Christophe Bident: Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography

Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography Book Cover Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Christophe Bident. Translated by John McKeane
Fordham University Press
Paperback $40.00

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Toronto, Canada)

A dubious undertaking would be to propose a biography of an author who attends to the demand that a text might bear witness to itself and of its own accord. This is the legacy of Maurice Blanchot, whose testimony is that of the vanishing author—a text addressed to other texts and not, perhaps, an author to their audience. This is so much so that between what is called literature and the problematic of its very possibility, a dialogue appears only by the instrument of death, under condition of its undoing. We might, then, express concern over such an undertaking were it not for Christophe Bident’s tireless sensitivity in Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, translated by John McKeane from the original Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire Invisible. Reading Bident, one is almost confronted by such lucidity and knowledge—almost insofar as confrontation gives way to the uncanny feeling of mentorship. Bident’s text balances the demands of biography, which draws on official accounts and established readings. Yet, one who wishes to gain a furtive glance into the other life of Maurice Blanchot will be satisfied by how record-keeping is balanced by careful exegesis of his works.

On the other hand, those chapters that begin and end with the biographical, or the historical, seem also to give way to the implosion of what they recount—from Blanchot’s controversial engagement with right-wing journals in the 1930’s and 40’s, to his later political refusals (the “Manifesto of the 121” and his speeches of May ‘68)—often ending (albeit in a very different way) as they began: the termination of Blanchot’s political projects. This is no critique of Bident’s writing; he deals with these instances, too, with patient sensitivity. There is much to be learned, though, regarding the ever-present possibility of failure in confronting the ‘risk of public life’ Blanchot espouses.

Some housekeeping: when it appears as the title of the twenty-second chapter, and on the one-hundred-forty-fifth page, Blanchot’s emerging style of literary criticism in the name of the other—as Bident terms—may create confusion, if one has forgotten the French subtitle’s reference to an invisible partner. In fact, in this chapter, it will not yet be fully disclosed what these mysterious terms indicate—and certainly purposefully given that Blanchot would only be on the cusp of a literary project that would give flesh to them. The first glimpse of this thematic is to be found in that section which captures such a critical (re)turn in Blanchot’s work: the events at his family home in Quain in June 1944 where Blanchot is confronted with imminent execution. This reinvigorates his lasting concern with death, which will spill into his work on writing, friendship, literature, the impossible, always, as Bident argues, such that it “provides a model for inner experience, an experience lived, but lived by the invisible partner within us” (197).

Bident also weaves into the text the return of a peculiar piece of Blanchot’s writing on the primal scene: a child confronting the nothingness of being, the il y a (there is). This takes place when a child stares from the window out into the garden of their home, filling the space with impressions of play and the familiar, until the sky above opens onto absolute emptiness, and they begin to cry. This coincides with a feeling of “ravaging joy” which their parents confuse for sorrow (7). This scene runs continuously through Bident’s work. He mentions that Blanchot is not often accessible to, nor concerned for ‘childhood.’ However, between these two extended thematics—the invisible partner and the primal scene—Bident has framed much of his critical engagement with Blanchot’s most pressing concerns.

Part I (1907-1923) introduces Blanchot’s life in a way consistent with biographical stricture, from a short genealogy of his family’s lineage, to an introduction of the ‘Chateau’ in Quain referenced in The Instant of my Death. Relations are outlined and grand, controversial events are prefigured. It is in the interstices of the exigencies of biography, however, that Bident’s text almost immediately distinguishes itself. Bident’s deep involvement with Blanchot’s thought—and the singular demand not to rely on the logic of biography as a genre—appears as an appendage to each chapter in which we  are greeted by an aesthetic of storytelling, and direct engagement with pertinent writings of Blanchot’s. So we find in the opening chapter also certain phenomenal passages on his birth—2:00 a.m, September 22, 1907—in a time of exilic and (busy) night, the “other night” of writing (12), which will be the condition for much of his works to extend beyond the self of day; when Kafka pens, at the same time, five years and one day later, the entirety of The Judgment (8-9).

This is the beginning of a kind of mythology surrounding Blanchot’s search for solitude: from his home in Quain to his residence in Èze. Bident supplies a composite of motifs that will guide the work from biography into the realm of the literary in this section, in which one can imagine—veritably to fantasize—their own sleeplessness, troubled by the demand of writing; solitude, childhood, night, writing, insomnia. The theme and the mofit, in Blanchot, might be inseparable; between meaning and matter only the regulatory power of the term, ‘fiction,’ can sustain such a barrier. If one were faithful to Blanchot, the boundary would be lost; Bident, then, is faithful to Blanchot. We are not in the realm of literary ornament, but an image sharing in an equally justifiable claim to truth, and one that is shared amongst us.

The third chapter of this section provides a panoptic of Blanchot from the perspectives opened in later sections of the book: his peers in right-wing circles in the 1930s describe him as deathly; his friends admire his kindness, his soft-spokenness, and his grace; many are concerned by how ill his countenance seems and yet how he endures; Bataille pays the homage only a great friend and thinker can (16-18).

