Back in the days when I wrote in French, I published a little book called Le paradoxe de Phèdre (Nizet, 1975), which included a separate essay entitled “Le paradoxe constitutif du roman.” My purpose was to situate the novel within an overall conception of the esthetic that I called l’esthétique paradoxale. The original inspiration for this notion was my reading of Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s Pragmatics of Human Communication (Norton, 1967), which under the inspiration of Gregory Bateson’s work in Palo Alto drew attention to the phenomenon of pragmatic paradox, the all-time favorite example of which is the Jewish mother who tells her son, “Be spontaneous!”, asking him to become the source of his own inspiration while at the same time being inspired by her order.

My idea was that any work of art is in the first place an objective artifact that I encounter outside myself, but that if I want to “use” it in an appropriate manner, I have to “take it into myself,” not merely look at it or listen to it, but experience it on my internal scene of representation. Yet we are never free to simply treat these experiences as our own, since we must constantly return to the work to confirm them. Our attention, which is to say, our intention, oscillates between what we have made our own and what we must take from the work.

This is true even in the case of the plastic arts, where we can see the whole painting or sculpture in a single glance. For there too our attention oscillates between the physical appearance of the work and our mental reconstruction of it. This is clear in the case of a representational painting or sculpture, but it applies as well to abstract art, at least if it truly deserves the name of art, rather than merely creating a pleasing visual pattern that evokes no significant worldly experience.

In a literary work of whatever category, the reader must constantly return from his subjective construction of the text to attend to what follows. This is obviously true in a real-time dramatic presentation, where the spectator is not in control of its temporal unfolding, but it applies all the more powerfully to reading, where, as a consequence of the advent of “silent reading,” as recounted in a celebrated passage of Augustine’s Confessions (6:3), the reader has the opportunity to pause and reflect at any moment of the text before proceeding—making him all the more aware of his dependence on what follows. But however obscure a (modern) text may appear at first reading, it is only of value to us if we can finally come to read it through, particularly if it is a poem, as a literary work is meant to be read.

What is paradoxical about this process is very much the same as with the Jewish mother’s command. Just as the son cannot act “spontaneously” without recalling her prior order, so the consumer of an artwork and in particular, the reader of a narrative, is on the one hand provided material from which he constructs an imaginary world in his mind, yet on the other, is obliged to learn from the author the outcome of whatever anticipations he may have conceived. The oscillation between the work and its imaginary reconstruction involves a constant arousal and deferral of desire that, if the work is successful, provides the reader with a final “catharsis.”

In my essay on the paradox of the novel, I conceived this relationship as a dialectic between the moment and the totality of the text, whose length (recalling the novel’s picaresque origins) obliges it to contain a multiplicity of concrete scenes. To illustrate my point, I cited two exemplary passages; one from the first modern French novel, Mme. de Lafayette’s 1678 La princesse de Clèves, and one from the end of the novel’s classical age, Proust’s 3000-page A la recherche du temps perdu.

In the first, the narrator shows us the Duc de Nemours, who loves the Princess without daring to approach her, spying on her in a pavilion as she creates a memento by tying ribbons bearing Nemours’ colors around a cane that she had secretly taken from his sister, then contemplates the painting of a battle which includes Nemours’ portrait. “One cannot express what M. de Nemours felt in that moment.” This scene is crucial to the plot, because although the Princess avoids Nemours once she suspects his presence, her jealous husband, who had sent a gentleman to spy on Nemours, learning of this and other similar attempts, and not convinced of his wife’s innocence, is taken ill and dies.

In the second passage, from near the end of Proust’s novel, the narrator tells us that, after many years during which he was altogether discouraged about his literary project of recovering “lost time,” he steps on a loose paving-stone that reminds him of a similar experience in his youth in the courtyard of St. Mark’s in Venice, making him feel as though the years separating the two experiences had suddenly been abolished. At this moment, as in his famous madeleine experience near the beginning of the novel, he has the sense of re-finding (retrouver) all the details of a past world he had thought lost, and this allows him to begin his great project of recuperating le temps perdu.

Only humans have scenes, a seemingly obvious fact that is ignored by those who seek to understand human behavior in quantitative, pre-human terms. Scenes are what make up history, as only humans can conceive it, that is, conceiving rather than simply experiencing moments within a significant, potentially providential totality. The notions of history, destiny, project,… may be anticipated in the universe of animal reflexes, but only what Sartre called the human pour-soi can conceive such ideas, because, precisely, they are ideas, not percepts, accessible only to creatures with language. As Aristotle tells us, art “imitates” such totalities, and this imitation is an intentional act that makes the artist, as Gustave Flaubert put it in a famous letter written during the composition of Madame Bovary, “like God in his creation” (see Chronicle 725).

Thus the audience of any artwork must rely on the creator’s “providential” will to leave the world of his creation in a state of harmony, accomplishing what Aristotle called catharsis, the purging of what are in effect potentials of mimetic aggression. This faith in the novelist’s “godlike” powers obliges us to recognize in these novels the mutual necessity of the individual moments and the text as a whole, whether implicit, as in the first novel, or explicit, as in the second (meta-) novel. And this is true even when the narrator (not the author) speaks in the first person, or as postmodern writers are wont to do, comments on his own narration, adding a supplementary paradox to what is already paradoxical, as if to make this fundamental paradoxicality appear perverse rather than necessary.

The theory of esthetic paradox puts in scenic, human terms the tension between detail and whole, or to use the classical terminology, unity in variety. No variety = no esthetic unity; the scene must be prolonged, as it was already at the origin, yet still remain a/the scene. This extensibility gives proof of an enduring sacred will that preserves for its duration the human community from self-destruction. (The counter-example of the normally one-moment joke or mot d’esprit—which itself may be extended for ironic effect—depends on the anticipated effect of laughter that reflects the abortion of the scene as originally set. But this would require another Chronicle.)

