Thursday, November 29, 2018

A FATAL ATTRACTION TO THE WRITINGS OF MAURICE BLANCHOT




      The beginning of a celebration of the publication of MAURICE BLANCHOT A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY By Christopher  Bident (Translated by John McKeane) Published by Fordham University Press, 2018.

Preface to the post:

Georges Bataille on Manet:

Manet deliberately rendered the condemned man’s death with the same indifference as if he had chosen a fish or a flower for his subject…

In it Manet paid scrupulous attention to detail, but even this is negative, and the picture as a whole is the negation of eloquence; it is the negative of that kind of painting which, like language , expresses sentiments and relates anecdote…

Our modern world can only experience an inner transfiguration, silent and in a sense negative. To speak of it, as I have done, is to speak of a definitive silence…

Radically cured painting of a centuries-old eloquence.

A FATAL ATTRACTION TO THE WRITINGS OF MAURICE BLANCHOT

     This review of a novel by Maurice Blanchot ended my writing for the Washington Post. 21 July, 2002. It was cited by a reader in a reader's survey by the newspaper as exactly the sort of review they didn't wish to see in the newspaper.  
      Of course such a survey tells us more about the required stupidity of readers of the Washington Post than about the actual review.

Another Castle Reviewed Thomas McGonigle July 21, 2002 AMINADAB By Maurice Blanchot Translated from the French By Jeff Fort Univ. of Nebraska. 199 pp. Paperback, $22 

Aminadab is a startling provocation, a gauntlet thrown down to the fiction reader -- and yet there is no complicated theory or code to be cracked in order to participate in the originality of Maurice Blanchot's 1942 novel. 

Maurice Blanchot may hardly be a household name in America, but in some circles he is one of the essential writers of the 20th century. Blanchot, who still lives in Paris, was born in 1907 and has been writing for more than 60 years. Little about his personal life is known beyond the facts of his education. 

As far as I'm aware, only one photograph of the author has ever been published. By thus sealing off his private life, Blanchot forces the reader to face his thought and words alone, without any of the easy comforts of gossip or biography. 

The actual thrust of his entire literary career, as well as his philosophical view of the world, can be discerned in the very titles of some of his books: Awaiting Oblivion, Vicious Circles, The Space of Literature, The Madness of the Day, The Step Not Beyond, The Infinite Conversation, The Unavowable Community, Death Sentence, The Most High, The Gaze of Orpheus. 

If one needed two sentences to sum up, grossly and so unfairly, Blanchot's suggestive and reverberating thought, these might serve (from Friendship, 1971): "One would like to think, each time, in a single language, which would be the language of thought. But finally one speaks as one dreams, and often one dreams in a foreign tongue: it is the dream itself, this ruse that makes us speak in an unknown speech." 

While there is no mention of Kafka by Blanchot before he published Aminadab (his second novel, after Thomas the Obscure), most readers today will come to the book already having read, say, The Castle. Even now there is still a real oddness about Kafka -- about whom Blanchot has written many essays -- and Aminadab possesses a deliberately Kafkaesque mysteriousness. Here is its opening:

It was broad daylight. Thomas, who had been alone until now, was pleased to see a robust-looking man quietly sweeping his doorway. The shop's metal curtain was raised halfway. Thomas bent down a little and saw a woman inside lying on a bed that took up all the space in the room not occupied by the other furniture." 

Thomas does not go into that shop. He notices a building across the street and a couple looking at him from a high window, "The girl . . . made a quick sign with her hand, like an invitation; then she quickly closed the window, and the room was submerged again in darkness. Thomas was quite perplexed. Could he consider this gesture truly as a call to him? It was rather a sign of friendship than an invitation. It was also a sort of dismissal." 

What is so strange, and unforgettable, about this opening and the novel as a whole is what is not there. We will never "see" Thomas. We never find out where he has come from. We never resolve the contradiction between an invitation and a dismissal. We learn nothing "about" Thomas yet we become accomplices in his journey through this large house both looking and not looking for this girl and her gesture. We find ourselves participating in the oldest of all stories: the quest. 

As he moves haltingly, blindly and stubbornly through the house, Thomas will meet a variety of "characters" who have names attached to them: Lucie, Barbe, Jerome, Simon, Joseph and, not least, Aminadab, who guards a great door. Thomas will even be chained to Dom for much of the length of this novel -- and then not chained to him. Along with the complexities of this Kafkaesque fable, we accept all of this because the very language engulfs us. As Lucie tells Thomas, with that sure French knowledge of the complexity of the human heart, "Our intimacy will not be disturbed in any way. Not to think about me: that will mean thinking about me without there being anything to separate us. By refusing me the gift of a few particular thoughts, you will be offering me not only all your other thoughts and attention as a whole, but also your distraction, your absence, and your distance; you will absolve me of all that is yourself, and you will open up to me all that is not you. That, then, is what I ask of you, because I want to remain as close to you as possible. Neither silence nor night nor the deepest repose will stand in the way of our friendship, and this room will be for us a favorable place for sleep." 

Every sentence of Aminadab is an invitation to think, about language, about responsibility, about life. Blanchot's density requires us to slow down our reading; he makes us pause, grow uncomfortable. 

Yet we are taken by Blanchot's seerlike ability to penetrate to the core of some of the darker aspects of the 20th century. 

As one of the servants in the house replies to Thomas, who has refused for the moment to beat him: "You don't look at us; you look at what you have to do to us. You don't see our fault; you keep your eyes focused on your action. All executioners are like that. Some of them are deaf and mute. What would they have to say or to hear since the truth is in their battering hands and their lashing whip. You, you're a natural born executioner, the kind that says, 'It's still not too late,' even when your knife has cut the throat of the culprit."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review. Of course it offended readers interested only in the world of book chat. Jeff Fort's preface to Aminadab, which I've just read is not only an excellent introduction to the complexities of Blanchot's shifting political views, but also to the subtleties of the distinction between the novel (roman) and recits. Blanchot was 95 when he died in 2003. I hope you will (a)clarify the Bataille on Manet quotations and (b) that you will write about the biography of Blanchot you are reading. Glad to see you back on a regular schedule of posting (?).

Pop Leibel said...

Why do I have to be so dumb? I feel so dumb when I read about famous French people. I don't know many French people. Their names are all weirded out. Too many apostrophes. Their names are similar to our names only with a few extra letters sprinkled in here and there. I like some French paintings. I like a guy named Camus. He smoked a lot and he was killed in a car accident which is something I always worry about. I have to drive on dangerous roads all the time. They're doing an insane amount of construction where I live and I worry that the giant vehicles might swerve into my lane and obliterate my car and me. When I look at the drivers of the construction vehicles as they pass me, I don't get a comfortable feeling of trust.

In every picture of Camus, he's smoking a cigarette. People smoked tons of cigarettes back then. I used to smoke three packs a day. My fingers were a brownish yellow. I'll bet Camus' fingers were stained too. Of course, they're not stained any longer because all of his flesh is gone. Camus wrote a book called The Stranger. The Stranger felt like it was written while Camus was dreaming. I kind of liked that about it. I read The Plague too, but I don't remember much of it. I remember people were dying left and right and I kept wondering why the doctor wasn't getting the plague since he was around the plague people all the time. I might have missed something, though.

Okay, then. Thomas McGonigle posted a new one pretty quickly and that's a good thing. Love his stuff and I love saying his name. Very poetic name. Rolls off the tongue nicely.