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QUANTUM OF SOLLERS – Part Two

“THE LANGUAGE OF THE TEXT IS A BASE OVER WHICH SOMETHING SLIDES”

On the author of H (1973), forthcoming in translation with Equus Press

 

David Hayman was correct when guessing, in 1978, that “H is not a passing phase in Sollers’ development” since “his current work-in-progress, Paradis, points toward more radical departures in post-Wake fiction” – that is, toward important modifications in the method of his novels. Significantly, he also suggested that the movement generated by Tel Quel, and now called the “new-new novel,” should be called the “Wake” in a punning allusion to the book of puns.[1] Paradis can be regarded as consummation of the Tel Quel era of Sollers’ writing as well as the beginning of a new one, bound with the L’Infini magazine. Marking the inception of Sollers’ post-Tel Quel phase, Paradis is also a turning point in the direction away from Joyce’s materialist textuality toward further exploration of orality and aurality of the spoken word. Houdebine has pointed to this difference:

Sollers: là encore, stratégie très différente; pour m’en tenir à ce seul aspect de la question: non pas tant des récits, que leurs thèmes, ou séquences, repris essentiellement au niveau de leurs charges discursives, et donc articulés – notamment par le rythme (cf. le rôle de la syllabe comme lieu nodal des scansions) qui est en l’occurrence l’opérateur de différenciation-intégration privilégié – sur d’autres discours, à statut scientifique ou philosophique, par exemple, lesquels impliquent le jugement rationnel comme « moment » obligé de la lecture aussi bien que de l’écriture ; ce qui n’est pas vraiment le cas chez Joyce, me semble-t-il ; on pourrait presque dire que celui-ci est encore chronologiquement trop contemporain de Freud, et donc pas assez.[2]

Two events following the experimentalist/political peak in his fiction (Lois and H) in the course of the 1970s alienated Sollers from his Tel Quel enterprise: the 1974 visit (together with Kristeva, Barthes, Marcelin Pleynet, and François Wahl) of Peking to see for himself the results of Mao’s revolution. Although fascinated by the exposure to such a radically different language and culture, the social problems of the workers and the women and the Maoist hegemonic political purges brought a certain sober tone from the returning group to the Tel Quel agenda, attenuating the harsh cries for Maoist revolution. Then, in 1979, Sollers converted to Catholicism, and started working on his Dantesque/Joycean Christian epic, Paradis. It was the installments of Paradis I and Paradis II in the last Tel Quel issues and the negative feedback from Sollers’ editors at Seuil that led, in October 1982, to discontinuation of Tel Quel’s publication. Sollers realised that there was another way to attain his goal of social reform, and the opportunity for exploring another venue was provided by the journal L’Infini. Sollers directed sixteen issues of the new journal for Denoël until Fall 1986 when he moved the journal to the prestigious publisher Gallimard, where it has continued to flourish until this day.[3] L’Infini offers the possibility for an open forum of selected writers who share a vision for an infinity of affirmation even if it involves contestation and Sollers appears to be less involved in ideological control with L’Infini than he was with Tel Quel, concerned instead with a humanism that is tolerant in the spirit of the pamphleteer Voltaire and the Montesquieu of Lettres persanes. L’Infini has continued the work of Tel Quel in publishing texts by incisive young writers (e.g. the work of Bernard-Henri Lévy and his group of “new philosophers”), encouraging the blending of philosophy, history, and politics: a vision endorsed by Sollers from the beginning of Tel Quel without, however, continuing its political and literary radicalism.

After his conversion to Catholicism in 1979, Sollers wrote what he considers to be his best novel, Paradis (1981). He emulated Joyce and Dante for their impassioned involvement of Catholicism in their epic visions. The title Paradis is derived from Dante’s Paradiso, but Sollers’ work purports to be a parody of the modern conception of heaven. A continuation with H is established by the repeated suspension of visual punctuation, each page of Paradis is an unpunctuated block of words, whose visual density is further emphasized by the use of bold italicized typescript. This suspension of “visible punctuation” is, according to Sollers’ back-cover blurb, in the service of a “readable eloquence.”[4] Its textual material is composed of a series of catalogues about life in Florence and in Paris, based on Sollers’ extensive research—undertaken while travelling between the two cities for an extended period of time—about the nature of “culture” in these two capitals of Western civilization. The work reads like a computerised database of the most banal to the most sophisticated details – an encyclopaedic parody of Christianity in Joyce’s mode, which is counterpointed with Dante’s work, on whose command of language and erudition Sollers based his portrayal of the pathos of modern Christianity. The text is an “artificial paradise” of messages embedded in sequences of ideas gleaned from throughout literary and philosophical history, one with a particular flavour because the narrator is similar to a troubadour singing the story of modern times:

il faut être non seulment chanteur mais aussi d’abord écrimeur où vois entendez crime rime escrime mais aussi crème et crieur écriveur rivé au rêveur écriteur critère du tireur en tout cas plutôt écririen écrimien plutôt écrisseur crispeur que scribeur plutôt cricin que critien (P, 102)

