6 April 2012

Robbe-Grillet and the Refusal of Intentionality

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:39 am

Thinking abstractly about The Argument from Neuropath, discussed in the preceding post, which is the theory that human intentionality is an illusion, that humans are always only caused to do what they do by forces inside and outside of themselves… It should be possible to write a story in which characters’ motives are never acknowledged: they just say and do things. This need not even be an imaginary story. After all, we never directly observe the reasons why people do and say what they do: we infer their motives, or take their word for it. Hemingway gets close to this sort of cause-effect observational account of people’s actions, though he expects his reader to infer the characters’ motives.

Robbe-Grillet takes the experiment, or The Argument, even farther. Here’s a passage from Jealousy, selected by randomly opening the book, which in this instance caused me to land on page 119:

“The lady, she is angry,” the boy says.

He uses this adjective to describe any kind of uncertainty, absence, or disturbance. Probably he means “anxious” today; but it could just as well be “outraged,” “jealous,” or even “desperate.” Besides he has asked no questions; he is about to leave. Yet an ordinary sentence without any precise meaning releases from him a flood of words in his own language, which abounds in vowels, particularly a’s and e’s.

He and the messenger are now facing each other. The latter listens, without showing the least sign of comprehension. The boy talks at top speed, as if his text had no punctuation, but in the same singsong tone as when he is not speaking his own language. Suddenly he stops. The other does not add a word, turns around and leaves by the same route he came in, with his swift, soft gait, swaying his head and hat, and his hips, and his arms beside his body, without having opened his mouth.

After having set the used cup on the tray beside the coffee-pot, the boy takes the tray away, entering the house by the open door into the hallway. The bedroom windows are closed. At this hour A . . . is not up yet.

She left very early this morning, in order to have enough time to do her shopping and be able to get back to the plantation the same night. She went to the port with Franck, to make some necessary purchases. She has not said what they were.

Once the bedroom is empty, there is no reason not to open the blinds, which fill all three windows instead of glass panes. The three windows are similar, each divided into four equal rectangles, that is, four series of slats, each window-frame comprising two sets hung one on top of another. The twelve series are identical: sixteen slats of wood manipulated by a cord attached at the side to the outer frame.

The sixteen slats of a series are continuously parallel. When the series is closed, they are pressed on against the other at the edge, overlapping by about half an inch. By pulling the cord down, the pitch of the slats is reduced, thus creating a series of openings whose width progressively increases.

When the blinds are open to the maximum, the slats are almost horizontal and show their edges. Then the opposite side of the valley appears in successive, superimposed strips separated by slightly narrower strips. In the opening at eye level appears a clump of trees with motionless foliage at the edge of the plantation, where the yellowish brush begins.

In describing the blinds in such painstaking detail, it’s as though Robbe-Grillet is designing a set for a film noir. Next he would specify the angle and width of the alternating stripes of white and dark shining off the furniture in the bedroom. But he never specifies the mood he intends to instill in the viewer by the carefully engineered lighting effect: he merely describes the surfaces and structures. The only place intentionality appears in this extract is in the woman’s early morning excursion: she left “in order to…” Even so, our reporter doesn’t know what it is she intended to buy. Hemingway mistrusted adjectives, probably because they took away the reader’s freedom to interpret meaning and motive. Robbe-Grillet’s observer mistrusts the boy’s adjective because it doesn’t really explain anything. Ultimately even language must be described only at the level of its component sounds.

I turn to the introduction to my paperback edition, which cost $7.95 new but which has a price of $3 written by hand on the frontispiece: that must be what I paid for it at a used book store. In this essay, first published in a 1958 French journal article and reprinted in this 1965 paperback, Bruce Morrissette alludes to a satirical book by Jean-Louis Curtis entitled À la recherche du temps posthume, in which Marcel Proust, returned from the dead, investigates the current state of French literature.

In the milieu where the master of the psychological novel had expected to hear discussions of Henry James and his disciples, Marcel is astonished to find even Gilberte Swann agreeing that “today we ask something quite different of the novel,” and that “psychology nowadays is out of style, obsolete, no longer possible,” since modern readers have only scorn for the sacrosanct “characters” of the modern novel. To prove to Marcel redivivus that the modern novel “can no longer be psychological, it has to be phenomenological,” Mme. de Guermantes introduces him to Robbe-Grillet.

Robbe-Grillet saw no need for surgically removing intentionality from his characters, or from his inquisitive narrator. The narrator simply reports what he sees and hears going on around him.



  1. Robbe-Grillet saw no need for surgically removing intentionality from his characters, or from his inquisitive narrator. The narrator simply reports what he sees and hears going on around him.

    But I assume that was to demonstrate, Lacan-style, that the characters are imprisoned by language, by the symbolic order? The Bakker guy seems to be saying that this is something neurological?


