Le pas au-delà – Maurice Blanchot’s Morbid Masterpiece

« La mort, nous n’y sommes pas habitués. » [“To death we are not accustomed.”][1] With this bleak pronouncement Maurice Blanchot begins his 1973 collection of fragments Le pas au-delà. Giorgio Agamben has described Maurice Blanchot as the writer who answered for the survivors of World War II a question raised afresh in every generation: Is writing still possible? And if so, how?[2] To the reader unfamiliar with Blanchot’s oeuvre, Agamben’s commentary raises yet another question: Why would Blanchot consider writing’s possibility questionable in the first place?

            Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) belonged to a generation that lived through the Nazi terror and the Holocaust. With lethal memories embedded in the brains of the (surviving) literati, the question of writing’s relation to mortality became an open one. As Theodore Adorno famously declared, “[t]he critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”[3] Paul Celan, who lost his parents in the death camps, proved the opposite with his poem “Todesfuge” (1948), but disturbing thoughts remained latent in Blanchot’s mind: “death and dying, speech and writing.”[4] Blanchot, who as a right-wing journalist in the 1930s carried some guilt for the pro-Fascist sympathies that arguably enervated French resistance to Hitler, faced this question with a particularly personal intensity. There was the written legacy that came before the war; did anything he or his collaborators had written drive him to remark “writing, always conservative?”[5] In any case, the nontraditional, repetitive style of Celan’s “Todesfuge” did show one thing: while poetry (and writing) could still exist, they could not go on as if nothing had happened. Blanchot did not continue writing unchanged, either. He abandoned traditional prose in the 1960s for an fragmented style reminiscent of Nietzsche or Pascal, but without the confidence of either. The age of the self-confident, oracular author-subject was over. Blanchot was one of many in his century to preach the “death of the author.”[6] In Blanchot’s late work – The Writing of the Disaster, The Step Not Beyond, The Moment of My Death – his writing slides into an abyss in which the impossible paradoxes of language and death frustrate humanity’s capacity to make sense of itself. Blanchot’s ultimate theme in The Step Not Beyond is death’s paradoxical situation at the limits of experience. Because death crosses a limit the human subject (as a thinking self) cannot transcend and remain itself, death remains impossible to be thought, the inassimilable into existing humanistic literary or philosophic frameworks.[7]

In the books’ opening pages. Blanchot ponders what it means to “[t]o write as a question of writing, question that bears from writing that bears the question, no longer allows you this relation to the being – understood in the first place as tradition, order, certainty, truth, any form of taking root – that you received one day from the past of the world, domain you had been called upon to govern in order to strengthen your ‘Self,’ although this was as if fissure, since the day when the sky opened upon its void.”[8],[9] The word “fissure” will be key; by deliberately fragmenting his writing, Blanchot mirrors on the page the disruptions in all the old certainties.

Blanchot claims that literary fragmentation  forces an inside-outside to each aphorism; putting an outside inside a book creates a series of inner limits, which in turn enforce a discontinuity that differs from books, which are infinitely continuous (continu) and have for their content (contenu) only their own continuity (continuité).[10] As Blanchot explains his predicament, “No longer being able to writer except in relation to fragments, this is not writing by fragments, unless the fragment is itself marked by the fragmentary.”[11] The upshot of all this fragmentary writing, translator Lycette Nelson explains, is Blanchot’s literary imitation of the break in time that results in the inaccessibility of the present to human thought.

