the blanchot reader

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inchol is one ol the most profound and influential investigators and analysts of the contemporary literary and philosophical tradition is acknowledged by such eminent thinkers as Derrida, Levinas, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe. His impact on French thinking and culture over the last fifty years has been enormous, yet he still remains a writer whose work, though often cited, is little known to the English-speaking reader. In The Blanchot Reader Michael Holland fulfils an urgent need and does so in a way that provides a coherent perspective on what by any standard is an extraordinary personal and intellectual career. We see how Blanchot in the 1940s anticipated later post-Sartrean trends, as followed by, among others, Samuel Beckett and the practitioners of the nouvcau roman. We discover how the linguistic turn of the 1950s took place for Blanchot in a political climate, while also occurring within literature and philosophy, and we trace the emergence of the enlrelien, a dialogue format used by Blanchot to interrogate the writing of his contemporaries, and beyond this to entertain a real dialogue with the 'Other' and so to broach the question of ultimate responsibility . The volume concludes with a consideration of Blanchot's development of the 'fragment' in his philosophical and his political writings, as well as in those devoted to literature. A final subsection focuses on his recent commentary on Moses and Aaron, dedicated to Jacques Derrida. A chronology of Blanchot's career and a succinct primary and secondary bibliography are also included, together with a list of English translations of Blanchot's work. Michael Holland Hie editor is a Fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford, and a lecturer in French at Oxford University. He is soon to publish the first comprehensive study of Maurice Blanchot's life as a writer.Cover design by Martin Miller Cover illustration: Rembrandt. Ilckhazzar's Feast, detail, oil on canvas. 1 6 7 . 6 x 2 0 9 . 2 cms. reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the National Gallery. I j>ndon.



Edited by

Michael HollandBLACKWELLOxford UK * Camknd,, ISA

The Blanchot ReaderMaurice Blanchot

Edited by

Michael Holland

BLACKWELLOxford UK rr Cambridge USA

Copyright S Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1995 Introduction, arrangement and apparatus copyright (0 Michael Holland 1995 First published in English 1995 Original publication of material by Maurice Blanchot copyright C 801' 95 '092-dc20 94-45210 CIP 9 5 0 8 8 0 d is nominally present, it is still a question of man; of what there is ^'tween man and man when nothing brings them together or separatest o


Our Responsibility

The Indestructible


them but themselves. The first word that comes to Adam from on high after he has lapsed is: 'Where are you?' It falls to God to express the pre-eminent human question: 'Where is man?' - as though, in some sense, there had to be God in order that the questioning of man might reach its height and its breadth; but a God speaking a human language, so that the depth of the question concerning us is handed over to language. Inquiring about the nature of the commandments, Franz Rosenzweig makes this remark: 'I could not venture to present any of the commandments as human. . . . But neither can I present the divine na ture of the Torah in its entirety in a manner other than does Rabbi Nobel: "And God appeared to Abraham; Abraham raised his eyes and he saw three men.'" Let us recall Jacob. He has just struggled with his opponent of the Night, who said to him in an already significant manner: 'You wresded with Elohim as with men'; and Jacob, giving this place the name Penuel, says: 'I have seen God [Elohim] face to face and my life is preserved.' Then, a little later, he meets his brother Esau, whom he has much reason to fear, and says to him: 'If I have won favour in your sight, then accept this gift from me; for I have seen your face as one sees the face of God, and you were pleased with me.' An extraordinary expres sion. Jacob does not say to Esau 'I just saw God as I see you' but 'I see you as one sees God,' which confirms the suggestion that the marvel (the privileged surprise) is indeed human presence, this Other Presence that is Autrui - no less inaccessible, separate and distant than the Invisible himself. It also confirms the terrible character of such an encounter, whose outcome could only be approbation or death. Whoever sees God risks his life. Whoever encounters the Other [Autrui] can relate to him only through mortal violence or through the gift of speech by receiving him.3

