Something about nothing: Michel Tournier's 'La Jeune Fille et la mort.'
The name of the young protagonist of |La Jeune Fille et la mort', Melanie Blanchard, is, as so often in Tournier's work, loaded. Melas in Greek means black (as in melancholia); and Blanchard is self-explanatory. The name, like that of Raphael Bidoche in |Que ma joie demeure' (archangel or great artist/scraggy meat) is an oxymoron, a yoking of opposites. Tournier's favourite form of photography is black-and-white, which he claims is capable of subtler effects than colour photography. Initially virgin, Melanie will be ultimately and joyfully raped by death.
The tale begins at school, a mainly unhappy series of places in Tournier's autobiographical account, offset only by his wilful playing of the class clown. Melanie too is something of a sore thumb, an odd girl out, though not in any provocative way. Tournier can define her only negatively: |ni difficile, ni secrete, ni melancolique' (JFM :181). Obviously bright, she has strange habits such as sucking lemons during lessons. She has macabre interests. In history, she is drawn to famous people who were tortured or executed: Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, Mary Stuart, Charles I, Damiens.
The set topic of her latest essay is the stock |What I did in my holidays'. She chooses a family picnic, which had to be cancelled owing to the sudden death of the grandmother. From this (fictional) opening onwards, the whole exercise is ruled by negation (the non-audition of birdsong, the non-return under a storm, the non-drying of clothes). A non-event, an exercise in imagination, which indeed often negates and offers an alternative version of reality, as Philip Larkin illustrates:
And here we have that splendid family I never ran to when I got depressed, The boys all biceps and the girls all chest ... The bracken where I never trembling sat, Determined to go through with it; where she Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist' [...]
Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'
As Auden noted, |poetry makes nothing happen'. Like Larkin, Melanie is saying: |No, nothing happened.' Like him, she is writing against cliche - though the essay begins 'assez banalement' (JFM, :176) - against the same old story. Her negative invention is comic; death is from the outset wedded to laughter. Gravely, Melanie joshes the whole ritual of school essays, family outings and grandmas turning their toes up. In the remainder of the story, her obsession with death will be rarely gloomy, most often excited and jubilant. In cancelling itself out, her essay asserts itself. Melanie has quite literally, like the archetypal great artist, made something out of nothing, by an act of bravura against imposition.
The teacher is perplexed by this performance, as by the lemons. What do the disparate clues add up to? The answer, unavailable to the teacher or the classmates but to which the reader is privy, is that Melanie is bored. Not just run-of-the-mill boredom, but an essentially philosophical acedia. A kind of nausea, a sickening grey tide, covers everything, threatening her with stiflement. Like Sartre's Roquentin, she is unsure whether this nausea is in herself, or in things about her. She does not give in to it, but resists valiantly. As in her essay, normality is defamiliarized, stripped of its usual reassuring gloss. Tournier's version of Sartre is a perversion (in his own non-pejorative sense). In La Nausee, the lone-wolf hero undergoes a series of shocks that induce nausea. Instead of the orderliness and meaningfulness he would prefer to find in the physical universe and in human affairs, he experiences, in a terminal way, for he has had earlier inklings, the gratuitousness of existence. He rejects suicide as a tenable response, for that would be merely an additional absurd gesture. His retaliation against what causes his nausea (which becomes synonymous with truth) takes the dubious form of harking back to a jazz-tune, and projecting a book. He is himself aware of the bad faith involved in such an enterprise of imposing artistic order on the disorder of existence.
Melanie, for her part, has no such hunger for being. Her nausea swamps her at moments when we should say that 'l'etre est le neant'. As in all his borrowings, Tournier twists and capitalizes. Similarly, when Melanie looks through variously coloured windowpanes at the garden, Tournier no doubt had in mind the devil's mirror in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. When it shatters, some fragments become windowpanes and deforming-lenses which invert the appearance and value of all things. The ones Melanie looks through do not deform, either rosily or blackly. The transformations she notes run the gamut from the horrible to the lovely. The one colour lacking is grey - the colour of ashy boredom. What she deduces from these optical experiments is that anything can be viewed differently. Such relativity hardly shakes the earth, but she is still young, and is clearly a creature who will push everything to its logical limits.
