Louis-Auguste Blanqui - Elliptical cosmic work: every chain of events is bound to repeat itself eternally in space and time. Our lives are being lived an infinity of times across the confines of the universe, and death, defeat, success and glory are never final.

Eternity by the Stars

Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars, Trns. by Frank  Chouraqui, Contra Mundum Press, 2013. [1872.]

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In a century replete with radical politics, final liberations, historical codas, and dreams of eternity, the shadowy figure of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, the constant revolutionary, wrote Eternity by the Stars in the last months of 1871 while incarcerated in Fort du Taureau, a marine cell of the English Channel. In the midst of contemplating his confinement, Blanqui devises a simple calculation in which the infinity of time is confronted with the finite number of possible events to suggest a most radical conclusion: every chain of events is bound to repeat itself eternally in space and time. Our lives are being lived an infinity of times across the confines of the universe, and death, defeat, success and glory are never final. For the world is nothing but the play of probabilities on the great stage of time and space. By straddling the boundaries of hyperrealism and hallucinatory thinking, Blanqui's hypothesis offers a deep, tragic, and heartfelt reflection on the place of the human in the universe, the value of action, and the aching that lies at the heart of every modern soul. This first critical edition of Blanqui's incantatory text in English features an extended introduction by Frank Chouraqui. Exploring sources of Blanqui's thinking in his intellectual context, Chouraqui traces the legacy of the text in critiques of modernity devoting particular attention to the figures of Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Borges. It features copious illuminating annotations that bring out the web of connections which interlace the great marginal figure of Blanqui with more than two millennia of European culture.

In a century replete with radical politics, final liberations, ends of history, and dreams of eternity, Louis-Auguste Blanqui, the constant revolutionary, wrote Eternity by the Stars in the last months of 1871 while incarcerated in Fort du Taureau, a marine cell of the English Channel.
While contemplating his confinement, Blanqui devised a simple calculation by bringing the infinity of time in confrontation with the finite number of possible events to suggest a most radical conclusion: every chain of events is bound to repeat itself eternally in space and time. Our lives are being lived an infinity of times across the confines of the universe, and death, defeat, success and glory are never final. For the world is nothing but the play of probabilities on the great stage of time and space. By straddling the boundaries of hyperrealism and hallucinatory thinking, Blanqui’s hypothesis offers a deep, tragic, and heartfelt reflection on the place of the human in the universe, the value of action, and the aching that lies at the heart of every modern soul.
This first critical edition of Blanqui’s incantatory text in English features an extended introduction by Frank Chouraqui. Exploring sources of Blanqui’s thinking in his intellectual context, Chouraqui traces the legacy of the text in critiques of modernity devoting particular attention to the figures of Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Borges. It features copious illuminating annotations that bring out the web of connections that interlace the great marginal figure of Blanqui with more than two millennia of European culture. For this is a book that, as Benjamin notes, “consummates the constellations of phantasmagorias of modernity, the magical images of the century, in a final phantasmagoria.”

“Blanqui was the great conspiratorial revolutionary of the nineteenth century.  At the end of his life, he produced this strange, poetic, wondrous little book, which employs the science of the age to argue for the eternal repetition of the world.  From this hypothesis, Blanqui draws reflections resigned, but somehow affirmative.  Students of nineteenth-century thought will be grateful for this eloquent new translation.  Frank Chouraqui’s superb introduction locates Eternity by the Stars in the trajectory of Blanqui’s thought and life and builds toward a crescendo that links the book to ruminations on the condition of modernity by the likes of Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Benjamin and Borges.” — Warren Breckman
“Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars is a must read for anyone who has been enthralled by Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, or Borges. Chouraqui’s perceptive and erudite introduction and notes clarify the logic of the argument, Blanqui’s reception by major thinkers, and the context of the essay’s composition in solitary confinement following the Paris Commune. This book should certainly be in the canon of philosophical prison literature, alongside writers like Boethius and Gramsci.” — Gary Shapiro 
“Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars is the late, phantasmagoric manifesto of a man who had been condemned to prison for the better part of his life on account of his radical politics. Encountering this text toward the end of his career, Walter Benjamin pronounced it an incomparably bleak (yet potentially messianic) articulation of the Ever-Sameness of the New on the order of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return. Here rendered and admirably introduced into English for the first time by Frank Chouraqui, Blanqui’s cosmological prose stands alongside Blake’s later prophecies, Poe’s Eureka, and Borges’ Ficciones as an homage to the human mind’s capacity “to see the world in a grain of sand” (and “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”) — that is, to imagine the boundless self-sameness of the universe across space and time as a revolutionary opportunity to dissolve the antinomies between the actual and the possible, liberty and fate.” — Richard Sieburth
Richard Sieburth,

Imagine history as an infernal kaleidoscopic system in which capital and its cops eternally return to shut down all possibilities of freedom. Could poetry constitute a way of writing that system a death sentence it can neither pronounce nor suppress? Poetry as the imaginative continuation and extension of insurrection, even in defeat? Sean Bonney enters Blanqui’s devastating vision of capital, cops and comets, Eternity by the Stars, written in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune, and elaborates a visionary conception of revolutionary poetics and the poetry of revolution

Let every word indicate the most frightening of distances, it would still take billions of centuries, talking at one word per second, to express a distance which is only an insignificance when it comes to infinity.i– Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars
 
Imprisoned on the day before the declaration of the Paris Commune, in a cell in the Fort du Taureau, ‘an ellipse-shaped fortified island lying half a mile outside of the rock shores of Morlaix at a place where, after briefly morphing into the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean finally returns to the North Sea’, Blanqui tries to imagine absolute infinity, and further, how that infinity might be expressed in language. He wrote his ‘astronomical hypothesis’, Eternity by the Stars in the months following the bloody massacre that finally defeated the Commune, and while Walter Benjamin was accurate in describing the book as a final statement of revolutionary defeat, an account of the universe as an inescapable hell, an infernal kaleidoscopic system, it is also a book that imagines insurrection on a cosmic scale, and in cosmic time. A book of shattered poetry, equivalent to its near contemporaries Une Saison en Enfer and Maldoror; works that get called poetry simply because there is nothing else to call them, or rather this is poetry transformed by its proximity to the revolutionary imagination. Franklin Rosemont writes:
 
