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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Station Hill Blanchot Reader ed. G. Quasha, trans. E Auster, L. Davis and R. Lamberton (Station Hill Press) This is an excellent anthology of Blanchot's writing that contains both the finest examples of his narrative writing, such as Thomas the Obscure, Death Sentence and Madness of the Day, and also eleven essays that were originally published in The Gaze of Orpheus. Some of these essays are among the most important that Blanchot wrote, such as `Literature and the Right to Death' and 'The Narrative Voice'. This anthology is also a testimony to the commitment of the Station Hill Press to the work of Blanchot and the important work of their translators, some of whom are significant writers in their own right, such as Paul Auster and Lydia Davies. Definitely the best single volume by Blanchot in English. Highly Recommended.

MAURICE BLANCHOT: The Refusal of Philosophy by Gerald L. Bruns (Johns Hopkins University Press, $39.95, cloth, 339 pages, noted, name and topical indexes, 0-8018-5471-7)

A detailed and sophisticated interpretation of the philosophical and political background of Blanchot's writing that covers the whole period of his work. It especially concentrates on the relation of his work to the poetics of Heidegger and offers a stimulating comparison to the poet Paul Celan.
As a French novelist, essayist, literary critic, and theorist, Maurice Blanchot has earned tributes from authors as diverse as Jacques Derrida, Giles Deleuze, and Emmanuel Levinas. But their praise has told us little about what Blanchot’s work actually says and why it has been so influential. In the first comprehensive study of this important French writer to appear in English, Gerald Bruns ties Blanchot's writings to each other and to the works of his contemporaries, including the poet Paul Celan.

Blanchot belongs to the generation of French intellectuals who came of age during the 1930s, survived the Occupation, and flourished during the quarter century or so after World War II.

He was one of the first French intellectuals to take a systematic interest in questions of language and meaning. His focus in the middle 30s on extreme situations—death, madness, imprisonment, exile, revolution, catastrophe—anticipated the later interest of the existentialists. Like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Adorno, Blanchot was a self-conscious writer of fragments, and he has given us one the most developed investigations that we have on the fragment as a kind of writing.

In his critical works, notably L'Espace litteraire (1955), Blanchot propounds the theory that literary compositions are organic entities separate from the external world. Such novels as Thomas L'obscure (1941, tr. 1973) and Le Tres-Haut (1948) exemplify his theoretical ideas in their complex language and imaginary settings. Blanchot's later fiction has dispensed with plot, character, and other elements of representation

In a series of close readings, Bruns addresses the philosophical and political questions that have surrounded Blanchot and his writings for decades. He describes what is creative in Blanchot’s readings of Heidegger's controversial works and examines Blanchot's conception of poetry as an inquiry into the limits of philosophy, rationality, and power.

Bruns avoids trying to extract exact theories, concepts, or positions of any sort from Blanchot's writings. He does attempt to clarify texts, not concepts, showing Blanchot’s ideas as highly derivative. Blanchot thinks by thinking through what others have thought, which he then transforms into his own account, as in his early appropriations of Heidegger. Blanchot takes Heidegger's thought to where it could not have gone of itself. Blanchot's style of discourse was not the course lecture or seminar paper but the critical review and the avant-garde text. In both cases he seems to take on the substance and identity of whatever happens to have engaged him. On occasion he will describe himself as, basically, a writer of marginalia, perhaps the quintessential form of fragmentary and anonymous inscription. But then those who engage Blanchot often become a forceful medium of his thinking. It is often impossible to distinguish among texts by Bataille, Blanchot, and Levinas written in the 1940s. Blanchot's influence on Levinas was massive and profound. It will take years to sort out the relationship between Derrida and Blanchot. Sometimes when reading Foucault or Lyotard one can feel the influence Blanchot. All this proxmity of thinking comes from the closely interanimated character of French intellectual culture. Writers borrow freely from one another according to extremely subtle rules of reference. In his essay on Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy, for example, Robert Bernasconi has a very perceptive comment on "the somewhat discreet forms of criticism that often operate between French thinkers, in marked contrast to the rather more direct approach that is customary in Britain and the United States." What looks like a secret citation or theft is sometimes a pretext, parody, or counterstatement serving as a window onto something else; but often it is just the silent invocation of a precedent or authority which no one can be expected to miss.

