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p. 1048. The Self-Centred Consciousnessfree

  • John D. Lyons


‘The self-centred consciousness’ examines the notion of character, which was called into question in the thirty years after the Second World War. In literary theory and criticism as well as in political and social thought, the concept of persona, or central narrative character, became an object of much discussion and experimentation in the novel. In the works of Albert Camus the central characters do not fit into positive heroic positions within their society, but are outsiders, failures, or monsters. Samuel Beckett's protagonists likewise occupy the outsider position. The importance of place to character in the works of Marguerite Duras is examined.

Published in the midst of the Second World War, The Stranger (L'Etranger, 1942) belongs to what the author, Albert Camus (1913–60), called his ‘cycle of the absurd’ along with his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe) and his play Caligula. A simple glimpse of the titles of the three works shows an emphasis on central characters who do not fit into positive heroic positions within their society but are outsiders, failures, monsters – or all these at once. French literature, at mid-century, was certainly itself not marginalized. The generation of authors who lived as adults during the Second World War produced six winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (François Mauriac, 1952; Albert Camus, 1957; Saint-John Perse, 1960; Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused the award, 1964; Samuel Beckett, 1969; Claude Simon, 1985). This was a time, clearly, when French writers had captured the attention of the world. In some ways, they were all either themselves outsiders (four of them born outside of European France) or wrote memorably about outsiders (Mauriac in Thérèse Desqueyroux, 1927; Sartre in La Nausée, 1938).

An Unlikely Hero

The title of L'Etranger designates its protagonist Meursault, a young man of modest condition and education, who works in an office in Algiers, and who, for no particular reason, shoots p. 105and kills a young Arab. The story, told in simple language in the first person singular, shows Meursault gradually growing in awareness of his distance from the society around him. The text is not formally a diary, but seems to be written from time to time, sometimes to note what has just happened and at others to present what the protagonist plans to do. There is a rather affectless quality to Meursault, particularly at the outset, though perhaps it is not so much a lack of emotion per seas a lack of the conventional dramatization and expression of emotions in their usual social form. The first sentence offers a good example:

Today, Mama died. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know. I got a telegram from the nursing home: ‘Mother deceased. Burial tomorrow. Respects.’ That doesn't mean anything. It might have been yesterday.

(Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: ‘Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.’ Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier.)

In the simple declarative sentences, there is much attention to detail and especially sensation, with little explanation. We see the world from Meursault's point of view, that of a kind of Candide, like Céline's Bardamu, without a philosophy to follow or to combat (Meursault's narrative does make one wonder what Voltaire's conte would have been like as a first-person narrative). Meursault enjoys swimming, smoking, sunbathing, and sex with his girlfriend Marie. At an outing at the beach, Meursault, playing the peacemaker, takes a revolver from a friend who is threatening to kill an Arab with whom he has had a run-in, but later Meursault uses the gun to shoot the Arab. His account gives no place to fear or hostility, but rather to the heat, the blazing brightness of the sun.

The most remarkable moment of the novel is Meursault's discovery of himself just before his execution. Throughout the p. 106narrative, the protagonist-narrator seems to record what happens without thinking about it. There is such neutrality and such a lack of affect in his view of the world that he himself seems sometimes to be a person who is not there, almost a recording device. But his imprisonment and trial – he is tried for who he is rather than for the death of the Arab – make him aware of his difference from others, and in his revolt he becomes somebody, a self: ‘Even when you're in the dock, it is interesting to hear people talking about yourself’ (Même sur un banc d'accusé, il est toujours intéressant d'entendre parler de soi). He discovers his existence within the ‘tender indifference of the world’ (la tendre indifférence du monde), and he concludes by hoping that there would be many spectators when he is guillotined and that they would greet him with shouts of hatred. A personage almost without characteristics finally conceives of himself in a heroic dimension.

