Here is one instance among many. It is an obsessive theme in his work, early and late, though one not examined in any detail in Blanchot Romantique. To be sure, by the time he started writing the pieces in La Part du feu , he had a hand in choosing some of those books, and his comments on them are informed by an impressive literary and philosophical culture, as well as by his own developing theories of writing and politics. His interests are mainly embedded in French and German rather than English.
So one must tread with care when thinking about the choices he makes and the apparent choices he does not make. We may never be sure. We cannot draw an unwavering line between what Blanchot took from the Romantics and did not take and what he did not know. How wide and deep was his knowledge of Schleiermacher, for example? Literature becomes what it is, rather than merely a carrier for something external, like the thoughts of an author or the meaning of a culture.
Thus, for Blanchot, the wrong way to read literature would be to read it as though it were only communicating a message. Unfortunately, this is often the way people do read, as though a novel or poem were little more than a psychological or historical document, whose form was of no significance at all. Or even if we do pay attention to the form of the work, then it is only again to reduce it to another meaning.
This does not mean that Blanchot thinks that literature has no meaning, since we can always interpret a text, but that there is always more to literature than merely this reference that it makes to our world. If language is negation, then it is literature that truly embodies its strange power, for it negates both the reality of the thing and the presence of the idea. It is a double absence. Language only communicates the idea of something to us, because at the same time it negates the reality of the thing.
A word may give me its meaning, but first it suppresses it. This is the same for any word that I might use. It is the negation of all particular real trees for the sake of the idea of a tree. The essential character of language is its power of abstraction; that is to say, its distance from the reality of things. What happens in the information model of language is that it forgets this essence of language. It forgets that language, even before some meaning is expressed, is this distance from things. As speaking beings we are always already banished from the immediacy of things.
We are suspended in the absence of language, and this suspension is what prevents language from finding stability in an extra-linguistic reality. Even the idea tree is a poetic fragment that has forgotten its moment of creation. In this case, words refer back to the things that they have negated.
The disappearance of the thing is replaced by the idea, which has as much stability and constancy as the thing which was originally negated. In fact, philosophically speaking, the idea has more permanence than the thing, since the latter can always change and alter. We can define the concept, therefore, as the substitute for the thing.
The concept replaces the thing that was first of all negated by the word, and as a substitute or representative of the thing, it fills in the absence left behind by the power of language to negate the immediacy of things. What is referred to in language is not the actual thing itself, but the concept or the idea of the thing. The destructive power of language is transformed into something positive, whereby the absence of the thing is replaced by the presence of the concept.
If language is understood as negativity, then it is literature rather than the exchange of information that is closer to its essence, for the latter conceals this absence, whereas literature demands that we experience this absence as absence. It does so not only by negating the reality of the thing in the word, but also the concept to which the word refers.
This is the primary difference between common language and literary language. The first accepts that once the non-existence of the cat has passed into the word, the cat itself comes to light again fully and certainly in the form of its idea its being and its meaning. WF If the word, in literature, no longer refers to the thing, then what does it link to? The word comes to have a fragile presence that no longer refers to the thing or the concept, a fragile presence that is the absence of thing and concept.
When we say that a text has a meaning, it is this absence that we are precisely recoiling from. This absence is the very stubborn but fragile presence of the word, which is endlessly re-invented in the demand of writing, in the style of a writer, at once both its materiality and insubstantiality. If the word links to another word, rather than to some idea outside the text, then what we have is not an item of information, but an infinite displacement of meaning that cannot be stabilized in a single interpretation. Blanchot describes this displacement as the power words have, when they are no longer tied to the function of the concept, of destroying themselves: Words, we know, have the power to make things disappear.
SL 43 The firmness of the ground beneath our feet is seemingly replaced by the infinite interconnections between words, where one word refers to another word and so on, and where they could not constitute a totality or complex of concepts that would designate a discernible reality. It resists any attempt to subordinate it to a concept or a meaning. The absence of meaning at the centre of the literary text should not be interpreted as nonsense, as though literature were meaningless and did not have its own law.
