Alain Robbe-Grillet died yesterday at age 85. The startling thing about that announcement was not that he had died, or even that he was still alive, for he had so long outlived his historical moment. No, the astonishing thing was that he was 85 years old. Even though his entire aesthetic arose from a sense of exhaustion with the conventions of the realist novel, I always think of him as being young, if only because he was a youthful enthusiasm of mine. The year after I graduated from college, I read Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City and was dazzled, so I read The Voyeur, Jealousy, and The Erasers in quick succession after that. My increasing boredom was mitigated by the aura of faded cool about the entire new novel project. I knew that nobody wrote like that anymore, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. At the same time, it was clear why people started to write like this in the first place.
The nouveau roman was itself a passing phase, a rebellion against Gide and Proust, but instead of madeleines we get tomatoes. Few authors before him were as fixated on individual objects as Robbe-Grillet. In most novels an apparently insignificant detail will stand out because it serves a plot function. For instance, in The Great Gatsby Tom Buchanan and Gatsby suddenly change cars; an apparently pointless turn in the plot will eventually have serious consequences. One of the most famous passages from The Erasers is a description of a tomato in which the attention to detail is an end in itself. "Above, a scarcely perceptible accident has occurred: a corner of the skin, stripped back from the flesh for a fraction of an inch, is slightly raised."
What is this description mean? Nothing, of course, unless you want to consider the tomato a kind of metaphor for the objectification of human labor under capitalism. Writing at the dawn of structuralism, Robbe-Grillet combines two preoccupations of the 1950s: phenomenology and textuality. Despite all of his extreme labors, language is never adequate to the thing perceived. At the same time, language isn’t doing what we would ordinarily expect it to do in a novel — things like create unique characters and advance a compelling plot. And yet, Robbe-Grillet’s style is a world unto itself, an exotic and sometimes creepy world reduced to an elemental conflict between object and id.
The id doesn’t name anything; it merely points to things. Robbe-Grillet’s work does the same thing. There is something oddly abstract about his things, even his tomatoes. For all his celebrated precision, there’s a certain vagueness and uncertainty about his prose. He’s often saying "or so it would seem," "perhaps," or "as has already been said." In Robbe-Grillet there’s a breakdown in the capacity of language to resolve the opposition between the universal particular, the general in this specific. Everything, in other words, that the aesthetic is supposed to do.
This is because his novels are drained of individual quirkiness, all the peculiar ways we reveal ourselves by the way we make sense of things. Robbe-Grillet anticipated the French poststructuralists’ skepticism about our ability to give form to our experience. Although when really pressed on the matter, most of the French poststructuralists had a hard time giving up the concept of the human altogether. The failure of Robbe-Grillet’s work to become something other than an historical dead end is precisely the persistence of the human. The aesthetic can’t be reduced to perception or to language or to structure. You don’t have to read The Phenomenology of Spirit to realize there has to be a unique individual in there someplace doing the work of taking and impressions and putting them down on paper. Otherwise, we fall into the trap that Robbe-Grillet fell into: instead of creating things in themselves, he made them ghostly ciphers for the human. There’s nothing particularly nouveau about this. Rather, it is terrifyingly old.
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