Heidegger, who was guilty of many other “errors,” of what Blanchot himself here names “the fatal error” or of what in 1966 he named “the capital offence,” refused to do.23

Strangely, this avowal of an impossible avowal is accompanied by the fiction of an avowal, the fiction of an autonomous, autobiographical and more or less secret avowal. For the pages on the 1930s and on the 1960s repeat the details of the positions that, as a journalist, then as a thinker, Blanchot had adopted (on democracy as an erosion, the denunciation of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the condemnation of pacifist antifascism; and, in the 1960s, on the necessity of intervening in favor of a “concrete cause,” against the idea of mythical providence, for what is closest, and in the name of anonymity alone). These pages rehearse these positions without ever declaring that they had been Blanchot’s own, simply making it possible to recognize them and to think the free and perhaps blind movement behind such recognition. This is proof, if proof is possible, that avowal is always absent, and ultimately that single avowal can be sustained.

If what can never be sustained nonetheless has to be attempted, and if it is necessary to hold to “the categorical imperative . . . which Adorno formulated more or less thus: Think and act in such a way that Auschwitz may never be repeated,” then there are also the many times he takes a stand against anti-Semitism, and against Heidegger’s in particular.24 While Blanchot knew that he had been able to protect himself against any “naivety” with regard to Nazism, with its mythical thinking and its professed ideology of murderous racism, his tenacity in addressing Heidegger’s engagement can only be understood in the light of the misdirection in thought of which he accuses the philosopher (and had done so for a long time). There is a note in Intellectuals under Scrutiny that exemplifies this, beginning as follows: “The more important Heidegger’s thought is taken to be, the more it is necessary to try and clarify the sense of his political adhesion in 1933–34.”25 It provides a précis of everything with which Blanchot reproaches the philosopher of Being and Time. It shows the degree of tolerance he is prepared to assume in order to agree to understand and realign the boundaries of what is justifiable, although the latter never included the “political declarations” in favor of Hitler through which Heidegger placed “the language of his own philosophy . . . in the service of the worst of causes.” “That, for me,” Blanchot adds, “is the gravest responsibility: what took place was a falsification of writing, an abuse, a travesty and a misappropriation of language.” These words applied not only to language but also to the language of thought. And further on, Blanchot recalls precisely what the demand of that thought is: “there is no greater courage than the courage of thinking.”26

Such is Blanchot’s position, restated each time in the same terms from the notes of The Infinite Conversation and the text of 1980 on Levinas (“Nazism and Heidegger, this is a wound to thought”).27 He feels that it is necessary to say and repeat that thinking is henceforth impossible, except when it thinks how to pass on the impossible witnessing: “How can one philosophize, how can one write in memory of Auschwitz, of those who told us, sometimes in notes buried close to the crematories: know what happened here, do not forget, and at the same time you will never know.”28 When he adds: “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,” we can understand why the name of Levinas traverses all the texts written by Blanchot in the 1980s (very few do not cite him—as an appeal, a demand, a request).29 Inversely, by refusing to interrogate this new “categorical imperative,” by remaining silent and difficult to pin down about the past, Heidegger only allowed the deepest suspicion to be cast over his thinking. Blanchot would publicly accuse him on the basis of this silence, at the time of what he could not bring himself to name “the Farias affair.”

In the fall of 1987, Victor Farias’s book Heidegger and Nazism was published. The question was not a new one, but the new work gave space to the anecdotal, bore witness to several unknown facts, and polemically denied the philosopher any substantial importance. The literary press was bowled over and for the first time the subject was widely discussed by the media. Neither Levinas’s older nor Lacoue-Labarthe’s more recent reflection, both of which examine Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism in much more pertinent ways, had succeeded in provoking such a “debate.”30 For Le Nouvel Observateur, Catherine David asked various writers and philosophers for statements on the topic. The title of Blanchot’s response, which he wrote as early as November 10, 1987, is explicit: “Thinking the Apocalypse.” This was precisely what he accuses Heidegger of not having done: “a sort of anti-Semitism was not alien to him and it explains why never, despite being asked to on several occasions, did he agree to make any statement about the Extermination.” And later, in conclusion, he writes that: “Heidegger’s irreparable fault is his silence concerning the Extermination.”31 The rest of the article barely refers to the national, sedentary essence of Heideggerian philosophy; above all, it attempts to show through numerous examples that Heidegger’s rare avowals and standpoints on the question of his engagement and the engagement of his philosophy for National Socialism are as contradictory as it was possible to be. They are therefore untenable, and above all are inept in relation to the failure to think that they mask.

