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Stimulus and response: behaviorism, tropisms, and twentieth-century French thought and literature.

Literary criticism's model of choice for the understanding of fictional minds has been, at least until recent cognitive and evolutionary incursions, primarily psychoanalytic. While French literature itself has had many dealings with Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis over the last century, for instance, in the work of Andre Breton, Serge Doubrovsky, and Marie Cardinal, other conceptions of the mind emerging from science, philosophy, and religion have also made their mark on literary culture, and the individual characteristics of these alternatives are not always well served by interpretations using a psychoanalytic framework. One of the most influential and controversial of these other theories of human nature in the twentieth century was behaviorism, which dominated scientific psychology in the postwar decades. As a scientific theory, it was championed in France by the sociologist and intellectual Pierre Naville, who may have been instrumental in bringing it to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in whose philosophy it is discussed in detail. As a cultural force, it was the critic Claude-Edmonde Magny who first drew awareness to its possible influence, along with cinema, on the "externalist" American novels of the 1940s, which were to have a major influence on French writers like Sartre and Albert Camus. Andre Gide makes reference to the scientific origins of the movement in his fiction, albeit dismissively, and Nathalie Sarraute not only discusses behaviorism and its cultural manifestations extensively in her essays but employs its foundational concept, the tropism, prominently throughout her fiction. Sarraute's relationship to behaviorism is one of the most interesting in the period, since it combines condemnation of what she sees as the "behaviorist novel" in American and French literature with adoption in her own writing of other psychological doctrines that might also be considered behaviorist. This article explores the impact of the behaviorist theory of mind on French literature and culture, and in doing so uncovers a significant mismatch between the "behaviorist novel" as it has been narrowly conceived and the broader theories of behaviorism as a movement within psychology. Understanding this disparity permits us to reconsider the validity of the label "behaviorist" with regard to mid-twentieth-century authors, and notably among European writers, Camus, Sartre, and Sarraute.

Behaviorism's rise to prominence spans three generations, and in those generations its doctrines were principally developed and disseminated by three notable scientists. Jacques Loeb (1859-1924) was the precursor, in whose work many of the movement's main ideas are already formulated; his student John B. Watson (1878-1958) is often referred to as the "father" of behaviorism for founding and naming the movement and setting out its central tenets; and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), inspired by Watson's work, became the radicalizer, popularizer, and leader of the discipline at the height of its midcentury fame. It is with Loeb that animal tropisms originate. The term tropism existed previously in botany, back-formed from more specific terms for responses to stimulus, such as heliotropism, the tendency of plants to grow toward a light source, and geotropism, the response to gravity in orienting the plant's structure. Loeb experimented with light sensitivity in caterpillars and other invertebrates, arguing that the tropistic process was identical to that observed in plants, from which he drew the conclusion that "heliotropic animals are therefore in reality photometric machines" (41). Through these findings, his research into artificial parthenogenesis, and his experiments on conditioned responses that mirrored in invertebrates the work simultaneously being carried out on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, Loeb hoped to banish mystical conceptions of elan vital from the understanding of animal life, and he was not cautious about speculating on the possible implications for humanity:
   Our wishes and hopes, disappointments and sufferings have their
   source in instincts which are comparable to the light instinct of
   the heliotropic animals. The need of and the struggle for food, the
   sexual instinct with its poetry and its chain of consequences, the
   maternal instincts with the felicity and the suffering caused by
   them, the instinct of workmanship, and some other instincts are the
   roots from which our inner life develops. For some of these
   instincts the chemical basis is at least sufficiently indicated to
   arouse the hope that their analysis, from the mechanistic point of
   view, is only a question of time. [. . .] We eat, drink, and
   reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is
   desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so. We
   are active, because we are compelled to be so by processes in our
   central nervous system. (32-33)


The central claim that behaviorism makes--that the human body is essentially a machine responding deterministically to stimuli in a way that is hugely more complex but not qualitatively different from the functioning of simple life forms--is here already encapsulated by Loeb, and it remained for his successors only to refine its details and find evidence to support it.

Loeb's protobehaviorist ideas percolated rapidly into French culture. Gide made passing reference to him in the second dialogue of Corydon (first printed privately in 1911 and published in 1920) and returned to his theories in Les Caves du Vatican (1914). Drafts of this novel include Loeb's name as a correspondent of the character, Anthime Armand-Dubois, with regard to the latter's scientific research (Pollard 115). The published version lacks the name, but the imprint of Loeb's ideas remains clear:
   En attendant de s'attaquer a l'homme, Anthime Armand-Dubois
   pretendait simplement reduire en "tropismes" toute l'activite des
   animaux qu'il observait. Tropismes! Le mot n'etait plus tot invente
   que deja l'on ne comprenait plus rien d'autre; toute une categorie
   de psychologues ne consentit plus qu'aux tropismes. Tropismes!
   Quelle lumiere soudaine emanait de ces syllabes! Evidemment
   l'organisme cedait aux memes incitations que l'heliotrope lorsque
   la plante involontaire tourne sa face au soleil (ce qui est
   aisement reductible a quelques simples lois de physique et de
   thermo-chimie). Le cosmos enfin se douait d'une benignite
   rassurante. Dans les plus surprenants mouvements de l'etre on
   pouvait uniment reconnaitre une parfaite obeissance a l'agent.
   (683) (1)


Gide was certainly no advocate for such a view of life, and the passage's satirical tone is swiftly underlined in the novel by Anthime's conversion from an enthusiastic belief in soulless mechanism to fervor of a more conventionally religious kind. Anthime's experiments in animal conditioning are, however, reminiscent of Loeb and Pavlov, and his desire to "s'attaquer a l'homme" shows that he shares Loeb's ambitions for such methods to extend to human psychology.

