In The Use of Personal Pronouns in The Novel (nlr 34) Michel Butor raises the problem of the author’s relation to the characters in his novel and to the novel itself. As he demonstrates, this question has arisen through the introduction of a narrator—an ‘I’—which introduces the problem of time and of relationship: who is the ‘I’ in relation to the author, to the story he is relating, to himself within the time span of the novel itself. In an attempt to catch reality ‘live’, ‘piping hot’, this timespan has been continually collapsed until, in the interior monologue, the author presents an ‘I’ describing an experience as it happens, an ‘I’ who assumes no distance from the experience he is living.
But, as Butor says, we are not told how this interior monologue achieves the written state or how it is known, and this omission camouflages not only the question of the gaining of consciousness but a far more serious problem—‘the problem of speech itself’. In his concern with these questions Butor is clearly preoccupied that the novel should, in its structure, be what it is: the mediation in the relationship between writer and reader. He is not content to abide by the argument ‘it’s a novel’—i.e. a convention recognized by author and reader alike which demands the latter’s suspension of disbelief and an acceptance, if necessary, of the author’s refusal to say how this came to be written. The reader is part of the novel and as such this relationship must be made explicit; he must be able to know how the events which are being described came to be known. It is in this sense that the interior monologue obscures more than it describes.
It is hardly necessary to add that it is as much a convention to suppose that the interior monologue exists in lived reality any more than in the novel, if by the use of the term we mean a monologue at a continuously articulated level. Rather there is first a sub-stratum of non-verbalized awareness which, at a pre-reflective level, makes possible the gaining of consciousness at the reflective level of language.
It is this gaining of consciousness which Butor seeks to describe in Second Thoughtsfootnote1 without falling into the trap of the interior monologue. But in order to describe this awakening consciousness it is first necessary to consider from what it awakens.
At the pre-reflective level, as Butor recognizes, to see a chair remains as a non-verbalized awareness of chair that can be expressed only as, ‘there is a chair’. In this fringe hum of awareness, so to speak, there is no space, no awareness of ‘I’; it is an organizing field of sensory impressions
It is this transition from one level to another, the moment before the subject will assume the word ‘I’ about himself, that Butor wishes to catch ‘piping hot’. Since he is also concerned that the reader should know how this came to be written, he implicitly denies that the prereflective level can be recreated at all. Being before language, being transcended by the consciousness which, rising out of it, would try to record it, it cannot, of course, be transcribed. But its existence can, none the less, be signalled. What is essential to this level is an immediacy of sensual awareness without an apparent subject. If this is represented in the novel at the level of ‘there is. . .’ we read a description which, though manifestly filtered through an individual awareness, becomes on the page a phenomenological account of what falls within the subject’s field. It is true that Butor suggests this in Second Thoughts but, strictly consistent with the logic of his position, the what-is-seen is always described as being seen by someone—you.
When consciousness surges out of this immediate awareness, it seems to pierce through awareness and leave it behind. There is a disjunction. Consciousness looks on the moments of non-reflective awareness that have been and sees itself separated—as if by a film—from them; across the split, consciousness is aware of not being only the awareness it is. This gaining of consciousness is usually represented by an ‘I’, as though the totality of the subject—for the measure of ‘I’ can only be the unitary state of the subject—were involved. But if we give this pronoun at this level we have to admit that the ‘I’ is internally fissured, a totality that includes an inner split. If we wish to ascribe the first person singular to consciousness alone we find that it flees immediately beyond the determination in which ‘I’ seeks to hold it, has already transcended itself, and the most we can say is that an ‘I’ ascribed to it is not totally the ‘I’ described. In certain moments of emotion, in anger perhaps, the fissure is healed as consciousness becomes the anger it is conscious of. But for the most part, it would seem, an ‘I’ can exist only as a totality apprehendable (as a past state) from the perspective of the present. This is how I was. A writer narrating a story in the first person is representing the subject as he was at a particular moment when he already knows that he isn’t or won’t be that ‘I’.