Not being able to reach this centre is, therefore, not to be understood as a failure upon our part, if failure is interpreted in this context as a lack of knowledge. This double absence of both the thing and the concept in literature means that Blanchot holds a strong anti-realist conception of literature. A realist view, on the contrary, sees literature as merely a representation of the world in which we live. Thus, the places in novels are taken to be exactly the same as the places we inhabit and the characters no different from the people we speak to in our own world, with their own feelings, desires and personal tragedies.
Blanchot Romantique : A Collection of Essays
But if the power of language is to negate the real world for its own world, and if literature expresses to the greatest extent this power of language, then a novel or a poem cannot just be a description, imitation or reflection of the world. Words have the power to go beyond concepts and this is their fascination and, in the end, their duplicity and dissimulation. This does not mean that there are no realist elements in the novel or the poem, or that it has no relation to the real world at all. On the one side, there is the realist content, which one can interpret as belonging to the social world, and, on the other, there is the purity of the language of literature itself, which folds back upon itself, so as to turn away from the everyday use of words: Literature is divided between these two slopes.
Its goal is to express things in a language that designates things according to what they mean. It says it lacks meaning: art feels it is madness to think that in each word some thing is completely present through the absence that determines it, and so art sets off in quest of a language that can recapture this absence itself and represent the endless movement of comprehension.
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WF —3 What is a book? Of course, in one sense it is a thing like any other made from ink and paper and like them belongs to my everyday experience of the world. I can find books in libraries and bookstores, and they lie unopened upon my desk. What happens, however, when I open the covers of one of them and begin reading? What world am I in then? Is it still the same familiar world? One side of the book I am reading does belong to this world. I can add this book, like a record in an account register, to all the other books I have read.
I can also read books about the books I have read, and gain more and more knowledge about them. Not only am I now cultured, but I am also an expert. It is the singular experience of the work as it slips away from my grasp and from which side there is no general experience of literature, since there are no concepts which would translate the impervious nature of the work without immediately placing it on the other side; that is to say, the side of culture. We want the work to be a representation of something; we want it to mean something. This novel was first published posthumously in Its narrative consists of a character named K.
In the widely accepted information model of language, a message is passed from one mind to another via a word that expresses a concept which in turn refers to a thing in the world. The medium word is subordinated to the message. In literature, however, or what Blanchot calls writing, the medium resists or interrupts the message, as the sound, texture and rhythm of words take precedence over their meaning. Blanchot, however, takes this notion of the transformation of language in literature even further, by stressing the negativity and absence that lies at its centre.
The destructive power of language is therefore changed into something positive. In literature, however, the word maintains the negativity of language, negating both the concept and thing, demanding that we experience this absence as absence. In literature, Blanchot argues, the word, freed from its function of representing the world, creates its own world in its internal linkage to other words.
And yet even at the heart of this world, there is a fundamental impermanence, for there is no external reality to give it a stable meaning. On the one hand, this absence is what compels us to interpret the text, but, on the other, it is what prevents us from being finished with the act of explanation once and for all.
Death is a theme that runs throughout his work and organizes his reflections on language, literature and philosophy. It is by a constant reflection on death that Blanchot, from his earliest to his latest works, takes on the tradition of Western philosophical thought, but it is also where he engages most directly with philosophy, so that it is necessary first to sketch out this philosophical thought itself.
Hegel — , to whom we have already referred, and that of Martin Heidegger — , who is widely seen as one of the most original and influential philosophers of the twentieth century. This chapter is, then, divided into three parts. This overview will assist us in the next chapter to see how Blanchot sets himself apart from 38 K E Y I D E AS what he considers to be the philosophical definition of death, both against its highest expression in Hegel and against the attempt of its retrieval in Heidegger. That is, while Blanchot approaches the question of literature through philosophy rather than remaining within the confines of literary theory, he does not become a philosopher writing about the possibility of literature.
Rather than seeing literature as a question of philosophy, he understands it as a question posed to philosophy. Every life is limited by its birth and death, which are understood as its limits: one as the moment at which life begins, the other as that in which it ends. In the case of the human being, however, unlike any other living being, the opposition between life and death is not merely an abstract one, but something concrete. In other words, the human being knows about its death and this knowledge has a concrete impact on its life.