When we consider nausea, we think of intake: too much or the wrong kind. Tournier never hints that Melanie ever gets sick of people or of herself. It is out there that the problem lies: in things. Hence the stress from the start on sensation and observation. In Melanie's case, it is foods most readily associated with childhood which provoke her physical nausea: cream, butter, jam. These are all soft, greasy, sticky, and signify a mass or a trap to sink into (cf. 'le visqueux' in Sartre). The tastes that delight and energize her include green apples, vinegar and pepper: all acid and sharp. As for drinks, milk is bad, lemonade good. She has had to give up her favourite mustard sandwiches, as they caused a riot at school breaks.
Tournier perseveres with his catalogue. He is trying to conjugate her nausea, as a means to making her strange obsessions more comprehensible to the reader, who is possibly jibbing at the idea of a young girl fixated on nausea, nothingness and death. And so, in terms of weather, Melanie dislikes hot, lazy afternoons, and prefers cold, dry, bright weather. Summer sun encourages passivity; sunbathing enacts a rape of the supine body. Her tastes go to the bracing. To this end, she gladly embraces both laughter and sobs which equally shake the frame and set up distance and control - the very antithesis of docility.
Sobbing and laughter figure strongly in her earlier exposure to death, that of her mother. Her previous experience, of dead animals, had produced disgust at rotting carrion, whereas bleached skeletons, bodies reduced to their essential structure, seemed to embody |la bonne mort'. Tournier makes little of Melanie's father's uninterest in his daughter, who got over her very real grief at her mother's death when she was twelve, by picturing her body in the grave as picked clean. Melanie had killed off a grandmother in her story. Is this a displacement to conceal a wound? Or a more positive option? Tournier himself has declared: |Les oeuvres sont les fruits du desert et ne s'epanouissent que dans l'aridite' (VP :295). He tells an approving story of a corpse transported across the Sahara, becoming progressively lighter and mummified: 'C'est beau, un pays ou un cadavre ne pourrit pas.' There could be, in his mind, a connexion between the clear lines of philosphical systems and the picked bones of a skeleton: the reduction to an essence, or at least a framework. Despite his contrary taste for sumptuousness, Tournier returns often to desiccation or sublimation, as in the anecdote of the blase socialite, Antoine Bibesco, visiting the plush house of a friend: 'Oui d'accord, mais pourquoi pas plutot rien?' (VP :204). This is Melanie's priceless question.
It might seem that the mother's death plays a traumatic role comparable to that of the adored sister, Drusilla, in Camus's Caligula. Melanie's envisioning of her mother's stark corpse enables her to |sob with laughter', and to feel |delivree du poids de l'existence' (JFM :181). For such a temperament, mortality renders all human endeavour futile. As death always wins in the end, dying properly seems a more logical goal than living properly. If she cannot be her own cause or origin, she wants to be in charge of her end. Life is living-towards-death. Tournier, in many ways a child-like optimist, must have known the temptation to think along these branch lines, to entertain the possibility of welcoming death: |Les hommes du oui imaginent difficilement le monde gris et haineux du non' (VV :228). Did the yea-saying author have to wrench his mind in order to rehearse Melanie's option, which is, however, not |grey' nor full of hatred, (like Caligula), but as orectic towards nothingness as bulimics towards fullness? |La Jeune Fille et la mort' is Tournier's purest fiction.
It has its own impulsion. Even Sartre's La Nausee is only an adjunct, not a kick-start. Similarly, in the area of intertextuality, Tournier diverges from the burden of Schubert's song 'Death and the Maiden' (based on a poem by Matthias Claudius, about sleeping softly in the arms of death), where the girl initially resists the approaches of Death, protesting that she is too young to die. Death sweet-talks her, explaining that she has nothing to fear. For her part, Melanie needs no persuading to open herself up to dying. On similar lines to the song, the painting |Death and the Young Woman' by Nicholas Manuel |Deutsch' shows a dirty old man feeling up his prey. It is not entirely clear that she is resisting, for she appears to pull his head near hers and to guide his hand to the target-area. Tournier presumably wishes to break away from the long tradition of the danse macabre, though Melanie knows the joys of delectatio morosa. As for intratextuality, another Schubert song (based on Goethe's poem 'Der Erl-Konig') reveals Death as a ravisher-before-time (see Le Roi des aulnes). One tradition, that of the Ars moriendi, does seem to be revived in Melanie's hope for |une bonne mort'.
Though most of the time Tournier makes Melanie a likeable creature, on occasion and allowing for the inner logic of her desires, he introduces bleaker perspectives. For instance, at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when a third world war seemed imminent, Melanie, quite |logically', nurses genocidal dreams. There is always a temptation to generalize from an idiosyncratic case, as Tournier does with Abel Tiffauges or Gilles de Rais. Here, if death rules, why not envisage the massacre of millions? Melanie soon learns, however, that history, like philosophy later, will not provide any recipe solution for her dilemmas.