For even those somewhat familiar with Blanchot, it will be clear that the horizon of Part II (1920s-1940) suggests a gathering storm. In the first three chapters, we are introduced to Emmanuel Levinas, and the philosophical partnership shared between the two, until Levinas quickly dissolves from view. from chapters seven to fifteen, Bident presents Blanchot’s movements in right-wing circles, and among the children of Charles Maurras, including Thierry Maulnier, Paul Lévy, Jean-Pierre Maxence, Maurice Bardèche, Robert Brasillach, Jean de Fabrègues, Daniel Halévy, Georges Bernanos, Henri Massis, and Paul Bourget.  Blanchot contributes, in the 1930s and early 40s, to Action Française, Combat, L’Insurgé, La Revue Française, Réaction, La Revue du Siècle, Ordre Nouveau, Le Journal des Débats, Le Rempart, Aux Écoutes, and La Revue du Vingtième Siècle. He was clearly Germanophobic, and anti-Bolshevist, anti-democrat, a French nationalist, and willing to espouse a view of violent rebellion under the shadow of emergent monolithic powers, particularly the materialist-capitalist degradation of spirit. The circles he frequents cleave undeniably closely to the language of anti-Semitism, as does he in certain writings: the international and internationalist conspiracy, the spectre of capitalism, the foreigner and Other, behind which is the hated image of the Jew (75). Bident notes that anti-Semitism is one element within a logic of purification first articulated in Blanchot’s piece Mahatma Gandhi, but perhaps also goes too far to exculpate his subject, in saying that such anti-Semitism is a tool used for “eloquent oratory and insidious punches” (loc. cit.). None of this should obscure the public and consistent statements condemning Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which Blanchot declares to be the sour testimony of a pan-German barbarity reliant on a demagogue and the need to persecute (55-56). However, it cannot also merely be forgotten.

As such, Bident is fair to uphold the ‘role’ of the biographer, or as he says, to “follow the movements of conviction” of the Blanchot of the time (40, italics in original). This must include displacements and transformations, as well as the “real substance of intellectual experience” (loc. cit.). However, we should be critical of the subtle establishment of a boundary between the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real substance’ if one’s expectation is that we may dismiss Blanchot’s own framing of an anxious energy around anti-Semitic invectives. Frankly, he does not attempt to speak a truth separated from positioning within an increasingly extremophilic political web, and an epoch hurtling toward madness. At the moment that Bident proclaims his ‘sound judgment’ for rejecting all policies of disarmament—for on 14 October, 1933, Germany leaves the League of Nations negotiations on the matter (53)—we are likely to share in a certain discomfort. Was Blanchot exercising sound judgment? Was he exercising judgment at all? Certainly, Blanchot identifies the gathering of arms, and forging of Germany’s ‘warrior spirit,’ around an origin and destiny (56). And yet it would still seem both a betrayal of friendship with Blanchot, and a clear misstep, to proclaim his suspicions ‘confirmed’ if only in the hindsight of history. The point is not that Bident is wrong. It is rather that the matter should not be submitted to such judgments at all, giving the impression that all positions taken up by Blanchot must be found consistent and free of disdain, or that they can be disproven—both as fact and personal conviction—as the “failings of thought” of a young political pundit (90).

In parallel, Bident marks the near-unbelievable plurivocality of Blanchot at this time; between his work as a political commentator whose call for action are escalating toward ‘terrorism’ in favour of public safety, separated from to his literary criticism, while his personal experiences remain on the fringes of these overwhelming spheres, still contained within that ‘other night’ of solitary writing. There is a way that this part of Bident’s text is, like Blanchot’s life, veritably disrupted. Rather than offering a final sentence of his own on Blanchot’s controversial involvement with the French right-wing preceding the war, Bident finds another sentence already proclaimed in his récit of 1937. Between chapter 14 and the end of the section, Bident will give full focus to Blanchot’s public criticism (where notably he discussed even-handedly authors both censured and acclaimed by the French right-wing), and to his early récits: Death Sentence, and Thomas the Obscure as well as smaller pieces The Last Words, The Idyll. Bident’s exposition of Thomas the Obscure in particular reads like a lucid subject watching, horrified, the comforting borders of their life dissolve into the convulsive death-throes of body and soul.

Part III (1940-1949) opens on the cusp of Germany’s occupation of France and the establishment of the Vichy Government under Marshall Philippe Pétain, and thus the horizon of a great change in Blanchot. Bident notes that his slow political withdrawal in the late 1930’s, and increasing interest in literary rather than polemical endeavours, are exacerbated by his silence during the occupation within which another ‘death’ overcomes him; fragmenting into the need to rearrange his professional dealings, his declared convictions and his writing (124). At this time, Blanchot’s ties to the French resistance are stressed, as well as his assistance of Jewish friends—he and his sister save Paul Lévy’s life when they warn him of arrest, and he aids Emmanuel Levinas’ wife, Raissa, and their daughter in hiding (125).

Around the same time Blanchot attempts to “use Vichy against Vichy” through its funding of Jeune France—an association for the arts formally impolitical, and under such a guise, working relatively autonomously. Blanchot’s plan is unsuccessful, ultimately leading to the dissolution of Jeune France at the moment collaboration becomes overt. His disillusionment is so engrossing that Jean Paulhan’s similar strategic attempt to have Blanchot sit on the steering committee of the Nouvelle Revue Française is rejected (174). Contemporaneously, Blanchot meets Georges Bataille, with whom a personal and intimate friendship would persist, opening Blanchot to what Bident terms ‘atheological mysticism,’ to the shock of eroticism, and the philosophico-political engagement of the absence of self and book, absence of authority, and writing on friendship.

Blanchot’s shift is, from our vantage point, coming into view. Bident notes that his ‘Chronicles of Intellectual Life’ at the Journal des Débats demonstrates not yet so much a movement from left to right-wing politics (which he does mention in terms of a growing discontent with nationalism and reappraisal of communism), but a receptiveness to a wide body of literature—praise of Freud, French Surrealism, Breton, Gide comes on the heels of scorn for Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Georges Bernanos, while still under the purview of Vichy (147). The collaborationist government positions Blanchot to be their new scribe—in Jeune France and at the Journal des Débats—and his response is to uphold, contest, and evade these responsibilities all at once (149). This response, Bident argues, is in the name of the other. It is a matter first of all of self-evacuation, and then of critique (often, following Jean Paulhan and Stéphane Mallarmé, of the edifice of literary criticism), play, chance, resistance at the level of language itself (151-57). It is also here where the invisible partner appears; as the text’s other, sometimes the ‘character,’ who carries the speech of the author only capable of speaking through them, at other times the hidden interlocutor (Levinas, Bataille, Paulhan) who may receive a deceptively beautiful dedication, or perhaps simply a ‘wink’ within the text (156; see also 171). Bident is exciting to read for his recognition that Blanchot’s (auto)biographical demands are high, but certainly not impossible; a self-reflexive problematization of the role of biography plays out in the name of the other, amongst the récits, such that it is always “disseminated, displaced, altered” (158).

