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Michel Butor 1926-

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(Full name Michel Marie François Butor) French novelist, poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Butor's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, and 15.

Considered one of the New Novelists—a movement in French literature that questioned traditional modes of literary realism—Butor defies easy literary classification because of his disregard for conventional narrative forms. In an attempt to provide his reader with new tools for examining reality, Butor combines elements of poetry and philosophy with innovative structural ideas. He experiments with interior monologue, surreal imagery, and a shifting sense of time to create a complex and highly original fictive language. Butor has often been compared to several of the Nouveau Roman authors, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Phillipe Sollers, and Nathalie Sarraute.

Biographical Information

Butor was born on September 14, 1926, in Mons-en-Baroeul, France, to Emile and Anne Butor. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris in 1946 and 1947, respectively. Butor has taught French in Egypt and England and taught philosophy and literature at several universities in France and abroad. As a writer, Butor has focused on novels and poetry and has been greatly influenced by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce. He has also translated the work of other writers into French. In addition, Butor's belief that different forms of art are intimately connected has led him to make a number of interdisciplinary artistic contributions, including working with surrealist composer Henri Pousseur to create the opera Votre Faust (1968) and supplying text for the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Illustrations I (1964). He is also the author of numerous essays on music and painting. Butor received the Prix Renaudot for La Modification (1957; A Change of Heart) in 1957.

Major Works

Butor's work proposes to displace the familiar with the new, both in society and the individual. Critics have often loosely divided Butor's career into three stages. The novels from his first stage confront traditional notions of character in modern narratives and work to diminish the typical importance of the protagonist. L'Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time) employs first-person narration and is structured as a memoir of one year in the life of a man named Jacques Revel. The book alternates between Revel's reminiscences of his early days in Bleston, England, his present life, and finally his revelations about what he has discovered upon rereading what he has already written in the journal. La Modification takes place during a train trip from Paris to Rome. The main character, Léon Delmont, is a successful businessman who has a wife and children in Paris and a mistress in Rome. He is travelling to Rome to tell his mistress that he has found a job for her in Paris and he hopes they can live together after he leaves his wife. During the trip, he thinks about how he will leave his family and what his future life will be like. He begins lapsing between daydreams and remembrances, thinking about his past and his regret that he hasn't been able to make his marriage work. The story ends with Delmont deciding that he wants to give his marriage a fresh start and that he won't visit his mistress while he is in Rome. Butor uses second-person narration in the work, with Delmont constantly referring to himself as vous (“you”). His novel Degrés (1960; Degrees) concerns the various degrees of relationships in a Parisian school among thirty-one students and their eleven professors. The narrative is preoccupied with an examination of the concept of “degrees,” which can refer to the students' academic degrees, degrees of longitude and latitude, or varying degrees of sobriety. The dominant plot revolves around a teacher, Pierre Vernier, who decides to write a complete account of one hour at the school for the benefit of his nephew, Pierre Eller, who happens to be a student in his class. Vernier desires to capture every ounce of meaning and consciousness that takes place between the students and faculty, but he soon encounters a problem when he realizes that a tremendous amount of background will be necessary in order to make that hour intelligible. He must know what the students have been doing during the summer, what other classes they had attended or would attend the same day, what was going on simultaneously in the other classrooms, the family backgrounds and problems of teachers and students, and so on.

In the second stage of Butor's writing, his focus shifts to creating poetry and novels in which the individual is fully integrated into his environment. The works are characterized by a chaotic element both in the writing and in the lack of focus on any plot or person. This radical break in form can be seen in Mobile (1962), a nonfiction “novel” in which Butor draws a critical but well-balanced historical view of contemporary America as the land of the free and the not-so-free. The work functions almost as a travelogue of America that blends both the factual and the fictional. Mobile places a strong emphasis on the visual, with blank spaces throughout the text and several different typefaces and types of margins. There is no central subject and no linear plot in the work. The prose is organized state by state according to the alphabet and many critics have debated whether Mobile should actually be called a novel because of its drastic departure from traditional literary structures. 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde (1965; Niagara) has been considered by some to be an outgrowth of Butor's travel writing in Mobile because it is set in Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara is divided into twelve sections corresponding to the months of the year, from April to March. The first section introduces two couples visiting the falls and explores their expectations, hopes, reactions, and memories during their vacation. The text jumps from descriptions of flowers to trinkets in the souvenir shops to other couples visiting the site, exploring the meaning and significance of every facet of the place. The title refers to the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls every second. Butor juxtaposes how the waters of the Niagara River seem to increase their speed before approaching the precipice with the way that an individual's life appears to accelerate with the approach of death. Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (1967; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape) is a parody of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which Butor fantasizes about a trip to the castle of Harburg in his youth. The castle is filled with an assortment of texts on alchemy and magic. As Butor reviews the books, he begins contemplating about his own development as an individual artist and wonders if he'll ever become anything more than a mere imitator of art.

In his third career stage, Butor becomes a character in his own work and his writing develops a preoccupation with how he interacts with the world around him. This stage is most notably marked by two different series of works by Butor. The first of these—grouped under the title Le Genie de lieu (1958–92)—is a series of travelogue essay collections which trace Butor's travels to the Mediterranean, Egypt, the United States, Australia, and Asia. Ou (1971), the second volume of the series, is a sophisticated account of Butor's voyages to America and the Far East. The collection addresses several of the essential questions posed by Butor throughout his oeuvre, in particular, the literary expression of creative energy. The work also examines the difficulty of representing the world through literature. The second series Matière de rêves (1975–85)—which can be translated as The Stuff of Dreams—is a five-volume set of novels that explore the complexity of discovering a sense of selfhood through one's own dreams. Butor is once again the protagonist of this series as it relates how his dreams allow him to change into different people and animals. The metamorphoses are often traumatic and Butor finds himself in a variety of compromising situations. His family members have prominent roles in these dreams, but they are joined by an array of fictional characters from several literary traditions, as well as by historical artists and composers. The way Butor structures the text in the Matière de rêves series allow the relationship between the reader and the text to mimic the relationship between the individual and the dream-world within the books.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have generally agreed that the hallmark of Butor's work is his creation of an active relationship between the author and the reader. Seda A. Chavdarian has argued, “Butor's books are like hieroglyphs that can be considered for their beauty—the surface plot—or deciphered to provide a much deeper meaning.” Butor's most widely acclaimed novel, La Modification, has been embraced by a number of critics, although it is one of Butor's more traditional works. Reviewers have argued, however, that in La Modification, Butor provides his readers with a storyline and a protagonist with which to identify, but is still able to subvert the traditional genre of the novel from within. Considerable critical disagreement has occurred since the form of Butor's works has become more experimental. Some reviewers have praised his work as an important contribution to the genre of the “New Novel,” while others have questioned the very designation of Butor's later works as “novels.” A chief complaint of these critics has been that Butor's experimental works fail to draw the reader in or engage the reader emotionally because of their lack of traditional characters and plot. Marianne Hirsch has asserted, “The reader who makes his way through a Butor work, as one might walk through a cathedral or a city, a museum or an amusement park, coping with fragmentation and disjunction, contradiction and illogic, is, as Barthes suggests in Le Plaisir du texte, a hero in the adventures of our culture.”

Principal Works

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Passage de Milan (novel) 1954

L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time] (novel) 1956

La Modification [A Change of Heart] (novel) 1957

Theorie du champ de la conscience [translator; from The Field of Conscience by Aron Gurwitch] (nonfiction) 1957

*Le Génie du lieu [The Spirit of the Mediterranean] (essays) 1958

Degrés [Degrees] (novel) 1960

Répertoire: Etudes et conferences, 1948–1959 (essays) 1960

Cycle sur neuf gouaches d'Alexandre Calder (poetry) 1962

Mobile: Etude pour une representation des Etats-Unis (prose) 1962

Description de San Marco [Description of San Marco] (nonfiction) 1963

Illustrations I (poetry) 1964

Répertoire II: Etudes et conferences, 1959–1963 (essays and lectures) 1964

6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde: Etude stereophonique [Niagara] (novel) 1965

Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe, capriccio [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice] (novel) 1967

Répertoire III (essays) 1968

Votre Faust, fantaisie variable, genre opera (opera) 1968

Illustrations II (poetry) 1969

Les Mots dans la peinture (nonfiction) 1969

*Ou (essays) 1971

Illustrations III (poetry) 1973

Intervalle (novel) 1973

Répertoire IV (criticism and essays) 1974

Matière de rêves (novel) 1975

Illustrations IV (poetry) 1976

Second sous-sol (novel) 1976

Troisieme dessous (novel) 1977

*Boomerang (essays) 1978

Envois (poetry and essays) 1980

Explorations (poetry and essays) 1981

Quadruple fond (novel) 1981

Répertoire V (criticism and essays) 1982

Sept a la demi-douzaine (poetry) 1982

Exprès (poetry and essays) 1983

Improvisations sur Flaubert (criticism) 1984

Mille et un plis (novel) 1985

L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba (prose) 1989

*Transit A (essays) 1992

Le Japon depuis la France: Un Reve a l'Ancre (nonfiction) 1995

A la frontiere: Poemes (poetry) 1996

Improvisations sur Michel Butor: l'écriture en transformation (essays and autobiography) 1996

Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan [illustrated by Joël Leick] (prose) 1999

Appel: Suite pour un Violoncelle en Detresse (poetry) 2000

Les Jumelles Asymetriques (poetry) 2000

*These works comprise a four-volume series of essay collections which are grouped under the title Le Génie de lieu.

†These works comprise a five-volume series of novels which are grouped under the title Matière de rêves.

Seda A. Chavadarian (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Chavadarian, Seda A. “Images of Chaos in Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 10 (1984): 49–55.

[In the following essay, Chavadarian argues that Butor's Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou begin with a sense of order, but progressively degenerate into narrative chaos.]

Butor's work contains great agitation and restlessness that invade every sentence. This power is at times either a positive, energetic force or a negative, uncomfortable tension. His books abound in images of birth, fecundity, energetic whirling that are always juxtaposed to those of death, disintegration, and chaos; yet these forces do not necessarily contradict but complement each other. Rage is usually manifested through violence, cruelty, and chaos. Order is necessitated by this violence and brought about through cult and ritual.

Butor's books share a basic pattern that is characteristically consistent throughout his work. They all begin with a definite goal that disintegrates as we proceed and ends in apparent defeat. Yet this failure is always projected to be a positive experience. In this paper, we offer an explanation of the nature of this negative-positive relationship and the apparent change of form after Degrés, through an examination of a subtopic of rage—chaos—in Mobile, 6810000 Litres d'eau par seconde, and Ou.1

We do not pretend to suggest that the topic of chaos is the only viable approach to the three books chosen, for each one of them offers a rich array of interesting possibilities; however, because of the scope of this study, we have limited ourselves to the examination of the images of chaos.

Works of ethnologists and sociologists such as Roger Caillois2 and Mircea Eliade3 tell us that in its general sense, chaos is characterized by an explosion of energy resulting in confusion, fragmentation, disorder, debauchery, formlessness, and excess. It is a licentious period where all taboos are broken and all boundaries disappear. A chaotic period is one of limbo, preceded by death and followed by a new creation. A state of chaos is essential for any renewal.

All of the above images are present in the three books chosen. Mobile and 6810000 represent the chaotic stage that follows the death of the author in Degrés, and Ou depicts the subsequent period of regeneration. There is a tremendous amount of energy in Mobile that is conveyed in part by a constant movement on every page. Cars, rivers, planes, trains, birds, are all in motion. This explosion of energy is reinforced by the apparent confusion and formlessness of its typography. The mere fact that the page is not presented to us with set margins and linear direction gives it a sparkling quality.

As is well known, the ordered integrity of the page in Degrés becomes shattered here. The liberties of syntax already present in Butor's previous books undergo an expansion where the idea of the traditional page is abandoned. Pages of Mobile have no fixed or identifiable form. The words seem to be thrown on the page like Pollock's ink blots, rendering every part of the page equally important. Even the grouping of these words contributes to the fast pace of the book. As an example (which Butor himself has stated in an interview),4 whenever birds of a particular state are mentioned, they are grouped in five and are in the shape of an arrow:

Linottes chenues,
                                                  hirondelles des rives
                                                                                becfigues bohémiens,
                                                  grosbecs des pins,
linottes communes.

(p. 181)

The arrow is usually pointed to the right, as if to suggest to turn the page. In addition, an aquatic vocabulary surfaces whenever there is mention of a state that borders a body of water. The particular grouping of the words gives the impression of the back and forth movement of the waves beating the shoreline:

Mouettes rieuses,
                                        macreuses des plages,
la mer,
                                                                                petits sternes,
                                        petits seaux,
petites pelles,
                                        petits râteaux,
petits moules,
                                        écumeurs noirs,
mouettes de Bonaparte,
                                        petits tamis noirs.

(p. 190)

Aside from the quotations, there is not much continuity in the sentences. The reader is sometimes faced with word patterns that have no meaningful relationship. A superb example of this is found on pages 320–21, where there are no grammatical restrictions or limitations. On the first page, sentences suddenly come to a stop without warning:

et qu'est-ce que vous pensez de …
                                                  je n'aurais jamais cru …
Les metros qui remontent Manhattan:
                                                  Rond-point de Christophe Colomb,

(p. 320)

They are disintegrated even further on the next page by not only the elimination of the subject but also by the breakdown of individual words. The traditional linear eye movement is shattered by the columnal shape of the black on the white page, changing the emphasis from horizontal to vertical:

c'est là,
je t'aime,

(p. 321)

Another image of chaos—disintegration—is shown through the particular use of the quotes. Butor has explained how he has used the quotes in such a way as to alter their usual meaning.5 The best example of this is, of course, the way Butor quotes Thomas Jefferson. The words and thoughts of the same person are juxtaposed to reveal a very different view of him. To all the marvels of Monticello, which represents the culmination of his intellect and his innovative spirit, are juxtaposed Jefferson's biased comments to his music teacher concerning the intellectual and artistic inferiority of the Blacks. This particular arrangement of quotes is also an example of a reversal of or change from the usual order of things, where an unexpected rather than an anticipated element surfaces.

The above characteristics of chaos continue in the next book and are taken one step further. 6810000 symbolizes the final stage before rebirth. It is indicative of the deluge that engulfs and buries the old to make way for the new. It is representative of the chaotic stage principally by two means: debauchery of expression (we borrow this term from Caillois), and images of fluidity. Like Mobile, the licentiousness of expression is manifested in its syntax. It seems as if the tremendous amount of energy contained in 6810000 liters of water that fall per second infiltrates every page and gives life to the words on it. Here again, the page is treated as a surface on which words seem to bounce. The free syntax gives way to different possibilities of meaning. There is not much linear movement, nor any margins. If movement exists, it is always vertical. Chateaubriand's text is broken apart, repeated, and recycled. The written material on the page seems no longer to describe anything, but instead, create itself through the play of words. Sometimes, for example, a particular idea is expressed through different combinations of word order. For instance, “ceux qui,” “dormir,” and “ensemble” are combined to give the following different versions:

Ceux qui ont dormi pour la première fois ensemble … Ceux qui ont dormi ensemble pour la première fois depuis des années … Ceux qui dorment toutes les nuits ensemble depuis des années … Ceux qui ont tenté de varier leur nuit en venant ici … Ceux qui ne pensaient pas n'auraient pas cru qu'ils dormiraient ensemble ici cette nuit.

(pp. 158–59)

At other times, the words seem to produce each other. An apparent conversation on different levels gives way to the play of words that produce the next sentences in the conversation:

Est-ce qu'il y avait ce musée de figures de cire Mme Tussaud?
                                                  Figures de unit.
                                                                                Leurs casseroles sont usées.
Outils de nuit.
                                        Une plaque de l'Illinois.
                                                            Boue de nuit.
                                                            Leur auto couverte de boue.
                                                            Cire de nuit.

(pp. 262–63)

The phrase “figures de cire” gives way to “figure de nuit”; “usées” produces “outils de nuit”; the Illinois license plate and mud give way to the car covered with mud; and finally, “cire de nuit”—continuing the same idea of some kind of covering—sends us back to the first sentence. The above are but two examples among many in the book where the words seem to generate themselves.

The most important image in the book is of course that of fluidity. The movement of the entire work is reflective of the downward movement of the falls. 6810000 is a commentary and elaboration of two words from Chateaubriand's text, “le déluge” and “le gouffre.” The juxtaposition of these two ideas to others in the text brings us to an important aspect of the book. The falls are a “gouffre à la bouche béante” that attracts and engulfs everything. It is not by chance that this image is the one quoted most (it appears forty-six times or roughly every seven pages). What in the beginning seems to be just a quote from Chateaubriand's text, becomes closely intermingled with and related to other parts of the book as we advance. The gorge is a shrine that lures people of all ages only to whirl them down and destroy them. Its violent nature effects everything that touches it.

Just as everything that comes in contact with it is pulled down, the entire book has a downward movement toward death. This progressive degeneration is reflected in the titles of the chapters, the last four of which are a clear allusion to the underworld: “Brouillard,” “Fantômes,” “le Styx,” and “Le Froid.” The progression toward an apparent decay is also shown in the adjectives used in the book. The brilliance of the beautiful flowers and the bright colors of the beginning fade slowly and give way to images of thirst, hunger, darkness, and blood: “aigrie, dégoutée, épuisée, décue” (p. 186). The colors also begin to darken. Sometimes, the words on the page are variations of the same color: “Noir … Noires … Noire … Noir” (pp. 206–207). (This renders the color black overwhelming despite the whiteness of the almost blank pages.) New Year's Eve, described in the section entitled “Les Fantômes,” is a time to remember and sometimes be reunited with the dead. Everything points to death. In “Le Styx,” we have the description of the people who perished trying to cross the falls. All images depict darkness: “soif dans le froid … Peur dans la faim … Neige dans le noir” (pp. 260–61), echoing the darkness of death that was announced early in the book: “Dans la nuit noire … dans la pluie noire … sang … pluie de sang … pluie de sang noir … pluie de vieux sang noir dans la nuit … le sang de massacrés revenant mugissant dans la nuit noire” (pp. 135–37). However, despite all the images of death and a progressive movement toward degeneration, the book ends at 1:00 PM in March—daylight and springtime. The death is a symbolic one that will give new life. It is the deluge that destroys evil and makes way for the new world. The water symbolism is a life-giving force. According to Eliade, “Immersion in water does not mean final extinction, but simply a temporary reintegration into the formless which will be followed by new creation. …” Water “disintegrates, abolishes forms, ‘washes away sins’—at once purifying and giving new life. Its work is to precede creation and take it again to itself, it can never get beyond its mode of existence—can never express itself in forms.”6 The visitors, who at some point are referred to as pilgrims, travel there to be immersed in water. They must undress and leave their belongings behind if they want to come close to the gorge. (This descent is symbolic of the naked child who is immersed in water to be baptized and thus be given a new life.) The cleansing of themselves is essential for their continuous life. The visitors carry back with them souvenirs containing the picture of the falls lest they forget its power. They return to it once the image loses its potency—or example, when the image is washed out from the shirt. This place of purification periodically calls on the people to come back and cleanse themselves.

At the end of the book, the image of water as a pre-stage for rebirth completes itself, for in addition to being a purifying agent, water is a symbol of fecundity and regeneration. The gouffre—this monster with the open mouth that engulfs everything—illustrates the entry into the mouth that is symbolic of the entry into the mother's womb to be reborn again. The fecundity is also present in the symbolism of the couple. While all of Butor's previous books show the impossibility of the character to unite in love, both Mobile and 6810000 have sexual union. A non-existent element suddenly becomes common here. Compared to the other books, it becomes akin to a sexual orgy, which again is very characteristic of the chaotic period where unrestricted sexual relations represent the flowing and sacred energy of life. It is symbolic of the eruption of the creative energy. This energy will eventually give rise to a rebirth—the reappearance of the author in the next text.

Ou presents us with the stage of renewal and regeneration that follows the chaotic period. Through a ceremony of rebirth, it marks the return of the author to the book. This period is also characterized by a burst of energy that renews and gives life. Here, the return of the author coincides with the regeneration ceremony represented in much detail by the Shalako ritual of the Zuni religion. This ritual is a very important one to the Zuni. It denotes the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is the great fertility ritual performed at the winter solstice. The word itself means the coming of the gods.7 The reappearance of the gods through the ceremony of the Shalako is parallel to the rebirth of the author in Ou whose presence affects the structure of the book. The pages of Ou are not as confusing and formless as the ones in Mobile and 6810000. The pattern of the words becomes more linear and structured and regular pagination resurfaces. We no longer have an anonymous narration, but one with a definite author hard at work. His return, once again as in Butor's other books, marks a reexamination of the problems and possibilities of representation—in this book, the attempted description of Mount Sandia. While presenting the period of limbo by their confusion, formlessness, and licentiousness in structure, Mobile and 6810000 give direction to the creative energy and move us toward a new beginning that takes shape in Ou.

The study of the images of chaos in these books enables us not only to see them in new light but also to understand better the apparently radical change of form after Degrés. Put within the broader context of Butor's work, they represent a particular stage in a continuous movement. Although we cannot go into any detail, it should be noted that there exists a fundamental similarity between the theory of sacrifice and the general pattern of Butor's work and his concept of literary creation. Suffice it to say that Butor's entire oeuvre can be seen as a movement toward sacrifice which becomes that of the author. Many of his books represent different stages of this sacrifice: Passage de Milan—general introduction to the theme of sacrifice, L'Emploi du temps—preparation of the place of sacrifice, La Modification—the pattern of initiation, Degrés—the actual sacrifice, Mobile and 6810000—the period of chaos, and Ou and Intervalle—the fertility ritual and the return of the author to the text. Considered within the framework of the sacrificial movement, the three books discussed become a logical next step after Degrés.


  1. Michel Butor, Mobile (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), 68100000 Litres d'eau par seconde (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), we shall refer to this text as 6810000, Ou (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  2. Roger Caillois L'Homme et le sacré (Paris: Gallimard, 1950).

  3. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958).

  4. F. C. St. Aubyn, “A Propos de Mobile: 2e Entretien avec Michel Butor,” The French Review, 38 (1965), 427–40.

  5. St. Aubyn, “A Propos de Mobile,” p. 437.

  6. Eliade, Patterns, p. 212.

  7. For more details see Dean McWilliams, The Narratives of Michel Butor: The Writer as Janus (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978), pp. 85–94.

Mary Beth Pringle (essay date fall 1985)

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SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Butor's Room without a View: The Train Compartment in La Modification.Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, no. 3 (fall 1985): 112–18.

[In the following essay, Pringle contends that the train compartment in Butor's La Modification signifies a “microcosm within a microcosm” and reflects the protagonist's view of and relationship to the larger world.]

Twentieth-century novelists frequently use train compartments to represent microcosms of the worlds through which trains travel; French writers are no exception. In at least one novel by Butor, Gide, and Larbaud,1 and in a film by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a train figures prominently. None has been written, however, in which the train is more important than in La Modification by Michel Butor. Its plot traces a rail journey made by Léon Delmont from Paris to Rome in a train compartment on the Paris-Rome Rapide. The commonplace furnishings of the compartment, its passengers, and their luggage, on at least two levels, create microcosms that reflect larger worlds. First, the compartment is a miniature embodiment of the natural environment and second, it reflects Léon Delmont's dawning perception that the world outside the train is orderless, timebound, and disintegrating.

In one sense, the compartment represents a microcosm within a microcosm because it is in one of several nearly identical trains that traverse an identical international route. Second, it is not a lone microcosm, sandwiched as it is between two of seven other compartments on one of the train's several cars. The compartment's walls, glass window, and Plexiglas divider insulate the inside space from the world outside the train and suggest individual isolation on the outside. The view of the outside is through a thick-paned glass window. During Delmont's journey it furnishes a distorted view of the exterior landscape. Depending on interior and exterior lighting, an image of the interior of the compartment is duplicated in the window glass. Opposite the window, a corridor provides insulation between the compartment and the world outside. Thus, when Delmont looks at landscape to his right, his gaze traverses three intervening levels of material and space. First, Léon looks through a Plexiglas divider that separates the train compartment from the corridor. Second, his gaze passes through the corridor space itself and, finally, through the glass that separates the corridor from the outside of the train. The corridor glass and the Plexiglas also distort views of the outside. Because of lighting variations, reflections of inside space are sometimes cast on otherwise transparent surfaces. Once, Delmont sees the orange night lights in the corridor reflecting on the outer window glass. Other times he sees the interior of the compartment reflected in the Plexiglas surface. Léon's view of the landscape is also frequently blocked by people loitering or walking in the corridor. As a result, he feels lonely and cut off. He refers to the compartment as “this mobile waiting room.”2 No location objectifies more accurately than a waiting room the restless, solitary discomfort of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, Delmont seems attracted to his place beneath his luggage in the tiny moving capsule. Uneasy at “the rush of the outside world toward you [himself]” (429), he feels more comfortable seated beneath his good pajamas and change of underwear, encased on the shelf above him.

The train compartment in La Modification is consistent with most compartments on French trains. It seats eight, four to a side. A mirror hangs on the wall above the back of each couch. Each mirror is rectangular and is placed long side parallel to the floor. On either side of the mirrors hang framed photographs, glass covering the prints. These photos are presumably black and white, since Delmont recalls color photographs adorning the walls of first-class compartments on earlier trips to Rome. Several times, a floor heater with a diamond-shaped grid is referred to. Delmont's mind records the jolting under his hand of an ashtray lid and the racks on which hand luggage has been stored. These are suspended from the wall above each mirror. He also notes the blue window shade imprinted with the initials of the railroad company (SNCF), a light switch, an alarm bell, and blue, white, and transparent light globes. Considered alone, even these physical features of the compartment suggest a sophisticated development of the microcosm. It is not of the Donnean variety in which, as in “The Sun Rising,” two lovers compare the bare but beautiful four-walled world of their bedroom with a larger inferior world outside. Butor's interior world reflects an exterior recreated in all its imperfection.

The photographs hanging in the compartment define the boundaries of the microcosm and span the four corners, the far ranges, of place and time. Two of the photographs represent an actual location—the Arc de Triomphe and the Cité de Carcassonne—while two represent a type of place: the seaside and mountains. The latter are stereotypical locations and essentially opposites. Two photos depict city scenes while two portray a natural landscape. One might argue that the photographs represent the four corners of France, even a bird's-eye rectangular view of the Arc de Triomphe or a geometric suggestion of a map of Paris. The mountains are likely those through which the train passes and would thus be located in the southwest of France. Carcassonne is due south of Paris and to the east of the Pyrenees. If the harbor scene could be considered representative of a northern coastal area, a rectangle would thereby be constructed. In addition to other evidence that the photographs comprise a totality, the topography of each region is unlike that of the other three. Water, mountains, plains, and a city setting are depicted. With the exception of desert, tropics, and arctic areas (extremes), all major topographical regions of the earth are represented in the photographs. The photos also span time. Two cannot be precisely dated. Mountains change little in appearance, and romantic myths about the sea—small boats bobbing in a harbor—suggest a timeless quality. Two of the photos represent definite temporal periods, one relatively early, the other late. The inner wall of the citadel at Carcassonne was likely constructed in the sixth century, while the outer was built in the thirteenth.3 By comparison to the citadel, the Arc de Triomphe was recently built, constructed in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Even the moods created by the photographs vary. The two natural scenes convey a feeling of freedom unaffected by the corrosive influences of civilization. The photographs of Carcassonne and the Arc de Triomphe, however, suggest no such freedom. Instead, the mood of each photograph is inherent in the architecture of the monument portrayed. Knowing the history of either structure conditions one's response to the photograph which portrays it. The one of the citadel, for instance, is dark and foreboding. The medieval spires and darkening skies over it recall its history as a garrison blocking Pyrenean passes against invaders from the south.4 Various cultures have influenced it. Besides its French qualities, the citadel has been influenced by Roman and Oriental architecture. The Arc de Triomphe, on the other hand, celebrates the victories of Napoleon; it is totally Western and staunchly neoclassical. In one sense, its presence in the train compartment, as is true of its physical presence in Paris, introduces Rome into a French setting, the classical into the romantic. The photographs observed by Léon in train compartments on earlier journeys may also be considered part of the microcosmic totality. Delmont recalls one, “a color photograph of one of the details from the Sistine Chapel, a damned soul trying to hide his eyes” (394). The photograph—this one in color suggesting that his memories are more vivid than the present—may suggest parallels between it and Léon Delmont's present situation. In twentieth-century terms, Léon may be damned: guilt, shame, and dissatisfaction his constant companions.

The four pictures plus the photograph that Léon recalls, in effect, force differing geographies, moods, and times into the present time and present space of the train compartment. That these scenes are represented by photographs rather than drawings is worth noting. While drawings are obviously fictions of the creative mind, photographs embody self-conscious and necessarily unsuccessful attempts to capture reality. Presumed reality and its ironic implications are qualities that Butor seeks to include in his microcosmic representation of the larger world. Certainly, the artist in this larger world is no longer capable of creating on canvas or paper an accurate imitation of the natural, once “real” world. Léon Delmont, in several important ways an artist, is similarly afflicted.

The mirrors set between the photographs further complicate the role of snapshots in Butor's microcosm. A logical question is, what can Léon see in the mirrors from where he is sitting? Since several variables remain unspecified (e.g., height of mirrors), the following tentative assertions are, if unprovable, metaphorically possible. Looking from Léon's position facing the right-hand mirror at an angle, one can observe the two photographs hanging on the wall across from Léon on either side of the mirror. These two photographs depict a harbor and the citadel. In the mirror itself, one can see reflected the photographs hanging above and behind Léon (mountains and the Arc de Triomphe). The observer can also see the photographs hanging in front of him twice reflected, once in the mirror behind him, then in the mirror at which he is looking. In fact, two or more of the photographs, depending on their angle of incidence, may reflect multiple images. (Certainly were a person to stand between the mirrors, multiple receding images of him or her would be visible in either mirror.) Thus, in the mirror hanging across from him, Léon can probably see multiple images of all four photographs, besides which he can see the harbor scene and the citadel photographs hanging next to the mirror. The single and multiple images of the photographs would be superimposed on each other in the mirrors and fragmented almost beyond recognition. But fragmentation of multiple images serves effectively as a visual correlative of Delmont's environment and situation off the train. The mirrors are similar to cameras, shutters clicking without film in the camera. Every moment, every object is recorded, then lost forever.

Such an interrelationship between inside and outside is further emphasized by Delmont's repeated references to the reflection of the moon on the glass covering two of the photographs in such a way that from where Léon sits, the glass appears to be opaque. Here again, apparent reality disappears in a gleam of light from outside the compartment. Light from the moon also reflects on the mirror.

The floor of the train compartment further suggests that the space is a microcosm of a larger hellish universe. On the floor of the compartment is a heating device that warms the encapsulated area. Butor describes it as a “diamond-scored iron floor heater” (353), “some hidden furnace” (451), and compares its grid with a perfectly shaped graph of railroad traffic. It is metal, heat-effusing, and its grid bears similarity to the back of a rattlesnake. That the floor heater makes a small inferno of the compartment is further developed. Certain items fall to the floor of the compartment and are both kicked about by the passengers and blown to their destruction by the floor heater. A soldier's shoe crushes a cracker against the metal grid of the heater, within a single diamond-shaped groove in the grid. Remnants of the cracker stain the floor. Other falling items meet similar ends. An older woman, traveling with the young boy who has dropped the cracker, wads a piece of paper and throws it beneath her seat. The paper, soiled and gradually dampened, is traced by Delmont as it rolls and is kicked around the floor. It tumbles once along the floor heater toward a man Delmont describes as Italian. A young husband kicks it under his seat. Later, the Italian—given the name Lorenzo Brignole by Delmont—kicks the wad of paper, now tattered, toward Léon.

Still other objects that touch the floor illustrate the destructive nature of the heater and of time. Once, a book that Delmont is reading falls and is smudged by grit from the heater. Apple seeds, descendents of Edenic apples, fall beside Delmont's left foot. Later, two of the seeds lie in a groove of the floor heater, “a little of their white pulp oozing out through the slits in their thin husks” (422). Little stars of pink and brown hit the heater when the conductor notches tickets. When Léon later sees them, they are damp, soiled, and nearly obliterated. Even the shoes of passengers bear scars from proximity to the grid. Léon notes that his tan shoes are streaked grey from contact with the metallic grid. The heater, however, performs a second function in the creation of a microcosm, providing nearly unendurable warmth in the compartment. Whereas the world outside is dampened by rain, sleet, and snow, the world inside the compartment is suffocatingly hot. As Delmont notes, “The strip of metal, patterned with diamond-shaped grooves, that runs along the floor between the seats is growing hotter” (324).

Butor carefully connects Delmont's emotional state (he fears that he is being absorbed into his wife's mental world, “into the suffocating depths of the ocean of boredom, of resignation, of exhausting and stupefying routine, of unconsciousness in which she wallows” [34]) with the suffocating atmosphere in the airless train compartment. Thus, Léon's observation about himself is ironic: “Oh, how urgently you needed to escape from this threatening asphyxia, to take a deep breath of that future air, of that happiness that awaited you” (338). His problem is that he cannot escape from the oppressive “threatening asphyxia” either in the compartment or in the suffocating, damp world outside the train. Since the purpose of Delmont's journey is to escape his dreary existence in Paris by joining his mistress in Rome, this fact is particularly significant. By journey's end, as these details indicate, his plans are dashed.

But other furnishings in the compartment besides the photographs, mirrors, and the floor heater suggest that the compartment is a microcosm of the outside, in particular of Léon's perceptions of it. The ashtrays provide a still smaller space within the cubicle in which the subtly insidious flames of cigarettes can be extinguished and their butts stored. The luggage rack in the compartment serves as storage space on which the worldly possessions of passengers can be placed. The blue window shade is a means by which the world outside can be only temporarily closed off. The role of lights in the compartment is obvious; they provide light, semilight, and darkness for the microcosm: daylight, dawn, dusk, and night. Metallic appointments abound in the cubicle: metal strips on the window ledges, on the floor, and around the seats, suggesting the coldly sterile nature of the enclosed space.

The sounds and motions heard and felt in the train compartment reinforce a microcosmic view of the compartment. While the train is in motion, it creates a mind-boggling, nerve-jangling, isolating vibration. Concurrent with the train's vibrations, a periodic swaying occurs that further disrupts activity in the compartment. While gripping the luggage rack, Delmont struggles with the lock on his suitcase. He compares the isolation he feels to an invisible shield of noise separating him from the others. Delmont says of himself, “You are more and more cut off from it as if by a barrier of noise and migraine” (447). Worth emphasizing is the parallel Delmont notes between a condition in the compartment (the noise of the train) and his own physical condition (a migraine). Such a comparison encourages an expressionistic interpretation in which the train compartment becomes a microcosmic representation of Delmont's mental process.

Still other sounds develop the microcosm. The tapping of the ticket taker's punch on the Plexiglas window between compartment and corridor, the frequent tinkle of the dinner bell, the slamming of sliding doors, the voices conveyed over loudspeakers, whistles, even the deep breathing of Delmont's fellow travelers, each disrupts his thoughts, churns them into chaos, much as do events in the clamorous world outside the compartment.

Delmont's fellow passengers in the compartment populate the microcosm. They represent a totality much as the four photographs do. The travelers are of both sexes, varying ages, and nationalities. They represent the full spectrum of social classes and occupations from cleric to scholar, soldier, laborer. They speak French, English, and Italian. Their luggage suggests their personalities, condition in life, and state of mind. An efficient-looking businessman, slightly younger than Delmont, carries a briefcase with files in it. An Englishman carries an umbrella and a briefcase. Two Italian workmen enter toting knapsacks, and a soldier a painted wooden box. A newly married woman, whom Delmont mentally names Agnes, carries a handbag made of straw, a fabric that suggests the precarious nature of her present happiness. The narrator's suitcase seems appropriate considering his situation and mental state. It is quality luggage, made of green leather. If examined closely, however, it yields up grease spots on the leather and rust around its hinges.

The travelers' reading matter is equally representative and varied. The priest reads his breviary; the young married couple beginning life together reads a Guide Bleu, studies maps and an Italian Assimil. The man Delmont decides is a salesman works a crossword puzzle, while the Englishman reads a Manchester Guardian. Although Butor emphasizes the logical relationship between passengers and reading matter, he remains noticeably silent about the title and subject of the book that Delmont carries with him. The usual claim is that the book is a detective novel, which would accurately reflect Delmont's situation and state of mind. First, Delmont's train trip is a well-known setting for conventional detective novels. Second, his trip to Rome, while it involves no criminal act against the state, constitutes a crime against the church, a deception necessitating a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger behavior. And yet, although he is the perpetrator of the deception and not the detective charged with apprehending a wrongdoer, Delmont seems in ways detective like, i.e., preoccupied with guilt, in Delmont's case, his own. He becomes, in a sense, both criminal and investigator. Third, Delmont observes, makes judgments about, and assigns histories to the other passengers in his compartment, another type of detective work. Always, however, reality is tinged by his own preoccupation. When a couple that appears to be honeymooning kiss each other, Delmont concludes that the realities of married life have not yet forced open their cocoon. He wonders, “Shouldn't you disturb that quietude of theirs?” (428). In effect, Delmont as existential detective ineffectually attempts to assign meaning/order to the chaos of people and objects in the compartment in order to stay the swelling flood in his mind. But his attempts avail him nothing. The machine mentale that characterizes his mind works, as does the train, inexorably toward its destination. Fate dominates Léon Delmont's life and he knows it. Once, he describes his love for Cécile as “dominated by … some enormous star” (554). His journey, a quest both mental and physical, has never been within his control. When Léon reads the train schedule (an attempt, literal and figurative, to figure out where he is going), he wishes that he had a Guide Bleu, a direction book like the one read by the young married couple. Isolated in the microcosmic world, Delmont yearns for a map of the world outside the train. He wants to understand the process taking place in his mind, the means by which he is about to deny Cécile, a woman he's assumed to be his salvation.

Even inside the compartment, Delmont lacks perspective on his life. He sits surrounded by objects that control him on the outside: food, keys, cigarettes (each brand suggesting the nationality of the smoker who carries it), wallets, identification cards, watches and passports. Most significant of these items are the watches worn by various passengers. They are smaller pocket versions of the clocks prominently situated at the Gare de Lyon and at each station the train passes. Léon cannot even escape time in the microcosm.

Most of life's significant events take place in the compartment, have just occurred outside the compartment, or are about to when the train journey begins, emphasizing the dynamic nature of the microcosm. Sharing of food takes place. Sleep, work, reading, and conversation occur in the compartment. Child care is depicted; a marriage has recently been celebrated; death will soon overtake the old man and woman carrying black suitcases. Léon feels sexual desire for the woman sleeping next to him.

There are at least two reasons why Butor uses such a carefully delineated microcosm in La Modification. First, people and objects in the compartment stimulate Léon's train of thoughts during his journey. They allow his mind to weave back and forth between particulars in the compartment and events outside the train. Second, the compartment enhances one's awareness that the world in which Delmont ordinarily struggles to keep his sanity and integrity is for him personally destructive and seemingly irrational. In the compartment an important message is imprinted on a strip of metal on the window ledge. The sign is in two languages and reads: Il est dangereux de se pencher au dehors-E pericoloso sporgersi. The sentiment of the sign is not without irony. Certainly Léon is no safer in the compartment than outside of it. It is inside the compartment, after all, that he decides to leave and love Cécile in Rome. While his decision seems to him morally and psychologically healthy, it condemns Delmont, nevertheless, to what may be a dissatisfying existence in Paris with Henriette. It is dangerous to lean outside the compartment and destructive to remain inside since, for Delmont, the two are essentially the same. Thus, when twice in the novel he tucks himself into a corner of the compartment and curls himself into an embryonic ball, attempting to escape the pressures he feels by sleeping, he succeeds in escaping nothing. For Delmont, for all of us, there exists no place in the world to rest for a moment, nor to hide.


  1. John K. Simon, “View from the Train: Butor, Gide, Larbaud,” French Review 36: 161–66.

  2. Michel Butor, Two Novels by Michel Butor: Passing Time and A Change of Heart (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 355. Future references cited in text.

  3. Regina Jais, Legendary France: Carcassonne and the Basque Country (New York: Dial Press, 1931), 182–203.

  4. Ibid., 183.

Seda A. Chavdarian (essay date winter 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2759

SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Michel Butor's La Modification: The Revolution from Within.” International Fiction Review 13, no. 1 (winter 1986): 3–7.

[In the following essay, Chavadrian regards Butor as a “literary revolutionary” for playing with narrative conventions within La Modification, arguing that this strategy encourages reader participation while simultaneously challenging the reader's notions of what a novel should be.]

Although Michel Butor has never been a political writer per se, he is very much a literary revolutionary for he believes deeply in the ability of a work of art to change man's place in society or society itself: “Toute oeuvre est engagée … plus elle est profondément inventive et plus elle oblige à un changement.”1 His collaboration with other artists is, in part, a clear example of his willingness to change the traditional boundaries that separate the different fields of artistic expression.

Butor's best known novel, La Modification (1957),2 has obtained its comfortable position in the literary history as his contribution to the “new novel.” Its success is due in part to its traditional format. It satisfies the general public with a character and a storyline that concludes; however, to the careful reader, it offers a more significant story that can remain completely unnoticed if not extracted from between the lines.

La Modification is a superb example of the contestation of a genre within that genre itself. It is the ultimate illustration of the true meaning of revolution—an uprising from within that drastically alters the status quo. The aim of our study is not to approach this work in light of the “new novel,” but rather to give an insight into Butor's very clever way of revolutionizing the novel within the traditional format. Our attempt is twofold: to show in what way La Modification becomes “une oeuvre engagée,” and to examine how Butor's literary revolution is accomplished from within without the application of outside theoretical considerations that are so often applied to this book to give it different interpretations.

It is well known that La Modification is the story of an initiation, but most studies have considered it to be Leon's understanding of the nature of his love for Cecile and, in turn, the realization of his relationship to Rome (see, e.g., Marian Grant, Michel Leiris, Justin O'Brien). We believe that it goes much deeper, in that Leon's initiation suggests a fundamental change in our attitudes concerning literary creation. This deeper modification becomes apparent through the study of what we call the “hors-d'oeuvre”—literally, things that are not always immediately relevant and essential to the storyline—and their relationship to the dream.

While on the train, Leon recalls his most recent return voyage from Rome, at which time he decides to visit the Louvre. After crossing the Pyramid St., passing the statues of the sons of Cain and the Arc de Triomphe de Carrousel, he notices the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde. These images mentioned just in passing, represent four motifs in the book that become significant. The pyramids and the obelisk symbolize a very interesting idea of death. The first represent a way of thought that did not consider death as an end but a beginning, a passage from one world to another. The second symbolizes not only life but creation, for it is erected onto a hillock that is a copy of the “benben” upon which the first Egyptian creator-god Ptah had appeared. To all this is added the idea of victory by the arch. The statues of the sons of Cain connect death to a founding. In this way victory and a new beginning are grouped along with death-creation symbolism. It may be argued that these images are grouped together by mere coincidence, but knowing Butor, the ideas suggested by them become much too important to be left at that.

Once inside, Leon goes through the Egyptian room and finds himself by the paintings of Panini, depicting the ancient and the catholic Rome. This juxtaposition of the old and the new becomes important in the novel, where the ruins of ancient Rome refuse to die. They are a continual reminder of the unending character of death. Their almost threatening force is like a constant warning of the perseverance of the dead to remain alive. By trying to represent the ruins, the artist breathes life into them and keeps them alive through repetition. Thus, the ruins become a regenerative force that give rise to the creative power of the artist and vice-versa.

The books read by Leon also share a common theme with the others: the volume of the works of Piranese—an eighteenth century engraver whose efforts were directed towards keeping the spirits of the ruins alive; the letters of Julien the Apostate, a significant choice for he was the last emperor who tried to replace Christianity by paganism and thus revive something that was dead; the Aeneid which obviously illustrated not only the theme of initiation but of creation. In these works, we already have an indication of the role of the artist and the work of art.

