Maurice Blanchot - Biography
Maurice Blanchot (September 27, 1907 – February 20, 2003) was a French intellectual and author. His theories on the relationship between the writer, language, literature and philosophy influenced a generation of post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers such as Paul de Man, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Born in a small village situated between the Saône and Loire rivers in Eastern France around the turn of the 20th century, Maurice Blanchot remained a largely private, enigmatic figure throughout his life. He began his studies in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg in the mid 1920s where he met Talmudic commentator and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas with whom he would remain close friends for the rest of Levinas’ life. In addition to philosophy, Blanchot also studied German at the University of Strasbourg, ostensibly to better understand the works of German philosophers Georg Hegel and Martin Heidegger, on whose philosophy Maurice Blanchot based much of his own subsequent thought.
Moving from Strasbourg to Paris to begin his studies at the Sorbonne in 1930, Maurice Blanchot took up journalism, writing for many right wing publications about his views on nationalism and how leftism was ruining the country. From 1932 to 1940, he edited “Journal des Débats,” a conservative paper in Paris. Writing for famed right-wing newspaper “Combat,” Blanchot railed against then Prime Minister Léon Blum and advocated revolution against Blum’s Popular Front government. During this period, Maurice Blanchot also contributed to the far-right publication, “L’Insurgé” which he subsequently began attacking after discovering anti-Semitic leanings from its editor. Despite his fierce nationalism and frequent attacks on Léon Blum, the first Jewish Prime Minister of France, Maurice Blanchot also worked diligently to combat fascism and hatred through his writing.
In addition to his close friendship with Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot also edited the anti-Nazi publication, “Le Rempart,” in 1933 as well as Paul Lévy’s “Aux Ecoutes” which Lévy had founded to oppose those who wished to downplay the growing Nazi threat. The same year that he became editor of “Le Rampart” he also began to work on what would eventually become his first novel, Thomas the Obscure. Finishing his first novel at the outbreak of the Nazi occupation of France, Blanchot began to withdraw from political journalism and focus on literature. He did, however, continue to write a literary column for the increasingly Vichy oriented “Journal des Débats” throughout the wartime period. In November of 1941, Maurice Blanchot used his right wing contacts to save Paul Lévy from being deported as well as helping the wife and daughter of Emmanuel Levinas remain secure. Blanchot also used his position to help clandestine resistance operations in the region where he was born, all the while maintaining a neutral public persona as a Parisian intellectual. Making the acquaintances of many other Parisian thinkers during this period, he developed a deep friendship with the author Georges Bataille.
Cementing his relationship in 1942 with the publishing house Gallimard, which had already published his first novel, Thomas the Obscure, he published his second novel, Aminadab, which continued Blanchot’s penchant for abstraction in his novels. While working with Gallimard, he met French author, editor at Gallimard and lover of novelist Marguerite Duras, Dionys Mascolo in 1943. Mascolo encouraged Blanchot to put together a collection of his critical works, which was published under the title, Faux Pas. This relationship with Mascolo led to Blanchot becoming a member of the jury committee for Gallimard’s literary award, “la Prix de la Pléiade” in 1943.
Soon after the publication of Faux Pas, Maurice Blanchot decided to take a vacation to his birthplace, a small village called Quain. In Quain, Blanchot experienced an event that would color the rest of his life. He was almost shot by a group of Nazi soldiers. Fifty years later he would write a critical piece entitled L’instant de ma mort or The Moment of my Death in which he discussed the feeling that death had happened to him in that moment and was simply waiting to happen to him again.
In postwar Paris, Blanchot became an eminent member of the literary scene. He was a member of the jury for the “Prix du Critiques” in 1945 and contributing to numerous French revues such as “La Nouvelle Revue Française” and the newly founded “Critique” where he worked with Georges Bataille again and met French author and philosopher Jean Piel. At the end of 1946 he decided to leave Paris and move to a small village called Èze in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France.
Finishing his novel, Le Très Haut, 1947, he would not write another novel until 1973. After Le Très Haut, he began to focus on writing critical essays as well as letters to his friends, some of whom he would not see face to face for years due to his desire to remain isolated both for the sake of his work which dealt deeply with themes of isolation, but also due to his poor health.
In the postwar period his views began to shift to the left as well as becoming more radical, feeling, like many intellectuals of the era, that it was the duty of the intellectual to involve him or herself in the affairs of the day for the good of all despite his own personal feelings that a writer derives his purpose from the text and nowhere else. He actively participated in the creation of the Manifeste des 121, which was a treatise signed by 121 of France’s most prominent intellectuals calling for an end to the involuntary drafting of French citizens into the Algerian war, as well as for French soldiers to desert the army rather than utilizing torture.
Beginning in 1960 or 61, the idea of an International Revue began to grow in Blanchot’s mind. The project would have been a collection of criticism, philosophy and letters from the most prominent minds in Europe as well as the United States and South America. Blanchot solicited works from Italian novelist Elio Vittorini, German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Italo Calvino, Gunter Grass and many more. While Blanchot’s vision for the International Revue never came to fruition, the four years that he spent working on it enabled him to have discourse with some of the greatest minds in the world, enabling him to further hone his particular critical, philosophical ideas.
Emerging from his self imposed seclusion whilst working on the International Revue, Blanchot returned to Paris in 1968 to show support for the burgeoning student revolution. In February of that year Blanchot met post-structuralist thinker, Jacques Derrida, who, like Blanchot had utilized French poet Stéphane Mallarmé as one of the cornerstones of his literary philosophy. Blanchot remained in Paris for the duration of the student protests, even being on the Comités Écrivains-Étudiants with Marguerite Duras to bolster faith in the student movement. This would be his last public appearance for many years.
Following the events of 1968, Maurice Blanchot retired more and more not only into physical isolation but also into silence. After the publication of L’Entretien Infini in 1969, he would not publish anything until 1973 when he published his final novel, Le pas au-delá. Subsequently he would not publish anything until seven years later when he published a collection of criticism called L’Écriture du Désastre.
His piece, La Communaoté Inavouable, released in 1983, which recounted his experiences with Georges Bataille, Marguerite Duras and communism, marked a distinct shift in his subject matter. Never one to write about himself, he began to write texts that were at once homages to the many intellectuals he had known in his life while also making political commentary such as Pour l’Amitié or Les Intellectuels en Question both of which he published in 1996 for the revue “Fata Morgana.” Around the same time as his pieces for “Fata Morgana,” Blanchot also published his final book L’Instant de ma Mort, recounting his experiences with the Nazi firing squad. When “Fata Morgana” published a book by far right politician Alain de Benoist, Blanchot angrily wrote to editor Bruno Roy, announcing that he wanted no part of a publication that would support anti-Semitic views. Roy fired back, dragging up Blanchot’s own nationalist past. A highly publicized battle ensued in the pages of “La Quinzaine Littéraire,” which ended with Blanchot finally retiring fully from the spotlight.
In his final years, Maurice Blanchot communicated with very few people, preferring to refer to himself as “already dead” and his publications as “posthumous.” His friendship with Jacques Derrida remained strong, however, and the two communicated until Blanchot’s death in 2003. Maurice Blanchot died at the age of 89 in his home in southern France. Jacques Derrida delivered his eulogy.