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Transparency Thinking Freedom (Maurice Blanchots The Most High)

Geroulanos, Stefanos.
MLN, Volume 122, Number 5, December 2007 (Comparative Literature Issue), pp. 1050-1078 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Transparency Thinking Freedom (Maurice Blanchots The Most High)

Stefanos Geroulanos

Freedom: The Last Act In the explosive passage that opens his treatment of the French Revolution (or, in fact, of Revolution, with the implicit reference of the October Revolution in Russia), Blanchot uses freedom to found a theory of literature and a theory of human life in relation to writing:1
Revolutionary action explodes with the same force and the same facility as the writer who has only to set down a few words side by side in order to change the world. Revolutionary action also has the same demand for purity, and the certainty that everything it does has absolute value, that it is not just any action performed to bring about some desirable and respectable goal, but that it is itself the ultimate goal, the Last Act. (WF 319)2

This Last Act posits no future but functions merely as a negation of what is. This Last Act is based on the same kind of negation that founds the writers act, the writers engagement through writing in writing. Revolutionary action shares with writing the movement from nothing to everything (WF 318).3 Readings of the essay usually emphasize the treatment of Terror, freedom, and negation as remarks on the premises of literature, on the conception of life that literature thinks and responds to, and on the radical transformation that occurs with the act of writing and the production of a text. We could yet invert these priorities and approach
MLN 122 (2007): 10501078 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press



the text as an argument on revolution, as concerned with the turning of lifeand in doing so, we get one of the more radical and interesting positions of the period: what is at stake is not victimization or suffering (which is ineluctable) but the writing of a New World as the effect of the revolution. At stake in the conception of freedom is not just the Terror as a precondition of literature but also, conversely, the absolute negation that is writing as a model for the negation that is the right to death and that the terrorists inflict on themselvesthe idea that the operations of the Terror are operations of writing a new epoch, a text lacking the ambiguities of life. Life becomes akin to the operation that Blanchot famously discusses with reference to Mallarms je dis une fleur. No less significantly, at stake in this writing of a new epoch is precisely the necessity of death as freedom that liberates men by making them (in a Heideggerian and Kojvian fashion) both fully responsible for their death and absolutely incapable of thinking life and a life of rights without the priority and foundation that would be this death. Blanchot organizes what seem at first sight to be the paradoxical stakes of freedom by playing elaborately on the ambiguous relation of nothingness, negation, and death. Because in the Revolution an action becomes the ultimate goal, the Last Act, Blanchot can highlight the concurrent proximity and distance, the radical contrast and virtual interchangeability between freedom and death. Freedom, as action, is negation; death as the marker of the absolute value of freedoms action also partakes of the nothing, though in a different sense. Thus freedom or death, which announces the Reign of Terror and which, in it, is the only tolerable slogan and offers an exemplar for the allor-nothing stakes of action, transparency, and the construction of a new world. It does so, moreover, in terms of writing, in terms of the irreducibility of writing: freedom is the writing of a new epoch, of a new life. As in Kojve, so long as man is anything but pure negation, so long as he fails to be nothing more than embodied death and denies his own function and task as that of death, he does not acquire or hold a right to his own proper death. But now, with revolutionary action, death itself becomes the very operation of freedom in free men (WF 319):
Isnt death the achievement of freedomthat is, the richest moment of meaning? But it is also the empty point in that freedom, a manifestation of the fact that such a freedom is still abstract, ideal (literary), that it is only poverty and platitude. Each person dies, but everyone is alive, and that really also means everyone is dead. But is dead is the positive side of



freedom which has become the world: here, being is revealed as absolute. Dying, on the other hand, is pure insignificance, an event without concrete reality, one which has lost all value as a personal and interior drama because there is no longer any interior. (WF 320)

Here death becomes freedoms achievementat the same time that it becomes its effacement and loss (WF 320). And thus the confined world of the Revolutionary Terror becomes not only the birth of a world of rights but also its self-limitation. Freedom or death as a slogan and as a basis of a theory of universal freedom turns its own either/or into a statement of the coextension and radical inversion that links freedom as negation and death as nothingness the nothingness upon which negation is premised and toward which it tends. Death becomes the essence of freedom in human life, the premise for the right to death that grounds human rights. But it also becomes the premise for the closure and emptiness of these very rights. The construction of a world of rights depends on the voluntary destructibility of the individual and the human that, in an abstract sense, would be universalized through them. Now, just as writing brings to a halt the movement of life and history, revolution utilizes violence in the name of a new but absolutely undeterminable epoch, destroying the murkiness and ambiguity of life for a future divided between a nothingness of death and a nothingness of absolute freedom. This coextension depends on the treatment of negation and nothingness, which Blanchot inherits from Kojve and Sartre but develops in a different sense premised on their status in language (and, by extension, in writing).4 In some respects, the basics are the same: freedom is negation; negation is the work of nothingness; nothingness itself is death; man is negation, i.e. embodied nothingness or death. Blanchots treatment carefully orchestrates a contrast of the nothing (le nant) to negation (ngation, nier), a contrast that is especially important because it allows the ambiguity of the question of freedom to become clearer but also because it imposes this linguistic doubling onto the realm of human relations. Here, terminological similarity and a common etymological origin lead to absolute contrastFreedom (human negation) as a radical opposite of Death (Nothingness)and back to a co-extension and interchangeabilityFreedom as all but equal to Death. Life and Death come thus to be premised on a bridge between writing and existence in revolutionary terror, a notion that Blanchot explicitly notes as abstract, ideal (literary). There is a further significance to the tie between the Revolution on the one hand and the autodeconstructive (i.e. perpetually self-



undermining and self-reconstructing of sameness and difference) binary of freedom or death on the other. Blanchot forces the freedom-or-death theme to the confines of a Revolution (indeed The Revolution). This particularity echoes what Merleau-Ponty referred to in Humanism and Terror as Pguys epoch: one of those moments where the traditional ground of a nation or society crumbles and ... man himself must reconstruct human relations.5 The latter part of this propositionthe need for reconstructionhas little place in Blanchots thought, particularly insofar as the humanity of these human relations, is concerned. The fact of the revolution would be the denial of ground and the openness of becoming, of exhausting oneself in becoming. Unlike Merleau-Ponty, it is not the move to human relations that justifies terror; it is the perpetual operation of freedom in Terrorthe operation of the absolute negation of writing that occurs in it and at once justifies and founds humanity as pure freedom. But History-become-void, or to use Gerald L. Brunss term the caesura of history that occurs with the Terror, provides for an historical instance where the absolute transparency of the relation of life to death formalizes every aspect of life. Blanchot utilizes the Law of Suspects of September 17, 1793 to emphasize the figure of transparency as the premise of the Terrors demand for the purity of freedom qua negation and its absolute opposition and interchangeability with death:
Noone has a right to a private life any longer, everything is public, and the most guilty person is the suspectthe person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself. And in the end, noone has a right to his life any longer, to his actually separate and physically distinct existence. This is the meaning of the Reign of Terror. (WF 319)6

