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Beyond the terms of commitment: Georges Perec's critique of the literary field, circa 1960.

From 1958 to 1963, before joining the Oulipo, Georges Perec belonged to a group of young intellectuals who called themselves La Ligne generale, or L.G.--after the film by Sergei Eisenstein--and with which he collaborated on a series of critical investigations committed to "a critique of contemporary French aesthetic production." (1) The choice of the group's name is telling, suggesting an affinity with Eisenstein's advanced aesthetic technique as it converged with a progressive social aim and a pedagogical function. More specifically, the figure of "the general line" corresponds to a need, on the part of Perec and his cohort, to identify a common critical practice faithful to Marxist imperatives (history, class consciousness, social transformation), while remaining relatively independent of the French Communist Party (PCF), and at some remove from Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Temps modernes, which had dominated the Left's understanding of literature's relation to sociopolitical commitment since the Liberation.

The ambition of L.G. was to found a journal that would instigate a new progressive approach to culture, one capable of responding adequately to France's tangled social situation. While the journal itself failed to materialize, in part due to withdrawn support from the PCF--a result of L.G. having drawn "the general line" too far afield of the party line--the group did manage to produce seven varied texts, all of which are attributed to Perec alone, except where otherwise noted: (1) "Le Nouveau Roman et le refus du reel," co-authored with Claude Burgelin, (2) "Pour une litterature realiste"; (3) "Engagement ou crise du langage"; (4) "Robert Antelme ou la verite de la literature"; (5) "L'univers de la science-fiction"; (6) "La perpetuelle reconquete" on Hiroshima mon amour, co-authored with Roger Kleman and Henri Peretz; and (7) "Wozzeck ou la methode de l'apocalypse," written with the participation of Jacques Lederer. (2) All the essays appeared in journals like La Nouvelle critique and Partisans, unorthodox leftist periodicals committed less to art and literature than to social struggle and geopolitical analysis, where they kept company with articles like Fidel Castro's "Je suis marxiste leniniste," Perry Anderson's "Le Portugal et la fin de l'ultra-colonialisme," Maxime Rodinson's "L'Islam et les nouvelles independences," and even Louis Althusser's "Les Manifestes philosophiques de Feuerbach." Although these journals published occasional poetas by the likes of Carl Sandburg and Pablo Neruda, the work by Perec and L.G. represents the only feature-length articles on cultural production to appear.

All the essays bear the mark of L.G.'s enthusiastic reading of Georg Lukacs, whose The Meaning of Contemporary Realism had then recently been translated and published in France (1960). Perec refers comically to his theoretical preoccupations during the L.G. years in his early novella, Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?, traducing his influences by deforming their names: "We'd speak about Lukasse, Heliphore, Heygal and other oddbodkins tarred with the same brush, for we were all a touch cracked in those days, until the hour was as advanced as our ideas" (3P 11-12). While the passage appears dismissive of Perec's period apprenticeships, Lukacs's theory of realism had a profound effect on his thinking about what a novel could be, and informed his commitment to the idea of a reinvigorated realist literature. Reflecting on this in a 1967 colloquium at the University of Warwick, Perec speaks of Lukacs together with Brecht as having offered him his early critical models:
 My first model was Brecht. As if by chance, I went to the theater
 to look for what I couldn't find in the novel, and Brecht taught me
 something very important and that is the idea of distance; in other
 words, what is represented in Brecht's theater is neither an event
 nor a feeling that the spectator can identify with, bur rather a
 feeling or an event that the spectator is obligated to understand.
 [...] This idea of distance I found taken up again by the Hungarian
 Marxist philosopher Lukacs in a book he published around 1957-58
 called The Meaning of Contemporary Realista [...] And I discovered
 by way of Lukacs, the absolutely crucial notion of irony, that is,
 the fact that a character can perform an action or experience a
 feeling in a novel, while the author, who isn't at all in agreement
 with this character, shows how this character is in the process of
 deceiving himself. (EC 1.79; my translation)

