La Belle Captive: Magritte's Surrealism, Robbe-Grillet's Metafiction

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Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
La Belle Captive: Magritte's Surrealism, Robbe-Grillet's Metafiction
Author: Ben Stoltzfus; Published: November 2005

Alain Robbe-Grillet's ties with surrealism do not readily come to mind because he is known primarily as a French new novelist and cinematographer. However, his 1975 novel, La Belle captive , illustrated with 77 René Magritte paintings, establishes a clear link between surrealism and metafiction. Magritte died in 1967 and was unaware of the writer's project, but the title of the novel derives from four seascapes and two landscapes that he painted between 1931 and 1967, all of them entitled La Belle captive.

What characterizes the La Belle captive series of paintings is the undecidability of the image. Each one of the six canvases contains an easel that holds a painting within a painting, a procedure that establishes specular duplication with mise-en-abyme effects. The painting on the easel replicates the landscape beyond it and the internal frame breaks the continuity of the image while accentuating it. Although the background and the foreground overlap, the perspective is impossible. Is the canvas transparent or opaque? Are we looking through it at images in the distance or are these images in front of us. This ambiguity sets up a visual paradox that cannot be resolved and the undecidability of the perspective elicits epistemological and ontological concerns in the mind of the observer.

The 77 paintings were in the collection of Magritte's widow, Georgette, and Robbe-Grillet used them to generate the written narrative - a running commentary on Magritte's art, Surrealism, and the aesthetics of metafiction. Robbe-Grillet generates meaning from the mysterious and ludic structures of the paintings, and this new order asks the reader/observer to picture and hear the links between the two texts. The images speak and the sentences see and the role of the observer is to look at and listen to the humor, the contradictions, and narrative displacements.

This generative interaction draws its energy from the Surrealist aesthetic of the marvelous whose purpose was to astonish, and it is this sense of astonishment that produces the spark of recognition - the spark that illuminates the juxtaposition of distant entities. This illumination, in turn, unveils the woman connoted in the title - a woman hidden within the denotations of nature, but fully revealed in the painting entitled Representation (1937).

Representation depicts the naked torso of a woman from the thighs to the breasts, a body enclosed in a brown picture frame but seemingly reflected in a mirror. The frame follows the sensuous contours of the body, so much so, that it emphasizes and anticipates the intentions of the artist and the writer who pursue and unveil the image of the beautiful captive, a captive like Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus emerging from the waking dream of their unconscious.

Robbe-Grillet animates the figures, the repetition of a theme is developed diachronically, and the title of a painting is incorporated into the fictive adventure. The written text reflects the visual one, as in a distorting mirror, and vice-versa. The observer is encouraged to play with this intertext, pursue pleasure, and produce meaning from the subversion of narrative conventions, cultural myths, and scientific laws. In this topsy-turvy world, Memory (1938) is the head of a statue that bleeds. The red wound on the right temple of the white bust of Memory seems to have been caused by the round cowbell lying on the ground next to it. The grelot appears frequently in Magritte's art and often connotes "woman."

Memory 1948 (Memory 1938 has an apple)

Surrealists and metafictionists rely on this subversive game of the unexpected in order to attack realism and, by emphasizing the language of art they draw the observer's attention to the signifier rather than the signified. The primacy of the signifier signaled an important shift from art as a mimetic form to art as a free and independent sign system. Freed from the obligation to mirror reality art could display a creative potential unfettered by the need to represent the world. The imagination of the artist could play with reality, change it, reorganize it, or even discard it, as Mondrian and Kandinsky did when using color, shape, and line as their subject matter instead of a woman, a horse, or a cannon. Art became its own subject matter. The Beautiful World (1960) dramatizes the process with stage curtains. The round shape of the grelot has now become an apple in the picture's foreground - an apple situated between two drawn curtains. The blue curtains appear against a blue sky full of lacy white clouds and the outline of a third curtain also contains blue sky and clouds.