Ostensibly, the books and monuments elucidate Leon's struggle between his religious insecurities and the reason for his attachment to Cecile and Rome; however, a different theme emerges and becomes intensified in the dream. Generally, Leon's dream has been equated to the descent of Aeneas to explain his hidden attraction to Rome as the center of the world. Some readers have established the possibility of it being also the Egyptian death journey (e.g. Mary Lydon, Dean McWilliams, Jennifer Waelti-Walters). The scope of this study does not allow a detailed examination of the dream, but a careful comparison does indeed show that its different stages correspond directly to the chapters of the Book of the Dead: the Hall of Judgement is strikingly similar to chapter 125; the times when the train enters the tunnels coincide directly with the fourth and fifth hours of the underworld where the vessel enters the body of the serpent; the boat in Leon's dream is described in terms of the train, “C'est une barque de métal, une épaisse masse de rouille, mais dont les bords sont clairs comme des rails, aiguisés comme le tranchant d'une faux” (p. 183). Even the physical setting of the dream resembles that of Egypt. The importance of this parallelism goes beyond the fact that the Egyptian death-journey is the arch-typical initiation that reinforces Leon's voyage of discovery. If connected to the other elements in the book, it clearly demonstrates a specific function in the novel that surpasses the mere initiation idea.

The boat that Leon embarks on in the dream is that of Ra which was the means to rebirth for the ancient Egyptian. It saved him from total annihilation. Leon's initiation is in essence into the true meaning of death, its concept according to Egyptian religion that considered it a fertile, reproductive passage. The Roman ruins that Leon prefers to visit symbolize this. What he realizes at the end is not that pagan Rome is more important than Christian Rome, but that it exists despite the latter's wish to cover it up.

All the elements examined thus far connect creation with death and depict it as a regenerative force. At this point, however, it is not clear what relationship they have to Leon as author, but the last remaining element clearly connects all of them to writing.

The purpose of Leon's dream becomes clear through the study of the other recurring theme in the novel—that of the book. It is overwhelmingly connected with Leon from the very beginning. Most chapters open and close with the mention of the book that he has bought in Paris. It seems, at first, to be both any book and a specific one. It is about something that interests him, but its title and contents do not seem important. They become molded slowly as we progress in the novel. Michel Leiris suggests that La Modification itself is the story of the genesis of the book.3 Jean Roudaut sees the book as remaining in the future.4 Both critics interpretations can be incorporated into one. The book—La Modification—writes itself in that its contents emerge from the juxtaposition of all of Leon's thoughts; but in a more general sense, it remains to be written because, as we shall see, it is not a question of a specific book that Leon will write, but of any book.

We arrive at this understanding towards the end where the possibility of the dream being also the contents of a book is suggested. After the incident with the boatman, the dream is interrupted by Leon's remembrance of his and Cecile's voyage to Rome. There, in a single sentence, by the images used, Butor fuses the reality of the train with the dream and the book, then passes on to the dream again. Everything becomes part of the book. He repeats a sentence precisely as it appeared in the dream a few pages before: “Elle a refermé son livre que vous n'avez pas lu … où il pouvait être question d'un homme qui désirait aller à Rome et qui continuait sa navigation sous une fine pluie de goudron qui devenait de plus en plus blanc comme de la neige, de plus en plus sec comme des bribes de pages déchirées, non point vraiment couché dans sa barque de métal, mais sa tempe s'appuyant à la paroi verticale fraîche et polie comme une vitre, et qui sentit alors une odeur de fumée …” (pp. 185–86). This last sentence is structurally an echo of the one just a few pages back where the character enters Sybil's cave: “Il tâte autour de lui pour trouver une surface plane où s'étendre, mais doit se contenter d'une encoignure où il s'installe, non point couché, mais la tempe s'appuyant sur une paroi verticale, sans doute une veine de marbre, fraîche et polie comme une vitre … il se met à sentir une odeur de fumée.”5 A few pages later, the character in the dream realizes that he is looking for a book, “je suis à la recherche de ce livre que j'ai perdu parce que je ne savais même pas qu'il était en ma possession, parce que je n'avais pas même pris soin d'en déchiffrer le titre alors que c'était le seul bagage véritable que j'eusse importé dans mon aventure” (p. 191). This response is very interesting because the book has never before been mentioned in the dream, but herewith, it not only finds itself in it but becomes its main feature. Why has it suddenly become his only luggage? It is at this point that our interpretation of the dream becomes more evident. In the Egyptian death-journey, the Book of the Dead is the most important object buried with the deceased for it contains the formulas that will enable him to reach the kingdom of Osiris. It is interesting to note that the book is always in Leon's left hand or on the left side. This apparently irrelevant detail can be explained through the dream, in that, for the ancient Egyptian, the left was closer to the heart and represented the conscience. The movement to clarify the dream intensifies at this point. Leon is imagining a book, the contents of which will be the same as that of the dream. The initiatory character of his voyage becomes clear and culminates here: “vous restituant vous-même à cette tranquille terreur, à cette émotion primitive où s'affirme avec tant de puissance et de hauteur, audessus des ruines de tant de mensonges, la passion de l'existence et de la vérité” (p. 199). It is after this realization that the il changes back to vous.

The merging of Leon's dream and the contents of the book is also shown stylistically through a close analysis of the syntax. Although, Leon's dream seems to be constantly interrupted by the comings and goings in the compartment, there exists a definite pattern that connects all of them together. There is one recurring paragraph spaced out throughout the entire dream. Basically, it has the same structure and subject-matter, but with certain adjectives and words altered. It is always about a man lost in a forest who is trying to find his way.6 The immediate function of this paragraph is to always summarize the apparently haphazard structure of the dream; but it also plays a much more significant role that becomes noticeable from part III, where, for the first time, the possibility of the dream being the contents of the book was suggested. The paragraph brings together two important aspects that had thus far remained apart. Before that, only the physical aspects of the book were mentioned. Sitting in the compartment. Leon looks at the back of the book “dont la couverture devient comme transparente, dont les pages blanches au-dessous, c'est comme si elles se feuilletaient d'elles-mêmes devant vos yeux, avec des lignes de lettres dont vous ne savez pas quels mots elles forment?” (p. 165). The fact that the same story finds itself in the dream and in all the different types of books mentioned in La Modification leads us to believe that the contents are not that of a particular book but of any book. Whether it is Leon's books or Cecile's, all of them share the basic story of voyage and initiation. Their contents are essentially parallel to the story in the Book of the Dead.

La Modification becomes the story of the making of an author. All the different “hors-d'oeuvre” examined, take us away from the surface plot and show us his hidden initiation. The importance of the ideas of death, creation, founding, and victory implied through the monuments, and the relationship between the author and the ruins through the works of art in the beginning of the book, become more meaningful when seen in light of the dream. They represent the essential qualities of a true author, one who is initiated into understanding the everlasting, creative energy concealed in death. Along with Leon, we the readers are introduced into the secrets of “authorship” and the gestation of a book, and in turn into a new understanding of their characteristics. The basic theme of every book is shown to be an initiatory voyage into the regenerative quality of death. The Book of the Dead was the means of rebirth for the ancient Egyptian, for it allowed him to become Osiris and thus be constantly reborn through sacrifice. In this way, death becomes a creative power. It is well worth remembering that Butor himself began writing his first novel only after his rebirth in Egypt.7

To simply establish the dream as paralleling the Egyptian nocturnal journey, without considering its relation to the rest of the elements examined, would not be sufficient in understanding its significance. We arrive at our conclusion not only through the analysis of the different “hors-d'oeuvre,” but also through the sinuosities of the recurring sentences intertwined in the dream. This understanding of death, established in La Modification, along with the characteristically repetitious yet changing quality of Butor's sentence structure, become systematically used in his later works. Each of them treats the theme of regenerative death in one way or another and connects it to writing.

For Butor, a change in one's life is possible only through a change in one's knowledge and perception of the world. By unsettling our literary assumptions in La Modification he already launches a revolution. It is a quiet revolution but a true one nonetheless that gains momentum and becomes more intense in his later works. Butor's books are like hieroglyphs that can be considered for their beauty—the surface plot—or deciphered to provide a much deeper meaning. They are a Rosetta stone waiting to be discovered. In this way, La Modification becomes the true example of the modern novel equally created by the author and reader. The revolution that began from within is completed from without through the very active and essential participation of the reader.


  1. Michel Butor, Répertoire III (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1968), p. 20.

  2. Michel Butor, La Modification (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1957). All references will be made in the text.

  3. Michel Leiris, “Le Réalisme mythologique de Michel Butor,” Critique (Feb. 1958), pp. 99–118.

  4. Jean Roudaut, Michel Butor ou le livre futur (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).

  5. Butor, La Modification, pp. 176–77. For more examples, see pp. 99, 217, 219, and 221.

  6. Butor, La Modification, pp. 166, 169, 174, 193.

  7. For a more detailed study of Egypt's influence on Butor, see S. A. Chavdarian, “Michel Butor: the Text as Osiris,” Kentucky Romance Quarterly. no. 1 (1985), pp. 83–89.

Barbara Mason (essay date October 1986)

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SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Imitation and Initiation in the Alchemical Dreams of Butor's Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe.Modern Language Review 81, no. 4 (October 1986): 882–92.

[In the following essay, Mason examines Butor's use of dreams and alchemical symbols in Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe to interpret the artistic experience.]

Returning to the specific interest in alchemy which was made known as early as 1953 with the publication of a review article entitled ‘L'Alchimic et son langage,’ Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe1 written fourteen years later, evokes Michael Butor's experiences as a young man during a stay at the castle of Harburg, whose rich collection of alchemical texts were made accessible to him and furnished his young mind with endless material for thought and dreams. But if in Portrait Butor quotes from alchemical texts and makes what is perhaps his most ambitious use to date of symbolism relating to alchemy, his purpose for doing so is the subject of some disagreement. The question is: has Butor written a truly initiatory work, or is Portrait a pastiche of alchemy? Jennifer Waelti-Walters argues that Butor undergoes initiation according to schemas outlined by Mircea Eliade and then, in turn, offers in Portrait an initiatory text for his reader.2 André Helbo, on the other hand, sees in Portrait an ‘assemblage de parodies,’ the subject of which is the organization of language.3 However, both these opinions reflect some of the purpose of Portrait where Butor has interconnected themes of imitation and initiation so intricately that they cannot be separated.

While the very title of Butor's work combines the image of the initiate (artist/alchemist) and the imitator (ape/alchemist), their interconnexion is embedded there in yet another way in the playful parody (imitation) of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and, by implication at least, of Dylan Thomas, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is in turn also a parody of Joyce's). Because Butor's Portrait, like Joyce's novel, is concerned with outlining the stages of a journey which leads to writing, it shares with its predecessor the symbol of the writer as Thoth which becomes so central to Butor's meanings: ‘Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis's head the cusped moon.’4 Thoth, the god of the word and alchemy, is a wonderfully appropriate symbol for Butor, with his claims for the transforming power of language. Furthermore, in the words of E. A. Wallis Budge, Thoth is also ‘called “the scribe of the gods,” the “lord of writing,” “the lord of divine words,” and as he was the lord of books and master of the power of speech, he was considered to be the possessor of all knowledge, both human and divine’5—all attributes upon which Butor draws in Portrait.

Portrait's twenty chapters are divided into three parts: prelude, voyage, and ‘envoi,’ the prelude consisting of five chapters, the voyage of fifteen, while the envoi is the blank space for the work that Butor will write in the future. The five opening chapters, which provide the background to Butor's journey to Germany, are an introduction in which clues to the reading (deciphering) of subsequent chapters can be found. In this division into prelude and voyage can be seen an imitation of alchemical works by such authorities as Arnauld, whose Thesaurus thesaurorum et Rosarium philosophorum is divided into two parts, the first giving the origin and constitution of metals, the second directions for operations. The fifteen chapters of the voyage section of Portrait are themselves divided into two alternating typefaces, roman and italic, the first representing ‘real’ events of a daytime world (but a reality already transposed by literature), the second a nocturnal world—not of dreams dreamed, but of consciously fabricated ones, for, as Butor writes: ‘Je préfère délibérément les construire’ (p. 60). These continually interwoven (alternating) inner and outer worlds interact and react to provide a structural metaphor of the metals in the alchemical vessel. But further, totally interconnected and entwined as they are, they become the two snakes around the rod of Mercurius in Flamel's Figures hierogliphiques—one of the works which Butor read at Harburg. For he dabbled in all kinds of books, mostly alchemical, breathlessly moving from one to another, fascinated by what he read there; then in the nocturnal sections, he transposed them into fantasies. These two aspects of his life are not separated and cannot be, for they are ultimately parts of a whole.

If we use a symbol which Butor himself has applied to other works and interpret the diurnal chapters (odd-numbered) as masculine, and the nocturnal ones (even-numbered), as feminine, the interweaving of the two becomes an imitation of the balance of masculine and feminine principles central to alchemical thought. But in the number symbolism of Portrait can be found further imitations of alchemy, including, as Jennifer Waelti-Walters has indicated (p. 26), the possible ‘influence’ of the Arabian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, an influence all the more probable in the light of E. J. Holmyard's affirmation that ‘Jabir was … in favour with the Barmecides, the Caliph's all powerful ministers, some of whom figure in the Thousand Nights and a Night.6 Since this Arabian text will be shown to serve as the central pivot of the dreams of Portrait Jabir, at least by implication, is woven into them. Further, Synesius, whose work Butor mentions, refers to Jabir (spelt by him as Geber) as an authority on more than one occasion.7 Just as Jabir, like so many alchemists before and after him, sought to apply mathematics to a study of the cosmos, Butor in turn, organizes his text according to number.

The framework for the seven dreams in Portrait is taken from ‘The Tale of the Second Kalender’ in the One Thousand and One Nights. Indeed, when examining how Butor has used this source, we find at the core of the dreams an extensive ‘quotation’ from the Tale. Clearly, one lesson which Butor has learned from the Nights, and which he applies to Portrait, is the technique of interlocking stories, transposed here into interconnected inner and outer worlds. The title itself is relevant because it leads into nocturnal worlds. In borrowing from the Tale, Butor does not deviate from the sequence of events, and culls many passages wholesale. In the Tale, a young man, famed as a calligrapher, sets out on a voyage to a king, but, attacked on the way, he arrives at a city where he becomes a woodcutter. Digging around a tree one day, he lifts a slab which leads to a sumptuous dwelling-place below ground, the residence of a beautiful young woman kept there by her husband—a jinnee. Against the woman's advice, the young man summons the jinnee but manages to escape, only to be sought out by the husband, who transports him back, then kills the woman, before changing him into an ape. The ape sets out on a journey by sea, then, because of his calligraphic powers, is adopted by a king, whose daughter claims that she can change the monkey back into a man. As she begins her spell, however, the jinnee appears. In an attempt to destroy each other, they each adopt a series of transformations, until, consumed by fire, they are finally reduced to ashes. But the spell is now broken, and the monkey, having lost sight in one eye as a result of being hit by a piece of burning cinder, is changed back into a man. Banishment now awaits him.

Within this basic framework used by Butor, general aspects of the Tale which would interest him are indeed plentiful: themes of transformation, writing, the ape, reversals of fortune, emphasis on marvellous and supernatural worlds, and, more specifically, death by fire and reduction to ashes, all of which can be easily rendered alchemical by being woven into an alchemical framework. That such a framework can be accommodated in alchemy can be seen in Jean-Valentin André's alchemical text Les Noces chimiques de Christian Rosencreuz (to which Butor refers in Travaux d'approche), where the hero of the tale encounters marvellous trees, a maiden, and secret inscriptions upon golden tablets, sees animals fighting, and wears a garment embroidered with the shapes of the sun and moon, and where the King of the Moors leads away a princess and a ‘mystical’ wedding follows at which the royal family is beheaded then resurrected. Portrait's very title announces a fusion of the tale and alchemy, for the monkey is both the one from the Kalender's tale and the symbol of the alchemist.

Upon close examination, the Tale as told in the dreams of Portrait is seen to be filled with alchemical references, and has indeed been reshaped by this transposition of alchemical images upon it. To understand the dreams, we need to know that they conceal a highly conscious imitation of alchemy. Why, however, did Butor superimpose alchemy on this framework rather than superimposing the Tale upon alchemical references? Why did he not juxtapose fragments of quotations, as he does in, for instance, Intervalle? The answers provide the keys to understanding how in the dreams Butor imitates alchemical history and its symbolism in a variety of ways. By introducing alchemical references into an Arabian backcloth, he can first provide an imaginative representation of the fact that Western alchemy was influenced by, and grew out of, Arabian thought. The Tale is now transplanted and preserved in the later work—Butor's Portrait—as Butor imitates the tradition whereby works were kept alive by copyists/scribes. If he makes several changes in the Tale (by imposing alchemy upon it) this, too, can be seen as an imitation of the way in which European alchemists built upon preceding works, especially upon Arabian texts and Arabian theories of matter. Just as the alchemists took existing texts, changing them where necessary but retaining the overall outline, so too in Portrait Butor makes alterations. Indeed, in this case the transmutation of the literary text opens it up to new possibilities of meaning. But by ‘quoting’ so much of the Tale he also puts himself in the tradition of those alchemists who chose to emphasize that they made no claims to originality but were merely copying the acknowledged authorities. Further, in using the Tale, Butor, like so many alchemists, is showing his reverence for the knowledge and wisdom of the past, which, in his view, must be understood if we are to move towards the future.

Whereas in the Matière de rêves series Butor consciously imitates Freud, in Portrait he imitates the strange visions of alchemy. Influenced by his reading of alchemical texts at Harburg, Butor, not without a certain degree of playfulness, now rewrites the Tale of the Second Kalender alchemically, creating in the process a vast cryptogram. Apart from implying that the Tale can deliver meanings which are not immediately apparent, he is emphasizing how much alchemy tainted his dreams, and even his daily life, while he was at Harburg, for he says in the outer sections: ‘Alchimiques ces promenades, teintes par mes lectures dans l'énorme bibliothèque’ (p. 152). Indeed, everything became alchemical: ‘Toute terre m'apparaissait susceptible de cuissons’ (p. 152). But even more specifically, he tells us in the outer sections exactly what we need to know to interpret the dream. Quoting from one part of the Kalender's Tale, in which the daughter draws a circle and inscribes Arab letters in it, Butor juxtaposes: ‘J'appliquais à leur déchiffrement [des inscriptions] les principes d'Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ (p. 192), thus, deciphering the tale by means of alchemy. But further, as he has written elsewhere, alchemy is a language which enables him to dream, which sets his imagination playing.

Just as in Description de San Marco, where Butor superimposes an esoteric vision derived from Fulcanelli upon a foundation influenced by John Ruskin, so now in Portrait he weaves alchemy into a backcloth of the One Thousand and One Nights. If the frame of the dreams in Portrait is very close indeed to their source, clues to Butor's purpose can be found in those details which diverge from it. In order to render the tale alchemical, Butor imposes upon it several orders of detail taken from texts mentioned in Portrait: days of the week/planets (from Jacob Boehme and Basile Valentin), colours (from Flamel), musical allusions (from Michael Maier), minerals and metals (from various sources), clothing (from various sources), alchemical numbers (from Flamel and others). Flamel, Valentin, Boehme, and Maier (whose works Butor read in the daytime) are the most extensively used. In the tradition of alchemists who quote from ‘ancient philosophers,’ Butor ‘quotes’ from alchemists in his dreams. Often he alters a detail in order to provide an alchemical resonance. Thus ‘poems’ in the Tale becomes ‘l'écriture de Basile Valentin … l'écriture de Jacob Boehme’ (p. 176). Or he can expand a passage of the Tale by introducing alchemical suggestions. Some details are concerned merely with modernizing the material of the Tale and putting it into a new historical context, as when he replaces ‘a mountain band of Arab highwaymen’ by ‘les militaires’ (p. 64). However, alchemized details are not confined to quotations from texts, for they can also come from other aspects of the real world (descriptions of rooms and so on). But in the dreams these, too, become reworked quotations, since they are transformations of details of the outer chapters. Thus details such as the minerals he saw at the castle of Harburg and at the museum at Munich, or rooms of various castles, are now transmuted into a dream language. Further, the dream sections can combine fragments which are themselves multiplied by repetition so that a reference to Judith et Cléopâtre (p. 144) can be repeated later in a new context (p. 176). While this is characteristic of Butor's method of transforming by repetition and modification, it is here particularly appropriate to his purpose. For is not transformation (of images and language, in Butor's case), by repetition characteristic of (and for Butor also a metaphor of) the alchemical process itself, where procedures are repeated in order to effect multiplication? The dreams, like the Tale, are opened up to multiple alchemical meanings which Butor invites us to explore.

By making such changes and, in effect, interweaving quotations and fragments of quotations or allusions drawn from different sources into the canvas of the Kalender's Tale, Butor endows the dreams with an extraordinary density, which is, moreover, further heightened by the interplay of inner and outer chapters. But a further transposition takes place in the dreams. Just as the compilers of alchemical texts often put together earlier texts, so Butor, too, like a disciple, uses the works of his masters, thereby accepting their authority. By taking so much of the Tale he has, as it were, compiled his own commentary upon it, and placed himself in the tradition of alchemists who cast their writings in the form of commentaries upon the ancients. But like later alchemists who interpreted or elaborated upon earlier works, and translators and copyists who frequently took such liberties with the texts that they were substantially changed, Butor in his role of copyist/imitator takes liberties with the Tale, changing it at will, interpreting it, elaborating upon it, and then further altering it by transcribing it in italics. In his attempts to pass off as his own dream a work which he has borrowed, he in fact reverses the tendency of the alchemists to endow their works with the name of an ancient. This multi-levelled reworking also shows that every quotation is at the same time imitation and transformation.

Embedded in Portrait, and thus echoed in the dreams, are references to a large number of alchemists, including Artephius, Flamel, Synesius, Arnauld, Paracelsus, Valentin, Ripley, Maier, Boehme, Fulcanelli, and Alexandre von Bernus, from whose writings Butor chooses those elements of alchemy which he needs for his dream-tale. If alchemists (in part to escape censors) went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their art, such concealment is made more complicated in Portrait, where Butor masks his dreams within another text, then embeds alchemy into it. A quotation from Ripley inserted in the prelude illuminates Butor's method, which is an imitation of his reading: ‘Il a un peu voilé le principal de l'art par une artificieuse méthode’ (p. 29). Copying the alchemists, who took great pains to stress that their works could be understood by those who sought the truth, Butor in turn provides his readers with the code (authors, texts, references) which can unlock the secrets of Portrait, thereby, like the alchemist, playing a complex game of hide-and-seek with his readers. This is in keeping with the nature of alchemy itself, a secret doctrine hidden from the profane beneath a veil of symbols and allegories to which keys for interpretation are reputedly given.

Alchemy has exerted such a powerful influence upon Butor's writing that its vast network of symbols permeates many of his works. But why is he so interested in it? In Portrait, he shows that it played a vital role in his intellectual formation and thus, ultimately, in his decision to become a writer. Beyond that, it interests (indeed, fascinates) him as a philosophy which seeks to explain in imaginative terms the origin and destiny of the universe, and beyond that to offer a vision of salvation. Further, transmutation, the core belief of alchemy (where it is connected with the imitation of nature and the perfection of man) is in its many ramifications central to Butor's purpose, both in Portrait and in his work as a whole. But alchemy also attracts him as an ‘art maudit’ which, while showing reverence for the learning of the past, developed outside official realms of knowledge and presented a challenge to accepted ways of thinking.

In Portrait Butor constructs his dreams in imitation of alchemy which, he writes in the prelude, ‘me semblait chargé de clefs et formules’ (p. 40). If the alchemists wished to guard their art by multiplying its symbols, so Butor, in turn, adds to these, managing to keep the symbolism constant as the alchemists did. Thus although areas of knowledge, including astrology, lapidaries, bestiaries, medicine, mineralogy, and literature, merge in the dreams as they do in alchemy, this does not prevent them from possessing an internal coherence which depends upon a knowledge not only of the Tale but also of the key stages of the alchemical opus. Thus the seven dreams move through seven days, or planets, or metals, at the centre of which (in the seventh chapter) the transformation into a monkey takes place. Colours, along with certain other details, are organized into serial patterns and these, too, contribute to the overall meaning. As a monkey, the dreamer ‘apes’ or imitates alchemy, recreating its complex symbols in a personal way, consciously shaping the dreams whose format allows Butor to create mysteries and enigmatic hieroglyphs of the forbidden art. In the fancy of these constructed dreams, there is also a playful imitation of the extravagant claims made by alchemists concerning their experiences. There are, however, yet more areas of imitation. For if the mere seekers after gold (imposters) imitated alchemy in the hope of becoming rich, the true alchemists themselves were no less imitators of a different kind, in that they believed themselves to be imitating and reproducing in the alchemical vessel (and spiritually) the secrets of nature and creation. It is these two levels of imitation which Butor in turn imitates by weaving them so decisively into his dreams, for looking back on his stay in Germany, he now views himself as being at that time somewhat of an imposter.

Portrait's seven dreams—or one dream divided into seven parts—describes an initiatory journey through the seven alchemical planets, as Butor indicates in the outer chapters: ‘Je saute de sphère en sphère’ (p. 183), or the seven stages of transmutation, the alchemical journey being used here to imagine the dreamer's initiation not into the world of metallic transmutations—in any case Butor interprets alchemy as spiritual regeneration rather than a strictly chemical experience—but into the future transmutation of language into writing. In the first dream, the dreamer, although conversant with hermetic philosophy, is characterized by naivety and pride, and is but an unconscious imitator. The starting-point for his journey is, paradoxically, Sol, synonymous in the dream with Hungary, but also with rebirth, according to the quotation from Valentin which Butor inserts in the prelude. At the same time, however, the reference to blackness, ‘le visage, les mains et les pieds d'une couleur noirâtre’ (p. 64)—a detail added for its alchemical suggestiveness, since it is not in the Tale—also serves to prefigure the image of the monkey. This blackness denotes the matter of the opus, for according to Flamel: ‘La matiere se dissout, se corrōpt, noircit, & consoit pour engédrer; parce que toute corruption est generation, laquelle noirceur doit estre tousiours desiree,’8 and thus denotes the beginning of the work (and in Portrait of the dream) for, as Flamel affirms: ‘Si au commencement apres auoir mis les confections dans l'œuf Philosophic … tu ne voids ceste teste du Corbeau noire du noir tres-noir, il te faut recommencer’ (p. 71). Artephius similarly writes: ‘Qui ne noircist point, celui-là ne peut blanchir car la noirceur est le commencement de la blancheur.’9

At this point, the dreamer, an ‘apprenti’ dressed in the garments of an ‘aide-forestier,’ journeys into the Black Forest, or the alchemical chaos. Since in Fulcanelli, the ‘man with the staff’—transposed here into the woodsman—is the dead metal, or the early stages of the alchemical opus,10 the beginning of the opus is further emphasized in this first dream. The axe and rope carried by the woodsman in the Tale have become ‘une couverture de cuivre’ and ‘un style de fer’ in imitation of an alchemical treatise in which references to metals would be embedded in the text. Descriptions are made to sound alchemical: ‘Mon hôte m'apportait un costume flavescent, ceinture bleue et bottes noires, boutons orangés gravés de deux dragons azurés, avec une couverture de cuivre et un style de fer’ (p. 68). This passage is not unlike the next, taken from an alchemical text, and in which the main colours of the opus are concealed: ‘Or, comme j'étais allé faire un voyage, je me rencontrai entre deux montagnes, où j'admirai un homme des champs … vêtu d'un manteau gris, sur son chapeau un cordon noir, autour de lui, une écharpe blanche, ceint d'une courroie jaune et botté de bottes rouges.’11 The old man, or ‘l'homme de grande vieillesse’ whom the dreamer meets (in the Tale, a tailor), is a composite image (layers of imitation) created by using quotations from two alchemical texts. In the next passage quoted, the first part as far as ‘aux pieds’ is from Valentin, the second from Flamel's first ‘figure’ (although in this ‘imitation,’ Butor updates spelling and makes minor alterations): ‘Je voyais s'avancer un homme de grande vieillesse aux yeux noirs, à la barbe et aux cheveux blancs comme neige, vêtu de pourpre de la tête aux pieds, tenant à la main une verge caducée, entortillée de deux serpents, emblème de la médecine’ (p. 66). Thus in the dream, alchemical texts interweave, winding themselves together like the outer and inner chapters of Portrait. Moreover, much of Butor's text, like alchemical procedure, is concerned with fusion, in his case with the coming together of textual components, a procedure which must be viewed here in the light of alchemy, the quotations being matter, the matter of language which he in turn transmutes and alters.

Colours used in the dreams find a coherence not merely in isolation but also in an overall organization which reveals layers of symmetrical series—such symmetrical forms being themselves metaphorical mirrors, thus layers of imitation (reflection). Butor, understanding and imitating the multiplicity of alchemical symbolism, organizes the colours in his own way. If in the references to iron and copper, traditionally male and female principles, the dreamer endows himself with objects which are hieroglyphics of his initiation into the alchemical secrets, their interweaving allows Butor to introduce a sexual dimension, for his initiation is, in part, one into sexual mysteries. In the prelude, he quotes: ‘le corps composé du masle & de la femelle’ (p. 33). In case the reader is in any doubt about the alchemical context, Butor, not without a touch of humour, adds some alchemical numbers (a quotation from Flamel): ‘trois fois sept feuillets’ (p. 68).

Butor constructs his dreams according to the days of the week (taken from Boehme and Valentin, and so, appropriately, connected with creation). Thus, since he begins with Sunday, references to silver and the moon in the second dream reveal that this occurs on Monday and under Luna's domain. Here, the dreamer arrives at an oak tree, where he finds a silver ring attached to a trap-door made of moonstone, inscribed with obscure hieroglyphics which are covered in snow. References to Luna abound (‘silver,’ ‘white,’ and for good measure, ‘moonstone’). In the Tale, however, we read simply of a ring of brass set in a wooden slab. Butor lets his imagination fly off into alchemical worlds with his references to an oak tree, stones, figures, snow, fragments from Flamel: ‘Je regardais briller, au creux d'un chêne, un anneau d'argent attaché à une trappe de pierre de lune toute gravée de lettres ou figures étranges (et quant à moi je croyais qu'elles pouvaient bien être des hiéroglyphes égyptiens ou d'autre semblable écriture ancienne)’ (p. 68). Indeed, these are some of the most significant changes made to the Tale so far. Woven in also is an oblique reference to Thoth with his moon disc. In Valentin, Butor would have read of the ‘arbre sec et creux’ and then in Flamel specifically of that ‘chesne creux’ so frequently found in the iconography of the adepts where it symbolizes, according to Fulcanelli, the ‘vaisseau alchimique’ in which the transmutation will take place. Here, as elsewhere in the dreams, clusters of images are created in imitation of those found in alchemy.

The door leads to a dark cavern, an underworld, or alchemical mineral kingdom, a descent which follows the prescribed recommendation of Valentin to investigate the interior of the earth. Once there, he finds a female student, or mercurius, in the guise of a woman, the female passive substance which in alchemy waits in the vessel to be united with sulphur (here, the vampire). In this dream and the one which follows can be found Butor's imaginative creation of the sulphur-mercury theory of the composition of metals—the conventional Arabian one which, according to several scholars, was first encountered in Arabic writings and Latinized versions ascribed to Jabir12 (and, therefore, central to the dreams), and which Butor would also have encountered in Roger Bacon, Valentin, and Paracelsus.

If Mercury—the alchemists refer not to ‘common’ mercury and sulphur but to ‘philosophical’ mercury, or a quality of matter—is traditionally one of the most obscure and multiple of the entire repertoire of alchemical symbols, Butor here imitates her role as mediator (she attempts to pacify the vampire), feminine principle, transforming agent, and wife of sulphur. The dreamer has found his way into a ‘demeure philosophale’ (p. 113), a nuptial chamber, or ‘prison magnifique’ (p. 88), a closed palace into which he, like the young Butor of the prelude, enters: ‘une entrée secrète me permettant de m'introduire, presque frauduleusement, dans une caverne de trésors intellectuels … l'entrée ouverte au palais fermé du roi’ (p. 39), this closed palace of the King being an allusion to Philalethes, in whose work we read of a thief furtively entering an abode. But the woman's husband is now not a jinnee but a vampire, thereby creating links with the theme of Hungary (the land of vampires, according to Fulcanelli), but connecting with the Tale where the jinnee hurries away at the first sight of dawn. If the descent into the underworld is a stage in initiating the dreamer into the two types of mysteries, alchemical and sexual, the union in which he participates is no more than parody, since he is not yet ready for initiation. In his presumption he forgets what he knew in his outer life (‘moi … je n'étais rien, ne savais rien …’ (p. 41)), and forgets as well the greatest quality of the alchemist: patience. Thus, misguided, he adorns himself with a gown bordered with gold to symbolize the alchemical King, and visualizes three processes of the opus, the bath of the King (p. 90), his rebirth, and the alchemical marriage symbolized by union (‘et le soir elle me recevait dans son lit’ (p. 90)), which is a rewriting of Valentin ‘tres amoureusement l'vne auec l'autre coniointe’ (p. 33). But the dreamer's imagination is over-hasty for, since he has not yet attained the status of the alchemical King, the identification here is purely a result of imitation. In his pride and triumph he believes he can rescue the woman, or, in alchemical terms, effect too rapidly the process of transformation from mercurius the raw metal to mercurius the stone.

At the next stage of the alchemical journey at Mars, he meets the vampire who, characterized by a ‘puanteur épouvantable,’ is recognizable as alchemical sulphur, an active principle endowed with fiery and warlike properties. Here he is dressed in an officer's uniform, on top of which he wears a cloak embroidered with a figure holding a sword (‘avec un manteau sur lequel etait brodée la figure d'Alexandre tenant un glaive nu, un homme à genoux …’ (pp. 113–14)), in which can be discerned a reworking of one of Flamel's figures described earlier in Portrait (‘la figure d'un homme semblable à celle de Saint Paul tenant un glaive nu, ayant à ses pieds un homme à genoux’ (p. 30)). The sword which he holds is the ‘philosophical sword’ with which the world was created in certain alchemical texts but which in turn became the ‘common’ sword with which actual executions were carried out at Harburg—the very castle which now boasts such an impressive alchemical collection—as the alchemical symbol (‘sword which divides’) became nightmare reality (the common sword of murder). The vampire's role in the dream is twofold: to blacken and to purify. The ensuing struggle, which takes place between the vampire and his wife, is Butor's personal imaginative representation of the violent interaction of the metals. On the buttons of the clothing of the vampire (now in turn disguised as a woodsman) are depicted five animals—details incorporated not from a text but from the decoration of one of the rooms at Harburg. Around the animals are written reworked quotations from Flamel, while the buttons themselves are made of different minerals whose marvellous powers seem to be invoked in their very names, zircon, wolframite, vivianite, uvarovite, turquoise, and whose alphabetical arrangement shows that the stones are a language. As the vampire undergoes transformation into the volatile substance, he becomes a monstrous bird (p. 117), a creature of the air so that, like alchemical sulphur, he can be both air and fire. Mercury is now killed, and the following stages of the alchemical process have been completed: the initial blackness, the presence of sulphur and mercury in the vessel, their separation, and the death of mercury.

The central transformation takes place, appropriately, at Mercury, regarded by alchemists as the predominant transformative substance, and the central pivot of the seven-stage alchemical voyage, thus here, at the centre of the seven dreams. The female mercury, or wife of sulphur, has been killed so that the transformation can happen and the way has been prepared for the marriage of opposites. Transformed into a monkey, the dreamer is once again the black beast, but now he is the future alchemist. In alchemy, mercury's death or blackening causes the dreamer to turn black, so that Butor seems further to be imitating the Jungian view that the alchemist (here the dreamer) experiences himself the stages of the opus, thus becomes/is the object of his own projection.13 Since the dreamer is now at the planet Mercury, references to minerals are henceforth listed in alphabetical order, for the monkey imitates the secret of the alphabet possessed by Thoth. But when, at the close of the dreams, the monkey is turned back into a man, the alphabetical arrangements are destroyed. References to the ‘mers métalliques’ (p. 143) and ‘les tables d'émeraude’ (p. 143)—the latter being a reworking of La Table Émeraude the title of an ancient alchemical text attributed to Hermes—emphasize that we are under Mercury's dominance. Arriving at the sea, the monkey sees a boat with a sail on which are depicted the figures (taken from Maier) of David, Charlemagne, and Pallas (entirely in white), above them Judith and Cleopatra, and above them all Alexander (along with Cleopatra, the reputed possessor of the philosophical stone) judging the world.

A journey by sea follows, in alchemical terms the passage from the dryness of land to the moisture of the sea representing the moment of dissolution, Butor again imitating the usual alchemical progression, since mercury must be transformed into water. The monkey, now noted for his transcribing skills, follows the prescribed alchemical path to Jupiter. There, the chess game played in the Tale becomes a series of patience games (a further reminder that the alchemical work is characterized by patience) in which are found echoes of those games played in the outer chapters, except that now suits have been replaced by stones, for they have become alchemical. With the element of parody in view, the dreamer announces the game which gives him victory (‘Les Mille et Une Nuits me donnaient la victoire’ (p. 177)). Disguised as one of the victims of the executions carried out at Harburg, the rector's daughter reveals the monkey's true identity. When asked if what she says is correct, in the Tale he nodded and wept but in the dream ‘Je faisais des gestes de dénégation, mais il [le recteur] les interprétait à l'envers’ (p. 179). For the monkey, like the daughter, understands that the secret must be guarded (‘Ce sont choses qu'il est bon de savoir, mais il m'a semblé que je ne devais pas m'en vanter’ (p. 180)), but it is too late because, boasting of her magical powers, she has already announced that she can transport them to Venus, thus preparing for the next stage of the alchemical journey to that planet.

In the following dream she appears in the guise of one of Harburg's victims, then assumes a number of other disguises in which she takes on the same transformations as the vampire in order to fight him. Thus they undergo successive transformations into Harburg's victims, themselves disguised as (transformed into) the animals (dog, boar, vulture, hare) which were depicted on the vampire's coat buttons, themselves representations of those found in decorations in the castle, which in turn can also be found in alchemical texts (‘“un chien de plomb” … tel qu'il est dessiné dans l'Africa Illustrata’ (p. 196)). Animals, stones, and alchemical texts are all interwoven in a frenzy of dream images: ‘Walpurge Schweickardt de Schopfloch lançait à sa poursuite, à travers la lucarne, un “sanglier de plomb” à défenses de variscites, décrit dans un Mundus Subigneus sous couverture de fer à incrustations de cinabre et d'étain. Nous le perdions de vue dans les nuages’ (p. 196). Transformed into a worm, the hare goes inside Flamel's book (‘Le lièvre se changeait en ver auprès du Livre des Figures, en perçait en un instant la couverture de cuivre, et s'y cachait’ (p. 197)), a transformation in which, as in alchemy, stages can be hidden in word plays: lièvre-ver-Livre. After more transformations and a battle in water, the vampire emerges in a uniform and holding a scroll on which is written a reworking of a quotation from Flamel. Clouds of smoke emitting from the vampire cause singeing and burning and, to the monkey, blindness in one eye. The vampire now is reduced to ashes, or alchemically, ‘the substance which remains below,’ the ‘crown of the victory.’

In the final dream, the woman, too, is reduced to ashes. In case we have missed the point, Butor emphasizes it: the ashes are symbols (p. 222). In the Tale, a monument was erected; in Portrait, the ashes of the woman are gathered ‘dans un creuset d'or’ (p. 223) for they must become the stone (‘pour mûrir’ (p. 223)). Now they are placed in a mausoleum ornamented with the animals of the opus and a transmuted inscription of Flamel, for the final stage has been reached. The daughter, the original mercury (she and the wife of the vampire are both designated as ‘l'étudiante’), has been revived as a result of the ‘sea of revivification’ traversed by the monkey. The dissolution effected in an earlier dream has been followed by the dramatic depiction of the mutual antagonism of the metals after which the bodies, locked in combat, are finally united, if only momentarily, before they are reduced to the ash which, in alchemy, shows that the metals have been glorified after their successive transformations. Here, the final stage of the opus results in the monkey's transformation back into a man. Although the dreamer has, in his dreams, recreated the secrets of alchemical knowledge, he cannot yet communicate them because his lips are sealed. But rebirth awaits for, quoting Valentin, Butor writes in the prelude: ‘Je renais cependant par Vulcain’ (p. 34).

The dreams, then, have followed the stages of the alchemical opus, but transmuted into different symbols. Although the ash has been attained, we are, in fact, back at Saturn (or, the beginning) for, having witnessed the secrets of the opus, the dreamer must now begin his quest alone to Egypt, the reputed source of alchemy and the land to which the events of his stay in Germany have ultimately led him. Indeed, the Arabian tale is used by Butor as the centrepiece of this initiation because it was Arabian alchemy which preserved the traditions and literature of the earlier Alexandrian alchemy. In Egypt, Butor's initiation into writing will be completed, for there he will learn more secrets which he will transpose into his first novel, Passage de Milan. There he will learn how to apply the alchemical secrets of the past to the modern world. In Egypt he will further learn that his philosophical stone is language. For alchemy has guided Butor through a spiritual development, or rebirth, which has led to writing. Moreover, a further parallel, the ultimate thread joining the tale, alchemy, and Butor's work, now becomes apparent: the alchemist seeks the elixir which will prolong life; Scheherezade prolongs her life by telling stories; Butor writes in order to guard against death.

In Portrait the theme of regeneration can be interpreted only in the light of imitation. Butor imitates on one level because, as a youth, he was a mere copier, but when he wrote down and fabricated the dreams many years later, he understood—with the alchemical adept—that creation is in part imitation. It is these two aspects, the ape (imitator) and the alchemist (initiate) which are combined with such mastery in the central symbol of the monkey and in the created relationships between the Tale and alchemy which have provided him with his dream language.


  1. Michael Butor, Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe (Paris, 1967). All references are to this edition.

  2. Alchimie et littérature (Paris, 1975).

  3. Michael Butor. Vers une littérature du signe (Brussels, 1975).

  4. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 225.

  5. Egyptian Magic (London, 1901), p. 128.

  6. Alchemy (Harmondsworth, 1957), p. 71.

  7. Le Vray livre du docte Synesius, in Pierre Arnauld, Trois Traitez de la philosophie naturelle non encore imprimez (Paris, 1612), pp. 98, 99.

  8. Les Figures hierogliphiques de Nicolas Flamel, in Arnauld, p. 70.

  9. Le secret livre dv tres-ancien Philosophe Artephius, traitant de l'Art occulte & transmutation metallique in Arnauld, p. 32.

  10. Fulcanelli (pseudonym), Les Demeures Philosophales (Paris, 1960), pp. 186–88.

  11. From ‘Cassette du petit paysan,’ quoted by Albert Poisson in Théories et symboles des alchimistes (Paris, 1891), p. 46.

  12. See, for example, John Read, The Alchemist in Life, Art and Literature (London, 1947), p. 5.

  13. Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, in Collected Works, 20 vols (London, 1957–83), XII (1962).

Barbara Mason (essay date spring–summer 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6581

SOURCE: Mason, Barbara. “Whiteness and Writing in Michel Butor's Works: The Example of Christian Dotremont and Beyond.” Dalhousie French Studies 12 (spring–summer 1987): 37–53.

[In the following essay, Mason discusses Butor's preoccupation with “whiteness,” how it manifests itself in his writing, and how Belgian artist Christian Dotremont influenced Butor's work.]

