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THE COMMUNICATION OF

THE IMPOSSIBLE

JOSEPH SUGLIA

Death is the death of other people, contrary to the tendency of contemporary


philosophy, which is focussed on one’s own solitary death. Only the former
is central to the search for lost time. But the daily death—and the death of
every instant—of other persons, as they withdraw into themselves, does not
belong to an incommunicable solitude: that is precisely what nurtures love.
That is Eros in all its ontological purity, which does not require participa-
tion in a third term (tastes, common interests, a connaturality of souls)—but
direct relationship with what gives itself in withholding itself, with the other
qua other, with mystery.
—Emmanuel Levinas, “The Other in Proust”

Desire, pure impure desire, is the call to bridge the distance, to die in
common through separation.
—Maurice Blanchot, L’écriture du désastre

Of the many challenges to the Heideggerian analytic of mortality that emerged through-
out the twentieth century, none has been more groundbreaking than that of Maurice
Blanchot.1 The originality and singularity of this confrontation consists in its accent on
the social character of mortality: the “experience” of death appears, in this body of
discourse, as a relation to the autrui.
Death is, for Heidegger, an individual engagement.2 Heidegger absolutely excludes
from his existential analytic of mortality any consideration of the Other’s dying as a
possible object of experience.3 Although Sein und Zeit (1927) posits cobeing (Mitsein)
as a structure essential to the constitution of selfhood,4 death belongs exclusively to the
solitary Dasein.5 The problematic of sacrifice is irrelevant to the existential analytic,
since the representative function of sacrifice does not correspond to the unrepresentable

1. Derrida’s better-known argument in Donner la mort (1992), for instance, concerning the
irreplaceability of the responsible self vis-à-vis the death of the Other, would not have been pos-
sible without Blanchot’s intervention into the problematic of dual mortality.
2. The theme of the Other’s death in Heidegger is discussed extensively in Christopher Fynsk,
“The Self and Its Witness.”
3. “Je angemessener das Nichtmehrdasein des Verstorbenen phänomenal gefasst wird, um
so deutlicher zeigt sich dass solches Mitsein mit dem Toten gerade nicht das eigentliche
Zuendegekommensein des Verstorbenen erfährt” [SZ 239].
4. “Auf dem Grunde dieses mithaften In-der-Welt-seins ist die Welt je schon immer die, die
ich mit den Anderen teile. Die Welt des Daseins ist Mitwelt. Das In-Sein ist Mitsein mit Anderen.
Das innerweltliche Ansichsein dieser ist Mitdasein” [SZ 118].
5. “Keiner kann dem Anderen sein Sterben abnehmen. [. . .] Am Sterben zeigt sich, dass der
Tod ontologisch durch Jemeinigkeit und Existenz konstuiert wird” [SZ 240].

diacritics / summer 2001 diacritics 31.2: 49–69 49


character of death.6 This is because, as Heidegger points out, even if one dies for the
Other, one does not take away the Other’s death.7 As Heidegger remarks, Dasein may
never experience the Other’s arrival at the end (Zuendegekommensein) [SZ 239] (the
true object of thanato-ontology), but only its transition into something unliving
(Unlebendiges) [SZ 238].8 For this reason, no ontological study of death could take the
death of the Other as an object of formal research.
Although the “fate” of Dasein is communal (occurring within the shared context of
a community), Dasein takes no part in the Other’s relation to its most proper possibility:
the anticipation of death, which discloses every other possibility and which makes pos-
sibility itself possible. Individuals in the community relate to their respective fates as a
series of disconnected possibilities of impossibility. There is, at most, a “holding-in-
common” of deaths that are infinitely separated from each other. In destiny (Geschick),
individual Daseins share nothing more than the mutual impossibility of experiencing
each other’s deaths: there is an infinite distance between the death of the self and the
death of the Other, an impossible articulation or interlacing of incommensurable
nonexperiences. Every death is a parallel death—and nothing else besides.
There is, then, for Heidegger, essentially no rapport between the death of the self
and the death of the Other. Dasein is beside the Other in its dying without ever dying in
the place of the Other. As Heidegger puts it in paragraph forty-seven of Sein und Zeit,
“Wir erfahren nicht im genuinen Sinne das Sterben der Anderen, sondern sind höchstens
immer nur ‘dabei’” [We do not experience the dying of others in a genuine sense, but
are, at the very most, always just ‘there’] [SZ 239]. Holding death in common is what
holds the members of the relation together in their mutual separation. Despite the meth-
odological sleight of hand that Heidegger terms “destiny,” Dasein’s relation to its own
death is constitutively dissociated from that of the Other.
In contrast to this tendency, Blanchot conceives of the self’s relation to its own
death as an exposure that opens onto the death of the other person. Such is Blanchot’s
most important contribution to the thought of death, as well as what distinguishes his
position most radically from that of Heidegger. Heidegger forecloses the possibility of

6. “Indes scheitert diese Vertretungsmöglichkeit völlig, wenn es um die Vertretung der


Seinsmöglichkeit, die das Zu-Ende-kommen des Daseins ausmacht und ihm als solche Glänze
gibt” [SZ 240]. In contrast to the tendency in Heideggerian thought to exclude sacrifice from the
thought of death, Levinas describes the function of sacrifice as opening up the possibility of
another relation (one that is determined as the “experience” of guilt and sur-vival). Levinas
criticizes Heidegger’s refusal of “dying for . . .” (understood as substitution for the Other in its
dying) as an existential possibility (an existential relation to mortality) in his fascinating “Mourir
pour . . . .”
It should be noted, however, that Heidegger does use the term das Opfer (“sacrifice,” “of-
fering,” “victim”), and a thematics of sacrifice is evident throughout his writing. To cite a few
instances of the motif of sacrifice in Heideggerian thought: in “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,”
“the essential sacrifice” (das wesentliche Opfer) is given as one of the finite instantiations of the
becoming-of-truth; in the second volume of the Nietzsche lectures, the theme of sacrifice is intro-
duced in the context of a discussion of Nietzsche’s autobiography; a metaphorics of sacrifice can
be traced throughout the Hölderlin lectures—in particular, “Hölderlin und das Wesen der
Dichtung,” “Germanien,” and “Andenken”; the Rectorial Address approaches the question of
sacrifice in its concern with the appropriation of authentic freedom; according to Heidegger’s
reading of George’s “Das Wort” in “Das Wesen der Sprache,” the attempt to find the word for the
thing is sacrificed, and so on.
7. “Jemand kann wohl ‘für einen Anderen in den Tod gehen.’ Das besagt jedoch immer: für
den Anderen sich opfern in einer bestimmten Sache” [SZ 240].
8. But neither is Dasein, Heidegger reminds us, capable of experiencing its own end. One
might say that Dasein’s approach toward its end is infinitely delayed.

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experiencing the death of the Other as that of the Other. Whoever takes the Other’s
dying as a point of departure for an ontology of death, Heidegger suggests, misses the
phenomenon of death altogether. For Blanchot, however, the exact opposite is the case.
Anyone who fails to take the death of the Other as constitutive of the death of the self
misses the phenomenon of death “as such.” Throughout his entire oeuvre, Blanchot
suggests—in a manner that is at times oblique and yet nonetheless forceful—that only
the “experience” of the Other’s death may grant me a relation to the impossible.