The Beautiful World

The Surrealists and the metafictionists, however, never discarded the world entirely because they needed it as a point of reference and also because they wanted to subvert the images of social discourse and the encoded ideology within language. For the Surrealists, one way to transcend the real was to incorporate unconscious images into their art so that reality was altered, as in a dream. But Freud's "condensation" and "displacement" are essentially the rhetorical tropes we call metaphor and metonymy - figures of speech that have always been part of our tropical discourse. And with Magritte and Robbe-Grillet these tropes no longer served the designs of realism as in Portrait of a Woman (1961). The realism of this picture is subverted by the giant upside-down head of a woman looking through an oval doorway at two very small men inside the room. The giant boulder on the right, like the woman's head, dwarfs the two men. Such art defamiliarizes the everyday and, with poetic license, Magritte and Robbe-Grillet deconstruct doxa . Doxa , according to Roland Barthes, "is Public Opinion, the mind of the majority, petit bourgeois Consensus, the Voice of Nature, the Violence of Prejudice" (47). It is ideology itself.

Surrealists and metafictionists alike have striven to decompose this arrogant bourgeois consciousness and, in doing so, the Surrealists fused the conscious and the unconscious realms into the Surreal. This fusion, they said, produced a higher form of consciousness. As for metafictionists, they are less interested in the unconscious, although it is always present, and they are more attentive to the language of art as a creative process. When he published La Belle captive , Robbe-Grillet touched bases with Magritte and he fused Surrealism with metafiction. Both artists foreground the signifying chain, be it visual or verbal, as in the Invisible World (1953), and the picto-novel represents the fortuitous encounter of their seemingly different worlds. The Invisible World represents a seascape. The clouds, the sky, and the water are framed by two open glass doors and a balustrade. In the foreground, in the center of the room, on the wooden planks of the floor is an oval boulder. The all-too visible and incongruous boulder is out of place and it casts doubt on the realism of the picture. What is the boulder doing in the room and why does it appear so frequently in Magritte's art?

Pierre Reverdy once said that poetic reality emerges from the bringing together of two distant realities.[1] In time, Surrealism synthesized the real and the unreal, the immediate and the virtual, the banal and the fantastic. Coincidence and strange encounters were deemed to be the result of "objective chance" which, in turn, revealed correspondences between subjective and universal automatisms. André Breton and Robert Desnos practiced automatic writing because they believed it could unearth the marvelous, resolve contradictions, astonish, change life. Magritte's strange juxtapositions were also designed to unveil the invisible world of the unconscious.

The Surrealists wanted to transform the world and WOMAN, or the idea of WOMAN, was their perceived ally. Breton saw her as the queen of objective chance. Indeed, Magritte's and Robbe-Grillet's beautiful captive is the true woman of their dreams. According to them she unveils desire and sharpens our understanding of the real and the unreal. What is this new and Surreal world? In "Envergure de René Magritte" Breton praises the beautiful captive, saying that there is no more desirable a captive than one who denudes herself in full mystery. A painting such as The Threatened Assassin (1926-27) captures this mystery for all three artists. The painting derives from a scene in Louis Feuillade's Fantômas of 1912. It depicts two figures concealed by the doorway, armed with strange weapons, watching the "murderer," who is dressed in a business suit. Fantômas , the film, was based on the thirty-two-volume series written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, each of whom wrote alternate chapters. Both Magritte and Robbe-Grillet seem fascinated by the character of Fantômas who can pass unseen through matter, defy the establishment, and subvert its order.

Magritte's room portraying the "stabbed mannequin," by its very complexity, sets up resonances that echo throughout Robbe-Grillet's text. It matters little that the latter's narrative contradicts details in the painting or adds to them, since the picture is subverted in the same manner that reality is contradicted. The three men looking in the window of The Threatened Assassin are not mentioned in Robbe-Grillet's text and the bowler-hatted man on the left, outside the door, is holding a baluster, not a club. Robbe-Grillet invents the sound of the phonograph that the young man inside the room is listening to and the narrator says it is replaying the woman's cry. This cry animates the painting and the naked mannequin which becomes a "real" woman. Although there is no sewing machine in the picture, the narrator tells us that the phonograph is the same age as the sewing machine, an allusion to Lautréamont's dissecting table where the fortuitous encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine generates the ultimate spark of Surrealist beauty and activity.