“Toute page blanche est devenue pour moi le ciel de ton regard.”1 Thus Michel Butor writes in a poem-homage, death-monument to the Belgian artist and head of the “COBRA” group, Christian Dotremont. Indeed, some of Butor's most significant pronouncements on the subject of whiteness and its relation to writing have been made in reference to that artist's work. Whiteness is, in fact, a central preoccupation of Butor's own work where it connects themes of calm and disruption, of amnesia and expression, and where it underlines key questions concerning the possibility and impossibility of writing, the nature of the sign and its relation to the page, or the interplay of black sign and white page, all of which branch into moral and political questions and ultimately become the basis of a critique of an ideology. From the contemplation, then eventual conquest, of the white space of the page, emerges a writing, unique and compelling, that heralds the need for change.

In the course of time Butor has examined, more or less directly, themes and metaphors of whiteness in connection with artists and writers other than Dotremont. In particular, three writers, Jules Verne, Mallarmé and the Swede, Olaf Sundman, and one painter, Mark Rothko, are viewed by Butor as exploring whiteness in order to build and give expression to their imaginative realms. Furthermore, they have each in turn allowed Butor to express his own views on whiteness in various essays. Thus Verne and Sundman grapple with “white” worlds, while Mallarmé's writings present a vision haunted by the virginal, terrifying and impenetrable white space of the page. Rothko, proclaiming no less a fascination with whiteness—albeit a more indirect one perhaps—captivates a dream of bathing his canvas in an intense and purifying wash of misty colour. A common thread between Verne and Dotremont is discovered by Butor who sees the latter as “une sorte de capitaine Hatteras” in search of unexplored (white) regions. Indeed, one of the metaphors which connects Verne, Sundman and Dotremont in Butor's mind is the whiteness of snow in the lands of the North. But it is Dotremont, Butor suggests, who has bequeathed some of the most significant explorations of whiteness in relation to writing and inscription, and who reigns supreme in his questioning of the relationships whiteness creates with graphic forms, signs, marks, and words—questions which then, in turn, provide keys to Butor's own preoccupation with writing.

Butor has written several texts which are either “inspired” by, or are reflections on, Dotremont's art—these taking various forms such as poems, essays, or even conversations. Although “La Voix de l'écrit” (subtitled “cantate pour saluer les logogrammes”)2 is but a minor work, “Poème optique”3 in the form in which it appears in Illustrations II is perhaps the most significant one Butor has written for Dotremont. In keeping with its title, it is a truly optical poem whose changing geometrical forms cross the pages of the volume, its words and visual arrangement creating the optical illusions characteristic of the best ‘op’ art and whose blank spaces and black signs ceaselessly fold into each other to create rippling and optical effects. In the later Répertoire V is found Butor's essay “Christian Dotremont et la neige”4, a slight reworking of an earlier version published in book form as a conversation/interview with Michel Sicard under the title Dotremont et ses écrivures.5 Dotremont's premature death prompted Butor to write a poem-homage “Ballade de la boussole en deuil.”6 In the Butor canon this is not a particularly large output to devote to a single artist or writer, and indeed, the recent direct collaborations with Julius Baltazar, for example, already total some two dozen in number. Nevertheless, it is in connection with the Belgian artist and the writings that “arise” from his work that Butor poses the question which obsesses him more and more and which raises ever newer possibilities and problems: what is the relationship between whiteness and writing? Not that this question is a new one for it has been present ever since the beginnings of Butor's literary journey when, in Passage de Milan, Angèle's whiteness becomes a prefiguration of Egypt, a land which heralds the origins both of writing and of Butor's first novel.

Of Dotremont's works, Butor is principally interested in the “logogrammes,” those inky alphabets, black inscriptions on a white background (sometimes reversed when Dotremont turns his imaginative universe inside out by placing white inscriptions on black paper) which offer numerous reflections on the nature of writing and alphabets. When imprinted not on paper but in snow however, these logogrammes become “logoneiges”: inscriptions in a world of natural whiteness. Each logogramme consists of what Butor calls a “trace,” an inscription, transposed into inky marks, or characters, flowing about together on paper to produce a writing described on one occasion by Butor as “cette grande écriture lyrique” (Ecrivures [Dotremont et ses écrivures]). Either in one corner, or at the base of the paper is the “legend,” or “text,” that is, the inscription written in a more traditional graphic form and which Dotremont implicitly invites us to seek in his picture. For his writing (legend) is “translated” by/into another one (logogramme) which in turn is “translated” by Butor's own. As well as being a writing however, the logogrammes are a writing writing and a writing about (a) writing; studies therefore not only of alphabets but of writing itself. Logogrammes are, furthermore, both text and commentary. Indeed, the relationship between legend and text—a crucially important one—is echoed by the equally significant one between writing and drawing, upon which is then superimposed that between legend and writing, then text and drawing, as connections of language expand and interweave. The legend chosen by Dotremont—unique in that two logogrammes are never “created” from the same one—functions in part as a “translation” might, aiding us in the task of “tracing” the shapes and forms of the logogrammes or, perhaps, uncovering their traces, so that we can endow them with meaning. As such it is absolutely indispensable, but, as Butor recognises, meaning is more nearly generated by an “engendrement conjoint” (an expression charged with sexual weight) of the legend and text: indeed Butor himself has explored this technique to great advantage in the poem “Méditation explosée” published in Illustrations III where “figurations” and “légendes,” constantly interacting, provide reciprocal keys one to the other.

Butor has written that the relationship between “texte” and “trace” (and surely the comment can apply equally to the relationship between text and title in Butor's canon), is double: “on ne peut pas dire,” he says, “que le texte engendre le tracé seulement: le tracé engendre aussi le texte et le texte est un tracé. Pour percevoir vraiment un logogramme, il faut le percevoir avec son texte, suivre l'aventure du texte à l'intérieur de cette forme” (Ecrivures), and “nous fouillons donc le logogramme à la recherche de son texte que nous connaissons déjà” (Répertoire V, pp. 240–1). But each reading will be different as we slowly begin to “find” the traces of words in this game of verbal hide-and-seek: “… dans lequel nous allons retrouver lentement les mots, les uns après les autres, avec différentes trajectoires possibles dans cette figure qui nous avait été donnée d'abord d'un bloc” (Ecrivures).

Writing has destabilized the words of the legend, blown them up, expanded them out of all proportion, rendered them unfamiliar; they are now in the process of becoming some fantastic calligraphy. Writing, Dotremont shows, enables one to write: legend engenders logogramme. He, like Butor after him, explores the writing within writing, the words within words. Two time frames are involved in reading the logogrammes; the “normal” time of reading the legend, and what might be regarded as a slow motion reading of the logogramme, thus two different “readings,” and two aspects of writing. The relationship between “texte” and “tracé,” that Ariadne's thread which leads to the heart of the logogrammes, is crucial:

Le texte épais … ne nous donne pas exactement le résultat de l'invention … mais le fil conducteur pour explorer ce labyrinthe, lui-même fil conducteur pour l'exploration du labyrinthe du monde, de l'existence, des mots mêmes, de ces mots mêmes. Car c'est encore un troisième texte que nous allons extraire du logogramme proprement dit, celui que nous aurons réussi à y lire à l'aide de la légende, qui la redouble enfin, mais en lui apportant un éclairage tout neuf.

(Répertoire V, p. 241)

It is the interplay of the two “texts” which produces a third: the one we then read from/into the logogramme.

Moving away from pictorial art to represent instead a writing, the logogrammes turn image into inscription. As Dotremont alters the “fixed” form of letters in what he himself has called an “exaggeration” of “natural” writing, he allows them to go where they may, moving, swirling, changing shape to create labyrinths of new scripts. Figures vanish and recede in the logogrammes some of which are crowded, even overflowing, with curious signs, whose properties, like the words of Butor's “Poème optique” are both verbal and visual. Letters stretch out, move inwards and outwards, are pulled this way and that, flicker, seem to move, losing their normal and recognisable properties, as they embark upon a journey of their own until legibility is lost. Admirably conveyed in the process is the energy and power of writing. Roaming freely on the white space, the marks become a liberated, indeed, a profoundly radical writing which offers itself up as a challenge to “normal” writing. Indeed, Dotremont's art—and Butor's writing which “doubles” it—become nothing less than a celebration of potential and freedom.

Can Dotremont's graphic marks be called letters? Must they not be referred to as marks, traces? A logogramme is not a stenography, nor a calligraphy in the usual sense of that term, and yet it is a type of calligraphy based not upon a single tradition but rather on a furious combination of many. Sometimes Dotremont's marks resemble Chinese written script (Dotremont had studied Chinese), sometimes Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac ones, or else many others as if, indeed, all the “writings” of the world were encompassed in this fury to deny whiteness. For Dotremont's scripts go beyond any Western forms of calligraphy to incorporate all characters, hieroglyphics and ideograms. It follows then that the logogrammes present not one single new writing—which would be in constant danger of becoming atrophied, of turning into unquestioned habit—but infinite yet unified ones, forever renewed, renewing, changing. Because language must be displayed, presented, in unparalleled richness and possibilities, Dotremont's “signs” go far beyond “copies” of letters or characters, to become mysterious haunting new scripts.

As we “trace” words and shapes in the logogrammes, we distort the already “distorted” words which, like hieroglyphics, function as both “word” and image. The essence of a word is translated now into its graphic form and power; this relationship between graphic trace and whiteness so central to Dotremont's work being explored in Butor's Ou, not the least in the title, this strange word which functions like a tiny logogramme and which we read slowly and deliberately, unravelling its meanings as we do the unfamiliar forms of the logogrammes. Each “mark” or “trace” on Dotremont's paper does not necessarily represent a letter, character or word. Rather, he shows that the world is a series of marks to be deciphered, to be translated into other languages, then out again in a more liberated form. As Butor reveals in “Poème optique”—a reading of Dotremont composed solely of nouns arranged in changing geometrical patterns—the logogrammes privilege the shape of letters rather than words themselves which, now primarily visual, are freed of any single meaning. Stripped of any context, removed from the constraints of punctuation, all words of “Poème” have an equal status, all are indeed foregrounded so that, like Dotremont's marks, they may wander freely among themselves, asserting their power and mystery as graphic forms. In this poem, as in the logogrammes, the “reader” must pause at each word (mark), take full account of it, even get to the other side of it to see what is hidden there, for, as Butor writes of Dotremont, “il s'agit de nous faire comprendre ce qui se cache dans notre écriture habituelle et nos relations avec elle” (Répertoire V, p. 242). Given back to the word, or mark, will be a cleansed and renewed significance.

In “Poème optique” the mobility of the geometric arrangement is matched by that of the significances offered by the words themselves which, having no stabilized reference, become multiple and open. Indeed, “Poème” makes us aware of the arbitrary frames of reference of all words. For here, words have broken free of all frames, all prisons, except the geometric one in which Butor inserts them; thus, all reference points are gone except those provided by moving structures on the white page and the naked words themselves. In full play now, too, is the arbitrary relationship between sound and sense. Like “Poème,” the logogrammes are “un genre complètement ouvert” (Répertoire V, p. 212). Shapes form words, words form shapes: neither could ever be resolved in a single meaning. But while words are virginal in that they are uncontaminated by any context (except the moving geometrical forms), they are also open-ended, setting up, like the marks in the logogrammes, their own reverberating echoes and optical plays, and establishing their forms in relation to the white spaces on which they are imposed.

Readers, Dotremont claims, “read” writing and its meanings before they “see” (instead of seeing?) visual graphic forms. This is why the “illegibility” of the word-drawings which are the logogrammes interests Butor so much: it forces those who look at them to “see” writing, and to see writing writing. We can understand why “Poème optique,” constructed entirely of nouns devoid of any context except the other nouns and the geometric shapes in which they are encased, is such an appropriate compliment to the logogrammes. For the nouns force us to see the individual words and blocks of words as “signifiers” before we attribute meanings to them. Gone now is any distinction between “fond” and “forme” both in the logogrammes and “Poème.” Built into the “Poème,” as surely as into the logogrammes, is a reflection on the nature, possibilities and power of language in its relation to whiteness. Depth and shape of written “characters,” so important to Dotremont, is a question which Butor has continually sought to explore in the varied typographies which inhabit his work. Dotremont's signs are inscribed for reinscription by another—Butor—who, as he contemplates the former's work, glories in the discovery that both reading and interpretation are a writing.

Equally significant for Butor is the relationship between ink and white paper. In an important statement he would write:

L'encre va couler sur lui [le papier] plus ou moins, le crayon plus ou moins s'écraser. En général, nous mettons completèment entre parenthèses cette référence du support. Dans les logogrammes, elle est exploitée, explorée, mise en évidence. C'est une sorte de convulsion de la blancheur qui approfondit l'écriture, la rentre dans tous les plis que cette blancheur soudain révèle, et d'où naît la poursuite de l'invention verbale.

(Répertoire V, p. 238)

Ink and paper are further referred to as a “couple,” one being necessarily dependent upon the other. The “convulsion” of whiteness renders depth to writing, reveals its “seams” or “folds” (the fifth volume of Butor's Matière de rêves series is entitled Mille et un plis). In the interplay of ink-paper, sign-whiteness, text-legend, Dotremont's marks allow us to see the seams and folds of writing as it inscribes itself upon whiteness.

The logoneiges—those logogrammes inscribed in snow then preserved in a photograph—become an inscription of a physical and mental journey. In snow, as Butor is eager to point out, a journey can so easily become inscription; signs, marks can be traced with a finger, stick, skis, shoe prints, all bearing testimony to man's passage, his writing becoming “le trajet de notre existence même, la trace même du passage de quelqu'un” (Ecrivures). Such languages have, however, a particular property, and a special relationship to whiteness for, “si l'on écrit dans la neige, on révèle l'épaisseur du blanc; et le blanc va en effet se défendre …” (Répertoire V, p. 238). Further emphasizing the density of whiteness, he writes: “… la réalité se transforme en une sorte de sténographie: le monde est blanc et ne restent sur la page du monde que quelques signes” (Répertoire V, p. 237)

Whiteness might “defend” itself against writing, but it, paradoxically, also invites us to leave our mark on it. Indeed, Butor makes the claim that Dotremont, more clearly than anyone before him, has succeeded in underlining a connection between snow and the whiteness of paper: “Il a réussi mieux que n'importe qui avant lui,” Butor unequivocably writes, “à mettre en relation la neige et la blancheur de la page” (Ecrivures)—a relation which is, moreover, turned around in Butor's own writing when in Ou snow itself becomes writing on the white page:

neige                                                                                neige
neige                                                                                neige

(Ou, p. 356)

The link between whiteness and snow had earlier been explored by Butor when, writing of Olaf Sundman in an essay with the revealing title of “Au moindre signe,” he stated, “il a soumis la littérature à l'épreuve de la neige,”7 and “n'est retenu que ce qui résiste à ce lent dépôt de blancheur; mais alors le moindre des signes est important,” reaching the conclusion, “La neige est chez lui la métaphore essentielle de la réduction de réalité à quelques signes qu'il s'agit de savoir lire” (Répertoire IV, p. 355). From Dotremont's “logoneige,” too, there necessarily arises a “dialogue” between the snow and the inscriber. “Le résultat du logoneige,” Butor comments, “est … nécessairement un dialogue entre la neige et l'écriveur: c'est une nouvelle façon de lire la blancheur qui se défend” (Ecrivures). Needing a new word he coins here the term “écriveur” by fusing “écrivain” and “graveur.”; it follows that what Dotremont writes is an “écrivure” as the conversation with Michel Sicard confirms. This writing in snow further masks a strong eroticism because coldness, once conquered, is reversed: “Dans l'écriture de la neige, il y a un érotisme extrêmement fort, et d'autant plus que cette froideur est vaincue, renversée” (Ecrivures). In fact, Dotremont has reversed not only the coldness but also whiteness by writing/tracing upon it.

Certainly then, snow, like the lands of the North, represents for Butor the equivalent of a page: “la terre dans le Nord, devient une sorte de page” (Répertoire V, p. 237). Covered with its implacable whiteness, Sundman's Northern world is, however, more menacing than Dotremont's where—and the echoes of Mallarmé are now made explicit—“tout s'y passe selon le vers de Mallarmé: le vide papier que la blancheur défend,” for, “le Nord blanc est un monde vierge défendu par la blancheur” (Ecrivures). Whereas for Mallarmé whiteness is the absolute and terrifying blankness of the virginal page, for Dotremont and Butor it holds no such terrors: rather it is a means of defense against attack, against being soiled, violated, mutilated, while at the same time inviting the inscription which is itself a sort of attack. When Dotremont sees whiteness, even in the no-man's lands and spaces of the outer reaches of the North, he must write, trace marks upon it, for it remains empty until it is covered with the signs which represent man's presence and his languages. What Dotremont experiences as he writes upon snow is nothing less than a forbidden paradise: “le frisson amoureux dont les mauvais anges nous ont fermé la porte, et la traversée dangereuse de cet interdit pour réinventer perpétuellement la lumière” (Répertoire V, p. 239).

While Dotremont's works are ultimately concerned with filling space, in Butor's vision there are times when a filled space might need to be emptied or whitened. Diametrically opposed, or at least, seemingly, to Dotremont's approach to whiteness is that of Mark Rothko as interpreted by Butor for, whereas the one covers whiteness with a complexity of marks, the other strives to replace a proliferation of signs which are not the real inscription of true writing, to erase the “marks” heralded in his name, by a wash of silence, or whiteness, transposed by Butor into the compelling image of a mosque.8 Indeed, the two artists begin in fundamentally different worlds: in a silent world/page of total whiteness so well-exemplified by the snowy landscapes of the Northern lands, Dotremont inscribes, conquering whiteness with the movement of fervour of language's possibilities, while Rothko, responding to the intimidating clutter of signs in the streets of New York, seeks above all to cover his immense canvases with large areas of subdued tones imperceptibly merging one into one another to create a restful, purifying space of calm and peace. These different approaches in fact express, and in some ways resume, the two distinct reactions to the whiteness of the page: now searching to fill it with signs, now seeking to erase those very signs and render them white anew. Such apparently contradictory attitudes are, moreover, not truly in conflict at all, rather, they are indissolubly necessary one to the other. They are, furthermore, seen at work both in “Méditation explosée” and Ou. In the latter title, the x above the u erases the accent or, whitens the word, while at the same time adding another one, thus acting as addition, substitute and erasure, while in “Méditation explosée” Butor begins to erase/whiten what he has written so that he can begin once more. In both works whiteness thus becomes a powerful metaphor of regeneration, and renewal.

In the white spaces of inscription's interplay, Dotremont shows that writing is a weapon against forgetting, silence, absence, or against the threatening alienation of the virgin white lands of the North. In his hands, paper and snow become wordscapes. There can, of course, be two kinds of silence: one which results from amnesia, complicity, laziness and submission, and one of a quite different character sought by Rothko, that is, the silence of knowledge where the world can find the repose necessary for renewed activity. In the one case the world must be rendered white in order to purify it of a bombardment of meaningless signs, in the other, appropriate signs must be found to cover the white page, canvas or landscape. The purifying washes of Rothko's canvases endowed by Butor with powerful ritualistic and spiritual dimensions, will create white “pages,” emptied spaces which announce a step towards a new inscription, for:

il faut recommencer par tremper tous ces objets dans un bain qui les décape, mais sans risquer de détruire les meilleurs; il faut introduire dans cet encombrement un espace vide, une page blanche où l'esprit puisse trouver le repos nécessaire à son activité.

(Répertoire III, p. 355)

Rothko shows Butor that the violent proliferation of signs in a city, like overcrowded and cluttered texts, must be replaced by empty space; blankness of meaning must be transformed into a true whiteness.

A writer or painter, then, must not only escape from the overwhelming mass of signs in a city, he must equally take refuge from the great and ever-increasing number of books—many crammed with words which have been emptied of all value or significance. As Butor has explained in conversation with Madeleine Santschi, the libraries of the world are already overflowing and we could never read all the books in them. Why then violate whiteness by adding new books to those which already exist in such vast quantities? New books (and here we should also insert painting and music), Butor argues, are not and will never be redundant if they find a valid place—a position which they will merit if they ask questions, and challenge. In keeping with the powerful image in “Méditation explosée,” they must “explode” the library and the world, challenge it from within, enable us to rethink.

A further dimension of whiteness must be considered: the one balanced by the signs imposed upon it. Whiteness is not only that of the virgin page before inscription (Dotremont), or the cleansed page (Rothko), but also that which remains during inscription: the space, or interplay between sign and absence of sign. In addition to representing silence, white spaces on the page can also signify ventilation or aeration of texts. “J'aime beaucoup,” Butor says, “que les livres soient suffisamment aérés. Ceci parce que le blanc me semble très expressif.”9 It is surely, however, the play, indeed, the tension, between the black sign and the white page, such as is graphically visible in the title of Ou where, crossing out an accent, Butor both renders white the space where it was and adds a new sign, then renders that one white, or again as in “Méditation explosée” where, by suggesting the erasure of certain lines of those prose-poems, he causes them to “disappear,” thus, whitens them: “disparaît, s'agite avec lenteur … disparaît sur la craie … disparaissent les bras du pétrisseur … disparaît une voile pour nous emporter …”10 For writing is also cancelling. What is “expressif” is not merely the white, but the relationship, frequently presented in the form of an opposition, between black and white for, “il n'y a pas simplement la figure formée par le blanc par rapport au noir” (Voyage, p. 104). So many of Butor's works can serve as an example, and in each one, white spaces have a unique function defined by their relation to the black signs.

Frequently now we no longer find uniform rectangular blocks of words, or prose, in Butor's books, and even when we do, they have a specific purpose. Thus in Illustrations III, texts are surrounded by broad white borders which become frames enclosing and containing the signs of the page. But we should not be deceived, for it is in this volume which looks so traditional in form, that some of Butor's most powerful metaphors of subversion are used, carefully couched in, and guarded by a traditional format. Further, although now built into our printing codes, black on white is, Butor emphasizes, already rich in powerful possibilities. That is not to say that this tradition cannot be brought into question, either by reversing the black-white interplay and placing white signs on black paper as Dotremont has sometimes done, or, as Butor himself has done in his recent collaborations with Julius Baltazar, or else by using different colours and typefaces as in Boomerang, Fenêtres sur le passage intérieur and the lesser-known work Cinq Rouleaux.

When discussing contemporary art in relation to Henri Maccheroni (who has himself created “archéologies blanches” and “archéologies noires”) Butor agrees with Michel Sicard's interpretation that “le blanc et le noir sont d'immenses paradigmes, à la fois formels et mythologiques”11—ones which are, furthermore, linked to the “race blanche.” Butor goes on to discuss the “perturbation” which disturbing the normal white-black interplay of writing necessarily brings:

Cela tient sans doute à l'expérience du livre en Occident, considérablement renforcée par l'apparition du livre imprimé qui s'est rapidement fixé sur le noir et blanc. Le blanc fondamental de la réalité sur quoi les choses se dessinent en noir est une page du livre sur laquelle se trouvent des lettres noires. Mais dès qu'on touche à cela, dès qu'on imprime sur du papier d'une autre couleur, ou avec d'autres encres, on assiste à une perturbation fascinante qui peut aller très loin.12

Tampering with these traditional models is not then merely play; it is a fundamental indication of a radical outlook.

Exploring the contrast between black and white for Butor, as for Dotremont, is one way in which significance can be rendered to the sign since the organization of space contributes to a work's meaning. Constantly emphasizing the writer's need to (re)discover this contrast and to use it purposefully, Butor says: “Pour que le noir soit intelligible, il faut qu'il se détache sur le blanc. C'est pour ça qu'il est très important dans les livres d'avoir du blanc (Voyage, p. 104). Pressing on he insists:

Et il est extrêmement important de faire du blanc pour que les mots puissent reprendre leur signification, pour que ces marques noires puissent reprendre un sens et ne pas être absorbées dans un espace de pâtée grise, de mur qui au bout d'un certain temps devient d'un ennui impénétrable.

(Voyage, p. 104)

White enables the black signs to give up their meaning, to “defend” their significance.

Thus we, too, must explore the space of the page, as Butor does, taking its whiteness into account and making it signify. For a writer must not be content to use unquestioningly the conventions of the book. No longer indifferent, innocent and neutral, space between lines becomes part of a book's meanings. In his own work, Butor sets in motion kaleidoscopic patterns of black signs and white spaces whose interplay contributes to a work's significances. To use Ou as an example, many pages there are only half-filled with writing, thus half-white so that the reader, by filling in the other half, can inscribe his/her own writing. But they are also half-empty for another reason: so much remains for Butor to explore, to know, to write, so much of the world and its writings are yet to discover. Because Ou the second volume of the Génie du lieu series, concentrates on Northern hemisphere, writing is for the most part, at the upper (Northern) reaches of the page, the lower (Southern) part remaining as yet unwritten by Butor. This whiteness, Boomerang, the next volume in the series will begin to cover with words. Moreover, the vowels of the title Ou suggest that the consonants have yet to be added, that the title must be filled out by readings as well as by writing. Thus Ou will, by its sound, become incorporated into B(oo)merang. That whiteness which in Ou is part prefiguration of a future book (the next in the series), and part the space left for the reader's interpretation can also be linked to the notion of the “livre futur” occurring in several works including La Modification, Intervalle or Portrait de l'artiste en jeune singe and then to the interval, that whiteness, between a book as it is written or was writing, and as it could be/have been written which Intervalle and Ou so deftly explores.

Different type-faces and thicknesses of type modify and vary the depth of the black signs in Butor's works. We can indeed see now why he is so attracted by Dotremont's alphabets with their free-flowing shapes and their marks of varying thicknesses. For the logogrammes represent nothing less than new alphabets, new, world languages, fragments for a super Grand Livre in which the real and imagined writings of all nations can be dreamed of and celebrated. Indeed, what Butor and Dotremont both underline so decisively in their constant search to explore and use whiteness is the need to examine the nature of writing(s) to create new ones, and in Butor's case to connect this search with fundamental questions concerning the nature of the book.

Typographical design, the organization of the space of the page provide a comment upon/reflection of, the nature and meanings of words. Suppression of punctuation also contributes to their meanings (as Butor has explained in several essays). Its absence leads to a slower reading, expressed by Butor as a silence (whiteness) in an essay on Apollinaire entitled humorously, but no less significantly, “Essai de rien pour Apollinaire”:

Enfin le mouvement de notre oeil, étant bien plus souvent et surtout plus irrégulièrement brisé que dans l'inversion de prose ponctuée, nous sommes constraints à une lecture plus lente; un silence ouaté envahit le récit comme le blanc de la page.

(Répertoire III, p. 278)

The white page is generally considered to be “empty” and awaiting inscription, while the white spaces in a completed written page are regarded, too, as empty and destined to remain so (unless reader's notes are made in the margins), but what if, suggests Butor, we consider the whiteness of the page before inscription as already full (it would then match Rothko's teeming city)? In that case there would be no room to place additional signs. Instead, they must be taken away, cancelled, erased, a possibility upon which Butor has commented:

… lorsqu'ou ne considère que la figure du noir par rapport au blanc, on estime au fond que la réalité est assez vide, il y a de la place pour nous et, par conséquent, nous pouvons ajouter des signes sur la page blanche de la réalité. A partir du moment où l'on attache de l'importance au blanc et où la figure du blanc devient significative, cela veut dire que l'on considère que la réalité est pleine, qu'il n'y a plus de place pour ajouter des signes et qu'il faut par conséquent soustraire un certain nombre de choses pour arriver à parler.

(Voyage, p. 104)

This strategy he has put to work in “Méditation explosée” and Ou. The title of the latter functions like Dotremont's logogrammes—the accent/sign altered so that new word-shapes are invented, the accent/sign being crossed, crossed out, destroyed, erased, resulting in a new sign which is, on one level or, according to one reading, a cleansing of the old one. In the logogrammes too, the words of the textual legend are destroyed, rewritten, reformed, reinvented, recreated. Erasing what he has written (the writer can always begin anew), in a series of new beginnings and possibilities, Butor can render writing white again. He can not only “make white” the works of others, he can do the same with his own work.

Since some whiteness is also the text's (self-)erasure, two sorts of whiteness become locked in an eternal interplay: the one before inscription, and the one resulting from the text's erasure. Whiteness must never be that of empty significance(s); it must represent the ever-new possibilities for alternative and new writings. The text must cleanse itself of its impurities, it must keep itself clean and open. But sustained and untouched whiteness would be the impossibility of writing, that is why neither Butor nor Dotremont can leave whiteness white.

So much has already been written that a writer cannot add more without, in Butor's words, “adding some holes,” carving some niches of whiteness, cutting up. These holes Butor must make too in the texts of the past. In a comment rich in sexual implications he says: “On ne peut plus ajouter sans soustraire. Si vous voulez, dans la masse du texte qui est là, il faut faire des trous. Pour arriver à faire un nouveau livre, il faut tailler dans ceux qui sont déjà là: pour faire du blanc” (Voyage, p. 104). We too can find, create, a whiteness as Butor does in “Méditation explosée” where, at the final prose-poem he sets in motion a systematic erasure of lines he had written, recreating now the whiteness of the page of Eden as it was before the fall, before the inscription of the first word of the poem.

But whiteness has dimensions which Butor despises and against which he soils his page. Thus, he goes beyond Dotremont to explore, more or less directly, its social and political implications. In Mobile racial tensions are played out in the interweaving of the typescripts and the links between typescript and page. Moreover, he leaves us in no doubt about the prevailing moral and political connotations of whiteness and its link to moral and racial superiority:

Le mot “blanc” joue un rôle essentiel dans notre société; il a des significations focales dans presque tous les domaines. Il a un énorme poids en politique. Il est lié aux problèmes raciaux, à la moralité, à l'hygiène etc. Dans notre éducation première et dans notre vie quotidienne, nous avons généralement l'équation: blanc-bien.

(Répertoire V, p. 13)

Indeed, this whiteness is connected with much that Butor abhors: racism, colonialism, ignorance, amnesia. Thus in an interview with Jean-Marie le Sidaner he explained: “[le continent blanc] … c'est le pays de l'amnésie, le colonialisme impérial qui veut transformer en table rase, en page blanche le pays qu'il envahit.”13 Here, the white page has become repression and censorship. Dean McWilliams underlines a further aspect of the mythology of whiteness: that connected with the “seductive” appeal of empty or “escapist” literature. “Reading,” he writes, “becomes dangerous when we seek to hide in the soporific ‘whiteness’ that it offers.”14 Against this amnesia, this false and dangerous whiteness, the writer must darken the white page.

Butor's works, like Christian Dotremont's incorporate a meditation upon whiteness, and an exploration of its possibilities. In them a warning is sounded of any whiteness which is submission, silence or forgetting. For his writing which asks us to seek a deeper understanding of the world, is a call for a sane word, a plea for freedom and deliverance. “Je sais,” he says to Le Sidaner, “ce que mon écriture veut, c'est la délivrance.”15 Ultimately perhaps, it is a stirring against the menacing whiteness of death: “page blanche noircie comme victoire contre la mort.”


  1. Michel Butor, “Ballade de la boussole en deuil,” in Exprès (Envois 2) (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), p. 149.

  2. Butor, “La Voix de l'écrit,” La Nouvelle Revue Française, 212 (1970), 22–25.

  3. Butor, “Poème optique,” in Illustrations II (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), pp. 1–262.

  4. Butor, “Christian Dotremont et la neige,” in Répertoire V (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1982), pp. 237–43.

  5. Butor and Michel Sicard, Dotremont et ses écrivures. Entretiens sur les logogrammes (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1978), n.p. When published in Répertoire V some changes were made. While quotations are generally taken from the more accessible Répertoire V, the earlier text is used when it seems more complete or gives a fuller or slightly different emphasis. Subsequent references to the volume with Sicard will be given in the text as Ecrivures.

  6. Butor, Exprès, pp. 147–9.

  7. Butor, “Au moindre signe,” in Répertoire IV (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974), p. 353.

  8. Butor, “Les Mosquées de New York ou l'art de Mark Rothko,” in Répertoire III (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1968), pp. 351–69.

  9. Madeleine Santschi, Voyage avec Michel Butor (Lausanne: Editions L'Age d'Homme, 1983), p. 104. Subsequent references to this work will be given in the text as Voyage.

  10. Butor, Illustrations III (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), p. 153.

  11. Butor and Michel Sicard, Problèmes de l'art contemporain à partir des travaux d'Henri Maccheroni (Paris: C. Bourgois, 1983), p. 127.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Jean-Marie le Sidaner, Michel Butor, Voyageur à la roue (Paris: Encre, 1979), p. 58.

  14. Dean McWilliams, The Narratives of Michel Butor. The Writer as Janus (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978), p. 101.

  15. Butor, quoted by Le Sidaner, op. cit.

Seda A. Chavdarian (essay date summer 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1469

SOURCE: Chavdarian, Seda A. “Problems of Representation in Butor's Ou.International Fiction Review 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 100–02.

[In the following essay, Chavdarian interprets Butor's Ou as a discourse on the nature of representation and various forms of creative expression.]

In spite of its tremendous diversity, Michel Butor's work has an underlying current that connects all of it together. While deeply anchored in ethno-cultural and mythological references, his books are attempts to understand and define artistic expression. In his earlier novels, Butor comments on the literary process indirectly through a fictional author, but becomes directly involved later on. Among the many aspects of artistic expression pursued in his work is literary representation. Butor's interest in it dates back to his early works and is closely connected to his concept of genius loci, first communicated to us in Le Génie du lieu (1957). Butor once distinguished modern civilization from the ancients as people of the book rather than of places. Monuments were the ancients' way of giving expression to their reality, their way of “reading” it.1 In this sense, by studying the place, Butor examines the notion of representation. In this study, we shall briefly look at Butor's approach in Ou (1971).2

Subtitled Le Génie du lieu 2, Ou is a sophisticated account of Butor's voyages to America and the Far East. While on the surface his work is a special kind of travel log, it treats essential questions posed by Butor in all of his oeuvre, in particular, the literary expression of creative energy. There is the resurgence of the theme of writing, where the author himself and not a fictional character is hard at work trying to recount certain events. We shall specifically examine three different attempts of representation in the book: a description of Mt. Sandia, an explosion in Santa Barbara, and most importantly, the Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians.

The problems of representing something by writing are studied through the author's effort of giving a picture in words of Mt. Sandia, which he is contemplating from his window. The rectangular form of the window is the rectangle of the pages that we have opened. The picture of the mountain through the window is what the author tries to transfer to the rectangle of the book. He wishes to cover the blankness of the page by words, just as the mountain fills the space of the window. There are problems involved in trying to imitate a model. The difficulty of his task arises from the instability of his image. The mountain changes every minute, rendering the written description valid only for a given moment, becoming totally unrealistic and alienated the next. By his writing, he is trying to create a still picture of an object that changes constantly and does not allow an exact imitation. Since it cannot be true to the image, the author is having difficulty in trying to find a way to characterize his writing. He is constantly questioning himself, “est-ce un discours?”: “est-ce une description?” The writing becomes at best a series of impressions and glimpses of the mountain. The relationship between Mt. Sandia and the author becomes that of struggle and resistance. Throughout the attempted description, are recurrent comments such as “raturer une ligne recommence” (p. 17), or the use of different words to show the arbitrariness of their choice. The mountain resists any effort of containment by giving impressions of different images—sometimes that of a woman or of a pyramid. The capitalized words interspersed throughout his descriptions denote the mountain's side of the conversation, so to speak: “résistance,” “permanence,” “défi.” By its permanent mutism, the mountain defies his effort. Imitation becomes impossible not only because of the object itself but because of the author, who may see the object differently from others. The very last description of Mount Sandia—175 pages later—is in no way different in character than all of the others. There has been no meaningful progress.

The study of representation is continued on a much smaller scale by the attempted description of the early morning hours in Santa Barbara when Butor and his wife are awakened by an explosion. In approximately thirty pages devoted to this section, we are given eleven different versions of the same scene that becomes more elaborate with each additional version.3 However, by the time we reach the last two, the details have filtered out of the description again. Rather than being a rendering of a particular scene, the entire section is an exercise of words around Mrs. Butor's question “qu'est-ce que c'est?” Here again, the descriptions are nothing but impressions of what really happened.

The third and the most important example is the section that describes the Zuni Shalako ceremony (the great fertility ritual performed at the winter solstice) which at first glance seems to be an exact rendering of Ruth Bunzel's account of it.4 In other words, the description of the ceremony is an imitation. But during this process, Butor shows the true nature of imitation. Although he admits the source of his text, he is not exactly copying it but establishing his own song of the Shalakos, thus making imitation a means of creation at the same time. This process is clearly shown in his rendering of the Shalako song. A careful comparison of the song that Butor has recorded in Ou and the ones in the Bunzel texts shows a clear divergence. In her text, Ruth Bunzel first gives an English version of the song and then an English-Zuni one with the two languages juxtaposed on the same page. When imitating the song, Butor takes different parts of each section and puts them together as one completed and continuous song.5 At this point, although he makes variations in his imitation, he remains faithful to the line by line rendering of the song, omitting only one or two lines here and there. But from a certain point in the book (p. 304), he takes one particular section of the song and breaks it up and repeats it fourteen times before coming back to the regular verse. The repeated section is essentially the following verses:

                    je suis sorti j'ai regardé
de tous côtés j'ai imité
souffle mouillé du vent de l'ouest
puis j'ai atteint le lieu nommé
depuis toujours source au cresson

(p. 303)

At each repetition, he changes something either in the order or the choice of the words. This repetition and divergence is Butor's means of making up his own song. By the emphasis of the song and by repetition, he gives importance to the section that concerns the point of beginning, source, and imitation. At each repetition of the above verse, the word source is singled out and repeated vertically on the left margin.6 Thus, Butor's notion of imitation is revealed indirectly through the Shalako ritual. The ceremony is essentially an invocation of the gods through imitation; but here, the word acquires a very different meaning. The coming of the gods is accomplished through the mask which the dancers wear to impersonate them and bring them to life. What is extremely interesting about the mask is, as Ruth Bunzel points out, the total lack of realism. In the Zuni ceremony, imitation does not mean an exact reproduction of something but the copying of its idea, with the imitator being free to “fill in” the parts. It is an idea that is imitated in many different forms. The tool used to bring about the imitation—the mask—rather than resembling the source, is totally dissimilar.

By manipulating and experimenting with Ruth Bunzel's texts. Butor illustrates, in a very subtle way, how imitation and representation become means of creation. He uses the Shalako song to express something entirely different where imitation becomes the total lack of likeness. In this way, Ou becomes not only an account of Butor's voyages, but a medium through which he experiments with different possibilities of expression. Seen in this light, a mountain, an explosion, a ritual, by themselves become pretexts to unveil for a deeper understanding of the creative process. The ambiguity of the title of this work rests on the notion that Ou (with the accent) can be another “Génie du lieu” where, while writing of his voyages, he studies the effect of a particular place on him; but it can also be Ou (with the accent crossed off) indicating that it can be something else. That something else, we believe, is a discourse on representation, an exercise in writing.


  1. Jean-Marie Le Sidaner, Michel Butor voyageur à la roue (Paris: Encre, 1979), p. 67.

  2. Michel Butor, Ou (Paris: Gallimard, 1971). All references will be made in the text.

  3. For some examples, see pp. 77, 82, 84, 85.

  4. Ruth Bunzel, “Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism,” U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology. 1929–30 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932).

  5. See Bunzel, pp. 711, 711–12, 714, 763–64, 769–70, 771–72.

  6. See Butor, Ou, pp. 310–11.

Elinor S. Miller (essay date fall 1988)

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SOURCE: Miller, Elinor S. “Butor's Beautiful Decay.” Romance Notes 29, no. 1 (fall 1988): 61–69.

[In the following essay, Miller analyzes Butor's representations of death and decay, arguing that—while our culture attempts to deny the process of physical decomposition that comes with death—Butor treats decay as a process of reunification between man and nature.]

In Explorations in 1982, Butor published the poem, “L'école des gisants,” which he reprinted intact in Exprès (Envois 2) in 1983, adding only an introductory paragraph. The fourth section of this poem is a grim invitation to join Butor in the exploration of a corpse in the process of decomposition. We are warned that this is not pleasant, but “au retour vous deviendrez capables d'admirer cette dénudation progressive des ossements” (171). Butor placed the poem at the very end of Explorations and maintained it in that same final position in Exprès, indicating its special significance to him. Those who believe Butor to be an ever-reliable guide in the quest for the good, true and beautiful, must thus make the effort to understand his vision, however disagreeable the process.

Examining Butor's previous treatments of death reveals three possible categories: (1) as an event in the plot, e.g., Angèle in Passage de Milan, (2) as a device to develop character, e.g., Mme Bonnini in Degrès, and (3) as a statement of social protest, e.g., the Indian or aborigine massacres of Mobile, the Kit Bicentenaire, and Boomerang A trend reveals itself, moving from particular death of an individual in the earlier prose works toward general death as genocide in the later multi-textual works. Most recently, even before “L'école des gisants,” a fourth treatment seems to be developing: death as a universal. Two distinct threads within this treatment can be distinguished: (A) fragments of afterworlds in which a dead individual retains a discrete identity, and (B) transmutation through decay toward depersonalized union with a universal whole. Because these two threads are entertwined, we need to unravel them in order to appreciate more completely the force of the second, where decay is not only true, but good and beautiful.

Since the first Génie du lieu of 1958, afterworlds have naturally appeared in Butor's work: it is not possible to consider Egypt otherwise. The individual does retain his identity, and decay is a part of the process: “Cette attention portée à la mort, cette familiarité avec le cadavre, dont l'odeur les jours les plus chauds imprègne tout dans la vallée …” (187). More recently, Boomerang offers several accounts of afterworlds. In one sequence on aborigine death rituals, the link between decay and the afterlife is clear: the body is left to rot until “les vers qui se nourrissaient de son corps sont entrés dans le sol et se sont transformés en mouches” (219). Only when the little bones of the hands and feet have been distributed to family and friends, the skull demolished, the pieces thrown to the winds, is the spirit freed from the body to begin its journey toward the jungle of the angels (256). In such attitudes selected from other cultures, there is no horror of decay; there is simply acceptance.

In our culture, where there is generally some kind of belief in an afterworld, there is ordinarily an accompanying belief in the survival of personality. These questions have not interested Butor particularly, although twice he allows an artist to speak of writing, or painting, “as if after his own death” (Milan 138 and Vanité 64; Répertoire 292).1 In the Kit Bicentenaire he cites, from a book on chess, a description of a game situation in which the two kings are left virtually alone on the board. As Butor relates this situation to Duchamp's “Etant donnés, … ” he calls the kings' movements about the board efforts to “rendre … la mort habitable” (77), which suggests the kings are still aware of their situation, though dead.2 However, “Monologue de la momie” in Envois of 1980 would seem to identify Butor's more recent position on the survival of discrete personality as negative. Whatever consciousness lurks still in the mummy's decomposing body, it is eventually extinguished. His last words are “j'oublie que j'oublie” (40).

Whether or not there is an afterworld and surviving personality, it is undeniably the case that physical decomposition is a natural process. This second thread in the fourth treatment of death does not appear frequently in Butor's early works, and where it does it is seen through medieval eyes, as in the Description de San Marco, where in the mosaics angels bend over “un cadavre pourrissant au milieu du désert” (98), and where Pharoah's chief baker is crucified and “plus becqueté d'oiseaux que dés à coudre” (54), clearly an allusion to Villon. There is an ambiguous line in the poem “Dollar,” in the Kit Bicentenaire: “Sépulcre vert ou ver ou vers” (#13, 45), and Intervalle reaches a crescendo of anatomical terms, nerves, bones, bloodcells, but always seen “au milieu des flammes” (139 ff.), thus escaping decay. The mummy skirts the issue, since the persona is in fact mummified, and the force of the “Monologue” is not so much the anticipation of rats and worms as the gradual disappearance of the self.

