Les châteaux de la subversion [The Châteaus [1] of Subversion]

By Annie Le Brun

Translated to English by D.T. Jernigan

"What kind of marvelous choice can be made in a nation that no longer believes in anything?"

Robert-Martin Leisure (1781)

"...for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1872)

Should the forms, places, and beings that captivate us the most be those that least reveal their secrets and best mask the course of our lives, as though each seduction unfolded on a screen where our rare reasons for existence would always come back into play? Perhaps we only like enigmas, but behind the evasion of tastes and colors, thought silently continue its wild advance; and sensitive blindness is ultimately the most surefire way to see and show.

My attraction to the roman noir [2] began more than a decade ago. Being neither the only one nor the first to fall under the spell of these outdated books, I thought I could easily determine what it was about these books that captivated me. Year after year, I had to face the facts: the roman noir resisted my analysis as well as those of its’ specialists and fanatics. As divergent as their conclusions were, all of the analysts proved to be equally disappointing.

It took me a long time to realize that the roman noir asked questions which our time neither wants nor knows how to ask. Little by little, I began to understand my obscure fascination with these books which, apparently, all tell the same story with the same grandiloquence. I came to understand that the most diverse spirits—whether they be Sade, Chateaubriand, Schiller, Balzac, Hugo, or Breton among several others—came, in turn, to measure themselves against this aberrant wall of shade blocking the landscape of the Enlightenment.

There, something was being sought, something much darker than the horrors that were reported in the books. They were indeed dark books, but dark as the humor of any language consumed in advance, dark as the tricks of desire, dark as the traps of freedom. And from this swarming darkness emerged the most paradoxical space imaginable: like a cursed concretion of nature and artifice, threatening and threatened, impregnable and cracked, closed and gaping, the most unreal Gothic architecture had gradually imposed itself as the least dishonest château of those who had dreamt of inventing freedom. For book after book, the sceneries had been laid out, one after the other, showing from that time between the shimmering Enlightenment the implacable formwork of the shadows.

Born at the same time as modernity, an archaic place continued to give its’ challenge. From the depth of whose memory did the roman noir come back to haunt me? And why with ever-increasing insistence? Having never stopped appearing on the horizon of the mental adventure of the last two centuries, did these imaginary châteaux hold the cursed portion of our thoughts? So many questions led me to make certain blind spots in my reflection coincide with the drawing of this architecture of excesses until I was drawn back into this already identified setting where, however, certainties and young girls still continue to vanish with disconcerting ease.

But what is the roman noir? What is a roman noir? There are many definitions for them, all of which are disparate in nature. And their sheer diversity gives an idea of the pervasive fashion of the noir genre that gave rise to countless novels at the end of the 17th century in France, England, Germany, and most of Europe in general. Typically, as far as plot is concerned, an innocent and unadulterated young girl finds herself thrown onto the roads by the randomness of life. And it is the pretext for a wonderful journey to the land of misfortunes. But we would try in vain to define more precisely this phenomenon as a whole. Emerging from nowhere and distributed everywhere, usually published under a pseudonym and read by an anonymous audience, the roman noir is an essentially indefinite genre where depreciation is common practice and patching up is seen as an inspiration. Of the darkest twists and turns, the reader will forget everything and only strangely remember a space of uncertainty and depth, haunting like a piece of darkness torn from the night of which we are made. And that is perhaps why literary norms never had much control over this sudden need for the night, insistent to the point of clouding the history of the late 18th century in Europe with an illusion.

But nowadays, what remains of this immense wave of shadow that made its way to America? With what signs has it, or has not, shaped the shores of time?

