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Blanchot and Literary Criticism by Mark Hewson (review)

Barnaby Norman
Modernism/modernity, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2013, pp. 163-164
(Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/mod.2013.0006
For additional information about this article
Accessed 7 May 2014 23:02 GMT GMT
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mod/summary/v020/20.1.norman.html
book reviews
163 rendered an oddly static poet, and her 1965 poetry is read without any nuanced or discernible
difference from her 1976 work despite the fact that Knickerbocker had earlier correctly identi-
ed the process of change and ux that is central to Bishops The Monument from North &
South (1946). Plaths use of sound is rightly identied a strength in a number of her poems, but
here again a trick is missed: the same tendency clearly informs Dickinsons poetry (for instance,
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain or This World is not Conclusion). Had Knickerbocker joined
the poetic dots to form a wider and more intricate critical graph, his book would have yielded
fuller, more substantial, and more provocative arguments.
Note
1. Robert Frost, letter to John Bartlett, July 4, 1913, in Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Law-
rence Thompson (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 79.
Blanchot and Literary Criticism. Mark Hewson. London: Continuum, 2011.
Pp. xx + 150. $90.00 (cloth); $27.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Barnaby Norman, Kings College London
Blanchot and Literary Criticism is a series of studies that offers erudite analyses of several texts
in which Maurice Blanchot approaches works by modern writers. Hewson focuses primarily
on Blanchots writings published in the collections Faux pas (1943), La Part du feu (The Work
of Fire, 1949), LEspace littraire (The Space of Literature, 1955), and Le Livre venir (The
Book to Come, 1959), and in so doing he isolates the work that is most recognizably critical in its
approach. During the period covered by Hewson, Blanchot was also writing ctions, and from
the following collection of essays onwards (LEntretien inni; The Innite Conversation, 1969),
it is even more difcult to categorize Blanchots writing as it integrates sections of dialogue and
becomes increasingly concerned with its own fragmentation. After an initial chapter looking at
Blanchots understanding of modern literature, the second and third chapters analyze his read-
ings of Hlderlin and Mallarm respectively, and the fourth and fth chapters for the most part
provide an account of Blanchots thought as a counterpoint to Martin Heideggers.
Taken individually, Hewsons studies are models of good scholarship and often bring great
insight, albeit to quite familiar terrain. The individual studies of Blanchots work on Hlderlin
and Mallarm are extremely welcome additions to the eld and provide an excellent resource for
scholars seeking to orient themselves in these complex areas. The fourth chapter is perhaps the
high point of the work; Hewson ranges over a constellation of texts to present a supple analysis
of what Blanchot saw as the fundamental ambiguity of the negating power of language. In this
and the next chapter, Heideggers text is set beside Blanchots so that the two bodies of work
illuminate each other, yet neither is reduced to the other. Despite many good reasons to read
this book, however, there are still a couple of areas that I found problematic.
My major concern is the overall purpose of the book and the way its thesis is framed; it
constantly risks slipping into incoherence. The books title certainly announces an enormous
question: what relation does Blanchots work maintain with literary criticism? This is not, how-
ever, quite the question that Hewsons pieces ask, and he somewhat sidesteps it by pursuing a
derivative issue, asking why Blanchots work has not been more consistently taken up in literary
studies (see introduction). In the introduction, which joins the conclusion as one of the least
satisfying parts of the book, there is no indication of why he uses the term literary criticism in
M O D E R N I S M / mode r ni t y
164 his title. Where is this critical absence? In France, for example, it would be difcult to overstate
the extent of Blanchots inuence in thinking about literature in postwar scholarship. Blanchots
supposed absence from the eld of literary criticism has the feel of a false problem that has been
constructed to give the volume the role of mediating his writings to a larger public, or perhaps,
as I will suggest below (and the two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive), the title is a residue
from earlier thinking about the work, thinking that became less and less tenable as the research
progressed. The key issue, I would suggest, is not so much a simple absence in the eld, but
the innitely complex relation between Blanchots work and the discipline of literary criticism.
The question of that relation is something that Blanchot reects on. In the famous note at
the beginning of LEntretien inni, he speaks of the Book and of its supersession by a kind of
writing for which the name Mallarm stands as an index. The reader understands that Blan-
chots work is itself implied in this movement beyond the Book, a movement that, according
to Hewson, always indicates an order that submits to unity, a system of notions in which are
afrmed the primacy of speech over writing, of thought over language, and the promise of a
communication that would one day be immediate and transparent.
1
This order, this culture of
the Book, would include within it literary criticism to the extent that it has not been opened up
by writing as analyzed by Blanchot. Hewson himself glosses the Book as the work as known
and appreciated in the element of scholarship and culture (125), and he directly discusses the
note to LEntretien inni in the Mallarm chapter (65), but he nevertheless argues for a place
for Blanchots discourse within literary studies even as such an inclusion is resisted by the texts
themselves (as they mark a radical departure from the culture of the Book).
Even if this (impossible) relation does not become the theme of an extended analysis in
Blanchot and Literary Criticism, there is a certain slippage of terminology when the text
broaches the subject. At the beginning of the second chapter, we read the following: In order
for Blanchots work to be productively questioned and appropriated within literary studies, it
is rst necessary to decide to what extent his work belongs to this discipline (21). The chapter
concludes that Blanchots criticism in fact begins to leave the discipline; Blanchot decides to
move away from the discursive eld of research and towards a more poetic commentary. If
Blanchots text does take this radical step beyond the discipline, then the question is not how
it will be appropriated by that discipline but (more interestingly) the extent to which it can be
appropriated at all. So in the following chapter, when Hewson discusses the degree to which
Blanchot has followed Heidegger into an essential questioning of being, he now suggests that
it is only by thinking through this movement that one can negotiate the extreme difculty of
situating Blanchots work in relation to theory and criticism (58, my emphasis). Finally, at the
end of the fourth chapter, as Hewson concludes his excellent analysis of the ambiguity of the
negative, he writes that this is one of the points at which literary studies would have to engage
with Blanchots work, if it is to encounter it at all (102, my emphasis). We note a movement
from a calculated appropriation, through a more nuanced situating, and ending up in a barely
hoped-for encounter. It is as though in the course of the writing the very notion of absorbing
Blanchots work into the eld of literary criticism became increasingly hard to entertain.
The difculty about this book is that it argues for a place for Blanchots work within literary
criticism and then, through the movement of its own argument, reveals an absolute resistance
to such disciplinary appropriation. And it appears, for this reason, as an incoherent work. But
then this might be the mark of a genuine piece of research.
Note
1. Maurice Blanchot, The Innite Conversation, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2003), xii.