deleuze on crime fiction: the brilliance of james gunn’s deadlier than the male

Bookseller Photo

Gilles Deleuze, The Philosophy of Crime Novels1


La
Série Noire is celebrating a momentous occasion—its release of #1000. The coherence, the idea of this collection owes everything to its editor. Of course everyone knew something about cops, criminals, and their relationship, even if it was only from reading the papers, or the knowledge of special reports. But literature is like consciousness, it always lags behind. These things had not yet found their contemporary literary expression, or they hadn’t attained the status of common-place in literature. The credit for closing this gap at a particularly favorable moment goes to Marcel Duhamel.2 Malraux had this insight to offer in his preface to the translation of Sanctuary: "Faulkner knows very well that detectives don’t exist; that police power stems neither from psychology nor from clarity of vision, but from informants; and that it’s not Moustachu or Tapinois, the modest thinkers of the Quai des Orfevres, who bring about the apprehension of the murderer on the loose, but rank-and-file cops"…. La Série Noire was above all an adaptation of Sanctuary for a mass market (look at Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish), and a generalization of Malraux’s preface.

In the old conception of the detective novel, we would be shown a genius detective devoting the whole power of his mind to the search and discovery of the truth. The idea of truth in the classic detective novel was totally philosophical, that is, it was the product of the effort and the operations of the mind. So it is that police investigation modeled itself on philosophical inquiry, and conversely, gave to philosophy an unusual object to elucidate: crime.

 

There were two schools of truth: 1) the French school (Descartes), where truth is a question of some fundamental intellectual intuition, from which the rest is rigorously deduced; and 2) the English school (Hobbes), according to which truth is always induced from something else, interpreted from sensory indices. In a word, deduction and induction. The detective novel reproduced this duality, though in a movement which was proper to the literary genre, and has produced famous examples of each. The English school: Conan Doyle gave us Sherlock Holmes, the masterful interpreter of signs, the inductive genius. The French school: Gaboriau gave us Tabaret and Lecoq; and Gaston Leroux, Rouletabille, who with "a circle between the two lobes of his forehead," is always invoking "the right track of reason" and explicitly opposing his theory of certainty to the inductive method, the Anglo-Saxon theory of signs.

 

The criminal side of the affair can also be quite interesting. By a metaphysical law of reflection, the cop is no more extraordinary than the criminal—he, too, professes allegiance to justice and truth and the powers of deduction and induction. And so you have the possibility of two series of novels: the hero of the first is the detective, and the hero of the second is the criminal. With Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi, Leroux brought each series to its perfection. But never the twain shall meet: they are the motors for two different series (they could never meet without one of them looking ridiculous; cf Leblanc’s attempt to put Arsene Lupin together with Sherlock Holmes).’ Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi: Each is the double of the other, they have the same destiny, the same pain, the same quest for the truth. This is the destiny and quest of Oedipus (Rouletabille is destined to kill his father; Cheri-Bibi attends a performance of Oedipus and shouts: "He’s just like me!"). After philosophy, Greek tragedy.

 

Still we mustn’t be too surprised that the crime novel so faithfully reproduces Greek tragedy, since Oedipus is always called on to indicate any such coincidence. While it is the only Greek tragedy that already has this detective structure, we should marvel that Sophocles’s Oedipus is a detective, and not that the detective novel has remained Oedipal. We should give credit where credit is due: to Leroux, a phenomenal novelist in French literature, who had a genius for striking phrases: "not the hands, not the hands," "the ugliest of men," "Fatal-itas," "men who open doors and men who shut traps," "a circle between two lobes," etc.

 

But the birth of La Série Noire has been the death of the detective novel, properly speaking. To be sure, the great majority of novels in the collection have been content to change the detective’s way of doing things (he drinks, he’s in love, he’s restless) but keep the same structure: the surprise ending that brings all the characters together for the final explanation that fingers one of them as the guilty party. Nothing new there.

 

What the new literary use and exploitation of cops and criminals taught us is that police activity has nothing to do with a metaphysical or scientific search for the truth. Police work no more resembles scientific inquiry than a telephone call from an informant, inter-police relations, or mechanisms of torture resemble metaphysics. As a general rule, there are two distinct cases: 1) the professional murder, where the police know immediately more or less who is responsible; and 2) the sexual murder, where the guilty party could be anyone. But in either case the problem is not framed in terms of truth. It is rather an astonishing compensation of error. The suspect, known to the cops but never charged, is either nabbed in some other domain than his usual sphere of criminal activity (whence the American schema of the untouchable gangster, who is arrested and deported for tax fraud); or he is provoked, forced to show himself, as they lie in wait for him.

 

With La Série Noire, we’ve become accustomed to the sort of cop who dives right in, come what may, regardless of the errors he may commit, but confident that something will emerge. At the other extreme, we’ve been allowed to watch the meticulous preparation of a sting operation, and the domino effect of little errors that loom ever larger as the moment of reckoning approaches (it’s in this sense that La Série Noire influenced cinema). The totally innocent reader is shocked in the end by so many errors committed on both sides. Even when the cops themselves are hatching a nasty plot, they make so many blunders, they defy belief.

 

This is because the truth is in no way the ambient element of the investigation: not for a moment does one believe that this compensation of errors aims for the discovery of the truth as its final objective. On the contrary, this compensation has its own dimension, its own sufficiency, a kind of equilibrium or the reestablishment of it, a process of restitution that allows a society, at the limits of cynicism, to hide what it wants to hide, reveal what it wants to reveal, deny all evidence, and champion the improbable. The killer still at large may be killed for his own errors, and the police may have to sacrifice one of their own for still other errors, and so it is that these compensations have no other object than to perpetuate an equilibrium that represents a society in its entirety at the heights of its power of falsehood.

 

This same process of restitution, equilibrium or compensation also appears in Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, for example). The greatest novel of this kind, and the most admirable in every respect, is not part of La Série Noire: it’s Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes, which develops an incredible compensation of errors whose keynotes are an Aeschylean equilibrium and an Oedipal quest.

