Jiwon Hahn | The Play of Plurality and Temporality

By Jiwon Hahn

Employing Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, Maurice Blanchot explores the temporality of writing, reading, and speaking as well as their plurality and relationship to self.

In Blanchot’s view, Zarathustra’s announcement of the God’s death marks both the birth of nihilism and of men’s creative power. Negating the one Truth is a « révolte »[1] which allows men to create meanings instead of finding one. Thus, men who now can « se connaître dans ses vraies limites » and « devenir pleinement responsable de lui-même » has now become « créateur » (290-1). This is why Nietzschean atheism in Blanchot’s view is « l’affirmation de l’homme » (290). At the same time, nihilism is defined as absence of any a priori meaning, as a state where “rien sur quoi l’homme puisse s’appuyer, rien qui vaille autrement que par le sens, à la fin suspend, qu’on lui donne.”(217)[2] As a result of the revolt, Blanchot imagines there being blank pages where men are free ot write new Genesis. Consequently, text becomes the metaphor of the world: “Pensant le monde, Nietzsche le pense comme un texte…C’est une métaphore » (248). The first speech that generates subsequent text/world in this case would be Zarathustra’s uttering of “God is dead.” This beginning is an exact opposite of the biblical Genesis: as God created men in his shape, men killed God by sharing with him their mortality. Nietzsche has thus replaced the writer of the very first text.

Yet the tabula rasa, to remain as such, requires constant contradiction, negation and difference that keeps defying new one Truth from being found and settled. Consequently, Blanchot’s nihilistic state represents the celebration of plurality of men when the singularity of God has fallen. However, Blanchot’s pluralism is not as simple or numerical. His « étrange » plurality is « sans pluralité ni unité, que la parole de fragment porte en elle comme la provocation du langage, celui qui parle encore lorsque tout a été dit » (232). This unique plurality translates into Blanchot’s idea of plural speech. The fragmentary speeches never succeed to form a dialogue, communication, or delivery of meaning. Instead, one of the two interlocutors is the Other or Autrui, the unknown and the unknowable (320). As a result, the plural speech “excède toute communauté et elle n’est pas destinée à rien comuniquer, ni à établir entre deux êtres un rapport commun, fût-ce par l’intermédiaire de l’inconnu.” (216). By saying that plural speech exceeds all community, Blanchot defines community as people who share a coherent system of meaning and language.

While his usage of parole is not limited to oral speech, Blanchot begins differentiating between parole and écriture in L’Entretien infini and further develops it in Le pas au-delà. The text, not speech, was the metaphor of the world and it was speech that was plural, since this plurality is defined as “celui qui parle encore lorsque tout a été dit » (232) (emphasis added). In Le pas au- delà, Blanchot further mentions that “[l]a parole est toujours parole d’autorité », « nul sceptre pour celui qui écrit, fût-il déguisé en bâton de mendiant : nul appui et nul cheminement. » (67)[3] Supposing that speech requires a scepter appears that speech always require the presence of the listener who shares the present where the words are being said, since the authority to be respected, heard and uninterrupted attaches to the scepter. In fact, Zarathustra did not have such scepter in a typical sense, but he almost always had a listener since he is the speaker, whether it be people, students, or animals. However, Blanchotian autrui interrupts the speech, making it plural and meaningless. Perhaps this is why Zarathustra’s voice diminished towards the end, after realizing the impossibility of making the listener understand. As a result, language as a medium of meaning fails, becomes obscure and ceases to serve as the light in traditional western metaphysics. The failure of communication again invites the thought of singularity and plurality.

Zarathustra needed others because his speech needed to be heard in order to materialize outside his self, but misunderstanding of his speech renders him irrevocably solitary. However, the solitude does not, in Blanchot’s view, justify his truth as being superior to the others. Instead, the new plurality cradles singularities without ever resolving them. The overman emerges from the tension among contradicting singularities, according to Blanchot, since the overman is the one who can will this meaninglessness: “Le surhomme est celui en qui le néant se fait vouloir et qui maintient, libre pour la mort, cette essence pure de sa volonté en voulant le néant. Ce serait le nihilisme même » (EI, 222). In the plurality/singularity context, the overman is thus someone who wills this solitude, of being misunderstood, as well as misunderstanding the others, the multitude.

