Seeds of a Primordial Spatial Phenomenology: Chrétien’s Spacious Joy
A dual, entwined argument takes place throughout this book. These arguments require disaggregation. One layer of argument is a concern with foreground phenomenological content in experience. The second layer pertains to background phenomenological structure. The foreground argument is a highly distilled one that concentrates its focus on a specific term, dilation (dilatatio), as a content of experience. This experiential content is sensitively explored through multifarious dimensions across predominantly Christian thinkers and mystics, though with a range of poets also embraced, such as Whitman, Rimbaud and Rilke. Chrétien explicitly states that his focus is on ‘spiritual authors’ such as poets and mystics where ‘the Christian tradition predominates’ (2) rather than on philosophers,
This phenomenological content of experience goes beyond simply Husserlian intentionality, in terms of both scope and claimed source; it also interrogates the precognitive in experience and invokes experience of a Christian God. The range of texts chosen for interrogation in terms of experiential dilation is quite limited, while Chrétien largely resists the temptation to invite obvious resonances with wider philosophical sources for these accounts of experiential content in relation to dilation.
The background argument is somewhat more surreptitiously expressed and unfolded. It is in terms of a spatial structure or system of experience. Dilation is irredeemably spatial, resting on background spatial suppositions. The contours of this spatial background for experiencing, underpinning experience of dilation, is adverted to in a sustained way throughout the book, though not in terms of a systematic argument or overarching conclusion as to the features and trajectories of these spaces of experience in experience. The structural features of these spaces tend to remain for Chrétien as illustrative, though his claim at the outset of the book is that these spaces are primordial and are prior to metaphor.
Chrétien seeks to retrieve a space for experience that has been glossed over in much of the Western tradition. Significantly, Aquinas is viewed by Chrétien as taking ‘the fatal step of splitting the concept of dilation into two, namely, into a physical meaning and a metaphorical meaning’ (7). He seeks to challenge this Aristotelian construction between the literal and metaphorical for space, upon which Aquinas built this cleavage. Chrétien raises the pivotal question, ‘Is there not a more primordial sense of dilation, anterior to the split ?’ (7), a split that reduces space to mere metaphor or bodily experience. Chrétien explicitly states that he draws on authors in this book that ‘do not treat the dilation of the heart as a mere metaphor’ (7). He seeks a more primordial space than the metaphorical and possibly also prior to the metaphysical. In doing so, he assails the Cartesian definition of matter that ‘implies that spiritual substances such as Gods, angels, or our own mind cannot be extended’ (9). Moreover, given that Descartes treated space as an empty non-entity, Chrétien is challenging this whole Aristotelian-Cartesian edifice for space.
With explicit search for ‘their phenomenological basis’ (47), the accounts of the content of dilation as lived experience of the various thinkers offer some common threads pertaining to space. However, the broad range of experiences invoked for dilation raises the question as to whether, grasp all, lose all ? Do the wide domains of dilation dilute its meanings ? It is purportedly both an extremity of experience and yet, available naturally in the everyday; ‘dilation is found at every level of experience, including at the highest level of mystical moments’ so that the ‘supernatural is not necessarily the supra-sensible’ (96). Dilation is and brings both love and joy, as well as renewal (100). Though for St. Theresa of Avila, it is a passage to a higher spacious mode of experience, dilatatio invades the senses of sight, sound, smell, as an expansion of perception, as a ‘transformation of all the senses’ (128); it is proposed to infiltrate action, emotion, memory and thought, while emanating from a level of soul prior to the heart. As a spatial movement, ‘dilation is an act and a motion; it cannot form a perpetual state’ (175). It is an experiential process of movement.
Dilation is portrayed as including cognition within its ambit, both as intellect and volition (117), while also accommodating contemplation as dilation. Thus, dilation as a mode of experience appears to stretch into terrains of both the Dionysian as a prerepresentative experience of rapture in early Nietszche, and the Apollonian as self-conscious condensing into form as a process of cognition, without being reducible to either or all aspects of the Dionysian or Apollonian in Nietszschean terms. A powerful final chapter 9 on the breath in terms of expansion/contraction, as a mode of dilation, offers a prior site of experience to sheer sensuality.