The first major text of human behaviorism was in fact already published by the time Gide's novel appeared. Watson's "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" (1913) takes "profound influence" (Greenspan and Baars 222) from Loeb as it lays out the theory of human nature that he, Skinner, and others would advocate over the coming decades. Watson and Skinner aimed to displace what they dub "mentalist" approaches to psychology by outlawing the unverifiable data of introspection and abandoning the concept of consciousness as neither definable nor usable. In Behaviorism (1925), Watson lays out the shift in perspective for which his discipline calls: "All schools of psychology except that of behaviorism claim that 'consciousness' is the subject matter of psychology. Behaviorism, on the contrary, holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior or activities of the human being" (3). He goes on to urge, "Why don't we make what we can observe the real field of psychology? Let us limit ourselves to things that can be observed, and formulate laws concerning only those things" (6). Behaviorism thus attempts a twofold scientific revolution in the study of human nature: psychology will be understood to follow predictable mechanistic laws, and the demonstration of these laws will rely exclusively on objectively ascertained external evidence. The inner life of the mind, where we believe our actions have their source in our thoughts and feelings and in our exercise of free will, is not only a "black box" into which scientific investigation cannot penetrate but also, for the behaviorists, an illusion and irrelevant to the understanding of human life. As Skinner puts it in a later work, About Behaviorism, "Nothing is lost by neglecting a supposed nonphysical link [between external stimulus and observed response]. Thus, if we know that a child has not eaten for a long time, and we know that he therefore feels hungry and that because he feels hungry he then eats, then we know that if he has not eaten for a long time, he will eat" (14).

The behaviorists embarked on a program of reformulating the "mentalist" conceptions of psychology into systems of behavioral responses to stimulus and longer-term products of reinforcement through conditioning. They achieved some success where physiological or involuntary responses were concerned, as in Skinner's example, or Watson's now notorious "little Albert" experiments to condition a fear response in a child through the association of a loud noise with the sight of a rat. They ran into greater opposition in their attempts to externalize more complex or more private mental functions, however, as when Watson tried to redefine thought as "largely subvocal talking" (Behaviorism 191) or when Skinner reconceived metaphor as a similarity of response evoked by the similarity of two different stimuli (104). (2)

Behaviorism arrived in France in the mid-twentieth century as both a scientific and a cultural force, and these two aspects were to become further entwined in its European reception. Naville's La Psychologies. Science du comportement (1942) was the most faithful and far-reaching attempt to present behaviorist ideas to a French audience from a scientific perspective. His links to the French literary and philosophical milieux of the time facilitated the osmosis of behaviorist ideas into the broader cultural sphere. A former associate of the surrealists, who had cofounded a journal with Louis Aragon, he had moved on by the publication of La Psychologie to a close engagement with the thought of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Sartre's discussion of behaviorism in L'Etre et le Neant (1943), published the year after La Psychologie, likely draws on Naville's exposition. Three years later, the publication of Sartre's lecture L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946) was accompanied by a detailed response from Naville, in which the latter picks up Sartre's use of the phrase "la condition humaine" in order to lecture him on human conditioning:
   Les individus ne naissent pas et n'apparaissent pas dans un monde
   qui leur fait une condition abstraite, mais apparaissent dans un
   monde dont ils ont toujours eux-memes fait partie, par lequel ils
   sont conditionnes. Et qu'ils contribuent eux-memes a conditionner,
   de la facon dont la mere conditionne son enfant et dont cet enfant
   la conditionne aussi des qu'il est en gestation. C'est seulement de
   ce point de vue que nous avons le droit de parler de condition
   humaine comme d'une realite premiere. (92)


Against Sartre's absolute human freedom, Naville presents a scientifically inflected view of human nature in which "il y a des lois de fonctionnement pour l'homme comme pour tout autre objet de la science" (93), laws that can be used to understand the cause and effect of our behavior.

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were predictably wary of Naville's determinism and of behaviorist doctrines that ignore or deny subjective experience, which were entirely incompatible with the phenomenological tradition from which their thought emerged. Despite this, the behaviorist movement made common cause with Merleau-Ponty in its rejection of dualism and its vision of life lived through the body, as well as a shared interest in behavior as a window into human nature, seen in Merleau-Ponty's first major philosophical work, La Structure du comportement (1942). Merleau-Ponty's understanding of behavior, however, does not aim to abolish the mental, as Watson's and Skinner's does, but to abolish the dichotomy between mental and material reality. Viewed as a simultaneously mental and corporeal phenomenon, behavior is for Merleau-Ponty a concept with which to combat the notion of the self as an inner homunculus detached from the physical body, but not a concept with which to combat the notion of a self at all or to weaken its status as an independent subject endowed with free will, as Skinner does when he declares that "a self or personality is at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies" (164). (3) Sartre too engages with behaviorism in a primarily critical mode, particularly in his early work. L'Etre et le Neant dismisses its view of humanity as solipsistic:
   Si les animaux sont des machines, pourquoi l'homme que je vois
   passer dans la rue n'en serait-il pas une? Pourquoi l'hypothese
   radicale des behavioristes ne serait-elle pas la bonne? Ce que je
   saisis sur ce visage n'est rien que l'effet de certaines
   contractions musculaires et celles-ci a leur tour ne sont que
   l'effet d'un influx nerveux dont je connais le parcours. Pourquoi
   ne pas reduire l'ensemble de ces reactions a des reflexes simples
   ou conditionnes? Mais la plus grande partie des psychologues
   demeurent convaincus de l'existence d'autrui comme realite
   totalitaire de meme structure que la leur propre. (262)


