Maurice Blanchot at 100

Maurice Blanchot would have turned 100 today – he was born on 22 September 1907 (despite the fact that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France even today still indicates the 12 December as his birth date) as he himself indicated in several works, especially in the 1994 text, The Instant of my Death. When I was 19, in my first year at the Ecole de Médecine in Paris, I was wondering what I was doing there, cutting up cadavers in the morning at the university morgue, and trying to recuperate from that in a boulevard St Germain café in the afternoon, reading Gottfried Benn’s Morgue, trying clumsily to find an adequatio between these two actions. A year later I would chuck in medicine & turn to writing as a life choice – realizing many years later that on those walks between the Ecole de Médecine, the cafés on boulevard St. Germain and my tiny room on rue de Rennes, I would saunter along rue Saint-Benoît , and thus past the apartment where, unbeknown to me, a group of writers where meeting regularly in those days in Marguerite Duras’ & her then husband Dionys Mascolo’s apartment – a group that included Maurice Blanchot & Robert Antelme. It was after returning to Paris after two years in the US that I first came across Blanchot’s writings – as I describe in the little piece I wrote after Blanchot’s death on 20 February 2003. Permit me to reproduce it here, today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth:

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…

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6 Responses

  1. François says:

    Isn’t it strange that you and I have discovered Blanchot after we had both moved to the United States?

    In the mean time, they stopped letting 1st-year students cut open bodies for medical school. At least at the Faculté de Médecine in Strasbourg. Although it felt really strange to see numbers tattooed here and there, and then walk around the Hospices Civils reading Prévert’s Fracas (instead of Benn. There still doesn’t seem to be much love for German-language literature in the French lycées)

  2. Guy Darol says:

    Cher Pierre,
    Ton billet nous apprend autant sur toi que sur le grand Maurice Blanchot qui reste à jamais, pour moi, le seul écrivain à avoir montré sous toutes leurs faces les enjeux réels du surréalisme, soit : l’exposition de la totalité du réel. Avec amitié,
    Guy D.

  3. Guy Darol says:

    Cher Pierre
    Ce billet nous en apprend autant sur toi que sur le grand Maurice Blanchot, le seul écrivain à avoir montré toutes les faces des enjeux du surréalisme, à savoir : la totalité du réel.
    Avec toute mon amitié,
    Guy D.

  4. Jenny Allan says:

    Hi Pierre,

    I am a great fan of Blanchot, but I am still mystified as to when he was born, several obituaries in British newspapers stated his birthdate as 27th September, I would be really grateful if you could throw any light on this.

  5. Pierre Joris says:

    Jenny,

    ah, those Brits – always wrong when it comes to the French (they did kill Jeanne d’Arc…) – joke aside, MB was indeed born on 22 September (check the Chrisrian Bident biography) and in fact the date is inscribed in his name: September 22nd in the Roman Catholic saints’ calendar is the feast day of Saint Maurice, and his very catholic family named him after the saint of his birthday.

    Pierre

  6. Lennox says:

    I feel very close to all of this.
    Lennox Raphael, Copenhagen

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