There are moments here too, however, where sensitivity is overtaken by an apprentice’s defense of their mentor. Opening the chapter on Blanchot’s “Chronicles of Intellectual Life” in the Journal des Débats, he notes: “Blanchot’s elegant, arrogantly indifferent articles were printed alongside intolerable propaganda, whether in the form of articles or advertisements,” (145) which we are wont to expect from his writings in 1941-44. Bident in the same passage performs inscrutability: “This was a strange object, a conciliatory invective, which seemed to lack any feeling for history: how was this column possible?… Did he badly need to money, as he would later say to Roger Laporte? That is not entirely true: he was receiving a salary from Jeune France” (145). These questions are crucial, and their pointed honesty are compelling; they are exactly those that would be necessary for holding to account a subject embroiled in this controversy, and to exceed the bashful apologetics of an admirer. It is because of these questions that it is also unsatisfying to see Bident turn away from the possibility they open. Blanchot, throughout the text, seems to be conveniently at a distance to those repugnant organizations that cause such controversy around his legacy even today, whilst playing an equally muted, but somehow more expansive role in reputable projects (in this case, Jeune France). We should not clamour for a sacrifice, and Bident is right to direct us to a number of contestations and evasions that constitute Blanchot’s refusal wholeheartedly of Pétain and Hitler. This does not bring Blanchot out of the constellation of right-wing thought for his time, in which he will continue to pit French nationalism against German, and in such ways that—having rejected ‘blood and soil’—will continue to speak of an essentialist mythology: a France of “order and style” (121).

These concerns are a stark contrast to the récits. From Thomas the Obscure, to Aminadab, and after the war The Most High, The Madness of the Day, Death Sentence and a second edition of Thomas, the chapters dealing respectively with Blanchot’s récits provide some of the most intriguing reading. Bident is careful with his exigesis; under the heading of a critical biography, it would not be fair to expect that an author’s texts have been read, and he offers summaries of what loose plot-points a récit may offer. These are weaved deftly amongst considerations of Blanchot’s changing personal life and political convictions. Do the récits mark out singularly such shifting ground? Bident notes that “perhaps his political past was becoming something akin to a dream” (168). In any case, they do entangle with those philosophical, literary and personal concerns that will culminate in Blanchot’s near-execution around the close of the war. Famously, The Instant of my Death (published in 1994) tells of a semi-autobiographical situation in which a narrator and their family is confronted in front of their ‘Chateau’ by imminent death at the hands of a German firing squad (later revealed to be part of the Russian Vlasov Division fighting for the Nazis). He is released instead, and takes refuge in the nearby forest where he watches as his village is burned down, his own home to be saved by a peculiar sentiment of the invaders toward its “noble appearance” (183-84). This episode had a strong impact on Blanchot—as such an experience might—reinforcing his explorations of writing, literature, and death, and granting him a sort of ‘lightness.’ Blanchot becomes “a nomad moving from demourrance to demourrance” (dwelling to dwelling), following this experience (184).

The period of writing in the immediate post-war era is concomitant with Blanchot’s increasing melancholy, however, and withdrawal from French literary circles that seem keen on the ‘purification’ of their ranks (188). He writes for, and edits Bataille’s journal Actualité, as well as publishing more frequently in Maulnier’s Cahier’s de la Table Ronde, founded for those rejected by the leftist Comité National des Ecrivains. This was followed by further writing for L’Arche, Les Temps Modernes, and Critique.

Part IV (1949-1959) opens in a way characteristic of Blanchot, who initiated many rescissions in the summer of 1944, escaping to Quain around the end of the war, and to Èze starting in 1946. From 1949-57 he remains in Èze, where literature will overtake him. In this same way, Bident allows for a reversal of the structure of his biography consistent with Blanchot’s movement: his récits and critical essays, their contexts, will be placed at the forefront and all other material will be displaced. Blanchot himself is slowly fading in order to open the space of literature, where Bident’s refrain of a literature in the name of the other takes place under the condition of an ‘essential solitude.’ During this time, Blanchot publishes the récits When the Time Comes, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, and The Last Man, as well as, through his contributions in particular to Jean Paulhan’s resuscitated Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française, what would become the core of The Space of Literature and The Book to Come (as well as Friendship and The Infinite Conversation) (271-72).

Again Bident demonstrates such electrifying acuity in his discussion of Blanchot’s texts. When the Time Comes tracks Blanchot’s ‘nocturnal capacity’ to attend to even his fictional interlocutors, opening the rupturous space of a resistant partner—a character who cannot, by the ‘authority’ of the author, be ordered to relinquish their secrets (257-59). This will be expanded in The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, where the neuter begins to take shape in a crepuscular adventure, a conversation with an unnamable interlocutor, and within a space that is both sheltered from the world and where a world of shelter can arise (263-64). The question as to how writing is possible appears alongside such a solitary wandering, to which Blanchot’s essay collections respond—which is to say, they continue to reopen these questions in multifarious ways. Selections in The Space of Literature and The Book to Come are marked out for their contributions to the neuter: as reserve and prophecy in what escapes and threatens, but also opens the space for, the work; as autobiography and the abandonment of autobiography in the authority of the author; as an interruption of thought, a cruel act of refusal of certainty (276-78, 280-82).

