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


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:


‘I Am Here, I’ve Come’: An Interpretation of Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” – (Take 2)


We like to repeat ourselves.  And oftentimes we forget what we said before and are reminded by our friends that “we already said that.” Nonetheless, people being people, we forget and do it again.  The people most susceptible to this blindness are older people.  However, sometimes repetitions – which are seemingly absent-minded – are full of implication and meaning.  And one of the advantages of conversation is that these meanings can be teased out; given that the person you are conversing with is compelling enough to do so.

As a child, I was privy to such conversations.  My father and his best friend, David Kaplan (a Jew who went from the streets of Brooklyn to the leather mills of Gloversville New York), used to have such conversations.  They were very repetitive but they were filled with meaning and implication.  David told us that he came from a line of magidim (story-tellers) and this is how they would speak.  After David died, it hit me that his style of speaking, which my father picked up on and practiced daily with him, was not just the style of the story-teller.  It was also a Talmudic style.  His way of speaking was steeped in an ongoing conversation.  And it included moments of skepticism, play, and wit.

So when I read Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” for the first time, I had tears in my eyes and a smile on face.  Since David had passed, my father stopped speaking this way.  He had no one to talk to in such a manner.  After David’s death, it seemed like such ways of speaking were now a thing of the past, a memory.  So when I read Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains,” it hit me that this kind of conversation could and in fact should find its way into the work of one of my favorite poets.  It should find its way into the work of a poet whose work was often full of mourning and loss not comedy.

One of the things I loved about each of David’s stories is that they always included an element of vision.  He would always preface his stories with the words of a street-smart visionary: “I can see it now! Get this….”  These repetitions made us all smile.  And my father would push him to tell more and to tell it better.  And David would always prompt my father to challenge him to do so and add to his story.

The key element of their conversations was the repetition and variation of this or that fragment of information that they claimed to have heard or witnessed.  And in the midst of this, David would often remind us that he had heard this or saw this, so as to assure us of the revelatory aspect of his words.  This way of speaking is something we can see at the outset of “Conversation in the Mountains.”

One evening, when the sun had set and not only the sun, the Jew – Jew and son of a Jew – went off, left his house and went off, and with him his name, his unpronounceable name, went and came, trotting along, made himself heard, came with a stick, came over stones, do you hear me, you do, it’s me, me, me and whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.

Notice that the Jew, for the speaker, is “a Jew and son of a Jew.”  This is not arbitrary.  There is a tradition of saying that one is ‘A the son of B’ (for me Menachem ben Mattityahu Zev).  And this traditional way of speaking has repetition built into it. Tradition requires that Jews speak of themselves or others in this way if they are being honored or remembered. And in this world, the Latinized world, it sounds comic; Especially to American ears which like to hear shortened names (like Matt, Greg, Bill, Bob, Jr. etc).

The thing about this name, and about being Jewish, is that it implies the speaker.  These Jewish names “come and go” and come “trotting along.”  They come and go, as it were, in ways that are beyond “our” control.  What I think Celan is saying is that the other Jew reminds me that I am a “Jew and son of a Jew” – just as much as he or she is a Jew with a name, so am I.   In response to this dialogical relation, the speaker says: “its me, me, me.”  But following this he notes: “whom you hear, whom you think you hear, me and the other.”  These lines remind the reader that he, the speaker, is not alone in saying me.  Me, so to speak, is not his conclusion.  His woes about being a Jew are shared with the other (Jew).

In Celan’s conversation there are four positions that are returned to constantly: him, me, you (the reader), and the other.  In the above passage, the I breaks through to the listener but then folds back into talking about him:

So he went off, you could hear it, went off one evening when various things had set, went under clouds, went under shadow, his own and not his own – because the Jew, you know, what does he have that is really his own, that is not borrowed, taken and not returned –

For anyone versed in German literature, this line about “him” and his “shadow” appear to be a reference to Peter Shlemihl; the influential and widely read novel of Adelbert von Chamisso’s which was published in 1814.  In the novel the main character ends up in a battle for his soul which originates over a deal with the devil to sell his shadow.  The schlemiel is, from time to time, associated with this novel.  But this is a mistake and, to be sure, this novel makes no mention of Jews let alone an association of the Jews with Peter Shlemihl.

