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Charlotte Mandell


Two Essays on Blanchot


"A Language of Absence" was published in Nowhere Without No, a collection of tributes to Blanchot, by Vagabond Press in Sydney, edited by Kevin Hart.

A Language of Absence 

Je voudrais vous remercier du silence dans vos mots. That's all I remember saying in the one letter I wrote to Maurice Blanchot, a few years before his death. I want to thank you for the silence in your words. I was working on my translation of Le livre à venir, and suddenly I felt an urgent need to write to Blanchot, simply to thank him for his work all these years, for all that he's written, but especially for all that he has left unwritten: for the voice beneath the words, the sly, quiet, inner voice of all that's left unsaid. Blanchot has -- I can't say had, since his books are all around me now, and his voice is still speaking -- Blanchot has a way of shaping absence so that it becomes a shimmering presence, and of giving a voice to silence so that it can be heard beneath the apparent words on the page.

There is no such thing as a passive reader of Blanchot. Reading Blanchot becomes an active engagement; he involves the reader in his thinking; he makes the reader think, and respond, and question. Pick up any book of Blanchot, start reading anywhere, and before you're even aware of it, you have become involved: he has engaged you in a conversation; something in you resists, but you read on; suddenly you discover the patience of true reading, the infinite patience required to tease out a subject, play with it, negate it, reassert it, leave it unresolved. Blanchot had infinite patience, and infinite generosity too. He welcomes all of literature, all of it, he lets the words come and he follows them faithfully, so faithfully. Blanchot believed in the power of the word, in the power of language to lead us where it likes, where we may not have thought of going. There is a wonderful selflessness in Blanchot, an emptying-out of self and an investment in language, a faith in the unfailing ability of language to lead us out of ourselves, out of our own nonexistent ego into -- what? Something other, something beyond. After I heard of Blanchot's death -- "Blanchot s'efface," wrote Libération -- I felt a deep sorrow, as if a great presence had left us. I picked up The Writing of the Disaster and opened to this:

"(A primal scene?) You who live later, close to a heart that beats no more, imagine, imagine this: the child -- is he seven, eight perhaps? -- standing, opening the drapes and, through the window, looking out. What he sees -- garden, winter trees, wall of a house -- while he sees, of course as a child would, the place where he plays, he grows tired and slowly looks up to the ordinary sky, with clouds, grey light, the dull daylight with no depth.

"What happens then: the sky, the same sky, suddenly open, absolutely black and absolutely empty, revealing (as if the windowpane had broken) such an absence that everything has always and forever been lost in it, to the point that in it the dizzying awareness forms and vanishes that nothing is what there is, and to begin with nothing beyond. What is unexpected in this scene (its interminable aspect) is the feeling of happiness that immediately overwhelms the child, the ravaging delight to which he can bear witness only through tears, an endless stream of tears. They think the child is upset, they try to comfort him. He says nothing. He will live ever after in the secret. He will not cry any more."

"He will live ever after in the secret." Prince Andrei, having taken his death wound, looks up at the clouds in the sky and suddenly death is beside the point. There is a beyond to things, a revealing absence: nothing is what there is, and this nothing is everything, it is emptiness and the sky and it is also the vast space within ourselves, which all language tries to convey. All of Blanchot's work is illumined with this light of infinite space. Speaking of Joubert, Blanchot writes, "...withdrawn from ourselves, we can find in ourselves the same intimacy of space and light into which we must henceforth put all our cares so that our life will correspond to it, our thinking preserve it, and our works make it visible." Blanchot did just that, true to his word.

-- Charlotte Mandell
Annandale-on-Hudson, March 2003



A French version of "Blanchot in America," translated by Christophe Bident, has been included in Maurice Blanchot: Récits critiques, the collection of presentations given at the March 2003 conference on Blanchot in Paris, published by Editions Farrago.

Blanchot in America 

Maurice Blanchot's death went largely unnoticed by the American media. While lengthy obituaries appeared overseas in the Guardian and the Independent, in America Blanchot's death was greeted with silence. Finally, a week later, an unbelievably curt and dismissive obituary appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, sandwiched between extensive and detailed notices for the founder of a famous diet program and for an advertising executive. Blanchot was portrayed as a minor French author whose only outstanding feature was his reclusiveness.