Alongside his literary production, this section marks three large shifts in Blanchot’s life that will prefigure his future endeavours and return to political publication. First, his mother passes away in 1957 prompting a return to Paris and proximity to emerging political events—especially the imminent presidency of Charles De Gaulle. Second, Blanchot encounters for the first time in 1958, Robert Antelme, whose work he read and appreciated, and whose friendship, Bident notes, “was already certain” (297). Third, and completing this section, Blanchot, alongside Dionys Mascolo and Antelme, initiate the 14 Juillet project. The journal, intended to respond to De Gaulle and the French post-war political landscape, was founded on a manifesto of faith to revolution, return to resistance and refusal of providential power, as well as the fear of fascism and opposition to a politic of salvation in a leader (304). Although it would publish few issues, the journal seemed to be a culmination of the change that had taken place in the last decade: Blanchot returns to the ‘risk of public life,’ forges critical bonds with Mascolo and Antelme as well as René Char, and concentrates his political project, as Bident notes, around action “in the name of the anonymous” (308). 14 Juillet would pre-figure a project of opposition to a sedimenting civic-society in favour of the self-effacement explored in the récits, and a staple of Blanchot’s literary theoretical approach.

It would be inaccurate to say that certain aspects of Blanchot’s strategy of writing is completely unrecognizeable upon his return to public life. He demonstrates a distinctive concern for the importance of writing as the act of political involvement par excellence. Part V (1960-1968) opens with an extended chapter on the “Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War,” penned primarily by Mascolo, Jean Schuster, and himself, under the backdrop of an ambiguous socio-political situation in which political indifference allows for the unabated use of torture, and the entwining of the political with the military (315-16). The “Manifesto of the 121,” referencing the signatories approached during the summer of 1960, was circulated on September 1, to immediate controversy. It was denounced by right-wing publications (including Thierry Maulnier in Le Figaro), submitted as evidence in the trial of Francis Jeanson for high treason (who had organized a network of militants in support of the FLN), and initiated a wave of arrests of prominent intellectuals which gave rise to protests and international outcry in defense of the signatories (321-22).

Bident mentions some of the most crucial features of the document in terms both of its relation to Blanchot’s intellectual attitude, and as a politico-historical event. Of the latter, it marked (perhaps for the first time) the right—beyond duty—not to oppress. This involves an expansion of responsibility rather than its contraction consistent with the affirmation of a freedom to act inhering in the concept of ‘right,’ where previous texts concluded on the right not to suffer oppression (318). Further, it was an important instance of such a document calling for illegal action in support of deserters and insubordination. Of the former, it seems that much of the grounding of these positions flowed from ‘essential solitude,’ not merely as refusal or reclusion from the world, but the abyss from which no author may singularly emerge, no singular signature can mark ownership—from the neuter, from the there is itself (loc. cit.). The success of the “Manifesto” would lead to an attempt to extend the project of an anonymous and plurivocal space responding to the most urgent issues of the time. Named the International Review, the subsequent journal would bring together a multiplicity of voices in the shared truth of being a writer, and welcoming the speech of the Other (320).  In light of the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Algerian Independence in 1962, and Georges Bataille’s death, the journal would not see a first issue, and the project was abandoned by 1963 (328-32).

This precipitates in Blanchot another change, and a consistent disillusionment with the possibility of politics that upheld even in his revived action during the May ’68 protests. In the meantime, he would devote himself to friendships, and to writing Awaiting Oblivion, as well as the pieces comprising the Entretien. The neuter emerges in many places in Bident’s text in multiple forms, but always with uncanny familiarity, in these chapters. Variously, Bident mentions that the neuter may be conceived as wandering into estrangement, the extremity of thought, self-extrication from the ‘completion of metaphysics’ as an anti-Heideggerian position, the unfinished response to the impossible, an anonymous biography of a faceless someone, the stirring of indifference, and the overtaking of ‘the book to come’ with ‘the absent book’ (351-59). The Entretien persists as one of the best exemplifications of fragmentary writing, the interruptive conversation, which, like Awaiting Oblivion, imbues speech with vitality without allowing it to manifest; a conversation that demands community.

May ’68 is preceded by the ‘Beaufret Affair.’ François Fédier, compiling a volume in honour of Beaufret entitled L’endurance de la pensée, enjoins a number of writers, including Blanchot, Char, and Derrida, to contribute. After allegations of Beaufret’s anti-Semitism emerge (likely from Roger Laporte), a number of private meetings are held in Derrida’s office at the École Normale Supérieure (371-72). Blanchot is notified of the allegations, and begins meeting with Derrida to deliberate on their course of action—which incidentally opens a dialogue that will continue after the affair—and Blanchot resolves to publish “The Fragment Word” on two conditions: that it be accompanied by a dedication to Emmanuel Levinas (who may have personally been affected by Beaufret), and that all authors are informed of what has transpired (372). He then meets, alongside Derrida, with Levinas who had not been informed, but who invites subtlety on the matter (374).

The conditions preceding, and initially surrounding May ’68, then, are piqued by Blanchot’s disillusionment and melancholy, which seems somewhat to give way to a renewed vigor; he is a consistent speaker at protests and meetings, and establishes—with Mascolo—a writer’s union intent on relinquishing authorial authority, support of the protests, and recognition of the anonymous textual production of the period not captured by ‘the book’: from banners, to graffiti, chanting, and pamphlets (379-79). The writer’s union gives rise to a bulletin, named simply Committee, which quickly succumbs—similarly to the International Review—to internal divisions stemming from international events, this time the invasion of Prague by the USSR (384-85). Blanchot leaves in agitation, and due to problems with his health.

Part VI (1969-1997) documents the latter years of Blanchot’s career—not until his death in 2003, as Bident published the original French text of the critical biography in 1998. This will include the publication of his final works, The Step Not Beyond, The Writing of the Disaster, The Unavowable Community, as well as works discussed briefly: Vicious Circles, A Voice From Elsewhere, and The Instant of my Death. In this lengthy stretch, Blanchot’s commitment to explorations of Judaism and Hasidic mysticism, his vigilance against anti-Semitism, his perseverance in friendship, and his experimentation with margins, boundaries, and the outside of thinking converge with Bident’s account of various responses to his work. Blanchot once again rescinds, this time into the suburbs of Paris with his brother René, in increasing secrecy that will give rise to one of the most dubious and enduring features of his legacy; of the responses to Blanchot, one seems to be a popular fixation on the image of the person, and violation of his solitude. This is such that a living myth emerges, and is propelled by a photo taken of him for the magazine Lire in 1985. The photo will be republished variously and frequently (423). It is also around this time that right-wing articles Blanchot wrote preceding and during the Second World War re-emerge, of which he takes full responsibility so many years later, referring to them as “detestable and inexcusable” (455).

