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A Wacky Saga of Life, Literature, and Intellectuals of a Certain Vintage

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet tr. by Sam Taylor Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 359 pp., 2017

"Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so." So opens Laurent Binet's near tour de force The Seventh Function of Language, an erudite and zany parody of the crime novel/thriller genre and an irreverent send-up of certain French intellectuals circa 1980, the era of structuralism, poststructuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, literary theory, &c., whose high muckety-mucks dictated verities of the day in esoteric utterances that came off as gibberish to outsiders unable to crack the code. The cast of characters reads like a who's who from that scene: Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and his wife Hélène (the novel opens in winter and spring of 1980, just a bit before Louis strangled Hélène in November of that year), Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, young Bernard-Henri Lévy, just beginning to fashion a persona as BHL, and many, many more.

On the afternoon of February 25, 1980, literary theorist, critic, and semiotician Roland Barthes is struck by a laundry truck while absent-mindedly crossing the Rue des Écoles lost in thought. A month later he dies as a result of injuries sustained in the tragic accident. If it was an accident…

Barthes had just had lunch with François Mitterand, the Socialist candidate in the upcoming presidential election. The novel has it that higher-ups in the French intelligence service, concerned that the socialist Mitterand might win the election, dispatch Inspector Bayard to investigate. His mission consists essentially of verifying whether Barthes drank too much in Mitterand's apartment or, better still, took part in a sadomasochistic orgy involving dogs.

Bayard dragoons a hapless young semiotics professor, Simon Herzog, into the investigation as his assistant because he needs someone to translate the obtuse pronouncements that come rolling off the tongues of Foucault, Althusser, Kristeva, Sollers, and the rest. Pretty soon Bayard and Simon trying to figure out what's up with an accumulation of corpses, mysterious Bulgarian assassins with poisoned umbrellas, and a pair of equally mysterious Japanese fellows who seem to be on the tail of the Bulgarians.

The tale spins into Umberto Eco territory, and Eco himself when Bayard and Simon journey to Bologna to interview him, a web of conspiracy, paranoia, and secret societies, echoes of the freemasons and knights templars, the Italian Red Brigades, and the Logos Club, originally founded as the Logi Consilium in the third century A.D. by a sect of heretics on the basis of the supposition that whoever has mastery of speech, through its capacity to provoke fear and love, is virtually master of the world. The club's membership is supposed to have included certain popes, Shakespeare, Christina of Sweden, Casanova, Diderot, de Sade, Danton, Talleyrand, Baudelaire, Rasputin, Mussolini, Gandhi, and Churchill. Members advance in rank by challenging higher-ranked members to high-stakes debates where challengers who lose the debate lose a finger, lopped of on the spot while the spectators ooh and ah. Zut alors, as the French say.

The author, if one is allowed to speak of an author in this intellectual context, goes somewhat off the rails and his novel careens out of control about two-thirds of the way in, not long after Althusser strangles his wife (in literature as well as in life) and about where Bayard and Simon head off to America for a conference at Cornell University titled "Shift into overdrive in the linguistic turn," whose star-studded cast includes all the usual suspects and more, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, Richard Rorty, Edward Said, a cameo appearance by Camille Paglia, topped off at bottom of the card, alphabetically speaking, by Morris J. Zapp, a fictional character from the David Lodge novels Trading Places (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988), which parody this same intellectual milieu. Zapp delivers a paper called "Fishing for supplement in a deconstructive world" whose lone moment of lucidity lies in the declaration that "The root of critical error is a naïve confusion of literature and life," an observation of no small relevance to this novel in which it appears.

The black chef at Cornell's faculty cafeteria, speaking in French, gives Bayard a rundown of the opposing factions at the conference:

"You see the table near the door? That's where the analytics sit. They're in enemy territory, and they're outnumbered, so they're sticking together." There is Searle, Chomsky, and Cruella Redgrave [a young woman encountered earlier "who looks a bit like a cross between Cruella in 101 Dalmatians and Vanessa Redgrave"], whose real name is Camille Paglia, a specialist in the history of sexuality and a direct rival of Foucault, whom she detests with all her being. "On the other side, near the window, there's a belle brochette [fine selection] as you say in France: Lyotard, Guattari, Cixous, and Foucault in the middle—you know him, of course, the tall bald guy who's talking, right? Kristeva is over there, with Morris Zapp and Sylvère Lotringer, the boss of the magazine Sémiotext(e). In the corner, on his own, the old guy with the wool tie and the weird hair, I don't know who that is. [Strange-looking man, thinks Bayard.] And the young lady with the violet hair behind him? I don't know her either." His Puerto-Rican sous-chef glances over and remarks tonelessly: "Probably Heideggerians."