Neither will sex, to which she is initiated brutally in the fuel-cellar by a delivery-boy, Etienne. The rape reads close to attempted murder. Melanie is both repelled and attracted as her virgin body is assaulted in the dirty room (the white-black motif in another gauzy disguise). In fact, she follows up the rape by visiting Etienne in the wood-mill where he works. The savage initiation seems not to have been psychically scarring, probably because of the near-death element in it. The sawdust lying about is an unnoticed foretaste of the story's ending, for it was traditionally used to soak up the blood of the guillotined. It comes, moreover, from tree-trunks; and after decapitation, all that is left of bodies is the trunk. It is at this juncture that Melanie commissions an elaborate but unspecified machine from a master-craftsman. It will be a long job, and the reader probably forgets about this order until the last pages. It is a kind of plant that will flower later.
Melanie's sexual relationship and sweet nothings with Etienne continue, satisfying in themselves, but in no way proof against the death-obsession. Tournier writes elsewhere: |La vie a partie liee avec la mort, et la psychanalyse a tort de pre-tendre opposer Eros et Thanatos comme deux pulsions diametralement opposees' (CS :173). For Tournier, Freud helps to provide terms for discussion, but no conclusive answers. When Ptienne offloads her, Melanie sinks back again into her ennui, from which he has been a distraction only Ennui, or accidie or acedia, are preferable terms to |boredom', which suggests a temporary mood. Ennui has a long history in the Romantic tradition, although it is difficult to fit Melanie into this line, as into any other. For Tournier ennui attacks the young especially:' Il y a une lumiere glauque d'aquarium tombant sur toutes choses d'un ciel uniformement voile, et finalement une clameur silencieuse qui brame le desespoir d'exister' (CS :39). He offers as reasons the lack of rootedness, the availability of the young. Melanie's brief dreams of holocausts derive from Tournier's: |En 1938, 39, 40, j'avais treize, quatorze, quinze ans. Je me souviens de la ferveur avec laquelle je priais pour qu'une guerre eclatat et jetat cul par-dessus tete la societe de cloportes ou j'agonisais' (CS :40). In comparison adults are more preoccupied, but far less intense (ibid.). Melanie has only loose connexions with the youthful Tournier, for she bears her fellows no ill-will.
Where Melanie differs from her author or most people is that she decides the solution lies in her own hands. She attaches a rope to a ceiling-beam and, like God on the seventh day of creation, she admires her handiwork. Suicide, of course, can be seen as the ultimate gauntlet thrown down before God, or our body (I will die when I decide, not you). The simple act of setting up an exit suddenly gives her life a density it had largely lacked before. She has in effect stepped from the conveyor-belt to the self-chosen path. To capture Melanie's newfound direction, Tournier again resorts to oxymoron. She experiences |un bonheur patibulaire' (JFM :187), gallows-gaiety, Galgenfreude rather than Galgenhumor.
After a sexual liaison, ordinary practising friendship diverts Melanie for a spell from her new focus, when her friend Jacqueline asks her to live with her for a few weeks. Apart from her obsession, Melanie is truly unremarkable, a perfectly decent being, who willingly helps. Jacqueline to teach under-achieving children. If her fixation is monstrous, she herself is a sympathetic monster. This period is again only a truce. Jacqueline's fiance is in the CRS, a potential death-dealer, as is made plain by his bulky service-pistol. Through no fault of her own, Melanie gets involved in the engaged couple's tiff, and indeed withdraws tactfully from the fraught scene. She is fully prepared for others to be orthodoxly happy. The glimpse of that revolver stays with her, a bulgingly phallic symbol, although it is rather its destructive potentiality that seduces her into stealing it.
Her first stab at suicide is a fiasco. The gun goes off harmlessly while she is trying to find out how it works. She is unsure whether to be relieved or sorry to survive: a wobble in volition that helps to keep her believable. She is typical only of herself. She is simply or complexly a human being with an urge to become an ex-human being. In the woods where she missed her target, she meets a man collecting mushrooms. This encounter opens up more possibilities (death is an eye-opener): self-poisoning. If the reader has not already begun to feel this, her single-minded efforts to do herself in start to become serio-comic here, joco-serious. She has a curiosity about death. She is always ready to learn - about sex, mushrooms, fearsome machines - even if she disbelieves in the lessons of history. For his part, that mushroom-expert can safely flirt with death. Melanie is no tease; she is in earnest (cf. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: |We shape a figure of our fantasy, / Call nothing something, and run after it.')
