Kant’s Monster: In the Labyrinth

The labyrinth, in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth,1 is mapped at the end where the novel is reduced (as photographs are) or miniaturized for final perusal. Though Robbe-Grillet’s essays2 described the phenomenological domain of the nouveau novelle with Sartrean immediacy, the novel’s schematic is essentially Kantian.

The picture on the wall mediates between the room of the middle-class pseudo-doctor/writer (the “inside”) and the soldier, etc. (the “story,” what appears of an “outside”). Outside the room it is raining. Inside, insulated from the rain or snow or wind, there appears not the fly but the shadow of the fly reflected onto the ceiling; not even the image of the fly but the image of the filament of the (concealed) lightbulb that produces the image.

The same schema was delineated in more detail at the beginning of the novel. Outside the room is the rain or the sun, the cold, the snow, wind, dust. Outside “you” walk. Shielding your eyes with your hand, you can see only a few yards ahead, where the wind and the sun shape shadows on the walls and pattern the dusty asphalt. Inside “I” am, alone, insulated from all that is outside. The patterns here are the traces of my own meandering back and forth among the few items of furniture I own; the dust in which a few objects mark their presence in time is emitted by these furnishings of mine. The passages “I” make between my room and the outside, where “you” or the soldier and the boy impress your gratuitous and futile intentions in the baffling snow, are broached by way of the picture on the wall. (See the initial description of the picture, its animation and its opening movement into story, 150ff.; see the story’s detour through it, 164-65.)

A kind of transcendence is figured by the viewer’s entrance to the picture: “[the] main entrance can be nowhere else but in the wall not shown in the print”; the invisible fourth wall is then described in hypothetical detail (164-65).

But genuine transcendence is denied. Again the end of the novel re-presents the case, recapitulating the novel’s preoccupation with perspective and objectivity as it “outlines” the fly’s shadow on the ceiling

. . . [passing] near the tiny black line which, remaining in the half-darkness beyond the circle of light and at a distance of four or five yards, is extremely difficult to make out: first a short, straight segment about half an inch long, followed by a series of rapid undulations, themselves scalloped … But the image grows blurred by trying to distinguish the outlines, as in the case of the inordinately delicate pattern of the wallpaper and the indeterminate edges of the gleaming paths …. (271-72)

The attempt to distinguish the image is thwarted or precluded owing to (1) the limited area of light (the circle) and, beyond it, limited light (half-darkness), (2) the blurring of the outline “by trying” to make it out, and (3) the intricacy of the task of making out objects of “inordinately delicate pattern” and “indeterminate edges.” The problem is subjectivity: the difficulty of “making out” the outlines of things, the distorting effects of “trying,” the incommensurate complexities of the image. This image of the indistinguishable image of this fly is repeated (with differences) throughout the novel; the first iteration gives the dilemma most fully (144-45) (here the problematic could be Plato’s before it becomes Kant’s):

A fly is moving slowly and steadily around the upper rim of the shade. It casts a distorted shadow on the ceiling in which no element of the original insect can be recognized: neither wings nor body nor feet; the creature has been transformed into a simple threadlike outline, not closed, a broken regular line resembling a hexagon with one side missing: the image of the incandescent filament of the electric bulb….

And two paragraphs below:

It is the same filament again, that of a similar or slightly larger lamp, which glows so uselessly at the crossroads…a gas light…that has been converted into an electric street light.

(It is in this converted street light that we “see” the soldier for the first time.)

The “image” of the fly, available for “outlining,” is the reflection of the mechanism of the medium of lighting, not the shadow of the “original” fly itself. The problem of seeing is more than a problem of a flawed receiving apparatus; it is more fundamentally the problem of access denied.

The picture on the wall provides access—but how much? and to what? What is the nature of the work of art?

Or is the picture a work of art? The novel asks and begs the question.

The picture, in its varnished wood frame, represents a tavern scene. It is a nineteenth-century etching, or a good reproduction of one(150).

The “picture” “represents” a “scene.” How many removes? “Picture” is more photographic than artistic; “represents” is one remove from “presents”; a “scene” is not a tavern, but already stands at one artistic remove from one. This “scene” is removed in time by a century, removed from original expression by process (etching), or perhaps it is a copy, indicating no original hand at all.

