The Scattered ‘I’

The Ambivalent Work of Paul de Wispelaere

The work of the Flemish writer, essayist and critic Paul de Wispelaere (1928-) is highly characteristic of the development of literature and literary criticism in Dutch during the second half of the twentieth century.

When he came on the scene in the mid-sixties, De Wispelaere was much impressed by both the French nouveau roman and the nouvelle critique which at that time was coming to the fore in the Paris-based group Tel Quel. Like the representatives of this nouvelle critique who were developing a European variant of the American New Criticism, De Wispelaere opted for a formal structuralist approach to literature. For him, literature was and still is primarily a question of form and language. But unlike the New Critics, whose main emphasis in their ‘close reading’ was on the study of poetic language and the ‘unity’ of the closed, complete literary work, De Wispelaere showed a great affinity with the ideologically charged criticism, or critique d’interprétation, which engages the entire personality of the critic. This he found in the multi-faceted example – of Roland Barthes. Like Barthes who in S/Z (1970) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973) proposed a way of reading that recognises the pluralism of a literary text, De Wispelaere also resisted looking for and finding the meaning of a text: he prefers openness and mutability, incompleteness and elusiveness.

De Wispelaere’s cultivation of ambivalence and contradiction is apparent not only in his analysis of literary texts, but also in his own creative work. Ambivalence can be seen as the key to his oeuvre: according to him uncertainty, doubt, is the great theme ‘that gnaws at the heart of modern literature’. In this respect he is a typical postmodern author of the late twentieth century whose themes are the fundamental unknowability of the world and the problematic relationship between language, literary work and reality.

Between garden and world

De Wispelaere’s interest in ‘modern’ forms (which from the 1980s onwards have been known as ‘postmodern’) was already evident from his editorship, from 1956 to 1962, of the Antwerp avant-garde magazine De Tafelronde, and afterwards of Komma (1965-1969), a magazine in which, paradoxically, the preference for formal analysis went hand-in-hand with an explicit appreciation of the egodocument and diary.

From the start, self-reflection has been central to De Wispelaere’s creative prose, as in the essay ‘The problematic “I”’ (‘Het problematische ik’ in the collection entitled With a critical eye (Met kritisch oog, 1967)) in which the critic describes the fragmentation of the ‘I’ in modern literature in the work of authors such as Amiel, Proust, Valéry, Gide, Benn, Pirandello and Sartre, using the myth of Narcissus. In the early creative works — the novella Scherzando ma non troppo (1959) and the novels Becoming an Island (Een eiland worden, 1963) and My Living Shadow (Mijn levende schaduw, 1965) — the main preoccupation was the elusive intertwining of living and writing. The main character of My Living Shadow attempts through writing to ‘excavate causes and connections from the past in the search for a pattern in which everything happened as it had to happen’. Writing is, and will remain, a form of living, of vital reflection: it is a unique exploration of consciousness which strives constantly to achieve the fullness of authentic existence and which is also constantly trying out new, modern forms. Eventually this quest resulted in a unique form of autobiographical prose in which various genres — storytelling, criticism and essay — flow harmoniously into one another and in which the search for authenticity of the scattered ‘I’ forms the thematic core.

This mixed form was first realised in Paul contra Paul (Paul-tegenpaul, 1970) which, as the title already indicates, has a basic structure that is fundamentally dualistic. In this diary of a writer, it is the duality of the writer’s personality which has become the central theme. His ‘ambivalent knowing’ also returns in subsequent purely creative work, for example in the well-known triptych Between Garden and World (Tussen tuin en wereld, 1979). My House is Nowhere (Mijn huis is nergens meer, 1982) and Letters from Nowhere Houses (Brieven uit nergenshuizen, 1986), in which the writer’s ‘in-between position’ is established using a number of typical romantic motifs. The need to come to terms with a world which forces itself aggressively upon the writer is set against the need expressed in earlier work to fold in on oneself, to isolate oneself or ‘become an island’. And modern society now stands opposed to the earlier narcissism as a focus of problems. From this point on, De Wispelaere explores the opposition between on the one hand a pure, paradisiacal existence (expressed through the image of the garden), where there is room for unfettered erotic experience with the adored young woman, and on the other hand the vulgar, uncultured, corrupt society which is destroying nature, or the natural, and silence with its technological inventions.

The alphabet tastes of ash

The masterly The Charred Alphabet. Diary 1990-1991 (Het verkoolde alfabet. Dagboek 1990-1991, 1992) is one of the high points of De Wispelaere’s work. It has the previously tested amalgam of critical-contemplative and storytelling elements, mixed with shreds of memories and autobiographical reflections. The diary in the strict sense of the word, the observation of what takes place in the writer’s surroundings and in his life, occupies a relatively small space in The Charred Alphabet. Direct perception in which, as ever with De Wispelaere, nature plays an important part, is linked by means of associations to remembered images from the near and distant past, but is also determined by numerous reading experiences, by critical consideration of the work of both others and himself. But the unfolding egodocument is still a means of preserving the integrity of the past, a form of ‘literary archeology’. The aim of the diary is ‘…to restore fragments of the disappearing world’. So the use of fragments which is part and parcel of the diary form is not a handicap, but contributes to the achievement of his aim. For the incompleteness of the fragment, or ‘the brief glint of shards’, indicates a higher unity, or expresses a desire for synthesis: ‘From the fracturing and impermanence which give rise to them (the fragments) and which are their natural seedbed, they express through their very form-energy a desire for permanence and unity.’

There is another respect in which fragmentary writing that expresses a desire for unity is a dual act: for the act of writing, as Gustave Flaubert had noted before, produces an image of writing itself. Writing is dual, ambivalent work: it is a means of creating distance, of looking back at oneself, in retrospect. This ambivalence is present formally in The Charred Alphabet in the doubling of ‘I’ with ‘he’: ‘I focus on him as he stares listlessly through the skylight of his study’. All the themes, motifs and characters from De Wispelaere’s earlier work are present in this diary: the women who have played a role in his life and who he has presented as characters in earlier novels; the many travel recollections connected with these figures and which are evoked through looking at photographs or repeating the journey. And the fascination with literature remains undiminished, the preferences well known: Rilke and Leiris, Flaubert, Brodsky, Frisch and the Flemish novelist Louis Paul Boon, about whom De Wispelaere has produced pioneering critical studies, alongside newer, more recently discovered writers. And there are the emotional outbursts protesting against the destruction of nature by the tasteless, vulgar, noisy activities of humans and their machines, set in counterpoint to the lyrical images of events in nature and the animal kingdom which are reproduced in their rich sensuous diversity. And here too, finally, are the familiar outbursts against stupid, hypocritical politicians, against the absurdity of some scientific experiments, and against the degradation of language through levelling-down in the mass media. This is where the book’s title comes from: ‘actually there are fewer and fewer words which you can savour, the alphabet is charred and tastes of ash’. The title also refers to a motto borrowed from Octavio Paz in which by means of ‘flaming resurrections / from the charred alphabet’ a paradisiacal, prelapsarian world is evoked which is still free from an awareness of time, of time passing and thus also from decline and mortality.

The book itself contains the suggestion that through language, through writing, a world can be called into being in which a regained unity is conceivable, in which a conciliatory synthesis of contradictions accepted as complementary is a possibility. In this sense, The Charred Alphabet can be called the diary of acceptance, of ultimate peace: a high point in the oeuvre of Paul de Wispelaere and in the genre of romanticised autobiography.

By Anne Marie Musschoot
Translated by Jane Fenoulhet

First published in The Low Countries, 2000