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Michael Syrotinski

Michael Syrotinski

Michael Syrotinski is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Aberdeen. He is also Associate Director of University's new Centre for Modern Thought. He has published widely on 20th century French literature, literary theory, and Francophone African literature and culture. He has recently edited an issue of Yale French Studies on Paulhan, and co-translated a selection of Paulhan's early fiction, Progress in Love on the Slow Side. Previous publications include Defying Gravity: Jean Paulhan's Interventions in Twentieth-Century French Intellectual History (1998) and Singular Performances: Reinscribing the Subject in Francophone African Writing (2002). He is currently completing a book on the intersections between deconstruction and postcolonial theory.

Here on RSB we have already published both Michael's wonderful, short profile of Jean Paulhan and his introduction to Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes.

Mark Thwaite: Before we begin properly, Michael, can you just confirm to me that the Jean Paulhan you have been writing about is the same Jean Paulhan who was Pauline Réage's lover and who famously said to to her that women can't write erotic fiction!?

Michael Syrotinski: It is indeed the very same Jean Paulhan, who wrote a laudatory preface to Pauline Réage’s infamous pornographic novel Story of O, which first appeared in 1954. Pauline Réage was, as you know, a pseudonym, and the identity of the author was for a long time one of the most intriguing yet closely guarded secrets of the French literary world, until in 1994 Dominique Aury, Paulhan’s assistant at the Nouvelle Revue Française, revealed in an interview in the New Yorker a few years before her death that she was the mystery woman. His long affair with Dominique Aury was itself a bit of an open secret. As the story goes, Dominique Aury was very aware of Paulhan’s admiration of the Marquis de Sade’s writing, and his penchant for erotic fiction generally, and wrote Story of O both to prove Paulhan wrong, and as something of an act of seduction. It obviously did the trick!

I wouldn’t really defend this side of Paulhan, and in fact I have upset some of the more reverential readers of Paulhan’s work by pointing out rather bluntly that Paulhan was really quite traditional in his sexism and his attitudes towards women. One critic went so far as to write a whole article on my alleged ‘misreading’ of Paulhan’s intentions, claiming he was very consciously adopting an ironic distance from sexist stereotypes. I wasn’t going to buy that one! Nevetheless, Paulhan’s sense of the importance of Sade anticipates the latter’s rehabilitation as a transgressive writer ‘par excellence’ by the Tel Quel group of the 1970s (Paulhan died in 1968), but I think Paulhan’s reading of Sade is in many ways far more subtle and interesting, particularly when you read it in the context of his highly original understanding of the relationship between political ideology and language…

One other curious point that your question reminded me of is that Dominique Aury was also a pen-name (she was born Anne Desclos), and that Paulhan himself wrote under several different pseudonyms (Jean Guérin, for a current affairs column he wrote in the NRF in the 1940s and 50s, and Jacques Maast for some of his early fiction) – not that he ever used pseudonyms as a kind of impenetrable disguise, but it does tell us something about the playfulness and modesty of his approach to his own celebrity or ‘name’ in French literature.

MT: What first drew you to Paulhan and his work?

MS: I first came across Paulhan’s work when I began to get excited by the literary criticism and critical theory that emerged out of the radical rethinking of the ‘human sciences’ in France in the 1960s and 70s, in particular the dazzling virtuosity of the critics who were alive to the rhetorical energy of literature, such as Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Jacques Derrida. I quickly realised that the real action was in North America, and was fortunate enough to be at Yale University when most of the big names were still there, and to study with Derrida, Paul de Man, J Hillis Miller, Barbara Johnson, Shoshana Felman, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Fredric Jameson, and many other equally brilliant and inspirational teachers.