 

From a literary point of view, La Série Noire made the power of falsehood the primary detective element. And this entails another consequence: clearly, the relation between cop and criminal is no longer one of metaphysical reflection. The interpenetration is real, and the complicity deep and compensatory. Fair’s fair, quid pro quo, they exchange favors and no less frequently betrayals on the one side and the other. We are always led back to the great trinity of falsehood: informant-corruption-torture. But it goes without saying that the cops do not of their own accord initiate this disquieting complicity. The metaphysical reflection of the old detective novel has given way to a mirroring of the other. A society indeed reflects itself to itself in its police and its criminals, even while it protects itself from them by means of a fundamental deep complicity between them.

 

We know that a capitalist society more willingly pardons rape, murder, or kidnapping than a bounced check, which is its only theological crime, the crime against spirit. We know very well that important political dealings entail any number of scandals and real crimes; conversely, we know that crime is organized in business-like fashion, with structures as precise as a board of directors or managers. La Série Noire introduced us to a politics-crime combo that, despite the evidence of History past and present, had not been given a contemporary literary expression.

 

The Kefauver report,4 and especially the book by Turkus, Societe anonyme pour assassinats, were the source of inspiration for many of the texts in La Série Noire. Many writers did little more than plagiarize them, or rather they turned them into popular novels. Whether it’s the Trujillo regime, or Battista, or Hitler, or Franco—what will be next when everyone is talking about Ben Barka—that begets a hybrid that is properly Série Noire; whether it’s Asturias writing a novel of genius: M. le President,5 or whether it’s people sitting around trying to figure out the secret of this unity of the grotesque and the terrifying, the terrible and the clownish, which binds together political power, economic power, crime and police activity—it’s all already in Suetonius, Shakespeare, Jarry, Asturias: La Série Noire has recycled it all. Have we really made any progress in understanding this hybrid of the grotesque and terrifying which, under the right circumstances, could determine the fate of us all?

 

So it is that La Série Noire has transformed our imaginings, our evaluations of the police. It was high time. Was it good for us to participate as "active readers" in the old detective novel, and thereby lose our grip on reality and thus our power of indignation? Indignation wells up in us because of reality, or because of masterful works of art. La Série Noire indeed seems to have pastiched every great novelist: imitation Faulkner, but also imitation Steinbeck, imitation Caldwell, imitation Asturias. And it followed the trends: first American, then it rediscovered French crime.

 

True, La Série Noire is full of stereotypes: the puerile presentation of sexuality, or what about the eyes of the killers (only Chase managed to lend a particular cold life to his killers, who are headstrong and non-conformist). But its greatness belongs to Duhamel’s idea, which remains the driving force behind recent releases: a reorganization of the vision of the world that every honest person has concerning cops and criminals.

 

Clearly, a new realism is insufficient to make good literature. In bad literature, the real as such is the object of stereotypes, puerile notions, and cheap fantasies, worse than any imaginative imbecile could dream up. But more profound than either the real or the imaginary is parody. La Série Noire may have suffered from an over-abundant production, but it has kept a unity, a tendency, which periodically found expression in a beautiful work (the contemporary success of James Bond, who was never integrated into La Série Noire, seems to represent a serious literary regression, though compensated for by the cinema, a return to a rosy conception of the secret agent).

 

The most beautiful works of La Série Noire are those in which the real finds its proper parody, such that in its turn the parody shows us directions in the real which we would not have found otherwise. These are some of the great works of parody, though in different modes: Chase’s Miss Shumway Waves a Wand; Williams’s The Diamond Bikini; or Hime’s negro novels, which always have extraordinary moments. Parody is a category that goes beyond real and imaginary. And let’s not forget #50: James Gunn’s Deadlier than the Male.

 

The trend in those days was American: it was said that certain novelists were writing under American pseudonyms. Deadlier than the Male is a marvelous work: the power of falsehood at its height, an old woman pursuing an assassin by smell, a murder attempt in the dunes—what a parody, you would have to read it—or reread it—to believe it. Who is James Gunn anyway? Only a single work in La Série Noire appeared under his name. So now that La Série Noire is celebrating the release of #1000, and is re-releasing many older works, and as a tribute to Marcel Duhamel, I humbly request the re-release of my personal favorite: #50.

 

Notes:

 

1. Arts et Loisirs, no. 18, 26 janvier-1 fevrier, 1966.

2. In 1945, the novelist Marcel Duhamel created "La Série Noire" at Gallimard; it is a series dedicated to the crime novel, which he headed till 1977.

3. Maurice Leblanc, Arsene Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes, 1908, reedited by Livre de Poche.

4. In 1952, a democratic senator issued a report on organized crime in America.

5. M. le President (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

 

—from Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Edited by David Lapoujade. Translated by Michael Taormina. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series (2004), pp 81–85.


 

sharp-tongued dubravka ugrešić on european t.v. & literature

ugrešić on her life as a literary exile (pretend to be a cleaning lady), and the concept of european literatures (it’s like the eurovisionsong vision contest on t.v.!)


In Nobody’s Home (her fourth work of nonfiction to be published in this country) Dubravka Ugrešić writes, "I have been on the road ever since [1991 — when the former Yugoslavia descended into war], changing countries like shoes."With hardly a touch of jetlag, Ugrešić’s essays latch onto matters of ethnic, national, and transnational identity. In surveying topics such as her former countrymen’s wont to line their conversations with curse words, or the condescension she has met with as a Croatian woman, Ugrešić lays into an assortment of au courant stereotypes (e.g., "…I put up with it when people explain to me how to use an iron, or when waiters in restaurants deliberately avoid setting my place with a knife…. I usually write ‘cleaning lady’ in the box under OCCUPATION; it’s what is expected of me. Because my cosmopolitan countrywomen are known far and wide as excellent housekeepers in EU apartments, houses and public lavatories." 

—from The Barnes & Noble Review

 

 

What is European in European Literatures?

European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest


By Dubravka Ugrešić


To the question of what is European in European literatures,

I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: 
                               Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.   

Na pitanje što je danas evropsko u evropskim
književnostima imam samo jedan odgovor čija bi
najkraća varijanta bila: to je Mister Bhattacharya, Indijac
koji živi u Americi.


The concept of European literatures — as it is generally used by EU
politicians, cultural managers, publishers, old-fashioned university departments, and often by writers themselves — is not very different from the concept of the European competition for the best European song.