La communauté inavouable

What calls me into question most radically, Blanchot writes in La communauté inavouable
(1983), is my presence for an Other who absents itself by dying.9 Every human being
calls itself into question, Blanchot suggests, by exposing itself to the Other as Other—
an exposure that grants the self a relation to the outside. By contesting itself, the self
opens itself up to the community, which is “grounded” precisely by the self’s relation to
the “death” of the other person. Blanchot writes, “To hold oneself present in the proxim-
ity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another’s
death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me outside of myself,10 this is
the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Open of a commu-
nity” [CI 21/UC 9].
When Blanchot writes that the self places itself beside the Other in its dying, he
means that the self is brought outside of itself and into the community by way of its
relation to the Other’s finite existence. I can only “experience” death by exposing my-
self to the Other in its finitude, and this exposure grants me a relation to mortality.
Although I cannot know my own death, I can experience mortality via the other person
in its finite existence—an existence that contests the self by exposing it to an infinite
alterity. Knowledge of the Other as a finite, existing being is at the same time an expe-
rience of mourning, and the exposure to the “death” of the Other is an exposure to an
absolute transcendence.11

9. Blanchot’s text takes as its point of departure Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of the commu-
nity. On the relation between Nancy and Blanchot, see Bernasconi.
10. Blanchot borrows this term from Georges Bataille: “A man alive, who sees his fellow
man die, can survive only outside of himself [hors de soi]” [CI 21/UC 9]. This is translated as
“beside himself” in the English translation.
11. See Fynsk’s foreword to Jean-Luc Nancy’s Inoperative Community [xvii]. The relation
between the self and the Other described in La communauté inavouable is not, despite appear-
ances, a struggle that would lead to a Hegelian Anerkennung in which the fragile mastery of the
self (“fragile” because, in its satiety and loss of possibility, it is liable to be overturned) would be
posited vis-à-vis the slave. Certainly, there is a structural parallelism between the Knecht-Herr
relation and that delineated by Blanchot: the Other is what radically calls the self-subsistence of
the subject into question by drawing that subject “outside of itself.” Hegel writes: “For self-
consciousness is another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself [ausser sich].” This is the
same movement described in the Bataille citation [see note 10]: when it encounters the Other, the
self is pulled into an ecstatic movement. Hegel continues: “This has a two-fold significance: first,
it has lost itself, for it finds itself as another being [. . .] .” At this point, Blanchot/Bataille and
Hegel seem to be in agreement. Yet Blanchot interrupts the Hegelian dialectic, insofar as he
refuses to follow him beyond this point. Hegel continues: “[S]econdly, in doing so [in finding
itself as another being] it has sublated the other [das Andere aufgehoben]” [146]. The Other is
never, strictly speaking, sublated in Blanchot: it retains its transcendence and its impulse toward
exteriorization. Again, neither does this struggle lead to recognition in Blanchot, but rather to the
sheer negation of a formally posited individuality. The dialectic, it would seem, has been stalled
at its negative moment. The self experiences itself as an exteriority through its engagement with

diacritics / summer 2001 51


52
The one who “gives” the infinite alterity of mortality is the one who is dying, yet
lives on as a sur-vivor. To illustrate this point, Blanchot elaborates a silent conversation
between one who mourns and one whom is mourned: “The mute conversation in which,
holding the hand of the ‘another who dies,’ ‘I’ keep up with him, I don’t keep up simply
to help him die, but to share the solitude of the event which seems to be the possibility
that is most his own and his unshareable possession in that it dispossesses him radi-
cally” [CI 21/UC 9].
From this passage, the following thesis may be derived: death is both what is proper
to the Other and what infinitely exceeds its mastery. An “infinite excess”: this is the case
not only because no subject could ever experience death, but because by definition
death excludes the possibility of experience (throughout this essay, I will use the term
“the impossible” to describe this impossible experience). Precisely because of the im-
possible character of this “experience,” my own dying is intimately bound to the dying
of the Other:12 it is this intimacy that allows the Other to “give” its death to me. By
taking part (partager) in the infinite solitude of the Other’s dying (a dying that is shielded
by a partage), the self is granted an exposure to mortality. Holding the hand (tenant la
main) of the one who dies in the present (main-tenant), one affirms that there is no
“now” in which I could die. The self can never mourn its own death—precisely because
“my death” could never occur in or as the present. Death could never be made present
for me at all except through the process of substitution—the substitution of the Other
who “dies,” so to speak, in my stead. Community comes into being by way of this
relation: a relation in which the Other replaces me in my dying.
The one who sacrifices itself for the self is a replacement for the self in its dying—
but how far could this replacement extend, if neither of the parties experiences his or
her own death firsthand? After the passage cited above, Blanchot miscites himself (from
Le pas au-delà) in order to throw light upon this question:13

Alone, dying, you do not distance yourself alone, you are still present, for here
you grant me this dying as the harmony that surpasses all pain, all solicitude,
and in which I tremble softly even in that which rends, at a loss for words with
you, dying with you without you, letting me die in your place, in receiving the
gift beyond you and me. [CI 21/UC 9]

In this colloquy, it is not clear who is speaking, nor where this speaking occurs: the
names of the characters have been effaced. One who dies faces one who bears witness
to this dying: dying is granted the survivor as a gift. An impossible dying-with: one is
beside the Other, bearing witness to its dying, but can never engage in this dying. “Death”

the other person in its (non)engagement with mortality: the solus ipsus is also a socius. Blanchot’s
“theory of sacrifice” (insofar as it could be called a “theory” at all) could also be placed in
relation to Hegelian Rechtsphilosophie, which places the negation of individuality at the source
of civil society. The relation between Blanchot and Hegel, while of great interest to me, will not be
discussed directly in this essay, because it exceeds its limited focus.
12. A corollary to this argument is that no a priori substantialized subject would exist self-
subsistently and before others: there is a fundamental “insufficiency” of the self (as suggested by
Blanchot’s citations of L’expérience interieur throughout La communauté inavouable), inasmuch
as mortality is an unknown variable except by way of the Other. No sociality, no community can
precede this relation to impossibility. Insubjectivity itself is founded upon the relation of the self
to the Other’s finitude.
13. The original passage reads: “Mourant, tu ne meurs pas, tu m’accordes ce mourir comme
l’accord qui passe toute peine, toute sollicitude et ou je frémis doucement jusque dans ce qui
déchire, perdant la parole avec toi, mourant avec toi sans toi, me laissant mourir à ta place, en
recevant le don au-delà de toi et de moi” [PD 169].

diacritics / summer 2001 53


here surpasses the one who is dying, as well as the one who bears witness to this dying:
it is greater than both of them and paradoxically cannot be subordinated to the logic of
gift-giving, since it is owned by neither the gift-giver nor the recipient. The survivor
“receives the gift” of death from the substitute: it is a gift that extends “beyond” either
the one or the other. The gift of death exceeds the terms of the relation, but is made
possible only by the relation itself (the dying that is “with you without you”). It would
seem that the exposure to “death” is made possible by the “conversation,” but is not
reducible to it.
The Other is responsible for the self in its dying, for the self is incapable, “by
itself,” of “going to the limits of the extreme” [CI 46/UC 25]. The self is endlessly dying
without ever bringing its dying to an end. The Other substitutes for the self by dying in
its place: such is the “painful responsibility” that one must assume. Yet this substitution
does not extend so far as to remove the self’s dying. Both the self and the Other are
bound together by substituting for each other in their mutual engagement with mortal-
ity. Neither the self nor the Other is able to appropriate their death, which remains
infinitely other-than-themselves. Standing-in for the self is a “painful responsibility”
that could not even be described as ethical if by “ethics” one intends a general code of
behavior: it is, as Blanchot reminds us, a responsibility that surpasses all “ethics.”14
The self and the Other, bound together by their mutual incapacity to experience
mortality, form the community. The community of human existence is brought into
being, is “founded,” Blanchot writes, by its exposure to what infinitely exceeds it: the
transcendence of death (and birth—not every relation to the other is one of mortality):
“There could not be a community without the sharing of that first and last event which
in everyone ceases to be able to be just that (birth, death)” [CI 22/UC 9]. Although
human finitude is the ground of all sociality, it is not a ground in the sense of a
fundamentum inconcussum. The “death of the Other” is a nonground, insofar as it is a
relation: indeed, it is a social relation that makes all social relations possible. There
would be no sociality without this prior exposure to what exceeds all measure. Abso-
lutely no intersubjective relation would be possible without a relation to the death of the
Other: the exposure of the human to an infinite transcendence.
If the one who substitutes for the self in its dying exposes the self to transcendence,
there is an inequality at the heart of the social relation. For this reason, Blanchot writes,
the community adheres to relations that “suspend the tutoiement” [CI 22/UC 9]. Com-
munity is not the hypostasis or fusion of selves that are identical to each other into a
collective unity; it is not the transcendental synthesis of disparate representations in the
social imagination. If the community is to be thought of otherwise than as commonality,
this is because it is founded upon a dissymmetrical relation. Because I have no relation
to my own death except by way of the Other (the death of whom, as Blanchot asserts, is
“the only death that concerns me”),15 my relation to my own death is at the same time a
relation to the outside. This relation to the outside is what allows one to think of the
community other than as a common measure that individuals would share. Every com-

