Refusal of the Moment of Comprehension

After a morning reading Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, I conceded defeat. I can understand the words but meaning eludes me. Online I seek guidance and find:

. . . that if one wants to experience the full scope of Blanchot’s critical writing, and perhaps these works are his most influential, then one might begin with The Work of Fire (1949), The Space of Literature (1955) and The Writing of Disaster (1980).


This early essay [The Work of Fire] holds the kernel of his approach to the question of literature and would be one of the best places to start reading his work.

Sampled, The Work of Fire appears less opaque and perhaps a better starting point.

Later, reading Simon Critchley’s Very Little . . . Almost Nothing I find:

Reading Blanchot is, in a sense, the easiest of tasks. His French is limpid and clear, it is daylight itself; almost the French of the Discours de la méthode. And yet, as nearly everyone who writes on Blanchot points out, his work seems to defy any possible approach, it seems to evade being drawn into the circle of interpretation. The utter clarity of Blanchot’s prose would appear to be somehow premised upon a refusal of the moment of comprehension and the consequent labour of interpretation and judgement. Absolutely clear at the level of reading, yet fundamentally opaque at the level of comprehension; a vague fore-understanding that somehow resists being drawn up into an active comprehension.

For now, the plan is to read Critchley’s book as preparation for The Work of Fire’s arrival next week.

8 thoughts on “Refusal of the Moment of Comprehension

  1. >Blanchot's translator Lydia Davis has written almost the same paragraph as Critchley in her record of translating his work. It's a common experience. Rather than abandon The Space of Literature, I suggest reading the essay "Orpheus' Gaze". It's short & miraculously compressed essay giving the new reader a clear sense of where Blanchot is coming from.

  2. >Stephen – Thanks for directing me to Orpheus' Gaze; it's an enigmatic essay, brilliant of course and riveting. My setting aside of The Space of Literature is postponement rather than abandonment. Orpheus' Gaze is hugely constructive in my attempt to understand Blanchot, and also to define the sort of literature I want to read in the future.I read both Anne Smock's and Lydia Davis' translations of Orpheus' Gaze; the latter being considerably more accessible.

  3. >I'm glad you enjoyed it Anthony; it's not just me then. I once spent a very intense hour or two reading and re-reading it, taking notes and then, in a blog post, trying to explain why it was important to me. One result was to get a comment from someone called Jason (I suspect literary journalist/author whose surname I won't reveal) telling me I didn't know anything about creativity. His condescension is curiously similar to that given to Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? As you have read WEHTM?, you'll know the response to it says more about the reviewers' insecurities and narrow-mindedness than about the book.

  4. >Anthony, you may be interested in my series of posts struggling with The Space of Literature, collected here. I've set the book aside (post-poned) for some time now, but have read some other Blanchot with success (including much of Friendship, and a few essays in The Book to Come and The Infinite Conversation.

  5. >Stephen – I read the post you reference. The link between Orpheus' Gaze and the admission of failure that is an essential component of literary modernism is very useful.

  6. >Richard – Thanks for the link, which I'll follow and read this evening. I'm determined to decipher what I can of Blanchot's work, particularly with the glimpse I got through unpicking Orpheus' Gaze. I'll look out the other works that you mention.

  7. >Richard – Your initiation into The Space of Literature matches my own. The contrast you draw out between writing that is performative rather than didactic is difficult. I suspect that I lack the vocabulary necessary to unpick this work. Derrida offers a similar challenge. But I remain determined to find a way into this work, that people I admire find thrilling.I had hoped that Critchley's book would assist but, to be honest, it just leads me back to Blanchot's text. My reading of Orpheus' Gaze, as recommended by Stephen, has been on my mind all day and is highly rewarding.

  8. Pingback: The Insomniac of the Day | Time's Flow Stemmed

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