Paulhan’s work was not well-known, though, and I couldn’t understand why no-one was paying him any attention, when he had clearly been a major figure in French literature and literary criticism. It was also apparent to me that he was acutely aware of the epistemological uncertainties and profound philosophical questions that were opened up in taking the rhetorical dimension of literature seriously, well before critics like Paul de Man. In his last graduate seminar at Yale before he died, Paul de Man started working on Paulhan’s writings on rhetoric, and this spurred me on to try to make better sense of a writer who had always fascinated me. The more I read him, the more I was drawn to the quiet force of the positions he adopted, the unnerving shifts in his arguments, the quirky style, the deadpan wit and irony, and the extraordinary power of his insights into how language and literature work, or don’t work. So I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on him, and things just followed on from there.

MT: How "important" is the Flowers of Tarbes? What would we understand less well without it?

MS: The Flowers of Tarbes is, to my mind, one of the most crucial but most underappreciated texts of twentieth century literary criticism, not just in France but in any language. In many ways it could be read as the inaugural text of contemporary literary theory because of the questions it poses (Maurice Blanchot was the first critic to acknowledge this, and called it ‘one of the most important works of contemporary literary criticism’ when it appeared in 1942).

As I mentioned, it is a key text in refocusing the study of literature on its rhetorical dimension, as an antidote to what Paulhan describes as ‘Terror’, that is, a persistent and insistent impulse within literary and artistic expression to do away with familiar language altogether, or at the very least to cleanse it of its artifices, its worn-out codifications and commonplaces, in the search for a more original, authentic expressiveness (the subtitle of The Flowers of Tarbes is Terror in Literature). The Flowers of Tarbes carefully, and quite entertainingly, unpicks the illusions upon which ‘terrorist’ writers base their claims, with Paulhan constantly upping the ante, as it were, and layering his text with ever more resonant questions about the ethical and political imperatives of literature and language, and about the very act of literary or artistic creation itself. In a brilliant twist at the end, though, after comprehensively dismantling Terror and its illusions, he reveals that he was in fact a terrorist all along, and that it becomes for him a matter of utmost urgency to ensure somehow that Terror remain the driving force of creative expression.

One has to be able to read beyond Paulhan’s imperviousness to the critical trends and language of the time. What he is trying to do is to define certain invariant features across a broad range of historical data, and to propose certain quasi-scientific ‘laws’ of literature and language. This is not to say that Paulhan was ignorant of the latest developments in literary criticism, philosophy, linguistics, political thought, and so on - far from it. Indeed, he was at the epicentre or the heartbeat of everything new and interesting that was happening in the literary, intellectual and artistic life of France and Europe, and kept himself well-informed about global issues. So his position was quite unique, but he also adopted a far broader perspective on things (today one might say ‘meta-theoretical’), and he was endlessly vigilant about the inherent contradictions and aporias of any critical language that is overly self-confident in the truth claims it makes for itself.

In the 1940s, when The Flowers of Tarbes was published, Paulhan was openly contesting Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, which would, of course, become all the rage in post-war France, and also Sartre’s notion of socially or politically committed literature, which was to dominate the literary scene in the wake of the four years of Collaboration and Occupation. Paulhan took what to many was a perverse stance in defending writers suspected of collaboration against public censure. Sartre’s review, Les Temps Modernes, took over from the Nouvelle Revue Française as the most popular literary review in France, and the NRF was seen to represent the ‘bad old days’ of politically disinterested (but politically ‘compromised’) literature. This is to oversimplify things, of course, but the literary-ideological battle lines were very clearly drawn, and as Paulhan continued his criticism of political dogmatism in literature, he became increasingly marginalised.