More than just irony and distance, Lukacs taught the young Perec how to think theoretically about literary form. In "For a Realist Literature" which appeared in Partisans several months before the publication of "Commitment or the Crisis of Language," Perec makes striking use of Lukacs--despite the occasional wooden application of Marxist categories--to elaborate his trenchant critique of two irreconcilable literary phenomena of the period, both of which aligned themselves, however differently, with Leftist critical practices: Robbe-Grillet's nouveau roman, and Jean-Paul Sartre's "committed novel" For Perec, Robbe-Grillet's "revolution" of high French literary production aimed to purge meaningful human relations from the representation of the world of things. As the fully realized product of a new literary tendency, the nouveau roman was curiously mimetic insofar as it appeared to imitate the petrified world of the commodity and its depthless elision of social life. By contrast, Sartre's theory of commitment (engagement), to which Perec was no doubt more partial, presupposed literature's responsibility to represent the social world and the individual's position in it. Sartre ascribed a certain agency to literature: to write was to act, and to act was to choose freedom, not only for oneself but for the world. Consequently, to privilege literature as a form of communicative action required Sartre to minimize the attention literature draws to itself as art. Thus while Robbe-Grillet sought to minimize the social, Sartre felt obliged to minimize the aesthetic. In relation to this critique, one can see how Perec's first novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, which bears the mark of L.G:s critique, aimed to overcome both of these minimizations. Concerning the novel's main characters, Sylvie and Jerome, Perec writes:
 The pressure of events led them to take a stand. They were
 committed, of course, only superficially. Their political
 consciousness, insofar as they had any such thing as a structured
 and considered set of thoughts rather than an inchoate eruption of
 more or less consistently angled opinions, was, they thought,
 already above or beyond the Algerian issue, engaged with
 alternatives that were more utopian than real, with general
 questions which, they conceded with some regret, had little chance
 of producing any kind of practical result. (T 74)

Indeed, Things formalizes the social tension between structured thought and inchoate opinion: each sentence is the site wherein the language of consumer culture becomes the very stuff of consciousness whose expression the sentence simultaneously represents and betrays.

Set against a backdrop of global instability and domestic division--the Algerian war, decolonization, de-Stalinization--all of Perec's early essays, like Things and Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard?, illuminate the cultural situation of the period and the contradictory logics at work within it. The instability of these sociopolitical dynamics can't be overemphasized in any effort to understand the literary context of this period, and Perec's early work to position himself both critically and imaginatively. In the wake of the invasion of Hungary (1956) and the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (specifically, Khrushchev's secret report to it on the crimes of Stalin), it was as if a window had opened to aerate the leftist imagination, which was struggling in various ways to free itself of so much dogma, be it communist orthodoxy or the ideology of the avant-garde. (3) New social positions and aesthetic practices were suddenly conceivable, and there were vacuums to be filled. One can point to Guy Debord's proto-situationist activity centered around the journal Potlatch during the mid-1950s, for example, to locate the horizon for radical critical practices. Potlatch was already commenting ruthlessly on Robbe-Grillet's avant-garde "pretensions" in 1957, pushing even beyond Perec's general line, given L.G.'s convictions about the novel's ongoing potential as a viable critical form. (4) But whereas the Potlatch writers elaborated a radical critique of the avant-garde in order to purge its uncritical tendencies from their own work, La Ligne generale nourished its Lukacsian aesthetic in order to rescue critical realism from the stale principles haunting the so-called "committed novel," as well as from the excesses of formalism found in the nouveau roman.

"Commitment or the Crisis of Language" picks up where "For A Realist Literature" leaves off, taking aim at an even wider range of targets, including Philippe Sollers's Tel Quel group and its mentors, Jean Paulhan and Roland Barthes. Having already thoroughly analyzed Sartre's and Robbe-Grillet's respective forms, Perec's critique goes on to anatomize the seemingly compulsory literary logic that had hardened around the terms of Sartrean commitment. Insofar as the literary world of the period had internalized the structure of a "committed" / "noncommitted" polarity, Perec argues, contemporary literature conceded, however unwittingly, Sartre's dominant hold on the possibilities of the novel, effectively subordinating all writing to extra-literary values. This is the case, he goes on, even when literature reacts in the interest of "literature" itself--as with Tel Quel--because the meaning of reaction always depends on the dominant term against which it wagers its own cultural significance. In other words, an opposition motivated by both social and literary concerns has no available logic, let alone a form, to turn to. One could pursue the nouveau roman, which, while attractive to the Left for its avantgardism, had no real social agenda; or, one could pursue a rather bland "art for art's sake" whose political substance failed to go beyond reaction itself. As Perec himself notes in an earlier essay, "Le Nouveau Roman et le refus du reel"--specifically targeting Robbe-Grillet--"protected by the solid myth of the avant-garde, [the nouveau roman] is recognized implicitly or explicitly by the entire Left as 'the good literature' " (L.G. 26).