    Comment by Post-Continental Satyr — 6 April 2012 @ 9:28 pm

  2. Starting with Bakker, he contends that humans are incapable of intent, decision-making, agency, will — all of this is an illusion presented to us by self-awareness, which merely reports what has already happened in the brain. So if I claim to have decided something, I’ve merely become aware that some set of causal factors have tripped some neural circuitry into some different state of activation that sets me on some course of action. Surgery isn’t required to remove intentionality, since intent is already nonexistent.

    Regarding Robbe-Grillet and Lacan, I’m not qualified to answer. I feel fairly certain that R-G wasn’t attempting to demonstrate any Lacanian principles, but surely there would be a Lacanian interpretation of his writing. Take the excerpt I copied into the post. Here are detailed physical descriptions of a conversation, a room, a view through the room’s window into the outdoors. The meaning of language is disregarded in favor of the sound the words make. Similarly, the descriptions of physical objects don’t emphasize their uses or the purposes to which people might put them. So what would Lacan say about such descriptions? That the observer is caught in the Imaginary, in the surfaces of things; that he is functioning as a kind of mirror? But in describing these things R-G uses many words, breaking the objects’ surface features down into their individual components: the number of windows, the number of panes in each window, the slats on the blinds and their configuration. This is the Symbolic order carving up and fragmenting the wholeness of the Imaginary. But the observer is describing what he actually sees when he pays close attention to the image. It’s a kind of obsessive attention to detail, observed at a kind of alienating emotional distance. And I think that’s what’s going on in this story: the jealous husband is obsessed with what betrayals his wife might — or might not — be perpetrating in secret. These things the spy sees, analyzes, describes in such dispassionate detail — are they clues, pointing to some meaning beyond themselves, some hidden Real? Or is the window just a window, the shopping trip with Franck just a shopping trip? Does this kind of obsession provoke betrayal of the one who is under such intense scrutiny, such that the jealous one is the cause of his own jealousy? I’m reminded of Antonioni’s Blow-Up: does the obsessive search for something meaningful, something Real, in the photograph create the reality, create the murder recorded in the photograph, while at the same time blowing to bits the holistic image of the photograph and the objects it represents?

    I think that Robbe-Grillet’s exhaustive physical descriptions of things could be just what it seems to be: a detailed cataloging of what things appear to be, rather than how they are used as props for human intentional actions. Or this absorption in the surfaces could be an attempt to get behind the surfaces, behind the pragmatic uses of things to their withdrawn essences, as our object-oriented friends would say. Does emphasis on surfaces reveal an abstraction in the ordinary, and does this abstraction point beyond or through the surfaces to some deeper hidden structure that only the paranoiac obsessive can detect? Or does this intense inspection and description destroy the object, slicing it into strips like the view through the blinds (the “jalousie” windows). Is it an act of violence, maybe provoked by a kind of jealousy (jalousie) of the remote wholeness of things that resist one’s devotion to them? In this sense Robbe-Grillet’s writing is like various movements in modern painting, from cubism to surrealism to abstract expressionism. Maybe you’re better positioned to discuss the Lacanian implications of those movements.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 April 2012 @ 10:57 pm

  3. An essay by Roland Barthes is also included in the introductory material to my copy of Jealousy. Here are some of Barthes’ observations about Robbe-Grillet’s method:

    Robbe-Grillet requires only one mode of perception: the sense of sight. For him the object is no longer a common-room of correspondences, a welter of sensations and symbols, but merely the occasion of a certain optical resistance. This preference for the visual enforces some curious consequences, the primary one being that Robbe-Grillet’s object is never shown in three dimensions, in depth: it never conceals a secret, vulnerable heart beneath its shell (and in our society is not the writer traditionally the man who penetrates beneath the surface to the heart of the matter?) But for Robbe-Grillet the object has no being beyond phenomenon: it is not ambiguous, not allegorical, not even opaque, for opacity somehow implies a corresponding transparency, a dualism in nature. The scrupulosity with which Robbe-Grillet describes an object has nothing to do with such doctrinal matters: instead he establishes the existence of an object so that once its appearance is described it will be quite drained, consumed, used up…

    Robbe-Grillet’s object has therefore neither function nor substance. More precisely, both its function and substance are absorbed by its optical nature…

    What Robbe-Grillet is trying to destroy is, by the widest sense of the word, the adjective itself: the realm of qualification, for him, can be only spatial or situational, but in no case can it be a matter of analogy. Perhaps painting can provide us with a relevant opposition: an ideal of the classical treatment of the object is the school of Dutch still-life painting, in which variety and minuteness of detail are made subservient to a dominant quality that transforms all the materials of vision into a single visceral sensation: luster, the sheen of things, for example, is the real subject matter of all those compositions of oysters and glasses and wine and silver so familiar in Dutch painting. One might describe the whole effect of this art as an attempt to endow its object with an adjectival skin, so that the half-visual, half-substantial glaze we ingest from these pictures by a kind of sixth, coensesthetic sense is no longer a question of surface, no longer “superficial.” …In opposition to this concept, Robbe-Grillet’s description of an object finds its analogies with modern painting (in its broadest acceptation), for the latter has abandoned the qualification of space by substance in favor of a simultaneous “reading” of the planes and perspectives of its subject, thereby restoring the object to its “essential bareness.” Robbe-Grillet destroys the object’s dominion-by-substance because it would frustrate his major intention, which is to insert the object into a dialectic of space…