I would first like to call attention to the disarming innocence of these books: hemmed, scalloped, and serrated with definitive bad taste. But after reading a considerable amount of them, we will remember above all else their "disturbing strangeness," of which André Breton was the first to perceive their "absolutely modern" resonances. A century before Rimbaud’s famous “salon au fond d’un lac” (salon at the bottom of the lake), it is suddenly in the middle of the Enlightenment, the precipice in the middle of the salon. And that's enough for these books to escape from the time that saw them born. As unaware as the night they came from, they have never stopped drifting towards the future. When combined, these enigmatic books constitute the only raw poetic mass of modern times. I believe that before Andre Breton uncovered them in 1933, no one had recognized the essential violence quivering beneath their old-fashioned charm: “...these books were such that you could take them and open them at random, and there would continue to rise from them some fragrance or other of dark forests and high vaults. Their heroines, badly drawn, were impeccably lovely. You had to see them on the vignettes, prey to freezing apparitions, starkly white in those caves. Nothing could be more stimulating than this ultra-romanesque, hyper-sophisticated literature. All those castles of Otranto, of Udolpho, of the Pyrenees, of Lovel, of Athlin, and of Dunbayne, crevassed with great cracks and eaten by subterranean passages, persisted in the shadiest corner of my mind in living their factitious life, in presenting their curious phosphorescence.” [3]

The astonishing phosphorescence undoubtedly prevented these books from sinking into the history of taste and from being definitively lost in the mess of accessories supposed to serve as sensible prehistory. Admittedly, from forest to forest, ruin to ruin, château to château, the noir genre did not fail to pique the curiosity of a few academics who wanted to put it in order: a gothic novel of English origin, roman noir of French origin, Ritter-, Räuber- und Schauerromane of German origin. Although influential studies periodically strive to challenge these denominations, leaving a disagreeable impression that one could start distributing and redistributing the same labels indefinitely without knowing anything more. And yet, here we are faced with a fact that is as disturbing as it is obvious: at a time when all thoughts and wills seem to be occupied, whether consciously or not, by the end of a world and the advent of another–a tone, and I do mean a tone and in this case darkness, invades Europe, impregnates the imaginary, rubs off on the general sensibility, and goes beyond the limits of a genre to bring out the forms within which it will set itself.

I would like us to assess the enormous scale of the phenomenon, the sensitive screens reacting here to the multiplicity, variety, and speed of the psychological, intellectual, and social impulses that made and destroyed the European landscape between 1760 and 1820 with a single tone. Like a dream whose details are forgotten only to retain the atmosphere. Thus, of a dream evoking the unprecedented rise of rational thought, the perfect mastery of discourse, the newly found perspectives of analysis, but also the upheavals of history, the violence of facts, and intoxicated with hope and despair, Europe only remembered darkness. What is being said and done about these unavowed and shameful criticisms? Perhaps the paths of the imaginary are more unpredictable than we would like to believe. Let them be free to think that the roman noir represents what was banished from the Age of Enlightenment. On the contrary, seeing as the time period found and chose this mental place, it is undoubtedly the first attempt - and surely the only plural attempt - to lighten a night from which we have not yet emerged. Sensitive night, mental night, but also a moral night. Make no mistake about it, darkness is still a new tone today.

And I say this not so much out of mood as for the certain quality of perspective that, to me, seems to be sorely lacking in these times of ideological indigestion and religious potions. It is a matter of principle.

Through the gates that open and close the historical space, I tried to perceive the air of the times. No facts, few landmarks, energy shifts, changes in intensity, and shapeshifts. Nothing less ephemeral, nothing more fleeting. I regret so much indeterminacy, but we too, and above all else, live in this sensitive movement. And as we have not taken this into account, there is no precipice to which we have not gloriously deviated. So, I’m making it worse. I have taken a risk with this bet on the darkness. It is a question of method.

It was necessary for the interpretations to fall one by one to the bottom of the dark enigma only then to discover from misunderstanding to misunderstanding the crazy adventure of a tone in search of forms. I don't think imaginary objects are born differently. And I have the naivety or pretentiousness to think that the story of my misfortunes through the roman noir has allowed me to blindly apprehend the nature of our sensitive châteaux.

Frontispiece for Charles Andrews' The Spectre, London, 1789.

...I have the naivety or pretentiousness to think that the story of my misfortunes through the roman noir has allowed me to blindly apprehend the nature of our sensitive châteaus.

Part One

"Dear imagination, what I love most about you is that you do not forgive."