Freedom here comes to signify not the possibility of individuality and private life, but precisely its erasure: each person is universal freedom, and this universal freedom forms the conceptual force uniting nothingness to negation, death to life qua embodied death. Writing of the Terrorists, Blanchot says that the Terror they personify does not come from the death they inflict on others, but from the death they inflict on themselves (WF 320). Blanchot here at once extends and inverts the classic defense of Jacobinism, explaining the necessity and specificity of revolutionary action while tying it to the fact and act of writing. This sense of absolute negation, of freedom as not merely a self-exhausting movement of the denial of foundations but as in fact instrumental in producing the mirroring of negation and nothingness,



in forcing the subsumption of death by and in life, offers precisely a recognition of the centrality of Terror to modernity and at the same time marks it out as a specific, foundational moment. At this stage, human life is no longer anything more than existence as historical action without a future, while its newfound transparency in the form of an embodied living death attaches it to the unambiguous negativity of writing. Whoever refuses this transparency and the priority of Being-toward-death lacks the purity of the revolutionary and thus belongs precisely to this everyone who is alive, and that really also means everyone is dead. This strange condition opens a further question: if Revolutionary action is a particular era, an epoch la Pguy, what happens in a world after it, in a world after its event? What becomes of life in this world of absolute freedom but which no longer has any use for revolutionary action? Is any sense of life perpetually lost in favor of an existence modeled on writing? For a critique of the radicalism of Blanchots presentation of the French Revolution that brings out the implications and radicalism of its conception of freedom, a 2003 remark by Jacques Derrida is particularly helpful.7 Derrida wrote Isnt [Literature and the Right to Death] fundamentally the terrifying document of an epoch of French, very French literature ... but also of the most equivocal political thought of our literature? Does it not form a counterpoint, in fact in nothing less than the name of literature itself, to the inviolable right to life?8 Derridas patient analysis that follows this claim is useful in that it points out both the harshness and specificity of Blanchots position, in that it emphasizes the right to death as founding all other rights. He identifies a central contrast between, on the one hand, the tradition and language of Natural Right and the rights of man and, on the other, the Blanchotian response, for which the right to death (and a radicalization of modern anthropology) gives birth to the very freedom that it would annihilate in each individual. If for Derrida this position is classical, this is because it involves the recognition that the human being is defined as human and acquires (to use Derridas terms) its dignity, its sovereignty, its surpassing of animality and biological life by the fact that it controls its death. That is to say, the human being distances itself from this animality and biological life by defining his death. In imposing his own death, man provides for and defines his freedom (Derrida here points to Heidegger and Hegel, that is to say also to Sartre and Kojve). Yet at the same time, Blanchot plays a second, different sort of game with the language of



righttransforming it from a foundation of the universal into a sort of negative universal, a prioritization of death over the individuality and the priority of a certain life that right requires and justifies. The language of a right to death that would be more fundamental than any other right prioritizes the radical effect of writing on reality over the possibility of life as a complex mechanism in this reality. But if a loss of sovereignty and an undermining of human rights is one side of the coin, the question remains: is there a life after the Revolution? Can Derrida appeal in the name of human life against the priority of the right to death? Blanchot addresses exactly this sort of problem, and especially the failures of this post-historical human life, in his 1948 novel The Most High. The New Epoch The Most High is a first-person narrative by Henri Sorge, a 25-yearold, low-level bureaucrat working at the registry office of City Hall in the State. This thoroughly Hegelian State has reached the end of history: there will be no more substantive events, no more real wars, no real borders, only an everyday life whose truth is expressed by the state that manages its every moment. This state may well be called totalitarian, insofar as it not only appears to maintain a strong control over all aspects determining official discourse, but it also enforces and legislates everyday life as a withdrawal from any sort of political participationto the paradoxical point of arresting supporters when they turn official processions into rallies. [The] profundity of the law appears ... [in the fact that] everyone must withdraw, one mustnt be there in person, but in general, in an invisible way, like in a movie theater.9 Still, this equality and transparency is threatened by a revolt, its infrastructure undermined by fires that destroy buildings (MH 5, 14, 24, 168) and, worse, gradually destroyed by a spreading epidemic that can only be handled by medical quarantines of entire neighborhoods. Henri Sorge, a shy, intelligent man, is on sick leave from his job at city hall, a job which allows him to at once facilitate the running of the state apparatus but appears to have no importance and no meaning independent of the states own incomprehensible movement. In the beginning of the story, Sorge appears to be getting better: he returns to work and announces to his superior that his illness allowed him to see the world anew, to recognize the truth about his time: Until very recently people were only fragments and they projected their dreams onto the sky. Thats why the past has



been a long series of traps and wars. But now man exists. This is what I discovered (MH 23). He then takes a second sabbatical, during which his belief in and defense of the State is challenged by his interactions with his neighbor Pierre Bouxx (a disgraced physician who seeks to overthrow the regime) and with his stepfather (who holds an important position in the state apparatus and berates Sorge). But Sorge does not become educated into opposing the State; instead he continues to reflect it, albeit differently. Against Bouxx, he defends the state indefatigably (and quite brilliantly), demonstrating its truth as eternity and its ability to incorporate all opposition toward its own ends. To Bouxxs effort to awaken him to the States apparently unjust and brutal treatment of individuals accused of insignificant offenses (MH 40, 42), he responds:
All offenses are plots against the law: youd like to disobey it, but since that isnt possible, you have to rebel against its legitimacy ... youre committing through the theft an infinitely more serious crime, the most terrible of all and, besides, a crime that cant be carried out, that fails. Of that crime there remains precisely only an insignificant tracethe theft. (MH 41)

Crime is conspiracy against the law, i.e. against the impersonal and selfeffacing presence before the State, which guarantees the laws smooth and invisible functioning. But on the other hand, when opposing his stepfather, he points out the weakening of the state that occurs with the fires and epidemic and occasional violence. Rather than invite him to assault the state, these weaknesses in fact contribute to what might be called the transformation of his radical commitment to its law into even more of an incarnation of the State. Sorge becomes a perfect, indifferent mirror of its decaying condition.10 As the epidemicwhich may or may not be connected to his own sufferingsettles in the area where he lives, his building is transformed into a dispensary, part of a medical apparatus supervised by Bouxxwho has focused his revolutionary struggle against the State on a takeover of the health system. Abandoned by his family and in deteriorating health, Sorge is aided only by his nurse Jeanne, who playing on anthropotheist motifs, recognizes in him The Most High and expresses at once a loving allegiance and a hateful jealousy toward his apparent preference of silence and the company of objects over her presence. In his deathless decline, Sorge comes to mirror the State he supported: indestructible yet deathbound, absolutely individual yet completely undifferentiated from others. The book deploys a maddening treatment of phenomenology,



Hegelianism, and the question of utopia (to which I will return) with not only an obvious political emphasis and in the context of the rules and structure of a novel but also in an at least implicit critique and radicalization of important antihumanist tropes: the problem of an atheism unburdened by utopian secularism and moralism, the transformation of subjectivity and sovereignty, the question of violence, the fall of Man from the pinnacle supposedly created by the void left behind by the death of God. By treating Sorge as an embodiment of the Reason, Law, and Truth of the State, the novel transforms the theoretical concerns of freedom and action considered in Literature and the Right to Death into premises for an engagement of narration with the erasure of human freedom and with an ironic undoing of the world that it postulates or constructs.11 Unlike Blanchots later rcits, The Most High is interesting precisely because it (a) maintains the form (especially the premise of a plot) that characterizes the novel, and (b) plays on the erasure or collapse of the traditional opposition between narration and the world it describes. Whileparticularly in its last chaptersthe novel tends toward a rcit, where the language that the narrator deploys seeks to consume the world depicted, Sorges narration remains forever dependent on the world to which he is bound. And unlike the rcits, the problems of negation and action are not yet mere problems of narration, writing, and language; instead, they concern the difficulty of folding the narrated world and actions into writing per se. Sorges inability to complete a journaldespite Bouxxs entreatiesaddresses precisely the questions of how to translate the world as experienced into written form, how to negate it while still allowing it to appear, and how to establish life under postRevolutionary conditions of a negation as radical as that of writing.12 Furthering the examinations of Literature and the Right to Death, here the failure of the act of writing accompanies the life amidst a collapse of revolutionary action. This failure can be said to result in a certain fictionalization of the individuals relation to the political (based on the transparency of the narration/world and individual/social relations) and a refraction of the motif of freedom through the problem of narration. As in Literature and the Right to Death, whose consideration of the relationship between freedom and death The Most High addresses and modifies, Blanchots antihumanism can be best understood in terms of an address of the abstraction and formalization of the political; a rejection of the classical meaning of secular freedom; a humanity that, far from reaching its own deification in secular life, finds itself