The Drama of Just Waiting

If Meursault becomes heroic only by affirming his status as outsider, Samuel Beckett's protagonists clearly occupy the outsider position from the start. Beckett (a truly bi-national and bi-lingual author, both Irish and French) differed, however, from Camus in distancing his characters from the everyday social world. Often, the unsympathetic central characters and their consciousness constitute the entire text, like the voice of The Unnameable, a novel (1953). The most accessible and best-known of Beckett's works is no doubt his two-act play Waiting for Godot (1952), with its tragicomic tramps or clowns, a play that for some critics typifies the ‘theatre of the absurd’, a term that was applied also to the plays of Beckett's contemporary Eugène Ionesco (1909–94), author of The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve, 1950) and The Chairs (Les chaises, 1952). Beckett manages the feat of making riveting drama out of two men waiting, in a bare landscape next to a tree, for the arrival of a certain ‘Godot’ whom they have never met. Where does all this happen? Could these two characters simply be described as inhabiting the author's consciousness?p. 107

15. Lucien Raimbourg and Pierre Latour in Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot, a photograph from the 1956 Paris production by Roger Blin

The whole work has about it an air of barrenness and desolation that is accentuated by the simplicity of the language. Beckett said that he wrote in a foreign tongue to ‘impoverish’ and to ‘discipline’ himself, so that there would be no style or poetry to the text. Whether or not this was Beckett's actual reason for writing in French rather than in English, the argument could be made that throughout history poetry distinguished itself from ordinary discourse precisely by the acceptance of linguistic constraints. For most of the millennium of French literature, lyric poetry has been written in fixed forms of verse length and rhyme scheme that p. 108‘disciplined’ the writer. In a similar vein, significant works like the medieval Roman de la Rose stripped away concrete secondary characteristics from its personae to concentrate both on what is most central to their story and what is most universal. Although the actors of Waiting for Godot cannot easily be interpreted as allegorical abstractions – into terms like ‘hope’, ‘despair’, ‘reason’, and so forth – their dialogue conveys a darkly comical version of human existence reduced to its most schematic.

Vladimir and Estragon, called Didi and Gogo, were perhaps in the same place the day before, waiting for the same person, together or not, wondering whether or not to wait, looking for ways to pass the time, and trying to decide what they will do the next day. While waiting, to fill the time, they discuss hanging themselves from the tree – Vladimir suggests that this would give them sexual pleasure. After a ridiculous discussion about how they could do this, they do nothing – doing nothing is the overarching principle. At the end of each of the two acts, they decide to leave and the stage directions indicate ‘They don't move’ (Ils ne bougent pas). In the midst of each act, another pair of characters shows up: Pozzo and his servant or slave Lucky. The hint of the circus in the clownish aspects of Vladimir and Estragon is reinforced by this new pair, since the whip-wielding Pozzo seems to be a ringmaster who can make his creature Lucky, whom he leads around on a rope, perform stunts – at least in the first act. By the second act, Pozzo is blind and does not remember anything that happened on the previous encounter the day before. Lucky, who entertains with a long, breathless, nonsensical speech in act I (suggesting, perhaps, the uselessness of learning, or even of all human achievement, including sport), is mute by act II.

In a text so enigmatic, so stripped down, the task of finding some link between what happens on stage and the world of life and ideas falls to the audience. Readers and critics have not tired of seizing on the most minute aspects of the play as the basis for exegesis. The most obvious issue is the meaning of ‘Godot’ – is he ‘God’, and, if so, p. 109what is the significance of the suffix, ‘-ot’? Is it a diminutive? Does it indicate contempt? Towards the end of each act, a boy comes to deliver the message that ‘Monsieur Godot’ will not be coming on this day but the next day instead. In each instance, the boy insists that he has not come before. By following Godot's request that they wait for him to come, have Vladimir and Estragon lost their ability to act and locked themselves into a prison of waiting? Or does the thought that Godot might someday come provide the only solace that Vladimir and Estragon have? Otherwise what is there?

