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Review: Waiting for Blanchot

Author(s): Steven Ungar


Source: Diacritics, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1975), pp. 32-36
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/464640 .
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WAITING i41 hIILANCIOT
STEVEN UNGAR
Steven Ungar is a twentieth-century Roger Laporte and Bernard Noel
specialistin Frenchliterature,present- DEUX LECTURES DE MAURICE BLANCHOT
ly teachingat CaseWesternReserve.
Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973
It is an irregular perpetual motion, Has Blanchot's time come? At an early point in The Notebooks, Malte Laurids
without model and without aim. Its Brigge reflects on the future of his writings: "For a while yet I can write all this
inventions excite, pursue, and pro- down and express it. But there will come a day when my hand will be far from me,
duce one another. and when I bid it write, it will write words I do not mean. The time of that other
Montaigne, Essays, 111:13 interpretation will dawn, when not one word will remain upon another, and all
meaning will dissolve like clouds and fall down like rain" [R.M. Rilke, The Note-
books of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M. D. Herter Norton. (New York: Norton,
And so, my life is a running away, and 1964), p. 52]. The referent in the passage is ambiguous, for although the "other"
I lose everything and everything is left interpretation is probably the one conferred by death and posterity, it might also be
to oblivion or to the other man. that which goes under the guise of fame, the "public destruction of One in the
process of becoming, into whose building-ground the mob breaks, displacing his
Borges, "Borges and Myself" stones" [Rilke, p. 74]. For Maurice Blanchot, the act of writing has long been con-
cerned with a meditation on death. And to the extent that a growing readership
has led to critical pronouncement, Blanchot's literaryfortune has begun already to
lead him to the mixed blessings of canonization and overexposure. To put it differ-
ently, if Blanchot appears well on his way toward r6cuperation by the reigning lit-
erary establishment, it is worth noting that only within the last decade have critical
responses to his writings begun to appear. Indeed, if the first full-length study is
indicative, Blanchot's recuperation is far from complete.
The infrequency of critical studies of Blanchot's writing tends to diffuse the
impact of a production which numbers close to twenty volumes of fiction and
essays. Aside from an ongoing series of introductory pieces, there existed until
recently only two significant points of reference to Blanchot: Critique no. 229 (June
1966) and the book-length study by Franloise Collin, Maurice Blanchot ou la ques-
tion de I'6criture [Paris: Gallimard, 1971]. The former, edited by Michel Foucault
and Roger Laporte, included texts by the two as well as others by Ren6 Char,
Georges Poulet, Jean Starobinski, Emmanuel L6vinas,Paul de Man, FrangoiseCollin,
and Jean Pfeiffer.A key to the impact and importance of the issue lay in its collec-
tive nature-the diversity of readings belied the commonly held sentiment that
Blanchot's works were obscure and consequently unintelligible to all but the most
subjective commentary. Appearing five years later, Collin's study clashed with the
earlier collection in Critique. While she clearly provided the appropriate armatures
of scholarship and erudition, Collin seemed intent on assimilating her subject-
matter to a set of philosophic problems in a way which proved reductive to many
1 See, for example, the hesitations ex- of her readers.1 An evident grasp of current problems in continental philosophy
pressed by John C. Blegen in "Writing did not compensate for the basic shortcoming of her study. As far as this initial
the Question: About Maurice Blan- recuperation was concerned, Blanchot's time had not yet come.
chot" [Diacritics,2, No. 2 (1972), pp.
Alongside Collin's essay, the two texts by Roger Laporte and Bernard Noel
13-17]. continue the disparity which had characterized the earlier Critique issue. To call
attention to contrasting modes of argumentation is not simply to attribute prestige
to academic or non-academic readings-both Collin and Laporte are, in fact, uni-
versity teachers. More than approach, attitude, or style, the differences between the
texts are rooted in what appears to constitute two distinct critical objects, one of
which becomes intelligible conceptually while the other points toward an experi-
ence whose articulationconfounds the concision and clarity of concepts and models.
