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Three Readers of Maurice Blanchot: Derrida, Foucault and Levinas

Frédéric Wang, ENS LSH

The names of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas are well known
for Chinese intelligentsia. Levinas was the first French philosopher to introduce in France
Husserl and Heidegger. Foucault’s system of thoughts covers a wide range of human and
social sciences. But his earlier researches concerned psychological and psychiatric analysis.
Derrida began also his philosophical studies from phenomenology and translated Husserl’
Origin of Geometry. He was very interested in linguistic and literary problems. All of them
remain very influencing in present French philosophy and social sciences. They were very
attentive readers of Maurice Blanchot’s works.
Blanchot devoted all his life to literature and his literary principle: silence. As many of his
contemporaries, Blanchot participated in political and journalistic activities of Extreme-Right
when he was young. This is why some French intellectuals or journalists are very critical of
his past. Since 1940, Blanchot defended humanistic values. Even though he did not agree with
Sartre’s political view of the engagement, he opposed to colonialism (war of Algeria),
dictatorship (May 68) and war (ex-Yugoslavia).
I have presented in Chinese his literary conception in China Scholarship (n°3, 2003, p.
240-256). My topic in this paper will be centred on the relationship between these three
philosophers and Blanchot. I try to pay more attention to some postmodern notions and the
conception of literary gender carried out especially by Derrida.
I. Levinas and Blanchot

Let me start with Levinas who was more than twenty years older than Foucault and
Derrida. As Blanchot, Levinas was born in 1907. They studied together in Strasbourg at
department of philosophy from 1923 to 1925. A very rare photo of Blanchot shows him in
company of Levinas and others. Blanchot had two close friends: Georges Bataille and Levinas.
The later was the unique friend with whom he used the “tutoiement” and not the
“vouvoiement”. This reminds us of Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie. Montaigne wrote
in his Essays: « Friendship means for me two souls so perfectly joined that no seam can be
perceived. If I am pressed to tell you the reason of my attachment, I would respond that
because it was him, and it was me » 1 . In fact, the relation between “I” and “he” or the “other”
is the beginning of Levinas’s ethics.

Levinas’s comments about Blanchot were assembled and published in a book with the title
Sur Marurice Blanchot (On Maurice Blanchot) (Montpellier: Fata-Morgana, 1975). The book
is comprised of three articles (“Le regard du poète” [The poet’s gaze], first publication in the
journal Nouveau monde [New World], 1956, n° 3, “La servante et le maître » [The servant
and the master], Critique, 1966, n° 229, and « Exercices sur La folie du jour » [Exercises on
The Madness of the Day]) and one talk with André Delmas. In the « Le regard du poète »,
Levinas points out the difference between Blanchot and Heidegger:

1
Livre I, Quadrige / PUF, 1965, p. 188.

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“The approach that dominates the latest philosophy of Heidegger is to interpret the main
forms of human activity - art, technology, science, economy - as patterns of the truth (or his
forgetfulness). Walking to meet this truth, the answer to the call, involve for Heidegger in the
paths of wandering; « Being » is immediately his concealment. These show a very close
proximity between Heideggerian notion of Being and the realization of unreality, the presence
of absence, the existence of nothing that, according to Blanchot, the artwork, the poem allow
to say. But for Heidegger, the truth - a crucial unveiling - determines any wandering, this is
why any human can be said ultimately in terms of truth, be described as "unveiling of being."
For Blanchot, the oeuvre discovers - a discovery that is not truth – the darkness. [...]: an
absolutely exterior darkness over which no control is possible. Like in a desert you can not
find homes. From the bottom of the sedentary existence rises a memory of nomadic. The
nomadism is not a resident’s state. It is an irreducible report with the land: a free stay.” 2

The argument of Levinas is very pertinent, because Heidegger from the Poetic Journey
tries to reach the essential of existence, but Blanchot did the contrary: He refuses the
hypothesis of Truth, and thus the literature loses the horizon of existence. That is also the
difference between Heidegger and Levinas himself. The reason is probably linked to his
proper experience of exile: Levinas was born in Leetonia that he leaved for Russia during the
period of the First World War. He moved out again from Russia, during the Revolution of
October 1919, to Strasbourg (France). In the Second World War, he was captured by Germans
and passed almost all of this period in prison. His interest in Blanchot’s writing is not only
due to their friendship but also to the political, historical and philosophical background. When
Levinas was young, he was fascinated by Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev and
Dostoevsky. Many heroes in their fictions seemed to him real researchers of fundamental
questions of philosophy. He found a continuation of this type of questioning in Blanchot’s
works.