So to some extent, he fell victim to the prevailing mood of the times, but if one reads his more polemical publications in the light of his key theoretical texts, such as The Flowers of Tarbes, one can better appreciate how consistent his thinking was, and how much his conception of art and literature informed his philosophical and political insights. Once one takes a longer and larger view of Paulhan’s work, one can see just how much of what was to come after Paulhan was already ‘in’ Paulhan. Not only does The Flowers of Tarbes anticipate the demise of phenomenology and of Sartrean political philosophy, but also the rise of post-structuralism, with its emphasis on the play of discursive forces and effects over the confident claims of intentionality and agency. His concept of ‘Terror’, and his identification of Henri Bergson as Terrorism’s ‘own philosopher’ takes us through to the renewed interest in Bergson in recent French philosophy, especially the work of Gilles Deleuze, and the adaptation of this philosophy in Hardt and Negri’s controversial theories of globalisation in Empire. But Paulhan’s own critique of ‘Terror’ also anticipates the indictments of the theoretical weaknesses of Hardt and Negri’s work. Likewise, what looked at the time like rather naïve pronouncements on the need to respect a constitutive imperfectability at the heart of democracy now seem remarkably prescient in light of recent events in world history (especially the political and rhetorical shortcomings of the so-called ‘War on Terror’), and can be more clearly understood in the context of Derrida’s late work on justice, hospitality, and ‘democracy to come.’

MT: You've said before that "it's difficult to overstate the importance of Jean Paulhan's role in French literature... he was closely involved with the leading literary review in France, the Nouvelle Revue Française, from 1920 to his death in 1968" and you’ve repeated as much above. If this is the case thought, why is it that his name is not that well known? Even in his native France he is hardly a household name, is he?

MS: I think it’s partly explained by the point I was making earlier about how events in the literary and political world in France unfolded after the Second World War. Paulhan was caught in the wake of a collective repression, within the French national psyche, of those years of occupation, collaboration and the ensuing vengefulness that characterised the post-war purge (including the literary purge I alluded to). As France has slowly come to terms, over the last couple of decades, with the collective guilt of that period of its history, the space for a proper re-evaluation of Paulhan and of his place in the twentieth century may at last be opening up.

It is true that even before the war he was not a ‘household name’, although he was extremely well-respected within the literary and artistic world as the mysterious but influential figure at the helm of the Nouvelle Revue Française and in the Parisian publishing scene. It is no exaggeration to say that Paulhan was almost single-handedly responsible for identifying, nurturing and publishing an entire generation of the most famous writers in the interwar years in France. But he was very modest and discreet about his own writings, and was not really interested in making a name for himself as a famous or popular author. This deliberate self-effacement was to a large extent determined by his working method as a critic and editor, his famous ‘elusiveness’ (‘pratique de l’esquive’). Brigitte Ouvry-Vial, a literary editor working in France currently, wrote a fine study of Paulhan along these lines in the recent issue of Yale French Studies on Paulhan’s work.

There was also a disarming lightness about the way in which he engaged with theory (literary, philosophical, political, linguistic and so on), so his resistance to using the technical language of these discourses, and thus to accepting their discursive regimes, was often taken as a lack of ‘seriousness’.

MT: With the recent publication of his correspondence, do you think now is Paulhan's time? Or will he always be too difficult a character to fully assimilate?

MS: I do think that Paulhan’s ‘time’ is coming, even if one of the aspects of the originality of his work (both theoretically, and performatively, as it were) is precisely to question the very understanding of what it means to be ‘timely’ or contemporary. This is one of the fascinating paradoxes about Paulhan, because the recent publication of his vast correspondence shows just how intimately connected he was with almost all of the major literary and artistic figures of his generation. There are still many volumes of correspondence to come, and once they are all available, this will undoubtedly help Paulhan to regain his rightful place in French intellectual and literary history. The signs are promising, with a new seven-volume edition of his Complete Works being published by Gallimard (the first volume has just appeared, as it happens!), and a constant stream of re-editions of shorter pieces in France. As well as my translation of The Flowers of Tarbes, the University of Illinois Press, under the wise and forward-looking directorship of Willis Regier, has also published a translation of Paulhan’s Of Chaff and Wheat (by the distinguisher translator, Richard Rand), and will shortly be publishing an anthology of his collected essays (translated by Jennifer Bajorek). The aforementioned issue of Yale French Studies should help, and a major, truly excellent study of Jean Paulhan has just appeared with Legenda (Oxford, 2006), Anna-Louise Milne’s The Extreme In-Between: Jean Paulhan’s Place in the Twentieth Century.

