maurice blanchot on authorial anxiety and the inevitability of writing

Maurice Blanchot conceives of the author’s relation to the book as one of incomprehension, inevitable alienation, and ultimate failure: hence the ongoing need to repeat, to write yet again.  




lt seems we have learned something about art when we experience what the word solitude designates. This word has been tossed around much too freely. Yet what does it mean to “be alone”? When is one alone? As we ask ourselves this question’ we should not simply return to thoughts that we find moving. Solitude on the level of the world is a wound we do not need to comment on here.


Nor do we have in mind the solitude of the artist, the solitude which he is said to need if he is to practice his art. When Rilke writes to the Comtesse de Solms-Laubach (August 3, 1907): “Except for two short interruptions, I have not pronounced a single word for weeks; at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit,”‘ the solitude he speaks of is not essentially solitude: it is self-communion.


The Solitude of the Work


In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we see a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another. Valéry, who celebrates this privilege of the infinite in the work, still sees only its easiest aspect: the fact that the work is infinite means (to him) that although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit, expresses that mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain point, circumstances — that is, history — in the form of an editor, financial demands, social duties, pronounce the missing end and the artist, freed by a purely compulsory outcome, pursues the incomplete elsewhere.


According to this point of view, the infinity of the work is simply the infinity of the spirit. The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history. But Valéry was in no way a hero. He chose to talk about everything, to write about everything: thus, the scattered whole of the world diverted him from the rigor of the unique whole of the work — he amiably allowed himself to be turned away from it. The etc. was hiding behind the diversity of thoughts, of subjects.


Nevertheless, the work — the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively that: that it is — and nothing more. Outside of that, it is nothing. Anyone who tries to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. Anyone who lives in dependence on the work, whether because he is writing it or reading it, belongs to the solitude of something that expresses only the word being: a word that the language protects by hiding it or that the language causes to appear by is appearing into the silent void of the work.


The first framework of the solitude of the work is this absence of need which never permits it to be called finished or unfinished. The work can have no proof, just as it can have no use. It cannot be verified — truth can lay hold of it, renown illuminate it: this existence concerns it not at all, this obviousness makes it neither certain nor real, nor does it make it manifest.


The work is solitary in that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of that solitude.


The Work, The Book


If we want to examine more closely what such statements suggest, perhaps we should look for their source. The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work, the work is not a work until the word being is pronounced in it, in the violence of a beginning which is its own; this event occurs when the work is the innermost part of someone writing it and of someone reading it. We can therefore ask ourselves this: if solitude is the writer’s risk,  doesn’t it express the fact that he is turned, oriented towards the open violence of the work, never grasping more than its substitute, its approach, and its illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute accumulation of sterile words, the most meaningless thing in the world. The writer who  experiences this void simply believes that the work is unfinished, and he believes that with a little more effort and the luck of some favorable moments, he — and only he — will be able to finish it. And so he sets back to work. But what he wants to finish, by himself, remains something interminable, it ties him to an illusory labor. And in the end, the work ignores him, it closes on his absence, in the impersonal, anonymous statement that it is-and nothing more. Which we express by remarking that the artist, who only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows his work. And we may have to reverse that remark, because isn’t the writer dead as soon as the work exists, as he himself sometimes foresees, when he experiences a very strange kind of worklessness.*


* This is not the situation of the man who works and accomplishes his task and whose task escapes him by transforming itself in the world. What this man makes is transformed, but in the world, and he recaptures it through the world, at least if he can recapture it, if alienation is not immobilized, if it is not diverted to the advantage of a few, but continues until the completion of the world. On the contrary, what the writer has in view is the work, and what he writes is a book. The book, as such, can become an active event in the world (an action, however, that is always reserved and insufficient), but it is not action the artist has in view, but the work, and what makes the book a substitute for the work is enough to make it a thing that, like the work, does not arise from the truth of the world; and it is an almost frivolous thing, if it has neither the reality of the work nor the seriousness of real labor in the world.



—from The Gaze of Orpheus and other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney. Translated by Lydia Davis (1981). Originally published in Blanchot’s  L’Espace littéraire (1955).