The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred (Religion and Postmodernism)

The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred (Religion and Postmodernism)


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Maurice Blanchot is among the most important twentieth-century French thinkers. Figures such as Bataille, Deleuze, Derrida, and Levinas all draw deeply on his novels and writings on literature and philosophy. In The Dark Gaze, Kevin Hart argues that Blanchot has given us the most persuasive account of what we must give up—whether it be continuity, selfhood, absolute truth, totality, or unity—if God is, indeed, dead. Looking at Blanchot’s oeuvre as a whole, Hart shows that this erstwhile atheist paradoxically had an abiding fascination with mystical experiences and the notion of the sacred.

The result is not a mere introduction to Blanchot but rather a profound reconsideration of how his work figures theologically in some of the major currents of twentieth-century thought. Hart reveals Blanchot to be a thinker devoted to the possibilities of a spiritual life; an atheist who knew both the Old and New Testaments, especially the Hebrew Bible; and a philosopher keenly interested in the relation between art and religion, the nature of mystical experience, the link between writing and the sacred, and the possibilities of leading an ethical life in the absence of God.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226318103
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/30/2004
Series: Religion and Postmodernism Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kevin Hart is professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of numerous works, including The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy and Economic Acts: Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property. He is also the author of several volumes of poetry, including Flame Tree: Selected Poems.

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Copyright © 2004 Kevin Hart
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31810-3

Chapter One


In its most general form, the question I would like to pose in this chapter was raised, then quickly dropped by Stéphane Mallarmé. I am thinking of a lyric from Parnasse contemporain (1866), "Les Fenêtres," and in particular of the moment when the speaker of that poem sees himself reflected in a hospital window and cries out, "Je me mire et me vois ange! et je meurs, et j'aim / -Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité- / À renaître" (I see myself and see an angel! and I die, and long / -Whether the window be art or the mystical- / To be reborn). No ordinary window, this, for it separates two worlds, one that is "triste" and "fétide," and another characterized by a "ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté" (former sky where Beauty flowers). This dualism of the real and the ideal recalls the world of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), yet the young Mallarmé is already distancing himself from his master, Charles Baudelaire. He elects the ideal, even though he is not sure whether it is art or a vision that enables him to grasp it. Is it possible to know? At the very least the question should be posed. And so I ask on his behalf: Is the window "art" or "the mystical"?

I will be returning to an anteriority, even to a "ciel antérieur," in the chapters to come, and to Mallarmé as well, but not to the young man who wrote "Les Fenêtres." The speaker of that poem links the ideal with his death ("je meurs"), and indeed in 1866 and again in 1867 Mallarmé himself testified in letters to friends that, after a dreadful religious crisis, he had died-"je suis mort," "je suis parfaitement mort"-and it is the spiritual being who writes these words who will accompany us in what follows, even if we may not hear him speak very often in his own voice. For Mallarmé passes the death he experienced in his anguished nights at Tournon to French writers of the twentieth century, for whom it was situated with respect to other influences and took on different though not completely unrelated senses. It was what will become known as the "death of the author" and the "limit-experience." As Blanchot represents Mallarmé position, the experience of writing marks the suspension of beings and lets us glimpse being in all its brilliance.

For Georges Bataille, this limit- or negative experience is to be understood as sacred: it is the revelation of the continuous through the sacrificial death of a discontinuous being. Indeed, for Bataille the distinction between art and the mystical is subtended by the sacred in this precise sense of the word, and in consequence the young Mallarmé's question-art or the mystical?-has to be rephrased. Blanchot agrees that the distinction between art and the mystical is misleading and that both terms rely on a prior sense of the sacred. Unlike Bataille, however, he declines to think of the sacred in terms of fusion and integrity. 6 For him, the sacred is the effulgence not of a transcendent point to which all things aspire but rather of an illusory point below the earth, as it were, which comes into being as one writes and attracts as it withdraws. One approaches that point by an endless contestation of concepts and words. Where Saint Augustine would seek to ascend to the light of God's face by strict meditation, Blanchot descends to a dark gaze by the fierce contestation involved in literature, a sacrifice of both the author and his words.


Let us begin with Bataille's L'Expérience intérieure, a febrile meditation that, among other things, responds to and displaces Le Livre de l'expérience des vrais fidèles by the thirteenth-century Umbrian mystic Angela of Foligno. Bataille begins by affirming inner experience at the expense of mystical ecstasy; even so, Jean-Paul Sartre believed himself justified to dub the author "a new mystic." He has been sharply criticized for the expression, although since Bataille called the fourth part of his book "Post-Scriptum au Supplice (ou la nouvelle théologie mystique)," the philosopher was not without reason for his choice of words. Equally, Bataille has a solid ground for objecting to the description: he does not believe in the Judeo-Christian God. "Inner experience" is an experimental attempt to touch the indefinite reality that abides outside the self; when the attempt succeeds it is intensely pleasurable but also anguished (a taboo is violated) and strictly pointless (no knowledge of this Outside can be distilled). It is hardly the mysticism of Saint Augustine, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Dame Julian of Norwich, or Angela herself. And yet, as Bataille freely admitted years after L'Expérience intérieure, from a certain angle he can be seen to stand "in the line of mystics of all times."

