Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”

Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

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Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 3 December 2014:

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

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3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leaves us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.

memorytheatre

3:AM: At one time, you entertained the idea of writing a book entitled “Paraphilosophy”, devoted to philosophically-impossible objects. A memory theatre strikes me as an impossible object of a different kind: one that can be conceived of, yet never conceived. Is your work a critique of what you call elsewhere the “aestheticization of existence” — the avant-garde project of turning life into art?

SC: Another way of answering your previous question would be to say that I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy, organized around what I call ‘impossible objects’ (a version of the scraps of that abandomed project will be published next year, I think). On the question of the aestheticization of existence, I sometimes really don’t know where I stand. On the one hand, we have known since Benjamin, that fascism aestheticizes politics, but on the other hand, much of what I do is committed to the idea of the aesthetic particularly as art practice as it was embodied in various avant-garde groups. Does that make me a fascist? Lord, I hope not. I think at that point we need to make a distinction between aestheticization in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk and totality, the architecture of fascism, and that writing that unpicks, unravels and mocks that tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the name of another practice of art, what Blanchot called the infinite conversation. It is in the spirit of the latter than I have tried to work.

3:AM: Memory Theatre includes a series of photographs — by British artist Liam Gillick — of a skyscraper in construction. Their appearance in reverse order (which reminded me of Robert Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse”) mirrors the deconstruction of the narrator’s attempt to build a real-life memory theatre. I wonder, however, if these pictures do not also refer to his surrogate grand narrative: a “perfect work of art” that would eventually “become life itself” by merging with it. One of the recurring themes in the book is that of the quest for a prelapsarian universal language which, although mocked by Swift, was once very fashionable: you write, for instance, of Leibniz’s “attempted recovery of the language of Adam against the Babel of the world”. Does Gillick’s dismantling of this Tower (block) of Babel gradually lead us towards an immanent conception of art that could express the world as it is in itself, free from human perception?

SC: Yes, but this is another fantasy: that of the artwork having an autonomy independent of its creator. A kind of machine or a puppet, or the fantasy of a non-human artwork, which is currently doing the rounds. All of this is in play in Memory Theatre for sure. What do Liam’s pictures suggest? To me, they exhibit a process of dismantling, or decomposition, that is ultimately the dismantling of philosophy and the decomposition of the heroic figure of the philosopher that has plagued us since Socrates. Memory Theatre is a critique of philosophy and, of course, a self-critique of my position as a ‘philosopher’. And yes Swift’s mocking of the science of his day, in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels has always been very important to me.

3:AM: Would you agree that the memory theatre and the “perfect work of art” envisioned at the end of the book correspond, respectively, to the two poles between which literature oscillates according to Maurice Blanchot? On the one hand, what you have called the “Hegelian-Sadistic” tradition, driven by the work of negation of human consciousness, and on the other, a striving after “that point of unconsciousness, where [literature] can somehow merge with the reality of things” (Very Little . . . Almost Nothing). Both poles, of course, are unattainable, but I suspect you have more sympathy for the latter, which is on the side of “The Plain Sense of Things” (Wallace Stevens) — “the near, the low, the common” (Thoreau) — and “lets us see particulars being various” (Memory Theatre) . . .

SC: That’s very interesting and I stole the “particulars being various” from Louis MacNiece, who is underrated and underread in my view. I remember reading Blanchot’s account of the two slopes of literature and it making a huge impact that continues to reverberate, particularly in relation to the INS [International Necronautical Society] work that I do with Tom McCarthy. On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter witout controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.

3:AM: Reviewers have remarked on the hybrid nature of Memory Theatre — a mixture of essay, memoir, and fiction. Why did you choose to call the narrator ‘Simon Critchley” — who is both you and not you — instead of creating a fictive character based on yourself? I’m guessing that you relished the ambiguity of inhabiting that gap between you and yourself (to paraphrase Pessoa) . . .

SC: The figure ‘Simon Critchley’ is a quasi-heteronym in Pessoa’s sense. You are absolutely right. I did have a lot of fun working in the gap between myself and myself, trying to create a kind of crack in myself, a decomposition as I said just now. ‘Simon Critchley’ is not me, but is still more than a little bit me. As for the hybrid nature of the text, all I can say is that this is how it came out. I wrote the first draft really quickly in about three weeks, largely against my will. It just came pouring out like that after I’d finished writing The Hamlet Doctrine with Jamieson Webster. Then I looked at Memory Theatre when it was done and was perplexed. What is that thing? I didn’t want to publish it. But other people liked it and I am stupidly vain.

3:AM: At one point your narrator believes he is about to discover his deathday, and feels “strangely exhilarated rather than afraid”: this episode echoes what Blanchot (or his protagonist) experiences, in The Instant of My Death, when he seems to be on the verge of being executed. The opposition between death and dying also derives from Blanchot (and Levinas), as does the example of suicide by hanging:

Even if I hanged myself I would not experience a nihilating leap into the abyss, but just the rope tying me tight, ever tighter, to the existence I wanted to leave (Memory Theatre).
Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him, held to the end, held more than ever, bound as he had never been before to the existence he would like to leave (Thomas the Obscure).

The image of the dredging machine is a clear reference to Derrida (referencing Genet). “The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound” is lifted verbatim from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. “The blank, expressionless eyes of forty-nine papier mâché statues stared back at me” is possibly a nod to Hoffmannstahl’s “I felt like someone who had been locked into a garden full of eyeless statues” (The Lord Chandos Letter). I am sure that there are many other examples of references to, or quotations from, other people’s works that I missed or did not even recognise. Do you consider intertextuality — another aspect of the book’s hybrid nature — as a memory theatre?