14. Blanchot remarks in L’écriture du désastre: “once declared responsible for dying (for all
dying), I can no longer appeal to any ethics, any experience, any practice whatever—save that of
some counter-living, which is to say an un-practice, or (perhaps) a word of writing” [ED 47/WD
26]. The following passage from Emmanuel Levinas (Dieu, la mort et le temps) is also relevant to
this context: “The death of the Other affects me in my very identity as a responsible I [. . .] made
up of unspeakable responsibility. This is how I am affected by the death of the Other, this is my
relation to his death. It is, in my relation, my deference toward someone who no longer responds,
already a guilt of the survivor” [qtd. in Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas 7].
15. Compare this passage from Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence: “In that relation with
the face, in a direct relation with the death of the other [sic], you probably discover that the death
of the other has priority over yours, and over your life” [164].

54
munity is a community of death, and the community of death is the death of all commu-
nity. That is to say: there is no community without the exposure to death, and this expo-
sure to death makes it difficult to conceive of a community as a relation between com-
mon terms. Mortality founds as well as founders all community. To the extent that it is
grounded upon an impossible relation (a relation to the impossible), one could say, with
Blanchot, that every community is an “impossible community” (“l’impossible
communauté”) [CI 46/UC 25].

The Life of the Other Is the Death of the Other

The community says its ground, bearing witness to the exposure to finitude, by folding
back upon its origin in the other person, who is substitutive of an impossible relation to
dying. Inasmuch as the community articulates its ground as an impossible relation, it
announces that communion between individuals is suspended. If “community” (under-
stood as a common measure between individuals) is suppressed, what makes communi-
cation between individuals possible? Blanchot touches upon the motif of communica-
tion in the passage that follows:

Now, the “basis of communication” is not necessarily speech, or even the


silence that is its foundation and punctuation, but the exposure to death, no
longer my own exposure, but someone else’s, whose living and closest pres-
ence is already the eternal and unbearable absence, an absence that the tra-
vail of deepest mourning does not diminish. And it is in life itself that the ab-
sence of someone else has to be met. It is with that absence—its uncanny pres-
ence, always under the prior threat of a disappearance—that friendship is
brought into play and lost at each moment, a relation without relation or with-
out relation other than the incommensurable. . . . Such is, such would be the
friendship that discovers the unknown that we ourselves are, and the meeting
of our own solitude which, precisely, we cannot be alone to experience (“inca-
pable, by myself alone, of going to the limits of the extreme”). [CI 46/UC 25]

We cannot be alone to experience the solitude of our “own” dying. Blanchot asserts
here, in opposition to Heidegger, the sociality of mortality.16 For Blanchot, my relation
to my own death—a relation without relation insasmuch as death is the impossible—is
also a relation to the death of the other person. The other person is, for him, the presence
of an absence that permits the self to enter into an incommensurable relation (a relation
to dying), which is also a self-relation. Against the tendency in Heideggerian thought to
regard death as an individual engagement, Blanchot vigorously affirms that exposure to
the death of the Other is the only “experience” that could grant me a relation to that
which cannot be experienced. This “experience” of a nonexperience is communicated
through a self-offering—a relation to dying that Blanchot determines as friendship.

Thomas l’Obscur

We come to approach just such a problematic, I think, in those pages of Thomas l’Obscur
(1941/1950) devoted to Anne’s death.17 Anne expresses “the greatest passion ever expe-

16. Blanchot affirmed that every death is a communal death (a “multiple doubling”) at least
as early as 1973 (in Le pas au-delà).
17. See chapter 13 of the 1941 version and chapter 10 of the 1950 version. A brief summary

diacritics / summer 2001 55


rienced” (“la plus grande passion”) [1: 201/2: 115/TO 81] as she assumes the possibility
of her death. Her passion is at the same time the absolute loss of affectivity, a radical
absence of feeling that comes about as “anguish” (“l’angoisse”): “This hardness weighed
terribly on Anne; she felt the absence of all sentiment in her as an immense void, and
anguish clutched her” [2: 116/TO 81].16 The affect she experiences (l’angoisse) is a
nonfeeling: that is to say, a feeling without content. “L’angoisse” names the feeling that
responds to the absolute withdrawal of all feeling, and Anne’s being-toward-death is
revealed through this fundamental affect, the affect of a nonaffect. The ineluctable feel-
ing of l’angoisse, the affect of mourning, is of a different quality than all other affects:
“She drew from herself not the weak emotions, sadness, regret, which were the lot of
those around her, meaningless accidents with no chance of making any change in them,
but the sole passion capable of threatening her very being, that which cannot be alien-
ated and which would continue to burn when all the lights were put out” [1: 202/2: 117/
TO 82]. At the heart of this absence of feeling is an impassioned relation to nonexist-
ence.
Through the anticipation of her death, Anne attempts to give form to this absolute
an-aesthesia: “she made the sacrifice, full of strangeness, of her certainty that she ex-
isted, in order to give sense to this nothingness of love [néant d’amour = a reference to
l’angoisse] which she had become” [1: 202/2: 116/TO 82]. Her sacrifice, then, would