Presumably both have read the texts, but in such divergent ways that it is very
hard even to imagine that the writings to which each refers come from the same
corpus. A conceptual reading such as that employed by Collin proceeds by ex-
posing certain areas of the work through references to concurrent problems. La-
porte follows a different strategy by tracing a narrativewhose form reproduces the
work under consideration. In so doing, he avoids a reductive explication and opts
instead for an expansive commentary of his own critical experience. As a result, his
narrative resembles many of Blanchot's essays in which the pretext of critical com-
mentary yields to a reflection on the personal experiences which have led to the
written commentary.
Since reading acquires a personal significance in Laporte'scritical strategy, it
might be helpful at this point to mention some additional studies which follow
Laporte's lead by characterizing the tension between reading and writing as sign
of a wider exploration of the experience of language. In Une Thche sbrieuse? [Paris:
Gallimard, 1973], Pierre Madaule narrates his reactions to discovering a new print-
ing of L'Arrdtde mort [Paris: Gallimard, 1948] in which a significant epilogue has

32
been deleted.2 In Maurice Blanchot: La Voix narrative [Paris: Union generale des SThe most striking example of such
editions, 1974], Daniel Wilhem studies Blanchot's works on the basis of an initial deletion is Thomas I'obscur [Paris:
reading of the r6cit, "Le Dernier Mot." Modes of access have taken on added im- Gallimard,1941] which reappeared in
a new version nine years later re-
portance to the extent that the generic status of Blanchot's writings has proven to duced to 175 pages from the original
be increasingly problematic to his readers. Until recently, most commentators pre- 232.
ferred to approach Blanchot via the critical texts, relegating the narratives and
novels to secondary status as illustrations derived from the theoretical writings. As
recently as 1971, Paul de Man could still claim that "it is fortunately still a great
deal easier to gain access to the fiction of Blanchot than the other way round"
[Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford Univ. Press), p. 62]. If more recent read-
ers of Blanchot have tended to concentrate on the fictions, it might well be that
their "labyrinthine obscurity" (de Man's expression) was due in part to a critical
practice which could not deal with the problems posed by Blanchot's texts to most
kinds of interpretation. Subsequent developments in Blanchot's works undermine
the generic categories which were viable until the appearance in 1962 of L'Attente
I'oubli. The blurring of generic distinctions has invalidated the question of pre-
eminence of any single mode and pointed out the need for critical practice capable
of accounting for wider notions of writing, work, and text.
If Laportedwells at length on his personal involvement with Blanchot's works,
it is because only by first clarifying his own conception of reading can he hope to
confront the Other whom he finds in the text. Personal urgency is a prerequisite
to additional critical criteria, a point emphasized by the anxiety expressed in a re-
jected alternate title, Comment je n'ai pa pu 6crire sur Blanchot, Laporte once con-
sidered for the present essay. The search for a justifying pretext or excuse for writ-
ing, once again reminiscent of a similar reflexive gesture of Blanchot, reaffirms
the way in which the object of scrutiny in Laporte's reading is foreign to critical
practice which fulfills what T. S. Kuhndescribes in The Structureof Scientific Revolu-
tions [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, rev. ed. 1970] as the puzzle-solving function
of normal science. If we keep in mind that Laporte is, at least in part, writing "on"
or "about" Blanchot, his confession of critical impotence might also be part of a
personal critical strategy. By placing his experience of writing squarely at the center
of his text, Laporte reduces expectation on the part of his readers that his essay
will elaborate a definitive explication of Blanchot. By sidestepping direct interpre-
tation, Laporte tries to use his own self-consciousness to support the non-positive
nature of his position. His text becomes a narrativewith ostensible autobiographic
dimensions and a complement to his series of biographies of which Fugue [Paris:
Gallimard, 1970] most clearly resembles the present reading of Blanchot.