The originary event, as I have described it, must have had more than a momentary duration, prolonging the deferral of action that created the human scene in the first place. Thus we should conceive this scene as already structured by the same dialectic of moment and totality that we find in Proust’s 3000 pages. Even if the participants did nothing other than repeat the originary sign and point at the central object, we cannot imagine that their passions could have been calmed by a single gesture. Moore’s Law tells us that computers can double their information processing capacity every two years or so, but we cannot—thus we can appreciate Homer today as his audience did 3000 years ago.

The story of Scheherazade is an allegory of art in general; the duration of the story, and in the broader sense, that of the scenes of human culture—religion, art, games, et al.—helps protect society from mimetic violence. The decision to single out a particular moment of a work draws attention to this feature of art, in all the poignancy of knowing that even the most perfect moment, like that of Nemours, is insufficient to constitute a whole. In contrast, we note that no such moment is involved in a “happy ending”: they lived happily ever after or ils vécurent heureux et ils eurent beaucoup d’enfants merely summarize what follows the resolution of a human crisis.

Looking back on this understanding of the esthetic, it strikes me as lacking in one important dimension to bring it into harmony with generative anthropology. While the interplay of moment and totality indeed applies to the modern novel as well as to the originary event, what is missing from this theory of esthetic paradox is the anthropological basis common both to the originary and to all subsequent scenes: their necessity, born in the potential violence of a mimetic crisis. The birth of the sign was the necessary result of a critical situation which would otherwise have ended in chaos, one of sufficient importance such that, in the absence of the solution provided by deferral and preserved by the sign, it might well have condemned the nascent human species to extinction. The scene’s “playful” repetition in artworks depends on the arousal and appeasement of a fictional crisis into which we are persuaded to enter in order to enjoy a simulation of the originary catharsis, which reinforces our solidarity with our fellows and sets an example for crises of our own.

La princesse tells the life story of a young woman who is warned from the start by her mother of the dangers of the court’s immorality, what Girard would describe as its exacerbation of mimetic desire, posing dangers to her virtue and well-being. The supremely seductive Nemours poses these dangers in concrete terms, and the novel until the very end describes the princess’s determined resistance to his attractiveness, including refusing to marry him even after her husband’s death, to which she well knows that his not altogether unjustified jealousy of Nemours had contributed, and finally ending her life in a convent, leaving as her legacy “inimitable examples of virtue.”

Proust’s story is much more complex, but throughout, although it often focuses on characters other than “Marcel” (this name appears only once in the text of the novel, but it has become traditional to thus designate the narrator), it treats them within the context of his own worldly desires, along with, always in the background, his transcendental project to write the novel that would recover, in a meaningful autobiographic totality, the “lost time” of these ultimately frivolous desires. In contrast with La princesse, where the heroine faces a crisis whose structure is summed up in the scene we have described, bringing together her secret love for Nemours and the impossibility of its realization, the individual scenes of Marcel’s life are important both as distractions from and material for his overarching novelistic project.

Worldly fulfillment is not Marcel’s aim. To reach a satisfactory outcome, he must learn through experience that the pursuit of worldly desire is not a possible source of his work’s ultimate resolution—that “lost time” can be “regained”/retrouvé only by understanding his experience  independently of desire, which only bears us into the future—and to disappointment. This understanding is revealed not by dramatic interactions with the objects of our passion, but by the irruption into our memory of seeming trivial moments that bring back to us whole realms of life that we had thought forgotten.

What is significant in Marcel’s existence, in other words, are not the superficial crises of desire he undergoes throughout the novel, but solitary experiences of purely personal significance that assure him of his human uniqueness. Proust’s novel can be called a meta-novel because by redefining the crisis that it must resolve as the possibility of its own creation, it puts into question the relevance of “mere” worldly accomplishments and satisfactions as providing a satisfactory resolution to the crisis we see ourselves as coming into the world to solve.

But if the only story one can tell is that of one’s transformation into the Godlike artist who alone can tell one’s story, then how can we continue to tell (other) stories? And yet we do, if only with an added nuance of irony. In the works of novelists who have absorbed Proust’s lesson, the protagonist implicitly understands the irony of his not quite worldly situation: his complicity with his creator’s godlike role in helping to prolong the survival of our species.


Those of us who can recall the excitement at the emergence of the nouveau roman in the 50s and 60s were told by critics such as Roland Barthes that the roman lisible was giving way to the roman scriptible, the “writable novel” that, rather than catering to the reader’s traditional passivity, forces him to “compose” the novel on his own from incomplete indications provided by the author. Finnegans Wake was a preview of this process.

But when in 2012 I gave a seminar on the nouveau roman in what was still the UCLA French Department, the titles of the novels I chose were barely familiar to the graduate students who would have devoured them (or pretended to) 50 years earlier. Today, even the most original authors no longer pretend to transform the basic act of reading in this manner—no doubt simply because the results, however much jouissance they may have procured to Barthes (though I really wonder), are painful to read, and impossible to sell.

And indeed, the best authors of nouveaux romans, pace Barthes, had no intention of writing romans scriptibles: they played with our expectations, but as readers we well understood that it was they, not we, who were doing the playing.

The remaining fans of the postmodern may take issue with so banal a conclusion. But rather than attacking the messenger, objectors should address themselves to God, or more simply, to humanity’s providential ability to intuit a sacred that protects our community from itself.