The retort that Chrétien would give to this risk of dilution of understanding of dilation is that it is part of an inner unification process (71) and unity is not totality of experience, ‘the very act of dilation unifies the self’ (16). Yes, the scope of dilation is ambitious on Chrétien’s account. His spatial search via dilation is not merely the phenomenology of space as perception, as that of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard acknowledges his spatial concerns are in the miniature and not at the extremes of experiential and conceptual depths, ‘Such formulas as being-in-the-world […] are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them […] I feel more at home in miniature worlds’ of space (1964: 161). In contrast, Chrétien is entering the caverns of experience to extract a unifying pulse of principle as dilated spatial movement.
This quest is for a spatial system of dilation as ‘porous boundaries, or boundaries with holes, allowing it to open itself to the infinite and incorporate it’ (169), which can be juxtaposed with the ‘heart…as thick as grease’ (v.69 Bible of Jerusalem), cited by Chrétien (63) and implicitly echoed by Schopenhauer’s ‘thick partition’ (211) between self and other in the person lacking compassion. Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological concern is with boundaries for experience, not only as constraints but as the opening process of dilation; ‘dilation is an opening up’ (31), a ‘joy that opens space up’ as ‘the gift of space’ (42). This opening ‘does not denote a simple expansion of space. It denotes a space that is different from the old space’ (42).
Dilation operates as a counterpole to compression with both as spatial movements, as Chrétien invokes St. Gregory’s words, ‘compressed by pain and torments’ (48), for ‘the theme of dilation of love, joy, and hope in the very midst of tribulations’ (49). Dilation serves as a directional counterpoint to the relative closure of compression of experiential space, ‘If we are assigned a boundary that cannot in any way be pushed back or overtaken, we are filled with dread at the thought of a definitive imprisonment, of a constriction that diminishes us and stifles us’ (155). Where existentialist dread dwells in the awareness of the constricted space of sealed boundaries, resistant to the expanse of dilation in their firmness of closure, dilation is the possibility of an opening of space, a capacity for spacious experience that lives in a precise correlation to this dread, as a directional opposition. Angst may offer the awareness of the capacity for this directional movement between these Siamese twins, namely, the relatively more closed and open spaces of dread and dilation.
This spatial phenomenological questioning of background structure shaping lived experiential contents offers a key insight regarding a spatial expansion of experience that is not simply a blank space removal of all boundaries, ‘another kind of dread would take hold of me, characteristic of dilation, namely the dread of self-loss and self-dissolution. Since the joy of dilation does not desire or aim at self-loss, it requires that I remain at all times the self that dilates’ (155). He continues, distinguishing the opening of dilation from a frantic obliterative opening, ‘Otherwise, what is involved would be more like an explosion than a dilation’ (156). A spatial structure is needed to distinguish the relative opening of dilation that retains a sense of assumed connection to self from a monistic fusion with background stimuli that surrenders all sense of personal identity. The spatial expansion of dilation is not simply empty space, it is not space as the nonentity of limitlessness.
He emphasises that capacity to receive experience of divinity is a spatial concern, tracing the etymology of capacity to the Latin capax, with spatial connotations. In his account of St. Augustine, Chrétien appears to accept the traditional Christian framework of grace that would treat dilation as a gift outside the control of the subjective ego, of the conscious mind. If so, a precognitive dimension to dilation as an expansion of space requires amplification, one that does not simply rest in a stale selfconsciousness or state of reflection as contemplation, though Chrétien also subsequently includes these modes within the ambit of dilation processes. Augustine’s cogitatio as thought is also treated as being infiltrated with dilation. The vacillation here between the precognitive and cognitive for dilation may be that Chrétien is more concerned with revealing the positions of the various thinkers whose texts he explores than with exploring in detail clashes between their various positions or emphases.