of the “novel” (if it is one) might be in order here. It would be tempting to say that Thomas
l’Obscur (both versions) is the record of a metamorphosis. The title of the “novel” invokes not so
much an accidental trait of its “main character” as his incessant engagement with the obscure,
an engagement that often takes the form of a self-duplication or self-exteriorization. Thomas may
not even be said to metamorphose into something other, since the term “metamorphosis” sug-
gests a position of purity and stability against which a change could be measured. Thomas is the
“meta-” of all form. Since he cannot be contained in any particular form, Thomas is the pure
movement of turning-into-something-other-than-what-he-is: absolute change without stabiliza-
tion. In a word, Thomas is nothing other than his metamorphoses into an other. No formal or
stable subject remains intact outside of the changes that he undergoes. The metamorphosis that
Thomas endures in the penultimate chapter (in which he becomes a representation of death “it-
self”) is a repetition of the ecstatic moment in chapter 1 in which Thomas is immersed in the
waves, and becomes indistinguishable from the water in which he was tossed. The appearance of
the night repeats the opening movement of Thomas l’Obscur, in which the disappearance of the
self into the world occurs through the idealization of both. In the first version of the second
chapter (a passage completely omitted in the second), thought becomes body and world through
a process of realization: Thomas walked upon a path “with a body made up of his most intimate
thoughts and desires” (“avec un corps fait des pensées et des désirs les plus intimes”) [1: 13–
14]. His very thought later becomes a “nocturnal mass” that he is able to touch. Objects enter
into him (the representations of his consciousness take on bodily form): self-affection is here an
extreme experience of exteriority (the outside). In the fourth chapter, Thomas assumes a position
of extreme passivity, as, a “profound reader,” he is read by the (feminine) text that he attempts to
read. For a detailed reading of this passage, see Schestag. A brief discussion of this passage also
occurs in Mesnard 182–83. Thomas is subjected to an ecstatic movement in which he exteriorizes
himself by doubling himself in the fifth chapter (I touch upon this passage briefly below). One
might say that, in the first chapter and throughout this text (although this is not an argument that
I will pursue here), Thomas is at grips with his becoming-other. This is an interpretation that
Fynsk hints at in his foreword to The Station Hill Blanchot Reader. For a brief discussion of
metamorphosis in Thomas l’Obscur, see Fries 276-77.
Interpretations of Thomas l’Obscur are sparse. For some useful discussions of the text, see
Londyn; Stillers; Tsuquiashi-Daddesio, Plasticité graphique; and Hill. For an account of the his-
tory of the text’s publication and reception (in both versions), see Bident 200–02, 287–90.
18. In the 1941 version, the text reads: “Dans son immobilité absolue, dans son insensibilité
parfaite, elle ressenti comme un vide immense l’absence en elle de tout sentiment pour ceux qui
vivaient” [1: 201–02].

56
embody the absence of all sentiment in anticipation of the possibility of no-longer-
being-there.
Anne offers herself in her dying to those who mourn over her, proleptically mourn-
ing her own death as the death of an Other (she is at once the one who mourns and the
one over who is mourned): “To those who cried over her, cold and oblivious, she re-
turned hundred-fold what they had given her, devoting to them the anticipation of her
death, her death, the pure feeling, never purer, of her existence in the tortured anticipa-
tion of her non-existence” [1: 202/2: 116–17/TO 82].19 Anne’s gift of her dying exceeds
the possibility of compensation: it is an expenditure that could never be repaid. If the
concept of sacrifice, as Jacques Derrida suggests, implies the reciprocity of interest
(and surely it does), then Anne’s self-sacrifice is an offering that transcends the economy
of sacrifice: the offering of her work of (self-)mourning exceeds “hundred-fold” the
mourning that had been granted to her. Anne’s sacrifice is a nonreciprocal and
dissymmetrical sacrifice: it is a (non)act of unconstrained generosity.20
Through her self-sacrifice, her existence unites with her nonexistence (alive, she is
“already dead” [1: 202/2: 116/TO 82]—an absolute contradiction):

For the first time, she raised the words “give oneself” to their true meaning:
she gave Anne, she gave much more than the life of Anne, she gave the ultimate
gift, the death of Anne; she separated herself from her terribly strong feeling of
being Anne, from the terribly anguished feeling of being Anne threatened with
dying, and changed it into the yet more anguished feeling of being no longer
Anne, but her mother, her mother threatened by death, the entire world on the
point of annihilation. [1: 202/2: 117/TO 82]

What benefit is gained from this self-sacrifice? Who benefits? Giving the gift of an
impossible relation to her “own” death, Anne accedes to another order: that of social-
ity.21 We have already seen how, for Blanchot, the possibility of community is not con-
ceivable apart from a relation to human mortality. For Blanchot, the gift of an impos-
sible relation to one’s own death is the sacrificial gesture that founds all community. It
should be no surprise, then, that, offering herself in her dying, Anne is “forced to die not
personally but by the intermediary of all the others” (“contraint de mourir non pas
personellement, mais par l’intermédiare de tous les autres”) [1: 202/2: 118/TO 82]. Sur-
rendering her death to those who mourn her, Anne’s death becomes mediated by the
Other and is devoted to the Other. Her death becomes that of the Other. In the extraordi-
nary gesture by which Anne gives of her death, she offers to those who are witnesses to
her death the impossibility of assuming death as a possibility.
In this way, Blanchot’s first literary text forecasts what will be rearticulated in his
more theoretical statements of 1983 in La communauté inavouable. For Blanchot, the

19. The expression “froide et inconsciente” (“cold and oblivious”) in this passage is puz-
zling, insofar as it problematizes or at least complicates Blanchot’s own thesis that death may be
known only through the death of the Other.
20. See Derrida’s Donner la mort for a discussion of restricted and general economic con-
figurations of sacrifice: according to this dualistic typology, sacrifice is either a symmetrical
economy of exchange or an economy that incorporates loss. Derrida’s discussion—although he
does not expressly acknowledge it—is heavily indebted to Blanchot’s L’écriture du désastre.
21. For reasons of economy, I am not able to discuss the motif of motherhood in this pas-
sage. Because of the narrowly restricted focus of this essay (the relationship of the self to the
Other as determined by the problematic of mortality), an exposition of the figure of maternity in
Blanchot would require a separate study altogether. For a consideration of this topic, see Huffer.

diacritics / summer 2001 57


unconditional loss of relation affords another relation, the relation of a nonrelation:22

Then, in the form of this primordial passion, having now only a silent and
dreary soul, a heart empty and dead, she offered her absence of friendship as
the truest and purest friendship; she resigned herself, in this dark region where
no one touched her, to responding to the ordinary affection of those around her
by this supreme doubt concerning her being, by the desperate consciousness
of being nothing any longer, by her anguish. [1: 202/2: 116/TO 81]

“L’angoisse” again names an affect that discloses the relation of a nonrelation (the ab-
sence of all relation, “the absence of friendship”).23 Anne’s anguished anticipation of
that which permits no relation forms is, paradoxically, the condition of “the truest and
purest friendship.” We have already encountered the motif of friendship in Blanchot’s
remarks on the basis of communication. There, friendship was determined as a work of
mourning that allows the self to experience what the self cannot experience individu-
ally. Here, “the truest and purest friendship” is mediated (sacrificial) dying—the offer-
ing of the Other’s death which is the condition of all community (“the absence of friend-
ship”—the disconnection of every relation). The anticipated loss of relation constitutes
the basis of a (paradoxical) relation: such is the “friendliness” of Anne’s self-immola-
tion.24

22. My discussion of “the relation of a non-relation” is largely derived from Blanchot’s


L’entretien infini. In the first part of this volume (“La parole plurielle”), Blanchot is chiefly
concerned with the question of the autrui and the relation that “exists” between instances of
speech (speech as writing). Between any two speech acts, between address and response, there is
an infinite distance, a double dissymmetry, that makes speech possible. Both events of speaking-
writing are separated and yet held together in a common separation or unbridgeable gap that
Blanchot terms “a relation of that which has no relation” or “the relation of the third genre.” (In
seeming homage to Steven Spielberg, the translator renders this as “the relation of the third
kind.”) This interruption is language “itself,” a pure relation that could never be said to be
identical with itself. See L’entretien infini, especially “Le rapport du troisième genre” [94–105].
23. Compare the following passage from the second part of La communauté inavouable (in
reference to Sade): “Apathy, impassibility, the non-event of feelings and all forms of impotence,
not only do not prevent relationships between beings, but lead to relationships towards crime
which is the ultimate and (if one may say so) incandescent form of insensibility” [IC 81/UC 49].
24. The death of Anne brings those who mourn over her to terms with their own imminent
fatality. For a comparable figuration of friendship (as a relation based on death), see the opening
conversation of L’entretien infini. Friendship is always imagined in Blanchot as a bond formed
by the absence of every bond. At an earlier moment in the text of the second version, Anne speaks
of the possibility of obtaining a greater proximity to Thomas by withdrawing from him to an
“infinite distance” (“Le seule possibilité que j’aurais de diminuer la distance qui nous separe
serait de m’eloigner infiniment” [2: 72–73/TO 55]). And even in the transports of sexual inti-
macy, “contact” between their bodies “bound so intimately together by such fragile bonds” re-
veals the “paucity of bonds” between them (“leur peu de liens”) [2: 63/TO 47; translation modi-
fied]. In the 1941 version, the text reads: “their absence of bonds” (“leur absence de liens”) [1:
58]. The intersubjective relation that binds them together is a relation that consists in the fact that
there is no possible relation between them. For a comparable figuration of friendship as the
impossibility of relationality, see Blanchot, “Adolphe ou le malheur des sentiments vrais” [PF
221–37]. Blanchot distinguishes his own notion of friendship from the Greek concept of philia
(which presupposes a reciprocal relation) in Pour l’amitié [see esp. 35]. On the relation between
Thomas and Anne, see Mykyta. See also Tsuquiashi-Daddesio, “Thomas e(s)t Anne,” for an in-
teresting discussion of the intratextual relation between both personages with reference to the
apocrypha [see esp. 123].