Let us recall, the Eurovision Song Contest is the favorite annual TV entertainment of many Europeans, and the hottest point of mental unification of Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest is a grandiose (grandiose European-style) presentation of European pop-music kitsch. But nevertheless, there is greater enjoyment to be had from things other than the pop music itself, ranging from costumes (this year the Cypriots were the best!) to spectacular performance (this year the Irish used so much smoke on stage that they nearly started a fire!). Enjoyment is to be had in the method of voting (Croatia, ten points! Belgium, two points!); picture postcards of various countries, linking up with studios in Tallinn and Dublin; then “politics” and its transparency (everyone knows that the Croats gave the Slovenes the most points, and vice versa); the participation of new European representatives (Hey, this year we’ve got Bosnians!); the absence of all non-participants (The Serbs will never sing in Europe, not in a million years!). And as far as the actual music is concerned, one expects the Turks to bring something of their oriental musical kitsch, the Swedes to defend the colors of West European musical kitsch. The greatest European TV show also has an educational function (viewers learn the names of new states: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia!), a political-ideological function (OK, we’ve taken in the Estonians, but we won’t have the Turks, singing with us is quite enough for them!); and, incidentally, of course, it makes a financial profit. There are sometimes excesses, such as the Diva (Viva la Diva!), the Israeli transvestite, but excesses within the framework of the mainstream are always welcome.

European literary life, with its literary representatives, whose names are always (always!) backed by the name of a state, frequently does not differ greatly from the show described above. It’s true that there is less of the spectacular. However, TV broadcasts of the annual Booker Prize ceremony increasingly confirm that literature too is a spectacle. The winners leap onto the stage (Canada, ten points!) and pronounce words of gratitude in the manner of pop-singers. It is true that the judges’ speeches are more eloquent, which is understandable — after all words, and not musical notes, are the writer’s craft. If we take into account the commercial effect of the Booker performance, and also the principle of exclusivity (the Booker is awarded only to books in English), then all of that combined supports our initial comparison, however unjustified, malicious, and inaccurate as it may seem to some.

The Participation of G. Drubnik in the Whole Thing 

Some thirty years ago, in 1971, an issue of The New York Times published a spoof article about Gregor G. Drubnik, a Bulgarian writer who had ostensibly been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature that year. The article was full of discriminatory epithets, such as the remarkably stupefying quality of Drubnik’s works, and it was supposed to be highly amusing. The very idea that some Bulgarian could ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature brought a smile to everyone’s lips. Had I come across that article at the time it was published, I too would have laughed. At that time I was studying comparative literature, and I was full of myself. I read European and American writers, wrote student essays on Proust and Joyce. I read well-known and less well-known Russian writers, I studied literary theoretical schools at a time when, it seems, literary theory was at its height. I was convinced that I was in tune with the great literary world. It was also a time of a great publishing boom in the former Yugoslavia, a lot was being translated, and I followed every accessible foreign literary innovation. When in 1982 I found myself in America for the first time, the choice of translated literature in the bookshops seemed to me modest. Of course I could not admit that to anyone. No one would have believed me, and besides, only a few years later, the picture of American bookshops, as far as translations are concerned, changed radically for the better. And my conviction that big things happen only in big places remained unshaken. At the beginning of the 1990s the situation was to change: both Zagreb and Belgrade bookshops would become terribly empty, in terms of both local and translated literature. At that time my books began to set off into the world, and somewhat later I myself followed them. In my conviction that I was communicating masterfully with the big literary world, whatever that meant, I forgot the possibility that this world was not communicating with me nor was it unduly interested in communication.

When my novel was published in England in 1991 one critic ended his review with the question: But, still, is this what we need? It was only later that I realized what the critic’s sentence meant. As I traveled I did not notice that I was dragging with me the label Made in the Balkans. And if someone comes from the Balkans, he or she is not expected to perform cultural mastery in front of us, but to conform to the stereotype which WE have about THEM, the Balkans or about the places where all of THEM come from. I had, therefore, forgotten where I came from and where I had landed, or in other words, I had overlooked the established codes between the cultural center and the periphery. I was expected to confirm stereotypes about the periphery, not destroy them. As far as my literary mastery was concerned, I could have chucked it in the bin since it appeared simply to irritate my foreign literary surroundings. It turned out that Drubnik’s cold-war phantom shadow had not quite disappeared during those thirty or so years. With time the number of labels that others stuck on me and my books only increased. In addition to the label Made in the Balkans, there were new ones: the collapse of Yugoslavia, the fall of communism, war, nationalism, new states and new identities. My texts communicated with the foreign reader weighed down with voluminous baggage. I often seemed to myself like a traveler dragging several suitcases in each hand and trying at the same time to retain a certain elegance. Unlike me, my West European colleagues traveled without luggage, and all that the reader saw was them and what they wrote. While in my case the luggage buried both me and what I wrote. The situation changed radically in my local literary landscape as well. There too labels appeared, there too it suddenly became crucial for an understanding of my writing to know whether I was by nationality a Croat or a Serb and what my mom and dad were. 

Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and — without asking me — the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport (it had resolutely rejected red, the Communist color, but the hardness of its cover reminded one of the old Soviet pass for the Lenin Library). The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill. Since in my case it did not work very well, they excluded me from their literary, and other, ranks. With my Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo. At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it. 

What is actually my problem? Am I ashamed of the label Croatian writer? No. Would I feel better with a Gucci or Armani label? No. So what do I want? If by the will of some criminals, and then by the ostensible majority will of the people, I lost the label Yugoslav, why now — again not by my own will — should I wear the label Croatian? What’s more, if the Croatian cultural criminals angrily stripped the Croatian label from me (because I publicly snarled at a time when, according to them, I should have kept quiet), why do others, people who are in any case completely indifferent, continue assiduously to stick this label on me? 

And why am I so sensitive to labels? Because in practice it turns out that identifying baggage weighs down a literary text. Because it continues to be the case that an identity tag alters the essence of a literary text and its meaning. Because an identity tag is a shorthand interpretation of the text, and regularly wrong. Because an identity tag opens the way to reading into a text something that is not there. And finally because it is discriminatory, discriminatory for the literary text itself. Because I come from the periphery. An American writer, I imagine, does not have this problem. 

Why do some of my colleagues, unlike me, find it important to retain their identity tag? Because identifying writers according to their nationality, according to the country to which they belong, is implanted in literary and also in commercial communication. Because that is the easiest way to travel from the periphery to the center. Because for many people an identity tag is, at the same time, the only way to communicate, not only locally, but also globally, to be accepted and recognized as a Bosnian writer, as a Slovene writer, as a Bulgarian writer. Because a label is the fundamental assumption of every market, including, therefore, the literary market as well. Because identity and trafficking in identity is a well-tried market formula that has enabled many writers from the periphery to move, justifiably or not, into the global literary market. 

