Le Roi des AULNES: Myth as Fiction, Fiction as Myth
Florida State University
The very first pages of Le roi des aulnes invite the reader into an mythic universe, replete with mystery and allegedly profound truths:
I do think there’s something magical about me, I do think there is a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me with what happens in general, and enabling my particular history to bend the course of things in its own direction. . . . I do believe I issued from the mists of time . . . the dizzying antiquity of my origins explains my supernatural power. . . . Old as the world, and as immortal, I have none but putative parents and adopted children. (Tournier 3-4)
Myth may well be eternal, but hopefully so too is the memory of Auschwitz; and the juxtaposition in Le roi des aulnes of Abel Tiffauges’s mythic musings with the story of his life, which details a bizarre interest in carrying little boys on his shoulders, an obsession with cosmic signs he is forever finding about him, and ultimately collaboration with the Nazis, makes for very strange and troubling reading. Jean Améry and Saul Friedländer were troubled enough by the novel to suggest that it constituted an implicit defense of Nazism, and while this charge has been denied by others, including Tournier himself, the aesthetic dimension of Le roi des aulnes cannot be studied in isolation from the ethical questions it raises. One cannot divorce a fascination with Abel’s conviction that one day “I . . . will spread the great wings I keep under my garage owner’s disguise and . . . fly among the stars” (32) from a very exact awareness of what he does while still on earth.
It is a powerful sense of quotidian reality that pervades Michael Worton’s incisive account of the workings of myth in Le roi des aulnes. Worton focuses upon Abel Tiffauges’s highly selective use of myth: “Most of the evocations are of but one aspect of various mythic figures” (300). Abel chooses the part of the mythic prototype he wants, when and where he wants; he distorts the mythic figure to suit his purposes. At the same time, this arbitrary recourse to myth is constantly offset, as Worton emphasizes, by the novel’s meticulous attention to historical detail which works against the mythmaking process. Abel Tiffauges’s selective use of myth, as well as his refusal to confront directly the historical situation in which he finds himself, are both typical of a mentality that Roland Barthes ascribes to the bourgeoisie.
In his The Zero Degree of Writing Barthes remarks that “it is there where History is refused that it acts most clearly” (8, my translation). His subject here is literary language, but later he was to apply his thesis that history cannot be denied to what is often considered the most ahistorical of phenomena, the world of myth. In Mythologies, and specifically in the essay “Myth Today” Barthes offers a theory of the structure of myth and its relationship to social class.
One day Barthes is sitting in a barbershop when someone gives him a copy of Paris-Match. On the cover is a photo of a black African soldier saluting the French flag. Using ideas borrowed from Saussure’s semiological system, Barthes will expose the mythic subtext contained within this seemingly innocuous picture.
For Saussure language (langue) is divided into three elements. The signifier is the acoustic image, which is mental; the signified is the concept expressed by the sound, and the sign is the relation between the concept and the image (the word, for instance) (113). Barthes calls this system “the language-object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system” (115, emphasis in original). Mythic parlance is “metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first” (115, emphasis in original). Metalanguage takes the literal meaning of object-language and builds its mythic significance upon it. Barthes clarifies this distinction by slightly altering the termi-nology. In myth the signifier becomes the form, the sig-nified the concept, and the sign becomes the signification.
Turning back to the photo, the form is the black soldier saluting, the concept is something akin to the idea that everyone is equal and loyal in the French empire, regard-less of color, and the signification is the presence of the concept through the form (116). What is implicit in this analysis of the photo is that the myth it projects is false, but also powerful because it reassures and justifies a social group’s disinterest in exploring the reality of French colonialism.
The function of the form, as Barthes explains it, is not to deny literal meaning, i.e. the black soldier is a black soldier, but to hold that meaning in abeyance, “the form does not suppress meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance” (118). When signifier becomes form, the literal meaning becomes less important; it is no longer the focus of attention.
