On Philippe Sollers’s The Park*
And like all who know how to write, he let the scene duplicate, repeat, and betray itself within the scene.
[Jacques Derrida on Sigmund Freud, Writing & Difference]
The surface of Philippe Sollers’s The Park (published 1961 under the French title Le Parc and translated into English in 1968 by A.M. Sheridan Smith) in its smoothness, neutrality and evenness of voice betrays the influence of French nouveau roman. With its unaffected and inconspicuous language, the novel resembles a “walk among varied and contrasting essences, where one passes without transition from one continent to another, from one part of a country to another; from one climate to another; from one time to another time.” What then is the key to its transitions, the key so persistently repressed, “the same obstacle” (P 12) that repeatedly crops up in unexpected places such as cupboards? At least a partial answer is comprised in the novel’s title: the “park” is the novel’s ground plan, a map designed so that it eloquently speaks about what it does not (and cannot) state.
Accordingly, the park is a space associated with liminality and fulfilment. Always present in the background of the narrator’s awareness, it “dominates the town” (P 96) and significantly, it is also visible from “the other side of the flat” (P 19) that belongs to the female character, possibly the narrator’s lover, thus connecting and dividing them at once. It usually appears as a dark, deserted or soon to be deserted place of freedom that might have either belonged to the past or is entirely imaginary, fantasized: “And I run through the cool night coloured with lights, I reach the park that is deserted at this time, I run along dark paths, I jump on seats and iron chairs, overturning them; I run more lightly, freely among the trees, my head thrown back, lost, losing myself with nothing” (P 13).
A park is a place where wilderness is cultivated, where nature is in coexistence with technē. It is, in Sollers’s description of the city park, a collage of plants, of habitats, a sampler of species of flora from different climates, transplanted from their original locality and aligned in a surreal proximity. The flowerbeds are traces of the original habitats, the plants take on a dual role of being at once themselves and representatives of their species.. The park is a fantastic model of the world based on “co-existence of disparate elements – but which one vaguely feels are connected in some way” (P 71). Freud says that dreams “reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time” and the sections in The Park may be said to do the same, separated and constituted as they are by gaps, similarly to how printed words are isolated by blanks. The sections are scenes “connected by an invisible thread; forms whose composition is governed by rules that are kept hidden, but are strongly felt” (P 84). Elsewhere, Sollers offers another clue when he describes the park’s alley of marble columns as one “provid[ing] a panoramic view of the leafy whole, whose order thus remains protected and hidden” (P 91).
From its start, the novel builds up an unresolved constellation of scenes which enable imaginative investment into the presumed whole by simulating the concealment of their ordering logic. The value of the form rests in the array of unlimited, mutually non-exclusive possibilities it offers, opening itself to any variant of the story the reader might wish to find there. Both the novel and its governing image of the park work on this principle, as is made clear towards the end of the book: “As if, a truce having been made in the middle of the town, or perhaps a dream caused by her, a whole has been organized here, in spite of everything, in one complicated design; a whole that was felt, recreated by the visitor who has the choice of several itineraries, junctions, truncated perspectives or misty distances…” (P 90). This is highly reminiscent of a writing project presented earlier in the novel, with its central image of “a proximity, an unexampled freedom, the narration, taken up at last, of his astonishment and above all the relations, the rapid, disconcerting analogies, marking off, occupying at the same time the impalpable totality of the journey and of what had then brought him to a halt, put together by him as if it were outside of himself” (P 24). The book is described on the cover of the Calder and Boyars edition as dealing with the “predicament of the writer, the way he goes about writing his work”: drawing on the tradition of self-reflexive novel, the work probes into the “Grecian urn” problem of the extent to which an artwork may be a supplement of its author, preserve one’s personality and testify to one’s existence long after one’s death. Attendant questions of identity, self, and subjectivity arise.