Europe As Far As India 

Having learned from the American commercial and ideological example, and then from the international success of Indian, Caribbean, Japanese, African, or Chinese writers who live in Great Britain, the cultural bureaucrats of the European Union, and all those who are concerned with culture, “culture buffs” in other words, all endeavor to adapt to the situation. 

The culture of the EU is, on the one hand, worried about globalization, which is another name for American cultural imperialism. And while the Americans themselves use the term imperialism without much embellishment, the Europeans beat about the bush. They are afraid of being accused of excessive anti-Americanism, like the French, who become animated every few years over the protection of their cultural products, but equally over what has been taken from them, over their lost cultural primacy.  It turns out that anti-Americanism is not culturally, or politically, or strategically, or financially profitable: besides, in the American cultural industry, it is not only American sellers who earn good money, but also European buyers. 

European “cultural identity,” whatever that means, is “threatened,” on the one hand by the omnipresent American cultural industry and, on the other hand, by the East Europeans, who are waiting to enter, carrying their cultural bundles in their hands; and then also — and this is the most painful point of the European cultural subconscious — by émigrés from the non-European cultural circle, whose number is growing dangerously with every passing second. And where, really, do these numerous Moroccans and Algerians, all these Chinese and Arabs belong? How should they be classified? According to their passports? According to the language they use? According to the cultural circle to which they belong? Proud of its ideology and practice of multiculturalism, for the time being the cultural bureaucracy of the EU perpetuates its well-tried formula — Me Tarzan, you Jane — that is, the formula of recognizing different cultural identities, stressing regional and other variations, and, of course, integration, although no one knows what that is supposed to mean. To everyone, therefore, his place of worship, to everyone her burka. And as long as the Moroccans lay out on their counter something Moroccan, whatever that means, and we display something of ours, something European, whatever that means, everything is all right. That is, on the whole, how cultural products are exchanged, that is how the global market works, that is the established mechanism driving the dynamics of cultural life. And everything would be all right if there were not nonmainstream individuals, dysfunctions in the system, which subvert canonized concepts regarding culture, about what it is, and what it ought to be. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of cultural promoters, managers, and the cultural bureaucracy of the EU. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of critics and interpreters, university departments, teachers, and readers. No one knows what to do with them and where to place them. And really, what are the Dutch to do with Moses Isegawa, an African writer who lives in Holland and writes in English? What are the Dutch to do with me? I live in Amsterdam, but do not write in Dutch. What are the Croats to do with me? I do write in Croatian, but I don’t live there. What are the Serbs and Bosnians to do with me? The language I write in is BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, the neat abbreviation dreamed up by translators at the Hague Tribunal). What are the Dutch to do with a Moroccan writer, who, instead of writing profitable prose about the cultural differences between the Moroccans and the Dutch, which everyone would understand, has undertaken to recreate the beauty of the Dutch language of the nineteenth century, which present-day Dutch writers have forgotten. What are the French to do with an Arab who aspires to be the new Marcel Proust, and what are the Germans to do with a Turk who aspires to be the new Thomas Mann? There are similar examples, the only problem is that their number is growing. 

Among the dysfunctions in the existing literary system I have my favorite example, my hero. I met him at a book fair in Budapest. Joydeep Roy Bhattacharaya was born in Calcutta. He left Calcutta when he was twenty and took a degree in philosophy in America. He lives in New York and teaches at one of the neighboring universities. Joydeep has written a novel that attracted a fair number of positive reviews. The subject of his novel is Hungary and a circle of Hungarian intellectuals in the nineteen-sixties. The Hungarians promptly translated his book. One Hungarian writer, an intellectual, complained to me, that, er, the novel was indeed concerned with Hungary, but in an Indian way. It would be better if he wrote about India, was his brief comment. 

Joydeep is a young and attractive man. And very photogenic. His American publisher brought out his novel in the secret hope that Joydeep would have second thoughts and write something about India. Something like The God of Small Things, only from a male perspective. My mother, to whom I showed Joydeep’s book with his photograph on the back cover, instinctively took the American publisher’s side. Why doesn’t he write about India, she sighed, he’s better-looking than Sandokan. 

As I talked to Joydeep I was astonished at his knowledge and passion for the former Eastern Europe. “It wouldn’t occur to me to change my mind,” he told me. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “The novel I am writing is set in Dresden, in the nineteen-fifties. After that I’ve got a novel about the battle for Stalingrad, written from a female perspective,” he added. 

As I said, Joydeep is my hero among my writer colleagues. In a world in which an identity kit is something like a toothbrush — that is, something one cannot do without — he has chosen the most difficult path. He has thrown his identity kit into the garbage, in the name of freedom of literary choice, in the name of literary freedom. Joydeep is absolutely conscious of the consequences of his symbolic suicide. “At home,” in India, I presume, they don’t like him, and it is debatable whether they have ever heard of him. People in the places he writes about complain because they are firmly convinced that only they can write about themselves, that only they have the copyright to their subject matter. American and British publishers tolerate Joydeep’s Eastern European “virus,” because they look forward to his recovery, to the moment when Joydeep will return thematically to the place he belongs, India. 

To the question of what is European in European literatures, I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.

—from The European Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, 465-471 (2003). Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. Later published in a slightly different version in Ugrešić’s Nobody’s Home (2008).  

 

cain’s credo


Son of a college dean, newspaperman, novelist,
screenwriter & Shakespeare worshipper.

I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.


john asbery on writing & reading a poem



John Ashbery being intense in 1962

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”


This poem is concerned with language on a very

plain level.

Look at it talking to you. You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t

have it.

You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.


The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and

cannot.

What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,

Bringing a system of them into play. Play?

Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be


A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,

As in the division of grace these long August days

Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know

It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.


It has been played once more. I think you exist

only

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then

you aren’t there

Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem

Has set me softly down beside you. The Poem is

you.


