Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Voice from Elsewhere

Maurice Blanchot
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
146pp. State University of New York Press. $14.95. 978-0-7914-7016-9

This 1992 essay collection by the French philosopher, novelist and literary critic Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003) contains three reflections on poets and one on a philosopher. Quite what connection “Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him” (1986) has to the other essays is hard to fathom. The link is perhaps a relation to the Outside: a rejection of subjectivity or “interiority” and a receptivity to what Foucault called the “unimaginable” and René Char, one of the poets examined here, called “la vie inexprimable”. Nevertheless, “Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him” marks an almost complete shift of tone from what has gone before, where poetry is the prime concern, in particular “the movement that is the gift of the poem”.

Paul Celan called it “the swelling movement / of words that are always going” and Blanchot’s weighty encounter with Celan, “The Last to Speak” (1984), is surely the best piece here, merging his notion of the Outside with Celan’s concept of the Open. Almost as impressive is “The Beast of Lascaux” (1958), the essay on Char, which begins with a discussion of Plato’s Phaedrus that reads like the seed of Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968). As with Celan, Blanchot admires “the flight of speech” in Char’s work. (He has written elsewhere of Char that “the impossibility of singing itself becomes the song”.) There is a sense, too, that Celan and Char provide a moral bearing for Blanchot, each poet in his own way responding to the menace of Nazism.

The opening essay, “Anacrusis: On the Poems of Louis-René des Forêts”, is a cryptic meditation on music, birth and nonbeing, but it somehow lacks the intensity of Blanchot’s encounters with Char and Celan. The translator Charlotte Mandell appears entirely comfortable with what the Blanchot scholar Leslie Hill has called the “impenetrable clarity” of Blanchot’s prose, but the absence of a contextualising introduction and the spare critical apparatus are a disappointment. In “The Beast of Lascaux” Blanchot suggests a common origin for the language of thought and the language of poetry. They are often indistinguishable in his writing and no more so than in this slim but important collection.

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