58
The relation to the autrui is one of friendship, and friendship is based upon death—
upon the exposure of the self to its “own” mortality. In a fragment from L’écriture du
désastre, Blanchot writes: “Friendship is not a gift, or a promise; it is not a form of
generosity. Rather, this incommensurable relation of the one to the other is the outside
drawing near in its rupture and inaccessibility” [ED 50/WD 29]. Friendship is not a gift,
but a sacrifice. The concept of a gift implies a pregiven plenitude that could be ex-
pended without diminishing one’s supply; a sacrifice, on the contrary, is meaningful
only when one cannot dispense with that with which one dispenses. Friendship implies
the absolute dispossession of the self, the anguished anticipation of one’s mortality. The
outside approaches via the sacrifice of the other person—the sacrifice by which the
other person exposes itself as finite and hence delivers the self over to its mortality. The
approach of the autre (the impossible) comes by way of the approach of the autrui (the
other human being). To that extent, the autrui mediates the infinite alterity of mortality.
The sacrifice of friendship (subjective and objective genitive) opens onto the abyss of
the impossible and grants a (non)relation to the impossible. It is a friendship, as Blanchot
demonstrates in Le pas au-delà, that is determined as the sharing of what cannot be
possessed, as the impossible sharing of mortality.
Anne’s death reflects upon the death at the heart of community. The ultimate sacri-
ficial figure, Anne offers her death to the Other as a death that is entirely other. De-
prived of its singularity, Anne’s death is “characterized” only by and as an indetermi-
nate dying that is rid of all of its historical characteristics. Her death is generalized to the
point at which it obtains the indifference of man stirbt. Sacrifice here requires a certain
“dedifferentiation.” The particularity of Anne’s existence is reduced until she becomes
of the order of anonymous and impersonal entities; human being becomes thinglike:
“[She is] like something which could not be represented, no longer a human being, but
simply a being, marvelously a being” [1: 203/2: 119/TO 83]. Delivered over to the
mediated impersonality of death (in which she is “forced to die by the intermediary of
all the others”), the solitude of Anne’s dying is infringed upon. The passionate/passion-
less anticipation of death gives way to the sacrifice of the person to the neutral: “Al-
ready [Anne] had no more importance.” Those who mourn over this nameless sacrifi-
cial victim are likewise deprived of their personal traits: “her mother was no longer
anything more than an insignificant being”; “Thomas is insignificant” [1: 206/2: 125/
TO 86]. The characters are effaced and surrendered to the neutrality of a faceless dying.
Anne’s presentation of her finitude is at the same time the gift of her mortality—and yet
this testimony is that of the autre (the other as anonymous transcendence), not that of
the autrui (the other human being). The testimony is of an anonymous impersonality.
The uncanniness of the address consists in the fact that it is of the other: Anne’s sacrifice
affords a relation to an alterity.
Anne’s death is not “final” in that it incites discourse—the inner monologue of
Thomas, who will attempt to appropriate Anne’s death as speech. Provoked by Anne’s
death, Thomas is given to speak. Anne’s self-offering, however, does not pass entirely
into the speech of Thomas.25 Thomas is right to say to himself that Anne “gave herself
entirely over to death in an instant” (“elle s’est en un instant donné entièrement la mort”)
[1: 206/2: 127/TO 89]. Yet nowhere in his long and powerful reflection on Anne’s struggle
does Thomas articulate Anne’s gesture of “giving” her dying to him. To that extent,
Anne’s self-sacrifice bespeaks a lack in Thomas’s speech. Her sacrifice is measured by

25. This is suggested by Fynsk in his foreword to The Station Hill Blanchot Reader. Thomas’s
monologue constitutes almost the entirety of the fourteenth chapter in the 1941 version and the
eleventh chapter in the 1950 version.

diacritics / summer 2001 59


the inarticulable. Anne’s sacrifice is not translated into the thought of Thomas: the trans-
ference of its meaning is suspended.26
As if prompted by Anne’s self-offering, which he misunderstands, Thomas under-
goes a metamorphosis in which, completely alive, he is united with death (“All of my
being mingled with death” [1: 210–11/2: 132/TO 92]):27

But those who contemplated me felt that death could also associate with exist-
ence and form this decisive word: death exists. They have developed the habit
of saying about existence everything they could say of death for me and, rather
than murmur, “I am, I am not,” mix the terms together in a single happy com-
bination and say, “I am, while I am not,” and likewise, “I am not, while I am,”
without there being the slightest attempt to force contradictory words together,
rubbing them one against the other like stones. [1: 215/2: 140/TO 96]

The becoming-human of death is the resolution of the Epicurean paradox (in


Epicurus’s letter to Menoeceus): “Where there is death, you are not; where you are,
death is not.” “Existence-death” collapses both terms of the relation, maintaining them
in an impossible conjunction. An antimony is established in which the exclusivity of
both of the terms is neutralized: both being and death are held together in their mutual
inclusivity. The simultaneity of being and nonbeing is, of course, an irreconcilable con-
tradiction.
Having obtained the greatest intimacy with death, Thomas feels the absolute with-
drawal of feeling. He experiences the recession of all feeling as a feeling that surpasses
any relation to an object: “I am reaching regions where that which one experiences has
no relation with that which is experienced” [1: 221/2: 153/TO 102]). This intense en-
gagement with nothing incites Thomas to move from the absence of feeling to the ab-
sence of desire, or, put otherwise, to the absence that is desire. Here, desire attains the
absoluteness of an infinite relation of self-concern (desire as the relation to that which
does not concern, as Blanchot will put it in the opening dialogue of L’entretien infini):

26. Anne’s resistance to Thomas is “thematized” in the eighth chapter of the first version as
the “intrusion” of a physical force and an “inassimilable nothingness” [2: 89/TO 64] that thrusts
itself before his indifference. (In the twelfth chapter of the first version, this is written of Irène [1:
187]—a character who is completely elided in the 1950 edition.) Anne differs from the thought
that Thomas represents by offering herself as a body, an intractable, “triumphal presence” to his
thought, which can never appropriate her as a thought. In Thomas’s monologue in the penultimate
chapter of both versions of Thomas l’Obscur, her resistance consists in her misappropriation in
speech. Yet neither can Thomas be appropriated in the speech of Anne. In the eighth chapter of
the 1950 version, Anne wars against Thomas’s indifference by transforming herself into a body
“a thousand times more beautiful than her own” [2: 88/TO 63]. (Blanchot’s humor is evident in
this passage, despite his extraordinary seriousness.) Anne thereby revolts against the impossibil-
ity of placing Thomas into a narrative. Thomas is described as a being who could not be ques-
tioned, since his existence itself is a “terrible question posed” to Anne. It would be “extremely
presumptuous” for Anne, according to the narrator, to be “shocked” at her inability to “under-
stand” Thomas; her “rashness” would “go beyond all limits” if she attempted “to get informa-
tion about him” [1: 59/2: 65/TO 48]. Thomas is one whose nonknowability (the obscurity to
which the title of the text refers and which is his common noun qualifier) is determined as his most
essential determination, and who therefore suspends the distinction between comprehensibility
and incomprehensibility altogether. Thomas is not incomprehensible, for the category of incom-
prehensibility implies the possibility that something may be known. Jacques Derrida discusses
the common noun qualifier in the title Thomas l’Obscur in The Ear of the Other [160-61].
27. The first version reads: “Toute ma vie apparut confondue avec ma mort” [1: 211]. The
second version reads: “Tout mon être parut se confondre avec la mort” [2: 132].