In the preface of his De l’existence à l’existant (Paris: Vrin, 2e Édition, 1986,first


edition in 1947), Levinas tries to explain his fundamental concept “il y a” (there is) and writes
in a note: “The beginning of Thomas l’Obscur by Maurice Blanchot is a description of ‘il y a’
(espicialy chapiter 2, pages 13-16). The presence of absence, the night, the dissolution of
subject, the pang of existence, the return of existence to any mouvment of negation, all is
admirativly expressed.” (2nd edition, p. 103) Meanwhile, Blanchot declares that the Levinas’s
“il y a” is the most fascinating topic. What is the real meaning of “il y a”? Levinas defines it
as follows:

“A denial which would like to be absolute, denying any existant until this of the thought
that brings about the denial, could not put an end to the "scene" whichi remains always open

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« La démarche qui domine la dernière philosophie de Heidegger consiste à interpréter les formes
essentielles de l’activité humaine – art, technique, science, économie, - comme des modes de la vérité (ou de son
oubli). Que la marche à la rencontre de cette vérité, la réponse donnée à l’appel, s’engage pour Heidegger dans
les chemins de l’errance et que l’être en soit aussitôt la dissimulation, tout cela témoigne d’une proximité très
grande entre la notion heideggerienne de l’être et cette réalisation de l’irréalité, cette présence de l’absence, cette
existence du néant que, d’après Blanchot, l’oeuvre d’art, le poème laisse dire. Mais pour Heidegger la vérité – un
dévoilement primordial – conditionne toute errance et c’est pourquoi tout l’humain peut se dire en fin de compte
en termes de vérité, se décrire comme “dévoilement de l’être”. Chez Blanchot, l’oeuvre découvre, d’une
découverte qui n’est pas vérité, une obscurité. [...]: obscurité absolument extérieure sur laquelle aucune prise
n’est possible. Comme dans un désert on ne peut y trouver domicile. Du fond de l’existence sédentaire se lève un
souvenir de nomade. Le nomadisme n’est pas une approche de l’état sédentaire. Il est un rapport irréductible
avec la terre: un séjour sans lieu. »

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to the « Being », « Being » in its verbal sense : an anonymous Being [être] that no being
[étant] wants to claim, a Being without being or without Beings, incessant ‘stir’ to borrow a
metaphor of Blanchot, impersonal « il y a », as a 'it's raining' or 'it is night’. It is a term
fundamentally distinct from the Heideggerian ‘es gibt’. It was neither tradition nor distinction
of the German expression with its connotations of abundance and generosity.” 3

We know that the notional couple Being / being (être / étant) is not separable for
Heidegger. Levinas makes this separation possible. In doing so, he challenges the notion of
“hypostasis”, “the contrat bewteen Being and being”. But how to ovecome this “horrible” “il
y a”, this existence without existants, Levinas points out the road to follow: Being – being –
other. This does not signify that Levinas will speak in praise of the subject, the “being” or the
ego. In contrary, what he wants is that the subject should put down or de-pose his
“sovereignty”. In anothers words, the subject must enter into the relationship of
“desinterestedness”, a responsibility of the other or “being-for-other” (Ethique et infini, Paris,
Fayard, p. 42-43). This responsibility for the other has no additional conditions, has noting to
do with historical, ethenical or political contexts. For Levinas, to be liberated from “il y a”
means the quest for the sagehood. Levinas’s “il y a” is very influencing for Blanchot’s
“Neutre”. Since I have explained this concept elsewhere, here I juste mension that “neutre”
can be pronouced in French as “ne” “être”. Blanchot takes distance from Heidegger’s
ontology throught the notion of neutre, to that he does not deduce a general ethics – this is the
difference bewteen him and Levinas -, but Blanchot develops a real theory on friendiship. He
says in Pour l’amitié (Fourbis, 1996, firstly published as pre-text for Dionys Mascolo’s A la
recherche d’un communisme de pensée, Fourbis, 1993):

