The Castle of Communion (Bernard Noël, 1969)

ONCE AGAIN I’M FALLING. ONCE AGAIN IT’S NIGHT.

During an interview in EXIT 10/11 (Winter 1976/77), translated by Glenda George in Spectacular Diseases No. 5, Bernard Noël articulates that the job of criticism “should be explaining the functioning, the necessary [of the work].” This is perhaps the most sound and succinct description of what criticism should do that I’ve encountered (at least as a description that I agree with), and as such I’ve internalized it, I hope, as a guiding light to re-engage with criticism. However, in addressing The Castle of Communion I can’t entirely abandon the “I” of the text. Perhaps I need this pronominal marker of the self right now to lead myself into why exactly The Castle of Communion is necessary, and how it functions, despite half my frustration with contemporary literary “criticism” boiling down to the critic’s incapacity to move beyond herself. Hopefully this insistence will allow me to move from this “necessary” subjectivity toward a larger, less subjective consideration of the text in the world.

I’ve been conscious of, and even actively pointed out the influence of Noël’s work upon my own before, but I hadn’t realized this specific novel articulates so well what it is that I’m often attempting. There are narrative elements, of course, that I remembered, that have stuck with me for their base nature, the nature of the Image; but what is most shocking is how much of the text–beyond the base violence and sexual subjugation–seems to have planted itself firmly in my headspace, repeatedly mined for details borrowed for own work over the last few years. Beyond this, being so absorbed in Noël’s work, I find echoes in other texts of the poetic/narrative movement toward a mysticism developed here: it’s in “White Love” more succinctly (and perhaps the effusion here makes it more direct, albeit less thorough), it’s in “The Game of You I Us” (seemingly written at the same time as the definitive version of the novel’s text–there are lines that show up in both the poem and the novel), it’s elsewhere in the exposition on “poetry and experience” that Noël develops in interviews well into the early 90s:

“The unexpected always happens incidentally, unless I provoke it math-em-at-ic-ally. It’s enough to reckon with the imaginary. And for the rest to obey such a strict code that only the unexpected can intrude upon it, as is right. Create a void somewhere, it immediately invokes its opposite. Create something unalterable, it will do the same. I love theatre. There is nothing more rule-bound that the theatre, but every rule is a labyrinth which leads to the minotaur at the same time as holding it captive. The head invents the rule in order to protect itself from the darkness of the belly, but the more it constructs meanders, the less it knows behind which of them the night lies in ambush. So the rule which was made to confine the monster in truth provides it with a hiding place, so well that it can surprise us at any moment. This contradiction in our defence system is tragedy. Here, I’ve seen to it that the system is so perfect that the contradiction is keener than ever. It’s necessary to be tragically conscious of what lies in wait for us…” (63, my emphasis)

And then, from L’Espace du poème: entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero:

Writing means creating a void. Particularly writing poems, I think. A void which makes possible a precipitation.

And in La Face du silence:

You are hollow. But the void generates its opposite: a word wells up, another…

What is fascinating here is how Noël transmits his own–for want of a better word–metaphysics, philosophy perhaps, on the writing of the poem, into the narrative of the sexual initiate. There’s more to this. Twice in the novel the protagonist is reminded of a yogic exercise to push through pain, difficulty. “Whatever happens, she said, tighten your belly, breathe deeply, compose your breath” (31). Pranayama is the yogic exercise of regulating the breath, especially in order to moderate or maintain tension or stress upon the body. In the practice of yoga it is breath the dominates the asanas (the physical postures) and the practice as a whole. Without breath, the asanas are considered useless, as they become mere spectacles of corporeal physicality instead of openings toward inner experience. Elsewhere the protagonist speaks three phrases which echo both Beckett and the yoga sutras: “I tried to understand. I was understanding. I saw myself understanding” (15). In literalizing this, Noël is clearly locking the narrative into a route toward inner experience (both the “inner experience” of Bataille and the “inner experience” of yoga). Or, the term that Noël prefers over “inner experience,” which Bataille himself uses at the end of his trilogy, a route toward the stake.

* * *

For a book that became notorious for its battles against censorship, it’s shocking that authorities were incapable of discerning that the sexual violence was only a route toward an end (I should note here that I want to mark down thoughts before before revisiting “THE OUTRAGE AGAINST WORDS,” as I remember that text re-routing what currently strikes me about the novel itself into a realm where what’s important is the ideological standpoint allowed to be highlighted). But, perhaps I should not be surprised about this, as I’ve needed to delve deep into Noël’s work before reading the novel for a third time to remember anything other than the aforementioned images of violence. When speaking of the book to others who have read it, it is indeed the dog-rape that notoriously stands out.