The sexual motif recurs when Melanie gets hold of some phallic-shaped lethal fungi. This third possible way out enables Tournier to go through, in wilfully excruciating detail, the various symbolic values of rope, gun and poisonous mushroom. The pistol, of course, is blatantly erotic, and reminds Melanie of the undeniable pleasures she had with Etienne. Sex and death, as in the |little death' of Elizabethan orgasm, have been traditional bedmates. Beyond such local thrills all three instruments of suicide seem to open different doors on to the unknown, as if death itself were the afterlife. The plethora of available methods suggests that Melanie's nausea surfaces not from a lack of meaning, but from a surfeit.
In his ebullient catalogue, Tournier proposes that mushrooms betoken a giant stomach and all the basic existential activities associated with it: digestion, sex and evacuation. Melanie imagines dying from mushroom poisoning as an initiation-ceremony. It would be like being born in reverse, a return to a primeval (not an identifiably maternal) womb. The pistol, for its part, evokes Hell: flames, noise, acrid stench. The third key to the door of the unknown, the rope, and the chair to take off from, represent Nature, trees and plants. If she chose this route, she could feel part of the landscape. In this section, as well as intentionally parodying experts like the mycologist-philosopher, M. Coquebin, Tournier pastiches himself in this symbolic disquisition. Would Melanie, without his ventriloquism, be up to articulating such finesses? Whether or not, she clearly wants what, in Starobinski's account, Montaigne desired: |La mort ideale, pour Montaigne, est une mort agie, une "mort dirigee", (comme nous parlons d'accouchement dirige) ou la conscience
s'applique etroitement a l'evenement instantane qui se produit dans la profondeur du corps.'
To Melanie's options Tournier opposes the very different views of the expert, M. Coquebin (i.e. greenhorn). The decor of his room, with its plaster saints, indicates religiosity, and indeed a leading Catholic saint, Theresa, object of a particularly sentimental cult, lived once in the next street. When Melanie looks quietly consternated at such talk - she entirely lacks mystical velleities - he swiftly changes to another hobbyhorse, philosophy. Immediately he runs up against her refusal to argue, to justify herself, or to proselytize. She is uninterested in the highflown shoptalk of philosophy. Tournier is not alone, however, in thinking that |l'enfant est spontanement philosophe, metaphysicien meme.' The frontispiece of Le Vent Paraclet shows Franz von Lenbach's shepherd-boy daydreaming on his back. Tournier glosses: |Il scrute le vide lumineux. Il se laisse basculer dans ce gouffre d'azur [...] C'est sa fagon a lui de faire de la metaphysique.' When Melanie tells Coquebin without affectation the story of her life so far, he at once intellectualizes it and slots it into scholastic traditions.
When Melanie relates her experiment with the coloured windowpanes, he at once, by professional (or amateur) deformation, cites Kant's aesthetic theories. The more she tells, the more convinced he grows that she has, quite independently, reached the same conclusions as the two main philosophical currents over the ages. One stems from Parmenides - a philosophy emphasizing the static, unchanging nature of being. Melanie's fixation on death and on mummified corpses could lodge here. The second wells from Heraclitus, the philosopher of flux; and the rest of Melanie's discrete life-incidents might tag along here. The opposition is also that of Cain and Abel, the sedentary and the nomad, which recurs frequently in Tournier's writings. But Melanie hankers neither to roam nor to settle down. Such polarities leave her untouched. As he expatiates, Coquebin eventually realizes that his interlocutor is far more preoccupied by a single red hair jutting out of a mole on his cheek than with his pedantic lecture. She is taken with concrete particulars, not structures and systems. As such, she is the antithesis of Tournier himself at her age, who worshipped only |le systeme avec son insurpassable coherence, [...] cause de tout, effet de rien' (VP :157); and who looks back with fond amusement at |ces coups de poing tambourinant mes pectoraux de petit Tarzan metaphysicien' (VP :180) Melanie is no more cut out to be a wilful anti-conformist than a conformist. She is a nonesuch.