In 1938, Breton wrote an introduction to the Complete Works of Lautréamont, illustrated by a number of Surrealists, including Magritte. The Rape (1934) was one of the illustrations and it shocks us because the body of a woman has been transformed into a head. Magritte himself says that "in this picture a woman's face is composed of the essential details of her body. Breasts have become eyes, her nose is her navel, and the sexual organs replace her mouth" ( Ecrits Complets 144, my translation). James T. Soby notes that "it is the rape of all logic in broad daylight" (15). Ten years later, in 1948, a new edition of The Songs of Maldoror was published in Brussels (Editions La Boétie) with 77 illustrations by Magritte. There is an obvious link between Robbe-Grillet's book, La Belle captive , with its 77 Magritte images, and the previous editions. In his Ecrits Complets Magritte says that Lautréamont's fortuitous encounter on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine is symbolic of a certain disorder because things are not where they should be. On the one hand there is the mystery of things and, on the other hand, there is the marvelous and luminous surprise that sparkles when we juxtapose disparate objects (647). In his manifestoes Breton maintained that the marvelous is always beautiful and only the marvelous is beautiful. Magritte's Ladder of Fire (1933) captures the flaming and incongruous juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects. This painting juxtaposes three objects all of which are in flames: paper, a chair, and a tuba. Paper and wood burn but metal does not, at least not at room temperature.

Robbe-Grillet's aesthetic of the nouveau roman is grounded in similar incongruities, and they also astonish. He favors a certain diegetic disorder because it defies the conventions of realism. In his autofiction, The Recurring Mirror , he describes the writer's adventure as the necessary dramatization of the death struggle between order and disorder, between reason and subversion ( Miroir 133). The disorder in Magritte's and Robbe-Grillet's art shocks because it violates the codes of mimesis and classic realism. What is the attaché case doing on the mirror in Magritte's Chariot of the Virgin (1933), a picture of a hand mirror that is larger than life and an attaché case so small that it sits on the mirror's oval surface? Our experience of size has been contradicted and the normal order of things has been violated. Codes of order are also embedded in every culture's ideology and we feel comfortable as long as these codes are observed. Nonetheless, the subversion of codes is part and parcel of Robbe-Grillet's and Magritte's agenda. Robbe-Grillet says that we must turn ideology inside out like a glove. "My art," says Magritte, "has value only insofar as it opposes bourgeois ideology in whose name we are extinguishing life" ( Ecrits Complets 85, my translation).

According to Michel Carrouges, Surrealism is a radical revolt not only against ideology and order, but also against the rationalism of Descartes and Voltaire, against abstract philosophies that have enslaved the world, against classical art, bourgeois mentality, and labor economies. Surrealism, says Carrouges, calls for an intellectual and artistic revolution, a social revolution, and the complete liberation, of humanity (7).

La Belle captive, both the novel and the paintings, are arguably less revolutionary than Carrouges would like, at least on the cultural level, but they do subvert realism. Robbe-Grillet's novel is circular, without plot, contradictory, and without clearly defined characters - characteristics that define metafiction as a genre. However, if form can be revolutionary, then La Belle captive is it. It begins with The Castle of the Pyrenees (1959), a painting of a rock in the sky, suspended over the sea in a kind of timelessness that defies gravity. The first lines are: "It begins with a stone falling, in the silence, vertically, immobile. It is falling from a great height, a meteor, a massive, compact, oblong block of rock, like a giant egg with a pocked, uneven surface." [2]

The rock resembles an egg - an egg that both generates the novel and contains it. Together, the picture and the text beget a visual and writerly process, and it is not by chance that the rock has an oval shape, because Surrealists attributed a privileged role to eggs and to stones. The Domain of Arnheim (1962) is a kindred painting in which the mountain resembles a bird. In the foreground is a nest of eggs, and the slippage of meaning between the stone bird and the eggs on the wall suggests that the mountain in the background might have laid them. The Idol (1965) is a stone bird, perhaps one of the hatchlings, and in its flight it also defies gravity.