The play is full of little gems of dark humour in almost epigrammatic forms that are hard to forget – whatever meaning we might assign. Estragon says to Vladimir, ‘We always find something, eh, Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?’ (On trouve toujours quelque chose, hein, Didi, pour nou s donner l'impression d'exister?). This is an extraordinary question, on the part of a fictive character in a play. After all, the question of the characters' existence is traditionally posed, if at all, by the audience, usually in terms of questions such as ‘Is this character believable?’, that is, ‘Could such a character have existed?’. This is the sort of thing that was debated in the 17th century about Corneille's heroes and heroines. Later, in regard to Beaumarchais's Figaro, the character seems to be bursting out of his role, thrusting aside the hierarchy to take a place that he merits by sheer excess of invention, activity, and desire. In a way – and this was clearly on the minds of the royal censors in the late 1770s – the danger was that Figaro, or his like, would become excessively real and no longer simply be amusing figures on stage but rather appear in the streets of Paris to demand their rights. So to have a central character of a play, like Estragon, so far from ‘heroic’ in the evaluative sense, call attention to the tenuousness of his own sense of existence is quite striking.

The Collapse and Reinvention of Character

This is not atypical of the times. The notion of character, like so many other concepts or practices of the literary tradition, was p. 110called into question quite energetically in the thirty years after the Second World War. This happens in a myriad of ways and in many genres. For instance, in Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve), the characters' identities collapse into a small set of names. Monsieur Smith and Madame Smith discuss someone named ‘Bobby Watson’, or so it seems at first, since ‘Bobby Watson’ proliferates. Madame Smith says that she was not thinking of Bobby Watson but rather:

I was thinking of his wife. She had the same name as he did, Bobby, Bobby Watson. Since they had the same name, you couldn't tell them apart when you saw them together. It was only after his death that you could really tell which one was which.

(C'est à sa femme que je pense. Elle s'appelait comme lui, Bobby, Bobby Watson. Comme ils avaient le même nom, on ne pouvait pas les distinguer l'un de l'autre quand on les voyait ensemble. Ce n'est qu'après sa mort à lui, qu'on a pu vraiment savoir qui était l'un et qui était l'autre.)

Superficially, this is a play that makes fun of the British middle class and also of the French view of the British middle class. But it is also, at the peak influence of French existentialism (with which Ionesco is not usually associated), a glimpse of a wider anxiety about personal identity, and, in the passage quoted, of women's existence. If the woman Bobby Watson could not be distinguished from her husband Bobby Watson until after the latter's death, the reason may be given in a book published, with great success, only a year before: Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe, 1949). De Beauvoir (1908–86) reached a huge audience in this book that analyses the cultural myths of womanhood in specific roles: the young girl, the lesbian, the married woman, the mother, and so forth.

At the same time, in literary theory and criticism as well as in political and social thought, the concept of persona or role or agent or central narrative character became an object of much p. 111discussion and experimentation in the novel. This genre, which had seemed to harden into a ‘classic’ form at the end of the 19th century, had for decades been under attack. Paul Valéry, the poet and philosopher of literature, had in 1923 taken the novel to task for its lack of rigour, for its loose and baggy structure. In a striking formula, he complained in regard to Proust that the novel as genre had in common with dreams that they refused to take any responsibility for their structure: ‘all their digressions belong’ (tous leurs écarts leur appartiennent).

Novels About Novels

Two years after Valéry's stinging remark about the novel, André Gide (1869–1951) wrote a novel about writing a novel, The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1925). The character Edouard is writing a novel with the same title as Gide's novel, and this title itself announces the criticism of the realist novel. This structure of a text reflected within itself, as if a series of boxes within boxes, is now widely known in French by a term of heraldic origin, mise en abyme (literally, ‘placed in the chasm’). This critical reflection of the text upon the text became common in the years before the war and into the 1960s. In Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), the first-person narrator, a historian, reflects at length on the relation between writing and being, and at the end of the narrative decides to stop writing history and to write a novel instead – perhaps a novel something like the novel we are holding.