—from Shadow Train (1981)

If infinitely many monkeys are set before typewriters, the statistical paradox goes, they will sooner or later produce Shakespeare’s plays. Ashbery’s poem “has been played” like a record or a trick. But perhaps it is the reader’s trick as well. In the communication system, the ideal reader now resembles the Divine Paradox: “I think you exist,” the poet asserts, “and then you aren’t there.” In his final paradox, the poem is you,” varying the dedication “the poem is yours,” Ashbery yields himself to the reader, who nevertheless continues to “miss” him.


—from John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (1994)

from harold bloom’s anxiety of influence: clinamen, or poetic misprision & milton’s paradise lost

Clinamen, which is poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it means a "swerve" of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves. . . .

 

. . . Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress. Borges remarks that poets create their precursors. If the dead poets, as Eliot insisted, constituted their successors’ particular advance in knowledge, that knowledge is still their successors’ creation, made by the living for the needs of the living.

 

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor ]ohnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: "This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X." Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect. Milton’s Satan, archetype of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates, and so commences that process of decline culminating in Paradise Regained, ending as the archetype of the modern critic at his weakest.

 

Let us attempt the experiment (apparently frivolous) of reading Paradise Lost as an allegory of the dilemma of the modern poet, at his strongest. Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. Adam is the potentially strong modern poet, but at his weakest moment, when he has yet to find his own voice. God has no Muse, and needs none, since he is dead, his creativity being manifested only in the past time of the poem. Of the living poets in the poem, Satan has Sin, Adam has Eve, and Milton has only his Interior Paramour, an Emanation far within that weeps incessantly for his sin, and that is invoked magnificently four times in the poem. Milton has no name for her, though he invokes her under several; but, as he says, "the meaning, not the Name I call." Satan, a stronger poet even than Milton, has progressed beyond invoking his Muse.

 

Why call Satan a modern poet? Because he shadows forth gigantically a trouble at the core of Milton and of Pope, a sorrow that purifies by isolation in Collins and Gray, in Smart and in Cowper, emerging fully to stand clear in Wordsworth, who is the exemplary Modern Poet, the Poet proper. The incarnation of the Poetic Character in Satan begins when Milton’s story truly begins, with the Incarnation of God’s Son and Satan’s rejection of that incarnation. Modern poetry begins in two declarations of Satan: "We know no time when we were not as now" and "To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering."

 

Let us adopt Milton’s own sequence in the poem. Poetry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we are falling. The poet is our chosen man, and his consciousness of election comes as a curse; again, not "I am a fallen man," but "I am Man, and I am falling" — or rather, "I was God, I was Man (for to a poet they were the same), and I am falling, from myself." When this consciousness of self is raised to an absolute pitch, then the poet hits the floor of Hell, or rather, comes to the bottom of the abyss, and by his impact there creates Hell. He says, "I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell."

 

There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to repent, to accept a God altogether other than the self, wholly external to the possible. This God is cultural history, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more. But we, to understand the strong poet. must go further still than he can go, back into the poise before the consciousness of falling came.

 

When Satan or the poet looks around him on the floor of fire his falling self had kindled, he sees first a face he only just recognizes, his best friend, Beelzebub, or the talented poet who never quite made it, and now never shall. And, like the truly strong poet he is, Satan is interested in the face of his best friend only to the extent that it reveals to him the condition of his owncountenance. Such limited interest mocks neither the poets we know, nor the truly heroic Satan. If Beelzebub is that scarred, if he looks that unlike the true form he left behind on the happy fields of light, then Satan himself is hideously bereft of beauty, doomed, like Walter Pater, to be a Caliban of Letters, trapped in essential poverty. in imaginative need, where once he was all but the wealthiest, and needed next to nothing. But Satan, in the accursed strength of the poet, refuses to brood upon this, and turns instead to his task, which is to rally everything that remains.

 

This task, comprehensive and profoundly imaginative, includes everything that we could ascribe as motivation for the writing of any poetry that is not strictly devotional in its purposes. For why do men write poems? To rally everything that remains, and not to sanctify nor propound. The heroism of endurance — of Milton’s post-lapsarian Adam, and of the Son in Paradise Regained — is a theme for Christian poetry, but only barely a heroism for poets. We hear Milton again, celebrating the strong poet’s natural virtue, when Samson taunts Harapha: "bring up thy van,/ My heels are fetter’d, but my fist is free." The poet’s final heroism, in Milton, is a spasm of self-destruction, glorious because it pulls down the temple of his enemies. Satan, organizing his chaos, imposing a discipline despite the visible darkness, calling his minions to emulate his refusal to mourn, becomes the hero as poet, finding what must suffice, while knowing that nothing can suffice.

 

This is a heroism that is exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it. Satan’s later decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner in Milton, is that the hero retreats from this border into solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy on Mount Niphates, to be a poet and, by intoning the formula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories, another wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the perpetual New Left. For the modern poet, in the gladness of his sorrowing strength, stands always on the farther verge of solipsism, having just emerged from it. His difficult balance, from Wordsworth to Stevens, is to maintain a stance just there, where by his very presence he says: "What I see and hear come not but from myself" and yet also: "I have not but I am and as I am I am." The first, by itself, is perhaps the fine defiance of an overt solipsism, leading back to an equivalent of "I know no time when I was not as now." Yet the second is the modification that makes for poetry instead of idiocy: "There are no objects outside of me because I see into their life, which is one with my own, and so ‘I am that I am,’ which is to say, ‘I too will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.’ I am so much in process, that all possible movement is indeed possible, and if at present I explore only my own dens, at least I explore." Or, as Satan might have said: "In doing and in suffering, I shall be happy, for even in suffering I shall be strong."

 

It is sad to observe most modern critics observing Satan, because they never do observe him. The catalog of unseeing could hardly be more distinguished, from Eliot who speaks of "Milton’s curly haired Byronic hero" (one wants to reply, looking from side to side: "Who?") to the astonishing backsliding of Northrop Frye, who invokes, in urbane ridicule, a Wagnerian context (one wants to lament: "A true critic, and of God’s party without knowing it"). Fortunately we have had Empson, with his apt rallying cry: "Back to Shelley!" Whereto I go.

 

Contemplating Milton’s meanness towards Satan, towards his rival poet and dark brother, Shelley spoke of the "pernicious casuistry" set up in the mind of Milton’s reader, who would be tempted to weigh Satan’s flaws against God’s malice towards him, and to excuse Satan because God had been malicious beyond all measure. Shelley’s point has been twisted by the C. S. Lewis or Angelic School of Milton Criticism, who proceed to weigh up the flaws and God’s wrongs, and find Satan wanting in the balance. This pernicious casuistry, Shelley would have agreed, would not be less pernicious if we were to find (as I do) Milton’s God wanting. It would still be casuistry, and as discourse upon poetry it would still be moralizing, which is to say, pernicious.