SC: You are too good, Andrew, too good. Yes, I used all these quotations, usually from memory, in the text and there are many, many others. Memory Theatre is a kind of composite and composition drawn from everything that I have ever read and remembered. I then seek to decompose them, pull them apart, by setting them to work in some different way. Palimpsest-like. I have always been suspicious of ‘intertextuality’ as it sounds like a post-structuralist version of ‘tradition’. We are composed of networks of citations and references. At least I am. It’s the way I think about things most of the time.

3:AM: There are many instances of internal intertextuality (sorry!) in Memory Theatre, but most seem to come from your earlier works. Is this purely coincidental, or does a regressive theme run through the whole book? I’m thinking, for instance, of the narrator’s contention that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “can only be read in reverse” or his tentative description of his youthful memory loss as “a kind of reverse dementia”, not to mention Gillick’s pictures . . .

SC: Yes, there is a kind of inhabitation of all my earlier work in Memory Theatre. That was deliberate. It felt like a taking stock, a settling of accounts with myself. A look back into the rear-view mirror as I press harder on the gas. Also, to make matters worse, my first idea for a PhD thesis in 1987 was on Hegel’s conception of memory in relation to the tradition of the art of memory. So, Memory Theatre is also an attempt to write (and unwrite or undo) that original dissertation plan.

Simon Critchley

3:AM: When the memory theatre is built, ‘Simon Critchley’ surveys his work: “Like crazy Crusoe in his island cave out of his mind for fear of cannibals, I would sit onstage and inspect my artificial kingdom, my realm, my shrunken reál”. This reminded me of what Barthes writes about Jules Verne’s “self-sufficient cosmogony” — symbolised by The Nautilus (“the most desirable of caves”) — that he likens to “children’s passion for huts and tents”:

The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain (Mythologies).

One might also think of Georges Perec, who often circumscribed a small fragment of the world and then set about exhausting it. This dream of a total artwork in which one might poetically dwell often ends up being a womb with a view, right?

SC: Absolutely right. It is a kind of male, maternal fantasy. Except the child is always stillborn. It is also a meditation on obsessional neurosis and the masculine sexual tendency to collect, to collate and to kill. Memory Theatre describes a solitary and dead world devoid of love. I do not want to live in that world, though I have often found myself oddly at home in it. I hate myself. That much should be obvious.

3:AM: There seems to be a crisis of fiction today, highlighted by authors like David Shields or Knausgaard. Is Memory Theatre’s genre-bending a reflection of this crisis? Have we — writers and readers alike — lost that capacity to lose ourselves, which fiction, I feel, is premised on? Can disbelief no longer be suspended?

SC: Maybe we have lost the capacity to suspend disbelief because the world seems such a strange, malevolent fictional edifice. But I am against the heroic authenticity of memoir, the laying bare of oneself in what purports to be reality. I read a chunk of Knausgaard recently. It’s great, but it’s not for me. I’ve been to Norway too much for that. Memory Theatre is a kind of anti-memoir, perhaps even a kind of pastiche. I mean, someone wrote to me recently because they believed that everything I had said in Memory Theatre was true and they were truly worried about me. This was heartfelt and nice, but strange. I do not want to be the ‘Simon Critchley’ of Memory Theatre.

3:AM: Recently, Rachel Cusk claimed that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” — and she may well have a point. This put me in mind of what you wrote, quoting Blanchot, in Very Little: “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing, ‘when he is alive and real, and not dying and without truth'”. Does this account for the autobiographical turn in literature and the arts?

SC: I don’t know, in the sense that I don’t have an opinion. I am always suspicious of ‘turns’ to anything. Literature is always autobiographical and it always isn’t just that. It requires research and reading. We have to simply face up to that contradiction. Literature is one long song of myself even when that self is something I really don’t want to be. In fiction, we step out of our skin, but we still remain in our skin as we read it.

3:AM: Has psychogeography partly inherited this tradition of the memory theatre (as the narrator seems to imply at one stage)?

SC: Yes, that was definitely on my mind at an early stage of thinking about the project. The idea of psychogeography as the construction of alternative maps for cities and places is what is at stake in Memory Theatre. I got that from Stewart Home. When the narrator wakes from the dream/nightmare of the Gothic cathedral in the middle of Memory Theatre, the entire landscape is psychogeograpized, legible through some arcane, occult grid.

3:AM: I’m pretty sure you must also have been thinking about the web — today’s version of the memory theatre — while writing the book. We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia. It would be absurd to establish a connection between the two phenomena, but are we not increasingly relying on Google or Wikipedia to remember facts we would have memorised ourselves in earlier times? In other words, are we not using the web in order to forget?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Today’s memory theatre is the internet. I deliberately avoid broaching the question of the internet in Memory Theatre, but it’s what the whole thing is about. The difference — and it is crucial — between the internet and the memory theatre is the difference between Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, between an external, mechanized memory and an internal, living recollection. What has happened — largely without anyone noticing it — is that we have outsourced memory onto the internet. Everything is there, googleable, but not in our heads. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. It is certainly an odd thing, given that for several thousand years all education has ever meant has been the cultivation of a trained memory. We have somehow abandoned that in the name of forgetfulness. So, yes, we have chosen to drink the waters of Lethe and enter our private Hades. Literature can at the least remind us of that choice.