Feminists might detect in this portrait of the girl an ancient stereotype: women, no matter how perceptive, seen as relying on intuition rather than reasoning powers. Yet we have seen how |logical' she is, and male rationalism as embodied or disembodied in Coquebin is satirized. When she stops visiting him, she again becomes a prey to ennui. She is getting nowhere, fast. The crunch is clearly coming. She cannot postpone forever a decision, accumulating instruments of death that she puts to no use. She is getting bored with her ennui. And so she opts for a deadline. This coincides with the feast-day of St Theresa, who died young herself. Her lively autobiography, The Story of a Soul, aimed to show that spiritual perfection could be achieved through childlike humility. Melanie herself is not ostentatiously humble, but what arrogance she has is not targeted against others. It is the genuine arrogance of somebody who knows very definitely what she wants. She wants out. She will stop at nothing to have her way.
The decision reached, Melanie is elated. She sees death as a process of transfiguration - another instance of Tournier's recycling of Christian concepts to unorthodox ends. Though she has fixed the deadline, we do not know which method she has chosen. Admittedly, she returns to her woodland cottage, where the rope awaits, but she could equally well use the gun or the poisonous fungi fittingly there. Principally, she is seeking seclusion, having no desire to shock others. Two days before the appointed day, a van delivers the machine commissioned long before. Tournier uses the colloquial, revolutionary term, |la veuve' (an example in itself of gallows-humour).
Wittgenstein famously said: |What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence', but the philosopher who declared that a wholly serious treatise consisting entirely of jokes was conceivable might well have allowed for mute inner quaking. There is a possible connexion between |le rire blanc' and the narrative blank which Tournier tries to circumscribe thus:
Absolu. Un concept qui pour exprimer le comble de la positivite emprunte une tournure ndgative. Ab-solution, qui n'a pas de lien, sans rapport, non relatif. Or tout ce que nous sommes, tout ce que nous connaissons est tellement relie-a, c'est-a-dire relatif, que le contraire devient pour nous inexprimable. A la limite, comme certains ecrivains religieux qui se refusent a ecrire le mot Dieu, laisser un blanc a la place d'absolu.
The narrative blank in |La Jeune Fille et la mort', like the elision of the Fall in |La Famille Adam', or the children-only performance in |Que ma joie demeure', digs a hole, introduces nothingness. The narrative switches from the arrival of |la veuve' to a doctor who has just examined Melanie's corpse. He is tempted to a paradox, which is also an everyday idiom: she has died laughing. Ever the roguish pedant, Tournier then further digresses into a physiological account of the phenomenon of laughter. Anyone who has ever read the deathless prose of laboratory-tests on sense of humour will second Tournier's mockery. Just as Coquebin's potted history of metaphysical speculation got us nowhere towards understanding Melanie's idiosyncrasy, so the doctor's borrowed dissection of laughter leaves untouched her special brand: cosmic hilarity When he was a student, it was the concrete, not the abstract, aspects of philosphy that appealed to Tournier; and humour always returns or anchors us in the concrete. From Bachelard especially he claims to have learned that the nearer you get to the ultimate questions (e.g. The Meaning of Life), the likelier you are to be convulsed with laughter (see VP :152-3). Levity and gravity co-exist, co-operate.
For his contribution to the debate, Coquebin quotes the well-publicized comic theory of Bergson: comedy results when something mechanical is encrusted on something living; when, for example, people start behaving like automata. Bergson's theory smacks of the policeman: killjoy and punitive, a method of social correction and of imposing uniformity. Given Tournier's individualism, such a comic ideology is itself risible. Arthur Koestler performed a perfect demolition of Bergson's over-influential hypothesis:
If automatic repetitiveness in human behaviour were a necessary and sufficient condition of the comic, there would be no more amusing spectacle than an epileptic fit. If we laugh each time a person gives us the impression of being a thing', there would be nothing more funny than a corpse.
If, as suggested earlier, Melanie's single-mindedness is in part comic, it still involves mind, will and imagination: she is no robot. Elsewhere, Tournier judges Bergson's theory adequate, but only for |le rire de societe' (VP :197). |White' or |cosmic' laughter cuts far wider and deeper.
|Le cosmique et le comique. Ces deux mots qui paraissent faits pour etre rapproches [....] Il y a un comique cosmique: celui qui accompagne l'emergence de l'absolu au milieu du tissu de relativites on nous vivons. C'est le rire de Dieu. Car nous nous dissimulons le neant qui nous entoure, mais il perce parfois la toile peinte de notre vie' (VP :198).
Death makes strange.