denatured and dehumanized; and an atheism trapped in and by its inability to overcome the limitations of a diseased immanence. (a) Impersonality and Recognition The Most High addresses impersonality from its very beginning. It opens with an episode of altercation that it turns into a critique or parody of Hegels and Kojves understanding of recognition and MerleauPontys thinking of intersubjectivity. The two clauses of the novels first sentence introduce a treatment of intersubjectivity as impersonality: Je ntais pas seul, jtais quelconquea statement rendered in English as I was not alone [/the only one], I was anybody[/whoever] (MH 1). The evocation of impersonality, the critique of separation, and its link to substitution as constitutive of selfhood and difference suggests a dependence on Heideggers Being-with-others, a coexistence in which there is neither an ontological nor a fundamental legal difference between subjects. At the same time, it doesnt quite equal Beingwith-others insofar as its consideration of human coexistence is not grounded on the primacy of intersubjective relations proper but only on a lack of solitary existence and a substitutability of ones individuality. The narrator doesnt place himself in society or community; he simply announces himself as an anybody. The following sentence complicates things: How could you forget that phrase [Comment peuton oublier cette formule]? According to this sentence, what should be surprising is not the earlier (at first sight counter-intuitive) claim but rather the very possibility that it could be ignored. It is as if that formula, a slogan that cannot but be remembered, poses such a threat to ones usual understanding as a self, that, once seared in the self, the self of a narrator above allthe memory that would be singular to him (yet cannot be, he is just anyone)refuses to go away. As if, in the novel to follow, it were only natural for a character to exist under its aegis in a world where Being-with-others and substitution are natural and normal. With this second sentence, phrased in the on which turns from the first person singular to the impersonal singular, the advent of impersonality in the first sentence comes to be understood as a law, a law that will later be defined as operating precisely on the basis ofand indeed through this impersonality. Thus, as an exhortation, the first line of the book forces as natural to its protagonist and narrator a weak subjectivity that cannot be understood except in terms of individual isolation and co-existence. To follow Pierre Klossowski (who also suggests a Heideggerian opening in writing that Sorges



name, pure care, reveals his Dasein),13 the line immediately points to a relationship of language to man and postulates a forgetting that would unjustifiably overextend Sorges subjectivity and humanity.
For as long as language is separated from a man in the movement pronounced throughout history, which is [the movement] of truth, man is forfeit; either he is but a lie, history being the truth; or else he is the truth and history is only a lie.14

Klossowskis point not only invokes a problem already addressed in the context of Heidegger, namely the priority of language over the speaking subject, but it also sets the terms for the experience of life under the auspices of the (linguistic) regime involved here and, no less importantly, harkens back to the problem posed by the relation between language and literature, on the one hand, and the negation that (in Blanchot) is man as subject, on the other. A later qualification and different presentation of the first sentence addresses more or less the same concern. Sorge writes Im not alone, I live the same life as everyone (MH 57). At stake then in this construction of weak subjectivity is the question of lifethe homogeneity of the experience of life in the State, one could even say the organization of life given the expectations of substitution and impersonality. The page-long story that follows, which stands out from the rest of the chapter and can be said to narrativize the opening line, further addresses this problem of substitution and impersonality. Sorge gets into an altercation with someone in the subway. The argument is perfectly symmetrical: Sorge and his assailant each say and do things that the other could have said or done, indeed each says or does something that the course of events would suggest the other would say or dofor example, the assailant accuses Sorge of starting the fight. The near-exchange of roles then immediately takes on the problem of recognition, as Sorge says: When you hit me, you felt that you had to do it, that it was a dutyI was challenging you. Now you are sorry because you know I am a man just like you (MH 1). The other man denies this equalitythat would make me sick!and Sorge persists in enforcing it. Curiously at stake is not the fact that Sorge remains unrecognized but precisely that this recognition, equality and effective substitutability remain beyond his assailants comprehension. What distinguishes Sorge is precisely his consciousness of the condition announced with I was not alone, I was anybody as a condition steeped in Hegelian problems. Sorge completes that line by linking it to his demand for recognition and equality (just like you). The premise



for the struggle for recognition, Kojves basis for historicity and identity, here becomes instead a foundation of identity on substitutability and on the absence of deadly struggle. If he and his assailant do not recognize and equal each other, if they do not share their separation and anonymity in terms of impersonality then why dont you crush me under your heel? This inversion is interesting not only in itself but also in that it guides on Klossowskis claim that either [man] is but a lie, history being the truth; or else he is the truth and history is only a lie by showing that in Sorges self-consciousness, the awareness of the end of history and the substitutability of all individuals, he is at once the truth, the embodiment of the social and subjective condition he exists in, and the confirmation that history has ended and its this truth has come to triumph. Which is also to say that he is a perfectly substitutable truth and also that the truth of his world is that of Klossowskis lie: we only know it as truth because here narration declares it to be so and at the same time because of the Law and the State that Sorge identifies himself with in the novel. Language is neither separated from man nor with him. But thanks to Bouxx, we also come to face it as a sort of lie. The world of transparency and substitutability that Sorge lives, writes, and acts in forms precisely a condition in which truth and lie have become indistinguishable, in which recognition occurs only because of substitutability (that is to say, because of its own erasure). It is the condition to which singularity can only be expressed through a recognition of the lack of difference, the participation in Being-with-others, and the recognition (and consciousness) of I was anybody. As Sorge shows against his assailant, any evocation of inequality is pointless; indeed solitude and (in a sense) even superiority can only come through this admission of impersonality, a problem that persists throughout the volume (MH 910, 22, 25, 4244, 89, 100, 13844). When he later claims that I was completely free, like everyone else (MH 9), Sorge does not just make a claim for universal freedom, but specifically identifies freedom with this anonymity and substitutability.15 This commitment to freedom is played out further in the relationship between Bouxx and Sorge, given Bouxxs traditionally liberal notion of freedom and its relation to the State. The two of them routinely attempt to explain their relationship by at once recognizing each others difference from the others and then agreeing on their similarity to each other, which in large part drives the narrative by fuelling their opposition to each other. I noticed how much his face fascinated me and seemed different from the others thinks Sorge



during their first encounter, marking this fascination as dangerous; Bouxx quickly responds you seem different from other people (MH 9), something that in turn surprises Sorge, who asks Why do you see me as different from the others? (MH 10). And later Sorge notes this danger again: youre like me (MH 44). The danger lies at once in thinking that the two of them are truly different from the others and in agreeing to the legitimacy of Bouxxs position. Sorge here recognizes Bouxx (and certain other characters at other times) only to admit himself unable to explain Bouxxs difference from them. Except, that is, in terms of a capacity to recognize when self and others are defined by their lack of individual subjectivity and are thereby rendered substitutable. It is, moreover, in their claim to having recognized the truth and existence of the State (one that they share despite their diametrically opposed positions) that Sorge and Bouxx can argue the status of this State and recognize each other and that they establish each other as worthy of a certain recognition in the impersonal world they exist in. Merely existing in this world confers the freedom that Sorge claims for himself, but it does not quite confer the consciousness of this freedom that permits the quasi-Hegelian problematic to play itself out in terms of impersonality. (b) The State as condition and truth; Sorge as embodiment Given the routine characterization of the novel as describing or parodying Kojves motif of the end of history, and given the status of the State as guaranteeing this post-historical condition, it is perhaps appropriate to interpret State (tat) not only as the regime that strategically organizes a geographically distinct dominion but also as a generalized condition (also tat in French), a set of premises for the comportment of individuals. Sorge identifies truth as the States law and also as the goal of his own writing, therefore already pointing to an erasure of the difference between a political regime and a formal condition of narration (and hence, of his existence). But the relationship goes further, as he sees himself (and is identified by others) as embodying this new condition. Sorge writes of sensing it in his very body, as everywhere else:
That everyone was equally faithful to the lawah, that idea intoxicated me. Everyone seemed to be acting only in their own interests, everyone performed obscure acts, and yet there was a halo of light around these hidden lives: there wasnt anyone who didnt see every other person as a hope, a surprise, and who didnt approach him knowingly. So, I asked



myself, what is this State? Its in me, I feel its existence in everything I do, through every fiber of my body. (MH 1819, italics mine)