Bruns readings of Blanchot have tried to take into account the dialogical or, better, the contextual character of his thinking. Much of the study is in fact not just a reading of Blanchot but an inquiry into his engagements and kinships, and in particular Bruns tries to be fairly precise about where Blanchot and his friend Emmanuel Levinas reached an impasse in their long debate. It is perhaps in his engagement with Levinas that Blanchot's refusal of philosophy is most clearly articulated; just as the overcoming of poetry, as Levinas explicitly shows, is foundational for ethics as first philosophy. Bruns also says a little bit about Blanchot and Bataille as well as showing the parallel lines between Blanchot and Paul Celan, perhaps owing to the common background of Heidegger.

Blanchot works offer a rossetta stone to French postwar intellectual life. In many ways it is possible that greater familiarity with his work will alter major readings of his better known contemporaries. A good introduction to Blanchot. Recommended.

THE BLANCHOT READER: by Maurice Blanchot, edited by Michael Holland (Blackwell Pubishers, $23.95, paperback, 275 pages, bibliography, index, 0631190848)
An interesting collection of Blanchot's work that is not available in other editions. It is especially useful in that it contains some translations of Blanchot's political writings. It does not contain, however, some of the more important of Blanchot's writings, and has perhaps been superseded by the
The Station Hill Blanchot Reader

Contents:: Preface Acknowledgements Introduction
Pt. I. How is Literature Possible? 
1. The Silence of Writers (1941) 2. The Search for Tradition (1941) 3. The Beginnings of a Novel (1938) 4. The Recent Novel (1941) 5. The Pure Novel (1943) 6. Mallarme and the Art of the Novel (1943) 7. How is Literature Possible? (1943) 8. The Novel is a Work of Bad Faith (1947)  9. Sade's Reason (1947)
Pt. II. The Turning-Point
10. Madness par excellence (1951) 11. Artaud (1956) 12. The Disappearance of Literature (1953) 13. The Pursuit of the Zero Point (1953)  14. The Death of the Last Writer (1955) 15. The Great Hoax (1958) 16. Essential Perversion (1958) 17. On a Change of Epoch (1960)
Pt. III. Our Responsibility
18. The Right to Insubordination (1960) 19. Disorderly Words (1968) 20. Intellectuals under Scrutiny (1984) 21. The Indestructible 22. 'Do Not Forget' (1988) 
Pt. IV. The Step Beyond
23. The Name Berlin (1961) 24. The Conquest of Space (1961) 25. Waiting (1959)
26. The Exigency of Return (1969) 27. The Exigency of Return (1970) 28. Oh All to End (1990) 29. The Ease of Dying (1969) 30. Thanks (Be Given) to Jacques Derrida (1990) Blanchot in English by Peter C. Hoy Index

THE ONE WHO WAS STANDING APART FROM ME by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Lydia Davis (Station Hill (Talman): $15.95, cloth, 93 pages, 0-88268-053-6

Blanchot reflects upon the evaporations of idenity in social discourse.

Major on-line Resource:  The Resource Page for Readers of Blanchot by Reginald Lilly

An excellent resource for anyone who is interested in Blanchot. Contains a bibliography of Blanchot's writings and secondary literature on them in French, English, Italian, Spanish and German. It also offers links to other Blanchot sites on the Internet and an email discussion list on Blanchot.

Maurice Blanchot by Ullrich Haase and William Large (Routledge) Without Maurice Blanchot literary theory as we know it today would be unthinkable. Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze: all are key theorists crucially influenced by Blanchot's work.

This accessible guide: works 'idea by idea' through Blanchot's writings, anchoring them  in historical and intellectual contexts;  examines Blanchot's understanding of literature, death, ethics and  politics and the relationship between these themes;  unravels even Blanchot's most complex ideas for the beginner;  sketches the lasting impact of Blanchot's work on the field of critical theory.

For those trying to get to grips with contemporary literary theory and modern French thought, the best advice is to start at the beginning: begin with Blanchot, and begin with this guide.


The French writer and theorist Maurice Blanchot is one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. He has perhaps more than anyone else looked at literature as a serious philosophical question. We do not find in his work and analyses of texts any dubious statements about the value of works, whether this novel is better than that one, or whether this novelist can be ranked higher than another; rather his writing continually circles around the same question of the possibility of literature and the specific demand that literature poses to thought. It is through this insistent meditation on the possibility of literature that Blanchot has influenced a whole generation of contemporary French theorists, such as Jacques Derrida (1930‑), Paul de Man (1919‑1983) and Michel Foucault (1926‑84). What has come to be known as poststructuralism, which has had such a decisive impact on Anglo-American critical theory, is completely unthinkable without him.

Blanchot's writings can be divided into four types: political journalism, literary reviews, novel writing and finally a hybrid style that appears to escape any genre definition, as it is a mixture of both philosophical and literary content expressed in a highly aphoristic and enigmatic style. It might be tempting to describe these different styles chronologically. The problem with this is that the blurring of the distinction between literature, literary theory and philosophy is the point of Blanchot's literary theory and not merely a contingent factor of its development. And still, through all these different styles, he follows through the development of his major themes, which are literature, death, ethics and politics.

