Hearing Voices in the Alfacyclus
Everyone knows that the most daring soldiers go no faster than the music.
Michel Serres, Genesis
The publication of the first volume of the Alfacyclus, Het boek Alfa (1963), created a stir among critics, not only because it was experienced as ‘difficult’ but also because it was largely seen as a radical departure from Michiels’s earlier works. In the 1940s and 1950s Michiels had established his reputation with a series of semi-autobiographical novels (Het Vonnis (1949) and Kruistocht der Jongelingen (1951)) that were seen as a reckoning with the ideals of his conservative background (Michiels had been involved with Catholic Flemish-nationalist youth movements), and a reflection on his wartime experiences (Michiels was sent to work as a nurse in a military hospital in Lübeck). By the end of the 1950s, however, Michiels’s writing had become increasingly less realistic and more allegorical, culminating in Het Afscheid (1957), a novel about the crew of a ship, The Gambetta, that lies docked at Antwerp before embarking on a secret mission while the crew are not sure of the exact date of departure. Each morning the crew members leave the ship for twenty-four hours and when they return they do not know whether they have left their families temporarily or for good. Departure becomes for them a permanent state, or (as it was put at the time) an existential situation that is explored in the novel.
Like its predecessor, Het boek Alfa also revolves around a temporal experience rendered as something permanent. This time, the experience of waiting is central as the book is about a soldier who stands guard outside a military barracks in the war’s final days. Rather than using this situation as a starting point for a string of events, the book presents us with a montage of voices, sounds and sights coming from the street and the barracks, interspersed with flashbacks, fantasies and anticipations that are not set apart by textual markers but are rendered in solid blocks of text.
Upon its publication, Het boek Alfa was widely interpreted as a stream-of-consciousness-novel in the vein of Faulkner, Joyce or Woolf. This reading, however, became harder to sustain with the publication of later installments of the series. As Cyrille Offermans observes, Orchis Militaris (1968) and Exit (1971) offer, like Het boek Alfa, ‘streams’ of impressions but they are no longer anchored in the consciousness of one central character. In Orchis Militaris – the title refers to the Latin name of an orchid, known in Dutch as ‘Soldaatje’ (little soldier) –, only the opening pages contain hints of a narrative about a central character, a ‘he’ who travels by train into enemy territory, deported to work in a military hospital. The novel subsequently evolves into a montage of different impressions, voices and, most crucially, fragments of dialogue that can neither be easily located within a chronological sequence of events nor always be attributed to specific characters. These dialogues are uncannily repetitive, as seen in a six-page page sequence where a soldier’s words (a description of his hometown) are followed by an almost verbatim reiteration of these words by a second soldier, or in recurring scenes where various authority figures deliver very long strings of short authoritative declarations, each time followed by a ‘yes’ of a second speaker: ‘ja dokter, ja zuster, ja generaal, ja mevrouw de barones’ (‘yes doctor, yes sister, yes general, yes madam baroness’). A similar, exhaustive repetitiveness typifies the long mantra-like monologues in the second half of the book, in which a speaker testifies to a series of beliefs and utters a large number of promises and oaths, phrased in sentences with a similar syntax and wording, each of which is rendered twice. This leaves the impression that these passages should not be understood as fragments of a monologue intérieur, since they do not seem to follow the logic of a thought process (or a series of sensations) but adhere strictly to a formal linguistic pattern that is pursued in a mechanical, machinelike way, perhaps as a response to a series of dictations and injunctions.
At first sight it seems that the text’s radical fragmentation and its impersonal use of language should be understood in relation to the theme announced by the novel’s title. Orchis Militaris would then be an exploration of the experience of depersonalization that results from being subjected to a strict hierarchical order of which the soldier’s experience would be the paradigmatic case. This reading is indeed confirmed in the opening pages, which describe in long meandering sentences the experience of being locked inside a packed train – perhaps during a bomb scare – as the constitution of a new collective body that consists of an assemblage of various openings and limbs touching one another. This description segues mid-sentence into a succession of different scenes, set within the army, in hospital and in church. In each case, the subject is integrated into a larger body by being on the receiving end of a mind-numbing series of directives and orders (sometimes bordering on the nonsensical) that always demand a response – a yes. The automatism with which this ‘yes’ is delivered suggests that what is demanded is not so much an expression of an agreement as a vocal, bodily sound. What seemed like a dialogue is in fact closer to a call-and-response routine, a rhythmic chant.
