Duane Delacourt - Secretary of Symbolism under President Carter (later Executive Symbolist and Press Secretary for California Governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown)(Doonesbury character)
Prolegomena to a Polemic on the Republic
One of the things that is so fascinating about terrorism as a political strategy is that relatively small groups of terrorists (one, two, three, six individuals) can take on a civilisation and its military might by targeting its symbols.
The attack on the World Trade Centre was effectively an attack on a symbol of the centre of world trade. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the symbolic status of free speech, just as much as it was motivated by revenge for continuous acts of blasphemy against Islam. The attack on a kosher supermarket was an attack on Judaism and Jewish culture.
Such a precise attack on a symbolic target guarantees that it will be seen and watched as a major spectacle, which is what the terrorists want to achieve (after all, we live in the society of the spectacle). It would be of no value as an act of aggression or protest, if it was hushed up by the government and the media, if we simply pretended that it never happened.
Satire of the Charlie Hebdo type equally attacks power, self-righteousness and pretension, usually by attacking symbols important to the target (e.g., the prophet Mohammed in the case of Islam).
A lot of the immediate concern of this book is the public response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in particular, the marches in which up to four million people are supposed to have participated.
No doubt each participant had a sincere personal reason for doing so, even the politicians.
However, collectively, they created a symbol of the refusal to bow down to militant, jihadist Islam and terrorism.
Emmanuel Todd questions this symbol, in words, with the precision of a social terrorist or a satirist. As a result, there has been a significant backlash from many people who had gathered around the symbol, bought the t-shirt, tweeted that they were Charlie, and been heroes just for one day.
It's ironic that these people have been just as protective of their symbol as many Moslems have been of theirs. What emerges, then, is an understanding of how seriously we take our symbols and values, and how we react when they come under attack.
However, the real value of this book is how it attempts to analyse what was really going on in January, 2015 and why.
A Beautiful Polemic
This book is a classic polemic, and what a beauty it is, too!
Born in 1951, Emmanuel Todd is a French academic who is qualified in multiple related areas: anthropology, sociology, demographics, political science and history.
He describes himself as "a Frenchman exasperated by his own society." Written in 30 days, his polemic betrays the spontaneity of something written this quickly. However, it also reflects Todd's view that the Charlie Hebdo attack and response can be analysed within a socio-political framework that he had developed over the course of 40 years. There are frequent references to two earlier books that he has co-written. Thus, this is a subject matter that he has thought and written deeply about for a long time. It's like inviting an exceptional mind to get up on the podium and speak about his favourite topic. The words are there, the structure, the rhetoric. It's left to us to decide whether we're convinced by his arguments.
One question mark I had relates to how Todd deals with both international and domestic French issues. On the one hand, Islamic extremism and the domestic response to it has become a global issue. On the other, much of the anthropo-sociological analysis concerns the unique social fabric of France, if not possibly the European Union. The question is to what extent some of this analysis can be applied outside Europe.
Family, Religion and Republican Values
The overall analysis is based on the anthropology of family structures and the sociology of religions. The analysis is clearly indebted to both Weber and Durkheim.
Todd focusses, firstly, on the values of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the extent to which they have been embraced by different religions, and secondly, on how different family and social structures relate to equality and egalitarianism.
The latter subject was the most unfamiliar to me and therefore the most interesting part of the book. However, it was also the part most specifically based on an examination of local or European conditions (e.g., the influence of the Roman Catholic Church).
While I was aware that France had been one of the more Catholic countries in Europe, I wasn't aware of the extent to which Catholicism has apparently broken down as a social force in France.
Todd believes that Catholicism is less of an influence in the central part of France ("la France centrale") than the peripheral parts. Even on the periphery, there is less observance of Catholic rituals and beliefs. However, Todd suggests that many of the cultural traits of Catholicism have survived post-religion and have shaped what he calls a life after death or "zombie Catholicism", which in a later manifestation has resulted in a shift towards the left on the part of the right-wing Catholic electorate:
"We gave the name ‘zombie Catholicism’ to the anthropological and social force that emerged from the final disintegration of the Church in its traditional bastions. I will later be examining other phenomena, in education and the economy, which provide evidence of the survival of this residual form after the death of the peripheral Catholic subculture. This cultural survival is probably the most important social phenomenon of the years from 1965 to 2015. It eventually led France into a multifaceted ideological venture, including the rise of a new kind of socialism, decentralization, a surge of pro-European feeling, a masochistic monetary policy, a deformation of the nature of the Republic and, as we shall later see, a particularly shifty form of Islamophobia and, probably, of anti-Semitism."
