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QUANTUM OF SOLLERS – Part One

“A SUBJECT I WOULD CALL ILLIMITABLE, NUMBERLESS”

On the author of H (1973), forthcoming in translation with Equus Press. Photo: Philippe Sollers in Prague, 1997.

It is difficult to overstate Philippe Sollers’ (*1936) importance for post-War literary experimentalism, or that of Tel Quel, a journal Sollers co-founded, edited and used as his mouthpiece for the entirety of its existence (1960-82), not only as a tool for disseminating his fiction and literary criticism and theory, but also as a platform for propagating his political beliefs. In the account of Roland Champagne (author of the first book-length study on the founder of Tel Quel in English), Sollers began his literary career by opposing his chief concerns to those of Jean-Paul Sartre’s purported Marxism.[1] Sollers’ early nouveau-roman stage was short-lived, and nor did Sollers’ affiliation with the PCF last long. The events of May 1968 in France, in which Paris university students and workers cooperated in social revolt without the leadership of the PCF, were pulls in the direction of revolutionary history and the Maoism advocated by Sollers for Tel Quel during most of the 1970s, seeking new directions for French Communism in China where Mao was leading what he called his Cultural Revolution. Sollers’ vehemence and despotism in his advocating of Mao were what ultimately brought about, in the consensus of many critics, Tel Quel’s demise – in Champagne’s account, “by 1980, Sollers became aware that he was himself guilty of what he had earlier attributed to a bourgeois mentality.”[2]

The inception of Sollers’ public career predates the founding of Tel Quel by two years: in 1958, with the psychological novel Une curieuse solitude, applauded by François Mauriac or Louis Aragon, whose praise launched his literary career. At the time of its publication, the name “Sollers” was a nom de plume, a mask behind which to hide his real name Philippe Joyaux. Une curieuse solitude addresses the issues of masculinity and secrecy surrounding erotism—combined with the fascination for pornography as a means to desacralise sexuality—that will continue to inform Sollers’ writing throughout his entire oeuvre. Here, Sollers’ examination is centred on language and eroticism, exploring the issue of whether the narrator should avoid saying certain sexually explicit things or talk circumspectly and thus avoid using certain words, either too sacred or too sinful, and participate in a moral agenda. After two texts further exploring—à la nouveau roman—the nature of subjectivity and linguistic representation of space (Le Parc and Drame), came a striking new departure in Sollers’ writing and its experimental peak between 1968 and 1973, with the three hybrid, visually and conceptually innovative texts, Nombres, Lois, and H.

The creation and publication of Nombres (1968) was marked by the May 1968 unrest and social protest among university students and workers, especially in Paris, and the lesson Sollers drew was that the political tide was turning eastward, especially toward Chairman Mao’s Communist China – and the most striking visual aspect of the text of Nombres are the Chinese ideograms punctuating it throughout. The noteworthy property of the function of these Chinese ideograms is that they usually repeat what has just been mentioned in French, operating as a provocation to the reader in a stance of unreadability.[3] The title suggests the mathematical realm from which théorie d’ensemble (set theory) is also derived, the word “numbers” referring to “digits,” but at the same time, Nombres is also the French title of the Biblical book of Numeri, the census of the Hebrew nation and thus an accounting of the constituent tribes. The text is constructed in the sequential alternations of four voices, identified by the numerals one through four, in twenty-five repetitions, with the first three voices speaking in the imperfect tense while the fourth voice is in the present tense. The plural voices of Nombres are part of the Tel Quel project to undermine the “novel” as merely the perpetuation of such bourgeois values as a unified subject in control of its desires, goals, and speaking voice, values which Sollers perceived as propagated by the structuralism so rampant in the mid-1960s in France, which assumed a cohesive self and language its expression. This destabilisation is furthered by the text’s radically intertextual nature – Nombres is a patchwork of quotations from an array of texts from the most variegated sources and belonging to a multitude of discourses. Thereby, Nombres inaugurates a process crucial to what Champagne identifies as “the second spire” of Sollers’ writing, devoted to “separating self from language,”[4] setting the stage for Sollers’ crucial experimental texts.

