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Synopsis of Jean-Claude Milner, ‘Grammaire d’Aragon’

[‘Aragon’s Grammar’]

CpA 7.2:45–56

The second of Jean-Claude Milner’s two contributions to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is an austere analysis of Louis Aragon’s novel La Mise à mort [‘Putting to death’], first published in 1965. Milner wrote his article in November of that same year.

The young Louis Aragon (1897-1982) was a pioneering figure in the French surrealist movement, before becoming a member of the Communist Party and an advocate of socialist realism in the 1930s and 40s. La Mise à mort is the first of a trio of experimental novels (followed by Blanche; ou L’oubli [1967], and Théâtre/Roman [1974]) notable for the complexity of their structure and of their conceptual reflection on the general status of writing, identity and memory. Drawing on some of the preoccupations of Aragon’s own life (Stalinism; disillusionment; the relation between love and jealousy; the limits of realism and reflection), La Mise à mort explores the unstable multiplicity of a subject nominally held together by the pronoun ‘I’. Its structure is episodic and marked, in both form and content, by themes of reflection, doubling, mirroring, imaging, and so on. The novel is narrated by a well-known writer Antoine Célèbre, who is married to the singer Fougère. Haunted by the beauty of Fougère’s voice, Antoine has lost his reflection and can no longer distinguish between himself and a past image of himself, Alfred; Antoine becomes jealous of an additional double, the fictional character Anthoine, to whom the ‘real’ Antoine comes to attribute authorship of his ‘own’ works. The development of the work is punctuated by three short stories (contes de la chemise rouge) which Milner describes as literary ‘variations of effacement’ (CpA 7.2:51).

Milner is interested in the theoretical implications of the novel, regarding the status of individuality and writing. He begins with an appreciation of the challenge that confronts him: Mise à mort is a novel marked by an apparent capacity to absorb any critical reading we might offer of it. Nevertheless, Milner wagers that such absorption is itself an indication of the novel’s ‘structure’, one that obliges the critic, in order to speak of it, to follow the pattern of its distinctive ‘functioning’ (45). He interprets the structure of Mise à mort as a ‘game’ or play [jeu], governed by an implicit but determinant set of rules which generate a ‘set that can be referred back to a law’. He identifies some of the elements of the game as follows. Figures A (Antoine) and A’ (Alfred) are virtually indistinguishable, apart from the fact that A has lost his reflection. Between them intervenes a figure B (Fougère) whose ‘place is defined by the fact that A is the image of A’ whom B is supposed to love’. A discovers himself to be, via the mirror offered by A’, a celebrated realist novelist, but this discovery itself takes place within a novel in which both figures function as characters. A further character ‘C’ (Christian) figures the ‘infinite engendering’ of the jealousy that accompanies love of B (46). Purged of any psychological dimension, each figure here can be ‘infinitely multiplied’, and holds together only as an ‘incarnate function of the game’.

Milner distinguishes Aragon’s structural approach to individuation from the presumptions at work in ‘classical’ writing. A classical text, Milner argues, can be described as a ‘game that unites and opposes various characters’, a game that disguises its rules via the ‘ruse of individuation’ underlying the apparent integrity of these characters. The ‘insignia’ that individuate a classical character are composed of singular ‘properties’ (an appearance, name, personality...) owned and assembled by a self-possessing I (47). Classical characters are in command of the traits that differentiate them, and that form the ‘singular and distinct content’ of their I. The relation between the insignia and the ‘integrity of the individual person’ is sufficiently tight that a single modification can disrupt the whole character.

Such disruption operates on several levels in Aragon’s text. The subject Antoine is deprived (by Fougère’s song) of the reflection that might assemble his various traits, and this lack of reflection becomes his sole distinguishing trait. He cannot own this distinction, however; instead, the resemblance that unites a subject to his reflection is displaced onto a second figure, Alfred, who is in a position to own this resemblance as a property, but not to know it as his (own) (48). Aragon’s characters are thus marked by a radical ‘dispossession’ of the features that define a classical character: ‘the disassembled traits’ and the unstable I can ‘no longer function together as insignia; detached, individuation must find another kind of guarantee, as the mask of the person [personne] breaks and reveals functions that elsewhere it is obliged to conceal’ (49). Whereas classical characters remain fundamentally self-identical and distinct, the traits that individuate Antoine - the colour of his eyes, his jealous personality, his habitual sniffling - also apply to his double. Fougère by contrast retains a consistent appearance, but acquires multiple new names (Ingeborg, Madame d’Usher, Murmure), and her defining insignia (her ability to sing) deserts her. Christian’s appearance first varies around a consistent name, and then vice versa (50).

