Refrigerated Dreams

Project for a Revolution in New York

by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated by Richard Howard
Grove Press, 192 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Since 1955, when I spent a happy week at the Château d’Eu in Normandy listening to some of the practitioners of the French New Novel, then in the springtime of their fame, expressing their anti-Balzacian views among the imperial, and utterly Balzacian, bric-à-brac of the Orléans-Braganza family, I have puzzled intermittently over this relatively recent artistic phenomenon. The New Novel has been one of the major events during my career—or accidental involvement—as a teacher of French, and I have quite failed to respond to it in any positive way. Ought I to resign, or do they also serve who expound their own obtuseness? I hope so, because I have proved almost as insensitive as a French classicist reacting to the Romantic movement between 1820 and 1830.

This is not, however, because I cling deliberately to any conservative notions about what the novel ought to be. I find the theoretical statements of the New Novelists extremely interesting and, for the most part, intelligible and even acceptable as philosophical principles. Over the years I have had many opportunities of hearing them talk further about their creative beliefs; indeed, I have listened to M. Robbe-Grillet giving the same lecture at least three times in different places, although I have occasionally suspected that, in his case, it is artfully calculated to keep the debate alive through ambiguity rather than to settle it by clarification.

But, generally speaking, I have grasped the argument: it is now old-fashioned to assume, as everyone once did, that the function of the novelist is to show a character or a group of characters living through a phase of life in a recognizable social context. People, whether seen from the outside or the inside, are not “characters”; they are indefinitely complex series of appearances to which it is risible, and almost vulgar, to attach proper names. Time is a mystery—an always immediate mystery, since the past and the future are mere illusions of the shifting present. Any realism of the social context is out of the question, because reality is infinite and multifarious and can only be rendered linguistically by partial, and often mutually exclusive, grids. There are no plots in nature, so that to tell a story in terms of cause and effect is to accept a naïve, linear fiction.

So out go the characters, the story as a chronological sequence, the identifiable narrator or narrators, and any commonsensical description of social settings. All these things are said to smack of the false bourgeois certainties of the nineteenth century, and should be left to those retarded writers who repeat the automatisms of the past without realizing that new forms have to be invented to convey new perceptions. On the whole, what the New Novel gives us in the place of the traditional story is very carefully arranged linguistic structures palpitating in a sort of void, as if they were autonomous patterns or puzzles.

My difficulty is that these patterns or puzzles provide me with little enlightenment and give me practically no pleasure, apart from the incidental enjoyment to be derived from savoring the French language, when meticulously written. But I can get that kind of enjoyment from a good textbook or technical treatise, in which case I also understand the necessity of what is being said. For me, the New Novel in some fundamental way lacks necessity, and the odd passages I appreciate and remember are unfortunately those which are closest to the traditional novel: the description of the dreary English landscape in Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, the aunt’s obsession with the door in Le Planétarium by Nathalie Sarraute, an evocative paragraph or two in Robbe-Grillet, a few vivid, erotic sentences in Claude Simon, or a humorous fragment in Robert Pinget.

Taken as would-be aesthetic wholes, the novels strike me as very disappointing after the excitement of the critical theories, as if the writers had not adequately solved the problems raised by their own philosophical attitudes. Strangely enough, I think the disappointment is directly, or indirectly, admitted even by some people who have welcomed the New Novel and claim to support it. It is perhaps significant, for instance, that the most fashionable contemporary French critic, Roland Barthes, who was largely responsible for arousing interest in Robbe-Grillet’s early novels, has not committed himself to any definite and extended judgment on the later ones. However, in 1963, in prefacing Bruce Morrissette’s book, Les Romans de Robbe-Grillet (a descriptive work which gives no aesthetic evaluation), he made the following curious statement in connection with the apparent gratuitousness of Robbe-Grillet’s books:

What do things signify? What does the world signify? All literature is this question, but it must immediately be added, since this is what gives literature its special nature: it is this question minus the answer. No literature in the world has ever replied to the question it put….

What god, Valéry said, would dare to take as his motto: I disappoint [Je déçois]? Literature might be considered as this god; perhaps it will eventually be possible to describe all literature as the art of disappointment [l’art de la déception].

