PRINT Summer 2008


ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET ABUNDANTLY wrote and spoke in the margins of his novels—giving interviews, writing articles, even inserting self-referential mirrors into the novels themselves. He used metadiscourse the way photographers use captions, in order to help readers know what the text was about and find their way in the labyrinth of the nouveau roman. Thus, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he wrote the series of theoretical texts collected under the title Pour un nouveau roman (For a New Novel, 1963) that was almost instantly canonized as the manifesto of the school. It is always tempting to separate an author’s work into two halves: early and late. Yet the later Robbe-Grillet, who loved to contradict others as well as himself, scorned his readers alternately for not taking the statements of the early one seriously enough and for taking them far too seriously.

Robbe-Grillet’s early essays focus on the two discursive modes generally intertwined in a novel, narration (of events) and description (of things). The essays don’t advocate anything new as far as what should be narrated. Rather, they emphasize form, the order in which elements should be recounted. The narrative segments of a novel should not be submitted to the chronology of the supposedly real events they register or pretend to register, a sequential organization that Robbe-Grillet saw (very early on) as a key facet of the dominant bourgeois order. The nouveau roman is presented as a systematic perversion of this narrative normalcy. The novel La Jalousie (Jealousy, 1957), for example, uses the same grammatical tense (the present) to refer to any moment in time whatsoever—past, future, or present—thus destabilizing the sense of temporal perspective ingrained in traditional narrative configurations. Such experimentation was not altogether new, even if Robbe-Grillet pushed closer to the limits of narrative flatness than others had before him. However, what attracted the most attention in his theoretical declarations was their quantitative emphasis on—and uncanny treatment of—description. Description refuses to be enslaved by narration, just as radically as narration refuses to submit to chronology.

Robbe-Grillet’s early novels are thus invaded by inoperative descriptions of things, whose parasitic growth owes nothing to the requirements of the plot. They led Roland Barthes to salute the author on the occasion of his first novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers, 1953), as the long-awaited Copernicus who would liberate the genre from its conventional anthropocentrism. Barthes saw Robbe-Grillet as opening up a space where humans and things, narration and description, would finally (as they should, and as they do in the real world) coexist peacefully in mutual indifference, where things would be just what they are—merely things, simply there, as exemplified by the famous erasers that give the novel its title, or by the no-less-famous tomato sandwich that the protagonist, the detective Wallas, obtains ready-made from a vending machine.

In Barthes’s historical grand récit, Robbe-Grillet’s erasers and sandwiches are not isolated cases. They are coeval with the many objects whose obtuse neutrality invaded the stages of absurdist theater around the same time: the pinball machines in Adamov’s Ping-Pong, Lucky’s hat in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the chairs in Ionesco. They also coincided with Barthes’s growing interest in photography, a medium he characterized as the recording of things in their neutral and nonlinguistic quiddity, in their naked thereness that reveals the noncoded nature of the indexical message (hence his paradoxical definition of the brute photograph as “a message without a code”).

It is hard to know whether Robbe-Grillet actively volunteered to join this campaign for a radically negative semiology, for the semiotic blackout Barthes assigned to the neo-avant-gardes of the ’50s as their artistic and intellectual task. To be sure, Robbe-Grillet would later dissociate himself from the movement. But whatever blame he would try to assign to Barthes, Robbe-Grillet would never go so far as to claim that he didn’t enlist. In fact, it is clear that he enjoyed the association at first, not merely following in his sponsor’s theoretical footsteps but upping the ante in the essays of Pour un nouveau roman, where he describes the nouveau roman as a relentless “mopping-up operation” whose privileged tool, description, relies on “the cleansing power of the sense of sight.” “Once scoured clean,” he writes, things “no longer refer to anything except to themselves, without a flaw for us to slip into, without a tremor.” Hence the lasting legend of the obsessive writer dedicated to scouring the world by means of a carefully sterilized novel (no epithets, no metaphors). This myth lasted long enough to inspire Mark Tansey’s 1981 canvas Robbe-Grillet Cleaning Every Object in Sight: Lost in the middle of a lunar expanse strewn with pebbles, halfway between the anthropomorphic and the geologic, a lonely man on his knees is busy scrubbing off the last humanoid traces left on the planet’s surface. In the same way, Robbe-Grillet became an important protagonist of Kristin Ross’s history of the postwar French obsession with cleanliness, the 1995 Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.