            To break time is to fragment history. It is not surprising, then, that in addition to the above-named contemporary authors, The Step Not Beyond relies extensively on Nietzsche and Hegel, both of whom wrote significant historiographies: Nietzsche’s “The Uses and Abuses of History” and Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. One of the most famous deaths marking a before and after in the Western historical consciousness has been what Nietzsche called “the greatest recent event – that ‘God is dead’; that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable – is already starting to cast its first shadow over Europe.”[12] Placing Nietzsche and Blanchot in parallel, the shadows cast by Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God” as philosophical foundation pre-dated the analogous announcement by Blanchot and Barthes of the death of the author-as-god-of-a-smaller-creation.[13] Before leaving Nietzsche and Hegel, I should briefly touch on Blanchot’s treatment of Nietzsche’s famous announcement regarding the death of God. Writes Blanchot, “the death of God is perhaps nothing more than the assistance which historical language vainly lends to allow a word to fall out of language without announcing another to [to take its place]: absolute lapse.”   In Blanchot’s reading of the eternal return passage in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Blanchot builds on Klossowksi’s insight that “the Eternal Return….destroys the subject in whom it occurs and marks a rupture in thought and time.”[14]

            We can think the past; we can think the future; but the present – what is that? It is already not, between one keystroke and the next. Nelson points out that disrupted time becomes the lynchpin of Blanchot’s analysis of death in terms of Nietzsche’s thought experiment of the impossible time implied by the Eternal Return and the likewise impossible time found in Hegel’s dialectical understanding of historical chronology.[15] The idea of the eternal return, Blanchot suggests, proved too paradoxical for Nietzsche, and for good reason: the eternal time of the recurrence clashes with the unbreakable lines between past and future, uncrossable lines that preclude the present ever existing as such, and therefore no eternal recurrence of the present moment could be possible.[16] The eternal return can only be understood sub specie aeternitatis, and that is impossible without resorting to some totalizing theory (such as Hegel’s) in which time is viewed as having already been accomplished.[17]

            As far as Hegel is concerned, Blanchot observes that Hegel and Nietzsche – philosophers whose views of history seems so diametrically opposed – in actuality depend upon each other. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, in which an entire cycle of the universe’s time winds down and completes itself, secretly presupposes the completion of time in the Ideal Absolute at the end of Hegel’s dialectic cycle. “Nietzsche (if his name serves to name the law of the Eternal Return) and Hegel (if his name invites us to think presence as all and all as presence) allow us to sketch a mythology: Nietzsche can come only after Hegel, but it is always before and always after Hegel that he comes and comes again.”[18] Always before or always after – but never now. As Nelson points out, this insight will provide the key to Blanchot’s understanding of this book’s central obsession, death.[19]

            After all, Epicurus (as quoted by Diogenes Laertius) long ago claimed that “when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”[20] Epicurus meant to console, but the force of this well-known Epicurean sentiment lies in its lying bare the absence of death’s presence. In Blanchot’s thought, the same twist takes on a more disturbing aspect. The “we” in Epicurus’s “when we are” does not survive as subject (hence the relevance of Blanchot’s strange comment that in “I don’t know” there is not “‘I’ not to know”[21]). Le pas au-delà shows an awareness that the Epicurean motto “when we are, death is not come” did not apply in the death camps. Instead, the juxtaposition of the living and the dead at Auschwitz highlighted that life and death coexisted (and yet remained infinitely apart) at an impossible limit, a step (pas) beyond that can/not (pas) pass. It is worth noting that in 1994, years after Le pas au-delà, an aged Blanchot would publish The Moment of My Death [L’Instant de ma mort] in which the almost-executed protagonist will come up to the limit of death but die – not take that step beyond (pas au-delà in both senses of the wordplay.)

            Juxtaposing the “step” and “not” readings of pas, raises the question of a limit or boundary, of an interdict [l’interdit] (e.g., “Do not step over this line”). “This interdict [is] suddenly broken at the same time that it is affirmed, the transgression accomplished at the same time that it is suppressed, and the passage of this transgression, this step beyond [pas au-delà], there [] where all the same one does not pass.”[22] One achievement of Blanchot’s Le pas au-delà is to expand this same not-step to other impossible dichotomies. The neutre (“neuter”), for example, is neither male nor female, neither living nor dead, and yet for all that still a necessary concept. Featured prominently in some languages (Greek and Latin) but not in others (French or Spanish), the neuter signifies a state eligible to no living human but nevertheless present in historic human language. The il y a (“there is,” borrowed from Levinas) stands as contentless carrier of content. “There is” leaves an empty variable: it simultaneously asserts the existence of something “there is a _________”), but, if the predicate nominative is left empty, the assertion of something asserts nothing. These concepts are like “the language that the dead do not speak,” limit-smashing ideas that are with difficultly “translated” from foggy idea into coherent speech “because of their absolute identity, no less than their absolute difference.”[23]