In these passages, Michiels seems to be evoking the experience of what Henri Lefebvre would later call – in a metaphor derived from animal training – undergoing dressage. Lefebvre uses this word to explain how techniques such as military drilling employ repetition to transform a group of individuals into a collective body. By subjecting someone to a steady, monotonous drill, one imposes a new rhythm upon the biological rhythms of the body, effecting an automatic, semi-conscious pattern of behaviour, a habit. Repetition, as any animal trainer knows, allows one to ‘break into the bodies’ of individuals and to reconstitute them as a part of a new, collective body that has a rhythmic consistency.
Orchis Militaris highlights that dressage leaves traces in the body in the form of an internalized voice that imposes a certain pace on the subject, a pulsating beat that pushes him forward and urges him to commit acts of violence. This is made plain in a long and remarkable passage at the heart of the novel where the description of a series of violent events (a fistfight, a punishment, an interrogation and a scene of sexual violence) are rhythmically interjected by repeated exclamations such as ‘komt dat zien, komt dat zien, hier worden klappen uitgedeeld’ (‘roll up, roll up, this is where he action is’)), ‘op en neer, op en neer’ (‘up down, up down’) and ‘de hand, de arm, de hand aan de arm, de arm aan de hand’ (‘the hand, the arm, the hand and arm, the arm on the hand’), which string the various incidents together and give these pages a certain cadence. These phrases, referred to in the novel as a refrain, cannot easily be attributed to any of the characters. At times they seem to come from a crowd of bystanders that emerges out of nowhere to watch and cheer on the violence. At other times they come from within the subject engaged in violence. More frequently, though, they are inserted into the text as free-floating melodic phrases that have no clear source but seem to resound between the various subjects (perpetrators, victims and bystanders) as a haunting melody that each can tune in to and that gives the crowd its ‘rhythmic consistency’.
This refrain offers a protective shield that desensitizes the subject and allows him to hit and be hit (and to shoot and be shot) without thinking, as the novel puts it repeatedly. It brings about an emotional numbness that is perhaps necessary to fulfil one’s duty as a soldier, nurse or member of a church, and to blend into the drone of a praying, fighting or nursing collective. Yet, despite these passages – that clearly contain an implicit critique of militarism – the text as a whole should not be understood as a humanist defence of the individual since – and this is crucial – the book does not include an authentic voice as a counterpoint to the drilling and drilled voices. Nowhere in the novel do we witness the events from the perspective of someone capable of resisting the drilling experience. Each voice in the text seems to be traversed by a similar rhythmic pulse, and thus the reader is left feeling that no escape is possible: perhaps the subject itself is formed by the various injunctions, interpellations and drills that besiege him.
This claustrophobic feeling is even more intense in the next novel in the series, Exit (1971). As the title indicates, this novel deals with the desire and impossibility of departing and is more or less set in a military barracks. It consists again of a series of pseudo-dialogues and speeches, now intermingled with detailed reports about card games, long discourses about the rules of discourse, senseless alphabetical lists (such as a nine-page inventory of everything that could possibly be made from paper) and exhaustive annotations of small talk between soldiers, referred to by their military numbers. Within the context of the novel, the focus on games, rules and symbolic systems can be read as a metaphor for the experience of a subject in the grip of an administrative apparatus from which there is indeed no exit. The opening phrase of the novel – ‘ik pas’ (‘I pass’) – a phrase derived from a card game, appears throughout the novel to indicate a desire to step out which is, however, never a step outside the coordinates set by the game itself. As a result, the difference between ‘passing’ and being ‘in de pas’ (‘in step’) is blurred.
Hence the Alfacyclus (and in particular its first three parts) explores the relation between the body, its training (dressage) and language. In other words, to repeat what has become a cliché in Michiels criticism, the novel highlights the relation between violence and language. Language, however, is understood not as a formal system of signifiers that structures the way we experience reality, but rather as something uttered by numerous voices which, as the novel puts it, seem to come from everywhere, descending upon the subject and transforming him into someone who is in the first place a receiver. These voices invariably do something in excess of signification. They call upon the subject, break into his body and leave a trace in the form of a haunting, rhythmic melody that seems to be permeated by a violent sadistic enjoyment. The sexual dimension of these internalized voices becomes clear not only from the joyful cheers of the crowd of bystanders at a beating but also from the same free-floating yells (‘op en neer, op en neer’) repeated in scenes of violence as well as those of a sexual nature. Military drilling, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, is always more than the imposition of bodily discipline; the drill itself is saturated by a blend of sexualization and a humiliating display of power. It is the same melody, therefore, that binds the subject to the collective, that allows him to resonate with a collective body and that seems to embody the surplus enjoyment the subject derives from his joining the collective.