“The Greek philia is reciprocity, exchange of the Same with the Same, but never openness
to the Other, discovery of the other as responsible of himself, his recognition of the pre-
excellence, arousal and sobering from the other who never leaves me quiet, enjoyment (not
concupiscence, as Pascal said) of its height, which makes it increasingly closer to goodness
than to me.
This is my salvation to Emmanuel Levinas, the only friend - ah, distant friend – to whom I
address as “tu” and who address me as “tu”, this has taken place, not because we were young,
but by a deliberate decision, a pact which I hoped never miss.” 4

This pact is qulified by Derrida as a “blessing of our time” (Adieu Emmanuel Levinas,
Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne BRRAULT & Michael Naas, Stanford
University Press, 1999).

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« Une négation qui se voudrait absolue, niant tout existant – jusqu’à l’existant qu’est la pensée effectuant cette
négation même – ne saurait mettre fin à la “scène” toujours ouverte de l’être, de l’être au sens verbal: être
anonyme qu’aucun étant ne revendique, être sans étant ou sans êtres, incessant ‘remue-ménage’ pour reprendre
une métaphore de Blanchot, il y a impersonnel, comme un ‘il pleut’ ou un ‘il fait nuit’. Terme foncièrement
distinct du ‘es gibt’ heideggerien. Il n’a jamais été ni la tradition, ni la démarque de l’expression allemande et de
ses connotations d’abondance et de générosité. »

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« La philia grecque est réciprocité, échange du Même avec le Même, mais jamais ouverture à l’Autre,
découverte d’Autrui en tant que responsable de lui, reconnaissance de la pré-excellence, éveil et dégrisement par
cet Autrui qui ne me laisse jamais tranquille, jouissance (sans concupiscence, comme dit Pascal) de sa Hauteur,
de ce qui le rend toujours plus près du Bien que ‘moi’.
C’est là mon salut à Emmanuel Levinas, le seul ami – ah, ami lointain – que je tutoie et qui me tutoie; cela est
arrivé, non pas parce que nous étions jeunes, mais par une décision délibérée, un pacte auquel j’espère ne jamais
manquer. »

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II. Blanchot’s reading by Foucault

Foucault’s “Thought from outside” was published in June 1966 in a special number of
Critique devoted to Maurice Blanchot. Foucault notices the tension between “I think” and “I
say”:

“'I say' functions as the countdown of 'I think'. The later in fact led to the undoubted
certainty of ‘I’ and its existence; the former on the contrary moves back, disperse, clears the
existence and suggests his empty site. A broader tradition than philosophy has taught us that
the “thought of thought” drove us to the deepest interiority. The “speech of speech” leads us
through literature, but perhaps also by other routes, to the outside where disappears the
subject of enunciation. No doubt this is why the Western reflexion has so long hesitated to
think about the Being of language: as if it had sensed the danger of an bare experience of
language for the evidence of 'I am'. " 5

Foucault goes back to Sade, Hölderlin for an illustration of this “Thought from outside”
represented in modern times by Artaud, Klossowski through Nietzsche, Mallarmé. It is
paralleled to Kant and Hegel’s interiorization of the subjectivity. According to Foucault,
Blanchot is not a simple witness, but an actor of this thought. But Blanchot’s language is not a
dialectical one, because the dialectical negation depends always on an inner space. Blanchot’s
negation conduces constantly his discourse to outside. It denies not only the content of his
discourse but also the faculty of the enunciation. Foucault draws parallels between Blanchot’s
“fascination”, Sade’s “desire”, Nietzsche’s “force”, Artaud’s “materiality of thought” and
Bataille’s “transgression”. All theses things belong to a pure experience of outside. But, the
seduction in Blanchot’s works is not found on any charm and does not break his relationship
with the solitude. In summer, it does not imply any positive exchange. This is why my
“companion” does not really accompany me. We know that Blanchot’s “fascination” comes
from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice is condemned to remain unseen. She
cannot neither see the light of day nor encounter the gaze of Orpheus. Many personages in
Blanchot’s works are forbidden to support the face-to-face. What Foucault calls “absence de
l’oeuvre” (absence of work) as well as Blanchot’s “désoeuvrement” and Derrida’s
deconstruction can be included into a same paradigm, or “episteme” as Foucault said.

