Maurice Blanchot at 100
The space opened by Blanchot
In lieu of a homage, which would need an infinite book to encompass the infinite debt owed, a few words, personal, in that his death touched me, one of his readers, one of his translators, with the sadness I know it would, but with a sense of loss not foreseen, not foreseeable.
As a young man, I wanted to write, wanting to be a poet in a foreign language. Foolishly claiming to have shaken off the dust of an old Europe for the new spaces, exilic and nomadic, of America, I came to Blanchot after early years of intense involvement with an information-laden American poetry, from Ezra Pound to Allen Ginsberg. By chance, as they say, on a brief visit to Europe, I bought L’espace littéraire. It was the title and its promise that attracted me, not the author’s name, which meant nothing to me then.
A thick, squat, paper back, with an ugly blue and black abstract cover design, set in small, compact type, perfect bound with bad thin glue that immediately made for a broken spine and started the slow dissemination of individual pages still going on today, thirty-five years later. I was drawn in, slowly but inexorably: underlining starts five pages into the text with the following sentence:”… the artist, finishing his work only at the moment he dies, can never know it.” The calm acceptance startled me, and opened something that will close only au moment voulu.
What Blanchot gave me was a space to think experience in and to experience thinking in; to think the book in, to think writing in as a self-reflexive meditation in movement. His writing did this: the way the sentences thought themselves forward, drawing the reader in, raising in him a lucid exaltation and a calm tension, in their promise that something would be discovered in the process of reading. All one had to do was to immerse oneself into the act of reading/thinking, to become the sentence unfolding under eye and in brain, to follow its course as it dis-coursed, dis-covering its own thought-meander, while thinking through another writer. Reading Blanchot was an invitation into the space of witnessing the momentous event of the experience of thought. It was the gift of the closest of alliances where one became the included third actively witnessing, i.e. having to think through the thinking through of the work of another thinker/writer —without this writing ever becoming “literary criticism,” but always existing in/as the very act of writerly writing.
The space opened thus opened the very possibility of the work I wanted to do. And as I crisscrossed the Atlantic and the Mediterranean again and again, moving from continent to continent, his work has remained with me as the active thinking of the necessary exile of the writer. What he says of speech in The Infinite Conversation I hold to be true too for writing, that other conversation:
“Speech, in this sense, is the promised land where exile fulfills itself in sojourn since it is not a matter of being at home there but of always being Outside, engaged in a movement wherein the Foreign offers itself, yet without disavowing itself. To speak, in a word, is to seek the source of the meaning in the prefix that the words exile, exodus, existence, exteriority, and estrangement are committed to unfolding in various modes of experience…