Friday, July 15, 2011

The Ruination and Salvation of Life/Writing, Part III

Foucault / Blanchot: Michel Foucault: Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside / Maurice Blanchot: Michel Foucault as I Imagine HimMaurice Blanchot’s own biography—the writing of his life—attests to the experience of life as, through, and by way of writing. We know almost nothing about the man, even when we include his and others’ writings about his life. The first sentence of his obituary in The Guardian described Blanchot as “not so much a private person” as one who, despite living to be ninety-five years old, seemed to be “perpetually absent.” Even the most basic biographical information escapes us, thwarting our efforts to know anything about Blanchot the man.

Official documents confirm two birthdays, and depending upon the source, he was born either September 22 or September 27, 1907. He rarely worked in the public eye, and (except for a street demonstration in May 1968), he never spoke in public, appeared on radio or television, overtly participated in politics, nor allowed himself to be photographed. Although living on the periphery of Parisian intellectual life, he mostly resided in isolated villages outside the capital. His writing, then, must serve as hesitant testament to biographical details, but even this avenue comes up against dead ends of information.

The Instant of My Death / Demeure: Fiction and Testimony (Meridian, Stanford, California) (English and French Edition)He labeled his books throughout his long life “posthumous” in an attempt to release the text from its ties to a living author. For Blanchot, a text cannot live as long as it remains an artifact from a lived life, a relic attesting to an “authentic” experience by a “real” blood-and-flesh person. His fiction, like much of his philosophical and ostensibly biographical work (such as The Instant of My Death), is populated by nondescript characters or personae and set within stark, unadorned situations and locales, further speaking toward or against the neutered ontology that can dissolve difference and meaning from otherwise relational—and hence ethical—life (as lived phenomenon).

And yet every bit of biographical material that surfaces indicates a rather remarkable life: befriending Emmanuel Lévinas in the mid-1920s while both were studying philosophy at the University of Strasbourg; hiding Lévinas’ wife and daughter from the National Socialists during World War II; befriending Georges Bataille in 1940 and later partnering with Bataille’s former lover Denise Rollin; escaping certain execution by a German firing squad in June 1944; and chatting with Michel Foucault during the street demonstrations of Paris in 1968.

Blanchot’s friendships had a very substantial bearing on both his philosophical and literary writings. His books were written as if they were transcriptions of conversations unmoored from any context or character study. Writing, in fact, mediated his relationships, especially his relationships with his most intimate friends. During the war, he somehow managed to help Lévinas, who was at the time in a prisoner-of-war camp for French soldiers in Germany, maintain contact with his family through letters while they were in hiding. Curiously, and although he refused to meet the man in person, he continued a “close” friendship with the poet Edmond Jabès for several decades via letters.

Blanchot’s (unwritten) life, then, was at its most basic—and its most extreme—a life of letters, mediated by the work and demand of writing, and whose written word allows for the sustaining preservation of the irreducible relation between self and other, and among writer, the written, and friend.

♦ Infinite-limited, is it you?

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