In playing these games with words, Blachot does not seek to be cute or trite. Rather, the ambiguity of le pas au-delà reflects “the mortal indecision of the act itself.”[24] Such semantic dilemmas play into a central concern of his: « Rendre aux mots leur sens? Ne pas rendre les mots au Sens?»[25]  Blanchot even links expert language-use and insanity, invoking Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Dionysius, the “crazy god.”[26] There is method to Blanchot’s (apparent) madness in the ambiguous use of words: by causing readers to trip over the uncertain relationship of signifier to signified, Blanchot systematically forces his audience into the vertiginous abyss of mapping thought onto language (or vice versa). As a particularly pithy example, consider “I do not know: there is no “I” to not know.”[27] Blanchot’s technique depends on the reader holding first one idea in mind, then the other, only discover some unexpected complication or incompatibility.

             Blanchot continues this pattern on a number of themes then (early 1970s) active in French literature and philosophy, especially the idea of the trace in works of Emmanuel Levinas[28] and Jacques Derrida.[29] By definition, a trace (whether footprint, track, smudge, or mark) exists only as a record of what once passed there. A trace can be thought of as the (past) presence of the animal, or in opposite fashion as the (current) absence of the animal. Holding both meanings in mind at the same time, however, leaves the reader dizzy. The difficulty of holding in thought both the passage and the past (pas- again) brings to my mind Antonio Machado’s Poem XXIX, often given the title “Caminante, no hay camino” (“Traveler, There Is No Path.”) Blanchot might note the juxtaposition of the negative particle (no) and an il-y-a: hay, “there is.” It may be helpful to examine this linguistic construction in a text other than Blanchot’s:

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más; Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace el camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino sino estelas en la mar.[30] Traveler, your footprints are the only road, and nothing more. Traveler, there is no path; one makes one’s own way walking. Walking, one makes one’s own road, and when gazing backward the path that appears is one that never could be re-traced again Traveler, there is no road; only a ship’s wake on the sea.[31]

Literally, Machado’s volver a pisar means “return to step on,” that is to return and make footprints there – to leave another trace. Hence the possibility of interpreting this as a “retracing,” the denial of which in Machado’s poem possibility rests on the same insight as the tenuousness of the trace in Derrida and Blanchot. A trace is a not-presence, a once-was, a will-be, but always a not-now. Blanchot repeatedly calls this dynamic to mind in Le pas au-delà with the repeated phrase “I do not know, but I have a presentiment that I will have known.”[32] The same applies, of course, to Blanchot’s arch-concern: death. The paradox, as we have seen, is that the I that is to do the knowing will at that critical moment no longer exist.[33]

« Libère-moi de la trop longue parole. »[34]

[1] Nelson’s translation.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, interviewed for Un Siècle d’écrivains [film by Hugo Santiago], 1998.

[3] Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 1955, 1981), 34.

[4] Blanchot, 127 : « mort et mourir, parole et écriture »

[5] Blanchot, 124 : « l’écriture, toujours conservatrice »

[6] Blanchot 122 :  « Mort l’auteur, l’œuvre paraît vivre de cette morte. L’auteur était de trop. »

[7] Blanchot, 167: « Le « pas » du tout à fait passif – le « pas au-delà » ? – c’est plutôt le repliement, se déployant, d’une relation d’étrangeté qui n’est subie ni assumée. Passivité transgressive, mourir où rien n’est subi, rien agi, qui ne concerne pas et ne prend nom que par le délaissement du mourir d’autrui. »

[8] Blanchot, Nelson’s translation, 2.

[9] Blanchot, 9 : « Écrire comme question d’écrire, question qui porte l’écriture qui porte la question…. »

[10] Blanchot, 63.