Chrétien highlights that St. Gregory ‘ties wicked dilation to power’ (47). An unexplored implication of Chretien’s acknowledgment of ‘evil dilation’ (48), envisaged also to include pride, is that it suggests an active spatial force propounding evil that appears prima facie to challenge the traditional Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni. An implication of dilation as a spatial movement also pertaining to evil is undernourished in Chrétien’s book. This implication is that as a spatial movement, evil is not simply a negation of good, as a kind of non-being as privation, but an active force in some way. Much may depend here on the level of description, as for example, what may be initially a negation may gain momentum as an active movement in space; causal and ontological levels of description may also import different characterisations of evil as lack or active force. Going further, this could be construed as seeking spatial movements prior to the diametric opposition of absence/presence that melds together a framework of evil as negation of good rather than as a spatial movement. However, this book is less concerned with theological implications of the spatial analysis of the phenomenology of dilation, whether as joy, love or even evil, than with describing the specific experiential unfolding of dilation as a spatial movement, across a range of thinkers.
Much of Chrétien’s concerns with dilation and space is to characterise them in terms of a prior judgment as good or bad, as life giving or pathological. Yet this is itself a space, a diametric spatial projection. Moreover, Chrétien’s exploration of Pierre Corneille’s experiential accounts ‘with an open heart’ (99) invites what Chrétien describes in diametric oppositional terms as where the heart ‘must win the struggle against what blocks it’ (99). This diametric oppositional space lurks in the background without any explicit analysis in his spatial structural questioning.
Like Wordsworth who crossed the Alps without knowing it, Chrétien has arguably discovered a whole spatial system of experience. A pervasive aspect of these spaces in this book is that they express expansion and contraction, as a spatial movement, as a rhythm where both the expansion of dilation and the narrowing of contraction are in mutual tension and interaction; dilation is part of a unified rhythm in spatial-structural terms for experience, as ‘a set of rhythmic and palpitating systems’ (169). This experience is treated as a cosmic spatial system affecting experience though not reducible simply to experience as subjectivity; it is ‘a process of cosmic widening’ (150). The relative openness of the expansion in dilation as a space of experience and a spatial ‘capacity’ for experience is frequently characterised by Chrétien’s selected thinkers and writers as being circular in movement, as part of a circular widening, where ‘the furthest circumference preexists already in the center’ (160); it is a ‘radiant’ (145) circular movement ‘spreading out in waves and circles’ (115).
Portrayed at the level of imagery in terms of fluidity, as ‘heavenly liqueur’ (p. 88), citing Claudel’s ‘liquid breathing’ (178), this can be further construed in spatial structural terms, where, by way of contrast, desiccation is a feature of contraction, a drying up as a loss of dilation. Moreover, this fluidity of the breathing experience as part of experiential dilation offers a fluid space to be distinguished structurally from monistic fusion and empty space, ‘Airy or liquid respiration, together with its dilation, forms the place where we are related to the limitless, but not to a limitlessness that loses itself in emptiness; to a limitlessness, rather, that is a totality’ (178). Chrétien thus invokes and quests for a space that is a fluid unity or unifying process for an experiential opening. He contrasts this space not only with contraction but also with the empty space of monistic fusion as a totality. This is first cousin of a recognition that truth unity claims are to be distinguished from truth totality ones.
Another argument made, albeit en passant, is that thought is structured like the structure of our breathing, and needs to reflect this interplay between systole and diastole. Spatialisation of experience moves into a terrain of impact upon thought, as a spatialisation of thought. This is a different embedded structure for thought than one simply resting on bodily analogy, such as that employed by Freud for oral, anal and phallic stages of development. The breath gains force as an animating space underlying thought. This is a promising argument left largely in the shadows in this book, though hovering at its edges. The inhalation/exhalation superstructure for thought may offer a counterpoint, as a different mode of interactive polarity to the Gestalt figure/ground focus on foreground and background in thought. If ‘the rhythm of breathing characterizes all living things’, where ‘the general laws of respiration…are the laws of dilation’ (168), this invites treatment of thought as a living thing giving expression to this breath rhythm of dilation, of spatial movement as expansion and contraction, in the very structure of thought itself.
The discussion of dilation as pathology offers rich resources for interpretation, resonant with recognition in a Jungian tradition that mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, where the mystics swim and the schizophrenics drown. Dilation of space in experience offers an account of this ocean, pertinent also to the oceanic feeling recognised by Freud through his friend Romain Rolland. This oceanic feeling contrasts with ‘the airless dungeons we have built for ourselves’ (20), in Chrétien’s memorable phrase.
