Maurice Blanchot: Reading….Writing, Nothing to Laugh About

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Maurice Blanchot is an odd figure in Continental Philosophy and literary criticism. He regarded his writing as meaningless; nonetheless, he was honored as the source of an entire generation of philosophy and literary criticism. Michel Foucalt, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean-Luc Nancy have all written essays on him and clearly acknowledge their debts. Nonetheless, in her introduction to The Space of Literature, Anne Smock reminds us that, in America, literary critics like Geoffrey Hartman stated that “Blanchot’s work offers no point of approach whatsoever”; and even in France, George Poulet said that Blanchot is an even greater waste of time than Proust.” Nonetheless, Smock praises Blanchot for making criticism a lot like what she defines as literature. His work, like much of literature, is “wasted time”:

It presents the literary work as that which permits no approach other than wasted steps; it uninterruptedly expresses the incomparable passion which literature commands.

Her reading suggests, much like Blanchot, that proper readings of literature should admit that they are really “wasted steps” and that all literary criticism is, at bottom, a lie if it doesn’t admit to this experience. This is hard for me – as an American-Jew who loves to read and make sense of things – to believe. Literature is not a waste. I actually see it as a treasure trove of meaning.  Yes, the text, in a Midrashic sense, is inexaustable, but meaningful interpretations can and should be made.  The Rabbis don’t experience dread when they read, they experience joy.

I’ll be honest with you. I admit that I spent several years reading Blanchot and taking on his texts as Derrida or Foucault suggested I or anyone who read their reading of him would. But, in the end, I realized that I had been duped. The reason why I felt this way was because I realized that although his writing may be filled with irony, it lacks a sense of humor.   And in short: there is nothing to laugh at in his work. And that has to do with the excess of dread, failure, and powerlessness that his texts obsess over, at length.

Dread ruins everything: but, most importantly for himself – a reader and writer of literature – it ruins reading and writing. As Martin Heidegger says in his essay “What is Metaphysics,” “The Nothing nihilates” everything. And this is disclosed via Dread/Angst. It ruins the world; in The Step/Not Beyond (Le Pas Au-Dela), Blanchot tells us it ruins reading and writing:

Dread makes reading forbidden (the words separated, something arid and devastating about them; no more texts, every word useless or else foundering in something I do not know, attracting me to it with resistance, understanding as an injustice). To write, then, the effect of a negative hallucination, given nothing to read, nothing to understand. (63)

What gets me is the ban that he insists on. If I am forbidden to write or read by virtue of Dread that means, I am powerless to derive any meaning from writing or reading. But Blanchot goes on to say that “dread forbids dread.” Does this mean that dread can’t even be experienced?

When dread forbids dread, preventing my being abandoned to it in order to better hold on to me. “You will not transgress me.” – “I will not sanctify you.” The unsureness of certain dread. (63)

Does this mean that, in a Kierkegaardian sense, because of Dread I may be confused as to whether I have something to resist or obey?

Blancot uses a literary type of reflection to illustrate (is that the right word) this non-experience of dread:

It is like a figure that he doesn’t see, that is missing because it is there, having all the traits of a figure that would not figure itself and with which the incessant lack of relation, without presence, without absence, is a sign of a common solitude. He names it, although he knows that it has no name, even in his language, this beating of a hesitant heart. Neither of them lives, life passes between them leaving them on the edge of space.

Wordless in the midst of words.

As one can see, there is nothing to laugh about in Blanchot or, for that matter, literature. But is that literary experience? Would Blanchot say the same for a comedic line from…let’s say Samuel Beckett? What would he say about what Beckett would call the “laugh that laughs at the laugh?”

One wonders. Oh well.

Here is a line from Beckett that is humorous and a little dreadful.

But suddenly I was descending down a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set afoot in my lifetime. But soon realizing I was going downhill I turned about and set off in another direction. For I was afraid if I went downhill of returning to the sea where I had sworn never to return.   When I say I turned I mean I wheeled around in a wide semi-circle without slowing down, for I was afraid if I stopped of not being able to start again, yes, I was afraid of that too. (“The Calmative”)

This fear, this neurosis, makes fun of dread. So does Woody Allen in his short story “My Philosophy.” In the last section, entitled “Aphorisms” he speaks to the theme of dread in Continental Philosophy and laughs it off the page:

It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.

Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it. 

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.

And some people say reading Woody Allen is a “waste of time.”   We report, you decide. (That is, if you are not, at-this-moment, (non)experiencing Dread. If you are, well, that’s …nothing to laugh about.)

When in doubt, always ask Groucho:

 

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