Here, and in his discussions with Bouxx, Sorge makes it abundantly clear that he understands any effort to infringe upon the law as something that, in its all-pervasiveness, the law has already predicted, allowed for, and outdone. Rather than a contractarian or liberal political space in which one holds a certain position toward power, or a romantic community to which individuals cede their individuality, the State is a mixed form in which people exist and operate. In its perverse sense, people are even free to plot against it. For example, while arguing against Bouxxs revelation of his revolutionary beliefs, Sorge uses the language of visibility, transparency, and dissimulation to emphasize to his adversary the futility and stupidity of his hopes: Why [do you say] Im not hiding ? Youre perfectly free to conspire out in the open, the State wont take offense. Youre just reinforcing what you think youre knocking down. Im not hiding! As if you could hide! (MH 4243). Sorge is particularly attuned to this demand, noting elsewhere that to be transparent like windowpanes is the civil servants job (MH 122). Because the State is all-encompassing, its ability to manipulate all acts and thoughts (indeed in their radical divergence, obscurity, difference, and varying interests) is conditioned upon something like its health, its ability to maintain and enforce a law whose truth would lie in its transparency vis--vis these actionsthat is to say, its invisible omnipresence. Blanchot codes this transparency in terms of health: the state in which everything occurs without intervention and fully as per the regulations of the law is the healthy statethe healthy body politic, as it were. And here, by his illness, Sorge comes again to reflect the State he embodiesand the parallels between his suffering and the ails of the State are impossible to miss. Sorge complains of burning, he fades in and out of consciousness, his speech starts to lose the relentless clarity with which he at first resolved contradictions concerning his subjectivity and the states power, while his writings become increasingly fragmentary, difficult for him to complete, and inconsequential.16 Through the fires, social chaos, and quarantining of parts of the city, the State also appears to fall into denials and contradictionsor rather, appears unable to resolve contradictions in the radical sense that defined it in the beginning. In this sense, The Most High addresses a problem akin to that of ideology: Blanchot displaces the primacy of ideology onto a mapping of the negativity inherent in language onto the political domain and



also onto lived experiencein a sense, he erases and by the same token totalizes ideology. Again, the relationship between Sorgethe self-effacing, caring, impersonal Dasein who is also The Most Highand the State is the central problem of the novel. Sorge is not merely the embodiment of the State as a political representative of its faceless and disindividuating, overpowering, and non-contradictory existence. Instead, he is the figure that personifies and expresses this facelessness and non-contradiction. This is a state that utilizes transparency as a way of completely erasing any ideological or linguistic violence and that seeks to establish its ever-presence as its effacement, its law as natural law, and itself as a natural condition. Sorges own writing and thoughts (for example his joy at the States plenitude and at his own freedom [MH 9, 16, 112, et al.]) confirm this transparent ever-presence in a way that reflects in advance later theorizations of ideology as a kind of inescapable language one is trapped in.17 And thus the totalitarian ideology of the State becomes virtually indistinguishable from Sorges writing and from the language of the novel itself. Sorge is thus the exponent of an ideology that, from his perspective, has become lived experience: a state existing for the perpetuation of its own Revolution, of its own origin. This kind of radical statism (a statism not organized by way of its borders, which are barely addressed, nor by a national, egalitarian, or communist promise) is thus not seriously challenged, even by the revolutionaries, who ultimately succeed in little more than a takeover of the health system, a takeover that makes them complicit to the law. As Pierre Klossowski, Georges Prli, and John Gregg among others have noted, what makes the revolution a serious threat, and what poses a yet more serious threat to the law and language is the epidemic, which makes Sorges status as a sick mana sick embodimenteven more significant.18 The theme of the epidemic and disease runs through modern literaturein Mann, Conrad, Cavafy, Gide, and Rilke, to offer but a few namesnot to mention The Most Highs almost exact contemporary, Camuss The Plague, or Marguerite Duras, with whom Blanchot had a personal relationship as well. The particularity of disease in The Most High lies precisely in the specific way the disease affects the state. If the epidemic poses a threat, this is not merely because it results in social chaos, nor because it allows Bouxxs insurrectionary forces to infiltrate the States ranks and the health services. Rather, this is because it prevents the functioning of the State as a transparent form of law, because it doubles the State by (a) forcing it to take in



Bouxxs revolutionaries and grant them power of law within it (hence absorbing them [MH 216]) and (b) forcing it to treat the disease as a part of everyday life. Here, disease is at once disobedience toward the State and the becoming of the State: it at once serves and undermines the law of the Stateit at once reconstructs the State and radically transforms its organization of society by disturbing the impersonality based on substitution. What the disease does destroy is the transparency of the law and of its form, the duality of freedom/death that may be expected from a reading of Literature and the Right to Death. Disease is not just a disobedience before the law, it is also the becoming of the lawand in this sense its complication and its loss. In Blanchots terms, disease infests history and the law (MH 169).19 It is disease, and not the complexity of everyday life, historical existence in general, or any idea of life (biological or social), that clouds the transparency of the law, that confuses the States capacity to operate according to the reduction that Sorge evokes when he writes that everyone seemed to be acting only in their own interests, everyone performed obscure acts, and yet there was a halo of light around these hidden lives. If the State was transparency itself (to the point of even overcoming kinship [MH 3]), if it was so radical and successful as to efface itself, then it is now faced with the necessity of reappearing and functioning as a political mechanism. One could even call the result of the epidemic a transformation of the state of the State from normal to pathological.20 The disease does not destroy the State as state, but rather it alters the States sense of its purity and impugns on its claim to transparent rule. It forces the state to accept and work with different norms not optimal to its earlier transparent organization. That is to say, it does not break the mapping of language and the negativity of literature onto the politics of the State and the experience of life in it so as to restore something of a normal, non- or pre-revolutionary everydayness fully organized by the State as state. Instead, it arrests and transforms the capacity of language and the law to operate transparently. Disease does not lead to a recognition that the end of history depends on human agency or to an end of the advent of impersonality as an effacement of agency and a recognition of impotence; instead, it offers a different, explicitly inhuman agent that only makes the bleak condition of the state explicit. In this sense, and somewhat paradoxically put, the curiosity of the epidemic lies in the States claim that the epidemic doesnt exist. The State refuses to admit that it is diseased, and similarly, Sorges stepfather denies that Sorge himself is himself diseased (MH 121) or