It is in Vanité in 1980 that Butor specifically treats our cultural avoidance of the fact of decay. The three interlocutors, representing Butor, the artist Henri Maccheroni, and the writer Michel Launay, specify that “Nous ne savons plus comment nous tenir devant un cadavre” (Vanité 13; Répertoire 276) and we try to “oublier cette inconvenance comme un borborygme dans un salon” (Vanité 72–3; Répertoire 295). In an article the same year Butor stated, regarding Maccheroni's “archeological” approach to sexual subjects, “Dans notre société aussi, il y a des tas de régions où nous savons qu'il y a de l'enfoui … des choses que l'on ne veut pas voir, des choses que l'on rejette …” (43). Further, Maccheroni's “façon de lever aussi complètement que possible le tabou et de le lever sans regrets, c'est quelque chose qui est rarissime” (42). Through hindsight the relationship of these remarks, focused on sex as the taboo, and our society's similar attitude toward the cadaver becomes clear, especially as the same question is amplified by Butor and Michel Sicard in 1983. Sicard says of Maccheroni, “… tout se trouve confronté et rapporté à cet état de gisant; … On voit chez Maccheroni une méditation sur la mort et une façon nouvelle—en Occident tout au moins—d'être en relation avec elle. …” To which Butor responds, “Comme la sexualité, la mort est également quelque chose d'enfoui, de rejeté, de tabou dans notre société” (35).3 Further, “Quant à la mort individuelle … l'œuvre de Maccheroni peut la naturaliser par un regard froid et égalisant sur le cadavre” (37). This approach that Butor sees in Maccheroni's work seems to parallel his own. Once having established our culture's horror of the cadaver, the speakers of Vanité agree that the skull is not horrible, but beautiful, if we forget its origin. They recognize that artists tend to represent cadavers, as in crucifixions, as mythically still alive; the speaker representing Butor says, “Et tous ces beaux morts deviendront cadavres avant de se résumer en leurs crânes” (Vanité 41; Répertoire 284). Of the beauty of the skull he says, “C'est une beauté que bien peu sont capables de supporter,” and it is the speaker representing Maccheroni who adds, “Il nous faut trouver le moyen de nous en approcher” (Vanité 33; Répertoire 282). Maccheroni seems to have found a way, according to Butor and Sicard, and several works of Butor during this same period point toward the same goal: how to find beauty in a rotting corpse?

The question recalls Baudelaire's “La Charogne,” but Baudelaire does not present the object itself as beautiful; it is his poem, not the rotting carrion, which has beauty. As he said, addressing Paris, “Tu m'as donné ta boue et j'en ai fait de l'or” (214). It would not occur to Butor to refer to his own work as beautiful or “de l'or”; rather, he is determined to find, and to show, beauty in the thing itself, in the “boue.” What does he mean by “beauty”? His whole work is founded on the Platonic principle that truth, goodness and beauty are one. Keats put it nicely, and Butor's works could be seen as an expansion on the theme that the true is beautiful. Thus, here, the fact that decay is part of life is true; therefore it must be beautiful. This oversimplification, however, does not allow for Butor's treatment of many subjects which are true, which are historical occurrences, which neither we nor he could consider beautiful, such as, the slaughter of Australian aborigines and American Indians, or the destruction of the natural environment. The difference is that these are acts of man and thus have the potential for good or evil. Decay is a law of nature, is devoid of ethical content, and hence is pure truth, susceptible to be recognized as pure beauty. But our cultural bias interferes with the recognition, and this is the problem Butor has been addressing.

“La vallée des dépossédés,” originally published in Explorations (67–9), reprinted unchanged in Exprès (80–2), reflects on Maccheroni's series of photographs which turn New York into ancient Egypt. The treatment is of mummies again, but before the fact, in the process of mummification. The horrifying business of preserving a body intensifies until the muscles are detached “un par un avec [un] scalpel-laser et [on] les étend délicatement par couches entrelardées” (81). The point of view moves from observer to participant: “on” becomes “vous,” the visitor, and finally “vous,” the dead body.

This grisly piece seems to be working through the problem of getting from the “beaux morts” of art through the putrescent cadaver to the purified and beautiful skull. But by the very fact of seeing the cadaver as mummy we are distanced from the reality for us, now, today. Butor confronts this actuality in “L'école des gisants,” sparing us nothing: this is not Egypt, but here and now, not a mummy, but a dead body identified, known and loved. The introductory paragraph added in the 1983 edition is a eulogy of Georges Perros, “L'ami que l'on rêve d'avoir,” who left behind “la nostalgie de la conversation perdue.” From this poignant opening we are plunged into the harsh reality of the first section, “Triomphe de l'agonie,” beginning with “Barreaux, cotons, seringues et relents d'éther” (167), in which menacing, hospital-like objects and sounds accompany depersonalized acts: “on” is the actor until “les anges vomissent.” Then “A nous maintenant,” and we suffer in the hospital waiting room everything M. Bonnini did. The second section, “Triomphe de l'instant fatal” recalls Henriette d'Angleterre: “Que me dites-vous là! Hier encore! Comment, je l'ai vu il y a quelques heures à peine!” (168). The reader is totally involved, constrained to consider “notre propre instant fatal qui nous guette comme un voleur.” The “Triomphe du cadavre” shifts to “mon enfance,” and “cet hôpital où ma mère est morte” becomes a department store, with a “pavillon des fièvres, allée des amputations, carrefour des affres” (169). Ambulances arrive and hearses leave; we wait for the “viewing.” This third act has set in place the necessary action: the individual pursues the necessary path toward a known, but feared and detested end, as we all do, in the “Triomphe de la charogne.”

This fourth segment is the one that most clearly states the beautiful decay thread in the fourth treatment of death, most insistently demands the unveiling of the “enfoui,” to discover the beauty that “bien peu sont capables de supporter.” The speaker, with repeated “Je,” addresses the worms directly, asks their aid through the exploration of the “beaux secrets de vos pourrissements.” Nothing will repel him: “Je respirerai les odeurs les plus horribles sans défaillir, réussirai à en extraire quelque volupté sombre, toute neuve.” Watching the features he has loved decompose will not discourage him, not even “ce que sera devenu l'œil” (170), but rather he will make of the process a celebration. Understanding the reasons the Egyptians and Indians attempt to preserve or else destroy corpses, he still encourages this “initiation à laquelle nous sommes sourds depuis des siècles,” into the “gouffre musical” where is heard “le chant de [notre] propre décomposition.” Certainly what he contemplates does “répand la terreur chez la quasi-totalité de nos contemporains” (171), whether imagining ourselves or those we love. This intense effort to find beauty in the transition from cadaver to skull is the climax of the poem. In the fifth segment, “Triomphe de la poussière,” we follow the dissolution of body, trees and land; time passes, and “la terre même tremblera à cause de la dérive des continents et de la folie des superpuissances.” Eventually bulldozers have crushed skulls into sand for children to turn into castles, if there are still children. No matter what people of the future choose to do with their corpses, it will all become, “enfin, encore une fois, poussière” (172). There is no afterworld, no discrete personality, but no horror: we have approached the cadaver and found its beauty.

Longinus' description of the sublime fits the beauty Butor shows us in the rotting corpse:

That … is grand and lofty, which the more we consider, the greater Ideas we conceive of it, whose Force we cannot possibly withstand; which immediately sinks deep and makes such Impressions on the Mind, as cannot be easily worn out or effaced.


It may be that “L'école des gisants” is an outer limit for Butor's pursuit of this particular form of the sublime. Subsequent treatments are more bearable, as he turns the subject around and around. First, “Chronologies,” in Brassée d'avril in 1982 includes “Squelette en fleurs; le crâne murmure: ne m'oubliez pas. Gousses de vanille à la place de l'oreille, … Les poussins font la ronde autour des vertèbres, … les hautbois dessinent des tendons” (126). This is scarcely decay, rather purification. Then, in the reprinting of Vanité in Répertoire V in 1982 the chief variant is the substitution of a different ending.4 Following “Imaginez-vous comme ces gens-là [the monks] ont dû jouir de leurs crânes” (Vanité 80; Répertoire 297), one of the speakers reads from the Vie de Rancé the text on Bossuet's sending funeral orations to Rancé and perhaps deliberately calling them “têtes de mort” in reference to Rancé's supposedly keeping Mme de Monbazon's head in his cell. Among the conversational asides added also in the 1982 version are, just before the Chateaubriand reading, “Mouches,” but during and interrupting it, “Seraitce déjà le rossignol?” and then, “Oui, c'est déjà le rossignol” (Répertoire 297). Whereas in the first version the reader was left struggling with the angel of death, here we have ultimate tranquility, born of the abbé's contemplation of his former mistress' skull. The flies recall vividly the process of decomposition, but in the end, there is the nightingale.

In 1983 another treatment, almost playful, appeared in Exprès. The flies of “Colloque des mouches” speak of how well men provide for them especially when “dès qu'ils s'endorment / Le festin commence / ou dès qu'ils sont morts” (53). The flies have a wonderful time when men “Avec leurs mitrailles / Perpètrent massacres / Pour nos jubilés” (54). They end with the exhortation to the young to “bien perpétuer / Le pourrissement” (56). Butor introduced this poem with mention of “Mon horreur des mouches, mais je me sens mouche, à la recherche d'autres metamorphoses,” perhaps recalling that earlier one as Argentinian ant. Another poem from Exprès, placed immediately before “L'école des gisants,” is “La femme la neige la mort.” A mediation on art works, this gentle and loving poem still faces up to facts: “tes vertèbres, tes rusées vertèbres avec leurs lézardes, leurs gouffres, leurs miroirs, grondent, broient, souffrent et transpirent” (165), but it ends, “Que la mort te soit le baiser de la neige” (166). The reader hurts with the speaker, with the dying woman, but is not required to face the agonizing realities of “L'école des gisants.” Finally, perhaps, in Picasso-labyrinthe in 1985, among occasional mentions of “charognes” and “putréfactions,” the narrator recounts the death of the Minotaur, how “la carcasse calcinée de mon frère gémissait toujors” and “le mugissement m'a poursuivi d'île en île avec l'odeur de la charogne” (46), but at the last “la carcasse n'en finira pas de mourir et fleurir” (56). Can we assume Butor has answered to his own satisfaction the problem of the beautification of decay?

In a way, this fourth treatment is a way of dealing with death in all the other categories. As an incident in a plot, as a psychological effect on a character, as a social injustice, in the long run death is a universal, and since this is the human condition, we need a means of accepting it. We are not going to know about afterworlds or the survival of individual personality, but we do know that “tout cela redeviendrait enfin, encore une fois, poussière,” and that we are all involved. Death, including putrescence, becomes in Butor's treatment a cleansing, purifying process, a necessary means to a desirable end, that of reunion with the rest of nature, which is beautiful. It should be interesting to see if Butor develops this line of thought further, and if so, how.


  1. The text of Vanité was reprinted with variants in Répertoire V.

  2. The Kit Bicentenaire contains an off-print of the article, “Reproduction interdite,” in which, in his discussion of Duchamp's “Etant donnés …” Butor cites from Henri-Pierre Roche, Opposition et les cases conjuguées reconciliées:

    Pourtant, il y a des règles pour chacun de leurs pas, la moindre étourderie est à l'instant fatale.

    Ce sont ces règles que Duchamp met en lumière (cases permises, cases défendues) tout en amplifiant les promenades dédaigneuses des Rois.

    Butor adds: “Appareil à rendre l'amour transparent, la mort habitable” (282).

  3. Later in this work, Problèmes de l'art contemporain à partir des travaux d'Henri Maccheroni, Butor mentions one of Maccheroni's series, “Archéologies blanches,” entitled, “L'école des gisants,” but describes its coloration rather than explaining its title (51).

  4. There are other minor variants, corrections, refinements, and the addition of sound effects, scenic details, musical notations, stage directions. In particular is added, “Tombe un cadavre de fleur” (289).

Dominique Jullien (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6983

SOURCE: Jullien, Dominique. “Intertextuality as Labyrinth: The Presence of Racine in Michel Butor's L'Emploi du temps.Yale French Studies, no. 76 (1989): 108–24.

[In the following essay, Jullien explores the idea of Racinian intertextuality in L’Emploi du temps.]

Michel Leiris noted that the rigorous construction of La Modification [A Change of Heart] both respects and evades the rules of French classical tragedy.1 The same may be said about the earlier L'Emploi du temps [Passing Time].2 Like the five acts of a tragedy, the five sections of the novel define and design the dramatic progression: L'Entrée, Les Présages, “L'Accident,” Les Deux soeurs, L'Adieu [First Steps, Portents, The “Accident,” The Two Sisters, Farewell]. Each one of these five sections is divided into five chapters. This strong geometric frame obviously acknowledges the tragic model, while submitting the narrative form to the theatrical rule of the three unities. Unity of action: L'Emploi du temps tells the story of Jacques Revel's life in Bleston, the fictitious English city where he worked for a year, and his struggle against its hostile environment. Unity of time: the narration begins with Jacques Revel's arrival in Bleston on 1 September and ends with his departure, exactly twelve months later: “… maintenant mon départ termine cette dernière phrase” (299) [… and my departure closes this last sentence (288)]. The geometrical center of the year, 29 February, like the middle of a Racinian tragedy, is a turning point in the character's fate, and marks the beginning of his doom. Unity of place: Jacques Revel never once leaves the city, unable, it seems, to get away from its evil power:

Déjà les ruses de la ville usaient, étouffaient mon courage, déjà sa maladie m'avait enveloppé.

Jamais je n'ai renouvelé cette tentative de lui échapper en marchant droit devant moi, trop sûr que mes forces s'épuiseraient, que le temps de répit passerait, bien avant l'arrivée au paysage de mon désir, bien avant la délivrance, la certitude d'être sorti …

Jamais, ce qui montre bien à quel point je suis contaminé, à quel point ma volonté est droguée, je n'ai pris le train pour changer franchement d'air. …


The town had begun to wear me down with its wiles, to stifle my courage; its disease was creeping over me already.

I have never again attempted to escape from it by walking straight ahead, knowing only too well that my strength would fail and the moment of respite lapse long before I could reach the landscape I dreamed of, long before my liberation, before I could be sure of having escaped …

Never yet have I taken the train to get away, to breathe a different air, and this shows how deeply I am contaminated, how heavily my will is doped. …


The unities of time and place are further linked as the twelve months that Jacques Revel spends in Bleston correspond to the twelve sections of the city. The narrator is trapped in this urban labyrinth. The struggle against the hostile city which destroys its inhabitants is itself the substance of the plot: Bleston becomes the incarnation of tragic fate. As in La Modification, the strict progression of the plot is combined with a complex “entrelacement” [interweaving], (to use Michel Leiris's term) of memory and images, which expand and evade the tragic unities. The outside world, which in a tragedy is brought into the neutral space of the chamber by means of a narration (Theramenes' account of Hippolytus' death, for example, or Theseus' exploits), in the novel appears in the form of images: the stained glass windows of the Old Cathedral and the tapestries in the museum were made in France; they show the stories of Cain and Theseus. Nature, banned from the industrial city, appears only in its parks, in the gloomy zoological garden, and in the uncanny sculptures of the New Cathedral. Above all, the documentaries which the narrator goes to see so regularly, in the never-ending rain of Bleston, offer a glimpse of lands of sun, but also of the land of tragedy:

un film en couleurs sur la Crète, le lieu d'origine d'Ariane et de Phèdre, l'île du Labyrinthe et du Minotaure, évoquée par la onzième tapisserie du musée …

Ah! qu'il doit fair jour dans ce pays-là. …


a documentary colour-film about Crete, the home of Phaedra and Ariadne, the isle of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, whose story is told on the eleventh tapestry in the Museum …

Day must be bright there. …


These images exacerbate the narrator's hatred for the gloomy city, and they also bring him to superimpose the pattern of tragedy upon his own situation. Likewise, the temporal unity of the twelve months, linear, tragic time, is underscored by an increasingly complex temporal pattern as the narrator attempts to reunite in his diary the past events and the present of his writing. The five months during which he keeps his diary (from 1 May to the day of his departure from Bleston) repeat the five sections of the novel. Thus the struggle against Bleston is identified with the struggle against time, and the will to oppose the blind forces of time with the human forces of reminiscence. Even if tragic linear time, symbolized by the station clock on the last page, wins in the end, the very struggle against linear temporality takes on a tragic form, so that the tragic rule of temporal unity becomes the substance of the narration. The departure of the train seals the tragic hero's defeat. Not only has he lost his two successive loves, Rose and Ann Bailey, not only has he failed to penetrate the hostile city, which remains largely unknown to him,3 but he has failed to close the circle of his narration; the decisive date of 29 February remains forever an enigma, an empty center:

et je n'ai même plus le temps de noter ce qui s'était passé le soir du 29 février, et qui va s'effacer de plus en plus de ma mémoire, tandis que je m'éloignerai de toi, Bleston, l'agonisante, Bleston toute pleine de braises que j'attise, ce qui me paraissait si important à propos du 29 février, puisque la grande aiguille est devenue verticale, et que maintenant mon départ termine cette dernière phrase.


and I haven't even time to set down something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move further away from you, Bleston, as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned, for now the long minute hand stands upright and my departure closes this last sentence.


Thus the very elements which disrupt the tragic unities by incorporating them into the more complex narrative form ultimately serve to reinforce the tragic meaning of the novel, bringing it as close as possible to tragedy.

However, on a more thematic level, the quest for Racinian intertextuality proves at first frustrating, for the reader is constantly lured into paths leading unexpectedly away from what seemed unquestionably Racinian. The novel repeats the pattern of classical tragedy—but perhaps not specifically Racine; it dwells explicitly on themes and stories which only point to one play or another before taking a different turn. The mythological figures to which L'Emploi du temps constantly refers, Oedipus and Theseus, belong not specifically to Racine,4 but also to Sophocles and Euripides, or more generally to mythology. Two figures act as guides in Jacques Revel's enigmatic quest, Theseus and Cain. The narrator identifies his destiny with that of Theseus, while Cain serves as a symbol of Bleston. The two episodes of the myth of Theseus which Jacques Revel singles out as relevant to his own situation are the descent into the Labyrinth and the betrayal of Ariadne, as becomes explicit during his visit to the museum with Lucien Blaise:

Il a écouté avec amusement toutes les explications que je lui fournissais sur chaque épisode, tout en me gardant bien de lui raconter que pour moi désormais Ariane représentait Ann Bailey, que Phèdre représentait Rose, que j'étais moi-même Thésée. …


Lucien listened with amusement as I explained each episode, although I carefully avoided telling him that for me, henceforward, Ariadne represented Ann Bailey, Phaedra was Rose and I myself Theseus. …


Jacques Revel is Theseus and Ann-Ariadne (whom he later betrays by falling in love with her sister Rose) symbolically leads him out of the labyrinth by selling him a map of the city on which the bus lines resemble an entangled ball of threads: “Elle m'a donné la petite feuille couverte en rouge, où le tracé des lignes municipales s'inscrit, semblable à un paquet de ficelles embrouillées …” (40). [She handed me the small sheet bound in red that contains the plan of the municipal bus routes, with all their bifurcations and crossings and the numbers side by side along the same segment, looking like a tangled bundle of string (38–39)].

Cain, on the other hand, is an incarnation of the evil of Bleston, Belli Civitas, city of hatred and war, but he is also, in a more ambiguous sense, an urban allegory, father of the arts and founder of cities. So far, it seems, Racine is but a remote reference. Racine's two biblical tragedies, Esther and Athalie, do not deal with the story of Cain, while Phèdre focuses on a much later episode of the myth of Theseus. Indeed, the tapestries in the museum of Bleston obliterate the topic of the Racinian tragedy, which is mentioned only once, in the complete catalogue of the tapestries (“Phèdre et Hippolyte,” 155), and never described. Therefore, in spite of the overall tragic structure of the novel, the text avoids direct reference to Racine. Racinian intertextuality is indirect: the novel and the play appear related by a common use of certain mythological characters.

But it is precisely at this point that we encounter Racine again, or rather Butor's interpretation of Racine. Butor's essay “Racine et les dieux”5 focuses specifically on Racine's use of mythology. Two themes stand out in the essay, and are also remarkably relevant to the thematic structure of L'Emploi du temps: the theme of blood ties and kin murder, and the theme of the destructive power of the city. Thus we have a kind of intertextual triangle, with the essay “Racine et les dieux” acting as a filter or a catalyst between the novel and the plays. The reference to Racine in the novel appears when read through the essay; Butor's understanding of Racine is inseparable from, and perhaps generated by, the novel.

Because they deal with mythological material, Butor and Racine share the obsession of kinship and blood ties. Jacques Revel's terrible loneliness as a foreigner contrasts sharply with the other major characters (with the exception, of course, of the black man Horace Buck, the epitome of the outcast), who are all set within a strong family frame: the Bailey sisters and their mother, George Burton and his wife, James Jenkins and his mother. Jacques Revel's loneliness is increased by the fact that the reader knows nothing about his past or his family. Revel neither writes letters to nor receives letters from France; he exists only within the limits of Bleston, and the only ties he forms (or fails to form) are with the people of Bleston. But for him, kinship develops on a metaphorical level. With all the male characters, he establishes fraternal relationships. James Jenkins who introduces him to the city is an older brother, a role which Revel later plays for his younger countryman Lucien Blaise. George Burton, another guide, is both a brother (in his quality as a fellow writer) and a father, since he is older and more experienced. Horace Buck is also a brother, and shares with the white foreigner the hatred of Bleston: “ce qui m'unissait à ce nègre, c'était que je retrouvais en lui ma propre haine noire à ton égard, Bleston …” (284) [what bound me to this negro was the fact that I recognised in him my own black hatred towards you, Bleston … (274)].

The intricacy of these family patterns draws the novel closer to tragedy. The relationships between the characters belong less to the novel than to tragedy, where the very closeness of blood ties generates conflict and violence. In L'Emploi du temps, although no real acts of violence are committed,6 the thematic underscore is one of parricide, fratricide and arson. Uniting these crimes is Oedipus, epitome of the tragic hero and origin of the detective novel: in this respect Le Meurtre de Bleston [The Bleston Murder], the novel-within-a-novel that plays such an important role in the development of events, is an intertextual crossroads, interweaving parricide and fratricide like the Oedipus myth. It tells the story of a fratricide, thus allowing simultaneously a detective clue (the “real” murder of Richard Tenn's brother) and an esthetic clue (Cain's Window, symbol of Bleston). But it also points to the metaphorical fratricide of which Revel becomes guilty by betraying Hamilton's identity and exposing him to death. According to George Burton's theory, the murder is fratricide; the investigation amounts to parricide:

tout roman policier est bâti sur deux meurtres dont le premier, commis par l'assassin, n'est que l'occasion du second dans lequel il est la victime du meurtrier pur et impunissable, du détective qui le met à mort … par l'explosion de la vérité.


Any detective story is constructed on two murders of which the first, committed by the criminal, is only the occasion of the second, in which he is the victim of the pure, unpunishable murderer, the detective, who kills him … by the explosion of truth.


The theme of fratricide, illustrated by Cain, is interwoven into the theme of parricide whose symbol is Oedipus: “Le détective est le fils du meurtrier, Oedipe, non seulement parce qu'il résout une énigme, mais aussi parce qu'il tue celui à qui il doit son titre …” (148). [The detective is the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title … (p. 145)]. Ultimately (and not unexpectedly) Oedipus seems to become the father of Cain, as the sixteenth-century bishop who commissioned Cain's Window, beaten and chained to his throne under the window by the angry crowd, becomes blind after the riot (80; 78).

The entanglement of biblical mythology and Greek mythology dominates the whole question of Racinian intertextuality. Like paths in a labyrinth, intertextual lines lead into one another and are active only by their interplay. Thus Racine is unquestionably an essential reference, but indirectly, as the biblical figure of Cain points to his Greek Thébaïde. Racinian intertextuality is indirect. The figure of Theseus points indirectly to Phèdre, Cain's Window is an indirect reference to La Thébaïde. What Butor writes about Hector's function in Andromaque may be said also of Oedipus in La Thébaïde, and ultimately of Racine in L'Emploi du temps: “on pourrait prétendre que dans Andromaque, c'est l'ombre d'Hector qui, avec la complicité du dieu Amour, décide de tout en inspirant son épouse fidèle Andromaque” (“Racine et les dieux,” 35). [One could claim that, in Andromache, it is Hector's ghost who, in complicity with the god Eros, decides everything by inspiring his faithful wife Andromache]. The power of Racinian tragedy as an indirect intertextual reference for Butor's novel mirrors Racine's own dramatic use of invisible characters.

The compelling closeness of blood ties, real in tragedy as in mythology, is metaphorical in the novel, thus allowing greater freedom for mythological contaminatio. With respect to Racinian intertextuality, contaminatio, operates on two distinct levels. On the one hand, the Bible and Greek mythology are blended together. The sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel mirrors the hatred between Eteocles and Polyneices; Oedipus begets Cain. The stained glass window acts as a labyrinthine reference to La Thébaïde. The second level of contaminatio remains within Greek mythology alone, forming two couples: Theseus and Oedipus, for one, and Phaedra and Persephone. The basis for the first association is the theme of parricide and fire:

Que de similitudes, en effect, rapprochent ces deux enfants trompés sur leur naissance et sur leur race, élevés loin de leur ville natale, tous deux tuant les monstres qui en infestaient les abords, tous deux résolvant des énigmes, libérant la voie, tous deux meurtriers de leur père (Thésée, non par le fer, mais par la négligence, bien plus coupable à la vérité …) (…) tous les deux obtenant ainsi une royauté précaire, tous les deux chassés finalement de leur trône, assistant à l'embrasement de leur ville. …


Their destinies indeed had much in common; each was brought up in ignorance of his birth and race, far from his native city; each slew the monsters that threatened that city, cleared a road, solved riddles; and each killed his father (Theseus not with the sword but through negligence, which was far more criminal indeed … and each by this means won a precarious throne, each at last was driven from this throne, each witnessed his city in flames. …


This again leads back to the detective novel and to Revel's own “crime”: “George William Burton … que j'ai failli tuer par négligence” (175) [whom I have nearly killed through negligence” (171)].

The confusion between Phaedra and Persephone (“Rose, ma Perséphone, ma Phèdre, ma Rose qui s'est ouverte dans ce marais de paralysie et de gaz lourds …” [208]) [Rose, my Persephone, my Phaedra, my Rose blossoming in this marshland, amongst its creeping miasmas … (203)] brings us closer to Racine, for the two episodes of the rape of Persephone and the labyrinth are the ones highlighted by Racine in the crucial scene between Phaedra and Hippolytus. The identification of Rose Bailey with Persephone (no longer, as before, with Phaedra) results from the obvious identification of Bleston with hell,7 but above all, it echoes Phaedra's own delirious contaminatio. Why, indeed, does Phaedra choose the rape of Persephone, the one episode in which her husband was not unfaithful to her, since he only acted as an accomplice of Pirithous (Phèdre, III, 5, 957–59)? A strange choice, in the wide array of Theseus' love affairs, “non point tel que l'ont vu les Enfers …” [not the man that Hell has claimed]8: since Theseus' death has not been confirmed at this stage of the play, Phaedra's use of the passé composé is the equivalent of wishful thinking, especially when opposed to the “tel que je vous voi.” By substituting Theseus for Pirithous, by associating them in guilt, she is indeed sentencing him to death (“Et l'avare Achéron ne lâche point sa proie”; [Harsh Acheron is grasping and holds fast his prey]), and preparing the final, and delirious, contaminatio:

Il avait votre port, vos yeux, votre langage,
Cette noble pudeur colorait son visage,
Lorsque de notre Crète il traversa les flots,
Digne sujet des voeux des filles de Minos.
Que faisiez-vous alors? Pourquoi sans Hippolyte
Des héros de la Grèce assembla-t-il l'élite?
Pourquoi, trop jeune encor, ne pûtes-vous alors
Entrer dans le vaisseau qui le mit sur nos bords?
Par vous aurait péri le monstre de la Crète,
Malgré tous les détours de sa vaste retraite.
Pour en développer l'embarras incertain,
Ma soeur du fil fatal eût armé votre main.
Mais non, dans ce dessein je l'aurais devancée:
L'amour m'en eût d'abord inspiré la pensée.
C'est moi, Prince, c'est moi dont l'utile secours
Vous eût du Labyrinthe enseigné les détours.
Que de soins m'eût coûtés cette tête charmante!
Un fil n'eût point assez rassuré votre amante.
Compagne du péril qu'il vous fallait chercher,
Moi-même devant vous j'aurais voulu marcher;
Et Phèdre au Labyrinthe avec vous descendue
Se serait avec vous retrouvée, ou perdue.

[Phèdre, II, 5]

… those eyes, that voice, were his,
That generous red of virtue in your cheek,
When first he drove across the Cretan foam,
Meet meditation for the virgin dreams
Of Minos' daughters. You, where were you then
Among the flower and chivalry of Greece?
Where was Hippolytus—alas, too young—
The day his vessel grounded on our shore?
You would have slain the terror of the island,
The monster lapped in labyrinthine wiles;
Into your hand my sister would have thrust,
To unweave those riddling and deceitful ways,
The thread of life and death. But no, she would not—
Love would have found a readier wit in me,
And I, Prince, I, devoted and assured,
Could have resolved the devious Labyrinth;
What would I not have done for that sweet head?
How could a thread content your fearful lover?
Half-claimant in the peril that you claimed
I would have walked before you in the way,
And Phaedra, steadfast in the Labyrinth,
Would have returned again with you, or else
With you remained.

The father is replaced by the son, the elder sister by the younger sister; finally the thread is eliminated as Phaedra goes into the labyrinth herself, that is, the labyrinth is contaminated with the descent to hell. Past and present have become indistinguishable; chronological order and genealogical order have been subverted into a labyrinth. Mythological contaminatio is intimately related to the mental disorder created by incestuous desire. Mythological disorder is the sign and the language of incest, which disrupts the order of desire. Phaedra's speech is a labyrinth through which she leads the horrified Hippolytus to his death. Sister of the Minotaur, Phaedra is herself a labyrinth, as is shown by the image of the poison circulating through her veins, and the long descent to hell:

J'ai voulu, devant vous exposant mes remords,
Par un chemin plus long descendre chez les morts.
J'ai pris, j'ai fait couler dans mes brûlantes veines
Un poison que Médée apporta dans Athènes.

[Phèdre, V, 7]

I chose the slower path. I chose to pour
Into your ears before I joined the dead
The chronicle of my remorse. I have drained
And mingled with my burning blood a draught
Medea left in Athens.

Therefore, Rose Bailey, the Blestonian Phaedra, also carries a labyrinthine allusion to Racine's Phèdre: although she is formally associated with the early episodes of the myth (Revel-Theseus' betrayal of the elder sister and love of the younger sister), she points to the later part of the myth, the incestuous love on which Racine's play is based. Initially attracted to Jacques Revel, Rose Bailey falls in love with Lucien Blaise, suggesting a new identification of the young Frenchman with Hippolytus. For his countryman, Revel is thus, metaphorically, both a brother and a father, a genealogical monstrosity characterizing not Theseus, but Oedipus: these two mythological figures, however, are explicitly related through the tapestries which show the encounter of the heroes. Revel's interpretation of the encounter between Theseus and Oedipus substitutes its original political and religious meaning, as found in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, with a thematic identification based on parricide. Lucien Blaise's role is to extend the identification to the theme of incest: the complexities and paradoxes of Oedipus' genealogy indirectly contaminate that of Theseus. The shifting couples of L'Emploi du temps (Revel and Ann, Revel and Rose, Rose and Lucien) hold up a complex set of mirrors to their intertextual counterparts. Butor's treatment of intertextuality aims at creating a labyrinth in which references and models lead endlessly into one another. “Phaedra and Hippolytus”: significantly, this tapestry, which could allow for a direct acknowledgement of Racinian intertextuality, remains undescribed. Instead, the reader is led through indirect paths in which mythological heroes and tragic references open into one another. Oedipus' oblique genealogy (a junction between fatherhood and brotherhood, between the verticality of the genealogical tree and the horizontality of the fraternal link) becomes the very image of intertextuality as an indirect relationship to the model: the law of intertextuality is a kind of contaminatio, neither a direct influence—a relationship to the past, a paternal relationship expressed in terms of inheritance—nor a simple parallel development, a fraternal relationship by which two works would bear a resemblance.

Intertextuality, like the city itself, offers an infinite number of crossroads. Jacques Revel, the narrator, reader of the city, decipherer of the tapestries and of the stained glass window, is cast as the master of the labyrinth. It is he who weaves references together, and who brings together the separate groups of characters.9 The final encounter at the Burtons', in which the newly formed couple and their hosts are symbolically reflected in the living room mirror, bears witness to Revel's paradoxical situation as a unifying outsider. As all the characters embodying his different visions of Bleston finally come together, Revel, whose reflection appears “tout près du bord, minuscule” (287) [close to the edge, a tiny image (276)], is the only one left out.10 The unified city locks him out. All of Revel's attempts at breaking the spell of Bleston by linking the separate aspects of it prove to be against him in the end. Sophocles' Theseus is a unifying power; he offers Oedipus a reconstitution of integrity, a political redemption for his personal disintegration. Theseus, by adopting Aricie, puts an end to the cycle of Racine's mythological tragedies which had begun with an expulsion (Oedipus expelled from Thebes). But Revel is simultaneously Theseus and Oedipus: he unifies the city through the “thread” of his writing, but by excluding himself in the process, like Oedipus.

In the overwhelming power of the city we see another aspect of Racinian intertextuality. Revel's battle against Bleston is a modern transposition of the tragic hero's struggle against the gods, which is Butor's interpretation of Racinian tragedy. Butor's essay “Racine et les dieux” radicalizes the tragic question of divine justice and human guilt by defining tragedy as a blasphemy against the gods: “L'un des thèmes fondamentaux du théâtre racinien, et l'un de ceux sans doute par lesquels nous pouvons le mieux y pénétrer, est la haine des dieux, ou si l'on préfère le blasphème” (29). [One of the essential themes of Racinian theater, and one which undoubtedly best enables us to penetrate it, is that of the hatred of the gods, or in other words blasphemy].

Revel is ultimately overcome by the evil power of the city, even if the heroic and hopeless struggle is a victory in itself. “L'homme innocent se trouve le jouet des dieux coupables; il ne peut leur répondre que par un défi dans lequel il atteint à sa plus haute existence” (32). [The innocent man is the toy of the guilty gods; he can answer them only in a challenge by which he attains his highest existence]. Revel's diary, although conceived as a way of making sense of the city and dominating it, ironically turns against him. Revel is cursed with the tragic hero's blindness: Rose's engagement to Lucien and Ann's engagement to James Jenkins, which take him completely by surprise, cast a bitter doubt on the validity of his diary as an instrument for interpreting reality: “J'avais l'impression que du même coup toutes ces pages venaient de tomber en poussière. A quoi bon maintenant continuer cet immense, cet absurde effort pour y voir clair, qui ne m'a servi qu'à mieux me perdre?” (189). [And I felt at the same time that all these pages had crumbled to dust. What is the good, now, of pursuing this immense, absurd attempt to see things clearly, which has only served to ruin me more utterly? (184–85)].

Indeed, this very diary, conceived as a weapon against Bleston's deadly lethargy, is ironically what makes the narrator ultimately vulnerable to his enemy, by leading him further into solitude. After he buys the sheets of paper he does not see Ann again (199, 194). On one crucial evening, he chooses to come home to his diary, leaving Rose with Lucien: “[Lucien] m'a quitté pour aller retrouver les Bailey, me proposant de l'accompagner (et moi, stupide, refusant pour venir m'enfermer ici devant ces feuilles blanches)” (169). [Lucien went off to see the Baileys, inviting me to accompany him; I, like a fool, refused, choosing rather to closet myself with these blank pages (165)].

Revel's diary opposes a wall of words to the dirty brick walls of Bleston,11 shielding him against the coldness of the city, but also against any possible happiness. The diary, in which he is just as hopelessly trapped, becomes a replica of the sordid labyrinth of Bleston. His imprecations against the city, like those concluding Racine's Bérénice, are the only victory granted the tragic hero. As Butor puts it in “Racine et les dieux”:

Il ne reste plus à nos deux héros qu'à admettre leur sort et à se lamenter. Soulignons le fait que rien ne peut leur interdire cette lamentation. Les dieux peuvent exiger l'obéissance, mais leur pouvoir doit s'incliner devant celui de la parole.


Our two heroes can only accept their fate and weep. Let us emphasize the fact that nothing can forbid them this lamentation. The gods may command submission, but their power must yield to the power of speech.

But in Bérénice, the power that destroys the happiness of Racine's heroes is not the injustice of abstract “gods,” but the very real pressure of Rome, which will not accept Bérénice for an empress: here the resemblance between novel and tragedy is no longer simply metaphorical. What Butor reads in, or into, Racine, is the incarnation of divine power into the city. The essay on “Racine et les dieux” shows the abstract force of the gods being incarnated into an increasingly personified power which takes the form of urbs, the city, the “goddess Rome.” Thus, in Britannicus, Nero will ultimately suffer punishment for his sin against “ce dieu qu'est Rome” [this god, Rome] (“Racine et les dieux,” 39). Bérénice goes one step further:

Dans Britannicus, nous avons vu que Rome exprimait son refus violemment par les mille poignards de ce peuple qui se soulève pour protéger Junie, dans Bérénice, tout s'intériorise; c'est dans le silence de son appartement que Titus entend la voix de Rome lui interdire son mariage.


We saw in Britannicus that Rome violently expressed its refusal by the thousand daggers of the people rebelling in order to protect Junie, but in Bérénice, everything is interiorized; it is in the silence of his chamber that Titus hears the voice of Rome prohibiting his marriage.

The city, human embodiment of the tragic gods, precludes human happiness by forbidding the marriage: this explains Jacques Revel's denial of love.

Je me retenais pour ne pas m'approcher d'elle, pour ne pas trop laisser transparaître le plaisir que j'éprouve à la regarder, à lui parler, l'intérêt qu'elle m'inspire de plus en plus, cet intérêt qu'elle pourrait fort bien interpréter, si je n'y prenais pas garde, comme une sorte de passion, ce qu'il n'est pas, ce qu'il ne doit pas être, cet intérêt qui pourrait fort bien, si je n'y prends garde, se transformer en une véritable passion; heureusement, elle ne s'en doute pas encore; je crois que nous passerons le cap sans encombre.


I restrained myself from drawing near her, from showing too clearly the pleasure I find in looking at her and speaking to her, the increasing interest she inspires in me, an interest that she might easily interpret, if I were not careful, as a sort of passion, which it is not and must not be, an interest which might easily, if I am not careful, become a genuine passion; fortunately she suspects nothing yet; I think we shall round the cape in safety.


Indeed, this mysterious self-denial, never explained, becomes understandable in the light of Racinian intertextuality: “moi, volontairement, je les néglige, j'évite cette Rose dont le parfum me tente et m'entête, cette Rose qui parle maintenant si délicieusement français” (149). [I deliberately neglect them now, I shun Rose with her teasing fragrance and her pretty way of speaking French” (146)].

After Rose is lost to Lucien, Revel writes in desperation: “je me défendais de l'aimer” (194). The self-imposed interdiction is the interiorized voice of Bleston, which once more intervenes in human feelings by condemning the narrator's attempt to rescue his former love. The closed restaurant where Revel superstitiously reads the doom of his romance with Ann is much more than a symbol of lost opportunity; the city itself is actively opposing the hero.

C'est un simple retard auquel je n'ai que trop tendance à attacher de l'importance; mais ce serait jouer le jeu de la ville qui veut m'empêcher de vous atteindre, vous qui devez redevenir mon Ariane (oh! j'ai bien reconnu sa ruse!). …


It is only a postponement, the importance of which I tend to overestimate, thus playing into the hands of Bleston, which is trying to keep me from you (I recognise its wiles!), from you who must become Ariadne for me once again …


Ironically, the narrator convinces himself that it is more important to resume the writing in his diary than to spend the evening with Ann—and he writes about the documentary on “imperial Rome.” The Racinian reference casts Revel as a parody of Titus, since his sacrifice is not rewarded by an empire, but rather, by a loss of love he loses even the right to remain in the city. Therefore the self-denial of love amounts to a misinterpretation of the tragic conflict: far from awarding him the mastery of Bleston, the useless sacrifice seals the doom of the outcast. Revel's failure is twofold: he fails as a lover, and as a writer, since he fails to close the circle of his diary. His writing becomes an alternative to his staying in the city—ultimately he is expelled as a narrator. Revel's fate, in this sense, is more tragic than Titus', and comes closer to that of Mithridate, which combines the themes of the outsider and of incest. “C'est peut-être dans Mithridate que l'aspect religieux de la ville de Rome, que sa relation avec les dieux apparaît de la façon la plus explicite” (“Racine et les dieux,” 47) [Perhaps the religious aspect of the city of Rome, its relationship to the gods, appears most explicitly in Mithridates].

Like Revel, Mithridates is an outsider, an enemy of a city which he vainly attempts to resist. The overwhelming power of Rome “apparaît comme une fatalité” over which victory is impossible to the extent that the planned war does not take place, just as in L'Emploi du temps, Revel's narration is a year-long preparation of a decisive clash, or revelation, which does not happen. Mithridates is defeated, Butor writes, “parce que la dissension est dans son camp,” caused by the triangular rivalry around Monime. The competition for the same woman between the brothers and the father bears a close resemblance to Revel's amorous competition, tinged with the tragic themes of incest, parricide and fratricide. The intertwining of rivalry and war ultimately crushes the hero before the city he had hoped to conquer. Mithridates' failure as a lover causes his defeat as a warrior. In Revel's case the betrayal of love becomes the very sign of his defeat against the city.

Racinian intertextuality permeates the novel through the double identification of Bleston with Athens and with Rome. Rome, however, is not only Urbs, the imperial city of Antiquity, but also the center of Catholicism. Racinian rebellion against the gods, in Butor's view, ultimately extends to blasphemy against Catholicism. Mithridates' protest against Rome, whose destiny “is so linked to the establishment of the Catholic religion, as was perfectly felt, not only throughout the Middle Ages, but also under the reign of Louis XIV” (50), echoes the protest against the cruelty of human sacrifice in Iphigenia:

Dans l'esprit du spectateur nourri d'histoire sainte, un tel thème ne peut manquer de réveiller certains souvenirs: celui du sacrifice d'Isaac par Abraham pour commencer, mais aussi, plus sournoisement, celui d'un autre sacrifice humain dont celui-ci, selon les Pères, était la figure, et qui, non seulement se commémore, mais, nous assure le dogme catholique, se renouvelle, se perpétue chaque jour sur les autels de toutes les églises. Le caractère extrêmement scabreux de ce meurtre n'a certes pas échappé à Racine.


In the mind of the spectator, impregnated with sacred history, such a theme cannot fail to evoke certain memories: first of all Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, but also, more insidiously, another human sacrifice of which, according to the Fathers of the Church, it was the figure, a sacrifice which not only is commemorated, but, Catholic dogma assures us, is perpetuated every day on the altar of every church. Racine was certainly not unaware of the extremely shocking connotations of this murder.

Indeed, Butor calls the Jewish god in Athalie “singulièrement cruel, singulièrement sanguinaire et retors” (59) [uncommonly cruel, uncommonly bloody and wily].

Butor sees in Racine a violent anti-Catholic attack, to the extent that it caused the poet's downfall by the failure of his two most scandalous plays, Phèdre and Athalie (60). This interpretation appears to have an obvious thematic link with the two novels contemporary to the essay, in which the failure of the characters is in part due to their rejection of religion. Both for Delmont in La Modification and for Revel in L'Emploi du temps personal failure is associated with cultural incomprehension. Delmont fails (indeed, refuses) to acknowledge the Catholic heritage of Rome; Revel, under the misleading influence of an insufficient guide, George Burton, fails to understand the beauty and meaning of the New Cathedral.12 Symbolically, he loses Ann to James Jenkins, the grandson of the New Cathedral's sculptor.

Thus the unifying thread in Butor's interpretation of Racine (rebellion against divinity, incarnated both in ancient mythology and in the City's oppressive power) becomes itself an object of interpretation in the novel. Revel's tragic flaw, culminating in existential failure, is hermeneutical deficiency, a lack of intertextual awareness.