This is a very debatable assertion. Granted that the ultimate meaning of things is beyond our grasp, it has usually been assumed that literature, and art in general, is a means of producing a satisfactory, not a disappointing, response to the ultimately unknowable. The entire critical argument, we might say, has been about which responses are disappointing and which satisfactory and, as I shall try to show later, there may be a connection between this problem and the ambiguous concept of necessity.

In a recent study, The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget,1 an American academic, Vivian Mercier, who declares himself convinced of the permanent value of some at least of the characteristic New Novels, hedges his bet a little:

It is of course possible to argue, as many critics still do, that the reach of Robbe-Grillet and the rest far exceeded their grasp: that their actual as opposed to their ideal novels are either so brief and lacking in content as to be negligible—Robbe-Grillet and Madame Sarraute—or concerned with working out an obsessive pattern at such enormous length as to be boring—Michel Butor, Raymond Queneau, Claude Mauriac. As for Simon and Pinget, they may be seen as innocents ruined by evil company—potentially great, warm-hearted writers who have made their books unreadable by forcing good meat through the sausage-machine of dogmatic theory.

Since Mr. Mercier himself dismisses Robbe-Grillet’s previous novel, La Maison de rendez-vous (1965), as being of no interest, without however showing in what ways it differs from the earlier ones, we may wonder if he did not grow progressively wearier of the New Novel as his study proceeded. At any rate, we are forced back onto our own judgment in dealing with the latest product, Project pour une révolution à New York (1970).

To my mind, this “novel” has exactly the same characteristics as Robbe-Grillet’s five preceding works, but the publicity handout accompanying the French edition, which was written by the author himself, is rather more explicit than some of his earlier statements and is therefore worth bearing in mind as one reads the book.

He begins by repeating, for the nth time, that the traditional novel is “a fossilized use of language,” surviving from the early nineteenth century, which tells, in chronological sequence, a story which is “as definite as a judgment.” Sociologists have shown that this traditional novel reflects bourgeois values connected with the destiny of the individual and the history of societies. The bourgeois values having collapsed, the traditional novel must be replaced by something else, “a new organizing force.” To supply this force, the New Novel has evolved the theory of generative themes (la théorie des thèmes générateurs):

From now on, it is the themes of the novel (objects, events, words, formal movements, etc.) which become the basic elements engendering the whole architecture of the story, and even the adventures which occur in it, according to a mode of development comparable to those employed by serial music or the modern plastic arts.

But what are these generative themes? Robbe-Grillet says he finds them among the “mythological material” of everyday life—in newspapers, posters, etc.—which reflects the collective unconscious of society. Then comes a very important paragraph, asserting that all moral judgments are a form of backward-looking escapism:

In dealing with these modern myths, two attitudes are possible: one can either condemn them in the name of accepted values (erotic imagery may be condemned in the name of “true love,” or even in the name of “true” eroticism, which is connected with psychological depth, pathos, and guilt); but this moral condemnation is no more than an escapist attitude, a flight into the past. Or they can be accepted, and without altering their flatness as modish images, I can recognize that they are all around me, that is, within me, and that instead of closing my eyes and veiling my face, there remains the possibility of playing with them.

As his imagination manipulates the mythological material, the novelist establishes his freedom, which exists only in language, the sole domain of human liberty. And this literary game, unlike bridge or chess, has no preordained rules; they are made up and canceled by the writer, according to his whim, and this is as it should be:

After the bankruptcy of the divine order (of bourgeois society) and, following that, of the rationalistic order (of bureaucratic socialism), it must be understood that henceforth only ludic2 organizations are possible.

Love is a game, poetry is a game, life must become a game (this is the only hope for our political struggles) and “revolution itself is a game,” as was said by the most conscious of the revolutionaries of May 1968.

Before discussing this last paragraph, I should perhaps explain how the “ludic” principle works in practice. Project for a Revolution is not, of course, a documentary or “realistic” account of an actual or imagined revolution in New York, any more than Le Voyeur was a description of the mind of a pathological killer or La Jalousie an explanation of the psychology of a jealous husband in a tropical bungalow. Robbe-Grillet’s method is to take elements that might have been present in a traditional novel on the subject and then to orchestrate them according to his own rules.