Andre Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924)

I spoke earlier of a certain gaze. Born with unbelief, this gaze emerges at the farthest distance from certainties, in the effervescence of questioning, the impatience of discovery, and the vertigo of lucidity. In the middle of the Enlightenment, it is the gaze and the gaze alone which will change the landscape with all the storms we know of, as if the significant upheavals were preparing for the social upheavals and not the other way around, for the whole of the 18th century is undermined by this new way of seeing, before, after, and during revolutionary events. Can this be likened to a single and profound movement of denial, extending underground in a muted and distant fermentation and giving the most naive or cynical proposals a disturbing unity? Unity without form or formulation of sensitivity is, therefore, essentially only in search of itself. The contradictory unity of thought from then on is prey to the excess that generates it. This unity relentlessly searches for itself today under the successive ruins of our abolished certainties.
Assuredly, our modernity is very old. And this is perhaps the most important reason to not let the profoundness that underlies it to fade away under the dust of an outdated decor.

If not, why speak out on a subject that in itself is of no interest to anyone? Why continue to be occupied by a château that never existed and whose phantasmatic silhouette tends to weaken into literary curiosity? What is the current status of our dreams? Are we so detached from this world that, even two centuries ago, an entire era became fascinated by the same vaguely gothic and totally imaginary château in the middle of a revolutionary whirlwind? How do we know how to disentangle the noise of time from the rumors of our memory?

All I know is that the imaginary is in a desperate state today. Too much yielding to the terrorism of the real, too much consenting to measure the imaginary against it, the imaginary no longer seems to know how to ignore it, stopping in front of objects instead of using them as so many secret passages in the crowd of appearances. In fact, this progressive exhaustion of the imaginary, the entire painting of the last twenty years constitutes its detailed chronicle, a more or less accomplished style, or a more or less brilliant idea, corresponding to each decisive stage of this subtle operation of "normalization." Skillfully reduced to powerlessness under a slow avalanche of objects gradually occupying space with an indecency that pop art has rendered so well, the imaginary still finds the strength to invent its own defense strategies without even recognizing an enemy: break down its objects, mutilate them from their function, and watch for their convulsive destruction or natural degradation. The parade lasts a few years without being effective. So that, from 1970, the imaginary becomes the fascinated prey of an object that it can no longer destroy. The imaginary exhausts itself to go around it, dazed and subjugated—this is hyperrealism—when the imaginary does not limit itself to shamefully evaluating the piece of space that is hidden from us. In the meantime, out of this thought on the object and its obscurely desired absence, conceptual art was born. As a result, the object had lost everything, even its concrete ingenuity, destined to become the sign of miserabilist rhetoric. As for the current situation of the imaginary, at most, we can observe a withdrawal (or is it only a retreat in the strategy of appearances?) that lets objects and beings die of plenitude under the false light of their new objectivity. Defeat? Escape? Eclipse? Our sensitive future depends on the answer. However, a law emerges with these questions: for want of a vacuum, the imaginary disappears. This is probably why we have never produced so much yet created so little.

In the face of the sensitive pusillanimity of this time, agreeing more and more to consider forms as fences and words as the simple echo of an essential shift towards reality, we come to think that redundancy is today an art and even the only art that this end of the century has known how to give itself.

Interchangeable, all signs have become so by means of participating indiscriminately in the most diverse plans for the development of reality. Barely unconscious and semi-indifferent, we are witnessing an unprecedented attempt to colonize signs. And there is no longer any sensitive territory (even that which is most remote or isolated) that will be left unaffected by the expansion of this calm neutralization.

Tired of coming back from everything, people will believe anything just to believe in something. It's easy, too easy. To have the illusion of freedom, it is enough to somewhat limit the vision of history: the return of religions and the resurgence of nationalism are both elements that contribute more and more to the disintegration of one’s idea of themselves. And with the most specious of tricks, we seek roots for the sole pleasure of giving ourselves natural chains. Undeniable progress; servitude today has its ecological reasons.