Butor's analysis of Racinian “blasphemy” ultimately stresses the necessity to translate and superimpose references. Mythology, as Butor interprets it, is a metaphor; Racine is cast as a translator, both literally and figuratively.13 The status of Racinian intertextuality in L'Emploi du temps corresponds to a major concern of Butor's work: the necessity for the artist of dealing with the “mythological disorder” of our age, caused by the encounter of civilizations.14 Greek mythology in Racine's plays, says Butor, is a metaphor for Christian faith; meaning is disclosed within a maze of echoes and mirrors. Revel's struggle is a hermeneutic attempt to grasp the city's meaning, fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle. In Butor's work, writes Roland Barthes, “c'est en essayant entre eux les fragments d'événements que le sens naît”15 [it is by trying together the fragments of events that meaning is created].

The dialogue between mythology and Christianity in Racine is continued and amplified in the novel by the dialogue between mythological and biblical allusions; references to Racine are one of the paths of the intertextual labyrinth which the reader, following the hero, must explore, but without the hope of emerging from it like Theseus, for the labyrinth of meaning is infinite. In Passing Time, as in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, “real” references (Racine, for example) and “fictitious” references (The Bleston Murder, Cain's Window, the Theseus tapestries) interact on the same level and become indistinguishable, endlessly creating “des champs de métaphores réciproques”16 [fields of reciprocal metaphors].


  1. Michel Leiris, “Le Réalisme mythologique de Michel Butor.” Postface to La Modification (Paris: Minuit, Collection 10/18, 1957), 290–91.

  2. Michel Butor, L'Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1957), 158; English translation by Jean Stewart, Passing Time (London: 1961), 154.

  3. The narrator never finds the time to visit Saint Jude and the neighboring synagogue until it is too late (263; 254).

  4. Oedipus represents the beginning (La Thébaïde) and Theseus the end (Phèdre) of Racine's mythological tragedy.

  5. “Racine et les dieux” [Racine and the gods], Répertoire (Paris: Minuit, 1960). Translations of this essay will be mine. It is interesting to note that the dates of the essay and the novel (1960, 1957) are very close. Pages references will henceforth be cited in the text.

  6. The only bloody acts are the fictitious murder in the detective novel, and the subsequent attempted murder of the author himself, which may after all be only an accident: surprisingly few crimes indeed, for a big industrial city.

  7. The identification of Rose to Persephone may also be related to the organizing principle of the novel: as Persephone spends six months in Hell and six months on earth, so, in Revel's diary, the date of narration and the date of the event itself are often separated by six months. Thus writing becomes the metaphorical equivalent of a return from Hell—which leads us back to Ariadne's thread.

  8. Phaedra, in Jean Racine: Four Greek Plays, translated by R. C. Knight (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  9. Another resemblance to Theseus, the mythical unifier of Attica.

  10. With the exception, again, of Horace Buck. The horrified expression on James Jenkins's face when Revel introduces him to his black friend (284; 273) attests to the irreparable cleavage of the city along racial lines, in addition to foreshadowing Revel's own destiny as an outcast.

  11. A later essay in Répertoire V bears the title “La Ville comme texte.”

  12. In this respect, the fact that Revel “forgets” to visit Saint Jude and the Jewish neighborhood is to be interpreted as another symbol of his cultural limitations: he fails to take into account the Jewish element of Bleston's soul.

  13. By contrast, the insistence on Revel's incapacity to master English shows him to be an antimodel.

  14. “Le roman et la poésie,” Répertoire II (Paris: Minuit, 1964), 17.

  15. “Littérature et discontinu,” Essais critiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 186. Translation mine.

  16. “Les Oeuvres d'art imaginaires chez Proust,” Répertoire II, 268.

Mary Beth Pringle (essay date winter 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3447

SOURCE: Pringle, Mary Beth. “Fictions in Fiction: Henriette and Cécile in Michel Butor's A Change of Heart.International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 26–31.

[In the following essay, Pringle evaluates La Modification from a feminist perspective, noting that the male protagonist's perceptions of two lead female characters prevents readers from extensively engaging with these characters.]

While over time a novel stays the same, we, its readers, change. Ten years ago as a student, when I first wrote about Michel Butor's La Modification, 1957 (A Change of Heart) my paper differed greatly from the one that follows. In those days I enjoyed the optimism of having most of my career and personal life before me. I believed (as only someone who had written many essay exams on the subject could) that good men repeatedly face an existentially crazy world, and I was adept at keeping separate my feminist and non-feminist criticism. Léon Delmont, I wrote in that paper, dwells in a chaotic world off the train. During a journey between Paris and Rome, he bravely faces issues of values and life-style. He decides not to bring his Roman mistress, Cécile, to live with him in Paris and not to separate from his longtime wife, Henriette. Although I noted that Léon's decision seems to him “morally and psychologically healthy,” I added—sorrowfully accepting Léon's view of his problem—that it condemns him “to what may be a dissatisfying existence in Paris with Henriette.”1

Now, like Léon Delmont, I am in my forties. I am no longer required to imagine the problems of middle age. I am middle aged and I realize I've changed my view of Léon's middle-aged crisis. There are at least two reasons why. One is that time has freed me from student status. I no longer study under male professors whose views, even without urging, I felt compelled to reflect. Another is that I've made peace with having a sex-linked perspective on what I read. To deepen that peace, however, I've looked again at works by male writers, to “re-vision”—as Judith Fetterley puts it in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction—their meanings.2

Such a revisioning of A Change of Heart begins with a comment made by Butor himself during a lecture at Macalester college in St. Paul. Commenting on narrative perspective in A Change of Heart, Butor mentioned the objections of French feminists to his use of second-person narration. Feminist critics had felt, he said, coerced to accept Léon's perspective on the world and they doubly resented the obviousness and force of a coercion usually expressed in more subtle terms. Recognizing that I had implicitly accepted Delmont's assessments of Henriette and Cécile, I wanted to study the characters again. Since I could not encounter them except through Léon Delmont, what could I learn about these two women? Hardly anything, I realized, as my first rereading reminded me that my gaze is perforce Léon's. Though wife and lover are the source of Léon's angst, Léon knows shockingly little about Henriette to whom he has long been married. He knows even less about Cécile in whom he professes to be passionately interested. Butor's art lies in revealing Léon's ignorance of his primary intimate contacts and his ability to blithely make judgments about these women's desires and motivations. Such judgments are pure “Léon—limited by his obsession with himself—and reflect his fear of aging, his assumption that women are either saints or whores, his horror of being alone, and his inability to be intimate with either woman. And he does more than make judgments about Henriette and Cécile. He literally creates these two dismal characters. In the process, he reveals himself to be not only self-absorbed but lacking inner resources. Such a reading is a far cry from the typical: Martin Seymour-Smith sees Léon coming to “tragic self-awareness.”3 Jerrold Lanes describes Léon as “Everyman” whose “destination takes on the character of a collective destiny.”4 Martin Price claims “in Blake's words, the eye sees more than the heart knows, but the heart [Léon's]—as use of the second person seems to imply—is one which commands great sympathy.”5 One wonders whether Butor today regards his hero as a tragic figure or as a perennial adolescent, selfishly rationalizing his conduct and giving his obsessions human form, or as both. Proof that Léon thinks he has matured on his trip is the book he smugly pledges to write. It will, he claims, “bring to life in the form of literature, this crucial episode in your experience, the movement that went on in your mind while your body was being transferred from one station to another.”6 Such a reading argues for a “change of heart” where none seems to me to have occurred.

That Léon fears aging, even yearns to be a child again, is a dominant motif in A Change of Heart. Having hurried to board the train to Rome, Léon is terrified of the muscle strain he feels from having toted his suitcase through the station. To himself he mourns, “No, it's not merely the comparative earliness of the hour that makes you feel so unusually feeble, it's age, already trying to convince you of its domination over your body, although you have only just passed your forty-fifth birthday” (313). Frightened of aging, Léon even resents the birthday party Henriette and his children have thrown in his honor, “the whole scene set to convince you that henceforth you were an elderly man, sobered and tamed” (338). Léon's desire to become a child again is especially apparent when he's around Cécile. On his first visit to her apartment Cécile butters his toast and “once again … [he] felt as timid as a youngster” (413). In fact, Léon sees in Cécile a way to avoid growing old. He “would find that peaceful respite in her eyes, in her walk, in her arms, that leisure, that renewed youth, those fresh horizons” (489).

Léon so wants to be a child that he projects onto Cécile the role of “good mother” and eventually that of “bad mother.” As good mother Cécile is always delighted to see him, patiently tends to his needs, and understands why he can't immediately separate from Henriette. Once Léon needs to distance himself from her though, he fixates on the disappearance of the qualities he once loved. When, for example, Léon is late for an appointment with Cécile, he notes that she is “very annoyed because she had got everything ready for … [him], tea and toast and so on, since [he] … had told her the night before that [he] … might like that” (421). Thereafter, Cécile's mothering doesn't have a restorative effect: Léon “felt her stroke [his] … head, which is already growing a little bald” (430).

When Léon wants to assign responsibility for his aging though, he blames Henriette. Contrasted with “good mother” Cécile's “life-giving power” (472), Henriette is described as “lifeless,” as being “that prying corpse from whom you would have parted long ago but for the children” (340–41). In sleep Henriette looks to Léon as if she's a body being prepared to lie in state: “… poor Henriette asleep on the other side of the bed, her graying hair spread out on the pillow, her mouth a little open, separated from you by an impassable river of linen” (343). Henriette's aging, in Léon's mind, infects him. He sees her as “all that prohibited [him] … from starting life afresh, from sloughing off the old man which [he is] … fast becoming” (392).

Cécile, on the other hand, embodies in Léon's mind youthful beauty. Unlike Henriette, Cécile has “jet-black snaking tresses” (387). On the train Léon conjures an early morning vision of Cécile, opening her windows to the morning sun, “tossing back her still-uncombed hair” (356). The image Léon has of Cécile's apartment abounds with freshness, comfort, color: a divan where two can comfortably lounge and “flowers that are always so fresh and so varied” (356). Unlike the grayish Henriette depicted by Léon, Cécile wears colorful clothes, “a wide-pleated, violet-and-crimson patterned dress,” a “dark emerald-green corduroy suit.” Léon perceives that Cécile's excitement about life reflects in her face making it quiver “like the wind tossing a cluster of gladioli” (357). When Léon is in Rome with Cécile, he, too, feels youthful, as if he's “still young enough in spirit to be able to make good use of [money] … in a wonderful life of adventure” (352–53). Léon and Cécile stroll through Rome like young lovers, “[his] … arm around her waist or over her shoulders” (353).

Léon's fear of aging is hardly unique. His method of dealing with it is not unusual either. Far from being a model of heroism and “tragic self-awareness,” Léon—beginning to end—deludes himself into romanticizing his self-imposed isolation. His failure to become truly (not sexually) intimate with Henriette or Cécile results from his lack of interest in the reality of either woman. Léon's preoccupation is in what females represent in his life, their embodiment of his fantasies. Nor are his fantasies interesting. Rather Léon accepts the easy adolescent male stereotype of woman as angel or whore.

Take Henriette, for instance. On one level Léon cavils at her for being old and boring and suspicious; on another he perceives her to be angelic, a saint. Léon's saintly Henriette could not serve her man more dutifully nor suffer the pain he inflicts more patiently. She is the perfect spouse. She arises at dawn to fix him cafe au lait before he sets out to visit his mistress. She keeps his wardrobe well stocked and serves hot meals promptly. The children appear sane and healthy, no thanks, Léon admits, to himself. She never complains when he leaves; when he returns she greets him at the door and waits for a kiss. She is, in Léon's mind, as faithful as Penelope: Thinking about his next return home, Léon imagines Henriette “waiting for [him] … and sewing” (448). The possibility is even posed—“[Y]ou'll realize then that you're in the bedroom, that she's lying in bed sewing, that it's late, that you're tired after your journey, that it's raining outside” (449)—that Léon still accepts sex from Henriette although he professes to despise her. To cement his depiction of Henriette as saint, Léon allows that his wife is comfortable with a religious upbringing that “she makes no attempt to shake off” (463). Though he first refers to her faith in negative terms, calling it “bourgeois,” Léon, the sinner, eventually imagines begging forgiveness from his saintly wife: “I promise you, Henriette, as soon as we can, we'll come back to Rome [to see the Vatican you love] together, as soon as the waves of this perturbation have died down, as soon as you've forgiven me.” Appropriately he adds, “[W]e won't be so very old” (560).

Although Léon worships Cécile's youthful beauty, in a subtext he reveals his view of her as whore. Besides being willing to participate in Léon's adultery, the “bad Cécile” created by Léon tempts him into sinning. When Léon first meets Cécile on a train, she is wearing “a bright red dress cut low over her sun-tanned bosom … her lips were painted almost violet” (365). Significantly, Cécile carries a black handbag (366) and travels third class (371). Léon's behavior related to Cécile, down to the smallest detail, confirms his hidden assumptions about her character and sexuality. On his present trip to Rome he selects “the silky stuff of the purple pajamas which [he] … carefully picked out last night for Cécile's benefit from among the variegated elegance of [his] bedroom wardrobe” (329). Not surprisingly, Léon's “whorish” Cécile has little use for the Catholic church with its uncompromising view of adultery. Léon professes to agree with her: “[S]he hates popes and priests as much as you do, and in a far more virulent and emphatic way than you (and that's one reason why you love her so much) …” (463). Later, however, he refrains from religious discussions with Cécile, “knowing that she would refuse to understand, through fear of contagion” (454). Although he would doubtlessly deny having done so, Léon treats Cécile in ways that suggest he sees her as little more than a prostitute. Trying to decide where Cécile might live once he brings her to Paris, Léon considers putting her in a “servant's room” close to his home. Once Léon refers to taking Cécile on a “pseudohoneymoon” (414). And always Léon feels the purifying guilt of a man who consorts with whores. On the way home to Paris after a tryst in Rome with Cécile, Léon reports feeling discomfort at facing a photograph from the Sistine chapel, hanging in his train compartment. It is of a “damned soul trying to hide his eyes” (394).

But Henriette and Cécile are absent from the novel in another way. Léon perceives each woman as embodying the values he assigns to the city in which she lives. Henriette is Paris, and Paris for Léon means family and work. The acceptance of responsibility which each implies is a hallmark of maturity, and Léon accepts neither. Traveling from Rome to Paris, Léon thinks of his family and reports feeling as if he “lost ground with every mile” (439). Too, he is ambivalent about his job selling typewriters. Although he says he despises it, he concedes to himself, “practically the whole of your time is taken up by your profession, even when you leave Paris for some place other than Rome” (352). When in Rome to work Léon is tied to Paris and Henriette. Both are represented by the hotel Albergo Quirinale, a French-style inn where he is served by “smiling obsequious servants” (450). It is “as Cécile noticed … a sort of citadel of Henriette's within Rome” (434).

Meanwhile, Cécile, connected with “Rome, brilliant Rome” (341) not including the Vatican, embodies childlike freedom from responsibility. Léon admits that when “[he] dream[s] of Cécile [he is] … also dreaming of Rome” (360). In Léon's mind Rome—and therefore Cécile—is a “secret,” a “surprise” (343). Rome is where Léon “felt genuine” (435). Compared to Paris with its connection to work and family responsibility, Rome makes Léon feel free “as in the days before [he] … assumed [his] … responsibilities, before [he] … really became successful” (342). In fact Rome is the only place Léon allows himself to take a break from work, which he describes as “a game … that might destroy you utterly like a vice, but which hasn't done so, since today you're free, since you're going to find your freedom, which is called Cécile [in Rome]]” (352). Gradually, as Léon's disenchantment with Cécile grows, he acknowledges that “it is now certain that you really love Cécile in so far as she represents Rome to you” (518). He even vows to memorialize that connection in the book he plans to write. In it Cécile “would appear in her full beauty, adorned with the glory of Rome which is so perfectly reflected in her” (558). The irony here is that a book, another object, will only confirm the absence of a real Cécile. She is a void into which the desperately disconnected Léon pours meaning.

Léon's first problem, the root of his maturity, is that he has no identity apart from his connection to these two women, and he knows little about either one. A second problem is that he can't bear to be alone. Paris and Rome are the sites of his isolation and he struggles desperately to fill each with female company and, therefore, his life with meaning. Léon's first meeting with Cécile on a train is intensified by his desire to escape loneliness—“[Y]ou wanted so badly to talk to her about yourself” (367)—but even then he goes about escaping selfishly. Once on a solitary, disorienting walk to his Paris apartment Léon recalls an earlier lonely time “when you were neither rich … nor married, as though suddenly the very foundations of your life, your solidity, your personal appearance even had deserted you” (452). The memory causes Léon to panic, and he doesn't recover self-confidence until he is safely inside his apartment building. In fact Léon's decision to leave Cécile in Rome is based on his fear of being alone in both cities. If Cécile moves to Paris and he separates from Henriette, there would be days of loneliness during the transition. The reason he has not told Henriette about Cécile's moving to Paris is not that his wife will weep or condemn him, but that “there will be that lonely life in a Paris hotel, the thing you dread above all others” (425). In Rome, once Cécile is ensconced in Paris, Léon would also risk loneliness. He once imagines visiting Rome after Cécile's move to Paris. He sees himself “pining for the woman who drew you there and kept you there” (382). So desperately afraid of loneliness's pain, Léon decides not to tell Cécile what his plans had been nor why the train trip has changed his mind. Why? Because of “that long lonely journey [back to Paris] ahead of [him]” (524). It is fear of loneliness, not respect for values or religion or the women involved, that causes Léon to decide to leave Cécile in Rome. Fear, terror in the face of change, causes the “little boy” in Léon to accept the status quo.

According to Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader, female readers often identify against ourselves in works by male writers with male protagonists. In A Change of Heart this identification occurs even more definitively because of Butor's use of second-person point of view. Butor insists that readers ally themselves with Léon to the extent that we nearly become him. The perspective is so powerful that I, for one, willingly overlooked the novel's two major female characters with whom I probably share more in common than I do with Léon. With Henriette it is the struggle to rear children, the frustration of living with someone obsessed by work. With Cécile it's the effort to make sense of moral issues in love and work. What distinguishes Henriette and Cécile from Léon is their willingness, even by Léon's account, to strive for intimacy. They are there for him, yet he pushes them away. Of course one can only surmise about Cécile and Henriette. Readers never see them. All we see is what Léon would have us see, and all he sees is himself. Henriette and Cécile are words on a page, fictions within fiction, concoctions of a man driven to assign his lopsided order to the world. Léon tells himself stories about people sharing his train compartment and he tells himself the same about his closest companions. What is sad is that his stories distance him from them rather than bring him closer. He has opportunities for intimacy but, in selfishness, he evades them. As such Léon's life seems hardly tragic, only pitiful. His is the tale of the fitful movements of a self-deluded typewriter seller whose book—if he ever writes one—will contain the meanderings of a fool. It will be filled, as is A Change of Heart, with voids instead of people. Who are Henriette and Cécile? Ah, there's a story! Contemporary fiction, of course, argues it can't be told because narrators can't see beyond themselves. Assuming this is true, the writer's obligation is to create a narrator carefully. How much more engaging are the mature though morally complex narrations of say, Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), the fictional “Joan Didion” in Joan Didion's Democracy (1984), or Butor's lonely hero in Passing Time (1957). Despite the narrative limitations of these heroes, readers are enriched by each moment spent in their company.


  1. Mary Beth Pringle, “Butor's Room Without a View: The Train Compartment in La Modification,The Review of Contemporary Fiction 5.3 (1985) 112–18.

  2. Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978)

  3. Martin Seymour-Smith, Who's Who in Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976).

  4. Jerrold Lanes, Saturday Review 25 April 1959: 18.

  5. Martin Price, Yale Review 48 January 1959: 598.

  6. Michel Butor, Passing Time and A Change of Heart trans. Jean Stewart (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969).

T. Jefferson Kline (essay date winter 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3910

SOURCE: Kline, T. Jefferson. “Degrees of Play in Butor's Degrés.L'Espirit Createur 31, no. 4 (winter 1991): 32–40.

[In the following essay, Kline explores manifestations of the metatextual and the metacultural in Degrés.]

Since its publication thirty years ago, Michel Butor's Degrés has been read primarily as a construction of networks, systems and quotations intended, as the narrator says, to “make reality enter language.” This “univers cité” as Jacques Leenhardt calls it,1 including 135 allusions to 35 different texts as well as references to 86 works of art, would thus be constructed to allow (despite its dislocations and discontinuities) a cosmology of the knowledge at play in a typical French lycée. Yet despite the remarkable reconstructions of this mass of systems of information by such readers as Mary Lydon,2 these fragments function less and less historiographically but appear increasingly to be compulsively repeated obsessional elements.

Indeed, Pierre Vernier's project is soon beset (and ultimately overwhelmed) by a series of conflicts, first among them the very problematics of representation itself, for, as he says, “il est impossible de représenter la terre avec précision sans la déformer, de même qu'il est impossible de faire passer la réalité dans le discours sans employer un certain type de projection.”3

In this admission of “un certain type de projection” Vernier suggests an unconscious con-textualization of desire, voyeurism and control at the heart of his purpose.4 Seized with panic by the increasingly uncontrollable play of écriture. Vernier admits that, “Au milieu de ces quel-ques points bien solides, s'introduit immédiatement un élément d'irrémédiable incertitude qu'il n'est possible d'atténuer qu'en multipliant les références” (D [Degrés] 55).

Vernier's “irrémédiable incertitude” is staved off by the myriad of systems of information in the text, and might be entirely submerged beneath these systems were it not for a purely marginal element, the jeu de Kim:

Dans le local de la patrouille des bisons … tu t'exerçais avec tes camarades au jeu de Kim: sur un foulard violet avec deux bandes rouges tout autour, tu avais disposé vingt objets différents. … Tout cela recouvert par un autre foulard au moment où tu as ouvert la porte pour permettre d'entrer à tes six camarades qui attendaient silencieusement dans le corridor, qui ont eu droit de considérer cette collection pendant trois minutes, montre en main, puis, les objets à nouveau cachés, ayant sorti chacun de leur poche un petit carnet, et un crayon ou stylo à bille, se sont efforcés d'en dresser la liste.

(D 59)

In the light of the work of Huizinga and Winnicott, it is unlikely that such a game should not signal “a contest for something and a representation of something.”5 Indeed, the game of Kim serves as a springboard for a vertiginous play of supplementary meanings and figures that increasingly undermine the narrator's purpose.

The metonymic meaning of the game derives from Pierre Eller's doubling of the pedagogical activities of his uncle, the geography teacher. Before his “students” Eller uncovers a system of diverse signs which the students must carefully observe, commit to memory and then represent as faithfully as possible on an “exam.” Consistent with this metonymic aspect, the nephew reviews “les résultats plutôt décourageants” of his students, and consequently begins the “préparation des épreuves” for the next session while assessing the need to decorate the scouts' meeting place with “un grand plan de Paris et aussi une carte de la région parisienne” (D 107–08). This preoccupation with lists, memorization, geography and maps (the subject of Vernier's classes at the Lycée) thus figures a kind of displacement of the uncle by the nephew, yet is imagined by the uncle himself. By means of this metonymic game the hierarchy narrator/subject has been prophetically thrown into “disorder.” This particular function of the game of Kim anticipates Pierre Vernier's decision to have Eller replace him as narrator of the novel, a move that violates his nephew's autonomic space for obscure but increasingly disturbing reasons and ironically ends up “faisant basculer l'équilibre de ce récit” (D 118).

Now this metonymical level of the text evokes another figure of Degrés, the metatextual, involving the very system of memorized lists in the game. Just as the Bisons scouts must memorize the objects in the jeu de Kim and attempt to retain them in memory, the reader of Butor's novel must constantly attempt to retain in memory the series of subjects, dates, and characters that flow from the text. As a kind of “avis au lecteur,” the game of Kim alerts us to the importance of retaining details in general in our (and his) effort to maintain some sense of overall coherence. In a re-presentation of the game of Kim (virtually every scene gets repeated obsessively in this narrative) Butor provides a different, curiously skewed point of view. In this reappearance of the game, an entirely new resonance can be felt:

Feuilletant ton livre, tu as eu l'idée d'organiser un jeu de Kim et tu as collectionné pour cela divers objets que tu as glissés dans les poches du beau blouson de cuir que tes parents t'avaient offert pour tes quinze ans: un mouchoir, un morceau de ficelle, une boîte d'allumettes, un canif, un timbre … ton portemonnaie, ton carnet de chants, la clé du local, un petit crayon bleu … une épingle de nourrice, un sifflet.

(D 81–82)

In this second version of what is demonstrably the same scene, the list is subtly but fundamentally altered. Pierre must still find four objects missing from the list, eventually constituted as “un couvert de fer-blanc,” “un os troué,” “[un] beau stylo,” and “le petit caillou.” Precisely because of the twenty-two pages separating the two versions of this scene, the reader is thrust into precisely the position of the neophyte boy scout, and is not likely to notice these changes.

This creation of a gap in the text where none should be anticipates a similar problematic in the larger narrative. Late in the novel, during the second and third versions of the events, something happens that causes the uncle to become “si malade qu'il a été obligé d'abandonner ses classes au troisième trimestre, pendant laquelle ses rapports avec toi et avec tes parents se sont tellement détériorés qu'il a été obligé d'abandonner sa chambre rue du Canivet et qu'il s'est réfugié chez nous” (D 336). Evidently, this something (now evoked by a third narrator who has stepped in because Pierre Vernier is literally unable to continue) involves “cette atroce conversation qui avait eu lieu entre vous deux, sur laquelle ses parents n'avaient pu obtenir d'explications ni de ta part ni de la sienne” (D 364). This conversation would have taken place alone between the two Pierres, on the night of Pierre Eller's fifteenth birthday, after which the older man is reproached for excessive drinking by his friend Micheline Pavin. A year later, Pierre Eller will muse, “Cela est loin et je l'abhore” (D 254), terms too strong to ignore, and elsewhere refers to his collaboration with his uncle as: “cet ouvrage auquel j'ai tant, j'ai si dangeureusement participé l'an passé et dont je me suis détourné avec une horreur qui ne s'éteindra que lentement” (D 277). Nowhere in the novel is this gap filled by any anecdotal material so that, as in Robbe-Grillet's Voyeur, we are forced to look to some other level of the text for the missing piece.

The jeu de Kim again offers itself as a key—this time as an intertextual element. Now, the game of Kim, by Butor's own admission, is based on the Kipling text of the same title. Indeed, Kipling is the most often mentioned author in the work not actually quoted. Kim lies, in other words, like a palimpsest, beneath the exposed systems at play. Kipling's Kim recounts the story of a young Sahib, brought up as a native in colonial India whose double status makes him an ideal recruit for “The Great Game” as the British intelligence operations in India are referred to in the novel. Like Pierre Eller, Kim is recruited by an older man, a “tortuous and indirect person playing a hidden game,” to be a spy among his “own people.”6 But his preparation for this work involves a curious and disturbing scene: Kim is nearly hypnotized by his “teacher” Lurgan into believing that a jar of water has been transmogrified, and this attempt at hypnosis includes the following:

Kim looked intently; Lurgan Sahib laid one hand gently on the nape of his neck, stroked it twice or thrice, and whispered, “Look. It shall come to life again piece by piece. …” To save his life, Kim could not have turned his head. The light touch held him as in a vice, and his blood tingled pleasantly through him. … A wave of prickling fire raced down his neck as Lurgan Sahib moved his hand. … A tremor came on him, and with an effort like that of a swimmer before sharks, who hurls himself half out of the water, his mind leaped up from a darkness that was swallowing it.

(Kim 243)

Kim narrowly manages to save himself from this seductive embrace by distracting his attention from the sensation of the hand on his neck to a recitation of the multiplication tables. Moments later, he is introduced to the “jewel game,” an exercise in visual memory retention that has given Butor's scouts' game its name as the Jeu de Kim (Kim 248–50). Eve Sedgwick's analysis of Kipling's novel leaves little doubt as to the underlying structures that bind these two otherwise remarkably disparate texts. In terms that are curiously resonant for Butor's world, Sedgwick argues that

Kim's India is … a kind of postgraduate or remedial Public School, a male place in which it is relatively safe for men to explore the crucial terrain of homosociality [since] imperialist ideology … was somewhat self-permissive within a circumscribed geographical space, but only on the (impossible) condition that that space be hermetically isolated from the space of active, consequential self-constitution.7

Kim's “exploration of the map of male homosociality, like his many other explorations is,” Sedgwick notes, “still an exciting pleasure” (198).

Like Kim's Sahib, Eller's uncle attempts to gain control through an analogous game of spying in this homosocial world. The Kipling intertext illuminates just how much each of the terms of this attempt (voyeurism, projection, the assemblage of random elements into a controlling narration and the consequent “imperialist” imposition of his own system) may open a heretofore “closed” reading of Degrés.

Virtually none of the previous readings of this text has focused on the language of catastrophe that accompanies the breakdown in relations between Vernier and his nephew. Had the young boy simply been caught in the unpopular position of gathering information for his uncle's literary project, doubtless some unpleasantness would have been expressed. But Vernier's own terms, although vague, are nevertheless too severe to be ignored.

Read metaphorically now, the two items that are exchanged between the first and second versions of the list in the game of Kim can be seen as a nucleus of obsessional pieces connecting to points throughout the text. In the place of le bouton, is substituted un stylo. As much as the very fact of the slippage between the two Kim lists, the semantic substitution itself is significant. If the word “bouton” signifies (antithetically and thus “uncannily”) “covering” and “uncovering,” “a blemish” or “a naissant flower,” the “stylo” that is substituted suggests both a repression of all of this confessional matter by writing and a representation of phallic invasiveness. Thus, this “jeu d'écriture”8 becomes the game by which, without effecting a net gain or loss in the number of items, a substitution is effected that radically alters the conditions of/at play. Writing (écriture) becomes a game in which an attempt is made to cover an obscured system of meaning by systematic inscription. By reestablishing difference there where identity would ideally be, the reliability of the narrator is subverted.9 Sensing this increasing confusion of intent, the narrator reflects on

ces notes que je te destine … cette énorme masse d'information qui circule à l'intérieur de laquelle, comme dans un fleuve boueux et tourbillonnant tu te meux ignorant, emporté, qui glisse sur toi, qui se gâche, se perd, et se contredit, qui glisse sur nous tous, sur tous tes camarades et tous tes maîtres qui glisse entre nous et autour de nous.

(D 82)

Our metaphorical reading of the game of Kim allows us to see the proliferation of allusions in the text, not only as a savoir, but as a “fleuve boueux” of obsessional elements, compulsively repeated. If indeed, the accumulation of a cultural matrix is the secondary function of this muddy river of quotations, the primary level is, to use another of Butor's own titles, a “second sous-sol: matière des rêves,”10 a repetitive universe, which, like a dream, frequently shifts point of view, marshals large numbers of elements from disparate sources in the service of (badly) hiding some nexial element in the unconscious. The language of dreams, we must recall, functions exactly as Vernier says his own text should: “ces mots que j'ai écrits … n'ont de sens pour moi que parce que je sais bien autre chose, que bien autre chose est présent à travers divers degrés d'historicité” (D 117).11 This other meaning emerges by degrees from precisely the kind of reading Freud would have us undertake of the primary or latent level of a dream. In addition to seeing in the assemblage of such poets as Homer, Dante, Virgil, Titus-Livius, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Montaigne, Racine, Boileau, Keats and Coleridge a nexus of culture, “the history of Western Man from Homeric times onward,” as Mary Lydon terms it (Perpetuum Mobile 132), we might also pay attention to the obsessional quality of the particular quotes Vernier has chosen endlessly to repeat in his evocation of the lycée. From Homer, Vernier quotes, “Des fauves, je deviens la pâture et la proie” (D 346), followed by the professor's commentary, “II a peur des animaux sauvages, des loups, des fauves” (D 220). He finds in Virgil, “J'aurais pu succomber à la tentation” (D 131), and in Dante, “Ceux qui meurent dans la colère de dieu” (D 179). Quoting from Shakespeare, “Methinks yon Cassius hath a mean and hungry look” (D 363, 372), Vernier immediately thinks of himself, and then launches a series of remarks about the “lupercales” which celebrates the “ancienne divinité romaine … la louve” (D 345). Other allusions, whether to Macbeth (D 130), to Titus-Livius (D 372), to Rabelais (D 66, 184), or to Montaigne (D 291), all emphasize some mysterious catastrophe. References to Racine and Boileau (D 118, 373, 303) evoke “a monstre naissant,” and “un serpent odieux.” Finally, citations from Keats (D 187) and Coleridge (D 154, 283) both evoke a kind of urgent voyeurism when read in the context of the novel.

Virtually every quote plays on the pleasures of scopophilia (for voyeurism is, by his own admission, Pierre Vernier's principal activity), then of some monstrous activity involving a wolf, some consequent violence, and finally, the imposition of silence. Nor is it a coincidence that the issue of Fiction passed from student to student contains two stories: “Le Jeu du silence,” a tale about rape and the imposition of silence on the victim, and “Hors de la tanière,” concerning a loup-garou (D 300, 371). In both cases, the allusion, though veiled, refers unmistakably to Vernier, for, after the “histoire obscure dont on préférait ne pas te parler” and which constitutes “cet abîme qui s'était creusé entre vous, cet abîme de haine et d'étonnement” (D 366), the uncle attempts to impose silence on his nephew. At night, Pierre Eller is given to muse that “il n'y avait pas de loups dans cette chambre; de l'autre côté du mur, il y avait l'oncle Pierre et son regard de loup” (D 322). So powerful is this association, and the effect of Vernier's cooptation of his nephew's point of view, that the nephew undergoes a werewolf-like transformation: “Ta respiration était devenue rauque; tes lèvres se retroussaient; tu avais l'impression que tes dents s'allongaient, que tout ton corps trempé de sueur se couvrait de poils, non point de bison mais de loup” (D 382).

Not surprisingly either, Vernier is frequently preoccupied with his teeth and a trip to the dentist. And, when seen in the light of his unfolding (but always carefully coded) relationship to his nephew, Vernier's relationship with Micheline Pavin becomes clear. Despite much time spent together, whenever she attempts any physical intimacy, he quickly backs away and/or disappears. He is no more ready for a heterosexual relationship than are Kipling's “Great Gamers” or, for that matter, Gide's Edouard or Bernard in Les Faux Monnayeurs, one of the other major intertexts of this work.

Instead, Vernier's psychic energy flows into endless repetitions of his obsession with his nephew, resulting in a remarkably oracular curriculum. When not choosing literary double-entendres, Vernier finds suggestive subjects in every other discipline in the curriculum. For example, “cet abîme de science” (D 49), which is glossed as either a vacuum or a well (another uncanny phrase combining antithetical meanings of this text itself—and, of course, alluding to “cet abîme de haine et d'étonnement” which is to open up between the uncle and nephew (D 366). In physics class, the students study “la loi de la chute des corps” (D 30), or “les éléments de force” (D 92), both suggestive topics in the context of the other allusions given. In a discussion of weights and measures, allusion is made to “un cylindre de platine iridié, déposé au bureau international des poids et mesures,” but this is quickly transformed first into “un kilogramme unique, irremplaçable, qu'il fallait garder aussi jalousement qu' … un talisman,” and is accompanied by Vernier's comment that Hubert “avait glissé sur ce terme sans paraître lui attacher la moindre importance” (D 37).

It is in Vernier's own disciplines of history and geography, however, that the most flagrant obsessions are aired. The ubiquitous meditation on the discovery and conquest of the new world by the old almost always gives rise to the phrase “les métaux cachés au ventre des abîmes” (D 33), which in turn evokes images of “misérables esclaves” (D 348), who are portrayed as “des hommes entièrement nus … mûrissant et cuisant peu à peu une énorme vengeance sournoise, dont les fumées ne se développeraient que beaucoup plus tard” (D 112). Elsewhere, Vernier calls up another association to these slaves: “Au rebours, nous nous sommes servis de leur ignorance et inexpérience à les plier plus facilement vers la trahison, luxure, avarice et vers toute sorte d'inhumanité et cruauté, à l'exemple et patron de nos mœurs” (D 287). In other words, the exploitation of the new world by the old, has rather immediate application to the world of the lycée. Nor can Vernier resist giving an obsessional spin to the history of mapping.

Le globe … est une représentation fidèle mais incommode; il est nécessaire d'avoir des cartes, mais, comme il est impossible de faire coïcider le moindre fragment d'une surface plane et d'une sphérique, il y a nécessairement transposition, projection, selon des systèmes divers qui ont tous leur inconvénients, déforment toujours certains aspects, si bien qu'il faudra toujours choisir, lorsqu'on étudie tel domaine, celui qui s'y rapporte le mieux, et toujours beaucoup se méfier, surtout des cartes qui prétendent représenter l'ensemble de la terre, essayer toujours de garder présent à l'esprit le genre de corrections que l'on doit leur apporter.

(D 40)

And he will return, obsessively, to this problem of reading, with the phrase “notre représentation habituelle de ce qui se passe dans le monde contemporain … est constamment fausée par la prééminence dans nos esprits de la projection cylindrique, dite projection de Mercator … et qui a la particularité de majorer considérablement les surfaces” (D 56). When confronted with the other major scientific meditation, Harvey's “circulation de sang” (D 275), the suggestion is clearly phallic. Finally, Vernier's own class must confront a lesson on weather in which the question, “Qu'est-ce que l'inversion?” is asked and reiterated obsessively (D 184, 214, 241, 268, etc.). Le Petit Robert defines inversion as: “1) déplacement (d'un mot ou d'un groupe de mots) par rapport à l'ordre normal ou habituel de la construction. 2) anomalie psychique qui porte quelqu'un à n'éprouver d'affinité sexuelle que pour un être de son sexe. Homosexualité.”

Eller's name (Elle-r—the bonding of feminine and masculine elements12) may invite his uncle's attempt at a “découverte et conquête,” but the nephew's resistance is exemplary and ultimately proves too much for Vernier. The very reference to Kim alludes to the nephew's successful resistance of his uncle's imposition. Thus, from its first appearance in the text, the game of Kim represents a highly condensed nexus of metonymic, metatextual, intertextual and metaphorical levels of the novel, increasingly evoking “la mort à l'intérieur du jeu” (D 27) (and, we might say, “à l'intérieur du je” of the narrator) in which the players are transformed oneirically into a wolf and its prey.

Butor has said, “Le point le plus sensible d'une civilisation, c'est toujours la façon dont le savoir s'y transmet.”13 If our final level of interaction with this text involves a metacultural reading, then lycée education itself would be seen as a carnivorous carnival in which those in power prey on their victims using a false system of savoir to cover their tracks. It may well be that the reason Kipling is the most cited author not directly quoted is that the allusion to Kipling subtends virtually every other quote in the novel and that, ultimately, Degrés is, to some degree, The Jungle Book.


  1. Jacques Leenhardt, “Réponse à Van Rossum-Guyon,” in Michel Butor, Colloque de Cérisy (Paris: Union Générale des éditions, 1974) 52 ff.

  2. In attempting to reclaim coherence from the mass of cultural bits spewed from Pierre Vernier's pen, Mary Lydon evokes Butor's “strongly Vician aura.” Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1980) 141.

  3. Michel Butor, Degrés (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) 56. All further references to this text will be indicated in the body of the essay by the sigla D and the page number.

  4. In The Legend of Freud (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 24–25, Samuel Weber suggests that we learn this feature of narrativity from our earliest attempt to figure our identity. Weber identifies the driving impulse in the primal scene as a desire to see “the same thing in other people,” a desire so strong as to bend perceptual data to the child's needs, resulting not only in hallucination of objects but “their organization into a story.”

  5. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955) 13.

  6. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1914) 185.

  7. Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) 197–98.

  8. Le Petit Robert defines “jeu d'écriture” as “un jeu d'opération comptable formelle, n'ayant aucune incidence sur l'équilibre entre les recettes et les dépenses.

  9. Vernier is not even reliable in mathematics. The problem given on page 359 contains an error in calculation.

  10. Second sous-sol: Matière des rêves 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).

  11. This is but one example of numerous other allusions to the hidden meaning of this text. See pages 40, 56, 60, 82, 88, 115, 116, 117, 119, 252, 276.

  12. See Barthes's discussion of the name of Sarrasine in S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970) 24.

  13. Cited in Lydon, Perpetuum Mobile 126.

Sally M. Silk (essay date summer 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8176

SOURCE: Silk, Sally M. “When the Writer Comes Home: Narrative Failure in Butor's La Modification.Style 26, no. 2 (summer 1992): 270–86.

[In the following essay, Silk challenges Butor's critics who view La Modification as a narrative of self-emergence, arguing instead that the narrative voice remains disembodied—“beyond hope of being recuperated”—even at the end of the novel.]

Look around you. Don’t we all have one foot in the air? We all look as though we are traveling. No one has a definite sphere of existence; no one has proper habits; there are no rules for anything; there is no home base.

(Pyotr Chaadaev, Letter on the Philosophy of History)


The relationship between art and life examined in Madame Bovary becomes an obsessive concern of the nouveau roman. While Flaubert's heroine reads her books all too literally, suffering from what Valéry would have diagnosed as “literary superstition,”1 the confusing world of the nouveau roman can be attributed to a linguistic inquiry into the crisis in representation through language. La Modification is a text that is as much about finding a narrative voice as it is the story of Léon Delmont's train trip from Paris to Rome. This search for a voice demands the involvement of the reader not only because the latter is implicated in the vous (“you”) narration, but also because the je (“I”) that speaks in the final chapter does so as the writer of a future book.

Butor critics, as will be demonstrated, tend to view the writing of Léon's book as an emergence of self, one that definitively puts an end to the narrative crisis reflected in the vous narration and the mise en abyme. I shall argue, however, that it is precisely in the role of writer of a future book that Léon will be forever deprived of an authentic narrative voice. My reading of Léon's intricate description of the promised book takes into account Robert Weimann's statement that “what, more than anything else, representational art presupposes and what it thrives on is indeed the loss, the undoing of the plenitude of that property in which the self and the social are mutually engaged and in which their engagement is unquestioningly given and taken for granted” (96). The desire to represent becomes so acute in La Modification that the narration disengages from the story, producing a textual subject that, unlike the traveler-protagonist, experiences what I shall call “homelessness” in discourse. Before locating this in the text, it would first be useful to briefly discuss contrasting theories of representation.

Jean Ricardou's work on the novel approaches the relationship between language and representation from an antireferential perspective. Fiction takes a stand against realism in contrast to Ian Watt's earlier account of the genre of the novel as a representation of reality. Ricardou writes that any narrative description, for example, the wedding cake in Madame Bovary, has two opposing tendencies, one referential in which the object is suggested as the sum of its parts and one literal in which it can be experienced only as the linear succession of its various components (34). Watt holds the opposite view that the novel, even if it looks very different in the forms given it by Sterne, Balzac, and Proust, is inherently referential: “The basic continuity of the tradition of the novel is made clearer if we remember that these differences in narrative method are differences of emphasis rather than of kind, and that they exist within a common allegiance to the formal or presentational realism which is typical of the novel genre as a whole” (294).

An engaging inquiry into the relationship of realism to Bakhtin's theory of dialogism is carried out by Ann Jefferson, who demonstrates that neither Watt's nor Ricardou's view actually helps us deal with the problem of reference. “Despite their many differences,” she explains, “both the realist and the reflexive theories of the novel imply a view of language as unitary and self-consistent—intrinsically ahistorical and fundamentally asocial” (171). Instead, she argues, Bakhtin's polyphonic conception of language allows one to sidestep the polarized issue of reference because the utterance is always socially constituted. Reference is still relevant, however, but only for its place “within the artistic organization of the ‘diversity of social speech types …, and individual voices’ and not as their pre-condition.”2 Reference has a place in dialogism and an important one at that because “objects are themselves already inhabited by other discourses” so that it is this “very impulse toward the referential object that engenders dialogism” (177). Even in the nouveau roman, therefore, it becomes essential to pay close attention not to the rejection of the referent, but rather to the ways its supposed banishment from the text informs the enunciative model on which dialogism depends.

