Case of the Invisible Author
Madame de Lafayette’s anonymously published La Princesse de Clèves (1678) traditionally marks a pivotal event within several different narratives of Euro-centric modernity. ‘The first modern French novel’ does not tell us much; more helpful distinctions include its status as one of the first romans in which the main action revolves around communication and miscommunication rather than adventure or allegory, it also dramatizes the emergence of the private, interior self from within the intrigues of court society, the triumph of realism over romance, the proto-feminist triumph of the individual female author over the dominant, male-dominated games of politics and politics by other means, and, related to all three, the emergence of critical history, the history of intervention, intertextuality, and subjectivity, rather than gradualist, linear progress from a single teleo-phallo-patho-logical point of view. There are even some reasonably convincing attempts to read proto-psychoanalytic concepts into the work, yet more support for the compelling but probably misleading assertion that psychoanalysis is the twisted stepchild of literary criticism.
What this circulation of readings conceals is exactly what it projects: a singularity that is detached from and indeed disinterested in whatever is said about it, an originating hole within history (of the novel, of the salon society of late 17th-century France), analogous to the hidden author (from the beginning it’s been surmised that La Rochefoucauld, the intellectual center of de Lafayette’s social circle, had more than a little to do with the novel’s creation) and the fictional narrator who by novel’s end learns to hide herself in plain sight.
The game of court as portrayed in the novel is a dazzlingly complex network of relations both known and hidden — the first few pages do nothing but list the important personages under Henri II and their various intrigues. They, men and women both, are motivated by a ruthless pragmatism, interrupted from time to time by impulsive outbreaks of emotion that are strictly speaking unpredictable. Says the one fictional character (Madame de Chartres) to the other (Mme. de Chartres, her daughter, soon to be the titular Princesse de Clèves), “If you judge from appearances here…you will be often mistaken; what appears is seldom the truth.” She is principally referring to the duplicitous structure of court society, running as it does on the production and circulation of secrets, but there is also an indirect warning of the violent emotions that are the secret authors of the court (driving, for example, Henri II to be led by his mistress Diane de Poitiers for much of his reign, the ‘open secret’ at the heart of the court’s separation into factions). The maddening contingency of its social relations projects a seething, passional unconscious into its members, as the disavowed truth of its fictional appearance.
Pierre Daniel Huet, friend and co-conspirator of de Lafayette and the notorious Mlle de Scudéry, was the first to lay the foundation for fiction’s propriety in the form of the novel. His tale is epic in itself: fiction, though a defining capacity of humankind in general, finds its special “genius” in the Oriental fable, which brings together fiction, verse, and fantasy in to a highly addictive, pleasurable art of deception (the ‘Gay Science’), also used to communicate secret knowledge. A dual legacy of refinement and corruption followed its (viral?) profusion across Europe, from Greece to Rome to the unfortunate interruption of Northern barbarians, finding it’s ultimate form in (where else) France. Fiction in its ideal modern form is as follows:
“I say Fictions, to distinguish them from true Histories; I add, of Love-Adventures, for that Love ought to be the principal subject of a Romance. They must be writ in Prose, to be conformable to the Mode of the times. They must be writ with Art, and under certain rules; otherwise they will only be a confused mass without order or beauty.”
Fiction’s power to seduce comes from the same source as its power to offer moral instruction, which is its only defensible objective. That is, from mastery of its form, which, as narrative, is the same in which factual history is written (the battle between true and false histoire rages in earnest now). The ‘Romance’ (modern roman in this context), in contrast to the purely fictional Fable, is probabilistic — “Fiction of things, which may but never have happened.” Its potential for miscommunication, both accidental and intentional, is obvious, though this is not yet a necessity (a more contemporary trope). Huet illustrates this concept through a pseudo-economic metaphor derived from Plato’s retelling of the fable of Porus (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty) in the Symposium and Socrates’ deconstruction of their offspring Love, who is neither god nor man, but mediator between the two. In Huet’s version, Poverty (as Ignorance) is the faculty or form of desire for Riches (as Science), and as such is simply the absence or lack of those riches. Pleasure is the result of their union. But the form/faculty always yearns for more than the ‘reasonable’ satisfaction granted by what at first appears to be its ‘object,’ but which, as either Riches or Science, is actually a new way of being-in-the world, a new form and not the possession of any particular thing. The soul is thus constantly at risk of temptation by “Occult sciences” and “Fictions, Fables, and Romances” which promise a kind of satisfaction more easily attained, since it consists solely of the imagination — the faculty of desire — creating empty figures for itself.
Form (Art) is the element of fiction that allows it to seduce the refined as well as the barbarian taste:
“These are touched with the beauties of Art, and that which proceeds from the intellect; but the former such as are children and the simple, are sensible onely of that which strikes their imagination, and stirs their passions, & they love fictions in themselves, without looking further. Now Fictions being nothing but narration, true in appearance and false in effect; the minds of the simple, who discern only the bark, are pleased with this show of truth, and very well satisfied. But these who penetrate further, and see into the solid, are easily disgusted with this falsity, so that the first love the falsehood, because it is concealed under an appearance of truth; these others are distasted with this Image of truth, by reason of the real falsehood, which is couched under it; if this falsehood be not otherwise ingenious, mysterious, and instructive, and buoys itself up by the excellence of the invention of art. And S. Augustine saith somewhere, that these falsities which are significative, and couch a hidden meaning, are not lyes, but the Figures of truth, which the most Sage and Holy persons, and our Saviour himself have made use upon occasion.”
