from Antioch Review, Spring 2016
Has a poetic project like "General Instin" ever been carried out in the United States? I have never heard of anything even remotely resembling, in scope and approach, this droll, mysterious, and drolly mysterious cultural adventure that has involved dozens of French poets, writers, and artists for nearly two decades, and that has now come to fruition.
The project began in 1996 when the novelist Patrick Chatelier (b. 1965), who had admittedly "gone astray" while strolling through Montparnasse Cemetery, came across the grave of one Adolphe Hinstin (1831-1905). On the family mausoleum there was a portrait of this now forgotten general in the form of a photo projected onto glass. Yet the general's face, although still somehow imaginable, was nearly effaced: a century of weathering had so stained the portrait that various "silhouettes" and "landscapes" were more present than distinct facial features; the photo on glass had metamorphosed into something akin to a tiny stained-glass window. "General Instin is the absence of a face," one reads in "General Instin is First of All a Face," the introductory text of the anthology Général Instin, which has just appeared in France (and has not been translated). "Or the overflowing of the same face into multiple figures. The unknown aspect of each face that now faces us." As should now also be clear, the General Instin project also implies the effacement of the initial H of his family name, about which more below.
The appearance of the anthology and its companion volume, the collective novel Climax (whose author is "General Instin"), crowns an impressive variety of long-term and long-ranging Instinian endeavors. Other books are announced, including a new French translation of The Spoon River Anthology (1916), which, in addition, promises to expand on Edgar Lee Masters's poems. (After all, a cemetery gave rise to the French project, as it did to Masters's.) But let's return to the onset when Chatelier, after taking photos of this unsettling portrait that was no longer a portrait, started showing them to his writer- and artist-friends. A first evening of "performances," based on the enigmatic figure of the general, took place in 1997 at the Granges-aux-Belles Artistic Square in Paris. By the next year, the project had become "interdisciplinary and collective."
The most original aspect of the project was emerging. As poets, writers, and artists took their inspiration from the haunting faceless portrait, their contributions— poems, prose texts, paintings, photos, installations, exhibits, video films, serious website postings (http://remue.net/instin), Facebook shenanigans, workshops, readings, recordings, and sundry "performances"—to the overall "concept" of General Instin tended to be made, if not exactly anonymously, then much less individualistically than is usually the case in such anthological undertakings. In the anthology, the individual contributors' names are provided in brackets and printed in relatively small letters. Actually, these individual names are not all that essential. Much more than in a standard anthology dealing with a given theme, not to mention in the multifarious ramifications that this interdisciplinary project has taken, the primary goal of the contributors has been to create, or re-create, the "object"—General Instin—rather than to assert their literary or artistic subjectivities.
The name "Hinstin," as well as the decision made in 2004 to remove the H and write "Instin," bristle with interpretative possibilities. Hinstin is the francization of the name Hainsthein, which has Alsatian Jewish origins in the seventeenth century and is probably a variant spelling of Einstein or Heimstein. Adolphe Hinstin, who was the fourth Jew to become a general in the French Army, was one of eight children—seven boys and one girl—in a bourgeois family who lived in Paris. Among these siblings, the general's brother Gustave was the teacher and probable lover of Lautréamont (1846-1870), the poet who was so beloved of the Surrealists: Gustave was, in any case, excluded from the French school system for an "affront to public decency," and Lautréamont's Poems are dedicated to him. Another Hinstin, who was the general's nephew, shows up in a spoof written by their contemporary Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), the instigator of Pataphysics who was also beloved of the Surrealists because of his play Ubu Roi (1896). The writer Joseph Kessel (1898-1979) evokes still another descendant of the Hinstins in his book Tous n'etaient pas des anges (1963). But all these events took place long before Chatelier went for a stroll in Montparnasse Cemetery. They represent what might be termed, if I may, "collateral discoveries."
These and other resonances of the real "Hinstin" can be heard in the literary and artistic responses to a mystery which, in its reformulation without the H, especially becomes that of a Jew whose first name was Adolphe and whose last name began with an H that has now been removed, who is a "historical human being who has been forgotten by History"—three more hs—and whose new name, General Instin, can be abbreviated to "G.I." or, as Instinians write it, once again blurring the focus, simply "GI."