That Sollers’ gradual distancing from the Joycean model—begun in H—is furthered in Paradis, has been corroborated by himself in an interview with Hayman where, although so far always careful and explicit about his ties with Joyce, Sollers specifically contrasting his texts to the Wake: “To read my texts you should be in a state something like a drug high. You’re in no condition to decipher, to perform hermeneutic operations […] The language of the text is a base over which something slides. That’s why you don’t have polysemic concretions.”[5]

Thus, if in the Wake one encounters polysemy, the existence of many meanings in a single word, whether pun or portmanteau, and this practice of polysemy multiplies interpretations, then in Paradis, on the other hand, one can speak—together with Hilary Clark, author of a comparative Joyce/Sollers study—of a “polysensibilité,” a sensitivity to literary texture, to the lapping and overlapping of phrases, stymying interpretation by a seemingly endless sameness, an impenetrable verbal surface.[6] A standard Paradis passage reads as follows:

que la cause trébuche d’effet en effet toboggan lapsus décalé et plue elle se prend pour l’effet et plus elle s’y fait et plus elle y tient et s’y entretient et plus qu’elle y colle et y caracole felix culpa péristole péristoire chlorant l’oxydé tourbillon d’éveurs d’adamnées parmi lesquels j’ai aussi mon compte gobé mouche arachné toile or donc au commencement il était une fois un commencement hors-commencement vol essaim chanté sans rien voir forêt d’ondes nuée grimémoire comme c’est vrai le vrai du ça veut dire vrai vérité du vrai dérivé comme c’est dur d’y entrer béni d’arriver au vrai ça m’a dit lequel vous prend largo des pieds à la tête in illo tempore périplum et péripétie… (P, 146)

Self-reflexively, the above passage comments upon the formal consequences of freeing the text from punctuation, calling it a “toboggan effect.” To add to this effect, several words undergo reduplication and repetition: “au commencement il était une fois un commencement” or “comme c’est vrai le vrai du ça veut dire vrai vérité du vrai dérivé comme c’est dur,” where the phonic properties override semantic content. This effect is not without its philosophical implications. As Clark points out, in a non-punctuated text, where units of sense are not clearly demarcated, where they often overflow or interpenetrate, the notion of cause and effect can become blurred; and once the notion of truth (“la vérité”) has been caught up in the verbal play and ambiguity of the text, the term loses its privileged status and becomes reduced to being one word among others, susceptible to transformations and manipulations.[7] Very early on in Paradis, punctuation is linked to the repression of unconscious desires, and the practiced lack thereof is portrayed as a form of “jouissance.” The text brims with erotic situations, oftentimes juxtaposed with evocations of paradise, the two often being indistinguishable. The text speaks of a “relation between punctuation and procreation”:

j’avais immédiatement deviné qu’il y avait une liaison entre ponctuation et procreation d’où leurs resistances… à savoir qu’ils n’enregistrent que les points de rencontre avec leur image virgule tiret point virgule conclusion… ce truc donnait directement sur leur hantise à grossesse genre sésame bloqué en deçà de telle sorte que l’inconscient est bien le non-né hors-né jamais né… (P, 8)

There is, also, a strong impulse in Paradis toward encyclopaedic enumeration as when the phrase “the fruit of thy womb” evokes a digression into a catalogue of types of “fruit”: “jésus le fruit de vos entrailles pastèque melon pêche melba grenade est béni” (P, 35). Although muted in comparison with Lois or H, wordplay and punning are also present, as in the portmanteaux “la rembabelle” (P, 176), a composite of “remballer” (“to pack up”) and “Babel,” “sécréateur” uniting “sécateur” (“pruner”) and “créateur” (P, 93), or “cranaval” combining “crâne” (“skull”) with “carnaval” (P, 97). Nor is Paradis without its parodic rewriting and détournement of famous quotations, particularly Biblical passages: for instance, “au principe de tout et surtout de l’humanitout était la parole et la parole était chez je suis et la parole était je suis elle était au principe en je suis profondément dedans fiche en lui” (P, 46) is a rewording of John 1:1-3, without however the humorous effects of neologisms or sexual innuendo.[8] As Clark emphasises, the Word is God, the divine “je suis,” and divine speech or action is linked (“profondément dedans fichée”) with identity, “I am”-ness, whereas in contrast, writing is the site of the subject’s traversal by all the other subjects who have ever written, a practice of self-alienation: no longer the Wakean striving for “verbal signature,” Sollers’ exploration of individuality is that of the voice.

