The Stranger, Uninvited: Maurice Blanchot on Tsimtsum, the Other & the “God of Isaac Luria”

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Maurice Blanchot’s writing is difficult and often opaque, but at least it’s consistent.   We see this throughout his books. To read Blanchot, is to ask the right questions. The task of the reader is to figure out what the problems and paradoxes Blanchot is pondering are and to figure out what his approach to them suggests. Of the topics Blanchot writes about, one of the most interesting is the relationship of writing to what he calls “the disaster.”   In a surprising aside, Blanchot suggests that the view of God and His creation of the world, as proposed by the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria (the Ari), provide a model for understanding writing and art.   What is most fascinating about Blanchot’s reading is that the primary movement of Tsimtsum – the movement of withdrawal from the world – can be read as the condition for the possibility of art, creation, and writing.   However, unlike Blanchot, we need to ask whether his reading of withdrawal presupposes the total absence of God or the writer from the artwork or…something else, something smaller, something…other.

In the opening pages of The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot tells us that the desire to write is “absurd” because “writing is the decay of the will, just as it is the loss of power, and the fall of the regular fall of the beat, the disaster again”(11).     The more one writes, the less one wills and the less power one has. In effect, the writer and his or her assumed power is ruined by writing.   Writing has a disasterous affect. It reduces the will but it doesn’t annihilate it.   It makes one small. Instead of expanding my world, it shrinks it.

On the other hand, Blanchot tells us that the attempt to not write, so that one can “write out of failure,” puts one in “fellowship with the disaster.” Blanchot suggests that the writer should stop seeing writing as a form of salvation or a means to success.   This, of course, goes against the grain of what most writers truly believe. It is counter-intuitive; but the presumption here is that acting “as if” it is true may (perhaps) yield something unexpected. Writing may…happen, but not because I have willed it to happen:

May words cease to be arms; means of action, means of salvation. Let us count, rather, on disarray….whether it happens or not; it is the writing of the disaster. (12)

After noting this, Blanchot contradicts what he said above regarding “writing out of failure” and says that we “should not entrust ourselves to failure. That would only be to indulge in the nostalgia for success.”

What should we do, then? How is it possible for a writer to write out of neither success nor failure? Blanchot suggests that we, rather, “seek out” that “which out-plays (the way the disaster de-scribes)….it is what by chance befalls, and I fall beneath it, having always fallen already”(12).   Failure – in other words – is something that happens outside of us: we don’t start from a position of failure; rather, we may or may not “fall beneath” chance and, when we do, we will discover that we have “always fallen already.”   It is not a choice. This is what he calls the “thought of disaster,” which “dismisses all ideas of failure and success.”   This “thought” produces what he calls a “separate silence,” a space where the “other, keeping still, announces himself”(13).

As a reader, one may – at this point – be rightfully confused. Blanchot wants us to imagine a world and a creative space in which the will and all desire for success or the experience of failure have nothing to do with “me.”   This, he claims, is the “thought of disaster.” But, in the wake of this thought, I realize that I am not alone; I can experience a “separate silence” which is not mine; it is the other’s silence. In this space, “the other, keeping still, announces himself.” What Blanchot is doing, by way of reducing the self, its power, and its expansiveness, is not only making room for the “announcement” of the other; it is also creating a kind of Creation myth.   This is evident in the next aphorism, where he evokes Isaac Luria and his creation myth, which Luria calls “tsimtsum.”

Withdrawal and not expansion. Such would be art, in the manner of the God of Isaac Luria, who creates by excluding himself. (13)

Writing on tsimsum, Gershom Scholem tells us that there are two phases: one of withdrawal and the other of birth.   Since they are so different, Scholem says that these two phases have a “Janus character.”   Although Blanchot only focuses on withdrawal, he indirectly suggests that by withdrawing ourselves from what we do (by becoming small), we, like God, create. But , in truth,this creation is more or less a disclosure (or discovery) of the other. What Blanchot leaves unsaid in this aphorism is what he mentioned in the aphorism before; namely, that the withdrawal makes room for the announcement of the other. The other is, so to speak, born (announced) out of that withdrawal.

