The Fruitful Paradox
Perhaps any writer in post-war France not working out of existentialism (as Sartre, Camus, Gide and Malraux were), or working against such tenets of self-determination, evident in the nouveau roman writers that included Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute and Michel Butor, and which echoed certain structuralist notions of man contained by deep habits, were likely to be eclipsed by these figures and these movements. It is not even as if the writers in the nouveau roman tradition were always of a piece, with surely Duras far more interested in the psychological than Robbe-Grillet, but for the purposes of sales and international recognition, a movement provides context and usually critical appreciation.
On the cover of his short story collection The Fetishist and Other Stories, The Observerstates that Michel Tournier is "the most gifted novelist to emerge in France since the war", and while that may be so, he is hardly the most recognized, no matter that Tournier won the Prix Goncourt for The Ogre, a book that reputedly sold four million copies world-wide, and whose Friday sold seven million. Yet for all that, can one say Tournier is as influential and important a figure as Robbe-Grillet or Duras, and if not why is this so without at all claiming he is an inferior writer?
It may reside in nothing more nor less than that Tournier's problematic did not run parallel to major ideas of the post-war years. If existential writers coincided with the existential movement (and the thinkers and writers were frequently one and the same), it was equally so not long afterwards with the nouveau roman novelists becoming famous as the existential gave way to the structuralist: from man being the centre of the world, to man as placed within forms that dictate his role within it. It is it too broad a generalisation to say that the two main movements in philosophy had their echo in literature and that, consequently, to establish oneself as a writer it helped if one's books coincided with such thinking, but it might be one way to understand why a writer who is immensely successful is nevertheless not quite so famous.
However, what we want to explore here is not the broad strokes of sociological analysis in relation to literary fame, but instead to understand by looking at a number of Tournier pieces collected in The Fetishist and Other Stories and The Midnight Love Feast what that problematic was, and notice that actually the structuralist was never too far away. However, Tournier didn't seem to couch his fascination in a negation of self, but more in an interest in certain oppositions where the self can strangely reside. He often combines the structuralist with the existential. In one of the essays in his collection The Mirror of Ideas, 'Culture and Civilization', Tournier believes that culture is universal and civilization specific. "For example, rain - in an oceanic country - is a material phenomenon unrelated to civilization. On the other hand, the habit of carrying an umbrella - or disdaining the use of an umbrella - is a fact of civilization." However, "the first lesson of culture is that the world is vast, the past unfathomable, and that billions of men think and have thought differently than we, our neighbours and our countrymen. Culture leads back to the universal and engenders scepticism." In another essay, 'Laughter and Tears', he says, "we must be careful to preserve life's spontaneity as well as the flexibility to adapt to new situations." In other words, we must accept the presence of the traditional but always allow space for the new: structuralist and existential thinking conjoin.
So though Tournier is interested in the old he is also constantly trying to find room for fresh thoughts and feelings, as if in an echo of a philosopher he quotes not only frequently in The Mirror of Ideas, but also in the story 'Death and The Maiden'. Here a character insists on imposing upon the young central character's suicide, his own philosophical impetus. "Aristide Greenhorn was trying to apply to this special case the theory developed by Henri Bergson in Laughter, according to which the comic is a mechanism overlaying a conscious being." It seems, however, to have credence as an argument: as the doctor who examines the body says: "If I wasn't afraid of being paradoxical...I would say that she died of laughter." Earlier in the story, the narrator says of the character, Melanie, who will later kill herself, "quite early in life she had identified those elements of an alimentary order that tended to precipitate her fits of boredom and those which, on the other hand, had the power of warding them off. Cream, butter and jam - the childish food that people were trying to press on her - foreshadowed and provoked the advancing side of greyness, the engulfment of life in a dense, viscid slime. On the other hand, pepper vinegar and unripe apples - everything acid, sour or highly spiced - exuded a breath of fresh, sparkling, invigorating air into the stagnating atmosphere."
This is a structuralist opposition worthy of Roland Barthes, but contained within an existential notion of viscosity that Sartre explores in Nausea. In an essay in Mythologies called 'Wine and Milk', Barthes says, "wine is mutilating, surgical, it transmutes and delivers; milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers restores." In The Mirror of Ideas, Tournier talks of Sartre's Nausea in the piece 'Being and Nothingness', saying, "Man is the only being in creation who is consciously aware of the certainty of his own death." How to take responsibility for this inevitability? Melanie does so it seems through the absurd, through creating a perspective on her life that can also contain a laughable dimension to her existence. As her teacher at the beginning of the story notices: "This Melanie Blanchard had intrigued her right from the start of the school year. Since she was docile, intelligent, and hardworking, it was impossible not to consider and treat her as one of the best pupils in the class. And yet she drew attention to herself - without being provocative, it is true, and with disarming spontaneity - by ridiculous inventions and strange behaviour." She isn't the class clown looking for social approval (from the kids) and disapproval (from the teacher), but the absurdist heroine looking to exist in a world of potential nothingness. At least taking her own life will give her death meaning. When she picks up the gun of a friend's lover, a lover her friend thought might be interested in Melanie, it as though she finds her destiny. "...everything about this weapon contributed to giving her an irresistible force of conviction. How good it would be to die by means of this pistol! Furthermore it belonged to Jacqueline's fianc, and Melanie's suicide would unite her friends, just as her life had nearly separated them." Is it not an absurd notion to kill oneself not for a lover but to make sure one does not get in the way of the love of others? If the food she likes suggests structuralist dichotomies, the act of suicide is existentially absurd.