Lois (1972) was written during a personally trying period for Sollers, the aftermath of the death of his father in 1969, after which he rewrote this whole text. Lois can be seen today as a cry for action to the young revolutionaries in Paris, a repudiation of “laws” in favour of unhindered action, textual as political. Lois continues the fragmentation of Nombres while adding the important aural dimension, introducing as a major element the exclamation mark as the instance of a percussive rhythm. In Lois, Sollers presents a text working as much on the level of sound/rhythm as on a conceptual level.[5] Champagne has tied this oral/aural dimension of Lois to its overall concern with challenging the literary traditions of the French letters.[6] Sollers devises an interesting mode of structuration by using the opening sentence “NE FACE A FACE NIANT LA MEMBRANE L’ENTRÉE” as a sort of verbal acrostic whose individual words stand at the beginning of each of the six “books” that form Lois:

NE (L I.1 5)

FACE dévidée frappée de plein fouet catapulte sèche en gazeux mouillé (L II.1, 25)

A FACE de face et b à l’envers et c en surface pour couper l’endroit (L III.1, 41)

NIANT cervelle os en tout temps cosmos, frappe de plein fouet son éther de vent (L IV.1, 61)

LA MEMBRANE autour juste avant après (L V.1, 89)

L’ENTRÉE nous apprend d’abord que ce n’est pas la nature en soi mais les transformations réalisées par l’homme qui sont les fondements de la pensée. (L VI.1, 116)

As is explained in Sollers’ own pedantic back-cover blurb, “on reconnaît le commencement d’un ‘livre’ à un mot écrit en capitales reproduisant l’un des mots de la première phrase du texte.“ Book I, Sollers informs, is dominated by “cosmo-theogony“ (Hesiodic prehistory). Book II insists on Greece-christianity. Books III-VI deal with the epoch of modern capitalism, marked by the “accentuation transversale de la réalité révolutionnaire (Chine).” Then, after quotes from Marx and Engels, comes the avowal that “rappels techniques“ are derived from “Rabelais, Joyce“; the decasyllabic verse, from “chanson de geste, chanson de Roland, vers shakespearien”; “actualisation du lexique (depuis mai 68).“ The history that forms the subject of Lois is far removed from that of schoolbooks. The focal point of Sollers’ examination of the various discursive strata whose superposition comes to form the official historical accounts is the taboo of incest, its “prohibition or rather subtilized recommendation” regarded as the inaugural moment of civilisation and its organising principle:

Soit : la prohibition ou plutôt la recommandation subtilisée de l’inceste, à savoir les rapports cochons et cachés mère-fils-père-fille ou plutôt mère-fille-père-fils, racontent la signature du contrat fondu dérivé, l’autre parent n’étant apparemment posé comme désiré qu’afin de produire le masque de son répété… (L I.1, 6)

The taboo of incest, then, is “the key by which intelligibility is conferred upon social networks,” the mechanism by which “the infant is inscribed into an Oedipal triangle,” out of which there is no escaping, which is instead perpetuated through the generations (L I.3, 11). Thus, while addressing the larger issues of the relationship of literature and propaganda after May 1968, Lois reflects a lust for sexual innuendo and scatological detail. Sexuality is part of all this because both men and women, in their multiform quests for each other, repeat the traditional roles passed on by their society, as the text’s voice observes: “En réalité, elles vont chercher plus loin leurs effets, elles n’oublient jamais l’antiquité réglée” (L I.3, 12). So in Lois the text stages its own search for a form appropriate to the struggle for social renewal, as incomplete and transitory as so many of Lois’s contestations of the laws of conventional literary discourse. From Nombres, Lois takes over the idea that the writing of any text takes place with/through other texts – hence the constant presence of quotations, rehashed, reshuffled, rewritten in what Forrest terms “la réécriture parodique.”[7]

Lois also performs a rewriting of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake by means of chiefly two strategies. One is an homage-cum-translation of selected sections of the Wake (the opening of FW I.1 and IV.1). It is no coincidence that the 1972 publication of Lois was simultaneous with the propagation, in the pages of Tel Quel, of Joyce’s Wake through Stephen Heath’s influential study “Ambiviolences.” It was with Heath that Sollers undertook (and published the next year) a translation of excerpts from the last section of the Wake. One finds fugitive allusions to and borrowings from the Wake in many different places (“Gulls. Gulls. And gulls” [L V.1, 89]), but most explicitly at the beginning of book III, where the beginning of FW I.1 and FW IV.1 are conjoined in translation-cum-pastiche:

en rune et rivière pour roulant courant, ravage battant dans le rebaignant, passée la douadouane du vieux de la vielle, de mèrève-adam se repomnifiant, recyclons d’abord, foutrement commode, circulés viciés ou gesticulant, le château-comment sous périphérant, là où ça méthode, où ça joue croulant… Il y va-repique au volant… Sandhyas! Sandyas! Sandyas! dourmourant le bas, appellant l’eau bas, résuractionné l’airveilleur du bas, ô rallie-rallie, ô rellie-ravis, ô reluis pleinphix tout brilliant luilui, soit l’oiseau en vie, notre râle écrit, nos sémématières sur l’ossiéanie… (L III.1, 41, my ephasis)