3:AM: Even though we are constantly (unwittingly) rewriting our own pasts, isn’t the right to be forgotten — which has arisen in the face of total digital recall — a rather dangerous concept? Are we really the sole owners of our pasts?

SC: No, we are not sole owners of our pasts. The drama of Memory Theatre is showing how our existence can be pre-remembered, as it were, by someone else, pre-destined. The fantasy of total recall, which is one way of approaching Hegel, is often met by the fantasy of active forgetting, in Nietzsche’s sense. Both these fantasies are delusional. We are flayed alive by memory, but not in possession of it.

3:AM: I was thinking of Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and how In Search of Lost Time could be construed as a memory theatre, but what of the unconscious?

SC: Like I said earlier, Memory Theatre can be read as a case study in obsessional neurosis, as an attempt to collate, collect, control, and kill all that is and all that is close to you. I see the ‘moral’ of Memory Theatre in negative terms: do not build your memory theatre! That means trying to access unconscious material in other ways, in relation to other forms of sexuality than masculine obsessionality, and in relation to a different range of affects and transferential relations. This is a project I tried to begin with Jamieson Webster in The Hamlet Doctrine, a book of which I am really proud, mostly because I only-co-wrote it.
joe90

3:AM: Did Giulio Camillo Delminio’s memory theatre remind you, like me, of a similar contraption in 60s TV series Joe 90?

SC: Oh Lord, I used to love that show. I’d forgotten about it, as it were.

3:AM: The memory theatre tradition and dream of total recall find an echo in ‘Simon Critchley’ because (like you) he lost much of his memory following an accident (“My self felt like a theatre with no memory”). Accident-induced memory loss also happens to be the premise of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The quest for the “now of nows” — that moment of “absolute coincidence” with oneself and one’s fate at the point of extinction — is precisely what McCarthy’s anti-hero strives to achieve through his increasingly elaborate reenactments. As for the following sentence, it could come straight out of C: “My body is a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe” . . . In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, you pointed out that there is so much overlapping between Blanchot and Levinas that it is sometimes difficult to tell if an idea originated with the former or the latter. The very same comment could be made about you and McCarthy. Are you — especially through the International Necronautical Society — trying to escape the confines of the self by merging your two voices in a collaborative, polyphonic project? Is it two people, one artist, like Gilbert & George?

SC: Matters become even worse when you think of the first sentence of Remainder, which refers to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. My relation with Tom is very precious to me and I have loved working together with him so much over the years. There is no doubt that meeting and working with Tom loosened my tongue and enabled me to say things I would never have previously imagined. We have a disinhibiting effect on each other, where the usual super-ego bullshit gets shut down and we are able to just burn it up and let it rip. As Levinas was fond of saying, on est mieux à deux. Writing with four hands is better than two. It is fair to say that Memory Theatre wouldn’t have existed without Remainder and elements of C are all over it.

3:AM: Memory Theatre opens with the following three sentences: “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction” — well, is it?

SC: Yes, it is. Oh, there is tinnitus too.

Illicit Frequencies, or All Literature is Pirated

Here is my interview with Tom McCarthy that appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 13 July 2006.

3:AM: It’s very rare, these days, to see a work of literary criticism being given such prominence. Do you agree that this is probably largely due to the fact that the main subject is not Balzac or Baudelaire — two key references here — but a comic-strip hero?

TMcC: First of all, I’m not sure I’d describe Tintin and the Secret of Literature as ‘criticism’. More as an essay. I like the idea of the essay as a primary literary form. You can trace it from David Foster Wallace through Blanchot all the way back to people like Hazlitt. But yes, the fact that it revolves around Tintin and not just Balzac and Baudelaire has certainly helped it get attention — although it wasn’t strategic to do this. I genuinely rate Hergé’s work, and wanted to read it alongside Balzac, Baudelaire, Bergson, Bachelard and all the rest, hopping from one to the other in a set of playful, serendipitous detours — which is exactly what the essay format allows.

3:AM: Your book is very much in the tradition of Barthes‘s Mythologies (an anthology which you fail to mention). I can’t remember if Barthes actually mentions Tintin anywhere, but he certainly could have done. In a way, the two figures go curiously well together: Tintin’s heyday corresponds roughly to that of Barthes and both, today, appear a little quaint. Was it Barthes who inspired this book? After all, your Tintin is primarily a semiologist who “can navigate [a key word in the McCarthy canon] the world of signs” (Tintin and the Secret of Literature p. 22), a deciphering cipher who embodies (along with Snowy?) the presence of absence — the Melvillian “whiteness of the whale” (p. 161) — but also, of course, Barthes’s “écriture blanche”.

TMcC: I do kind of mention Mythologies when I refer to wrestling and tomato tins early on in the book. I love Barthes: he’s a beautiful, generous writer. He never mentions Tintin directly as far as I know, although Derrida, another big presence (or present absence or whatever) in my book, does, glancingly, in The Post Card. Hergé read Barthes; you can see his influence very directly in the final book, Tintin and Alph-Art, in which language becomes a set of physical signs, giant letters which are held up and scrutinised by his characters.

ODETTE’S BITS

3:AM: Are you the first to draw a parallel between Sarrasine and the Tintin corpus? I haven’t read Balzac’s novel, but, from what you write, La Zambinella seems to bear a resemblance to Proust’s Odette de Crécy. Am I mistaken?