The concept, for its part, “is in no way abstract” (119). It takes over the history “which drains out of the form” (118), and creates “a whole new history which is implanted in the myth” (119). The concept contains knowledge, but of a special sort. It is “confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations . . . it is not at all an abstract, purified essence; it is a formless, unstable nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function” (119). Barthes insists that “the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated” (119, emphasis in original); the concept derived from the form serves to fulfill a particular function. In the case of the soldier the concept becomes a justification of French imperialism.
In the correlation between the form and the concept, the two entities are at once independent and associated: “However paradoxical it may seem, myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear” (121, emphasis in original). This means that the form and concept have a constantly shifting relationship; depending upon the mythmaker’s needs, the form can cease to be a mythic form, and function just as a word or an object. When this occurs, the concept disappears. However, in different circumstances the form can reassume its function and the mythic process reconstitutes itself. In Le roi des aulnes tanks appear on several occasions. Depending upon Abel’s state of mind, they can merely be tanks, or examples of “the overturning of the phoria by malign inversion” (292, emphasis in original).
Just as in Saussure’s system the third term (the sign) is merely the association of the first two, in the mythic framework “the signification is the myth itself” (121), the end product of the union of the form and the concept. However, since myth is a double system that builds its meta-language meaning on object-language, “the signifi-cation of myth is constituted by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternatively the meaning of the signifier and its form, a language-object and a metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness. This alternation is . . . gathered up in the concept, which uses it like an ambiguous signifier, at once intellective and imaginary, arbitrary and natural” (123). Myth comes into being when the mythmaker requires it.
At this point Barthes touches upon the moral impli-cations of the mythic mechanism, and compares myth to a limitless alibi: “Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi. . . . The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning . . . there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place” (123, emphasis in original). Barthes illustrates this point through the analogy of his looking out of a car window. Depending upon his focus, he can see either the passing landscape or the window pane. There is a similar situation in Le roi des aulnes. Abel is staring out of a casement window at the German landscape. Initially all he sees are scenes of daily life “a bit of road . . . an old woman pulling a baby along on a sled” (179), but the clarity of these images incites his mythic consciousness, and suddenly: “Now he knew what it was he had come to see so far to the northeast: in the cold and penetrating hyperborean light, all symbols shone with unparalleled brilliance” (179). Part of the enormous appeal of myth for Abel Tiffauges is that it permits him to pass at will from object-language to metalanguage.
Barthes (124) maintains that myth is “defined by its intention” (justification of French imperialism) much more than its “literal sense” (the black soldier saluting). Yet the literal sense is always there, and constitutes a challenge to the myth. For this reason myth must have an “imperative, buttonholing character” (124) that forces its presence and meaning upon the audience. Whereas in a language the sign is arbitrary—it is only by a linguistic convention that English speakers say “tree” instead of “arbre”—the mythical signification, at least to someone like Abel, is never arbitrary (126). Its meaning is moti-vated in accordance to the requirements of the mythmaker.
For Roland Barthes myth is a complicated and volatile structure where the mythic level is grafted onto the literal and can be replaced by the latter according to the whim of the mythmaker. The form, which is the myth’s first stage, has always the possibility of being downgraded to the sig-nifier should circumstances so demand. Myth therefore demands a certain collusion with its inventor, an all too willing suspension of disbelief, if it is to be effective. The mythmaker invents the signification by supplying the appropriate content to the form and the concept. This under-standing of myth, which emphasizes human rather than divine origins while accounting at the same time for myth’s manipulative aspects, will help expose Abel Tiffauges’s cosmic aspirations for the self-deceptions they are.
There are numerous mythic figures mentioned in Le roi des aulnes (Nestor, St. Christopher, Telamon), as well as geographic locations invested with mythic import (Canada, Germany), but the principal mythic referant in the novel, the one that dominates the others, is the phoria.