In trying to account for the relative silence surrounding Blanchot's writings,
Laporte questions why he takes up the pen to write. The answer to such a question
is bound to be inconclusive if it does not involve the questioner in a personal
reassessment of his own motivations. As Laporte explores the question of silence,
he is drawn into a secondary inquiry into the way he remembers having first read
Faux pas thirty years ago and the way he thinks he reads it thirty years later. Rather
than offer resolution, Laporte's responses promote wider questioning and intro-
spection. His answers are firm only in the sense that they generate further articula-
tion of questions. In an extreme kind of critical self-consciousness, Laporte stops
looking for answers to the old questions once he sees the need for an entirely new
set of questions. This might help to account for the intricate strategic gestures
which fill the first half of the essay and explain the increasing distance between his
critical object and that derived from Collin's study.
At the center of Laporte's meditation is an unsettling problem-the interrela-
tion of experience and interpretation. Starting from an attitude of non-authority,
Laporte risks insulting the intelligence of his reader by asking what seems to be
an impudent question, "How is Blanchot able to write what he writes" [p. 114]?
The question is a sham which Laporte uses to expose the trap of facile explanation
which relies on the authority of an antecedent originary referent. It is impudent
because Blanchot's works have always resisted this kind of authoritative approach.
Rather than biographic interpretation, it is the experiential dimension (the work
as biography, the biography as work) which Laporte studies more closely when he
refers to the writings as constituting an "experience of non-experience" [p. 122].
By invoking the notion of experience of non-experience, Laporte further
disarms critical expectation of a normalizing nature and points instead to a critical
activity rooted in non-savoir, a kind of hermeneutics wherein the critic's attempt
to relive the experience of the work discloses the impossibility of that task. When
the experience in question is that of death, the critic's frustration refers to an un-
known object whose approach is only partially manifested. The critical experience
reveals mortality-continual deferral of the experience's full disclosure turns the
life of the work (oeuvre) into something essentially inhuman. As Laporte states, any
reference to the concept of experience would call for a deconstruction such as

diacritics/summer 1975 33
that done by Jacques Derrida on the concept of presence. But while he calls for
such a deconstruction, Laporte warns against simply replacing the prestige of bi-
ographic explanation with the prestige of experience, a trap into which he feels that
Blanchot himself may have fallen:
In the same way that Benveniste has shown the categories of Being set forth by
Aristotle to be, in fact, the categories of the Greek language, are not literary (or
poetic or mystical) experiences and the very concept of experience in general in-
separable from the ideology of an age? Have Bataille, Blanchot, and others been
mindful enough of the deceptive privilege of experience? If every experience is
always interpreted in advance, always placed in perspective, there can be no im-
mediate truth, no non-derived experience in its own right, consquently no experi-
ence. It is therefore not only fruitless but dangerous to oppose the authority of
experience to the dogmatism of knowledge. [pp. 127-281
After rejecting the experiential mode of critical reading, Laporteseems to have
put himself in a bind and one wonders what remains possible for him beyond addi-
tional self-effacement. At this point in his argument, Laporte has tried to strip from
his essay the last traces of positivistic residue. To follow his thought beyond the
negative demonstrations requires acknowledgment of a reoriented project foreign
to definitive explanation. To see this as something more than an added rhetorical
gesture, we might again think of Laporte'sessay as an exercise in critical strategies.
He has gone to considerable lengths in order to change the rules of the game-he
has stopped offering answers in the hopes of solving puzzles because he has seen
IA how normalized criticism derives from theories which are incapable of dealing with
the specific problems of reading Blanchot's texts. In order to be able to offer any
kind of alternative reading divergent from existing norms of practice, Laporte must
first demonstrate the inadequacy of current models which control our understand-
ing and evaluation of familiar data. The problem involves a tension between norm
and innovation akin to what Kuhn observed in scientific research. To borrow from
his argument, we might say that the experimental nature of Laporte'sreading stems
from a desire to go beyond paradigms which presently regulate normal critical
activities. To urge a change of paradigms is thus to seek new rules on the premise
that the failure of existing rules is a prelude to the search for new ones [Kuhn, p.
681.