Philosophers have always argued that there is an essential relation between life, consciousness, truth and death. The Greek philosopher Plato — BC defined life as the existence of the incarnate soul on earth. Life he understood as the ephemeral realm of appearances, while death is thought as the realm of the immutable, that is to say, of the never changing essence of things.
In the world of appearances everything continually changes, therefore nothing is ever what it seems to be, while death is the dominion of truth, since here everything remains forever the same. On the one hand, we can see this already in the fact that we think of any true sentence as being true independently of time. Consequently Plato argued that the specificity of the human being is given in that it is half animal and half god, where the latter part derives from its conscious relation to death as that which bestows truth to its knowledge.
This dialogue, called Phaedo, is set on the day in which his teacher, Socrates, is going to drink poison following his death sentence on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates speaks to his closest friends about the relation that the philosopher entertains with death. He argues that studying philosophy means to study dying and being dead.
Other people might not understand this point, he explains, but that is because they are generally ignorant of the significance of the idea of death. They cannot understand the relation of philosophy to death, because they only know the abstract idea of death supervening at the end of life. What then is this other death, the death the philosopher seeks? The truth of philosophy, Plato argues, is to realize that a relation to death, even when looking at a chair or at the distant stars, marks every moment of our lives.
It is this relation to death that first of all enables us to have a relation to things at all. Consequently the possibility of our world rests on the special relation that the human being entertains with its death. The argument is that in the world of perception everything is in a state of continuous change or flux, so that it would be impossible for one distinct thing to appear. Only because the human being carries in its soul an image of the individual thing as it exists unchanging and eternally identical to itself in the true world, which is the world that is only truly present after death and before birth, can it identify one thing in the world, by overlaying the fleeting image of a perception with the stable image of what Plato calls an idea or form.
Our whole existence is characterized by an ability to surpass our immediate surroundings, an ability which the philosophers call transcendence. Any knowledge of the world depends on this ability to step over the limitations of immediate existence by way of their negation. We can now begin to see why the death of the philosopher is not the same as death understood as a fact of nature, in as much as it describes a relation to truth that transcends life.
The human being, then, knows about its death in contrast to the animal to which death merely happens. This connection with death, therefore, determines the existence and the essence of knowledge. We can find another example concerning the peculiarity of the human relation to death in the text The Myth of Sisyphus by the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus — In the Infinite Conversation Blanchot singles out this myth, as it is interpreted by Camus, as the paradigmatic case of a philosopher attempting to carry off the victory over death IC — This myth relates how Sisyphus tricked the gods in order to win, in death, eternal life.
Expecting that the gods will take him to the underworld, Sisyphus tells his wife Merope that, should he die, she is neither to bury nor to perform the rites of passage for him. Subsequently, the god of war, Ares, takes his life. On the arrival of Sisyphus in the underworld,Thanatos, the god of the dead, is so enraged that Merope has dared to ignore the natural rites of burial that he sends Sisyphus back to life in order to punish her.
The plan therefore succeeds, since Sisyphus returns to his life, and, instead of punishing his wife, he ignores the claim of Thanatos on his life and remains in our world for many more years. Yet, the important point of the story unravels only with his final death. Returning to the underworld,Thanatos punishes him for his disobedience by having him roll a stone up a mountain. Each time he reaches the precipice, the stone rolls back and Sisyphus has to start again.
This is his punishment, that he has to repeat for all eternity. This task, however, in its utter futility, is nothing else than an image of life as a properly circumscribed task, which, like the daily tasks in life, has no meaning beyond itself and is therefore always repeated again. Like a child who learns English literature in order to become a teacher and teach English literature to a child who now learns English literature, so Sisyphus repeats his task over and over again. Indeed, while the gods think they have punished Sisyphus, by a strange misunderstanding, they have given him, in a literal sense, eternal life.