In this instance, we can suppose that if a revolution were being organized in New York, an agent might emerge gingerly from the house in which he was living with his sister, walk anxiously toward the nearest subway station, take a train to a place of assignation in a secret underground hall, and listen to a revolutionary pep talk from three spokesmen of the organization. His duties might involve torturing a beautiful female half-caste to get information about a rival group. An intruder might break into his flat during his absence by climbing up the fire escape and shattering a pane of glass in a French window.

We have all read about episodes such as these, or seen them a thousand times in the cinema or on television. Robbe-Grillet does not want to do anything so banal as reorder them in the light of some value judgment about what the revolution might be, or should be. Instead, he uses them to make a pattern that is rather like a dream one might have on going to sleep after reading a thriller or attending a film. Certain details are seen with maniacal precision, although their relevance, if any, remains unexplained; incidents recur and are recounted in the same, or slightly different, words. All identities are in a state of flux, just as in a nightmare one may be both the pursuer and the pursued.

But it would be too simple to conclude that Robbe-Grillet has abandoned the rational organization characteristic of the waking state to produce oneiric patterns, comparable, say, to the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. His dreams, if they are dreams, are strangely refrigerated, because the prose carries no direct charge of emotion, either positive or negative, to make the pattern intelligible. In Project for a Revolution, the overtones are undeniably somber, because the “characters” are spying on each other or torturing each other (there is no suggestion of any joyful revolutionary excitement). Yet no sinister vibration is allowed to creep into the language, which always moves at the same measured pace to describe everything with the same calm objectivity. Thus, there is no rhetorical difference between one of the recurrent descriptions of the broken windowpane:

Le choc a produit un son net et clair. En même temps est apparue, s’étendant à toute la surface du rectangle, une fêlure en étoile à multiples rayons. Mais aucun morceau ne s’en détache, si ce n’est, avec un retard notable, un petit triangle de verre très pointu, long de cinq ou six centimètres, qui bascule lentement vers l’intérieur et choit sur le carrelage avec un bruit cristallin, se brisant a son tour en trois fragments plus menus….

and one of the high points of a torture scene, where the operator sets fire to a bundle of horse-hair glued to his victim’s vagina:

Je craque une allumette, prise dans la boite qui se trouve dans ma poche et l’enflamme le buisson roux. Cette fois le corps aux courbes voluptueuses bouge davantage, dans le rougoiement de la torche vivante, ses liens ayant sans doute pris un peu de lâche, à force d’être tiraillés en tous sens par la fille qui se tord au paroxysme de la souffrance. Une sorte de râle sort de sa gorge, avec des halètements et des cris de plus en plus précipités, jusqu’au long gémissement rauque final qui se prolonge encore après l’extinction totale des flammes, dont une gerbe d’étincelles a marqué l’achèvement.3

These are two very neat pieces of writing, and in their context they seem to imply that the breaking of a windowpane and the mangling of a body are similar phenomena. This is undoubtedly true from the strictly scientific point of view; torture is merely a particular exploitation of the senses, which can be described as a time-and-motion study with chemical and physiological incidents. Robbe-Grillet’s peculiarity is that he places the tortured female bodies at intervals in the pattern, very much as an architect might use anguished caryatids to support symmetrical coping stones. The deliberate flatness of all the elements—whether normally of slight human significance, as in the case of a windowpane, or of intense significance, as in the case of torture—is offset by the extreme complexity of the pattern.

This complexity is not inherent in the language, which always remains simple, but lies in the multiplicity of the items manipulated and their polyvalent relations with each other. For instance, in the opening pages, the anonymous “I” of the narrator is both inside and outside a door; he has a key in his pocket, or he has put it on a marble shelf, or it has fallen into the stairwell; he is the brother, the lover, or the assailant of a secluded woman or little girl, who may also later be a female gangster in the subway, and so on. The pattern is so involved that I cannot hold it in my mind while I am reading, and it fades away again as soon as I close the book. I am left with wraithlike impressions of contorted bodies, staircases, and the movement of underground trains.

Robbe-Grillet seems to be suggesting that since the stuff of experience is undifferentiated through the universal collapse of value judgments, all the writer can do is make playful arrangements of ready-made data. In his case, although the arrangements are unintelligible to me, they are recognizably similar from one novel to the next, at least from Le Voyeur onward. Since they are so alike, in spite of the differences in “subject,” they presumably correspond in one sense to a necessity of his temperament, just as people who doodle always do so in the same way, because such “play,” whether spontaneous or controlled, can only occur within certain individual limits.