The behaviorists' contention, of course, is that inner life and conscious agency are an illusion not only in the other people that we meet but in ourselves too, which is a proposition that Sartre refuses to countenance seriously. (For him, the evidence of intuition is not ruled out of bounds.) Unlike Merleau-Ponty, he retains a dualist view of the mind, albeit the property dualism of a materialist rather than the substance dualism of Descartes. For Sartre, while there may be no immaterial soul behind consciousness, the mode of existence of the mind is nevertheless qualitatively different from that of the body, and any attempt to reduce mentality to physiology is anathema. But it is Sartre's attitude toward conditioning that is perhaps most interesting. In the discussion following L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, he dismisses Naville's position as "dogmatisme" (104). Sartre's idea of liberty in his early philosophy of the 1940s is uncompromising and ill-suited to engage with Naville's position. He was never to accept such a determinist model, but it is notable that, as the postwar decades progressed and behaviorism continued its rise within psychology, Sartre's confidence in human liberty eroded. In 1969 Sartre defined freedom as "ce petit mouvement qui fait d'un etre social totalement conditionne une personne qui ne restitue pas la totalite de ce qu'elle a recu de son conditionnement" ("Sartre par Sartre," 101-2), adopting behaviorist terminology and demonstrating a striking rapprochement with the behaviorist line. (4) We see the same trajectory in the more pessimistic view of his later philosophy, such as the Critique de la raison dialectique (1960), in which the concept of the practico-inert emphasizes the constraints on freedom brought about by the consequences of our own and others' actions, which we cannot control. Sartre's view of human nature never coincided with that of the behaviorists, and on the question of consciousness an unbridgeable gulf lay between them. But where free will is concerned, while a belief in its existence always remained the center of Sartre's philosophical system, we can see his attitude shift from a position diametrically opposed to the behaviorists to one that is not so very distant from them. In Les Sequestres d'Altona (1960), Frantz's verdict on the individual's relationship to history is the despairing comment: "La guerre, on ne la fait pas: c'est elle qui nous fait" (173). Skinner takes a similar view on the subject: "The person who asserts his freedom by saying, T determine what I shall do next,' is speaking of freedom in or from the current situation; the I who thus seems to have an option is the product of a history from which it is not free and which in fact determines what it will now do" (185). The later Sartre thus permits his concept of freedom to be hemmed in by constraints internal and external to the self, nuancing the absolute opposition to behaviorist thought that characterized his early philosophy while still leaving uncompromised the spark of free will that is, for him, the innermost element of human existence.

Behavior modification through conditioning appears in a number of Western works of literature during the mid-twentieth century. Skinner himself offered a utopian vision of a society in which harmful behavior has been conditioned out in his Walden Two (1948), while darker visions were presented in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's 1984 (1949), which were no less convinced than Skinner of the potential of conditioning to shape human behavior. To this list we might also add Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange (1962), which stages a form of "aversion therapy" similar to Watson's "Little Albert" experiment but takes a more skeptical view of the long-term efficacy of conditioning in shaping psychology. Interestingly, the term behaviorist novel did not attach itself to texts like these but, in line with Magny's analysis of the contemporary American novel, became associated exclusively with the fashion for impersonal narration offering an external perspective on the characters. Magny's L'Age du roman americain (1948) focuses on the work of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and characterizes the writing in all four of them as follows:
   Le mode de narration [...] devient absolument objectif, d'une
   objectivite poussee jusqu'au behaviourisme, par les conventions
   memes qui ont ete adoptees par la presentation des evenements,
   conventions imposees au cineaste par la nature meme de son art,
   mais que le romancier moderne a librement choisies: on decrira les
   faits uniquement de l'exterieur, sans commentaire ni interpretation
   psychologique. (49)


While acknowledging that the writers' intentions may have been consciously shaped more by the cinema than by behaviorist psychology directly, Magny maintains that by abjuring the novel's traditional access to characters' inner life, the resulting texts are nevertheless behaviorist in effect:
   Presque tous les romanciers americains des vingt dernieres annees,
   d'Hemingway a Caldwell, semblent avoir inconsciemment adopte cette
   vue behaviouriste de l'homme: ils nous donnent non pas les
   sentiments ou les pensees de leurs personnages, mais la description
   objective de leurs actes, la stenographie de leurs discours, bref,
   le proces-verbal de leurs "conduites" devant une situation donnee.
   (50)


