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“The Counterfeiters” and the Mise en Abîme


It is certainly no easy task to pinpoint the defining parameters of any expressive medium, whether that takes a visual or verbal form. Among all forms of artistic expression, the literary genre of the novel is famously known to be especially challenging to frame under reliable and theoretical terms, despite its prolificity and its wide popularity among readers. It is this fluidity of parameters and manifestations that has pushed critics, creators, and artists all alike to reflect on the true nature of those products that are conventionally considered artistic products—how they should be defined, what steps their genesis should follow, what label they should fall under, what common characteristics they must display.


The culmination of this reflective tendency arises when artists not only engage in profound contemplation of these questions, but also when they opt to do so using their very creations as a means to voice and elaborate on their reflections. Essentially, it is when artists prompt their own work towards introspection. Mise en abîme is one of the most mesmerizing narratological tools that allows for such introspective explorations by exploiting the expressive possibilities provided by the artistic form chosen. It is a French expression that literally translates as “put in the abyss” (Snow, 2016) and its use stretches from the communicative to the symbolic. In broad, preliminary terms, it entails the replication of the same element through a multiplicity of fictional layers: because of this, it lends itself to be easily adapted to a variety of means of expressions, and indeed, it can be found in a variety of applications in art, cinema and literature.

Figure 1: Mise en abîme presents a distortion in perception (Dilmen, 2011).

As a creative instrument, the mise en abîme has always been intuitively associated with the symbol of a mirror (Dickmann, 2019): when a given entity is reflected in a mirror, the objects at an artist's disposal are two—the reflected and the reflection, which opens up a multitude of symbolic possibilities for the creator. Nonetheless, as pointed out by Ricardou (1967), if one were to invoke the image of just a single mirror, it might suggest the idea of a relatively unchanging image, reducing the symbolic connection between the reflecting surface and the entity it mirrors to a simple representation of the object. Not only a dynamic perspective is what is required for a better framing of the concept of mise en abîme, but also the essential presence of two mirrors. The advantages of embracing this novel symbology are manifold, as noted by Dickmann (2019). It dismisses the notion of a unique origin, allowing for a perpetual shift in the evoked image—a cascade of infinite mirrors, each reflecting the other continuously and potentially neverending. Furthermore, the primary emphasis of this conception lies not on the observer or the entity being reflected, but on the interplay, the very juxtaposition itself: the relation between observer and object reflected.

The Reflection through the Mirror

A representative example of mise en abîme can be found precisely in a mirror within The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. This iconic masterpiece is a Flemish oil painting, created in the 15th century, and presents a visual puzzle that captivates spectators with its intricate details. Although the first look is instinctively directed at the main couple in the center of the painting—Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife—the ornate mirror at the back wall captures the attention as well, despite its reduced dimension as opposed to the centrality conferred to the human subjects. In this mirror, the reflection of the couple can be noticed. However, the mirror further captures the presence of two additional figures entering the chamber, possibly the witnesses of the wedding. This multifaceted reflection not only introduces an illusion of a perceived increase in the spatial dimensions, but also adds a layer of narrative depth to the scene. This mirror-within-a-painting is not only motivated by realistic aspirations on the part of the painter, but also encourages viewers to contemplate and appreciate the boundaries between representation and reality.

Figure 2: The Mirror on the Wall in the "Arnolfini Portrait" (Van Eyck, 1434).
Mise en abîme in Literature

In literature, the most prominent writer associated with mise en abîme is French author André Gide, whose most widely recognized example of mise en abîme would be the usage he makes of it in the novel The Counterfeiters (1925). André Gide was not the inventor of this narratological principle, but he was the first to propose its definition and to stretch its use to unprecedented manifestations. Mise en abîme is intended as having two main senses. In a first, broader one, its purpose is to indicate the interpolation of a second story inside a primary story, one that serves as principal framework, where the events in each of them may or may not be narratively connected. Several authors before Gide had availed themselves of the narratological depth offered by the juxtaposition of separate storylines. The Odyssey (IX century BC) by the famous Greek poet Homer, for example, is widely known for its narrative style which is rich in digressions—that is, stories that deviate from the main storyline. In Wuthering Heights (1847) by English novelist Emily Brontë, the narrative point of view often shifts to secondary characters, whose role is to provide an alternative interpretation on events and characters. La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by famous French writer Madame de Lafayette remarkably features extensive digressions as well, which temporarily suspend the course of the main narrative to delve into details about the background of supporting characters.

The common thread of these secondary tales, however, is that the point of these inclusions is a reduplication of the act of storytelling itself. Therefore, in the Odyssey, Odysseus is not only the protagonist, but often becomes the narrator that informs both characters and readers about events that preceded the beginning of the plot; in Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean is also the main narrator of the events, albeit not a central participant in the events; in La Princesse de Clèves, the princess often engages in internal monologues which give voice to her own internal workings. Within these interruptions of the primary narrative, characters themselves take the role of storytellers, recounting a separate narrative that frequently diverges from the main storyline. Consequently, this secondary narrative is not predominantly aimed at prompting the plot toward its natural resolution: one of its main points is to display a character engaged in the act of creating a narrative.

Figure 3: "Odysseus before Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians" (Malmström, 1853).
When Literature Reflects on Literature: The Counterfeiters

André Gide stretches this use even further (Bertrand, 2020). For him, this is an absolute necessity: the act of incorporating a character in the process of storytelling allows the novelist a literal insight regarding his work. It is both a straightforward act and a contradiction: he is showing by concealing, he is dissimulating by showing. It ultimately allows the author to critically examine his own writing. This rigidly structured plan of fictional layers does not seem to ever allow the reader a fully immersive experience in the reading process:. consumers of this work of fiction are constantly reminded that they are indeed facing a work of fiction. This piece of fiction is artificially built, artistic—in other words, not real.