Some truly fantastic commentary on Blanchot’s works are published by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sarah Kofman, Edmond Jabès, and others, as well. It is at times a shock, and at others a relief, to note both the rarity of commentary on his works—which today has amassed to a sizeable amount nonetheless—alongside what Maurice Nadeau underscores as the challenge of commenting on his works (417). Bident seems—and John McKeane echoes this sentiment in his afterword on Blanchot’s legacy and the evolution of studies of his works—that scholarship on Blanchot is fraught with missteps, and false confrontations.

McKeane’s translation of Bident’s critical biography is undoubtedly an important contribution to scholarship on Maurice Blanchot, provides a new opening particularly for English-speaking readers into his decidedly complex texts and their contexts. With this in mind, Blanchot’s legacy will remain an open-ended question. Bident provides particularly magnificent commentaries on Blanchot’s texts, and is deeply sensitive to his life—if admittedly one may take issue with his having done so too handily. It is in light of the more vociferous contemporary scholarship on Blanchot that the claim that one is misguided in mounting such an attack rings with a certain genuineness impossible to deny, and might be taken insofar as the re-emergence of a politic of writing seems to obscure engagement with his works. In any case, It will be a stimulating sight as Blanchot studies progress to open a space to contend with some of the most compelling and difficult concerns posed to us by existence and nothingness, the book to come and the book of absences, and the work or worklessness of community.

[1] Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, trans. John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

Emmanuel Levinas: Husserls Theorie der Anschauung, Turia + Kant, 2019

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Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas, Oxford University Press, 2019

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Christophe Bident: Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, Fordham University Press, 2018

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Avi Sagi: Living With the Other: The Ethic of Inner Retreat, Springer, 2018

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James McGuirk: Eros, Otherness, Tyranny, Bautz Verlag, 2017

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Elad Lapidot, Micha Brumlik (Eds.): Heidegger and Jewish Thought: Difficult Others, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

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Joeri Schrijvers: Between Faith and Belief: Toward a Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life

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Reviewed by: Nicole Des Bouvrie (Research Fellow at Brighton University)

Searching for a way to answer Reiner Schürmann’s question “What is to be done at the end of metaphysics?” once “being” is unhinged from God, Joeri Schrijvers discusses perspectives of several thinkers that each considered this question in their own right. His overall goal is to establish how contemporary (and secular) phenomenology of religious life points us towards something that transcends mere finitude. He builds upon his previous work, ‘Ontotheological Turnings’ (2011), in which he showed how metaphysics and its “ontotheological constitution” (Heidegger) are inevitable. In three parts he questions how contemporary thought tries to come to a metaphysics without Christianity (part 1), and whether it can position itself, as John D. Caputo tries to accomplish, as between faith and belief – as a “religion without religion” (part 2). In the third and last part he takes up Heidegger’s legacy and explores how there is something beyond a nihilistic ‘anything goes’. Here he presents what seems the main point of the whole book, namely Ludwig Binswanger’s phenomenology of love as a criticism of Heidegger’s Being and Time and as an approach in which the theological element of a phenomenological approach to life comes to light.

In this book, Schrijvers takes up an important issue that is present in a lot of contemporary thought: How are we to understand atheism – as it cannot be understood as merely a secularisation of originally theological positions. How are we to understand the theological heritage of our present ideologies? To explore this issue he spends a large part of the book reiterating debates between Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Sloterdijk, between Caputo and Martin Hägglund, and Jean-Luc Marion.

Binswanger on Love

Yet especially interesting is Schrijvers exploration of the infrequently studied work of Binswanger (1891–1966), and Schrijvers’ analysis next of Binswanger in comparison and reaction to the work of Heidegger, Levinas and Nancy. Binswanger was a Swiss psychiatrist who took on Heidegger’s claim of the coming about of being through the relationship with the finiteness of life, but was of the position that “this truth lacks love, the original being-together.” Phenomenology is taken up as not an elitist method of play, but the most faithful approach to being and experience of everyone:

“What Binswanger initiated then is not only a fundamentally egalitarian phenomenology but also and no less importantly an originary coram: an always already being turned toward otherness.” (227)

Schrijvers’ work is both rich by providing a context of contemporary thinkers such as Sloterdijk and Nancy, and their interpretations and positions on the work of Derrida, Levinas. But it seems his real contribution to that field is his inclusion of the philosophy of love as developed by Binswanger. Love is what conditions the possibility of every ontic encounter, which leads Binswanger to consider this phenomenon an example of an “ontology incarnate”. In this ontological encounter, there is a transcendentality that is presented through the passageway that starts with love. Schrijvers posits Binswanger’s theory as a way that is neither “too much nor too little” inclined towards religion – it is not dependent on religion, but does not exclude it.

Despite Schrijvers’ excellent review of contemporary thought and their dependency on canonical thinkers such as Heidegger and Derrida, in the end it is the theological aspect that remains the focus, and the relation of the phenomenology of love is looked at from the question of the task of theology.

Incarnational Thinking

Schrijvers looks for a philosophical approach to an ontological and metaphysical account of concepts that have been theologically understood – community, love, being. He traces the contemporary attempts to accomplish this – for instance in the work of Levinas and Nancy. His analysis of movements in the understanding of the Other are closest to the Binswanger, in that according to Schrijvers this understanding gives rise to an ‘incarnational thinking’, where the ontic experience has the capability to be understood as an incarnation of something transcendental.