In another short essay, “Poetry and Experience,” Noël articulates the trajectory of poetry as experience, following on from the work of Le Grand Jeu and Georges Bataille. The Castle of Communion, as mentioned before, feels like an extension of this, only allowing minimal elements of the genre (the genre of the novel) to creep in, giving, perhaps, a more accessible shape to his exegesis. Elsewhere Jean Fremon rightly points out that The Castle of Communion is an “adult fairy tale,” and this feels appropriate in identifying the “adult fairy tale” as a more accessible route for what it is that Noël wants to communicate. Poetry (especially poetry as experience) is beyond the grasp of most, especially now more than ever before–especially a poetry that aims at a something beyond mere description of experience. So while the novel might indeed be a mere a distillation of what Noël is after, it’s an extremely well done distillation…

However, and it’s here, having now re-read The Outrage Against Words, that we are forced to encounter Noël’s own condemnation of this insistence, the danger of allowing The Castle of Communion to stand as an exemplary text of an initiation into inner experience:

Certainly one can make an initiatory reading of Le Château de Cène but if it’s to lead to mysticism, one has it after all in the arse. In fact, where is the transcendence? Where the finality? The new initiate immediately plays politics and his experience falls back on itself: it has no other meaning outside of it.

This needs to be reckoned with. While this new wound upon the text, self-inflicted by its author, might refuse one trajectory (and lest we forget, it’s the polysemia of the novel that Noël applauded til the end!) it clears up another. In the novel, during one of the initiatory sex scenes, the text speaks “No limit […] No limit, except to enjoy it” (33). This is a trap. As Noël explains the opening chapters are a trap of one sort, what seems to be an authorial through-line here (“no limit except to enjoy it”) is a subversive instruction, a condemnation. Echoed again when Mona explicates her desire not for love or sex, but only for excess, Noël approaches an idea of power through and through, and unless we let ourselves pay attention we, as readers, are bound to miss it. Should we not be troubled by the fact that all the servants throughout the novel are explicitly described as Black, or from “uncivilized” locales? Do we dismiss this simply as a lazy route for the author to further establish a sense of other-ness? At first this was what I let myself fall back into, and for this I, as a reader, am ashamed. For this is specifically what, when taken as a whole, the novel warns against. Again from The Outrage Against Words:

History is only the history of oppression. Revolutions, finally, have only ever served those who overthrow power in order to seize for themselves. We are duped in advance because the language is controlled. Language, like the State, has always served the same ends […] The system is already a traitor, even if it has not yet betrayed.

Elsewhere in the same essay:

In what name am I pursuing my work? Towards what? Could it be that the abuse of language is tied to power? And could it be that there’s only correct language to direct against power? Against what power? For power, which is central to everything, is first and necessarily a confiscation of meaning.

Language is a trap. As readers, it is our duty to refuse a passive acceptance of what it is we’re reading, and I think Noël’s text makes this abundantly clear. Chapter ten is the chapter most horrible, most inexcusable. And it is this chapter that cements the protagonist’s initiation, in his “imaginative” telling, a sexual rite of pure colonization. Noël considered the novel a sort of emptying out of the violence he experienced during the Algerian War, and as such, the primary example of what is Not Right in the world, placed in the novel, must be the colonial impulse. Thus, the “civilized” nature of Mona versus the “brute primitivism” of her Black servants and the Orientalist fetishization of Black women as sexual play things. Thus, the protagonist initiate passing beyond himself and back into a self that can do nothing but abuse power. There is no escape from language in a world predicated upon the abuse of power.

Throughout the novel, the protagonist peppers the text with a refrain of “I remember.” The trick here is that, clearly, he doesn’t. He escapes one system only to replace that system with another that puts him hierarchically no closer to a true inner experience. I think, if we must insist there is a message to the novel, that this is it. One most not replace one form of power with another. This is not the experience of mysticism, this is not the experience of true revolution, this is not inner experience, the stake. This is only a reality that must be transcended.

I’m looking for a long, immense, reasoned disruption of reality, for what we believe in is only the paltry part that must be exploded. The surface. (55)

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