Annelies Schulte Nordholt: Blanchot and Nietzsche (full text)


By Annelies Schulte Nordholt

The title of our session is ‘Blanchot’s Nietzschean inspiration.” And certainly Blanchot was reading Nietzsche as early as the 1930ies – he was one of the rare French thinkers who were fluent in German. Still, our aim today is not to determine how Nietzsche may have influenced or inspired Blanchot, we will leave that – huge – task to historians of philosophy. It may seem surprising that there is no solid study on that subject today. This is probably due to the idiosyncratic character of Blanchot’s work, which stands on the crossing point between literature and philosophy. This makes a traditional philosophical approach slightly questionable. Blanchot is a thinker and writer with a questioning and a method entirely his own. His great question is: how is literature possible? What’s at stake in literary writing? He elaborates this question both in novels and in literary criticism. His essays are the best known part of his work. It is a continuous dialogue with a great variety of authors: writers like Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Rilke, Kafka, Proust, René Char and Marguerite Duras but also philosophers, especially Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Levinas. This vast pantheon of names makes clear that it would be hard to read Blanchot through an exclusively Nietzschean filter.

So the question is not whether Blanchot’s reading of Nietzsche is hermeneutically correct but what intuitions of Nietzsche’s he resonates with and how they inform his own thought. Let me first try to briefly formulate two of these resonance points or crossings. One is on Blanchot’s and Nietzsche’s thematic, the other is on their style of thinking.

  1. The first point is what we could call the experience of nihilism, or negativity: a collapse or exhaustion of all transcendent meaning. In Nietzschean terms this is the all invading intuition that ‘God is dead’. Biographically, one should know that Blanchot was originally a fervent Catholic. He lost faith in the 1930ies; the strongest testimony of this experience is his first novel, Thomas l’obscur (1941). Here, the collapse of transcendent meaning is experienced by the main character as a radical loss of the self, a depersonalization which makes him fall into night and absence.
  2. The second crossing point is Blanchot’s intuition that nihilism is experienced pre-eminently in art, more particularly in literature or what he calls ‘writing’ : l’écriture. Therefore, for Blanchot, literature is not only the core of his questioning but also the medium of it. Literature and art have a privileged relationship to nihilism. This is another common point with Nietzsche, for whom art and especially poetry – rather than philosophy – become the first knowledge, they “are there to liberate us from truth”. As a poet-thinker, who, especially in Zarathoustra, dramatizes philosophical thought, Nietzsche certainly was an important figure for Blanchot, whose work also belongs both to literature and to philosophy.

So let me sum up the gesture of Blanchot’s work, in Nietzschean terms: literature as a descent into the deepest pits of nihilism, of ‘the death of God’. Could it also – but I state this in the form of a question – be a way of coming to terms with nihilism, of going beyond it? From his earliest works to The Writing of Disaster, Blanchot obsessively worked on the question: what survives after the ruin of everything? Does anything survive after the ruin of everything?  In order to better understand this question, I will give a short ‘topos’ on Blanchot’s  questioning of literature and then focus on a single question: his conception of the specific temporality of writing in its relation to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

  1. The epigraphs of The Infinite Conversation

Let us try to better understand Blanchot’s questioning, and look at the first pages of The Infinite Conversation, : the epigraphs and the opening Note. The book opens with a page displaying five epigraphs. Three of them, the middle ones, are auto quotations from  The Infinite Conversation itself. Each of them announces a key feature of the book, but the first and the last quotation – by Mallarmé and Nietzsche –  are the crucial ones. They strategically encircle the other three. We could also say that they encircle – they open and close – the entire book, with all its more than 400 pages. Blanchot thus places his book under the double sign of Mallarmé and Nietzsche, which is a strong rhetorical gesture. Moreover, the two quotes seem to point in the same direction.

For Mallarmé, poetry, literature is “this mad game of writing: “ce jeu insensé d’écrire”. In this formula, the first thing to note is the infinitive ‘écrire’, takes on an unusual, intransitive meaning: to write not as writing something, but as writing tout court, as the  process of writing, its ‘experience’. This is what Blanchot is after, as opposed to the finished product of writing: the Book, the literary Work (l’oeuvre). But on the other hand, it is only in existing books – and in one’s own writing – , that this experience may be pursued. This explains what I said earlier, that literature is both his object of research and the medium of it.

In this process of writing, an experience unheard of reveals itself, because writing is a ‘jeu insensé’. Now ‘insensé’ does not only mean ‘mad’ (as the English translation has it) but also, literally, “without meaning’, like a meaningless word. This refers to Mallarmé’s and Blanchot’s conviction that in literary language, words have no fixed, no a priori meaning, but that they create meaning in their successive movement. The word ‘jeu’, in turn, does not only mean ‘game’ but it is also connected with the expression ‘mettre en jeu’, to put at stake. In the introductory Note, Blanchot repeats his overall question: “What is at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?” (IC VII).