TMcC: As far as I know I am the first to draw a parallel between Tintin and Sarrasine. I re-read Barthes’s S/Z, which turns around that particular novella, initially because I wanted to write about Hergé’s total mastery of plot: the way he misdirects, doubles, occludes, jams and so on, all these devices Barthes describes so well in his take on Balzac. But as I did I realised that there were loads of points of correspondence between Sarrasine and the Tintin books. Balzac’s eponymous artist becomes obsessed by the opera singer la Zambinella, like Captain Haddock does with Bianca Castafiore; he copies her, like the sculptor Balthazar does the fetish in The Broken Ear; he’s murdered, as is Balthazar; the copy is copied and these copies are themselves copied, in both. Fundamentally, it’s about entering the realm of denatured simulation that is art. La Zambinella’s voice draws Sarrasine backstage, into a world of artifice, just as la Castafiore’s voice draws Haddock backstage and on into a world of inauthenticity. And these worlds prove fatal: the castrato la Zambinella effectively kills Sarrasine, and ultimately the not-really-pubescent Tintin effectively kills Hergé.

With Proust, I’ve got to admit I’ve never got as far as the Odette bits in the Remembrance. There are passages I find completely compelling, like the bit about how you can construct a composite memory of a house from various other houses you’ve known or read about or seen in pictures (which is more or less what my hero does in Remainder, but other bits lose me, and I put it down again for two years, then re-read as far as the house bit, then same again: a kind of incomplete repetition loop. Perhaps that’s what Old Marcel would have wanted.

ILLICIT FREQUENCIES

3:AM: Given that the literary status of the Tintin books is uncertain/debatable, isn’t it a little perverse to analyse them in order to uncover the “secret of literature”?

TMcC: Yes — and that’s why I wanted to do it. It would be easy to identify literary motifs in Faulkner or Dickens or someone. But what does it tell us when a corpus that makes no claims to being ‘literature’ displays a symbolic register as developed as Faulkner’s and characters as deep and rich as Dickens’s, not to mention themes and plots more or less identical to Sophocles’s and Shakespeare’s: the fall of the noble house, family secrets coming out into the open, the relation between host and guest gone disastrously wrong and so on? So much of the very best literature opens up illicit frequencies so that meaning can travel along channels other than the obvious or rational. The Tintin books are full of these frequencies, these channels; they even dramatise their setting up, hunting down, rumbling and relocating. And then it struck me that literature as a whole might hide its most intimate secrets in the most illicit of all zones, one tucked away ‘off-stage’, ‘aside’, below the radar of literature proper, which is of course the kind of zone that cartoons lurk in.

3:AM: Could you tell us about the cover of the book and Tintin’s absence from the illustrations inside?

TMcC: The cover is by Jochen Gerner, a French artist. I saw a book he’d done called TNT en Amérique, in which he buried the whole of Tintin in America under black ink but left a few symbols, mainly of money, divinity and violence (i.e. dollar signs, crosses and guns, all done in cartoony style) as markers for what he’d erased — all on the correct pages, corresponding to frames in the original book. So I contacted him and asked him to do the cover, and he was really into it. We looked at the main motifs in The Castafiore Emerald — the window, the piano, the cameras and spotlights that, ultimately, occlude more than they reveal — and he applied his technique (which, after Bataille, he calls ‘déformation’) to these. And in the foreground, as on Hergé’s, the tufted figure with his finger to his lips, saying ‘Shhhh!’ — what in the book I call “the condition of the secret become visible”.

To answer the second part of your question: I didn’t want images directly from the Tintin books inside my book. I was more interested in showing how these images (which I’m assuming most people who read my book will be at least slightly familiar with) mutate into and out of other ones: eighteenth-century portraits of castrato singers, stills from Buster Keaton films and, not least, ‘detourned’ versions of the Tintin books themselves. These last images break down into political activist ones, pornographic ones and ‘art’ ones: an interesting triangle.

THE BOY HAIRDRESSER

3:AM: Given your chapter devoted to “Castafiore’s Clit” (if you ever form a band, promise me that you’ll use that name) and your comments about Tintin’s androgyny, I was surprised you didn’t devote at least a few lines to the once-ubiquitous gay Tintin haircut…

TMcC: A band called Castafiore’s Clit is a great idea. Kind of Jane’s Addiction meets The Thompson Twins. Yes, it’s funny that Tintin has lent his haircut to gay culture. I found out recently that the Rocker quiff of the Fifties was taken directly from Jean Marais’s haircut in Cocteau’s Orphée, another big presence in my book.

THE SINS OF THE FATHER

3:AM: During the Second World War, Hergé had no qualms about publishing his comic strips in Le Soir, a newspaper that was under Nazi control and had clear Nazi sympathies. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Paul de Man also wrote for Le Soir. However, I was surprised that you did not make more of this coincidence. Paul de Man’s undermining of meaning and values having been reinterpreted (and partly discredited) in the light of the posthumous discovery of his youthful far-right views, should not we also be somewhat wary of Hergé’s “retroactive wiping-out of history” (p. 41), the erosion of Rastapopoulos’s “Semitic status” (pp. 44-45) or his reinvention as a “liberal leftist” (p. 46)? After all, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism which, in your view, testify to the author’s “right-to-left trajectory” (p. 47) are common tenets on the far right as well as the far left…

TMcC: I never went with the argument that Paul de Man’s shameful youthful secret undermines all of deconstruction (is Derrida, a Jew, a secret anti-Semite too?), not least because when I was at university one of this argument’s main advocates serially harassed his female students while simultaneously espousing feminism, which for me kind of discredited anything he had to say. Yes, the anti-consumerist thing can serve a right-wing position as much as a left-wing one, and I point out in the book that Hergé kept the same villains in place throughout his career (secret cabals, men in hoods). But I think his right-to-left trajectory was a genuine one, as was Paul de Man’s. Things are connected. Fascism is a moment that the twentieth century goes through, in the arts as much as anywhere else. Think of Yeats, Spengler, Hamsun, Pound, Céline — brilliant and hugely influential writers who were fascists. Do we discount anything that’s come after them? Of course not: you trace the fallout of the disaster, how it mutates and develops. Think of Heidegger, a one-time Nazi out of whose thought the incredibly compelling ethical vision of Levinas (another Jew) has emerged. Anyway, it would be naive and liberal to want all our artists to be nice Guardian readers. Some people are arseholes. And another thing: Paul de Man doesn’t undermine meaning and value — just certain tired and reactionary notions of both.