On a literal level the phoria is anodyne enough to figure in a Hallmark card: it involves a man carrying a child, usually on his shoulders. However, as Abel describes it, this otherwise innocuous experience, seems to be sexual in nature: “It was then something swooped down on me of unbearable and heart-rending sweetness. I was struck by a bolt of benediction from on high. My eyes fixed on the limp body in my arms, on one side the gaunt bloodstained face under its tufts of brown hair, and on the other the thin pair of knees and the heavy boots dangling clumsily in the air . . . ‘I’d never have believed,’ I said, ‘that to carry a child was such a wonderful thing!’ ” (78-79). By writing “seems to be sexual in nature” I am not indulging in some form of discretion. The meaning of Abel’s existence is inextricably tied up, at least in his own mind, with the significance of the phoria, and it is precisely this meaning that his mythic meanderings only serve to obscure. In Le roi des aulnes it is less important to know whether or not the phoria is sexual than to realize that the mythic connotations Abel ascribes to it only obscure whatever the phoria might mean.
In the mythic schema the act of carrying a child becomes the form to which Abel quickly adds the concept: “a shaft of light suddenly falls on my past, present and, who knows, perhaps my future. For the fundamental idea of portage, of phoria, is also found in the name of Christopher, the giant Child-Bearer; . . . and yet again it is embodied in the cars to which I relunctantly give the best of myself, but which even in their triviality are nonetheless instruments for the bearing of men, anthro-pophoric and therefore phoric par excellence. . . . This series of revelations is making my eyes smart” (80).
In a manner that conforms to Barthes’s explanation of the concept, the knowledge here is confused. Something significant appears to have been said, but what it is, is never clear. The carrying of the child is always present, but its precise meaning is deformed by the process of myth-making. The concept’s “unity and coherence” which is “due to its function” (Barthes 119) exists in Abel’s mind where the myth’s function is to exalt the cosmic at the expense of the concrete. He has appropriated this interpre-tation to serve his own purposes.
The signification is the phoria itself. The turnstile effect Barthes describes is always there, since on one level all Abel does is carry boys, but as the novel progresses, the notion of “alibi” becomes increasingly important. As Abel rides through the Prussian countryside collecting boys for the Nazi training school, the napola, he imagines himself fulfilling his vaguely articulated destiny. In fact he is part-icipating in the collection of cannon fodder for Hitler’s war machine. Abel is aware of this, but nonetheless allows his “phoric” obligation to obscure a true sense of what he is doing. The greater significance of his activities constantly “outdistances” the literal import of his hunting boys. As the Reich collapses, his searches become more frenzied in much the same way as the Nazis redoubled the slaughtering of Jews as the war came to an end. The “imperative” of his mythic destiny parallels the Nazi madness.
This occurs despite ample warnings of the terrible error Abel is making. At one point the Nazi chief of the napola, Stephan Raufeisen, discusses tanks with his young charges: “A tank is deaf and half blind” (341). This instrument of destruction, one of the main causes of death when the Russians arrive at the napola, has a quite personal parallel with Abel himself who, as he explained earlier, is “slightly deaf, slightly shortsighted” (21). In addition, the tank, which carries children on its back is a mirror image of Abel. Ostensibly a great decipherer of signs, Abel nevertheless fails to make these connections.
The tank also provides an example of myth’s ability to obscure in the guise of clarifying. Abel is troubled to see the boys riding on the tanks as if they were toys. In his system, children should carry toys, but here he has the opposite. This enigma is, however, quickly resolved by applying a new concept to the form of carrying: “I now touch for the first time on what is probably a pheno-menon of the first importance: the overturning of the phoria by malign inversion” (292). The malign inversion is the opposite of the benign inversion which “consists in re-establishing the meaning of the values that malign inver-sion has previously overturned” (74). Even though the two concepts are at antipodes, they are related and hence part of the same system. Myth never falters, it simply adjusts.
Myth is Abel’s most precious value, and that is the reason it can survive any confrontation with truth. The self-evident means practically nothing to Abel. When he picks up the body of a boy killed by a mine, he experiences “phoric ecstasy” (344) while noting that the “headless body weighed three or four times its live weight” (344). This, of course, is an allusion to one of Tiffauges’s alter-egos, St. Christopher, who staggered under the increasing heaviness of the Child Jesus he carried across a stream. But Christopher’s efforts led to his exaltation and salvation. Eventually his soul rose to heaven. Abel’s fate is the contrary; at the novel’s end, after having contributed to the deaths of hundreds of boys, he sinks into the mud.