60
diacritics / summer 2001 61
“Absent from Anne, absent from my love for Anne to the extent that I loved Anne” [1:
221/2: 154/TO 103]. To a certain extent, Thomas’s absence of desire is the absence of
alterity. But this absence of alterity is not solipsism. In a moment of extreme auto-
affection that surpasses any relation of self-identity, Thomas experiences himself as
absent from himself (“absent, doublement, de moi”) [2: 154/TO 103].28 Thomas is exte-
riorized as his own anonymous and impersonal double—a repetition of an earlier mo-
ment of the text (in the eighth chapter of the 1941 version and the fifth chapter of the
1950 version) in which Thomas attempts to coalesce with his death by interring himself
in the earth, where he encounters his own corpse. Here, the experience of auto-affection
is at the same time one of self-duplication: the experience of the self as an Other.29
Feeling himself as dead, Thomas presents himself not as a corpse, but in his living
existence, drawing himself beyond a purely metaphorical death (Thomas exposes him-
self as a “dead person” (“un mort”) “in order not to make of his death a metaphor”
(“pour ne pas faire de sa mort une metaphore”) [1: 211/2: 133/TO 92]). Thomas by-
passes the logic of metaphoricity—the transference (meta-pherein) from figure (that
which immediately represents) to concept (that which is mediately represented)—by
immediately presenting what he represents. As the figure of the impossible, Thomas
becomes the impossible. The exclusivity of life and death is eradicated when Thomas
poses himself as dead in his living, finite existence: “I feel myself dead—no; I feel
myself, living, infinitely more dead than dead” [1: 222/2: 156/TO 104].
A feeling arises that discloses not his historical existence, but his existence as his-
torical. Thomas anticipates his nonbeing through the fundamental affect of l’angoisse—
a feeling that, as Blanchot writes, “molds” Thomas, making him and unmaking him,
“causing [him] to feel” “in a total absence of sentiment” his “reality in the shape of
nothingness” [1: 222–23/2: 156–57/TO 104]. We see that Thomas’s experience of mor-
tality is inextricably connected with that of Anne: “l’angoisse” (once more, the feeling
of the loss of all feeling) describes the joint that articulates their deaths.
Feeling nothing, feeling himself as nothing, Thomas opens himself up to a mori-
bund jouissance. “Ravaged by delights” (“ravage de délices”), Thomas posits himself
in relation to a “future void” (“vide futur”) as if to a “frightful enjoyment” (“jouissance
affreuse”) [1: 222/2: 155/TO 103]. It would seem that his ecstasis is the pleasure of
anticipating mortality. This rapture is so great that it can only be experienced in its
withdrawal as “torment”: “I am at grips with a sentiment that reveals to me that I cannot
experience it, and it is at that moment that I experience it with a force which makes it an
inexpressible torment” [1: 222/2: 155/TO 104]. His “delight” (“délice”) at no longer
existing is so great that it is beyond the ability of any subject to experience it; the subject
can at most experience its inability to undergo this experience. “Le tourment” names the
feeling that reveals the impossibility of feeling this feeling; it discloses an impossible
experience through which the subject would be nullified.
There is a transition from the absence of feeling, the absence of desire, and the
absence of alterity to the exposure to an alterity. It is as if an extraordinarily dense
experience of auto-affection forms the condition for an engagement with an infinite
transcendence. Along with the feeling that “everything is vanished” (“toutes les choses
se sont évanouies”), “the night” brings Thomas the feeling that “everything is immedi-
ate” (“toute chose m’est immediate”): “It is the supreme relationship that is sufficient
unto itself; it leads me eternally to itself, and an obscure race from the identical to the

28. There is a slight discrepancy between the first and the second versions at this point. The
1941 version reads: “Et absent, doublement absent de moi” [1: 221].
29. For a discussion of self-doubling in Thomas l’Obscur, see Hurault 72–74.

62
identical imparts to me the desire of a wonderful progress” [1: 223/2: 157/TO 105].30
“The supreme relationship that is sufficient unto itself” repeats itself eternally, but this
does not suggest (as is demonstrated by Klossowski’s interpretation of the Nietzschean
ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen) the static recurrence of the identical.31
Is the “supreme relationship” not similar in its structure to “poetry” in Blanchot’s
essay of 1949 devoted to Jean Paulhan (“La mystère dans les lettres”)? Poetry “de-
mands,” Blanchot writes, “absolute being” through the synthesis of meaning and sign.
Both aspects of language aspire to become interchangeable with each other. This is
possible because, Blanchot writes, in poetry the relationship preexists the terms; “the
terms exist only in their relationship” (“les termes n’existent que dans le rapport”) [PF
57/WF 51], and what we know of isolated terms, from other experiences, has the same
value only in the relationship that grounds them. Poetic language—understood here as
the pure signifying power of language—is an original difference that maintains both
opposing perspectives as identical; it is an interruptive opening that engenders both
poles. When read in the context of Blanchot’s later research, one may hypothesize that
the “supreme relationship” bears similar structural features to that of “poetry” in the
Paulhan essay: both are relations that precede and make their relata possible. “The su-

30. My interpretation of this passage was inspired by some of Fynsk’s remarks in his fore-
word to The Station Hill Blanchot Reader.
31. Blanchot alluded to this interpretation in Le pas au-delà. According to the Klossowskian
interpretation of the ewige Wiederkehr, consciousness is struck by a moment of delirious lucidity
when the inconceivable thought emerges that all things will have repeated themselves infinitely.
Klossowski stresses the non-narratable character of the eternal recurrence: its experience may
not be preserved or archivalized, since a forgetting is essential to this experience. This is because
the time in which the experience of the eternal recurrence is itself experienced must occur in time,
and so must be relegated to an amnesia no less vital than anamnesis. As Klossowski remarks, “it
is inscribed in the very essence of the circular movement that the movement itself be forgotten
from one state to the next” [110]. The “I” to whom recurrence discloses itself is destroyed, for the
time in which “he” or “she” will experience the infinitely recurring moment of disclosure is not
the time in which the “I” lives, subordinated to the everyday system of signs. For personal pro-
nouns are, for Klossowski, the fossilized signs of ordinary language and crystallize through their
repetition. Eternal recurrence casts the stagnant character of the “I” into dispersion and trans-
forms it into a pronoun in the third person (this is the very movement that Blanchot himself
describes in “La voix narrative” in L’entretien infini and “La solitude essentielle” in L’espace
littéraire). When I experience that all things will return, I am reconciled with myself only insofar
as I become integrated within an infinite series of permutations of the self. Auto-affection is at
this moment a form of hetero-affection. Klossowski’s ecstatic self is not a self-same subject com-
mitted to the infinite repetition of the same acts and the same thoughts; he rather emphasizes the
expropriation of the self from its own “self-identity.” All that the self has in common with itself,
according to this interpretation, is reduced to a mere moment of disjunctive instanteity, wherein
its own self-sameness is forgotten, insofar as it is temporalized, disappropriated only to be taken
up again, reappropriated not in the lucidity of self-consciousness, but in terms of a disjunctive
member of an infinite temporal series—what Klossowski terms “the successive realization of all
possible identities” [108]. When the meaning of the eternal recurrence is disclosed to me, “my
self” is obliterated in the face of something objectively necessary and absolute—its own othering.
The experience of eternal recurrence is the experience of a nonexperience, for it involves the
dissolution of the very self that would have experienced it. What Klossowski understands by “the
eternal recurrence of the same,” then, is not the constitution of a static identity, for the self that
experiences the eternal recurrence must actualize all other possible selves, revealing itself as
nothing more than one of a series of masks. The eternal recurrence demands a time without
identity, since no instant is determinable as identical to itself outside of the series of determina-
tions that recurrence imposes. But if it is the case that no instant is identical to itself, then sameness
is no longer conceivable as identity, since what is the same occurs only in terms of the diversity of
its repetition. See Deleuze, The Logic of Sense.

