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Polymorphic Peter Pan

The Fetishist

by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Wright
Doubleday, 212 pp., $13.95

Like all his other works, this first collection of short stories by one of the most interesting French novelists of recent years has suffered a change of name in passing from one language to another, and the fact is probably worth commenting on, since it highlights the specific nature of his writing. The original volume is called Le Coq de bruyère, after the title of one of the longer pieces, here translated as “The Woodcock,” a term that was no doubt felt to be too blank and unispiring as a general heading for the English-speaking public. Actually, the rendering “woodcock” is incorrect, at least as bird names go in Great Britain. If my childhood memories of country life are still reliable, a woodcock is a shy creature with a soft, mothlike flight (la bécasse des bois in French), whereas le coq de bruyère is a capercailzie or grouse, a species noted for the flamboyant mating behavior of the male birds. The story centers, in fact, around a provincial French aristocrat who is all sprucely and bouncingly sexy—notre petit coq de bruyère, as his mother calls him. “Our little bantam cock” might have come somewhere near the meaning, if the bantam had not been a farmyard fowl.

Perhaps the translation problem was insoluble, since Anglo-American does not seem to use these game birds as virility symbols. At any rate, to get an appropriately eye-catching title, the publishers have fallen back on the last piece in the collection, Le Fétichiste, which goes straight into English but, of course, gives a strong flavor of kinkiness to the whole volume.

However, the title is not irrelevant, because all the stories can be said to be about fetishism, if we take the term in its broadest possible sense as indicating all forms of obsessiveness. As Tournier tells us in his fascinating autobiographical essay, Le Vent Paraclet (another teaser for the translator: “The Breath of the Paraclete”? “The Spirit Bloweth…”?), which was published in 1977 but has not yet appeared in English, he came to literature by way of philosophy, and all his writing is sensuously epistemological or phenomenological; that is, he is primarily concerned with our emotional-cum-intellectual grasp of reality which, for each of us, turns the world, if not into “a forest of symbols” in the Baudelairean sense, at least into a sharply idiosyncratic pattern of poetic responses, either positive or negative.

Tournier is an extremely cultured man who is not afraid to recognize the many influences, both philosophical and literary, that have helped to make him what he is—Plato, Spinoza, Valéry, Colette, Giono, Sartre, Camus, Lévi-Strauss, etc.—but I think he can be best understood in relation to one of his teachers, whom he singles out for special mention. This is Gaston Bachelard, the historian of science who, during the second half of his career, sought relief from the impersonal truths of science in the deliberate cultivation of the appealing pseudo-truths or emotional realities of the imagination, which he expounded in such works as La Psychanalyse du feu and L’Eau et les rêves.

Bachelard was frankly a dualist, in the sense that he saw the human mind as functioning in two different ways, the scientific and the poetic. The business of science, he maintained, is to get to the impersonal heart of things, which has no relation to human sensibilities. Water, for instance, is not a basic substance surrounded by the numinous aura attributed by ancient speculation to the four supposed elements; it is a prosaically definable compound, H2O, which behaves in predetermined ways in given circumstances. But even a scientist, being flesh and blood, can think scientifically only during a certain part of each day; the rest of the time he must, and should, react fully and sensitively to water in its various phenomenological manifestations as rain, snow, steam, ice crystals, Atlantic rollers, and so on. The secret of successful living on the ordinary human level, said Bachelard, is to “rendre les images heureuses“; in other words, get your phenomenological adjustment right.

Tournier is not as scientifically minded as Bachelard—his scientific bent is displayed only in his careful handling of technical terms and the exquisite precision of his language—but he clearly shares Bachelard’s wish for phenomenological human happiness against the background of the bleak, impersonal functioning of the universe. In short, he is, like Bachelard, an optimistic, or at least a bracing, absurdist, and this, I imagine, is why he chose Le Coq de bruyère as his general title, since it has a positive ring, whereas Le Fétichiste suggests the psychological enslavement of someone who has not managed to “make the images happy.”

This is, indeed, the case. The hero of the story or dramatic monologue is certifiably mad, since his whole life has been eaten up by his obsession with female underwear. His wife has left him because he is more in love with her panties and bra than with the lady herself. He cannot be allowed out alone, since an accidental glimpse of any alluring undergarment will cause him to pursue the owner with his persistent demands, like a wasp that will die rather than be kept away from honey. He has no being outside his sexual instinct, and that instinct has narrowed down to a fixation on certain shapes and qualities of material, which tyrannize him for reasons totally beyond his understanding. He is, in fact, a tragicomic hero of particularized phenomenology, whom the doctors are trying to bludgeon into “normality” with electroshock treatment.

