Monday, April 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot, Part I

Upon completing Thomas the Obscure, all I could do was ask myself, "What did I just read?!" This book is just plain weird--odd, unnerving, and almost entirely devoid of conventional narrative.  It doesn't make much sense, and I don't think it's supposed to.  This is a different kind of reading experience, one recommended only to the most adventurous readers.  I'm  sure Blanchot would laugh at any attempt to explain or analyze his work, but one desires some framework for comprehending what has been read. In this regard, some background is helpful.Attempting to wrap my mind around it a bit, I though in terms of "postmodernism" and "mysticism."

"Postmodernism"  I use quotation marks because this is a loaded word, to say the least.  All I meant to get across is that Blanchot largely eschews logical clarity and a coherent, linear plot line in favor of something more akin to poetry. But to explain a bit more, let us recall that, while the "modern" in "postmodern" refers to Enlightenment rationalism, the roots stretch back to Greek philosophy. Blanchot rejects, or attempts to move beyond, the entire framework of Western thought. The simplest explanation of this worldview is in Aristotelian logic developed through a long series of developments (which go beyond the scope of this review).  Albert Camus sums it well, "A whole family of minds...have persisted in blocking the royal road to reason...Whatever may be or have been their ambitions, all started out from that indescribable universe where contradiction, anguish, or impotence reigns."  He writes of "those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines."  He exhorts, "the real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions." If ever there was a book that examines this "odd vegetation," Thomas the Obscure is it.

  In "those distant regions" even our language fails us, built as it is upon a dualistic foundation. How does one express a "post-rational" viewpoint using language, when-apart from nosensical babbling-language is inherently rational? This is a problem Blanchot tackles head-on by stretching language to its limits--his writing is as nosensical as it can be and still make some sense, if that makes sense. Let me give some examples of the autonomics that fill the pages of Thomas the Obscure, in order to illustrate "postmodernism" in action:

   "I would like to see you when you are alone. If ever I could be before you and completely absent from you, I would have a chance to meet you."
   "All that which Anne still loved, silence and solitude, were called night. All that which Anne hated, silence and solitude, were also called night."
   "A sort of integral ventriloquist, wherever I cried out, that is where I was not, and also just where I was, being in every way the equivalent of silence."
   "Drab birds, designated to be the conservatory of music without notes, sang the absence of song."

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