The working of this work of art is similarly compromised. Though the work seems to bring its subjects—the bartender, the colorful groups of drinkers, the soldiers and the boy—into more than pictorial presence (the people—amid all the secondary description of “arrangements” and “attitudes” and “gestures” and “expressions… frozen by the drawing, suspended, stopped short”—are, as in the Laocoön, giving a dramatic sense of violence and noise: e.g., “Everywhere hands rise, mouths open, heads turn; fists are clenched, pounded on tables, or brandished in mid-air”), and though it soon turns the soldier out into the street and the snow, into whatever sense of “outside” and of “reality” the story provides, it never or rarely approximates “life” or even a “representation” of life, but, like a work of mechanical drafting, “outlines” a series of still pictures or “scenes.”

Still the Kantian paradigm, a little ragged, shrunken, and warped, is essentially intact. The doctor-author, who from the beginning calls the outside inaccessible, copies what he does have access to, “scenes”—what he always already has seen: scene (note the effect of variable verb tense throughout the novel). Besides, he does get outside himself, has gotten outside, via the picture and returns/has returned with a few objective things, e.g., the contraband packet and the dagger. In Robbe-Grillet’s “outline” the Kantian access to phenomena is secondary and limited at best, often distorted, reduced, or oversimplified; but the work of “art,” such as it is, is still working. Of course, the picture-on-the-wall figures the novel itself with its removes, denials, limitations.

The method of the novel is sketched at the end, as it is/has been again and again throughout the book in what I shall still call figures. Here it is drawn in a few lines: the doctor-critic-writer, figuring the author and the reader, is trying to trace (thus, the passage says, is blurring) the outlines of things (of what appears, phenomena), patterns, paths. This passage sketches out what can be sketched: the patterns of the wallpaper, the paths in the dust on the floor, the topography of the novel beyond: “the dark vestibule where the umbrella is leaning against the coat rack, then, once past the entrance door, the series of long hallways, the spiral staircase, the door to the building with its stone stoop, and the whole city behind me” (272): i.e., the labyrinth: the ways and limits of experience. The limits define (as labyrinth) the whole: the novel attempts to outline (sketch out) the limitations of subjectivity.

The limits of subjectivity are phenomenological. What appears (what “is”) merely appears. “It” can be described “objectively” only as its effects can be traced, measured, compared. Geometry is the tool, chartography, photography. At best seeing sees, as we have noted, its own method.

The method of composition of the narrative is described by its own figures, each of them repeated (with a difference) many times, each an example and a figure at once, shapes that objects leave in the dust:

On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for a while… by small objects subsequently removed whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated as though by a rag (141).

Or the marks that glasses leave on the tablecloth:

The glass has left several circular marks on the red-and-white checked oilcloth, but almost all are incomplete, showing a series of more or less closed arcs, occasionally overlapping, almost dry in some places, in others still shiny with the last drops of liquid leaving a film over the blacker deposit already formed, while elsewhere the rings are blurred by being set too close together or even half obliterated by sliding, or else, perhaps, by a quick wipe of a rag. (160)

The objects’ outlines and the glass’s rings mark directly both the fact and the outlines of the object, and indicate something of the movement, repetition, and duration of its having-been in each place. Thus they give an incomplete description and do not interpret, repeating only the definition of the interface where the object is/was in contact with the table, hinting little about the object’s purposes or uses, appearance or constitution. They give an inadequate, inaccurate indication and measure of the object’s “existence” because time and dust (and snow) and sliding and sleeves and rags are always erasing or effacing the mark. Yet these traces, if nothing else, are observable, measurable, re-markable.

The narrative defines (“outlines”) its own method again in its literary analysis of the “rendering” of the cafe scene in the picture on the wall, mentioned above:

The contrast between the three soldiers and the crowd is further accentuated by a precision of line, a clarity in rendering…. The artist has shown them with as much concern for detail and almost as much sharpness of outline as if they were sitting in the foreground. But the composition is so involved that this is not apparent at first glance. Particularly the soldier shown full face has been portrayed with a wealth of detail that seems quite out of proportion to the indifference it expresses….shadows that accentuate the features without, on the other hand, indicating the slightest individual characteristic…(152-53).

Against the artist’s precision of line, clarity in rendering, concern for detail, wealth of detail, sharpness of outline—i.e., involvement (labyrinth) of composition—the commentary contrasts the indifference expressed, the lack of characterization of the slightest individuality. This ironic observation, with which a skeptical reader might have dismissed the work in former times—much ado about nothing—sketches the reduced-Kantian or revised-Sartrean paradigm which Robbe-Grillet has described and defended in his essays.