Laporte's essay seems to fit Kuhn's notion of abnormal research in that it
demonstrates the inadequacy of normal models of critical practice in regard to
Blanchot's works. By so doing, Laporte acknowledges that he might be generating
questions for which he can at present offer no answers. And so the questions multi-
ply where one might expect to find answers. Laporte ends as he began, with an
interrogative strategy closer to dissolution within the problem than to resolution
beyond it. The only sign of a possible direction is found in a reference to Nietzsche
and the problem of interpretation cited by Blanchot in L'Entretieninfini: "One has
no right to ask, 'Who interprets?' The act of interpreting itself, form of the will to
a rwdome
r power, that is what exists (not as 'Being,' but as 'process,' as 'becoming') in the
sense of passion" [p. 150; quotation from L'Entretieninfini (Paris: Gallimard,1969),
p. 245]. Blanchot's reference to Nietzsche is taken from a text on fragmentarywrit-
ing, a notion which suggests the proximity of Laporte's reading of Blanchot to the
Derridean notion of writing as diff6rance. It is this final turn in Laporte'sargument
a
44-*.
-of..AM S a which comes closest to providing a clue to the nature of the rethinking of inter-
m.
pretation which Laporte invokes toward the end of his text.
How far can the Blanchot-Derrida-Nietzscheconvergence be maintained and
M0,n
where does Laporte fit into the model? In Fugue, Laporte seemed to employ no-
mu museos
tions of writing found in both Blanchot and Derrida. Mixing essay, autobiography,
and reflexive narrative, the texte combinatoire of Fugue bears resemblance to the
title text in L'Entretieninfini and the more recent Le Pas au-delk [Paris: Gallimard,
1973]. Elaboratingon the musical mode suggested in his title, Laporte generates a
text of nine sequences which translate theme and variation into verbal invention.
At the same time, the text characterizes the general movement of writing as flight
and divagation. Fugue is generated by questions-it forms an endless treatise on
the nature of writing as a game of portrait chinois, a French form of charades in
which the player tries to disclose the identity of an unknown person or thing
through questions which try to relate the parts to a coherent whole. In Fugue, the
unknown whole is writing whose elusiveness implies that the parts do not always
form a whole: "To write is a neutral verb which, like all impersonal verbs, can be
accompanied by a neutral subject, 'it,' representative of no agent whatsoever."
Laporte goes even farther in the present essay when he writes that Blanchot
finds in Derrida's all he needs to confirm the absences of the book and
of writing (trace).diff•rance
If Laporte suddenly appears willing to assimilate Blanchot's

34
works to Derrida's notions of writing, it is because they support the disjunction,
dispersion, and fragmentation of meaning with which previous readers of Blanchot
could not contend: "To write: the divergence which breaks up the text, or better
yet, to write: the difference which breaks up the text" [pp. 154-55]. Behind the va-
rious images of fragmentary writing, Laporte is setting up a relay between Blanchot
and Derrida with incipient connections to both Heidegger and Nietzsche. To sug-
gest this is not, however, to simulate a direct continuum of thought so much as to
suggest that multiple interrelations refute the viability of a single privileged origin.
If any convergence is possible, it centers on the rethinking of interpretation as
found in Nietzsche. But to claim this is to insist on the fragmentation and disper-
sion of traditional thinking which Nietzsche called for. In this regard, Derrida takes
on particular importance as the one whose thought has been instrumental in sup-
plying readers with the paradigm of writing which has afforded them a hitherto
impossible access to Blanchot's works.