So all in all, things are looking good. As far as the second part of your question goes, I don’t know if ‘assimilation’ is really what one is hoping for, in that this is exactly what he so successfully resisted in ‘his time’, for the reasons I’ve outlined. I would like to think that as well as being read for the first time by a whole new generation of readers, he is being re-read by people who have until now dismissed or overlooked him too quickly, and that a far richer critical interpretation of his work will assist that process. With studies such as Milne’s new book, I think there is reason to be optimistic on all scores!

MT: Can we read and understand Paulhan without knowing the work of Maurice Blanchot?

MS: Absolutely, and it’s probably better not to let Blanchot get in the way to begin with! In my own work on Paulhan I have perhaps been overly obsessed with Blanchot’s relationship to Paulhan, simply because I feel that Blanchot is one of the best readers of Paulhan’s writing. His commemorative meditation on Paulhan’s ‘récits’, or short narrative fiction, ‘The Ease of Dying’, is an astonishing ‘tour de force’, and one of Blanchot’s finest pieces. The very fact that he was able to write an essay such as this demonstrates how intimately he knew Paulhan’s writing, even if his relationship to Paulhan personally was strangely uneasy and distant. After his early enthralment at Blanchot’s reading of The Flowers of Tarbes (a now well-known essay entitled How is Literature Possible?), Paulhan subsequently distanced himself, for reasons that are rather shrouded in mystery. He wrote, for example, in a letter to Julian Benda in 1945 that he ‘[didn’t] think it would occur to any serious reader of The Flowers of Tarbes to judge it according to what Blanchot had to say about it.’ I would, of course, disagree with him, but it’s certainly true that there were quite clear differences in their views on many things, including most importantly in 1958 on Algerian independence.

My own reading of Paulhan’s influence on the direction that Blanchot’s work took after the 1940s is certainly not shared by other readers of Paulhan or Blanchot, and I would never wish to assert it dogmatically. But I do think it is a key ‘encounter’ of twentieth century French intellectual history, certainly one of the most fascinating, precisely because it is so apparently slight and insignificant. What intrigues me is the hidden, subterranean quality of the effects and influence, much like Paulhan’s influence as an editor and literary mentor for so many other writers.

MT: You are a teacher. Has teaching helped you with your own writing and reading?

MS: I suppose that depends on what I am teaching, and to whom. I do really enjoy teaching, and love the experience of getting students excited about books and films and ideas they were not excited about before. I’m certainly not in the position of the elite few who are able to use the teaching arena solely to ‘test-drive’ their current advanced level research, although I do have a lot of freedom in choosing what I can teach. I’ve been involved in developing a new cross-cultural, interdisciplinary postgraduate course in ‘Comparative Literature and Thought’ at the University of Aberdeen, which will allow me to move into new areas, and make connections I would not have thought to make before. This in itself will, with any luck, have a catalysing effect on my own writing – provided I make sure I have time out for myself to follow it through. It’s a hard balance to maintain, especially when universities in the UK are becoming increasingly corporate in their structures and administration, with teaching more and more a client-driven service, and with constant demands for efficiency savings and ‘rationalisation’ of resources. So it gets harder to justify teaching literature and literary theory, and related humanistic disciplines, because they generally don’t attract huge amounts of money. My own university is an exception in this regard, in that there is a strong commitment to finding creative ways of bringing cutting edge research into humanistic education, and of balancing this with the realities of running a modern-day university. So it has given strong support, for example, to the creation of a new interdisciplinary Centre for Modern Thought, of which I am the Associate Director.

I have never actually taught Paulhan, if that is what you are partially interested in knowing. But I’m thinking of ways to work him into courses I am doing, now that more and more of his work is available and easily accessible (and in English translation too!).