 

Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans. Blake names one state of being Adam, and calls it the Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it the Limit of Opacity. Adam is given or natural man, beyond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather theshadow or Spectre of that desire. Beyond this spectral state, we will not harden against vision, but the Spectre squats in our repressiveness, and we are hardened enough, as we are contracted enough. Enough, our spirits lament, not to live our lives, enough to be frightened out of our creative potential by the Covering Cherub, Blake’s emblem (out of Milton, and Ezekiel, and Genesis) for that portion of creativity in us that has gone over to constriction and hardness. Blake precisely named this renegade part of Man. Before the Fall (which for Blake meant before the Creation, the two events for him being one and the same) the Covering Cherub was the pastoral genius Tharmas, a unifying process making for undivided consciousness; the innocence, pre-reflective, of a state without subjects and objects, yet in no danger of solipsism, for it lacked also a consciousness of self. Tharmas is a poet’s (or any man’s) power of realization, even as the Covering Cherub is the power that blocks realization. . . .

. . . I arrive at my argument’s central principle, which is not more true for its outrageousness, but merely true enough: Poetic Influence  — when it involves two strong, authentic poets,— always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. . . .

. . . My own Idiot Questioner, happily curled up in the labyrinth of my own being, protests: "What is the use of such a principle, whether the argument it informs be true or not?" Is it useful to be told that poets are not common readers, and particularly are not critics, in the true sense of critics, common readers raised to the highest power? And what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion-counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers? Is there not the shibboleth bequeathed us by Eliot, that the good poet steals, while the poor poet betrays an influence, borrows a voice? And are there not all the great Idealists of literary criticism, the deniers of poetic influence, ranging from Emerson with his maxims: "Insist on yourself: never imitate" and" Not possibly will the soul deign to repeat itself" to the recent transformation of Northrop Frye into the Arnold of our day, with his insistence that the Myth of Concern prevents poets from suffering the anxieties of obligation?

 

Against such idealism one cheerfully cites Lichtenberg’s grand remark: "Yes, I too like to admire great men, but only those whose works I do not understand." Or again from Lichtenberg, who is one of the sages of Poetic Influence: "To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation, and the definition of imitation ought by rights to include both." What Lichtenberg implies is that Poetic Influence is itself an oxymoron, and he is right. But then, so is Romantic Love an oxymoron, and Romantic Love is the closest analogue of Poetic Influence, another splendid perversity of the spirit, though it moves precisely in the opposite direction. The poet confronting his Great Original must find the fault that is not there, and at the heart of all but the highest imaginative virtue. The lover is beguiled to the heart of loss, but is found, as he finds, within mutual illusion, the poem that is not there. "When two people fall in love," says Kierkegaard, "and begin to feel that they are made for one another, then it is time for them to break off, for by going on they have everything to lose and nothing to gain." When the ephebe, or figure of the youth as virile poet, is found by his Great Original, then it is time to go on, for he has everything to gain, and his precursor nothing to lose; if the fully written poets are indeed beyond loss.

 

But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity. The state of Satan is therefore a constant consciousness of dualism, of being trapped in the finite, not just in space (in the body) but in clock-time as well. To be pure spirit, yet to know in oneself the limit of opacity; to assert that one goes back before the Creation-Fall, yet be forced to yield to number, weight, and measure; this is the situation of the strong poet, the capable imagination, when he confronts the universe of poetry, the words that were and will be, the terrible splendor of cultural heritage. In our time, the situation becomes more desperate even than it was in the Milton-haunted eighteenth century, or the Wordsworth-haunted nineteenth, and our current and future poets have only the consolation that no certain Titanic figure has risen since Milton and Wordsworth, not even Yeats or Stevens.

 

If one examines the dozen or so major poetic influencers before this century, one discovers quickly who among them ranks as the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles: Milton. The motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by Keats: "Life to him would be Death to me." This deathly vitality in Milton is the state of Satan in him, and is shown us not so much by the character of Satan in Paradise Lost as by Milton’s editorializing relationship to his own Satan, and by his relationship to all the stronger poets of the eighteenth century and to most of those in the nineteenth. Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English . . .

 

. . . we can see the final irony of Poetic Influence, and come full circle to end where we began. This clinamen between the strong poet and the Poetic Father is made by the whole being of the later poet, and the true history of modern poetry would be the accurate recording of these revisionary swerves. To the pure ‘Pataphysician, the swerve is marvellously gratuitous; Jarry, after all, was capable of considering the Passion as an uphill bicycle race. The student of Poetic Influence is compelled to be an impure ‘Pataphysician; he must understand that the clinamen always must be considered as though it were simultaneously intentional and involuntary, the Spiritual Form of each poet and the gratuitous gesture each poet makes as his falling body hits the floor of the abyss. Poetic Influence is the passing of Individuals through States, in Blake’s language, but the passing is done ill when it is not a swerving. The strong poet indeed says: ..I seem to have stopped falling; now I am fallen, consequently, I lie here in Hell," but he is thinking, as he says this, "As I fell, I swerved, consequently I lie here in a Hell improved by my own making."

—from Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

 

poetry by charles bernstein


By ‘‘language’’ Bernstein does not mean what logicians, linguists, and philosophers of language mean, namely, language as a formal system for framing representations (signifieds, concepts, propositions, narrative descriptions, expressions of feeling, and so on). There are, in his view, no ‘‘chains of signifiers’’ that can break down, because language is not made of signifiers, chained or unchained. (It is, shall we say, a complex system.) Bernstein was a student of Cavell’s at Harvard, and so it is no surprise that he thinks of language as situated speech, a social practice entirely visible on its surface rather than a deep structure that gives the rule to disposable paroles. For Bernstein the task of poetry (like that of ordinary language philosophy) is to explore these practices of everyday language, framing or staging ‘‘what we say when,’’ often in comic takes and parodies of the voices that circulate in the social environments (from high to low) that we inhabit. The first poem in Dark City, “The Lives of Toll Takers,” is a collage of such voices:

 

Gerald L. Bruns, On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy: A Guide for the Unruly. Fordham University Press, 2006.