diacritics / summer 2001 63


preme relationship” is a pure relation,32 one that exists in itself, and therefore in a cer-
tain sense estranged from the things related. This apparently paradoxical formulation
invites one to conceive a relation that is a priori.
Whatever else it may signify, “the supreme relation that is sufficient unto itself” is
a relation that is independent of its own terms. Absolutely self-subsistent, eternally re-
current, the supreme relationship is an infinite transcendence (its self-sufficiency sug-
gests that the supreme relationship is not of the order of the human). Yet the alterity to
which Thomas accedes is a transcendence without transcendence: “it is the beyond, if
the beyond is that which admits of no beyond” [1: 223/2: 157/TO 105].33 The absolute is
(by definition) wholly other, yet nonetheless intimately bound up with finite existence.
In the face of an ungraspable alterity, Thomas is surrendered to the ceaseless movement
of a metamorphosis in which he becomes the “equal” of the “night” by offering himself
as a “mirror for [its] perfect nothingness” in order for the “void” to “contemplate itself”
[1: 226/2: 163/TO 108]. As the mimetic representation of the night, Thomas reduces the
night to the status of passivity, without ever forcing it to renounce its dominance (“You
become a delicious passivity. You attain entire possession of yourself in abstention” [1:
226/2: 163/TO 109]). The mirror that allows the night to contemplate itself, Thomas
establishes a relationship of interdependence between himself and the night (“Porous,
identical to the night, which is not seen, I am seen. [. . .] In the night we are inseparable”
[1: 224/2: 159/TO 105]). Something like an ontico-ontological schism is articulated
here: the human induces the night into a kind of self-doubling (an “ec-stasis” (“extase”)
[1: 226/2: 163/TO 108], as Blanchot terms it).
The “night” needs and uses the human in order to reflect itself. Transcendence
includes within itself a certain praxis. In the context of Thomas’s monologue and its
emphasis on the unification of being with death, there is little question that what is
being named here as “night” is “death.” Further philological evidence for this equation
could be found in “L’expérience d’Igitur” in which “la nuit” is determined as a positive
absence—the subsistence of pure disappearance—the appearance of which is antici-
pated by the suicide it enables. “Death” (if one were to deceive oneself and name that
unreality) is the “supreme relationship that is sufficient unto itself”—yet this supreme
transcendence requires an intermediary in order to show itself.
Humankind—in the form of Thomas (and the text supports this synecdochal move-
ment)34—is exposed to an otherness that infinitely exceeds it. The infinite is an infi-
nitely self-subsistent relation. But at the heart of this infinite self-subsistence there is
the demand for another relation. Absolute self-identity opens onto a relation to the hu-
man: “I make you experience your supreme identity as a relationship. I name and define
you” [1: 226/2: 163/TO 109]. Through his mediation, the “night” is able to achieve a
relation with itself.
The separation between Thomas and the “night” is absolute, but the absolute loss
of separation is at the same time the absoluteness of separation: “Our intimacy is this

32. The notion of a “pure relation” can be found in the Heideggerian text “Das Wesen der
Sprache” (although the author does not use this term). In order to approach the essence of lan-
guage, Heidegger suggests, one must think the neighborhood (Nachbarschaft) between poetry-
making (Dichten) and thinking (Denken). Both terms belong to “the same element,” Heidegger
writes: that of saying (Sagen). One enters into “perplexity” (Verlegenheit) in engaging in thought
with the neighborhood that holds both relata together. Thinking this relation qua relation is the
precondition of thinking through the essence of language.
33. As Blanchot’s rhetoric suggests, a step (pas) into the beyond is here interdicted (pas) at
the same time as it comes to pass.
34. Thomas is figured as humankind in the opening of the penultimate chapter: “With me,
the species died each time completely. [. . .] I was the sole corpse of humanity” [1: 212–13/2:
135–36/TO 93].

64
very night. Any distance between us is suppressed, but suppressed in order that we may
not come closer one to the other. It is a friend to me, a friendship which divides us” [2:
159–60/TO 105–06].35 The infinite distance of “friendship” describes the articulation of
a relation between death and the human. In the intimate bond that is brought about
between the “supreme relationship” and Thomas, a separation is still maintained. There
is an infinite entre-tien, a comaintenance, a holding-between—a relation between them
subsists, which consists in the fact that there is no relation whatsoever.
If the “night” is absolute transcendence, in the later moments of Thomas’s mono-
logue, the absolute is relativized. If the self-sufficiency of the “supreme relationship”
makes of it a transcendence, it is a finite transcendence. The “supreme relationship” is
death, but “death” exists only in relation to the human. Absolutely self-identical, “death
itself” opens up to its finitude. By reflecting its self-identity, Thomas sets terms to the
infinite: “You give to the infinite the glorious sentiment of its limits. [. . .] You bloom
into new restrictions” [1: 226/2: 163–64/TO 109]. The absolute character of the night is
not renounced; rather, it is made relative while retaining (neither surrendering nor com-
promising) its absoluteness. It would seem that mimesis relativizes the absolute, while
preserving its absolute character. Thomas transmutes himself into a self-effacing me-
dium through which the night reflects upon itself (“Tu te contemples par mon
intermédiaire éternellement”) [1: 226/2: 164]. By presenting himself as the resemblance
of the infinite, Thomas transforms the infinite into an object. Thomas thus presents
himself as one who mediates the impossible. This victorious (self-) assertion of the
human against an infinite otherness is an irreconcilable aporia.36

The Communication of the Impossible

To return to this essay’s starting point: for Blanchot, death cannot be known except by
way of the Other. As I have demonstrated, death in Thomas l’Obscur is at the furthest
remove from the pathos of a solitary being-toward-death. Anne’s gift of mortality exists
only in relation to the Other and is mediated by the Other. Can one not say that Thomas’
engagement with mortality was incited by Anne’s self-sacrifice? Her gift of dying leads
to a kind of linguistic metamorphosis in which Thomas becomes the figure of death.
Here it is a matter of the union between existence and death through the “meta-meta-
phorical” representation of that union. Because Anne gives her death to Thomas, he
finds himself able, as an existing being, to become the figural representation not of her
death, but of death as such. His transmutation of Anne’s gift of dying is such that he
joins with the “night” only as its figural representation. There is a sacrifice of human-
ness insofar as the human responds to a figural exigency.37 It is necessary to read Tho-
mas’s final, victorious affirmation—“It makes me, nothingness that I am, like unto noth-