[Just for the record: I didn’t mean to imply that Hergé’s, Céline’s or Yeats’s works should be rejected because of their political views, although I clearly gave that impression. Like Tom, I subscribe to a resolutely politically-incorrect conception of literature. My point simply concerned anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (which the far left certainly has no monopoly over) along with the fact that certain thinkers’ seemingly-rational ideas are so obviously linked to individual history (Maurras’s deafness or Foucault’s masochism, for instance) that one should sometimes approach them with a little caution. Another issue we could have raised here is the Arendt-Heidegger relationship, but that would probably have been one serendipitous detour — to quote McCarthy — too many!]


FOUND IN TRANSLATION

3:AM: Remainder — the best novel of 2005 which, due to its republication by Alma Books, looks set to be the novel of 2006 (ironically enough, given the theme of the book) — could be described as the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman. With Tintin and the Secret of Literature, your approach is once again resolutely French. Almost all of your major references are French (Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes, Derrida…), and even the vocabulary you use is Gallicized (“fictive,” for instance, which is far closer to the French “fictif” than “fictional”). Where does your familiarity with French culture and the French language come from? Was it deliberate on your part to largely avoid references to British or American literature? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to give a more English perspective on Tintin since Tintinologists have a habit of being Belgian or French?

TMcC: First of all, thanks for your kind words about Remainder, and I’ll try to persuade my French publisher, Hachette Littératures, to use your “best French novel in English” line as a blurb for their edition that’s coming out next September — I couldn’t think of better praise! Yes, most of the points of reference in Tintin and the Secret of Literature are French, although Defoe, Bunyan, Behn and other Anglo early novelists get a look in — plus there’s a big digression through Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I guess I just really like French literature. The English were going really well from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, producing poets like Donne and Marvell and novels like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but it all went horribly wrong somewhere in the late nineteenth/early twentieth and, while the French (and Americans) embarked on the wildest adventures with thought and form — Mallarmé, Breton, Cendrars, Faulkner etc etc — we got Thomas fucking Hardy and DH fucking Lawrence. The only top-class twentieth century English writers are the ones we claim spuriously: Americans like Eliot and James, Poles like Conrad, Irishmen like Joyce and Beckett…

3:AM: At the same time, there is a sense of humour and earthiness which are very un-French, as it were. After the publication of a strange review in The Economist which presented your book as a send-up of French theory, you spoke to me of the astounding “idiocy of English empirical culture”: do you think Tintin and the Secret of Literature is going to reignite the critical Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the 80s and 90s?

TMcC: I think to ignite any thought at The Economist you’d need to stick a ton of semtex up their arses. That review was quite funny, though: it perfectly captured the red-faced, vein-popping fury of Little England once the values on which it bases its entire identity are ever-so-slightly “solicited”, as Derrida would say. English takes on Tintin always present Hergé as a ’satirist’ and only that: a self-sufficient, rational subject who uses words and images as tools to tell us something he knows because he’s worked it out, rationally, you see. That’s the empirical line on literature tout court: the rational expression of a self-sufficient subject — as though we weren’t constantly made and unmade within language, desire, history, symbolic networks and so on. It’s as moronic as crediting a surfer with creating the wave which carries him and allows him to ply his craft — and back into which he’s eventually going to sink.

McCARTHYISM

3:AM: You say that you were introduced to Tintin by your mother at the age of seven. That, in itself, probably says a lot about your social background — that and your early encounter with Hugo Williams (mentioned by the poet in an article he wrote in the TLS about your International Necronautical Society). In France, in the 70s, Le Journal de Tintin tended to be read in Catholic and conservative circles whereas kids from Communist families usually read a comic called Pif. What sort of social and cultural milieu were you raised in, Tom?

TMcC: I come from a liberal arts-steeped middle-class family. My mum would tell us the stories of The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice on car journeys. My parents were left-ish but not radical. They voted Labour but I went to a private day-school from the age of twelve.

3:AM: You write that “Everybody wants to be Tintin,” but I get the feeling that that everybody applies, first and foremost, to you. You even bear a slight physical resemblance to Hergé’s hero…

TMcC: I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Tintin once…

3:AM: Susan Tomaselli rounds off her review with the claim that Tintin and the Secret of Literature made her feel like re-reading Remainder (your debut novel) rather than the Tintin books themselves. Do you see this as a success or a failure?

TMcC: Success — although she should read the Tintin books too. In a way, I used Tintin and the Secret of Literature to work through some of the themes in Remainder in a more conscious way: the relationship between trauma and repetition, for example, or the idea of inauthenticity which emerged from the de Man essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, which I hadn’t read when I wrote Remainder even though it could almost be describing that book. It’s great to be able to switch modes, and come at the same territory from a different angle.