Authority and Inequality
Todd uses the term to help explain two different views of authority and inequality that he finds present in the people who supported Charlie Hebdo by marching on 11 January:
"Charlie...works in two ways, the one conscious and positive, liberal and egalitarian and republican, while the other is unconscious and negative, authoritarian and inegalitarian, dominating and excluding."
The latter view he associates with zombie Catholicism. It pervades the middle class who have come from a Catholic background. It has left them with a residual Islamophobia, which Todd described above as "shifty".
On the other hand, the former view is more a product of the secular tradition of the French Republic. It seems that Todd associates this view with the old left before it was appropriated and changed by the zombie Catholics.
Liberty and Equality
In contrast to the French periphery, Todd believes that the people in the Paris basin are more concerned with equality and egalitarianism. For them, also, "equality in the family was linked to liberal values."
However, the current problem from Todd's point of view is that the left has been contaminated by the arrival of the zombie Catholics.
On the one hand, he recognises that the "the Socialist Party that has been revitalized by the absorption of refugees from Catholicism".
On the other, he questions whether "zombie Catholics, in joining the Socialist Party rather than converting to the egalitarianism of the central regions, have brought their inegalitarian mental baggage with them and deposited it in the heart of the left."
The result is a cultural division within the left, which manifests itself in the different attitudes towards Moslems (see also Nick Cohen for a living example of the divisiveness of this issue in England).
Todd's preferred view seeks an accommodation with Islam, although he is at pains to point out that "there is no naively idealistic Islamophilia in this book."
In order to lend credence to his own view, Todd recognises the cultural phenomenon that, having suffered prejudice from zombie Catholics, some young Moslems have responded by attacking Jews. Thus, they are not without fault.
The other view is the Islamophobia of zombie Catholicism. While he doesn't say so expressly, he seems to imply that the zombie Catholic support for the Charlie marches was motivated more by Islamophobia than a commitment to free speech.
Whether or not you are convinced by this analysis, the significance is that the Charlie marches were a composite of both views.
In Todd's opinion, they didn't necessarily represent any unanimous confirmation of the Republican values of liberty, equality or fraternity. Individuals were there for different reasons and motives. There was even an attempt to stage manage how the march was perceived: the National Front wasn't allowed to participate, and the Russian representative was relegated to the margins where he couldn't be seen.
A System Broken Down
While the march seemed to bring together diverse forces in recognition of the value of freedom of speech, Todd believes that what divides French politics now, why "the French political system has so spectacularly broken down", is the fundamentally different views on equality and inequality, egalitarianism and inegalitarianism, which reflect different family and religious backgrounds.
The left that has emerged is an unstable coalition. It risks stumbling from issue to issue, unable to command a constant majority with respect to the most fundamental item on its agenda, that of equality.
The Meaning of Equality
It was a surprise, then, that there didn't seem to be a robust definition of the type of equality under discussion.
Some on the left seem to demand equality of outcome (in terms of income), whereas others would be content with equality of opportunity. The latter agenda leaves scope for significant differences in wealth and income, as long as there is a safety net for the lowest income earners. This might include higher minimum wages, as well as a redistribution of income by a combination of social security benefits and differential taxation (both dependent on the maintenance of a welfare state).
It's interesting that Todd seems to remain on the left of the left (e.g., even further left than the Socialist Party), especially in relation to inequality and how to deal with it. Even Thomas Piketty appears to be a little too conservative for his liking. Todd seems to hint at a nostalgia for aspects of the old French Communist Party (the PCF) that existed before the collapse and evaporation of (Euro-)Communism as a popular social and political movement in France.