Wasn't it under the sign of poetry, after all that Marx came to recognize himself as an enemy of the bourgeois order? Everyone knows the famous ‘three components’ of Marxism: German philosophy, English economics and French socialism. But what about the poets of the world: Aeschylus and Homer and Cervantes, Goethe and Shelley? To miss this fourth component is to miss a lot of Marx (and indeed, a lot of life). A whole critique of post-Marx Marxism could be based on this calamitous ‘oversight.’ii
 
This only makes sense within the context of a definition of ‘poetry’ very different from that of bourgeois versifiers, be they of the so-called mainstream or the so-called avant-garde. In his cell, Blanqui’s concerns transform from questions of strategy into those of imagination, into poetics as a form of self-defence. The enormity of the sentence that Blanqui describes – i.e. a sentence that can be almost imagined, but never spoken – is a counter to and negation of the sentence the judge had imposed upon him. Within an infinite universe, defeat is always inevitable, but so also is victory. The judge’s sentence expresses an absolute compression of all of Blanqui’s life: his activity, his ‘literary’ production is crushed into the counter-infinity of his reality as prisoner, trapped in absolute immobility, whose guards have instructions to shoot if he goes near the windows. The judge’s sentence encloses him, traps him in an eternity where ‘what I write at this moment in a cell at the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity – at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these.’ But what he writes there is the attempt to imagine a universe where the judge’s sentence is, if not impossible, then, within the context of the infinite, absolutely insignificant. For Blanqui, the universe is ‘populated by an infinite number of globes and leaves no room in any corner for darkness, for solitude and for immobility’. The darkness and solitude of his cell is left out of the universe that he imagines, and thus the revolutionary imagination is also left out, meaning that Blanqui, and the radical traditions that he represents, must occupy a counter-universe, an anti-gravity, a negative magnetism that the thought of the bourgeoisie cannot enter, encompass or occupy. The judge’s sentence has occupied all of reality, and so Blanqui’s imagination is forced to become the defect in that sentence, an insurrectionary poetics that comes to define the judge’s law, and as such make that law insignificant and ridiculous. Blanqui said as much in the face of an earlier prison sentence, in his Defence Speech of 1832:
 
I am thus not in front of judges, but in the presence of enemies; so it would be quite useless to defend myself. Also, I have no fear of any sentence that you may pass on me, while protesting nevertheless with energy against this substitution of violence for justice, for this frees me in the future of any inhibition against repaying the law with force.iii
 
Even when captured and walled in, Blanqui refuses to accept that the judge’s language can enclose him: the judge’s sentence is perversely liberating, the law as it expresses itself within the insurrectionary imagination ignites a ‘force’, a force that, by 1871, would be expressing itself in a cosmic rage that would make the judge inaudible. Even in 1832, he concluded his defiant mockery of the power of the judge with a threat that anticipated the visions of his later cosmological speculations:
 
You confiscated the rifles of July. Yes; but the bullets have taken off. Every bullet is on its way around the world: they strike without cease; they will continue to strike until not a single enemy of the happiness of the people and of freedom is left standing.
 
Bourgeois barbarity makes the bullets of the insurrectionaries into semi-imaginary machines; semi-imaginary in that, to use a Surrealist formulation, ‘the imaginary is what tends to become real’.iv Even a failed insurrection has set off an anti-cyclonic ring that will compress, tighten and finally implode bourgeois reality. But how much use is this for Blanqui in his netherworld? For all his defiance and bravery, he is still locked up. His insurrectionary imagination is still only imaginary. His invisibility, in his cell, is not a spectral threat to the bourgeoisie, but one imposed by a reality he refuses to acknowledge. He has been defeated by the negation of imagination and the all-too-real abstractions and vampiric vortices of capital. Benjamin summed up his fate: ‘within three decades they have erased the name of Blanqui almost entirely, though at the sound of that name the preceding century had quaked.’v It is the ‘almost’, the almost imperceptible crack in the walls of his cell, which prevents despair. In 1850 Marx had anticipated that erasure, suggesting that it was through the negation of the actual name ‘Blanqui’ that a proletariat victory would become a force that could shatter the imaginary and become a possibility. ‘The proletariat rallies more and more round revolutionary socialism, round communism, for which the bourgeoisie has invented the name Blanqui’.vi The name ‘Blanqui’ becomes a trap. It is a bourgeois obfuscation of the real possibility of communism, the substitution of the personality for the revolutionary idea. Blanqui himself becomes the prison walls that keep the revolutionary imagination quarantined, excluded from cosmological history, as well as preventing human history from becoming cosmological. By imprisoning Blanqui, by erasing him, the judge has deprived the bourgeoisie themselves of a name that they can fear, but also a name that they can hide behind. Just as Blanqui represents a crack in the judge’s law, so the prison sentence implies a crack in Blanqui’s name, through which the revolutionary imagination can escape. By intoning his prison sentence, the judge intones the death sentence for the world he defines.
 