Note that the French pronounce the letter h in a way that can mean "hache" (battle-ax). Note also that the real General Hinstin was a general in the French army during a period of history that comprised the anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair (1894). Finally, the missing H seemingly pays discreet tribute to Georges Perec (1936-1982), whose novel La Disparition (1969; A Void, in its English version) was written without the letter e, a stylistic choice that, among other interpretative possibilities, symbolizes the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Thinking of Perec brings me to the O.U.L.I.P.O. group, of which Instinian poetics form a sort of inverted image. Whereas Oulipians create vertiginously difficult "constraints" to produce texts on any subject matter whatsoever, the Instinians have only one topic, Instin, and only one constraint, Instin, which is not one: Instin is a vertiginous absence, a faceless face that must be faced and perhaps filled in. Yet can absence or emptiness be filled in? If so, how? Why? When? Where? ... The philosophical dimensions of the General Instin project are clear, not to mention the potential psychological, sociological, anthropological, and even political ones.
Yet the resourceful literary and artistic reactions to the faceless [H]Instin show that such allusions, apparent hints, derivations, and extrapolations as I have just outlined rightfully end less in solid symbols than in persistent uncertainties. The Instinian "poetic project" is defined as a "transitional object, appearance / disappearance [which] opens out on the expanses of memory, on the moving shadow of a universal ancestor." At best, General Instin can only be "sketched," which is to say, imagined, conceived, re-conceived. He is a real person who has faded into fiction. He is, literally, a sketchy character and thereby a "fugacious, spectral human being, a soldier wandering along the borders of existences, genres, and identities, of what is individual and what is collective." General Instin lurks in "the interstices," in what has an "infra" or a "hybrid" quality, in what is "epiphany or chance." There is a perceptible "delectation of deployment" throughout this project, as one of the anthology authors finely terms it (in a different context).
To date, the most impressive realization of Instinian poetics is the collective novel Climax. The subtitle—Une fiction, encore? (A fiction, again?)—points to the several questions about literary genre, verisimilitude, imagination, and narrative that are constantly raised by Instinians in their tongue-in-cheek, impertinent ways.
In Climax, seven poets and prose writers have carried off the tour de force of writing a novel together, seamlessly blending their texts into a whole and signing off the results with the name "General Instin." Their individual names can be found rather discreetly on the inside flap of the front cover, and on the last page, preceded by the Latin term fecerunt. But, once again, their effort is collective, essentially anonymous. The Instin enthusiast can go to the Instin website specifically devoted to this novel (www.generalinstin.net). where all the working drafts can be consulted, and try to sort out who wrote which sentence, paragraph, or passage in Climax, and how they were arranged. But this is not the point. Seven hands have mixed their personal ingredients into one prose, which is sometimes so beguilingly styled that it is, well, "poetic."
What other term is appropriate? Climax represents the epitome, to date, of Instinian poetics: writing that boldly takes place in an "infra" or a "hybrid" literary zone; in the stylistic interstices between poetry and prose. Besides storytelling that employs short sentences that use common nouns and verbs yet whose sense remains somehow oblique or abstract, there are dreams, dialogues, sensual and erotic evocations, lists (of grasses, for example, but also of questions), and recurrent phrases such as, in capital letters, "ÇA VIENT" (IT'S COMING) or, tellingly, "J'ignore ce que violemment je désire" (I do not know what I violently desire). There is also a passage arrestingly using words in boldface (which creates a text within a text) and still other passages in italics or with asides in fine print. An atmosphere of strangeness and estrangement sets in. This is what General Instin is all about.
The subject matter of Climax could not be timelier. It is the story of a soldier who is obliged to leave his wife, "A.," their Roman home and its pastoral setting, and head off on a military campaign abroad. His emotion, as he says goodbye, is palpable and complex. He has been ordered by none other than General Instin to depart for a foreign land to build a wall that will define the outer border of the Empire. A handy image is thus that of Hadrian's Wall in second-century Britannia. Moreover, there is an early reference to "Cassius" (surely Cassius Dio) who is drafting the memoirs of Caesar Traianus (Trajan), the emperor who appointed Hadrian to succeed him as Emperor of the Roman Empire. The Picts, the northern tribe (in contemporary Scotland) against whom Hadrian's Wall was raised, are also mentioned.