Sisyphus has then tricked the gods again and Camus concludes from here that one must imagine him happy. What this myth exemplifies is the human relation to death. Sisyphus can gain life only by way of his relation to death. This relation to death is, then, not only something that we have to acknowledge in theory. We have actively to seek and develop this relation and in this sense can it be said that we have to learn to die. To learn dying and being dead, therefore, means to seek the perfect life. That is to say, that as long as we do not make sense of the time that is given to us as one limited by our own death, we are existing in a meaningless coming and going of day after day, where our life cannot form itself into one whole and meaningful existence.
It is this theme that Blanchot discusses at great length in The Space of Literature , for this notion of authentic death has led the philosophers to a particular interpretation of life, centring around the power of a subject that is the master of himself.
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Yet it is precisely from such an understanding that Blanchot wishes to move away, as it results in the alienation of the human being from its world. This is because the ideal of mastery has led philosophy to seek for an explanation of the meaning of human life from out of the idea of a solitary subject guided by the power of reason, so much so that the world appeared as merely a reflection of the subject him- or herself. The world itself, nature, history and art, have consequently lost their importance, until, in the twentieth century and still today, they appear only to the extent that they can be manipulated and fashioned according to our plans.
Literature, on the contrary, is not something that we can master, rather it has a strange power over us, a power that we have to discover again.
The mastery of death here becomes the very meaning of the human being. The main difference between the human being, defined essentially as conscious, and all other living beings on this earth, consists in the fact that for consciousness everything else exists, while, for itself, consciousness is nothing.
In other words, while we can say of everything else that it is something, consciousness is quite literally no-thing. In order to say of something that it exists, you will always have to be able to say where and when it exists. Yet, if a doctor, for example, attempts to look in the brain for this strange internal world, in which we watch all things pass in front of us, all she can find are grey cells and an activity of electrons and chemicals.
Even if you were to answer that consciousness exists in inner reflection, you would still have a problem, because consciousness can be present, even to itself, only through the experience of something you are thinking about the tree outside your window, or a memory of happier times , but never directly by apprehending itself. Take, for example, this book you are now reading.
It is what your consciousness contains now. And yet your consciousness,as opposed to its content, is precisely not this book. You can play this game to infinity, but the result remains that consciousness is always not this and not that. Hegel simply calls consciousness a nothingness in general,and as such it is inseparable from death.
We might understand this inseparability by saying that consciousness can only be through death. But to understand death here, we must distinguish between two kinds of death, which we have already met with in our discussion of Plato: death as the simple end of life, and death as an integral part of life expressing a disappearance that is also a process of gaining something new.
Thus, while a storm might just wreck a tree, the human being makes of the disappearance of the tree the appearance of a table. In consciousness, pure negativity is no longer mere destruction but a creative destruction. The true life of consciousness is thus not opposed to death, but lives and sustains itself in death. This is to say that consciousness does not suffer the lack or disappearance of something, of food, of love or of justice, for example, but that it is precisely this lack that brings consciousness alive as the force that brings an end to what is in order to create something new.
In other words, consciousness is only in the sense that it masters death and turns it from being something that happens to it into its own power. In this respect Hegel sees the history of mankind as the domination of the world by way of a systematic knowledge of the world based on the mastery of death. Suicide designates the ability not only to negate objects around me, but also myself, and this act is the supreme act of my will. We esteem the utter vibrancy of life in a person committing suicide in such an autonomous manner.
In reaching out for death, in making of death a decision, death escapes me. Instead of having achieved the highest point of my freedom, the power of grasping death in my own hands, I find myself stripped of all my powers. Those who believe themselves to have conquered death in suicide make of death an ideal, and have thereby not got any closer to its reality.
It is hence opposed to the actual becoming of life, to the interminable flow of time that makes up the flow of our existence. Having fled this character of interminability by putting an end to her life, Arria has also fled the temporality of life itself. SL The paradox of suicide, for Blanchot, leads to the experience of another death: neither death as a natural event, nor the human death to which the philosopher aspires, but an anonymous, impersonal and neutral death, which Blanchot calls a dying stronger than death.
