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Maurice Blanchot: literature and the ambiguity of the negative

Lecturer: Mark Hewson

Originally Taught: Winter School 2010

The works of Maurice Blanchot have exercised a powerful influence on many major French thinkers since the mid 20th century.  From the 1940s onwards, at the same time as he was writing his first novels, Blanchot worked as a literary reviewer for a number of French newspapers and periodicals.  The essays written for this forum gradually progressed from the book review format into an independent meditation on literature and writing, culminating in works such as The Space of Literature (1955) and The Book to Come (1959). These texts practise a unique mixture of literary criticism and philosophical reflection, drawing on the thought of contemporaries such as Heidegger, Levinas and Bataille to reformulate the question of literature as it appears in modern poetry and poetics. The course will begin with some of the more philosophical writings, focussing on language and negativity, and then move through a number of essays, mostly from The Space of Literature, dealing with topics including Blanchot’s concept of experience, the relationship between literature and death, and the appropriation of the Heideggerean thought of being to describe certain specifically “modern” tendencies in poetry and literature. 

Recommended Readings

Day 1 “Reading Kafka” (from The Work of Fire).  This text will serve as an introduction to the strange thesis of “the impossibility of dying”.  (This text is freely available in unabbreviated form on Google Books).

Day 2 “Literature and the right to death” (from The Work of Fire: also available in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, in a somewhat better translation).  We will read the second half of this essay, which is Blanchot’s first extended statement of his philosophical standpoint.

Day 3 “The two versions of the imaginary” (from The Space of Literature, also available in various anthologies).  One of Blanchot’s most well-known essays, this text is an essential reference for contemporary thought on the image.

Day 4 “The essential solitude” (from The Space of Literature).  Many of Blanchot’s texts from this period describe a “nocturnal” dimension of the self, concealed behind the active, cognitive self of everyday existence and historical action.  This text will serve as an introduction to this discourse.

Day 5 “The possible death” (from The Space of Literature).  With this text, we will return to the reflection on death, and show its connections with language and literature in the texts that we have studied: we will also show how this reflection supposes a certain interpretation of modernity.