The conundrum presented by this false dichotomy provides the point of departure for Perec's "Commitment or the Crisis of Language" which begins by drawing attention to the double bind of a literary logic that allows for nothing beyond the terms of a flawed dialectic, whose thesis was Sartre's socially committed novel, and whose antithesis was a reactionary assertion of pure aesthetic value on the part of culturally conservative writers opposing history and politics with what they thought to be the clear truths expressed by literature. (This group went by the name of the "Hussars" and is obliquely referenced in Perec's essay, represented by the now nearly forgotten figures of Roger Nimier and Antoine Blondin.) By way of this antagonism, the nouveau roman was able to promote itself as a heroic synthesis superseding both tendencies. While Robbe-Grillet in particular shifted attention away from commitment per se and toward a critique of an overvalued humanism, his literary sanitizing operation--Perec calls this a "cleansing of sensibility"--undermined the nouveau roman's ability to propose a politics, and brought it into conflict with more socially conscious Leftist aims. At the same rime, the nouveau roman's minimization of both emotional affect and linguistic effect guaranteed its conflict with more language-centered groups, like Tel Quel, who would go on to thematize the act of writing while advancing an expanded agenda around the idea of "literary quality"

Tel Quel--"as such"--emerged as a periodical in 1960 as though it were the literary world's own solution to this failed dialectic, a solution that would refashion crisis not in the social terms of commitment, bur rather in the literary terms of textuality, or ecriture. The group's very name underscores an affirmative approach to the idea of crisis as it migrated conceptually from the structure of society to the structure of language. (5) As David Bellos has noted, "Put in simple terms, and no doubt simplistically, the 'crisis' of language emerges from the fact (analyzed first by Roland Barthes in Writing Degree Zero) that every form of discourse carries within its structure pre-existing values and presuppositions: therefore, one can't express anything without at the same time expressing something else." (6) But Perec categorically refused to concede that such a crisis existed, at least not as such; rather, the so-called "crisis of language" could only be a mystification resulting from misdirected critical energies. Thus, from his critiques of Robbe-Grillet and Sartre, Perec began to scrutinize those contemporary approaches to literature that would locate a crisis within language itself.

Tel Quel was everything L.G. was not. Whereas L.G. failed to materialize as a journal due to withdrawn financial backing from the PCF, Tel Quel was supported by the literary establishment, specifically by the publishing house Seuil, who invested in the idea of a review with their new writerly star, Philippe Sollers, at its center. Deriving in part from arguments elaborated by Blanchot and Barthes, both of whom had posited ideas about the corrosive qualities that lay at the heart of literary language, Tel Quel turned the question of social commitment into one of a commitment to form, emphasizing a self-reflexive dimension of writing that aimed beyond a vague l'art pour l'art in order to cultivate a privileged aesthetic born of elevated--even oppositional--sensibilities. (7) Tel Quel effectively enacted an apotheosis of "writing" under the joint signs of quality and taste, arguing in its inaugural statement of purpose for a kind of"eclecticism [...] the best of every tendency." "The premier issue's manifesto asserts that "this review is not born of any ideological concerns (one of the main things that irritates us is, precisely, ideology); rather, we want to publish texts that we like" and this is just the sort of pluralistic disavowal of politics that Perec's essays implicitly refute. (8)

Proceeding by way of negation, Perec's arguments make no claim for a positive literary model, at least not until the very end of "Commitment or the Crisis of Language" where Perec nominates Robert Antelme's The Human Race as a work substantiating the promise of literature's renewal. Perec went on to write an entire article devoted to Antelme, entitled "Robert Antelme or the Truth of Literature" which concerns the question of bearing witness, in literature, to the most extreme forms of social crisis as manifest during the Nazi Holocaust. Even here, however, the politics of Perec's critique might present something of an obstacle for readers expecting a politically neutral appreciation, and as if anticipating such an obstacle, the English translation of the Antelme essay that appears in the Penguin edition of Species of Spaces bears the following note: "This essay dates to a time when Perec was more political in his outlook than he subsequently became" (SS 253). The caveat is worth noting insofar as it illustrates the persistence of the terms of commitment Perec himself aimed to pass beyond, here rendered as "political" vs. "nonpolitical" But the note also implies a default dismissal of those politics, and a lack of regard for their place among Perec's concerns as a writer.

