(translated by Norman Denney 1997)
A Semblance of Company ‘I am completely in the desert. I have never seen people nor do I imagine that another man is even possible. At that very moment an analogous creature appears in my field of vision, which, while not being me, is nevertheless the same principle in an alien body. Someone identical but alien nevertheless. And suddenly I experience, at precisely the same moment, a wondrous fulfillment and a painful division. Yet one revelation stands out above all the rest: I have become boundless, unpredictable to myself, multiple in possibilities through this alien, fresh but identical power, which approaches me as if I were approaching myself from the outside.’ (Witold Gombrowicz, ‘Diary', 1953) As a high school philosophy teacher still naïve enough to dream of writing the great novel, no surprise that I'm attracted to this great novelist of ideas who dreamed of being a philosophy teacher. Michel Tournier’s first novel, ‘Friday’, written when he turned forty-two after his failure to pass the French philosophy teacher’s exam, is a testament to that post-Freudian notion that no matter what obstacles block us from achieving our dreams, they will find a way of actualising themselves in an encrypted form, even if the dreamer no longer recognises them as their own. ‘Friday’ is a Robinsonade re-told from the perspective of 'the interior'; that is, not simply the private drama of what would be Crusoe’s imagined subjectivity, but in the unfolding of the virtual potential Defoe brought into being in 1719 with the creation of the 'island situation'. As such, Tournier’s ‘Friday’ functions as a kind of triumphant return of the repressed, or rather, as an exploration of the philosophical implications bound up in the possible world of Robinson Crusoe. Just as the island will ultimately allow Crusoe a life far more spiritually enriched than those available for the average enterprising European of Defoe’s day, so Tournier’s philosophical learning is given a more powerful expression in this novel form. Tournier, like his fictionalised Crusoe, will be compelled to relinquish his hold on the rational order of things and the central tension of the novel derives from the reader’s fear that any and all sense of narrative cohesion will sieve through their fingers . Despite the richness of the philosophical ideas explored, the novel itself is tremendously tight and lucid. Ideas are developed through concrete image and action rather than vague allusion and elliptical pronouncement. Thankfully then, this is not another self-reflexive novel about the instability of language, so much as a thought experiment attempting to prise us free of what Foucault once termed 'regimes of truth'. Today, it’s impossible to read ‘Friday’ apart from that passé genre of intertextual re-writes, along the lines of Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ (Jane Eyre), Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hagseed’ (Tempest), or, more closely, J. M. Coetzee’s alternative to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ‘Foe’. Yet while this genre often seems tailor-made for literature degrees, with their free-included metatextual commentary and obligatory liberal handwringing exercises over colonial guilt (as if this in itself wasn’t another form of condescension), Tournier’s early example of the genre seems unencumbered by these conventions. The figure of Friday is too mercurial to settle for any one stereotype or its opposite, and the novel's full title, not given in the English translation, ‘Friday, or the Pacific Limbo’, foreshadows Crusoe's final decision on what counts as a truly primitive existence. Crusoe's properly geological cultural appropriation will be rewarded through the surprise late appearance of an unlikely refugee from the white world, who, the readers can surmise, will serve as Crusoe’s legacy. Tournier was a childhood friend of Gilles Deleuze, and it is hard not to read this novel as a response to Deleuze’s first acknowledged publication, ‘Desert Islands’ (1953), an essay showing how ‘science makes mythology more concrete, and [how] mythology makes science more vivid’ and in the process, reworking Heidegger’s fourfold understanding of the Earth/Sky, Mortal/Divinities distinctions via the concept of ‘continental’ and ‘oceanic’ islands. Continental Islands are those which have drifted off the mainland and may stand in for our desire to break from current Western traditions, while oceanic islands spring up from a volcanic Earth of their own accord and represent the forces of natural creation. A desert island process might be said to combine these two movements of scission and verticality and Tournier’s island life will go through many metamorphoses in the process of its interactions with characters, ranging from a hyperbolic Protestant standing reserve for material resource, quite literally impregnated with Western values, to a surreal world of savage mythic divinities brought to bear through Friday’s Bartleby-like subtle refusals and secret corruptions. Even some of the most lyrical passages in the novel, where, for example, Crusoe climbs a tall tree to experience the sunlight directly on his face and flesh, seem to articulate an idea derived from Deleuze's essay: the possibility of a perfect objective understanding of a space made possible through the complete erasure of our profoundly false consciousness. Perhaps Deleuze’s ideas are furthered through Crusoe’s tree-top reflection where a ‘leaf is the lung of the tree, which is itself a lung, and the wind is its breathing.’ (193) Here, we have a figure for a machinic nature where the individuated Heideggerian entelechies of Earth (tree), Mortal (Crusoe), Sky (wind) and Divinities (life-giving sun) each transform the other in an endless concatenating sequence. Wind as the symbol of an immaterial conditioning force reaches its highest expression in Friday’s savage construction of an Aeolian harp, formed from the stretched innards of a fierce goat (which in turn served as a cipher for Crusoe himself). Its music, ‘was not a melody to pluck at the heart with its form and rhythm, but a single note, infinite in its harmonies, which took possession of the soul. A chord composed of countless elements in whose sustained power there was something fateful and implacable that held the listener spellbound.’ (198) As a memorable figure for the univocity of being, this is only matched by a famous passage in Deleuze’s ‘Difference and Repetition’, where there is ‘a single and same voice for the whole thousand-voiced multiple, a single and same Ocean for all the drops, a single clamour of Being for all the beings…’ Tournier’s ‘Friday’ and Deleuze’s ‘Difference and Repetition’ were both published in 1967, and it is charming to guess at who influenced who. Deleuze and Tournier’s respective uses of the orchid-wasp image of parallel evolution, however, wherein species adapt to each other in a mutually transformative fashion, find their source in Proust’s ‘Search’. In ‘Friday’, there is an admirable attempt to depict this non-human sexuality in a concrete manner through Crusoe’s use of the island, which comes across as either surreal or laughable depending on your temperament. Perhaps Tournier’s attempt to fuse the allegorical with the literal doesn't quite gell here, nor can it be said to in the final section of the novel where the interplay between third person limited and Crusoe’s first person journal becomes an uneasy alloy, as the latter ends up explaining the ramifications of the former in case the reader might have missed them. Yet there is no mention of such quibbles in Deleuze’s glowing review of the novel, ‘A Theory of the Other’ (1967). Instead, Deleuze will match Tournier’s fictional supplanting of his Desert Islands essay through a philosophical intensification of the novel's central components. In his autobiography, ‘The Wind Spirit’, Tournier describes his teenage philosophical engagements with a young Deleuze, where he would fire ‘off words like cotton or rubber balls, and [Deleuze] shot them back, hardened and heavy, like lead and steel cannon balls’: to read Tournier’s novel and then Deleuze’s response back to back, is to perceive something like this still in effect: both works are a model for what can be achieved through literary reflections of the highest order. Recommended reading for those of you who don’t want to leave the island.