Benjamin thought the poet with the most immediate affinities with Blanqui was Baudelaire. The conspiratorial cells that Blanqui operated in, according to Benjamin, were closer to the bohemia of Baudelaire, closer to poets and criminal weirdos than to the organised working class. A more accurate affinity, however, would be with Rimbaud, who more than any other could be called the poet of the Commune. Rimbaud’s ‘logical derangement of all the senses’ is a theorisation of the convulsions in collective subjectivity set off by the experience of the Commune. The senses are not the privatised senses of the official world, Bohemian or otherwise, but a collectivity that runs outward into a revolutionary sensory system that itself reaches backwards and forwards into time, upending capitalist temporality. The young Marx, famously, wrote that ‘the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present’, and so, for Rimbaud, the task of poetic labour is to suggest methods to bring about the derangement of the ‘entire history of the world’.
‘L’Orgie Parisienne’ is one of Rimbaud’s great poems relating to the Commune. In it, he imagines the bourgeoisie re-entering the city following the final massacres of the Communards. They are a parade of insipid and wretched grotesques: ‘hip wrigglers’, ‘puppets’, ‘panting idiots’ with ‘hearts of filth’ and ‘terrifying mouths’. They drink themselves senseless, ignoring the traces of the Commune all around them, the boarded up shops with ‘Business as Usual’ pasted onto them, the stink of gasoline and liberty and blood. But for Rimbaud the city itself is a slaughtered Communard, and the wounds and the scars that the Commune and its violent suppression has left criss-crossed all over it like a counter-street-map are a ‘thousand doors’ through which the past and future come tumbling, splitting the city apart so that it is made to exist on a thousand different sensory dimensions, thus keeping the idea and possibility of proletarian triumph forever present, no matter how ghostly. The Commune has even in defeat transformed the city, and ‘the sobs of the infamous / the hate of the convicts / the clamour of the damned’, that is the voices of the victims of massacre, the real negative content of the satisfied yelps of the bourgeoisie, will always be audible, echoing again and again throughout future and past history in a counter-time to the parched orbits of capital’s realism and ‘thought devoid of eyes, of teeth, of ears, of everything’.vii 
Blanqui, in 1869, had noted that Capital employs a pseudo-occultist poetics, tampering with perceptions of an actually lived reality in order to ensure its own survival even within self-destruction. ‘The hate of the convicts’ and ‘the clamour of the damned’ are, like Blanqui in his cell, partitioned off, smoothed over and dissolved into capital’s history, negating their potential as blockages and interruptions in ‘the forming of the five senses’ and ‘the entire history of the world’:
 
All the atrocities of the victor, its long series of crimes are coldly transformed into a regular, inescapable evolution, like that of nature . . . [Capital] sacrifices with neither pity nor scruple all the martyrs of thought or justice.[...] It does not dare condemn them, it confines itself to concealing their names or their roles, and to simply erasing from history the great names which contradict its thesis.viii
 
Capital’s erasure of thought, justice and contradiction condemn it to an irreality (albeit an irreality with the power to kill) always in danger of immolation by the powers of all it has made invisible, that is, by the wretched of the earth forever in place on the other side of its walls. In ‘Instructions for Taking Up Arms’, Blanqui engages in a spot of proletarian town-planning:
 
Barricades shall be constructed every 50 metres on all streets. The stones shall be removed and in the principle streets the stones should be taken to upper floors and thrown at the troops of Charles X.ix
 
The content of the walls is transformed, the meaning of the street is appropriated. Its matter, its molecules are transformed from a tool for the free-flow of capital, employees, victims and troops into a blockage, interruption and means of self-defence. The barricade uproots the history of the city, stacks up ‘the atrocities of the victor’ into a dense interruption, inducing a blockage in the city’s veins, a cardiac convulsion, the street as missile where each impact on a cop’s head smashes open the cells where ‘the great names which contradict its thesis’ are kept imprisoned, releases the forces imprisoned by ‘the great names’. Those ‘great names’ are no longer monuments, hidden or otherwise, but explosive remnants of excluded history tossed into the heart of the enemy citadel. Meanwhile, the ‘upper floors’ where the detourned stones are to be taken are made absolutely inaccessible to the troops:
 
When, on the line of defence, a house is particularly threatened, we demolish the staircase from the ground floor, and open up holes in the floorboards of the next floor, in order to be able to fire on the soldiers invading the ground floor.x
 
The proletariat seizes the forces of invisibility imposed upon them by the bourgeoisie. From something whose humanity is denied but whose labour is demanded, they become a monstrous force whose task is to repudiate the enemy’s monopoly on humanity and history. This is an invisibility in the immediate instant of its becoming visible. The invisibility Gustave Geffroy noted when he described the appearance of the Blanquists in May 1839: ‘the revolutionary band all at once musters and appears. Immediately a vacuum, a silence sets in around them’.xi The invisibility noted by Heine when he described his walks through the proletarian quarters of Paris:
 
the songs I heard there seemed to be composed in hell and the refrains rang with furious anger. The demonic tones making up these songs can hardly be imagined in our delicate spheres.xii
 
The invisibility of the ‘spectre of communism’, and also the negation of invisibility imposed by the Major and Blair governments with their famous prattle about how there is ‘no longer any working class’, and that ‘we’ are ‘all middle class’. The separation and exclusion implied within that ‘we’ ensures further irruptions of proletarian violence. If the bourgeoisie and their polite barbarism have continued to be victorious, the traces of their negation, invisible points on the spectrum, continue to be a presence, a nightmare and a threat last seen, in Britain at least, in August 2011. Meditating in his cell, Blanqui imagines an intergalactic dialectics, conflagration and impact and struggle as the way the universe sustains itself, a horrendous vision of mortality and death and rebirth, a metaphoric system of hell and defeat, but one that continues to contain at its centre the endless promise of an infernal return:
 
Stars are born, shine, die out, and even as they survive their lost splendour for thousands of centuries, all they offer to the laws of gravity are wandering tombs. How many icy cadavers are crawling like this in the night of space, awaiting the hour of destruction, which will be, at the same time, the hour of resurrection!xiii
 
In moments of defeat, revolution tumbles back into poetics, just as in moments of insurrection – as Rimbaud, as the Surrealists and as the Situationists knew – the energies concealed in poetics explode outwards into revolution. Revolution doesn’t become poetic, poetry shatters itself in the process of becoming revolutionary. In 1929 Benjamin had suggested that ‘this is the moment to embark on a work that would illuminate as has no other the crisis of the arts that we are witnessing: a history of esoteric poetry.’ His claim was that poetry carried a ‘secret cargo’, and that poets like Rimbaud and Lautreamont were ‘great anarchists’ whose ‘infernal machines’ were ticking away, ready to blast apart the boredom of literary history, to transform the poetic knowledge they contained into revolutionary knowledge.xiv In the 1940s Aimé Césaires essay ‘Poetry and Knowledge’, published in Tropiques, an anti-fascist journal that had disguised itself as a magazine of poetry and folklore, outlined what he considered to be the revolutionary content of poetic thinking:
 
It is through the image, the revolutionary, distant image, the image that overthrows all the laws of thought, that mankind finally breaks through the barrier […] In the image A is no longer A.xv
 
In the same essay, Césaire wrote in detail about what that image might actually consist of:
 
Everything that has been lived; everything that is possible. Around the poem as it forms is the precious whirlwind: ego, self and the world. And the strangest combinations, every past, every future (the anti-cyclone forms plateaux, the amoeba loses its pseudopodia, extinct vegetations confront each other). All the flux, all the radiation. The body is no longer deaf or blind. Everything has the right to life. Everything is called. Everything is waiting; I mean everything. The individual whole is stirred up once more by poetic inspiration. And, in a more disturbing way, so is the cosmic whole.
 