In the final pages of Le roi des aulnes Abel’s mythic universe would appear to dissolve. He discovers, through the revelations of a Jewish boy, the full horror of the Nazi experience. He learns, among other things, that his mythical Canada has its equivalent in the Reich. Canada is the name given to the treasure house at Auschwitz where the Nazis stored the belongings of murdered Jews. The slang name for Auschwitz, Anus Mundi, likewise provides a bitter commentary and corrective to his own musings about the anal personality which he had associated both with horses and himself. The Germany he claimed to understand so well, turns out to be quite different from what he had imagined. Reality contradicts Abel Tiffauges on every level, but contradiction is no obstacle to myth, and as Colin Davis indicates, there is nothing about the novel’s end that suggests Abel has abandoned his mythmaking. Commenting on Abel’s rather confused lumping together of gypsies and Jews, and himself as an Abel set off against the Nazi Cains, Davis remarks: “The assertion of mythological fraternity between Jew and gypsy is at best problematical, at worst nonsense; and the invocation of Cain and Abel is of little help in explaining the historical circumstances which made the death camps possible. . . . Myth provides a powerful means of making sense; but here as elsewhere. . . . Tiffauges’s mythological grid seems inadequate to his historical material” (48).
Abel’s mythological grid is inadequate because it is much more rooted in his social origins than he wishes to believe. His mother was a gypsy (31), but that fact has no interest for him, “I never had the curiosity to look into her family background” (31). His father is a greater, if nega-tive influence. A “cold, taciturn presence” (64), incapable of expressing emotion, he embodies at least one trait of of France’s petite bourgeoisie to the point of caricature. A classic quarrel with his brother over money results in neither having spoken to one another for years, and when the brother hires Abel, “The warmth of his welcome owed something to his desire to annoy my father” (64).
Abel’s attitude toward his girlfriend, Rachel, “that little Hebrew shepherd’s head” (8), reflects the passive anti-Semitism of his social class: “She was a Jewess, and I had occasion to notice that all her clients were Jewish too; the explanation being the confidential nature of the documents she dealt with” (7).
Perhaps more than anything else, Abel’s willingness to be led marks him as a member of a social group which, consciously or unconsciously, knows its role is to follow. “Following” characterizes Abel’s activities throughout the novel. Initially Abel follows Nestor, his mentor at St. Christopher’s. He follows Mme Eugénie to witness the ghastly execution of Franz Weidmann, and he docilely marches off to war, mindless of the issues involved. In Germany he follows his German captors and ultimately the orders he receives from the Nazis in the napola. Of course, all of these examples can be explained away as part of his mythic journey of self-discovery, but, the mythic framework aside, what Abel most often does is just follow.
Although Abel Tiffauges displays traits typical of a subset of a specific social class, he remains largely obli-vious to any class identity. For Roland Barthes this lack of class consciousness bespeaks the triumph of the bour-geoisie in France, a class whose influence and values are so pervasive that even those like Abel who believe them-selves in opposition to the status quo, nonetheless reflect, at times in parodied form, the values of “their betters.”
Principal among these values is the transformation of the historical and contingent into the eternal and unchan-geable: “The status of the bourgeoisie is particular, historical: man as represented by it is eternal. The bour-geois class has precisely built its power on technical, scientific progress, on an unlimited transformation of nature: bourgeois ideology yields in return an unchan-geable nature” (Barthes 141-42). The petit bourgeois, according to Barthes, is, despite its posturings of oppo-sition, really no different, because it too accepts “the immo-bility of Nature” (149). Abel Tiffauges reflects the confu-sion typical of the lower middle-class by changing what is historical and contingent into what is natural and eternal.
