Literary and Critical Theory Maurice Blanchot
by
Adam Potts
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0061

Introduction

Maurice Blanchot (b. 1907–d. 2003) is a profoundly unique and influential figure of the 20th century. Sitting between philosophy and literature, his work explores the philosophical significance of literature by considering the demand it places on thought. For Blanchot, when thought is pushed to its absolute limit, we encounter the impossible, the singular, the outside—a radical region that is unthematizable. This, he argues, is ultimately the region of literature. Where everyday language tries to represent the world and where philosophical language tries to secure meaning, literary language, by contrast, is subversive as it does not carry the responsibility of representation or clarification. Words are not self-identical in literature, which means that the space of literature, as Blanchot refers to it, is characterized by an “atmosphere of uncertainty” (Blanchot 1985, p. 52, cited under Récit). This uncertainty is what drags us to the limit of possibility. Somewhat paradoxically, this limit/impossibility is not an invitation to nihilism, but rather the very condition of thought itself. It is no exaggeration to say that to understand Blanchot one must come to terms with this idea. Not only does this idea occupy his writing, but he also sees it in poets like Mallarmé, Rilke, Lautréamont; in the surrealists; and in novelists like Kafka, Proust, and Beckett. Much of his writing is dedicated to such figures. Given this demand placed on thought by literature, literature has the capacity to raise profound philosophical questions. Literature works like a springboard for Blanchot, impelling him to engage with the limit as it exists in philosophical figures like Heraclitus, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Weil. Of particular importance are his engagements with Emmanuel Levinas and Georges Bataille. In Levinas’s account of the Other, Blanchot sees the ethical and political impetus of literature. In Bataille’s work, Blanchot sees a companion of the unthinkable and an explorer of the impossible. Such a range of topics means Blanchot’s writing is voluminous and varied, comprising his early journalism, his critical writings, his own works of fiction, and his fragmentary texts. In these writings, Blanchot shows himself to be an attentive, nuanced, and very demanding thinker. Reading Blanchot requires that we read with the historical, political, and cultural contexts in view, where disaster (e.g., the Second World War) looms or echoes and where culture is at a breaking point. This article will offer a selective bibliography to help one grapple with the demands Blanchot places on us and on thought itself.

General Overviews

There are only a few introductory texts on Blanchot in English, partly because of the idiosyncratic nature of his work. Davies 1999 is a very clear essay on Blanchot, one that unpacks the complex relationship between literature and philosophy. Haase and Large 2001 is, unquestionably, the clearest introduction on Blanchot available. Written in an approachable way, it covers Blanchot’s relationship with philosophy, literature, death, ethics, politics, and community. The inclusion of Hill 1997 may, for some advanced readers, be problematic because it is discernibly more difficult. Nevertheless, Hill methodically makes his way through all the different aspects of Blanchot’s thought in a clear and concise way while making important comparisons to key figures in the history of philosophy. Finally, Holland 1995 is included not only because it contains seminal essays written by Blanchot, but also because it includes an intellectual biography explaining the different periods of Blanchot’s writing. This is one of the only intellectual biographies of Blanchot in English.

  • Davies, Paul. “Blanchot.” In A Companion to Continental Philosophy. Edited by Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder, 304–316. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631218500.1999.00027.xE-mail Citation »

    There are very few introductory essays on Blanchot available. Davies’s essay fills that hole and is a useful place to start. He focuses on the relationship between philosophy and literature, while making useful connections to the Continental tradition.

  • Haase, Ullrich, and William Large. Maurice Blanchot. London: Routledge, 2001.

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    Essential reading for anyone new to Blanchot. As part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series, this volume provides a very clear introduction to Blanchot, distilling his thoughts on literature, philosophy, death, politics, and community/ethics. It is also a visual text, with summaries and definitions of key terms contained in distinct boxes. All of this makes for a very approachable introductory work.

  • Hill, Leslie. Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

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    Essential reading. One of the most comprehensive, clear, and sophisticated readings of Blanchot available. A text devoted to the entirety of Blanchot’s work, it offers a very clear account of the “neuter,” but the real strength of this work is Hill’s ability to situate Blanchot in relation to philosophy. Blanchot is never far from the likes of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and Duras in this text.

  • Holland, Michael, ed. The Blanchot Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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    This collection of Blanchot’s essays is organized chronologically according to four different periods in his life. As well as a detailed introduction offering an overview of Blanchot’s life and thought, each section contains its own introduction, and together these offer a picture of Blanchot’s life and works, from his early right-wing journalism to his later radical politics.

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