submit to the all-powerfulness of death what cannot be measured in terms of power. One could perhaps say that anti-Semitism has three characteristics: (1) it turns all the 'positive' values of Judaism into negat ives and, first of all, the primary affirmation of the distance that is infinite,' irreducible, impassable (even when it is passed over), with which Judaism confronts us; (2) it transforms into fault (into an ethically and socially condemnable reality) this being negative to which it reduces the Jew; (3) it does not restrict itself to a theoretical judgement, but calls for the actual suppression of the Jews in order better to exercise against them the principle of denial with which it has invested their image. A denial so absolute, it is true, that it does not cease to reaffirm the relation with the infinite that being Jewish implies, and that no form of force can have done with because no force is able to meet up with it (just as one can kill a man who is present, and yet not strike down presence as an empty never-present presence, but rather simply cause it to disappear). The anti-Semite, at grips with the infinite, thus commits himself to a limitless movement of refusal. No, truly, excluding the Jews is not enough, exterminating them is not enough; they must also be struck from history, removed from the books through which they speak to us, just as the presence that inscribed speech is what must finally be obliterated: the speech before and after every book and through which, from the farthest distance where all horizon is lacking, man has already turned towards man - in a word, destroy 'autrui'.4

(ii) Humankind (1962)* 'Each time the question: Who is "Autrui"? emerges in our words I think of the book by Robert Antelme, for it not only testifies to the society of the German camps of World War II, it also leads us to an essential reflection. 1 don't mean to imply that his book spells out a full response to the question. But even without taking into account the years or the circumstances it portrays (while none the less taking them into account), what impels this work towards us is what remains of the question's interrogative force. Through reading such a book we begin to understand that man is indestructible and that he can none the less be destroyed. This happens in affliction. In affliction we approach the limit where, deprived of the power to say " I " , deprived also of the world, we would be nothing other than this Other that we are not.5

As arbitrary as it may be to limit ourselves to these remarks, I do not think the direction they take alters the truth. And this truth is that whoever wishes to read the meaning of the history of the Jews through Judaism ought to reflect upon the distance that separates man from man when he is in the presence of Autrui. Jews are not different from other men in the way racism would have us believe; they rather bear witness, as Levinas says, to this relation with difference that the human face (what in the visage is irreducible to visibility) reveals to us and entrusts to our responsibility; not strangers, but recalling us to the exigency of strange ness; not separated by an incomprehensible retribution, but designating as pure separation and as pure relation what, from man to man, exceeds human power - which is none the less capable of anything. Anti-Semitism, in this sense, is in no way accidental; it gives a figure to the repulsion inspired by the Other [Autrui], the uneasiness before what comes from afar and elsewhere: the need to kill the Other, that is, to


Originally published as 'L'Indesiruclible", NouveUe Revue Francaisc, 112 (April 1 9 6 2 ) , p p . 1 9 1 - 2 0 0 . P n n t e d in L'Emreiien infini (Paris, Gallimard, 1 9 6 9 ) , p p . 1 9 1 - 2 0 0 , under the title, 'L'espece h u a i n c ' , as section 2 o f the chapter entitled L'Indestructible'.e


Our Responsibility

The Indestructible


- Man is the indestructible that can be destroyed. This has the ring of truth, and yet we are are unable to know it through a knowledge that would already be true. Is this not merely an alluring formulation? - I believe Robert Antelme's book helps us advance in this knowledge. But we must understand how heavily such a knowledge weighs. That man can be destroyed is certainly not reassuring; but that because of and despite this, and in this very movement, man should remain indes tructible - this fact is what is truly overwhelming: for we no longer have the least chance of seeing ourselves relieved of ourselves or of our responsibility. - As though the inexorable affirmation in man that always keeps him standing were more terrible than universal disaster. But why the indes tructible? Why can he be destroyed? What relation is there between these two words? - I read in Antelme's book: "But there is no ambiguity; we remain men and will end only as men. . . . It is because we are men as they are that the SS will finally be powerless before us . . . [the executioner] can kill a man, but he cannot change him into something else." Here is a first response: human power is capable of anything. This means that man has power over what has to do with the whole and with the power that resides in m