Blanchot makes the same accusation in another letter, responding to another request, from Salomon Malka for the journal L’Arche in May 1988. “Know what happened, do not forget, and at the same time never will you know.” This sentence from “Our Clandestine Companion,” which even there had been borrowed from The Writing of the Disaster, and would be borrowed again in a 1986 article for La Quinzaine Littéraire, and later in a text in homage to Jabès, each time in exactly the same terms, this time was modified.32 And yet at the heart of the formulation there remains the imperative “Do not forget,” with Salomon Malka confirming that the use of these words for the title was requested by Blanchot (they had also been used for an article for the Quinzaine, two years earlier). To refer to “the unforgivable silence of Heidegger” is to bear indirect witness to Blanchot’s own speech. His letter to Malka reveals his first memories of meeting Levinas, in the 1920s at the University of Strasbourg. It also refers to Blanchot’s proximity to the Jewish community in Paris in 1933 (without explicitly citing the name of Paul Lévy or referring to the contributions to Le Rempart). A short autobiographical narrative confirms how long Judaism had been present in Blanchot’s mind and emphasizes what his thinking owed to Buber and to Levinas. His desire to think Judaism philosophically, in relation to his meditations on anti-Semitism, is present everywhere. For instance, the responsibility for others (autrui), who in Levinas’s terms are closer to God than I am, justifies the condemnation of Heidegger (what’s more, Blanchot recalls in a note that Levinas himself had stated as much).33 This thought or meditation is constant; after The Step Not Beyond, after The Writing of the Disaster, after Buber and Levinas, and now with Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, which he cites on various occasions (the book and the film appeared in 1985), Blanchot continues to meditate on Judaism, anti-Semitism, and the Nazi exterminations. It is his way of avowing: avowal as what comes about through what thinking found unthinkable, and through the impossible witnessing of literature, which was charged with “transmitting the intransmissible,” as he says in the 1986 text in La Quinzaine. “He who has been the contemporary of the camps is forever a survivor: death will not make him die.”34 Such is the charge that the writer confides to the intellectual. “The heaviest blessing,” as Blanchot wrote about Judaism in 1985 for the catalogue of an exhibition at the Grand Palais on the Dead Sea scrolls and contemporary Jewish artists (“From the Bible to our times”): Chosenness brings with it infinite responsibility, setting one aside only in order that one should watch over the principle of equality in relations with the other, with the stranger.35

Only this principle’s demanding nature is able to hold off the malaise or discomfort that can seize us as we read the occasionally violent texts of this period, which take many positions even as they reiterate individual terms taken from Blanchot’s thinking, as if only the same words could now be uttered, as if nothing new, nothing different, nothing more could be said. (This would explain his propensity to cite himself or those close to him such as Jabès or Levinas, especially on Auschwitz, repeating the litany of titles, formulations, almost verses; “nowadays I only have thoughts for Auschwitz,” he would write to Bernard-Henri Lévy.)36 These are texts which, exhausted of literature, give up on composition and sometimes give free rein to clarifying points of his autobiographical narrative, although without leading to the clarifications that many of both Blanchot’s admirers and enemies would have liked to have seen him publish (clarifications that would later be attributed to him). Steven Ungar would allude to a rumor that in 1986 Blanchot had written a seven-page text on his early political articles.37 Leslie Hill, for his part, would refer openly to a letter written to Roger Laporte in December 1984, in which Blanchot gave a detailed account of his political trajectory.38 With Blanchot’s permission, he would cite a long extract from it, signaling that the text should have appeared in the abortive issue of the Cahiers de l’Herne prepared by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy.39 Similarly, he cites a letter from Blanchot to Laporte on December 24, 1992, after the latter had asked him to reread his own article from the Journal des Débats of March 1942 referring to Charles Maurras.40 In both letters Blanchot attacks himself, using unequivocal expressions such as “detestable and inexcusable,” “the texts . . . for which I am reproached today, and rightly so,” and “the responsibility which is mine.”