We should not, however, see these four themes as standing apart from each other. The overarching question of Blanchot's thought is the meaning and possibility of literature. He does not understand literature in terms of a canon; that is to say, a hierarchy of great works to be judged according to their relative value. As we have pointed out, it would be impossible to find detailed textual criticism in Blanchot, even when his work is more traditionally presented in terms of a study of an author. Thus, for Blanchot, literature cannot be separated off into a sphere where all that matters are questions of value and good taste, as it touches upon fundamental philosophical questions. This explains why the most important writers for Blanchot are not other literary critics, but, on the one hand, philosophers, especially G. W F. Hegel (1770‑1831), Martin Heidegger (1889‑1976) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906‑95), and, on the other hand, those literary writers such as the Austrian (Czech) novelist Franz Kafka (1883‑1924), and the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme (1842‑98), for whom the question of literature emerges from the activity of writing.

This book is organized around the four main themes that we have identified. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss Blanchot's approach to literature, Chapters 3 and 4 the centrality of the theme of death, Chapter 5 the ethical relation and its connection with literature, while Chapters 6 to 8 concern themselves with his political thought. This division into themes is our own work and not Blanchot's. Thus, across his work one

does not find a chapter on death or politics, in which he will discuss this theme in a general way and differentiate his own position from that of other theorists, and still less would one expect a book on one of these themes. Blanchot does not write in an 'academic' style, even in those works that one might like to call theoretical, rather each one of his pieces, which, we should never forget, were originally published in the form of literary reviews, starts with an author's name or a work, and then advances to the question of the possibility of literature. In fact there is a remarkable consistency of style in Blanchot's work, and he continually comes back to the same questions even though through different writers or works. This is also why it is difficult to speak of the development of Blanchot's work. What marks it is its stubborn refusal to let go of the question of the possibility of literature. Thus, even though one might say that his later work becomes more concerned with politics and ethics, even these topics are thought through in the context of the question of the possibility of literature. And it is this way of thinking about literature in general, though one can only approach it through a writer or a work, that is Blanchot's most important legacy to critical theory. Finally, for all these reasons, it is also difficult to say which are the key texts of Blanchot's career. For each text repeats the same questions. However, one might add, that if one wants to experience the full scope of Blanchot's critical writing, and perhaps these works are his most influential, then one might begin with The Work of Fire (1949), The Space of Literature (1955) and The Writing of Disaster (1980). This book is intended only as an introduction to Blanchot's work in the ways that it is relevant to critical theory. For this reason, we have made one important decision: to focus on the theoretical texts and only refer to Blanchot's literary output to the extent that it illuminates them. The further reading that we give at the end of this book also reflects this decision. As with any introduction, we hope that it will inspire the reader to go back to the original, rather than think that this book could stand in as its impossible substitute. 


 Thomas the Obscure, New Version, trans. Robert Lamberton (D. Lewis, NewYork) Originally published in France in 1941 (Blanchot withdrew the first version). How to summarize a book whose main concern lies not so much with the events happening to its protagonist called Thomas, but with its style? Written in the most lucid prose, it constantly slides into meaninglessness. In terms of Blanchot's literary criticism it is highly important for his meditations on the impossibility of death. It acts as a literary counterpoint to the more formal analyses of death in the essay 'Literature and the Right to Death' and in parts of The Space of Literature. This work is also to be found in the The Station Hill Blanchot Reader.

 Death Sentence trans. Lydia Davis (Station Hill Press) This is an astonishingly original novel that is ostensibly set in Paris at the beginning of the Second World War. It is the story of the relation between the narrator and two women, one of whom appears to be terminally ill. Like Thomas the Obscure, it is not the narrative that is important, but the atmosphere of the book. From a purely theoretical side, one can make connections to the themes of death and dying, and the excessive demand of writing that appears in Blanchot's literary criticism. This work is also to be found in the anthology The Station Hill Blanchot Reader.

 The Gaze of Orpheus, and Other Literary Essays ed. P Adams Sitney, trans. Lydia Davis (Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1981) This is one of the first collections of Blanchot's work in English, which is now out of print, and most of the essays can be found in the The Station Hill Blanchot Reader.

 The Madness of the Day trans. Lydia Davis (Station Hill Press) This is one of Blanchot's short narratives and was originally published in French in 1973. Like all of Blanchot's narratives, the story tells us little. Ostensibly, it seems to be about someone who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital, but knowing that tells you almost nothing, and the text resists interpretation, even though its very opacity and enigmatic nature seems to invite it.