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. […] Sandhyas ! Sandhyas ! Sandhyas ! Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally! To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be. Seek you somany matters. Haze sea east to Osseania. (FW 3.1-3; 593.1-5)

This passage runs for three pages total (and includes parts of the Wake other than the two crucial ones, e.g. “Sacer esto? Semus sumus” from the end of FW I.6 [L III.1, 51]), but the above excerpt will suffice. The emphasised parts in the Sollers text mark passages that are creative elaboration upon the Joyce passage rather than attempt at translation. Sollers’ strategies of pastiche concern rhythmical/associative properties of language (reduplication in “douadouane”; alliteration in “vieux de la vielle”; rhyme in “croulant/volant,” etc.). There is also a tendency toward expansion, “unpacking” of the Joycean portmanteau into its multiple components (“recyclons d’abord, foutrement commode, circulés viciés ou gesticulant” for “commodious vicus of recirculation”). Several of Sollers’ punning neologisms have a poetic potential equal to that of their Joycean counterparts (“résuractionné” for “Array! Surrection!” and “l’airveilleur” for “Eireweeker” are particularly apt).

Apart from translation and incorporation of a fragment of the Wake into its own textual body, Lois “countersigns” Joyce’s Wakean signature in a far more relevant manner – by borrowing and re-using its compositional strategies, its project of writing by which the text is constructed and reproduced. Like the Wake, Lois relies on a series of mythical narratives and allusions that provide the narrative framework for the text, and engages in a similar kind of parodic appropriation of their styles and discourses, and a similar deformation on the level of the signifier that brings them into mutual interaction, so much so that the critical element entailed in parody gives way to the undifferentiated blend of the pastiche. The minimal reference, the elementary particle out of which Lois is construed, and the most common target of its playful variations, is the proper name:

Buongorno giordano ! Guten tag friedrich ! A nous la transmute, l’éternieretour par le sous détour. C’est pas tous les jours. Au permier qui mute. Farewell ezra ! welcome jimmie ! C’est l’aurore monsieur isidore… (L IV.12, 87)

Giordano Bruno, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ezra Pound, Joyce and Lautréamont – there are many more other passages in which Sollers expresses his admiration for and alliance with these writers/thinkers. Added to these is Hesiod, whose Theogony forms the intertextual scaffolding of Lois – disguised in passage such as “lui dont le cadavre hésitant sentant l’iode a été porté par les dauphins dans un cortège marin” (L I.2, 8, my italics). This paragrammatic dispersion of an author’s name is a common strategy in Lois (another Lautréamont example: “Il s’y dore. Conte, chante ça, horreur, mâle, dehors! L’autre est en amont si je suis en aval” (L V.2, 92), proof of Sollers’ familiarity with Saussure’s Anagrammes.

A second-type reference is formed by Sollers’ rewritings of famous quotations, oftentimes with a parodic oppositional twist, functioning as both homage and ridicule; cf. “My little sleep is rounded by a life” (L VI.6, 130) or “Le reste n’est jamais silence” (L VI.8. 81), in terms of Shakespearean parody, or Sollers’ version of Lacan, “le docteur flacon,” and his rewriting of Lacan’s famous prosopopoeia in “La Chose freudienne” (“Moi la vérité, je parle”) as “moi l’aspérité, je parle, je parle, mais ça vient d’ailleurs, de tout autrefois, de futur en courbe et retourne-moi” (L III.9, 58). A third-type reference is Sollers’ punning, whether via paronomasia or the portmanteau. To take but a few examples:

Jasons, jasons, il en restera pour nos argonotes. (L VI.9, 136)

Progressant dans sa conne essence! (L II.2, 27)

Tandis qu’argostronautes pansementés piochent lune ombilic limbé, terriens regardant performance bébé déjà face drapeau enfliqué. (L II.11, 38)

Mordre! Femmille! Patrie! (L III.9, 54)