Blanchot's books, when published in America, meet with the same indifference on the part of the American media. His fiction is granted a little more attention, but his books of essays remain for the most part un-reviewed. Americans worship the cult of personality, and for an author to efface himself behind his books, for an author to let the texts speak for themselves without the help of book-signings or television interviews or book tours, is unheard-of. For the American media, a book can't exist without an author; if Stephen King didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

And then there is Blanchot's writing. For Americans, who are taught in grade school that every essay should have a beginning, a middle, and an end -- or a statement, an exposition, and a conclusion -- Blanchot's writing is bewildering in its apparent indecisiveness. Americans like brief summaries of texts, they like books to be packaged in neat boxes and sold at a profit; Americans like Plot. Blanchot is neglected in America for the same reason that poetry is neglected; his writing requires thought; it reaches no easy conclusions; it ponders and examines, but doesn't summarize. And Blanchot's investigation of language as a vehicle for failure -- for the inability of the author to translate perfectly his thoughts into language -- is the same investigation that poetry undertakes. There will always be a Book to Come, a Mallarméan ideal book, since by its nature it can never be written. This concept of language as failure, while a necessary and challenging one for poets, is an anathema for the American media. Language must be profit.

But there is a Cult of Blanchot in America, confined mostly to universities and academic circles, although Blanchotophiles do turn up in odd places and reveal themselves in odd ways -- it's a bit like belonging to an exclusive lodge of Freemasons. Oddly, an inordinate number of them seem to be concentrated in my part of the country, the Hudson Valley: in Rhinebeck, Stan Lewis published Robert Lamberton's translation of Thomas l'obscur, the first book of Blanchot's fiction in English; Lydia Davis, probably the most lyrical translator of Blanchot's récits into English, lives nearby, as does Pierre Joris, translator of The Unavowable Community, while George Quasha's Station Hill Press, which was one of the first American publishers to publish Blanchot in English, is just down the road.

Stanford University Press, and its former Humanities editor, Helen Tartar, is much to be thanked for bringing so many of Blanchot's books of essays to light in America. Their Meridian Series, guided by Werner Hamacher, has published so many texts by European critical theorists, including a fair number of books by Blanchot.

My main concern as a translator of Blanchot is to try as much as possible to keep the order of the words the same as in the original, so that the reader can see how the author thinks. Blanchot is famous for the ambiguity and complexity of his sentences, and I try to keep that ambiguity as much as I can. French is more forgiving of what in English are termed run-on sentences, but whenever possible I try not to break up Blanchot's gracefully lengthy sentences. In a way, all language is translation: the act of writing is the process of translating the mind's "original" -- what the body feels, or thinks -- into the secondary language of the written word. So translation for me is a way of thinking, as impossible and as doomed to failure as writing itself is. Both the "original" and the "translation" are works in progress, always open to differing interpretations and reinterpretations. Like the poet whose entire oeuvre is the attempt to write one single Poem, I sometimes wish I had the time, and the means, to translate one book by Blanchot in several different ways, so that the translator has a chance to catch up with, or precipitate, ways of reading.

I like to think that Blanchot will be more widely read in America in a hundred years or so. I recently read an essay by the American poet Thomas Meyer, "On Being Neglected," in which he considers the lack of public recognition as a kind of blessing, a freedom to write as he pleases, in a language of his own invention. Not being bound by convention, he is free to invent. Like any prophetic language, invented languages, since they are new, are frightening. I think people are frightened of Blanchot, and of the new language he created, in the same way they're frightened of poetry -- it brings them news of a different world, one they're not yet ready to face. I sometimes think this neglect on the public's part is a necessary ingredient for the flourishing of true writing, the way a rare plant needs to be cultivated in solitude and seclusion. The text, as Blanchot liked to point out, has an existence independent of its author; and who knows what it may be working, this very moment, on the minds of the American Public.