What puzzles me in the first place is why the necessity of Robbe-Grillet’s temperament should be so remote from that of mine. His patterns can only interest me as objects of study through a sense of duty, because he handles French well and is obviously a gifted man; they do not appeal to me of their own accord.4 But then I reflect that there are many abstract pictures that leave me unmoved, as if I were dealing with a totally foreign sensibility.

If I appreciated Robbe-Grillet’s novels, I might see that the apparently gratuitous patterning had, in fact, a significance. It could possibly be an arrangement corresponding to the needs of a sadistic temperament, in which case, of course, it is not truly “ludic.” Certainly, sadistic features are always very prominent, and in this last book, in so far as the word revolution is given any meaning, it is taken as a pure synonym of destruction, centered on the three “major liberating actions connected with the color red: rape, arson, and murder.” The revolutionary pep talk is concerned not with politics but with defining the perfect crime:

le crime parfait, qui combine les trois éléments étudiés ici, serait la défloration opérée de force sur une fille vierge, choisie de préférence à la peau laiteuse et aux cheveux très blonds, la victime étant ensuite immolée par éventration ou égorgement, son corps nu ensanglanté devant être brûlé pour finir sur un bûcher arrosé de pétrole, embrasant de proche en proche toute la maison.5

I am puzzled in the second place by Robbe-Grillet’s categorical assertion that this ludic pattern (if it is really ludic) is the only valid linguistic activity at the present time. It reduces language to the level of the inarticulate, so that a “novel” is no more translatable into a series of statements than an abstract painting might be; however, the innovation is more striking, since figurative painting was never articulate in the linguistic sense. True, since this “novel” maintains intelligibility sentence by sentence, it does not go so far, say, as concrete poetry, which replaces language by collocations of sounds invented by the individual sensibility and therefore almost entirely solipsistic in relation to that sensibility. But it does not correspond to Barthes’s definition of literature as a question minus an answer, since it does not put any question. Balzac, Tolstoy, Proust, etc., may not give any final answers, but they certainly raise lots of issues, since their use of language is generally significant.

Robbe-Grillet produces a series of question marks in the reader’s mind (or at least in this reader’s), because he has deliberately arranged his pattern so that it is opaque. This is not to deal with the real, or supposed, opaqueness of life, but to parody it, which is quite a different matter. The traditional novelist has often been accused of rivaling God by stimulating omniscience; one might accuse Robbe-Grillet of trying to rival God by carefully creating a little unintelligible universe, in which to entrap his readers. But whereas we have no way of opting out of God’s incomprehensible universe, we are not obliged to accept Robbe-Grillet’s, any more than we are obliged to do the Times crossword puzzle.

This brings me back to the problem of necessity and gratuitousness, and its relation to the “game,” a word which has both a precise meaning and a loose, metaphorical one. I used to believe that no one with a genuine metaphysical interest could have any patience with games, but I have come across philosophers who were football fans, so I am obliged to conclude that the mind is not always all of a piece. The point about a game, in the literal sense, is that it relieves general emotional and intellectual tension by creating a small, clearly defined area in which the rules are man-created, obvious, and stable, so that human endeavor acquires an immediate pseudomeaning, instead of becoming lost in the general struggle with the universe. In this sense, fishing and hunting, if one’s livelihood does not depend upon them, are just as much games as any other form of “sport.” Conversely, a game that is played professionally, or that involves a death risk, ceases to be ludic in the simple sense, because it becomes part of the general battle with existence.

But, even though we may greatly admire the intellectual stamina of an outstanding professional sportsman (e.g., the jockey Lester Piggott or the racing driver Jackie Stewart), the fact remains that his activities are inferior to serious art or serious thought, because they take place within a given narrow and arbitrarily defined field. Art has to obey certain rules, of course, in order to achieve form, but the artist, unlike the games-player or sportsman, is facing the general problem of life.