In effect, Celan is bringing the schlemiel back to its source: in a Jewish-styled conversation.  This is where the schlemiel’s “shadow” belongs.  It is situated in relation to that conversation.  The shadow is something that is his and not his; like all things that a Jew “has.”  And this includes what a Jew says. And this is what might be missed.  “His” words, though repeated, are shared with the other.  And we are alerted of this when “he” meets “Gross”(large).

In fact, when “he” meets “Gross,” he becomes “Klein” (small).   And, as I have often pointed out in this blog, the schlemiel is oftentimes humble; that is, small.  And the less one “has” the “smaller” one is.  Nonetheless, Celan’s lesson is not about what the Jew has so much as what the Jew does: the Jew speaks with another Jew.  The Jew speaks repetitively in an effort to speak the truth or rather go toward the truth.  And going towards it, he becomes smaller and smaller.  But, on the other hand, Celan suggests that when he is in conversation, Gross comes along the way with Klein.  And together they go along the road towards the truth…and each other.

I say “go towards” since he, that is Klein, is on the road.  And on the road he meets up with Gross. And once they meet they walk and talk. Before that, “he” is not Klein (he has a shadow, a name, and he walks; but he can’t talk; when he meets Gross he can).

But when they first meet each other, there is a silence.  But, as Celan nicely points out, silence is not the way of the Jew.  Silence, as he well knew, is closer to the traditions of Christian mystics who see language and law as obstacles to communion.

The stones, too, were silent. And it was quiet in the mountains where they walked, one and the other.  So it was quiet, quiet up there in the mountains.  But it was not quiet for long, because when a Jew comes along and meets another, silence, cannot last, even in the mountains.

Celan pronounces silence in this passage, but he undoes it in the repetition.  After making this repetition and undoing silence, the speaker notes that the reason why Jews break silence is because the Jew and nature are not one:

Because the Jew and nature are strangers to each other, have always been and still are, even today, even here.

Besides pronouncing alterity and difference, this passage performs it by putting an accent on time and space when he notes that they are strangers: “have always been and still are, even today, even here.”  This accent, which is enhanced by repetition, brings us into the moment of the telling.  It also gives us an acute sense of the speaker’s words.  We hang on to his words and they open us up to a future that is beyond our grasp.  What will he say next?

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot associates repetition with the fragment and the “destruction of the present.” What he implies by this destruction needs to be elaborated since it can help us to better understand what is at stake in this text’s emphasis on repetition, time, and space:

There cannot be a successful, a satisfactory fragment, or one indicating the end at last, the cessation of error, and this would be the case if for no other reason than that every fragment, though unique, repeats, and is undone by repetition.  Let us remember.  Repetition: nonreligious repetition….the ultimate over and over, general collapse, destruction of the present. (42)

Although Blanchot is correct in saying that repetition destroys the present, he gives it a negative valence that Celan does not.  By the destruction of the present, I would note that Emmanuel Levinas (a close friend of Blanchot) in his book Time and the Other has the right idea.  It is a destruction of the past-present and the future present and, for Levinas, this implies that a future beyond by control, which is not “present” opens up to me.

The “ultimate over and over” that Celan brings into the “conversation” opens us up, as we shall see in the next blog entry, to something messianic (and not messianic).  Blanchot’s notion of a “nonreligious repetition” finds an interesting counterpoint in Celan because Celan doesn’t open up to a mystical experience that eschews humor. He doesn’t mourn the loss of communion as Blanchot does.  To be sure, as I have been showing, this moment would have to happen within the structure of this conversation – a comic conversation. With all of its repetitions and clumsiness, Celan’s conversation is not only destructive.  It also opens us up to the future; to what is to come.

And this is what I would often hear when my father and David conversed.  In each of their conversations, with all of their repetitions and witty rejoinders, they pushed each other to enunciate the moment in which and the spatial angle from which they were speaking to each other.  And, though it was comic, each of them always enunciated the fact that they were speaking to each other here, in this space, and in this manner.  And in doing so, they enunciated that the words were their own words, yet, at the same time, they were not.  They were shared and replayed to each other.  And that’s were their words were also not their own.  This fact made their words and themselves vulnerable and oftentimes blind.  And this is was what made them schlemiels.  This is what made David and my father, for me, Klein and Gross.  After all, what does a Jew own that is really his own?

