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‘Never a fascist’?

Maurice Blanchot, Political Writings, 1953–1993, translated with an introduction by Zakir Paul, foreword by Kevin Hart, Fordham University Press, New York, 2010. 200 pp.

Howard Caygill

It is perhaps appropriate that this collection of political writings by Maurice Blanchot is marked by a troubling absence. Yet it is hard to join the editor and publisher of  this translation in respecting the decision of the editors of the French collections to begin their coverage in the 1950s: the first edition published in 2003 spanned writings from 1958 to 1993, the second in 2008 reached back, but not far enough, to 1953. For the decision to date Blanchot’s political writings from the 1950s constitutes such a drastic act of exclusion that not even the judicious foreword by Kevin Hart to the English edition can repair the damage.

As is well known, Maurice Blanchot pursued a career during the 1930s as a well-paid journalist of the extreme Right, producing on a conservative estimate several hundred articles. Aside from his contributions to small reviews of the extreme Right, to the Journal des débats politiques et littéraires his known contributions to the review alone Le Rempart well exceeded sixty. This suffocating mass of political writing is nevertheless absent from this edition, and cited only indirectly and selectively in Hart’s introduction, indebted to Christophe Bident’s pioneering ‘biographical essay’ Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire Invisible (1998). The nationalist and virulently anti-communist political commentator specializing in foreign affairs and the critic of French parliamentarianism is discreetly detached from the apparently ultra-leftist political writer of the post-war years. Unfortunately this censorship does little to help readers understand Blanchots’s political writing and to assess the character and extent of his change of convictions.

The quarantined writings of the 1930s provoke a number of defensive reactions that are frankly apologetic. The first, echoed by Hart, is to evoke surprise that their content is not quite as bad as they are rumoured to be; that Blanchot was ‘never a fascist’. Detached from their context as an extreme and essentialist French nationalism, Blanchot’s journalism especially from 1933, pursued a consistent and rigorous critique of German National Socialism, explicitly attacking its anti-Semitism. Yet the anti-German, anti-Nazi posture was by no means unusual for the dissident circles around the Action Française, and was also compatible with a local anti-semitism, such as Blanchot employed in his attacks on the Blum government in the article ‘Terrorism – Means of Public Safety’ in Combat, July 1936 deploring its ‘holy alliance’ of the interests of the ‘Soviets, Jews, Capitalists’. Hart cites this as evidence that Blanchot did not make antisemitic comments ‘as such’, although his translation turns the nouns into adjectives thus softening the identification ‘Soviet, Jewish, Capitalist interests’. Bident’s defensive argument that Blanchot made recourse to a specific journalistic rhetoric to attack the government makes things worse, since it suggests that Blanchot was an unscrupulous journalist willing to make unthinking use of anti-semitic tropes in order to appeal to his rightist audience, who would not make fine discriminations between the three interests. The question of Blanchot’s anti-Nazism and its importance for his turn is a crucial one, but this collection will not help readers wanting to know more.

Another strategy also promoted by Hart is to suggest that the Blanchot of the Right and the Left meet in their advocacy of dissidence. The only extended passage he cites from the hundreds that Blanchot wrote during this period – ‘Dissidents Wanted’ – from Combat, December 1937, seems to prefigure Blanchot’s move from a dissidence of the right to one of the left:

The true communist dissident is someone who leaves communism not in order to find common ground with capitalism but in order to define the true conditions of the struggle against capitalism. In the same way, the true nationalist dissident is someone who neglects the traditional formulas of nationalism, not in order to seek reconciliation with internationalism but in order to fight internationalism in all its forms, including the economy and the nation itself. These two examples of dissidence seem to us as useful as the other. But they seem equally rare. We need dissidents.