It would be wrong, for instance, to argue that Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations are fundamentally ludic, although they take a simple waltz tune and juggle with it in thirty-three different ways, as if the composer were playing some technical game with consummate skill, as a tennis player might demonstrate various placings of the ball. All the variations, even the humorous ones, have a complex human solidity which shows that the Diabelli waltz is only the starting-point for different forays into significance. One may be unable to translate the meaningfulness of the music into words, but it is still obviously there, rich and necessary, at the hundredth hearing. In this sense, good art, in its discovery of meaning, is exactly the opposite of a game. When Robbe-Grillet says that everything is a game, either he is indulging in a mystificatory paradox or he wants to convince himself that gratuitous structures are an adequate response to the confusions of life. In the absence, or assumed absence, of necessary human principles, he is consoling himself by inventing pseudo-necessary rules.

But is it true that there are no necessary human principles? I have never been able to understand sweeping statements such as “After the bankruptcy of the divine order (of bourgeois society) and, following that, of the rationalistic order (of bureaucratic socialism)….” They are just cliché-like reformulations of the misleading “God is dead” metaphor. Similarly, I have never understood why, in Sartrian Existentialism, to which the New Novelists are heavily indebted, the nonexistence of God is taken to prove the nonexistence of “human nature.” The assumption seems to be that there was once a form of God-supported human necessity that has now collapsed, leaving us floundering. But the order of bourgeois society (which, to be historically accurate, was secular rather than divine, and came after the full-blooded, God-centered order) was never anything more than an imperfect human attempt at organization. The various divine orders which preceded it were just as imperfect and never had any objective necessity because, if God is now a fiction, He always was, and religious certainty was a subjective mirage.

In other words, with respect to necessity, human nature, and value judgments, we are objectively no worse off now than humanity has ever been. The complication is that we now see more clearly that man’s nature, unlike that of the other animals, is fluid, evolves historically, and remains unpredictable. But since this has always been the case, we are not in a new situation where only gratuitous or ludic responses are possible, and I am pretty certain that Robbe-Grillet himself does not adopt a truly ludic or gratuitous attitude about his position on the French literary scene or his general conduct of life.

We may grant that human nature is indeterminate without jumping to the conclusion that it does not exist, and we may agree that value judgments are changeable and always invented by man without assuming that they are therefore devoid of necessity and can be discarded. If I can indulge in a paradox myself, I would say that, at any historical moment, there must be a relative necessity of human nature that it is the function of art to discover and express. In so far as the New Novel is genuinely “ludic,” it seems to be doodling, rather self-indulgently, off the point.

  1. 1

    Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $10.00.

  2. 2

    Ludique, a now fashionable neologism, formed from ludo, “I play.” “Ludic” is not in the OED, nor is ludique in Littré.

  3. 3

    Mr. Howard translates the passages as follows; it will be seen that his rendering is sometimes inaccurate and does not reproduce the sense of careful linguistic control characteristic of the French:

    The impact has produced a loud, distinct noise. At the same time has appeared, extending across the entire surface of the rectangle, a star-shaped fracture. But no piece of glass falls out, unless, much later, it is a tiny pointed triangle about half an inch long, which slowly leans inward and falls on the tiles with a crystalline sound, breaking in its turn into three smaller fragments.

    I strike a match, taken out of the box which is in my pocket, and I set fire to the red tuft. This time the body with its voluptuous curves moves more, in the reddening explosions of the living torch, its bonds having doubtless grown a little loose, having been tugged in every direction by the girl twisting in a paroxysm of suffering. A kind of rattle emerges from her throat, with gasps and increasingly frequent screams, until the long final harsh moan which still continues after the total extinction of the flames, whose conclusion is marked by a shower of sparks.

  4. 4

    Nor, incidentally, do his films, but I consider them to be inferior to the books, because the obtrusive “realism” of photography does not allow anything like the interlocking ambiguities of language. Robbe-Grillet can write French, but he seems quite mediocre with the camera, and I have seen no genuinely enthusiastic account of the films he has made on his own, since L’Année dernière à Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais. Could it be that Robbe-Grillet has bamboozled himself into using the camera through a confusion between le regard of the camera lens and le regard as expressed in language?

  5. 5

    …the perfect crime, combining the three elements already discussed, would be the forcible deflowering of a virgin, chosen preferably for her milk-white skin and very fair hair, and her subsequent immolation by disemboweling or throat-cutting, after which her naked and bloody body would finally be burnt on a paraffin-soaked pyre, which would gradually set the whole house ablaze.” (My translation.)