WE WANTED TO BLOW UP TIME ITSELF

3:AM: Your whole oeuvre seems to be contained within this critical essay: Tintin and the Secret of Literature could thus be read as a work of internal intertextuality. First of all, there’s the importance of meridians which points to Greenwich Degree Zero, your recent artistic collaboration with Rod Dickinson…

TMcC: …when we blew up the Greenwich Observatory, or at least produced the documentation of having blown up the Observatory, completing the task of Martial Bourdin, model for Conrad’s Stevie in The Secret Agent. We wanted to blow up time itself. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in The Broken Ear where a secret agent like Stevie carries a time-bomb around and gets blown up by it because he doesn’t realise the town clocks have broken. I love the sequence in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin carries a broken clock around and rides trams in different directions in a sub-Einsteinian attempt to escape time — then dies…

WE WANTED TO BLOW UP BRIDGES

3:AM: Then you’ve got the references to Cocteau’s Orphée and, more generally, your fascination with the “transmission-reception figure” (as you put it elsewhere): “[Tintin] will also be aware, as a radio operator, that the waves which carry his transmissions will travel outwards endlessly through space. Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?” (p. 91).

TMcC: If I had to select five things to put in a space capsule to show aliens what we were capable of, Orphée would be one of them. It’s the most perfect piece of art, which lays out our existence as being in relation to death, technology, transmission-reception and desire — not to mention repetition. Death, a beautiful princess (and arts patron) falls in love with Orphée so she has another poet snatched to the underworld so he can send illicit, looping radio messages to Orphée which draw him towards her, through a mirror. Cocteau based his radio messages on the ones sent to occupied France during World War Two: these short lines of poetry. Most of them meant nothing, but one in every two hundred meant — only to those who knew — ‘blow up the bridge’. A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not. Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.

3:AM: You talk about Alph-Art, the eponymous avant-garde movement of Hergé’s posthumous book, which is “a cover for a giant forgery operation” (p. 158). Couldn’t this also be a fitting definition of your own “semi-fictitious” avant-garde movement, the International Necronautical Society?

TMcC: The INS had its own radio transmission network, operating out of the ICA two years ago, generating messages like Cocteau’s and actually transmitting them over the radio London-wide (and, via collaborating radio stations, world-wide). It looked like a giant factory floor, with workers running everywhere carrying lines of text — lines which, having been plucked from other media sources, were kind of second-hand if not fake. The INS is itself semi-fake, as you point out. Although the fake can hide the real.

THE UNNAMEABLE

3:AM: On page 84, you explain that, according to Freud, trauma produces “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated”. Could you comment on this sentence with reference to your novel Remainder?

TMcC: It’s not just Freud who says this: even his most positivist counterparts concur. Under ultra-extreme stress, the part of the mind that processes raw data into the narrative thread we call ‘memory’ simply goes on strike and refuses to process. It’s called ‘dissociation’. So the data’s present, but not dealt with, and therefore keeps bobbing up and demanding to be incorporated somehow. As it can’t form part of normal memory, it plays itself out in weird ways — ones that contain elements of the original event but are also scrambled, disguised. And it will keep repeating, albeit in modulated form, until it is accommodated properly. Well, in Remainder the hero has undergone a traumatic event which he hasn’t retained as straight memory but rather as fragments of data: the sense of being about to be hit, blue lights, railings, being held above a tray or bed and so on. These induce a propensity to repeat stuff in him. Another interesting thing about post-trauma is that (to return to a motif we touched on a moment ago) it makes people feel inauthentic, fake, because everything is of a lesser magnitude of experience than the trauma-moment itself, the only ‘real’ thing. And then the subject back-projects for himself a time when he wasn’t fake, and longs for that time. That’s what my guy is doing with his re-enactments: repeating backwards to an imagined era of authenticity — but repeating, more accurately, towards the trauma-moment itself, the true, unnameable moment, the moment of truth and unnameability itself.

THE CHINK ON THE CARPET

3:AM: The re-enactments in Remainder or in your artistic work: mimesis or simulacrum?

TMcC: Aha: very good question, bang on the money. In Remainder, he wants the authentic, so he sets up a zone of mimesis, paying architects and designers to recreate his ‘remembered’ building and re-enactors to ‘be’ the lady he remembers frying liver on the floor below him, the pianist he remembers practising Rachmaninoff and so on. He wants to accede through these re-enactments to a mode of authenticity, of simply ‘being’ rather than simulating. But of course it doesn’t work: the re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra, what Plato defines as ‘a copy without an original’. But then, paradoxically, the most jarring and obviously inconsistent things, the ‘extra’ bits, the ones with no originals of any type at all, are what catapult him into ultra-authenticity — which, not coincidentally, is also pure violence. It’s the little chink on the carpet of his re-enacted bank heist that flips the whole re-enactment over into all-too-real-ness, when the re-enactor trips on it, or rather on its absence, and his gun goes off…


[Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy at 3:AM Magazine‘s Xmas Bash, London 2005]

THE CRACK IN THE WALL

3:AM: Barthes writes that “…the ‘realistic’ artist never places reality at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies” (quoted on p. 55): this is also, unwittingly, what the protagonist of Remainder does, right?

TMcC: Remainder has been read by some critics as an allegory of realism and of the realist mode of art, and this isn’t an entirely wrong reading — although if the hero had actually been an artist rather than an Everyman, some bloke, it would have been an entirely different, and inferior, book. But yes, it definitely turns around his copying, and even (as he sets about getting his re-enactors to re-enact the moments when they prepared for the previous re-enactment) his copying his moments of copying, endlessly regressive. We can try to work it out together, but ultimately I can’t give the definitive schematic meta-reading of the book any more than you — perhaps less. It was intuitive: I was looking at a crack in a wall and had a moment of dejà-vu and wished I had loads of money to re-enact this moment and there was the novel.

