Degrees by Michel Butor (Part 2)

by Michel Butor
Trans. Richard Howard
Originally published: Simon and Schuster, 1961
Reprint currently available from Dalkey Archive Press, 2005
351 pages / $13.95  Buy from Dalkey Archive







[Read Part 1 of this review here]

“I should like to be able to restore to your memory this moment, this hour which is already so far in the past for me that, despite the attention I was paying to you, to your whole class, I am capable of recovering with certainty which gestures you might have made, at which moments you were listening, at which you were distracted.

To help you realize what you yourself have been, in other words, where you come from, in other words where you are going—what is the vector of your present—I must already make a great imaginative effort of reconstruction, I must put myself in your place, try to see myself through your eyes and consequently let you speak, thereby destroying the equilibrium of this narrative.”  (104)

Continuity is a terribly fraught (and freighted) phenomenon in Michel Butor’s Degrees. Perhaps this is why the heart of this novel, 150 and counting pages of description and temporal shuttling, adopts the rhythms of a stream-of-consciousness narrative. But what Pierre Vernier takes on faith—that the stream-of-conscious narrative mode had led to discoveries about how the human mind actually works—was always just a metaphor, a Modernist myth (even though we know who authored it: William James). One of the catastrophes unleashed in Degrees—formally, narratively—is its fictional author’s inability to live up to the terms of that myth. Contemporary digital subjects such as ourselves have mostly embraced the notion that consciousness is in fact discontinuous, inherently particulate, but Vernier would no doubt deem it a negative theology. Anything short of a waveform, of constant surging, must be counted a loss of essence. How much worse for Vernier, then, that, under the burden of making the medium of language equal to the preservation of a present, that his energies are depleting, and his focus is wavering.

We know that Pierre Vernier is trying to create his nephew’s, Pierre Eller’s, future for him. But we should also consider that, simultaneously, Pierre Vernier is desperately trying to propel himself out his own loneliness and stagnation. Inevitably, tragically, however, Eller’s future almost perfectly resembles Vernier’s own present, as if Vernier can only vacate the latter by ensuring that someone else takes his place then / there. Mired in confusion and regret, trapped in a profession that conflates rote memorization with the transmission of culture, Vernier feels the pangs of what it means to be in the midst of life, and his desire to embark on some quest to recover an experience of connectedness is one he imagines (only with more confidence than that verb typically connotes) his nephew will someday experience as well. And, as the reader’s own suspicions grow, the brazenness of Vernier’s motives becomes almost blinding. Whatever his aims, Vernier eventually learns that love cannot supplant power as the basis for human relations as easily or as without repercussion as he would like. Such a transformation is not on the order of the metamorphoses that make dreams potentially magical. In the realm of actual, not imaginary relations, power is a volatile, toxic substance, and prolonged contact with power has a wasting effect whose first symptom is a kind of ecstasy. [1]

The impossibility of Vernier’s project and the consequences of its realization wrench him past the limits of exhaustion and, now almost homeless, he becomes ill, perhaps terminally so. But what of young Pierre Eller? He, too, is broken by this experience. Vernier’s project becomes public, and Eller is accused by one of his classmates of sharing a suspect and unhealthy intimacy with his uncle, of spying, of being, in effect, a gossip. He has no choice but to reject his uncle, and in a public and rather emotional self-exposure. Yet even this blow to the project must be incorporated into its design. In the novel’s final third, a second uncle, Henri, assumes responsibility for the project and attempts to bring Vernier’s manuscript to some stage of completion, if not wholeness. But all Henri can really do is honor the project’s failure, and document, should it occur, the reconciliation of uncle and nephew.

“Not only is there no question of my finishing your uncle’s book, of completing the project which he had undertaken and which crushed him, but no longer even any question of continuing it; it is a ruin; in the construction of this tower from which one was supposed to see America [read: a new world], something was generated that must have made it explode; he couldn’t erect more than a few pieces of the walls, and then that conflagration occurred which not only suspended all labor, but undermined the very ground upon which the walls were being raised, and that is why all that is left for me to do, confronting this fragment of a consciousness and of a future music, is to shore it up a little, so that the passer-by may suffer from it, so that the things around it, so that this state of incompletion, of ruin, may become unendurable to him, for in these twisted beams, in this dilapidated scaffolding, the sun changes the rust to gold, and the wind…” [2] (347)

The last words of the novel are Vernier’s, but the subject of the novel’s final recognition is ambiguous.