 

 

“The Lives of Toll Takers”

Charles Bernstein

 

There appears to be a receiver off the hook. Not that

you care.

       Beside the gloves resided a hat and two

pinky rings, for which no

finger was ever found. Largesse

with no release became, after

not too long, atrophied, incendiary,

stupefying. Difference or

differance: it’s

the distinction between hauling junk and

removing rubbish, while

I, needless to say, take

        out the garbage

            (pragmatism)

 

Phone again, phone again, jiggity jig.

            I figured

they do good eggs here.

            Funny $: making a killing on

junk bonds and living to peddle the tale

            (victimless rime)

 

(Laughing all the way to the Swiss bank where I put my money

in gold bars

[the prison house of language]

                                                  .)

 

 

philippe lejeune on diaries and fiction and patricia highsmith

Lejeune is a leading European critic and theorist of diary and autobiography. His landmark essay, “The Autobiographical Pact,” has shaped life writing studies for more than thirty years, and his many books and essays have repeatedly opened up new vistas for scholarship. As Michael Riffaterre notes, “Lejeune’s work on autobiography is the most original, powerful, effective approach to a difficult subject . . . . His style is very personal, lively. It grabs the reader as scholarship rarely does. Lejeune’s erudition and methodology are impeccable. 

—from the jacket copy for Lejeune’s On Diary

THE DIARY AS “ANTIFICTION”*

I’ve just Googled the word “antifiction” and found that it’s free, at least for literary theory. A hip-hop group has staked a claim, but that’s it. No competition. These days, the minute you invent a word, you have to take out a patent. Serge Doubrovsky thought he had invented the word “autofiction” in 1977, but in 1998 his little cousin Marc Weitzmann claimed that Jerzy Kosinski had already invented the concept in 1965, something that Philippe Vilain has just taken the time to disprove in Défense de Narcisse (2005). I tell this amusing story because I created “antifiction” out of irritation with “autofiction” (both the word and the thing). I love autobiography and I love fiction, but I love them less when they are mixed together. I do not believe that we can really read while sitting between two chairs. Most “autofictions” are read as autobiographies: the reader can hardly do otherwise. These are autobiographies that take twisting paths towards the truth. Sure, why not? But we have virtually no way of knowing where the twists are. So my personal preference is for texts that face up to the impossible truth—sometimes in oblique ways, as wesee in Georges Perec and others, but faithfully and without resorting to invention. Autobiographers are often suspected of having a weakness for invention, something that autofiction writers embrace on purpose but that autobiographers turn to out of naïveté. This is the slippery slope of memory, traditionally seen as a vice. We have Paul Ricoeur to thank for making a virtue of it under the lovely name of “narrative identity.” We are not mendacious beings; we are narrative beings, constantly reconstructing the past in order to fit it into our plans for today’s world. But even when guided by an ethical concern for truthfulness, that kind of reconstruction means flirting with invention. It seems to me that on that count, autobiography and the diary have opposite aims: autobiography lives under the spell of fiction; the diary is hooked on truth. 

 

Let me be clear: I do not mean that autobiographies are false and diaries are true. I am talking about the dynamics of these two writing postures, both of which are present in varying proportions in all personal texts. In a study on how a diary can “end,” I tried to show that the problem of autobiography is the beginning, the gaping hole of the origin, whereas for the diary it is the ending, the gaping hole of death. Any autobiographer can end his text by taking the narrative up to the point of its writing. His biggest problem is upstream: building something solid behind it. But the past puts up only minor resistance to the powers of the imagination. “Long ways, long lies” goes the proverb. The same cannot be said of the future. Diarists never have control over what comes next in their texts. They write with no way of knowing what will happen next in the plot, much less how it will end. The past is wonderfully malleable. It is relatively easy to ensure that it does not contradict you (although the truth does sometimes come back to bite people!) The future is pitiless and unforeseeable. You do not have any elbow room with the future. And the present—the diarist’s subject matter—immediately objects to anything that smacks of invention.

 

I found my ideas on the incompatibility of fiction and the present echoed in Roland Barthes’s last lecture course, La Préparation du roman (2003):

 

Can one make Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How does one reconcile—dialecticize—the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity of the present as we are swept along in it? (The present is what sticks to you, as though you had your nose up against a mirror.)

 

[Peut-on faire du Récit (du Roman) avec du Présent? Comment concilier—dialectiser—la distance impliquée par l’énonciation d’écriture et la proximité, l’emportement du présent vécu à même l’aventure. (Le présent, c’est ce qui colle, comme si on avait le nez sur le miroir.)]

 

Since Barthes is after literature at all costs, he solves the problem with the idea that there is an “art of the present” or “art of notation”: the “haiku.” It seems to me that he is only half right. The haiku is an art of the moment, not of the present. The moment is a piece of time wrested out of continuity, out of the constant flow that moves from the past towards the future (or vice versa!): it already has one foot in eternity. The present is that poor thing that runs along, this rocking motion that we each experience all alone. The haiku is rarely dated and is often impersonal. For Barthes, the haiku is a good image of the present, while the diary is a bad one. With its date, its details, its first person, its contingency, its solitude, the journal is something he has tried out and written off (in “Délibération”).

 

An imaginary reconstruction of the present could only be viewed and experienced as a lie, or insanity, and would be difficult to keep up over time. How could you adjust yesterday’s lies to match today’s realities, every single day? It would be a full-time job just keeping the two in parallel. They would soon diverge infinitely. Naïve fiction, or deliberate autofiction, are easy in a retrospective or summarizing autobiographical narrative. The diary makes it impossible, or at least very difficult: the diary is “antifiction,” in the same way that we say “antilock” or, let’s say, “antipest.” Which brings me back to my neologism. My purpose in cobbling this word together is not to create a new genre by drawing yet another pigeonhole in the current literary scene, but to refer to a constant property of this type of writing.

