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Confessions of a Polymorph

The Wind Spirit

an autobiography by Michel Tournier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Beacon Press, 259 pp., $19.95

The English title and subtitle of this volume are both rather misleading. The original text, first published in 1977, is called Le vent Paraclet, without any subheading. The French expression refers directly to the New Testament, whereas The Wind Spirit suggests some pagan emanation of Nature, the sort of Spirit of the Wind that a Red Indian might believe in. In the New Testament, the Paraclete or Holy Ghost is presented sometimes as a dove descending, sometimes as the wind which bloweth where it listeth. It is the divine, aerial phenomenon that first impregnated the Virgin Mary like a pollen-carrying breeze, and later visited other privileged souls. Tournier is clearly using it, among other things, as a metaphor for artistic creativity. If he stresses a connection between the Paraclete (the Logos, the inspiring, healing, or consoling Word of God) and the physical wind, this is because the whole point of his art is to give phenomenological concreteness to psychological and spiritual impulses. Could this dimension not have been indicated by some overtly biblical phrase, such as “The Breath of the Paraclete” or “The Wind Bloweth”?

I may add that the inexactness characteristic of the English title also occurs in the body of the translation, which reads quite fluently, but does not always bear close comparison with the original: la geste (saga) is not to be confused with le geste (gesture or action); réticent is not “reticent” but “who has misgivings”; “coprophage” is not an English word, but a transliteration of coprophage, which in French is both adjective and noun (“coprophagous” and “coprophagist“). The very first paragraph of the book is rendered obscure through a failure to distinguish between two possible meanings of the verb porter: “to hold while moving” and “to hold while standing still.” It is translated as “to carry,” with the result that a small boy is apparently made to walk backward in front of a marching band, whereas in the original the band is clearly stationary. I mention these pedantic details, because pedantry is the soul of translation, an insistence on the letter that preserves the spirit. It takes only a spattering of such small inaccuracies to remove the bloom from Tournier’s excellent prose.

Nor can the book be properly called an autobiography, since it gives only a very fragmentary account of Tournier’s life. He himself describes it as un essai, which, in contemporary French, tends to mean a theoretical discussion of some intellectual theme. It could perhaps best be defined as an eccentric lay sermon about certain issues and memories connected with the three novels he had published by 1977: Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (Friday), Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King or The Ogre), and Les Météores (Gemini). It is anything but systematic, but the wind of a certain strange spirit undoubtedly blows through it, and it confirms what was already apparent from the works themselves. Tournier is no ordinary novelist, but an obsessive, juggling with myths and phenomenological concepts as a way of relieving, or giving form to, the unorthodox confusions of his temperament. That he did not embark on writing simply as a career is demonstrated by the fact that he was forty-three when he published Vendredi, his first novel, after fifteen years of false starts. He is someone who stumbled quite late on his own peculiar form of literature as a means of therapy or personal salvation.

He explains, to some extent, how he came to evolve this form. Two remarkable facts about him are, first, that he is bicultural, having been familiar with German language and literature since childhood, and, second, that he is a failed academic philosopher. His parents had met as students of German in Paris, and they both kept up their connection with the country, his father through constant business contacts and both parents through regular visits to the same part of southern Germany with their children, even during the rise of Nazism, when they and their German Catholic friends were totally opposed to Hitler. Immediately after the war, Tournier spent four years as a student of philosophy at the University of Tübingen. He had decided that to specialize in German language and literature was, in his case, too easy an option; he would sit for the more demanding agrégation examination in philosophy. However, on his return to Paris, he failed at the first attempt, to his surprise and mortification, and, instead of resitting as most candidates do, in a fit of pique he opted for the bohemian life of a free-lance journalist, translator, photographer, and broadcaster.

His German side had given him a familiarity with the main philosophical systems from Kant to Husserl, and he claims that they are the ground bass of his writing. But he also remained intensely French, as can be seen from his references to Bergson and to the philosophical notebooks of Paul Valéry, and above all from his recognition of two important influences. In Paris, he attended the lectures of Gaston Bachelard, the historian of science, who devoted the latter part of his career to a stimulating, if rather offbeat, investigation of the prescientific, imaginative concepts associated with the archaic elements—earth, air, fire, and water—which always have been, and still are, current in literature. Tournier was also connected for a while with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, where the future author of Mythologiques was beginning the huge Structuralist enterprise of interpreting South American myths in the light of categories that may be both empirical and imaginative; the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the rotten, the high and the low, etc., and that, in the Indian stories, may be involved with the whole meteorological and astronomical cycle of the year.