Then there are the many passages in which the textual flow breaks up into isolated exclamations, as in the following passage from the age of the dinosaurs to the Neolithic age: “Débuts rageurs cavernés caveurs. Chimie-tic! Anthropo! Dinobronches! Iganonde! Ptérodoctes! Azor! Popo! Pipi! Tec! Tec! Paleo! Neo! Et au lit! Tic-Toc!” (L I.5, 15-6) Or, finally, passages in which articulated language breaks down altogether (as e.g. in the famous Wakean “thunderwords”), what Forrest terms Sollersian “glossolalia”[8]:

broum schnourf scrontch clong pof pif clonck alala toc toc toc cling skock bing glup burp snif pout pout paf crac pot clic crac tchhhh hé hé guili sluuiirp aaa mhouh mmouhou mouh plouts gnouf snoups tchi tchit chiiiiii ê ê ê ê slam ga hou gnin hop drelin drelin braang fochloour badabang ! (L V.10, 107)

Lois, like the Wake, becomes an assemblage of deformed quotations, of fragments of displaced discourse – a product of aesthetics of appropriation and détournement, in that it occupies what the Wake refers to as the “trancitive spaces” (FW 594.3) – those textual spaces based on silent quotation and pastiche, through the reworking of mythical narratives and the material deformation of the signifier. What to make of Sollers’ subversive strategies in Lois? Pure destruction, notes Forrest, of habitual forms of language has—in the overriding ideology of the Tel Quel magazine and of Sollers of the period—a value in itself, resisting as it does the alienation entailed in any passive acceptance of a code which determines us from the outside as speaking subject. Still, Lois is no more than a limit—never did Sollers repeat or go beyond the radical degree of its linguistic deformation—and a stage in Sollers’ development, whose direction was in fact away from the Joycean multi-layering of the written signifying matter toward forms that would allow a complex voicing to the spoken word.

H (1973) is a text whose most striking visual aspect is its lack of punctuation, capitalisation, or paragraph division, maintained for the entire bulk of 185 pages. All external punctuation is abandoned, Sollers explains, in order for H to become injected with the gestural rhythm of writing, its melodic effects, and for it to perform its non-linear movement across themes, allusions, scenes from the present and the past. This foregrounding of the oral and aural aspects of discourse is the result of Sollers’ conscious effort to create “the equivalent of a musical act.”[9] From the narrative viewpoint, H is the production of an anonymous narrator defined as “the upsurge of the subject.”[10] The form H adopts, Sollers says in the text, is not the “monologue intérieur” much used by early modernists—which often tended to reflect a notion of subjectivity prior to language—but rather what Sollers calls the “polylogue extérieur” (H, 42). H’s “illimitable subject” develops a highly mobile and differentiated idiom which touches upon a wide range of issues: literary, political, sexual, and historical. “Polylogue extérieur” grows out of Sollers’s understanding of the Wake’s political achievement in misappropriating language, of freeing language from what Sollers views as its subjective underpinnings, even though “la question reste posée comment dire ça dans quel rythme comment transformer la langue écrite et parlée dans le sens d’une respiration” (H, 83). This freeing of language is a political undertaking – H’s narrative, blending the plethora of voices reportedly overheard by Sollers in the streets of Paris in May 1968, brims with references and allusions to Mao Zedong, Marx & Engels, whilst its literary pantheon contains figures such as Artaud, Montaigne, Nerval, Pascal and of course Joyce. The freeing of language also takes place on a personal level. As Champagne and others have noted, Sollers experimented with drugs for a period of time in early 1970s, the title “H” thus possibly referring to hashish or heroine, for “sometimes the text makes such widely disparate references that one is even reminded of the visions produced by LSD.”[11] H continues Sollers’ acknowledgement of the rebellious figure of Giordano Bruno, whose 1588 Figura adorns the cover, its intersecting circles representing the intellect, which sees and distributes everything, corresponding to the structure of H.[12]

The crucial Joycean feature of H is not so much its unpunctuated form—even though Ulysses is recalled verbatim and in the original, e.g. “limit of the diaphane why in diaphane adiaphane if you can put your five fingers through if it is a gate if not a door shut your eyes and see” (H, 29)—as its various types of play with sound which foreground the text’s aurality. There are units in which sounds are juggled: “faudrait pas confondre les populations laborieuses du cap avec les copulations laborieuses du pape” (H, 111); the repetition of one affix or letter: “nageur travailleur, glandeur rêveur et toucheur menteur et chercheur” (H, 120); verbal skiddings involving the recurrence of one word in a series of words: “la période où nous vivons a un nom bouleversement sans precedent sur la boule qui se met en boule d’où boulon bouloner boulotter chambouler sabouler le camp impérialiste” (H, 121, my italics), etc. Exploiting and foregrounding the various properties and possibilities of language in general, H mimics the phases of linguistic awareness and performance experienced by individuals in their consciousness and unconsciousness. Sollers enjoys puns that play on culture and how culture forms the self, daring to make his texts unreadable, that is, so representative of contemporary life as to be reflective on the nature of the self as it is produced and directed by mores and language. As Sherzer argues, succesions of sounds like “flouc floc” and “noum toum atoum” are like the babble of an infant; successions of words like “oui melissa dorée le miel des abeilles la paillettes ruche cueillie dans les fleurs abeille abeille” (H, 105) are similar to the ludic glossolalia of children. Further, the play with sounds, free associations, constant disjunctions, puns, and anagrams found in H are “characteristic of dreams and hallucinatory states; they are, as Freud and Lacan taught us, manifestations of the unconscious surfacing in signifiers.”[13] However, Champagne is correct in tying Sollers’ project in H together with Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (published in 1972) and reading H’s opening, “qui dit salut la machine” as reference to their concept of “desiring machine” functioning through the intersection of capitalism and schizophrenia induced by the need to conform to some model of the ideal family.[14]