I don’t know whether such extremely specialized people exist in reality, but Tournier’s intention in describing a completely polarized instance is both clear and valid. He is implying: “Tell me what your fetish is and I’ll tell you who you are.” A further point, which can be easily deduced, is that the misfortune of this particular fetishist could, through a slight change of emphasis, have been transformed into a fortune, had he been sculptor, say, obsessed not with what covers breasts and buttocks, but with the amorous carving of such roundnesses, or a photographer absorbed in the suggestive presentation of underwear for luxury magazines. This is to say that the difference between the neurotic person and the successful artist may be a very narrow one; the neurotic lives his neurosis directly as a phenomenological doom, whereas the artist stands at one or two removes from his and, through the therapeutic process of symbolic transfer, maintains his balance and may, incidentally, earn his living through appealing to, and satisfying, the neuroses diffused throughout the “normal” public.

To put it another way, which is amply illustrated in the rest of the volume, normality is only a statistical mean to which none of us wholly belongs. Tournier, while not being anti-Freudian, tends to replace the Freudian unconscious, with its now dubious assortment of neoclassical imagery, by a kind of intuitive, phenomenological grid, peculiar to each person, which governs his life below the level of his visible existence, and which, I suppose—since it is presumably a consequence of his genetic imprint—may vary with the process of organic change. We have a public, social persona, which we control more or less, as we ride a bicycle with only an occasional wobble, and a private persona, dependent on the hidden grid, which determines whether we take this road or that, prefer pedaling strenuously or lazily freewheeling, or are happiest in one gear or another. This sensuous, tactile, fetishist, and therefore poetic, substratum is, if anything, the more genuine part of Being, in which we experience vital happiness or frustration.

Tournier’s examples are taken from various points on the normal–abnormal spectrum, but with a preference for the abnormal end. The hero of Le Coq de bruyère is exceptional in being archetypically French, as if he belonged to a Maupassant short story. A retired army officer, he prides himself on his fencing and his prowess as a rider, which are the necessary accompaniments of his extramarital adventures, since they confirm his virile equality with much younger men. All goes well until, with the onset of old age, he loses his grip slightly and openly establishes a young mistress in the town, to the distress of his tolerant wife, who then develops psychosomatic blindness as a phenomenological defense against such a breach of good manners. Various peripeteia ensue, demonstrating the hero’s inability to progress from the stylish physicality of sexual performance to genuine understanding, and he is last seen half-paralyzed and in a wheelchair, being pushed by his now cured wife. This reversal has something of the trick ending frequent in short stories (Tournier is not averse to such devices), but the text is raised above the level of a routine narrative by the author’s mastery of concrete detail and his impeccable ear for the niceties of speech. The translation, although good, cannot, of course, convey all the juicy implications of the French.

Most of the other stories are concerned with characters more closely related to the fetishist in the sense that they are “monsters” or “ogres” (to use a term that Tournier himself is fond of), whose phenomenological adjustment to the world is biased by some physical peculiarity or mental twist with which they can, or cannot, come to terms. Readers of the novels will know that the Crusoe of Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (Friday and Robinson), through having invested everything in his island, with which he eventually copulates as if he were religiously committing incest with Mother Earth, is an ogre, as is Tiffauges, the lumbering, half-animal giant of Le Roi des aulnes (translated, in fact, as The Ogre), or Alexandre, the magnificently flamboyant homosexual of Météores (translated as Gemini).

Here we have several smaller examples: a little boy who is so innocently disgusted by male sexuality that he spontaneously cuts off his penis to drop it among similar fleshy odds and ends stewing in a pot; a girl whose only escape from the existential nausea of living is to accumulate possibilities of death: a noose, poisonous mushrooms, a gun, and, finally, a custom-built, living-room-size guillotine; a wife who falls in love with her husband’s voice as a radio announcer and establishes a crazy dichotomy between the unprepossessing physical man and the vibrant, though abstract, persona; a truck driver, torn between the rival claims of a love affair and his deeply sensuous commitment to his truck and the phenomenology of the open road; a gifted pianist who, because of his near blindness and general ugliness, accidentally makes a fortune as a comic turn, when what he really wants to do is to play Bach.