The relationship between the body and inscription it thematizes answers the same logic as Derrida’s article “Freud and the Scene of Writing” which appeared in Tel Quel in 1965. The study was published after The Park and its final version therefore could not influence Sollers in writing The Park, but the affinity between the two authors is more than clear, especially when considering Derrida’s 1972 La Dissémination and his frequent publications in Sollers’s magazine Tel Quel. In “Freud and the Scene of Writing” Derrida follows the development of Freud’s metaphors that conceptualize the workings of consciousness and traces in them the clash between the “older” philosophy of presence and Freud’s intuition of mind as based on “a script which is never subject to, never exterior and posterior to, the spoken word.” Derrida argues that the twin metaphors of machine and writing had been gradually converging in Freud’s thought until, in 1925, they met in the metaphor of the Wunderblock or “Mystic Writing Pad,” suggesting that memory (and by extension also individuality) consists of “archives which are always already transcriptions.” Freud in his “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” explains the workings of the psyche by modelling them on the printator, a device that should combine the advantages of unlimited receptive capacity and freshness of surface. The writing pad has three layers: “a slab of dark brown resin or wax” is covered with another two sheets fastened together by their upper and lower edges, but otherwise detached. “The upper layer is a transparent piece of celluloid; the lower layer is made of thin translucent waxed paper.” To write on the slab one uses a stylus to press the upper layer to the lower so that scripture emerges; to erase the traces one simply lifts the sheet. Yet, as Freud remarks, the traces do not disappear completely, as they remain „retained upon the wax slab itself and […] legible in suitable lights.“ Thus they also distort what will be written in the future, until the printator becomes useless, in fact.
The writing pad thus provides a topological analogue for the psyche: the slab is structurally analogous with the unconscious, the paper stands for the perception-consciousness apparatus and the celluloid sheet at the top is there to remind us of the mind’s self-protective tendencies. The “[p]sychical content” is thus “represented by a text whose essence is irreducibly graphic.” Sollers seems to avail himself of this concept of psychical writing and posit a fictional impression of such figurative sheets, as it were lifted off the subject’s consciousness at different times. In this sense, the gaps in the text are disruptions, momentarily uncomfortable jolts in consciousness produced when the unconscious intrudes on and diverts the chains of signifiers in the consciousness. This happens most strongly in dreams and that’s why dreams, in Derrida’s view, are a “path back into the landscape of writing,” into the landscape of the “lithography before words: metaphonetic, nonlinguistic, alogical.” The state of dreaming, in which the repressed articulates itself in what at first sight seem consciously and logically unintelligible relations, is a pertinent analogy to the book, as Malcolm Charles Pollard pointed out.
But a gap, a rupture, is also the functioning principle of the sign. In “Signature Event Context” and elsewhere Derrida explains that the trace or the “signifying form […] constitutes itself by virtue of its iterability”; its basic characteristic is the sameness which, “by corrupting [the sign’s] identity and its singularity, divides its seal.” The sign’s actual existence is interrupted in time and so it always carries the possibility of its erasure. Thus, the sign is inimical to life and disrupts it: it bears death at its core. The central character of the novel seems to be haunted by an unspecified disease that periodically compels him to lapse into unconsciousness. The same happens to his counterpart, rival in love, friend and projection, a figure that usually appears under the pronoun he. Death is there all the time, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not; as an enemy, death is so close and familiar that there’s almost no saying whether one has not actually invented it oneself, “out of one’s treachery” (P 44).
The physical bedrock of consciousness, the hand whose writing we may from time to time glimpse in the novel and which marks the steady movement towards the end of the book will disappear one day. What will remain is only “the multiplicity of layered surfaces of the apparatus,” abandoned as “a dead complexity without depth,” because “[l]ife as depth belongs only to the wax of psychical memory.” That’s why Derrida considers writing to be “technē as the relation between life and death.” What will remain then will be only traces, gestures that may suggest an infinite possibility of meanings – like the images of the novel’s characters that are only “enigmas” and “ambiguous ambivalences,” but if they only “turn[ed] round, raise[d] a hand” (P 10), they would come to life with so intense a vividness as to transport the reader right into the midst of the scene, Sollers seems to maintain.
Yet if, as Derrida rather univocally states, “[r]epresentation is death [and] death is (only) representation,” then escape from one death only hurls one closer to another. While writing the author in fact falls apart into three incommensurate, unbridgeable, simultaneous existences. One is the existence of his body, the physical hand that lies at the root of the text but which is proven to be mortal by it. Then there’s the consciousness, a “mental frontier” (P 43), a thin sheet pressed between the physicality (“where it dies, I begin; where it begins, I take place” [P 43]) and writing. It will go with the body, but it will leave its traces. And the third is the trace itself, the persona (or personae) in the text. Thus, writing is for Sollers always tragic because it’s deeply dividing and contradictory. That’s the reason why, as he writes elsewhere, we “do not want to hear [language] speak.”