It is clear: These attempts to bring clarity to the past of the 1930s are part of Blanchot’s autobiographical unveiling in the 1980s. His correspondence with other scholars such as Diane Rubenstein (in 1983) or William Flesch (in 1988) also bears witness to this. And it also clear that nothing can replace a clear-eyed reading of these old texts, which are mostly difficult to approach, a lack of accessibility that means that Blanchot’s indirect, ambiguous, cryptic accounts sometimes are not fully appreciated for what they are. Instead they sometimes distort readings that, through ignorance, see them as amounting to lies (the rumors around the political texts of the 1930s rarely leave space, for example, for Blanchot’s opposition to Hitler from 1933 onward). But what is also clear—last—is that nothing should lead us to forget the political and philosophical demand for thought to which Blanchot constantly bore witness. Such a demand, a “past without date,” is reinforced by all the work of thought that went into The Infinite Conversation or The Writing of the Disaster, but which had also been at work since the first récits and the first novel. It is at the moment when friends, thinkers, and even witnesses were dying, at the moment when their death seemed to risk disincarnating such questions, that the rhythm of Blanchot’s language and his publications set itself the task—not without weight, not without heaviness—of reincarnating, remarking some of their traces, cries, inscriptions.

He also committed himself to a political presence that, even in withdrawal, was never abandoned. On the invitation of Dominique Lecoq and Jacques Derrida, in 1986, Blanchot wrote a few pages that were published in a collection named For Nelson Mandela, connected to an international support committee that had been formed to assist the man who had once been the world’s longest-standing political prisoner.41 In it, Blanchot at moments rediscovers the tone of his texts for—fittingly—Committee.42 Denouncing “the inertia of the European Community,” giving voice to “a call, a denunciation, a cry and again a cry”: he reduces the task of language to this, the largest of all tasks, if it is a question of engaging in it the feeling of infinite responsibility that leads to the “Judaism of thought.” For he finds the impossible necessity of infinite witnessing precisely in what leaves no choice in these blind times, with apartheid as a new form of the disaster of Auschwitz:

How can we speak, or write, in an appropriate fashion about the segregation of Blacks and Whites? What was experienced when Nazism excluded from life and the right to life an entire portion of humanity, thereby persists beyond the disaster which seemed to render such a wretched doctrine impossible or unformulable.

What was frightening and what one had to rise up against was this way in which Auschwitz seemed to have become a template, a concept, even as it called into question the practice of thought (Blanchot recalls precisely that “apartheid acquired its legal form at precisely the moment when the colonial nations were collapsing, as they recognized that they did not have the privilege of embodying the diversity of the human spirit”). That this system wanted to oppose the upheavals of History (its end, its opening, its tearing-apart, its uprising) is also what Blanchot denounces here. Only “the international demand” could respond to such upheavals. This was the context for a publication also signed by Nadine Gordimer, Mustapha Tilli, and Jean Goytisolo. Blanchot would not fail to point out to Bernard-Henri Lévy that it was also that of the 1960s Review: “there is no such thing as good nationalism”—all nationalism is totalitarian, he essentially added, including a reference to the dossier that had just been published by the journal Lignes: “the failure of our project did not prove it was a utopia. What does not succeed remains necessary. That still remains our concern.”43