What is remarkable in Schrijvers’ otherwise thorough work, is the manner in which his analysis is limited to specific authors and therefore working within assumptions that are not questioned. One of those is the reliance on the concept of the position of the Other. A central theme in his work, as in the search for an ontology of being, philosophers have focused on specific ontic encounters with the Other (the kiss, hospitality, giving) through which they attempt to formulate a post-secular understanding of transcendence in modern society. Schrijvers takes on the different positions of Levinas, Derrida and Caputo, and the way Binswanger and Heidegger are attempting to find a measure of the self and in which the phenomenological and anthropological encounter with the Other. But he never moves beyond these interpretations. For instance, he holds on to the underlying assumption of difference between self and the other. Contemporary attempts to answer his fundamental question that refuse to follow in the footsteps of Levinas and Derrida, such as in the work of Bracha Ettinger and Luce Irigaray, are not considered. Thus he falls prey to a rootedness in thinking through difference that is never questioned.

When we take his claim of a search for an answer to the question of the role of the transcendental in a post-secular world serious, we end up disappointed. Many leading contemporary thinkers who have contributed to this field, such Alain Badiou, Hans Jonas, Charles Taylor or Maurice Blanchot, remain untouched. Through this selective choice, Schrijvers takes a very specific and theology-oriented approach, and his work should therefore be seen as a perpetuation of the directions of thought laid out by a particular strand of thinkers.

When we consider his work an overview and reflection on the work of specific thinkers and on how the work of Binswanger expands their view, we can conclude Schrijvers’ work is well-written and thought provoking. He has written an important work tracing the influences and developments of a group of contemporary thinkers and their position on whether ontology can be understood without a theological origin. Is there a solution to the “uncanny poverty” that results from secularisation, and is can this solution be provided by a phenomenology as professed by Derrida, Levinas, Heidegger, and even Binswanger? Yet by putting the focus of his work on contemporary theologians and their relation to theory, his conclusions should be read as a work on these thinkers, and not as a work on the general question Schrijvers poses.

But this doesn’t mean that Schrijvers falls prey to his own remark, that much academic writing is concerned only with “a sterile piling up of publications that nobody really seems to read and that at any rate do not function as vectors for a contemporary debate or catalysts for thinking.” (3) His work is a insightful contribution to the existing literature on this contemporary topic, both as an expansion on the work of several influential thinkers, but also on their limits and their individually unique approaches to the same phenomenon – the quest for a transcendence and its relation to the ontological notion of being.

The Legacy of Phenomenology in Contemporary Thought

The strength of Schrijvers’ work lies in the careful consideration of the legacy of the phenomenological method through the approaches of Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida and the way these reverberate in what he determines to be the contemporary view, as laid out by the work of Nancy, Caputo and Binswanger. Taking phenomenology to be “a witness to the place and space where meaning originates”, he questions the way the empirical and the ontological are intertwined, and the quasi-transcendental dizziness this leads to. He contemplates the emptiness left by the ‘death of God’ and the prevailing anarchy, in which nothing is sovereign. And he concludes that it is possible to formulate a philosophy of incarnation, in which meaning arises out of matter, but that there remains a lack of meaning. “This is perhaps what needs to be done at the end of metaphysics: recognising that we know that we do not know and that we most often fail to love properly. The human being is a being in default: its ambition surpasses its ability. Coming to terms with such a being in default may be the adequate response to the end of metaphysics: it is to recognise that we all share in this default and this lack and that this “knowing of not knowing” is what turns philosophy, as the love of wisdom, into a wisdom of love: not to overcome the lack, but to love even the lack (of rationality, of ultimate meaning.” (304-305)

Thus Schrijvers follows in the footsteps of a long tradition, looking at the end of metaphysics as a call to start philosophy – as a saying born through and beginning with love, positing language as the domain in which the encounter takes place. His work can be seen as a good introduction and careful reflection on the different perspectives on this position, but his work does not leave the contours of the theory he investigates.

Sarah Hammerschlag: Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion

Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion Book Cover Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion
Sarah Hammerschlag
Columbia University Press
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Esteban J. Beltrán Ulate (Universidad of Costa Rica)

Sarah Hammerschlag en su obra Broken Tablets: Levinas Derrida and Literary Afterlife of Religion, editada por Columbia University Press, incursiona en el terreno de los estudios religiosos a partir de dos importantes referentes: Emmanuel Levinas y Jacques Derrida. El orden de la presente exposición será mediado por la estructura misma de la obra, esbozando una serie de consideraciones capitulares y finiquitando con breves consideraciones generales. El texto se compone de las siguientes secciones: Preface (0), What must a Jewish thinker be (1), Levinas, Literature and the run of the world (2), Between the Jew and writing (3), To lose one’s head: Literature and the democracy to come (4), Literature and the political-theological remains (5), Epilogue: There is not a pin to choose between us (6).

La sección Preface (0) nos enfrenta al objetivo del estudio: comprender la lectura de Derrida de la obra de Levinas y a la vez atender al significado de una lectura conjunta de Levinas y Derrida en el marco de los estudios de la religión. En Derrida son múltiples los ecos y reverberancias de la obra levinasiana, no solo como comentador e intérprete sino incluso como deformador. La obra de Sarah apunta a un recorrido de esos momentos cruciales en los que la traza de sus diálogos permite una lectura de categorías como religión y literatura. En este apartado se señalan tanto las diferencias como las consonancias de los autores y se explicita al lector el marco de referencia de la obra, aportando nuevos insumos para los estudios en filosofía de la religión.

El primer capítulo, What must a Jewish thinker be (1), procura una diferenciación entre la religión y la literatura, a partir de las proximidades de ambos autores, considerando sus implicaciones políticas. El corazón del capítulo y en general del libro se enfrenta a la pregunta: ¿cómo debe ser un pensador judío?