It would be much too easy, however, to dispatch these early essays as the stuff of youthful theorizing, or as just so much political juvenilia to be excised, segregated, or devalued in the interest of getting at the more valuable Perec. Although Perec's mature texts aren't typically read under the sign of "politics," the sociopolitical is never far from his work's preoccupations and concerns. And while this brief introduction to "Commitment or the Crisis of Language" can at best serve as a prologue to the topic of Perec and the political, it's worth citing Perec's response to a question about art's relation to politics in 1965, shortly after the publication of Things: "The real question, I imagine, is whether it's really possible to keep politics apart from the life of the artist, which is also that of the citizen. Actually, one ought not ask artists' opinions about politics because politics is simultaneously manifest and veiled at every instant of the struggle as creator-producer-artist-citizen" (EC 1.41). It may be in the final lines of "Robert Antelme or the Truth of Literature," however, that Perec's response to the question comes into focus most clearly, specifically with regard to the notion of a "crisis of language": "For it is language that throws a bridge between the world and ourselves, language that transcends the world by expressing the inexpressible, and establishes that fundamental relation between the individual and History out of which comes our freedom. At this level, language and signs become decipherable once again. The world is no longer that chaos which words void of meaning despair of describing. It is a living, difficult reality that the power of words gradually overcomes. This is how literature begins, when, in and through language, the transformation begins [...]" (SS 266). To understand how these sentences might begin to propose a sociopolitical position, one can read them against any of the ideas Perec was contesting, according to which language can bear witness to nothing beyond its own withdrawal from the world (Blanchot), its "terror" (Paulhan), or its own scouring and whitening effects (Robbe-Grillet). Perec's ambitious move beyond the terms of commitment begins modestly by debunking these pure literary qualities as the stuff of myth.

The essays of the L.G. period remain compelling today not only as a preamble of sorts to the writing Perec would go on to do, but because they register and respond to many of the incompatible literary tendencies in France circa 1960. While their polemical tenor may at times strike an awkward note, essays like "Commitment or the Crisis of Language" document a real political crisis for the Left, which was then struggling to grasp, represent, and transform a postcolonial France unable to comprehend its recent history: occupation by Germany, occupation of Algeria, and postwar modernization in general. The question of art's relationship to this crisis was of vital concern, and Perec's work of the period offers insight into the failure of the Left to address the question adequately.

So, where was one to draw the general line? With commitment, as Sartre had defined it twenty years earlier? With an uncritical avant-garde, as manifest in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet? Or with the turn toward language, as enacted by Tel Quel? Against the grain of emerging trends that would privilege the centrality of the text, trends that would go on to characterize some of the familiar features of post-structuralism, L.G'.s remarkable response to the question was "none of the above" making a clear case for the value of Perec's work from this period, if only because it illuminates a road not taken.


(1) This description of L.G.'s project appears in a prefatory note at the head of the group's collectively written article, "La perpetuelle reconquete," on the topic of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (La Nouvelle Critique, no. 116, mai 1960). The note is reprinted alongside the article's bibliographic information in L.G. 184.

(2) All the essays are collected and published in L.G. "Pour une literature realiste" has been translated as "For a Realist Literature," trans, by Rob Halpern, Chicago Review 54:2/3 (Fall 2007). "Robert Antelme ou la verite de la literature" has been translated as "Robert Antelme or the Truth of Literature" in SS.

(3) As David Bellos remarked in his comments on this essay, it was "Khrushchev's secret report to [the 20th Party Congress] on the crimes of Stalin that became important in France. The French Communist Party tried to suppress it, and went on claiming it was a forgery for approximately twenty years! Perec's mentor Henri Lefebvre was expelled from the party for translating the document. [...] Perec was a fringe member of the circle of young researchers into 'everyday life' that Lefebvre had gathered around himself (including the young Regis Debray, Henri Peretz, etc.) and the Ligne Generale was very much in the intellectual ambit of Lefebvre"

(4) See, for example, "Encore un effort si vous voulez etre situationistes," in Potlatch 29 (5 November 1957).

(5) For a thorough history of the group, see Patrick Ffrench, The Time of Theory: A History of Tel Quel (1960-1983) (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1995).

(6) See David Bellos, "Georges Perec de la Ligne Generale aux Choses," in Etudes Art et Litterature, t. 17 (Jerusalem: Universitaire Hebraique, 1990) 213. [My translation.]

(7) At one point in the essay, Perec refers to the crisis as a "Terror" which is the key critical term that Jean Paulhan theorizes in The Flowers of Tarbes, or, Terror in Literature, and this refers to the condition of a literature subjugated to concerns not proper to rhetoric, and whose effect was the corrosion of literary language from within.

(8) Tel Quel (Spring 1960). [My translation.]
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Author:Halpern, Rob
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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