Double Your Pleasure

<i> Thomas Frick, associate editor at LACMA, is at work on "The Iron Boys," a novel about the Luddite rebellions of 1811-13</i>

How do we, in Michel Foucault’s phrase, “tame the wild profusion of existing things”? The primary method is to sort the world into categories, a divide-and-conquer tactic rooted in every creation myth: Day is separated from night; the island is firmly anchored on the tortoise’s back. That so many of our quotidian categories--black and white, beautiful and ugly, wet and dry--fall into opposed pairs is no doubt as genetically inscribed in us as bilateral symmetry and sexual reproduction.

Philosophers have been the preeminent taxonomists of reality. Pythagoreans employed 10 pairs of opposite principles to comprehend the world, including odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, straight and curved, good and evil. Aristotle recognized 10 basic conceptual divisions; Leibniz counted six and Kant four. In other fields, Linnaeus established the six classes of the animal kingdom, Roget grouped words under eight conceptual headings, Jung identified four psychological types, and astrologers have always employed 12 zodiacal signs.

In “The Mirror of Ideas,” the celebrated and subversive Michel Tournier--widely regarded as the most important French novelist of the last 30 years--has fashioned 58 short essays, each riffing on a pair of related terms, dual concepts that the author deftly angles to shed light on each other. “An isolated concept offers a smooth impenetrable surface to the mind,” he writes in the introduction. “Analyzed in the light of its opposite, however, the idea explodes or becomes transparent, revealing its intimate structure.”


Before he turned to fiction, Tournier had trained to be a professor of philosophy but failed a qualifying exam. In truth, he never would have fit into the postmodern French intellectual milieu of Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard. Tournier’s forebears are Bergson, Sartre and Bachelard (one of his teachers), whose concepts were drawn out of lived experience rather than imposed upon it.

In fact, Tournier has himself always been difficult to categorize. He has scandalized readers and critics with his obsessive fictional focus on distasteful fetishisms, grotesque occurrences, perverse and scatological appetites and his exotic and polymorphous explorations of the metaphysical implications of homosexuality. Yet his first two novels won France’s highest literary honors, and he is a member of the prestigious Goncourt Academy.

In hyperpolitical French culture, he has angered both the left and the right by his disdain for simplistic dichotomies. His characters embody an anarchic rejection of the social contract, a gnostic insistence that the authentic self can only achieve enlightenment, fulfillment or release through full immersion in the corruption of the world.

In “The Mirror of Ideas” Tournier cites, along with philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger, composers, kings, novelists, photographers, politicians, circus performers, poets, painters, generals, saints and astronomers. He presents elegant glosses on twinned topics such as “The Child and the Adolescent,” “The Bath and the Shower,” “Talent and Genius,” “Salt and Sugar,” “The Tree and the Path” and “The Fork and the Spoon.” The colloquial and the emblematic precede the abstract.

“Beware of purity,” a character in Tournier’s first novel, “Friday,” says. “It is the acid of the soul.” In this book, as in his fiction, Tournier sets up boundaries only to rub them together and make them porous. Even the more abstruse topics are given a personal inflection. In “A Priori and A Posteriori” he begins: “I have to write something, but I can’t find my pen. Where is it? What did I do with it? Two methods of searching are possible. The first consists in closing my eyes, trying to remember, and thinking. When and where was the last time I used my pen? . . . The second method consists in getting up and just looking everywhere instead of racking my brains. . . . The first approach is a priori, the second a posteriori.”

In a characteristic move Tournier erodes the boundary he has just created. The distinction is not absolute. The deduction that his pen must be in his pocket is still subject to subsequent verification. Conversely, the search in every place his pen might be is governed by a preconception that it is not likely to be in the cellar.


He then moves to photography, where he contrasts the a posteriori technique of Henri Cartier-Bresson, wandering “through city and countryside, camera in hand, not knowing ahead of time what the freedom and randomness of life will offer,” with the a priori one of Richard Avedon, who imagines “ahead of time the image [he wants] to make, and all the work consists in reconstituting in the studio this image.” Yet for Cartier-Bresson, “the randomness is not total”: He will “always run across people and scenes that resemble [his] work and seem already to bear [its] signature.” And, of course, Tournier would say, the best preparations only make more welcome the happy accident.