More recently, the poet Will Alexander described the L.A. rebellions of 1992 as an irruption of forces previously concealed in poetry and history:
 
America, an incessant nitroglycerine story, where the sun has been historically stored to energize the crops of the ambassadorial slavers, crops, initially grown and watered by the blood of free labour. But during the revolt, a Rubicon has been crossed, and we have witnessed the telepathic artistry of revenge, the molecules of rebellion, which because of optimum social deterioration, have exploded into a metamorphosis of nightmares, where wicker stick thrones have blown up and vanished.xvi
 
For Césaire, poetic thought involves a cosmic totality twisting and transforming into new shapes and new dreams which demand revolt in order to make themselves real. For Alexander, the histories of imperial American brutality have been compressed into poetic molecules that, in the moment of revolt, the moment when it all kicks off, metamorphosise into nightmare and conflagration. Césaire’s ‘revolutionary, distant image’ is dragged down to earth and brought into contact with the dominant capitalist image to the point that two conflicting images of reality are forced into crisis and conflict due to their impossible occupation of the same historical moment, the same physical space. The poetic imagination, as used by Surrealists like Césaire and Alexander, is that which explodes the continuum of history in the same way that Blanqui’s barricades smashed apart the smooth flow of capital through the streets of Paris. 
‘The individual whole is stirred up once more by poetic inspiration. And, in a more disturbing way, so is the cosmic whole.’ Césaire could almost be talking about Blanqui, thrown back in his cell onto merely poetic inspiration, where revolutionary collectivity collapses into cosmic enormity. While Eternity by the Stars undoubtedly is, as Benjamin pointed out, a vision of an inescapable Hell, it is not an inert defeated one, but rather the point where ‘Hell wanders through humankind’: a harrowing of Hell in reverse.xvii The enormity of Blanqui’s imaginary system is the enormity of the achievement of the Commune, as well as the enormity of the horror of its defeat. In Blanqui’s system, the Communards do not die, but dissolve into a metaphoric squall, a revolutionary poetics. In the most oblique and confrontational aspects of Blanqui’s system they become comets, which in his cosmological imagination are always interferences, barricades, revolutions. There is a ‘radical separation’, for Blanqui, between comets and ‘the stellar systems that constitute the universe’. They are ‘true scientific nightmares’ that are not part of, and certainly do not obey the 19th Century empirical and positivist cosmological maps that Blanqui draws upon, and which he dismisses as being controlled by a ‘near-insane gravity’, the near-insanity of capital, that has to omit any non-symmetrical anomaly from its system. As he tries to imagine the comets’ indifference to standardised rules of gravity, Blanqui transforms the entirety of the universe into a police system:
 
Their avoiding Saturn only throws them into the arms of Jupiter, the policeman of this system. Ambushed in the shade, it smells the comets even before any sunbeam makes them visible, and it leads them, panicked, into the perilous abysses. There, abandoned to the heat and dilated to the point of monstrosity, they lose their form, become elongated, dissolve and rush through the dreadful pass, shedding slowpokes everywhere before painstakingly recovering their unknown solitudes, under the protection of the cold.xviii
 
The comets are intercepted on a high-speed car chase through the solar system. Jupiter, King of the Cops, hauls them in with its pig-gravity, and hurls them into abysses, dungeons and finally the scaffold. They are burned, murdered and forgotten. But like the revolutionary desire itself, they cannot be destroyed, but merely lie dormant, waiting for the chance to re-emerge.
 
Those comets alone make it through that escaped the trappings of the planetary zone. Therefore, avoiding fateful passes, & eluding the big spiders of the zodiacal planes that linger around their webs, the comet of 1811 washes over the ecliptic, from the polar heights spilling out over the sun, and promptly circling it before regrouping and reforming its immense columns once scattered under enemy fire. Only then, after the manoeuvre has succeeded, does it parade before our amazed eyes with the splendour of its army, before majestically continuing its victorious retreat towards deep space.
 
Blanqui references the Great Comet of 1811, which had been visible to the naked eye for around 260 days; rather more than twice the time that the Paris Commune survived. The portentous light in the sky metaphorically marks the always present possibility of a sudden reappearance of the revolutionary forces that the bourgeoisie always like to imagine have been vanquished for good. And even though it doesn’t really achieve anything, but simply parades ‘before our amazed eyes’ before beating a ‘victorious retreat’, it is a reminder that other possibilities exist that are more or less impermeable to the pull of bourgeois gravitational systems. The August Riots also didn’t ‘achieve’ much, but they did at least remind us of the existence of rage and of fire. For millennia comets have been sources of terror. Pliny the Elder describes terrifying shapes in the sky: ‘it had a fiery appearance, and was twisted like a spiral; its aspect was hideous, nor was it like a star, but rather a knot of fire’.xix It is a terrifying portent of doom, of plagues, floods, the burning buildings and looted shops of August 2011. The official stargazers of the existing order observe a vicious mystery proposing magnetism far beyond the comprehension of its observers, that could only be explained by the creation of new, and wildly paranoid superstitions:
 