 

The fact that the diary is “antifiction” obviously does not mean that it is “antisubjectivity.” This distinction, which people are at pains to make when discussing an autobiographical narrative, goes without saying for the diary, which could not possibly be more subjective or less fictional. Nor does it mean that the diary is “anti-art”: it is a common error these days to confuse art and fiction. Catherine Rannoux recently published an interesting stylistic study under a strange title, Les Fictions du journal littéraire [The Fictions of the Literary Diary]. She analyzes dialogism and intertextuality in Paul Léautaud, Jean Malaquais, and Renaud Camus, three French diarists among the most intent on the pursuit of truth. But does language contain anything other than “fiction”? All language is shared and every narrative is a construction. What distinguishes fiction from its opposite, and gives the word its meaning, is that someone exercises the liberty of inventing rather than setting out to tell the truth (which may be a naïve project, but then life itself is naïve).

 

The word “autofiction” has had great success because some contemporary writers have been intent on being seen as artists (“I am a bird, see my wings,” said La Fontaine’s bat), as though the truth did not have wings too, as though trying to tell the truth were not a powerful constraint that could lead to the height of artistry. But with the diary one must seek artistry in something other than fiction, which leads us to the challenging of certain academic canons. The diary is a sort of “installation” that plays on fragmentation and the tangential in an aesthetics of repetition and vertigo that is very different from traditional narrative aesthetics.

 

So my neologism is a sort of plea. My entire background lies behind this little lexicographical adventure. I love reading fiction, but am incapable of writing it. As an adolescent, I kept a diary that disappointed me: I wrote about my life’s disappointments badly, but accurately. That is why, as an adult, I threw myself into autobiography as a subject of study and a personal practice: constructing a work of art in the field of truthfulness or delineating the truth through the work of writing. Or rather, both at once. That is what lay behind my theory of the “autobiographical pact,” which is clearly an “antifiction” pact. But one of the differences between autobiography and the diary is that in autobiography, antifiction is a commitment that must be made and kept. For the diarist it is a fundamental constraint, like it or not. All you need do is to make a commitment to keep a diary and the rest is decided for you. You’re already on board. It is like the law of gravity: inescapable. If you start inventing things, you are quickly tossed overboard. There is no need to sign a pact with the reader. It is a mystical alliance with Time. I have avoided defining the diary in terms of privacy or secrecy: that is an important dimension, but a secondary one that is optional and recent (dating from the late eighteenth century). The main thing is how the diary relates to time and supports truth-seeking. Since the 1980s, I have gradually disengaged from autobiographical construction. What I liked in Michel Leiris’s poetic writing was that he had stopped writing narrative and was looking for a sort of “perpetual motion” of writing the self that revolved around the present. But this was a vague, undated present. Although I have no intention of imitating it, the model offered by Claude Mauriac in Le Temps immobile has since come to fascinate me: in his diary of an autobiographical reading of his diary, the retrospective reconstructions are no longer destructive and overwhelming because they leave the diary intact while exploring it, and follow along smoothly as the exploration diary unfolds. The real problem is less the danger posed by the gaze of outsiders than that of writing in the face of tomorrow, in the face of emptiness, in the face of no one, in the face of death. Choosing to keep your diary secret is significant because when you do that, the vast emptiness of time opens before you. Stendhal observed that this frees you of the need to please or persuade. You cannot imagine the mentality of the people who will read you a hundred years from now: all you can do to please them is to try to tell the truth.

 

This little word “antifiction”—not a very attractive one, I must admit—seems to say something different from the English “non-fiction.” It is more combative and less soft. It is also more precise: it does not apply to all texts that contain no fiction (negative definition), but to a specific category of texts that adamantly reject fiction (positive definition). The  diary grows weak and faints or breaks out in a rash when it comes into contact with fiction. Autobiographies, biographies, and history books are contaminated: they have fiction in their blood. Of course I realize that I am exaggerating and over-simplifying.

 

There are shades of grey and nuances; it’s not always quite so simple. But “antifiction” is like a magnifying glass: the things it magnifies are real. To get back to where I started: look through the current “autofictions” for texts that are an author’s actual, dated diary. There are none. On the other hand, take Le Mausolée des amants, the diary of Hervé Guibert, who is a major autofiction writer in other texts, from Mes parents to Le Protocole compassionnel. His diary, which is a laboratory for his autofictions, unfolds along truthful lines, although Guibert erased the dates when he published it to make it literary.

 

The argument I have laid out is simple: now I have to back it up with evidence. I will then turn the debate around, because there is a sense of malaise in both directions. The diary repudiates fiction, but isn’t fiction also very uncomfortable when it tries to imitate the diary?

 

Evidence seems difficult to come by. Since I am stating a negative thesis, it should be up to my adversaries to give examples that disprove it. Michel Braud, a friend of mine who specializes in diaries, went down that road and came back empty-handed: there are a few autofictions that include the diary form, but he had to acknowledge that they were not real diaries. Even when they use the author’s real diary, it is always from a position of hindsight: the diary used is not a fiction, and the fiction is not produced under diary conditions. Gide’s Cahiers d’André Walter attribute an edited text from the actual diary of the (living) author to a (dead) fictional double, but these Cahiers are not the diary. This is an autofiction just like any other, not a fiction-diary. The latter would consist of someone keeping a diary in the real world of a life that he invents for himself. The only example we might find of that would be the product of insanity or lies.

 

On the insanity side, Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful novel Edith’s Diary (1977) springs to mind. It is not in diary form. In third-person narration with internal focalization, the novel follows the life of the heroine, a young woman who faces a series of misfortunes: a good-for-nothing son and a husband who cheats on her and then abandons her to start a new life, leaving her burdened with an ailing elderly uncle. We see her gradually change course and begin to “remake her life” as well, but we see it through her diary, bits of which are occasionally quoted. It has two registers: realism for certain aspects of life and fantasy for others, especially the son’s “success story.” This story starts out as a game, but she gets caught up in it and it begins to develop independently of reality, soon leading to the exact opposite and to the final catastrophe. This psychopathological study is of course a novelist’s invention, not a real document. But I have come across something similar: three datebooks from 1989 to 1990 that were purchased in a second-hand shop and deposited with the Association pour l’Autobiographie. The diarist, a woman of about fifty, sometimes had two sons and was going to a notary to divide an estate worth billions, and at other times lived alone and tried to get work as a cleaning lady.


* “La journal comme antifiction.” Poétique 149 (Feb. 2007): 3–14. Originally presented as the opening address for the “Diaris I Dietaris” colloquium, Department of Catalan Philology, University of Alicante, 10 Nov. 2005.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


 

—from Philippe Lejeune, On Diary (selections); edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak, Katherine Durnin, translator (2009).