Who is ‘He’…Kafka or… Someone…Else? Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster’s Childish Fascination with ‘Him’


When I first read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka,” I was struck by the fact that, although he mentioned Kafka’s name in his title, he didn’t make any reference to Kafka’s name throughout the piece.  Instead, Auster refers to “he” and “him” repeatedly.

Here is one instance, which I cited in my last blog entry:

He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.  Invisible to himself, he gives himself up to the drift of his own body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses to lead him.

And then it occurred to me that the reason Auster was obsessed with “him” had a lot to do with an author and thinker he has, without a doubt, read: the celebrated French literary critic and thinker, Maurice Blanchot.  (I say, ‘without a doubt’ because Auster translated two of Maurice Blanchot’s novellas under the title Vicious Circles and he married Lydia Davis, a writer and well-known translator of Blanchot, the same year he wrote “Pages for Kafka.”)

Blanchot has written a few significant essays on Kafka.  But of all these essays, only one came to mind when thinking about Auster’s obsessive reference to ‘him’; namely, the essay entitled “Essential Solitude” (which appears in the Lydia Davis collection on Kafka).

In Blanchot’s essay, Kafka is mentioned in relation to what Blanchot calls the “interminable, the incessant” which he relates to the word, “he”:

Writing is the interminable, the incessant. The writer, it is said, gives up saying “I.”  Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute “He” for “I.”

In the wake of this citation, Blanchot becomes what Harold Bloom would call a “strong poet.”  He does this by slightly revising what Kafka understands by this movement from the “I” to “He.”

This is true, but the transformation is much more profound.  The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing.  He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. 

In other words, Kafka, according to Blanchot, was so to speak blinded by the light of his “surprising” discovery.  Kafka thought he was discovering himself in “Him” when, in fact, he was literally discovering something altogether impersonal.

The more Blanchot talks about “Him,” the more Kafka comes across as a dupe who believes that language can help a writer to come to him or herself by stripping him or herself of his or her “I.”

In contrast to Kafka, writing, for Blanchot, is a way of making oneself into an “echo” by letting that which “cannot cease speaking”… speak.

To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking….I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence.  I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plentitude which is empty.

In lines like these, one hears Martin Heidegger’s claim, in his essays on language, that “language speaks.”  One also hears what Blanchot will later call “the infinite conversation.”  Here, the “I” doesn’t speak.  He, the other, does.  But the I, the writer doesn’t totally dissolve.  Rather, he still “keeps the cutting edge, the violent swiftness of active time, of the instant.”

In other words, the I only has the instant, the “cutting edge,” which makes room for language to speak and “become image.”  What Blanchot means by language is something very serious.  There is no discovery and there is nothing humorous here.  The experience of language, in fact, denotes more or less what Levinas would call, in his earlier essays, an exposure to the il y a (the anonymous and terrifying “there is” of existence).

When this happens, the writer becomes other; the writer becomes “him”: “the third person is myself become no one…it is his not being himself.”  In other words, he is himself and other-than-himself.

This movement reminds me of Heidegger’s experience of the “nihilation of the Nothing” in his essay “What is Metaphysics.”  After articulating the experience of such nihiliation, Heidegger notes, with an ellipsis (…) that “one feels ill at ease.”  Not me but “someone.”

Blanchot “echoes” this passage from Heidegger’s essay:

When I am alone, I am not alone, but, in the present, I am already returning to myself in the form of Someone. Someone is there, where I am alone…Someone is what is still present when there is no one.  Where I am alone, I am not there; no one is there, but the impersonal is: the outside, as that which prevents, precedes, and dissolves the possibility of any personal relation.

But this is not the Nothing, it is, for Blanchot, the il y a, the endless “there is.”  Which he calls “the outside.”  To be sure, in this moment of otherness, the outside is with “me.” And it is one’s “intimacy” with the outside that creates restlessness and what Blanchot calls “fascination.”  Although Heidegger also writes on fascination in the second chapter of Being and Time and even though, as Christopher Fynsk argues in Heidegger: Thought and Historicity that this “fascination” is with Dasein’s “originary disappropriation,” Blanchot leaves Heidegger further behind with his new reading of fascination.  But, perhaps without knowing it, Blanchot returns back to Kafka.