Barthes believes he can sketch the rhetorical forms of bourgeois myth. Of the seven figures he mentions, with some modifications at least six provide a remarkable reflection of Abel’s behavior patterns. The first he calls innoculation which “consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceive its principal evil” (150). Abel’s recourse to inoculation is particularly apparent when he is a prisoner of war. He excoriates the Nazi scientists, Göring, the Reich and the ideology of the napola; but by doing so he creates the impression that, despite his collaboration with the Nazi war effort, somehow he is not really part of what these people and institutions are doing. The very contempt he expresses serves to lessen his sense of his own involvement. Also, the distancing he hopes to achieve through expressions of scorn only hide, from himself at least, his begrudging admiration. When, for example, he first arrives at Rominten, he thinks he is “entering a magic circle as the protégé of a magician who, though minor, was recognized by the spirits of the place” (195-96). Göring is the magician.
The second figure is the privation of History: “In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of beautiful servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy the beautiful object without wondering where it comes from. Or even better: it can only come from eternity . . .” (151). History, as a daily unfolding of events that must be dealt with in their particularities is a source of annoyance to Abel. His work is not that of a humble car mechanic, or obscure French citizen, his true vocation is to be like his friend Nestor, a decipherer of signs, since “All is sign” (5). History as such does not matter; it is merely the vehicle through which the eternal unfolds the destiny awaiting Abel Tiffauges.
Barthes offers the following description of identifi-cation: “The petit bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. . . . How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home” (151-52). The Other is strange and different, someone whose similarity with oneself is denied or severely qualified. To the extent that the Other is at all like oneself, it is only as a caricature: a spectacle or a clown. Abel Tiffauges, whose myopia is figurative as well as literal, attempts to enact this denial by distancing himself from the Nazis around him.
Tautology, “this verbal device which consists in defining like by like (Drama is drama)” (152) is another rhetorical form of bourgeois myth. In its pristine form it cannot be found in Le roi des aulnes, but there is its near equivalent in phrases like “the overturning of the phoria by malign inversion” which Abel utters, as previously noted, when he sees boys riding tanks. Abel must maintain the phoria as something good, yet what he sees is bad. Rather than accept the simple fact there is something wrong with his notion of phoria, he creates another concept, the malign inversion, which permits him to maintain that the phoria is still the phoria, even if circumstances suggest that for the moment it is not.
The value in mentioning potentially tautological ele-ments in Abel’s language is that it highlights the self-enclosed verbal as well as mythological universe wherein he lives. He cannot be wrong; everything he says and does must be right: “one takes refuge in tautology . . . when one is at a loss for an explanation” (Barthes 152). His openness to signs, for example, is merely another way of supplying confirmation for what he wants to believe. His world is, according to him, replete with great and startling truths, but, unbeknown to Abel, these truths can only be found at the expense of knowledge. As Barthes puts it: “In tautology . . . one kills rationality because it resists one” (152).
Closely associated with the tautological aspect of Tiffauges’s thinking is his susceptibility to what Barthes calls the statement of fact: “Myths tend toward proverbs. Bourgeois ideology invests in this figure interests which are bound to its very essence: universalism, the refusal of any explanation, an unalterable hierarchy of the world” (154). Consider Abel’s preference for Germany, “A black and white country . . . a white page covered with black signs” (167) over France: “. . . here I’m always face to face with a significant reality which is almost always clear and distinct” (260). Such a statement, a simplistic and silly opinion for the uninitiated, is a statement of fact for Abel. It is an arbitrary assemblage of wild conjectures elevated by the speaker to the level of truth.
Abel Tiffauges prefers quantity over quality and in this respect he illustrated the rhetorical form Barthes calls “the quantification of quality” which involves “reducing any quality to a quantity” (153). Abel quantifies little boys: “To have only one child is not to have any. To lack one is to lack them all” (87). His love of photographing children is part of his collector’s mania: “. . . each photograph raises its subject to a degree of abstraction that auto-matically confers on it all its generality, so that every child photographed is a thousand children possessed” (104). The ultimate quantifying occurs in the napola where Abel, assuming the role of the departed Dr. Blaettchen, compiles elaborate lists of the boys’s physical traits.