Representation in the nouveau roman, approached from Jefferson's perspective, becomes all the more problematic when one considers the proliferation and high visibility of the mise en abyme technique. Considered “one of the major modes of textual narcissism” (Hutcheon 4), the mise en abyme functions by means of “regress” through the embedding of one narrative level in another (Bal 146). It should be noted in passing, as Lucien Dällenbach points out, that this is not unique to the nouveau roman (152). Literature has always demonstrated a concern for the process of textual production, a preoccupation that develops in the nineteenth century into an exploration of representation that would seem to depersonalize a text. What the nouveau roman does, of course, is to push this to an extreme with an insistence on the mise en abyme technique so great that reflexivity itself fuses both story and narration.

In La Modification, simultaneity between diegesis and narrative act reflects a crisis in narrating. Enonciation takes on an urgency that produces dislocation: Léon Delmont tries to be in Paris via Rome and in Rome via Paris so that enunciative situations are superimposed on one another. As a result of this, from the opening of the novel, discourse is decentered as the protagonist searches for a voice that will enable him to be in several places at the same time. His use of the pronoun vous, a much-discussed technique that will be a focus of this essay, illustrates both an inability to speak in his own name and an enactment of discourse as dialogic address rather than monologic self-expression.

In the concluding chapters of the novel, when Léon expresses his desire to write a book, the frequent shift from vous to je has often been viewed as an emergence of self on the narrator's part. This general claim, I believe, is the result of allying oneself either with Watt or with Ricardou, whose

conceptions of language as a single and unified entity may be regarded from a Bakhtinian viewpoint as instances of the centripetal force of monoglossia since neither the referential language of realism, nor the self-generating signifiers of the nouveau roman acknowledge the existence of ideologies or of registers alien to their own.

(Jefferson 171–72)

It is here that I would like to begin my debate with existing scholarship on La Modification by bringing Jefferson's views, themselves an echo of Bakhtin's, into the conceptual framework of my analysis. I will argue that the narrator, in contrast to the protagonist, is as “homeless” at the end of Léon's trip as at the moment of his departure.


One of Léon's tasks in the story is to reconcile the myth of Rome with modern Paris. The desire to be a foreigner in his own city becomes an obsession so great that he sees Cécile as his vehicle for feeling Roman in his native Paris:

ce salut, Cécile, cette gorgée d'air, ce surcroît de forces, cette main secourable qui se tend vers vous messagère des régions heureuses et claires, depuis cette lourde ombre tracassière dont vous allez pouvoir enfin vous séparer de fait, cette magicienne qui par la grâce d'un seul de ses regards vous délivre de toute cette horrible caricature d'existence, vous rend à vous-même dans un bienfaisant oubli de ces meubles, de ces repas, de ce corps, tôt fané, de cette famille harassante. …


that refuge, Cécile, that breath of fresh air, that source of new strength, that rescuing hand reaching out to you from the realm of happiness and light, away from that oppressive, tiresome ghost whom you're about to shake off for good toward that enchantress who, with a single glance, can deliver you from this whole horrible caricature of an existence and make you yourself again, in blessed oblivion of all that furniture, of all those meals, of that prematurely faded body and that exasperating family. …


Cécile functions as the mediating force that he believes can restore him to himself (“vous rend à vous-même”). But this results from viewing the text only as an énoncé.3 For the mediating position in discourse is different from that in the story (Cécile in this instance, Rome in others) when both the énoncé and énonciation are examined for their point of intersection; it is at this juncture that what François Flahault calls la parole intermédiaire comes into view, a move revealing that “les individus ne sont pas maîtres d'opérer leur mise en place, puisque c'est au contraire cette mise en place qui établit leur identite” (Flahault 52).4 If the subject must submit to the mise en place (“setting into place”), then Léon's vous establishes just this power. It guarantees that he is perpetually in dialogue with himself and thus simultaneously both the addresser and addressee of his “own” discourse.

The unusual dynamic here between self and self as other produces the narrator as a split subject. This discursive fissure, however, should not be understood as analogous to the diegetic opposition between Rome and Paris on the one hand and between Cécile and Henriette on the other: in the role of protagonist Léon seeks to establish a distance between his Parisian and Roman “selves” while the divided self of the narrator is in no way sought out. This is significant because it indicates a lack of correlation between reality and thought, between a double life and a divided self.

Thus the narration is thrown into doubt because discourse is not mimetically faithful to the thought processes being portrayed. This would mean that the narration is homeless and not the traveler. For example, when Léon tries to capture the feeling of Rome in Paris, he goes to a small bathhouse of dubious cleanliness to remind him of the quaintly Italian Albergo Diurno, after which we learn: “vous avez profité du temps qui vous restait pour flâner un peu, tel un touriste romain à Paris, comme si c'était Rome votre habitation régulière et que vous ne vinssiez à Paris que de temps en temps” (61) (“you took advantage of the time you had left to stroll about like a Roman tourist in Paris, as if Rome were where you usually lived and you came to Paris only from time to time, every two months or once a month at most, on business” [48]). Léon's desire to replace the Parisian “self” with a Roman one is never realized; instead, this desire deviates, so that a fragmentation of the subject occurs discursively. Léon's voice continues to occupy simultaneously the positions of addresser and addressee, but the positions themselves become more problematic as each marks a desired distinction between a Roman and Parisian “self.” Thus the addresser sees himself with a dual identity and so too does the addressee. Positions have now multiplied and suggest the beginning of a crisis that will intensify in the duration of the text. The words “comme si” (“as if”) demonstrate the narrator's awareness of the lie he himself has fabricated but cannot control. When, back in Paris, Léon dines Italian style “pour prolonger cette impression de ne pas être tout à fait rentré” (62) (“in order to prolong that feeling that you hadn't really come home yet” [49]), discourse is indeed away from home because of the multiple positions occupied by Léon-narrator as the latter portrays Léon-character carrying out the desire to be a foreigner in his native city.

The entire novel becomes a study in the fulfillment of this desire to be displaced. The story fails to achieve such hoped-for fragmentation: at the end the protagonist does not reach his goal and so the narrator changes his scheme to the only one that can be realized: that is, the writing of a book that by all appearances is the one we hold in our hands, “ce livre futur et nécessaire dont vous tenez la forme dans votre main” (286). The narration metonymically fulfills this displacement where the story does not. The subject's language unconsciously produces meaning elsewhere than it intended. Lacan's theory of desire helps explain this unwilled turn of events: the inaccessibility of the signified, forever thwarted by the signifier from coming into view, means that the metonymic desire for something else is textual as well because of its driving insistence on the production of meaning (277). What happens in La Modification that is essential to a reading of the novel is that the displacement desired in plot occurs instead in discourse. It is here that the vous narration results in the splitting of the subject who is at once addresser and addressee. Indeed, this is the only place in the novel where he succeeds in being a foreigner in native territory, despite the fact that it is not at the level of discourse that he had resolved to perform this exile.


The dynamic of this displacement of homelessness from plot to discourse requires a look at the nature of reality as imagined by the narrator: his conception of reality as something that he can manipulate backfires5 and proves a complicated illusion that effects a further decentering of discourse. The split subject of the narrator manifests itself in still other ways than that of a simultaneous addresser and addressee. The continual breaking down of the subject's voice is directly linked to the mise en abyme's regressive power to prevent the narrator from ever attaining a goal. The technique produces, on his part, an ongoing failure to control reality. For this reason the place of the myth of ancient Rome deserves special examination in this context.

As this myth unfolds in the course of the narrative, it aggravates the instability of the narrative voice. The numerous cultural forces at work in the novel are derived from intertextual references to Imperial Roman and Christian Renaissance painting, architecture, sculpture, and myth. When the two worlds dialogically collide to share the same physical space, such as when Léon strolls through galleries in the Louvre that contain art from both eras, the split subject of the narrator into addresser and addressee is divided further so as to place the reader in a similarly split position. Just as the museum's space is shared between two epochs, so too is Léon's vous occupied by both himself and the reader.

In his admiration for the paintings of Pannini, Léon is especially struck by the fact that his canvasses are representations of representations, depicting

deux collections imaginaires exposées dans de très hautes salles largement ouvertes où des personnages de qualité, ecclésiastiques ou gentilshommes, se promènent parmi les sculptures entre les murs couverts de paysages, en faisant des gestes d'admiration, d'intérêt, de surprise, de perplexité, comme les visiteurs dans la Sixtine, avec ceci de remarquable qu'il n'y a aucune différence de matière sensible entre les objects représentés comme réels et ceux représentés comme peints.


two imaginary art collections displayed in high, well-lighted rooms in which people of fashion, nobles and clergy were walking about among the sculptures, between the landscape-hung walls, making gestures of admiration, of interest, of surprise and bewilderment, like visitors to the Sistine, with this peculiarity, that there was no perceptible difference between things supposed to be real and things supposed to be painted.


On one level, the “personnages” fascinated by their surroundings function as an obvious mise en abyme of the narrator-protagonist of La Modification who is examining the paintings with great care. But on a second level, the reader is also represented observing the narrator watching his “personnages” watching, thereby implicating the reader's presence at the scene. If the narrator is at once spectator and spectacle, then the reader, invited into this text from its opening words, also occupies this same space alongside him. The reader thus becomes an essential part of the text, recalling Barthes's words: “Ce lecteur, il faut que je le cherche, (que je le ‘drague’), sans savoir où il est. Un espace de la jouissance est alors créé. Ce n'est pas la ‘personne’ de l'autre qui m'est nécessaire, c'est l'espace” (Plasir 11) (“I must seek out this reader [must ‘cruise’ him] without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader's person that is necessary to me, it is this site” [Pleasure 4]). The reader has something the text wants, even if it means, as it does in this case, a further movement away from a subject-centered voice.

The desire for the reader indicated in Barthes's words is closely linked here to a need for mimesis. For if we accept that in the world of the text the reader is “real” and the narrator merely “represented,” then the latter's preference for Pannini's vision of ancient Rome over Michelangelo's Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel because “there was no perceptible difference between things supposed to be real and things supposed to be painted” suggests that the narrator is searching for a convergence, a pictorial one between the real and the painted, and a textual one by a simultaneity between himself and the reader, the latter being forced to occupy the same position as the narrator because of the vous narration. This textual search for a convergence between narrator and reader can be read as the desire for collaboration between discourse and the real, so that the narrative voice should mimetically represent the diegesis. Although the previous section illustrated that this does not occur because the narration is in fact thrown into doubt where the story is not, the desire for a harmonious relationship between discourse and the real reveals the importance of the enunciative moment in the text.

The Pannini paintings become a mise en abyme of the utterance in two ways. On the one hand, as demonstrated above, they produce a textual mirroring of the enunciative situation between narrator and reader, two positions fused into one. On the other hand, the figures in the paintings stroll through ancient Rome, a scene that reflects Léon-narrator describing Léon-protagonist walking selectively around the Louvre to study only art representing the Roman Empire. This act parallels that of the reader observing the narrator's attempt to appropriate the myth of Rome to his Parisian self. These two ways in which Pannini's art produces a mise en abyme of the utterance place the reader both inside and outside the text, inside because the vous forces the reader to participate in the story and outside because the reader occupies the final position from which to view the narrator observing the protagonist observing Pannini's figures.

The vous that narrates this story is thus occupied by a variety of voices all at once. The one that Léon seeks out as his very own is not to be found, so that he is doomed to a polyphonic definition of self. The attempt to rid himself of the dispersion of the subject through a number of voices becomes the discursive equivalent of the protagonist's desire to revive the myth of ancient Rome. If Rome is “pour vous le lieu de l'authenticité” (146) (“the place where you felt genuine” [123]), it is not simply because it represents the origins of civilization as Léon sees it, but also because it holds the promise of an original, authentic voice, one that can truly be called one's own.

But the properties of dialogism render such a claim impossible. For as voices mutually condition one another, they are unable to function independently in any enunciative situation. In one of the few instances of direct discourse between the two lovers, Léon complains to Cécile: “Alors, si toi aussi tu te mets à compliquer les choses, comment pourrais-je avoir l'air naturel?” (185) (“So if you too are going to start making things complicated, how can I behave naturally?” [158]). John Frow's theory that the subject is not “the origin of utterance but its effect” (61) would necessarily eliminate any concept of the natural from the enunciative moment, making the constitution of the subject dependent on the particular situation. There is no place for the natural in la parole intermédiaire (“the intermediary world”) since the positioning that occurs therein is what constitutes the subject. Interestingly enough, Flahault explains that this concept is better understood by those raised outside of a bourgeois intellectual climate. As an example, he discusses Pierre Jakez-Hélias's Le Cheval d'orgueil in which Jakez-Hélias describes the ritual of Breton peasants visiting one another:

Que quelqu'un pénètre chez quelqu'un d'autre n'est pas dépourvu de sens et ne doit pas se dérouler “n'importe comment.” Le rituel permet à chacune des parties (visiteur et visité) de s'approcher en douceur, de savoir où elle en est par rapport à l'autre et de préserver la distance souhaitée par l'une sans blesser l'autre. Ce n'est pas que la bourgeoisie soit dépourvue de pareils rituels d'approche et de mise en place, mais elle les efface volontiers de sa conscience (notamment dans les milieux dits intellectuels) afin de pouvoir mieux développer l'idée d'une relation “naturelle.”


The act of entering someone else's home is not without meaning and should not be taken lightly. The ritual permits each party (visitor and visited) to carefully approach one another, to know where one stands with regard to the other and to preserve the distance desired by one without hurting the other. It is not that the bourgeoisie are without such rituals of approach and placement, but they are fond of erasing them from their consciousness (particularly in so-called intellectual circles) in order to be able to develop better the idea of a “natural” relationship.

Léon Delmont, although purely fictitious, has all the bourgeois trappings one could imagine; indeed, one reason the reader is so immediately drawn into the text to share his vous is that the referents it designates (Parisian architecture and Roman ruins) are ones that so many readers of this novel are undoubtedly familiar with.6 If the idea of the natural is an intellectual invention, then Léon's “chasse au naturel” (“hunt for the natural”) is as much our problem as it is his. The difficulty lies not so much in the fact that there is no such thing as the natural, but, more significantly, in the fact that the reader, participating in the story alongside Léon, also experiences confusion at having to share a voice with another: for the reader and Léon-narrator, it is the decentering of the narrative voice that produces disorder, while for Léon-character it is the mission to transpose Rome to Paris, to make natural what is clearly unnatural.

The cultural world represented is one that is recognized by the reader at the same time that it cannot actually exist in the text itself. The significance of intertextual references to, for example, various Parisian and Roman monuments depends on the reader's own awareness of numerous cultural forces at work outside of the text. Claude Duchet writes that the exclusion of the referent from the textual world can be explained by “l'impossibilité du signe à être la chose même, mais il n'en peut devenir la représentation vraisemblable qu'en se fondant sur notre expérience et usage du monde” (450) (“the impossibility of the sign to be the thing itself, but it can become a good representation of that thing only in building on our experience and use of the world”). It could be said then that Léon depends on us to bring his dream to fruition. The vous in the text, clearly occupied by both Léon and the reader, needs this intimate coexistence. It becomes the bearer of textual dialogism because (1) it enacts the character interacting dialogically with himself as addresser and addressee and (2) it puts the reader into a similarly split position. Decentering of the subject is so aggravated by this intimacy that the vous ends up acquiring an alter ego in the narrator. Discursive homelessness is so complete that there are not only two split positions in the text, but an alter ego as well. The myth of Rome has set discourse into a spin. As it achieves momentum, decentering will occur in another form, that of the vous expressing itself as je.


Towards the end of the novel, as Léon is recovering from nightmares about being cross-examined first by the Great Huntsman and second by various Roman ecclesiastics, the accelerated pace of the narration slows down as we observe him catch his breath. A significant change takes place in the aftermath of his judgment day: vous frequently shifts to je as the narrator abandons his plan to bring Cécile (and, consequently, Rome) to Paris and decides instead to write a book.

This new project has none of the uncertainties that characterized his original one. On the contrary, he discusses the protagonist (a close resemblance to himself) and storyline (the relationship between Paris and Rome) with confidence and resolution:

Il me faut écrire un livre.


Je ne puis espérer me sauver seul. Tout le sang, tout le sable de mes jours s'épuiserait en vain dans cet effort pour me consolider.

Donc préparer, permettre, par exemple au moyen d'un livre, à cette liberté future hors de notre portée, lui permettre, dans une mesure si infime soit-elle, de se constituer, de s'établir, c'est la seule possibilité pour moi de jouir au moins de son reflet tellement admirable et poignant.

(emphasis mine; 276)

I ought to write a book.


I cannot hope to save myself by myself. All the blood of my being, all the sand of my days would run out in vain in my effort to achieve integration.

So then, the only possible way for me to enjoy at least the reflected gleam—itself so wonderful, so thrilling—of that future liberty which is out of our reach would be to prepare the way for that liberty, to enable it in however minute a measure to take shape and substance by means of a book for instance.


Unable to integrate (“consolider”) his disparate voices without the help of the book, Léon gains the self-awareness that he is weak, the recognition of which is represented through repeated use of the first person. Similarly, his reference to the future takes the reader into account with the first-person plural, thus articulating with certainty the reader's presence in the text that the vous narration had only previously implied. What are the implications of such resolve for closure in this novel?

It has been argued that the fragmentation that occurs in the narration throughout the text ends when Léon decides to write his book. Helling has likened Léon to Aeneas so that the two heroes “changent et arrivent finalement à une certaine connaissance de soi, une connaissance qui décidera du reste de leurs vies” (74) (“change and finally attain a certain self-knowledge, a knowledge that will determine the rest of their lives”). This “connaissance de soi” suggests that La Modification promises a notion of self as unique and verifiable, characteristics that are eliminated, as demonstrated above, by the very properties of la parole intermédiaire.

In an analysis by Patricia Struebig, Léon has also been shown to reach a destination. She understands the act of his continually being displaced (or “modified” as the title directs us) as an indication that Léon is also simultaneously arriving somewhere. Again, homelessness is no longer an issue (54). Of greater interest is Bernard Pingaud's theory that the device of the vous, in addition to dividing itself into various voices, also functions as a way of joining the subjectivity of first-person narration with the objectivity of the third person. A compromise is effected because in this fusion of persons each is dissolved so that the vous can bridge the gap between them (94). Thus the tendency towards displacement of the subject is counteracted by the urge of je and il (“he”) to cohere as a vous.

Achieving a balance between these centripetal and centrifugal forces is obviously one way to define the relationship between self and other. Another version of this can be seen in Marianne Hirsch's view that self and other are both “decentralized” and “reconstituted” in Butor's work, that the city of Rome offers the model of a center that has lost its power so that all that remains is a “balance of points” around which self and other orient themselves.7 Thus, even with a “decentralized vision,” there appears to be movement towards a center, one that Hirsch conceptualizes as a “balance of points.”

Françoise Van Rossum-Guyon, too, in her comprehensive reading of La Modification, locates the constitution of the subject in the use of the first-person pronoun in the final chapter and the promise of the book. She notes that “this I is a vanquished one” because it has yet to, among other things, “master the images that assail it” (279–80). But her argument that the je at the end of the novel is not a triumphant one is weakened when she explains that this character discovers the one mechanism that can free him from this attack (281). If the search for a subject-centered voice is laid bare in La Modification, Rossum-Guyon, curiously enough, understands this activity to be a liberating force for the narrator (and the reader as well by implication) since his next move is to write a book. Although all of these discussions disagree about the location of closure in La Modification, there is general consensus that the je suggests an end to tensions between the various voices occupying the text so that a stable subject can emerge. Critical attention has been directed at the movement towards unification of the subject implied by Léon's future book. I argue that the je that speaks as a writer-to-be is in fact the most disembodied voice in the text.

The novel is permeated with obstacles to finding a voice and, despite the je that precipitates a decision to write, is no nearer its goal at the end of the text that at the beginning. The discussions referred to above demonstrate that the hero has reached his destination in the decision to become an author. But with regard to the narrator, he is still far from any goal. Indeed, the end of the novel can be read as throwing the narration into doubt once and for all, thus eliminating any sense of closure whatsoever.

The je that speaks at the end of the novel is one that has consciously decided to become the author of a story resembling the one just told us, with one important difference: this new version will admit the illusory nature of the “croyance secrète à un retour à la pax romana” (279) (“secret belief in a return to the Pax Romana” [243]) that lay beneath the present book. Acknowledging the power of history means accepting that the narrator's voice is not really his own, that it is technically a result of conditions beyond his control. In other words, the recognition of the fact that history will play a role in the future book presupposes that the decision to write the text is already an acceptance of the failure to find a voice.

Having been condemned by history for having ignored it,8 Léon is left with a “fissure béante en ma personne” (276) (“yawning fissure in my being” [240]). Looking to the future book as a way to close the fissure, he makes himself a character in his own fiction, thereby asserting his power as author. The idea of the legitimizing authority of writing to which critics owe their reading of La Modification as ending with the emergence of a subject suggests that the writer is an originator of meaning and invention, an idea poststructuralist thought has severely criticized. Foucault, for example, claims that “In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears” (142). And Derrida's definition of écriture has addressed the irresponsible, because infinitely repeatable, dimension of the sign in written language. An endless postponement of the present results in writing as absence. But, argues Foucault, to view writing as absence actually supports the notion of the writer's authority because it is “a simple repetition, in transcendental terms, of both the religious principle of inalterable and yet never fulfilled tradition, and the aesthetic principle of the work's survival, its perpetuation beyond the author's death, and its enigmatic excess in relation to him” (145). To keep from falling into this trap, as readers, he continues, we would do better to “locate the space left empty by the author's disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings that this disappearance uncovers” (145). In La Modification, I find this space precisely where the narration is not faithful to the thought processes it portrays. The text, obsessed with representing reality, comes undone when the je tries to take over. It is at this point that the narration, unlike Léon the traveler, remains homeless. Two passages should be examined in order to show this decisive move away from a center.

In the first, Léon wonders how he will depict the two cities in his life:

Il faudrait montrer dans ce livre le rôle que peut jouer Rome dans la vie d'un homme à Paris; on pourrait imaginer ces deux villes superposées l'une à l'autre, l'une souterraine par rapport à l'autre, avec des trappes de communication … le trajet d'un point à un autre serait modifié selon la connaissance, la familiarité que l'on aurait de cette autre ville, de telle sorte que toute localisation serait double, l'espace romain déformant plus ou moins pour chacun l'espace parisien, autorisant rencontres ou induisant en pièges.


This book should show the part Rome can play in the life of a man in Paris; the two cities might be imagined one above the other, one of them lying underground below the other, with communicating trip doors … the distance from one point to another, the way from one point to another would vary according to one's knowledge, the degree of one's familiarity with that other city, so that every man's consciousness of place would be twofold, and Rome would distort Paris to a greater or lesser degree for each individual, suggesting authentic or misleading parallels.


Rome and Paris, the two “centers” (he uses the word several times throughout the novel) in his life that have proven unreconcilable, are brought together here for the first time. However, only by imagining them superimposed in his book can they function simultaneously, although even then it is not a peaceful coexistence because one “deforms” the other, forcing the Parisian sphere into submission. To arrange centers so that “every man's consciousness of place would be twofold” removes from each respective space any ability to remain a center. The two spaces now exist as one “off-center” so that the logocentric desire for a center is built into the proposed book. The narrator of the present book thus only envisions himself as narrator of the next book in terms of the perpetual quest to make the text right itself. In Peter Brooks's words describing the course of desire as “totalizing in intent” and “tending toward combination in new unities,” this is “metonymy in search of metaphor” (106). The present narrator condemns himself to an eternal state of metonymic homelessness that offers no way out. Although Léon later rejects the idea of superimposing Paris and Rome, what he envisions next for his future book will actually aggravate, rather than alleviate, this troubled state.

He changes his mind in the last lines of the novel when he decides that

le mieux, sans doute, serait de conserver à ces deux villes leurs relations réelles et de tenter de faire revivre sur le mode de la lecture cet épisode crucial de votre aventure, le mouvement qui s'est produit dans votre esprit accompagnant le déplacement de votre corps d'une gare à l'autre à travers tous les paysages intermédiaires, vers ce livre futur et nécessaire dont vous tenez la forme dans votre main.


The best thing, surely, would be to reserve the actual geographical relationship between these two cities and to try to bring to life, in the form of literature, this crucial episode in your experience, the movement that went on in your mind while your body was being transferred from one station to another through all the intermediate landscapes, toward this book, this future necessary book of which you're holding in your hand the outward form.


This passage has been viewed as a positive step towards Léon's recovery. In what could be considered a Freudian analysis, Armine Kotin Mortimer finds that Rome represents the unconscious and Paris the conscious. An assertion of the distance between the two is a result of Léon's having enlisted the reader to help him carry out an analysis that brought the unconscious to the surface (183). Mortimer's study accounts for the addressee's presence and relationship to the narrator, but it cannot be forgotten that when the latter recovers from his crisis, he can only do so as a character in fiction in both the present text and the promised one, thus ensuring that he will continue to be subsumed by language. To complicate this “recovery,” the mise en abyme of the book as an object implicates an addressee whose presence is accentuated as the narrative develops. Plurivocal by nature, the mise en abyme decenters discourse for good in Léon's final lines.

To return to Foucault's concept that the death of the author should be viewed in terms of the “space into which the writing subject constantly disappears,” we next need to examine the space uncovered by this absence. He offers a clue to the composition of this space:

In a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first-person pronoun or the present indicative refers exactly either to the writer or to the moment in which he writes, but rather to an alter ego whose distance from the author varies, often changing in the course of the work. It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance.


The idea of an alter ego adds yet another voice to this text. If the je, that successfully speaks at the end of the novel creates space for an alter ego rather than a unification of self, then the death of the author gives birth not only to the reader,9 but also to this ego as alter.

The relationship between the author's effacement and the consequent positing of an alter ego illustrates how Léon's je does not possess the ability to represent an authentic voice. In the frenzied dream sequences, his continual interpellation of Janus, the double-faced god of beginnings, is evidence of his desire to reach an origin (as is the myth of ancient Rome), the ultimate place of authentication. But the position of author that he cultivates is actually his greatest obstacle to achieving a centered voice because, as Foucault explains, beginning in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries the author-function in literature, unlike that in science, represented a multivoiced text that could not be reduced to any one particular voice (149–53). Historically speaking, then, the concept of the polyphonic emerges at the same time as that of the author. Because Léon ignores history, it follows that he would mistake the voice of an author as one that could lead to a place of authentication. Not accepting the implications of history for discourse excites the decentered voice rather than calms it.

Barthes accounts for the lack of a discursive center in terms of a war inherent in language. The writer becomes the site for battle, yet he is denied any fixed meaning therein. Barthes explains:

Comme créature de langage, l'écrivain est toujours pris dans la guerre des fictions (des parlers), mais il n'y est jamais qu'un jouet, puisque le langage qui le constitute (l'écriture) est toujours hors-lieu (atopique); par le simple effet de la polysémie (stade rudimentaire de l'écriture), l'engagement guerrier d'une parole littéraire est douteux dès son origine. L'écrivain … est nécessaire au sens (au combat), mais privé lui-même de sens fixe.

(Plaisir 57)

As a creature of language, the writer is always caught up in the war of fictions (jargon), but he is never anything but a plaything in it, since the language that constitutes him (writing) is always outside-of-place (atopic); by the simple effect of polysemy (rudimentary stage of writing), the warrior commitment of a literary dialect is dubious from its origin. The writer is … necessary to the meaning (the battle), but himself deprived of fixed meaning.


The recourse to the imagery of battle is a useful method for determining how different levels of the mise en abyme function in this text. Léon-narrator has made an enemy of himself by deciding to become a writer, a role that can be characterized by submission and, eventually, death. Furthermore, “Butor's” own position as a writer is now thrown into doubt so that even the putative starting point of the mise en abyme resists location. Léon, in opting for salvation through a book, actually maintains the unstable voice that permeates the present text. Far from mending the division of the self, the announcement of the future work guarantees the immutability of this fragmentation. The mise en abyme at work here in the dynamics between writer and character suggests that the process of gaining access only to fictional versions of himself is an interminable one. The impossibility of finding a subject-centered voice is thus inscribed in the text.

Continual displacement constitutes the self as a construction of textual relationships that has no beginning or end; writing is essentially a never-ending process in which an act of closure is forever subsumed by the promise of a text that inheres in Léon's je. Recalling Frow's words that the subject is not an origin, but an effect, I contend that this ungrounded configuration of the signifying chain produces anything but the emergence of a definitive self that so many critics have argued for.

The fact that the distance between ego and alter is in a continual state of flux recalls the conditions inherent in la parole intermédiaire. If positions are always shifting vis-à-vis one another, then the enunciative situation, even with the author laid to rest, is made up of voices that must be dynamic by nature. If La Modification does not see the emergence of a voice, it does affirm the enunciative model on which all discourse is founded. Discursive decentering may create permanent obstacles for Léon-narrator, but it ensures contact between addresser and addressee at the very least, thus securing communication. In a narrative that is left without a center, discursive homelessness seems the best place to settle in.


To read La Modification only as an énoncé involves the risk of being blind to the discursive decentering so central to the novel. Léon-narrator ends his search for a unified voice by emphasizing the role of the reader, thereby guaranteeing homelessness ad infinitum for the subject. The paradox lies in the fact that “in a world whose meanings are multiple and heterogeneous, complex and contradictory—in a world that, therefore, demands to be charted—the act of reading remains the only legitimate individual activity.” (Hirsch, “Decentralized” 348), even if the reader is “without history, biography, psychology” (Barthes, “Death” 148). This relentless insistence on the reader occurs at the expense of the author as a logocentrically defined concept.

By fashioning the promised book into an extension of himself, a way of prolonging the self, Léon can be heard metonymically. But as a whole, the subject cannot be located because the mise en abyme forces the stratification of meaning so that a subject-centered voice is beyond hope of being recuperated. Discursive decentering is metonymic rather than metaphoric because the text is all promise rather than revelation, processual rather than totalizing. Léon's voice remains disembodied because, to recall Lacan's theory of desire as metonymy (277), it is doomed to perpetual wandering out of desire that can never be fulfilled. Mieke Bal envisions the mise en abyme thus: “What is put into the perspective of infinite regress is not the totality of an image, but only a part of the text, or a certain aspect” (146; emphasis hers). Indeed, the “totality of an image” is not available to Léon, who may return home to Paris, but with no voice intact.


  1. Valéry defined this term as “toutes croyances qui ont de commun l'oubli de la condition verbale de la littérature” (569) (“all beliefs that overlook the verbal condition of literature”).

  2. Jefferson 172; emphasis mine. Jefferson quotes from Bakhtin here.

  3. William Helling's comprehensive study of the intertextual correspondence between La Modification and The Aeneid falls into this trap. Had Helling studied the énonciation as well, I believe he would not have concluded that Léon is indeed worthy of being called a Virgilian hero.

  4. “[I]ndividuals are not masters of performing their own placement in space, since, on the contrary, it is this setting into place that establishes their identity” (my translation). Flahault's study of discourse keeps language from being reduced to a mere object of communication. Emphasis is placed on the intersubjective moment in which the speaking subject is constituted according to the positions it attributes to an other.

  5. For example, he believes his failed lunch Italian style at a Parisian café can be compensated for by lighting the last of his Italian cigarettes, only to have it quickly put out by the rain.

  6. Gerald Prince notes that the narratee, even if seemingly impersonal (“the degree zero narratee”) “connaît la langue, le(s) langage(s) de celui qui raconte. Dans son cas, connaître une langue, c'est connaître les dénotations—les signifiés en tant que tels et, s'il y a lieu, les référents—de tous les signes qui la constituent” (180) (“knows the universal language, the language[s] of he who is doing the telling. For him, to know a language is to know the denotations—the signifieds as such and, if need be, the referents—of all the signs that constitute the language”).

  7. Hirsch, “Decentralized” 326. The concept of a “balance of points” is borrowed from an interview that Hirsch held with Butor entitled “An Interview with Michel Butor” (272).

  8. At the end of his dream, Léon, suspended in the air, listens with terror as the King of the Last Judgment identifies those accusing him: “Au simple son de mes paroles, tes membres commencent à se convulser, comme déjà dévorés de vers. Ce n'est pas moi qui te condamne, ce sont tous ceux qui m'accompagnent et leurs ancêtres, ce sont tous ceux qui t'accompagnent et leurs enfants” (263) (“At the mere sound of my words your limbs are beginning to twitch convulsively, as if worms were devouring them already. It is not I who pronounce judgment upon you but all those who are with me and their ancestors, all those who are with you and their children” [227]). The history of Christianity now weighs on him as it delivers its sentence, which, in the waking world, will result in the book.

  9. The death of the author allows the reader not only access to a text, but free access because the reader can gain entry while disregarding the signified. Barthes explains: “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author” (Barthes, “Death” 148).

I would like to thank Ross Chambers for his comments on an earlier version of this essay.

Michel Butor and Martine Reid (interview date 29 September 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4424

SOURCE: Butor, Michel, and Martine Reid. “Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor.1Yale French Studies, no. 84 (1994): 17–26.

[In the following interview, Butor discusses the compartmentalization of the arts and his writing process.]

[Reid]: If I have been eager to interview you and to place this interview as the lead piece of a journal issue devoted to writing and drawing, to the readable and the visible, it is because it seems to me that among contemporary writers, you are the one of those who has most clearly striven to prove the double affirmation which you yourself have formulated: “Painting is also something we read … literature is also something we look at.”2 A similar remark opens a text which you published in 1969, Les Mots dans la peinture. On the subject of words which hold your attention in painting and of which you propose a list (title, signature, address, maxims, rebus, proverbs, various inscriptions in which words are reified), you write, “the presence of these words ruins … the retaining wall our teaching constructs in between literature and the arts.”3

[Butor]: Yes. You know, this is even more clear in France than it is in the United States. Generally in the United States, art schools are part of the university. Any self-respecting university maintains an art museum. It is not true of France; art schools are considered as something completely exterior to university teaching. As a result, it is very difficult to build bridges between the disciplines. It's true for painting; it's also true for music. In the United States, conservatories are part of the university. All this goes to show to what extent there are walls in France and in other European countries. Art, literature, and music are not departments inside a single institution; they are considered completely distinct institutions unto themselves.

From this point of view, we can assert right away that all of your works seek to undermine—systematically, stubbornly, playfully—compartmentalization, the division of techniques, but also the division of knowledge, of which we know the long and capricious history.

Certainly. My work is one of undermining [travail de sape]. I have always sought to build bridges across borders, be they the borders between the arts, or the borders between countries. For me, these two things are linked together. To build bridges across borders doesn't mean that these borders do not exist, that they have not been, and even now are not, justified. It is much too easy to say, “There are no more borders; anyone can do anything; etc.” It's not true, and this isn't the question. The question is how to show that these borders which distinguish different fields, and rightly so, are not permanent and impermeable. We absolutely must understand that the borders between nations are not the same as they were one hundred years ago, that the borders between the activities of the mind and between the institutions which take charge of them are not the same either. Clearly there is considerable inertia; changing institutions is very difficult, even when actual practices have already evolved considerably. We have quite a hard time changing teaching; it's extraordinarily difficult to change such weighty institutions. In the same way, altering the borders between peoples presents extraordinary difficulties. I've always tried to show that first of all, borders are not constant, that the establishment of these borders was linked to a specific situation; and then as a corollary, that these borders could and should be crossed, even if to cross a border does not mean to abolish it. We can easily understand that there is a region in which people speak German and a region in which people speak French. We can draw the line between these two regions on a map. This is completely different from preventing the French from going to visit the Germans. Very often there are phenomena, movements, which cause borders to harden. As we know only too well, borders can become stifling and murderous. The dotted lines on the cartographer's map can be transformed into walls of flame …

You have published quite a lot on painting and painters. Regarding art criticism, and particularly a text of Vieira Da Silva, you said, “it is not truly art criticism; it is a text which comes out of viewed painting.”4

There are all kinds of possible connections between text and painting. The first of these connections is the text which speaks of painting. There can also be texts—and we have seen only too many these past few years—which state that one cannot talk about painting; but to say that one cannot talk about painting is itself to talk about painting. This is the first connection: a text about painting, an art history text for example, a critical text; in this case all forms are possible. All of these texts about painting obviously play an important role in terms of the way in which we look at painting. There are also texts in which there are passages of art criticism. For example there may be passages of art criticism in great novels, because the novelist uses pictorial references to render a description. In French literature, two examples immediately come to mind: Balzac and Proust. Then, there is a second connection between text and painting: a text next to a painting. As soon as a text is placed next to a painting, a new object is produced. Let's say that it is an object which has two parents, a parent-text and a parent-painting. This is what generally happens in an artist's book. Finally there is a third connection: a text which is located within a painting. It is the text within the painting which absolutely forces us to realize a fact, one which should be obvious, that writing is a visible thing. Writing is a way of making language visible. In an illustrated book, you are dealing with a fundamental plastic structure which is the rectangle of the double page, with, on the right for example, a rectangular plate, the reproduction of a painting, and on the left, a rectangle of text. All one has to do is to move away a bit to see that the rectangle of text is also a rectangle of drawing and color, that it is a gray color. Moreover, it is in just this way that the designers of art history books treat the text: there must be a pretty gray color. In this structure, the text already is presented as an image. In Western culture, especially in the nineteenth century (and we can begin to wonder why), the image-text was considered as something so different from the image in the ordinary sense of the word that it was deemed absolutely necessary to put borders between the two, that it was dangerous to bring these two elements together. As soon as text enters into the rectangle, I might call it the sacred rectangle of traditional Western painting, then, despite all the entreaties (academic as well as judicial, etc.), one cannot help but notice that writing is drawing, that writing is image. There, the text has a considerable influence not only on the way in which we perceive the painting (we interpret it of course), but also on the manner in which we profit from it, we look at it. It is a part of the painting; we can easily see that writing entails lines alongside other lines; the composition of the whole takes account of this. If it is the painter himself who has written the words, he manages the situation on his own. If it is a writer on the one hand and a painter on the other, problems of very intimate dialogue are born; and there the writer notices not only that he is speaking of painting, but that he is making painting, and not in the common metaphoric sense, but in the sense of Horace, ut pictura poesis, which is very important, but in a much more literal way.

Very early on, you began to consider, “la peinture comme trajet,” painting as a journey, I am thinking particularly of the work of Jackson Pollock which haunts a text like Mobile. Is it because this type of painting calls for/recalls writing? In terms of hand movements at least …

Indeed, especially with Pollock, gesture recalls (with differences of course) the gesture of writing through a very important concept. In late nineteenth-century writing, as it is represented in painting, ink was used, a liquid pigment, which was not the case in painting. Pasty pigments were used in oil painting, or in certain instances liquid pigments such as watercolors, but this dried very quickly. … Pollock, on the other hand, uses a liquid paint which creates a kind of thread, and this is very close to handwriting. In this respect, we must remember that there has been an evolution in writing. Ancient writings are letter by letter, then, gradually, there are links between the letters. It is said that writing became more and more cursive. Subsequently, we find a distinction between words, which derives from the fact that a word is made practically from a single stroke, an extraordinarily complicated stroke, much more complicated than the movements of any figure skater, much more complicated than most strokes by painters on their surface. In very cursive writings, some words may be linked with each other. Pollock's painting recovers this ductility of writing. We might say that Pollock's art rediscovers a kind of elementary writing, but his stroke didn't take him as far as writing. He confronts the structures of this genre and then figurative structures, etc., all sorts of things, but from the perspective of writing, he remains in what I call infrawriting; he remains a scribbler. As part of the traditional writer's activities—assuming that he must write by hand—there is quite often an escape toward a kind of liberated stroke, and that is scribbling. To scribble is to take possession of a space. It is clear with Pollock that certain of his paintings are immense scribblings, which incidentally gives them a remarkable “childlike” quality. In a sense, we find ourselves, there, on the margins of writing. One might study the connections between actual writing and scribblings in manuscripts. There are areas of readable writing and then we have areas where the bad pupil starts to scribble. Writers are bad pupils at times. Thus there are scribblings in manuscripts, and between scribbling and writing, neat writing [l'écriture au propre] as we say, there are all kinds of marvellous phenomena, such as erasures, cut text, pasted text, etc., which take on often extraordinary plastic qualities. There are three steps: scribbling, the rough draft, and finally the actual text. We should quickly note a few things about the rough draft. There are phenomena of agitation involved, since the writer will correct himself; this heightens the kind of dance we find on the page and in the rough draft, especially with certain writers. We can see that these writers are not content with a sort of furrowing labor, line by line; no, the motion of the hand creates all kinds of detours and returns. To bring writing into painting, the painter will encounter different problems. With static lettering, in which each letter is considered a stable figure (which is what occurs in inscriptions and in the European Middle Ages for example), the painter who wants to put writing into his picture is confronted with stable figures which he paints without much difficulty. If writing becomes very cursive, this presents us with different problems. There are “cursive” painters; there are painters who use liquid pigments, who have long brush strokes (I am thinking of El Greco). Then the difficulty will be the reverse. This pictorial cursiveness displaces writerly cursiveness, which is usually readable. With El Greco, in the Evangelists series, we find all kinds of examples of unreadable writing, hypercursive writings …

Here we pick up on a series of things which you said in Les Mots dans la peinture, specifically that painting is in no way “pure vision.” In the progression of these ideas, I would like to come back to your collaboration with painters; I am thinking especially of Christian Dotremont and Alechinsky. Why did you make this choice, to work as a writer in painting?

Christian Dotremont was originally a writer. He was the writer in the Cobra group. He became a painter gradually, starting with writing and developing certain aspects of writing. He is truly a painter of the written. I know several of his images which are not directly writing; I can think of a certain number of sketches; but for the most part, his works are logograms, writings which have been transformed in such a way that they are difficult to read. There is a translation into more readable writing on one side, and the search for a buried word is one of the essential elements of perception in these works. With all the members of the Cobra group, there is a certain cursiveness in gesture, in stroke; but it is certainly Alechinsky who has the clearest confrontation with writing.

You yourself from time to time have lent your writing to this kind of work.

Of course. I have done a certain number of books in which there is manuscript, then there are works in which I have written some text; and certain painters have taken manuscripts as material. Alechinsky used not only manuscripts in its conventional meaning, but also used typescripts [tapuscrits], in other words typed pages, with deletions, rough draft effects.

What interests me in this kind of procedure, since we are discussing the work of undermining, is the principle by which, the traditional auctoritas is destabilized. Who is the author? Jacques Derrida asserts somewhere, “Il faut être plusieurs pour écrire” [One must be several in order to write]. Is it the same thing here? One must be several to paint, or to write-paint?

The principle of the traditional auctoritas, but traditional only recently, is something which is questioned, and which is brought to life in a different way by all this kind of work. One must be several to write, and this in several different ways. The romantic idea that the work of art is individual expression is something which we must completely revise. This in no way prevents individuals from having a central importance in works of art, but the individual is only a link in an extremely complex chain. When we read someone's book, we never read the work of a single individual, if only because we hold a material object in our hands, an object which is the result of a complex of industrial and commercial process, and because that process—it cannot be said enough—informs the whole business. In order to be published, one must follow a certain number of rules, some written, some not. The writer is often quite insignificant compared to the object itself. In many publishing houses, the writer is only a prop to publicity. Also, the writer writes within the language [langue]. No writer has invented the language in which he writes. He transforms it; he introduces a style, new frequencies in vocabulary and syntactical relationships; but these always preexist him. One writes within a language as one writes within a literature, by transforming it. Thus what today's writer writes prevents the reading of other writers, living as well as dead. The reader does not have an infinite time for reading. If he sets aside a certain number of hours for one particular author, he cannot set it aside for another.

