The Revolution of Philippe Sollers

01/08/2014 12:59 pm 12:59:19 | Updated Mar 10, 2014

Since I began reading Philippe Sollers, I have witnessed the unfolding of four major "periods" in his work.

His youthful novels: the strange solitude, the conjoined apprenticeship in desire and language, the art of the novel already conceived as the art of secrecy and of the back stairway.

His "avant-garde" period: long, unpunctuated novels, lava-like pages, the world as an unfurling of functionless images and words, prosody above all else, performance before sense and order.

The era of Women and his announced return to traditional narrative, when what was occurring was akin to the birth, against a backdrop of a "war of taste," of one of the most structured, most systematically developed reflections ever published.

A long (very long) period extending roughly from Studio to L'éclaircie -- the length not surprising because a great deal of time was required to wage, on the basis of these works, steadying himself on the twin story of a metaphysics revisited and a literature reclaimed, the protracted war of the Infinite against Nihilism.

I have a feeling that the work he published this week -- Médium, his 25th novel and one of the most lively, spirited works to emerge from this Mozart of letters -- marks the beginning of a fifth period. We shall see what forms the new venture takes, but, judging from Médium, it will be the most combative, the most aggressive, and, at bottom, the most political period of the author of Guerres secrètes.

More than ever, the voice against the language.

More than ever, the novelist against the mummies.

More than ever, the proclivity for secrecy, surreptitiousness, the double life, all conceived as basic underpinnings of liberty.

But now accompanied by an organized, methodical resistance to the spirit of a time when every man is replaceable.

And by rejection on the part of this dyed-in-the-wool Girondist of a national religion whose drum rolls lately have grown deafening.

That other religion, the cult of "life," of which he expresses the morbid and criminal underside: the traffic in organs; cultured stem cells that let the dead devour the living; "medically assisted procreation," a word away from medically assisted death; cadavers no longer just studied but now traded, grotesquely recycled, machined into shiny new forms.

The identification of a "madness" against which, in a switch that recalls that of a certain Antonin Artaud asserting that, had there been no doctors there would be no sick patients, he opposes a paradoxical "counter-madness," a blend of great wisdom and fantasy, of well-tempered deliberateness and calculated provocation of mood and feeling, of simple little acts (letting three buses go by without getting on, reading Chinese classics for five hours a day) and fundamental difference (the stubborn refusal to go along with the community and its social restraints).

Memory exercises for a time of amnesia, or what amounts to the same thing (aided by databases), of generalized hypermnesia.

A fountain pen or an ink brought back from Italy that, in the age of "word processing," is enough to recreate the "blood circulation" of sentences.

The relearning of time, true time, in which minutes sometimes last for hours, where hours can appear too dense or too dusty, where they can pass in bursts or drag on, and where the narrator, which may be you or me, is every age at once.

And then, with the help of substances that Sollers will not identify (I have my own ideas), an altering of perceptions, the body weightless like an astronaut's, the landscape emerging in sharper detail and relief, space suddenly limitless, and the beauty of a beloved woman seen as "an apparition from the beyond."

This is what Rimbaud called the rational derangement of all the senses.

It is Lautréamont's reinvention of poetry as the alternative to the fatal baseness of man, that "great cat."

It is where Sollers stands.

That is, he is far ahead of the philosophical clergy who have only regressed, he believes, from that second French revolution fomented in the midst of the Paris Commune by a pair of "visionaries" or "lookouts" whose legacy he carries on.

When, echoing the death of Lautréamont, whose body -- wrapped in its shroud of words and also, he tells us, in the shrouds of the strange absolution pronounced by a Father Sabattier massacred several days later by the communards -- was never found, he imagines his own corpse thrown into the Grand Canal by a jealous husband but rising to the surface one fine day covered by a shell on which appear the symbols of an undecipherable language, and when he then makes fun of the experts called in by the officials of the Venice museums to study the mystery of this new Linear B, who exclaim, "Chinese? No, French!", he gives us the key to his new program.

Which remains to be carried out, of course. But a youthful Sollers has shown us his new beginnings and, with a boldness that has become rare indeed, announced the color of the battles to come.