Whereabouts Not Known

Scott McLemee revisits the influential but elusive theorist Henri Mensonge, international man of mystery.

November 8, 2005

A recent entry at his blog Unlocked Wordhord, Richard Scott Nokes, an assistant professor of English at Troy University, recalls how he and some friends let off steam in graduate school a few years ago by making up an imaginary theorist, Pierre Mourier, to discuss on a lit-student listserv. (My thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this item out.) Nokes says that a few people on the list who weren’t in on the joke began to pontificate on Mourier’s work –- even correcting the title of a translation of one of his papers.

It’s a good story. An edifying one, even: a cautionary tale about the danger of craving the au courant, even at the cost of making yourself ridiculous. But if you go to the archives of the departmental listserv in question, a slightly different picture emerges. Searching "Mourier," you find no messages by unwary poseurs dropping Mourier’s name. One or two puzzled souls do confess that they’ve never heard of the author of Murmurs in the Cabaret:  Finding Language through Noise (1951). Everybody else, however, is plainly goofing.

On a more sober note, we should perhaps consider the case of Henri Mensonge, that oft-neglected Franco-Bulgarian genius. He can most accurately (if also most confusingly) be labelled proto-post-structuralist. Mensonge is no mere online ghost. His work was the subject of a compact book by the late Malcolm Bradbury.

The Library of Congress has assigned a call number to My Strange Quest for Mensonge: Structuralism’s Hidden Hero (Penguin, 1987) that places it on the same shelf as Bradbury’s comic novels about British university life. But the Dewey system treats it as a work of philosophy. (I came across it in a public library, by chance, while looking for something about Jacques Maritain.) The confusion is exemplary. I suspect that Mensonge, and certainly Bradbury, would be pleased.

Bradbury notes that a translation of Mensonge’s treatise La Fornication comme acte culturel (which had originally appeared in either 1965 or '66) would be forthcoming "from the West Coast Marxist-Feminist Gay Collective Press, under the title Sex and Culture, with a lovely cover, in their ‘His and Her-Meneutics’ series."

Sadly, this edition never appeared. The Anglophone reader has no choice but to consult Bradbury’s volume. It comes with an afterward by Michel Tardieu, the professor of structural narratology at the Sorbonne best known for his work reducing the plots of both Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace to the same quadratic equation. A note indicates that Tardieu’s essay was translated by Bradbury’s close friend David Lodge. (Readers of Lodge's novel Small World may recall that Tardieu makes a brief cameo.)

Little is known about Mensonge himself. Early in his career, he served as a teaching assistant to Roland Barthes, but certain passages in Mensonge’s work suggest that it must have been a difficult relationship. In 1968, Barthes published his famous essay announcing, as its title had it, "The Death of the Author." But by that point, Mensonge had already anticipated Barthes’s argument and carried it one step further -- erasing nearly all traces of his own existence, to a degree that other reclusive writers might envy. We have, for example, a portrait of Thomas Pynchon from his high school yearbook, while the only surviving photograph of Henri Mensonge shows the back of his head. As he once put it: "I have sought a level of absence that is so complete it cannot be mistaken for anything other than it is."

He even sought to keep his name off the spines of books by or about him. In this age of the theorist as "academostar," such avoidance of celebrity is refreshing. And yet Mensonge is the man who, in Bradbury’s words "out-Barthesed Barthes, out-Foucaulted Foucault, out Derridaed Derrida, and out-Deleuzed-and-Guattaried Deleuze and Guattari." He opened (in Mensonge’s own words) "a new field of desacralizing inquiry." His influence (if that is the word for it) rests upon a single major work, though scholars writing in The Mensonge Newsletter have identified a number of anonymous texts that he may have published, including several unusually thoughtful restaurant reviews.