The Absence of Fraternity
Also absent is any substantive mention of the third Republican value of fraternity (which is the foundation of social harmony). I had hoped that any discussion of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism would touch on this value, particularly as the Charlie Hebdo issue for me was always an example of how liberty and fraternity might occasionally come into conflict, and a compromise between the two values might be required.
That said, the book contains a sophisticated, interesting and insightful attempt to judge different national cultures in terms of the balance between liberty and equality:
"La France centrale combines liberty with equality; England combines liberty with the absence of equality; Germany combines authority with inequality. Russia joins equality with authority."
Getting the Balance Right
Whether or not you agree with Todd's analysis or conclusions, he has made significant progress in getting the focus back on the Republican values (albeit equality moreso than liberty or fraternity), who supports them and for what reason.
Ultimately, there is more at stake in the French Republic than the right to blaspheme a religion associated with people many of whom are currently trapped in the lowest stratum of French society, even if this has become a powerful symbolic issue in a post-Charlie Hebdo world.
Article I - Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.
Article II - The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.
Article III - The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.
Article IV - Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.
Article V - The law has the right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Anything which is not forbidden by the law cannot be impeded, and no one can be constrained to do what it does not order.
Article VI - The law is the expression of the general will. All the citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation. It must be the same for all, either that it protects, or that it punishes. All the citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.
If you only read one book about sex, religion and politics this year, make sure it's this one!
It packs enormous punch into (Sex, Religion and Politics
If you only read one book about sex, religion and politics this year, make sure it's this one!
It packs enormous punch into (far) less than 300 pages, raising the question yet again why novels need to be 562 or 1,376 pages long (and if they do on the basis of some subjective criterion, why they aren't written with such consistent verve, intelligence, wit and humour as "Submission").
For all the philosophy, this novel is paced like a mass market thriller or the screenplay for a prophetic, if not quite dystopian, film. Think an R-rated "Fahrenheit 451" or "Super-Cannes" meets "1984" or "Brave New World".
Actually, the plot alone would make a fantastic film. In the meantime, we must be content with an outstanding satirical novel of ideas.
If you still want your novels to be encyclopaedic, "Submission" is firmly in the Diderotian camp.
This time, it's no mere helmet cam trip through Asian sex tourist destinations. Instead, it actively mourns the decline of the secular values of the Enlightenment, the French Republic and the "Encyclopédie".
The first person narrators of Houellebecq's fiction are as misanthropic as anything conjured up by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
However, the misanthropy is arguably a natural response to developments in modern consumer society, which has secreted us inside a spiritual vacuum. It seems that, literally, there is no other way for us to be.
From Engagement to Isolation
The narrator, François, is an unmarried mid-forties humanities professor. To describe him, you have to use words like: isolated, reclusive, withdrawn, unemotional, bored, abject, purposeless, unmotivated, hopeless, melancholy, uninvolved, resigned, disillusioned, deluded, disengaged, the very opposite of "engagé":
“I realised that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me”.
He is close to suicide, but he can't be bothered taking the final step. He figures that he has no more reason to kill himself than anybody else alive. On a date, he's just as likely to put on a Nick Drake album. He has no future to speak of. He just is. Until one day, when he won't be.
Yet, François is the fictional vehicle, if not exactly an anti-hero, through which European civilisation realises its destiny.
There's a massive vacuum at the centre of François' being, but nothing is capable of filling it. Nothing can please or pleasure him, not even promiscuous sex with his teenaged students (his spiritual quest ferrets out paramours who smell like teen spirit). His narcissism has led inevitably to depression:
“In the end, my cock was all I had."
And it's of little practical use to him, "since my erections were rarer and less dependable and required bodies that were firm, supple and flawless."
The flesh might be flaccid, but the humour is Sterne.
Filling the Vacuum
"Submission" might wear the garb of satire. However, it still explores the causes of the vacuum as well as the forces that are intent on filling it, ostensibly for the purpose of satisfying our communal, personal and spiritual needs.
A lot of the blame lies at the foot of sex (?), religion and politics. To this extent, the novel was bound to be controversial. However, Houellebecq proclaims:
"I will not avoid a subject because I know it is controversial."
He just jumps right in, head first.
