The Space of Literature

The Space of Literature

The Space of Literature

The Space of Literature


Maurice Blanchot, the eminent literary and cultural critic, has had a vast influence on contemporary French writers- among them Jean Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. From the 1930s through the present day, his writings have been shaping the international literary consciousness.

The Space of Literature, first published in France in 1955, is central to the development of Blanchot's thought. In it he reflects on literature and the unique demand it makes upon our attention. Thus he explores the process of reading as well as the nature of artistic creativity, all the while considering the relation of the literary work to time, to history, and to death. This book consists not so much in the application of a critical method or the demonstration of a theory of literature as in a patiently deliberate meditation upon the literary experience, informed most notably by studies of Mallarmé, Kafka, Rilke, and Hölderlin. Blanchot's discussions of those writers are among the finest in any language.


Here we must appeal to references that are well known today and that hint at the transformation to which Mallarmé was exposed as soon as he took writing to heart. These references are by no means anecdotal in character. When Mallarmé affirms, "I felt the very disquieting symptoms caused by the sole act of writing," it is the last words which matter. With them an essential situation is brought to light. Something extreme is grasped, something which has for its context and substance "the sole act of writing." Writing appears as an extreme situation which presupposes a radical reversal. Mallarmé alludes briefly to this reversal when he says: "Unfortunately, by digging this thoroughly into verse, I have encountered two abysses which make me despair. One is Nothingness" (the absence of God; the other is his own death). Here too it is the flattest expression that is rich with sense: the one which, in the most unpretentious fashion, seems simply to remind us of a craftsmanly procedure. "By digging into verse," the poet enters that time of distress which is caused by the gods' absence. Mallarmé's phrase is startling. Whoever goes deeply into poetry escapes from being as certitude, meets with the absence of the gods, lives in the intimacy of this absence, becomes responsible for it, assumes its risk, and endures its favor. Whoever digs at verse must renounce all idols; he has to break with everything. He cannot have truth for his horizon, or the future as his element, for he has no right to hope. He has, on the contrary, to despair. Whoever delves into verse dies; he encounters his death as an abyss.

The Crude Word and the Essential Word

When he seeks to define the aspect of language which "the sole act of writing" disclosed to him, Mallarmé acknowledges a "double condition of the word, crude or immediate on the one hand, essential on the . . .

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