Maurice Blanchot : The Infinite Conversation

There are many remarkable facts about the long life of the French novelist and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. The strident – perhaps Fascist – nationalism of his pre-War journalism; his near-death at the hands of the Nazis during the war; his reclusive devotion to writing that is similar to, but more significant than, Pynchon’s and Salinger’s; his deep influence on more famous French thinkers (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze). And, finally, in this list, his return to public life to oppose French colonialism in Algeria and then to support the May 1968 student uprising, during which he drafted pamphlets released by those opposing General de Gaulle’s autocracy.
Maurice Blanchot, 1907-2003
But to concentrate on these facts, relevant as they are, would be to ignore what Blanchot offers, which is a return to the fundamental mystery of literature. That is, why do written words have so much power over us, yet also seem completely estranged from the world they supposedly refers to? When we say that literature takes us to “another world”, we say more than we might imagine. It is an asymmetry that Blanchot presents to us relentlessly. “There is an a-cultural aspect to art and literature which it is hard to accept wholeheartedly” he says. In this age of shortcuts, in which the value of literature is judged by how well literature effaces itself, so that the asymmetry is denied, avoided, denounced even, Blanchot’s resistance makes him, in my opinion, one of the most important writers.
In my opinion. What is that worth? The question of authority – mine, Blanchot’s or anybody else’s – is the invisible centre of our cultural ideology. We all know that Liberal Democracy is based on choice; each individual is free to choose and each individual’s choice is as good as any other’s. So, when I write in my opinion, I remove all weight from the judgement. The complete opposite is equally valid. Despite this, we still make definite choices in what to read, watch or listen to, as if hoping, despite everything, for something more than nothing. The act of choice itself speaks of a need: for nourishment, entertainment or distraction, or all three combined. But we have little guidance on what and why to choose. Perhaps the recent proliferation of award ceremonies and prize competitions for each art form is no coincidence: the award-winning novel, the platinum-selling album, the blockbuster movie. We want a guarantee of value. Each offers a mitigation of one’s apparently random choice. At the same time, however, we know, like a General Election, it is meaningless. Nothing changes. Such is the totality of Liberal Democracy.
Worse still, the condition has a retrospective affect. Nothing escapes its scything action. History is flattened too, shorn of meaning. Even critiques of the condition become just an opinion under the smiling curve of the scythe. Blanchot does not propose an answer. Rather, he looks at how this condition might have arisen, offering in the process a startling revision of our understanding of what literature is. Might the asymmetry of art and world be what makes it vital and important? In a short essay from 1953, published in a new translation by the Oxford Literary Review, Blanchot goes back to the beginnings of modern thought to investigate this possibility, specifically to ancient Athens, and Socrates’ preference for speech over writing.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that speech has the guarantee of the living presence of the speaker. One can ask questions and receive answers; there is always the movement of dialogue with those involved always mindful of truth. In dialogue, progress is possible. On the other hand, written words can only maintain a solemn silence: “if you ask them what they mean by anything,” he says, “they simply return the same answer over and over again.” The philosopher links this to religious superstition, when Greeks listened to “the sacred voice” emerging from a stone or the stump of a tree. Blanchot compares this to the silent confrontation with written words:
“Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks.”
If, as Blanchot says, the voice of the divine and the voice of literature are comparable, they are effectively indistinguishable, thereby doubling the threat to the human project represented by Socrates. What can be done if the oracular voice develops an alternative outlet in literature, luring truth into “the abyss where there is neither truth nor meaning nor even error”? Blanchot reminds us what was done: “both Plato and Socrates are quick to declare writing, like art, a simple pastime which does not jeopardise seriousness and is reserved for moments of leisure”. Of course, Socrates went on to pay with his life for his commitment to the more serious matter of debate. And while his sacrifice remains emblematic of our notion of the freedom of speech, his dismissal of writing and art sounds very familiar, very now, particularly to anyone searching for truth in art. We can see the correlation between postmodernism (no truth, no meaning), popular culture (no error), and the ancient philosophers’ dismissal of art. It is attractive as there is another correlation, perhaps the most important: both are also liberations. In each case, freedom is granted to those previously enslaved to truth. Writers can let their imagination run wild; there is no comeback.
Instead of celebrating or lamenting this development, Blanchot considers the silence of the gods revealed in the written word. He wonders what it is that disarms Plato and Socrates so much that they deny it is even relevant, and compels us, their descendants, to fill the empty space with reductive theories: social, psychological, post-colonial. For a possible answer, he turns to Heraclitus, the first poet-philosopher, pre-dating Socrates, the first rationalist. In one of his enigmatic fragments, Heraclitus says the oracle “neither speaks out nor conceals, but points”. From this Blanchot deduces that the “language in which the origin speaks is essentially prophetic.” .. Read more:

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