Paradis II (1986) picks up the last word of Paradis I and incorporates it into a Baudelairian series of images repeated throughout this second text: “soleil voix lumière écho des lumières soleil coeur lumière rouleau des lumières” (P II, 7), words which are part of an ecstatic poetic vision recurrent six times at various parts of the text. This time, there are no italics to distinguish this text, as there were in Paradis, the text entirely set in Roman type, as if to say that these are not specially identified words, as the italics suggest. A key intertextual reference here is an “enfin navigable courageus Debussy” (P II, 66), the composer of “La Mer,” admired by the narrator who has also engulfed the reader in a bizarre dialogue that entices with the invitation “entre ici dans mon paradis” (P II, 113) while suspending satisfaction even with the last words, which are not final, referring to “mon échelle bien légère et triste et bien ferme très joyeuse et vive et bien ferme veni sancte spiritus tempus perfectum tactus ciel et terre pleine de l’énergie joie d’autrefois” (P II, 115). And even though the repetition of “joyeuse” and “joie” may refer to either Sollers’ real name “Joyaux” or to Joyce, this ocean words is Sollers’ verbal “orchestration” (another recurring word) of Debussy’s works rather than a Wakean exercise in polysemy. Champagne speaks of the two volumes of Paradis as constituting a verbal hologram of epic proportions,[9] and what little remains of the Joycean avant-garde heritage in Sollers’ output post-Tel Quel lies in its epic scaffolding, the device of the catalogue and recursive structure. Here, the epic catalogue seems to reiterate phrases so as to stimulate the recognition of repetition and involvement of memory on the part of the reading subject who thereby participates in Sollers’ project of writing the chronicle of the culture of his times. Repetition and recursion, as in the Wake, becomes the bond between writer and reader in their link to a common past.

In the 1980s Sollers’ novels changed considerably. Since Femmes (1983), they contain language which is transparent, engage definable narrative voices, involve character development, intrigue, and a more traditional format with regard to sentence and paragraph structure. In 1984 he published Portrait du joueur, and in 1987 Le Coeur absolu, both of which sold well.[10] The subject of Femmes is a serious one, even though the tone of the narrator Will—an American journalist in dialogue with S., an avant-garde novelist living in Paris—is skeptical regarding the winds of style, that create the various popularized roles accessible to women. The issues are feminism and male chauvinism – essentially marketable topics. Portrait du joueur is Sollers’ humorous take on the difficulties entailed in autobiographic writing à la Tristram Shandy, which Sollers respects because of the shifting narrative strategies of the writer as a gambler and player of games. Sollers’ narrator, Philippe Diamant, is an autobiographical voice which could be that of Sollers: not only is he French, having been born in Bordeaux, and has two sisters as well as many of Sollers’ predilections, but in the following passage Sollers ties the name to his original surname Joyaux: “Remarquez, j’aurais pu aussi bien m’appeler joyaux. Au pluriel. C’est le même mot que jouer. Ancien français joel. Racine latine jocus. Jocalis, jocalia. Joyaux, Diamant, tout ça c’est du pareil au meme” (PJ, 224). Thus, Sollers arrives at his family name via a play on words which associates Joyaux with juif (Jew), then joyau (jewel), and finally diamant (diamond). As long as the Paradis-series employed comic intervention through the juxtaposition of textual fragments within a parody of contemporary culture, then in Femmes and Portrait du Joueur, “the apparently serious return to a more classical style of narration is undercut by the self-deprecating tone of the narrative voice.”[11] In Le Coeur absolu Sollers is one of the characters as well as the narrator, an aging man beset by the fear of his loss of attractiveness to women and his appeal as a writer to prospective readers. Sollers, his reputation, and his talents, are the subject of frequent discussion amongst characters. The title suggests an idealism and a personal pathos far removed from the dialectical materialism of the politically involved Sollers of the early 1970s – nor does the conventional narrative style bear any resemblance to his daring formal experiments, which the Paradis-series of early-to-mid-1980s seems to have brought to a close. After Le Coeur absolu followed four more novels in which Sollers continued in his return to formal neo-classicism, elaborating on his examinations of Catholicism (challenging the Christian repression of sexuality), whose conservative style has the primary realist function of getting the message across. 

