Author(s): Maurice Blanchot
Philosophy | Literature | Read our reviews!
Modern history is haunted by the disasters of the century--world wars, concentration camps, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust--grief, anger, terror, and loss beyond words, but still close, still impending. How can we write or think about disaster when by its very nature it defies speech and compels silence, burns books and shatters meaning? The Writing of the Disaster reflects upon efforts to abide in disasters infinite threat. First published in French in 1980, it takes up the most serious tasks of writing: to describe, explain, and redeem when possible, and to admit what is not possible. Neither offers consolation. Maurice Blanchot has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic for his fiction and criticism. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once remarked that Blanchots writing is a language of pure transcendence, without correlative. Literary theorist and critic Geoffrey Hartman remarked that Blanchots influence on contemporary writers cannot be overestimated. Ann Smock is a professor of French at the University of California at Berkeley. She has translated Blanchots The Space of Literature, also available as a Bison Book. Jeffrey Mehlman, a professor of French at Boston University, is the author of many books and articles on twentieth-century France and French literature.
“The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” The Writing of the Disaster concerns the effect upon language, upon literature, of what Blanchot (thinking of the Holocaust and Hiroshima (though this book can also be 'about' climate emergency or any unassimilable personal or collective trauma)) calls the disaster: something beyond the reach of language yet sucking language towards it to the ultimate nullification of the meaning that language is usually thought to bear. The disaster does not concern itself with content, the disaster possesses the writing and is not and cannot be the subject of the writing. The writing of the disaster is not so much writing about the disaster as writing in the force-field of the disaster: The Writing of the Disaster concerns itself with the ways in which trauma takes ownership of writing. The ‘of’ in the title signals possession in the same way, perhaps, that all objects possess their subjects and by this relationship contend with them for agency. The disaster is a grammatical phenomenon, a loss of agency through grammar, a relation between elements rather than an element itself. Blanchot is remarkable for identifying the shifts of agency that result from grammatical alteration. It is in grammar, perhaps, that our problems lie, and it is in grammar, perhaps, that we must agitate for their solution. But it is in the nature of the disaster to protect itself with our passivity. “We are passive with respect to the disaster, but the disaster is perhaps passivity.” The disaster robs the writer of agency, cauterises meaning, averts all gazes and renders the usual useless. As Blanchot demonstrates, writing in the ambit of the disaster can only proceed in fragments. Failure and incompletion are both results of and assaults upon the impossible. “It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence.” When writing of the reading of the writing of the disaster, the semantic degeneration of the disaster exercises itself even through the intervening writer, rendering them transparent. To re-read a passage of Blanchot is to read without recognition, to entertain thoughts quite different from, and rightly quite different from, those entertained on the first reading, or prior readings, of that passage. Thinking about reading about Blanchot writing about how the disaster affects everything but cannot be perceived, I write, “The disaster is that no distinction can be made between disaster and the absence of disaster,” but I cannot determine where this sentence comes from. I cannot find it in the text. Whose thoughts are those thoughts thought when reading? If the thoughts cannot be located in the text, are they then the thoughts of the reader? If the thoughts would not have been thought by the reader without the text, to what extent are they the writer’s thoughts? (Do not ask if these thoughts are in fact thoughts. Let us call thought that which does the work of thought, regardless.) Blanchot proceeds in a fragmentary style, aphoristic but without the sense of completion aphorisms provide, he writes koans — or antikoans — that do not prepare the mind for enlightenment so much as relieve the mind of the possibility of, and even the concept of, enlightenment. Taken in small doses Blanchot is full of meaning but as the dose increases the meaning becomes less, until at the point of his complete oeuvre, I extrapolate, Blanchot means nothing at all. This liberation from semantic burden is entirely in accord with Blanchot’s project.