But Foucault is not satisfied with exploring only the tension between “I think” and “I say”.
He wants to lay out a personal way of thinking through his reading of Blanchot. Gilles
Deleuze comments the “meeting” of their thought as follows: “If looking and saying are two
forms of exteriority, thinking addresses to an outside without forms”. It means that the
thinking should be operated for Foucault in the interstice between looking and saying. In
Pourparlers, Deleuze points out another influence of Blanchot on Foucault: the use of 3th
person: “he”, “it” or French “On”, signs of linguistic un-personnification. In this sense, Gao
Xingjian, a contemporary Chinese writer, prefers also Chinese “ta” (he) to “wo” (I) in his
novel as Lingshan (Soul Moutain)

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« … c’est que ‘je parle’ fonctionne comme au rebours du ‘je pense’. Celui-ci conduisait en effet à la certitude
indubitable du Je et de son existence; celui-là au contraire recule, disperse, efface cette existence et n’en laisse
apparaître que l’emplacement vide. La pensée de la pensée, toute une tradition plus large encore que la
philosophie nous a appris qu’elle nous conduisait à l’intériorité la plus profonde. La parole de la parole nous
mène par la littérature, mais peut-être aussi par d’autres chemins, à ce dehors où disparaît le sujet qui parle. Sans
doute est-ce pour cette raison que la réflexion occidentale a si longtemps hésité à penser l’être du langage:
comme si elle avait pressenti le danger que ferait courir à l’évidence du ‘je suis’ l’expérience nue du langage. »

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For his part, Blanchot wrote an essay on Foucault: Michel Foucault tel que je l’imagine,
Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1986 (Michel Foucault as I imagine him. Translated by Jeffrey
Mehlman, In Foucault/Blanchot. New York: Zone Books, 1987). Blanchot said that he met
Foucault in 1968 at a court of Sorbonne. But Foucualt did not know his interlocutor was
Blanchot whom he dreamed to be some years ago. Blanchot remembes that he read Foucault’s
manuscript of Folie et déraison, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Insanity:
History of Madness in the Classical Age) transmetted by Roger Caillois, Gallimard’s editor.
The manuscript will be published by Plon before it was accepted by Galliamrd in 1966.
Blanchot comments Foucault’s style in the following passage :

“Seemingly contradictory qualities of Foucault’s style, with its splendour and precision,
left him [Roger Caillois] perplexed. He did not know whether this great baroque style does
not ruin the singular knowledge whose multiple characters - philosophical, sociological,
historical - troubled and extolled him together.” 6

Concerning Foucault’s utterance (“énoncé”) in his Archaeology of Knowledge


(L’archéologie du savoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1969), Blanchot says that it is serial, with the
essence of the power to repeat itself. While constituting with others series, it forms a painting.
Otherwise, it is “obviously comparable to perverse attempts (Thomas Man) of the serial
music”. We know through Roger Laporte that Blanchot played piano with Mozart’s smiling
(Ralentir travaux, hier 1997, n° 7, p. 75). This explains the reason that he appreciated musical
and pictorial effects in Foucault’s writting. Blanchot continues: “Did he not entrusted to
Lucette Finas: 'I have never written anything other than fiction, and I am fully aware'? In
other words, I am a fabulist writing fables which it would be imprudent to expect moralities.
But Foucault would not be Foucault, if he did not moderate and correct his tone at once: 'But I
think it is possible to operate fictions within the truth.’ Thus, the concept of truth is not
dismissed, nor is lost sight of the idea of the topic or question on the formation of man as
subject.” 7 As noticed by Blanchot, the last Foucuault payed more attention to the culture of
self, to the practices of subject.