that anything serious is going on (MH 6364, 12224). Sorge himself refuses to admit to police authorities that he is sick (MH 102), an admission that would contrast his health to their health. And just as Sorge accepts the care offered by Bouxxs control of the dispensary, so the State accepts and assumes Bouxxs efforts to undermine the State by simply not responding to them, thus turning them into healing efforts (MH 21619). The political dimension of the later part of the novel is oriented around the States effort to deny the epidemic, i.e. to deny the epidemics separation and difference from the State itself, which is precisely why the State is subsumed and transformed by it. If we conceive of the State as a political regime, then the State is mistaken, the epidemic does exist, and the Revolution, like the epidemic, is a certain threat; but if we conceive it in the way Sorge defends it when speaking to Bouxxas a kind of human reality, as the ultimate and successful totalitarian apparatus that has acquired such a radical logic over its inhabitants as to virtually efface itself and deny any possibility of its overturning (as it does with Bouxxs revolutionaries)how is it possible to deny that things remain the same while the state in toto, like its Most High, is diseased, not threatened but moving toward a different and new form of regulation? (c) Freedom, the Last Act, and Disease The two sets of problems addressed so far in the context of The Most High namely the duet of impersonality and recognition and the opposition of transparency to diseaseare significant for a number of reasons. First, they provide a novelistic equivalent of the problems Blanchot discusses in Literature and the Right to Death:
Revolutionary action also has the same demand for purity, and the certainty that everything it does has absolute value, that it is not just any action performed to bring about some desirable and respectable goal, but that it is itself the ultimate goal, the Last Act. (WF 319)

The demand for purity speaks not only to the post-historical setting of the book (where the only real agent is the epidemic, in all its inhumanity and non-historicity) but also to Sorges intoxication with the law, with his claim that it operates as it were transparently. As noted already, [the] profundity of the law appears ... [in the fact that] everyone must withdraw, one mustnt be there in person, but in general, in an invisible way, like in a movie theater (MH 65). It is here that Sorge locates the freedom that he loudly proclaimsI am completely free, like everyone else (MH 9)and agrees throughout the novel with



the mockery of traditional concepts of freedom (MH 136). Indeed, Sorges contentions and his comportment toward the law and toward historical action suggest that the State he lives in is modeled on the Revolutionary Terror that Blanchot describes in the aforementioned passage regarding the lack of any right to a private life (WF 319). By writing there that the most guilty person is the suspectthe person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself, Blanchot offers an explanation as to why in The Most High, given that the law permeates completely the consciousness and behavior of the States citizens, the sick are suspect and operate against freedom and transparency (MH 30, 46, 89, 112); indeed, an explanation as to why they impede on the States claim to the true nature of things. Are you a good citizen? Dorte asks Sorge:
Sure, Im a good citizen: I serve the State with all my energy. Well, thats not my case; Im not a good citizen, Im suspect. Why? Not at all. My sickness is suspect. (MH 112)

Sorge feels that this claim comes from his own thinking and belongs to his (healthy) consciousness: Who gave you these ideas? Its not possible: youve found them written on the ground, on walls, youve stolen them from me, youre deforming them, youre not up to their level, youre turning them into a sick mans scrawl! (MH 11213). The accusations he levels at Dorte all center around what he feels is Dorte and Bouxxs perversion of the essence of the law and also of the essence of language: here, they are morbidly pretentious, they are totally unreal. In being sick mens ideas, they distort his own conception of what the original reality of the State was and cloud the transparency of the States law. Nevertheless, they are not only other sick mens ideas. As Sorge notes, he himself is the first to treat sickness as the premise of suspicion; and at the same time, his excited advocacy of the state cools somewhat as he gets progressively worse.21 We can perhaps now return to the problems first presented in Literature and the Right to Death. Through these claims on disease, Blanchot argues that the essence of the Revolution and in this case of the State lies in its announcement of purity and transparency, its own the Law of Suspects, which is directed here against illness. At stake is the enforcement of a new epoch as writingthe at first sight paradoxical identification of negation with disease and dismantling of the New Man into a being prone to the advent and destructiveness of



the inhuman. Here, what is interesting is not The Most Highs claim to be transposing problems of Literature and the Right to Death into a storyline but the fact that its motif of freedom versus disease takes over from the logic of Terror (in its opposition to non-revolutionary existence). That is to say, rather than State Terror presenting a situation of pure negation thanks to which the right to death comes to ground all other rights and a singularity or individuality of the subject, here disease further facilitates the erasure of negation and distorts impersonality and ontological indifference, as a result erasing the right to death. Sorges prolonged moribund state (and the ambiguity offered by his apparent death at the end of the novel) confirms a theme that would become central to Blanchotthe impossibility of death, the presentation of life as protracted living death.22 If Blanchot argues that the specificity and purity of absolute negating action is limited to a period that, like Pguys epoch, involves a complete reorganization of human relations, a period that imposes a right to death and that can be radically contrasted to everyday existence in the classical sense, this is not to say that The Most High takes place in a world that is unrelated to or has overcome such Terror. On the contrary: Sorges defense of the State against Bouxx and others is precisely premised on the expectation that this freedom, expressed in his early points on writing, is precisely a revolutionary freedom of this sort.23 To re-quote from Literature and the Right to Death:
Revolutionary action also has the same demand for purity, and the certainty that everything it does has absolute value, that it is not just any action performed to bring about some desirable and respectable goal, but that it is itself the ultimate goal, the Last Act. (WF 319)

Again, it is not Bouxxs revolt (itself a counter-revolution), or the seeping-in of everyday life that exceeds this purity and interrupts it. The only agent is disease, and thus, the possibility of a future or of a humanist world is lost once and for all. Humanity is lost to the success that renders it prone to disease on the one hand while holding it captive to the Terror of the States destruction of individuality and facilitation of the advent of impersonality on the other. The right to death leads to the later Blanchotian universe in which there is no right any longer, where the right to death (especially Sorges) is effaced and leaves nothing behind. The transparency of the States functions, which rendered its omnipresence into a constant (and ever-invisible) Terror, becomes the pathological reaction to the inhuman and thus



rewrites the Last Act. If the writing of a new epoch would be as radical a change of the world as would the writing of a text, Sorges world achieves the perversion and destruction of both. Cenotaph: The Most High Absconds Anew What was the philosophical force and significance of Blanchots largely overlooked treatments of freedom, transparency, disease, ideology, and impersonality? How did these treatments address contemporary problems, in particular the philosophical and historical stakes of atheism, antihumanism, and negative philosophical anthropology in the immediate postwar era? Considering a later text by Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy would write that Blanchots humanisme du cri would be the humanism that would abandon all idolatry of man, and all anthropotheology.24 The Most High, which replaces and deflects the name of God, which, for Nancy, Blanchot would neither cede nor accept, offers precisely the opening toward such an abandonment of Being, the human, and the divineor, if one prefers, the closure of the world of onto-theo-anthropology. In this closing section, I want to center on the ways in which Blanchot weaves, in this literary work and with a clear eye toward the philosophical erasure of man, a delicate and elaborate interpretation of his philosophical and political context, addressing thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Kojve, to a lesser extent Feuerbach, Hegel, Sartre, Koestler, not to mention Bataille, Levinas, Marx, Lenin, Rousseau and others. It is the interesting and peculiar feat of this literary work that its central themes manage to address a series of contemporary themes in a fashion that assimilates their critiques of humanism and philosophical anthropology while criticizing them to the extent of anticipating some of the later emphases and developments in antihumanismincluding Blanchots own humanisme du cri. I will address two of the major critical tendencies in the novel: first, the treatment of atheism and anthropotheism in a critique of Feuerbach and Kojve; and second, the treatment of problems of political philosophy and phenomenology through a reading of the debate between Koestler and Merleau-Ponty. (a) Critique of Atheism and Anthropotheism Perhaps best known among the motifs Blanchot inflects are Feuerbachs treatment of theology as displaced anthropology and Kojves end of history. Blanchots approach to atheism can be traced to a 1946 analysis of Henri de Lubacs The Drama of Atheist Humanism, where



