Julien (Pseudonym of Louis Poirier) Gracq Eugenia V. Osgood - Essay

Eugenia V. Osgood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1326 words.)