In Le roi des aulnes Abel’s mythic consciousness had as little origin in the mists of time as the Third Reich had any serious antecedents in German history. Both are concoctions that reflect in varying degrees social class, personal frustrations and imaginations unfettered by large doses of knowledge. However, the Nazis and Abel were both creators of sorts; Abel created a mythic universe with himself at the center, and the Nazis rearranged the past and invented a thousand year future in which the mythical, Aryan race became the culmination of Western history. What characterizes the Nazi mentality, as well as Abel’s own, is the conviction that what they do is part of an inevitable destiny, where nothing happens by chance.
Abel Tiffauges is forever confident that everything which happens is predetermined, and it must be said that often in the novel things appear to work out as if in a pre-ordained fashion. St. Christopher burns down at an opportune moment; the beginning of the war saves him from prison, and his desire to go to Kaltenborn is eventually fulfilled. But what is destiny to him, can seem like coincidence to the less mythically minded; and an incident recounted in the novel appears to tip the scales in favor of the latter possibility. At practically the center of the novel, there is a description of the efforts of the ridiculous and despised Prof. Essig to shoot a stag on Goering’s reserve at Rominten. This man is a fool, disliked even by the Nazis, but custom dictates that as a guest he be given the right to hunt a stag. Very carefully, the least attractive animal is chosen for him by the master forester. Essig fires away, but his rounds of buckshot do little except chew up the landscape. Then he shots a single shot. It too misses the old stag, but, careening into the bushes, it manages to kill the most beautiful animal in the preserve (219). What had guided Essig’s bullet was blind, stupid chance, the one element that has no place in either the Nazi system or in Abel’s own. It is not surprising that the only person who sees some logic in this fortuitous occurence is the ogre of Rominten: “Such a combination of improbable circumstances looked so much like the degree of fate that Goering was silent . . .” (221).
As Abel attempts to escape from the beseiged napola with Ephraim he hears “the cry” (366). For Tiffauges: “He knew he was hearing for the first time in its primitive form the clamor suspended between life and death which was the fundamental sound of his whole destiny” (366). In fact he was hearing the cry of three boys being impaled by the Russians. Abel has heard similar cries throughout his life. Some he mentions in his “Sinister Writings” (the shouts that greeted Weidmann’s execution, the scream of a girl being raped), and some are mentioned in the second narrative (the noise of the diving bomber, the shrieks of the deer being slaughtered). Taken together they constitute a pattern more apparent to the reader than to Tiffauges. These are cries of bloodlust and death, the screams of victimizers and victims. Abel cannot make so obvious an association; his commitment to mythic meaning forces him into grandiose and vague hypotheses.
In conclusion, Abel’s account of his life in his “Sinister Writings” gives the impression that he has two identities, the real and the apparent. The real is the ogre from the mists of time and the apparent is the garage mechanic. There is, however, a third identity, which he terms “the viscous self”: “It never understands anything at first. . . . I carry it deep inside me like a wound, this innocent and tender being, slightly deaf, slightly shortsighted, so easily taken in, so slow to muster itself against misfortune” (21). This description, with its mixture of real physical traits (deafness, myopia), and equally genuine personal insecurities, is Abel Tiffauges as he would have hated to be seen: as Everyman. It is the starting point of any human being’s effort at personal definition, the amorphous substance onto which everyone imposes a frame that will constitute social identity. Abel dealt with this crisis as many people do: badly. It was lingering class values, a refusal to confront the nature of his own desires, and sadly fortuitous political circumstances that led him from St. Christopher’s to Kaltenborn. As with many of his generation, particularly in Germany, the myth he thought he was pursuing turned out to be indeed a myth.
Barthes, Roland. Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Paris: Seuil, 1953.
___. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Noonday, 1988.
Davis, Colin. Michel Tournier: Philosophy and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
Tournier, Michel. The Ogre. Trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Worton, Michael. “Myth-Reference in Le roi des aulnes.” Stanford French Review 6 (1982): 297-308.
See Jean Amery, “Asthetizimus der Barbarei: Uber Tourniers Roman Der Erlkönig,” Merkur 28 (1973): 73-79; and Saul Friedländer, Reflets du nazisme (Paris: Seuil, 1982). For a reponse to these criticisms, see my Michel Tournier (Boston: Twayne, 1985).