In these postwar years, as France was in the process of reinventing its own cultural identity after the trauma of the Occupation years, the American novel was a benchmark against which new French literature could measure itself. In the 1940s it was often seen as an inspiration in its confident innovation and was praised by readers and imitated by writers in France. In the following decade, it would more frequently come to be criticized by French authors and critics as reductive in its view of human nature and pernicious in its influence on French culture. Didier Alexandre comments:
   Apres avoir adule, avant et au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre
   mondiale, les romanciers americains, critiques et ecrivains,
   soucieux de refonder le roman francais, font de l'histoire recente
   du roman americain l'histoire de ce que ne peut etre le roman
   francais. (81)


Sartre, whose Le Sursis (1947) is clearly influenced by Dos Passos, is among the first wave. He offered his view of current American writing in a 1946 speech to Yale University, later translated into English and published in the Atlantic Monthly:

Hemingway never enters inside his characters [...]. He describes them always from the outside. He is only the witness of their conduct. It is from their conduct that we must, as in life, reconstruct their thought. He does not admit that the writer has the power to lift the tops of their skulls as the Club-footed Devil raised the roofs of houses to see what went on inside. We have to wait with him--page after page--to understand the actors in the drama. We are, as he pretends to be, reduced to conjectures. Faulkner also elects to present his heroes from the outside, when their consciousness is complete, and then to show us, suddenly, the depths of their souls--when there is no longer anything there. ("American Novelists in French Eyes" 117)

Annie Cohen-Solal reproduces private notes, possibly from the same period, in which Sartre links such techniques to the doctrines of Watson and Skinner: "Les tendances americaines chez Dos Passos ... l'homme americain ... emigrants refondus dans le creuset americain ... Behaviorisme ... l'homme vu du dehors ... (297). Despite his rejection of behaviorist psychology in this period, then, Sartre praises the externalist American style but, crucially, praises it as a study in being-for-others, in which the other's inner life is present but inaccessible to us.

Sarraute spearheads the second wave. With the American externalism beginning to make its presence felt in French literature, acknowledged by Camus as an influence on L'Etranger (1942) and by Louis-Rene des Forets on Les Mendiants (1943), Sarraute perceives the trend as a threat to the psychological novel as an art form. She writes to the Times Literary Supplement in 1959: "Tous mes articles s'efforcent de defendre ce que l'on designe avec mepris aujourd'hui sous le nom de 'psychologie' contre les tendances dites 'behavioristes'" (Euvres completes 2079). The conflict in literature between behaviorist writing and psychological analysis forms the topic of her first published article on the novel in 1947, and recurs throughout her later essays. In 1953 she opines that psychological novels like Proust's now appear (to the arbiters of literary fashion) as relics of a bygone age, and that in the current climate, "le mot 'psychologie' est un de ceux qu'aucun auteur ne peut entendre prononcer a son sujet sans baisser les yeux et rougir. Quelque chose d'un peu ridicule, de desuet, de cerebral, de borne, pour ne pas dire de pretentieusement sot, s'y attache" (OEuvres completes 1588). (5) Among the practitioners of the "behaviorist" novels that are replacing them, she cites Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Camus, and, rather unfairly, Franz Kafka. Like Magny and Sartre, Sarraute sees these novels as marked stylistically by an emphasis on dialogue and external presentation of the characters: "[Le romancier] peut, comme les behavioristes, faire parler sans aucune preparation ses personnages, se tenant a une certaine distance, se bornant a paraitre enregistrer leurs dialogues, et se donnant ainsi l'impression de les laisser vivre d'une 'vie propre'" (OEuvres completes 1600). And like Magny, Sarraute acknowledges the influence of cinema on the "behaviorist" style but regards the result as a pale imitation of the visual medium:
   D'ailleurs, s'il s'agit de montrer du dehors, vides de tous grouil-
   lements et fremissements secrets, des personnages, et de relater
   les actions et les evenements qui composent leur histoire, ou de
   raconter a leur propos des histoires, comme on l'incite si souvent
   a le faire [...], le cineaste qui dispose de moyens d'expression
   bien mieux adaptes a ce but et bien plus puissants que les siens
   arrive, avec moins de fatigue et de perte de temps pour le
   spectateur, a le surpasser aisement. (1591)


Returning to the topic in a later essay, using the theater as her point of comparison this time, she argues that the loss of interiority in the novel not only robs it of the characteristics that distinguish it from the "external" arts of film and drama but may rob it of the one attribute that gives it value:
   Les romanciers behavioristes, qui se servent abondamment de
   dialogues sertis de breves indications ou de discrets commentaires,
   poussent dangereusement le roman sur le domaine du theatre, ou il
   ne peut que se trouver en etat d'inferiorite. Et renoncant aux
   moyens dont seul le romancier dispose, ils renoncent a ce qui fait
   de lui un art a part, pour ne pas dire un art tout court. (1662)


Externality is a natural corollary of storytelling on stage or film; in the novel, though, the renunciation of psychological analysis, a territory that the form had long made its natural home, gives the reader the impression either that the characters' inner lives are being deliberately withheld or that they are not there at all. The American "behaviorist" novel allows us to prefer the former of these two options, as Sartre did in his reading of Hemingway and Faulkner. It is a French writer, however, who first presents us with a consciousness that is blankly inscrutable from inside and out, with the first-person perspective of Camus's L'Etranger.