The question of whether this points to a continuity between this text and the ‘Manifesto of the 121’ against the Algerian War is an interesting and important one, but it should be remembered that at this point the dissidence in question was that of the Right in opposition to a government of the centre Left. Blanchot’s calls for resistance during the 1930s are made in the name of order and the restoration of the integrity of the nation against internal and external threats. His statement of the conditions of resistance in the article in Rempart, for example, (cited in Bident) is set in the context of denunciations of liberalism, the rights of man and citizen and, in short, the achievements of the French Revolution:

When the state has become incapable of working in favour of the state and in favour of the nation, the public good may perhaps only be defended by resistance to the public power. The general interest may be saved by private initiatives. Everyone has the right to denounce unjust laws and to withdraw themselves. And the revolution begins. We are in revolution.

A reader of Blanchot’s political writings should be in a position to judge for themselves the elements of break and continuity between a position established on the premises of the extreme Right and those of the Left. This collection, unfortunately, will not enable them to do so.

Perhaps one of the most politically sensitive strategies adopted in dealing with the writings of the 1930s is the argument for a ‘change of conviction’. Blanchot certainly repudiated his political personal of the 1930s, but the issue remains of what prompted this change. The issue is extremely sensitive since it involves Blanchot’s role in the resistance to Vichy and the German Occupation of France and his complicity in constructing a narrative of this role. Hart’s introduction moves quickly from the ‘not as such’ anti-Semitic comment to the facts of Blanchot’s active protection of Levinas’s wife and daughter, to Marguerite Blanchot’s aid of Paul Lévy and the difficulty of imagining ‘that Blanchot himself was not involved in this good work’. Yet Blanchot’s contribution to the resistance is worryingly intangible. This is of course characteristic of many resistants with respect to their activities in the clandestine resistance – Vernant above all – and the potential for perpetrating injustice when reviewing actions from this period is enormous. Yet the case for Blanchot’s resistance is not clear cut.

Bident describes Blanchot’s ‘discrete links’ with the resistance, his meeting with Char in 1940 and his active resistance against the occupying power from 1942–43 that consisted in driving clandestines from Quain to the border with Switzerland. Yet weighed against these episodes is the attempt to ‘use Vichy against Vichy’ with the Vichy cultural association Jeune France and the literary reviews for much of the war published in the Journal des débats. In referring to the ‘ambiguity’ of the former in the essay ‘For Friendship’, Blanchot avoids mentioning the name of the founder of the organization – Pierre Schaeffer – referring instead to ‘unknown musicians who would later become famous’: a striking refusal to name the individual responsible for the organization, mentioning also his resignation from the organization in 1942. The footnote to this sentence gives the quasi-resistance ‘context’ that ‘The group was dissolved in March 1942, after having been infiltrated by anti-Vichy artists and intellectuals intent on using it as a platform against the government’. Yet Bident shows that it was not dissolved, nor did Blanchot resign for this reason. Indeed, he was associated with the successful bid to the Vichy government for a successor organization, the ‘Association for the defence and illustration of artistic values’.

The programme of a resistance to Vichy from within Vichy is at least conceivable until the Laval government and Vichy’s entry into full collaboration with the German occupation. If participating in Jeune France seems an implausible platform for such resistance, publishing regular literary articles in the Journal de débats is even less convincing. Bident remains baffled by Blanchot’s ‘superb indifference’ to the company his writing was keeping, namely ‘intolerable propaganda publicity’ and an editorial line fully attuned to Vichy nationalism and collaboration. Was this the work of a master literary strategist, putting the Trojan horse of resistance into the house journal of the enemy, or a breathtaking act of opportunism? How to interpret the near absence of any mention of Kafka, Sade and Malraux until after the Liberation? In one of his later comments on this time and the collection of essays Faux Pas published in 1943, Blanchot remarks on the nervousness of the censors and attributes it to the presence of a commentary on Ernst Junger’s On the Marble Cliffs. The author of this anti-Nazi allegory of the nationalist resistance to Hitler, published by the German Army in 1937, was widely known to enjoy the protection of Hitler and was culturally prominent in the occupying army in Paris. This reference suggests Blanchot was pursuing a subtle policy of undermining the collaborationist consensus of Vichy, but in a safe way, referring to a conservative German author with protection at the highest level. In either case, the balance between compromising his own work and undermining the Journal de débats is at best a very fine one.

