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Maurice Blanchot

Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) was a French philospher, literary theorist and writer of fiction. His influence on later post-structuralist[?] theorists such as Jacques Derrida is difficult to overestimate. It would be wrong to speak of Blanchot’s work in terms of a coherent, all-encompassing ‘theory’, since it is a work founded on paradox and impossibility. If there is a thread running through all his writing, it is the constant engagement with the ‘question of literature’, a simultaneous enactment and interrogation of the profoundly strange experience of writing. For Blanchot, ‘literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question’ (Literature and the Right to Death).

Blanchot draws on the work of the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in formulating his conception of literary language as anti-realist and distinct from everyday experience. Literary language, as double negation, demands that we experience the absence masked by the word as absence; it exposes us to the exteriority of language, an experience akin to the impossibility of death. Blanchot engages with Heidegger on the question of the philosopher’s death, showing how literature and death are both experienced as anonymous passivity.

Blanchot’s work was also strongly influenced by his friends Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Levinas. Blanchot’s later work in particular is influenced by Levinasian ethics and the question of responsibility to the Other.

His most well-known fictional work is Thomas the Obscure, an unsettlingly abstract novel about the experience of reading.

Blanchot died on February 20, 2003.

Principal works:

  • Thomas l'Obscur, 1941 (Thomas the Obscure: fiction)
  • L'Arrêt de mort, 1948 (Death Sentence: fiction)
  • La Part du feu, 1949 (The Work of Fire)
  • L'Espace littéraire, 1955 (The Space of Literature)
  • L'Entretien infini, 1969 (The Infinite Conversation)
  • Le Pas au-delà, 1973 (The Step Not Beyond)

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