In order to explore the dimensions of the controversy, the novel projects forward to the French election in 2022.
It's a brilliant literary strategy that blends realism and fantasy.
The population is so divided that no one political party or ideology can command a majority in its own right.
Equally, the need to differentiate between like agendas blocks the scope for compromise and coalition (at least, in advance of the election). The Far Right National Front by itself can almost double (34%) the vote of the Socialist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood (or Fraternity)(22% each).
Despite the popular apprehension about Islam, the Left decides to form a government with the Muslim leader Muhammed Ben Abbes in the role of President and a lily-livered Socialist in the role of Prime Minister.
France – European Parliament Election 2014: Final Results
This is no radical jihadist Islam. Ben Abbes is a charming, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, multicultural, moderate Muslim. He walks confidently on the international stage.
He recognises that the values of the Republic have allowed him to achieve the highest position in the country. Yet he remains a consummate politician and manipulator of public and private opinion:
"The reality is that Ben Abbes is an extremely crafty politician, the craftiest, most cunning politician France has known since François Mitterand. And unlike Mitterand he has a truly historic vision."
The Pragmatic March from Abandon to Abandonment
Nevertheless, some aspects of the Islamic agenda are non-negotiable. What is fascinating is Houellebecq's insight into the pragmatic process by which many secular values are readily abandoned by the public, the bureaucracy, academia and the Left, in order to deny power to the Far Right.
What is jettisoned includes the separation of religion and the state, academic freedom, a public education system beyond the age of 15, and anything resembling women's rights:
"What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible - with a small minority studying art or literature first. That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions."
The Temptation of François
François witnesses these changes from a privileged position in academia.
Initially, he is dismissed like all other academics. Later he is offered a position at three times the level of remuneration, provided he will convert to Islam. Aware that he has frequently had sexual liaisons with his female students, the authorities offer to find him at least two wives, it being implicit that they could be as young as 13. It's almost enough to restore both cock and confidence (assuming they're not one and the same).
The dynamic of the potential conversion provides the novel's main plot device. François is actually a renowned expert on Joris-Karl Huysmans, a Decadent writer who wrote "A Rebours" and later converted from atheism to Catholicism at a similar stage of his life. Thus, the conversion is something for which François has been theoretically and mentally prepar(-ed/ing) for the whole of his adult life.
God Resurrected in and by Academia
Many French make the transition to the new Islamic society with little need for adjustment in their personal lives. However, the role of an academic allows Houellebecq to devise an intellectual analysis of Islam within a pre-existing philosophical tradition.
Houellebecq has previously been prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for making comments that might incite hatred against Islam ("all religions are stupid, but Islam is the stupidest of all"). Initially, the response to the release of the book by those who hadn't read it was that it was Islamophobic and anti-French. However, the opposite is in fact the case. In a subsequent interview, he revealed that he has now read the Koran and it "turns out to be much better than I thought...the most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims." Thus, he purports to have no prejudice against Islam per se.
The Occlusion of the National Affront
The Muslim characters are highly articulate advocates for their faith who place it in the context of European civilisation, even if some of its tenets aren't compatible with the secular Republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity (which arguably have failed France, well, at least its spiritual needs).
The fascinating thing about the book is that these arguments are given an intelligent and potentially appealing spin. You can imagine how society might one day get to the point where Muslims, despite comprising less than 20% of the population, become a social and political force that has a significant role in the mainstream (certainly one that can and must be embraced by the tired remnants of the Left in preference to the Far Right National Front).
Putting Man in His Place
The Islamic view (according to François) is that secular values have resulted in a rampant individualism at the expense of genuine community, fraternity and brotherhood. Here's how they view secularism and its mission against God:
"It wasn’t enough for them to coldly deny the existence of God – they had to refuse it, like Bakunin: 'Even if God existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.' They were atheists like Kirilov in 'The Possessed'.
"They rejected God because they wanted to put man in his place [ed: in the place, and instead, of God]. They were humanists, with lofty ideas about human liberty, human dignity."
Now that there was nothing but man, he was in a vacuum of his own creation.
The goal of religion is to restore man to his proper place, beneath God.