    His multiplication of details, his obsession with topography, his entire demonstrative apparatus actually tend to destroy the object’s unity by giving it an exaggeratedly precise location in space, by drowning it in a deluge of outlines, coordinates, and orientations, by the eventual abuse of perspective — still under its academic denominations — by exploding the traditional notion of space and substituting for it a new space… The classical object fatally secretes its adjective (the Dutch luster, The Racinian desert, Baudelaire’s radiant substance), and it is just such a fatality which Robbe-Grillet is hunting down, subjecting it to the anticoagulating effects of his own description. At any cost this skin, this carapace must be destroyed…

    Let us remember once again the traditional background against which his struggles are enacted: the novel was secularly instituted as an experiment in depth: social depth with Balzac and Zola, “psychological” depth with Flaubert, memorial with Proust — in every case the degree of man’s or society’s inwardness has determined the novel’s field of action. The novelist’s task has been, correspondingly, a labor of locating, quarrying, and excavating in the dark. This endoscopic function has been sustained by a concomitant myth of a human essence at the bottom of things (if he can only dig deep enough), and is now so natural to the form that it is tempting to define its exercise (reading or writing) as what skin-divers call a delirium of the depths. Robbe-Grillet’s purpose is to establish the novel on the surface: once you can set its inner nature, its “interiority,” between parentheses, then objects in space, and the circulation of men among them, are promoted to the rank of subjects. The novel becomes man’s direct experience of what surrounds him without his being able to shield himself with a psychology, a metaphysic, or a psychoanalytic method in his combat with the objective world he discovers. The novel is no longer a chthonian revelation, the book of hell, but of the earth — requiring that we no longer look at the world with the eyes of a confessor, of a doctor, or of God himself (all significant hypostases of the classical novelist), but with the eyes of a man walking in his city with no other horizon than the scene before him, no other power than that of his own eyes.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 April 2012 @ 12:24 am

  4. So in enacting an aesthetic that disregarded human intentions and that dismantled the wholeness of the world and everything in it, was Robbe-Grille also making a psychological statement about the myth of human intentionality and a metaphysical statement about the meaninglessness of the world? Probably. Were the voyeurs and paranoiacs and sadists populating his books looking for something more than that, yet in their interventions were they merely enacting the flat and shattered emptiness they sought to deny? Maybe that too, but I’d have to read Robbe-Grillet again to decide, subjecting it to careful analytical scrutiny the same way his narrators scrutinize the world. And maybe by doing that, by slicing up Robbe-Grillet’s texts and looking carefully at the pieces one by one, I would be taking my rightful place in Robbe-Grillet’s aesthetic. But now, if I stop looking behind things in the world and start looking at them, do I find a new kind of enchantment?


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 April 2012 @ 7:32 am

  5. Give me another day before I can respond anything substantial. The subject is just too wide.


    Comment by Post-Continental Satyr — 7 April 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  6. —The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words HOME, CHRIST, ALE, MASTER, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.


    Words come with loading whether we add to them or not. Barthes in his Mythologies uncovers the depths of signification of the everyday. I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment but I remember being surprised at ‘beef stake’. For people that do ingenious things with offal this is loaded with significance far beyond its nutritive value.

    Adverbs and adjectives are required for the purposes of subversion, commandos sent into occupied territory to blow up the jails and release the prisoners.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 April 2012 @ 10:59 pm

  7. I like it. In the first paragraph of Jealousy that I cited in the post, the narrator is speaking with an African servant working on the French banana plantation. Communicating in a foreign language, trying to find the right adjective to describe the lady’s mood, throws the servant back on his native tongue, which to his French auditor is experienced only as a string of gibberish (derived from the Irish word “gob”), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s as though Robbe-Grillet is trying to see and hear the everyday world as if he were a foreigner, not just to Africa or France but to earth and humanity. Evidently Robbe-Grillet traveled extensively in Africa for his work as an agronomist, which would frequently have immersed him in the alien and the incomprehensible. Trying to sustain this outsider’s position upon returning to France would have demanded a strict discipline, an abstract and intentional aesthetic. It’s not a foreign fantasy to me: I remember as a child pretending that I was a space alien visiting earth wondering what everything was, what it meant. R-G surely realized that his project was a bit absurd; after all, the title of this book depends on the French dual meaning of jalousie — jealousy, window blinds — to enclose in metaphor a text that ruthlessly eschews metaphor.

    “Beefsteak” in French is “biftek,” which as far as I know is just a transliteration of the English. It’s always entertaining to hear, embedded in a stream of mostly incomprehensible foreign language, the occasional borrowed English word. It gives you the fleeting illusion that you might actually be able to make sense of it all if you just hung in there long enough. It didn’t always work though: French people would name some American screen actor and I wouldn’t be able to hear it through the accent.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 April 2012 @ 5:35 am

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