“Your uncle Pierre will not write any more; I am the one who will tell you that this text is for you, and it is Micheline Pavin to whom I shall entrust it. You are both bending over his bed. His eyes are open, but it is you he is looking at, he pays no attention to me. I greet him; he murmurs:

‘Who’s that?'” (351)

The simple answer is that it is Vernier who does not recognize himself. A more complex (but not necessarily “better”) answer requires that we look over our own shoulders as we read. Yes, what is at stake in Degrees is the entire social architecture that novels, as a form, have created and continue to replicate. [3] We are, without question, in the realm of “fiction as ideology” here, and, even more so than in Robbe-Grillet‘s Magritte-like anti-novels, the nouveau roman’s debts to Surrealism are made a demonstration of. In part because Butor has chosen to dramatize one individual’s struggle to become a sort of one-man avant-garde. But among the insights the novel has traditionally provided, one stands out for its precariousness: it is through reading novels that readers most closely approach an appreciation of how much our lives are governed by the pettiness—the moral poverty—of human relations. Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Ulysses, even Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (or, if you prefer, his The Twenty-Seventh City): all of these novels show us, in new ways, how the “small things” in life tend to loom over all else. The genius of Degrees lies, in part, in that its surfaces are completely free of Surrealist tropes. There is nothing miraculous or overtly puzzling here to distract us from the ravages of the revolution which the author (Pierre Vernier, not Butor) is plotting. Not to be too Romantic about it, but this appreciation is as much an encounter with the sublime as that provided by any mountainscape or opium reverie. However, the difference separating these sublimes is that, in the novel, and in Degrees in particular, it is through the act and experience of reading that we are confronted with our own responsibility for the wreckage spread out all around us, and with the fact that to witness the wreckage is to cause it all over again.

“I am the one who will tell you that this text is for you…” That address, the second person (indulged in so memorably by Butor in his La Modification [A Change of Heart], the most renowned of his novels in France, and the most difficult of his novels to locate in its English translation) is crucial here. For we are reminded that, as readers, our allegiance was never really with the narrator—with Vernier. In making our way through this book, the position we have occupied is Eller’s, a figure with whom we are familiar but to whom we have no genuine access. Eller has been mediated out of existence; he is the ghost that haunts this work. To get our eyes on Vernier’s manuscript, we must shoulder Eller aside. Who are we when we read? In the case of Degrees, we must pretend to be, in some respect, that “you,” even if only so that we may ultimately refuse to be so identified. If reading is an indeterminately hybrid consciousness, with each reader simultaneously but partially occupying the mind of the author, the narrator, the character(s) and him- or herself, is reading capable of a conscience? Are these lessons intended for Eller for us to learn, are these changes in perspective just there for the usurping? Is Vernier’s totalizing system—his teleology—one we should want to reconstruct, even as just a plausibility, a model?  Should Vernier have written what we have just read, or just passed on by? It is a fair question, but so is the one that logically follows from it: is it really for us to have read what what we have read, as we have it, in the hopes that it has mattered?



1. Throughout Degrees, Eller and his classmates circulate a copy of Fiction Magazine, a periodical full of adventure, science-fiction and fantasy stories. It is not quite a comic book, but the narratives we are able to glimpse in its pages (a paragraph here, an episode there) serve to represent the popular culture of the time as well as any comic book might. Those same narratives, seemingly sensationally, almost amoral in their pursuit of suspense, also serve as an ironic commentary on Vernier, his project, and his “evolution” / “mutation.” Butor, as it turns out, was the most ethical (as well as the most sentimental) of the writers associated with the nouveau roman, and he seems either to have had the most misgivings about the form, as the implicit comparison between his novel and the “non-literary” narratives of Fiction Magazine suggests, or to have satisfied his need to explore it more quickly than any of his peers. Since Degrees (itself over 50 years old), Butor has turned instead to a kind of documentary poetics. A prime example is Mobile (also available from Dalkey Archive), a book that, oddly enough, accomplishes those daring feats of perception that lure Vernier to his downfall.

2. One doesn’t read Degrees for the qualities of its language. While “arid,” the adjective employed on the back cover blurb to the Dalkey Archive reprint of this title, seems too harsh, it does at least connote some sense of the fragility of Butor’s prose. It may not be beautiful per se, but we must treat it with as much care, maybe even reverence, as anything beautiful, lest it break. Richard Howard’s translation expertly preserves this same quality. In fact, Howard’s rendering possesses a strange translucence; it feels as if the original French is always hovering, just at the threshold of perception, behind or on the other side of the English. It is semi-spoiled or ruined English. English and French have come into contact here, each language, like an acid or base, weakening the bonds of the other’s vocabulary and syntax. What remains are the hard centers of words; the softer edges have melted into a patina. The scarred parts mingle, beginning to organize themselves, but they don’t so much constitute a new language as they suggest an irrevocable Urtext. Butor’s novel is, after all, multi-lingual, and the problems of translation—a hermeneutic, not a paraphrase, as Howard understands—do occupy its characters.