There were therefore multiple requests for publications, which did not fail little by little to prove troublesome for a man who always wanted to be present, and must have realized that he would not be able to respond as often as he wanted. Sometimes they came from his closest friends and concerned things that Blanchot saw as absolutely necessary. But often they were clumsier, and provoked a certain irritation through their inevitably mythologizing function: to collect the words of the great writer—a great absent writer. Therefore Blanchot would sometimes not respond, or do so to express his reticence, not without humor or—he admitted—sarcasm. A request from Geneviève Brisac and the editors of Le Monde who were asking writers what meaning should be given to literary glory in the contemporary world saw him pointing out how “old-fashioned” and lacking in “inner necessity” their questionnaire was (these were themselves old terms, which in the 1940s he applied to novel writing). He recalls with Kafka that the writer seeks less to write in order to die than he dies in order to be able to write; in doing so he sends back less a response than his own questions.44 Jean-François Fogel and Daniel Rondeau, who wanted to know for Libération how writers wrote received only a few words, an apparently anachronistic citation of Luther followed by a commentary that seemed to turn its meaning on its head.45 The editors of La Règle du Jeu were reminded that “it is better for a writer to try to ask new questions rather than to answer questions that have already been formulated”; and, a year later, were sent two enigmatic lines (“literature is a sort of power that takes account of nothing. But when is there literature?”).46

At other times he would respond in an unconventional way. In response to the question “who comes after the subject?” he sent Jean-Luc Nancy a dialogue in the form of an interrogation, where one party analyzes the wording as if it were a school exam question, but does so knowing full well that he is “irritating the examiner” (“the tempter”) by endlessly exploring what makes the questions possible instead of approaching them dialectically. And when “the tempter” suggests a series of answers—“the overman, or else the mystery of Ereignis, or the uncertain demand of the inoperative community, or the strangeness of the absolutely Other, or perhaps the last man who is not the last”—they are all close to Blanchot’s own thinking, which he thus evokes in reference to his books which attempt to welcome and to carry these answers.47

In the same spirit of referring readers to his work, which carries the “heaviest blessing,” public letters to editors increasingly replaced articles, letters that bear witness to the thinking already manifested, given, through books. The elegance of his responses served only to attest to the necessity of the silence that his thinking traversed, the result of bodily exhaustion.48 The many notes of only a few lines, their willfully enigmatic, emphatic, prophetic tone would allow glimpses of the link between humor and the displacement of writing. For instance, the appeal to Salman Rushdie, who in 1989 had been condemned to death by a fatwa from religious authorities in Iran for his novel The Satanic Verses:

I invite Rushdie to my house (in the South). I invite the descendant or the successor of Khomeini to my house. I shall be between the two of you, and the Koran also.

It will decide.


The arrival and departure of this appeal, from and toward the most faraway place, are not alien to the choice of a site—that of his fiction—from which at the time Blanchot had been distant for many years, as he had been from the sea, rocks, and wind. It was an appeal to breathe openly beyond all notions of presence, an appeal to respect the Other, beyond any Orient or any culture, with—once again—the Book as the only guide.

His writing exhausted, Blanchot’s texts were now dedicated to his friends. Twenty years after the issue of Critique and two years after the death of the philosopher behind it, Blanchot wrote a short book on Michel Foucault, Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him (Gilles Deleuze published his Foucault the same year, and these gestures of friendship contributed greatly to the recognition of a thinking against which there existed sharp animosity and many prejudices). The few articles published (averaging three per year between 1984 and 1991, one per year in 1992, 1993, 1994, none after that) can be traced back to friendship: they were afterwords, articles in the press or in journals; they followed the deaths of André Dalmas and Samuel Beckett, or addressed books by Vadim Kozovoï or Leslie Kaplan (two authors close to him, with whom he corresponded); or they were for his long-standing friends Roger Laporte, Jacques Derrida, Louis-René des Forêts, and Dionys Mascolo. Last, in January 1994, “In the Watched-Over Night” was a text for Robert Antelme, and heralded a long silence.