It is easy to see how the extraordinarily rich texture of Tournier’s novels—the meditation on the individual, society, and the natural world in Vendredi, the hallucinatory description of men and beasts in East Prussia in Le Roi des Aulnes, and the grand, cosmic sweep of Les Météores—could arise from a fusion of German philosophical reminiscences with a Bachelardian sense of archaic poetic values and a Lévi-Straussian ingeniousness in establishing correspondences and inversions between animals and men, the sky and the earth, the seasons and human moods. To all this must be added an interest in musical composition, which would explain why certain themes are so consciously and elaborately intertwined; Tournier expresses the greatest possible admiration for Bach’s Art of Fugue as an inspirational work.

He is frank enough in describing his intellectual indebtedness, and he provides a lot of interesting anecdotal material about the accidents or coincidences which allowed him to flesh out certain episodes in his books, as he slowly elaborated them over the years. However, what he doesn’t explain in any direct or detailed way is the existential problem or problems which drove him to his kind of writing. It sticks out a mile, for instance, that one of his most powerful obsessions—which owes nothing to German philosophy, Bachelard, or Lévi-Strauss—is with the idea of the Child, and more particularly with what appears to be the pedophiliac theme of the adult male and the infant or adolescent. It runs through his work from the end of Vendredi, where an escaped cabin boy takes the place of Man Friday as Crusoe’s companion, through Le Roi des Aulnes, where Tiffauges, the Ogre, has a whole school of boys to look after before he carries a Jewish boy to safety on his back in the final scene, then through Les Météores, where the main characters are twin boys and a homosexual uncle, right up to the latest novel, Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar, which is concerned with the Magi, the Christ Child, and the Massacre of the Innocents. The theme is given extraordinary elaboration, from quite explicit erotic descriptions to the most far-fetched neo-religious and cosmic developments, through the use of the Christian myth and the astronomical reference to the constellation of the Gemini.

He provides no hint of the reasons for the all-pervasiveness of this subject, or of its relationship to his private life. He says a little about his own childhood; it would appear to have been a rather disturbed time, because he was switched from school to school, as if he had difficulty in fitting into any educational establishment. He complains bitterly about the way his tonsils were removed, according to the brutal medical fashion of the day, and—without directly accusing his parents—maintains that children are deprived of affection and sensual contact at an age when they need these comforts most. None of this adds up to an explanation; Tournier just seems to assume that the reader will understand his obsession, as if it were self-evidently universal.

In particular, he makes great play with the concept of la phorie, the carrying, holding, or bearing up of a child (cf. the name Christopher, Child-Bearer), as a deeply significant phenomenological gesture, without apparently realizing how odd, or even kinky, it must seem to the average family man, however highly developed his paternal instinct may be. In connection with la phorie in Le Roi des Aulnes, Tournier tells an anecdote. Just as he was finishing the book, he read in the press about the heroic action of a gym teacher who, on happening to look out of a window of his school, saw a child in danger of falling from a top-floor ledge of a building opposite. He rushed down into the street, placed himself in position, and, when the child did in fact topple over, caught it neatly like a rugby ball before it hit the ground. Tournier comments:

The reader can well imagine my enthusiasm on learning of this display of courage, strength and skill, accompanied by luck. I felt that if it had been granted to me to accomplish such a magnificent phorie, I would not have needed to write Le Roi des Aulnes, and I would have been happy for the rest of my life.

Is there not something unbalanced here? However admirable the life-saving feat, it has no common denominator with the writing of a novel, so that Tournier—philosopher though he may be—is confusing two radically different issues, because of a sentimental peculiarity of his individual temperament.

There are several other outbursts of erratic emotion in the book. I will mention only one. In an apparently serious passage, Tournier expresses his intense dislike of Paris as being over-urbanized, and regrets that Hitler did not succeed in carrying out his plan to have the city burned to the ground—“when for once so wise a decision had entered so unwise a head.” This extraordinary statement raises the question: how wise a head has Tournier? There can be no doubt about his remarkable command of the French language, or about the luscious complexity of the mythico-phenomenological patterns of his novels, but one can wonder about the level of coherence on which he operates.

