But how, one might ask, did this most unusual emphasis upon distance, impersonality, and loss come to assert itself within Blanchot’s account of intimate relationality? Ironically, When the Time Comes, which makes impersonal relations one of its principle themes, is ultimately a récit inspired by personal events. It is difficult to read what Blanchot tells us about distance, intimacy, and loss, particularly in the text’s final pages, without thinking constantly of the name that reverberates silently throughout its margins: Denise Rollin.
Much of what we know about Blanchot’s relationship with Rollin comes from the Bident and Surya biographies. These studies are admirable for their scope and precision, but both are somewhat disappointing to the extent that they fail to offer us any serious discussion of Rollin’s influence on Blanchot’s work and thought. A likely reason for this is that, until now, the matter itself has remained largely speculative. We know that Blanchot was introduced to Rollin in the autumn of 1941, not long after the publication of Thomas the Obscure. Over the next year and half, the two of them would meet nearly twice a month, along with Bataille (who was her lover at the time) and others, at 3 rue de Lille.
By all accounts, the Blanchot who participated in these discussions presented himself as the very embodiment of modesty and discretion. And Rollin, who was fond of professing that there could be “no grandeur unless it [was] accompanied by a great humility”, was naturally drawn to him. “M.B. is the being with the utmost humility that I know,” she would later confide; “he resembles most incredibly Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’ . . . yet he is altogether unconscious of all this”. This unconsciousness, this absence from himself, as Bident claims, “is precisely what attracted her. . . . This movement of self-effacement, of being nobody, is what seemed to fulfill her”.
By the time they met, Rollin was thirty-four (as was Blanchot) and recently divorced, with a young son. She was already well known in avant-garde circles and had cultivated, throughout the 1930s, close friendships with a number of surrealist artists and writers, including Breton himself. During autumn 1943, Rollin grew particularly close to Blanchot, and by the middle of 1945, as Bident tells us, the two had become lovers. What followed, over the next few years, was the most significant romance of Blanchot’s adult life, a relation amoureuse that nevertheless came to be disrupted, repeatedly, by the imposition of distances, disappointments, and deferrals. It was a relationship, moreover, based from the very start on a profound sacrifice: toward the end of the 1950s, Rollin would write to a friend, “This now makes fourteen years that I refuse Maurice Blanchot — who nevertheless is the being destined for me”.
Counting backwards (some fourteen years) from the date of her letter, one arrives at November 1945; Blanchot’s important early essay on Nietzsche was about to be published, and Blanchot was leaving Paris for Beausoleil. He would return to the capital the following spring, only to leave again less than four months later. Such peregrination was, for Blanchot, less the exception than the rule. By the winter of 1946, he had moved again — this time to the little house in Èze where, in the months that followed, he would begin work on When the Time Comes — a text “written for Denise”. It was over the course of this year and a half that the refusal to which she refers in her letter began to take shape.
Although the exact circumstances surrounding it remain largely unknown to us, in his biography Bident leads us to believe that the correspondence conducted
between Blanchot and Rollin during this period was considerable, with her letters, in particular, characterized by a high style and intensity. As for Blanchot’s letters — we can only speculate. Yet what we do know is that his critical writings from around this time are some of his most important early pieces, many of which bear witness to a burgeoning obsession with themes whose prominence would only increase in the years that followed: the affirmation of extreme distance, the contestation of teleology, the movement of eternal return.
From Joseph Kuma's excellent Eroticization of Distance: Nietzsche, Blanchot and the Legacy of Courtly Love