[11]Blanchot 61 : « Le fragmentaire : qu’est-ce qui nous vient de là, question, exigence, décision pratique ? Ne pouvoir plus écrire qu’en rapport avec le fragmentaire, ce n’est pas écrire par fragments, sauf si le fragment est lui-même signe pour le fragmentaire…. » c.f. pp. 61-64, 72-74.

[12] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft]: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 343

[13] c.f. Blanchot, 122.

[14] Nelson, viii.

[15] Nelson, vii.

[16] Blanchot,  166 : « Nietzsche meurt fou, mais mourir, en Nietzsche, ignore la folie, comme la non-folie. Dans la mesure où en tout temps hors du temps Nietzsche meurt, mourir ne peut se caractériser par les traits qui feraient de lui le philosophe fou, même si la folie le heurt, à partir de la ligne de démarcation que la pensée d l’Éternel Retour l’oblige, en un instant, à franchir en l’affranchissant de cet instant comme présent, le soulevant hors de lui-même comme hors de la folie par la légèreté de mourir que la pensée du retour tra-duit en la conduisant fallacieusement… »

[17] Blanchot, 166 : La folie de Nietzsche : comme si mourir l’avait dangereusement éternisé, fût-ce d’une éternité de mourir, avec l’ambiguïté de l’éternité, avec le danger de la transgression enfin accomplie… »

[18] Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond 22, Nelson’s translation. Blanchot’s words: « Nietzsche (si son nom sert à nommer la loi de l’Éternel Retour) et Hegel (si son nom invite à penser la présence tout comme présence) nous permettent d’ébaucher une mythologie : Nietzsche ne peut venir qu’après Hegel, mais toujours avant et c’est toujours après Hegel qu’il vient et vient encore. » (Le pas au-delà, 34-35)

[19] Nelson, xiii-xv.

[20] Epicurus. Letter to Menoeceus, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers :  τὸ φρικωδέστατον οὖν τῶν κακῶν ὁ θάνατος οὐθὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ἐπειδή περ ὅταν μὲν ἡμεῖς ὦμεν, ὁ θάνατος οὐ πάρεστιν: ὅταν δ᾽ ὁ θάνατος παρῇ, τόθ᾽ ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἐσμέν. (Book X, Section 125, accessed via Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University).

[21] Nelson, 9.

[22] Blanchot, my translation from Blanchot, 135 «…cet interdit tout à coup rompu en même temps qu’affirmé, la transgression accomplie en même temps que supprimé, et le passage de la transgression – le « pas au-delà », là où cependant l’on ne passe pas… »

[23] Blanchot, 118-119 : « Admettons…que le neutre n’appartienne pas au langage des vivants et, sans appartenir au langage que ne parlent pas les morts, constituerait le seul mot, peut-être parce qu’il n’y en a pas d’autre, qui nous serait parvenu de la région limitrophe, infinie, où le silence des uns, le silence des autres se côtoient, tout en restant intraduisibles de l’un à l’autre à cause de leur identité absolue, non moins que de leur différence absolue. »

[24] Blanchot, 135: «l’indécision mortelle de l’acte lui-même

[25] Blanchot, 58.

[26] Blanchot, 65 :« le dieu fou »

[27] Blanchot, Nelson’s translation, 68. « Je ne sais pas, il n’y a pas de « je » pour ne pas savoir » (Blanchot 96).

[28] Emmanuel Levinas, “The Trace of the Other,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by Mark Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986), 358.

[29] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatari Spivak (Johns Hopkins: 1976), 7.

[30] Antonio Machado. “Proverbios y canciónes, XXIX” in Antonio Machado: Poesía y prosa (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Colihue, 1991), 86.

[31] My translation.

[32] Blanchot, 153-156: « Je ne sais pas mais je pressens que je vais avoir su »

[33] Blanchot, Nelson’s translation, 68. « Je ne sais pas, il n’y a pas de « je » pour ne pas savoir » (Blanchot 96).

[34] Blanchot, 187.

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