THOMAS THE OBSCURE is one of the most challenging novels ive read. it has sentences like these:
The tomb was full of a being whose absence it absorbed. An immovable corpse was lodged there, finding in this absence of shape the perfect shape of its presence.
the central image of the book and perhaps all of Blanchot’s thinking is the absence or negative presence of a shape being its ideal form. as a critic he described Henry James as portraying the negative of a story rather than the story itself. to him this is what a literature that honestly faces the crisis of Modernism will do.
the language in THOMAS is highly paradoxical, so that the signs themselves seem to cancel each other out. this is not that different from what conventional realist fiction does (see the quote on two slopes). in a classical novel the signs clearly denote things that credibly exist, in fact they do so to the extent that the signified things are annihilated. once we have a name for the thing, the thing is superfluous, unneeded. Once we name ourselves we have in essence committed suicide. interesting idea! Adam committed a massacre in the garden.
Blanchot is demonstrating this death drive built into language, bringing what was always buried in letters to the surface. his fiction does not illuminate but shrouds everything in darkness — obscurity? eh? — annihilating all tangible narrative. and readers like narrative. i suspect most readers who just want some entertainment will take a plot they cant put down along with shitty writing. i mean, i read THE DA VINCI CODE too. narrative is a drug, a widespread addiction, and ive long suspected we’d be better off without it. so many folks in my life who like reading but aren’t interested in pursuing literature complain that most of the novels they try, as recommended by the NY Review or whatever, are really boring with only the occasional patch of lovely language. i think it’s because the author is so busy with all that other business of setting, characterization, plot set-up. that’s all from drama, fiction doesnt really need it! get em out of there, i say; more room for good prose. beautiful language without plot, which this novel is, leads to withdrawal symptoms, as you can see on the Goodreads reviews. why cant he give us a simple story? Blanchot has a response: “A story? No. No stories. Never again.” but anyway, asking Blanchot for a simple story is like asking for a flashlight to shine on the darkness in order to see the darkness better.
not to overstate the case, THOMAS does have stuff happening in it. like other modernist literature it’s fixated on mythical parallels, namely Orpheus entering Hades to find Eurydice. like Camus’s Mersault, Thomas is aloof, socially absurd (but not a murderer, at least, not unambiguously so), and like Sartre’s Roquentin he’s an existential thinker (although he only speaks in the next-to-last chapter, a long monologue). i think this novel is better than either of those.
Thomas has motivation too! we meet him at the beach. he’s in search of something, a kind of limit-case, an encounter with the outside world. he drifts into the ocean; it’s rather sublime:
It was then that the sea, driven by the wind, broke loose. The storm tossed it, scattered it into inaccessible regions; the squalls turned the sky upside down and, at the same time, there reigned a silence and calm which gave the impression that everything was already destroyed. Thomas sought to free himself from the insipid flood which was invading him. A piercing cold paralyzed his arms. The water swirled in whirlpools. Was it actually water? One moment the foam leapt before his eyes in whitish flakes, the next the absence of water took hold of his body and drew it along violently.
there’s the absence/presence motif. it gets stranger, though. Thomas as a being disintegrates into “a mass of cilia and vibrations.” it’s as if by trying to encounter the ultimate other, you actually get a strange mixture of self-annihilation and solipsism; everything and nothing is the self, existence and nonexistence at the same time. it’s really weird, and it’s amazing that Blanchot sustains this experience for the entire novel.
like a children’s story, Thomas tries again, this time in the woods, and similar strangeness happens. then at the restaurant in his apartment building he falls in love on sight with Anne, the Eurydice to his Orpheus. when he leaves a bad impression (banging on tables is no way to behave) he reads a book, but the words threaten to consume him, and a monstrous being materializes in his room. and this is to say nothing of the talking cat!
im glad im typing this post on Easter Sunday. im arguing that Blanchot’s depiction of our encounter with language is a slippage between life and death, the passage where Orpheus looks back on Eurydice’s shade — he couldnt resist the opportunity to gaze on her in this unique form.
She could not speak, and yet she was speaking. Her tongue vibrated in such a way that she seemed to express the meanings of words without the words themselves.
Gently, her fingers drew together, her steps left her and she slipped into a pure water where, from one instant to the next, crossing eternal currents, she seemed to pass from life to death, and worse, from death to life, in a tormented dream which was already absorbed into a peaceful dream.
this self-contradicting, self-annihilating, suicidal language comes in massive paragraph blocks. like Beckett, the wall-to-wall black text on the white page leads to a gray book. im really pleased with how Station Hill designed the book: extra white space on the top and bottom, and lots of blank space between the chapters — welcome respite after plunging into all the darkness.
spoiler alert! Anne gets sick and dies. her death is what prompts Thomas to speak. Anne was presumably hot, but not visible enough to Thomas, even in a well-lighted place, until her capacity to die makes her so. isnt that what really makes other people interesting to us, their ability to cease to exist? that “you dont know what you’ve got” cliche? i love Joan Didion’s work but that “we tell ourselves stories” quote is so overplayed that i get annoyed. we should take a clue from Blanchot. we die in order to live.
Thomas’s monologue identifies a second Thomas, an obscure Thomas. All of the text in this chapter is really important since it outlines an odd philosophical position by Blanchot: that the true horror of existence is not our fear of death, but that we cant die. life and death are mutually exclusive to the detriment of our happiness; once we die, life is a non-issue, and while we’re alive, death is an impossibility. when i put it that way you go, “well, duh!” but we’re so obsessed with death, or at least i am, and we as a civilization act on the repression of death, the results of which i dont think have been that great. (Blanchot has a lot in common with psychoanalysis, it seems).
anyway, the impossibility of death in life gets articulated here, and then Thomas encounters his obscure self:
This Thomas forced me to appear, while I was living, not even the eternal dead person I was and on which no one could fix their glance, but an ordinary dead person, a body without life, an insensitive sensitivity, thought without thought. […] Represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person, at the pinnacle of passion I attained the pinnacle of estrangement, and I seemed to have been removed from the human condition because I had truly accomplished it. […] a marvelous companion with whom I wished with all my might to blend myself, yet separate from me, with no path that might lead me to him. How could I reach him? By killing myself.
Intimacy is the height of loneliness, and Thomas has never felt more intimate with others than when he is gazing on them from a distance. Death is the encounter with Being. it’s really, really confusing, and im sure i havent understood it well at all. but meaning is why soldiers kill and rape, why those cotton sheets in my wallet with portraits of war criminals have any worth. meaning is overrated.
and the last chapter is amazing. not only is it the most beautiful imagery in the book, but Blanchot expands his attack on language to an active disbelief in linear time and the idea of humanity. this is a bleak, bleak book after my own black heart. dont read it too carefully; you may understand less but, if it works for you, you’ll feel more at home.
i award it all the stars we cannot see.