Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.): Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature

Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature Book Cover Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature
Volume 7 in the series Textologie
Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 €

Reviewed by: Fermín Paz (CIN / FFyL - UBA)

Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.

Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.

The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.

The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography[1], as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).

In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.

The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.

The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal. 

In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.

The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.

The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads      Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85).  However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act,      and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.

The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.

This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).

In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.

This conceptualization of a      reading experience       shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.

The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.

The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.

In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.

Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.

The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.

The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.

The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.

The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.

As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.

While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.

This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose     approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).

In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.


Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

[1] Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.

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).

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

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