As so often, Tournier calls in henchmen. Nietzsche, whose whole oeuvre |est parcourue par un friselis de drolerie qui sape les racines memes de l'etre' (VP :200). Tournier himself is not innocent of the |persiflage metaphysique' he finds in Thomas Mann, although he concedes that the account in The Magic Mountain of a patient tickled by unearthly laughter while undergoing the unspeakable agony of a pneumothorax is exactly what he means by |le rire blanc' (VP :202-3). In that same novel, Hans Castorp's mother |meurt tout simplement en riant, meurt de rire a la lettre, tuee par l'inenarrable drolerie de la condition humaine'.
In contrast with the doctor or Coquebin, Melanie's friend Jacqueline, an ordinary mortal, aspires to no sophisticated interpretation, and offers a novelettish version of the death. Consumed with passion for the riot-squaddy, Melanie has sacrificed herself for her friend's happiness. Only the old craftsman, Sureau, does not waste words trying to read the event. He may be a stand-in for Tournier, who fondly describes himself as an artisan, who works long-windedly, and who has produced in his story a beautiful machine of destruction for his young protagonist. Nobody in the story, starting with the teacher on the first page, has even begun to understand Melanie. She nonplusses experts and laypersons alike.
Tournier winks to Alphonse Allais, coiner of the epithet, when he has Melanie send out |un faire-part anthume' (JFM :201), which summons all who knew her, but is timed so that they get to her forest hut too late to dissuade her. Her suicide-note was no cry for help. The three weapons in her arsenal stand unused. She has died, in purely medical terms, of a massive heart-attack (cf. |Les attaques cerebrales, si commodes pour menager le coup de thehtre qui debarrasse l'auteur d'un personnage devenu inutile, reculent devant l'infarctus de myocarde plus moderne, plus "business", plus noble aussi parce que touchant le coeur' (VV :326). Her dead face retains a smile. Twisting congealed syntagms as so often, Tournier switches |la joie de vivre' to |la joie de ne pas vivre'.
To add to the lexical stock-pot, I would offer |nihility': the opposite of plenitude; |neminity': the opposite of egoistic pride, the urge to be no-one; and |nusquamity' the opposite of ubiquity, the urge to be nowhere. Such neologisms imply that negatives are real (to nill countervails to will) and have to bear thinking about. They clear the way for the indescribable. Melanie's essay, about a non-event, represents Tournier's attempt in this story as a whole to evoke the positive desire to be nothing, the ambition to be dead. Saying no has its own reasons, its own consistency. Whereas death is traditionally associated with terminal coldness, repeated images of warmth accompany Melanie's explorations (see JFM :186, 193). Christian orthodoxy, of course, highlights Satan, the rebel angel who set up shop in rivalry with God, as the spirit who nay-says. A cipher is a letter, and a code, as well as zero. Queneau opined mildly: |Rien. Rien offre des avantages', and his hero jacques |s'efforce de se tarir, de se desencombrer, de s'evider. Il degorge son trop-plein de moi [....] Il se depeuple.' Piling on thick seems inextricably tied with evacuation, excess with lessness. Melanie is another exponent of |nontology'.
When someone in the cottage asks what is the large object wrapped in black linen, old Sureau unveils the guillotine, not as if it were a mature widow, |la veuve', but rather as if it were a young bride he is gently undressing. It is a work of art. It embodies everything that Melanie always valued: it is clean, cold, a perfect machine for the task in hand. It is also, divertingly, heavily decorated and somewhat ridiculous with its hotchpotch of styles: ancient Greek, late eighteenth-century. Coquebin identifies this composite, neo-classical, anti-rococo style as Louis XVI - the reigning monarch guillotined in 1793 (cf. the earlier list of famous people executed). The ancestor of the French guillotine was the Maiden (also known as the |Widow'), used in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for criminals. |Maiden': first, as in |maiden voyage'. Melanie wanted to handsel death, to inaugurate it with pleasure. She wanted to do herself in in style. In Des clefs et des serrures, Tournier recounts the anecdote of a village carpenter who built a beautiful guillotine, put his head in the lunette, and pressed the switch.
Il faudrait rcsserver une place parmi les causes de suicide a la force de persuasion qui emane d'un instrument de mort du seul fait de sa perfection technique ou artistique. Pas plus qu'on ne peut se retenir de gouter a certains gateaux ou de faire l'amour avec certains corps, on ne saurait refuser a certains poignards, i certains pistolets, l'acte qu'ils appellent de toute leur admirable forme. (CS:173)
This |persuasion instrumentale' presumably acts like the chasm breeding vertigo and the urge to jump in acrophobics.
