Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction

Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction

Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction

Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction


Here David Ellison explores the problems encountered by France's best experimental authors writing between 1956 and 1984, when faced with the question: What should my writing be about? These years are characterized by the rise of the new novelists, who questioned the representational function of writing as they created works of imagination that turned in upon themselves and away from exterior reality. It became fashionable at one point to affirm that literature was no longer about the world but uniquely about the words on a page, the signifying surface of the text. Ellison tests this assumption, showing that even in the most seemingly self-referential fictions the words point to the world from which they can never completely separate themselves. Through close readings Ellison examines the novels and theoretical writings of authors whose works are fundamental to our perception of contemporary French writing and thought: Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Duras, Sarraute, Blanchot, and Beckett. The result is a new understanding of the link between the referential function of literary language and the problematic of the ethics of fiction.


Le théorique est nécessaire (par exemple les théories du langage), nécessaire et inutile. La raison travaille pour s'user elle-même, en s'organisant en systèmes, à la recherche d'un savoir positif où elle se pose et se repose et en même temps se porte à une extrémité qui forme arrêt et clôture. Nous devons passer par ce savoir et l'oublier. … Le combat théorique, fût-ce contre une forme de violence, est toujours la violence d'une incompréhension; ne nous laissons pas arrêter par le trait partial, simplificateur, réducteur, de la compréhension même. Cette partialité est le propre du théorique: “à coups de marteau,” disait Nietzsche.

—Maurice Blanchot, L'Ecriture du désastre

[Theoretical activity is necessary (for example, theories of language), necessary and useless. Reason works toward exhausting itself, organizing itself into systems, searching for a positive form of knowledge where it can alight and refresh itself and at the same time move onward toward an extremity that establishes stasis and closure. We should pass through this knowledge and forget it. … Theoretical combat, even directed against a form of violence, is always itself the violence of incomprehension; let us not be sidetracked by the partial, simplifying, reductive quality of comprehension as such. This partiality is the distinguishing trait of all theory: “the banging of the hammer,” said Nietzsche.]

Theory and referential anxiety

TO say that we live in an age of theory is perhaps an understatement. Even a schematic examination of the evolution of literary and cultural criticism during the past thirty years suffices to indicate ever-expanding levels of methodological self-consciousness and of terminological density now achieved in studies aimed at the elucidation of texts. It is not uncommon for a humanities professor to overhear colleagues admitting to each other, sotto voce, that the rereading of a “classic in criticism” written before the advent of the new methods and new vocabularies constitutes a veritable hidden pleasure. Yet many of the same colleagues, this shameful admission made, revert to a more serious tone and declare that, after all, this kind of classic is no longer possible. Our pleasure in its reading is suffused with the regressive forces of nostalgia and guilt. the epistemic field has shifted, perhaps irreversi-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.