These influential early examples of reflexivity in the novel are the background to the major movement of formal experimentation in what is called the nouveau roman (‘new novel’), a term popularized by Alain Robbe-Grillet in his 1963 essay For a New Novel (Pour un nouveau roman). The term nouveau roman was apparently first used to describe this kind of writing by Émile Henriot in a negative review of Robbe-Grillet's novel La Jalousie (Jealousy, 1957; the term jalousie also means a window blind). La p. 112Jalousie illustrates the ways in which the nouveau roman called into question the notion of central character, along with many other conventions attributed to the traditional novel.

La Jalousie is narrated by a nameless character. In fact, the verb ‘narrate’ may be misleading in this case, since the overall story is never really told but may be pieced together by the reader from what appear to be overlapping, sometimes repetitive, sometimes contradictory, fragments that are more like description (they are in the present tense) than storytelling. The persons named in La Jalousie are A …, Franck, and the latter's wife Christiane. Gradually it becomes clear that the narrator supposes a love affair between A … and Franck. We can infer – from notations telling us that four places have been set at the dinner table, but that Christiane will not be coming, etc. – that this narrator is a jealous husband. This text amply justifies the term école du regard (‘school of the gaze’) which was also used to designate the nouveau roman. Here is a typical passage:

In the banana plantation behind them, a trapezoidal section stretches uphill where, because no clusters have yet been harvested since the suckers were planted, the quincunxes are still perfectly regular.

(Dans la bananeraie, derrière eux, une pièce en forme de trapèze s'étend vers l'amont, dans laquelle, aucun régime n'ayant encore été récolté depuis la plantation des souches, la régularité des quinconces est encore absolue.)

The objects and events described are deliberately banal: table settings, the sound of a truck climbing an incline, the stain on the wall from a crushed millipede, the windows, hands on a table.

Although the source of these descriptions is never named, it – or rather, he, the husband – is not disembodied since there is heavy insistence on the point of view, in the literal sense that certain p. 113things are visible or not given the distance, angle, and lighting conditions specified in the text. The narrator's characteristics can also be inferred from what he notices, from the terms and precision of his description, from the obsessive return to certain moments and to certain traits that he notices in A …. Yet, other than through this effort at description of the physical world, we have no access to the thoughts of any of the characters, only a series of clues. The paradoxical situation of a central character who is both everywhere and yet, explicitly, nowhere, shows the extreme effort to renew the representation of the central persona, who is far from a ‘hero’, yet fundamental to the existence of the fiction itself.

Such inventive stretching of the category of the protagonist is common among Robbe-Grillet's contemporaries. In Second Thoughts (La Modification, 1957), a novel by Michel Butor (1926–) that appeared the same year as La Jalousie, the protagonist (who is also the presumed narrator, as well as the presumed reader) is simply ‘you’ (vous – if we assume that the narrator and the protagonist are the same person, the choice of the formal pronoun adds another layer of strange distance from the self). At the outset of the story, the effect is quite strong: ‘You’ve put your left foot on the copper groove, and with your right shoulder you vainly attempt to push the sliding door a bit more'. And in The Golden Fruits (Les fruits d'or, 1963) by Nathalie Sarraute (1900–99), the continuity usually given to a novel by the protagonists is instead assured by the topic of a multitude of conversations about a novel also called Les fruits d'or – another mise en abyme like Gide's Les Faux-monnayeurs.