For my part, while I find much to admire in the first three novels, which contain some brilliant passages, unsurpassed in French writing of recent years, I don’t think the books fully coalesce as artistic wholes. Vendredi comes nearest to doing so, but even it is marred by some rather facile mythologizing at the point where Friday, as instinctive Natural Man, for a while establishes his ascendancy over Crusoe. Le Roi des Aulnes and Les Météores are frankly broken-backed, because the mythical interconnections are not always adequately established either psychologically or philosophically. At the same time, the element of personal quirkiness tends to increase from book to book until, in Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar, it produces a riot of pseudohistorical tinsel, the dazzling coruscations of which are not backed up by any very solid content. It is as if Tournier, with his fondness for pastiche as a literary mode, had imitated Flaubert’s Salammbô (perhaps not the best of models in the first place) in an elaborate faux naïf style, bringing in as many decorative mythico-phenomenological references and correspondences as possible.

Le vent Paraclet perhaps provides a clue to this proliferation of the fanciful by suggesting that Tournier is not only obsessed with childhood, but also that he himself remains deliberately rooted in the pre-pubertal or adolescent stage, as if growing up and assuming a fully adult view of the world were to accept some kind of lyrical defeat. In his case, the tendency cannot be called a Peter Pan complex, because J.M. Barrie’s regressive hero is much too mild and asexual in his pre-Freudian simplicity to serve as a point of comparison. Tournier, whom Barrie would have found quite shocking, is radically post-Freudian in proclaiming that the novelist should be an all-round perverse polymorph, since, for literary creativeness, “there is nothing comparable to the exploratory and polymorphous suppleness peculiar to infantile sexuality.” He adds, as an easy moral alibi, that, of course, the novelist doesn’t live out his impulses, but only gives them imaginative development. He knows one novelist, he says,

who has ventured in all directions, but never beyond a certain point. An impotent necrophiliac, a heterosexual without a future, a failed paederast, a hesitant zoophile, an uninspired fetishist, a pernickerty coprophagist and a testy paedophile…when he looks in a mirror, he sees himself nodding his head with worried self-acceptance [une indulgence soucieuse].

In this obvious self-characterization, the tone is frankly ironical, as can be seen from the amusing expression coprophage pignocheur. Yet the underlying rejection of adulthood is undeniable, and one wonders how many other novelists, or even ordinary readers, would wholeheartedly accept Tournier’s doctrine. It is true that, as we advance in years, we realize that parts of our personality never fully grow up, but it is surely a dubious proposition that infantile sexuality can be a sound imaginative guide to adult behavior of any kind. Wordsworth and Freud notwithstanding, the child is father to the man only in a very limited sense, because adulthood is its own world, in which the individual can free himself from the temperamental and social restraints of childhood, at least to some extent, by seeing them in perspective. Tournier behaves as if he had freed himself on one level, only to espouse the constraints more enthusiastically on another.

The limitations of his general philosophical attitude are most apparent in the last chapter of Le vent Paraclet, a would-be didactic postscript, to which he gives the rather precious title of “Les Malheurs de Sophie,” which echoes one of Mme. de Ségur’s famous tales for children. Sophie=Sophia=wisdom. For centuries, Tournier maintains, the Western world lived on the concept of wisdom. That concept has now perished before the onslaught of science. How can we recapture the sense of being at one with the universe? In some extraordinarily muddled and sentimental pages, Tournier denounces the modern world and puts forward his personal recipe for living according to the spirit. This consists in accepting bachelor solitude outside normal society, because “freedom, solitude and creation are interconnected…. Works are fruits of the desert and ripen only on arid ground.” He ends with a description of himself enjoying a moment of mystic union with the absolute as he grills his morning toast before a window opening onto his garden, and watches his cat return from its nocturnal prowl. Alas, he who at times can write superbly well, here allows his prose to betray him; it throbs coarsely with the most embarrassingly jejune emotionalism, to the dismay of his well-disposed reader.


The Soul of Translation March 16, 1989

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