Yet just as soon, Cassius the scribe also evokes the Hopewells. He specifies that the soldier was born "over the ocean" in a land where this American Indian tribe was dwelling; the soldier in fact spent his childhood there, not in Rome. Given such an histoire—which means both "history" and "story" in French, even as, in Renaissance Romanian (as one of the characteristically playful and erudite anthology participants points out), historia evolves into the h-less istoria and also connotes "a painting," a "representation," or an "image"—the reader necessarily muses on other places and times, all the while keeping in mind that the Hopewells actually flourished during the age of Trajan and Hadrian. Let's not forget that General Hinstin, if not General Instin, lived in the nineteenth century.
Climax likewise teases the reader with literary allusions or, more precisely, certain stylistic affinities and thematic echoes. I was reminded here and there of the poet Edmond Jabes's Book of Questions (because of the many questions raised in the novel), of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (because of the soldier's journey into the unknown and his ultimate fate), and even, remotely, of Claude Simon's The Georgics—or simply Virgil—because of the sensitively described agrarian surroundings to which the soldier must bid farewell at the onset of the novel.
During the military campaign northwards, the soldier encounters the "Blue People." His encounter with them changes his life unpredictably. He makes love with one of the "blue women" and comes to "love" her "foreign language." His initial experiences of foreignness provoke these remarks: "I was afraid to sleep with her. And when our bodies separated, mine bore traces of her blueness. The color of her land had rubbed off on me." And then, in italics: "No one knows the name of my foreign love." Is this namelessness, like facelessness, another absence? And rather like the deleted H, another kind of "removal" occurs for the soldier. He increasingly finds himself removed from all aspects of the world as he had known it. He stands at an irreparable remove from his past life, from his very life that is going on.
Climax is thus a meditation on the process and the consequences of estrangement or—if I may coin a barbaric term—"foreignment." There are thought-provoking reflections on moving away, on arriving elsewhere, on discovering otherness, as well as on the changes taking place in one's mind and body as one experiences foreignness. Important dichotomies are explored: I and You, and especially I and We. Here is a passage from Chapter III:
How to live in what is
How to say, to name, to see, to know what is hostile, foreign?
No doubt is possible. But there is violence. The violence of words, when I say what there is.
When one says I, one annexes a territory.
What is it that terrifies me about language? It's when a territory becomes I.
I want no I.
We. I. A few billion more or less definable bodies. We. Here. Forming something like an assembly. Here. A world. Formed. Deformed. Assembled. Here. We start speaking and tell. In this world ...
A prologue and an epilogue combine in revealing that, rather like Cassius Dio, General Instin's aide-de-camp has drafted these memoirs of the soldier's journey into madness. He returns home, but at first he wishes to tell no secrets (including the significance of the word Climax). A few facts are eventually unveiled, and the very act of writing is emphasized, but the greater mystery of the man's passage through life prevails, as it does at the heart of the entire General Instin project: a mystery that persists at a center which is, by definition, a central absence; or an absence of center. After all, what is ultimately pertinent: the source (the center) or the margins?
"The tomb has been abandoned," one reads in the anthology. "The door of the mausoleum stands half-open, as if someone had just come out of the tomb; and detritus, dead leaves, and a bowl left for cats can be spotted. The mausoleum will remain abandoned because the Hinstins had no children; no one has the legal right to restore it. It is thus doomed to be razed and merely gives itself over to whoever passes by and stops short. Whoever stops and stays, transfixed."
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About the Author
John Taylor, a longtime resident of France, is the author of the three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers, 2004, 2007, 2011). His translation of José-Flore Tappy's Sheds: Collected Poems 1983-2013 (Bitter Oleander Press) was a finalist for the 2015 National Translation Award. He has also recently translated the Italian poet Lorenzo Calogero's An Orchid Shining in the Hand: Selected Poems 1932-1960 (Chelsea Editions), a project for which he won the 2013 Raiziss-de Palchi Translation Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. He is the author of If Night Is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press) and six other books of prose and poetry.
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