It seems to me that particularly in your work with painters (I am coming back to this subject), you are seeking to remain as close as possible to a situation which might be called “l'écriture a lieu” [writing takes place]. I like this term, since fortuitously it conjugates space (writing in situ) with time (its moment, its immediacy).

The space of writing: what does this mean? It means the space where a writer puts words to paper. It can be a painter's studio, or a printing house, or a study. Inside this study, there is a more restricted space which is the very medium of writing; in our culture it is paper, but doubtless not for long. In L'Emploi du temps. I think we can easily see the imbrication of places: the city which one does not leave; the character who always writes in his study; then there is the table and the page which he writes on. All this is the physical space of writing, but if we look at it a bit closer, all the cultural elements appear as necessarily implicated.

Once again, let's come back to you. How do you conceive of rough drafts and manuscripts? You spoke of this just a little while ago.

There are two separate things. There is the rough draft, the outline, etc., and then the manuscript. In working with painters, I have tried to use a certain number of the plastic elements of the manuscript. In these cases, the manuscripts are as neat as possible, even if from time to time certain erasures remain; but in any case, I make it as readable as I can. Before reaching the stage of the final manuscript, there are several steps. I think about the nineteenth-century writers who had their texts copied before entrusting them to an editor. Flaubert's definitive manuscripts are not written in Flaubert's hand. As far as my rough drafts are concerned, at the beginning I wrote by hand, but very quickly I began to work on a typewriter. With certain passages there was a manuscript version first, then a typed version. With a certain number of texts, I rewrote the pages, sometimes more than twenty times. If I had left everything in, there would be twenty different stages. I worked on my texts a great deal with a typewriter. Generally, once I had a typed version, I reread, corrected by hand, retyped, and then again, until my texts achieved a kind of stability, not that I found them perfect, but, weary, I stopped correcting them. There is a moment when I find everything equally poor. Then there is nothing else to do but to publish. Now I have finally entered the modern age; I use a Macintosh. This allows me to revise a great deal on the computer, yet all the same I still go through several versions since many errors remain. In my last years of teaching, I didn't have the time to do long-winded works. All my latest works were written in pieces; they are mosaics, quilts. When I retired, I imagined that I could recover my longwindedness, but for the time being this is not the case. For years, I've worked by bits and pieces; I write quite short texts. They can be used in their original form; thereafter they can be combined, integrated, etc. Most of the time, for these texts I do a first draft in a little notebook. These are my original rough drafts. It is the rough outline of writing with illuminations, scribbling, erasures. Afterwards I move on to the computer. If the text is an article or an essay, I don't need an original manuscript version. I need a manuscript version only for poetic texts. Generally I do poems upon request. I wrote a lot of poetry in my youth. I was a postsurrealist romantic, with a bit of automatic writing thrown in, a faucet you turn on and let run. But since then, when I've written poems, it has always been in response to a request. In that respect, I'm completely opposed to the poetic theory which I call postromantic and which still holds sway with most contemporary poets. My poetry is always occasional poetry. It is always requested by someone or something, a painter or a musician, or anyone else. If I accept, it's because I have the feeling that I can do something. There's always a moment in which I don't have any idea what I am going to do and then—notably if I am walking in the woods—suddenly there it is: a thread starts to appear and I pull on this thread. This is what happens when I work in notebooks. … During these walks, ideas come to me, and I feel the need to write them down. Before, this didn't happen; I had a pretty good memory and if ideas came to me, they stayed with me. Actually, I felt that my memory performed a necessary selection process. But now it works less well; that's why I carry notebooks …

With regard to rough drafts and manuscripts, I thought of words I've seen here and there, neologisms, such as “tapuscrits” [typescripts], “pictuscrits” [pictuscripts]. … What do you mean by these?

We lack the words we need to describe a certain number of objects which we nevertheless use constantly. Things don't happen in quite the same way when we write by hand and when we type; this is why we need other names. The word tapuscrit is obviously a burlesque neologism; it allows us to mock the neologisms of so many literary theoreticians who create useless words, which, moreover, are quickly abandoned. … Pictuscrit, I don't think I invented that word, which designates an object, a text in which there is painting, in which the pictorial appears. Furthermore, I have also used the word ordinuscrit [computoscript], because phenomena are so different when one works on the typewriter or on the computer that here as well a different word is essential.

I would like for you to speak of another practice, one which concerns correspondence, the habit which you have adopted of cutting up a postcard, pasting it together again, of adding to it as needed a piece of another card, of making a hole and putting a bit of string through it, then of sending this “product,” along with a few words, to your addressee. What exactly is this transaction?

It comes from the fact that I correspond copiously. I'm not complaining, on the contrary. But to receive mail, one must also nourish the mail. Consequently, one must respond to letters which one receives. I respond as often as possible to the letters I receive, but now I can't always face up to it. I have used the postcard format so that I can write letters more easily; and by the way the format has become oversized. I was too cramped. The postcard is my excuse to write very brief texts, if you will. In any case, people who receive the card receive something personalized. I get by with brevity. I think I must have started to cut up cards about twenty or twenty-five years ago. In the beginning it was greeting cards, and then as usual new ideas came to me. … I continue on. I also have friends who help me, who make postcards so that I can cut them up, paste them together …

“Principle of redemption,” that is what Lyotard calls this practice. You produce something else, a derived product, a “quasi-postcard.”5 Lyotard observes that the gesture is a curious one, notably because one comes to reconsider what is above all a touristic commonplace. Faced with all these disparate practices (from the novel, the nouveau roman, to the redemption of the postcard), how do you conceive of the work [l'œuvre]? Must we reexamine the concept?

Doubtless. If one questions the notion of auctoritas, then automatically the question comes to bear on the notion of l'œuvre. This doesn't mean that these notions, the work and its creator, cannot be useful at a certain level. But, as I said, the work never belongs to a single creator. Whether he knows it or not, the author is part of an enormous collaboration, behind him, around him, on all sides. Collaborative works only prove that which exists in any artistic process. Thus the notion of the work of art must also be relativized. By my understanding, it is advisable to insist especially on the character of activity and operation, rather than that of the work of art.

The word which comes to mind when one thinks of these practices, of all these operations as you call them, is that of bricolage. Roland Barthes has cited the word to qualify Mobile. Does that still suit you: Michel Butor as Monsieur Bricolage?

Oh yes! In any case, I am not a bricoleur in the current sense of the term. I am a very poor man-about-the-house. I am a bricoleur only metaphorically. I am a bricoleur in the sense that one can define bricolage as a way of putting together elements which come from different areas. Roland Barthes spoke of bricolage in this sense when he discussed Mobile. The practice of collage, of cutting up, etc., all this is linked to that. But I would say that the notion of bricolage has two levels. First, there is the bricoleur, the one who knows how to make something. Most men are bricoleurs. To tinker about [bricoler], they use the tools which are furnished them by department store chains. This is the vulgar aspect of bricolage. The other level is the invention of material. This is what I would like to call the gathering of significant objects, the recovery of what has been eliminated, thrown out. This is very important for me. It is recycling. Each time there is a phenomenon of collage in twentieth-century painting, there is the phenomenon of recycling. I find some of this in my own work. This is the phenomenon of the quest for lost objects, for the disdained object to which we will give a new life and a new dignity; we will be forced to look at it in a different way. It is important for me, because today we move easily from the lost object, the object which has been thrown out, to the lost man, thrown out in the big cities; think of the United States in particular. Consequently, for me recycling always ends up as human recycling.


  1. The following interview was conducted at Michel Butor's home in Lucinges on 29 September 1992. I am deeply grateful for the generous gift of his time.

  2. Michel Butor and Patrick Stefanetto, “Entretien,” Traitements de textes: Cartes et brouillons (Gourdon: Dominique Bedou Editeur, 1985), 17.

  3. Butor, Les mots dans la peinture (Geneva: Skira/Flammarion, 1969), 5.

  4. Butor and Stefanetto, 17.

  5. Jean-François Lyotard, “Sites et récits de sites,” in Butor, Traitements de textes, op. cit., 9–14.

Stacy Burton (essay date winter 1992–spring 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6154

SOURCE: Burton, Stacy. “Experience and the Genres of Travel Writing: Bakhtin and Butor.” Romance Studies, no. 21 (winter 1992–spring 1993): 51–62.

[In the following essay, Burton uses Mikhail Bakhtin's theories concerning narrative and language to explore the significance of travel and cultural difference in Butor's novels.]

Despite its long tradition and popularity, travel literature has only lately begun to receive serious attention in literary history and theory. Until recently, ‘travel books’ were generally treated as light reading, or as biographical artifacts from the lives of great writers; now, their significance as texts about encounters between cultures, sensibilities and imaginations has become strikingly evident. Mary Campbell, Percy Adams and Paul Fussell, for instance, have shown how travel and travel narratives have crucially affected the development of imaginative literature generally, the novel as a genre, and the modern sensibility.1 Edward Said, Dean MacCannell, Rana Kabbani and other contemporary theorists have insightfully and critically examined the nature and implications of travel and the practice of travel writing. While travel literature has long been popular because it provides the ‘exotic’ adventure of ‘discovering the other,’ these scholars argue provocatively that such narratives are significant especially because they so often offer more compelling insights into the cultural situation and expectations of the writer than into the subject of his or her observations.2

As such scholarship shaped by contemporary theory demonstrates, travel literature reveals much about the construction of the self, the representation of experience, the ideologies of colonialism and imperialism, the boundaries between fact and fiction, and the relations between readers and texts.3 In Orientalism, Said observes that ‘to be a European in the Orient always involves being a consciousness set apart from, and unequal with, its surroundings’; Kabbani asserts that ‘to write a literature of travel cannot but imply a colonial relationship.’4 Both claims raise issues of great import, for how the ‘consciousness set apart’ reshapes and interprets ‘the other’—in the Orient, the Americas, the South Pacific, or elsewhere—and what this reveals about literature, culture and the act of representation remain crucial questions contemporary readers of travel literature must address. Roland Barthes commented in 1962 that the ‘travel impression’ is a genre ‘to which our society extends the greatest indulgence’;5 in 1991 both the genre and the indulgence traditionally granted it have become subjects of serious critical inquiry.

Mikhail Bakhtin's theories about narrative and language bear particular significance for the study of travel literature; indeed, they are so pertinent that it is quite surprising to find virtually no mention of Bakhtin in current critical discussion of travel writing, the more so since his name seems to appear everywhere else.6 For Bakhtin the juxtapositions and encounters between cultures that intrigue travel writers are the fundamental fabric of human life: the world is made of voices and languages that ‘mutually supplement one another, contradict one another, and [are] related dialogically,’ each perpetually shaping and in turn being re-shaped by others (DI [The Dialogic Imagination] 292). Bakhtin sees narratives as texts which both represent and further this interaction by engaging readers in unfinalized dialogues which remain always open to other voices. The value of his theories for readers of travel literature may be seen particularly well through the works of Michel Butor, who has written about travel in fiction, essays and experimental texts throughout his career. While this essay can only outline a reading of Butor's works, they will serve to illustrate and test some of the possibilities Bakhtin's theories offer for critical analysis of travel literature.


What has come to be called ‘dialogism’ emphasizes and celebrates the interrelation of voices in life, literature and words themselves. For Bakhtin, dialogue is the fundamental mode of human life, as he observes in retrospective notes on his book about Dostoevsky:

The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.7

This interrelation of voices is constitutive for every way language exists, in literature as well as in life, and is embodied in the very words we use: Bakhtin emphasizes that ‘the word (or in general any sign) is interindividual’ (SG [Speech Genres and Other Late Essays] 121). Words are not ready-made forms; rather, each word is ‘living,’ constantly open to re-evaluation and reinterpretation (DI 276). At the same time as words are shaped by speakers, speakers and listeners are shaped in and through the words they use. The consciousness and ideology of a human being develop in ‘the process of selectively assimilating the words of others’ (DI 341); human life, Bakhtin explains, is a process of orientation in a polyphonic ‘world of others' words,’ a course of transforming ‘the other's word’ into ‘one's own/other (or other/one's own)’ (SG 143, 145).

It is a crucial point in Bakhtin's theory that no voice is exempt from the dialogic nature of the world, that no discourse can have exclusive authority. Some speakers assume or are granted such authoritative status for their words, of course, but Bakhtin emphasizes that all language is inherently dialogic and believes that dialogue from within or without always, eventually, overcomes monologue (DI 341–48).8 For Bakhtin there is no closure to the ‘world symposium’: ‘Two myths perish simultaneously: the myth of a language that presumes to be the only language, and the myth of a language that presumes to be completely unified’ (DI 68). One understands individuals, texts and cultures not by defining them authoritatively, but by interacting with them dialogically. Understanding is not a dogmatic event, but rather a process, ‘a struggle … that results in mutual change and enrichment’ (SG 142). The human world thus exists as a perpetual dialogue between different discourses and points of view. For, Bakhtin writes,

at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom; it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form. These ‘languages’ of heteroglossia intersect each other in a variety of ways …

… all languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in words, specific world views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings and values. As such they all may be juxtaposed to one another, mutually supplement one another, contradict one another and be interrelated dialogically. As such they encounter one another and co-exist in the consciousness of real people …

(DI 291–92)

This ‘co-existence,’ Bakhtin emphasizes, is enacted in the creation of narrative: in his essays the ‘novel’ stands as the supremely dialogic genre due to its close proximity to real experience, its elastic ability to represent heteroglossia with great specificity, and its ongoing creative life through its readers. Bakhtin deliberately, provocatively uses ‘novel’ to stand for the characteristics of literature he most values, those associated with heteroglossia and change, and ‘epic’ or ‘poetry’ to stand for more monologic, conventionalized uses.9 As ‘the only developing genre,’ he argues, the novel ‘reflects more deeply, more essentially, more sensitively and rapidly, reality itself in the process of its unfolding. Only that which is itself developing can comprehend development as a process’ (DI 7). For ‘prose art presumes a deliberate feeling for the historical and social concreteness of living discourse … it deals with discourse that is still warm from [the] struggle’ (DI 331). Even ‘plot itself is subordinated to the task of coordinating and exposing languages to each other,’ for ‘what is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one's own language as it is perceived in someone else's language, coming to know one's own belief system in someone else's system’ (DI 365).

The novel's primary project is thus less telling a story than re-presenting dialogic interaction: Bakhtin reads narrative as the richest means of exploring the open-ended encounters that occur as differing languages collide, contest with and refashion one another and as a way of furthering these dialogues through the experiences of its readers. ‘The most fundamental organizing idea in the novel,’ he proposes, is that of ‘testing’ a character's discourse as he or she develops through experience and dialogic interaction (DI 388). He finds, however, that most types of narrative rely on ‘ready-made’ heroes and on inadequate, predictable fictional patterns that emphasize form over process, stasis over becoming; such characters have experiences but are not genuinely changed by them (SG 20–21). Significantly, Bakhtin turns to the Bildungsroman, a genre linked to the development of travel literature, to make his exemplary case.10 In its richest variation, he emphasizes, the Bildungsroman represents the development of a character in conjunction with historical development:

He emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself. He is no longer within an epoch, but on the border between two epochs, at the transition point from one to the other. The transition is accomplished in him and through him. He is forced to become a new, unprecedented type of human being.

(SG 23)

In a world of change and heteroglossia, a character cannot rely on existing norms, but must shape his or her own understanding through the dialogic of experience. In key ways, this experience is similar to that of the traveller on the border between two cultures, venturing beyond old types into unfamiliar terrain.

As this brief outline emphasizes, Bakhtin's theories of language and narrative are grounded in precisely the kinds of experiences with ‘the other’ that travel literature represents. At the same time as he values the reality of heteroglossia and dialogue, moreover, he also sees them always in conflict (though at times creatively) with the monologic impulse to control meaning, make the world sensible, and tell a definitive story. Bakhtin's emphases on dialogue over monologue, diversity over authority, and process over definition raise many fundamental questions, of course, but are particularly significant for reading the writer whose very subject is what happens to ‘real people’ as they come into contact with decidedly ‘other’ languages and cultures. How does one represent the foreign? How does one truly explain languages on the far side of heteroglossia, or experiences in what Butor in Boomerang calls ‘the other side of the other end of the inverted world’?11 What, indeed, really happens to the self as its discourse is contested by the language and experience of ‘the other’?

Especially prior to the twentieth century, as Said, Campbell, Kabbani and others have shown, both autobiographical and fictional travel literature typically responded to ‘the other’ through various strategies of containment. By making it exotic, mythical, stereotypical, symbolic or subhuman, most writers managed in one fashion or another to contain ‘the other’ within the monologic certainty of their own discourse. ‘The other’ made for a good story, but was seldom if ever allowed to effect genuine dialogue or put the programme of the European narrator explicitly into question (implicit critique is of course another issue).12 but what about travel literature of the highly self-conscious, self-doubting twentieth century? Can modern travellers (such as those described by Fussell and MacCannell), determined to get past tourist sites and stereotypes, determined to experience ‘the other side’ of the world and be changed by it, write about the experience of travel dialogically? Is it possible to represent one's experience of ‘the other’ without fundamentally misrepresenting ‘the other’?


The possibilities Bakhtin's theories open for the study of travel literature can be seen strikingly through Butor's novels, essays and experimental texts. Butor's first novel, Passage de Milan, and his first book of travel writing, Le Génie du lieu, both concern the European experience of the Mediterranean, specifically Egypt; among his later pieces, Mobile: étude pour une représentation des Etats-unis and two additional volumes of Le Génie du lieu, Ou and Boomerang, deal with European experiences of the United States, Australia and Asia.13 The latter works are of special interest because each is written in an unconventional, fragmentary style and composed largely of juxtaposed citations from a variety of published sources. They are, as Barthes first noted in discussing Mobile, deliberate challenges to conventional notions of the book, continuity and meaning.14 Butor's shift from novel to travel essay to experimental text during the course of his career asserts (at the very least) a significant disparity between the form of the conventional novel and the reality of modern travel experience. Moreover, it also suggests that generic experimentation and evolution—what Bakhtin calls the ‘novelization’ of genres—may be necessary for writers and readers who are probing the nature of cultures and cultural differences and trying to understand them.

Butor's representations of the European experience of Egypt in the early works Passage de Milan (1954) and Le Génie du lieu (1958) illustrate the opposing tendencies of monologue and dialogue in Bakhtin's theory of discourse: in the first text he approaches Egypt authoritatively, in the second dialogically.15Passage de Milan, which is set in a Paris apartment building, effectively ‘takes place’ in Egypt, for character after character reveals ‘Oriental’ affiliations, such as interests in archaeology or antiquities. But Butor manages to evoke only a stereotypical, Orientalist Egypt, which serves as a source of hermetic symbols to overshadow and define the lives of his contemporary French characters. Even the sole ‘authentic’ Egyptian character, a servant named Ahmed, is merely a stock figure for sensuousness, luxury, and mystery.16 The Egyptian symbolism casts an exotic veneer over the text, managing only to challenge and confuse characters and readers alike: even the character who is a trained Egyptologist, Jean Ralon, cannot understand this Egypt (or engage it in dialogue), and critics generally see the novel as ambitious but seriously flawed.17

Butor develops his interest in relations between Egypt and Europe more dialogically four years later, however, in Le Génie du lieu, a book of essays about the Mediterranean that includes a long essay about his experiences in Egypt. As a young writer he leaves France ‘endeavouring to be on my guard against the aura of illusions surrounding the word Orient … firmly determined not to let myself be seduced by a certain picturesqueness linked to poverty and maintained for touristic ends.’18 But while he can resist the tourist images of Cairo, Butor finds himself overwhelmed by the fundamental differences between the quotidian reality of ‘being Egyptian’ and that of ‘being European’ that he discovers during a year in the city of Minya (SMP [The Spirit of Mediterranean Places] 85). The experience becomes ‘almost a second birth’: Egypt enables—indeed, requires—him ‘to rethink, to enlarge the perspectives [he] had inherited from [his] education,’ and eventually he finds himself so bound to what he sees that he can no longer look ‘with an astonished but detached gaze’ (SMP 80, 137). He represents contemporary Egypt as the site of rich heteroglossia, even cacophony, interjects his own voice into ongoing debates, and in turn is reshaped by the voices of Egypt's past and present surrounding him. In Le Génie du lieu, unlike Passage de Milan, he addresses the relations of present and past, undercuts Orientalist stereotypes, opens himself and his own discourse to uncertainty, and asks whether intercultural understanding is even possible.

In an interview several years after these works were published, Butor traced several reasons for his transition from the novel to experimental genres. With Passage de Milan, he explains, he conceived of the novel as ‘the all-encompassing form in modern literature,’ a form in which it is possible to ‘put everything, poetry and essay, into one book only’ and ‘give a unity to my mind.’ Later, however, he finds that his diverse interests require a new, unconventional form capable of dealing with an ‘ensemble’ of different lines of inquiry, one that goes beyond old genre boundaries and is ‘appropriate for the complex situation.’ Thus he makes the crucial decision to abandon the novel in order ‘to explore what could be done, if you wish, between the novel and poetry, or between the novel and the essay’ and also ‘to explore that distance between my life, the material of my life, and its result in a novel.’19 As these comments suggest, Butor throughout his career links writing and exploration; in the essay ‘Le voyage et l'ecriture’ (1974) he declares: ‘to travel, at least in a certain manner, is to write … and to write is to travel.’20

Butor's next two novels, L'Emploi du temps (1956) and La Modification (1957), illustrate both his changing sense of genre and his sense of the interconnection of travel, self-discovery, and writing. Both texts draw upon novelistic conventions, yet also depart from them significantly, La Modification most notably in its use of second-person (‘vous’) narration; both have been celebrated as examples of the ‘nouveau roman.’21 Butor's central characters—Jacques Revel in L'Emploi du temps and Léon Delmont in La Modification—travel abroad and write about their experiences, and in the process come to understand themselves and history in unanticipated ways. La Modification is particularly interesting in the light of Bakhtin's theories of language and narrative.22 Butor's character Léon has distorted some experiences and perceptions and elided others in order to maintain his monologic picture of the world. The ‘vous’ of the narrative is often read as a sign of Léon's alienation: he tells himself his own story from a distanced, deliberately fixed narrative position.23 During the course of a train journey from Paris to Rome, however, Léon unwillingly encounters his own past, present and future experiences as well as the voices of other characters and cultures. These experiences and voices subvert his neat, authoritative picture and fundamentally transform his way of perceiving himself and experiencing the world. By the end of the text, Léon can voice the word ‘je,’ and is able both to participate in dialogical interaction with other voices and to address his own history critically. What matters in La Modification is not the plot, but this transformative process: as Barthès explains, for Butor ‘process itself is creative, and creative of consciousness: a new man is constantly being born: time serves to some purpose.’24 Strikingly, Delmont himself decides at the end of the novel that in order to understand his experiences on the train (and thus himself) fully, he must write about them, and thus he plans ‘to try to bring to life, in the form of literature, this crucial episode in [his] experience.’25

Butor's consuming interest in the ways travel transforms the self and the connections between travel and language is a primary factor in his decision to write experimental texts rather than conventional novels or essays. What he does, in Bakhtin's terms, is subject narrative's ‘established forms to review’ and restructure them ‘in a zone of direct contact with developing reality’; his ‘new novels’ (such as La Modification) and especially his experimental texts enable him to ‘liberate’ literature about travel ‘from all that serves as a brake on [its] unique development’ (DI 39). Butor finds such ‘novelization’ esssential in his explorations of the connections between travel, narrative, self and language. To address the effects of Egypt on Europeans, he explained in a 1985 interview, necessitated a transition from a traditional narrative stance to the more immediate approach of Le Génie du lieu:

It was not possible for me to speak about places without speaking about myself and giving indications of the point of view. How can one speak about the situation without saying anything about the person who looks at it? After that work, you very often have autobiographical references [in my writing].26

Butor's shift in perspective enables him to examine both Egypt and stereotypes about Egypt directly and critically.27 It also allows him to highlight the novelistic ‘spirit of process and inconclusiveness’ that Bakhtin values; Le Génie du lieu ends with an anecdote that affirms both the difficulty of articulating one's understanding of ‘the other’ and the absolute, undiminished value of the effort (DI 7, SMP 146–47). Butor's later works, to be sure, do not mime the form of Bakhtin's favoured narratives: they are more experimental and fragmentary than the polyphonic texts of Dostoevsky. Yet clearly they are produced and may well best be read in the spirit of ‘novelization’ that he celebrates.28

Butor continues his work of generic transformation in Mobile and the later volumes of Le Génie du lieu, where (in Bakhtin's terms) he ‘appears in a new relationship with the represented world,’ one in which his ‘depicting’ discourse operates on the same plane as—and in dialogic relation with—the ‘depicted’ discourses of his subjects, the ‘others’ with whom he meets (DI 27). In these works writer, text and reader all exist in ‘contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present’ (DI 27); Butor himself becomes the ‘new man constantly being born’ as his explorations of the United States, Australia, and Asia dialogically transform his perceptions of himself, Paris and ‘the other.’ By setting the actual discourse of writers, natives, explorers, anthropologists and advertisements into play and juxtaposing the stereotypes, assumptions and perceptions each offers, Butor effectively reproduces something like the actual experience of an ‘explorer’ amidst a world of heteroglossia. As Michael Spencer has commented, for Butor ‘to write (about travel) is thus to set up a dialogue of places, recreating and commenting on the relationship between them or creating new relationships by altering the order and manner of their presentation’ (LA [Letters from the Antipodes] 147). Rather than authoritatively explaining what each place, discourse and encounter means, Butor traces the lineaments of his own experiences and involves the reader in a similar dialogical process of his or her own. He endeavours to re-create, as Bakhtin said of Dostoevsky, ‘not a world of objects,’ but one of ‘others’ equally valid consciousnesses, just as infinite and open-ended’ as his own, though in selecting and juxtaposing them he clearly reflects some of his own perceptions along with theirs (PDP [Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics] 68; cf. DI 324).

In each of these polyphonic travel texts Butor juxtaposes the discourses of native and tourist, colonized and colonizer, and popularizer and scholar in order to reveal the implications, subtexts and self-revelations of each. He focuses especially on clichés of the popular imagination and stereotype-laden texts written by Europeans about the native peoples of North America, Australia and Asia (LA 160–61). By deliberately setting some such representations against others and against his own observations, he enables them to de-form and deconstruct each other, and illuminates the ‘truths’ and ‘untruths’ of each. The effect is one of representation and re-writing: each voice speaks for itself and in its own terms, but in a new context that changes, challenges and revises it.29 Thus in Mobile. Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery come up against the realities of twentieth-century American racism, and various texts about the abuse of Native Americans interrogate the national myths embodied in the city of Washington, D.C. In Ou, highly detailed accounts of Zuni Shakalo religious ceremonies are juxtaposed with sensational fiction, Mormon history and scripture, and descriptions of the western American landscape. And in Boomerang, Captain Cook and Bougainville meet Jules Verne, tourist brochures and sympathetic accounts of Aboriginal culture.

While most critical discussion of Butor's later travel texts has focused on their carefully planned structures, Bakhtin's theories highlight the dialogic relationships and insights those structures may foster and the unpredictable possibilities they open. For, as even formalist critics note, ‘Butor has always sought to create an open work which encourages us to participate in and continue his explorations. In a way, the elaborate patterning works to remind us of its own insufficiency, to make more evident the lacunae when they occur.’30 Gary Saul Morson distinguishes between monologic and polyphonic authors in terms that cast light on this aspect of Butor's writing. Monologic authors, he suggests, ‘proceed according to a set of rules guaranteed to yield a solution that is in some sense already there,’ whereas polyphonic authors begin

with a perception of distinct and autonomous personalities (or voices), and the positing of a set of potential conflicts within and among them. A situation is then created to provoke the characters into maximal self-revelation and development, but the direction of the action is not, and should not be, clearly seen.31

In Mobile, Ou and Boomerang, Butor creates precisely such situations for provocative dialogue and does so in ways guaranteed to raise more questions than resolutions. Indeed, though the specific effects vary from one work to the next, perhaps the most significant result of Butor's travel texts is an emphatic affirmation of Bakhtin's sense of the novelistic:

The novel is the expression of a Galilean perception of language, one that denies the absolutism of a single and unitary language—that is, refuses to acknowledge its own language as the sole verbal and semantic center of the ideological world. It is a perception that has been made conscious of the vast plenitude of national and, more to the point, social languages—all of which are equally capable of being ‘languages of truth,’ but, since such is the case, all of which are equally reified and limited …

(DI 366–67)


As the examples drawn from Butor's work demonstrate, Bakhtin's theories provide a striking number of ways to read specific texts and to theorize about travel literature as a genre. Reading Bakhtin and Butor together also highlights many questions about the nature of travel literature that clearly merit further attention. In concluding I wish to trace one that has echoed throughout the preceding discussion. Perhaps the most pressing question late twentieth-century theory asks regarding travel literature is whether it is possible to be anything but a tourist or an Orientalist, and thus how genuinely dialogic travel writing and reading really may be. Butor likes to characterize his extensive use of citation as collaborative writing (‘There simply is no truly individual work … All works are collective!’), and critics emphasize that his later texts in particular necessitate collaborative reading.32 At the same time, however, contemporary theorists such as Said and Kabbani argue that appropriating ‘the other’ to one's own narrative or ideological ends—a claim that many formalist readings of Butor would sustain—can scarcely be seen as true cooperation.

Two insights from Bakhtin's work help illuminate this complex issue—and provide appropriate closure for this essay as well. The first is the enormous value his theories place on ‘the other’ and its prime significance in all aspects of existence. The Bakhtinian ‘other,’ however, is neither something exotic to consume or imitate, nor a mere reflection of one's own desires and ideological imperatives. Rather, Bakhtin emphasizes, other individuals and cultures provide necessary outside perspectives; it is only in creative dialogue with others that understanding one's own culture—its limits and possibilities—occurs. Each culture serves as ‘the other’ for those cultures with which it comes into contact, in dialogic relations that he optimistically characterizes as mutually enriching.33

However, as Graham Pechey suggests, Bakhtin's theories also offer crucial insights that can enable us to understand the conflicting discourses that create, destroy and re-write ‘the other’ in encounters much less positive than those Bakhtin envisions. In an essay on dialogization and decolonization, Pechey proposes that Bakhtin's ‘concepts are nothing if not precisely designed to theorize otherness’; they may be especially useful, he argues, because they offer ‘the notion of a multilingual field where the languages of colonizer and colonized are indelibly inscribed within each other.’34 One of the most crucial steps in developing theories of travel literature is thus to examine not only how travellers construct ‘the other’ (as Said and others since have done), but also how they and their texts are re-constructed by their experiences of ‘the other,’ by the responses of their readers and by what Pechey calls ‘the answering practice of Europe's “others” in which the “otherers” are themselves othered.’35 Butor's serious effort to deal with these interconnected issues in the volumes of Le Génie du lieu underscores the necessity of considering them together. The young Butor truly begins to understand his relation with Egypt, for instance, only when he spends time with an Egyptian who has returned from Paris with stereoscope views of popular sites and, through him, recognizes something of himself (SMP 143–47).

The second insight lies in Bakhtin's persuasive emphasis on the unfinalizability of all knowledge, and thus of all discourse. For Bakhtin every word, every image is no more than penultimate, for the world symposium never concludes. What any travel text shows is of necessity only a fragment of a world that is irremediably—and fortunately—‘heteroglot from top to bottom’ (DI 291); any representation is inevitably incomplete, limited by perspective and outmoded by time. Butor's continual return to the themes of travel and discovery, like his recurring but never completely satisfied efforts to describe New Mexico's Mt. Sandia in Ou, emphasizes this.36 Butor proposes that ‘the critical activity consists in regarding works as unfinished. The poetic activity, “inspiration,” reveals reality itself as unfinished.’37 All experience refuses lasting ‘enclosure in a text,’ for as Bakhtin reminds us, there is an ‘eternal renewal of meanings in all new contexts’ (SG 169). And perhaps the most complicated—and potentially the most interesting—renewal comes through writing, reading and experiencing travel.


  1. Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400–1600 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988); Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983); and Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980).

  2. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken, 1976); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), and Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of the Orient (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986).

  3. The most recent bibliography is Joanne Shattock, ‘Travel Writing Victorian and Modern: A Review of Recent Research,’ Prose Studies, 5 (1982), 151–64; examples of more recent work include Ashton Nichols, ‘Silencing the Other: The Discourse of Domination in Nineteenth-Century Exploration Narratives,’ Nineteenth Century Studies, 3 (1989), 1–22; Ali Behdad, ‘Orientalist Desire, Desire of the Orient,’ French Forum, 15 (1990), 37–51; Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush, eds., Asia in Western Fiction (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1990); John Barrell, ‘Death on the Nile: Fantasy and the Literature of Tourism 1840–1860,’ Essays in Criticism 41 (1991), 97–127; and special travel literature issues of L'Esprit Créateur, 25, no. 3 (Fall 1985) and Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 21, no. 4 (October 1990).

  4. Said, p. 157; Kabbani, p. 10.

  5. Roland Barthes, ‘Literature and Discontinuity,’ in Critical Essays translated by Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 171–83 (p. 171).

  6. An exception is Sally M. Silk, ‘The Dialogical Traveller: A Reading of Semprun's Legrand voyageStudies in Twentieth Century Literature, 14 (1990), 223–40; see also Silk, ‘The Dialogical Traveller: Discursive Practice and Homelessness in Three Modern Travel Narratives,’ DAI, 50 (1990), 2514A (Michigan). Bakhtin himself discusses travel literature directly only in the narrow sense of the adventure or picaresque novel. See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, edited by Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 103–04; and M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by Vern W. McGee, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986) pp. 10–11; these works hereafter cited in text as DI and SG. For a survey of the diverse ways Bakhtin's literary theories have been developed and applied, see Ken Hirschkop, ‘Critical Work on the Bakhtin Circle: A Bibliographical Essay,’ in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, edited by Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 195–212.

  7. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, translated and edited by Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 293; hereafter cited in text as PDP.

  8. This passage is discussed in Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 218–23.

  9. Bakhtin develops his theories of the novel most fully in ‘Epic and Novel’ and ‘Discourse in the Novel,’ both included in The Dialogic Imagination: for thorough explication of these theories, see Morson and Emerson, pp. 269–470.

  10. On the connection between the Bildungsroman and travel literature, see Adams, pp. 185–93.

  11. Michel Butor, Boomerang, le génie du lieu, 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1978); partially translated in Letters from the Antipodes, translated and edited by Michael Spencer (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1981). The citation is from Letters from the Antipodes, p. 38; hereafter cited in text as LA.

  12. Many earlier texts, such as Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Voltaire's Candide, certainly highlight encounters between cultures. However, in such texts the ‘other’ is typically used to authoritative (even if ‘enlightened’) ends, serving primarily as a deliberate narrative strategy for a critique of European manners and ideas (cf. Bakhtin's discussion of ‘the device of “not understanding”’; DI 164). The dialogic potential of heteroglossia to contest, transform or subvert those ends—or to produce fundamental changes in ‘ready-made’ heroes—is almost always curtailed.

  13. Passage de Milan (Paris: Minuit, 1954); Le Génie du lieu (Paris: Grasset, 1958); Mobile: étude pour une représentation des Etats-unis (Paris: Gallimard, 1962): Ou: le génie du lieu, 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  14. Barthes, ‘Literature and Discontinuity.’

  15. For more detailed discussion see Stacy Burton, ‘Michel Butor's Dialogue of Fiction and Experience: Egypt in Passage de Milan and Le Génie du lieu,’ in Images of Egypt in Twentieth Century Literature, edited by Hoda Gindi (Cairo: Department of English Language and Literature, University of Cairo, 1991), pp. 103–14.

  16. See Jennifer R. Walters, ‘Butor's Juxtaposed Selves’; Essays in French Literature, 9 (1972), 80–87 (pp. 80 and 82).

  17. See Dean McWilliams, The Narratives of Michel Butor (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 20–21.

  18. Butor, Le Génie du lieu, translated by Lydia Davis as The Spirit of Mediterranean Places (Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1986), p. 83. Hereafter cited in text as SMP.

  19. Stephen Bann, ‘Interview with Michel Butor,’ 20th Century Studies, 6 (1971), 41–52 (pp. 42, 44, 49).

  20. Butor, ‘Le voyage et l'écriture,’ Répertoire IV (Paris: Minuit, 1974), translated in ‘Travel and Writing,’ Mosaic, 8 (1974), 1–16. The citation is from ‘Travel and Writing,’ p. 2.

  21. On Butor and the nouveau roman, see Ann Jefferson, The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980).

  22. For a fuller discussion of La Modification, see Stacy Burton, ‘Bakhtin and the Experience of Temporality in Faulkner and Butor,’ Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1990, pp. 255–347.

  23. On Butor's use of ‘vous,’ see Françoise van Rossum-Guyon, Critique du roman: essai sur ‘La Modification’ de Michel Butor (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), pp. 159–73, and Ronald Fraser, ‘Butor's You,’ New Left Review, 37 (1966), 62–68. For Butor's own comments, see ‘L'Usage des pronoms personnels dans le roman,’ in Michel Butor, Répertoire II (Paris: Minuit, 1964), pp. 61–72.

  24. Barthes, ‘There is No Robbe-Grillet School,’ Critical Essays, p. 93.

  25. La Modification (Paris: Minuit, 1957), translated by Jean Stewart as A Change of Heart (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959); the citation is from A Change of Heart, p. 249.

  26. Anna Otten, ‘Interview with Michel Butor: The Writer as Janus,’ The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5, no. 3 (1985), 92–97 (pp. 95–96).

  27. In a similar way, Butor's use of second-person narrative in La Modification eventually compels the character Delmont to critical recognition and reassessment of his idealized images of Rome.

  28. For discussion of the concept of ‘novelization’ in Bakhtin, see Morson and Emerson, pp. 300–05.

  29. For detailed discussion of Butor's use of citation in Mobile, see Mary Lydon, Perpetuum Mobile: A Study of the Novels and Aesthetics of Michel Butor (Calgary: Univ. of Alberta Press, 1980), pp. 165–75; in Ou, see Barbara Mason, ‘Ou: The Title as Sesame, or Releasing Butor's “Génie,”’ French Forum, 11, no. 1 (1986), 77–81; in Boomerang, see Michael Spencer, ‘Afterword’ to Letters from the Antipodes, pp. 161–64. See also Bakhtin's comment on ‘devis[ing] new matrices between objects and ideas that will answer to their real nature’ (DI 169).

  30. Joseph Allgren and Dean McWilliams, ‘The Structure of Michel Butor's “Courrier des Antipodes,”’ Romanic Review, 75 (1984), 230–42 (p. 238).

  31. Morson, ‘The Baxtin Industry,’ Slavic and East European Journal, 30 (1986), 82–83.

  32. For Butor's comments, see Otten, p. 93 and Butor, ‘La critique et l'invention,’ Répertoire III (Paris: Minuit, 1968), translated as ‘Criticism and Invention’ by Mary Lydon, Cream City Review, 8 (1983), 1–12 (p. 11). For critical commentary, see especially Marianne Hirsch, ‘Michel Butor: The Decentralized Vision,’ Contemporary Literature, 22 (1981), 326–48.

  33. The importance of ‘otherness’ and ‘outsideness’ is clear throughout Bakhtin's work, (see, for example, DI 290–95 and SG 6–7, 141–47). For an early discussion, see M. M. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, translated by Vadim Liapunov, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 125–37. Bakhtin refers to the ‘mutually enriching’ effect of encounters between cultures (SG 7); cf. discussion of this passage in Morson and Emerson, pp. 54–56.

  34. ‘On the Borders of Bakhtin: Dialogization, Decolonization,’ in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, edited by Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 62–63. Bakhtin's theories thus also provide ways of discussing a phenomenon which Said notes: ‘the modern Orient … participates in its own Orientalizing’ (Said, p. 325).

  35. Pechey, p. 62.

  36. On Mt. Sandia, see Seda A. Chavdarian, ‘Problems of Representation in Butor's Ou,International Fiction Review, 14, no. 2 (1987), 100–01.

  37. Butor, ‘Criticism and Invention,’ p. 11.

Lois Oppenheim (essay date September 1994)

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SOURCE: Oppenheim, Lois. “Animation of the Work of Art: Michel Butor's L’Embarquement de la Reine de Saba.MLN 109, no. 4 (September 1994): 741–52.

[In the following essay, Oppenheim argues for the aesthetic of Butor's anaesthetic in L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, which she claims is “both post-modern and not” in its attempt to contextualize the artistic experience.]

… ce quit me gêne, dans le mot ‘création,’ c'est qu'il est lié à une illusion soigneusement entretenue, l'illusion de la gratuité de l'oeuvre d’art.

—Michel Butor

Despite the benefits the interpretation of literature, as of all art, has derived from its turn toward other disciplines (anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, and so on), critics persist in focusing on those formal parameters of a work that allow not only for it to be situated in time, but according to aesthetic point of view. The aesthetic that defines our modern era is resolutely epistemological, asking, as it does, for a means of distinguishing artworks from real things. In the case of some artists and writers, Michel Butor among them, this aesthetic may more accurately be termed an anaesthetic and the modernist valorization of the commonplace a decisive step toward the end of art. In this essay, I will maintain, as I have elsewhere,1 that the formalist focus on Butor's work falsifies its primary motivation, that of contextualizing or relativizing the experience of art, and that this relativism is precisely the source of his fundamentally anaesthetic vision. And I will argue that one of Butor's most recent writings, L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, may be viewed—insofar as it is unique among Butor's many dialogues with painters in having as its subject a pre-modern work2—in the context of a renewal, a re-aesthetization even, of art.


All of Butor's work is remarkable in its formal (and often numerically inspired) construction, the very perfection of which is at once classical and playful. Though rigorous, this construction in no way insulates or encapsulates the work in question, for Butor's efforts to reveal the paradigms that will render the world intelligible are anything but contrastive or oppositional. Both his dialogue with his own and others' work (Butor's writings consistently reflect on preceding texts) and his schematization of all kinds of extraliterary material (references to things and places that do not overtly further the text as a literary work) derive from a fundamentally relational vision: what appears to many as purely formalist concerns are rather, in sum, the manifestation of a haunting perspectivism, an obsession with relativity.

Numerous are those who have charted the course of a Butor ‘construction,’ who have painstakingly measured, meticulously calculated to ultimately delight in the glory of a methodology revealed. Yet far greater are the rewards for those who perceive the passion for totalization underlying each composition as precisely that, an intense and enormously gratifying (its obsessive quality notwithstanding) articulation of a fiction interrelating on multiple levels with the non-fictive cultural context(s) of which it is born. It is precisely this persistent dialogue with the other—this interrogation, exploration, and integration of the other: other works, other genres, other persona, other places, other cultures—that renders the formalist preoccupation of the critic meaningless. For what is thrown into question by the very attempt to de-construct the architectural design is its inherent value when the entire structure is in reality anything but a fixed or stable ensemble to begin with.3

Leon S. Roudiez has demonstrated this with regard to L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba in his essay “Le réel et la peinture: comment décrire ce qui se dit?” where he offers precisely the kind of analysis of form that all too often masks the perspectivism and relational vision underlying the Butor text. He astutely decomposes the geometric structure of the work defining by number, length, and category (i.e., various thematic and organizational aspects of the narrative) its relation to the painting by Claude Lorrain of the same name. Again, the temptation is to wonder why given that the austere form reveals little of the relativistic dynamic so much more vital to the work's significance. And yet Roudiez's analysis is not only enlightening, but self-justifying: first, it points to a play between the theoretical and practical dimensions of the composition—

Comme il arrive souvent chez Butor, il y a un jeu entre la rigueur possible de la composition théorique et sa pratique. S'il y a, par exemple, trente énigmes dans trente chapitres, elles ne sont pas présentées à raison d'une par chapitre. Ce que l'on pourrait appeler des refrains … ne viennent pas dans le même ordre dans chaque chapitre.4

and, second, it so rightly insists on the value of Butor's text as lying within the play of its “semiotic charge” with all that is left to the reader's (as to the viewer's) imagination. The absence of information (concerning the Queen, the voyage, the arrival and so on) in the painting, moreover, is linked by Roudiez to a “manque inhérent au néo-classicisme, lié au culte de la litote.”5 And indeed, litotes provides an essential (if paradoxical) model for our understanding of Butor's work as well where, against an intricately conceived and technically proficient backdrop, nothing—other than that the Queen is on the verge of descending a single step—actually occurs.