Keeping that equivocation between mysticism and atheism in mind, I turn to a passage near the beginning of "Post-Scriptum au Supplice (ou la nouvelle théologie mystique)." It is a rare anecdote by Bataille, or anyone, about Maurice Blanchot:

Outside of the notes of this volume, I only know of Thomas the Obscure where the questions of the new theology [la nouvelle théologie] (which has only the unknown [l'inconnu] as object) are pressing, although they remain hidden. In a way which is completely independent from his book-orally, yet in such a way that he in no respect lacked the feeling of discretion which demands that, close to him, I thirst for silence-I heard the author set out the foundation for all "spiritual" life, which can only: -have its principle and its end in the absence of salvation, in the renunciation of all hope, -affirm of inner experience that it is authority (but all authority expiates itself), -be contestation of itself and non-knowledge [non-savoir].

The Blanchot introduced in this short passage is a writer, to be sure, though not quite the reclusive author whose name we know today. His first novel, Thomas l'obscur (1941), is commended not so much for its literary value as for its theological insight, and, as the scene develops, the young novelist is presented as a severe, if somewhat perverse, theologian and as something of a mentor to his older friend.

The "new theology ... has only the unknown as object," Bataille tells us. Even before we ask what the "unknown" is, we must recognize that what makes this theology new is that it is centered on the sacred, rather than on faith or a harmony of faith and reason. It is experiential rather than dogmatic. If it can be called a new mystical theology, it is new mainly because it construes the mystical as grounded in a notion of the sacred: mystical experience (or "negative experience" or "inner experience") places us in continuity with reality. I quote from L'Érotisme (1957) because Bataille moves too quickly in L'Expérience intérieure to make the point clearly and mires us in distinctions that perplex as much as they illuminate. We are expected to recall that, for him, "God differs from the unknown" (5; 5:17). But how? When we speak of God we are touched by "a profound emotion, coming from the depths of childhood," while the unknown "leaves one cold, does not elicit our love until it overturns everything within us like a violent wind" (5; 5:17).

It is a curiously drawn distinction. In the first place, it does not adduce different traits that God and the unknown might have but sketches the effects they have on us. And in the second place, once we have been thoroughly shaken by the unknown, we become disposed to love it-and this can only compromise the clarity of the distinction. If we love the unknown, then it can no longer be completely unknown. Without giving us an opportunity to object, Bataille goes on to mark the difference between God and the unknown in quite another way. Our apprehension of the divine is like our experience of poetry. "The poetic is the familiar dissolving into the strange, and ourselves with it. It never dispossesses us entirely, for the words, the images (once dissolved) are charged with emotions already experienced [éprouvées], attached to objects which link them to the known [connu]" (5; 5:17). And he concludes, "We are only totally laid bare by proceeding without trickery to the unknown [l'inconnu]. It is the measure of the unknown which lends to the experience [expérience] of God-or of the poetic-their great authority. But the unknown demands in the end sovereignty without partition [partage]" (5; 5:17). Christian mystics fall short of inner experience, it would seem, because they refer their raptures to what they have been told of God instead of entrusting themselves entirely to their transports. And poets do not fully achieve inner experience because they cling, at least in part, to events they have already lived.

By contrast, Blanchot is to be prized because he attends to the unknown, and for Bataille this makes Thomas l'obscur neither mystical nor poetic. Before and after Bataille turns to the novel, however, he gives us reason to doubt that there is a clear distinction between the mystical and the poetic in his senses of the words. For most writers, composition is regulated by the sovereignty of the imagination or by appeals to craft. Yet for a few others, Blanchot included, writing exceeds all project and leads to the unknown; it involves the sacrifice of words and, in the same gesture, of the author himself. And so Thomas l'obscur is sacred speech. Just before he relates the anecdote about his friend, Bataille quotes two passages from the novel. The first is by far the more interesting, and it is easy to see why it appeals to the author of Histoire de l'oeil (1928):

Night soon appeared to him to be darker, more terrible than any other night whatsoever, as if it had really emerged from a wound of thought which could no longer think itself, of thought captured ironically as object by something other than thought. This was night itself. Images which created its darkness flooded into him, and his body transformed into a demoniacal mind sought to represent them to himself. He saw nothing and, far from being overcome, he made from this absence of visions the culminating point of his glance. His eye, useless for sight, took on extraordinary proportions, began to develop in an inordinate fashion and, dwelling on the horizon, allowed night to penetrate into its centre in order to create an iris for itself. Through this void, therefore, it was his glance and the object of his glance [le regard et l'objet du regard] which were mingled. This eye, which saw nothing, did not simply grasp the source of its vision. It saw as would an object, which meant that it did not see. His own glance [regard] entered into him in the form of an image at the tragic moment when this glance [regard] was regarded [considéré] as the death of all image.