In the attempt to achieve the highest authenticity through the act of suicide, I discover another death beyond my grasp. Can I experience my death? Can I speak of such an experience as a possibility? WF Here we can begin to see why Blanchot might think that literature has another relation to death than the one expressed by philosophy. The difference lies in the way in which we understand language. In philosophy, the negativity of language is under the power of the self who utters the word, expressing what it means to say. In literature, the word exceeds the intentions of the self. It is, therefore, a disappearance of both the object referred to in language, and the self who speaks the word.
The written word thus harbours the abandonment of the subject. When Shakespeare, for example, wrote his plays, he knew already that once written and performed, these plays would bring about his own disappearance as the one who expresses his ideas in them. The one whom we call Shakespeare exists now as a reflection of these plays, and the characters in the plays do not take their existence from the author, but from out of the words written.
If we understand this negativity of language in its connection to death, then, in the first instance, it seems as if the one who speaks puts death to work. In negating the reality of things I hold them under my power. In the second instance, however, death can no longer be said to be mine, for it brings about both the disappearance of the object and of myself. This ambiguity of death, being the origin of my existence while also bringing about the demise of the self-sufficient subject of modern philosophy, has been explored in the most decisive terms by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his book Being and Time , which we shall now go on to discuss in more detail.
First of all the human being exists. A stone, on the one hand, is this or that, and its being is exhausted by such descriptions. We might say, preliminarily, that it has a choice in the sense that its existence is not once and for all fixed. This choice has something to do with knowledge. Only if I know what I am, what I want and what I can do,can I make a choice and attempt to make it a reality. Insofar as my life consists of these choices and what becomes of them, one might say that I am concerned about my being, while a stone, for example,is quite indifferent as to what it is.
What does it mean, however, to choose something? It means to consider it as a whole, to look at it from every perspective. Yet how can I look at my life as a whole, since it has not yet come to an end and is therefore still incomplete? Indeed, as long as I am alive, I am always something not yet. But evidently this knowledge is not something open to me, since when it is available I will be dead. My life as a whole seems only to exist in the eyes of those that survive me. Only they will be able to judge whether my life has been truly worth living or not. As long as I am alive I cannot know myself and when I am dead, I will not know myself either.
Consequently we have become habituated to mistake death for an abstract fact of life. Yet, for Heidegger,what belongs essentially to human existence,as opposed to any other kind of being, is that it has the possibility of being genuinely singular. On the whole, as Heidegger is well aware, we do not live individual lives, but merely follow the fashion of everyone else. We wear the same clothes, watch the sameTV programmes, read the same books and even hold the same opinions as everyone else. Such a way of living describes our general mode of existence. Heidegger calls it inauthentic, but without implying moral censure.
There is, however, for Heidegger, the possibility of authentic existence, and the clue to its possibility is the relation between death and time. How does my life become something that I choose rather than something that others choose for me? We have said that insofar as our lives are determined through the future as the place of our hopes, plans and projections, we are always something not yet. The whole of my life is then never anything already given, but constitutes the meaning of my future. But this future of myself, even though essentially belonging to myself, is not something within my control.
Rather it announces itself as anguish, as the insecurity of what I will be able to achieve and what fate has in store for me. And yet it is only in surpassing my present life towards this future fulfilment that I can relate to my existence as a whole. In order to exist authentically I then have to understand that I am an essentially temporal being, and that the time characterizing my existence cannot be understood in the abstract and theoretical sense of time that we measure in seconds, minutes and hours, but has to be understood in its concrete temporal span.
Yet, the concrete time of any one human being is the time that is given between its birth and its death. Thus, for you and I, unlike the stone, the past is never just something past, nor the future simply something that is not yet; rather past and future are integral parts of our present lives. While my past is what I am, the future, in terms of my expectations and hopes, determines my very existence in the present. The temporality of existence is, therefore, not the abstract temporality of the time-line, but the concrete temporality of life where the present arrives from the future while resting on the past.