But before we turn to that question, what about the Nietzsche quote? It seems to echo the Mallarmé phrase. “Speaking is a fine madness; with it, man dances over and above all things.” It is taken from Zarathustra (chap. ‘Der Genesende), from his speech to the serpent and the eagle. This passage is an ode on the virtues of language and on words. In the end, Zarathustra’s favourite animals respond by stating the Eternal return of everything: “Everything goes and comes back. Everything dies and comes into bloom again.” By quoting the line about speaking as a divine madness, Blanchot thus implicitly announces the importance that Eternal Return will take in his book. More explicitly, he announces several key features of The Infinite Conversation: the stress on ‘speaking’ points to his experimentation with ‘conversation’ (entretien) as a means to go beyond monolithic forms of speech; the word ‘madness’ (in both the Nietzsche and the Mallarmé quote) , points to Blanchot’s – nietzschean – critic of Reason and western metaphysics; the word ‘dance’, in the end, resonates with Mallarmé’s ‘game’ . And of course both quotes implicitly refer to the main topic of the 400 pages that will follow: the idea – and experience – of writing as a force, an exigency going beyond discourse, beyond language, towards “possibilities that are entirely other” (XII), towards difference.

  1. The introductory Note of IC

Let us now turn to the introductory Note of IC. Here, Blanchot’s main questioning is formulated in an extraordinarily dense and bold way. Writing – as the infinitive wants to express – is not something given, the corpus of literature as we know it, but it is a movement, a force of contestation, of refusal, a violent force, bringing  everything into question. Let us read together a central passage of it:

“through its own slowly liberated force (the aleatory force of absence), [writing] seems to devote itself solely to itself as something that remains without identity, and little by little brings forth possibilities that are entirely other: an anonymous, distracted, deferred [différée], and dispersed way of being in relation, by which everything is brought into question – and first of all the idea of God, of the Self, of the Subject, then of Truth and the One, then finally the idea of the Book and the Work – so that this writing […] far from having the Book as its goal rather signals its end: a writing that could be said to be outside discourse, outside language.” (IC, XII)

I will try to comment a few of these terms, that I put in bold in the text:

1) writing as a “force of absence”: to understand this, we must recall the crucial essay Blanchot wrote twenty years earlier, ‘Literature and the right to death” (1949), where he states that writing is a force of negativity affecting everything: language, the self and reality with its coordinates of space and time. As a force of negativity, writing upsets, or unsettles all these levels of human experience. It turns them inside out, showing what B calls their ‘other version’. He has elaborated this in innumerable commentaries of Mallarmé, Kafka, Artaud and many others.

2)  the self : all these authors experienced writing as an autonomous force, with no goal except itself [“it devotes itself solely to itself] and also that writing implies a depersonalisation of the author, a loss of identity and of the self.  This is again the experience of Thomas l’obscur, that I mentioned in the beginning. Blanchot demonstrates it most clearly with Mallarmé, who famously states in one his letters: “je suis parfaitement mort”: it is not I who is speaking in my poems, but an anonymous voice. This also has to do with the experience that, once the book is written, it dismisses its author.

3) language, reality and Truth:  writing also turns inside out current, instrumental language – what Blanchot calls discourse: the language of representation, tending towards identity and unity . Writing is an endless force of negativity and absence; going beyond the meaning of words, writing turns them into material entities, made of sound and rhythm. Language thus has a nihilist vocation, but the most striking thing is that, at the extreme point of annihilation, what one encounters is not nothingness, death, but being, endless being or the bare fact of existing.

4) In writing, the world becomes absent; writing points to what B called the Outside (‘le dehors’) That is why writing is “outside discourse” and even “outside language”. The verb écrire used intransitively shows that writing is no longer an action aimed at a result (that is, a book). That is why writing “signals the end of the Book”, of the Work in general, it belongs to what Blanchot calls the ‘désoeuvrement’. This word currently means idleness, literally being out of work.

Literature is a world of images and words. It is the Imaginary, where things exist as shadows, images. In the Imaginary, there is no such thing as Truth, there is only error. Here, the rules of space and time do no longer apply. Time has become an empty time, without events, made of endless repetition. This is where Nietzsche’s Eternal Return becomes a touchstone for Blanchot, in his attempt to think the specific temporality of writing.