In The Truth in Painting , Jacques Derrida notes that "Rythmos , as we know, has come to signify both the cadence of a writing and the undulation of the waves" (160). For Robbe-Grillet, the unfurling waves beneath the rock in The Castle of the Pyrenees contain both the rhythms of writing and of dreaming, rhythms in which women such as Vanadis, the mother, the student, the siren, and the beautiful captive connote mythical entities. This mythology subverts the coordinates of our familiar world and replaces them with pictures such as The Flowers of Evil (1946) in which animate and inanimate elements together form new living species. Originally, The Flowers of Evil was the title of Baudelaire's book of poems. Whatever else Magritte's canvasses may be, they are are also a painterly homage to literary precursors. The Domain of Arnheim (1962) is a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. Dangerous Liaisons (1936), a painting that blends and dislocates the animate and the inanimate, is a tribute to Choderlos de Laclos . Philosophy in the Boudoir (1947) salutes the Marquis de Sade. The undecidability of perception within this painting is typical of Magritte's art and we are hard put to choose between breasts and nightgown, between feet and shoes, between body parts that are alive and objects that are not. Magritte creates a new genetic order: living statues, birds that are leaves, men of stone, and sirens with the head of a fish and the legs of a woman, as in The Collective Invention (1934). These new species connote an inherent world mystery as well as a wry sense of humor. The Saudis picked up on this wry sense of humor when they sold thousands of postcards of The Collective Invention with a caption stating that this was the picture of a real siren washed up on a beach of Saudi Arabia.

In Ecrits Complets Magritte describes The Flowers of Evil as "the statue of flesh of a naked woman holding a rose of flesh. The other hand leans on a stone. The open curtains reveal the sea and a summer sky" (175, my translation). In addition to the title of Baudelaire's book, the picture is an intertextual allusion to his poem entitled "Beauty": "I am beautiful, oh mortals! like a dream of stone" (41, my translation). The woman's body has a sensual reality but she is made of stone. She seems alive but her eyes are vacant. This movement back and forth between the true and the false, between living flesh and inanimate matter gives rise to an undecidability that is both mysterious and postmodern because the foregrounding of one possibility brackets the other one by putting it under erasure. From a Surrealist point of view, the body is marvelous and astonishing. From a postmodern point of view it is contradictory and its status is undecidable unless, of course, we suspend the voice of reason. But suspending reason is precisely what the Surrealists wanted us to do so that we could slip into a sensual dream world where everything is possible and in which even metal burns with a hot and living flame.

Such metamorphoses resonate throughout Magritte's and Robbe-Grillet's works. In his film Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974) Robbe-Grillet describes a living mannequin that has been stabbed, hair that is seaweed, a shell vulva, and stone eggs that reproduce. As for Magritte, his Beautiful Captive (1947) features a transparent canvas on which is reflected the flame of a burning tuba. The picture is simultaneously opaque and transparent and, once again, we have contradiction and undecidability. It's a synthesis of the true and the false, of the possible and the impossible. "My pictures," says Magritte, "are visible thoughts" (537).