Blanchot differentiates writing from speech, since writing « n’est là que pour conserver » (PA, 47). As Professor Nordholt remarked, “Nietzsche’s Eternal Return becomes a touchstone for Blanchot, in his attempt to think the specific temporality of writing” which is “altogether different [from the time of the world].”[4] Writing is similar to speech since “[a]u bord de l’écriture” one is “toujours obligé de vivre sans toi” (15) which reminds the absence of the known and knowable interlocutor whose place autrui has taken. But it is the temporality of writing that invites the concept of Eternal Return since Blanchot’s writing interrupts and breaks the temporal circle by making present simply absent: “ce qui fut écrit au passé sera lu à l’avenir, sans qu’aucun rapport de présence puisse s’établir entre écriture et lecture” (46-7). Thus texts will be written and read, in past and in future respectively, regardless of what takes place in the present. Yet nihilism is “celui qui parle encore lorsque tout a été dit” (EI, 232), and as a result, the absence does not stop the movement and the irresolvable plurality is perpetuated. When Blanchot writes that “l’absence de présent sous la forme simplifiée de l’oubli” (27), his temporality of writing sounds similar to that of Proust, who suffered from and wrote on the impossibility to close a full circle between the writing self and the written self. The critical difference between the two derives from the presence and absence of self. While Proust explored the time through the means of his own biographical time and writing, Blanchot writes: that “il n’y a pas de biographie pour la graphie » (51). But Blanchot is not blind to the fear of inevitably making one’s text into a book, a canon, and as a result, a part of the tradition or system of Western metaphysics.

Eternal return is the mechanism with which one does not (en)close the book, in Blanchot’s view. As the eternal return rendered men to keep surpassing the unsurpassable, keep finding meaning which is meaningless, the writer/man can access dehors which is not necessarily “over” text in a vertical hierarchical sense, but certainly outside the “limit” of limit-experience. Professor Nordholt elaborates that “[this] is why writing ‘signals the end of the Book,’ of the Work in general, it belongs to what Blanchot calls the ‘désoeuvrement.’” The word “eternal” appears to eliminate the temporal limit, but the word “return” presupposes a solid limit drawn between “re” and “turn,” the limit which is reached before the turning occurs. This limit where “le passage du Non au Oui” (EI, 225) occurs is also the one between singularity and plurality because “le « re » du retour inscrit comme l’ « ex », ouverture de toute extériorité” in not only spatial sense of exterior, but also “l’exil” (PA, 49).

Blanchot, by making the text a metaphor of the world, renders the writer as the creator of the nihilist world. Yet the strange plurality requires this writer to be anonymous, solitary and misunderstood. The absence of presence and self in writing, though ideal in Blanchot’s interpretation of eternal return, is difficult in reality since perfect anonymity as a writer is impossible to achieve, just like the speaker is identified immediately when he speaks. The act of writing assumes communication and community, though perhaps not in the present as in the speech so that one does not need a scepter. Blanchot begins with such assumption by starting Le pas au-delà with the phrase “Entrons dans ce rapport” (7), but liberates himself and readers from this “rapport” by ending the book with the phrase “Libère-moi de la trop longue parole” (187). Liberty from meaning and time makes the reader of Blanchot to enact the mise-en-abîme of eternal return via trying to find meaning and beginning the “rapport” all over again.


[1] Maurice Blanchot, « Du côté de Nietzche », La part du feu (Gallimard, 1949), pp. 289-301. Referred to as PF.

[2] Maurice Blanchot, L’Entretien infini (Gallimard, 1969). Referred to as EI (short for L’Entretien infini).

[3] Maurice Blanchot, Le pas au-delà (Gallimard, 1973). Referred to as PA.

[4] Annelies Schulte Nordholt, “Blanchot and Nietzsche,” https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/annelies-schulte-nordholt-blanchot-and-nietzsche-full-text/