Salvaged Papers Shed Light on Blanchot
A page from Maurice Blanchot's corrected proofs of L'Entretien Infini, showing changes made by Blanchot. MS Fr 497. Purchased with the Class of 1952 Manuscript Fund, the Amy Lowell Trust, and the Patrick Grant Second Memorial Fund, 2009.
August 13, 2010 – As a novelist, literary theorist, journalist and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot (1907 – 2003) had a profound impact on the thinking of George Bataille, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida to name just a few. Until recently, however, it remained unclear how Blanchot's thinking had evolved over his lifetime. A famously reclusive figure in the literary world, it was believed Blanchot had destroyed most of his personal papers before his death.
With the Houghton Library's recent acquisition of corrected page proofs of Blanchot's major 1969 work L’Entretien Infini (The Infinite Conversation), however, scholars should soon be able to shed new light on Blanchot's changing political and literary attitudes.
The pages were purportedly salvaged from a rubbish bin by the husband of Blanchot’s long-time housekeeper, and contain numerous handwritten annotations by Blanchot, along with typewritten sheets inserted into the proofs – some of which consist of small slips taped over pages, while others are multiple pages in length.
The proofs, along with several other Blanchot corrected proofs, came up for sale in March 2009. Hoping the material might find an institutional home where it could be preserved and made accessible to scholars, Smith Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Professor of Comparative Literature Christie McDonald approached Leslie Morris, Houghton Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts with the idea of purchasing the items.
"While it is certainly true that Houghton did not have any holdings of Maurice Blanchot material before acquiring these corrected proofs, a faculty member was interested in this material, and we take what they are interested in seriously," Morris said. "So we pursued it, and with the help of a donor, we were able to combine funds and bring the material here."
Though the sale also included a number of other items, Morris said the L’Entretien Infini proofs were the most substantial from a research point of view.
"I am not an expert on Blanchot, but it was clear to me this was an object where there was a lot going on," she said. "In addition, I had a faculty member who was seriously interested in working on it, and having it at the university, and that was another compelling reason to acquire this material."
McDonald has already put the material to scholarly use, examining the pages for an article, co-authored by Morris, for The Romance Sphere, an online journal of Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.Written in the form of a dialog, the article traces the material’s provenance, and McDonald highlights three key changes Blanchot made to his original text.
Early in his career, McDonald writes in the article, Blanchot’s writings were fiercely nationalistic and supportive of right-wing political causes. By the late 1950s, however, his politics turned 180 degrees, and he became a major voice calling on France to recognize the right to independence in Algeria, denouncing the use of torture and was active in the May 1968 protests in Paris.
L’Entretien Infini was written between 1958 and 1969, just as Blanchot was moving to the left politically. Given that his political and literary thinking was evolving at the time, McDonald said, the proofs "afford a remarkable opportunity to track changes in Blanchot’s thought."
"Blanchot’s writing poses a challenge, not only because of the great paucity of material available, but also because he was reflecting theoretically on change even as he affected it in his writing: revising, adding, deleting," McDonald wrote in the journal article. "It was only when I looked at these proofs and reviewed some of the historical and critical literature, published in more recent years, that I began to understand how this work reflected change in Blanchot’s thought."
The material is also attracting interest among scholars outside Harvard. Shortly after acquiring the proofs, Morris said, a Ph.D. candidate in the United Kingdom traveled to Houghton to examine the pages, and other researchers have studied them in Houghton’s reading room.
"Blanchot is a figure who was somewhat reclusive and secretive during his life," Morris said. "For that reason, when this group of proofs came to the attention of the scholarly community, people were quite excited. The feeling was this may be the only thing that will show us how Blanchot assembled his work. Seeing that process will tell us something about how he works, and how his thought evolved from one period of life to another."