35. In the first version, this passage reads: “Notre intimité est cette nuit meme. Mais si toute
distance est supprimée entre nous, c’est pour que nous ne puissons pas nous rapprocher. Plus je
lui suis proche, plus il m’est étranger. Tous les rapports par lesquels il s’unit à moi servent à
empecher mon union avec lui. Chaque relation nouvelle est une relation qui me manque. Il m’est
ami, amitié qui ne me pénétre pas” [1: 224].
36. The infinite, of course, can neither become an object nor have a cause. Nevertheless,
Thomas paradoxically affirms himself as “the origin of that which has no origin”: “I create that
which cannot be created” [1: 226/2: 164/TO 108].
37. This figural-sacrificial exigency is also discussed in “La littérature et le droit à la mort,”
wherein literary negation is likened to the ideality of death in the Reign of Terror. Human particu-
larity is sacrificed in order to obtain its representative function. See Fynsk’s interpretation of this
text, “Crossing the Threshold.”

diacritics / summer 2001 65


ingness. In a cowardly way it delivers me to joy” [1: 226/2: 165/TO 109]—in the con-
text of his self-figuration. If it is tempting to misinterpret Thomas’s triumphal declara-
tion as the self-assertion of the human vis-à-vis the absolute, his status as a figure pro-
vides the appropriate counterbalance to this movement. The human does not have a
self-subsistent, independent existence apart from “the night.” It would be more precise
to say that the human—as the finite instantiation, the exigency, of an infinite relation—
is drawn out from the opening that “the night” makes possible.
In the penultimate chapter of Thomas l’Obscur, the human does assert itself in the
face of an inappropriable otherness, yet this self-assertion must be thought within an
economy of need and usage. Thomas’s sacrifice is a self-offering of the human / as the
human to an inexperiential transcendence in order for “the void” to figure itself and to
constitute its absolute self-identity as a self-relation. Thomas’s self-immolation in no
sense makes death possible (in the precise sense that Blanchot gives to this term in
L’entretien infini and L’espace littéraire). “Death” is not figured here as the possible
annihilation of the self, since it is what passes beyond all possibility, insofar as the
possible is what one is empowered to attain. One might say that, through his self-sacri-
fice, Thomas gives form to the human experience of mortality—but at what price? The
human is sacrificed to become the figure of the absolute, whereas the “night” remains
altogether other.
For Blanchot, sacrifice is—in this context—the substitution of the Other for the
outside that opens the self to the outside, and the exposure of the community to the
finitude that is its foundation. Death cannot be known except by way of the Other: thus
there is an exigency of a relation to the other human being as to an absolute transcen-
dence. This movement toward the outside (the autrui) is one of responsibility for the
Other in its dying and is the origin of all social relations, indeed, of sociality itself.
Thomas l’Obscur is also concerned with a sacrifice (in the figure of Anne) for the sake
of the other person and the community. Both Anne’s death and that of Thomas serve the
function of communicating the incommunicable: Anne mediates death for those who
are witnesses to her dying; Thomas figures himself as death in response to this media-
tion.
What the penultimate chapter of this text suggests to us is far more troubling, how-
ever. On the one hand, the penultimate chapter says the same thing as La communauté
inavouable: the Other is necessary in order to mediate death, in order to make death (the
inaccessible) accessible. Death appears as a self-subsistent relation (it is a “supreme
relationship” that is outside of the human, since it is outside of all human power)—but
even at the heart of this self-subsistence, there is a relation to the human. On the other
hand, however, even though Blanchot allows for the presence of the human, and affords
a relation to the human, he reduces the human to a figural necessity. Blanchot’s posi-
tioning of the human vis-à-vis death is therefore highly ambiguous. The impossible is
placed in relation to the human, yet the human becomes nothing more than the mediator
of the impossible.
The Other’s gift of its death occurs through the presentation of its finitude—the
testimony of its finite existence. Between Thomas’s anguished anticipation of mortality
and the absence (the “night”) that makes this anticipation possible, a reciprocity is es-
tablished. Anonymous and impersonal transcendence opens up to and demands a rela-
tion to the other human being. Mortality appears as infinitely self-subsistent yet exists
only in relation to the exigency of the human. Blanchot repeatedly poses the question of
the human, even in his meditations and figurations of absolute transcendence. For
Blanchot, as for Levinas, there is no metaphysics without ethics.38

38. For a discussion of the relation between Blanchot and Levinas, see Libertson; and Davies.

66
Can one not also say of Blanchot what he himself says of Mallarmé in “L’expérience
d’Igitur”? Does Blanchot here shrink back from what Mallarmé calls, in the preface to
Un coup de dès, “the identical neutrality of the abyss”? One could assert that it is no
longer the “night” (absence) that speaks, but the night in the name of the human. Ab-
sence is posited as consciousness in order to appear as absence. The night becomes
being, becomes life itself, in order that death be mastered—it thus abjures its status as
nothingness. Does Blanchot—despite every statement to the contrary—make death
present? By humanizing absence, does Blanchot move back from what is most terrible
in this experience?
I do not pretend to have answers to these questions. Perhaps the experience should
be left in its fundamental ambiguity. This much, at least, is clear: throughout the corpus
of Blanchot, the question of mortality (or the neutral) is inextricably interlaced with the
question of the autrui, as the question of the autrui implicates that of mortality. An
aphorism from L’écriture du désastre, however, complicates this assertion by its sug-
gestion that the phrase “the death of the Other” is a pleonasm: “The death of the Other:
a double death, for the Other is death already, and weighs upon me like an obsession
with death” [ED 36/WD 19]. In the relation of the self to the autrui, passivity and dis-
possession reign: perhaps this is the “death” to which the fragment refers. And yet
Blanchot seems to be saying something more here. The other person opens up a wound,
granting receptivity to the other as the Other. The self is exposed to transcendence via
the Other. The other person appears once more as a substitute for the impossible, and—
as the fragment of L’écriture du désastre implies—is at the same time the impossible.
Perhaps this is what Blanchot is implying in a “parenthesis” of L’entretien infini (or
rather “Blanchot,” one of the interlocutors of the infinite conversation that runs throughout
and beyond that volume) that reads, “The Other is in the neutral, even when it speaks to
us as Autrui” [EI 456/IC 311]. An interlocutor in the same parenthesis suggests that
death “plays the role” of a “challenge to Being”39 grasped as the One in a manner analo-
gous to that of the Autrui: “Coming as Other, having the false appearance of the neutral,
not allowing itself to be seized as unified; attaining only inasmuch as it remains inac-
cessible (and thereby rendering inaccessible what it reaches), nevertheless touching
only what it has always already touched; having no actuality and only allowing itself to
be encountered by the ‘Self’ that it haunts when the Self, stand-in for the Other, is no
more than the already broken fictive partner that the Other offers itself and receives as a
gift” [EI 457/IC 311]. The self encounters death only inasmuch as the Other offers death
to it as the Other. Neither the self nor the Other can engage in dying except by way of
the other, who is substitutive of the experience of mortality. Mortality comes through
and as the other person in its human finitude.
In order for the community to know the finitude that serves as its elusive founda-
tion, there must be a sacrifice. In its self-sacrifice, the other person answers to a figural
exigency. The impossible must be communicated in order to institute the community of
the impossible. The autrui is figurative of mortality, making death mediate, answering
to the demand that there be a sacrifice in order to make of death something other than a
metaphor.

39. Neither death nor the autrui are conceivable on the basis of being. Both are forms of
nondialectical transcendence or “excedence.” Neither can be reduced to the one and the same;
both are beyond the grips of ontology. This is a Levinasian argument that I am not able to pursue
here because of the restricted scope of my essay.

diacritics / summer 2001 67


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