Gerard Genette characterizes the narrative perspective of L'Etranger as a unique splicing of the "cinematic" viewpoint of external third-person narratives and the internal focalization of the first-person narrative (77-89). Sarraute is one reader to link L'Etranger to American externalism and present it as a stage further into alignment with behaviorist psychology:

[Meursault] avait sur les heros de Dos Passos ou de Steinbeck euxmemes cet incontestable avantage d'etre depeint non, comme eux, a distance et du dehors, mais du dedans, par le procede classique d'introspection cher aux amateurs du psychologique: c'etait de tout pres, et, pour ainsi dire, installes aux premieres loges, que nous pouvions constater son neant interieur. ("De Dostoievsky a Kafka," OEuvres completes 1560)

It is undeniable that Meursault resembles the behaviorist subject in his passive reaction to events; his lack of emotion, opinion, or will; and the absence of any indication of inner monologue or complex thought (at least until the closing pages). It is not entirely facetiously that we might characterize L'Etranger's central event, the shooting of the Arab on the beach, as a heliotropism, the involuntary reaction of an organism to a powerful stimulus of sunlight.

For Sarraute, Meursault is the exemplar of a new homo absurdus spreading across the contemporary novel. Drawing on largely positive accounts of the blank psychological canvas of Camus's and Dos Passos's characters by Magny and Maurice Blanchot, Sarraute details with heavy irony the cultural abandonment of psychology for a behaviorist view of human nature:
   On pouvait enfin sans remords abandonner les tentatives steriles,
   les pataugeages epuisants et les enervants coupages de cheveux en
   quatre; l'homme moderne, corps sans ame ballotte par des forces
   hostiles, n'etait rien d'autre en definitive que ce qu'il
   apparaissait au-dehors. La torpeur inexpressive, l'immobilite qu'un
   regard superficiel pouvait observer sur son visage, quand il
   s'abandonnait a lui-meme, ne cachait pas de mouvements interieurs.
   Ce "tumulte au silence pareil," que les amateurs du psychologique
   avait cru percevoir dans son ame, n'etait, apres tout, que silence.

   Sa conscience n'etait fait que d'une trame legere "d'opinions
   convenues, recues telles quelles du groupe auquel il appartient,"
   et ces cliches eux-memes recouvraient "un neant profond," une
   quasi-totale "absence de soi-meme." Le "for interieur,"
   "l'ineffable intimite avec soi" n'avait ete qu'un miroir aux
   alouettes. "Le psychologique," source de tant de deceptions et de
   peines, n'existait pas. (1558) (6)


In Sarraute's view, Camus does not carry his project through consistently, lapsing into more conventional psychological realism in the novel's final pages, for which the reader is likely to feel "un certain ressentiment" (1563) toward the author. Nevertheless, his novel provides Sarraute with the strongest example of the behaviorist influence on modern literary culture, since it intimates not only that mental life is unknowable to third parties but that it is irrelevant even to the self.

Camus was certainly aware of the purported link between the externalist style and a behaviorist conception of human nature, and acknowledged their influence on his writing. Questioned in interview with Jeanine Delpech about the stylistic similarities between L'Etranger and the modern American novel, Camus recognizes the behaviorist worldview implied in its narrative style while, only three years after the novel's publication, expressing deep ambivalence about the technique he used and its broader impact on literature:
   La technique romanesque americaine me parait aboutir a une
   impasse. Je l'ai utilisee dans L'Etranger, c'est vrai. Mais c'est
   qu'elle convenait a mon propos qui etait de decrire un homme sans
   conscience apparente. En generalisant ce procede, on aboutirait a
   un univers d'automates et d'instincts. Ce serait un appauvrissement
   considerable. C'est pourquoi, tout en rendant au roman americain
   ce qui lui revient, je donnerais cent Hemingway pour un Stendhal
   ou un Benjamin Constant. Et je regrette l'influence de cette
   litterature sur beaucoup de jeunes auteurs. (II, 657-58)


In L'Homme revolte (1951), he discusses the American novel in more detail, emphasizing its behaviorist outlook, "purge de vie interieur," reduisant l'homme [...] a ses reactions exterieurs et son comportement," and presenting its characters "comme si les hommes se definissaient entierement par leurs automatismes quotidiens" (III, 289). He is once again negative about the generalization of such a method to a default novelistic procedure. Meursault, it is clear, was never intended to represent a typical human mentality.

Sarraute's fears about the long-term influence on Western literature of behaviorism were to prove unfounded: external narrative perspectives continued to flourish through the twentieth century on both sides of the Atlantic in the roman noir, but were never a significant trend in European literary fiction and were largely supplanted in America by a return to the psychological novel in the following generation in the work of writers like Philip Roth and John Updike. Given those fears, though, and the strength of her aversion, how does the protobehaviorist concept of the tropism come to form the heart of Sarraute's own creative practice? After Loeb, the word tropism admittedly falls from favor in behaviorist discourse, replaced by its component elements of stimulus and response, but these latter terms too are regularly employed by Sarraute to describe her own tropisms. Explaining her choice of title for the psychological vignettes of her first book, she refers to the botanical origins of the word: "Je les ai appelees 'Tropismes' parce que ces mouvements interieurs, ces actions invisibles que je montrais ressemblaient aux mouvements des plantes qui se tournent vers la lumiere ou s'en detournent" (1651). At the same time, though, she asserts the metaphorical nature of her tropisms and makes clear to Serge Fauchereau and Jean Ristat that she does not consider herself bound by the precise scientific meaning of the term:

Ce terme "tropisme" etait un pis-aller. Je cherchais pour mon premier livre un titre qui puisse evoquer tant bien que mal toutes ces sensations indefinissables et, a l'epoque, "tropisme" etait dans l'air. Je pensais qu'il pourrait s'appliquer a ces sortes de mouvements instinctifs qui sont independants de notre volonte, qui sont provoques par des excitations venant de l'exterieur. ("Conversation" 9)

How far, then, can Sarraute's tropisms, situated "somewhere between motion and emotion" (Minogue 8) with characteristics of both reflex and thought, bear comparison with the animal tropisms of Loeb and the stimulus-response of his successors?