If one notices the absurd as an existential theme, then surely the very title of 'Death and the Maiden' indicates a certain interest in structural elements, taking into account Saussure's notion of the diachronic and synchronic. Used to explore the issue of language through time (the diachronic) or in the present (the synchronic) it has been utilised in broader cultural contexts to interrogate approaches to culture in exploring myth for example. Tournier is a writer who more than most draws upon these myths to explore character and situation, with the notion of 'Death and the Maiden' going back to the classical period. "This theme has a multi-faceted past," says Patrick Polleyfeyes on his website. "It is rooted in very old mythological traditions: among the ancient Greeks, the abduction of Persephone (Proserpine among the Romans) by Hades (Pluto), god of Hell, is a clear prefiguration of the clash between Eros and Thanatos. The young goddess gathered flowers in company of carefree nymphs when she saw a pretty narcissus and plucked it. At that moment, the ground opened; Hades came out of the underworld and abducted Persephone."
Many of the stories in both The Fetishist and other Stories and The Midnight Love Feastacknowledge their debt to myth, and often quote from it. In 'The Beggar Reaching for the Stars', the narrator says "Do you remember in the Odyssey? Ulysses wants to consult the prophet Tiresias, who has been dead for some time." In 'Lucie or The Woman without a Shadow', the narrator says, "we learn from mythology that Chronos, having cut off the genitals of his father, Uranus, with a sickle, threw the lot over the balcony of heaven." 'The Adam Family' opens with, "In the beginning the earth had neither grass nor trees" as it explores the Adam and Eve story. Here Tournier is accessing 'deep structures', mythical first principles rather than existential possibilities.
Yet his work is chiefly of interest for their combination and can perhaps be best explained through the brief essay from The Mirror of Ideas Tournier called, after philosophical reasoning procedures, 'A Priori and A Posteriori'. Here he talks of Plato, that "his theory of knowledge was the height of 'a priorism'". "According to this theory", Tournier says, "the soul is immortal and has lived in the heavens of pure ideas. It was then exiled to the mixed and shadowy lower world that is ours." A Priori ideas are those that are given; a posteriori searches for meaning out of the immediate world. The former resembles in some ways the structuralist notions Tournier looks for in deep myths, but there is also the viscous nature of reality of which the characters try and make sense. If we often find Tournier making stories out of the mythic, then he also sometimes takes an apparently autobiographical event and turns it into a story. In 'To Write Standing Up', the narrator talks of visiting a prison where many of the inmates work as carpenters. "We work in wood", one of them tells him, "and we would like to know how a book is made." The narrator says, "a book is made like a piece of furniture, by the patient adjustment of its various bits and pieces." Then the prisoner asks whether a writer is useful; like a table and a chair. The question needs to be asked, the narrator says, and then tells them "that society is threatened with death by the forces of law and order weighing down on it. All power - political, police or administrative - is conservative. If there is nothing to counterbalance it, it will create a closed society...there will be nothing human any more - in other words, unexpected, creative." As he explains that the writer's natural function is through his work to challenge the established order of things, he says, "you must write standing up, never on your knees." After he leaves they promise to write; but the narrator assumes they won't; only to realize they have gone one better than writing. Three months after his visit a van pulls up at his house and out of it comes a solid-oak desk with a brief message attached: "For you to write standing up. From the Clericourt prisoners."
The story is no more than a thousand words, yet achieves a density of feeling through a certain shared understanding between the writer and the prisoners. This isn't Tournier in a facile manner saying that both prisoners and writers offer similar acts of resistance; more that on a certain level there is a common denominator between the prisoners and the writer that the desk represents. It is as if out of the words of resistance that Tournier offers, comes a gesture of decency from the incarcerated. Would they have been so likely to make a desk for a writer who simply lectured them on their wrong-doing? And has Tournier offered instead a mode of resistance-making rather than resistance-breaking? Has he suggested to the prisoners the difference between the criminal and the rebellious, taking into account some comments Hermann Broch intriguingly makes in a chapter from The Sleepwalkers? "The rebel must not be confused with the criminal, though society may often stigmatize the rebel as a criminal, and though the criminal may sometimes pose as a rebel to dignify his actions. The rebel stands alone; the most faithful son of that society which is the target of his hostility and rejection..." The criminal, from the Broch perspective, rejects values but does not remotely create them: he fights against the established order but often wants what that order rewards: wealth and status. There is no ready place for him within the structure so he doesn't so much attack the structure as gamble with it: if he pulls off his crimes he can aspire to its higher echelons; if he fails he ends up in prison. He plays the structuralist game, we might say, win or lose. The rebel, however, has little interest in fitting into established structures; he instead existentially wants to find and found new ones, so that his acts of resistance become not structurally conservative, but existentially engaged. He must create on his own terms. In Tournier's short story he manages to give to the prisoners existential dignity within an oppressive structure, and their protest takes the form not of destruction but construction: in a small act of protest evident in the desk that is made and the comment attached. It is a resistance to the a priori with the a posterieri perhaps.