Cleanliness, however, is a slippery register. And hygiene, an eminently anthropomorphic and humanist value, might not be the best way to resist anthropomorphism—as the identification of epithets and metaphors with smut is itself purely metaphoric, a bad premise for a fight against metaphor. This issue is of some import, for in a spectacular reversal, cleanliness itself soon became one of Robbe-Grillet’s bad objects, making him feel trapped by a motto the responsibility for which he then tried to place on Barthes’s shoulders. He made fun of the way the latter supposedly advertised the New Novel as a linguistic detergent: “Whiter with Robbe-Grillet” (“Robbe-Grillet lave plus blanc”), thus whitewashing, so to speak, the fact that he himself had introduced this rubric of sanitization.

When Barthes trademarked Robbe-Grillet’s objects, he had inert, solid, and silent (inexpressive) things exclusively in mind—things as opposed to characters, and thus to human bodies; things, one could say, inasmuch as they are immune to sexual difference, neither male nor female but neutral. Pour un nouveau roman stayed within these limits. However, the novels that followed—La Maison de rendezvous_ (1965) and Projet pour une révolution à New York (Project for a Revolution in New York, 1970)—explore territories that are totally foreign to the purview of the manifesto. Not much survives of Robbe-Grillet’s neutrality. Yes, descriptions are still there; they are in fact more omnipresent than ever, and they block the diegesis, the flow of narration, as before (take, for example, the jerky stop-and-go rhythm in La Maison de rendezvous that gives the evening at Lady Ava’s Hong Kong Blue Villa something of a slide-show aspect). But these descriptions are no longer related to things such as erasers or sandwiches. Instead, they describe human bodies or parts of bodies (exclusively female, of course)—various patches of skin, thighs glimpsed between the slits of a skirt, groins, bending necks, limbs, breasts, bulges, and cracks.

With this emergence of female body parts as objects, the separation between narration and description is deactivated. While in the early novels, the shift from narration to description accompanies a parallel move from the action of a protagonist to the shape of an object, the descriptive treatment of a body now imposes on it the status of a thing. What starts as the description of a bodily movement regularly turns out to be a second-degree description of its representation—the description of a representation printed on a solid support, such as the front page of a magazine, a movie poster, a page in a comic book; or carved as a sculpture, as a dummy in a store window or a wax museum: Narration turns into ekphrasis. However, the gist of these metalepses doesn’t lie in the epiphanic power of moments of stillness. The point is not so much that the descriptions systematically stop at the incipient moment of the gesture, suspending it at the very instant a readable intention would risk emergeing on its surface. It is rather that description itself, description as such, hinders movement. It is as if movement, by definition, can’t be described—as if, by its very nature, description were doomed to bring movement to a standstill, or as if description were used precisely as a device that brings movement to a halt, freezing narration the way oxygen coagulates spilled blood. With La Maison de rendez-vous, gendered bodies enter Robbe-Grillet’s novels in a spectacular way, but only to be immediately tied up, neutralized, returned to the state of things. In Robbe-Grillet’s world, descriptions are never simply descriptive or constative; they become increasingly active, performatively paralyzing. The rope that recurs throughout his novels—appearing as early as Le Voyeur (1955), where the rapist uses it to bind his victim—is thus probably the most accurate metaphor for Robbe-Grillet’s antinarrative impulse.

The most remarkable thing about this sudden outburst of sadistic fantasies, however, is probably the way it happened: Robbe-Grillet didn’t even seem to blink, as if such a shift didn’t require any adjustment in his metadiscourse, even though one would be hard-pressed to find a single word about sexuality or eroticism in Pour un nouveau roman or the slightest hint that the dehumanized treatment of physical things could be extended as is to the sexual register. Indeed, it is hard not to wonder about the complex implications of transposing a neutralization initially meant for inert objects to the realm of living bodies (and their images), or about the striking redundancy that allowed the anecdote (the sadomasochistic bondage of the female object), its prelinguistic support (the two-dimensional hard copy of the printed image), and the suspended narration introduced by their description to merge in an allover celebration of immobility. Was this simply a coincidence?