What about the persistence of the I itself, the supreme form of ‘insignia’ and the ‘foundation of the game’? The grammatical ‘shifter’ that is the first person pronoun can only individuate a speaker who is ‘already distinguished in his unicity’, but, dispossessed of his other traits, Antoine can ‘only find some content to give to the I that makes him autonomous in dialogue [with others] in the literary works he signs’ and that confirm his name. According to a logic that seems to evoke Blanchot and Foucault, however, literature itself figures here as a place in which the loss of image and reflection is ‘consummated’, a place of radical ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘erasure’ (51). Antoine is the ‘proprietor of writing’: he can write the pronoun I that is the subject of the dialogues he remembers, but he cannot possess this I as his own. On the other hand, Alfred’s ‘sole possession is the power to say “it’s me”’, he is ‘the proprietor of the I’, but his I is the I of another; his possession dispossesses him (51).

Outside the game of doubling and reflection that unites Antoine and Alfred there now appears a ‘new power’, the power of thought to shift from first to third person, i.e. the power of writing to emanate not from a character but an author. This third figure occupies the ‘last place’ in the structure, the ‘place of an author’s I’ to which no character or appearance applies, an individual without insignia or traits (52). Without mask or face, deprived of all intimate interiority, the author figures here as ‘nothing but pure individuation, nothing but the weight of writing, a rule of writing’. This rule rests on the essential unity of the I as such, as pronoun, which retains its ‘self-identical massivity [massivité]’ all through the novel’s systematic confusion of referents and meanings. ‘The pronoun acquires the property of being the place of a unity that is sufficient to unify the most varied traits and names - Struensce, Antoine, Aragon Pierre, simply on account of the fact that the I designates them’. If then it’s true that ‘I is an other’, the I that is altered or ‘othered’ through writing is by the same token already a (self-identical) one. (Milner’s position here might be understood, perhaps, as in some sense between Miller’s insistence on the subject’s lack of self-identity (in ‘Suture’, CpA 1.3) and Badiou’s subsequent emphasis (in ‘Marque et manque’, CpA 10.8), thanks to the self-identity of the mathematical letter, on the exclusion of such lack from the discourse of science).

The written and writing I that ‘regulates the sequence of statements’ is, Milner claims, ‘also the place of the rule that orders them’ (53). Why? Because this ‘singular I’, once it has been ‘torn away from the function of dialogue, becomes the shifter of the written as such [...]. The I is indeed massivity, absorption, but its density is only the density of writing: a figure among figures, it designates the law of their composition, the space in which they move, because insofar as it is autonomous the I becomes the figure of disindividuating writing; [a] figure opposed to the plurality of figures, it demonstrates that the withdrawals and uncouplings which make up the optical game between Antoine and Alfred can only appear if projected on a flat surface, as condensed in a milieu which absorbs them: the written’ (54).

As an instance of writing, Aragon’s novel about writing thus ‘opens within itself the space in which it institutes itself [...]: the novel, in writing itself, designates itself as a written work.’ In its final pages, however, the quality of the work changes. As Alfred lapses into madness and silence, ‘we hear the voice of a narrator who has become impersonal’, and in this absence of the I ‘the work inverts itself and becomes a “realist novel”’. Mise à mort ends with the ‘beginning of a literature’, as features of the ‘classical novel begin to take shape before our eyes.’ In the process, however, Aragon’s text confirms the essential dilemma of realist representation, the dilemma of any ‘faithful’ reflection or mirror: we cannot decide whether the most realistic description is that which erases all marks of its artificial status as a representation (so as to seem like reality itself), or on the contrary, that which erases all trace of its deceptive nature, by emphasising the fact that it is nothing but a representation (55). Aragon, Milner suggests, has made of this paradox the principle of a literary machine that functions indefinitely on all its various levels, such that in the entangled play of doublings and displacements, in the movement from individuated insignia to the anonymous I, from the written to the writing, ‘we cannot grasp any term without being obliged to follow the structure which is the past and future of this point, and its unceasing multiplication’ (55).

In his enigmatic conclusion, Milner ends by evoking a ‘point of flight or escape [fuite] from this machine’. Literary works generally exclude the ‘literary power’ that constitutes them, enabling them deceptively to ‘construct the first person as the place of an adequate knowledge’, to affirm the fidelity of a ‘transparent narrator-witness who reflects reality without diffraction’. Such a narrator or witness serves as the essential ‘instrument of deception [instrument du leurre]’ at work in the construction of a realist fiction. If then the subject that must be ‘put to death’ (in keeping with the literal meaning of Aragon’s title) is this ‘I which deceives by not knowing that it is deceived by the content it believes its own’ [ce qui doit mourir est le je leurrant de ne pas se savoir leurré par le contenu qu’il croit sien], so through this vanishing we might perceive the outline of a ‘place of truth’, an ‘allusion to a literature that has become truthful [véridique].’ Although Milner only hints at its elusive ‘place’, such a literature would be written in ‘another language’, one that might ‘articulate the truth indicated for us by the composition of the I’ (56).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Aragon, Louis. La Mise à mort. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. Republished in the ‘Folio’ collection, 1973.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Adereth, Maxwell. Commitment in Modern French Literature: Politics and Society in Péguy, Aragon and Sartre. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.
  • Bibrowska, Sophie. Une Mise à mort; L’Itinéraire romanesque d’Aragon. Paris: Les Lettres Nouvelles, 1972.