Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Some provisional thoughts on Pierre Michon’s The Origin of the World and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels

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What is the origin of the world? In French writer Pierre Michon’s eponymous novelette (of 84 pages) it is desire. Hence, the world is not the law of the language – or, as Michon writes, “words and their effects” – but the imperative of desire. But what is desire? Michon’s novel strives to show us that the world is not the certitude and stability of language as signifying, valorising power. Rather, language as world is an uncertain, precarious and ephemeral gestus, which, therefore, renders the world in its origin numinous. It is this that is desire. There is, of course, the question of “flesh”, and Michon does not fight shy of it at all: “Yes something in my class resembled her, it had bright eyes under plump eyelids and inky hair—but not the breasts or the ass, without even mentioning the earrings, and who therefore didn’t resemble her at all: Bernard, her son, who was seven years old and whose flesh was entirely superfluous to hers, because hers was a flesh more impetuous and dense than these thirty little-boy kilos.” Yet another example: “Helene’s dead flesh was radiant. Her flesh was no longer hers but was elsewhere, detached, free of her,…”

For Michon, flesh resides in between the two modes of its linguistic animation; thus alternating between instancing its own subordination to the power of objectification (and thus subjectivation), and instantiating the deobjectifying (and thus desubjectivating) force. Michon’s own preference is, however, clear. It’s for the latter. For him, the world (and its origin) is the evanescence of presencing. This world comes to exist in radical difference to the world as an object as its disavowal.

What the novel in question, therefore, gives us, and strives to be, is the evanescent ontology of difference. And what we have, as a consequence, is something aporetic, even paradoxical: metaphysics of the concrete.

In such circumstances, I am compelled to think of Michon’s novel vis-à-vis the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, especially ‘Jealousy’, and the “optical writing” (Barthes on Robbe-Grillet) they exemplify. Both Michon and Robbe-Grillet are, in my opinion, clearly grappling with the same philosophical question: the world as evanescence and/or numinousness. They, however, come to that question from two fundamentally opposed ontological presuppositions and with two utterly different stylistic approaches. As a result, the (literary) effects they produce in grappling with that question are radically distinct from one another.

For neither of them can the world be an object, a presence. But while for Michon the numinous origin of the world renders the world the ephemera of presencing; in Robbe-Grillet, evanescence as the world makes the world an absencing. The event as the world is, for Michon, presencing, while for Robbe-Grillet, the world as event is arguably presentation of the void of the world. Which is why world-becoming, for Michon, is the disavowal of objectification of the world — which is the world as presence-at-hand — by way of differing away, and thus withdrawing, from it. For Robbe-Grillet, on the other hand, the world as its own becoming is a disavowal of its subjectivation — which is precisely what linguistically ascertained presence-at-hand amounts to — by way of radical antagonism towards such an ascertained presence. Such antagonism seeks to efface, not abandon (as in Michon), the world as an object and a presence-at-hand.

In Robbe-Grillet’s novels, the constant chasing of the subject by the (pure) opticality of the object – registered in the effect of a hysterically obsessive subjectum and its critical paranoia – reveals that for the author of those novels the origin of the world is a void, and thus the world, and/or materiality, in its becoming is voiding or destruction as a process. That is why Robbe-Grillet’s novels are worlds as an excessive delirium of language that is always on the brink of implosion.

In stark contrast, Michon’s novel is world-becoming as the subjectum’s differentiating withdrawal from the linguistically ascertained, and thus objectified, world. In Michon, language — unlike the hysterically obsessive excessiveness that it is in Robbe-Grillet – is a constant striving for its own purification. This is rendered evident by the (literary) effect Michon, the author, therefore, produces: the gnomic, and enigmatic, sparseness of the novel’s prose.

We could perhaps then say that while Michon is a mytho-poetic writer in the best (that is, materialist) sense of the term; Robbe-Grillet is a dialectician of language in its most militantly destructive sense.

But while all of this would perhaps be adequate insofar as an aesthetic appraisal of the novel is concerned, it would fall woefully short as an explication of the philosophical, and political, effects that Michon produces as its writer.

We will, therefore, do well to confront the problem of love the novel deals with in tandem with the question of desire. Love is not synonymous with desire and yet the two are inseparable. Love is the affirmative obverse of desire as destruction. Michon grasps this perfectly. The novel demonstrates that love is not a relation, but an encounter. It is the divine violence of a gift that is dispossessing and yet precisely because of that refuses to be possessed. “She had flushed an even crimson, her white chin hesitating, weighing whether it would continue to bear her smile. It did; but in her eyes was a sort of call, a dream, a refusal sometimes seen on women,… a delicious servility and a vain shudder of revolt that was yet more delicious. She bridled, she relented, she offered up both her revolt and her defeat, the two grinding against each other with neither of them prevailing.”

And yet, love/desire is the sparsely beautiful and enigmatic language that is the novel – the linguistic precarity concomitant with constant withdrawal of language from its own presence as a way of self-purification. This reveals that for Michon love/desire is mythopoeisis: a subjectivity seeking its absolute purification. Hence, love/desire is, in Michon, not a machine that can destroy history. Instead, Michon’s love is, as we have observed earlier too, abandonment of history. Clearly, Michon’s vision of love – and desire – constitutes a kind of unfree mysticism. Much like what Marx had discerned in the philosophy of the Stoics.

That is perhaps the reason why the novel in question, unlike the novels of Robbe-Grillet, or the ‘works of love’ by surrealists such as Andre Breton, does not come anywhere near imploding – or collapsing unto itself – as the world it is. (In surrealism there is always the poetic beauty of mythic enigma and yet that is usually never unaccompanied by the destructiveness of the prosaic by way of delirious excessiveness of reason and its language.)

The enigmatic sublimity of ‘The Origin of the World’, which is its mythopoeisis, is then precisely its problem. It’s a problem that Michon shares with Nietzsche, pace Karl Loewith: the problem of striving to be pagan (“I will”) in a metaphysical world (of “Thou shalt”) that has come to be on account of paganism outliving itself. This is a world that has come into being — through the internal mutation of the proto-materialist, “crude-thinking” (in Brecht’s sense) pagan universe of rigorous particularism – as one of historical reason and/or other kinds of secular or religious metaphysics. Clearly then, this problem is at the heart of the mytho-poetic mode, which disavows the world of historical reason by seeking to continuously withdraw from it. This is radically distinct from the mode of the materialist dialectic, and its anadialectical thinking, that envisages redemption from history in terms of “profane illumination” (Benjamin), which amounts to destruction of world encaged in historical reason by way of (uninterruptedly) subtracting from it. In the mytho-poetic mode abandonment of history, and not its destruction through subtraction from it, constitutes redemption from history. If this is not unfree mysticism, wherein freedom is mere subjective illumination and ethics, what is?

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