El apartado desarrolla los puntos de inicio del pensamiento de los autores -Levinas con el judaísmo y Derrida con la Literatura- así como el sentido en el cual ambos pensadores formulan su identidad judía. Hammerschlag despliega una descripción de diferentes aspectos abordados por Derrida en múltiples textos, en los que realiza tanto un interpretación de las tesis levinasianas (noción de paternidad, idea del tercero) como una re-lectura de los relatos de la tradición judía (sacrificio de Isaac). Para Derrida la literatura está ineludiblemente atada a los textos religiosos de la comunidad abrahámica. Posteriormente se desarrolla una dimensión particular de la ironía, como herramienta que mantiene y da sentido a la comunidad.

Las conexiones históricas entre Derrida y Levinas se presentan a lo largo del apartado, desde sus primeros encuentros hasta el proceso de madurez de “Violencia y metafísica”, prestando atención a “momentos/palabra” de resonancia, como Dieu. Aunado a esto la autora describe algunos pasajes donde se perfila el carácter de ironía, haciendo referencia a ciertos textos. En un apartado posterior se presenta un abordaje de la noción de Decir (Dire) en Levinas, y sus resonancias en Derrida, especialmente en la relación del acto de habla como manifestación de la relación del cara-a-cara (face-to-face).

Las proximidades entre los autores se descubren en el análisis de la significación de Husserl en Investigaciones Lógicas, así como en las relaciones entre Religión y Literatura, tema que es asumido de manera distinta por ambos filósofos. La autora hace mención puntal de los aspectos que llevan a Derrida a desarrollar un trabajo a partir de las fisuras de la obra levinasiana, construyendo así una filosofía desde la ruptura con la filosofía de Levinas, pero, a la vez, reconociéndolo como su fuente de inspiración. Como expresa Hammerschlag: “For Derrida this is indeed the promise of literature and the obligation that Derrida took up as a mens of expressing his fidelity to Levinas” (p. 34). El capítulo finaliza con el reconocimiento del legado de ambos autores que, más allá incluso del nivel filosófico y político, resuena a partir de las categorías de religión y literatura.

El capítulo, Levinas, Literature and the run of the world (2), se inclina por la contextualización, atendiendo a la postura de Levinas respecto a la Literatura. Inicia con una detallada descripción de la situación judía intelectual en Francia a comienzos del siglo XX, y marca el modo en que tanto Levinas como Derrida son herederos de ese contexto. Respecto a los inicios de Levinas en el contexto académico francés se refiere la relación con Kojève, con Wahl, así como su papel en la introducción de la fenomenología de Heidegger y Husserl en la esfera francesa. La autora encamina al lector por las principales fuentes de influencia y de contrastación literaria con las que interactuó Levinas, y a su vez como estas colaboraron en el diseño de la noción de ser judío.

Para Hammerschlag la sensibilidad en cuanto a la relación entre Filosofía, Religión y Literatura en Levinas se evidencia a partir del ensayo De l’évasion (1930). Afirma que: “The essay thus presents literature and religion as accomplices in this narrative of failed escape” (45). De igual manera encuentra momentos de encuentro entre literatura y religión en los textos del período de guerra -cerca de 1946- que posteriormente serán profundizados (en lo que respecta a la noción de metáfora) en los años 60`s durante su participación en Jean Wahl`s Collége Philosophique.

La autora hace una delicada mención al contexto literario que circula en las principales revistas con aportaciones de pensadores emergentes y en auge en el contexto de entreguerras, bajo el análisis de la esencia de la literatura y su relación con la filosofía, la ética y la política; los nombres de Sartre, Proust, Blanchot, Bataille, Heidegger serán constantes en estas relaciones y discrepancias con la mirada de Levinas. Se finaliza el capítulo haciendo una referencia a las cercanías del filósofo lituano con el movimiento personalista de Emmanuel Mounier, así como con los interlocutores de tradición católica, tales como Marcel, Jamkélévitch, Maritain, Minkowski.

El tercer capítulo, Between the Jew and writing (3), presenta la posición de Derrida sobre la literatura. Se inicia indicando el carácter inductivo que logra Ricoeur en Derrida para su introducción en la obra levinasiana, específicamente a partir de Totalité e Infini. El concepto de diferencia será la primera reflexión que Derrida asumirá en medio del estudio de la obra de Levinas.

La autora desarrolla el itinerario intelectual de Derrida, desde sus cercanías con Ricoeur, hasta el desarrollo de sus textos de la mano de las lecturas de la obra levinasiana, así como su acercamiento a la obra husserliana. La noción de misterio desarrollada por Marcel será un eje temático que asumirá Derrida en su crítica. En la obra se presenta la auto-caracterización que Derrida emite sobre su relación con lo griego y lo judío.

En la ruta de Derrida tendrá en común con Levinas, por un lado, los encuentros con la obra de Heidegger y Blanchot; y por otro, serán reconocidas las invocaciones a la literatura de Nietzsche (algo a lo que Levinas no era fiel). Las críticas y reinterpretaciones de Zarathustra por parte de Derrida serán expuestas por la autora, teniendo en mente las trazas de la mirada levinasiana. Categorías como metáfora y escatología estarán difuminadas en algunos momentos del proyecto de Derrida. En este sentido, señala que: “Eschatology is thus rethought through an alternative metaphor, not through la croix but throuhg le creux” (p. 90). Se expone la influencia de la obra de Mallarmé en Derrida cerca de 1960, por medio de Edmond Jabès.

Hammerschlag reconoce que en el texto Ellipses es donde se perfila de manera temprana la relación entre religión y literatura por parte de Derrida, de igual manera expone como por medio de la relación de Levinas con la tradición judía articula la dicotomía entre literatura y religión. Es notorio, dada la descripción de la autora del texto, como Derrida bebiendo de la fuente de Levinas procura nuevas ramificaciones en su pensamiento, a partir de la noción de libertad.

