Monday, April 7, 2014

Number One Hundred and Fifty*: Not Jude but Thomas the Obscure

Thomas the Obscure, by Maurice Blanchot

 Reading Thomas the Obscure reminded me of my college days, spent, in part, reading writers like Hermann Hesse (pictured here), Par Lagerkvist (Barabbas), Knut Hamsun, and Max Frisch--but especially Hesse, and, in particular, Hesse's Siddhartha.  At the time, as an aspiring literary poseur,  I found these writers inspirational, and books like Demian, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, and Journey to the East struck me as profound, beautifully written, and indisputably great.  Now, I'm afraid, I find Hesse mostly unreadable, dated, and labored--though I didn't see it then, the impact of Freud on Hesse's thinking was pernicious.  But this judgment merely shifts the blame away from me; the honest thing would be to admit that I had no clue what made a literary work worth my time, and often confused seriousness with profundity.  There's a quality in all of these writers, in Hesse especially, that struck me as I was reading Blanchot--at first I couldn't put my finger on what this quality was, or why I felt unable to engage with the text (as Blanchot himself would have put it), but it has come to me that the great weakness of the kind of philosophical literature represented by Hesse and Blanchot is the substitution of murkiness for clarity, a narrative misdirection that is intended to invoke metaphysical truths but which ends up seeming inscrutable.

Is it too obvious to mention that Thomas is, of course, doubting Thomas?  (John 20:24) "Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe."

   "What [Ann] said to [Thomas] took the form of indirect speech. It was a cry full of pride which resounded in the sleepless night with the very character of dream. 
   'Yes,' she said, '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. Or rather I know that I would not meet you. The only possibility I would have to diminish the distance between us would be to remove myself to an infinite distance. But I am infinitely far away now, and can go no further. As soon as I touch you Thomas....'
   Hardly out of her mouth, these words carried her away: she saw him, he was radiant."

Blanchot (left), among the founders of post-modern French literary theory, is recreating a myth--some say of Orpheus and Eurydice, but I'm not sure that's quite right. In any case, the fragmented, dreamy, semi-erotic, thanatopsic, disjointed story of a man who is obscure (to himself and others; a sort of ghost) and a woman who yearns for oblivion, a story that has all of the qualities of myth--the suggestiveness, the yearning for universality, the reduction of all things to the personal: "On the retina of the absolute eye, I am the tiny inverted image of all things," Thomas tells us, and then "With me, the laws gravitate outside the laws, the possible outside the possible."  Madness, of course, lurks behind the plots of many of these semi-surrealist writers.  Siddhartha, who may or may not be the historical Buddha, always struck me as a bit daft for his insistence that staring at a river all day long could teach one the truths of life.  Thomas also spends his time floating in the sea, wandering in forests, and reading without noticing the words--in a bubble of self-regard that tries to pass itself off as cosmic and universal. I am sure that in a room full of undergraduates, well stocked with that which alters consciousness, these Thomistic pronouncements would evoke ejaculatory cries of pleasure among the readers or auditors.  For me, an older gent with lots of post-war French literary shenanigans under his belt, the effect was quite different.  

Blanchot was an important philosopher.  Serious students (I was one) read The Infinite Conversation (available only in French) in the heady 60's.  I came at Blanchot's theoretical work mostly at second hand--especially through my reading of Georges Bataille. I heard that Blanchot had taken principled stances against fascist collaborators during the war, although it appears now that his writing before the Occupation might not have been as anti-fascist as his supporters have maintained. This time around I was inclined to enjoy Thomas the Obscure, but was disappointed, and thought again about how often philosophers fail to write novels that "live."  Sartre, for example, has never tempted me, and while I can enjoy scattered pages of some of her vast output of fiction, Iris Murdoch engages me more for her writings on ethics than for her fiction; ditto Camus, whose essays seem far better than his novels or plays.  To what extent, I wonder, can fiction bear up under the weight of ideas?  Thomas Mann, among the finest of philosophical novelists, excelled at blending in-depth character studies with lengthy ruminations on obscure topics (scholastic theology!), but who else can pull this off?  Thomas the Obscure felt a bit like an undergraduate seminar in metaphysics--a little too solipsistic ("It seemed that, through a phenomenon awaited for centuries, the earth now saw him"), a bit too sophomoric ("I think, it said, I am subject and object of an all-powerful radiation..."), and a little too full of yearning for my tastes.  Anne's "death" reminds me of Werther's--pointless, freighted with meaning that it cannot sustain and that it doesn't deserve.  Blanchot is celebrated as the first post-modern novelist.  This seems right to me--he was a precursor to Alain Robbe-Grillet (for example)--and for this reason his novels and his critical writing have great interest for the scholar of French thought in the pre- and post-war years. But as a novelist he leaves me yearning for a bit of Germanic refreshment--a few pages of Bernhard, for example, or a bowl of Böll.  Give him a try, or write and tell me that I'm full of hooey--I'd love to hear from my post-modern friends.

There's a good overview of Blanchot's work here:

Thomas the Obscure is available from Station Hill Press, translated by Robert Lamberton

*This is Talented Reader's one-hundred and fiftieth post.  Thanks for reading.

George Ovitt (4/7/14)

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