Whether or not Melanie intended to use the guillotine, this object, blackly comic, has helped her to die laughing. For who needs a fabulous mechanism when an inside-job, the heart-attack, suffices? An infarctus round the time you choose is the ultimate form of do-it-yourself. Viewing the guillotine in all its sinister glory, a machine that represents how most people probably think of death: a violent intrusion, which cuts us off in our prime, gives Melanie the supreme occasion for active derision. |Une mort parfaite doit ressembler a la vie qu'elle couronne comme son ultime achevement' (CS :172). |Donnant donnant', nothing for nothing, fair's fair. She dies laughing, and no mistake.
From another angle, typified by Robert Burns's |The best-laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft agley', no-one can successfully prepare for death; it will always catch us on the hop. Grinning skulls are death laughing at us. The heart-attack just happened, out of the blue: an ambush. Even then, Melanie has still been able to die laughing, at herself and her own over-preparedness for death, because a cosmic sense of humour enables you to distance yourself and to find everything, even your own precious self, risible. No emperor has any clothes. This is dearly the rarest, the most rarified, kind of humour. It seems inevitable for those tempted to think along such lines to conceive of mocking laughter, derision. Whatever power it is that made an absurd world seems to be enjoying a good laugh at our expense. If, however, you are lucidly alive to the situation, as Melanie intuitively is, you can join in the divine joke. Wittingly or dimly, Tournier derides his own propensity for elaborate systems, and recognizes that master-planners can always be outsmarted. In Coquebin, Tournier skits his own recurrent pretension of using philosophic categories to corral life's mysteries.
Tournier offers no criticism of Melanie, (unlike Veronique, Lucien Gagneron, Pierre). Her excess, her longing for negation, come across as entirely positive, just as her essay on death was highly animated. |Certaines personnes m'ont dit que Melanie c'etait Amandine devenue grande, ce n'est pas une mauvaise interpretation.' We leave Amandine on the trembling threshold of teenage fecundity. Maybe what Melanie is escaping is, amongst other things, her female fatum. She lacks maternal vocation, and Tournier does not encourage us to think that she wants to rejoin her mother. Melanie, like other Tournier protagonists, experiences amor fati, defined as |la lente metamorphose du destin en destinee [... 1 d'un mecanisme obscur et coercitif en l'elan unanime et chaleureux d'un etre vers son accomplissement' (VP :242). Melanie is, however, unusual in the panoply of heroes and heroines, in not seeking to generalize her obsession, nor even to let it affect others. Those things that human beings normally rely on to fill out their lives: love, friendship, ambition, have not been enough to anchor her. For Tournier, the mass of mankind are |suradaptes', living like fish in water, and not questioning their environment nor their mental climate.
Perhaps she goes on to enjoy exalted company. For Nietzsche, the old gods laughed themselves to death, and Zarathustra added: |Truly it will be the death of me, to choke with laughter.' Like Novalis after the death of his beloved Sophie or Kleist in his suicide-pact with his beloved, the good die young: |Les vies les meilleures ne connaissent pas de phase adulte' (VP :290). Death is immistakably the last chance for initiation, as contrasted with mere sufferance. Tournier favours initiation-stories over Bildungsromane. The latter afford |atterrissage', whereas |l'initiation est un exaltant decollage'. Decollage': unsticking (from the viscous here-and-now). And, more anciently, decapitation. Melanie wants to initiate herself; her desire to die does without intervention by others. Above all initiation is not confrontation nor assimilation, but transcendence. Neither does Melanie's effort chime in with the classic existentialist Angst about human mortality. Death does not spoil all but gives added spice, point and vitality. Melanie's living-towards-death echoes the Heideggerian idea (Sein zum Tode) which Sartre contradicts so fiercely in |Le Mur'. Melanie refuses Sisyphus' stoic, stick-at-it option. Even if Camus enjoins us to imagine his hero, in his living death, happy, we are not invited to picture him splitting his sides. To counter the quotations opening this study, I bring in Aldous Huxley: |Can you really say something about nothing?' Tournier has done his damnedest to do so, by thinking against himself, against his own majority instincts. That he impersonates Melanie so persuasively is a sign that he is a true polymorphous-perverse novelist, and that she represents a temptation, a Valery-type |mauvaise pensee' for her creator, a reverse-thrust of his mental mechanism. The fact remains that Tournier still speaks for her ennui; he dictates it, to her and to readers. Apart from inability, this results from his view of what is |un conte': |Une nouvelle hantee. Hantee par une signification fantomatique qui nous touche, nous enrichit, mais ne nous eclaire pas' (VV :40). As Davis suggests,' Tournier's texts engage the reader in the quest for understanding, but never arrive at a fully intelligible conclusion'. Like Melanie's essay, Tournier has made something out of nothing, Melanie's desire to be nothing.
