Literature, scepticism, nihilism: Blanchot after Kojève
The opening pages of Faux Pas make it clear, then, that for Blanchot nihilism is a form of naïvety in relation to the negative that is to be radically distinguished from the experience of the negative in literature.
That this conception of nihilism as a naïve calculation is no passing whim in Blanchot’s theorization of the literary becomes evident as soon as one turns from this 1943 text to his next major general essay on the literary, ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, first published in 1948 and then included as the final essay in the collection The Work of Fire (1949).4 Here, Blanchot establishes what will remain a fundamental distinction between two conceptions of the negative in his work. On the one hand, there is the negativity of the Hegelian dialectic; that is, negation as a power ( pouvoir) for the production of being in its meaning and truth. It is through this labour of the negative that ‘existence is detached from itself and made significant’ (Blanchot 1995: 343). The figure for this meaning- and truth-producing negativity, which Blanchot draws from the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is death in its possibility:
that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power [ungeheure Macht] of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I’. Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. (Hegel 1977: 19)
As glossed by Blanchot: ‘Death ends in being; this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands’ (Blanchot 1995: 344).
Combining Hegel – read by way of Alexandre Kojève’s commentaries on the Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947) – with Mallarmé, Blanchot argues that this power is the negativity of language as naming, and again it is a matter of the feminine, although this time as that which is stripped of being:
For me to be able to say, ‘This woman,’ I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist. . . . when I say, ‘This woman,’ real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence, and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence. (Blanchot 1995: 322–3)
This negation of being effected by language goes for the speaking as well as the spoken being: ‘When I speak, I deny the existence of what I am saying, but I also deny the existence of the person who is saying it’ (Blanchot 1995: 324).
As we have seen, this Hegelian form of negation has for its end the production of being in its meaning and truth, and just such a negation constitutes what Blanchot terms one of literature’s two slopes (pentes, versants): ‘One side of literature is turned toward the movement of negation by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated’ (Blanchot 1995: 330). In short, negation of this kind produces ‘meaningful prose’ (Blanchot 1995: 332). In so far as it is governed by negation in this Hegelian sense, literature’s ‘only concern is true meaning; its only preoccupation is to safeguard the movement by which this meaning becomes truth’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). For Blanchot, Mallarmé is the ‘master of this art of negation’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). Continue reading