 The Sirens' Song, Selected Essays, ed. G. Josipovici, trans. S. Rabinovitch (The Harvester Press) This collection is one of first selections of Blanchot's work in English and it is no longer in print. It has a fine introductory essay by the editor Gabriel Josipovici. Most of the essays are now translated elsewhere in the complete translations of Blanchot's work such as The Space of Literature and The Work of Fire.

 The Space of Literature trans. A. Smock (University of Nebraska Press) Perhaps this book, first published in France in 1955, is the most important and influential of Blanchot's works. In this book he examines the process of reading as well as artistic creativity. Central to this work, also, is Blanchot's most sustained inquiry into the relation between literature and death, 'The Work and the Space of Death'. Key writers that are discussed in this book are Stephane Mallarme, Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke.

 The Step Not Beyond ((SUNY, State University of New York Press) translated and with an introduction by Lycette Nelson) is of major importance to late 20th-century literature and philosophy studies. Using the fragmentary form, Blanchot challenges the boundaries between the literary and the philosophical. With the obsessive rigor that has always marked his writing, Blanchot returns to the themes that have haunted his work since the beginning: writing, death, transgression, the neuter, but here the figures around whom his discussion turns are Hegel and Nietzsche rather than Mallarme and Kafka.
The metaphor Blanchot uses for writing in The Step Not Beyond is the game of chance. Fragmentary writing is a play of limits, a play of ever-multiplied terms in which no one term ever takes precedence. Through the randomness of the fragmentary, Blanchot explores ideas as varied as the relation of writing to luck and to the law, the displacement of the self in writing, the temporality of the Eternal Return, the responsibility of the self towards the others.

This is Blanchot's first book that is written in the fragmentary style (the next will be The Writing of Disaster. The important themes of this work are writing, death and the neuter and the key writers are G. W F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, rather than the literary figures that predominate elsewhere in Blanchot's work.

Vicious Circles, Two Fictions and After the Fact  trans. P Auster (Station Hill Press). This collection is a translation of two narratives by Blanchot, 'The Idyll' and 'The Last Word', and also a post‑face called 'After the Fact'. The first two stories can be found in the The Station Hill Blanchot Reader.

 The Writing of Disaster trans. A. Smock (University of Nebraska Press) After The Space of Literature, this book is perhaps the most influential of Blanchot's works. It is written in the same fragmentary style as The Step not Beyond, but its themes are even wider and it is difficult to typify it either as a literary or philosophical work. Its central theme is perhaps all the disasters that have befallen human beings in the twentieth century, all of which are represented for Blanchot by the impossible image of the death camps like Auschwitz. It also contains important fragments on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, continuing his engagement with this work in The Infinite Conversation.

 The Unavowable Community trans. P Joris (Station Hill Press) This book, which is one of Blanchot's most recent, is a meditation on the possibility of community in modern times. It is also an explicit response to Jean‑Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community. It consists of two parts, first a reflection on the political thought of his friend Georges Bataille, then an essay on the political significance of the novels of Marguerite Duras.

 The Infinite Conversation trans. S. Hanson (University of Minnesota Press) The largest of Blanchot's books by far, containing a very wide range of material including essays on Franz Kafka, Blaise Pascal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus. It also contains Blanchot's fullest engagement with Levinas's ethics. The important themes of this work are the nature of language, the narrative voice, revolutionary politics, the meaning and scope of nihilism, and Jewish identity. It is also in this work that the division between Blanchot's critical and literary work becomes blurred, an experiment in style that will be furthered in The Step Not Beyond and The Writing of Disaster.

 The Work of Fire trans. C. Mandell (Stanford University Press) This work is a translation of some of Blanchot's earliest essays, which were originally published in this form in 1949, and it contains one of the most important essays of Blanchot's work, `Literature and the Right to Death'. This early essay holds the kernel of his approach to the question of literature and would be one of the best places to start reading his work. There are also significant essays here on Stephane Mallarme and Franz Kafka.

 The Most High trans. Allan Stoekl (University of Nebraska Press) One of Blanchot's earliest novels whose style has much in common with the work of Franz Kafka. The ostensible plot of this novel is the destruction of a city through a mysterious disease, but it is also a profound meditation on the power of the state and human weakness and frailty.

 Friendship trans. E. Rottenberg (Stanford University Press) This is the last of Blanchot's standard critical works that consist of literary reviews and was originally published in 1971. Like these other works it contains essays on writers and works of literature, but perhaps differently from these it takes on both a more autobiographical flavor, for example, in the testimony to his friendship with Georges Bataille (from which this collection takes its title), and also a more directly political stance with essays on Karl Marx, some of which were the result of his engagement in the student riots in Paris in 1968.