For a long time, Robbe-Grillet answered these questions by minimizing the issue of sexuality in favor of the formal considerations developed in Pour un nouveau roman. The freeze-frame (or description) was simply an antinarrative device available for every type of content, with nothing specifically sexual about it. In 1972, for example, he took issue with the critiques of La Maison de rendez-vous. Their authors, he claimed, were obsessed to the point of blindness with what they denounced as the pervasive presence of “themes of depravity,” and as such they were unable to perceive the true origin of their resistance: the “depravation of themes.” Equating the zero degree of form and the zero degree of eroticism, these critics were longing for some narrative equivalent of what sexual manuals call the missionary position. In other words, violence in the diegesis was simply the figural echo of a more radical violence against form. The rape of the narrative code itself was at stake. Using the formal model of the mise en abyme, Robbe-Grillet insisted that the narrative signified and the narrative signifier, the logic of the content (themes of depravity) and the logic of the form (the depravation of theme), were in a reciprocal relationship. Form and content couldn’t be separated. Sexuality was nothing but a detour required for the self-referentiality of the text to be refracted, the emergence of sexuality in the novel being the flip side of a critique of representation.

The substitution of (female) bodies for neutral things raised another question. For one should remember that the character was a notion Robbe-Grillet famously discarded in Pour un nouveau roman. Didn’t the shift from inert objects to sexual bodies risk reintroducing it? Quite the contrary: The fact that this human material had been preprocessed into reified, stereotypical, serially produced, and marketable sexual iconography (of the kind that was available in specialized sections of the Forty-second Street sex shops when Robbe-Grillet was writing Projet pour une révolution à New York) was itself part and parcel of the earlier logic of the death of the character. In a perverse way, the emergence of sex in Robbe-Grillet’s later work (both novels and movies) logically follows his early suppression of the character. Sex, one might say, is the only human material that survives its death—what remains of the novelistic character once it has been purged of its personhood, of any subjective depth.

The ghost of the character came back from another direction, however. In order to justify the tide of sexual, deeply perverse, and abhorrently cruel fantasies that submerged his later work, Robbe-Grillet used yet another argument—that of catharsis, a paradoxically hygienist contention for someone who had reneged on his previous cleansing campaign. Speaking of Mathias, the rapist and murderer of the young girl in Le Voyeur, Robbe-Grillet (always the provocateur) repeatedly hinted that he himself might have committed such acts in real life had he not written the novel. In a less autobiographical way, he also advocated the free circulation and literary use of sadomasochistic fantasies out of concern (he claimed) for public safety. How seriously we can take this unexpected interest in the common good remains to be seen. But without going deeper into this question, it is hard not to notice that the very idea of catharsis (in Greek: “purification,” a modality of cleansing) is at odds with one of the tenets of the nouveau roman. For in order to become operative, catharsis requires the mediation of a character. Which is why in his Poetics (to which Robbe-Grillet alludes), Aristotle ties the cathartic effect to a specific configuration—that of tragedy, the exact opposite of the open-ended postmodern form and characterized by at least as constricting a concatenation of events as the bourgeois narrative order. Now, we may recall that one of Robbe-Grillet’s early ambitions for the nouveau roman was precisely to pay off whatever indebtedness the novel could still feel vis-à-vis the archaic legacy of tragedy, and that the systematic deconstruction of character was required to achieve this goal. This leaves us with an unresolved query: Can the representation of sexual violence be at once cathartic and nontragic? Or even: Can it be cathartic without surreptitiously allowing something like a tragic hero to reintroduce himself, one who would jointly embody the supremely ambivalent passions of horror and pity, whose mix is the required catalyst in the chemistry of catharsis?

Denis Hollier is professor of french literature at New York University.