Monday, March 19, 2007

More thoughts on reading Maurice Blanchot

Maurice Blanchot is one of those writers who leaves you with more questions than answers (see below). As such he is definitely the writer you have to read and try to understand if you are yourself an aspiring writer. Wikipedia warned me that reading Blanchot is a thoroughly disturbing experience and it most certainly is.

I have already written here that he uses very simple words, but his writings, that are mostly about language, writing and words themselves, are very difficult indeed. They approach Heidegger at his most obscure (Sein und Zeit was the book that had the greatest influence on his thinking). My knowledge of French is excellent, but reading Blanchot is like having to learn that language all over again. As it is, I wonder how much of the content can ever survive a translation. I have read a part of it in Dutch and then it becomes even more difficult, because he often translates terminology of Hegel and Heidegger in French, that, in turn, then gets translated in Dutch. So you have already two levels of shifts in signification.

There is nothing much that I do not like about Blanchot. Before WWII he was extreme-right and moved in the circles around the Action Française of Charles Maurras (A thing that people who have been born after WWII often tend to forget is that the French extreme-right actually had lots of political leverage and was not considered 'wrong', like it is in our time). He even wrote pieces against the Jews. Nonetheless he helped to escape those same Jews from persecution during the war. After the war, politically, he moved to the left, eventually ending up on the extreme-left. As he got older he became more and more reclusive and by the end of his life Derrida was the only person he still met regularly.

And you understand that desire to become a literary hermit when you read his books. I write 'books', but most of his writings, even his novels, are deep and difficult and often philosophical meditations on what language is and what it means to write. He constantly writes in seemingly paradoxical sentences and I can imagine that his writings are for most people, just like Heidegger's, unreadable and hermetic.

Still, I can not imagine a writer that has left, in such a short time, such an impression on my own thinking. After reading De l'Angoise au Langage, Comment la Littérature est-elle Possible and La Littérature et le Droit à la Mort (It took me three weeks to really read those texts and we are talking about a mere hundred pages here) I just could not write a sentence for days. Blanchot forces you to rethink every concept you were used to. Even if you do not agree with him, you will be changed. And that, after all, is what literature should do.

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