A concomitant feature of the method is its technique of depiction—not mimesis but mime; not representation, after “life,” but “outline” or drawing after scenes, frames, still shots or pictures. One salient feature of the method is the perspective, taken regularly, as from outside a picture, restricted from perspectives of inside or other sides, restricted to the right-left, foreground-background relations available to the spectator. The novel seems to delineate subjectivity itself as reflective of reflection, as always already afterward and secondary (or tertiary, etc.), as a series of sketches of a series of snapshots—or of separate frames that comprise a movie—taken or compiled by the mind or eye. In For a New Novel Robbe-Grillet remarked that cinema, even when its intention is to present images for the purpose of evoking “meaning,” has the power to expose, instead, just what it presents, in its “reality”—“the gestures themselves, the movements, and the outlines” (20).

Perspective is emphasized in seeming incidental ways: as the diminishing of images with distance (193, 247), the appearance and movement of shadows on the left or right (196), special effects of illumination in combination with darkness (192), and so on. More fundamentally, the plot (or anti-plot) of the novel extends the perspectival method. What-happens appears as descriptions of “settings” and “scenes,” occasionally of fragments of events, always momentary and incomplete. If the “story” were rearranged in a chronology, it would be seen to consist of separate moments, or places, described (scenes in the cafe, the insulated room upstairs, the woman’s apartment); of a few events, recounted as a series of pictures (trudging through the snow, finding or following the boy). There are a number of exceptional storylike interludes—the account given in the voice of the doctor at the end, the soldier assisting his comrade and the receiving of the box, the motorcycle episode, for example. If the attempt, then, were made to reassemble these pieces sequentially, gaps would separate the scenes and the segments of sparse events.

But the more striking feature of the design would be the overlap among these fragments, the blurring of one with another, the indeterminability of one among others. The scene given in the picture on the wall, for example, is reconstituted again and again, as picture, as event, as memory, as dream—as repetition with a difference (a motif of the novel). The persistent, laborious, futile search the soldier makes for the crossroads—the signal, the promised father, the assignation—recurs in a monotony of feverish frustration but a variety of detail and consequence. The apartment facades, the gutters, the disappearing paths of pedestrians and of the boy repeat themselves in an interminable geometry that leads to or past the same or perhaps a different door ajar, e.g., the familiar hallway or occasionally another one, the stairs with the landings, the swinging electric lightbulbs, and sometimes the woman, the photograph, the boy, sometimes the lame man. The red curtains in the woman’s room repeat those of the room on the top floor where “I” write the narrative. The three cries “Halt!” occur in the motorcycle episode and also on the same streets and by the same occupying military when the doctor risks moving the soldier’s effects to his own room at the end. And so on. A maze of sameness in which the chance of the difference—the meeting, the return, the deed, the consequent—drives the engine of human repetition, drives the “story” and the reading of the story.

The plot is technically cubist, it could be claimed; something like picture, something like story, has been chopped up and reassembled; time, then, has been chopped up and reassembled along with other rational expectations such as cause-effect and unity or continuity of place. The new composition does not merely “violently juxtapose” discontinuous fragments; it connects them, and in such a way that they could not be disconnected again without violence to what has become integral to the narrative, the movement from one “trace” to another. The “story” (or anti- story) is routed from scene to scene not according to a chronology or a geography, and not only by a collage of subjective associations or by dream or nightmare or hallucination, but also, regardless of any logic of time or space, according to the caprice or genius of the moment of authorship or penmanship, by tour de force (180, 184, 261-62, e.g.), for we are under no illusion of representational “reality”; the novel is situated among and experiments with the many removes that separate it from “life.” The “connections” are not rational but narrative, in that it is only in narrative (i.e., in perspective) that the objects, people, and occurrences stand and stand together or near each other.

Thus repetition works to blur the “outline” of the plot: the scenes or episodes, given in short fragments which intersect each other, recombined with irreversible connectors, demand that the reader, vying for coherence, must match detail with detail to decide what s/he is “seeing,” when it takes place, and how it relates to the rest. In fact, reading is often reduced to a childish if not absurd combing of the text for the distinguishing detail that will place the scene—e.g., is the serial number on the soldier’s collar green or red? is the child holding the box, or the soldier? is there a glass on the table before the soldier or not? is the child the same child? This last question is raised, answered in the negative (223), and re-solved (conditionally) in the affirmative (269). Thus repetition-with-difference describes a reduction of a traditional theme as well. Things come to nothing or not much, to the same.

In the Labyrinth, like other works of its time, delineates what remains or occurs after the loss or degradation or transformation of every element that lingers from the tradition. With the demise of metaphysical or Enlightenment idealism, themes of the hero, honor, fatherhood (Godhood), Christhood (brotherhood), not to mention notions of identity (“name”), individuality, and even chronology (spatiality remains available/accessible and [or as] rational) are redefined as sparely and precisely as the reduced specifications require.