Then there is a dwarf, a competent but frustrated lawyer, who comes into his own from the moment he gives up wearing high heels to look like a short man and accepts his uniqueness as a dwarf; he enjoys sexual success, is transformed into a circus clown of dominant genius, and achieves his apotheosis before an audience of children no taller than himself (this dwarf is obviously a structuralist inversion of the giant ogre, Tiffauges). Finally we are told of a woman photographer, so cannibalistic in her hunger to appropriate the very existence of her models that she eventually kills her young lover in her last desperate attempts to transfer his full-size image to photographic paper, which becomes both a work of art and, in effect, his shroud. (This piece may be an updating of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Oval Portrait,” in which a painter drains all life from a young girl as his depiction of her becomes more vital. Tournier admits, in connection with Friday and Robinson, that he considers creative parody as a fully legitimate form of art.)

This list of subjects may sound like a depressingly clinical catalog of peculiarities, since only the dwarf and the photographer achieve a sort of frantic success, and even then only at the expense of the people around them. However, Tournier fills out the sinister framework of each story with so much everyday detail, brilliantly and wittily expressed, that the dominant tone is one of wild hilarity at the inextricable blend of ordinariness and strangeness in the world, a tone very unlike the gothic solemnity which now makes Poe, for instance, seem rather oldfashioned. This tone also comes as a blessed relief after the pseudo-objectivity, and the deliberately stunted and refrigerated phenomenology, of the so-called “New Novel,” which dominated the scene for so long before Tournier appeared to liven things up and restore to French fiction the vital human and philosophical content it had lost since the days of Sartre and Camus.

Opinions may vary, admittedly, about the level of seriousness on which Tournier is writing. Is he a solid literary figure, or is he, perhaps, just another “ludic” writer like Robbe-Grillet, who has replaced the later’s maniacal parsimoniousness by the opposite tendency, a jackdaw-like fascination with all the glittering possibilities of modern intellectualism, which he exploits for his own, and our, entertainment, without really welding them into a durable artistic whole? These short stories are very nicely shaped, but their form depends perhaps too much on the trick ending, which governs the preceding narrative and gives them something of the air of phenomenological exercises or diversions. On the other hand, the four big novels (the latest, Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, translated as The Four Wise Men, is a virtuoso performance, a lavish retelling of the nativity story in the style of Flaubert’s Salammbô) bulge with content, but not all of it, to my mind, is equally convincing. I also find them ultimately shapeless: they seem to break down in retrospect into brilliant fragments, preselected, as it were, for some future anthology of “poetic prose.”

Perhaps a key to this central uncertainty lies in Tournier’s repeatedly expressed obsession with children and childhood, since the child discovers the world as an undifferentiated phenomenological blur, before he sorts it out more or less according to the sterner values of the social context of adulthood. Tournier, the artist, is no doubt reflecting Tournier, the man, who, on his own admission, is no ordinary adult, but a sort of child-man, still happily floundering in the blur without any great urge to grow up in the usual way, a perverse, polymorphic Peter Pan with a gift of style.

Such, at any rate, seems to be the message of Le Vent Paraclet where, without actually saying so, he is obviously describing himself as a cluster of potentialities, almost all on the “wrong” side of the norm, and sprouting together in some artistic confusion. I translate as best I can:

Just as Balzac was not the millionaire businessman that some of his novels seem to reflect, nor Stendhal the young and irresistible seducer who seems to inspire the best pages of his works, so the perverse polymorph in the novelist does not go beyond the initial urge and freshness of incipience. In fact, he is a trifler who never ventures very far and who pays for the diversity of his impulses by their incomplete realization, which resembles a series of fiascos. I know one such polymorph who has tried almost everything and has always stopped short. An impotent necrophile, a heterosexual without a future, a failed pederast, an inhibited zoophile, a paltry fetishist, a niggling coprophagist, an impatient pedophile—when he looks at himself in the mirror, he sees himself shaking his head with worried forebearance. Fortunately, there remains the outlet of artistic or literary creation, that fabulous overcompensation…. the possible nowhere proliferates better than on the ruins of the real….

Which takes us back, of course, to the old aesthetic problem of deciding at what point the imagination may be overreaching itself and parting company with the real, instead of properly illuminating it.

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