They are not commentaries (“ah, how Foucault hated commentaries,” Blanchot recalls parenthetically, a hatred that was above all his own), but rather texts written in the margins, as accompaniments extending the poems, prose, or thinking whose movements, knots, folds, pains, rhythms, ruptures, agreements, and relations they follow.50 They follow points of convergence that are fascinating but also kept at a distance by the displacement of the voice, the inadequacy of lived experience (and even sometimes of death), the infinite alterity of friendship. They are not homages (“such a word, which is not without ideas of glorification, was always alien to him,” Blanchot wrote of Beckett), but instead awakenings, the awakening of tangential relations between experiences and words.51 These are his own experiences and words, and also the words and experiences of those close to him, described in the language of a friend, most often in the first person: an empty or missing person or one without any higher perspective, who knows that he is just as inadequate as commentary was, but also that through this inadequacy it is possible to pierce through to—or to slide into—the personal pain of the other. This had never been as palpable as in the texts intermingled with those by Louis-René des Forêts, where there is constant interchange between citations, narrations, occurrences, indiscretions, suspensions, interrogations, hesitations . . . this is a faithful movement of both approach and withdrawal, which Blanchot musically names anacrusis:

in the first, inaugural bar, nothing is heard, or else a tone so weak that it seems to fail and hence lasts without lasting, so that after it or starting from it the note that is finally struck rises up to a sometimes phenomenal burst, a burst or surge so strong it can only collapse—fall—into a new silence.52

In these intimate accompaniments, in playing a four-handed piece with death and marking the ostinato that Berg saw in Schumann and Blanchot in Des Forêts, there is an uneven demonstration of the strength of pain and insubordination that is perhaps the most unavowable element of community. Thus in attending unknowingly to his own illness, “a serious illness that he barely anticipated, ultimately the approach of death that opened him up not to anguish but to a new and surprising serenity,” Foucault had observed points at which history became discontinuous: its irrational accelerations or—worse—its dizzying rationalizations of “the abominable.”53 “The discontinuity of a language interrupted through touching on extremity” is what fascinates Blanchot in Leslie Kaplan, the “marvelous toothless smiles” with which factory women address the end of time, permanently lacking being, and the rupture of history that marks this enclosure without remainder to the point of death. Poetic force flows from this vigilance that gives being an outside again, although this force itself is always interrupted. If Blanchot writes that Factory-Excess is “perhaps poetry, perhaps more than poetry,” it is because poetry directs its being and its death toward political and historical vigilance. Such is the fatigue of ideas, “the infinite in pieces.”54 Such, too, is the “decapitated time” of Vadim Kozovoï, the harshness of a language that in its “rhythmic rupture” and its blinding rapidity, in a Rimbaldian mixture of vehemence and gentleness, infinitely rises up “against oppression,” “against the oppressors.”55 Throughout this entire period the philosopher and the poet, who refused to recognize themselves as the creators of these shards of philosophy and of poetry (for to do so would have signaled a dialectics), evoke the figure of Moses, whom Blanchot would describe in a text of 1990, “Thanks (Be Given) to Jacques Derrida.” He writes that this figure is “faltering, a heavy speaker (heavy of mouth), weary to the point of ruining his own health by the excessive service he does for others”—and that he has no (avowable) successor and no (locatable) tomb.56 Illness in language (la langue), death in the mouth, only ever signaling trenchant, silent withdrawal: these notions recall the figure of Georges Bataille, who as he died represented the “complicity with the organic” within the travails of thought, as well as the figure of Maurice Blanchot himself.

This recognition of a community of writing throws up some strikingly forceful coincidences. Coincidence is neither injurious, nor pleasant, nor complacent—or at least is not so at first, or only ever at times, at the times when one grows weak (when one does not have the strength for one’s weakness).57 To fail to find the strength for weakness is precisely to hope to accept the death of the other, the other recognized by the displacements of one’s speech. Blanchot cites an extract from Awaiting Oblivion, “because Beckett agreed to recognize himself in [that text].” Texts written on the death of such friends are neither tombs for the other, nor tombs for oneself. They are the impossibility of tombs, which secretes the speech of waiting, the powerlessness of the “Oh to end it all” at the heart of the notion of having done with it.