If it resembles a flute, it portends something unfavourable respecting music; if it appears in the parts of the signs referring to the secret members, something respecting lewdness of manners; something respecting wit and learning, if they form a triangular or quadrangular figure with some of the fixed stars; and that some one will be poisoned, if they appear in the head of either the northern or the southern serpent.xx
 
They inspire terror and this terror imposes fanatical meanings on the universe. They will smash apart official harmony, spreading atonal x-rays and inaudible measures. They will inspire hilarious orgies and counter-knowledge to challenge the obnoxious hierarchical astrological systems of kings and shopkeepers. They predict poison, insubordination, new tremors through the intellectual atmosphere. They will probably raise the dead. Like 19th Century Anarchists, they will convert the divine universe into a shadowy system of bombs and barricades. Their weirdness will be echoed in the words of the communard Louise Michel, on trial for her life in December of 1871: ‘I do not wish to defend myself . . . I wanted to erect a wall of flames’.xxi And their wild orbits, disappearing for millennia only to appear again, they echo her great poem marking the murder of the Commune: ‘We will return, an infinite mob / through all your doors, we’ll return / vengeful spectres, out from the shadows / with raised fists, we will return’. Finally, for Blanqui, they propose the apocalypse itself:
 
Such volatile clusters, taken to a maximum temperature, would appear to us not as a subtle, immobile, and unassuming fog, but rather like the dreadful jet of light and heat required to bring our polemics about them to an end.xxii
 
Superstitions, fiery portents that threaten ruling class ownership of the sky, these are metaphors become ideology, an anti-poetic, or versified, system that out of paranoia and a social desire to perpetuate injustice and terror, becomes a network of laws. And like a metaphor, in a revolutionary moment it can be grasped, transformed, its rational kernel brought to the fore. Frantz Fanon noted the same process taking place a century after Blanqui’s barricades had been torn apart by the pigs:
 
In the liberation struggle […] this people who were once relegated to the realm of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, re-form, and amid blood and tears give birth to very real and urgent issues.xxiii
 
Pliny the Elder’s vision of the terrifying, oracular comet as a ‘knot of fire’ could fit the whole of Blanqui’s universe as a system of absolute compression (his cell at the Fort du Taureau) within a locked down eternity. The entire universe is a trap, an infernal magnet where everything stays the same by virtue of the fact that everything is possible. At best, it is a battleground, sheets of flame and conflagration:
 
Once one of these immeasurable whirls of stars, having been born, gravitated and died at the term of millions of centuries, it completes its wandering across the regions of space that lay open before it. Then, its outer frontiers collide with other extinguished whirls coming its way. A furious melee rages for countless years, on a battlefield billions of billions of leagues wide. In this part of the universe, all is now nothing more than a vast atmosphere of flames, ceaselessly stabbed by the volatilized lightning of conflagrations that annihilate stars and planets in the blink of an eye.xxiv
 
Eternity by the Stars is a poetic text by default. Poetry itself is a cell, only possible as the expression of a cosmic trap. In the middle of the twentieth century Octavio Paz claimed that it ‘has no other mission than to transmute history […] the only truly revolutionary poetry is apocalyptic poetry’. Blanqui expresses the bourgeois apocalypse. Everything is predictable: his vision of ‘eternal return’ is of endless repetition of incident and idea, of line and vowel, expressed as endless repetition of destruction, war and flame. The time-cycle of the universe is one of deep silence, dead rocks floating towards each other, their impact setting off enormous struggles and revolutions that are themselves absolutely insignificant. The universe is accumulated death, is eternal life. The terror of Blanqui’s vision is echoed in Rimbaud’s ‘Qu’est-ce pour nous?’, his last and most apocalyptic poem of the Commune. In this poem there is none of the confidence in defeat expressed in ‘L’Orgie Parisienne’, but only an ecstatic plague-feast of rage, blood, fire and vengeance. The ‘thousand doors’ into the past and the future of the latter poem are transformed into the grim ‘thousand murders’ of the apocalypse: the insurrectionary inferno expands outward until everything is consumed and annihilated, the sheer boredom of nihilism, or imprisonment. Rimbaud’s poem ends with the Earth melting, and then, in one final line, the realisation that everything was wholly pointless: ‘Ce n’est rien! j’y suis; j’y suis toujours’. Even after the apocalypse has reached its ultimate point, Rimbaud’s body is still there, and not as some superhuman survivor, but simply the same bored teenager he was before everything went wild. He is trapped, as Blanqui is, sitting at his desk, understanding his cell to be the limit of the cosmos, knowing he’ll be there forever, that he is still there now, can’t tell the difference between his prison cell and the entire cluster of universes. The stars are nothing but apocalypse routines, the constellations negative barricades. But it is not tragic: if it was, if the situation was truly hopeless, then Blanqui would no longer even be writing. 
In the aftermath of defeat he falls back on a revolutionary poetics, a system of metaphors and ideas that can lie dormant, disguised as poetry or as cosmology. He imagines an unspeakable sentence, a sentence that can crush the judge, a sentence that will outlive capital. He imagines an infinite universe that will ‘take its lies beyond the possible’. His revolutionary poetics are grimly realistic in that he knows he will always be in his cell, but they also grimly hold onto and insist upon a utopian conflagration that always exists just beyond the finite bourgeois imagination. ‘There is not one place in the universe’, he sneers, ‘where the disturbance of this so-called harmony is not flagrant at every moment’. Capitalist harmonics are blasted apart at every step by the anti-gravitational anarchism of comets, by barricade fighting, by writing like that of Blanqui, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Aimé Césaire and a million others. These dissonant upsurges of utopian glee may only last a couple of seconds, but that doesn’t matter: ‘the absence of such disturbance would only amount to stagnation and decomposition’. The boredom of Blanqui’s cell is just that stagnation: it contains the real meaning of all of capital’s history, the meaning of every bullshit phrase spoken by kings, the content of every hymn and national anthem and financial formula. Blanqui ends his book, and thus almost all of his writing life, with a statement of unbridled scorn:
 