Minds in Sarraute overflow with the "grouillements et fremissements secrets" of tropistic activity and function on a continuum from the social self on the surface of the conscious mind, down through the private self of sous-conversation, to the prelinguistic penumbra of the tropism on the border between conscious and subconscious mind. They are emphatically not the voids of behaviorist consciousness, despite the enthusiasm of some of Sarraute's readers to interpret her work in these terms. Sartre, for instance, suggests in his preface to Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (1956): "Nathalie Sarraute nous fait voir le mur de l'inauthentique; elle nous le fait voir partout. Et derriere ce mur? Qu'y a-t-il? Eh bien justement rien'" (37), while the critic Jean Pierrot suggests that consciousness in Sarraute is "un receptacle vide et informe, que vient incessamment envahir plus quitter une matiere commune, impersonnelle et invisible, la pensee, qui en quelque sorte flotte en suspension dans l'espace intersubjectif" (84). Such a reading was perhaps inspired by the anxious struggle of Sarraute's characters to infer from the words and gestures of the other an inner life that remains frustratingly opaque to them. It is nevertheless a serious misrepresentation of the Sarrautean mind, which holds far more than shared commonplaces. But while the profusion of tropisms may disprove any notion that Sarraute is a "behaviorist" writer on the model of Hemingway or early Camus, they do suggest an alignment with behaviorist thinking on the mind in a different respect. In fact, there are three characteristics of Sarraute's tropisms that are shared with the animal tropisms at the roots of behaviorism: in both cases the phenomena are quasi-physiological, in both they are involuntary, and in both they are responses to an external stimulus.

The first tropism of Sarraute's memoir, Enfance (1980), demonstrates all three of these attributes. When the child Natacha declares that she intends to slash the upholstery of a sofa with scissors, her governess issues a stern prohibition. In the text, the governess's words are presented as an oppressive weight or an invasive flood: "Ces paroles [...] ont penetre en moi, elles appuient, elles pesent de toute leur puissance, de tout leur enorme poids ... [...] dans ces mots un flot epais, lourd coule, ce qu'il charrie s'enfonce en moi pour ecraser ce qui en moi remue, veut se dresser" (Oeuvres completes 991-93). Natacha's response is to assert her intention more forcefully, and then to carry out the act. The text, however, represents this decision as if it were a reflex action of the body, triggered by the stimulus of the governess's words: "Sous cette pression quelque chose en moi d'aussi fort, de plus fort encore se degage, se souleve, s'eleve ... les paroles qui sortent de ma bouche le portent, l'enfoncent la-bas ... [...] sous cette pression ca se redresse, se dresse plus fort, plus haut, ca pousse, projette violemment hors de moi les mots ... 'Si, je le ferai'" (993). Avoiding the familiar labels of "desobeissance" or "rebellion" with which the exchange would conventionally be depicted, Natacha's response is described in terms of movement within her body, counteracting the downward pressure of the governess's words with upward force of its own, before violently ejecting the words from her mouth. Despite the prevalence of biological images in the exchange, Sarraute is not proffering simple physiological similes, such as "enforcing obedience is like force-feeding" or "rejecting authority is like vomiting." Rather, the tropism is evoked via a range of images, not all of them compatible with each other, in an attempt to encompass collectively a nameless psychological event.

