Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326
In Au Château d'Argol, as elsewhere in his writings, the approach of Julien Gracq to history is basically that of a Surrealist. History, which is for him mainly culture and civilization, is only a thin crust above what he calls "le tuf paléolithique" of our primitive drives…. [By] and large, Gracq sees the movement towards historicity as something limiting and deadening…. The deep history of humanity or of the human "soul" (a word Gracq very much likes) is to be seen primarily in a spacial perspective, as it erupts here and there on the surface of the planet. (p. 319)
Yet Gracq, the history professor, does not entirely turn his back on historical fact. On the contrary, from certain real events he selects materials to illuminate and intensify his narrative, while always taking care to remove them from their setting in time…. Myth—that "counter-history" of the Surrealists, a crystalization of human dreams where (in the words of Aragon) the "visage de l'infini" [aspect of infinity] lurks behind concrete forms—is always present in Gracq's work. There is no sharp cleavage between history, myth and nature, but rather an interpenetration, a working-together toward a gradual disengagement from the historic and toward a dénouement which is also a liberation.
Argol [the castle of Au Château d'Argol] is the archetypal castle of Celtic legends and Gothic novels, so dear to the Surrealists. However, it has been shaped by history, and through its architecture and furnishings history continues to exercise an indirect influence on the human beings who are within it…. The architecture of the building is a jumble of styles, designed to cause uneasiness and a feeling of dépaysement. A mixture of medieval and barbaric elements, its irregularity attacks the very idea of completeness…. (pp. 319-20)
The juxtaposition of contraries and the emphasis on the unusual create a tension which can be both exciting and ominous…. [The] material details, especially the architectural ones, are almost the equivalent of historic determinism, conveying the idea of predestination, of an ineluctable fate regulating the actions of the characters. The whole castle appears like a cage constructed by a sorcerer to coerce the inhabitants and to mold them to his own perverse whims. To counteract the spell cast by history, barbaric elements are introduced, both in the castle and in its surroundings. The wild and the untamed are suggested by the many animal pelts, by the "savage" horizon, by the virgin forest, and by the brilliance of the sun. (pp. 321-22)
The castle/forest relationship is a live and dynamic one: the castle is obviously a "lieu privilégié" [privileged place] which, in spite of all its historic shortcomings, allows man to enter into a pact with nature. On the other hand, the cemetery, also laid out by man, is only an assemblage of old stones, gradually sinking into the sand. The contrast between the permanence of the natural universe and the transitoriness of all that is human is graphically represented in the chapter's final passage where a "navire célèste"—a majestic cloud—slowly passes through the sky above the graveyard…. (p. 322)
Superior to anything wrought by the historic process, the forest, the sea, the earth, the seasons constantly influence man….
There is a romantic concordance between human feelings and nature which holds true for all the protagonists in the novel. Their meditations follow the obsessive uniformity of raindrops and become powerfully and monotonously penetrating. (p. 323)
Although the action of the novel is almost completely internalized and consists of a cluster of mental states, linear time—inextricably bound with the traditional view of history—has not been entirely excluded from Argol. At least part of the real (hidden) history of the protagonists evolves diachronically, and the mechanical time of the clock measures human duration, felt and valorized subjectively by man. (p. 325)
But myth itself is not all-powerful: created by man, it is bound by historic and human limits and will disappear when the human race dies out. Mythic cycles are the time of the human imagination, but the seasonal rhythm of nature is more fundamental and owes nothing at all to man. Though undoubtedly indebted to German romantics, Gracq has evolved his own special geo-physical perception of time; it is experienced as an "état second" when man actually senses the pulse of the planet and becomes part of the cosmic cycle. (p. 326)
The imprisonment of modern Man, prepared by the historic process, is a fundamental element in the works of Malraux, Sartre, and Camus, and Gracq sees the point of convergence of their thought and his in the basic question: How can one exist in prison? However he finds the answers to these other writers unsatisfactory because they are couched mainly in ethical terms. In their novels—which Gracq brands as "défaitiste"—man emerges as a "grand malade," either the victim of anguish, trying to exercise a useless freedom, or a prey to the absurd, separated from himself and hopelessly alienated…. Gracq looks to surrealism for the hope, optimism and belief in the potential of the human mind which our epoch so badly needs. The Surrealists' concern with recovering man's primitive powers of communication, synonymous with a greater openness toward the "coeur du monde" and toward the intimate essence of other consciences, is also a major issue for Gracq. He feels that man should leave his individual seclusion and merge into "something else," where he can be traversed and bathed by the unifying and reconciliatory Dionysian flux…. (p. 327)
Au Château d'Argol, published almost simultaneously with Sartre's La Nausée, has been described as the latter's opposite, and as an antidote and a cure for nausea, offering a Surrealist solution to an existential problem. Interestingly enough, this solution is a quasi-religious one: it is accomplished through salvation and regeneration of man's psyche…. Gracq believes that the "spiritual" problem warrants reexamination from a Surrealist point of view, and he proceeds to do so in Au Château d'Argol. The result is a new variant of that part of the Grail legend in which the free circulation of the "blood of the world" is said to bring youth and integrity back to man and his universe. (pp. 327-28)
The emphasis on the moments of fulfillment, on "moments privilégiés," brings Gracq's conception of history close to the mythology with which his work is saturated…. The Hegelian version of the myth of man's fall, the demonic version of the Grail legend, the mythology of the forest, the myth of the "self," the Faust myth, the myth of the night, all contribute to the structuring of Au Château d'Argol and Gracq's subsequent récits. (p. 328)
In spite of his interest in a solution to man's historic dilemma, Gracq likes unresolved conflicts and hypotheses, and all his stories are open stories. There is a series of "opening" actions in Argol. Mostly pilgrimages without a definite goal, they start from a narrow historic situation and then move into mythical space where dreams are made concrete, a deeper level of communication established, and a new vista unfolded. (p. 329)
What attracts Gracq to history is its magic rather than its logic, its mysticism rather than its materialism (even if the latter is dialectic). He denounces the opacity of much historico-critical reconstruction and its distortion of our vision of the past. On the other hand, the great hours of "magical politics" and of the "grand jeu" are said to be the luminous moments with which human becoming is interspersed. While André Breton wrote L'Art magique, choosing from the wealth of the world's artistic creations those which were animated by the surrealist spark, Gracq could probably write a comparable Histoire magique centering on some of the neglected instants of history which contained a very special kind of magic. (p. 331)
Eugenia V. Osgood, "A Surrealist Synthesis of History: 'Au Château d'Argol'," in L'Esprit Créateur (copyright © 1975 by L'Esprit Créateur), Fall, 1975, pp. 319-31.