At the present hour, the entire life of our planet, from its birth to its death, unfolds, day by day, on myriads of twin globes, with all its crimes and misery. What we call progress is locked up on each earth and disappears with it. Always and everywhere, on the terrestrial camp, the same drama, the same set, on the same narrow stage, a noisy humanity infatuated by its own greatness, thinking itself to be the universe and inhabiting its prison like an immensity, only to drown soon along with the globe that has born the burden of its pride with the deepest scorn.xxv
 
This is by no means a statement of defeat, but one of contempt and defiance. The bourgeoisie may think that they have triumphed, gloating over the blood of the Communards, but they too will stagnate, decompose and die. Furthermore, their triumph will always contain its own negation, the dissonance and disturbance of revolution, of people like Blanqui, writing manic cosmological fantasies in their cells. The world has ended but the body of its enemy has survived. Even as revolutionaries are slaughtered, bloody sacrifices to the bourgeois god, the revolutionary imagination keeps the possibility of their return alive:
 
For tomorrow, events and men shall resume their journey. From now on, only the unknown is before us. Like our earth’s past, its future will change direction millions of times. The past is a fait accompli; it belongs to us. The future shall come to an end only when the globe dies. Until then, every second will bring its new bifurcation, the road taken and the road that could have been taken.xxvi - Sean Bonney www.metamute.org/ 
 
 
For Karl Marx, Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the missing head of the Paris Commune. He’d been incarcerated in the Fort du Taureau a few days before its declaration, elected its president in absentia, and in the months following the massacre that marked its end, he wrote Eternity by the Stars, a classic of prison literature, described by Walter Benjamin as a statement of reconciliation and defeat, albeit one delivered with ‘truly hallucinatory power’. But within those hallucinations it is also a refusal of that defeat, a transposition of class struggle onto a cosmic plane. Blanqui sees the universe as Hell, as eternal uniformity and repetition – ‘what I write at this moment in a cell at the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity, at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these’ – but while his cell is the centre of this hell, it is also eternally locked out of it: ‘the infinity of space is populated by an infinite number of globes that leaves no room for darkness, for solitude and immobility’. For Blanqui, all there is is immobile darkness and solitude. The guards have instructions to shoot him if he even goes near the window. Thus, while according to his own system, Blanqui’s cell is a negative space trapped outside the universe, at the same time the entirety of that universe is transformed into that cell. Unimaginable distance becomes unimaginable compression, absolute variety becomes absolute repetition, populated only by ‘a noisy humanity, infatuated by its greatness, thinking itself to be the universe and inhabiting its prison like an immensity’.
The stars themselves are slaves: ‘the creators and servants of the productive power of the planets, they do not possess it for themselves [...] they have the glow without the benefits’. That is, even within hell, Blanqui refuses to abandon the possibility of fighting back, and via metaphor implies that the stars are the seeds of the destruction of the infinite: ‘it is behind [the stars] that hide the living invisible realities [...] the infinite takes its lies behind the possible.’ Barricade fighting on a cosmic level, metaphor recast as reality, a radical poetics which from the perspective of the universal ruling class is an untruth, a black hole, anti-gravity. It wasn’t the first time Blanqui had used an infernal cosmos as metaphor for class relations: his defence speech of 1832 was clear enough.
The wheels of this machine, combined with a marvelous art, reach the poor at every moment of the day, intruding into every moment of their humble life [...] It is all nothing more than the theory of corruption pushed to its outer limits [...] the ever re-born hunger of this chasm.
These metaphors weren’t original to Blanqui. Heinrich Heine, in 1840, walking the proletarian quarters of Paris: ‘the songs I heard there seemed to be composed in hell and the refrains rang with furious anger. The demonic tones making up these songs can hardly be imagined in our delicate spheres.’1 Gustave Geffroy, on the Blanquist revolt of May 12 1839: ‘the revolutionary band all at once musters and appears. Immediately a vacuum, a silence, sets in around them’.2 The negation of Blanqui’s cell, the demonic tones of unimagined songs make their ‘living invisible realities’ become visible with destructive force. In the vacuum of his cell, Blanqui meditates on the comets, in the nineteenth century still a source of confusion for bourgeois astronomy. ‘There is no reason to include comets in a description of the world [...] they become an insurmountable obstacle to our knowledge of the universe [...] their only role is that of an enigma.’ That is, they are ‘true scientific nightmares’ and negate everything the rulers think they know. Comets. True medieval horror. They are bad omens, they bring unwanted news, they predict the death of kings. They have their own calendar, they ignore official gravity, they may disappear for thousands of years, and then return from spheres the official world desperately need to believe cannot exist. They spit out X-rays and weird radiation. Like Geffroy’s revolutionaries, they ‘are liable to divide themselves, to regroup, to form masses, or to tear themselves to tatters’. Sure, they are still prisoners, but they still know how to hate. They spike the eternal return of a hell ruled by the bourgeoisie with an infernal return that will wreck their dreams, make peace impossible, ensure that class conflict too is eternal. They may be doomed, but they are still, if only momentarily, radical negations of the sameness of the cosmic system: they are barricades and gasoline, the stars of the poem Louise Michel wrote following the defeat of the Commune. ‘We will return, an infinite mob / through all your doors, we’ll return / vengeful spectres, out from the shadows / with raised fists, we will return’. This is hideous, but for Blanqui, in defeat, its all we’ve got. Class victory comes with the abolition of the universe. And Blanqui is still in his cell.
- Sean Bonney