At the same time, lyric poetry, which has often been in the forefront of attempts to expand the concepts of character and voice, pushed even further in complicating these components of the text. In Yves Bonnefoy's On the Motion and Immobility of Douve (Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, 1953), an ‘I’ sometimes addresses an entity named ‘Douve’ (grammatically feminine) who seems to have human features but also to become p. 114at times a landscape, an animal, and various other objects. Lyric poetry has often displayed its characters situated in, and particularized by, an environment, but Bonnefoy goes much further. Douve seems to be aggressed by the places in which she is located (and the choice of the pronoun ‘she’ confers a humanness that is not at all certain in this poem). By making up the proper noun ‘Douve’, Bonnefoy invites the reader to wonder which of the meanings of the French noun douve is most pertinent: the moat of a castle, a flowering plant (the Spearwort), a parasitic worm, or a stave. The strong association of character with place unites the lyric poetry of this period with other genres, such as the cinema.

Character and Place

Often associated with the nouveau roman, Marguerite Duras (born Marguerite Donnadieu in Indo-China, 1914; died in Paris in 1996) wrote the scenario for the film Hiroshima mon amour (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959) and published it separately as a book in 1960. Writers in this period moved often from novel to film and back – after her collaboration with Resnais, Duras herself later directed a score of films, as did Robbe-Grillet after writing the screenplay for Renais's Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). The screenplays, published in book form, are scarcely distinguishable from many other novels of the period that were not filmed nor even meant to be filmed, such as Jealousy. As printed texts, these screenplays are clearly part of French literature, and Hiroshima mon amour illustrates the close relationship between the construction (or deconstruction) of a main human character and the evocation of the destruction of Hiroshima by an American nuclear bomb in 1945.

Just as the character of Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris is as much the cathedral as the human character, Quasimodo, the bell-ringer, who gives the cathedral a voice, so in Duras's screenplay the nameless French actress who plays the role of a nurse in a film about Hiroshima and the Japanese architect who becomes her p. 115 lover exist almost exclusively to give voice to the experience of the destruction of Hiroshima and the wartime occupation of the city of Nevers in France. She tells the Japanese man a story that she had never told anyone before about her love, as an adolescent, for a German soldier. She and the soldier planned to marry, but he was killed by the French resistance and she was punished by her family, her head was shaved, and she was locked in a cold cellar for months. When her family released her, she bicycled to Paris during the night, and it was in Paris that she saw the newspaper headline announcing the bombing of Hiroshima. He tells her that she has seen nothing in Hiroshima: ‘You have seen nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing’ (Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima. Rien). She insists ‘I have seen everything. Everything’ (J'ai tout vu. Tout.). And this statement is accompanied in the screenplay by filming directions for flashbacks to the hospital, to the museum, to photographs of the city right after the bombing. The unrepresentability of the destruction in language or in images runs throughout the dialogue of the two lovers. Though the p. 116woman's experience in Nevers is easier to describe, it too is a taboo subject at this time. The massive French collaboration with the German occupying forces was a subject almost never mentioned in French media until Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la pitié ten years later.

16. A scene from Alain Resnais's film Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Duras's characters are believable, yet opaque. They are what they say, and what they say is about love and destruction. The force of the screenplay is in large part the incantatory dialogue, which slides from apparently realistic conversation to something far from ordinary speech, like the actress's repeated utterance: ‘You kill me. You do me good’ (Tu me tues. Tu me fais du bien), one of the most explicit voicings of an erotic view of war, colonialism, and the relation of cultures that is ubiquitous in Duras's work, and appears, indeed, in other novels and screenplays of the late 1950s, when France was gradually and painfully losing its colonies. At the end of the filmplay, Duras makes explicit the identification of the man and the woman with their cities. The French woman looks at her lover – the stage directions note ‘They look at each other without seeing’ – and says ‘You are Hi-ro-shi-ma’, to which he replies, ‘That is my name. Yes. [That is only as far as we have come still. And we will stay there forever.] And your name is Nevers. Ne-vers-in-Fran-ce’ (Hi-ro-shi-ma. C'est ton nom.—C'est mon nom. Oui. [On en est là seulement encore. Et on en restera là pour toujours.] Ton nom à toi est Nevers. Ne-vers-en -Fran-ce). Duras here approaches the allegorical use of character most prominent in the Middle Ages and then glimpsed again in Bonnefoy's poetry.