Blanchot notes that fascination deals, specifically, with vision.  It “seizes sight and renders it interminable.” But this makes for a kind of light that is not simply terrifying; rather, “one sinks into” a light that is “both terrifying and tantalizing.”

Strangely enough, the experience that Blanchot uses to illustrate this is “our childhood”:

If our childhood fascinates us, this happens because childhood is the moment of fascination, is itself fascinated.

Blanchot notes that “perhaps” the “maternal figure” is fascinating because “she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment.”  But it is only “because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating.” And in this fascination there is a misperception: “Whoever is fascinated doesn’t see, properly speaking, what he sees. Rather, it touches him in an immediate proximity.” And what touches the child is “the immense, faceless Someone.”

Blanchot is telling us that in letting “fascination rule language,” writers are like children.  By letting fascination rule, one “stays in touch, through language, in language, with the absolute milieu where the thing becomes image again.”  Fascination itself is an opening “onto that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”

This suggests that writers are fascinated with the same things children are fascinated.  In effect, writers are men-children.  They are, in some ways, like schlemiels in the sense that they are without a world yet…in touch with “the thing become image again.”

Auster’s reference to Kafka in his “Pages for Kafka” as “him” and “he” is an attempt to bring out this childishness.  And, although it is serious, it is laughable.  His Kafka wanders toward a Paradise but gets distracted with things he sees along the way.  He sees what is close to him.  He looks down at his feet, walks oddly, and wanders all over.  However, he is on the road.  And this road is a road to paradise.  As I noted in the previous blog, Auster recognizes that this is foolish, but he affirms it anyway.  In other words, he, like Blanchot, affirms fascination. But Auster notes its comical aspect while Blanchot gets caught up in the childlike fascination of the child which, for some reason, he doesn’t see as comical.

But is the “he” Auster refers to a schlemiel?

While writers like Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer put forth Schlemiels who are blind to the world and are, nonetheless, in touch with “things,” we know that they are schlemiels.  True, they are laughable because they can’t relate to the world.  Yet, on the other hand, the world is at fault for being… a world in which innocence and trust have no place.  And this turns readers against the world, not the schlemiel.

Nonetheless, Motl, Menachem Mendl, and Gimpel are all, as Auster says of Kafka, on the road to Paradise.  But, for Blanchot, fascination won’t lead one to Paradise so much as toward “that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”  But, if that is true, then what of other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world? Aren’t Gimpel, Menachem Mendl, and Motl constantly moving towards people? And even though they may miss meeting up with them in the world, they, at the very least, try.  Although the world is in conflict with the schlemiel, we the readers would ultimately like the world to one day be in tune with this comic character’s goodness.  And that is the point.  Childhood fascination and absent mindedness are not the true ends of the schlemiel tale – a shared world of goodness is.

Given this understanding, I wonder what Auster or Blanchot would say to Paul Celan’s proposal in his prose piece “Conversation in the Mountains” – a story that parallels Auster’s story of the fool on the road.   In Celan’s story, however, there are, apparently, two people are on the road, not one.  And it is the dialogue between them that Celan stages.  This back-and-forth rhythm of conversation enunciates a kind of Jewishness that is singular and unique.  In this conversation we don’t see childish characters who are simply or only interested in things.  They also speak to each other.  They seek out a relationship to the world which, no matter how absent minded it is, is real.

Without this added element, it seems as if Blanchot and Auster move “him” toward a fascinating world that is fit for a child who has no friends save in things.  This man-child, in his “essential solitude,” would only have Someone (him) as a companion.   Someone who he lets speak.   Language alone doesn’t speak.  People do.

After all, no matter how lonely Kafka seemed, he ironically noted, in his Octavio Notebooks, that Don Quixote’s biggest problem was not his imagination; it was Sancho Panza.  It was the other person.  But these are the problems that Kafka, in a Yiddish way, kvetched about but loved.  Sancho Panza, like all friends, has a proper name.

Perhaps friends are less fascinating than things.  But, at the very least, we don’t “wander” on that road alone.  We have “someone” to share the journey with (regardless of how blind).  And this is what we find in Cervantes’ Don Quixote and in the Jewish Don Quixote: Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the Third.  Schlemiels try not to travel alone.  Their otherness is shared and Someone is always ‘there’….