 Awaiting Oblivion trans. John Gregg (University of Nebraska Press) One of Blanchot's late fictions that begins to move away from the traditional idea of a novel or a short story and which Blanchot called `narratives'. In style this is close to the work of Samuel Beckett. What is significant is not what `happens', which on the surface appears to be a conversation between a man and a woman set, like many of Blanchot's later narratives, in an anonymous hotel room, but its unravelling through fragmentary writing.


 Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot: Sources of Derrida s Notion and Practice of Literature by Timothy Clark (Cambridge University Press) A very readable and scholarly book and one of the first studies in English to demonstrate the importance of Blanchot for understanding contemporary literary theory. It shows the thread of influence from Heidegger via Blanchot to Derrida's notions of literature.

 Very Little ‑ Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley (Routledge) Although not a book directly about Blanchot it is deeply inspired by his writings. Its first part offers an insightful and wide‑ranging interpretation of the `there is' that encompasses the alliance between literature and death, and of Blanchot's relation to Emmanuel Levinas. One of its most interesting parts is the reading of Samuel Beckett, which in a certain sense puts Blanchot's anti‑theory of literature into practice.

 Deleuze, Gilles, Foucault trans. S. Hand (University of Minnesota Press) Although this is not a book about Blanchot but Foucault, his name figures in it quite prominently. Deleuze is clear that the origin of Foucault's understanding of language, which is central to his critical project, is to be found in Blanchot's work. It is also certain from reading Deleuze's comments how important Blanchot was to his own distancing from modern semiology. One of the key books for demonstrating the importance of Blanchot to the French radical thinkers of the last decades.

 Maurice Blanchot: The Demand of Writing  edited by Carolyn Bailey Gill (Routledge) A collection of fourteen critical essays which cover most of the different aspects of Blanchot's work, such as his politics, his narratives and his literary criticism. Some of the essays are explanatory, whereas others critically engage with Blanchot's work. It also contains a letter from Blanchot in which he addresses the contentious issue of his political involvement in the 1930s.

 Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression by John Gregg (Princeton University Press) (E-BOOK, Microsoft, E-BOOK, adobe) This is a challenging book that requires a long familiarity with Blanchot's work. It is organized around the concept of transgression that, Gregg argues, Blanchot took over from Georges Bataille. Other topics are Blanchot's critique of Hegel, his description of the relation between literature and death, and his use of biblical figures in the depiction of reading and writing. The second part of the book involves a very detailed reading of two of Blanchot's works of fiction: The Most High and Awaiting Oblivion.

 Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary by Leslie Hill (Routledge) A demanding introduction, which is by far the most useful work in English on Blanchot. It gives a very good biography of Blanchot at the beginning and does much to dispel some of the myths surrounding his journalism of the 1930s. It also covers the broad sweep of Blanchot's literary criticism from the 1940s to recent times. This is not the easiest work and requires some philosophical knowledge, but it will deepen the reader's understanding of Blanchot.

 Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille, and Communication by Joseph Libertson (Martinus Nijhoff,) One of the first books in English on the work of Blanchot. It is a fascinating study because it attempts to link Blanchot's work with Levinas and Bataille. It is, however, written in the most forbidding academic style, which makes its difficult to read. Not for the novice.

  Legacies of Anti‑Semitism in France by Jeffrey Mehlman (University of Minnesota Press) Contains the first essay in English that draws attention to Blanchot's political writings of the 1930s. Mehlman puts forward the controversial theory that Blanchot's journalism of this period cannot be totally divorced from French anti-Semitism and nor can his own literary criticism. Worth reading to find out if the other critics are right to dismiss this thesis.

Scandal and Aftereffect: Blanchot and France Since 1930 by Steven Unger (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995) A rather specialized book on Blanchot. Again its topic is Blanchot's political writing of the 1930s, which seems to be an obsession of American literary critics. Central to his argument is the psychoanalytic concept of `aftereffect' that is used to explain the amnesia concerning Blanchot's political involvement. Useful to discover some of the detail of Blanchot's journalism, since most of it remains untranslated.

 Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot and Agamben by Thomas Carl Wall (SUNY: State University of New York Press) An exceptional book written in a highly engaging and approachable style. This is not an introductory work, nor entirely a monograph, but an original piece of philosophy in its own right. It focuses on the place of death in Blanchot, but also interestingly links his work to Levinas (and the differences there might be between them) and to the lesser known Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

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