Still, critics like Forest argue for a holistic approach to the Sollers oeuvre, relating as it does one and the same experience throughout, “the mysterious plunge of the subject into the interior of his/her own speech.”[12] The fact remains that never before or after the Nombres-Lois-H trilogy was the experience conveyed by Sollers’ writing quite as Joyce-inflected. Still, as long as Champagne’s retrospective view reveals the following three crucial modes of Sollers’ fiction,[13] it is quite indisputable that all three of these three modes (iconoclasm, transgression, and religiosity) have been dependent if not based on Sollers’ engagement with Joyce’s work. Sollers is an author who, most outspokenly and steadfastly of all post-war French avant-gardists, has grounded his theory and practice of fiction on the legacy of the Joycean revolution of the word.

David Vichnar


[1] Hayman, “Some Writers in the Wake of the Wake,” 25.

[2] Houdebine, L’excès de langage, 199.

[3] See more in Ffrench, Time of Theory, 22-3.

[4] “Pourquoi pas de ponctuation visible? Parce qu’elle vit profondément à l’intérieur des phrases, plus précise, souple, efficace ; plus légère que la grosse machinerie marchande des points, des virgules, des parenthèses, des guillemets, des tirets. Ici, on ponctue autrement et plus que jamais, à la voix, au souffle, au chiffre, à l’oreille ; on étend le volume de l’éloquence lisible!” (P1, back cover)

[5] David Hayman, “An Interview with Philippe Sollers,” TriQuarterly 38 (Winter 1977): 129-30.

[6] “Clark comments further: “Paradis thus presents two very different faces to the reader: the eye perceives the cryptic, crabbed surface of the page, whose unpunctuated mass recalls the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and with difficulty penetrates it and divides it into units of significance; on the other hand, the ear picks up the rhythms and intonations of speech, familiar patterns against which the verbal flow is perceived, measured, and invested with sense” (Hilary Clark, The Fictional Encyclopaedia – Joyce, Pound, Sollers [New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1990] 129-30).

[7] “Thus hesitations and play subvert the process of defining a word. When this word is “la vérité,” a powerful concept—traditionally at the base of philosophical systems and of texts—is put into question. […] A questioning of such monolithic concepts as truth, cause and effect, thought itself is thus facilitated by the practice of non-punctuation” (Clark, The Fictional Encyclopaedia, 131).

[8] As Champagne has pointed out, the humour of Paradis lies elsewhere: “The humor of Paradis is found in its game of messages embedded in apparently unrelated sequences of spoken text. The messages are inserted by the omniscient voice of the poet/writer for the reader to decipher. These are encoded signals that the poet/writer offers as guides through the text. The poet/writer is basically saying that he is the only one who can find the way through this maze of contemporary culture’s language” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 51).

[9] “The multiple volumes of Paradis indeed constitute an epic. Their epic vision is a humorous one, however, because of their positing of a heroic model in the voices of humanity and in the heroic manner in which S continues to insist on publishing subsequent volumes. Sollers presents himself as the hero, as the poet who is recording this testament of his times. […] The stream of words in Paradis becomes a hologram that ironically erases visual clues if they are read aloud. The reader must go beyond the materialism of the visual assault of these words strung together with no apparent structure just as Sollers himself goes beyond the materialism of his Maoist cultural position in 1974” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 59; 60-1).

[10] As Champagne observes with irony, Sollers is “certainly proud to be finally the writer of best-sellers. However […] he is also careful about what this ‘popularity’ means because he does want to be read” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 53).

[11] Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 55.

[12] “Cette plongée mystique du sujet vers l’intérieur même de sa propre parole, qui, lui permettant de se soustraire à la mécanique sociale qui le nie—langage pétrifié, ronde sexuelle—lui ouvre la voie vers une forme de vérité qui est aussi jouissance” (Forest, Philippe Sollers, 332).

[13] “The spires of Sollers’ creative writing have constituted a moving spiral of his modes of iconoclasm, transgression, and religiosity. The spiral is still evolving as his vision expands. […] And Sollers is intent upon continuing that program of making the world less stupid by implementing a type of generosity that is tolerant of differences and allows others to be other” (Champagne, Philippe Sollers, 101).

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

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