While not all of Sarraute's metaphors are biological, the body and the natural world are her predominant choices in illustrating tropisms. In Tropismes (1939), the old lady who intimidates those around her with fear of disapproval is a "fragile et douce plante sous-marine toute tapissee de ventouses mouvantes" (Oeuvres completes 21), and elsewhere, we see gossamer threads reach out to ensnare the unwary, ravenous predators prey on weak minds, or characters withdraw into themselves like a snail into a shell. Often the images are more vague, suggesting the inner functions of a living organism without identifying detail: in Sarraute's characters we witness quiverings, creepings, wiltings, or surgings forth, their words and attitudes are odors and secretions, their personalities are hard carapaces or vulnerable flesh, fixed structures or flowing liquids. Of course, for behaviorism, biological discourse for mental processes is no mere metaphor. As Watson puts it: "The organism is constantly assailed by stimuli--which come through the eye, the ear, the nose and the mouth--the so called objects of our environment; at the same time the inside of our body is likewise assailed at every moment by stimuli arising from changes in the tissues themselves" (Behaviorism 12). Sarraute, however, is clear that nothing literally stirs or thrusts upward inside the rebellious Natacha in the earlier example. The physiological responses described are symbols to evoke precognitive mental activity for the reader as best the text can, as Sarraute explains: "Ces mouvements, [...] produisant en nous des sensations souvent tres intenses, mais breves, il n'etait possible de les communiquer au lecteur que par des images qui en donnent des equivalents et lui fassent eprouver des sensations analogues" (1553-54). Equally, the "stimulus" in Sarraute often involves the subjective interpretation of another person's words or gestures, as in the original example, putting it at some remove from the reductive mechanisms favored by behaviorism in the illustration of their doctrines. Nevertheless, the strongly physiological flavor of Sarraute's imagery conjures up a continuum running from higher-order cognition down to the basic mental functioning of instincts and reflexes. Natacha's revolt is not a simple neural reflex in the same way that the triggering of the vomit-reflex involves the brain but not the mind, but it is presented as having much in common with such phenomena, and perhaps more in common with them than with the distinct emotions and clear exercise of will that the conventional psychological novel employs to represent such matters. As Ann Jefferson remarks, Sarraute may advocate a form of representation that "vaporizes the body" (82) in order to focus on states of mind, but her own use of corporeal images and physical experiences as an index for mental ones leaves her work "best described as a writing of the body" after all (94). Her model of a mind in which conscious and subconscious mental activity are thoroughly enmeshed, with no line of division between them and the most significant activity not clearly attributable to one or the other, is very different from the psychoanalytic view. It is little surprise to find that Sarraute and Watson are equally contemptuous of Sigmund Freud and his theory of a complex, semiautonomous Unconscious sealing off repressed thoughts from the self. (7)

Sarraute's biological imagery is meant figuratively, but there is nothing metaphorical about her characterization of tropisms as involuntary responses to external stimuli, making this aspect their most significant point of contact with behaviorism. We have already seen Sarraute declare tropisms to be "independants de notre volonte"; elsewhere she refers to them as "la source secrete de notre existence" and "a l'origine de nos gestes, de nos paroles, des sentiments que nous manifestons, que nous croyons eprouver et qu'il est possible de definir" (1553). If conscious decision-making can be disassembled into originating involuntary reactions, then Sarraute would appear to be flirting with the behaviorists' determinist view of human psychology. Skinner "rejects the conscious mind as an agent" (169) and declares that "feelings are merely collateral products of the conditions responsible for the behavior" (52), rather than the cause. For behaviorism, human life, like all of nature, is a mechanistic phenomenon, obeying fixed laws, and human behavior is at least theoretically predictable, if only the complete data of the state of the organism and the input from the environment could be ascertained. It is this, rather than the notorious "black box" of consciousness, that is arguably the discipline's central tenet and its most important legacy to contemporary psychology.

Characters' behavior in Sarraute is often presented as being outside their control, as in Ouvrez (1997), where a phone conversation is abruptly ended when one of the interlocutors suddenly blurts out "au revoir" for no reason (23-32). Tante Berthe's obsessive worries about her door handle in Le Planetarium (1959), or the memory processes that, independently of consciousness, restore lost information in the opening fragments of Ici (1995), sideline the role of conscious intention in mental activity (OEuvres completes 341-50,1295-301). Even creative thought is described in terms of an involuntary process in Entre la vie et la mort (1968):

Les mots sont ses souverains. Leur humble sujet se sent trop honore de leur ceder sa maison. Qu'ils soient chez eux, tout est a eux ici, ils sont les seuls maitres. [...] Ils se refletent, ils miroitent ... Et il est pris dans le dedale de leurs miroirs, emprisonne dans les entrelacs de leurs reflets ... Il tourne, renvoye des uns aux autres. (OEuvres completes 663)

Such passages show us, on the one hand, a buzzing, complex inner life that has no resemblance to the behaviorist void, but on the other hand, passivity in the subject and an involuntary quality to mental activity that holds parallels with the psychologists' view. Mark Lee describes Sarraute's characters as reminiscent of people in a state of asthenia, suffering "a general loss of will and force" (103). Sarraute's account of her own mental activity as a child has similar characteristics, as when she recalls her tendency to fall prey to distressing thoughts that occupied her mind against her will: "Maintenant cette idee s'est installee en moi, il ne depend pas de ma volonte de la deloger" (OEuvres completes 1043).

The exercise of free will may be little in evidence in Sarraute, but it is not entirely absent. In Enfance, Natacha learns to exert conscious control over these "idees" as she gets older, and the mechanistic stimulus-response of the sofa-slashing scene is counterbalanced by the autonomy with which the mischievous act is (we presume) originally conceived. In the same text, the choice she must make about which of her divorced parents she will live with is presented unequivocally as a free and conscious decision. Sarraute emphasizes the self's active role with repeated pronouns--"ce sera douloureux pour moi de trancher moi-meme le lien qui m'attache encore a ma mere"--and endorses the child's view of her own self-determination: "J'avais fait pour moi d'abord le bon choix" (1086). Sarraute's one reference to determinism, quoting from Magny in "De Dostoievsky a Kafka," is not complimentary (OEuvres completes 1557) and links the belief to the novels of Camus and the American externalists, which the same essay compares unfavorably to the work of Proust and Dostoyevsky. (8) While she may not be a determinist in the behaviorist sense, the representation of free will in her fiction has more in common with the limited autonomy of the later Sartre than the optimism of L'Etre et le Neant. For Sarraute, conscious exercise of free will may be a possibility, but for much of the time, a detailed exploration of apparently freely chosen words, thoughts, and actions will reveal them to be the product of simpler processes at a deeper level of the mind, processes that have more in common with the automatic responses to stimulus found in plants and in other animals than with the liberty and autonomy that homo sapiens likes to consider characteristic of itself.