EVERYTHING LITERATURE SHOULD BE

3:AM: When discussing tobacco throughout the Tintin books, you explain (following Derrida) that it “goes up in smoke” but “also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death and inheritance. Baudelaire’s story takes off from the change left over from the two friends’ luxury expenditure: like the coin itself, it proceeds from the remainder” (p. 135). Why are remnants so important in your work?

TMcC: It’s what’s left. After the disaster, after thought, interpretation, writing itself. It’s like when Wallace Stevens says “The plum survives its poems”. Writing has to deal with this remainder, and good writing has to deal with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Francis Ponge knows this. He writes brilliant prose poems about, for example, oranges: the texture of their cells, the way they leave goop on your hands so that even when you’ve ‘expressed’ them there’s a residue that’s not contained. If Susan Tomaselli or anyone else really want to do themselves a favour, they should re-read neither Remainder nor the Tintin books but rather Ponge’s Le Parti pris des choses (you can get it in dual text). It’s everything writing should be.

[This interview was initially posted here.]

In Theory: Towards a New Novel

This appeared in Guardian Books on 13 May 2010:

In Theory: Towards a New Novel

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s provocative essays on creating new literature outside the ‘dead rules’ of the past resonate now

Alain Robbe-Grillet

A novel ‘expresses nothing but itself’ … Alain Robbe-Grillet. Photograph: Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images

David Shields recently dismissed most contemporary novels as “antediluvian texts” that “could have been written by Flaubert 150 years ago”. “In no way,” claimed the author of Reality Hunger, “do they convey what it feels like to live in the 21st century.”

He has a point — albeit one that Alain Robbe-Grillet had already made in 1965 when he deplored the fact that young French novelists were praised for writing “like Stendhal” but castigated as soon as they refused to abide by the “dead rules” of a bygone age. Along with Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon — the main proponents of the new novel (nouveau roman) — Robbe-Grillet stood resolutely in the second camp. In his essays, he returns time and again to the notion that the novel, from Stendhal to Joyce, has constantly evolved — hence the absurdity of using “the norms of the past” to judge the fiction of today. Far from representing a rejection of the past, the quest for a new novel was thus very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed.

Feeling that his work was too often misrepresented by the critical establishment (with a few notable exceptions including Barthes, Blanchot and Nabokov), Robbe-Grillet published a series of articles to set the record straight. In 1963 they were collected in Towards a New Novel — for my money, one of the most important works of postwar literary criticism. However, these “critical reflections” were never meant to constitute a manifesto. Every novel, according to Robbe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is “known in advance”. “The New Novel,” as he put it, “is not a theory, it is an exploration.” Why bother writing a book that illustrates a rule when “the statement of the rule would suffice”?

Quoting Heidegger at the beginning of an essay on Waiting For Godot, Robbe-Grillet writes that the human condition is “to be there”. In another essay, he states that it is “chiefly in its presence that the world’s reality resides”. So there you have it. Man is here, the world is there and the distance between the two lies at the heart of the new novel project. We endow the world with meaning (or meaninglessness) in order to control it. From this point of view, the writer’s traditional role was to excavate nature in order to unearth the “hidden soul of things”. Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the “more modest, less anthropomorphic world” we live in today — one which is “neither significant nor absurd,” but simply is.

This seemingly anodyne observation has serious literary ramifications. Gone is the traditional hero of yore who believed the world was there to be conquered and whose hour of glory coincided with the triumph of individualism. Gone is the humanist “communion” between people and things: “Things are things, and man is only man”. Gone is the notion of tragedy, which Robbe-Grillet sees as a twisted ploy to reaffirm this solidarity: “I call out. No one answers. Instead of concluding that there is no one there (…) I decide to act as if someone were there, but someone who, for some reason or other, will not answer”. In the new novel, “Man looks at the world” but “the world does not look back,” which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world, not to appropriate it or project himself onto it; to record the distance between human beings and things without interpreting this distance as a painful division. All this implies that the “entire literary language” be reformed. Similes and metaphors, which are often used gratuitously to confer literary status upon a text, are seldom innocent since they tend to anthropomorphise the world.

The new novel is routinely attacked for being inhuman and coldly descriptive. Robbe-Grillet responds that his work is in fact far less objective than the godlike, omniscient narrator who presides over so many traditional novels. Description here is purely subjective and takes centre stage, whereas in Balzac, for instance, it simply sets the scene by lending the plot an air of authenticity. Instead of referring to an external, pre-existing reality, Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality. “Nothing,” he explains, “is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision.”

The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to “remove the novel from the realm of art”. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself”. Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”. Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state — provocatively — that “the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking”. Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.