La Fornication comme acte culturel appeared in advance of Jacques Derrida’s first wave of publications (the three cornerstone works of 1967). But he had the misfortune to publish it in Luxembourg, rather than Paris -- and with an undistinguished publishing house that, as Bradbury mentions, "subsequently proved to be a very ineffective cover for the international drug trade." The book was printed on "porous paper of a kind conventionally used for purposes quite other than literary and philosophical dissemination." Copies of the first edition vary from 39 to 115 pages, reflecting a certain lack of attention on the part of the binder.

Nor was it well distributed. "Perhaps the title was misleading," suggests Bradbury. "Certainly it ended up in the kind of bookstore specializing in erotica and in genital technology of the more complicated kind." Even so, the book’s radical argument found a warm reception. Walking past any given café, one heard French intellectuals enraptured by "a constant intense discussion of La Fornication."

Bradbury writes about La Fornication in much the same way Francis Fukuyama might discuss the Home Shopping Network. Mensonge had written "the last book, the book that completes and concludes the shelf of modern thought."

He began, of course, with Saussure’s model of the sign. Then Mensonge pushed the arbitrary nature of the link between signifier and signified harder than the structuralists ever had. The absolute distance between them (between signifier and signified, that is, not between the structuralists; but them too, probably) made communication impossible.

This was not theoretical recklessness on Mensonge’s part, for the implications clearly troubled him. Either "we have everything to say, and nothing to say it with," as he wrote, "or alternatively the opposite. Most of my philosophical contemporaries choose the one or the other, but quite frankly this looks like trouble to me."

But he refused half measures. Mensonge went further -- challenging what he called "the coital cogito," that implicit structure underlying "the non-existent ego of the scholar him/her non-self." For is it not commonplace to refer to intellectual "excitement," to speak of the need to "lay bare the thing as it is" -- so that thought might "penetrate" reality? (As Mensonge sums it up with admirable lucidity: "Alas, the 'thing' as it is in actuality is not, for there is no thing, and actually no actuality for it actually not to be not in.") Nor is it sufficient to deconstruct what Mensonge called Lacan’s "great phallusy." One must also question "the metaphysical vagina."

All of this, mind you, in work published around the time Judith Butler was a kid watching "Batman."

As it happens, Mensonge’s book appeared just as Susan Sontag was publishing her famous essay "Against Interpretation," with its memorable closing line: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." (I noticed this coincidence, not Bradbury. Please footnote accordingly.) And Sontag’s aphorism was itself a tribute to Mensonge’s former mentor, Roland Barthes, who would later go on to write S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text.

It is remarkable how effectively Mensonge distanced himself from B/S, even before they had articulated their own ideas. Clearly he had thought things through with a certain obsessional rigor. "Sex is difficult enough in bed," he wrote, "as my philosophic contemporaries should know. To try to perform it in the bookcase is hubristic beyond belief. In any case it is no use pretending we are at a whorehouse when we know we are at a funeral. Try the book any way you like. It will show no sign of enjoying it, and will certainly not give a squeak back."

The occasional reference to Henri Mensonge now appears, tucked away in the bibliographies of those literary scholars who practice annotation with tongue, as it were, in chic. And the index that Bradbury prepared for the book (embedding a few additional jokes in his cross-references) is cited in the library-science literature. But My Strange Quest remains the one study of Mensonge available – hence, as such, definitive. (If the author neglects to mention that the theorist’s last name means "lie" in French, that seems a trivial oversight.)

Bradbury notes that other scholars tried to dissuade him from writing about La Fornication -- "a work of such profound intellectual subtlety, linguistic density, and textual disorder that there is no way even of translating it, never mind understanding it, and that only a person of the most limited imagination, and probably the most unmitigated stupidity as well, would even dream of undertaking the task," he writes.

"Fortunately for the common reader," he adds, "there are just one or two of us who possess exactly those qualifications and are prepared to use them. Or maybe I am too modest. Just casting one quick eye around the worlds of journalism and scholarship, I realize there could be hundreds."


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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