“Mahatma Gandhi”: A First Text by Blanchot (1931)

“Mahatma Gandhi” is not the first publication by Blanchot that we know of, but the fiction that it might be is an attractive one. After all, it contains the substance of most of the beliefs and leanings that Blanchot would go on to explore for nearly ten years.1

The article was published in 1931 in the last edition of a journal that changed its name according to the year. Founded and initially run by Jean-Pierre Maxence in 1928, and edited by his brother, Robert Francis, the names it would adopt—whether as title or subtitle—were Cahiers de Littérature et de Philosophie, Cahiers d’Art, de Littérature et de Philosophie, and then Les Cahiers Mensuels. As the 1928 manifesto stated violently, it was a Catholic student journal. Here one could read that,

we wish to kill the modern world through the spiritual violence of sacrifice. We wish to be the anarchists of love. . . . When poetry becomes Word and Blood: it is called Christ. Let us say then that it is redeemed in him along with all things.

The following is also found:

What must be broken are the chains of universal negation! . . . Charity is the key to the forthcoming feast. It supposes knowledge while also surpassing it with all the power of the Spirit [l’Esprit]. From the Word to us, charity is a bridge thrown across to silence.

And the final paragraph stated: “Our message is the freedom of the SONS OF GOD—who are constrained by nothing but the immensity of the HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH the mother of martyrs and the learned!” Those behind this journal called themselves “Catholic revolutionaries.” The editorials bore the signature of Jean-Pierre Maxence, a former seminary pupil with a passion for Maurras. Faithful to Maritain’s theology, the new journal was political and most of all, literary, like those for which Blanchot would write in the 1930s. It published texts, some of them providing interesting openings, by Maritain, Massis, Bernanos, Bardèche, Vincent, Fabrègues, Gabriel Marcel, Daniel-Rops, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Max Jacob, Supervielle, and Reverdy. In February 1930, it devoted an entire issue to Charles Péguy. It was generally opposed to postwar literature, to the “rarefied surrealism” of a writer such as Drieu, affirming instead that there was only one surrealism: that of the supernatural.

“He has been compared to Saint Francis of Assisi, to Moses guiding his people; Romain Rolland calls him the Indian Christ”: thus opened Blanchot’s article on Gandhi, who was sixty-two at the time and whose Memoirs had recently been translated into French.2 The article initially critiqued a cultural métissage that was said to be foreign to the true vocation of all “great souls” (this being the meaning of Mahatma). “Let us bow before this life which has lacked neither sufferings nor mortifications, but martyrdom alone cannot excuse the errors of thought or render them harmless.”3

Of course, Blanchot would recognize in Gandhi a sense of freedom that was strangely shared by them both: “He does not demand the independence that he dreams for India in the name of any abstract right, he does not demand its freedom on the basis of a principle, but he arouses it, he appeals for it from the very heart of the race, by seeking to awaken its essential traditions, those of religion, language and cottage economy.”4 In this world of nations and races, the freedom of a people was ordering him to follow his deepest traditions. Thus it was said that Gandhi “wants to re-educate the youth of India in the rhythm and cadence of the ancient ages. . . . Gandhi gives all its meaning to such advice: . . . it is the spirit that must be liberated, the first concern should be toward it: all revolution is spiritual.”5 All revolutions are spiritual revolutions: this is exactly what Blanchot would assert endlessly in the coming years.

And yet Gandhi’s behavior seemed impure to him, his revolutionary agitations clumsy, his traditionalism phony, his spiritualism hypocritical, his intellectualism unaccounted for. Gandhi’s spiritual certainties were thought by Blanchot to have been discovered in Europe, from Ruskin and Tolstoy. “Carlyle revealed Mohammed to him, and he had to read Edwin Arnold’s book The Light of Asia to be touched by the Buddha’s smile. That is strangely suspect.”6 Also suspect, but most of all unbearable for Blanchot, was the idea of Ahimsa, nonviolence, which “asked each being to disappear,” stripping the individual of any real spiritual experience. God for Gandhi was nothing but a “sort of emblem of moral conscience whose every element is psychological: it does not introduce him into another universe, it does not oblige him to undergo experiences other than those of a life that attempts to pursue fasting and mortifications as far as possible.”7

Opening on to another universe was what Blanchot expected from a revolution of the mind, at least since the opening provided by his own “primal scene.” That another world should open up in the bosom of this world, illuminating, enlarging, effacing, and erasing it; that was what a true religious experience ought to do. But such mysticism was lacking in Christianity, concluded Blanchot, recalling as Massis had done the words of G. K. Chesterton, a recent convert to Catholicism: “There has been a return of mysticism, but without Christianity. Mysticism alone has returned and it has brought with it seven devils stronger than it.”8

Catholicism’s task was to reappropriate this mysticism. This was one of the main goals of the “spiritual revolution.” And there was no need of a foreign model for that: “Is that [Gandhi’s false spiritualism] really how we shall rediscover our soul? And are we so deprived that we must surrender our salvation to foreign hands[?] . . . We do not suffer from a lack of faith; we suffer because so many impure elements, so many false values have appeared at the very heart of our faith.”9

It was now clear: The spiritual revolution would involve a national purification.

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