****

Here is a slightly longer version of the same piece:

David Shields recently dismissed most contemporary novels as “antediluvian texts” that “could have been written by Flaubert 150 years ago”. “In no way,” claimed the author of Reality Hunger, “do they convey what it feels like to live in the 21st century.” He has a point — one that Alain Robbe-Grillet had already made, back in 1965, when he deplored the fact that young French novelists were praised for writing “like Stendhal” but castigated as soon as they refused to abide by the “dead rules” of a bygone age. Along with Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon — the main proponents of the so-called New Novel (Nouveau Roman) — Robbe-Grillet stood resolutely in the second camp. Throughout his essays, he returns time and again to the notion that the novel, from Stendhal to Joyce, has constantly evolved, hence the absurdity of using “the norms of the past” (and specifically those of the 19th century) to judge the fiction of today. He defends the nouveaux romanciers from accusations of formalism by arguing that the true “formalists” are in fact those who write formulaically, as if “the ‘true novel'” had been cast “once and for all” in the Balzacian mould: “But we, on the contrary, who are accused of being theoreticians, we do not know what a novel, a true novel, should be; we know only that the novel today will be what we make it, today, and that it is not our job to cultivate a resemblance to what it was yesterday, but to go forward”. Far from representing a rejection of the past, the quest for a new novel was thus very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed. “Flaubert wrote the new novel of 1860, Proust the new novel of 1910”: it was up to the nouveaux romanciers to bring the novel kicking and screaming into the 1950s.

Feeling that his work was too often misrepresented by the critical establishment (with a few notable exceptions like Barthes, Blanchot or Nabokov) and misunderstood by large sections of the reading public, Robbe-Grillet started publishing a series of articles in order to set the record straight. In 1963, they were collected in Towards a New Novel (For a New Novel in the American version; Pour un nouveau roman in the original) which, for my money, remains one of the most important works of post-war criticism. Not surprisingly, these essays cover the period during which Robbe-Grillet was also producing some of his greatest works of fiction: The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1957) and the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

In retrospect, some of the author’s predictions may seem wide of the mark: the New Novel did not, for instance, bring about “a revolution more complete” than “romanticism or naturalism”. Robbe-Grillet’s Pascalian “wager” that “man, some day, will free himself” of the concept of tragedy, strikes me as impossibly naive. The claim that calling upon the reader to play an active part in the creation of the world of a novel will also enable him “to learn to invent his own life” probably sounds a tad too ambitious — or even pretentious — for us today. But all this is just nitpicking when set against the radical renewal of fiction that is heralded within these pages. Whereas Finnegans Wake feels like a one-off or a dead end, Towards a New Novel still reads like a blueprint for a truly novel novel.

Robbe-Grillet’s forays into criticism were frowned upon by those who clung to the old cliché of the great writer in the throes of creation as “a kind of unconscious monster” emitting “‘messages’ which only the reader may decipher”. Not only did the author claim that there was no “antinomy between creation and consciousness,” but he was also convinced that literature had entered an age of self-conscious creation in which “critical preoccupations” would prove a “driving force”. However, his “critical reflections” were in no way intended to constitute “a theory, a pre-existing mould into which to pour the books of the future”. Every novel, according to Robbe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is “known in advance”: “The New Novel is not a theory, it is an exploration”. Why bother writing a book that illustrates a rule when “the statement of the rule would suffice”?

Towards a New Novel is neither a theory of the novel nor the manifesto of a new literary movement. Robbe-Grillet speaks of “a possible novel of the future,” “this literature still in progress” and the search for “a realistic style of an unknown genre beyond Flaubert and Kafka”. It is all very modest and tentative. There are few references to the “New Novel” as such — a term coined by a journalist in 1957 — and none to “L’Ecole du regard” (literally the School of Sight) or “L’Ecole de Minuit” (many of the nouveaux romanciers were published by Les Editions de Minuit where Robbe-Grillet was a literary advisor for 30 years). The New Novel, we are told, is simply a “convenient label for writers seeking new forms to express new relations between Man and the world”. This is as close to a programme that we get.

Quoting Heidegger at the beginning of an essay on Waiting For Godot, Robbe-Grillet writes that the human condition is “to be there”. In another essay, he states that it is “chiefly in its presence that the world’s reality resides”. So there you have it. Man is here, the world is there and the distance between the two lies at the heart of the New Novel project. We endow the world with meaning (or meaninglessness) in order to control it. From this point of view, the writer’s traditional role was to excavate nature in order to unearth the “hidden soul of things”. Words were traps “in which the writer captured the universe” before handing it over to society. Robbe-Grillet calls for the creation of a new form of fiction that reflects the “more modest, less anthropomorphic world” we live in today — one which is “neither significant nor absurd,” but simply is. This seemingly anodyne observation has huge literary ramifications.

Gone is the traditional hero of yore who considered the world was only there to be conquered and whose hour of glory coincided with the triumph of individualism. Gone is the humanist “communion” or “solidarity” between people and things: “Things are things, and man is only man”. Gone is the notion of tragedy, which Robbe-Grillet sees as a twisted ploy to reaffirm this “solidarity”: “I call out. No one answers. Instead of concluding that there is no one there (…) I decide to act as if someone were there, but someone who, for some reason or other, will not answer”. In the New Novel, “Man looks at the world” but “the world does not look back,” which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world (not to appropriate it or project himself onto it); to record the distance between human beings and things (without interpreting this distance as a painful division). All this implies that the “entire literary language” be reformed. Similes and metaphors, which are often used gratuitously to confer literary status upon a text, are seldom innocent since they tend to anthropomorphize the world.

The New Novel is routinely attacked for being inhuman and coldly descriptive. Robbe-Grillet responds that his work is in fact far less objective than the godlike omniscient narrator who presides over so many traditional novels. Description here is purely subjective and takes centre stage whereas in Balzac, for instance, it simply sets the scene by lending the plot an air of authenticity. Instead of referring to an external, pre-existing reality, Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality. “Nothing,” he explains, “is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision.”

The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to “remove the novel from the realm of art”. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself”. Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”. Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state — somewhat provocatively — that “The genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking”. Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.