Typographically H is a thick, dense, continuous flow of words. Rather than a long sentence, it is more appropriate to call it a long clause without interruption. For 185 pages there are no paragraphs, no punctuation marks, no capital letters; the only diacritical elements utilized are accent marks. In addition to the lack of punctuation and paragraph structure, there are never any quotation marks to identify someone else’s spoken or written words. The book is a large intertext in which the surfaces are ingeniously tied together to create an ironic commentary on the madness of modern culture – a madness without beginning or end, a point brought home by the fact that the text does not open with a capital letter, nor does it end with a full stop. The text finishes with the questions “que crierai-je” (H, 185), a question answered by an intimate who says: “crie-lui toute chair est comme l’herbe l’ombre la rosée du temps dans les voix” (H, 185). These voices remain to haunt and to defy the text, which, in a sense, can never end.

DAVID VICHNAR


[1] “Instead, Sollers proposed a type of Communism that would clearly be an alternative to either Fascism or colonialism and would be dedicated through Tel Quel to inspiring the French Communist Party. In 1960, he began that journal by aligning it with the poet Francis Ponge and his ahistorical literary poetics which soon led Sollers and his colleagues toward the nouveau roman, structuralism, Derrida’s deconstructive poetics as an affirmation of the text’s integrity, and other intellectual positions that diverted the Tel Quel group away from history and into formalist exercises subverting the ideologies of bourgeois and capitalist ways of thinking” (Roland A. Champagne, Philippe Sollers [Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996] 21-2).

[2] Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 22.

[3] As Champagne puts it: “the reader cannot choose how to read this text, the text itself is deciding what is readable and unreadable” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 43).

[4] Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 36,

[5] As Ffrench has noted, “written mostly in decasyllabic phrases, the text of Lois is humorously scanned by a repetition of sounds, principally the past participle ending in é, alliteration, and rhyme” (Ffrench, The Time of Theory, 196).

[6] “One of the techniques introduced in Lois that Sollers would develop in his later work is a writing that is sensitive to the ear, that is, a poetic writing that records how people speak French rather than how it has been traditionally written. Effectively, oral language, like that of the medieval troubadours of whom Sollers would like to be recognized as the modern equivalent, is the basis for what Sollers claims in this text as ‘une sort d’explosion de comédie, de parodie’” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 47).

[7] Forest, Philippe Sollers, 180.

[8] Forest, Philippe Sollers, 193.

[9] “It is the equivalent of a musical act, an act that I perform after having listened to music: Haydn, Monteverdi, Schoenberg, Stockhausen […] My dream would be to succeed in creating a sort of opera of language […] Thus since Lois as I draft I use a tape recorder in order to rework different passages according to their sound effects. It was somewhat like the technique developed by Joyce for Finnegans Wake” (Jean-Louis de Rambures, “Interview with Philippe Sollers,” Le Monde [November 29, 1974]: 24).

[10] “It is the upsurge of the subject; or of what I have been calling the subject; the possibility of saying ‘I’ within, at the heart of language. Language is not neutral, but it needs to be taken over by a subject, a subject I would call illimitable, numberless, rather like in Finnegans Wage. This is not a biographical subject, it is not a ‘me’” (David Hayman, “Interview with Philippe Sollers,” Iowa Review [Vol. 5 no. 4, 1974]: 101).

[11] Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 47.

[12] As Sherzer points out, “there is no main or single organizing principle at the center; rather, many satellites with their own centers are copresent, forming a polygon. H’s structure is precisely that” (Sherzer, Representation in Contemporary French Fiction, 67).

[13] Sherzer, Representation in Contemporary French Fiction, 69.

[14] Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 49

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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