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.

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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.
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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.

The Outside

Tao Lin, “Actually, He’s Doing Pretty O.K.: Karl Ove Knausgaard Arrives in New York,” New York Observer 6 June 2014

Mr. Knausgaard said he wanted to write from “a perspective outside humanity.” He defined the sublime as “the perspective outside of humanity” and said, “It’s impossible to get there by language, because language is humanity — that’s inside, so how can you get outside? And in the book I want to get outside, all the time, and it’s impossible.

A Fictional Farewell to Literature

Ben Lerner, “Each Cornflake,” London Review of Books 22 May 2014 (pp. 21-22)

My Struggle positions itself as an anti-literary project: it’s what Knausgaard writes instead of novels and it describes his increasing revulsion from fiction (broadly construed). If he were to write another novel, he says in Volume 2, ‘it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless … just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.’ My Struggle is sometimes categorised as a novel — by its publishers, for one — but nobody expects us to believe that it’s fiction in any conventional sense, given the verifiability of the biographical details and the huge scandal caused in Norway by its exposure of his real relationships. My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard turning his back on the genre of the novel, a six-volume Lord Chandos Letter intended to exhaust and extinguish all of Knausgaard’s literary ambitions. He has described the writing of My Struggle as an act of ‘literary suicide’: ‘There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way. In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.”‘

‘Literary suicide’ — a death both in and of literature. He’ll empty himself into a vessel, shattering that vessel: ‘I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?’ Knausgaard presents his suicide attempt as anti-literary — I’m going to break the well-wrought urn of aesthetic form by filling it with more description than it can hold — but it’s also an attempt to take the problem of closure into one’s own hands. Suicide is, after all, one way ‘to bring order into the sum of experience’.

… It might seem that I’ve moved abruptly from childishness to death, but at every point in My Struggle, particularly in Boyhood Island, we think of the young Knausgaard as a person who will ‘die’ at the end of Volume 6. We know (at least from Volume 2 on) that the end of My Struggle won’t merely be the end of a novel for Knausgaard, but the end of literature altogether. (This is part of why Boyhood Island — although childhood memories are also crucial in the volumes that precede it — must come after the promise of literary suicide; his earliest memories are saturated with what we know about his future.) My Struggle is a portrait of an artist who will turn his back on art, a Künstlerroman that is also a suicide note, and the method of suicide is in part to put everything down: a suicide by overdose.

I mean to emphasise the way the childishness of Knausgaard — the radical inclusiveness, the style-less style, the apparently equal fascination with everything — places a tremendous pressure on the end of the book, on closure as a moment when form is achieved and retrospectively organises the work. Because the book makes a bid to be radically co-extensive with a life – ‘there is nothing left,’ everything gets put down — closure has to present itself as a kind of death (unless the book is simply to break off, surrendering to formlessness, to unreadability). The problem of how My Struggle will end is both evoked and deferred across volumes — an effect amplified by the fact that English readers have to wait for each new translation — and that drama of the deferral of form is part of what keeps us reading. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the more inclusive, digressive — even boring — the book is, the more absorbing it becomes (‘Even when I was bored, I was interested,’ James Wood writes). This is because the felt problem of My Struggle’s ultimate form intensifies in relation to Knausgaard’s effort to ‘crack’ the novel by overfilling it with detail. How far will he go?

Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends. It’s obvious, for instance, that Knausgaard couldn’t remember his past in the degree of detail the books provide (Boyhood Island opens with an account of how much fiction is necessarily involved in Knausgaard’s acts of memory, especially of his childhood). But the cumulative effect of his descriptions is to suggest the possibility of total recall, a past citable in all its moments: each cornflake, each snowflake. … Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention — and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed — is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.

Of course Knausgaard does leave things out (why, I wonder, is sex described in less detail than cornflakes?), selects among scenes and sentences, but we are caught up in the fiction that he doesn’t. Yet that childish sense of open-endedness, in which everything is equally interesting, is countered by another fiction: that the meaning of My Struggle will be revealed at its end, secured by the author’s death (at least his death qua author). The former fiction is a fiction of formlessness, the undifferentiated, an infinite verticality outside time; and the latter is a fiction that gives form, the imposition of shape on experience, a syntax of events. The constitutive tension of Knausgaard’s work, its internal struggle, is the push and pull between these two fictions. The former is the promise of an artless infinity purchased at the cost of structure; the latter is the promise of a unity purchased at the cost of death. Maybe it’s significant that My Struggle has six volumes while A la recherche du temps perdu has seven. Knausgaard doesn’t offer a strategy for ‘regaining’ time through the power of art; instead he attempts to achieve closure by sacrificing art itself.

The claim to be giving up literature has a long tradition within literature. It’s everywhere in poetry, for instance. As Aaron Kunin has written: ‘The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.’ Actual Rimbauds are rare. And the claim to be destroying art has been a staple of avant-garde art since at least the First World War: the role of the painter is to abolish painting, and so on. But such assertions tend to be part of an artistic performance, not its overcoming, and there’s already anecdotal evidence that Knausgaard’s ‘suicide’ is theatre. . . .

But what could be less ‘unexpected’? The prizefighter comes out of retirement again and again. … Knausgaard’s renunciation of literature, whatever his conscious intentions, is ultimately a trope, a dramatic attempt to bring order to the mass of text that precedes it.

Even if Knausgaard’s ‘literary suicide’ is an enabling fiction, the association of death (particularly violent death) with the end of My Struggle is troubling. Here we must reckon with the long shadow cast across the volumes by the title. Are we supposed to think of Knausgaard as a failed artist whose violent will-to-order is somehow analogous to Hitler’s? … To put it reductively, Hitler and Breivik are two men — or perhaps two man-children, albeit in a much more sinister sense than Baudelaire’s — who responded to the value vacuum, the bad infinity, opened up by modernity with murder and murderous ideologies; they reacted to the terror of formlessness with the ‘false totality’ of fascism (though this might be overstating the coherence of Breivik’s worldview). . . .

Of Literary Bondage

This appeared in the August 2013 issue of Numéro Cinq, with a wonderful introduction by Douglas Glover:

Of Literary Bondage

andrewgallix

How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading Writing, Julien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.