Blanchot assumes de Lubacs charge that atheisms liberatory ethics can offer neither an alternative, anthropotheist transcendence nor a better humanity.25 Blanchot nevertheless refuses de Lubacs corollaries: first, that Nietzsche (like other atheists) gets out of this quandary by endorsing a life in immanence that posits overcoming as transcendence and embodies humanist hope in the Superman; and second, that atheism is thereby bankrupt, and the solution to the problem of transcendence is a turn toward God. The point that atheism cannot claim to offer a more genuine transcendence or a superior humanity to that of religion is central to the reading of Feuerbach and Kojve. Blanchot centers on the perception of Feuerbach as having offered a universe and a future of anthropotheism, in which manas the supreme being and as his own highest endcould finally recognize his role and path in the hall of mirrors that had been the religious cosmos surrounding him. Kojves revision of this anthropotheism aimed precisely at demonstrating the divinization of man as a goal and an undoing of the humanity of man. Blanchots critique targets core positions for which they were both widely known. Blanchot first makes a clear reference to Feuerbachs thought: Until recently, people were only fragments and they projected their dreams onto the sky. ... But now man exists (MH 23). In its context, Sorges statement strikes us as ideologicallinked to his support and defense of the existing regime; with its political implication of the State, this statement obviously echoes an expression common to contemporary Marxism. But it is no less the case (and it is in fact much more interesting) to read this claim as the premise of the novels critique of anthropotheism. The use of Feuerbachs opening claim from the Principles of the Philosophy of the Future 26 is exemplary of the way The Most High treats most of the thinkers it addresses: identifiable themes from their work are presented as the obvious truth of the States universe, truths so selfevident as to be targets of a critique organized around the failure or falsehood into which they collapse when pushed to the limit. Here, if man exists and no longer projects his dreams onto the sky, this quickly comes to serve as a marker of the inhumanity, impersonality, and disease that expresses his state. As Blanchot also suggests when reading de Lubac, atheism cannot simply take over the transcendental claims and solutions that Christianity had staked; but nor can its failure to stake a proper, new transcendence imply a return to religion, only an acceptance of the failure of secular humanist utopia as much as of the failure of religion. If men no longer project their dreams onto the sky, this does not mean that the new Most High does not



abscond as well. It is in this way that the anthropotheism originating in Feuerbach, whose Kojvian inflection and transformation is much more substantial and interesting for Blanchot, offers the crucial anthropological premise and doubt of the novel. As regards Kojve, Blanchot moves in two directions. First, as already indicated, he redeploys recognition in the service of impersonality. If his treatment of recognitionpremised, paradoxically from Kojves viewpoint, on impersonality and on the pointlessness of violent strugglespeaks to the status of subjectivity and determines the humanity of man as emerging from this paradox, then it is also important to note that here, the Hegelian/Kojvian premise of recognition is not simply rejected with the advent of impersonality (and the self-consciousness of this impersonality) in The Most High. Nor is Kojves theory of an end to history as an overcoming and a naturalization of man rejected. Instead, Sorge advocates Kojvian recognition precisely on grounds that obviously disallow its expected consequencesonce radicalized, recognition at the end of history does not bring about a world of complete human equality (as Kojve had thought in the mid-1930s) but rather the evacuation of recognitions significance, its implosion into impersonality, and its re-emergence as a recognition of impersonality. Sorges challenge to his assailant in the opening of the novel involves precisely recognitions radicalization, evacuation, and re-emergence as a negative value. His recognition of Bouxx plays precisely on this negative value. The second direction of the argument offers a more substantive critique. The transparency of the end of historywhere the animal reign of spirit has come to dominateis but a totalitarian superstate that controls every aspect of human existence and leaves man not only incapable of any kind of meaningful action but also too weak to respond to the plague that the State inevitably brings with it.27 Instead of a simple naturalization of human life that for Kojve occurs with mans deification at the end of history, here historys end threatens mans surpassing of biological life, his animality (to echo Derrida) not only in terms of a naturalization but also by way of a further effecton the one hand, that of the dehumanizing transparent law (which the state tries to present as fully natural), and on the other, the disease that threatens both the naturalized impersonal subject and the law itself. In this world, not only is The Most High (The Unique, the Supreme One [MH 233]) nothing more than a low-ranking bureaucrat (which, intentionally or not, serves as a joke on Kojves own post-war employment at the economics division of the Quai dOrsay),



he is also sick and fully conscious of his insignificance in a world of impersonality. Kojves God-Man, the figure that concludes History, is not the Napoleonic, pedophilic stepfather (MH 68), but Sorge, the narrator who remains a diseased and moribund exemplar of a diseased and moribund post-historical state. This is what, for Blanchot, anthropotheism amounts to.28 It is not quite to say, as Stoekl does, that to Kojves secular paradise Blanchot counters a dystopia;29 rather it is that Blanchot, whether because of his awareness of Kojve and Batailles stance toward this end of history (neither of which was in any sense simply affirmative) or not, was able to draft an eschatology as diseased, totalitarian, and antisubjectivist as possible. For Blanchot, as for Bataille, life at the end of history is not the writing of the disaster, it is the diseased suffering of unemployed negativity. Unlike the early Bataille (though perhaps still in agreement with the later Bataille) for whom sovereignty was a result of the kenosis of the human, Blanchot turns here to present the God-Man himself as incapable of escaping his embodiment of the posthistorical moment, as integrally bound up with the disease and moribund persistence of this state. Man is diseased and there is no curenot even the lucidity and clearing that Heidegger wants, only mere perpetual disease. (b) Critique of Humanism A second connection of interest here is to Arthur Koestler and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and it opens a series of political and theoretical questions for certain philosophical and political traditions. Blanchot engages with the debate on the communist problem set up by Merleau-Pontys response to Koestler, and particularly with Merleau Pontys conception that Terror might be capable of resulting in a world without violence, a properly and purely human world. From these considerations emerges a second, this time theologico-political problem, namely a critique of sociopolitical transparency. A third, this time specifically philosophical aspect of this critique addresses the rising phenomenological tradition, particularly Merleau-Pontys work on embodiment and perception. Blanchots overt references to Koestler and Merleau-Ponty and their respective critiques of the Moscow Trials are clear if subtle. Bedridden, and as if to demonstrate the capacity of the epidemic to transform absolute freedom into imprisonment, Sorge gets caught up in a communication with Dorte (Bouxxs friend and aide) that closely follows the signature wall-tapping communication system that Rubashov and