But in its strength, coincidence is revulsion, displacement, relation at a distance, an overwhelming that hides any resemblance and attempts to grasp or to read what in this distraction, alteration or dispossession allows one to arrive at the same place, at this place that an isolated mind forgetting friendship might have seen as singular. From 1984, with the appearance of the first fragments of Ostinato, then in 1988 with the publication of the Poems of Samuel Wood, Blanchot is profoundly affected by the incompletable work of Louis-René des Forêts, to which he would dedicate three articles between 1989 and 1991, collecting them in the book A Voice from Elsewhere. As in what he names apropos of Kozovoï “the relation between terror and speech . . . this terrible antecedence that calls for and devastates expression,” also in Des Forêts there appear figures of fright, of childhood, of mourning, of death.58 Each time, Blanchot says of them what he says of the vision that was “so similar to the apparition evoked by Henry James”: that they are a “figure that troubles me, since I have met her too.”59 Me too: this is a new mode of speech, new in its autobiographical transparency. Blanchot employs it on several occasions. It speaks to the desolate relation of the child who “will live henceforth in the secret” and to the “silence to which [the poet] is DEVOTED and out of which, by an impossible challenge, he makes a VOW.”60 From the “primal scene” to the vow without avowal, writing holds within it the “biography” of a life that—precisely—had only begun with that writing.61 Even if Blanchot conspicuously translates Samuel Wood as “Samuel la Forêt,” he nonetheless keeps open a space in the poetry of Des Forêts for the displacement of an “I without I, a mode in which questioning and uncertainty [are] at play, the balance between the real and the imaginary.” This “I” even recalls, in Des Forêts’s narratives, that of a “me without me, a mode where contestation, uncertainty, oscillation between the real and the imaginary [are] played out”—in other words, yet another way of displacing any triumph of negative recognition.62

“Even a few steps take time,” Blanchot writes of the strategies of avowal that, “from the confessional to the couch,” “from secret murmur to endless chatter,” govern Western discourse.63 Blanchot would agree to take these steps, without gossip, in the company of his closest friends. He always invokes them in this period when he began releasing a few narrative shards of a life that had often been public (whether literary or political), but sometimes also private (as in the room in Èze beautifully evoked at the beginning of the Des Forêts book). And it is also in the presence of his friends that he would immediately erase these memories in order to bear witness in their name and in the name of the other. Daniel Dobbels recalls this: after the 1994 issue of Lignes, “Maurice Blanchot was the first one to propose that a collection of texts dedicated to Robert Antelme deserved to be a book.”64 Blanchot is again present in 1998 in the issue that the same journal gave over to publishing unknown texts and reprinting others by Dionys Mascolo, who had died the previous summer.65 What’s more, in the “pre-text” written in 1992 for In Search of a Communism of Thought (the book appeared the following year), Blanchot gave more recognition than ever to memory, thus—a year before the publication of The Instant of My Death—allowing a testamentary tone to begin filtering through the witnessing. In November 1993, whether in a dream, during insomnia, or awake, “watched over at night” and using a dialogue to recall after the fact those of Awaiting Oblivion, The Step Not Beyond, and The Infinite Conversation (thus emphasizing after the fact that his friend had been present in them), Blanchot addresses the “unfathomable void” that Robert Antelme had always both signaled and deferred. Thus silencing all sympathy except that with death, after a few lines he moves from his commemorative words to the text of The Human Race, from which he takes two extracts. One is the haphazard execution of an Italian by an SS soldier (“a man, it does not matter which, in order that killing can be carried out”) that forces the other prisoners to “picture themselves standing before the machine gun.” Except for death’s difference from an ongoing dying, the episode is strikingly similar to the one from his own life which Blanchot was then in the process of writing, for his first récit that would come so close to biography. Is a face struck at by death one that can be afforded recognition? Such is one of the questions posed by the second extract cited, in which a terrified Antelme feels unable to recognize a friend’s face as, watched-over, he lay dying.

