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THE MIRROR OF IDEAS.\o7 By Michel Tournier\f7 .\o7 Translated from the French by Jonathan F. Krell (University of Nebraska: 144 pp., $25)\f7

September 06, 1998|THOMAS FRICK | Thomas Frick, associate editor at LACMA, is at work on "The Iron Boys," a novel about the Luddite rebellions of 1811-13

How do we, in Michel Foucault's phrase, "tame the wild profusion of existing things"? The primary method is to sort the world into categories, a divide-and-conquer tactic rooted in every creation myth: Day is separated from night; the island is firmly anchored on the tortoise's back. That so many of our quotidian categories--black and white, beautiful and ugly, wet and dry--fall into opposed pairs is no doubt as genetically inscribed in us as bilateral symmetry and sexual reproduction.

Philosophers have been the preeminent taxonomists of reality. Pythagoreans employed 10 pairs of opposite principles to comprehend the world, including odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, straight and curved, good and evil. Aristotle recognized 10 basic conceptual divisions; Leibniz counted six and Kant four. In other fields, Linnaeus established the six classes of the animal kingdom, Roget grouped words under eight conceptual headings, Jung identified four psychological types, and astrologers have always employed 12 zodiacal signs.

In "The Mirror of Ideas," the celebrated and subversive Michel Tournier--widely regarded as the most important French novelist of the last 30 years--has fashioned 58 short essays, each riffing on a pair of related terms, dual concepts that the author deftly angles to shed light on each other. "An isolated concept offers a smooth impenetrable surface to the mind," he writes in the introduction. "Analyzed in the light of its opposite, however, the idea explodes or becomes transparent, revealing its intimate structure."

Before he turned to fiction, Tournier had trained to be a professor of philosophy but failed a qualifying exam. In truth, he never would have fit into the postmodern French intellectual milieu of Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard. Tournier's forebears are Bergson, Sartre and Bachelard (one of his teachers), whose concepts were drawn out of lived experience rather than imposed upon it.

In fact, Tournier has himself always been difficult to categorize. He has scandalized readers and critics with his obsessive fictional focus on distasteful fetishisms, grotesque occurrences, perverse and scatological appetites and his exotic and polymorphous explorations of the metaphysical implications of homosexuality. Yet his first two novels won France's highest literary honors, and he is a member of the prestigious Goncourt Academy.

In hyperpolitical French culture, he has angered both the left and the right by his disdain for simplistic dichotomies. His characters embody an anarchic rejection of the social contract, a gnostic insistence that the authentic self can only achieve enlightenment, fulfillment or release through full immersion in the corruption of the world.

In "The Mirror of Ideas" Tournier cites, along with philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger, composers, kings, novelists, photographers, politicians, circus performers, poets, painters, generals, saints and astronomers. He presents elegant glosses on twinned topics such as "The Child and the Adolescent," "The Bath and the Shower," "Talent and Genius," "Salt and Sugar," "The Tree and the Path" and "The Fork and the Spoon." The colloquial and the emblematic precede the abstract.

"Beware of purity," a character in Tournier's first novel, "Friday," says. "It is the acid of the soul." In this book, as in his fiction, Tournier sets up boundaries only to rub them together and make them porous. Even the more abstruse topics are given a personal inflection. In "A Priori and A Posteriori" he begins: "I have to write something, but I can't find my pen. Where is it? What did I do with it? Two methods of searching are possible. The first consists in closing my eyes, trying to remember, and thinking. When and where was the last time I used my pen? . . . The second method consists in getting up and just looking everywhere instead of racking my brains. . . . The first approach is a priori, the second a posteriori."

In a characteristic move Tournier erodes the boundary he has just created. The distinction is not absolute. The deduction that his pen must be in his pocket is still subject to subsequent verification. Conversely, the search in every place his pen might be is governed by a preconception that it is not likely to be in the cellar.

He then moves to photography, where he contrasts the a posteriori technique of Henri Cartier-Bresson, wandering "through city and countryside, camera in hand, not knowing ahead of time what the freedom and randomness of life will offer," with the a priori one of Richard Avedon, who imagines "ahead of time the image [he wants] to make, and all the work consists in reconstituting in the studio this image." Yet for Cartier-Bresson, "the randomness is not total": He will "always run across people and scenes that resemble [his] work and seem already to bear [its] signature." And, of course, Tournier would say, the best preparations only make more welcome the happy accident.

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