The Writing of the Disaster

The Writing of the Disaster

by Maurice Blanchot, Ann Smock

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Modern history is haunted by the disasters of the century—world wars, concentration camps, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust—grief, anger, terror, and loss beyond words, but still close, still impending. How can we write or think about disaster when by its very nature it defies speech and compels silence, burns books and shatters meaning? The Writing of the Disaster reflects upon efforts to abide in disaster’s infinite threat. First published in French in 1980, it takes up the most serious tasks of writing: to describe, explain, and redeem when possible, and to admit what is not possible. Neither offers consolation. Maurice Blanchot has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic for his fiction and criticism. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once remarked that Blanchot's writing is a "language of pure transcendence, without correlative." Literary theorist and critic Geoffrey Hartman remarked that Blanchot's influence on contemporary writers "cannot be overestimated."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803277472
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 151
File size: 402 KB

About the Author

Ann Smock is a professor of French at the University of California at Berkeley. She has translated Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, also available as a Bison Book. Jeffrey Mehlman, a professor of French at Boston University, is the author of many books and articles on twentieth-century France and French literature.

Read an Excerpt

The Writing of the Disaster = L'Ecriture du désastre

By Maurice Blanchot, Ann Smock


Copyright © 1995 University of Nebraska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7747-2


* The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; "I" am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened; it is in this way that the disaster threatens in me that which is exterior to me — an other than I who passively become other. There is no reaching the disaster. Out of reach is he whom it threatens, whether from afar or close up, it is impossible to say: the infiniteness of the threat has in some way broken every limit. We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future — that which is yet to come — if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival. To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.

The disaster is separate; that which is most separate.

When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time, belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it; there is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment.

* He does not believe in the disaster. One cannot believe in it, whether one lives or dies. Commensurate with it there is no faith, and at the same time a sort of disinterest, detached from the disaster. Night; white, sleepless night — such is the disaster: the night lacking darkness, but brightened by no light.

* The circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged, reforms a circle eternally bereft of a center.

* "False" unity, the simulacrum of unity, compromises it better than any direct challenge, which, in any case, is impossible.

* Would writing be to become, in the book, legible for everyone, and indecipherable for oneself? (Hasn't Jabès almost told us this?)

* If disaster means being separated from the star (if it means the decline which characterizes disorientation when the link with fortune from on high is cut), then it indicates a fall beneath disastrous necessity. Would law be the disaster? The supreme or extreme law, that is: the excessiveness of uncodifiable law — that to which we are destined without being party to it. The disaster is not our affair and has no regard for us; it is the heedless unlimited; it cannot be measured in terms of failure or as pure and simple loss.

Nothing suffices to the disaster; this means that just as it is foreign to the ruinous purity of destruction, so the idea of totality cannot delimit it. If all things were reached by it and destroyed — all gods and men returned to absence — and if nothing were substituted for everything, it would still be too much and too little. The disaster is not of capital importance. Perhaps it renders death vain. It does not superimpose itself upon dying's scope for withdrawal, filling in the void. Dying sometimes gives us (wrongly, no doubt), not the feeling of abandoning ourselves to the disaster, but the feeling that if we were to die, we would escape it. Whence the illusion that suicide liberates (but consciousness of the illusion does not dissipate it or allow us to avoid it). The disaster, whose blackness should be attenuated — through emphasis — exposes us to a certain idea of passivity. We are passive with respect to the disaster, but the disaster is perhaps passivity, and thus past, always past, even in the past, out of date.

* The disaster takes care of everything.

* The disaster: not thought gone mad; not even, perhaps, thought considered as the steady bearer of its madness.

* The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster?

* The disaster is related to forgetfulness — forgetfulness without memory, the motionless retreat of what has not been treated — the immemorial, perhaps. To remember forgetfully: again, the outside.

* "Have you suffered for knowledge's sake?" This is asked of us by Nietzsche, on the condition that we not misunderstand the word "suffering": it means, not so much what we undergo, as that which goes under. It denotes the pas ["not"] of the utterly passive, withdrawn from all sight, from all knowing. Unless it be the case that knowledge — because it is not knowledge of the disaster, but knowledge as disaster and knowledge disastrously — carries us, carries us off, deports us (whom it smites and nonetheless leaves untouched), straight to ignorance, and puts us face to face with ignorance of the unknown so that we forget, endlessly.