One familiar thematic pattern that marks the work as modernist-postmodernist is the Christ or good Samaritan-neighbor figure. The nameless soldier gives his life (note the pain in his side, 240) for someone he “barely knew,” not a brother or a friend, no one he loved. The nameless boy and the nameless woman and the nameless doctor and even the dissenting nameless “lame” man save the soldier’s life, at least temporarily, for similarly disinterested (or unknowable) motives. An essential difference in the pattern is that distance has displaced love, beginning with the pseudo-doctor-author’s separation and insulation from the “outside” except by the limited if not illusory means of the picture on his wall. The relations among characters in the “story” (anticharacters in an anti-story of anti-self sacrifice) are not apparent, nor relations among their “stories” or motivations or meanings, if any (the point is moot; the reader is distanced too, has insufficient access to any of these to make a judgment). Only two “characters” are given definite identity—if names and addresses give identification—and these characters have no importance in themselves and take no part in the story’s “action” (anti-plot) except to motivate it. They are the soldier who gives to the protagonist soldier (anti-hero) the box containing his “effects” and then dies, and his typical girlfriend, whose letters figure prominently among these effects. The names and addresses of these non-characters are spelled out clearly on the envelopes that contain the “ordinary,” “conventional,” “formulaic” letters (love letters) that the girl wrote to the soldier. The doctor’s inspection of the soldier’s packet at the end discovers and easily dismisses as indeterminable or inconsequential these “proofs” of a concrete objective motivating the soldier and the story. Along with love and relation, names and addresses (the literal function of language) have become ineffectual.

These diminished themes are, of course, the themes of our time; in Robbe-Grillet they marked and marked out an experiment in the nouveau nouvelle, widely appropriated and imitated and by now assimilated into “the tradition.” But I must add an American note of comparison. The causes and effects readily “traced” in and conveniently diagrammed by this novel are differently (and not indifferently) “traced” in an earlier American work, Faulkner’s similarly labyrinthine novel Absalom, Absalom!. Indeed, many of the innovations and experiments in In the Labyrinth seem to respond directly to those of Faulkner’s novel. Both works experiment with narrative and time, with art (cubism, impressionism), with themes of fatherhood and genealogy, of loss of authority and “truth,” of indeterminacy, diminishment. A comparison of the attempts and the achievements of the two works would show a fundamental difference of philosophical intention and effect, the essential difference between works we call “modern” and works we call “postmodern.”

Take, for example, the matter of subjectivity. In Faulkner’s novel “subjective” passion and meaning are not denied or renounced; it is they that are schematized—not from the “outside” but from the labyrinthine recesses of what cannot even be called an “inside” since it is the vast complexity of the only “side” available: story. But the story is not conventional (until later in the century when such experiments with “story” became the norm).

Like Robbe-Grillet’s narrative, Faulkner’s has no access to “fact,” “objectivity.” Faulkner’s is a multiplex of stories, always partial and speculative, often contradictory—memory and hearsay intermingling with inventions and lies. Three generations of accumulated re-creations of “story” interact—interplay, intercourse—to create continuously the changing, interchanging substance and event of story.3 In Faulkner the medium of “story” is primarily voice, not vision (optics)—voice that does not eschew “subjectivity” but expresses the human experience about as far as it has ever been articulated.

Though Faulkner’s novel is pessimistic, it is not nihilistic. In Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth, on the other hand, though the novel struggles against it, is itself that very struggle, the dominating, conflicting image of the novel is this one:

The footprints of the straggling pedestrian… appear one by one in the smooth, fresh snow into which they already sink at least a half an inch. And behind him, the snow immediately begins covering up the prints of his hobnail boots, gradually reconstituting the original whiteness of the trampled area, soon restoring its granular, velvety, fragile appearance, blurring the sharp crests of its edges, making its outlines more and more fluid, and at last entirely filling the depression, so that the difference in level becomes indistinguishable from that of the adjoining areas, continuity then being re-established so that the entire surface is again smooth, intact, untouched. (181)

Kant’s “romantic” thought engendered its Frankenstein.

  1. In Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy & In the Labyrinth, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, 1965.

  2. For A New Novel, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, 1965.

  3. I have written a study of time and narrative in that novel, Absalom, Absalom!: “Fluid Cradle of Events (Time),” The Faulkner Journal, summer 1993).