Having characterized Laporte's essay as an exercise in critical strategies, we
have suggested that a major problem is the way in which its simulation of Blanchot's
style comes to caricaturize its model. In "Orphee scripteur: Blanchot, Rilke, Der-
rida" [Poetique 20, 1974, pp. 458-82], Jeffrey Mehlman characterizes critical writing
wIs a
as an accompaniment which, as in musical performance, adds to the original at a
certain remove. In similar terms, we might say that Laporte's accompaniment is
also part improvisation. As such, it again follows (at a certain remove) a similar Illustrationfrom "Le Grand Pal"
aspect of the writings of Blanchot and Derrida, accompagnement and 6cart being
positive and negative expressions of a common spacing, gap, or differance. When
Laporte abandons explanation in order to examine the phenomenology of reading,
he does so in order to reveal the way in which explanation is founded on axiomatic
notions of sign and meaning which pre-determine the limits within which our ex-
perience can take intelligible form. His interrogative mode entails a rejection of
the subject-object distinction which has come to identify notions of science and
objectivity since Descartes. In addition, by throwing out the subject-object distinc-
tion, Laporte also brings into question the rhetorical nature of critical models. The
problems here involve both existential and analytic values and recall Heidegger's
passage from a Husserlian vision of phenomenology as rigorous science toward a
questioning of the meaning of Being. Like Heidegger, Laporte rejects any analysis
of experience which does not account for the immersion of thought in language,
an insistence which supports their common belief in the tentative nature of the
subject-object distinction unquestioned in most critical activity.
In contrast to more positive forms of discourse, Laporte practices a reflexive
discourse which allows him to examine the relation between experience and the
language of exegesis. Reflexive criticism is not merely an attempt to justify method.
It implies a continuous development of the Subject whose structure remains con-
sistent in the Cartesian model. As Paul Ricoeur states, "The Self which interprets
itself by interpreting signs is no longer the Cogito; it is an existent which discovers
in the exegesis of its life that it is set within Being even before it settles into self-
possession" [Le Conflit des interpretations (Paris: Seuil, 1969), p. 15]. The reflexive
mode of writing involves a de-centering of the Cogito and a realization that all no-
tions of Self rely on rhetorics. The rethinking of interpretation from positive puzzle-
solving toward a dismemberment of rhetorics appears in Laporte's reading as the
acute self-consciousness which suppresses the normal tendency toward definitive
pronouncement.
What can reflexive criticism offer beyond a call for continuous supplementa-
tion? Laporte'sessay rejects those kinds of readings which might make of it a de-
finitive interpretation, a terminal pronouncement, the "last word" in Blanchot
criticism. He might have chosen a more positive or non-reflexive approach by
alluding to forerunners and partisans such as Mallarm6, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka,
Artaud, Heidegger, Bataille, and Lbvinas. If he does not, it is because he sees that
such enumerations become reductive when they translate writing into a continuum,
when they infer that definitive understanding is possible by proper use of existing
theories, tools, and methods. As a rule, such a view preforms critical practice so
that sense precedes performance and excludes the marginal phenomena for which
a normal code cannot be prescribed.
At those moinents when personal involvement appears to lead to critical
paralysis, it should be recalled that Laporte's methodological concern is to avoid
predetermining the scope and development of an experience for which there is
presently no non-reductive vocabulary. The notions of truth and writing which de-
rive from such a concern have little to do with the coordination of proposition to
referent. With certain reservations, they seem closer to the disclosure or uncon-
cealedness to which Heidegger ascribes an increasing relevance. In "The Origin
of the Work of Art" (1935-36), Heidegger studies how esthetics has evolved from
the Greek notion of truth as disclosure (aletheia) to the present notion of truth

dkocritics /Summer 1975 35


as a verifiable co-ordination (adequation) between proposition and referent. The
dependence of notions of experience on verbal categories forms an enclosure
which Heidegger wants to reopen (disclose): "What does the expression 'real'
mean here? To us it is what is in truth. The true is what corresponds to the real,
and the real is what is in truth. The circle has closed again" [Poetry, Language,
Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 50]. Although
Laporte rejects the closure/disclosure notion of writing, it is nonetheless vital to
see how that notion has allowed him to elaborate a notion of neutral writing in the
present essay.