La lectura de Difícil Libertad por parte de Derrida, será fundamental en la re-investigación de su identidad judía. En este momento se presenta un interesante retrato a propósito de las diferencias entre los contextos judíos de ambos autores y de su situación entre-guerra y post-guerra. El capítulo finaliza retornando al momento del encuentro entre Levinas y Derrida en el marco del Coloquio de Intelectuales Judíos de lengua francesa, y exponiendo las tesis ético-políticas expuestas por Levinas y sus subsecuentes resonancias en Derrida.

En el capítulo To lose one’s head: Literature and the democracy to come (4), se analizan las repercusiones de la imbrincación entre el pensamiento de Levinas y el de Derrida. Inicia exponiendo ideas a propósito de las tesis de Derrida en un seminario titulado “Literature and Truth” en 1968, así como las líneas de su obra asumidas por los intérpretes de la obra derrideana. Para Hammerschlag la tarea llevada a cabo en el capítulo es mostrar cómo Derrida establece la literatura como un componente necesario y, a su vez, cómo por medio de la literatura se ejercen operaciones políticas relacionadas a la religión.

Es a partir de las lecturas de la obra de Levinas que Derrida formula sus propias categorías de trabajo. El apartado hace una transición de la lectura poética de Levinas a la lectura política a partir de una visión ética. Se afirma que: “Levinas describes the voice of the prophet, the escatological voice as the voice that interrupts history, that refuses to wait, that insists on a justice independent from teleology” (p. 123). Por su parte, se presenta la noción de “autoinmunidad” de Derrida, en contraste con las tesis de Levinas expuestas en Other wise than being. La autora también refiere la distinción entre la dicotomía del discurso científico (ciencia y medicina) y el disruptivo (profético y poético) por parte de Levinas en Other wise than being y por parte de Derrida en Faith and Knowledge.

A lo largo del apartado se sigue evidenciando el contraste entre las diversas categorías que se hallan en los autores, recargando tintas en la noción de religión, y explicando con gran detalle el carácter derrideano que se extiende más allá de la mirada levinasiana de lo “sacro” y “santo” a partir de la teorización que deviene de su reflexión desde la categoría de “marrano”. Con gran elocuencia Hammerschlag dice: “Levinas provides a kind of curriculum vitae in order to situate his work. Derrida, in contrast, introduces the reference to the Marrano to complicate the relation between his autobiography and his writings” (p.130).

El capítulo vuelve a dar un giro hacia lo político y se examina la mirada de Levinas a propósito del sioniosmo y la situación con Palestina, así como las reflexiones en orden a “el tercero” y “el otro” en el marco de la justicia. Por su parte se retoma la categoría de Derrida denominada como “Principio de Diseminación”. El apartado finaliza con la posición de Derrida a propósito de la mirada reflexiva de la noción de secreto -literatura del secreto- y la concepción de perdón -literatura del perdón-, ilustrando con fuentes como Kafka o relatos del Bereshit (Abraham, Noe). Frente a las concepciones de autores que apelan a retornar al sitio del misterio teológico o al modelo de religión como irrupción mesiánica de lo político, Derrida propone volver a la literatura. Como manifiesta la autora: “Derrida proposes literature as inheriting from all these traditions, but in a form that divest itself of authority, originality, exclusivity, or primacy” (p.150). Con gran astucia concluye elaborando una discusión respecto a la literatura y su carácter no-revolucionario, en contraposición a la soberanía de lo autónomo: una reflexión política abierta.

El capítulo quinto, Literature and the political-theological remains (5), se ubica en las implicaciones del modelo derrideano de teología política. La autora pone en discusión el proyecto de pensar la literatura como un legado religioso que debe ser necesariamente parte del imaginario dentro de un contexto democrático. En este sentido: “Literature can show us the opacity of the subject but without the necessity of invoking transcendence” (p. 157). El apartado presenta las críticas de Judith Butler respecto a las tesis tanto de Levinas como de Derrida, desde una lectura religiosa-política, lo que permite al lector contrastar a ambos autores y reconocer sus límites desde una lectura de un tercero (en este caso de Butler).

El apartado desarrolla una reflexión a propósito de la religión y la posibilidad de la literatura a partir de un diálogo entre Derrida y diversos autores, como Patocka, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire y Nietzsche, teniendo como categorías de discusión el cristianismo y el relato de Abraham e Isaac (sacrificio). Se expone también la relación entre literatura y terror, con la injerencia de Blanchot y Paulhan para acompasar las tesis de Derrida.

El capítulo finaliza retomando las nociones de literatura y secreto, una lectura a cuatro manos (Derrida y Levinas), reconociendo las distancias y cercanías de los autores, repensando el carácter pedagógico de la literatura que es capaz de exponer y ocultar el secreto por medio del lenguaje; así: “Literature would thus teach us to see language itself as simultaneously exposure and masking, yet it would also teach us how to recognize its features at play and how to reread religious text in light of them” (p. 177).

En la última sección intitulada Epilogue: There is not a pin to choose between us (6) la autora juega con diversos elementos de la literatura derrideana para colocar al lector frente a una pregunta que le inquieta retrospectivamente a la elaboración del libro y que, a su vez, enfrenta al lector con el mismo problema: “the last word” (p. 189).

Sarah Hammerschlag en su obra nos pone frente a un tejido de textos, cuyas fuentes rebosan de sentido. El delicado tratamiento de las fuentes y la elocuente mediación en las relaciones posibilitan el goce en los estudiosos que buscan ahondar en las cercanías y distancias entre Levinas y Derrida. Más allá de las discusiones y diálogos a propósito de los autores, se expone la literatura religiosa y su praxis por medio del actuar en el mundo. Las aberturas del tejido elaborado por la Profesora Hammerschlag llevan al lector constantemente a detener la lectura y re-pensar las categorías enfrentándose permanentemente al texto. En el libro son muchas las voces, el tratamiento discursivo resulta ser como un oleaje constante reventando en la costa de la conciencia del lector, avivando la llama del secreto y el misterio.