No Room for Sisters in the Brotherhood
Ironically, the word brotherhood reflects the real significance of the changes that are implemented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The people who lose the most are women. They are by definition excluded from the brotherhood. Their role is confined to (polygamous) marriage, childbirth and parenthood. The most obvious change on the street is the sight of all women wearing conservative clothing and hijabs.
The Submission of Women
From the point of view of an outsider to both religion and Islam, the major problem with the Islamic vision is its treatment of women.
The explanation of the Islamic attitude towards women in the novel (assuming it is correctly portrayed) was enlightening, at least for me.
I had forgotten that the word "Islam" actually means "submission" and hence provides both the central metaphor and the name of the novel (as well as Theo van Gogh's short film).
It's argued that man must submit to God/Allah/the Creator and his laws, but equally that woman must submit to man.
Paradoxically, the role of women in the family is so paramount that they must be sheltered from the burden of work outside the family unit. It becomes the role of the male to financially provide for the family. It's almost as if Islam is doing women a favour by relieving them of a burden necessitated by life in a modern western economy. (You could even question whether a western economy, and therefore the way we currently work, is surplus to our real needs.)
The question today is: how could this vision be imposed on a Western society?
If 50% of the population are women, how could Islam be imposed peacefully on independent women as soon as 2022?
The answer depends on the existing apparatus of democracy, hence the pivotal significance of the 2022 election.
If 10% of the population were Muslim women, then it's possible that a coalition involving an Islamic party could garner as much as 55% of the vote, assuming the rest of the vote was split equally (45% for the Right, 45% for a coalition including the Muslim Brotherhood).
It would be this simple to arrive at a mandate for legislating a change of the rights and obligations of women. Having become law, the state would bring the full weight of the law down on women who failed to comply, quite apart from any social sanctions that might be applied.
Islam and Far Right Nativism
The attitude towards women reveals an anomaly at the heart of the political relationship between Far Right "Nativism" and Islam.
Nativists object to the presence of foreigners in their midst. However:
"...their irrational hostility to Islam [blinds] them to the obvious: on every question that really mattered, the nativists and the Muslims were in perfect agreement. When it came to rejecting atheism and humanism, or [promoting] the necessary submission of women, or the return of patriarchy, they were fighting exactly the same fight. And today this fight, to establish a new organic phase of civilisation, could no longer be waged in the name of Christianity."
Christianity has been fatally compromised by its lengthy cohabitation with the secular state of liberal individualism, which once it "attacked that ultimate social structure, the family, and thus the birth rate,...signed its own death warrant; Muslim dominance was a foregone conclusion."
Against the Enlightenment, Against the Grain, À Rebours
Apart from Huysmans, much of the philosophical conjecture sounds like de Tocqueville, Gibbon and Spengler. We're witnessing the decline of the West, the decline and fall of the Judaeo-Christian Empire, as a result of a virus caught from secular humanism.
Or perhaps, given that European civilisation has already become secular humanist, it's more accurate to say that Europe's mortal wound has been self-inflicted. Houellebecq quotes Toynbee approvingly: "Civilisations die not by murder, but by suicide."
In Muslim eyes, the value of Enlightenment reason has been exaggerated. It's irrelevant to most of us:
"The totality of animals, the crushing majority of men, live without ever finding the least need for justification. They live because they live, and that’s all, and that’s how they reason - and then I suppose they die because they die, and this, in their eyes, ends the analysis."
An Alternative Projection
While the narrative ceases within months of the election result and before we know for certain that François has converted, what is implicit in the above analysis of secular humanism is the possibility that Islam might use its coalition with the French Left to arrive at a broader, more pervasive and more socially conservative alliance with the Far Right National Front.
Once this was achieved, secular humanism and liberalism could be extinguished altogether:
"Secondary and higher education [could be] completely privatised. All of these reforms were meant to ‘restore the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society'...
"For these Muslims, the real enemy - the thing they fear and hate – isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam – that’s the true, original Muslim vision of Christianity."