Pure Fiction = Pure Image (the false effect), Pure Art = Pure Form (the appearance of truth). This split function determines the hierarchy of readers — and the hierarchy of faculties within the reader (intellect over passion, mind over matter, line over pigment) — necessary to grasp the escalating profusion of print narrative within a legal system. The Aristotelean understanding of narrative as above all a philosophical problem has continued unchecked into the present, as modern fiction’s unshakable (but productive) adversary.
The modern critic Claudio Guillén sets up the relationship between literature and its criticism in a rather satisfying way — neatly separating the universal ‘mode’ from the situated ‘genre’ and casting it out into the stratosphere (as the universal only refers to what is undeniably present — narrative, poetry, the basic modes of human expression — it can be ignored). Genre, always under development, is “an invitation to the actual construction of the work of art.” As such it can never just be applied; it has to be reincarnated as the outcome of individual decisions. But it ‘invites’ different decisions from different perspectives. For poets (read: artists in general) it is an invitation to create in relation to a formalized set of traditional expectations, tweaking and disrupting them according to the poet’s aesthetic impulse. For the theorist-critic, genre compels logical deduction and the construction and maintenance of classificatory systems, a “thankless task” that always takes place after the fact. Guillén paints this as an inescapable problem — genre as the condition of existence for “poetics” a provisional, political contest, requiring continuous upkeep, that nevertheless relies for its language on the realm of theoretical abstraction. ‘Poetry itself’ is less stable territory:
“Whether poetry itself — whether the totality of the significant works that come together in the poetic experience and the imagination of an epoch — provide the historian with a genuine order or system, is surely a most difficult question to answer. Yet the shape of poetics need not provoke such doubts. The code, if not the message, is a coherent whole. One cannot but agree with Professor Fubini when he suggests some of the ways in which genres can be regarded not as the evolution of independent norms, nor as the survival of timeless ‘structures,’ but as the history of changing theoretical systems.”
— Literature as System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History
Logic, formerly the perpetrator of ‘timeless structures,’ thus gains from narrative a certain fluidity, now almost able to keep pace with the lurching, shapeless mass of history. It is always a step behind, true, but could the future — or indeed the present — exist without it?
The famously anticlimactic ending of Clèves has the heroine, rather than unite with her secret lover, abandon him and all of court society for a chaste spiritual retreat. This is in spite of the facts as he patiently explains them to her: her mediocre husband is dead, the authorities will not resist her remarriage after a reasonable period of mourning, they are in love. The whole action of the novel — the waylaid letters, the misinterpreted acts of politesse, the overflowing confessions — have led to this point, the opening of the way for repressed passion to finally be consummated. But no, there has been something else secreted behind the all the displaced, sexed textuality, an inner logic, attributed to no higher authority but which appears as the sole, ineradicable remainder after everything else is explained away.
“There is no obstacle,” pleaded Monsieur de Nemours; “you alone thwart my happiness, you alone impose a law which virtue and reason could not impose.”
“It is true,” she replied, “that I make a great sacrifice to a duty which exists only in my imagination.”
An imaginary logic that when acted upon becomes ethical, ideological, epistemic — take your pick. Modes of communication are valued insofar as they create the sense of a secret self hidden just behind them. The act of ‘revelation’ or confession is more important than what is revealed. It was precisely the Princesse’s confession to her husband of her illicit love for Nemours, the secret that eventually drives him to death, that most clashed with the sensibilities of early readers. To them it was a senseless strategic-economic decision — what motive could she possibly have had? — though after two centuries of 19th century novels it seems all too conventional to us. A self that can never simply be revealed, not even to the self, a ‘self’ that seduces its merely apparent double into believing in it, was not at the time an unusual or strange concept, essential as it is for the production and circulation of secrets, a social economy Rochefoucauld called amour-propre and Lacan would later formalize in terms of desire and the split subject.
No, this intrusion into reality of form (which was still located beneath appearance) was the novel’s most ‘subversive’ and disorienting quality. No reference to God, but a counter-egoic union of the self with an imaginary and invisible Law, mirroring de Lafayette’s allegiance to the counter-Reformationist philosophy of Jansenism, its result the Princesse performing the profoundly asocial act of (re?)claiming herself, taking herself out of circulation. Every fictional intervention within the otherwise historically accurate tableau introduces a counter-narrative that presents itself through bizarre causality (contrivance) and (dreamlike) imagery, which, taken together, suggest hidden consistency and predestination with no other purpose. The Princesse’s first act that is not conditioned by the politics of the court or the circumstance of passion is to deny the game of secrets for the fiction of the private. Like the novel’s anonymous author, she transforms her merely apparent, social self into a symbol of her own author-function, a letter addressed to the universal that aims to reground the unwritten rules of communication and inscription. The truest, most complete self, we find, finds itself in theory.