Scholem also points out that, since the Ari is a “theistic mystic” (rather than a pantheistic mystic), things are left separate (“with a reality of their own” so as not to dissolve in the Panthesitic “All”). This does not mean, however, that they are in total separation and Exile since there is what Scholem calls – following the Ari – the reshimu (the trace of God). Scholem argues that there is a dynamism between God and Creation (“steaming back” and flowing “outward”). For this reason, he likens God to a “living organism” who approaches and withdraws.  This means that withdrawal (or the “disaster,” as Blanchot would say) is not total.

Building on Blanchot, I would add that in withdrawing from Creation there is also the possibility of the other’s approach. We fall under the sway of chance, but this has to do with the blinkering (or as Michael Wyschogrod would say, “dark”) relation between man and God. What Blanchot calls the “thought of the disaster” is not a total disaster (man is not annihilated). Rather, disaster is a making small. God’s withdrawal and approach work on the micro not the macro level.

This relation is beyond success and failure because it only, in part, has to do with me. It also involves the other. Moreover, the approach and withdrawal – qua tsimtsum – are (as Scholem notes in his reading of he Ari) always happening. We may or may not merit disclosure or a hearing of the “announcement,” but we cannot merit anything if we are not made small by the “thought of disaster.” This thought opens one up to the possibility that, in the face of disaster, God hides his face. To be sure, this experience of concealment is a possibility of this thought. To think of total concealment as the necessity, however, would be a mistake (regarding what the Ari is suggesting). To think of a withdrawal without any possibility of revelation, is to take Blanchot to be articulating the truth of creation as total exile and withdrawal.   It would suggest that there is no dynamic or rhythm between God and man.

I would suggest, with a wink toward Martin Heidegger’s notion of “nihilation” (in his essay “What is Metaphysics?”) that while the world or the self may be nihilated and made strange, the self and the world are not annihilated by the nothing or the disaster. Both remain. But the self and the world are smaller than they were before it had this thought. Even so – in contrast to Heidegger and with a wink toward Emmanuel Levinas – I would argue (as Blanchot suggests) that in the wake of disaster the other “announces himself.”   In this creation myth, disaster – in making us small – is the condition for the possibility of a birth and the experience of the other.   The disaster comes and goes, as Blanchot suggests, like a rhythm just like the other comes and goes. The reason it does so – and reduces us and our world – has to do with the fact that we are always expanding and tend to forget how small we are not only in relation to the other but also in relation to God. We can only meet the other or God when we are small. But this smallness is not something we can simply decide on. Like the “thought of disaster,” it happens.

Blanchot – like the Ari – is asking us to envision a different kind of creation.   But instead of the “thought of disaster” being nihilistic, it is affirmative. By becoming small, writing (and creation) can make room for the other (creature) whose withdrawal and approach give meaning to my little – nihilated – and creaturely existence.

But this approach should not simply to be thought of in terms of what Blanchot suggests: sound and silence.   The other’s silence, as Paul Celan notes in one poem entitled “ABOVE SOUNDLESS,” is conveyed by presence. Celan figures the appearance of the other – out of nothing – in terms of a stranger coming in from the rain, on the threshold, with a tear in his eye. His time with us – like the numbers he counts – is limited. He comes and goes but he “betokens insight.” To appreciate this, one must become small and take the lines of the poem to be suggesting that “our” relation to the stranger makes “us” small and his stay (and our time with him) short.

 

The stranger, uninvited, from where,

The guest.

His dripping clothes.

His dripping eye.

 ….

His clothes-and-yes, like us

He is filled with night, he betokens

Insight, he counts now,

Like us, up to ten

And no farther.

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