In the mid-twentieth century, as behaviorism's radical disregard for subjectivity and skepticism towards free will swept through the human sciences and called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the mind, it is unsurprising to discover that European literature both absorbed influence from and reacted against the movement's theses. Alongside other theories of mental life that left their mark on the literature of the period--psychoanalysis and phenomenology notable among them--behaviorist ideas were attributed to several novels of the time and have parallels with the work of other writers with whom the movement is not generally associated. To sum them up briefly: following Magny, and, to a lesser extent, Sartre, behaviorism in literature became closely assimilated to externalist narrative perspective, primarily in the work of American writers like Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Steinbeck. To this list Sarraute added two European names, Kafka and Camus, and a strongly negative value-judgment. Kafka's inclusion is misplaced, as Sarraute herself later recognized: his characters are not devoid of mental life; they simply see it projected before them in nightmarish situations that seem conjured from their unconscious. (9) Of the others, the five American novelists do indeed offer an external point of view on their characters, and in Hemingway's and Dos Passos's cases, often exclusively so, even if the cinema is arguably a more significant influence on this technique than behaviorism itself. Even L'Etranger, which unambiguously presents us with the spectacle of Meursault's inner emptiness, is not a perfect candidate. Meursault is clearly psychologically out of step with the other people in the story, as his author confirmed, and his blankness thus offers a poor example from which to generalize a view of human mentality. If Camus intended to suggest that all minds were like Meursault's, he would presumably have given his novel a different title. While these works echo the behaviorist "black box" of human consciousness that Magny diagnosed and to which Sarraute objected so deeply, none finally presents a fully behaviorist view of human nature.

However, there is more to behaviorism than a disregard for consciousness, even if the literary world rarely saw beyond this most sensational of its tenets. There is the stark reductionism (the neurophilosopher Daniel Dennett calls it "greedy reductionism" [395]) that would substitute the brain and body for the mind, and correspondingly seek to replace "mentalist" discourse with the physiological. There is the insistence on external causes of our actions, which are to be understood as responses to outside stimulus. And, most importantly, there is the abolition of free will and the substitution of a mechanist conception of (theoretically) predictable cause and effect, opening a path for psychology to join the natural sciences. Huxley, Orwell, and perhaps Burgess, along with Skinner himself, have behaviorist aspects to their novels in this sense through their focus on behavioral modification in response to conditioning, even if only the last of them fully expresses a behaviorist view of the mind. In French literature, while behaviorism plays a role in Sartre's growing interest in conditioning as a limiting factor in human freedom, even at his most pessimistic he maintains a respectful distance from the movement. But there is a French author whose work echoes this model of the mind more than has generally been recognized. Sarraute's work is the antithesis of the "behaviorist novel" in the usually accepted sense of an external perspective and a disregard for subjectivity. Neither does she share the behaviorists' outright rejection of free will. Yet in her focus on mental life as response to outside stimulus, her deconstruction of complex mental activity into simple quasi-physiological movements, and her emphasis on the involuntary over the willed, Sarraute offers a representation of psychology that has more in common with behaviorism, in the original sense of the word, than any of the other writers considered here. As the most outspoken detractor of the "behaviorist novel," it is a parallel she would not have been pleased to acknowledge. As a keen student of human psychology, however, she might have been mollified to discover that there is more to behaviorism than the caricatured mindlessness by which twentieth-century readers and writers so often understood it.

Somerville College, University of Oxford

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(1.) Here and throughout, all italics in quotations are in the original text. For a more detailed discussion of Gide's tropisms, see Patton 35-42.

(2.) A damning review article on Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957), comparing Skinner's theory of the "controlling relations" of an utterance unfavourably with his own developing theory of generative grammar, was the publication through which Noam Chomsky first made his name.

(3.) For a detailed exploration of the relationship between Skinner's and Merleau-Ponty's thought, see Corriveau.

(4.) For comparative examinations of behaviorist thought and Sartrean existentialism, see Kvale and Grenness, and Morf.

(5.) The essay in question, "Conversation et sous-conversation," was written in 1953 but published only in 1956.

(6.) In the passage, Sarraute cites Paul Valery's "Le Cimetiere marin" in the first paragraph and quotes extensively in the second from Magny.

(7.) Watson dismisses psychoanalysis as "based largely upon religion, introspective psychology, and Voodooism" (Behaviorism 18); Sarraute calls the discipline "une croyance [qui] n'a rien d'une science" and says of its founder: "Freud montre un univers qui n'a rien de commun avec ce que je cherche a ecrire" (Oeuvres completes 1738).

(8.) Sarraute quotes a reference by Magny to the "triple determinisme de la faim, de la sexualite, de la classe sociale: Freud, Marx et Pavlov" (1557), which is seen as characteristic of the beliefs of those who turn against introspection and psychological detail in fiction.

(9.) Decades later, Sarraute tells Simone Benmussa that her opinion of Kafka would change once she read The Trial: "Le Proces a ete une revelation. J'avais, tu vois, des partis pris terribles, de cette maniere, j'ai laisse passer des choses" (54).
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