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Dreaming of the Avant-Garde: Georges Bataille, Nathalie Sarraute, Pierre Michon, Agnès Varda


Dreaming of the Avant-Garde: Georges Bataille, Nathalie Sarraute, Pierre Michon, Agnès Varda


Maia Lea Beyler-Noily

Doctor of Philosophy in French

Designated Emphasis in Film Studies

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Michael Lucey and Professor Jean-François Louette, Co-Chairs

This dissertation focuses on the ways in which the avant-garde proposes new models for the community throughout the twentieth century in France, specifically in the works of writers Georges Bataille, Nathalie Sarraute and Pierre Michon, and filmmaker Agnès Varda. This research was spurred by a turn-of-the century sociology obsessed with the supposed decay of community and the necessity to revitalize it. According to sociology’s forefather, Emile Durkheim, if the traditional community is rooted in religion, a secular and individualistic modernity ignores the very notion of community, leaving a dangerous vacuum too easily filled by totalitarian systems of thought. This work argues that the avant-garde is simultaneously critical of the traditional community, deemed closed and exclusive, and of modern secularism, characterized by individualism and mercantilism. Hence, rejecting both traditional community and modern society, the avant-garde attempts to imagine new, open alternatives. However, by following a party line, be it political or aesthetic, the avant-garde becomes susceptible to the same pitfalls of exclusivity and authority as the traditional community. As such, the artists upon which this dissertation focuses cannot be affiliated with any specific avant-garde movement. Rather, they remain in the avant-garde’s margins, keeping their distance, i.e. their freedom, from it: Bataille in regard to surrealism, Sarraute in regard to the Nouveau Roman, Michon in regard to Tel Quel, and Varda in regard to the New Wave. Bataille’s twin philosophical notions of sovereignty-servility shed light on what these marginal avant-garde artists are gesturing towards: on the one hand, they are attempting to break away from the traditional and hierarchical, that is the servile community, and on the other, they are innovating by imagining a free and equal community, i.e. one that is sovereign. However, the question asked throughout this research is whether these dreams of communities, here featured in novels, short stories and films, could, or even should, be turned into concrete realities.

Chapter One focuses on the avant-garde writers’ novels and their attempt to bring about a sovereign community through their criticism of traditional Judeo-Christian morals. Rejecting Christian and fascistic communities, as well modern secularism, Bataille’s Julie imagines an erotic community made up of perverts and lunatics. It seems that only an erotic community could achieve sovereignty by being unredeemable, that is by stubbornly resisting all political and aesthetic re-appropriation. In Sarraute’s Martereau, a new community can come about through the suspicion of all our preconceived notions of identity. Only the anxiety-ridden search for the community, never its establishment, can lead to sovereignty. Michon’s La Grande Beune, an implicit tribute to Bataille, can be read in dialogue with the avant-garde. However, while paying homage to his fiercely antireligious predecessor, Michon imagines a sovereign community that might find a way to be in relation, however tentative, with Christianity.

The second chapter of this work explores both the avant-garde’s attacks against a visual culture deemed authoritative and dictatorial, and the communities born from these attacks. Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil strikingly illustrates the avant-garde’s desire to defile and literally deface the human image. The sovereign community here imagined by Bataille is one of felons and outlaws that could never be corralled into a well-functioning society. Showcasing a face-off between a fervent collector and his snide children, Sarraute’s Vous les entendez? ridicules the ways that art takes over religion in the twentieth century. Refusing to adore literal and figurative images, Sarraute imagines a community of people who never settle for answers, but keep searching for them. Michon’s Maîtres et Serviteurs and Corps du roi are meditations on painting and photography, respectively. Here, Michon succeeds in conjuring a community of lovers of the visual arts that remembers the avant-garde’s wariness towards them, but refuses to indict all representation once and for all.

Chapter Three explores modern literature’s compulsion to self-sabotage and the communities brought about by this self-destruction. Bataille’s L’Abbé C. points an accusing finger at Literature as another model for authoritative, exclusive communities. Self-combusting through haphazard writing and self-plagiarism, L’Abbé C. attempts to challenge the authority of its writer and avoid any future co-optations, but, in turn, leaves its readers stranded. Sarraute’s Le Mensonge similarly disowns Literature, and Literature’s authoritative tendencies, by writing for the radio-waves. The radio seems to short-circuit Literature’s normative bent and to give way to a sovereign community. Michon’s Mythologies d’hiver similarly alludes to the avant-garde’s hostility towards a narrative accused of bringing together the traditional, i.e. religious, community. While constantly throwing his enterprise into self-doubt, Michon paradoxically reintroduces both the narrative and the possibility of Christian faith as potential ways to a sovereign community.

Featuring a behind-the-scenes look at a globalized economy, Varda’s film, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, focuses on what happens to unproductive, i.e. sovereign, things and beings. Chapter Four of this dissertation looks at how Varda’s marginals, who live off of the system without any political inklings, successfully dodge all political re-appropriation while, through solidarity, offering alternative models for sovereign communities.

Having looked at how these four artists on the margins of the avant-garde, Bataille, Sarraute, Michon and Varda, reject the traditional, that is the religious and servile community and try to image new, sovereign ones, this work concludes by asking whether they accomplished what they set out to do. While some call their attempts to imagine new communities irrelevant, since these communities could never be put into effect without betraying themselves, this analysis argues that it is those very attempts that in fact allow the avant-garde to continue dreaming of and arguing over what could be.

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