[1.] Quoted in The Observer, 26 July 1992, 20. [2.] G. Lichtenberg, Aphorisms. Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 45. [3.] J. Swift, A Tale of a Tub and other Satires. Ed. K. Williams (London: Dent, 1982), 133. [4.] Abbreviations used throughout are Le Vent Paraclet (VP), Le Vol du vampire (VV). |Le Coq de bruyere' (CB), |La Jeune Fille et la mort' (JFM), Des clefs et des serrures (CS), Le Roi des aulnes (RA). References are to the Folio or Idees editions, except for CS: Chene/Hachette. [5.] P. Larkin , |I remember, I remember', Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1988), 81-2. [6.] W. H. Auden, |In Memory of W.B. Yeats', WH. Auden (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), 67. [7.] Tournier discusses this story, which he envies greatly, in VP:50. [8.] See his interview with G. Dumur: |Portrait d'un ogre', Le Nouvel Observateur, 30 November - 6 December 1970, 46. [9.] Cf. CS, 186: |Etre Jeune, c'est n'avoir perdu personne encore.' [10.] Cf. all the animated cartoons featuring ever more elaborate and frustrated attempts to kill someone. [11.] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, |Aurora Leigh', Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. C. Kaplan (London: The Women's Press, 1978), 245. [12.] The more |normal' ageing Baron in |Le Coq de bruyere' wonders whether his last-fling sexual bliss will finish him off. [13.] I had the short-lived idea that Melanie's stockpiling of weapons of destruction referred to the world's arms-race. This is an example of overinterpretation, which Tournier, who often exceeds elegant sufficiency, seems to encourage in his readers. Little else would warrant this reading, apart from that earlier allusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis... A further example is significant/insignificant names. Is there any need to link Etienne's surname, Jonchet, with |jonchets', the game of spillikins, just because he delivers logs? The narrative frequently mentions |tranches' (lemon, bread), |le tranchant' of machines, |couleurs tranchantes' and |lames' (the |lamelles' of fungi). There is a dubious etymological link between the hybrid beast lamia and a gaping mouth, as in laughter. I have no wish to make an issue of any of this. [14.] J. Starobinski, |Montaigne en mouvement (2)', Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1 February 1960, 266. [15.] P. Pdju, La jeune Fille dans la forit des contes (Paris: Laffont, 1981), 118. [16.] The footnote to JFM, 196, pointing out that Coquebin's quotation about children as |ces demi-fous que nous toldrons parmi nous' comes from Pauline Reage's Histoire d'O, a pornographic classic, hints that his spirit of enquiry is not entirely pure. [17.] L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trs. D. E Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), 3. [18.] Wittgenstein, quoted in N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 29. [19.] Tournier, |Les Mots sous les mots', Le Debat, xxxiii (1985), 97-8. [20.] A. Koestler, The Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson, 1964), 47. [21.] For a fuller study of Tournier's punning, see my |Approximating Man: Michel Tournier and Play in Language', Modern Languages Review, lxxx (1985), 304-19. [22.] Tournier, |Erudition et derision', Le Monde, 6 June 1975, 18. [23.] Reversing the telescope, Tournier writes of a neighbour's crying baby: |Cette petite plainte grele me touche et me rassure. C'est la protestation du neant auquel on vient d'infliger l'existence.' Le Voyageur immobile (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), 7. [24.] Cf. Beckett (after Democritus), |Nothing is more real than nothing.' Malone Dies (London: Calder & Boyars, 1968),16, and the addendum to Watt: nothingness in words enclose'. Watt (London: Calder, 1963), 247. [25.] R. Queneau, Loin de Rueil (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 142, 145. [26.] S. Fertig's coinage, in Une Ecriture encyclopoetique: Formation et transformation chez Raymond Queneau (University Microfilms, 1983), 27, for the musings of Saturnin in Le Chiendent on |le nonnate'. [27.] F. Bregis, |Michel Tournier n'est pas un romancier' (interview). Brives, x (1983), 71. [28.] E Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 201. [29.] Tournier, Les Voyages initiatiques', La Nouvelle Critique, cv (1977), 106. [30.] Ibid. Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen is Tournier's choice of the purest model of initiation-novel. [31.] A. Huxley, Brave New World (London: Granada, 1965), 64. [32.] C. Davis , Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 8.
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|Publication:||Journal of European Studies|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1993|
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