"The Instant of My Death"
By Maurice Blanchot
I remember a young man—a man still young—prevented from dying by death itself—and perhaps the error of injustice.
The Allies had succeeded in getting a foothold on French soil. The Germans, already vanquished, were struggling in vain with useless ferocity.
In a large house, (The Château, it was called) someone knocked at the door rather timidly. I know that the young man came to open the door to guests who were presumably asking for help.
This time, a howl: "Everyone outside"
A Nazi lieutenant, in shamefully normal French, made the oldest people exit first, and then two young women.
"Outside, outside." This time, he was howling. The young man, however, did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner. The lieutenant shook him, showed him the casings, bullets; there had obviously been fighting; the soil was a war soil.
The lieutenant choked in a bizarre language. And putting the casings, the bullets, a grenade under the nose of the man already less young (one ages quickly), he distinctly shouted: "This is what you have come to."
The Nazi placed his men in a row in order to hit, according to the rules, the human target. The young man said, "At least have my family go inside." So it was: the aunt (ninety-four years old); his mother, younger; his sister and his sister-in-law; a long, slow procession, silent, as if everything had already been done.
I know—do I know it—that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)—sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?
In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead—immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.
At that instant, an abrupt return to the world, the considerable noise of a nearby battle exploded. Comrades from the maquis wanted to bring help to one they knew would be in danger. The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation. The Germans stayed in order, prepared to remain thus in an immobility that arrested time.
Then one of them approached and said in a firm voice, "We’re not Germans, Russians," and, with a sort of laugh, "Vlassov army," and made a sign forhim to disappear.
I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the "Bois des bruyères," where he remained sheltered by trees he knew well. In the dense forest suddenly, after how much time, he rediscovered a sense of the real. Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers—truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth—had been slaughtered.
Even the bloated horses, on the road, in the fields, attested to a war that had gone on. In reality, how much time had elapsed? When the lieutenant returned and became aware the young chatelaine had disappeared, why did anger, rage, not prompt him to burn down the Château (immobile and majestic)? Because it was the Château. On the facade it was inscribed, like an indestructible reminder, the date 1807. Was he cultivated enough to know this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the "spirit of the world," as he wrote to a friend? Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential. In that year 1944, the Nazi lieutenant had for the Château a respect or consideration that the farms did not arouse. Everything was searched, however. Some money was taken; in a separate room, "the high chamber," the lieutenant found papers and a sort of thick manuscript—which perhaps contained war plans. Finally he left. Everything was burning, except the Château. The Seigneurs had been spared.
No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.
This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.
There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I image that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive. No, you are dead."
Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who said that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process. “It was only reflections of art, easy to reconstitute, whereas a manuscript would not be.” With Paulhan, he made inquiries which could only remain in vain.
What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself, or to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death. Originally published in French as L’instant de ma mort (1994).