On one of the freshly printed copies of his first book, the then thirty-four-year-old Maurice Blanchot wrote this singular autograph dedication to the publisher: «for GG, a book intended to exclude every reader». We are in September 1941, in France occupied by the German army: the publisher is Gaston Gallimard, the volume in question – a “novel”, reads the cover – is Thomas the Obscur.
The dedication can give an idea of the reasons that made the translations of the book late – in English in 1973, in Spanish in 1982, in German in 2007, only today in Italian – Thomas the Dark (translation by F. Fogliotti, the Assayer, p. 139, € 18.00) – despite the fact that during the second half of the twentieth century a large circle of illustrious readers – from Bataille to Levinas, from Char to Godard, from Michaux to Klossowski, up to Foucault and Derrida – had expressed their appreciation for the anticipation of themes and meaning of all of Blanchot’s subsequent work, both literary and philosophical. Those readers stressed, the experimental character of a writing that attempted, as Starobinski expressed it, to “give a glimpse of a new universality”, more original than that of thought, placed at its root.
Between doubts, renunciations, resumptions, Blanchot had worked on the book for eight years, starting in 1932, producing half a dozen different editions, and arriving at an awareness of the final outcome as evidenced by the dedication to the publisher. The very first reactions of the critics testify to the disorientation aroused by what appeared to be the figuration of the solitary destiny of a body in its encounter with death. Thomas the Dark recounts the crossing, by the protagonist, of strange experiences of depersonalization and metamorphosis (from time to time a monstrous amoeba, a spider, a dark angel, a wall, an unlocatable voice, and more), which prelude to reconfiguration of the identity consistency of the character, who comes to say that he is not «real except under the name of death», rather than «have only death as an anthropometric index».
Top notch text density and almost devoid of a narrative voice, Thomas the Dark has one a form so atypical as to escape any attempt to exhaust it in a single analysis. Completely stripped of psychological elements, this anti-realist novel – which however cannot be qualified as “fantastic” or as “metaphysical” – renounces to stipulate any “reading agreement”, subjecting the language to extreme tension, and immersing the reader in a menacing, heavy atmosphere populated by terrible and unknown forces. The criticism of the time practiced formulas – «a book made at night», «a song in a world without air», the exposition of a «blind spot» of the human mind, the indication of «future contradictions of thought» – which denounced disturbance and bewilderment (and sometimes resentment), in some cases accompanying them to references to Lautrémont and Rilke.
In the following years Blanchot published two more novels – Aminadab And The Most High – a collection of literary studies, Misstepsand two of his most intense and dizzying short stories – “The Death Sentence” and “The Madness of the Day” – and almost a decade after his debut, in 1950, handed the publisher a new version of Thomas the Dark, the definitive one, then refusing more he resumed republishing the original version (the choice of the Italian publisher to translate this 1950 edition is therefore acceptable). In the new version, which no longer carried the mention “novel” on the cover, Blanchot eliminated about three-quarters of the text, leaving the rest almost intact, which revealed, by subtraction, the essentials of the 1941 version. Even more stripped of anecdotal elements and references to specific places and times, the text we read today is a recit which launches a real challenge to the reader, inviting him to take a path that leads out of the literary imagination.
Contesting the logic of representation, and exploring the limits of narrative techniques, Thomas the Dark seeks, like other works of 20th-century avant-garde literature, to convey an experience of alienation; but it is perhaps the first text that instead of merely evoking this extraneousness as the experience of a character in the world of fiction, try to inscribe it in the relationship that the reader establishes with the material fabric of the words and with their succession. The usual ways of organizing our thought, and our own linguistic conventions, the identification of things through a use of words capable of establishing diversities, frontiers, limits, distinctions between them, are profoundly destabilized by the experiments carried out by the text . Using a complex system of oxymorons, hyperbole, adynataepanorthosis, logical aporias, abstractions, e establishing a reciprocal porosity between bodies, realities, concepts, Thomas the Dark it suspends habitual demarcations and puts it in contact what we usually keep distinct and separate.
Everything is fine action appears reversible, spaces are defigured to the point of indistinction, the naming of the great physical and metaphysical polarities – inside and outside, dead and alive, organic and inorganic, stillness and movement, passive and active, self and others, finite and infinite, being and nothing – are brought back to an unsettling simultaneity. Some examples, among the many possible ones: “he was, in death itself, deprived of death”; «he made the absence of vision the culminating point of his gaze»; «it was narrowed by the very absence of limits»; «The only possibility of reducing the distance that separates us would be to distance myself infinitely». Blanchot arrives so to revoke the adequacy of the concepts we use in our reading of the worldputting their interpretation skills on hold, and exhibiting a harsh and elusive real, already always present and at the same time again and again elusive.
While it indicates the very reality of things, writing denies them the status of stable and acquired perceptual elaborations. And he takes note, rather, of the capacity of the real – «that which lacks nothing», as defined by Lacan, another of the great readers of Thomas The Dark One – to go beyond meanings, symbols, images.
As for Blanchot’s subsequent works, here the experience of writing, what for it is truly “real”, breaking into the plot of given meanings, contests their claim to convey a sense, to certify their origins, to certify transcendence and immanence. Already for the author of Thomas the Dark only an art of discourse can take charge of this which, abandoning to their meager historical fate the literary practices conniving with outdated projects and values, shows itself capable of transmitting those experiences of estrangement, impersonality, suffering to which, in ways bordering on sayable, the men of our time are exposed.