Inside the novel The Counterfeiters, the narratological device is included in both senses. Firstly, in a broader sense, in the course of the story, there is an impressive number of secondary storylines. All of these present another point of view on the main story. As a novelist, Gide delegates the narrative point of view to a variety of different characters and lets them offer their own perception of events. One same event is recounted from a variety perspectives. A notable example of an event told from different points of view is the tennis match that takes place in the story. This event occurs in the third part of the novel and involves several characters, and each relays their own perspective on the match. In this scene, Bernard, Olivier, and others participate in the tennis match, but the narrative shifts between the characters' viewpoints, offering varying interpretations of the game and the interactions among the participants. As the narrative perspective changes, the reader gains insight into the characters' thoughts, emotions, and reactions to the events on the tennis court.


The most representative use of mise en abîme in The Counterfeiters, however, can be spotted on the macroscopic level and ascribed to the character called Édouard. Albeit being a novel with a plethora of different fictional and changes of perspectives, Édouard is most representative because he is a writer. Not only is he a novelist, but during the arc of the story he is in the process of writing a novel titled "The Counterfeiters". The readers, however, almost never catch a glimpse of the fictional text of “The Counterfeiters” authored by Édouard. The only version available is the version written by Gide.


Figure 4: The Counterfeiters Book Cover (I.P.A. - Le Livre De Poche, 1965).

This mise en abîme is made all the more systematic in the entries from “Édouard’s Journal”, which constitute a robust presence that intersperse the novel several times. It is exactly this practice which constitutes the unprecedented use of mise en abîme in novels, which has marked the evolution of this genre: what Édouard does is exactly what Gide was doing while composing The Counterfeiters. While writing The Counterfeiters, Gide was making extensive use of the habit of journaling in order to voice his reflections on the progress he was making and, likewise, his novelist character inside The Counterfeiters keeps a journal which supports him in his quest of novel composition. And surprisingly enough, it is exactly in L’Ortographe d’Une Oeuvre, in a passage dated 1893, that Gide openly declares what his conception of mise en abîme is:

In a work of art, I rather like to find transposed, on the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work. Nothing throws a clearer light upon it or more subtly establishes the proportions of the whole. (Gide, 2000, p. 30)

It is not a question of mere reflection or duplication, because Édouard is not André Gide. There are significant differences between the two novelists: Édouard, existing inside the realm of fiction, is a failed novelist because he is always in the process of composing “The Counterfeiters” but is never completing it, or ever going to publish it. However, for Gide, this is a fitting way of sharing his own reflections on the art of the novel writing and the process of composing a novel (Bertrand, 2020). It is a way for Gide to create an adequate distance between his product and himself, allowing him an outsider’s perspective on his own creation and, more generally, on the task of a novelist. While Édouard is arguably his most representative avatar, albeit with all the differences between them, Gide lets many of his characters to debate on novels. Bernard Profitendieu, le Comte de Passavant, Olivier Molinier, Laura: they all discuss literature, they are all consumers of literature, they have all the potential of producing literature, and they do discuss it, although Édouard is the character that provides the biggest contribution to this debate. Dickmann (2019) also notes another instance of mise en abîme inside Gide’s novel: the author does not necessarily duplicate what is ontologically singular, but splits into two what is already double in its origins. He calls this a “situational mise en abyme”. Because of this, the main storylines share glaring similarities: if Édouard meets Bernard and they spend time together, Olivier does the same with le Compte de Passavant; both Bernard and Olivier are in their teens about to take their exams and both pursue mentorship from these two authors—one writing for pleasure, the other writing for vocation.

Conclusion

In the world of art and literature, mise en abîme emerges as a captivating concept that draws art consumers into a realm of infinite reflection. From Van Eyck’s portrait of a couple where mirrors within the painting create a multiplicity of layers of reality and interpretation, to André Gide's The Counterfeiters where narratives within narratives stretch the traditional notions of storytelling, this artistic tool equips creators with a plethora of possibilities about the profundity they can add to their creation. Through Van Eyck’s portrait and Gide's intricate stories, this paper explored two examples of how artists utilize mise en abîme to challenge established perceptions of the nature of reality and its canonical representation in art and literature. Paintings, novels, and potentially other means of expression, become mirrors reflecting not only the characters and stories they may contain, but also a person’s own engagement with art and literature. Ultimately, mise en abîme is a powerful reminder that art and literature are not monoliths, one-dimensional constructed forms. Instead, they are dynamic, adaptable, and multi-dimensional, lending themselves to unending possibilities for exploration and interpretation.



Bibliographical References

Bertrand, S., Guerini, E., & Codazzi, P. (2020). Latin et latinité dans l’œuvre d’André Gide. In S. Bertrand, E. Guerini, & P. Codazzi (Eds.), actes de la journée d’étude de Bologne (octobre 2016). Paris: Classiques Garnier. (Bibliothèque gidienne).


Dällenbach, L. (1994). Il racconto speculare. Saggio sulla «Mise en abyme». Pratiche Editore.


Dickmann, I. (2020). The Little Crystalline Seed: The Ontological Significance of Mise En Abyme in Post-Heideggerian Thought (Suny Series, Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory). State University of New York Press.

Gide, A. (1925). The Counterfeiters. Vintage Books.

Gide, A. (2000). Journals 1889-1913. University of Illinois Press.

Ricardou, J. (1967). Problèmes du nouveau roman. Paris: Seuil (135-141).

Snow, M. (2016). Into the Abyss. A study of the mise en abyme (Doctoral dissertation). London Metropolitan University.

https://repository.londonmet.ac.uk/1106/1/SnowMarcus_IntoTheAbyss.pdf

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Nicole Lorenzoni

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