Chrétien’s challenge to treatment of space as a mere metaphor is stated at the outset of his book. While it is developed through examples of dilation, he does not seek to amplify this argument in detailed philosophical terms. Nevertheless, his argument for a realm of spatial experience that is irreducible neither to mere metaphor nor to the body offers a rapprochement with concerns of Paul Ricoeur in La métaphore vive. Ricoeur seeks to suspend primary reference of truth as correspondence to an external world in science and to invoke a split reference to encompass another referential domain for metaphor in discourse, a ‘world’ or state of affairs of poetic reference. Chrétien can be understood as taking a further expansive step through a concern with a phenomenological reference to a state of experience of dilation in its multidimensional forms expressed in language.
Spatial understandings pervade much of Ricœur’s discussion of metaphor in terms of proximity and distance, tension, substitution, displacement, change of location, image, the ‘open’ structure of words, closure, transparency and opaqueness. Yet this is usually where space is discussed within metaphor, and as a metaphor itself, rather than as a precondition or prior spatial system of experience interacting with language. Chrétien also invokes language in terms of a poetics of dilation though again he leaves reservoirs in his text to explore a conception of a spatial system of experience, for unifying experience that is prior to metaphor and language. He reaches this threshold in this book, but does not carve out this pathway in detailed, sustained terms as part of a structural spatial phenomenological argument. He offers seeds of a primordial spatial phenomenology.
Viewed in contrast with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that explored temporality as a horizon of experience taken for granted in the social imaginary, in a distinct socio-historical set of contexts across Europe with implications for a secularist Zeitgeist, Chrétien’s scope of works are more confined. However, they can be construed as overcoming a key caesura in Taylor’s work with regard to spatial conditions or horizons underpinning religious and mystical experience. Moreover, Chrétien is not pitting space against time, he incorporates a temporal dimension into the rhythm of the dilation as openness interacting with the compressed, contraction process of closure. This temporal dimension is of space as a movement, of spatial capacity for movement.
A key strength of this book is its opening of a series of promissory notes to a more primordial spatial phenomenological structural questioning, regarding dilation, its interplay with contraction, the structural features of this spatial movement, its embedding in the breath, the circular expansive movement in what is tantamount to concentric spatial terms of infinite dilation sustained as a series of extended concentric spatial movements. This important contribution of Chrétien is allied with the pulse of vitality that runs through the sensitive interpretation of the accounts of the various thinkers regarding dilation, to embed dilation as a major feature of mystical experience, with dilation arguably offering as much of an Archimedean point for these experiences as does Angst for existential-phenomenological concerns.
It can be inferred that four modes of space, not necessarily all distinct from each other, emerge from Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological account. A fluid open and opening concentric circular space of dilation, a contracting, compressed, desiccated space, and an empty space of monistic fusion, as mere limitless totality through obliteration and explosion of all boundaries. The other space is that of diametric spatial opposition, whether between good and evil, openness and closure, as oppositional directions in mutual tension. This is a diametric space not only as structure and position, but as direction. Chrétien does not directly address the interplay between these spaces of experience.
Though the argument for a spatial system of experience as dilation and contraction is as part of a claim for a primordial space prior to metaphor, it is this key argument that merits much more expansion, dare it be said, dilation, in this work. What is the ontological status of dilation as a mode of space, as a spatial system in rhythm with contraction, as a dynamic interactive spatial movement ? This pivotal question is only addressed indirectly by Chrétien, with hints and fragrances, in Spacious Joy.
Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964/1994.
Descartes, R. Descartes: Philosophical Writings. Trans. E. Anscombe & P.T. Geach. London: Nelson, 1954.
Downes, P. The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012.
——– At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.
——–Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.
Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. D. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1872/2000).
Ricœur, P. La Métaphore Vive. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. R. Czerny, with K. McLoughlin & J. Costello London: Routledge, 1978.
Schopenhauer, A. On the Basis of Morality. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. Providence: Berghahn Books, (1839/1995).
Taylor, C. A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.
 Descartes referred to ‘empty space, which almost everyone is convinced is mere nonentity’ (1954: 200).
 Downes, P. At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.
 For detailed examination of these modes of spatial experience as a spatial phenomenological questioning not only of space but through space, distinguishing concentric and diametric spaces from monistic fusion, see Downes, The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012 and Downes, Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.
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.
 Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, trans. John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).