Is the writer's problem not similar to that of anyone else's: to conform to structural expectations, or to try and find an existential space with one's own work? Is this not so often the problem Tournier addresses in his shorter works as he pays respect to the deep structures of myth, while also musing over finding singularity within them? In 'Veronica's Shroud', Tournier addresses this problem in relation to photography. "Now there are two schools of photography. Those who belong to the first are always on the look-out for the surprising, the touching, the frightening image...these today are Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, William Klein. And there is the other movement, entirely derived from Edward Weston. This is the school of deliberate, calculated, immobile images that aims at capturing not the instant but eternity." We may again observe echoes here of the essay 'A Priori and A Posteriori', especially when we note in the latter the passage: "the photographic creation, for example, also includes a priori and a posteriori approaches." Yet even within the a posteriori there is nevertheless a certain fixed idea: the belief that what one wants to capture is the fleeting, the contingent. The arbitrary takes on its own form; it just doesn't assume the form is a given, but that form must come from the contingent parti-pris; from creating a form that gives space to the spontaneous.
If numerous writers in post-war France were drawn to the existential notion of individual freedom, and others to the idea that we are less free individuals than products of given structures, then Tournier seemed to discover out of this antithesis instead certain fruitful paradoxes, and a certain self-reflexive form. It was a form acknowledging the deep myths, and musing existentially how they play out in individuals' lives. In a story like 'The Taciturn Lovers', expressed chiefly in a dialogue between the eponymous characters, a fisherman and his lover, Tournier allows them to generalize from the particular. As the male character says he was "staggered by the complicity that united stylists, manicurists, shampoo girls and clients in a generalized babble in which the most intimate secrets of bodies and couples were laid bare without the slightest discretion," she says that while the intimate secret doesn't amount to much for men, it is because they are instead fascinated by numbers: "everything comes down to figures with them. So many times or so many centimeters." Everything about the story moves towards self-consciousness. Indeed even the narrator's attraction for the fisherman she admits was partly based on hero-worshipping literature. "But we...had been brought up to hero-worship the men of le grand mtier, those Iceland fishermen extolled by a host of writers from Victor Hugo to Roger Vercel, by way of Pierre Loti and Joseph Conrad." "Naturally", she says, "all this played some part in my feelings for Oudalle."
Perhaps one might look at Tournier's stories and condemn him for a proliferation of name-dropping, as if from the perspective both of politeness and dramatic integrity proper nouns beyond name and place should be absent from fiction. Tournier's work is full of cultural proper nouns: Rembrandt and Chaplin from 'The Beggar Reaching for the Stars', Satie, Ravel, Hugo and Solzhenitsyn in 'To Write Standing Up', Heraclitus, Parmenides, Kant and Bergson in 'Death and the Maiden'. Yet this is surely less name-dropping than instinct finding, as if so often in our lives we are being ruled by ideas that we cannot always readily locate. When the narrator in 'The Taciturn Lovers' admits to the influence of Hugo and Conrad on her feelings for a man, it is a form of structural therapy for the purposes of existential awareness. If we assume too readily our feelings are our own, and not at all influenced by the art, culture and philosophy of which we are a part no matter how far removed, then we fall into society; we do not find our place within it. Tournier is often interested in acknowledging philosophy, literature, myth and fable not only or even especially as tropes utilised, but also as modes recognised. Whether creating a Scottish Highland myth for 'Angus' or offering a reflection on the 'The Legend of Music and Dancing', Tournier wants a casually self-reflexive awareness of some of our assumptions as he writes with an eye towards making myth fictionally and philosophically apparent. In Angus, the story ends with a note about the David and Goliath tale, mentioning a Victor Hugo poem about a David and Goliath contest where David does not win, but where the giant eventually cuts the puny figure's throat. The tale Tournier tells can't quite stand on its own; Tournier demands self-reflexive tweaking. 'The Legend of Music and Dancing' gives us a variation on the Adam and Eve story, when after eating from the apple one no longer listens to the music of the spheres, but instead creates music as we now know it. "In the end they yielded to temptation. Now, no sooner had they bitten into the fruits of the tree of music than their ears became blocked. They ceased hearing the music of the spheres... Such was the end of earthly paradise. The history of music was beginning": Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.
Finally what Tournier gives back to myth is the possibility of the conceit: that he works with the structural and the existential as two possibilities creating opportunities for interesting fusions. Whether in the essays we have touched upon in 'The Mirror of Ideas', or the fiction The Fetishist and other Stories and The Midnight Love Feast, the work seems readily to acknowledge the past without anxiety of influence and looks towards the future without anxiety of choice. There are other Tourniers, no doubt, and one may wonder where works like Friday and Gilles and Jeanne fit, but for our purposes, Tournier proves a writer of the existentially possible within the structurally evident.
© Tony McKibbin