Along about now a young, mousy man passes by the Searle-Chomsky table, whereupon Searle calls out, "Hey, Jeffrey, you need to translate that asshole's latest piece of crap for me." Jeffrey replies, "Hey John, I'm not your bitch. Do it yourself, okay?" Searle says, "Fine, dickhead. My French is good enough for that shit." Ah, the rarefied air of intellectual discourse.

The old guy with the wool tie and weird hair turns out to Roman Jakobson, a Russian-born linguistics giant of an earlier generation, along with Ferdinand de Saussure a seminal figure in the field, as they say, whom Simon is surprised to learn is still alive. Jakobson distinguished six functions of language associated with the communication process. And, Binet's novel has it, a seventh function that he kept to himself.

The conference is highlighted by dueling presentations from Searle and Derrida, high-powered pomposity and pretension, serious consumption of alcohol, smoking and ingestion of all manner of illicit substances, and an array of sexual antics. Depictions of violence and sex are often explicit and so over the top they come off as cartoonish, as when the reader is treated to the spectacle of Foucault in a gay S&M club that he somehow found in Ithaca, New York, in 1980, under the influence of LSD, "half naked, with wide red welts on his body, in a total daze," moaning that he's lost his English, until he is tracked down and rescued by his young North African companion Slimane. Much is ridiculous. Or so it seems. Unless, maybe, this reaction is only a reflection of my own deficit of sophistication, savoir faire, and intellectual rigor.

A cemetery bacchanal is interrupted by a mad scramble for a document, supposedly purloined from Barthes, either shortly before or after his accident, revealing the seventh function of language, which will give its possessor the power to win any argument, that ends with Jakobson burning what only appears to be the document while Derrida is mauled by a huge, vicious dog unloosed by Searle, out to get his own hands on the seventh function. Derrida dies, and a short time later Searle flings himself from a bridge into a creek at the bottom of a gorge and his body is carried by the rapids toward the falls and Cayuga Lake.

In life, if not in literature, Derrida would live until 2004. Searle is still with us as of this writing, Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at UC Berkley, but his reputation and career were laid low last year by allegations of sexual misconduct. In March 2017, at 84, he stepped down from teaching his undergraduate philosophy course after a former student filed a lawsuit alleging that he groped her and watched porn at work. He retains professor emeritus status at the university.

After the conference our heroes return to Paris, still trying to unravel the mystery of the seventh function. The action from here out centers on a series of Logos Club debates that at times tempted me to skim despite the revelation of the identity of the club's supreme leader, known as the Great Protagoras, when Sollers, mistakenly thinking himself in possession of the seventh function, challenges him to a debate. Not surprisingly, Sollers, portrayed throughout as a dimwitted egomaniac, is crushed in the debate and for his hubris suffers the loss of body parts more dear to him than a mere finger.

Also not surprisingly, the novel is self-referential—I know, how could it not be?—with the narrator from to time referring to himself in brief asides that hint he has a role in events that make up the tale, calling to mind just a little bit the sly asides offered by the narrator of The Brothers Karamazov. Then there is Simon's moment of panicked inspiration while pursued by three masked men with ill intent, when he wonders if he himself is real or merely a character in a novel. And if this is a novel instead of life, is he the central character, who as a rule does not die, or might he be only a minor character whom the author could at some point dispose of if so inclined? The stream of conscious thought, reflection, and analysis is unrelenting.

My acquaintance with the people and ideas is superficial but sufficient to pull me into the tale. Depictions of characters drawn from life are wicked-funny and often brutal. Umberto Eco may be the only one with a counterpart in life who comes off okay. Well, maybe Derrida too, and Jakobson, but theirs are minor roles. It occurred to me to wonder if scores are being settled. In an interview last year Binet insisted that only some of the anecdotes were invented:

That one about Foucault masturbating himself in front of a poster of Mick Jagger, with the door wide open, that was true! I discovered that world thanks to my girlfriend at the time, who was pursuing a PhD at Cornell university (which is also why I located part of the novel there), but every teacher I met there knew Foucault, Barthes, etc and had funny anecdotes about each of them.

It’s the same for Umberto Eco in Bologna [urinated on by a stranger in the middle of a bar]—that was a true anecdote told by the bar’s waiter, who was still around when I went there and had known him!... Also the editor of Barthes’ complete works in France used to be a teacher, a colleague of mine, and so he was a source. He gave me anecdotes too. (Simon Lesser, For the Sake of Argument: An Interview With French Writer Laurent Binet, Culture Trip, June 7, 2017)

Binet was born in 1972. Any personal encounters that might have led to slights that called for literary vengeance may be possible in some cases but not all, as for example with Foucault, who died in 1984. More likely, Binet was just having fun with the writing, allowing his pen to run wild, no holds barred, in what is at times a bravura performance. The novel goes a little haywire and loses steam toward the end. Even so, it's kind of a hoot, a notch below David Lodge's threesome but not by a lot. I had fun reading it.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor revisions were made to this review after it was published.

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