One year afer the publication of “The thought from outside”, Foucault pronouced a
famous conference entitled “On Other Sapce. Heterotopias” (“Des espaces autres.
Hétérotopies”, 1967, published by the French journal Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité,
1984). In this lecture, Foucault describes the differnce between “Utopias” and “Heterotopias”.
“Utopias are sites without real place” but heterotopias are imaginary and real spaces, as a
piece of children’s games, a theatre. They are also used for separation as cemetery, a refuge.
These spaces have negative or marginal aspects in a society. Another type of heterotopias is
congenital anomaly. The relationship between utopias and heterotopias is similar to these of
centre vs margin, of inside vs outside. Foucault’s philosophical system is devoted to a general
theory of heterotopias: heterotopology. The themes of such a work are not fundamentally

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« Le style de Foucault, par sa splendeur et sa précision, qualités apparemment contradictoires, le laissa
perplexe. Il ne savait pas si ce grand style baroque ne ruinait pas le savoir singulier dont les caractères multiples,
philosophique, sociologique, historique, l’embarrassaient et l’exaltaient. »
7
« N’a-t-il pas confié à Lucette Finas: ‘Je n’ai jamais écrit rien d’autre que des fictions et j’en suis parfaitement
conscient’? Autrement dit, je suis un fabuliste rédigeant des fables dont il serait imprudent d’attendre des
moralités. Mais Foucault ne serait pas Foucault, s’il ne corrigeait ou ne nuançait sur-le-champ: ‘Mais je crois
qu’il est possible de faire fonctionner des fictions à l’intérieur de la vérité.’ Ainsi la notion de vérité n’est
nullement congédiée, pas plus que n’est perdue de vue l’idée de sujet ou l’interrogation sur la constitution de
l’homme comme sujet. »

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different from these of Blanchot’s oeuvre. Foucault adheres consequently to the same
“Thought from outside”.

III. Derrida’s reading of Blanchot

Derrida’s philosophical view was influenced essentially by Heidegger, Levinas and


Blanchot. He devoted two books exclusively to Blanchot: Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986) and
Demeure Maurice Blanchot (Paris: Galilée, 1998). Two men met each other in 1968.
Objectively, Derrida was more concerned by literature. His work can be read as literary
critique. Staring from 1972 he received increasing recognition among scholars in the United
States, more in the field of Literary Criticism than Philosophy. He played often on words in
his writing. For instance, in a book devoted to the poet Francis Ponge entitled Signéponge
(Columbia University Press, 1984; Éditions du Seuil, 1988), we can translate the title as
“Signsponge”, “sign and Ponge”, “sign and sponge” or “sign sponges” and so on. In his
introduction to Parages, he notes different significant components of the title pa,par,
para,ra,rage,age to show his polysemy. The last part of this book, The Law of Gender
(La loi du genre), is a conference’s lecture given in 1979 at University of Strasbourg. Derrida
analysis for beginning the distinction made by Gérard Genette about “gender” and “mode”
and poses the question of ambiguity of some texts. Then he takes an example of Blanchot’s
La folie du jour (The Madness of the Day) . Derrida proposes a following hypothesis: “A text
cannot belong to any gender. All texts can have proprieties of one or several genders. There is
no text without gender. But the propriety is not a belonging” (p. 264).

Derrida’s questioning deals with the mention of “récit” appeared when the texte of
Blanchot was published in the journal Empédocle (May 1949). In the front page of the journal,
we can read “Maurice Blanchot Récit?”. Il becomes in the sommery “Maurice Blanchot
Récit” without the question mark. In the text itself, there is another changement: “Récit Par
Maurice Blanchot”. In the second edition of the text by Fata-Morgana in 1973, the mention
“récit” diappeares, even though on the last two passagraphes, five reccurences of this word
recall us it’s importance. And le txte ends by this sentence: “A récit? No, not récit, never.”
The “récit” signifies story or a narrative work. Il can be a fiction or a testimony. For Derrida,
“It is impossible to decide if the récit has taken place because the man who can hardly say "I"
and to constitute itself as narrator shows that he has been unable to tell exactly what’s
happening. ” (p. 272). It is said in the last page of Parages : « Historically the gender of all
genders has been able to play the role of the principle of order : likeness, analogy, identity and
difference, taxonomic classification, rasons order, a sense of meaning and the truth of truth,
natural light and sense of history. But the test of a récit? gave birth to the folly of gender. She
(he) gave birth to its most dazzling, the most blinding of the word”. Derrida’s conclusion
means that Blanchot’s « Madness of the day » is a Madness of gender, of law (light). This is
also the meaning of Parages : Margins. And Derrida himself works in the margins between
literature and philosophy. The relationship between fiction and testimony in Blanchot’s
writting continues to be discussed in Demeure Maurice Blanchot.