MT: Who do you rate most highly as literary critics and theorists? Both the "greats" and amongst your peers?

MS: Well, I suppose I would include all of the people I mentioned earlier, whom I was fortunate enough to study and work with at Yale. Both Derrida and de Man were extraordinary teachers, as well as brilliant critics and theoreticians. Even though deconstruction has waned in popularity and perceived relevance since those days, nothing has ever for me matched the intellectual thrill and intensity of listening to Derrida and de Man deliver their latest work ‘live’ for the first time. In retrospect, it was a wonderful privilege, and something akin to what I imagine it was like for audiences hearing, say, a new Beethoven symphony performed for the first time. I think this was a characteristic of some of my other favourites, like Roland Barthes, whose seminars I had always dreamed of attending, but never did.

I get far more passionate about critics and theorists who can also write well, who have a real feel for language, and whose writing is thus inherently interesting and challenging, like Barthes and Derrida, and Hélène Cixous (and before them, Blanchot, or Lacan, or indeed Paulhan). I am less impressed by theoreticians whose work one has to respect and take into account because of its contribution to intellectual history or philosophy (such as, say, Saussure or Levi-Strauss, or reception theorists like Jauss, or so called ‘poststructuralists’ like Foucault or Deleuze, or contemporary philosophers like Badiou). I don’t mean that to sound dismissive, since I do admire the work of all of these writers and thinkers, but one can more easily distil this kind of theory into a set of ‘key concepts’, which in itself is a contemporary trend that I find quite worrying. It comes down to what Paulhan says when he tries to articulate the relationship between thought and language in The Flowers of Tarbes: ‘Run away from language and it will come after you.’ What makes a theoretician or critic ‘great’, in my view, is a kind of constant vigilance to the process itself of working through an urgent theoretical problem or set of problems, which necessarily involves an almost poetic attention to language, starting with one’s own language. One can see this in Derrida, and Barthes, and certainly in Paulhan. By this criterion, thinker-writers like Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger or Benjamin would be right up there too.

Of people writing currently, I’m a big fan of critics and theorists who take real creative risks in their work, like Malcolm Bowie, Homi Bhabha, Achille Mbembe Avital Ronnell, Nick Royle, Ann Smock… I’ve also recently discovered the work of Isabelle Stengers, a brilliant philosopher of science.

MT: What is your favourite novel? Who is your favourite novelist?

MS: I think it would have to be Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu. Toni Morrison would run a close second.

MT: What are you working on now and what is coming next?

MS: I’m currently completing a book that is an effort to bring together my interests in Francophone Africa, postcolonial theory, and deconstruction. It’s provisionally entitled Deconstruction and the Postcolonial: At the Limits of Theory, and explores the nodal points and tensions between what are often taken as mutually incompatible discursive fields, or competing sets of interests (often pitting so-called ‘textualist’ theories against more ‘materialist’ theories). There has been a lot written lately about the hidden colonial ‘origins’ of French theory, particularly deconstruction, but I’m not happy with that kind of recuperative genealogical narrative either. There’s something else at stake, and more going on than people have noticed, I feel.

I’m also writing on some of the fictional and testimonial texts produced by a number of African novelists and poets as part of a memorial project following the Rwandan genocide. After that, I have a more speculative project on Reading and Attachment Theory, which is still in the very early stages, so I’d prefer not to say too much about it. Paulhan will certainly feature, and probably Proust too. But it will be far more eclectic and interdisciplinary in approach than anything I’ve done before. I guess it will represent a kind of creative risk-taking of my own.

MT: Anything else you'd like to say?

MS: I’d like to just thank you very warmly for giving me the opportunity to blether on at length about myself! I’m a great admirer of your blog, and think it’s really good that Paulhan is starting to get this kind of mainstream exposure in the Anglophone literary community.

-- Mark Thwaite (31/07/2006)

Readers Comments

  1. Kudos to you! I hadn't thuoght of that!

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