The portrait of Ben Abbes is far more positive than this. However, this speculation is consistent with the views of some of his supporters and the analysis of François. It makes sense that religions, no matter how diverse, might come together to defeat atheism and its political manifestations, especially as only they might be able to fill the spiritual vacuum that seems to be the heart of the matter.
Houellebecq has said something to this effect in a recent interview:
"My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible."
While many see Houellebcq's fiction as misogynistic, it's conceivable that the only factor standing between today and this possible future is the resolve of women.
Presumably, they will get little or no support from men like François. His example is evidence that the submission of the male can be acquired for the price of the right to polygamy.
Pro-Islamic women protest outside the Great Mosque in Paris.
"I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country." (Alexis de Tocqueville)
The power of this novel is in the set-up, rather than the character development or the plot.
We see a colonial plantation farm house in almost forensic detail. There's even a plan showing the location of rooms, doors, windows, even the furniture (not to forget the dark stain left by a centipede squashed on the wall of the dining room). The book could almost be stage directions for a theatrical work.
Robbe-Grillet places the characters in this house around meal time or cocktail hour. We seem to observe them through the louvres. However, someone appears to be missing. There's a vacant seat in the lounge room and an empty place at the dining table.
Does it belong to the husband of the female protagonist? (Is she even married?) Is the husband the omniscient third person narrator? Is he the one apparently looking through the louvres? Is he spying on his wife? Does he suspect she is having an affair? Is he jealous of his married neighbour Franck (whose wife never appears, because their young child is at home ill)? Does this ostensible illicit couple even do anything that suggests a relationship? Do they only seem culpable, because we (as vicarious peeping toms) attribute blame to them?
Robbe-Grillet gives us a clue to his intentions in the narrator's comment on a native song being sung by a road worker:
"The singing is at moments so little like what is ordinarily called a song, a complaint, a refrain, that the western listener is justified in wondering if something quite different is involved. The sounds, despite apparent repetitions, do not seem related by any musical law. There is no tune, really, no melody, no rhythm. It is as if the man were content to utter unconnected fragments as an accompaniment to his work."
By the end of the novel, these unconnected fragments have nevertheless cohered into a discrete work.
Inevitably, for a piece of metafiction, there is also a story within the story, or a novel within the novel, an African novel (or at least a novel set in colonial Africa).
Two characters, the ostensible lovers, comment on it, while their own story seems to assume the shape of its narrative. Franck, describes the husband in the novel in a sentence that we don't hear in its entirety, that "ends in 'take apart' or 'take a part' or 'break apart', 'break a heart', 'heart of darkness', or something of the kind."
The novel is an exercise in style, one of fragmentation and defragmentation. Can the reader reassemble what the author has dis(as)sembled?
The narrative isn't supplied to us pre-digested and easy to consume or swallow. Much is left unsaid. Even more is filtered out by the louvres, the blinds, la jalousie. It is forever oblique, raw and uncooked. We have to do our own mastication. We are like one of the characters peering into its meaning:
"He seems to be looking at something at the bottom of the little stream - an animal, a reflection, a lost object."
The novel doesn't so much tell a story as suggest one. We're permitted to sit at the table. We are silent eavesdroppers on the other side of the louvres. What is absent (and not described) is just as important as what is present (and described). Inference is just as important as implication. The imagination supplies what the senses don't.
Like the narrative and characters of the African novel, the twists and turns of the primary story construct:
"...construct a different probable outcome starting from [each] new supposition...Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to enjoy multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation..."
Robbe-Grillet's experiments proliferate in just over 100 short pages. They're more likely to appeal to fans of post-modernism. Readers have to tease out the meaning, and even then we don't know whether we're right. However, if we remain open-minded, tolerant and patient, we too can be intoxicated.
[During the novel, the female protagonist receives and drafts a response to a letter from Paris. We don't see either letter. This is a fabrication of the letter she receives.]