A typically quirky and inspired pairing is “The Propeller and the Fin.” Whereas the oar successfully imitated the fin’s discontinuous motion, man’s imitation of the wing did not achieve flight, which required the continuous rotational power of a motor. “Nature does not know the wheel, undoubtedly because nature is accumulation, maturation, aging, all things that negate the wheel, symbol of an indefinite return to the starting point.” For Tournier the invention of the clock wrought a machine that “transforms the discontinuous motion of the balance wheel into the continuous rotation of the hands”; he then considers the human heart, the muscle “whose discontinuity comes closest to a continuous movement. . . . Having a job so well integrated into daily life, so well paced in its phases of effort and maturation, is the privilege of the artist, or at least the artistic craftsman, the aristocrat of work. Which is what the heart is, precisely because it fuses the continuous and the discontinuous.”

Occasionally there are dubious passages, generally related to an aspect of Tournier’s sexual cosmography. In “Man and Woman,” he proposes an androgynous Adam who “found no companion among the animals. So God cast man into a deep sleep and removed all his female organs. Around these organs he created a new man whom he called woman. Eve was born. All the psychology of the two sexes descends from these origins.” This presumption is no better than Freud’s discredited misreadings of mythology as psychology. But Tournier goes on: “While man was formed in the dust of the desert, woman was born amid the flowers and succulents of paradise that determined many of her personality traits. Moreover, she was molded around her own sexuality. She is more substantially submissive to femininity than man is to virility. This is what the scholastics meant by the formula tota mulier in utero (the whole woman is in her uterus).” Such hoary platitudes are disappointing in a writer of this caliber; fortunately, they are few.

Though on its own “The Mirror of Ideas” is enjoyable and provocative, it also exemplifies a good many of the obsessions, predispositions and modes of thought that underlie the author’s important body of fiction.

Tournier’s first novel, “Friday” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), is a vigorous reworking of “Robinson Crusoe,” with every inherent binary opposition heightened and subverted; civilization-degradation, society-solitude, master-slave, white-black. Robinson and Friday embody a charged, eroticized twinship, a concept that will be elaborated throughout Tournier’s fiction. Indeed, the sheer fact of duality might be said to form the foundation of his thought; it certainly underlies the structure and plan of “The Mirror of Ideas.”

“The Ogre” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970) is a brilliant, wayward account of the strange career of Abel Tiffauges, a pedophilic garage mechanic in 1930s France who believes that “there’s a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me and what happens in general, and enabling my particular history to bend the course of things in its own direction.” The tension between such magical thinking and the incipient fate of Europe is a compelling way of viewing large events through the extremities of personal history. Perhaps only Thomas Pynchon, in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” has done anything comparable for World War II. Tiffauges ends up recruiting German youth for Goering but nonetheless saves a Jewish child in a manner inscribed in the book in an almost mythological fashion.


Tournier’s next novel, “Gemini” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), is his most robust examination of his presiding theme of the subversive pair. It explores the perfect, hermetic relationship of the identical twins Jean and Paul, that relationship’s sundering by Jean’s involvement with a woman, their father’s traditional wife-and-mistress duplicity and their uncle’s radical philosophical homosexuality. There’s also speculation on a putative twin of Christ.

These three books are Tournier’s definitive and his best-written works. The novels he has published since that have been translated into English are “The Four Wise Men” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), which sensuously weaves an additional character into the traditional tale of the magi; “Gilles et Jeanne” (1983), a spare account of the relationship between the religious visionaries Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, vilified as a mass murderer of children; and “The Golden Droplet” (Doubleday, 1985), a story of the power of images--photographic, cultural, sexual--played out in the life of an Algerian Berber who immigrates to Paris.

There is also an amiable though not very revealing autobiographical book, “The Wind Spirit” (1977). In it, Tournier mentions that Germanic studies were a tradition in his family. His particular brand of philosophical novel combines the gravity of Thomas Mann with the playfulness of Voltaire and Diderot, the Enlightenment originators of modern philosophical fiction.

In an era when, as a longtime observer of the European literary scene put it, most French novelists “jot down a masterpiece between trains,” it is exhilarating to encounter a provocative voice unashamed of strange ideas and happy to declare, “I had Hegel’s typewriter and couldn’t write pulp fiction with it.”