Linked with the problem of Blanchot’s use of the pages of the Journal de débats is the more fundamental question of how it was possible for him to write Thomas the Obscure during the 1930s at the same time as pursuing a career as a right-wing journalist dedicated to order and the preservation of national identity? When later reflecting on Heidegger’s national socialism in ‘Thinking the Apocalypse’, Blanchot deplores Heidegger’s invocation ‘of this very writing and this very language – through which, in a great moment of thought, we were invited to the highest interrogation that could have come to us from Being and from Time – to call for votes for Hitler, to justify Nazi Germany’s secession from the League of Nations, or to praise Schlageter.’ Is this to suggest that it would have been less reprehensible if Heidegger had done so in another writing, another language – that of journalism? The assumption of a separation between literary and journalistic writing seems questionable: even if it were possible to preserve the purity of literary or philosophical language from its journalistic other, even if it were possible to insulate it in some way, would this not leave a wholly compromised and scarred purity?

The change of climate between Blanchot’s pre- and post-war writings is palpable, but difficult to detect and understand without the benefit of the contrast. Nor is it possible to come to a decision about certain lines of continuity between them. The documents surrounding the Algerian war and May 1968 have undeniable power, but also, in the light of the 1930s, a persistent ambiguity. The call to disobedience of the former – currently enjoying a fresh resonance in France with the extraordinary success of Stephane Hessel’s Indignez Vous – is made in the name of resistance to a state that had renounced its republican vocation. The military infiltration of the Republic justifies the withdrawal of consent from its actions and institutions with a modality entirely consistent with the justification of resistance in the 1930s.

Two original aspects of Blanchot’s political thought are particularly striking in this collection. The first is his contribution to the debate about the political implications of space flight, with Blanchot’s reflection on the cosmopolitical implications of Gagarin far more critical and suggestive than Arendt and Levinas’s contributions to the same short-lived genre. Blanchot shows very elegantly the recuperation of Gagarin’s ‘movement of pure dislocation’ by Khrushchev’s ‘greeting him in the name of earth, his fatherland’. The other is the vista of an entirely new possibility of political thought provoked by the May 1968 revolution. Blanchot’s contemporary description of the revolutionary event in the name of the Student-Writer Action Committee is concise and passionate:

In a few days an entire modern society fell into dissolution; the great Law was shattered; the great Theory collapsed; the Transgression was accomplished; and by whom? By a plurality of forces escaping all frames of contestation, coming literally from nowhere, unlocalized and unlocalizable. This is what I believe is decisive.

The experience pointed to the possibility of a non-resentful, affirmative understanding of resistance, ‘a refusal that affirms, in releasing or maintaining an affirmation that does not come to any arrangement but that undoes arrangements, even its own, since it is related to dis-arrangement or disarray or even the unstructurable.’ It is in this affirmative refusal that Blanchot’s politics and political thought make a step beyond, one that moves towards a rethinking of political spontaneity. It is here and perhaps not so much in the thought of community that Blanchot’s political thought is most intense and challenging.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this selection of texts presents an obstacle to the understanding of the complexity of Blanchot’s political thought, despite some of the remarkable texts that it makes available. The overall impression it leaves is one of a spectacle: the performance of the ultra-leftist Blanchot presented without the benefit of an adequate insight into the sombre background from which it emerged. Such insight would have been possible with the inclusion of even four or five of the texts from the 1930s. Without them, there remains the danger that their exclusion will disable judgement and perform a disservice to the complexity of Blanchot’s thought.

Other Reviews in RP167:

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics

Keith Ansell Pearson

Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx
Howard Feather

Michael D. Gordin, Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash, eds, Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility
Caroline Edwards

Jeffrey Edward Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship
William E. Scheuerman

Theodor W. Adorno, Guilt and Defence: On the Legacies of National Socialism in Postwar Germany
Thomas Klikauer

Rebecca E. Karl, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World
Harriet Evans

Geoffrey R. Skoll, Social Theory of Fear: Terror, Torture, and Death in a Post-Capitalist World
Mark Neocleous