“(you were picking your way through the pages of the dictionary, seeing the text not as a continuity, but as a succession of words, each of which required an exhausting effort),” (305)

Lyricism in such a work has to be hard-won, can only emerge from a Bresson-like texture of banal repetitions. In the case of Degrees, the recurring quotes from Homer, Rabelais and a variety of textbooks are the punchlines of this routine, with Vernier’s own highly Classical, Latin and Greek-inflected, philologist’s diction providing the set-up. And one is almost moved to laughter by Henri’s description of what has become of Vernier’s manuscript. The pity is that it is the kind of laughter most commonly used to cover up embarrassment.

3. The contemporary world which the nouveau roman believed itself to be capable of representing—shattered and discontinuous; sick with history; unable to offer the comfort and / or assurance of a coherent master narrative; urban, alienated, populated by actors (one hesitates to say subjects) anxious or ambivalent about or even simply undetermined in their humanity; in short, post-Enlightenment, post-Holocaust—was no fully realized futurity at all. Rather, it was the hangover of a past. The “dispensing” gestures ascribed to the nouveau roman were a kind of wish-fulfillment. The past cannot be so easily rubbed out of the present. The nouveau roman is, in one sense, an interrogation of a premise that previous avant-gardes, particularly Surrealism, had taken for granted: again, that alterations in imaginary relations could actually provoke substantive and predictable (read: desired) alterations in “real” relations. Moreover, that human beings, themselves crippled by their own relationship to temporality, could ever really develop a workable strategy by which to do anything more than remember, repeat and project. To make time actually exist. Rather than read nouveaux romans as formal descriptions of what had come to be, this reader can’t help but read them instead as diagnoses of the relative impossibility of anything “new” coming to be at all. And the novel itself? It is what guarantees this impossibility. The nouveau roman writers were all very cognizant of (or convinced that) it was the kind of narrative promulgated by 19th Century novels that had created the set of conditions that made the 20th Century happen. Try as they might, Butor et al. could not write a novel that somehow forgot that it was a novel. (Not even Blanchot could achieve this.)  And it is far from certain that this was ever an achievement those writers wanted for their work. If the novel as a form was no longer suited to reflecting real conditions, while salvage it at all?  Why this odd conservatism? How contemporary can a novel actually be? Perhaps it is better to think of the nouveau roman writers as reverse engineers, de-articulating the novel so as to determine how it was we arrived at this future (“now”) out of all the possible futures suggested by a form, one of whose raw materials is possibility. Each nouveau roman is a kind of portable laboratory, a controlled experiment with one or several of the formal qualities of narrativization. If everything is fiction, then meta-fiction is no game (a quintessentially pragmatic and American attitude, anyway). Meta-fiction is the stuff of life and death. Were the nouveau roman writers arguing, then, that their contemporary world was one especially attuned to the imaginary super-structure of reality, of the power of myth (“authorless narratives”) still disseminated and disseminating, of just how much artifice had always already been organized? Hardly. But these claims ring hollow when bulleted out in a manifesto, when they assume the pose of rhetoric. So—and the nouveau roman writers seem to have arrived at this consensus without indulging in any discussion, much less debate—instead the author’s task is to treat readers to a very uncomfortable experience of the consequences of those ideas. Each individual nouveau roman, manifest as a book (so clever, so surreptitious, yet frank, really… like a lockbox in the shape of a folio… there are echoes here of Joseph McElroy‘s A Smuggler’s Bible, McElroy being probably the only of the first wave of American postmodernist novelists to really “get” the nouveau roman… and is it any accident that Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production was published about the same time that the nouveau roman was heading into its ebb?), is a non-book, is a complete violation of the expectations invoked by its appearance as such, is not depersonalized but overrun by multiple readings (the “author’s” primary among them), is a literalization of what is, in everyday (waking?) life, consensually metaphoric, and thus innocuously true.



Joe Milazzo‘s writing has appeared in Electronic Book Review, the anthology Chronometry, Antennae, Drunken Boat, Everyday Genius, Super Arrow, Compost, Black Clock, and elsewhere. He is co-editor of the journal [out of nothing], co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe, and founder of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX.

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