What is our relation to death? It is either a fearful and passive waiting for the last moment to come, which paralyses us, because it seems to bring our lives to an end. Yet even for Heidegger death is the strangest possibility of all. It is, he says, the possibility of impossibility; that is to say, the possibility that all our possibilities come to an end. Such a possibility reveals to us that our existence is not like that of a stone lasting forever. If it were not for the presence of death, we would remain in the illusion that things could just go on as they are and therefore we would not have to do anything about our lives.
The relation to death, then, determines the duality of human life between actuality and possibility. First of all, only a being that entertains such a relation to death can have possibilities, and, second, with death itself appears this rather strange possibility of our life, namely that all my possibilities come to an end, so that I turn back into a thing, the dead body. We see then that the limit of our possibilities, namely death, is also their source. Death for Heidegger, as the most extreme possibility, reveals to us the impermanence and fragility of human existence, which means that our lives are a task and struggle, for at any moment we know that all we have achieved could disappear.
Moreover, for Heidegger it is only death that truly makes me unique. In everything else that I am I can be substituted by another. Yet there is one possibility in which I cannot be replaced and that is in my death. We can begin to see why, therefore, it is only with my death that I can begin to grasp my existence as a whole; that is to say, that my existence becomes a question for me.
For only in relation to my death am I truly individualized. Indeed, considering the essential role that death plays in our life, Heidegger defines life as an interminable dying.
A Collection of Essays
Blanchot will not so much disagree with this existential description of death, but argue that it is only one side of what he calls the two sides of death. Blanchot calls this other death the impossibility of possibility, insofar as here I become aware of the illusion essential to all possibility. All these authors stress the specific nature of human existence, which they understand as essentially free. In opposition to a long history of moral thought, which had proceeded by asking what the human being is, in order to derive from an answer to this question what it should do, the existentialist argues that the human being is first of all nothing.
Existentialism, consequently, gives particular importance to the philosophy of action, arguing that human reality cannot be explained by science, since it is not concerned with facts. There are no strictly defined facts fashioning my existence, which is why Sartre argues that we are condemned to freedom, because we cannot escape the demand to turn the nothingness of our existence into a meaningful life by means of our actions.
Rather than escaping the anguish of death, philosophers have argued that only on account of our relation to death can a fulfilled life be won. This is not least because the idea of truth, without which we would not have any meaningful knowledge, is essentially related to the idea of death. Knowledge is only of worth if it holds true over time, and while both truth and death are thought as free of change, life appears as the realm in which everything is in constant change, so that nothing can ever hold true without being linked to death.
This link is even stronger in the case of our own death, because only with death does our life become a meaningful whole. In the nineteenth century, Hegel grasped death as the ultimate power of consciousness, through the mastery of which the human being becomes a fully rational being taking its fate into its own hands. Here the idea of negation, that is to say, of all change, of that which is possible or in the process of becoming, is understood as the power of the human subject.
With this thought the human being is understood as the sheer activity of labour in the face of a passive world. Yet here already, we can see that our mastery of death derives from the negation inherent in language, because consciousness is first of all the power of language.
In the first part of the twentieth century, Heidegger began to argue that such an idealization of death is not much different from the ignorance of death, which philosophy had originally decried. This is because both the ignorance of death as well as its idealization make of death something which has no power over us.
Instead, Heidegger argues, death has to be understood as that which fundamentally limits our knowledge and puts into question our understanding of the human being as selfpresent, rational and self-conscious.
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It is from this position of philosophical thought, seeking in death the fulfilment of life, that Blanchot will begin his critique and describe the reality of an anonymous, impersonal and neutral experience of a dying stronger than death. Such an experience will show itself alongside the experience of literature. Blanchot argues that such an investigation is necessary not only to find an answer to a philosophical question, but also in order to approach literature.
The question of death concerns not only the end point of life, but the very meaning of writing. It is in relation to death that we first of all experience a feeling of dread, which relates us to a nothingness at the heart of our existence. And it is this experience, Blanchot argues, that gives rise to the demand of writing. How to Signup? There are mainly 2 options: 1 - Your institution handles itself the process of account creation login and password : Please contact your librarian who will provide you with your access codes.
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