In "Le Oui, le non, le neutre" [Critiqueno. 229, June 1966], Laportedescribed
a movement of Blanchot's notion of writing toward an unstable, intermediate mode,
an entre-deux whose mobility is evoked in expressions such as le livre a venir, le
ressassement 6ternel, and I'entretien infini. This mobility is seen by Laporte as the
sign of fragmentation; Blanchot's works are an incomplete sequence whose end we
can conceive only by associating the act of writing with the experience-limite of
death. Beyond the logical poles of affirmationand negation, Laportesees le neutre
as an autonomous third term (un tout autre terme) foreign to traditional logic.
Neutral writing as it appears in the text on Blanchot is then a jump out of
dialectics, an irregularityor break from activities which uphold norms of absolute
intelligibility and measure. In such terms, Laporte rejects Heidegger's contention
that closure and disclosure are co-present in the truth revealed by the work of art
because he feels that the dialectic nature of the model is reductive. As a third term
beyond dialectic alternance, le neutre is characterized as otherness: "Always other,
always unknown, violence which cannot be neutralized" (p. 152). In making this
claim Laportewould seem to claim ultimate fidelity to Blanchot beyond the points
of convergence with Derrida and Heidegger. Nonetheless, Laporte is so scrupulous
in his attempt to deflate the pretentions of normalizing critical practice that a
rhetoricalconcern in common with Heidegger overrides his rejection of the closure/
disclosure model. Despite his pervasive fidelity to Blanchot, Laporte's reference
to Nietzsche points to the unresolved problems of interpretationand to the various
directions which a differential reading of Blanchot might explore in order to gen-
3 In "Nietzsche's Theory of Rhetoric" erate new rules and new questions.3 Laporte thus provides the reader with a
[Symposium, 28, No. 1 (1974), 33-
suppl6ment through which further disclosure of Blanchot's otherness might pass.
51], Paul de Man studies Nietzsche's To the livre a venir, Laporte points the way toward a lecture a venir.
"On Truth and Falsity in their Ultra- Where does this leave Blanchot? Without presuming to speak for one who
moral Sense" and indirectly supports
Laporte's argument by showing how has always pursued anonymity, a text written by Blanchot in homage to his late
the paradigmaticstructureof language friend Georges Bataille responds to the problems of commentary experienced by
is rhetorical rather than referential or all readers:
representational.
I know that there are books. They remain with us provisionally, even if their reading
discloses the disappearance into which they necessarily withdraw. The books them-
selves reflect an existence. This existence, because it is no longer a presence, begins
to unfold in history and worst of all, literary history. Inquisitive, scrupulous, in
search of documents, literary history seizes upon a deceased will and transforms in-
to knowledge its hold on that which has fallen to it by legacy. This is the moment
of complete works. We want to publish everything, say everything; as if it were
merely a matter of haste, as if the idea that "everything has been said" might
finally stop a dead utterance, end the wretched silence emanating from it and
stave off that which posthumous oblivion already mixes illusively into our living
speech. [L'Amiti6 (Paris: Gallimard,1971), p. 327]
Over the past forty years, Blanchot's writings have drawn out the ironies,
paradoxes, and unanswerable questions most often overlooked by the practice of
"literature." While Sartre and others were asking, "What is literature?," Blanchot
had already changed his own question to "How is literature possible?" Again and
again the impossibility of literature has allowed Blanchot to promote exploration
and invention. In this sense, Blanchot's writings can be seen as constituting a singu-
lar poetics, a continuous exploration of possible modes of writing predicated on
the premise that literature is an impossibility. The move here is from singular to
plural, stressing the relevance of multiple origins and the absence of a fixed center.
A question of fidelity: in a period of complete works, Laporte goes to con-
siderable lengths to defer the "last word," thereby hoping to remain faithful to
the openness of a work in progress. Depending on the expectations and prejudices
of his reader, that fidelity can be seen as virtue or weakness. Probably it is a little
of both. It is nai've of Laporte to believe that he can write on Blanchot and still
defer the dawning of that other interpretation referred to by Malte LauridsBrigge.
Blanchot's time has not yet come. But when it does, it will disclose in its fullness
an irony which takes on particularforce in this context-for Blanchot, to publish
is indeed to perish.

36