Aminadab OR Must Irrealism be Existentialist?

[posted by Greg]

To have a chance at long last to read Maurice Blanchot’s novel Aminadab was something of an event for us. Long ago, when we were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came across a review of Aminadab by John-Paul Sartre titled, “Aminadab or the Fantastic Considered as a Language.” The influence of Sartre’s review, also a polemic on Kafka’s work, is easy to spot in our publication: a citation from it serves as a preamble on our homepage and, indeed, the setting that Sartre uses in that citation helps explain why we are the “Cafe” Irreal even though we serve no food or drinks. At the time we were getting The Cafe Irreal into gear, however, Aminadab was not available in English translation; the part of Sartre’s review/essay that addressed Blanchot’s novel, therefore, was all we knew about the novel. In 2002, however, an English translation appeared and in 2010 we finally learned of it and read the book. Though this review has been a long time in coming, it will remain a preliminary one as the book will require another reading.

Based on this first reading, I would agree with translator Jeff Fort’s opening words to his introduction, in which he states that “this is a strange book.” Not specifically, however, for the reason that he gives (though it is no doubt true), i.e., that “strangeness is the very element in which [Blanchot’s narrative] works move and unfold,” nor because of Blanchot’s tendency to “dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions.” Nor, for that matter, as an irrealist, did I find the Kafkan setting and structure of Aminadab strange. What I found strange and challenging about this novel, and ultimately unsuccessful, was Blanchot’s appropriation of Kafkan conventions and structures without an existential agent to inhabit them. Thus, the work starts out quite enticingly with Thomas, the protagonist, arriving in an unidentified village, making his way through a sparsely described but intriguing street and, upon seeing a woman seemingly signal to him from an upper window of a boarding house, deciding to enter the building and look for her. The rest of the novel is about that search, and all the difficulties that he has reaching her. This, of course, has obvious parallels with the plot outlines of Kafka’s The Castle. Indeed, in comparing the two novels Sartre writes that Kafka had perfected the technique in that work, in that “the hero himself is fantastic. We know nothing about this surveyor whose adventures and views we share. We know nothing except his incomprehensible obstinacy in remaining in a forbidden village. To attain this end, he sacrifices everything; he treats himself as a means. But we never know the value this end had for him and whether it was worth so much effort. M. Blanchot has adopted the same method; his Thomas is no less mysterious than the servants in the building. We do not know where he comes from, nor why he persists in reaching the woman who has signaled to him.” (p. 65)

Having now read Aminadab for myself, I have to question whether this parallel holds. There was, that is to say, an imperative to K.’s claim that he was a land surveyor; first of all, he might actually have been the “Land Surveyor whom the Count is expecting” that he claims to be in the novel’s opening pages and, secondly, even if not, even if his claim, which sets him on that uncertain trajectory toward the Castle, isn’t true, it is a claim that he makes under obvious duress, under threat of being forced to “quit the Count’s territory at once,” that is, being forced out of the inn and into the snowy night with nowhere to sleep. This is far different from the apparent motivation of Thomas, who sees the woman make “a quick sign with her hand, like an invitation; then she quickly closed the window…Thomas was quite perplexed. Could he consider this gesture truly as a call to him? It was rather a sign of friendship than an invitation. It was also a sort of dismissal. He hesitated. Looking again in the direction of the shop, he realized that the man who was sweeping had gone back inside as well. This reminded him of his first plan. But then he thought that he would always have time to carry it out later, and he decided to cross the street and enter the house.”

Thus, it is a matter of curiosity and momentary whim, perhaps additionally encouraged by a vague sense that he knows the woman, that inspires his journey; indeed the journey itself is often a series of discourses as he tries to clarify the laws of the house and his status in relation to them, discourses which are complemented by the “endless commentaries” of the various characters in the novel, with their “unreliable and conflicting clarifications,” as Fort puts it. With these, he adds, the novel “enters into its most singular and proper mode,” (xiv), one which would seem to suggest Blanchot’s later works, which “gradually dispense with all recognizable narrative conventions and constantly verge toward the rarefied disappearance of the voice that proffers them.” (vii)

All of this leaves Aminadab with a floating quality, an endeavor undertaken out of a vague curiosity and compulsion and which continues on more or less on the same basis, which then turns into an extended discourse which offers us, as Sartre complains, “a continual translation, a full commentary on its symbols.” (Sartre, p. 70) One example of this that is particularly striking occurs in the novel’s final pages, when the woman says to Thomas that “this night has its particularities. It brings with it neither dreams nor the premonitions that, at times, take the place of dreams. Rather it is itself a vast dream that is not within reach of the person it envelopes. When it has surrounded your bed, we will draw the curtains that enclose the alcove, and the splendor of the objects that will then be revealed will be enough to console the most unhappy of men. At that moment, I too will become truly beautiful…” (p.196)

In The Castle, on the other hand, K. is clearly a person with a desire to move up in the world – e.g., he is always trying to make contacts (above all with figures of power, such as Klamm) and trying to show, and impress, the others that he is indeed a player. The discourses are concrete ones, about officialdom, what the officials do and how one gets an in with them. His actions represent real aspirations, even if it isn’t clear what it is he’s really aspiring to, how the strange world of the village will receive those aspirations, or whether the aspirations might not themselves be entirely futile from the start.

Indeed, it is these conflicts between K.’s aspirations and the world he finds himself in that helps make it possible to classify The Castle as an existentialist work (as well as many other works which we consider to be irreal). Aminadab, by presenting us with an extended work that has a Kafkan structure but whose protagonist and narrative lack such aspiration, raises the question of whether there must be such a close association between irrealism and existentialism. Or, put another way, if we accept that an important element of irrealism is not just the absurd (meaning, in this case, the chasm between what we want and can imagine on the one hand and what our finite world and body allows us on the other) but also the passion of the absurd (the insistent, driven attempt to do the impossible and cross this chasm) then Aminadab might not be an irrealist work. By largely discarding any strong imperative in the protagonist or narrative — any of the passion mentioned above — the novel leaves the reader in the abstracted and disassociated state that more typically results from reading works of narrative experimentation. But, of course, the novel does utilize many Kafkan elements and structures, and so even in my own mind the matter is not settled.


Aminadab by Maurice Blanchot ; translated and with an introduction by Jeff Fort  Lincoln ; London : University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Literary Essays by John-Paul Sartre, Philosophical Library, New York, 1958, tr. Annette Michelson.