Unless the formalist reading of Butor can lead, as in Roudiez's essay, to a substantive review of the interplay of composition with the relational or interconnective impetus that determines the work's ultimate value, it appears to be of little merit. This becomes all the more significant when one considers that the fundamentally dialogic nature of Butor's work, the relativistic or contextualizing framework of each of his texts, is precisely the source both of his world-view and of his very notion of narrative as well. To cite Lucien Dällenbach,

… chaque être et chaque chose n'existant qu'en rapport et par rapport à une autre réalité (les Parisiens en province, les Provinciaux à Paris, Paris dans Rome, Rome dans Paris, la France telle que se la représentent les journaux australiens, Genève vue de Lucinges)—d'où une conception du monde et du livre foncièrement anti-hiérchique et multipolaire.6

Contextualization or relativity as the sine qua non of Butor's writing is evidenced not only in the ‘realistic’ rendering of the fictive against a background of cultural paradigms, or the animation of narrative subject (be it person or thing) by virtue of its relation to a non-narrative reality. It is equally noted in the fictionalization of non-fictive personages and places which is merely a reversal of this process: the author's role or the appearance of family members in a number of his fictive writings, the fictionalization of professor/editor Béatrice Didier as interlocutor in Le Retour du boomerang, like that of the celebrated “vous” of La Modification, all come immediately to mind. Either way, Butor's work is innovative precisely in its breaking with the dictates of aesthetic conformity, in its turning away from the purely “literary,” in its valorizing of the commonplace, and in its denying any qualities as intrinsic or peculiar to art.

Butor's relativism, moreover, in effecting a tabula rasa of any notion of the purity of art qua ‘art,’ is the source of what may most accurately be termed an anaesthetic, the unloading of convention from the determination of what ‘art’ is. His novels, for instance (particularly L'Emploi du temps and La Modification), while in no way “traditional,” do not reveal an effort to write against a novelistic tradition, as is so often thought to have been the aim of the early nouveau roman. (Dällenbach, in fact, has made an interesting case for a number of points of convergence between Butor and Balzac, the writer most often targeted for this attack.7 And Butor himself has attested to the erroneous characterization of the nouveau roman as revolutionary for its absence of characters. There are characters in all the nouveaux romans, he points out, just as there are stories about them. What differs from the preceding novel is their behavior8 and that they reflect new relations indicative of a transformation of the very relation of the novel to the world.) Rather than an effort to come out against a novelistic tradition, then, rather than an attempt to oppose conventional ways of depicting reality through the narrative, Butor's novels reveal something more primary: the basis for their own construction. If Butor's work, his novels and other writings as well, is above all relativistic, it is that it depicts far less an a priori reality external to it than its own productive force. It reveals, in fact, what has been described as the “private mission” of Marcel Duchamp: to “strip the word ‘Art’ bare of all its accumulated paraphernalia and return it to one of its etymological meanings—simply, ‘to make.’” For Butor, there was and continues to be no for or against; but, as has been said of Duchamp, a seeking “to eliminate the demand for the definition of art. Anaesthetics: ‘There is no solution because there is no problem.’”9

The comparison with Duchamp is not without significance: Just as the writer's cultural and autobiographical contextualizations, along with the dialogic and intertextual frames of reference, defeat any attempt to locate the impetus of a given work within its formal structure, they point to the kind of indifference to convention demonstrated by the visual artist with respect to his ‘Readymades.’ To cite Duchamp: “A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘Readymades’ was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste … in fact a complete anesthetic.”10 And just as Butor's relativity typically subjects the reader to the most thoroughly manipulated, self-consciously controlled and cerebral of literary imaginations, Duchamp's art was constructed precisely for the spectator's mind: “One of Duchamp's primary goals,” according to critic Sidney Feshbach, “was to reduce the importance of the artist's and the spectator's senses and to subordinate sensations to mental activities, or ‘conceptualism.’”11

It was, in fact, in the highly conceptual art of the Pop movement that the philosophic quest, such as it was inaugurated by Duchamp, for the essence of art as distinguished from the common object culminated. According to philosopher/critic Arthur Danto, from Pop Art, specifically the work of Andy Warhol (above all the ‘Brillo Boxes’ first exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1964),12 the following answer, as defined by Paul Crowther in an essay on postmodernism, emerged:

The essence of art does not consist in some perceptible property or set of properties, but rather in art's institutional setting. Broadly speaking, the artwork is what the artist designates as such, on the basis of some theory about art.13

The philosophic inquiry that defined the modernist enterprise came to a halt, to continue Danto's line of reasoning, with the resolution of the question of art in the theory of its institutional essence. And the result was an unanticipated market for art that sparked a repetition of style that heralded its own demise. As Crowther explains, “This self-congruence of art with its own essence is the culmination of art history. After it there can be nothing new in a distinctively artistic sense. On these terms, in other words, postmodern art is essentially post-historical. Art, in effect, has come to an end.”14 And as Danto himself has written:

When art internalizes its own history, when it becomes self-conscious of its history as it has come to be in our time, so that its consciousness of its history forms part of its nature, it is perhaps unavoidable that it should turn into philosophy at last. And when it does so, well, in an important sense, art comes to an end.15

It should be noted that the cessation of Butor's novel writing roughly coincided with the advent of the Pop movement (his last novel Degrés was published in 1960) and that his critical and profoundly conceptualist experimental writing came to the forefront at this time. It was in 1960, in fact, that composer Henri Pousseur, with whom Butor undertook several collaborations, first invited Butor to work with him; the second volume of Répertoire was published in the same year as Warhol's Stable Gallery show; Mobile: étude pour une représentation des Etats-Unis appeared in 1962, as did Réseau aérien; and 6 810 000 litres d'eau par seconde was published in 1965. Butor's kinship with the evolution of the painting of the period, however, though interesting, is hardly remarkable. The notion that the validity of art no longer resided in the models of perfection, in the conventional ideas of Beauty to which art had historically subscribed, a notion that was the basis for the many modernist movements that preceded the Pop era, had eventually to give way to a profound exploration of the legitimacy of modernism itself. And this pursuit was not to be limited to any particular medium of expression, but would instead be culture-wide. What is extraordinary is what may be said of the progression of Butor's work when considered in the light of Danto's thesis concerning this evolution. For if we concur with Danto that, when rendered post-historical, art reached its end, that the convergence of theory and practice in post-modernism emptied art of any definitive value or function, then the return to a pre-modern painting, Claude Lorrain's “L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba” (1648), might well signal a renewal of aesthetic sensitivity, a re-aesthetization even, of this writer's work. It is in the effort to determine the validity of this hypothesis that we turn again to what is to date Butor's only real collaboration with a pre-twentieth century painter.


In L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, Butor endeavors to “animate” (to cite his own description of the work on the back cover) Claude Lorrain's pictorial representation of the Biblical passage wherein the Queen of Sheba visits King Salomon in Jerusalem “to prove him with hard questions.” His aim is neither to verbally illustrate the narrative evoked by Lorrain nor to describe the painted image. (From his early novels to his most recent experimental writings, Butor has sought to replace description of a contemplated object with an analysis of the perceptual activity of the contemplating subject.)16 Rather, he invites his reader to look, he incites his reader's curiosity, precisely by penetrating—not for, but with him or her—the spectacle in question. His effort may be compared with that of the cameraman whose role Walter Benjamin has likened to that of a surgeon:

The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.

Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.17

Like the surgeon, Butor abstains from “facing” the scene depicted in Lorrain's art and from re-producing the referent that is the Lorrain painting. Through the workings of his own imagination, he “penetrates into” that referent and, like the cameraman, obtains a picture consisting “of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.” Rather than a reiteration of the reality (the painting) on which Butor may be said to “operate,” rather than a juxtaposition of verbal utterance and visual image, he offers—and his word is most apt—an “animation” of that scene with its own “laws” of artistic function.

The rhetorical model offered by Roudiez, litotes, supports this analogy. The painting serves as a pretext for the reader to expand, with Butor, upon the (figurative and literal) point of departure and thereby to fill in all that is understated or missing: “On attend,” writes Roudiez, “et c'est pour cela que Michel Butor peut laisser vaguer son imagination, donnant la parole à l'entourage de la reine, car chacun se demande ce qui va se passer là où elle va.”18 The painting is apprehended by the reader through the many layers of the text (stratification is the hallmark of every Butor narrative) in the fragmented form to which his or her own imagination, coupled with that of Butor, gives rise.

This is not to say, however, that L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba displays any less than Butor's other writings the totalizing force of which his characteristic dialogic and intertextual frames of reference are the concrete manifestations. On the contrary, for the primary focus is not narrative but visual and imaginary. What Mireille Calle-Gruber and Clive Thompson have written of Lorrain's work is equally true of Butor's:

… laissant, sur les bords de ses portiques néo-classiques, l'anecdote des personnages royaux ou non qui s'apprêtent, la représentation creuse en son centre la transparence d'un angle de vision qui va s'élargissant sur la mer et le ciel, immense; instaurant, avec la perspective à l'infini qui contraint l'oeil, mobile, de substituer aux colonnades la frêle architecture d'un gréement de vaisseau, toute une dynamique du regard, de l'exploration, de l'aventure.19

Nor is it to say that the anaesthetic approach which we claim to define his creative output and to prevent our situating Butor's works within any sphere of so-called pure ‘art’ is absent from this work. Just as his exhaustive enumerations of the most (intentionally) banal sort serve to contextualize his other experimental works, in Saba the “appels” of the “mariniers” (or watermen of the Queen), the fantasies and dreams of the Queen's entourage, and the enigmas to be proposed to King Salomon incorporate the commonplace (above all, through references to twentieth century technology: telex, refrigerators, and the like) to demonstrate the same kind of indifference to “esthetic delectation” of which Duchamp spoke above. And the temporal mix of antiquity and modernity derives from the same fundamentally relational vision and haunting perspectivism that impel his other work. So too the auto-referentiality of the text—the reference, for example, to the landscape paintings to be brought to the King which, by “I'atmosphère qui unifie les éléments de la composition en une tonalité lumineuse,”20 is strongly suggestive of the very painting Butor has chosen to “animate” and the reference to the lost identity papers of none other than Michel Butor.21

What appears to be significantly different in this text, however, and it is this that lends credibility to the hypothesis in question, is that the anaesthetic approach yields to an appeal to the senses reminiscent of a more properly aesthetic sensibility. Saba is unequivocally post-modern in its deliberate mixing of metaphors and narrative landscapes, in its dismantling of space and time,22 in its deconstruction of allegory. Its ludic premise (the articulation and resolution of the questions, never announced in the Biblical passages which inspired Lorrain's painting, to be posed to the King), playful composition (thirty enigmas presented not according to the obvious scheme the thirty chapters would suggest), and play on the technology of the post-modern age, to say nothing of Butor's inimitable irony: “Combien de siècles et découvertes faudra-t-il pour que nous accédions enfin au sentiment de notre propre nécessité?,”23—all throwbacks to Duchamp—further contribute to the kind of anaesthetic indifference that provoked Feshbach, for one, to declare Duchamp the originator of post-modernism.24

And yet, in addition to the contradiction and fragmentation, on the one hand, and the process of totalization, contextualization or relativism, on the other, that typically form the basis for the innovative compositional modes of Butor's texts, this work displays idyllic aspects, a quasi-poetic essence, a serenity even, absorbed from the picturesque and idealized pastoral vision of the painter and not found elsewhere in the Butor corpus. It is the eruption of a certain autonomy, of a wholly integrated referential system—derived from the idealism of Lorrain's painting—that supports the notion of a reemergence of aestheticism in Butor such as it was prior both to the invasion of conceptualism in art and to that convergence of artistic practice with philosophic theory which caused art to become conscious of its own history and, for Danto, to reach its end.

It must be reiterated that Lorrain's art has in no way been verbally illustrated by Butor to yield the autonomy referred to here. There is no depiction or replication of any sort for there is no ‘object’ to be replicated. Rather, and herein lies the genius of this work, Butor's text is free from subjection to a referent, free from the representational relation perpetuated by metaphysics, and illustrative only of the inaugural power of art.25 It is Butor's profoundly imaginative inhabiting of the redolent, rich, and vibrant space created by Lorrain that reveals art as, in the words of Henri Maldiney, “le lieu de possibilisation de son essence.”26 The cohesiveness of Lorrain's “Saba,” in other words, neither descriptive nor surface, resides in the opening of a three-dimensional space that implicates, in its beholding, the viewer. And the autonomy of Butor's Saba resides precisely in the imaginative wandering of the author within that space in response to the spirit of the visual image.

The “open” composition of the painting, moreover, is reflected in the very construction of Butor's dialogue with it for it is the openness of the text—perhaps most evident in the use of the mises-en-abyme that are the enigmas and in the litotes referred to above—that determines the reader's participation in, his or her own imaginative contribution to, the ultimate constitution of the work. And it is precisely this openness, and the undetermined semantic field of Butor's ‘animation’ of what Lorrain left unexplored, that results in the aestheticism in question. Thus if we find in Saba a renewal of “esthetic delectation” (as Duchamp called it), a re-aesthetization, it is to be found in the poetic and sensual play, in the visual and rhythmic charm of Butor's actualization of the Lorrain idyll.

The aesthetic dimension of Butor's work, however, is not entirely innocent. It emerges from within the content of the text: from the romantic flights of fancy of the Queen's entourage, from the dreams and reveries, and from the enigmas themselves. And it emerges from its form: from the adaptation of Lorrain's neoclassical style apparent in the rigorous organization of the text, in the numerous repetitions (most notably, that of the refrain “chantenous ton appel”), in the lengthening of the chapters to accommodate supplemental categories, in the vocabulary with its direct and indirect references to the Bible and myriad other works.27 But there is an irony, a falsity even (a kind of counterfeit bordering on kitsch), in the exaggeration of the idyllic, in the play on aestheticism that is quintessential Butor. For, once again, Butor has given us a text exquisitely self-conscious though it is one that, fully conscious of that self-consciousness, has freed itself to renew its function as art.

In conclusion, then, Butor's text is both post-modern and not, anaesthetic and not. And while his revitalization of the aesthetic may be viewed as a liberation from the self-consciousness of postmodernism, it must also be seen as a liberation stemming from postmodern art's awareness of itself as, irrefutably, self-conscious.


  1. In all of my writing on Butor's work, I have stressed the need to focus less on its formal and more on its perceptual and intersubjective character. In “L'anesthétique de Michel Butor” (in La Création selon Michel Butor: Réseaux-Frontières-Ecart, Paris: Nizet, 1991), however, my interest, specifically, was in exploring the ontological dimension of the anaesthetic point of view in L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba. Hence the present essay, and the thesis put forth herein, constitutes the second part of an investigation into the relation of this text to the evolution of modernism.

  2. As Léon Roudiez notes in “Le réel et la peinture: comment décrire ce qui se dit?” (La Création selon Michel Butor, ed. Calle-Gruber, p. 169), Butor never stipulates either how many or which paintings of the late baroque artist Alessandro Magnasco inspired “La Conversation,” the first text of Illustrations. As far as other texts dealing with pre-modern painters are concerned, they are for the most part to be found amongst his critical writings. It goes without saying that Butor's art criticism is unlike that of any other critic in that it goes well beyond the critical domain. As he himself wrote, “Critique et invention se révélant comme deux aspects d'une même activité, leur opposition en deux genres différents disparaît au profit de l'organisation de formes nouvelles” (“La Critique et l'invention” in Répertoire III, Paris: Minuit, 1968, 17). Nevertheless, L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba is the only work to date in which Butor uses a particular pre-modern work as a point of departure for a ‘narrative’ as such.

  3. In “Répertoire,” the final essay in the five-volume series of the same name, Butor writes of mathematics (and, specifically, his own use of numerical calculation) as one of the most powerful means of poetic investigation (Répertoire V, Paris: Minuit, 1982, 326). He nonetheless goes on to defend the element of chance inherent in every work of art citing, parenthetically, Mallarmé's “jamais un coup de dés …” (327).

  4. Léon S. Roudiez, “Le réel et la peinture: comment décrire ce qui se dit?' in La Création selon Michel Butor: Résaux-Frontières-Ecart, ed. Mireille Calle-Gruber (Paris: Nizet, 1991), 168.

  5. Ibid., 173.

  6. Lucien Dällenbach, “Une Ecriture Dialogique?” in La Création selon Michel Butor. Résaux-Frontières-Ecart, 211.

  7. Ibid., 210–211.

  8. Cf., Michel Butor in Madeleine Santschi, Voyage avec Michel Butor (Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1982), 162.

  9. Anne d'Harnoncourt, “Introduction” to Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 38.

  10. Marcel Duchamp, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), ed. M. Sanouillet and E. Peterson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 141. Cited in Sidney Feshbach, “Marcel Duchamp or Being Taken for a Ride: Duchamp was a Cubist, a Mechanomorphist, a Dadaist, a Surrealist, a Conceptualist, a Modernist, a Post-Modernist—and None of the Above” in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, summer 1989, 544.

  11. Feshbach, “Marcel Duchamp,” 552.

  12. Paul Crowther, “Postmodernism in the Visual Arts: A Question of Ends” in Postmodernism: A Reader ed. Thomas Docherty (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1993), 181.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., 182. It should be noted that Crowther takes issue with Danto's claim that art has reached its end and his essay is devoted precisely to refuting Danto's approach to modernism and postmodernism.

  15. Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disen franchisement of Art (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1986), 16.

  16. For an investigation of Butor's focus on perception, or the intentionality of consciousness, above all in La Modification, see my Intentionality and Intersubjectivity: A Phenomenological Study of Butor's ‘La Modification’ (Lexington: French Forum, 1980), especially chapters I and V.

  17. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 235–236.

  18. Roudiez, “Le réel et la peinture,” 171.

  19. Mireille Calle-Gruber and Clive Thompson, “Mobiles Pour Un Livre,” in Butor Pluriel (Kingston, Ontario: Département d'Etudes Françaises, Queen's University, 1990), 7.

  20. Michel Butor, L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba (Paris: La Différence, 1989), 33.

  21. Ibid., 96.

  22. See, for example, the 19th enigma, p. 64.

  23. Butor, L'Embarquement de la Reine de Saba, 63.

  24. Feshbach, “Marcel Duchamp,” 546 and elsewhere in this important essay.

  25. For a phenomenologically oriented critic, such as myself, this relation of the text to the painting could be said to reflect that of all art (as explicated by Heidegger, for one) to the real world.

  26. Henri Maldiney, “Vers quelle phénoménologie de l'art?” La Part de l'Oeil, Dossier: Art et Phénoménologie 7 (1991): 256.

  27. Roudiez outlines these categories as follows: “… aspects du palais de Salomon tels que l'imaginent les voyageurs, l'organisation de la caravane qui doit transporter les présents, énumération des pierres précieuses et autres objets rares destinés au roi …, rêves souvent centrés sur les rapports de la reine de Saba et du roi Salomon, citations ou paraphrases de ‘L'Ecclésiaste,’ énigmes qui seront proposées à la sagesse du roi, et ainsi de suite” (“Le réel et la peinture,” 168). And he cites, as examples of those texts echoed in Saba, L'Emploi du temps, Matière de rêves, and the first text of Illustrations, “La Conversation” (169).

Leslie Schenk (review date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Schenk, Leslie. Review of Le Japon depuis la France: Un rêve à l'ancre, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 360–61.

[In the following review, Schenk praises Butor's compilation of essays focusing on Japan from a diverse group of French intellectuals, but judges Butor's commentary on the selections as “gratuitous and ultimately insignificant.”]

What would the French think if a Japanese, not knowing a word of French, would come to France for three weeks and then write a book explaining the French? I should think they would be enraged. The Japanese, oddly enough, are not enraged but flattered when French Barbarians do precisely that in the other direction. Yet, surely, either nation is more complicated than can be explained by tourists ignoring the local language?

However, condescending to explain Non-French Barbarians to other Frenchmen has been a favorite pastime for generations of French intellos, the most notorious being Roland Barthes with his absurd Empire des Signes, written after his three weeks in Japan and exemplifying the tiresome French gift for spewing out beautiful language without actually saying anything. The eminent Michel Butor is not to be classed with this species of literary fraud. To the contrary, his respectably achieved purpose in Le Japon depuis la France is to set the record straight on French writing about Japan, and he performs a genuine service for us all in his chronological compendium of snippets from writers as diverse as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and the “Encyclopédistes,” Pierre Loti, Jules Verne, Zola, Edmond de Goncourt, Vincent van Gogh (well, he's as French as Pablo Picasso, isn't he?), Claudel (the one expert in this lot, since he lived in Japan for years as French Ambassador, “sans connaître la langue naturellement,” as Butor notes), Apollinaire, Proust, Henri Michaux, and the awful Barthes, whom he quotes without embarrassment: in Bunraku puppet shows “la voix est doublée d'un vaste volume de silence,” which is very pretty, but what on earth does it mean?

Still, a faint odor of fraudulence does waft over this book. Butor goes on to praise Barthes for his supposed gems of psychological insight, such as being struck by Japanese buildings' separateness, one from the other, and Barthes's adroit linking of this to Japanese pedestrians' ability to intermingle from opposite directions, when traffic lights change, without touching one another. Well, Japanese buildings stand apart for earthquake reasons (if a building collapses, it is less likely to pull down its neighbors), and if Japanese crossing streets don't collide it's because they are polite and defer to others, which Frenchmen aren't and don't. Insight, my foot.

Still, this collection of citations will be of considerable practical convenience for future scholars. Less useful will be Butor's pointing out that almost all these writers made appalling mistakes in their evaluations of things Japanese and then his not going on to correct their errors for us, since they are “obvious.” Worse, Butor cannot resist quoting himself on Japan, and there, I am sorry to say, his book falls completely to pieces, with a thud.

Butor was for a time one of the most promising exponents of le nouveau roman, which you will recall meant abandoning coherent plot structure, consistent viewpoints, and realistic character portrayal. What was left to interest readers I have never been able to ascertain, but it certainly had nothing to do with communicating emotion or stirring the imagination. As exciting as the theories of the antinovel appeared thirty years ago, it is now as dead as a doornail—first because those theories never produced a masterpiece, and second because readers now stay away in droves, having learned only too well what eyeglazing boredom means. Still, back then, Sartre, no less, stated in an interview with Madeleine Chapsal that Butor had “every chance of becoming a great writer.” True, Sartre also said anticommunists were necessarily dogs. So much for Sartre's acumen at gazing into crystal balls. In Histoire vivante de la littérature Pierre de Boisdeffre wrote about Butor's last novel, Degrés (1960), that it contained everything but that nothing was as clear as it might have been had it been written in conventional fashion. I say amen to that. Certainly Butor's technique, for all his vast learning, encyclopedic knowledge, dazzling intelligence, and, above all, admirable intentions, is disastrous when applied to nonfiction. It becomes a medium without a message.

Le Japon depuis la France consists of alternating chapters entitled “Confidences 1,” “Conférences 1,” “Confidences 2,” et cetera, ending in “Confidences 13.” There are subsections with misfiring titles like “Archipel Shopping.” More organization is implied here than is readily graspable by the reader, but Butor has claimed elsewhere that he likes his meanings to become comprehensible only gradually. The confidences are his more intimate reflections, especially on the art of Hokusai, and the conférences sound more like classroom lectures, wherein he quotes his authors verbatim, the book's real interest. Butor's own comments are cloaked with becoming modesty, richly deserved, for they are doubly opaque side by side with writers who, however inaccurately, were at least striving to pin down observations in comprehensible words. When he quotes himself from previous books, Butor fails utterly, for out of context these passages are solid lead. Oddest of all is when mysterious phrases begin to stud his “Shopping” subsections amid scripts of various Noh dramas (and the connection between Noh and le shopping is unfathomable). What are we to make of the following? “Menace sur la mer d'étain va houle de drapeaux noirs se cabre.” Or this? “S'étire les rides vertes de la mer se relâchent dorment tremblent.” Can these represent word-for-word translations from the Japanese, a dictionary in hand, with genders and singulars and plurals (which do not normally exist in Japanese) sprinkled haphazardly? Or is it deliberate obfuscation by skipping such trivial matters as punctuation? Or is it une nouvelle poésie?

Despite my irritations at these gratuitous and ultimately insignificant hurdles, I recommend Butor's book for its fascinating citations. Almost everybody who sets foot in Japan becomes hooked, we know, and it is captivating, with a charm of its own, to see how the French are no exceptions and to read their actual words gathered within two covers. But be prepared to do a lot of head-scratching at Butor's own contributions. Consider the pun at the end of the book's title. Was the time consumed by that consideration worth your while?

Eilene Hoft-March (review date May 1996)

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SOURCE: Hoft-March, Eilene. Review of Improvisations sur Michel Butor: l'écriture en transformation, by Michel Butor. French Review 69, no. 6 (May 1996): 1058–59.

[In the following review, Hoft-March assesses Improvisations as an autobiographical extrapolation of Butor's desire to test and play with man's mental boundaries.]

Much of Butor's writing has been occasioned by cultural encounters with artists, histories, and cultures of another kind, encounters made possible by the deliberate crossing of boundaries. He has frequently demonstrated that writing can and should nudge us to the other side of boundaries that are, foremost but no less formidably, mental rather than real. Improvisations sur Michel Butor might seem less in that bold spirit of transgressing limits were the circumstances of its production not made explicit. For years, bound by professional scruple and tacit academic constraint, Butor never spoke of his own writing in his classrooms at the University of Geneva. Only when colleagues invited him to discuss, as might a visiting lecturer, could Butor step over the “frontière intime” that segregated the personal (his writing) from the professional (his teaching). Improvisations is thus a series of lectures in which Butor breaks established professional limits in order to become the academically distanced subject of his own lessons.

The very first essays cover Butor's initiation into the uncertain climate, literary as well as moral and philosophical, of the Second World War and its aftermath. He relates the schizophrenic pull of existentialism and surrealism on his artistic sensibilities and his efforts to negotiate these divisive mentalities in some early and mostly unpublished poetry. His subsequent decision to write novels was based on the naive hope that it might “rétablir une unité dans [s]a vie” (45). Of course, as the mature writer reveals, his careful crafting of each novel with its allusive resonances, multiple spaces, splintered perspectives, and diverging histories did more to prove the impossibility of representing simultaneous differences than it did the possibility of engineering a grand confluence of meaning. But overriding this admission of artistic defeat, the essays give a clear account of the writer's ever-expanding artistic vision and the progressively complicated means he developed to express that vision. Moreover, essays ten through thirty-one offer several clear avenues of approach for first-time readers of the novels (here I have the undergraduate student in mind).

Somewhat beyond the topic of novels, the essays unfold in a less linear fashion, as though novel-writing, or even the discussion of novel-writing, might very well have served to limit Butor's history of writing. Once liberated from the strict chronology and evolution of his works, the essays pursue all directions: music, paranoia, education, revolt, painting, languages, landscapes, and politics. Butor's observation about literariness might be applied to the less restricted movements of these later essays: “Dès que le roman devient plus littéraire, la lecture va devenir plus indépendante du fil de l'action, on va revenir en arrière, s'attarder sur certains passages, le texte va devenir partition, la lecture explorer une surface” (267). As Butor “rereads” the latter part of his career, he eventually loses “le fil de l'action.” Predictably, he explores topics and surfaces, becomes more poetic and musical like the improvisations from which these essays draw their name.

More in the style of Butor's Répertoires, this collection is unintimidating and easily readable. For those in search of early biographical data, it offers a small treasure of personal anecdotes in which to contextualize the production of his earlier work. For those seeking a Butorian ars poetica, there is that, too. For the politically minded, Butor gives thoughtful insights into what influence literature and the arts might have on a world that demands alternately to be preserved and transformed. If any readers remain to be satisfied, there is Butor's tireless émerveillement before the rich tapestry of human culture.

Maryann De Julio (review date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: De Julio, Maryann. Review of A la frontière, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 343–44.

[In the following positive review, De Julio praises A la frontière for pushing boundaries and reconsidering standard distinctions between the self and the other.]

Experimentation with the concepts of time and space has always marked the writings of Michel Butor. From the very first novels Passage de Milan (1954) and L'Emploi du temps (1956) to the more recent essays and imaginative criticism like Improvisations sur Henri Michaux (1985), Butor has sought to reexamine literary devices and the view of reality that they inevitably implied. It comes as no surprise, then, that A la frontière is the title of Butor's latest collection of poems.

Divided into six major sections, A la frontière begins with a meditation on the image of la frontière and the notion of limits. The usual distinctions in lyric poetry between the self and the other are reconsidered in what can be seen as a cosmic context, where a change in self results as much from personal and political shifts as from environmental ones. Border-crossing is internalized in Butor's collection so that the split self now faces a continental divide when it looks into its own heart.

A la frontière is in many ways a cross between a memoir and an experimental guidebook for living a fully engaged life. Just as we recognize the names of the many people and places that Butor has frequented in his extensive activity as a writer and a teacher, we recognize the intimacy and the pleasure he derives from every rapport and every observation. If the progressive abandonment of ordered narration in Butor's nouveaux romans made their reading initially difficult, the progressively spatial figuration of the lyric in his new collection of poems is an easier transition for the reader. Images dance across the page, as Butor shows us in his final meditation on the image frontière: “La frontière dédoublée délivrée s'anime en couple qui danse, dessinant son ombre et sa flamme sur les parois de la caverne Terre, et conquérant l'espace en ses enlacements.”

Graham Robb (essay date 21 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Robb, Graham. “Where to Begin the Feast?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5016 (21 May 1999): 3–4.

[In the following essay, Robb addresses the bicentennial of Honore de Balzac's birth and reviews three works that either directly or peripherally address his La Comédie humaine, including Butor's Improvisations.]

For Balzac, birthdays were a waste of writing time—a day frittered away with the family—and a depressing reminder of how little he had achieved. On his thirty-eighth birthday, still in debt and with six novels overdue, he could see himself returning to his starting point: the garret near the Place de la Bastille where his writing career had begun in 1819. On his next birthday, he swore that by the time he turned forty, all his struggles would be over. Seven years later, the “Catalogue” of La Comédie humaine listed fifty-two titles of “works that have yet to be written.”

Having created a fictional universe with “its own families, places, things, people and events,” Balzac not surprisingly preferred to invent his own birthdays: “I was born in September 1833,” he told his future wife in 1847, alluding to the date of their first meeting in Neuchâtel, “and the proof is that I'm fourteen years old … I'm in love as one is at the age of fourteen.”

For everyone else, Balzac is 200 years old. Conveniently, the bicentenary of his birth (May 20, 1799) will be followed by the 150th anniversary of his death (August 18, 1850). The celebrations began last year with two films based on stories from La Comédie humaine: Lavinia Currier's Passion in the Desert, in which a soldier becomes enamoured with a female panther (played by a leopard called Mowgli), and Cousin Bette, starring an inappropriately elegant Jessica Lange as the malevolent spinster. (Bette Davis would have been perfect.) The director, Des McAnuff, foresees a spate of Hollywood Balzac costume dramas: “We have only just landed on Planet Balzac.”

For those who are living there already, there will be a “Happy Birthday Balzac” section at the Modern Languages Association Convention and a five-day colloquium on “Balzac en l'an 2000,” beginning at Balzac's Loire Valley retreat, the Château de Saché, and ending at the Palais du Luxembourg. On the third day, an exhibition will open at the Maison de Balzac: L'Artiste selon Balzac, featuring Picasso's drawings for Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu—a translation of which, by Antony Rudolf, has just been reissued by the Menard Press under the title Gillette or The Unknown Masterpiece. The Maison de Balzac is also organizing an exhibition in Beijing, where the self-proclaimed defender of “Throne and Altar” owes his prestige to the opinion of Marx and Engels that La Comédie humaine is an unconscious diatribe against capitalism.

Le Monde has already been celebrating with a column devoted to characters from La Comédie humaine—one biographical sketch a week for fifty weeks. If all the named characters were to have their own sketch, the column would end just in time for the bicentenary of Balzac's death in 2050. Even one of Balzac's unfinished works will be joining the party: Patrick Rambaud's Goncourt Prize-winning novel, La Bataille (1997), due to appear in English translation next year, is based on the tiny relic of what Balzac conceived as a 300-page novel on the Battle of Essling: “On the sixteenth of May in the year 1809 towards the middle of the day. …”

There is, of course, a better way in which to celebrate Balzac's birthday: make a gargantuan pot of coffee and start to read La Comédie humaine. This raises the question most often asked of Balzac readers: which of the ninety-nine works of La Comédie humaine should be read first? Balzac's own order is not necessarily the best. His decision to present his complete works as an epic, social history was first of all a marketing ploy. He hoped that readers would subscribe to the entire Comédie humaine thereby funding all his future novels. Ironically, the grand plan has had a discouraging effect. Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that he had never tried to read Balzac “because he did not know where to begin.”

Le Cousine Bette (1846) is often said to be Balzac's masterpiece, but it represents only one subsection of La Comédie humaine—the Scènes de la vie parisienne—and gives a lopsided view of Balzac as a social realist. There are many other Balzacs: the philosopher, the moralist, the humorist, the scientist and the visionary. If size is a stumbling block, perhaps it would be better to start with shorter, more idiosyncratic works like Séraphîta, in which a supernatural hermaphrodite flits about the Norwegian fjords on ice-skates; Sarrasine, in which a sculptor falls in love with a transvestite eunuch; or Louis Lambert, the story of a young genius who perceives the hidden mechanisms that govern the spiritual universe and the world of La Comédie humaine; unfortunately, no one can understand him: “Vulgar people, unacquainted with this velocity of mental vision and unaware of the soul's internal labour, laugh at the dreamer and call him mad.”

For Balzac scholars, the problem is not to find a starting point but to limit the field. Even at the sluggish pace of normal thought, the whole Comédie humaine can be read in about six months, but the vast conurbation of secondary literature that now surrounds it is growing so quickly that only an academic Louis Lambert would try to read it all. The books reviewed here represent three of the largest and busiest arrondissements: the analytical, the reiterative and the biographical. In Balzac ou l'auguste mensonge, Anne-Marie Baron asks why Balzac is obsessed with lying. Why does he portray the population of Paris as a procession of “masks,” all “stamped with the indelible signs of panting greed”? Why is the novel, according to Balzac, “an august lie”? Baron's answer is that Balzac was exposing the “lies” or fantasies on which society is built. At the same time, he analysed his own neuroses and discovered the processes later known as projection and sublimation.

La Comédie humaine is seen as a gigantic enactment of the Balzac family drama: a weak father, an adulterous mother and little Honoré, traumatized by the discrepancy between private reality and public façade. “Balzac puts something of himself into all his characters. … It is possible to talk of creation by scissiparity.”

This is a useful reminder of the psychological subtlety that Balzac brought to the French novel. It covers the same ground as Pierre Citron's Dans Balzac (1986), which is a more exciting and precise study of Balzac's half-revealed secrets—his homosexuality and his fratricidal jealousy. Anne-Marie Baron's argument rarely deviates from Freudian commonplaces—“homosexuality is just a stage in the regression that characterizes paranoia”—and the clichés of early Balzac criticism: “One is often amazed to find in a novelist an acute knowledge of the female heart and its complexities.” For all the talk of “meécanisme,” “fonctionnement” and “processus,” the machinery never materializes.

If Balzac ou l'auguste mensonge is a rhetorical sandwich without much filling, Michel Butor's Improvisations sur Balzac are an enormous plate of reconstituted Comédie humaine. This should have been a fascinating meeting of novelists—two prolific exponents of experimental fiction with a passion for historical reality. However, these Improvisations, based on lectures given at the University of Geneva, consist almost entirely of plot summaries, long quotations and repetitive reminders of some of Balzac's favourite ideas: the subversive power of genius, the creeping disease of democracy, the application of Cuvier's method to social history (the “deduction” of a whole boudoir, bedroom or palace from “a single coat-hook”).

Even at this simple level, Balzac's thought is often misrepresented. The most revealing lapse concerns Frenhofer, the artist of Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu who, deluded by his own vision of perfection, turns his masterpiece into a meaningless wall of paint. For Butor, Frenhofer is such a genius that his contemporaries fail to understand his work. He kills himself in a moment of self-doubt. This is not the story that Balzac tells. Frenhofer kills himself because, in a moment of lucidity, he realizes that the desire for perfection has led him to destroy his masterpiece.

Michel Butor has published Improvisations on Flaubert, Rimbaud and himself. He claims to ignore all the bumbling parasites who have studied Balzac's work, though he does refer vaguely to other critics, “who are often narrow-minded,” and uses their findings. He refuses to supply references so that readers will be forced, he says, to read widely as they search for the source of his quotations. As a result, without a thorough knowledge of Balzac, it is impossible to tell which are Balzac's ideas and which Butor's. Practically all are Balzac's.

Butor describes his Improvisations as “a shack set up inside Balzac's unfinished work,” and sometimes identifies himself with Balzac: “There is a contradiction in every enormous oeuvre: the more it grows the less one is able to read it.” “I myself, who, it seems, write a great deal, am faced with this contradiction. Whenever I publish a new book, I tell myself that it will be another excuse for people not to read me.” No one who has spent valuable reading time in this three-volume “shack” will feel that they need an excuse.

Roger Pierrot is one of the scholars who unwittingly helped Butor to build his shack. He is the editor of Balzac's letters, a contributor to the Pléiade edition of La Comédie humaine and the author of a biography, Honoré de Balzac (reviewed in the TLS, June 17, 1994). Ève de Balzac is intended as the companion piece.

Ève Hanska (née Rzewuska) is the mysterious “Étrangère” who wrote to Balzac in 1832, urging him to stop writing cynical, godless novels like La Peau de chagrin. Balzac identified her as his ideal partner and began a long, passionate correspondence. The “Étrangère” turned out to be the wife of Wenceslas Hanski, who owned several thousand serfs and an estate in the province of Kiev. Count Hanski died in 1841. Balzac was finally able to visit his feudal princess in her Ukrainian “Louvre” in 1847. They married five months before Balzac's death in 1850.

This is a book for specialists in Balzac biography. The whole of Chapter Two, for instance, is devoted to Ève's date of birth (probably January 5, 1804). Pierrot's laudable aim is to remain “impartial,” not to dramatize the life. Thus, when Ève de Balzac almost burns to death, she does so in a footnote. Long documents are quoted without the authorial interventions that make some biographies useless as reference tools. Readers wishing “to bring to life the whole milieu” of Ève's childhood are advised to use the family trees at the back of the book.

Surprisingly little is known about Balzac's wife. Most of her letters were destroyed, and since Balzac's letters are “well known,” they are mentioned only in passing. Some letters to her cousin apparently “say much about her personality and education,” but Pierrot scrupulously declines to quote them because this would mean “retranslating from the Polish texts of which the French originals are unknown to us.”

Biography and “impartiality” are uneasy partners. Pierrot does, after all, convey a certain view of Balzac's wife. Her letters to Champfleury, whom she asked to complete one of Balzac's unfinished novels, are said to confirm “the quality of her literary and artistic opinions,” and to show that, “in Ève de Balzac, mystical love could rapidly give way to unbridled sensuality.” It would simply be interesting to have significant details pointed out and to be able to compare one's own impression of a deceitful, greedy, financially incompetent and snobbish woman with the opinion of a biographer who knows more about the family of Balzac's wife than Balzac did himself.

Unlike Butor's Improvisations, Pierrot's massive contribution to Balzac's birthday party will remain valuable for as long as Balzac scholarship exists. In the mean time, perhaps the best place to start celebrating is the novel which Balzac's future wife found so distasteful: La Peau de chagrin. Banquet scenes are common in the French Romantic novel, but no one throws a party like Balzac:

As unruly as horses fresh from a staging-post, the guests, spurred on by sparkling champagne, impatiently awaited but now lavishly dispensed, allowed their minds to gallop through the wasteland of arguments which no one heeds, telling the sort of stories to which no one listens. … Everyone stopped vaunting their own intellectual capacity and thought instead of, the capacity of vats, tuns and casks. … Philosophers and politicians would probably have been intrigued by the strangeness of the ideas. It was at once a painting to be admired and a book to be read.

Michael Bishop (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. Review of Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan, by Michel Butor. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 631.

[In the following review, Bishop praises Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan for its scope and levity.]

This is a book, composed of nine at once concise and ample half-versified texts, by one of the most delightfully and richly multifocused writers of a century to which Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan is, in effect, dedicated. Illustrated by Joël Leick, Michel Butor's nine daily recordings—the first one, barely warming up, harking back some hundred years or so, notes, “Butin du lundi au fond de la cour: / des clous, des écrous, des grilles et des capsules. / Adieu prétendue belle époque / aujourd'hui voici près d'un siècle / Un pas”—move progressively through the flickering images of the century's “moments,” juxtaposed as they are with the quick contextualizations loosely situating the poet in his still-teeming present: “Butin du vendredi,” for example, “au bord de l'autoroute: / des océans de lames sur le sable, des orgues de couvercles sur l'asphalte, des orchestres de charnières sur le silence, des orgues de vrilles sur le dallage.”

Maginot line, Olympic Games, the Wall Street crisis, Deauville fashion, the dawn of jazz, ballets russes, “yellow stars in the streets,” Hiroshima, bebop, abstract art, supermarkets, Japanese cars, Woodstock, TGV, China, “Hilton Disney Coca Cola,” Berlin Wall, et cetera, et cetera—the list of evocations, interspersed with more lyrical and broadly “cosmic,” ahistorical jottings, is vast, hugely wide-ranging. A farewell to the recent past and an implicit embrace of the new millennium's promises and strange uncharted wonders, Mais où sont les rouilles d'antan is a book, finally, of lightness, of shed weight, of quiet exhilaration amid the swarming oddities of our human creations, even with the latter's contradictions.

Further Reading

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Britton, Celia. “Opacity and Transparence: Conceptions of History and Cultural Difference in the Work of Michel Butor and Édouard Glissant.” French Studies 49, no. 3 (July 1995): 308–20.

Britton argues that Butor and Glissant attribute opposite values to the concepts of transparence and opacity, and that this difference shapes their perspectives on how individuals and communities historically relate to the cultural other.

Butor, Michel, and Jennifer Waelti-Walters. “Michel Butor: An Interview.” Malahat Review, no. 60 (October 1981): 126–38.

Butor discusses travel, transformation, boundaries, and Boomerang.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Michel Butor: The Decentralized Vision.” Contemporary Literature 22, no. 3 (summer 1981): 326–48.

Hirsch traces the development of Butor's work in three stages—confrontation, displacement, and deconstruction—through which, Hirsch argues, Butor decentralizes the coherent narrative self of Western humanism and reimagines “being” as a discontinuous, collective experience.

Kacandes, Irene. “Narrative Apostrophe: Reading, Rhetoric, Resistance in Michel Butor's La Modification and Julio Cortázar's ‘Graffiti.’” Style 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 329–50.

Kacandes examines how the narrative second person can distort the relationship between a story's addresser, its message, and its addressee. Butor's La Modification and Cortázar's “Graffiti” serve as examples in Kacandes's analysis.

Passias, Katherine. “Meaning in Structure and the Structure of Meaning in La Modification and La Route des Flandres.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 9, no. 2 (spring 1985): 323–51.

Passias contends that Butor's La Modification does not deviate significantly from conventional techniques in narrative point of view, although she deems it a progressive work. Passias compares the novel to Claude Simon's La Route des Flandres, concluding that though both reimagine narrative flow of consciousness, only Simon's “marks the beginning of a new direction” in fiction.

Additional coverage of Butor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 83; European Writers, Vol. 13; Guide to French Literature, 1789–Present; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

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Butor, Michel (Vol. 15)


Butor, Michel (Vol. 3)