Maurice Blanchot is a poet

What follows is based only on the occasional reading of ‘The Writing of the Disaster’. I’m going to try and show how some of Blanchot’s prose ‘fragments’ in this particular book can/must be considered as poems. I do not intend to give a full description of what this exceptional book has to say because I’m not sure that I’m able to but I do want to draw it closer within the scope of poetry.

I’m not going to provide my own definition of poetry but propose to rely on Celan and Prynne because they are by far the most accomplished exponents of late modernism and may therefore know more than me. I perhaps need to admit that these two are also chosen because aspects of their definitions enable me to make a coherent case for Blanchot.

I’ve been reading ‘The Disaster’ since the beginning of the year and have tried to read it in isolation from the rest of his work, I’ve also tried to ignore what others have said about him with the exception of an interview given by Emmanuel Levinas after his death. This is all by way of saying that I am not by any means a Blanchot expert, indeed I find that this book is best approached in a quite chlid-like way.

Prynne on self-removal

“If then the poet in this kind is under pressure of conscience to be fully active within the disputed territory of poetic thought, at maximum energy and indeed vigilance, riding through the supple evasions and sudden blockages of language just prior to its emergent formation, how can the result be other than some testimonial to the power of the creating poet, an inscribed scriptural witness?9 I believe the answer to be that strong poetic thought does indeed demand the unreserved commitment of the poet, deep-down within the choices and judgements of dialectical composition;
but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result. Indeed, until this removal is effected, the work cannot be truly complete, so that the new-discovered and extended limits of poetic thought form the language-boundaries of the new work.”

This is from ‘Poetic Thought’ and I want to look at the centrality of ‘self-removal’ to the process of composition in order to verify the ‘integrity’ (or validity) of the work. I’d like to start by asking if this is actually possible, if any of us are able to detach ourselves completely from the creative process. I think I’m in agreement with the sentiment, if poetry is to show ‘how things are’ then the diminution of what Foucault refers to as the ‘fascist within’ must be a step in the right direction. It is important to recognise that Prynne sees this as an essential step and not a some optional extra just as it is to view his alter output from this perspective. What isn’t mentioned here is the fact that this kind of denial of self does not create a vacuum but a space than can be occupied by the other.

Paul Celan and the totally other.

This is from the Meridian address made in Darmstadt in 1960

“But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way – exactly on another’s behalf – who knows, perhaps on behalf of a totally other.“.

(Emphasis as in the original).

When Celan refers to the poem he is referring to poetry as a whole and here he allows himself to talk about the purpose of poetry, indicating that it should focus on speaking on behalf of others rather than expressing the emotions and thoughts of the poet. I hope that the similarities with the Prynne statement are reasonably obvious, both seem to be saying that denial of the self is crucial and Celan goes further by indicating that speaking on behalf of a ‘totally other’ is essential in poetic composition.

Prior to my recent encounter with Blanchot, I’ve always been suspicious of references to ‘the other’ because it seemed to reflect some distinctly continental notion of the world that I felt was unduly hollow and pretentious. I had tried to apply notions of this otherness to my own position as a mad person and how insanity might constitute an exemplary form of otherness but this wasn’t helpful. I;ve long since recognised that we all have some responsibility for the bad things that occur in the world and that a politically quietist position is justifiable in these terms but I hadn’t given any credence to the demands that Celan’s other might make.

Blanchot the poet.

Maurice Blanchot was concerned with many things but one of the central ‘planks’ of “Writing the Disaster” is the nature of our relationship to the other. This is not presented in a moralising way, in fact Blanchot spends a lot of time complaining about the insistent nature of these demands and the fact that the needs of the other can never be truly met / addressed. The book is composed of prose ‘fragments’ some of which contain only one sentence whilst other can run to a couple of pages.

In order to make my case it isn’t sufficient for me to show that Blanchot has the same objectives as Prynne and Celan, I also need to show that the language that he uses is in some way ‘heightened’. There are many possibilities but this seems to make my point=

“From the moment when the imminent silence of the immemorial disaster caused him, anonymous and bereft of self, to become lost in the other night where, precisely, oppressive night (the empty, the ever dispersed and fragmented, the foreign night) separated him and separated him so that the relation with the other night besieged him with its absence, its infinitive distantness – from that moment on, the passion of patience, the passivity of a time without present (absent time, time’s absence) had to be his sole identity, circumscribed by a temporary singularity.”

I think there’s enough poetic language use going on here to make the case but what is remarkable is the way in which passages like this stay in my brain, the way that poems do. I haven’t got my brain around what exactly might be meant by the disaster but this is a distinctly poetic work that I’m happy to live with.


2 responses to “Maurice Blanchot is a poet

  1. Hi John—You raise a thousand issues in my head. I too have been reading ‘The Writing of the Disaster’ in fragments. How else would you do it? Or do I mean, how else could I do it? The question might be, does the writer of fragments intend his reader to create wholes from them—or fragment them further? And does this parallel an attitude toward the self? Another way to approach the ‘self removal of self’(other than fragmenting them or super-unifying them, but with a goal of removing/ transcending them) might be to populate the self, and to extend this population to the poem, with many fluid selves. Forgive me for using my own stuff as an example, but… while I wrote The Lady Mineola ( ) certainly not as an illustration of the Blanchot text I put next to it, and certainly not as an illustration of the fluidity of multi-selves notion (which I’m pretty much making up as I go along), as your post recalled it to mind, I went back to take a look. It does avoid the problem Prynne’s text doesn’t quite confront: that we don’t know where the self would fit in a full description of the world. And it does fit in rather nicely with Paul Celan’s notion to speak on another’s behalf ‘…who knows, the totally other.’ That ‘who knows’ can’t just be a rhetorical flourish, can it? ‘The mind’s timid transplant’ might be an acceptable summary of where The Lady Mineola wants to place its self… and then, ‘refrain, refrain’.
    But perhaps I don’t…

    • Jim,
      I’m delighted that someone of your talent and sensibilities is also paying attention to this remarkable tome. I’m not sure that there is a defined ‘point’ with regard to the fragments, I seem to want to combine some and yet keep others completely isolated but I’m not claiming any special insight or privilege on this. I meant what I said about approaching this stuff as a child would, without contingent expectations and baggage, I find that reading the words as words is the best way to proceed.
      I am in danger of getting bogged down in this renuciation of the self stuff but I am working slowly towards a hypothesis that says that these three are absolutely correct on what poets must do and why. There’s an interview with Levinas where he talks about the nature of evil being bound up with the ‘sadness of self-interest……

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