With all his force the writer in The Park embraces the abandonment of the self, numbs his body and forcefully “transports” himself to the scenes of his imagination, writing or memories. Driven by his symptoms he tries to cross the line between the soul and the body as far as possible in the direction of the territory of signs. The more the hero tries to escape from his reality, invest himself in the text and confirm this in the book, the more he also rushes towards the end, as he fills up the delimited space of the single orange exercise-book into which he enters his sentences. The seams between the scenes are signs of trauma, repression from which he escapes. Like in an infantile fantasy he’s transported into different milieus where he encounters his ancestors: his selves, partial and past. The child in the fantasy is forbidden to interfere; the author of course commits manipulations, but cannot defer infinitely the point where the text will end – either by way of closure or interruption. In this respect also, death is inevitable. Paradoxically, as Derrida writes, “the signature also marks and retains” the presence of the signatory, “his having-been present in a past now or present which will remain a future now or present, thus in general maintenant, in the transcendental form of presentness.” Similarly, Sollers believes that “non-time is the very time of writing.”
Yet, the writer undergoes the shattering of his identity in one more way ― in the process of refraction into the textual personas, characters, and the estrangement experienced through the text. Emile Benveniste, in his article “Subjectivity and Language,” argues that language “is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I”; inversely, “language alone establishes the concept of ‘ego’ in reality.” Around the I of the discourse a whole “fictional world” is thus formed through the use of deictic personal pronouns, demonstratives, tenses, adverbs of time and place and adjectives. The first and third persons are something like modes of experience, too: they carry with themselves certain assumptions (the degree of distancing, emotional involvement etc.). Sollers utilises this effect and elicits the question to what extent would replacing the pronouns merely reshuffle the novel’s constellations, leaving the language or the narrative as functional as before – which erodes the distinctions between the characters as well as their self-identity.
Thus the hypotheses of the “hero,” “author,” or “speaking subject” in The Park are to a great degree corollary to the structure of language and instead of characters it would be perhaps better to speak about pronominal “figures.” Pollard writes that in The Park, “pronominal identity is primarily defined in terms of grammatical distinctions,” such as the distinctions between tenses. Another critic, Jean Ricardou, “identifies the ‘je’ as the subject of writing that remains distinct from the human figure of the author, and the ‘il’/‘elle’ as pronominal objects rather than as individuals.” In his Writing and the Experience of Limits, Sollers himself states the following: “Whoever writes becomes other for this other to himself who must become the one who reads; between them there is the rule of an irreversible isolation and anonymity in which everything is, properly speaking, brought into question.”
Paradoxically, this also means that the writer may feel and create “for himself other limits, suddenly finding himself there, saved, forgotten” (P 24). The novel’s “figures” are positioned on a very thin boundary between the projections of the écrivain making up for the lack of his “real” life, his alter-egos and the objects of his desire. Their reality and positioning within the picture largely depends on the immediate context of the writer’s actual memories. This context, once the novel within the novel is finished and separated from its circumstances, is outside the reader’s reach and thus the signs may fall prey to a number of interpretations. Within the scope of the text, all the fantasies, all the scenes are therefore equally “real,” all the personae incontestable. The figures become signs and like the couples in the painting described towards the end of the novel stand protected and without the “slightest suspicion that the space behind them is open” (P 72). This is because, as Derrida reminds us, full dependability is something they never had in the first place: the “intention animating the utterance will never be through and through present to itself and to its content” and this “structural unconsciousness […] prohibits any saturation of the context.”
For Derrida, the unspoken truth at the heart of any writing is that even if an intentional arrangement is in fact lacking, “a proximity, an unexampled freedom, the narration” (P 24), as Sollers writes, is still sufficient. If that’s the case, the “reality” of writing rests in the fact that it provides one more instance of chaos against which we throw our energies to be served with one more self-reflection, self-projection. This is the truth of our experience, no matter if it is being noted down or not. The writer, always alert to this principle thanks to his trade, is caught in a mesh of contradictions. At the threshold of the text, his identity simultaneously perishes, is enhanced, refracted, preserved, made true, as well as reminded once more of its mortality. His trajectory is one of “a man just about to fall,” as Sollers said in one of his comments on Francis Ponge. The Park traces the “impalpable totality of the journey and of what had then brought [the character of the author] to a halt, put together by him as if it were outside himself” (P 24). Placing an equal sign between life and writing, it’s an act of “precise evaluation of what surrounds us by way of the ultimate effort to avoid falling and death.”
‘The Printator: Philippe Sollers’s The Park‘ appears in TERRAIN: ESSAYS ON THE NEW POETICS (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2014). Photo: Philippe Sollers at Versailles by Sophie Bassouls
 Malcolm C. Pollard, Philippe Sollers: Narrative and the Visual (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994) 33.
 Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” 20.
 Derrida, Writing and Difference, 286.
 Derrida, Writing and Difference, 287.
 Derrida, Writing and Difference, 286.