his fellow prisoners use in Koestlers Darkness at Noon.30 I knew he was hitting it with the corner of his lighter. Ha ha! He found it funny, the wall was laughing. A little while ago, the wall had said, Im getting up (MH 145). The exchanges (which themselves recall those of Darkness at Noonparticularly Dortes Ha ha! and his use of a lighter) reflect Dorte and Sorges relations to each other and to the State, and they invoke the way in which these relations echo those of Rubashov and his Czarist neighbor. Sorge, more or less discarded by the very State that he embodies and whose functioning he has served (at once consequentially and insignificantly), remains committed to a certain idea of the state, an idea that his illness and effective imprisonment in the dispensary have not changed. The revolutionary Dorte remains imprisoned between the State and the disease that, in his eyes, makes him suspect (MH 112). This is not exactly a political prison; if the epidemic is a defining aspect of this end of history, Sorges buildingturned-dispensary is an ontological one. If Dorte recalls the royalist neighbor, the threat he embodies lies, once again, less in the political realm than in the ontological onethat of disease as enforcing a change. The prison of the dispensary is here the collapse of the new theater of freedomor rather the revelation that this freedoms self-exhaustion is the essence of the post-Revolutionary world. Blanchot also addresses Merleau-Pontys response to Koestler and works especially with Merleau-Pontys treatment of Bukharin. Where Merleau-Ponty, in Humanism and Terror, considered the paradox that Bukharins treason is treated as a matter of common law (xx), or that political crimes lose their particularity and become forms of assault against an everyday life that is as such the essence of the Revolution, Blanchot inverts precisely these terms and considers petty crime itself a plot against the State (MH 19, 4041). As in Saint-Just, any resistance in detailany effort to undermine or conceal the States lawwould be nothing less than treason. Life, once this final totalitarian regime has been instituted, is an everyday existence committed to its own transparency before the law.31 As he already suggests in Literature and the Right to Death, Blanchot (unlike Merleau-Ponty) does not require that the violence that erases the secrets and intimacy of individuals be carried out in the name of a world of more genuine human relations. Terror instead marks the unmasking of human relations before the truth of freedom, which is to say before the truth of a direct and universal right to death. Terror marks their transformation into relations of negation for which writing is not merely a metaphor but the paradigm, the exemplary description. Blanchot refuses Merleau-Pontys



claim that Terror in the name of a utopia (or merely of better human relations) is acceptable, arguing instead that there is no such utopia to be sought and, moreover, that a State (or state) founded on the premise of bringing about Historys end and pure humanity can do nothing less than seek to maintain its Revolution, its law. In The Most High, this right, precisely because it exists everywhere and for all, is in the process of fading. A world of supposedly genuine human relations has arrived and established itself; it does not renounce terror against threats to its transparency and organization, but it shows itself capable of integrating these threats (so long as they are human). What is at stake is its failure to maintain its image as a natural fact, the collapse of its identification with all its citizens lived experience that Sorge prizes. Merleau-Pontys question Did Bukharin die for the Revolution or for a new humanity? (HT xxxiv) loses its meaning. All revolutions seek their self-perpetuation, and the law of this States all-encompassing power lies in the capacity to resolve all contradictions and render Terror unnecessaryboth of which depend not on an ideal or future but on the States ability to keep going. This is also why the only state violence actually confirmed as having occurred in The Most High is violence against ones own supporters, those who could bring the law into the open and would therefore challenge the state in its own name and threaten to deprive it of its committed and invisible control of the law (MH 65). This is, moreover, why Blanchot disregards, and also thinks in contrast to, the tradition of human rights: in a world where these rights have come to pass, a world where recognition and impersonality are interchangeable while political resistance threatens nothing, the significance of rights as rights is minimal. In their name, i.e. in the name of the transparent existence of the State that guarantees the functioning of everyday life as human life, every reduction of this life to a kind of written existence is perfectly legitimate. The writing of this new worldof this new life as embodied death and also as life in human rightsis thus terror universalized and effaced: instead of enforcing the law, the State enforces the laws imperceptibility. Thus, Terror per se is not the major problem here; the transparent life one lives in the State/state is. The problem of transparency repeatedly highlighted so far is a dual problemat once political and anthropo-ontological. Blanchot, through his radicalization of Merleau-Ponty and Koestlers positions (and, implicitly, through his critique of the language of right and natural law), reaches to the point of criticizingin ironic or hyper-affirmative termsan entire socio-political tradition centered on the (often utopian) idealization



of political and legal transparency. This traditionbeginning with the Augustinian belief in the souls transparency before God and continuing through the Gallican/Jansenist political preference for councils over the Papal and Royal administration of faith, Rousseaus confessions, aspects of utopian socialism, scientism, materialism, and finally Marx and a tradition following from him and notably involving Lukcs.32 For Blanchot, the political world in which transparency would reign, in which human life would have become a supposedly natural life (if, as per Kojves Hegel, the deification of man is also his naturalization) is the world of a denatured and dehumanized lifeboth in the sense of life in the name of a law that encompasses everything, admits no possible change and no future, and in the sense of life reduced to an existence that is itself premised on death. This is life in the shadow of a failing, self-effacing right to death that has violently inaugurated it. Life/Anthropotheism/Rights Life offers a curious concluding banner for the treatment of atheism, antihumanism, and phenomenology in The Most High precisely because it poses a series of problems that are ignored or easily ironed out by every one of the philosophical systems that Blanchot addresses. What is life at the end of history, life in anthropotheism? What is life in relation to death and writing? How does it resist the phenomenological formalization and ontologization of existence? What do we make of disease? Or the undoing of anthropotheism (and thus of atheism) into a bare existence without utopian hope and amidst impersonality? Or the transformation of freedom into an ontological ground without social or egalitarian effect? Or the reductiveness of transparency? All these motifs point to life as that which, in a world that has supposedly overcome all contradiction, is at once reduced to a form of living death and also resists its erasure. Blanchots answer is at once simple and troubling: Sorge admits that, for him, life is elsewhere (MH 27a passage often cited by Levinas) and extends this to wonder if he himself isnt already dead (MH 29). By this point, when existence as embodied death had become virtually a staple of French thought, Blanchot asks if this living death is anything more than a demise. In this complex collapse of humanism, life resists its own erasure but without any way out. At the precise point (1948) of a reaffirmation of human rights, of a humanity affirmed on a principle of universal equality, Blanchot first



turns back to 1789 and argues that such rights can only be based on a right to death which equates freedom with a violence inflicted on oneself through its infliction on others. He then denies the very possibility of this right in contemporary life by treating his post-historical dystopia as advancing the case for impersonality and the death of human agency. And in more general terms, he recodes the problem of humanism in its relation to violence by addressing, criticizing, and undermining the entire Hegelian-Marxist tradition of considering the end of history and the post-Revolution era as an advent of pure human relations, as much as he criticizes the phenomenological and quasi-existentialist expectation that breaking mans central place in the world, in thought, and in Being may satisfy as an overcoming of classical humanism. The Most High is thus less an opening to radical difference (especially to difference from oneself) than a demonstration of the failures of radical identityfrom which it offers no escape; it is less an effort to show the political limitations and violence of totalitarianism than to point to the horror and dehumanization involved in its success. It is an attack on humanism and the hope of utopia, but it is this insofar as it seeks to unveil a world in which their success marks their horrible failure. It is, in this sense, nothing less than an argument that without a radical turn away from identity, from the totality of history, from the perfection of atheism, from the premise of modernity on a right to death, and the force of Revolutionary action, anti-anthropocentrism might become complicit with, and re-phrase, the world it denounces. Blanchots position in the emergence of antihumanism is thus not an assault on the failure of humanism, of post-history, or of supposed utopias based on rights or communism (as were Heidegger, MerleauPonty, and to an extent Sartre); it is a meditation on the nightmare of their success, even following the anti-anthropocentric critique of their hopes. In the world where traditions of modern thought that found humanism insufficient have succeeded, life is elsewhere.
The Johns Hopkins University

1 As is well known, in using freedom thus, Blanchot echoes the Jean-Paul Sartres technical use of freedom in What is Literature?, though, of course, directing a very different concept of freedom from Sartres specifically against him. For the critique of Sartre and the theorization of freedom, see Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995) 30708; henceforth cited parenthetically as WF.