* The disaster: stress upon minutiae, sovereignty of the accidental. This causes us to acknowledge that forgetfulness is not negative or that the negative does not come after affirmation (affirmation negated), but exists in relation to the most ancient, to what would seem to come from furthest back in time immemorial without ever having been given.

* It is true that, with respect to the disaster, one dies too late. But this does not dissuade us from dying; it invites us — escaping the time where it is always too late — to endure inopportune death, with no relation to anything save the disaster as return.

* Never disappointed, not for lack of disappointment, but because of disappointment's always being insufficient.

* I will not say that the disaster is absolute; on the contrary, it disorients the absolute. It comes and goes, errant disarray, and yet with the imperceptible but intense suddenness of the outside, as an irresistible or unforeseen resolve which would come to us from beyond the confines of decision.

* To read, to write, the way one lives under the surveillance of the disaster: exposed to the passivity that is outside passion. The heightening of forgetfulness.

It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence.

* The disaster has already passed beyond danger, even when we are under the threat of — —. The mark of the disaster is that one is never at that mark except when one is under its threat and, being so, past danger.

* To think would be to name (to call) the disaster the way one reserves, in the back of one's mind, an unspoken thought.

I do not know how I arrived at this, but it may be that in so doing I struck upon the thought which leads one to keep one's distance from thought; for it gives that: distance. But to go to the end of thought (in the form of this thought of the end, of the edge): is this not possible only by changing to another thought? Whence this injunction: do not change your thought, repeat it, if you can.

* The disaster is the gift; it gives disaster: as if it took no account of being or not-being. It is not advent (which is proper to what comes to pass): it does not happen. And thus I cannot ever happen upon this thought, except without knowing, without appropriating any knowledge. Or again, is it the advent of what does not happen, of what would come without arriving, outside being, and as though by drifting away? The posthumous disaster?

* Not to think: that, without restraint, excessively, in the panicky flight of thought.

* He said to himself: you shall not kill yourself, your suicide precedes you. Or: he dies inept at dying.

* Limitless space where a sun would attest not to the day, but to the night delivered of stars, multiple night.

* "Know what rhythm holds men." (Archilochus.) Rhythm or language. Prometheus: "In this rhythm, I am caught." Changing configuration. What is rhythm? The danger of rhythm's enigma.

* "Unless there should exist, in the mind of whoever dreamed up humans, nothing except an exact count of the pure rhythmical motifs of being, which are its recognizable signs." (Mallarmé.)

* The disaster is not somber, it would liberate us from everything if it could just have a relation with someone; we would know it in light of language and at the twilight of a language with a gai savoir. But the disaster is unknown; it is the unknown name for that in thought itself which dissuades us from thinking of it, leaving us, but its proximity, alone. Alone, and thus exposed to the thought of the disaster which disrupts solitude and overflows every variety of thought, as the intense, silent and disastrous affirmation of the outside.

* A nonreligious repetition, neither mournful nor nostalgic, a return not desired. Wouldn't the disaster be, then, the repetition — the affirmation — of the singularity of the extreme? The disaster or the unverifiable, the improper.

* There is no solitude if it does not disrupt solitude, the better to expose the solitary to the multiple outside.

* Immobile forgetfulness (memory of the immemorable): so would the disaster without desolation be de-scribed, in the passivity of a letting-go which does not renounce, does not announce anything if not the undue return. Perhaps we know the disaster by other, perhaps joyful names, reciting all words one by one, as if there could be for words an all.

* The calm, the burn of the holocaust, the annihilation of noon — the calm of the disaster.

* He is not excluded, but like someone who would no longer enter anywhere.

* Penetrated by passive gentleness, he has, thus, something like a presentiment — remembrance of the disaster which would be the gentlest want of foresight. We are not contemporaries of the disaster: that is its difference, and this difference is its fraternal threat. The disaster would be in addition, in excess, an excess which is marked only as impure loss.

* Inasmuch as the disaster is thought, it is nondisastrous thought, thought of the outside. We have no access to the outside, but the outside has always already touched us in the head, for it is the precipitous.

The disaster, that which disestablishes itself — disestablishment without destruction's penalty. The disaster comes back; it would always be the disaster after the disaster — a silent, harmless return whereby it dissimulates itself. Dissimulation, effect of disaster.

* "But there is, in my view, no grandeur except in gentleness." (S. W.) I will say rather: nothing extreme except through gentleness. Madness through excess of gentleness, gentle madness.