This book is a comment on Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death (L’instant de mort),


published by Fata Morgana in 1994. In this text, the narrator « I » tells a story of a young man
who was captured at his home by German solders at the end of the Second World War. At this
time, his comrades of the Resistance lunched an attack. When the German lieutenant moved
away for accounting for the situation, one of his soldiers, a Russian (anciently belonged to
Vlassov) told him to run away. Then, he disappeared in the forest. For these who know
Blanchot, this text is a kind of autobiography, a testimony. But the narrator « I » tells a story

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of a young man. It’s also a fiction. Derrida says: “I do not know if it belongs or not, in a pure
and clean, strict and rigorous manner, to the space of literature, whether it's a fiction or a
testimony, and especially the extent to which it calls into question or shook those shares.”
Derrida makes a very attentive lecture of The Instant of My Death, his main concerns are just
the themes on fiction and testimony. For the conception of fiction, Derrida refers to a passage
of The writing of disaster of Blanchot : “The death impossible necessary: why these words
[death impossible necessary, therefore] – and untested experience to which they refer - they
are beyond the comprehension? Why this clash, this rejection? Why delete them in making
them an author’s own fiction? ” 8 Derrida comments this passage: “What this witness of fiction
paralyses is the concept of a singular ‘untested experience'. In fact, nothing seems more
absurd for a common sense than an ‘untested experience’. But anyone who does not try to
think and read what such a phrase introduces of fiction and thus of literature in the sense of
truest testimony do not begin to read and hear Blanchot.” 9 In fact, phrases as “untested
experience” are not rare in Blanchot’s works. They are effects of « Neutre ». In some sense,
an « untested experience » is the experience of Literature which is always an living or testing
experience. Derrida was very modest towards the literature: “Nothing is for me so far from
than that new and incomprehensible thing called literature” (P. 17) For Adorno, the domain
of literature is not a philosophical or sociological application. It is the knowledge of
philosophy and society, because it has an epistemological role. At this point, Derrida remains
faithful to the tradition of School of Frankfort.

I have above discussed the relationship of three contemporary French philosophers with
Maurice Blanchot. In on hand, Blanchot’s writing provides us the materials of reflexion about
the ambiguity of gender, in other hand, the interest that these philosophers deal with him
shows also his importance. Although Blanchot does not have many readers, his work is a must
for the greatest writers and philosophers.
Since modern times, many French philosophers have literary talent, as like as Descartes,
Malebranche, Maine de Biran, Auguste Conte. Our three philosophers, especially Foucault
and Derrida were gifted in writing style.
The relationship between these philosophers is more complex. Derrida was very respectful
to Levinas. He wrote « Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas » when the later dead. Nevertheless, he
had a intellectual dispute with Foucualt during 15 years. The reason is their different
interpretation about Descartes’s Meditations.
Some post-modern concepts I evoked above have already a long history. Nowadays, are
they also modern? I finish my talk by a quotation of Su Tong who says: “a real avant-garde
remains as before”.

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« La mort impossible : pourquoi ces mots [la mort impossible nécessaire, donc] – et l’expérience inéprouvée à
laquelle ils se réfèrent – échappent-ils à la compréhension ? Pourquoi ce heurt, ce refus ? Pourquoi les effacer en
en faisant une fiction propre à un auteur ? » (p. 110)
9
« Ce qui transit ce témoignage de fiction, c’est donc le concept singulier d’une ‘expérience inéprouvé’. Rien ne
semble plus absurde, pour le bon sens même, en effet, qu’une expérience inéprouvée. Mais quiconque ne
cherche pas à penser et à lire ce qu’un tel syntagme introduit de fiction et donc de littérature dans le témoignage
le plus authentique n’aura pas commencé à lire et à entendre Blanchot. » (p. 57)