December 2013

Matt Hartman

nonfiction

Desperate Clarity by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Michael Holland

With some embarrassment I admit to being a certain kind of amateur scholar of a certain age and temperament for whom the ambiguous world of Continental Thought (or philosophy, or theory, or whatever term it is we've stumbled into this year) became intoxicating sometime around my second year in college. I mean I am the kind of scholar whose interest in modern French philosophy and literary theory began by picking names out of Žižek books. And I doubt that I am the only member of this group for whom the name Maurice Blanchot is both familiar and vague: a name which I have long known represents a body of work I know shamefully little about, and yet a figure who has long been dwarfed by Foucault, Badiou, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, and, yes, Žižek.

Desperate Clarity, the second volume of Chronicles of Intellectual Life, a collection of reviews and essays that Blanchot wrote as a weekly column in the midst of German occupation and published in Journal des débats, a French newspaper, may not alone differentiate Blanchot for those who merely recognize the name, but it does display a thinker sober and measured in his work and presents an unmuddled, if limited, view of an important moment in modern intellectual history.

The essays themselves are short treatments of literature, language, philosophy, history, psychology and anthropology, moving fluidly between disciplines with critical treatments of both their methods and greater importance. Blanchot gives theories on the role of literature in society, the comparative merits of novels and short stories, and the distinctions between tales, stories, and novels. In each, he melds microanalysis of the particular works that give the impetus for individual columns with a macroanalysis of larger issues that points toward future developments and a greater aim in his criticism.

For example, in discussing a novel by Jean Blanzat, Blanchot claims that Blanzat "has the merit, which is worth just as much as the investigations of a profounder art, of having conveyed a state in which untruth and verbal aberration are essential in a language that speaks the truth, from which everything turgid and arid is banished, and that gives pure, clear resonance to the tragic mystifications of youth."

The interpretations point forward to the post-structuralist accounts of paradox and elision, to postmodern suspicion of dependable meaning. In part due to the fact that it is a collection of distinct, almost disjointed essays and in part due to the nature of Blanchot's thought, the ideas expressed in Desperate Clarity are presented with a degree of refreshing intellectual humility. Blanchot writes clearly, pointedly, and refrains from the more ambitious stylistic flourishes of his more well-known successors. (I'm thinking here of Derrida in particular.)

On the other hand, Blanchot's objects are largely works by Henry de Montherlant, Paul Morand, Paul Duranty -- writers who are not likely known in America at all outside of Francophiles and French departments. The pointed brevity of the individual pieces in the collection is thus a limit in addition to a boon: the finer contours of Blanchot's criticism may be lost on those who come to Desperate Clarity without the background knowledge in hand.

The collection's translator and a renowned Blanchot scholar, Michael Holland, offers an introduction that puts these works in a greater historical context. He explains: "If... we approach Blanchot's writing... in its own historical development, as the site of a huge and fundamental change in Western values themselves… we may... adopt the following perspective: in the writing that Maurice Blanchot produced during the Occupation years, a new relationship is established, both critically and in practice, between literature and thought."

Holland further explains current academic debates surrounding these texts, contextualizing and problematizing Blanchot's views on the relation between literature and social life within the supposed Vichy sympathies of Débats.

The introduction serves the book well, even if readers cannot pick out the specific ways Blanchot's writings fit into the narrative Holland sets up. The individual essays alone often raise interesting and broad questions that Holland points to and that are worthy of extended study. Consider, for instance:

What [Montherlant] has written only has meaning for someone who can reap its benefits with no thought of enrichment, or more precisely with the intention of not benefiting from it in any way. The reader who reads in order to profit from his reading is unworthy of what he reads, and is condemned furthermore to read without benefit, since his obsession with utility leads him to debase that which, if he is to encounter it intact, he must refuse to subordinate to any purpose whatsoever, least of all to himself.

The history of the publications build interestingly on Blanchot's claims about literature's place and its integrity within the larger social sphere, giving intellectual historians terrific material to work with. But Blanchot's originality shows even without that knowledge, if more dimly.

Desperate Clarity is a fitting title. This volume does not serve as an especially useful introduction to Blanchot's work for amateur scholars seeking a quick reference on why they've heard Blanchot's name before -- Holland's The Blanchot Reader may be a better fit for that aim -- but it does provide striking moments of intellectual force whose contemporary relevance will be clear. Blanchot's words on a poem by Pierre Emmanuel are clear on this point: "The poet who has given a name to forbidden things... will inevitably be torn apart in the end by the myriad passions born of language." These essays highlight those dilemmas and let the passions of literature speak on their own. It may not be as ambitious as the projects that succeeded Blanchot, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Desperate Clarity by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Michael Holland
Fordham University Press
ISBN: 978-0823251001
240 pages