To think, to be effaced: the disaster of gentleness.

* "There is no explosion except a book." (Mallarméé.)

* The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience — it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual.

* It is dark disaster that brings the light.

* The horror — the honor — of the name, which always threatens to become a title. In vain the movement of anonymity remonstrates with this supernumerary appellation — this fact of being identified, unified, fixed, arrested in the present. The commentator says (be it to criticize or to praise): this is what you are, what you think; and thus the thought of writing — the ever-dissuaded thought which disaster awaits — is made explicit in the name; it receives a title and is ennobled thereby; indeed, it is as if saved — and yet, given up. It is surrendered to praise or to criticism (these amount to the same): it is, in other words, promised to a life surpassing death, survival. Boneyard of names, heads never empty.

* The fragmentary promises not instability (the opposite of fixity) so much as disarray, confusion.

* Schleiermacher: By producing a work, I renounce the idea of my producing and formulating myself; I fulfill myself in something exterior and inscribe myself in the anonymous continuity of humanity — whence the relation between the work of art and the encounter with death: in both cases, we approach a perilous threshold, a crucial point where we are abruptly turned back. Likewise, Friedrich Schlegel on the aspiration to dissolve in death: "The human is everywhere the highest, even higher than the divine." The human movement is the one that goes right to the limit. Still, it is possible that, as soon as we write, and however little we write (the little is only too much), we know we are approaching the limit — the perilous threshold — the chance of being turned back.

For Novalis, the mind is not agitation, disquietude, but repose (the neutral point without any contradictions). It is weight, heaviness. For God is "an infinitely compact metal, the heaviest and most bodily of all beings." "The artist in immortality" must work at reaching the zero where soul and body become mutually insensitive. "Apathy" was Sade's term.

* Lassitude before words is also the desire for words separated from each other — with their power, which is meaning, broken, and their composition too, which is syntax or the system's continuity (provided the system be in some way complete in advance and the present a fait accompli). This lassitude, this desire is the madness which is never current, but the interval of unreason, the "he'll have gone mad by tomorrow" — madness which one mustn't use to elevate, or to deepen, or to lighten thought with it.

* Garrulous prose: a child's mere babble. And yet a man who drools, the idiot, the man of tears who restrains himself no longer, who lets himself go — he too is without words, bereft of power, but still he is closer to speech that flows and flows away than to writing which restrains itself, even if this be restraint beyond mastery. In this sense, there is no silence if not written: broken reserve, a deep cut in the possibility of any cut at all.

* Power in the broadest sense — capacity, ability — is like the power of the group leader: always related to domination. Macht is the means, the machine, the functioning of the possible. The delirious and desiring machine tries, in vain, to make disfunction function. In vain, for un-power is not delirious; it has always departed from the groove already, and is always already derailed; it belongs to the outside. It does not suffice to say (in order to speak of unpower): power can be held provided it not be used. For such abstinence is the definition of divinity. Detachment is not sufficient, unless it senses that it is, in advance, a sign of the disaster. The disaster alone holds mastery at a distance. I wish (for example) for a psychoanalyst to whom a sign would come, from the disaster. Power over the imaginary provided that the imaginary be understood as that which evades power. Repetition as un-power.

* We constantly need to say (to think): that was quite something (something quite important) that happened to me. By which we mean at the same time: that couldn't possibly belong to the order of things which come to pass, or which are important, but is rather among the things which export and deport. Repetition.

Among certain "primitive" peoples (those whose society knows no State), the chief must prove his dominion over words: silence is forbidden him. Yet it is not required that anyone listen to him. Indeed, no one pays attention to the chief's word, or rather all feign inattention; and he, in fact, says nothing, but repeats the celebration of the traditional norms of life. To what requirement of primitive society does this empty language, which emanates from the apparent locus of power, answer? The discourse of the chief is empty precisely because he is separated from power — it is the society itself which is the locus of power. The chief must move in the element of the word, which is to say, at the opposite pole from violence. The chief's obligation to speak — that constant flow of empty speech (not empty, but traditional, sheer transmission), which he owes to the tribe — is the infinite debt which effectively rules out speaking man's ever becoming a man of power.


Excerpted from The Writing of the Disaster = L'Ecriture du désastre by Maurice Blanchot, Ann Smock. Copyright © 1995 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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