The "wound of thought" evoked here can be satisfactorily explained only with reference to the central philosophical contention in the novel, that Descartes's Cogito, "I think therefore I am," is ultimately self-refuting and that the proposition we should affirm is "I think therefore I am not." And Thomas's relationship with the darkness, intimate if deeply unsettling, can be grasped only in and through the revelation that this living Thomas is inescapably tied to an obscure twin who does not have the gift of consciousness yet nonetheless haunts the living Thomas under the complex sign of "reality and death." This argument and this drama will concern us in the fourth chapter when we turn to Blanchot's account of selfhood. Suffice it to say for now that Thomas encounters a night that precedes the usual alternation of day and night.

He does not suffer a dark night of the soul, what Saint John of the Cross calls a "cruel spiritual death," the anguish of being convinced that God has turned His back on the beloved. That night is at heart a "passive purgation" (303) and eventually it opens onto a morning of joy. On the contrary, Thomas's dark night suffocates any thought of the divine and has no beginning or end. The saint is concerned with a "wound of love" (117); Blanchot reworks that image as a "wound of thought." To emerge from the "dark contemplation" is to participate in the divine life, and the saint explains this in an image that the young Mallarmé would have appreciated: "If the window is totally clean and pure, the sunlight will so transform and illumine it that to all appearances the window will be identical with the ray of sunlight and shine just like the sun's ray" (117). Yet for Blanchot there is no light to come. The dark gaze that enters Thomas denies the possibility of seeing and frustrates the possibility of experience; and yet, at the same time, it gives Thomas an opportunity to view the night as it essentially is-a darkness without enduring essence-and allows him to have experience in its radical sense: the peril of passing from a moment in time to the space of images. It is, if you like, an experience of experience, for Thomas slides from "sense experience" to "experience without sense," from that which yields positive knowledge to that which, in not offering itself to the senses, cannot enter the order of knowledge. This is what Bataille urges us to see when he speaks of the new theology as having "only the unknown as object."

We have to be careful in talking of the unknown as an object since, if Blanchot is correct, the distance between subject and object collapses in inner experience to reveal, at the last possible moment, a distance in being itself: a fissure that allows for the production of images. This distance (as Blanchot insists on calling it) cannot be traversed by a gaze but "is" a dark gaze that cannot be borne. To have appeared before it is already no longer to be an "I." We can speak of the unknown as object only before an experience of it begins. That said, if the unknown can be a provisional object-the space of images, say-the new theology must be concerned with docta ignorantia and not indocta ignorantia, the known unknown and not the unknown unknown. Someone might desire inner experience and might regard that desire and its possible fulfillment in religious terms. A reflection, systematic or not, on entering the unknown might be called "the new theology," and it would have as a legitimate aim a statement of how inner experience can be achieved. L'Expérience intérieure is itself partly a memorial of the new mysticism and partly a volume of the new theology, one that contains formal propositions such as "Principle of inner experience: to emerge through project from the realm of project" (46;5:60). In fact this principle is central to the new theology. One has to meditate on something familiar in order to slide toward the unknown where the subject-object distinction will be dissolved. A believer might choose a crucifix, for example. Bataille sometimes used a photograph of a Chinese man being tortured.

Bataille alludes to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and doubtless the passage from the five senses to the spiritual senses described there appealed to him. Also, the fact that Bataille started to practice yoga in 1938 carries weight in determining the sort of discipline that he took upon himself. It marks a new way of approaching the sacred after the rituals of Acéphale earlier in the decade. Another discipline, mystical theology, also guides us on the path of spiritual enlightenment; and one might expect "the new mystical theology" to do the same. For Bataille, the very act of writing Thomas l'obscur or L'Expérience intérieure can help to characterize the experience of the unknown. We should be careful, though, not to assume that Bataille and Blanchot approach the unknown in the same ways. There is no reason to think that Blanchot ever meditated in order to glide toward a limit, but good reason to think that over the course of his life he was granted feelings of "ravaging joy," "a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude."


Excerpted from THE DARK GAZE by KEVIN HART Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Introduction: The Dark Gaze
1. Art or the Mystical?
2. Blanchot's Primal Scene
3. The Impossible
4. Losing the Power to Say "I"
5. Blanchot's "Trial of Experience"
6. "The Nearness of the Eternal"
7. The Human Relation
Conclusion: The Counterspiritual Life

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