When the name of Louis-Auguste Blanqui is remembered now, it is either as in passing as one of the many French socialist and communist thinkers of the nineteenth century, or as an insult hurled at ultra-leftists. This is a disservice to a great and under-appreciated revolutionary. Hopefully, the release of the first English critical edition of Blanqui’s 1872 astronomical work, Eternity By the Stars (masterfully introduced and translated by Frank Chouraqui), can help rescue him from obscurity. Blanqui’s work is a heartfelt contemplation on the nature of universe and humanity’s place in it.
Our discussion here will not focus on Chouraqui’s introduction and its discussion of Blanqui’s work in relation to Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin and Jorge-Luis Borges (which is wonderfully done). Nor will we touch on the scientific validity of Blanqui’s astronomical theories (which all commentators on the work agree is dis proven and useless). The focus here will be on the core of Blanqui’s argument: the nature of the universe with his assertion that there is no progress for humanity, but rather that we are repeat events eternally. Despite this seemingly pessimistic vision, Blanqui holds out the hope of a radically open history where defeat is never total and where there is always room for a revolutionary act.
Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was the consummate professional revolutionary and man of action. He was one of the loudest and uncompromising voices in nineteenth century France calling for class war and the violent overthrow of capitalism. And he meant it. From 1830 to 1870, he organized innumerable secret societies and participated in at least five revolutions to bring about the advent of communism. The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. Each time he failed. And he paid the price by spending more than three decades in prison. His eagerness to rush into revolutionary battle caused him to act before the time was right. In 1848 and 1870, premature action had caused him to be locked up right before the June Days and the Paris Commune (arguably two events where he could have provided the leadership necessary for victory).
The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. He did not see the need for theory to grasp the inner dynamics of capitalism (his own views on economics and general social theory were quite eclectic and superficial) nor did Blanqui appreciate the possibilities of mass independent political action by the working class to bring about revolutionary social change (most clearly manifested in the Paris Commune). It would be Marxism, which would provide the necessary theory of capitalist dynamics and appreciate proletariat struggle which would supplant Blanquism in the aftermath of the Paris Commune with the emergence of mass socialist parties across Europe.
Throughout his life, Blanqui had shown himself to be more of a man of action than a social thinker. His own understanding of the inner dynamics of capitalism was weak and eclectic, possessing none of the power and breadth of Marx’s Capital. While he could write ably on military tactics and methods of armed struggle, Blanqui saw the decisive lever of action as lying in a conspiracy and practically excluded the role of the working class in their own liberation.
In 1872, Blanqui’s imprisonment gave him time to reflect on a lifetime of failures. By this time, he was an old man. Many of his comrades had just been massacred with the defeat of the Paris Commune. The French Third Republic had him locked safely away in the fortress of Chateau du Taureau in Brittanny. His cell was constantly cold. He was forbidden to speak with anyone. The authorities, who knew of Blanqui’s many previous escape attempts were prepared to shoot him if so much as looked out of a window.
The result of this confinement (his last) would be the Eternity By the Stars, an extended treatise on astronomy and ultimately on the possibilities for revolutionary action. Blanqui begins by describing the nature of the universe as “infinite in time and space: eternal, boundless, and undivided.” (p. 66) According to Blanqui, space is material and infinite, with matter also infinite. At the same time, all matter is also the result of a limited number of elements. (p. 72-3, 113, 119) All matter can only be organized into solar systems. Thus worlds are constantly being born, grow, decay and die. However, due to the limited set of elements, and because the combination of these elements was finite, “resorting to repetition becomes necessary.” (p. 113)
According to Blanqui, every person and, creature, and event is repeated on a different world. “We are, somewhere else, everything that we could have been down here. In addition to our whole life, to our birth and death, which we experience on a number of earths, we also live ten thousand different versions of it on other earths.” (p.125-6) Following Blanqui’s logic, right now on different worlds the pyramids are being built, Louis XVI is being beheaded by the Republic, and the Bolsheviks are storming the Winter Palace.
Yet due to the finite combination of matter, Blanqui says that “mankind does not have the same personnel on all similar globes, and each of the globes have, as it were, its own particular Mankind, each of them comes from the same source, and began at the same point, but branches out into a thousand paths, finally leading into different lives and different histories.” (p. 136) Blanqui imagines alternative realities where the English lost at Waterloo and the French defeat the Prussians in 1870. What accounts for this great variation of worlds with alternate histories?
Blanqui believes that while “nature has inflexible and immutable laws” (p. 133), human with their particular wills can introduce variation into an equation. That is, while humanity “never affect the natural working of physical phenomena a great deal…they do turn their own kind upside down.” (p. 134) Thus, despite the repetition of history which exists on countless other worlds, their still a space to be created for a radical act.
Yet there is a tension in Blanqui’s work. While he wants to leave the room open for choice, he also believes that due to a finite number of worlds which exist that “no one escapes fatality.” (p. 125) And that “every man possesses an endless number of doubles across space, and they live his life exactly like he lives it himself.” (p. 142) Everything we have done has already been done and will be done. For Blanqui, this means that we have is “ever-old newness and ever-new oldness.” (p. 146)
If everything in the universe is a ever-repeating circle, this leads Blanqui to declare in despair that:
So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence!…Moreover, so far the past represented barbarity, and the future meant progress, science, happiness and illusion! This past has witnessed the disappearance of the most brilliant civilizations on every one of our globe doubles, they disappeared without leaving a trace, and they will do so again, without leaving more of a trace….What we call progress is locked up on each earth and disappears with it. (p. 148-9)
And it is here that Blanqui offers his critique of the ideology of progress. Blanqui could not conceive of progress in a universe when his civilization had already vanished. How could he envision progress when everything had already been repeated billions of time before? In fact, in this haunting vision, humanity was condemned to the same labor of Sisyphus.
This critique of progress was in decided contrast to that of the emerging social democratic parties of Europe. Within a generation of Blanqui’s death in 1881, massive and erstwhile revolutionary socialist parties would gain millions of members and bring substantial reforms to the working class. These social democratic parties were guided by the very idea of progress which Blanqui condemned. To the Second International, Marxism was reduced to a crude deterministic theory of social evolution. Although capitalism was stable and rapidly expanding, but according to official Marxism, it would inevitability be succeeded by socialism. All the socialist parties had to do was wait patiently for the revolutionary judgment day to unavoidably come.
Yet this fatalistic expectation of the Second International ultimately crippled it. Although speaking revolutionary phrases, it was guided by reformist practices. And in 1914, when world war appeared, the Second International betrayed their revolutionary mission and supported a capitalist war that cost millions of lives in order to determine which colonies would be enslaved by either the Allies or the Central Powers.
So how would Blanqui answer the desperate need for revolutionary action in the face of capitalist catastrophe of world war? Blanqui holds the door open for hope and action, despite it everything. As he says, “the future shall come to an end only when the globe dies. Until then, every second will bring its new bifurcation, the road taken and the road that could have been taken.” (p. 125) And even though that road “must bring the existence of our very planet to completion has already been traveled billions of time” it is still true that “the chapter of bifurcations remains open to hope. Let us not forget that everything we could have been on this earth, we are it somewhere else.” (p. 125, 147)
For Blanqui, passivity and a belief inevitable progress are never the appropriate attitude of a revolutionary. Elsewhere in life, in response to the utopian socialists who mapped out a perfect society, he says “No! No one has access to the secret of the future”1 For Blanqui, the irreconcilable atheist and materialist, the appropriate approach of a revolutionary is to take a leap of faith and act, despite it all. “Revolutions desire men who have faith in them. To doubt their triumphs is to already betray them. It is through logic and audacity that one launches them and saves them. If you lack these qualities, your enemies will have it over you; they will only see one thing in your weaknesses — the measure of their own forces. And their courage will grow in direct proportion with your timidity.”2 For Blanqui, even though he recognizes that the odds are against us, they are not eternally fixed against us, but that our own efforts can help push them in our favor.
Even though Blanqui’s conclusions in Eternity By the Stars seem to preclude the possibility of hope and human action, he still leaves a thin door open for it regardless. It is reflection of the dark moments in which he was going through. When Blanqui wrote Eternity By the Stars, tens of thousands of French workers, who had stormed the heavens to create the Paris Commune, were massacred by the counterrevolution in a bloody act of vengeance. And Blanqui had missed the decisive encounter and was locked up in prison with its ever sameness and monotony with death as the only way out. Yet he lived and endured deep within that jail, with a vision of something better. And despite everything, that meant there was room for hope. As Blanqui himself would have said: “To judge from the current disposition of people’s minds, communism isn’t exactly knocking on the door. But nothing is as deceptive as the situation, because nothing is so changeable.”3 - Doug Enaa Greene 
 