On 22 September 1994, the symbolic and perhaps the actual day on which The Instant of My Death—that narrative of being put before the firing squad in Quain—was printed, Maurice Blanchot turned eighty-seven.66 This new and surprising act of narration was placed under the sign of his birthday. Fifty years after the events had taken place, for the first time Blanchot addressed his past, doing so in an apparently simple, immediately readable, and also staggering way. The narrative is extremely short: only a few pages long. But the sparse nature of its sentences should not mislead us. They place the subject and his literature in a voluntarily ambiguous situation: “my death,” even in the title, refers in a both tempting and undecidable way to the author’s name. Adopting a retrospective viewpoint, the narration itself is in the first person (“I know,” repeats the narrator), but the subject discussed remains in the third person (“he,” a “young man,” a “man still young”).67 Nonetheless, an exception occurs in the final few lines, which occupy a separate page in the manner of an epilogue, and conclude thus: “All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself or, to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.”68 Citing the title, these words suddenly project the narrator onto the character, thus attributing to the latter—who is said to be close to Malraux and to Paulhan—an identity at the last, an identity of lastness, an identity or sameness between death and this figure (but which figure: the narrator, the author?). This displacement, which protects literary speech from being reduced to autobiography, while also addressing the stakes of such a relation, speaks to the essence of witnessing, to its unquestionable lack of resolution: he who cannot bear witness to death does bear witness to dying. It sidesteps the greed of knowledge by providing only an episode of life’s disappearance, of its “near disappearance,” of what in life is absolutely separate from knowledge. It casts a particular light on the narrative of an event that had already been briefly related and almost summoned in The Madness of the Day, just as it had been corroborated by the written testimonies of Laporte and Nadeau.

Such an opening to witnessing also speaks to how far this witnessing is carried out in the name of the other: in the name of youth, of justice, of all those who in the summer of 1944 died in Blanchot’s place, saved as he was by local renown for his lineage and by the imposing nature of his dwelling. At base, the book is as if dedicated to them.

This dwelling, this other writing-house which he thus evokes for the first time, after having done so with Èze a few years later, can be said—following Jacques Derrida—to be the central character of the récit.69 As a sign, as a title, as a birthmark, Blanchot places center stage the cast-iron figures that decorate its façade: “On the façade was inscribed, like an indestructible memory, the date 1807,” adding in the tone of someone writing a dissertation: “this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the ‘spirit of the world.’70 But here the narrative shows a double “error,” the double errancy of a witnessing that only makes its fiction truer. For it was in 1806 that the Emperor entered into Jena (perhaps followed by one of Blanchot’s ancestors), and that Hegel saw fit to pronounce the end of history.71 And it is 1809 that is clear for all to read on the façade of the house in Quain. It is not impossible that as a child, Blanchot had often dwelled upon those two missing years between his birth and the centenary of his family residence. It is not impossible that as an adult, he had dwelt upon the coincidence that meant that, but for a year or three, Hegel’s end of history was humorously gainsaid by the start of his ancestral history, in the very place where a war at its end had violently challenged his own life, in this dwelling where he had been born and nearly died. It is not impossible that as a man henceforth “less young,” and who since the death of his sister Marguerite a few months beforehand in 1993 was the only survivor of the events, he now wanted to leave a trace of a dwelling that was slipping away, one of whose rooms had seen him write a first version of Death Sentence which was snatched from him.72 The pulse evoked in that work, the beating of the pulse and the flesh, was also what was moving into the distance. The lost manuscript now had no witnesses, it delivered writing back to writing alone: it has never been found. Its uninhabited site is secret and at the same time far from all secrecy. The uncertain date of a house outside time is now given over to the outside, to anonymous circulation, to inoperative community.

This ultimate consenting to a fragment of memory soon became a farewell to the narration of life. The man who bore it, worked through it, and wrote it is now given over to the traces of writing, to writing’s invisible partners.

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