Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bryan Counter reviews Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative

Kevin Hart. Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative: Ethics of the Image. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. 254 pp.

Review by Bryan Counter

8 February 2024

In a recent guest appearance on the Hermitix podcast, Kevin Hart classifies Maurice Blanchot as “a hedgehog”—that is, a thinker with one major idea. “He’s got one or two big ideas, and he keeps going back to them. He may change his vocabulary every now and again, but he is concerned with this idea of the outside or the neutral, and that pretty much runs through all of his writing. So, when you’ve talked about one sector of Blanchot, as it were, you’ve generally talked about the whole thing.”[1] Blanchot does indeed have a few major ideas, but this is far from a shortcoming. Blanchot returns to these ideas repeatedly because they cannot be exhausted. And furthermore, with this book, Hart complicates the above statement: even if talking about one sector of Blanchot’s thought is to talk about the whole thing, there is still much to say. The Outside, in particular, which is one idea of Blanchot's that is present in much of Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative, is an “indistinct murmur in which words seem to be endlessly sifted” (p. 11). Clearly, the Outside is multifaceted and can be found in the experience of literature, suffering, community, or—somewhat problematically, as Hart clarifies in a later chapter—in extreme situations such as the death camps. The Outside is “an attunement of dread, to be sure, but one that is oriented to dying, not death” (p. 13)—that is, in part, an intransitive attunement. This is partly why Blanchot tends to prefer works that are “fragmentary or interminable,” all the while being more concerned with ontology than with form (p. 13). At any rate, if Blanchot is a hedgehog, it is because he has occupied himself with an idea that demands a repeated, prismatic approach, shifting slightly with each encounter along various philosophical, literary, or political coordinates.

For Hart, however, this does not mean that we must take those ideas or Blanchot's treatment of them at face value. For a long time, Blanchot’s thought did not garner much engagement. When it first began to, somewhat predictably, a large part of this engagement served to further mystify, by simply restating, Blanchot’s famously obscure and difficult ideas.[2] This still seems to be the case, as Hart laments in the introduction: “today some of Blanchot’s most fervent admirers . . . bow, if not kneel, when reading him” (p. 6). Importantly, Hart avoids this tendency by returning, often at length, to Blanchot’s sources, occasionally pointing out certain inconsistencies in Blanchot’s reading or thinking. For example, in the final section we get a notable and sustained critique of Blanchot vis-à-vis his discussion of the Outside in conjunction with the Shoah in L'Écriture du désastre (1980): “one would be well advised not to see there a convergence of the Outside and the Shoah but rather a diagnosis of the intellectual’s responsibility to think disaster” (p. 228). This is not to say that Hart is mainly critical of Blanchot, however; rather, he displays impressive clarity and even-handedness, and not at all the idolatry that characterizes those who bow (or kneel) while reading.

The chapters of this book, all of which have appeared previously in various journals and edited collections, are organized into four major sections, with the Outside as the theme that carries throughout. In what is perhaps the standout chapter, Hart conducts a careful reading of Thomas L’Obscur (1941), which was published first as a novel, and then in shortened form as a récit. Moving first through several potential connections—including Martin Heidegger, Hericlitus, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gérard de Nerval, Guy de Maupassant, and Joseph Conrad—Hart convincingly shows how each iteration of the text poses a series of searching questions about the nature of experience, while at the same time showing that, perhaps despite himself, Blanchot’s thought is remarkably coherent throughout his oeuvre, even while he “challenges the much-prized ‘unity of reason’ in the history of philosophy” (p. 137).

This book is an inquiry rather than a rundown or introduction, such an introduction being impossible. And yet, one gets from this book a strong sense of Blanchot’s thought and his placement among a unique cast of thinkers. Fitting for readers already familiar with the French writer, Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative will be of interest to readers curious to learn more about any of Blanchot’s various literary, philosophical, political, and theological influences and interlocutors. As Hart writes in an early chapter dealing with Blanchot’s reading of Stéphane Mallarmé, “in writing each author gives us the same sort of mental adventure, an autobiography without autobiography” (p. 30). This is Blanchot’s view of literature, but the same can also be said of the view of the thinker that emerges here through his critical engagements, even while it is, as Hart asserts of some of Blanchot’s claims, “if not opaque, then singular” (p. 5).


[1] Hermitix Podcast, “The Work of Maurice Blanchot with Kevin Hart.” YouTube, [url=][/url]

[2] See Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, trans. John McKeane (New York, 2019), pp. 365–68.