In The Flood (1930), Magritte establishes correspondences between the half-naked torso of a woman and a tuba, by virtue of their juxtaposition. However, unlike this picture, the tuba in other paintings is burning, and fire, for Magritte has overtones of pleasure. He says that "the astonishing discovery of fire, due to the rubbing together of two bodies, reminds us of the physical mechanism of pleasure" (259, my translation). Suzi Gablik says that "fire has always been an image of primary sexuality" (98) and, as in The Invention of Fire (1946), it's the hidden sexuality of the beautiful captive that will begin to burn. This painting depicts a naked woman on hands and knees, and behind her, a huge phallus-like baluster with an erotic head. The pursuit of pleasure is one of Magritte's and Robbe-Grillet's coordinates. Pleasure anchors their notions of love and freedom, and fire is the visible and metaphorical synthesis of the two. In his painting entitled Pleasure (1927) Magritte depicts a woman eating a bird from a "bird-tree" as though she were eating an apple. WOMAN is always an implicit presence within the Surrealist sensibility and she is the one "hidden in the forest" of their dreams. She connotes love, and Breton's "mad love" is truly a force of providence.

Who is the beautiful captive disguised within Magritte's many variants of her, such as The Human Condition (1933)? She seems to represent the artist's pursuit of a triple reality: the subject, the object, and representation. In this painting we can't tell if the landscape is inside the room on the canvas, or outside, because the tree, the bushes, and the clouds in the sky can be situated both inside and out. The beautiful captive can be construed as the observer, the observed, and the language that melds this interactive process. She is the dramatization of art, and the red curtains that appear in many of Magritte's paintings are there to emphasize this dramatization. Magritte's pictures, as with Memoirs of a Saint (1960), open onto the stage of language. In this painting the blue sky and white clouds of The Beautiful World are enveloped by two red circular curtains. Robbe-Grillet's writings also dramatize language. La Belle captive is therefore a portrait not of reality but of a radically different world, and Magritte's art becomes the "false mirror" of reality which is also, paradoxically, a truer portrait of the Surreal experience.

The False Mirror (1934) is an eye that sees with mind and body. In this painting a blue sky and white clouds form the iris of the eye that is pierced by a black pupil. The eyelids frame both the eye and the sky. It is an intelligent eye and a sensual eye that reminds us that perception is both objective and subjective. Do we see the world as it really is, or do we project a false image of reality onto the mind screen of consciousness? How does language color what we see? These are the questions and problems that Magritte asks in his art, and the beautiful captive is a painterly and philosophical exploration of language and perception.

For Magritte, the beautiful captive denotes art but connotes woman, whereas for Robbe-Grillet she denotes woman but connotes art. The paintings and the novel are false mirrors because they are not an exact reflection of each other. They disfigure. They dislocate nature in order to stress the production of art. They imagine new worlds and, in doing so, they also highlight our freedom to invent new worlds. Robbe-Grillet's parthenogenetic eggs, like Magritte's boulders, hatch new and interesting possibilities. Of special interest is the dialogue between the pictures and the text, and when we activate the dialogue, we discover the woman hidden within. When we find her, we realize that we too are free to produce meaning and to reinvent our lives.

Barthes, Roland . By Roland Barthes . New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal . Paris: Hachette, 1951.

Breton, André. "Envergure de René Magritte." Magritte . Little Rock: Arkansas Art Center, 1964.

______. Manifestes du surréalisme . Paris: Ga11imard, 1963.

Carrouges, Michel. André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme . Paris: NRF, 1950.

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting . Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987.

Gablik, Suzi. Magritte . Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Soclety, 1970.

Magritte, René. Ecrits complets . Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Le Miroir qui revient . Paris: Minuit, 1984.

______and René Magritte. La Belle captive . Paris: La Bibliothèque des Arts, 1975.

______. La Belle Captive. Trans. Ben Stoltzfus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Soby, James T. René Magritte . New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965.

[1] As quoted by André Breton in his first Surrealist manifesto (31). My translation.

[2] Both the French edition of La Belle captive and my translation entitled La Belle captive are out of print.
An internationally renowned author and scholar, Ben Stoltzfus is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author/translator of La Belle Captive: Alain Robbe-Grillet and René Magritte (1995) and The Target: Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jasper Johns (2005). Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts (1996) won the 1997 Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP).

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