2 As is well known, the case of Sade is also particularly significant here. On Sade and the relationship of literature to Revolution in this text, see, among many others, Derrida, Maurice Blanchot est mort, in Parages (Paris: Galile, 2003) 27374. 3 As has been repeatedly noted, Blanchot, in this argument, engages with Jean Paulhans Les Fleures de Tarbes. For a useful discussion, see Michael Syrotinsky, How is Literature Possible? in Denis Hollier, ed. A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) 95358. 4 To some degree Blanchot utilizes Kojves understanding of negation to critically radicalize the theory of freedom that follows from Sartres theorization of the fact of negation (and of the for-itself ). Regarding Sartre and freedom, most relevant here is the famous passage in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre defines freedom as involving responsibility for an entire world. See Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992) 70912. 5 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) xvii. 6 Here, Blanchot is echoing Saint-Justs A patriot is one who supports the republic as a whole; whoever resists in detail is a traitor, a frequent trope in communism noted also by Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror, 34. 7 Derrida, Maurice Blanchot est mort, 272. 8 Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot est mort, 272. 9 Maurice Blanchot, The Most High, translation of Le Trs-Haut by Allan Stoekl (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 65. Henceforth abbreviated to MH. 10 Bident argues that the book can be read as a history of the disidentification of Sorge from the Statea statement that strikes me as exaggerated if it is used to suggest that Sorge comes to be opposed to the State (see Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire invisible [Paris: Champ Vallon, 1998] 266). I find it more appropriate to argue that Sorges disease is paralleled by the States condition and his self-distancing from the State mirrors its own troubles (the fires, the epidemic, etc). The identification is never broken, moreover, even in the scene (MH 12728) where Sorges stepfather criticizes him. Writing on Kafkas attempt at autobiography, Blanchot describes him as endlessly throwing himself at the law and not succeeding at having himself either recognized or suppressed (Reading Kafka in WF 3). Sorge does more or less the same, and the ambiguity of the phrase throwing himself at the law (in this case at the hated stepfather) should not necessarily be read to imply that Sorge has come to disidentify from the state, whose language and argument he continues to express, albeit in its diseased state. 11 John Greggs interpretation Writing the Disaster: Sorges Journal, in Maurice Blanchot and the Literature of Transgression (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994) is particularly useful in considering problems of narration by reading the book as a journal written by Sorge. 12 See Gregg, Writing the Disaster. 13 Pierre Klossowski, Sur Maurice Blanchot, in Un si funeste dsir (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) 171. 14 Klossowski, Sur Maurice Blanchot, 169. 15 Here the text prefigures, or rather can be read productively through the lens of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls literary communism. Nancys argument on the transformation of the human in a world where (citing Marx), a community (a community without community) is situated at the point where begins the



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flowering of that human power that is its own end, the true reign of liberty. This is especially important as regards the ends of man: The end of humanity does not mean its goal or its culmination. It means something quite different, namely, the limit that man alone can reach, and in reaching it, where he can stop being simply human, all too human. [] He is not transfigured into a god, nor into an animal. He is not transfigured at all. He remains man, stripped of nature, stripped of immanence as well as of transcendence. But in remaining manat his limit (is man anything but a limit?)he does not bring forth a human essence. On the contrary, he lets appear an extremity in which no human essence can take place. This is the limit that man is: his exposureto his death, to others, to his being-in-common. See Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) 77. Stoekl, Introduction: Death at the End of History, in MH xxiv. The erasure of the difference between the order of language, the order of subjective lived experience and the political order of ideology, this radicalization into Law of what would at the time appear as a fascist or totalitarian ideology, is what turns the political novel into dystopian literature. There is no longer any basis for the distinction between private and political, experience and imposition of experience. If we define dystopian literature as centered on a mirroring of life turned on itself, treatment of life that emphasizes the latters entrapment, this trap is figured here through the transformation of propaganda into life, and of life into literature. Georges Prli, Le Trs Haut de Blanchot: Loi, pidmie, et revolution, in 34/44, Cahiers de recherch de S.T.D. 2 (Spring 1977): 76. Klossowski, Sur Maurice Blanchot, 173. Gregg, Writing the Disaster, 72. Blanchots metaphorical and political use of cancer is usefully discussed by Gerald L. Bruns in Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997) 3031. Bruns cites the following passage which is also of use here: Cancer would seem to symbolize (and realize) the refusal to resond: here is a cell that doesnt hear the command, that develops lawlessly, in a way that could be called anarchic... Cancer, from this perspective, is a political phenomenon, one of the rare ways to dislocate the system, to disarticulate, through proliferation and disorder, the universal programming and signifying power (citation from Blanchots The Writing of Disaster, trans. Ann Smock [Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995 edition] 8687). I am explicitly referring to Canguilhem. Canguilhem lectured three times at Jean Wahls Collge philosophique in early 1947 (Aspects du vitalisme on February 17, Machine et organisme on March 17, and Le Vivant et son milieu on May 19)lectures that form the basis of his La Connaissance de la vie. While there is no evidence that Blanchot attended these talks or read Canguilhems Le normal et le pathologique, the novels treatment of disease as a transformation of an organism that does not merely lead to a distortion of the original status but to a new set of rules echoes Canguilhems arguments quite closely. For Canguilhems lectures see the announcements of the Collge philosophique (e.g. at IMEC archives, Fonds Jean Wahl, Dossier College philosophique, 3). First, he accuses Bouxx of being sick, of being made sick by his ideas (MH 46), and later he treats Bouxx as someone capable of restoring him to health (MH 89), that is to say also someone who speaks with a certain clarity, openness and truth that Sorge attributes to health. Moreover, these claims also speak to the ambiguous status of the Sorge/Bouxx relationship and Sorges ambiguous engagement with both Bouxx and the Statehis worry that his own sickness is distancing him





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from a truth (when in fact it makes him reflect the truth of the state all the more, a truth which is no longer that of transparency). Blanchot comments on the theme of the impossibility of death throughout The Work of Fire notably in his essays on Kafka and Leiris, as well as in Literature and the Right to Death. (See WF 78, 11, 81, 252, 337, and perhaps 268.) Both works contemporary to The Most High, i.e. LArrt de mort (Death Sentence) and the second, 1950 version of Thomas lobscur (Thomas the Obscure) are obsessed with the limit (and inversion) between living and dying. Regarding revolutionary action in Literature and the Right to Death and MH, see also the passages considered by Stoekl in his Introduction: Death at the End of History, in MH xvii. Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Nom de Dieu chez Blanchot, in La Dclosion (Paris: Galile, 2005) 133, trans. modified. Henri de Lubac, Le Drame de lhumanisme athe (Paris: Spes, 1945); translated as The Drama of Atheist Humanism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950). Blanchots review is reprinted as On Nietzsches Side in WF 28799. Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986) 1, 5. The Animal Reign of Spirit is Blanchots title for the first section of Literature and the Right to Death in its original publication as Le Rgne animal de lesprit in Critique (1947) 387405. At the same time, I am not arguing here that philosophical anthropotheism and a critique of Kojve and Feuerbach exhaust the problem of the identification of Sorge with the Most High. For example, an easy reference here would be to Hlderlins poem The Highest. Moreover, The Most High addresses problems of the narrative as well: Sorge could be The Most High because he is the narrator, because he lays out his world and the revelation of its truth while at the same time participating in it. Stoekl, Introduction: Death at the End of History, in MH xvxvi. Stoekl, Introduction: Death at the End of History, in MH xi. Moreover, it is clear that Blanchot does not differentiate between communist and liberal regimes, as Merleau-Ponty does. The implication of The Most High would be that in communism, the transparency of the State is not only dubious (Bouxx for example speaks of its hidden violence) but also the force of violence, even if invisible. This should not imply unquestioningly that modern humanism is by default allied to a thinking of the transparency of the real. Despite his somewhat reductive treatment of humanism, Todorov correctly suggests that a certain distance from sciences effort to render the real transparent to man marks the humanism of Montesquieu. Here one could add several others, though not (in my opinion) Rousseau as Todorov proceeds to write. See Todorov, Hope and Memory (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003) 24.