Which would only be ridiculous if it weren’t dangerous. For one may slip from the derisory to the despicable without ever realizing it. And it is for the good reason that such a creeping evocation of the birthplace, or such other nauseating terroir, overlaps with the most sinister chromos raciaux [4] in a common project—conscious or not, it makes no difference since the result is the same—to liquidate the imaginary. Nothing could be simpler; we assign a name, an origin, a place, a form, an overall identity to that which by definition does not have one. This common project is about fixing inappropriate thoughts, organizing fantasy trips, and stopping the flight of dreams. It is a question of taking the imaginary from the glue of the identifiable. The imaginary is definitely tamed by being engulfed in reality.

Practically, there is no longer any fantasy that has its shape, its color, its weight, and correlatively its price. The imaginary is dying from this craving for the concrete, which is more of a panic fear of the undetermined than of a true passion for things. It is moreover the same fear of one eventuality who ordered the so-called pornographic show of recent years. The systematic practice of close-up photography fills the viewer with satisfaction at the same time as an imaginary perspective. Never before have we been so caught in the trap of appearance, redundant to the point of completely obstructing the horizon. And the deliberate insignificance of the faces of this pornographic show puts the finishing touch on this closing down of the imaginary on itself. There is no sign of escaping this concrete barricade. Freakishly present but also frightfully undifferentiated, bodies now only refer to themselves.

A masterful operation: for the first time perhaps, desire is suddenly deprived of its history, reduced to being only the segment of time in a pattern of supply and demand. Let the supporters of the moral order rest assured, this new censorship by concrete force-feeding is as good as the old one—if not better—since this time it definitively separates the body from ideas, which only becomes dangerous when embodied. Thus, in the pervasive neutrality of the bodies, there are no longer any more questions of eroticism or even obscenity which, for lack of meaning, get cast aside. But at the same time, it is the bodies that are mutilated from their power of enchantment as well as their power of insult. That is what realism is all about.

Such would be the last avatar of an obscure project, probably instigated during the post-war period by the most diverse, even antagonistic, forces to impose a realistic vision (in every sense of the word) of man and the world. Ordered by this sinister reaction of pawn or bureaucrat to the turbulence, insolence, and madness of the inter-war period, intellectual and emotional life, with a few glorious exceptions, has actively worked through the following fields: in existentialism, social realism, hyper-realism, and structuralism we can find the determining moments of this deaf and progressive takeover of the real over the imaginary. So much so that our room for action is nowadays very limited. Here we are with our backs to the wall and our foreheads against reality. Do we still know how to find imaginary passages to the unlikely spaces we inhabit?

And yet, new horizons, fantastical landscapes, imaginary objects, no matter what the name, everyone looks for and potentially finds the source of their mental breath. Imaginary objects are necessary for our survival. However, their trade secrets are beginning to become lost, without us realizing it, in the glare of the moment, the speed of the circuits, and the inflation of the images. In this respect, from the past and the future, we have nothing to expect. It is high time to look at the side of in-actuality, where the eternal youth of our desires is made. So, how can we not be fascinated by an era that, in the midst of the revolutionary storm, has placed its imaginary challenges at the crossroads of its key ideas as unavoidable obstacles? A towering machine for silence in the ideological hubbub of the 17th century, the roman noir château is one of the few historical monuments urgently needing to be vested. For it is of a burning in-actuality.

Translator Notes:

  1. Chateau has been left untranslated because it is very important that the reader becomes acquainted with the particular structures that are featured in roman noir novels. While varied, they tend to be something akin to a palace of a distinguished Count or Duke—not normally royalty, but they are wealthy and in high social standing.
  2. Here one should pause for a moment to examine the relationship between roman noir and film noir. It should be made clear that the works of roman noir that Le Brun discusses in this book aren’t from the same age and sensibility as the dark detective fiction that became the source material for film noir. For example, it is quite difficult to compare Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu (Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue), one of the Marquis de Sade’s most infamous works, to the screenplay for Stranger on the Third Floor; nevertheless, this is a topic that lies beyond the scope of this work.
  3. André Breton, Les Vases communicants, éd. Gallimard, Paris, 1955, p. 134. Translated to English as: André Breton, Communicating Vessels, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln & London, Translated by Mary Ann Caws & Geoffrey T. Harris, 1990. Pg. 99.
  4. This is likely a reference to the preoccupation of some of the early roman noirs with society’s fear of alien/foreign figures and otherness.