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Blanchot and Mallarmé


  • Blanchot and MallarmAuthor(s): Leslie HillSource: MLN, Vol. 105, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1990), pp. 889-913Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2905160 .Accessed: 11/07/2014 10:06

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  • Blanchot and Mallarme

    Leslie Hill

    La poesie toujours inaugure autre chose Le Livre a venir

    Maurice Blanchot is undoubtedly one of France's most fascinating and influential literary figures, and it is for these qualities that his work as a critic is perhaps best known. In this paper I want to look more closely at one small, but nonetheless significant aspect of Blanchot's writing, his reading of the work of the poet Stephane Mallarm6. Indeed, to read Blanchot's literary essays or non-fiction, if I may be allowed the naive terms at this stage, is repeatedly to encounter not so much a repertoire of critical concepts as a config- uration of proper names. The names are familiar ones: Kafka, Holderlin, Nietzsche, Rene Char, and, perhaps best known of all, Mallarm6 himself.'

    What these names have in common is that they recur in Blan- chot's work with a certain force of repetition and excess. Each signs, for Blanchot, a text or a writing that enacts a moment of crisis in the exploration of the space of literature. But literature is not so much challenged as constituted in such moments of aes- thetic questioning and doubt, and the source of the crisis lies less in the individual works of the authors Blanchot cites than in the ex- orbitant logic of literature itself, which such texts serve to exem- plify or instantiate. Yet while the texts Blanchot names are in this respect paradigmatic, they display essential traits of literature without being themselves constituted as examples of anything other than themselves. As names in Blanchot's writing, they do not represent models to be emulated or norms to be followed. They are constituted rather as a series of singular protagonists in the

    MLN, 105, (1990): 889-913 C) 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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    unfolding of the strange, paradoxical drama called literature, figures whose status is as much fictional as it is historical, and for whom-in Mallarmes phrase-the 'seul acte d'6crire' (EL, 30) turns into an experience of the uncertain and fragile borders be- tween name and namelessness, affirmation and dispossession, ex- emplification and excess.

    One begins to see here how for Blanchot what is at stake in writing on literary works is not the need to elaborate new and more accurate methods of textual explication or interpretation. More ambitiously and radically, Blanchot's project is to bring to light-while remaining alert to the ethical dilemmas these meta- phors of clarity and insight imply-the peculiar logic of oscilla- tion, the syntax of fundamental paradox and unresolved or unre- solvable duplicity which, Blanchot suggests, is what makes litera- ture possible, while simultaneously and necessarily depriving it of secure foundation and of any stable or determinate relation with being or truth.

    Of all the proper names Blanchot cites in his essays, that of Mal- larme is arguably the one that recurs with the greatest regularity and frequency. This it does from the very earliest published texts on literature, dating from the 1940s, up to and including some of the more recent books of the 1980s. Thus Faux Pas (published in 1943) contains three pieces on Mallarm6 that first appeared in Le Journal des debats during the Occupation. La Part dufeu, Blanchot's next collection of essays, published in 1949, has one major piece on the theme of Mallarm6 and language, while L'Espace litt1raire (1955) and Le Livre a venir (1959) contribute between them three more important essays.

    After 1959, the reference to Mallarm6 is less specific but re- mains nonetheless insistent. L'Entretien infini (1969) closes with a series of propositions on the theme of 'l'absence de livre'; these begin by invoking Mallarme and pursue several motifs already ex- plored apropos of Mallarm6 in Le Livre a venir. Similarly, L'Amitid (1971) pays homage, in passing, to Mallarmes 'bilingualism', while, more recently, L'Ecriture du desastre (1980) derives its title (and other fragments of text) from Mallarm6, notably from the famous poem on the death of Edgar Allan Poe (in which Poe's tomb-po- etry itself-is described as: 'Calme bloc ici-bas chu d'un desastre obscur' [E.c., 70]). In 1983, the name of Mallarm6 is again invoked by Blanchot at the beginning of his postface to the volume Apres

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  • M L N 891

    Coup, a new edition of two early stories from the 1930s which first appeared in print together as Le Ressassement 8ternel in 1952.

    In the light of this lengthy engagement of Blanchot with Mal- larme's text, I want to consider three main issues. First, I shall be looking at the place of Mallarm6 in Blanchot's critical writings; second, I want to explore Blanchot's particular interpretation of Mallarm6; and, finally, I shall be saying something about the im- portance of Mallarm6 as a writer from the perspective of Blan- chot's own literary practice.

    The reference to Mallarm6, as I have implied, is rarely absent from Blanchot's critical writing. But more remarkable than the longevity of Blanchot's interest in the poet is the extent to which the name of Mallarm6 persistently fulfils the same structural role in respect of the internal composition of Blanchot's collections of essays. In the earlier books mentioned, the essays on Mallarm6 fall consistently at, or towards, the beginning of the volume (or, as with Faux Pas, which Blanchot divides into sections, at the head of the individual sections). Thus, in La Part dufeu, the Mallarme essay follows two opening chapters on Kafka and in L'Espace litMraire a piece on Mallarm6 immediately follows the initial section on 'la so- litude essentielle'. Mallarm6's place is thus that of the second figure to appear in the text. Conversely, in Le Livre a venir, the essay on Mallarm6 comes second to last, and 'Un Coup de des' operates as the penultimate point of reference. As a result, whether as second from the beginning or as second-to-last, the name of Mallarm6 in Blanchot's text has the function of a limen, that is, a threshold, a limit, a margin, opening and closing the space of writing, existing as part of that space but at a distance from it.

    This liminal place of Mallarm6 is difficult to explain by recourse to literary history or to the dates of composition of Blanchot's essays. In his writing Blanchot shows scant interest in chronolog- ical progression, and history itself is hardly ever invoked as an ade- quate structural framework for Blanchot's analysis. But it no doubt could be said that Mallarm6's appearance on the limen is little more than a chance occurrence, a random effect lacking real signifi- cance. Since many of Blanchot's texts began as reviews or pieces in journals (notably La Nouvelle Revue francaise and Critique), the ob- jection might be that the shape of Blanchot's individual collections of essays is more indicative of the occasional and haphazard nature

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    of Blanchot's activities as a literary journalist than of any enduring commitment to the same repeated architectural design. But to do this would be to disregard the persistent and seemingly necessary way in which certain names, like that of Mallarme, do recur in Blanchot's critical texts, and recur-as does Mallarm6's-in pre- cisely the same position.

    This alternative between chance and necessity, it can be said, is in some ways a false one. Blanchot discusses at some length in Le Livre a venir the paradoxical implications of the phrase (from Mal- larme's poem, 'Un Coup de des') that 'un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard'. If chance cannot be eliminated by the throw of the dice, it follows that chance, denying itself, becomes, as a result, a form of necessity. But if necessity remains necessary, the poem has no chance of being written. In this oscillating logic of writing, chance and necessity defeat one another in reciprocal fashion and Mallarm6's poem, Blanchot argues, approaches a space in which 'ce qui est necessaire et ce qui est fortuit seront mis l'un et l'autre en 6chec par la force du desastre' (LV, 284).2 The principle of dis- aster, as L'Ecriture du desastre makes evident, though Blanchot here adduces it with regard to Mallarme's poem, holds for all writing and all composition. What is true of 'Un Coup de des', therefore, is also the case in respect of the essays of Blanchot. Disaster defeats both the mastery of the author and the closure of the book. Writing obeys its own unpredictable but