Before we go into that last point, let me briefly return to our quote:  in it, all terms – God, the Self, the Subject, Truth, the One, the Book – are in a way equivalent. They stand for the same instance of western metaphysics. Blanchot’s most original move is probably the idea that writing is a refusal or contestation – we could also say a deconstruction – of the power of metaphysics.

  1. Writing and the Eternal Return

Blanchot’s essays on Nietzsche think through his main concepts, from the Will to power to the Last man, to nihilism but no notion resonates so strongly with him as the Eternal Return. To my view, there are mainly two reasons for that. Firstly, it provides him with a tool to conceive the strange temporality that is specific to writing. And two, but that’s a hypothesis, the Eternal Return might be a way out of Nihilism. As we have just seen, literature points to the Outside, where everything lapses into its image, into absence. Out there, time is no longer the time of daily life in the world, where  things and beings are present, or where events are  expected or remembered. The time of the world is the dialectics where things are realized; this also means that they are finite; they are born and will die one day.

The temporality that is experienced in writing is altogether different; there everything falls into what Blanchot calls ‘the absence of time’. This is not a very happy expression since it wrongly suggests some timeless realm of eternity, where all time would be suspended. This is not at all the case. What is missing here is not time itself, but the present: it is a temporality “without present, without presence” (EL 32). But presence is precisely what makes it possible for something to come into existence and to end. So if presence falls out of time, then nothing will any longer be able to pass, everything will itself  in its absence, and persevere in it. This is precisely the way things exist as their images, in art and literature. So the temporality of writing – Blanchot does not tire to repeat it –  is endlessness, it is ‘the incessant’; out there, things and beings are liable to endless return, to what he calls ‘the impossibility to die”. In the realm of writing, there is no such thing as progress; there is only return and repetition.

At this point, we can see why Blanchot was so fascinated by Nietzsche’s notion of Eternal Return. In a passage of The Infinite Conversation, he wonders why the Eternal Return is such an anguishing, disquieting thought for Nietzsche, in Zarathustra (IC 148-151). You may remember how, in Zarathustra, the dwarf sits on the shoulder of Zarathustra and points out to him the eternal circularity of time: time itself is circular, we are imprisoned in it, we are powerless in front of time. The dwarf is the spirit of weightiness, that Zarathustra is fighting against.  This is the fatalistic conception of time that he tries to transform, in particular in the Nachtwandlerlied. Here, the ugliest man says to Zarathustra: “Was this it, life? Then let me say to death: come on, let us start all over again!” In other words: please give me the Eternal Return, please let me live my life once more. Nietzsche thus affirms that we must joyfully accept the Eternal Return, celebrate it because it is not the return of the same, but of eternal change, it is life itself.  Now this vitalistic message is altogether absent in Blanchot. For him, Nietzsche’s great discovery is that the Eternal Return, although it is at the heart of nihilism, does not affirm the nothingness of everything, but states being itself, in its most basic sense. And this is what makes the Eternal Return so frightening. He quotes Nietzsche saying: “Let us think this thought in its most terrible form: : existence, as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale of nothingness : the eternal recurrence” (IC, 149). The profound truth of the Eternal Return is that it is not tied to nothingness, but to being, and states that being is inescapable, that “nothing ends, everything begins again; that the other is still the same.” (IC 149).  This implies that there may be no refutation to nihilism, except the affirmation of it, with a Nietzschean ‘Yes’.

In the other essay about the Eternal Return – “On a change of epoch”- Blanchot wonders what this affirmation may mean. Is Eternal Return “the affirmation itself, the affirmation that only affirms”(EI 409), in other words, is it an empty affirmation? But what precisely recurs in eternal return (of recurrence)?  For Blanchot, in Eternal return, it is only return that recurs, but that which returns is never the same, because repetition itself produces difference. The movement of repetition always implies a shifting, however slight, a displacement, a deferring. Therefore the Eternal return is not a circular, sterile movement, but it is life itself, and here B is in perfect harmony with Nietzsche. Nevertheless,  in their conception of life, Blanchot and Nietzsche seem quite far apart: Nietzsche conceives it extrovertly, in terms of dance and singing, and of dithyrambic life, but for Blanchot it is the affirmation of life at the most basic level of existence, where living is equivalent to a permanent dying, to sufferance and unhappiness (these are important themes in IC).

The quote from Nietzsche about existence as recurring inevitably, without ever attaining nothingness, is so important for Blanchot because it expresses the core of what the experience of literature is about. Literature, as I’ve tried to show, is a radical experience for Blanchot:  it is a language where the world lapses into an everlasting absence, which is equivalent to existence itself. He thus thinks nihilism to the end, but is he also taking us beyond it? This is one of the questions we may discuss.

Thank you.