Academic journal article The Romanic Review

J.M.G. le Clezio's Terra Amata: A Micro-Fictional Affection for the Real

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

J.M.G. le Clezio's Terra Amata: A Micro-Fictional Affection for the Real

Article excerpt

In 1967, with Terra Amata, J.M.G. Le Clezio posed a venerable literary question--that of how to live--in a new way. As its title suggests, this novel is about the earth and more specifically about a certain way of approaching the world's concrete realities. The work centers on the perceptions and activities of its protagonist, Chancelade, whose pronounced interest in small, seemingly insignificant things leads him and the novel's narrator through numerous sensorial and contemplative adventures which yield unexpected insights on humankind's situation in the universe. The fictional account of Chancelade's experiences offers simultaneously a prescription for how to live, a critique of the social and cultural institutions that have traditionally determined modes of living, and an example of a new kind of literature that brings attention to some of the earth's most minute details and reveals what can be learned from them about the relationship between humans and the earth they inhabit.

In L'Extase materielle, a collection of essays that theorize explicitly many of the principles put into literary practice in Terra Amata, Le Clezio expresses his fondness for small things: "Je suis amoureux des details. J'aime bien tout ce qui est petit, j'ai comme du respect pour les animaux, pour les objets. Plus ils sont tenus, plus ils me plaisent.(1) This enthusiasm for tiny objects takes on a special significance for Le Clezio's sentimental and philosophical inquiry into the nature of physical reality: "Je ne suis jamais autant emu que par les choses microscopiques. C'est en elles que je disparais le mieux. Ce sont elles qui me revelent le plus exactement la verite de la nature solide" (EM, 113). The emotional excitement expressed in L'Extase materielle for microscopic particles and minor details of material reality plays an important role in the development of the affective relationship to the earth proposed by Terra Amata. Just as the "amoureux" and "emu" cited above highlight a certain aspect of Amata, the importance of the minuscule phenomena that fascinate Le Clezio can help illuminate his conception of Terra.

The earth is frequently represented in Terra Amata by a microscopic focus on its tiniest elements. Though the novel contains unforgettable macrocosmic metaphors of the world as "un corps de geant couch," or "une sorte de peau recouverte de tics," much more often the text concerns itself not with the earth as a whole, or even with smaller geographical subdivisions of it, but rather with very small parts of the surface of the planet(2). Tiny grains of dust or sand, insects, blades of grass, and pebbles abound in this novel, whose main character's often microscopic attention to the world gives him an unusual sensitivity to what can be learned from the most diminutive details of earthly existence.

An exegesis of the minuscule in Terra Amata produces shifts in cosmic perspective, variations in the sets of parameters that define what a world is. The tiny portions of material reality that fall under Le Clezio's magnifying lens are interesting in what they as self-contained systems can reveal about the cosmos in general: "chaque chose porte en soi son infini" (EM, 16). Small specks of reality point to much larger structural analogies of themselves; our point of view on miniature worlds implies that an analogous perspective on our own world might consider us a microcosm. Thus a conception of the universe as a succession of cosmic levels, combined with meticulous attention to phenomenal detail, provides new ways of conceiving the situation of humans on the earth.

The first instance of a multi-cosmic understanding of reality occurs in the chapter "Je suis ne," in which Le Clezio turns our attention to Chancelade as a child, as "cet homme miniature" (TA, 145) whose intense curiosity leads him to examine a group of doryphores, garden beetles, quite closely. Chancelade's enthusiasm for the spectacle of the beetles' "aventures minuscules" (TA, 21) is complemented by a precocious philosophical self-reflexivity through which he envisions a cosmic arrangement that places him in the position of a tiny object being observed by a giant version of himself: "Et on avait aussi sa vie a soi, bien close, bien tilde, comme s'il y avait eu quelque part quelqu'un assis sur les marches d'un escalier gigantesque, penche en train de vous regarder sans penser a rien" (TA, 21). …

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