Excerpt:
 
The entire universe is composed of stellar systems. In order to create them nature has only one hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the prodigious profit it knows how to make from its resources, and the incalculable number of combinations these allow its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves. And in order to fill the entire expanse nature must infinitely repeat each of its original or generic combinations.
Every star, whatever it might be, thus exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects, but as it is found in every second of its duration, from birth until death. All the beings spread across its surface, big or little, animate or inanimate, share in this privilege of perennity.
The earth is one of these stars. Every human being is thus eternal in every second of its existence. What I write now in a cell in the fort of Taureau I wrote and will write under the same circumstances for all of eternity, on a table, with a pen, wearing clothing. And so for all.
One after another all these earths are submerged in renovatory flames, to be re-born there and to fall into them again, the monotonous flowing of an hourglass that eternally turns and empties itself. It is something new that is always old; something old that is always new.
Those curious about extra-terrestrial life will nevertheless smile at a mathematical conclusion that grants them not only immortality but eternity. The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. In all conscience, we can hardly ask for more. These doubles are of flesh and blood, or in pants and coats, in crinoline and chignon. These aren’t phantoms: they are the now eternalized.
There is nevertheless a great defect: there is, alas, no progress! No, these are vulgar re-editions, repetitions. As it is with editions of past worlds, so it is with those of future worlds. Only the chapter of bifurcations remains open to hope. Never forget that all we could have been here, we are somewhere else.
Progress here is only for our nephews. They are luckier than us. All the beautiful things that our globe will see our future descendants have already seen, see now, and will always see in the form of doubles who preceded them and who follow them. Children of a better humanity, they have already scoffed at us and mocked us on dead earths, passing there after us. From living earths from which we have disappeared they continue to condemn us; and on earths to be born, they will forever pursue us with their contempt.
Them and us, as well as all the guests of our planet, are born over again as prisoners of the moment and place that destiny assigns us in its series of avatars. Our perennity is an appendix of its perennity. We are but partial phenomena of its resurrections. Men of the 19th Century, the hour of our apparition is forever fixed, and we are returned always the same, at best with the possibility of happy variants. There is nothing much there to satisfy the thirst for what is better. What then is to be done? I haven’t sought my happiness; I have sought after truth. You will find here neither a revelation nor a prophet, but a simple deduction from the spectral analysis and cosmogony of Laplace. These two discoveries make us eternal. Is this a godsend? We should profit from it. Is it a mystification? We should resign ourselves to it.
But isn’t it a consolation to know ourselves to constantly be, on millions of planets, in the company of our beloved, who is today naught but a memory? Is it another, on the other hand, to think that we have tasted and will eternally taste this happiness in the shape of a double, of millions of doubles! Yet this is what we are. For many of the small minded this happiness through substitutes is somewhat lacking in rapture. They would prefer three or four supplementary years of the current edition to all the duplicates of the infinite. In our century of disillusionment and skepticism we are keen at clinging to things.
But deep down this eternity of man through the stars is melancholy, and sadder still this sequestration of brother-worlds through the barrier of space. So many identical populations that pass each other without suspecting their mutual existence! But yes! It has finally been discovered at the end of the 19th Century. But who will believe it?
And in any event, up till now the past represented barbarism to us, and the future signified progress, science, happiness, illusion! This past has seen brilliant civilizations disappear without leaving a trace on all our double-worlds; and they will disappear without leaving anymore of them. On millions of earths the future will see the ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty of our former ages.
At the present time the entire life of our planet, from birth until death, is being detailed day by day with all its crimes and misfortunes on a myriad of brother-stars. What we call progress is imprisoned on every earth, and fades away with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial field the same drama, the same décor; on the same limited stage a boisterous humanity, infatuated with its greatness, believing itself to be the universe, and living in its prison as if it were immense spaces, only to soon fall along with the globe that carried — with the greatest disdain — the burden of its pride. The same monotony, the same immobility on foreign stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly and fidgets in place. Eternity infinitely and imperturbably acts out the same performance.
 
 
  
 
 

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