While I've been here, alone, in Paris, for months, desperately trying to negotiate the sale of our plantation (for our substantial and mutual benefit, as I'm sure you will appreciate), I continue to hear rumours that you have been taking Negro lovers in the port. At least you're not indiscreet enough to bring them home with you! What would the servants think? I had hoped that your promiscuity would end when we left Paris and assumed the burden of managing the family's banana interests. I also hoped that we could put your youthful affair with Franck behind us. Little did I suspect that he'd soon follow us with his new bride. Fortunately, he has been a true and loyal friend to me while we've been in the colony. I just wish I could say the same about you. Frankly, though it pains me to acknowledge it in writing, I can't see any future for our marriage. It's best we part company when we both return to Paris. I am only grateful we have had no children. I will deal with you fairly, so you shouldn't ever have to worry about money. I have always loved you, but now I find that this letter is the only way I can and must express my love.
"To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which iOur Journey...
"To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength."
Celine's first novel begins with the words, "Here's how it started" and finishes "...and that would be the end of us."
In between is a journey that takes in childhood, family life, service in the great war, recuperation in a hospital, an adventure in the heart of darkness of colonial Africa, a liberating voyage across the Atlantic, the glamorous promise of New York, factory work in Detroit, a return to Paris, life as a doctor in semi-rural France, a job in an insane asylum, and eventually death. It's an entire kaleidoscope of life experience.
...To the End of the Night
What's implied by the end of the night? That we've endured the darkness of the night, and now another day has started? Or is life just one day that ends with the night? Is life a metaphorical journey consisting of only one day and night?
It's possible that life is a period that consists of both light and darkness, that it's a blend of both happiness and sadness, and that the end of the night is the death that comes at the end of our lives:
"A time comes when you're all alone, when you've come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It's the end of the world...The truth is death."
Ultimately, however much we connect with family or society, we must confront death individually.
Madelon and the Picaro
The clearest insight into the narrator, Ferdinand, comes from Madelon: "First you cuckold your friends, then you beat their women!"
They are polar opposites, almost rivals for the love or affection of Leon Robinson.
Whatever ostensible pride Ferdinand might have, Madelon is "clean and beautiful", somebody who makes a point of "fidelity and respectability." She attacks his deluded self-esteem, his arrogance, his narcissism. He responds by slapping her face, twice, "hard enough to stun a mule".
Both of them encounter light and darkness. Both experience loss and grief.
Ferdinand is a picaro. The novel is as picaresque as anything by Cervantes, Rabelais, Sterne and Swift, except it's set squarely at the cusp of both modernism and modernity. At times, it seems like a precursor to Saul Bellow's more upbeat and upwardly mobile "The Adventures of Augie March". Yet Ferdinand is more old world plebeian than new world noble Augie. In his eyes, the promise of an American-style dream is a cinematic illusion. It turns humans into machines in the name of both production and consumption.
A Lecherous Existence
If there's one word associated with this novel, it's misanthropy. However, Ferdinand doesn't so much hate the rest of mankind as float along in life, trying to make "practical headway in the course of my harassed existence".
The concern of this man is his own existence. The other players are bit parts.
As Robinson says to Madelon, "Ferdinand isn't a bad sort, but delicacy isn't his strong point...nor fidelity either!"
He derives the greatest love and pleasure from the American, Molly, and "her long, blond, magnificently strong, lithe legs, noble legs. Say what you like, the mark of true aristocracy in humankind is the legs."
In other words, he's a pretty typical, lecherous, single guy, an "anxious, frustrated man", occasionally appreciative of "a blonde with unforgettable tits and shoulders", driven by the desire that resides in his testicles, and a quest for amusement and happiness, provided it doesn't come at too great a cost:
"Like it or not, a day should be one long almost unbearable pleasure, one long coitus...Happiness on earth would be to die with and while having pleasure."
Could life, after all, be one long coitus, and then you die?
I started reading the novel, expecting to be repulsed by its misanthropy. Initially, I was surprised by its fluency, the way the narrative progressed almost organically like life itself, then I succumbed to the exuberance of its story telling, its unexpected sense of humour, its black comedy, even if "all the rest is shit and misery."
Eventually, it seemed that, but for the violence against Madelon, it wasn't as misanthropic as its reputation would have it. Thus, for me, it was a far more enjoyable reading experience than I had anticipated. Don't be deterred by anything you've read or heard (including this review). This is a genuine classic! Pessimistic, cynical, perhaps, but still marvellously entertaining....more